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Monday, November 29, 2010

"Hull Zero Three" by Greg Bear (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)


Official Greg Bear Website
Order Hull Zero Three Here
Trailer and more about Hull Zero Three on FBC HERE

INTRODUCTION: "A starship hurtles through the emptiness of space. Its destination-unknown. Its purpose-a mystery. Its history-lost. Now, one man wakes up. Ripped from a dream of a new home-a new planet and the woman he was meant to love in his arms-he finds himself, wet, naked, and freezing to death. The dark halls are full of monsters but trusting other survivors he meets might be the greater danger. All he has are questions-- Who is he? Where are they going? What happened to the dream of a new life? What happened to the woman he loved? What happened to Hull 03? All will be answered, if he can survive. Uncover the mystery. Fix the ship. Find a way home."

Greg Bear is a famous name in sf and his novels of years ago (Eon is the most notable) were highlights for me at the time; while most are dated today, I still have a fondness for Moving Mars which has remained strongly in my memory and it is the only one of the author's older work I would recommend for today's readers; a novel of politics, love and revolution in a sfnal context, Moving Mars is less dependent on any particular sf trope, so it is one that has "time legs" imho.

Slant which takes place in Moving Mars' milieu may still be of interest too, though it never connected that well with me even at the time and it's very "cyberpunky" with the now dead subgenre's combination of prescience (social computing, Internet's pervasive reach and transformative power) and hilarious naivete (human nature, politics, history), cyberpunk being the Jetsons of the 90's and a perfect showcase for why and how sf dates so quickly.

FORMAT/INFO: Hull Zero Three stands at about 330 pages divided into three parts and quite a few short chapters, all with descriptive names. For most part the narration is first person stream-of-consciousness with the - "recently born" though as a a full grown man - narrator slowly discovering or "recalling" pertinent facts about the situation at hand while he essentially tries to survive moment to moment. The blurb above describes well enough the general set-up and part of the novel's enjoyment is discovering what's what, so I will not add more. Hull Zero Three is literary hard sf with a good dose of social commentary.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: "I don’t know which is more unsettling—meeting myself dead or meeting myself alive"

Hull Zero Three stands on its style first and foremost; if the stream of consciousness narrative that you can get a taste HERE entrances you as it has happened to me, than you will love it since if you keep reading, you will slowly understand what's what as well as you will get to know a fascinating set of characters.

It is true that the book is confusing for a good while and I found myself retracing the narrative several times when some new detail appeared that seemed implied earlier and I could not recall it, but that is natural since the narrator is confused himself and the book conveys this perfectly.

The hard sf stuff (ship capabilities, layout, conditions, artifacts) is also done superbly and we slowly fit the puzzle together with the narrator. From time to time, new words and later concepts and ideas pop-up - one of the novel's main conceits is that the narrator is imprinted before "birth" but recalls stuff if/when situations warrant - and the author handles this aspect very well, never slipping by using words that the narrator could not have known and were not mentioned before.

For its first two parts which cover most of the book, Hull Zero Three was a superb read that showed how you can combine a literary style with hard-sf and keep the reader turning the pages, but I was mixed about the last part that explains things. On its own it is well done and quite emotional, but I thought that it broke the novel's unity and its narrative balance, moving from immediacy and continual discovery, to a view from above and omniscience. This change stamped Hull Zero Three as a genre novel that conforms to the requirement of explaining (almost) all. And that did not work well for me since I would rather have had an ambiguous ending with the characters still facing the unknown, ending which if handled well would have been more in the spirit of what came before.

All in all, Hull Zero Three (A+) is very good and I highly recommend it, but I still have this little regret that with an open ending it could have been one of the year's top novels for me; the explanatory last part brought it firmly into the genre camp and its expectations, rather than holding to the "convictions" of the first two parts that transcend sf.
Saturday, November 27, 2010

Timeless Masterpieces: Yasunari Kawabata's The Dancing Girl of Izu, The Old Capital aka Kyoto and Thousand Cranes (by Liviu Suciu)

In my recent post about literary masterpieces I would recommend to sff lovers, Yasunari Kawabata's The Master of Go which I have read easily 5 times across the years, got a place for several reasons - its semi-fictional description of a competitive Go match in the 1930's is something that relates to sf stories and novels that feature intense games or puzzle solving for large stakes - The Player of Games by IM Banks is the best such for me, but the superb Diamond Dogs by Alastair Reynolds qualifies too as does a lot of other sf, while of course games feature importantly in quite a few fantasy novels too. But there is also the exotic nature of Japan of the 1930's and its customs and culture as described by a master.

In a way the Master of Go is a very different novel from the rest of the author's work and in the 1968 award, the Nobel committee cited specifically his more lyrical novels: Snow Country, Thousand Cranes and The Old Capital and I will talk about the last two below.

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The story is about a university student's travels though Tokyo. During his trip, he meets a group of traveling entertainers and falls in love with a dancing girl. Later, he discovers that she is a child, which alters his feelings for her.

The Dancing Girl of Izu is the story that launched Yasunari Kawabata's career in 1925 since it was extremely well received, putting the literary community on notice that a new star has appeared. You can read the first 26 pages out of this roughly 35 page story for free at Google Books HERE and you will have a very clear impression why. I was just hooked by it and I started (re) reading his most famous novels for their timeless lyrical style and exoticism that does not fail to enchant, while this relatively short tale contains most of the elements one reads the author for - prose to lose oneself in, vivid descriptions of nature, Japanese customs and their artifacts, great characters...

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The Old Capital is one of the three novels cited specifically by the Nobel Committee when they awarded Kawabata the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968. With the ethereal tone and aesthetic styling characteristic of Kawabata's prose, The Old Capital tells the story of Chieko, the adopted daughter of a Kyoto kimono designer, Takichiro, and his wife, Shige.

Set in the traditional city of Kyoto, Japan, this deeply poetic story revolves around Chieko who becomes bewildered and troubled as she discovers the true facets of her past. With the harmony and time-honored customs of a Japanese backdrop, the story becomes poignant as Chieko’s longing and confusion develops

Read an extended excerpt with Google Books HERE.

The Old Capital is a beautiful exuberant novel that I have just added to my recent post about Top 2010 Novels vs Older Novels read in 2010. Chieko is the young daughter of a Kyoto kimono designer/seller Takichiro and his wife Shige; losing his "inspiration" and believing his business in some trouble, Takichiro - who is grooming Chieko to follow him in the business - "retires" to a monastery for a little quiet, while Chieko is troubled by the recent revelation that she has been adopted and not only that but her parents "stole" her as a newborn baby on the steps of a temple.

Courted by two and soon three young men - a childhood friend, second son of a powerful businessman in the same line as her father, a young weaver, son of his father's manufacturer who is of a somehow lower social standing and later the older brother of her childhood friend who is the apparent heir of the big business - Chieko is confused in her feelings too and then she meets her twin sister by chance...

Things turn out to be both simpler and trickier at the same time, and the novel is extremely impressive; a fast and engaging read you do not want to put down
and maybe the most optimistic and cheery of the author's work.

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With a restraint that barely conceals the ferocity of his characters' passions, one of Japan's great postwar novelists tells the luminous story of Kikuji and the tea party he attends with Mrs. Ota, the rival of his dead father's mistress. A tale of desire, regret, and sensual nostalgia, every gesture has a meaning, and even the most fleeting touch or casual utterance has the power to illuminate entire lives--sometimes in the same moment that it destroys them.

Read an excerpt with Amazon Look Inside HERE

Thousand Cranes is another wonderful offering from Yasunari Kawabata which is darker and more nuanced than the exuberant The Old Capital. In essence this novel is about obsession: with women and death from a man and with men and death from two women, a mother and her daughter whose relationships to the young man in question are tricky to say the least, all expressed in very subtle ways - through the traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony and artifacts associated with it as well as through the meddling of an older woman who runs tea ceremony classes and who tries to influence the young man toward a girl of her choice.

Beautiful writing and a lot of psychological suspense keeps one on the edge of the seat till the end.

Note: I read all three works featured here in dual languages - the beautiful English translation of J. Martin Holman for the first two and Edward Seidensticker for the last as well as Romanian language translations of each.

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Edit 11/28
I finished Snow Country too, the last of the Nobel-trio with the above two novels.

To this haunting novel of wasted love, Kawabata brings the brushstroke suggestiveness and astonishing grasp of motive that earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature. As he chronicles the affair between a wealthy dilettante and the mountain geisha who gives herself to him without illusions or regrets, one of Japan's greatest writers creates a work that is dense in implication and exalting in its sadness.

This is the most lyrical and metaphorical of these three novels discussed here and the densest in some ways, with almost each word having a precise meaning. Beautiful, superb and another book one cannot put down once entered in its flow, I would though not recommend it as a Kawabata starter despite being the earliest chronologically of the three. Another A++ like all the above and on (re) reading this trio of novels and the seminal short story that launched the author's career, there is no doubt that Yasunari Kawabata's work deserves all the acclaim it got and will be a part of humanity's heritage for ages.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

"Midsummer Night" by Freda Warrington (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)


Official Freda Warrington Website
Order Midsummer Night HERE
Read FBC Review of Elfland

INTRODUCTION: I mentioned in my review of Elfland that I opened that novel in a bookstore "just to do my duty in checking any new sff release I know nothing about" fully expecting to put it down after a page or two and forget about it. Instead I was hooked from the first page, so I bought the novel the same day and read it immediately. Given that, of course I wanted to read "Midsummer Night" asap and I asked for an arc though I was a little apprehensive if the same "magic" will happen again - the "curse" of high expectations versus no expectations that often determines how one feels about a book.

Here is the Publisher's Weekly blurb which is very incomplete and somewhat misleading, but considerably better than the "official blurb" you can find say on Goodreads which has some wrong information and it is even more misleading.

"In this moody and spine-shivering sequel to 2009's Elfland, Warrington takes readers deeper into the workings of the Aetherials, the magical beings who live in the Spiral, and the Vaethyr, who flit between the Spiral and Earth. World-famous sculptor Dame Juliana Flagg lives in Cairndonan, a dilapidated mansion in the highlands of northwest Scotland. Dame J can barely afford to care for herself, much less the mansion and grounds, but she can't tear herself away from the haunting, haunted place. Her uncle mysteriously disappeared from Cairndonan just after WWI, never to be seen again. Sometimes Dame J makes eerie sculptures that she can't bear to show or sell. Is the magic of Cairndonan connected to the malevolent, quasi-mythical Dunkelman? Warrington doesn't miss a beat with this sinister, ghostly tale of some of the darker aspects of the Aetherial world and its denizens' dealings with humanity."

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: "Midsummer Night" stands at about 415 pages divided into 23 named chapters with an epilogue and a prologue. While a standalone with a definite storyline and ending, "Midsummer Night" is loosely connected with Elfland with some minor characters from there becoming more important ones here, while the action takes place about 16 years later.

The story lines in Elfland and Midsummer Night are also quite different and while in this novel some events from Elfland are alluded to, they are neither crucial nor really spoil that one, though familiarity with the Elfland world building adds depth to Midsummer Night.

"Midsummer Night" is contemporary fantasy at its best and I sure want more Aetherials' tales.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: For the reasons given at the end of the Introduction, I will start with a short overview and then discuss why "Midsummer Night" is the best contemporary fantasy I have read in a while and a top ten fantasy of mine in 2010.

There is indeed the remote estate, the famous sculptor Dame Juliana Flagg who is one of the main two POV's and characters of the novel and her entourage - the red-haired assistant director of her summer class Peta, Colin her young disciple who is infatuated with Dame J., the seemingly sinister Ned, her decades long groundskeeper and his wife Flora who serves as Dame J.'s secretary and housekeeper.

But the main POV of the novel at least for the most part and the person whose eyes we see the action through is a young woman, Gill Sharma, seemingly unconnected to both Dame J. and the art world. As the novel starts, Gill has just arrived from London on a retreat to the estate, to nurse her recent bad accident injuries in solitude and peace - to pay the bills, Dame J. takes lodgers over the summer and teaches art courses also.

Of course Gill is dismayed to find out about the summer camp that Dame J. is conducting and for reasons that are slowly revealed she is quite scared of strangers, especially men, but soon Gill makes friends with the exuberant and irrepressible Peta and together they start exploring the grounds despite Ned's muttered warnings. And so it starts...

Though it should be obvious, I would add that nothing is as it seems, everyone has secrets and ulterior motives for their actions and that is a huge part of the novel's enjoyment. And not to speak of the Aetherials, their appearance and involvement with the estate inhabitants which ultimately power the novel's main thread.

Now let's see why
I found "Midsummer Night" so impressive. On opening the novel, the superb writing style of the author just hooked me and the book was one of those "read me now" ones that you cannot leave until you finish. You may have to put the book down to do other stuff, but you are not going to want to read any other novel until you are done here, maybe reread it at least once to get all its nuances that may escape on a first reading, or to just simply enjoy the tale at leisure once you know where it all goes.

The plotting of the novel is superb with all the aforementioned secrets slowly revealed and putting a different complexion on many things, while the main story progresses unabated too. This seamless integration of "character back story" and forward action is another major strength and "Midsummer Night" just flows with no narrative walls, while looking back one is astounded by how much happens, how many things from the recent or distant past are revealed, all integrated in a tapestry.

The world building - both the Scottish remote estate atmosphere with the strange sculptures Dame J. would not part even as she teeters close to bankruptcy and the Aetherial world where a lot of the "physical" action happens - is excellent too and some of the things that somewhat baffled me in Elfland regarding the latter make more sense here.

Despite being the main POV for most of the novel and for good reasons as we find out, Gill soon is shadowed by the larger than life Dame J. around whom everything revolves. From the Aetherial world, the handsome but - as we pretty much guess on the spot - sinister Rufus is the only one that matches Dame J. in presence and all his apparitions are highlights of the novel.

The memory-less stranger mentioned in the official blurb is indeed one of the motivators of the main thread, but he is more an "object" than a person, more a something than a someone quite a few people want for their own reasons. Add to this the superb cast of secondary characters, Colin, Peta, Ned, Flora and some Aetherials all with their own agenda and secrets and you see why Midsummer Night shines here too.

There is a lot of action too including a dramatic rescue on the slopes of a sort-of volcano (evidently not in Scotland), fights with and without "magic" and more. As contemporary fantasy set at the intersection of our world and the weird Aetherial one, Midsummer Night (A++) is the complete package and as good as such gets.
Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Comments on two current books: Kathe Koja and Greg Bear; Updates to several older book posts (by Liviu Suciu)


When I found out about Under the Poppy by Kathe Koja with the short description/blurb below, I was very interested though a cursory check of the author's previous work (horror and YA) made me wait for a sample. The short sample online from Amazon was interesting but did not "scream" read me, though luckily after only a short while I got a copy from my library system and what I read there made me decide to buy the book to read it at leisure since this is a complex novel and requires large chunks of continuous reading time.

I will have an update when I finish it - most likely this week since this is one of my current three main reads - and hopefully a full review in December too, but this one has the potential to make my top 25 2010 list with an outside shot of displacing Aurorarama (same narrative space to a large extent, though this is fantasy-nal, that is sf-nal) from the top five also. The book's website has lots of cool stuff including a trailer HERE.

"Love: it’s a triangle. War: is coming. Betrayal: is inevitable. Sex: watch out for the naughty puppets."

Here is a longer blurb, but the short one above is just perfect to make me want to look at this novel.

"From a wartime brothel to the intricate high society of 1870s Brussels, Under the Poppy is a breakout novel of childhood friends, a love triangle, puppetmasters, and reluctant spies.

Under the Poppy is a brothel owned by Decca and Rupert. Decca is in love with Rupert but he in turn is in love with her brother, Istvan. When Istvan comes to town, louche puppet troupe in tow, the lines of their age-old desires intersect against a backdrop of approaching war. Hearts are broken when old betrayals and new alliances—not just their own—take shape, as the townsmen seek refuge from the onslaught of history by watching the girls of the Poppy cavort onstage with Istvan's naughty puppets . . .

Under the Poppy is a vivid, sexy, historical novel that zips along like the best guilty pleasure."

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Greg Bear is a famous name in sf and his novels of years ago (Eon is the most notable) were highlights for me at the time; while most are dated today, I still have a fondness for Moving Mars which has remained strongly in my memory and it is the only one of the author's older work I would recommend for today's readers; a novel of politics, love and revolution in a sfnal context, Moving Mars is less dependent on any particular sf trope, so it is one that has "time legs" imho.

Slant which takes place in Moving Mars' milieu may still be of interest too, though it never connected that well with me even at the time and it's very "cyberpunky" with the now dead subgenre's combination of prescience (social computing, Internet's pervasive reach and transformative power) and hilarious naivete (human nature, politics, history), cyberpunk being the Jetsons of the 90's and a perfect showcase for why and how sf dates so quickly.

After his move towards thrillers (sfnal or more conventional) about which I have no interest and last year's City at the End of Time which was unreadable for me, though I may give it another try soon - sometimes with hundreds of books competing for one's attention, if a book does not scream "read me" or entice me with a great blurb like Under the Poppy above, it just slips away from my attention - I had no real expectations of Hull Zero Three despite its considerably more enticing blurb below.

But I checked the book on its publication day yesterday and I have to say I was hooked and Hull Zero Three hijacked my reading time, so it will be most likely the first novel I finish of my current reads with a full review hopefully coming here in December. Very compelling so far - more than half in - stream of consciousness hard-sf and it just works, however strange the combination sounds. Read the first few chapters HERE and see what I am talking about!

"A starship hurtles through the emptiness of space. Its destination-unknown. Its purpose-a mystery. Its history-lost. Now, one man wakes up. Ripped from a dream of a new home-a new planet and the woman he was meant to love in his arms-he finds himself, wet, naked, and freezing to death. The dark halls are full of monsters but trusting other survivors he meets might be the greater danger. All he has are questions-- Who is he? Where are they going? What happened to the dream of a new life? What happened to the woman he loved? What happened to Hull 03? All will be answered, if he can survive. Uncover the mystery. Fix the ship. Find a way home."


There is a cool trailer too:





Edit later 11/23: As expected I finished the novel in my library evening reading and it was excellent to the moving end; I would say an A+ for me, though I am curious how it will stay in my memory;
I was sad to leave the milieu of our heroes; the tale about a deep space huge ship hurling through space at 20% light speed and the humans "produced" on it for reasons that will be revealed keeps one guessing to the end. The book is a bit too short in some ways and I would have loved an epic tale with the characters/setting here; one great quote from the book:

"I don’t know which is more unsettling—meeting myself dead or meeting myself alive"



Note that for a limited time (till Dec 7) Zero Hull Three is available free online at Starbucks; for more details check HERE; I completely forgot about that until a commenter reminded me on Goodreads and I am very grateful for the reminder!

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Since if there is one thing I think missing in a lot of today's sff blogging, it is follow up on reading plans/books showcased even if of the "slipped down on my reading pile" variety, I like to have as many updates as I can. So I added comments and impressions to older posts about upcoming books about the following novels (links lead to my original posts):

The Soul Mirror/Berg (A++, awesome, very likely top 25 2011 novel)

The Shadow of the Sun/Friend Ish(C, traditional fantasy that is not really for me, but may appeal to people who appreciate that)

The Fallen Blade/Grimwood(B, surprisingly fractured prose and weakish "convenient" plotting take away from great world building/atmosphere and superb characters)

The Midnight Palace/Zafon(A/A+, YA with its limitations thereof, but great narrative power and inventiveness, presaging the author's two masterpieces The Shadow of the Wind and The Angels' Game) Reading The Midnight Palace will give you a perfect taste of what the fuss with TSotW and TAG is about in a short, fast and engaging read, or of course you can jump to those and then read this one as an "I want more".

All That Lives Must Die/Nylund(C, too much YA here, the inventiveness of Mortal Coils is lacking though the book is still a page turner; this one turns into Harry Potter wannabe and there are enough such clones out there to need one more ).

Edit 11/24: Finally got around to (fast) read Prospero in Hell/Jagi Lamplighter(C,too much of the same) and like the book above another dropped series where I liked the first book on novelty mostly, but the second book read same and I quickly lost interest.
Monday, November 22, 2010

“Shadowrise” & “Shadowheart” by Tad Williams (Reviewed by Robert Thompson)

Official Tad Williams Website
Order “ShadowriseHERE
Order “ShadowheartHERE
Listen To Excerpts HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s Review of “Shadowplay

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Tad Williams is a New York Times and London Sunday Times bestselling author of fantasy and science fiction, with novels translated into more than twenty languages. His bibliography includes the Tailchaser’s Song, the Memory, Sorrow & Thorn trilogy, the Otherland series, The War of the Flowers, the Shadowmarch saga, the YA Ordinary Farm series co-written with his wife, Deborah Beale, and the forthcoming Bobby Dollar noir fantasy novels. Tad is also currently involved in film, television, comic books, computer games, and other multimedia projects.

ABOUT SHADOWRISE: Southmarch Castle is about to be caught between two implacable enemies—the ancient, immortal Qar and the insane god-king, the Autarch of Xis—while its two young heirs, Princess Briony and Prince Barrick, are both trapped far away from home and fighting for their lives.

Barrick is lost behind the Shadowline, facing all the terrible dangers and mysteries of that magical twilight land. Briony is alone in a treacherous foreign court, struggling to survive with no weapon left to her but her wits. And in the midst of all this, something unbelievable is awakening underneath Southmarch, something powerful and terrible that the world has not seen for thousands of years.

In this third volume, Barrick and Briony, along with Qinnitan—the Autarch’s desperate, escaped slave—a loyal soldier named Ferras Vansen, and a tiny handful of other folk, ordinary and extraordinary, must find a way to save their world, or else witness the rise of a terrible new age—an age of unending darkness...

ABOUT SHADOWHEART: Thousands of years ago, the gods fought and fell in the deeps beneath what is now Southmarch Castle, then were banished into eternal sleep. Now at least one of them is stirring again, dreaming of vengeance against humankind.

Southmarch haunts the dreams of men as well as gods. Royal twins, Barrick and Briony Eddon, the heirs of Southmarch’s ruling family, are hurrying back home. Barrick now carries the heritage of the immortal Qar inside him, while Briony has a small army at her back and a fiery determination to recover her father’s throne and revenge herself on the usurpers.

Meanwhile, the cruel and powerful southern ruler known as the Autarch of Xis wants the power of the gods for his own, a power he can only gain if he conquers Southmarch. And nobody knows what the Qar want, only that the mysterious fairy folk are prepared to die for it—or to kill every living thing in Southmarch Castle and in all the lands that surround it.

All will come to an apocalyptic conclusion on Midsummer Night, when the spirits of the haunted past and the desperate struggles of the present come together in one great final battle. Many will die. Many more will be transformed beyond recognition, and the world will be forever changed...

CLASSIFICATION: Tad Williams’ Southmarch series is traditional epic fantasy in the vein of Robert Jordan and J.R.R. Tolkien, complete with a fully realized secondary world, a huge cast of characters, magic, maps, and a story that pits good versus evil.

FORMAT/INFO: Shadowrise is 564 pages long divided over a Prelude, three Parts, and thirty-nine numbered/titled chapters, with each chapter prefaced by a short excerpt from “A Treatise on the Fairy Peoples of Eion and Xand”. Also includes three maps, an Appendix, and synopses of the two previous Southmarch novels. Narration is in the third-person via Barrick Eddon, Briony Eddon, Ferras Vansen, Chert Blue Quartz, Matt Tinwright, Qinnitan, Yasammez, Daikonas Vo, Pinimmon Vash, Sister Utta, etc. Shadowrise is the third volume in the Southmarch series after Shadowmarch and Shadowplay. March 2, 2010 marks the North American Hardcover publication of Shadowrise via DAW. The Trade Paperback version was published on November 2, 2010. Cover art provided by Todd Lockwood.

Shadowheart is 730 pages long divided over a Prelude/Epilude, four Parts, and fifty-four numbered/titled chapters, with each chapter prefaced by a short excerpt from “A Child’s Book of the Orphan, and His Life and Death and Reward in Heaven”. Also includes five maps, two Appendixes, and synopses of the three previous Southmarch novels. Narration is in the third-person via Barrick Eddon, Briony Eddon, Ferras Vansen, Chert Blue Quartz, Matt Tinwright, Qinnitan, Yasammez, Daikonas Vo, Pinimmon Vash, Sister Utta, Beetledown, etc. Shadowheart is the fourth and final volume in the Southmarch series. November 30, 2010 marks the North American Hardcover publication of Shadowheart via DAW. Cover art provided by Todd Lockwood. The UK edition (see below) will be published on February 3, 2011 via Orbit UK.

ANALYSIS: Since Tad Williams’ Shadowmarch series was originally planned as a trilogy before the decision to split the final volume into two books, I felt it was more appropriate to review Shadowrise and Shadowheart together...

On its own, Shadowrise would be a difficult novel to review. After all, the book only tells half of the series’s intended conclusion, and the feeling of incompleteness is painfully obvious. For one, Shadowrise does not end naturally so much as it just stops in the middle of the story. To make matters worse, the author spends the majority of the novel setting up characters and events for the series’s grand finale, and as a result, the book offers very little reward or payoff for the reader apart from some interesting revelations regarding the connection between the Qar and the Eddons, the importance of Southmarch, and the Autarch’s sinister plan. Fortunately, Shadowrise continues the strong performance that was found in Shadowplay, highlighted by Barrick Eddon’s extraordinary adventures behind the Shadowline—involving Skurn, the Dreamless, Sleepers, Silkins, Shrikers, Tine Fay and the Twilight People’s ancient home, Qul-na-Qar—and Briony Eddon’s familiar, yet entertaining trials in the court of Syan.

From a personal standpoint, I felt Shadowrise was a step down from Shadowplay, in part due to the novel acting mainly as a setup piece where hardly anything of importance occurs, and partly because the book often drags along, especially for the first couple of hundred pages. However, after finishing Shadowheart—which I read immediately after completing Shadowrise, and which is how I would recommend reading the two books—I had a much better appreciation for why the conclusion was split into two volumes. By doing so, Tad Williams was given the necessary time to fully develop his characters and subplots, all of which comes to fruition in Shadowheart...

From the opening Prelude which chronicles Sulepis Bishakh’s rise to power as the newest Autarch of Xis, to the closing Epilude which reveals the final fate of the merchant Raemon Beck, Shadowheart is a nearly perfect finish to the Shadowmarch saga. Finally, readers are rewarded for all of the long hours and thousands of pages devoted to the series, with an ending that is simply epic: The Autarch’s plot to awaken and enslave a god. Hendon Tolly’s own insidious bid for celestial power. Briony Eddon’s quest to free Southmarch and her people from Hendon Tolly’s rule. Barrick Eddon’s return to Southmarch as the new bearer of the male half of the Fireflower. Matt Tinwright’s struggle for survival while serving as Avin Brone’s eyes and ears against Hendon Tolly. Ferras Vansen and the badly outnumbered Funderlings’ desperate attempts to prevent the Autarch’s army from reaching the Shining Man. Qar fighting alongside humans, Rooftoppers, Skimmers and Funderlings. Qinnitan’s attempts to escape her captors, both the Autarch and Daikonas Vo. Vo’s own desperate struggles to free himself from the basiphae that is slowly killing him. Olin Eddon’s gamble regarding Pinimmon Vash, the paramount minister of Xis. Yasammez’s deadly failsafe—the Fever Egg—to prevent the Sleeping Gods from awakening. Chert Blue Quartz’s risky last-resort plan . . . these and many other subplots and characters converge at Southmarch on Midsummer Night in a series of climactic events that will take your breath away.

Amazingly though, as memorable and breathtaking as these events are, the convergence at Southmarch does not even represent the best that Shadowheart has to offer. That honor instead, goes to the wonderful aftermath, which consists of the novel’s final one hundred-plus pages. Who lives? Who dies? Will love triumph over duty? Will families reunite? Will there be peace between the Qar and humankind? Will traitors be exposed? The answers to these and several other burning questions are not always the ones readers might expect or desire, but they are all fitting, as is the satisfactory manner in which Tad Williams ties up the series’s loose ends (the mysterious Flint, Anissa, etc.), while leaving open the opportunity to return to this setting in the future if he so desires.

As I mentioned earlier though, Shadowheart is not perfect. The subplot involving the Fever Egg felt forced and underdeveloped, and is one I could have lived without, along with the subplots concerning the hooded man and Dawet dan-Farr. I also felt some of the characters added very little to the novel (Kayyin, Willow, Sister Utta, Shadow’s Cauldron), while other characters I wish had been given more face time including Olin Eddon, Yasammez, Daikonas Vo, Qinnitan, and Chaven. Then there’s the pacing, which is a bit lethargic at times, a problem considering the novel’s hefty page count. Also, because the series uses a number of common fantasy tropes, many of Shadowheart’s major outcomes are easy to predict, although the author does throw out a couple of unexpected surprises along the way. Finally, between Shadowrise and Shadowheart, I felt that one or two hundred pages could have been edited out of the books without losing anything critical to the series’s conclusion. All in all though, these are fairly minor issues that do not detract from the novels’ overall enjoyment.

Writing-wise, it is impossible to praise the Shadowmarch novels, especially Shadowheart, without talking about Tad Williams. While I was less than impressed with the author’s efforts in the first Shadowmarch novel, Tad Williams’ performance from Shadowplay all the way through the end of Shadowheart, was just a thing of beauty. Characterization that allows characters to grow and evolve—in particular Barrick & Briony Eddon—while providing insights to help the reader understand and empathize with them; world-building that is creative and deep; the ability to juggle numerous plotlines without losing sight of the end goal; prose that is detailed, elegant and accessible; exploring thought-provoking issues on everything from faith, prejudice and duty to cowardice, love and death; all this and more was handled by Tad Williams like the veteran writer that he is, and without the skills of someone like a Tad Williams at the controls, I don’t think the Shadowmarch saga would have been nearly as compelling.

CONCLUSION: Tad Williams’ Shadowmarch series may have gotten off to a rocky start in the opening volume, but by the time Shadowheart rolled around, I could hardly contain my excitement at finally completing the series, and both Shadowrise and Shadowheart deliver. Unfortunately, because I have not read any of Tad Williams’ other novels, I can’t offer any comparisons to the author’s earlier work, but from the viewpoint of someone who loves to read epic fantasy, Shadowrise and Shadowheart are as good an ending to a fantasy saga as I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading...
Sunday, November 21, 2010

Top Five Books of 2010 versus Top Five Older 2010 Reads (by Liviu Suciu)

(click through for a larger image)

While there is more than a month in 2010, I thought it instructive to look at my top five 2010 novels versus the top five older novels read by me in 2010.

Top five 2010 novels:

1. Surface Detail (rv) by Iain M. Banks (sf, standalone within the loose Culture series)
2. The Invisible Bridge (rv) by Julie Orringer (historical fiction, debut)
3. The Scarab Path (rv)/Salute the Dark (rv) by Adrian Tchaikovsky (fantasy, Apt #4/5)
4. The Folding Knife (rv) by KJ Parker (fantasy, standalone)
5. Aurorarama (rv) by Jean-Christophe Valtat (sf, English original, standalone though the author plans more books in its milieu)

Top five older novels read in 2010:

1. The Opposing Shore (rv) by Julien Gracq (sf, standalone from 1951)
2. The Notebook (rv) by Agota Kristof (historical fiction, first in a trilogy from the 1980's)
3. Altai by Wu Ming (Italian language only for now and free online, historical fiction from 2009, sequel to the celebrated Q which is available in English free online too - FBC Rv of Q)
4. The Affirmation by Christopher Priest (sf, standalone 1981)
5. Wanderers and Islanders by Steve Cockayne (fantasy, first in a trilogy, 2002)

The Opposing Shore is my overall choice for #1, followed by The Notebook and then the top 5 2010 novels in that order and then more 2010 books before the older #3-#5.

Edit: 11/24 Just read The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata (1960's, second edition translation 2005/6) and it moves to #4 here
Friday, November 19, 2010

Three Trilogies Ending in 2011, Jacqueline Carey, R.C. Wilson, Stephen Deas

In the spirit of upcoming 2011 books posts (here, here, here, here, here), I will now present three highly expected trilogy endings for 2011.

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In June 2011, Grand Central Publishing brings Naamah's Blessing by Jacqueline Carey which concludes for now the adventures of Moirin, the descendant of Alais de Courcel and a druid of Alba. The first six Legacy of Kushiel novels form my #1 finished fantasy series of all time. I loved a lot Naamah's Kiss (FBc Rv) which was a top 5 fantasy of 2009, though its sequel Naamah's Curse (FBC Rv) lacked its "newness" and intensity, so while I liked it a lot and read it breathlessly when I got it, the book did not quite reach the heights of the earlier books.

Based on the blurb - see the Amazon link above at your own risk since it has a major spoiler for the series - I expect this one to be as good as any book in the extended series; without real spoilers it seems the series is back to Terre Ange and intrigue and later to the New World and adventure.

Here are our reviews for the Legacy of Kushiel series - Kushiel's Justice and Kushiel's Mercy - and an interview with the author.

Edit 3/3/11
Naamah's Blessing ends the Moirin saga and possibly the Angeline/Kushiel 9 book series in great style - though the author left open the possibilities of more and I think there is great potential in a story set in another hundred years or two and dealing with technological expansion rather than the huge geographical expansion here.

The book returns to the exuberance of the first volume - though there are quite a few dark moments since no Legacy Kushiel is complete without them - and it was all that i expected and more; the second volume while interesting and with a lot of cool stuff especially in retrospect had two characteristics that made it a little less favorite than the first - it was darker and gloomier and Moirin just does not do dark the way Phedre or to a lesser extent Imriel did, while Bao's character did not tune with Moirin's narrative and the lack of chemistry between the main two leads will always drag a book down.

Happily in Naamah's blessing none of these happens - the book is quite lush and exuberant and both the Angeline setting and the New World and the vistas of Mexico and the jungels of Central and South America are much more suited than the barren steppe or the cold of the Himalayas - while Bao here has both a much improved chemistry with Moirin but also while important is only one of the several main characters besides Morin. As the role of Lo Feng's pupil suited him well, so does the role of Moirin' supportive husband is perfect for him letting her and the more flamboyant of the rest of the cast shine - and what a cast is, among the best from the whole series, both in Terre d'Ange with the willful 3 year old Desiree, the bereaved king, the scheming nobles as well in the Terra Nova with the D'Angeline adventurers, the Mexica - Nahuatl - warriors, guides and even emperor, to the jungles and peaks of the Incas - Quechas - and the memorable people there

A lot of surprises and gasp moments, tragedy but achievement and exuberance too and a superb ending to a trilogy that only adds to the impressive achievement that is the whole Kushiel saga

This may be my top fantasy for the year especially considering the as how hard is to end a series in grand style

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In July 2011, Tor brings Vortex (cover sketch above, final cover will be different) from R.C. Wilson. The direct sequel to Axis and the final book in the trilogy starting with Spin this is one the highest expected sf offerings of 2011. Spin has been one of the best sf novels of character and ideas in recent times showing that great "core genre" sf can have literary qualities too; while Axis was less well received - critically at least - I actually liked it a lot and thought it as intriguing as Spin, with the major niggle being the semi-cliffhanger ending, so Vortex has been on my asap list since 2008.

Based on the blurb - see the Amazon link above at your own risk since it has a major spoiler for the ending of Axis - I have very high expectations here too.

I have reviewed Julian Comstock (the novel) from the author, which is quite representative of his quiet but superb style of sf and there I talked more why R.C. Wilson is one of the leading American sf writers of today.

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In May 2011, Stephen Deas' The Order of the Scales will be published in the UK. I loved his debut The Adamantine Palace a lot - it was a top 10 fantasy of mine in 2009 and based on it, its sequel was a top 10 anticipated novel of 2010. But The King of the Crags (FBC Rv) did not reach the high level of the debut for me since it was a considerably more traditional fantasy than The Adamantine Palace, eschewing the breathless pace and take-no-prisoners attitude for a lot of filler back story and trying to make the characters "positive", while bringing very little newness and unpredictability to the series.

I still liked The King of the Crags in many ways, but not on the top-top level I expected. I want to read The Order of the Scales asap and I hope the author returns to the level of his debut here. I also plan to read The Warlock's Shadow, second in his related series starting with The Thief's-Taker Apprentice (FBC Rv) and that one interests me as much as The Order of the Scales since a bit to my surprise I liked
The Thief's-Taker Apprentice more than I expected.
Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Some More Top Expectations 2011 Books, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Robert Redick and Emily Gee (by Liviu Suciu)

In the spirit of upcoming 2011 books posts (here, here, here, here), I will present three more fantasy novels that are among the most expected books of mine from the first several months of 2011.

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In February 2011, Tor.uk brings the 6th Kinden volume, The Sea Watch by Adrian Tchaikovsky. It's no secret that right now the Shadows of the Apt series is my #1 ongoing fantasy series and 2010's ultra-impressive duo of Salute the Dark (FBC Rv) and The Scarab Path (FBC Rv) managed the unlikely feat to topple The Folding Knife (FBc Rv) as my #1 fantasy of 2010 - ok, it's cheating since those are two books and I consider them as a combo for 'top books" purposes, but still... We have also reviews of the first three books - Empire in Black and Gold, Dragonfly Falling and Blood of the Mantis - as well as an author interview.

I discussed at length the reasons for why I think the Kinden series is the best ongoing fantasy series right now, especially if pseudo-medieval hereditary dictatorships and the ancient evil that somehow wants to topple them until the destined boy/girl restores the rightful dictator to the throne do not really appeal to you, but the combination of traditional and new, pre-industrial magic (Inapt Kinden) and early industrial tech (Apt Kinden), great characters, action, intrigue, prophecies, ingenious weapons and of course the Kinden themselves and the new kinds added in each book are some of the reasons.

****************************************************************In April 2011, Del Rey brings The River of Shadows, the 3rd installment of the wonderful Chartrand Voyages series by Robert Redick. An exuberant series that blossomed in its second installment The Rats and the Ruling Sea (FBC Rv) (The Rats got eaten by the cat in the US edition though!), this one is more-or-less in head to head competition for my second favorite ongoing fantasy series (with at least two volumes out) with the ones from Mark Newton (decadence, weirdness and unusual character leads) and Michael Sullivan (well, once in a while there is a traditional series that appeals a lot to me).

The Rats and the Ruling Sea has also been my top fantasy of 2009, again more or less one of four in that spot, but for definiteness I picked it as first of those. We have a review of The Red Wolf Conspiracy too, while I included only an Amazon link for people wanting to explore more, rather than post the full blurb for spoiler-ish reasons.

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In January/February 2011, Solaris brings The Sentinel Mage from Emily Gee about which I have no clue if it is a standalone as her previous two novels or starts a series. Anyway here is the blurb:

Her magic may be the only thing that can save a prince—and the Seven Kingdoms. In a distant corner of the Seven Kingdoms, an ancient curse festers and grows, consuming everything in its path. Only one man can break it: Harkeld of Osgaard, a prince with mage’s blood in his veins. But Prince Harkeld has a bounty on his head—and assassins at his heels. Innis is a gifted shapeshifter. Now she must do the forbidden: become a man. She must stand at Prince Harkeld’s side as his armsman, protecting and deceiving him. But the deserts of Masse are more dangerous than the assassins hunting the prince. The curse has woken deadly creatures, and the magic Prince Harkeld loathes may be the only thing standing between him and death.

I utterly loved The Laurentine Spy and it still stands strong in my memory - the mixed reactions to my review made introduce a "personal favorite" nuance in some reviews - so despite the ho-hum blurb above which could be a perfect pitch for "romantic fantasy generic", the novel is one my top-top expected ones too.

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