21 January 2018

Books: Origin By Dan Brown (2017)

“Robert Langdon, Harvard professor of symbology and religious iconology, arrives at the ultramodern Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao to attend a major announcement—the unveiling of a discovery that “will change the face of science forever.” The evening’s host is Edmond Kirsch, a forty-year-old billionaire and futurist whose dazzling high-tech inventions and audacious predictions have made him a renowned global figure. Kirsch, who was one of Langdon’s first students at Harvard two decades earlier, is about to reveal an astonishing breakthrough . . . one that will answer two of the fundamental questions of human existence. As the event begins, Langdon and several hundred guests find themselves captivated by an utterly original presentation, which Langdon realizes will be far more controversial than he ever imagined. But the meticulously orchestrated evening suddenly erupts into chaos, and Kirsch’s precious discovery teeters on the brink of being lost forever. Reeling and facing an imminent threat, Langdon is forced into a desperate bid to escape Bilbao. With him is Ambra Vidal, the elegant museum director who worked with Kirsch to stage the provocative event. Together they flee to Barcelona on a perilous quest to locate a cryptic password that will unlock Kirsch’s secret.”

Much like his previous novels featuring Langdon, Dan Brown’s Origin does not deviate too much from the formula and tropes he helped continue in this suspenseful story format. It preserves its age-old premise that thrillers always need: living at the corner coincidence and convenience to ensure people turn the pages. The set-up is always basically the same in all these tales featuring a middle-aged man: a mystery starts –in a church, museum or some such building of historical significance- where eventually Langdon meets a women –while always brilliant and smart- she is forever (and stunningly) beautiful. Quickly –because these tales do take place in a small time period- they must flee together to solve whatever wild mystery Brown has laid out.

And his prose style, while readable, is never to be taken seriously (which amuses me when people actually do). While he wraps a lot of historical truths within his fictional setting, as the tales progress you realize (still) what a hugely pulpy, mostly ridiculous and nutty tale Origin truly is. Still, while Dan Brown is not a deep writer, but he does offer some intriguing ideas that can, in the end, give rise to great conversations.

They only drawback I have (okay, that may be a silly start to a sentence when talking about a Dan Brown book) is the magical, dues ex machine he creates with the Artificial Intelligence computer that provides all the necessary information to move the story forward. It's HAL like sentient not withstanding, Winston becomes too much a science fiction cliche that truly makes Origin's already shaky premise come tumbling down.

Ultimately, the book is fairly fun –if you’ve not read any other Brown book- but that’s about it. Sometimes, as I read it, I felt this book was the equivalent of today’s Hollywood blockbuster film: a silly premise, with paint-by-number dialogue brought to life by people who want to be more of a movie star than a true actor. And after five books featuring the Robert Langdon character, maybe it’s time that Brown moves on?

13 January 2018

Books: Persepolis Rising by James S. A. Corey (2017)

“In the thousand-sun network of humanity's expansion, new colony worlds are struggling to find their way. Every new planet lives on a knife edge between collapse and wonder, and the crew of the aging gunship Rocinante have their hands more than full keeping the fragile peace. In the vast space between Earth and Jupiter, the inner planets and belt have formed a tentative and uncertain alliance still haunted by a history of wars and prejudices. On the lost colony world of Laconia, a hidden enemy has a new vision for all of humanity and the power to enforce it. New technologies clash with old as the history of human conflict returns to its ancient patterns of war and subjugation. But human nature is not the only enemy, and the forces being unleashed have their own price. A price that will change the shape of humanity -and of the Rocinante- unexpectedly and forever.”

With Persepolis Rising, author James S. A. Corey (Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham) begins The Expanse endgame. There is a significant time jump from the last book, Babylon Ashes, and now it’s been thirty years since the events of the first book, Leviathan Wakes. While the six previous books formed an overreaching arc through two sets of trilogies, the issues that began the series –the battle between Earth, Mars, and the ‘Belters- have come to a somewhat of an equilibrium here. OPA, the Belter’s dominant political faction, has transformed into the legitimate Transportation Union, which helps supply 1,300 human-colonized planets across the galaxy. Earth and Mars have put aside their adversarial relationship to form the Earth-Mars Coalition, and protagonist James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante is still doing the odd jobs required of them.

The final trilogy begins with return of an empire called Laconia, originally formed by a group of Martians who abandoned the solar system mentioned in earlier books. Laconia has thrived in the three decades hence, under the leadership of the immortal High Counsel Duarte and has become brutal and has acquired some technology advanced ships and weapons. Duarte’s goal is pretty simple: dispatch a fleet back through gate system and take over Medina Station that controls those gates, which will plunge the Sol system into another conflict that they may not be able to recover from.

This is perhaps the most fast-paced book of the current seven book series, moving swiftly between events and introducing new characters. I was taken back, at first, with the narrative time-jump, but a lot makes sense considering that the authors are moving towards a conclusion. We see Holden and his crew aging (with James and Naomi beginning the process of retirement), and seeing that there can be a tenuous relationship between all the factions that once kind of hated each other. 

We also get a deeper understanding of the protomolecule, which for long stretches of this series, was never truly explained. The villains, Duarte and Santiago Singh, are less cartoonish this time around and the authors make it clear that Singh is very conflicted –he believes that everyone can live under Laconia rule, even if some must die. It’ll be interesting to see what direction Duarte goes in with the next two books.

31 December 2017

What I read in 2017

01. Headless by Tristram Lowe
02. The Prophecy Con by Patrick Weekes
03. The Paladin Caper By Patrick Weekes
04. The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury
05. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story by Alexander Freed
06. Zeus is Dead: A Monstrously Inconvenient Adventure by Michael G. Munz
07. The Rise of Io by Wesley Chu
08. The Gunslinger: The Dark Tower I by Stephen King (The Great Re-Read 2017)
09. The Drawing of the Three: The Dark Tower II by Stephen King (The Great Re-Read 2017)
10. The Waste Lands: The Dark Tower III by Stephen King (The Great Re-Read 2017)
11. The Heart of What Was Lost By Tad Williams
12. The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp
13. Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet by James Goss
14. A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab
15. Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann
16. IT by Stephen King
17. Honor Among Thieves by James S.A. Corey
18. ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
19. Star Wars: Aftermath: Empire’s End By Chuck Wendig
20. Gwendy’s Button Box by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar
21. Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Beckly Albertalli
22. Strange Weather by Joe Hill
23. Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King & Owen King
24. Star Wars: Phasma by Delilah S. Dawson

30 December 2017

Books: Star Wars: Phasma by Delilah S. Dawson (2017)

"One of the most cunning and merciless officers of the First Order, Captain Phasma commands the favor of her superiors, the respect of her peers, and the terror of her enemies. But for all her renown, Phasma remains as virtually unknown as the impassive expression on her gleaming chrome helmet. Now, an adversary is bent on unearthing her mysterious origins—and exposing a secret she guards as zealously and ruthlessly as she serves her masters."

While billed as the secret history behind the First Order’s most notorious (and underutilized new character within the movie franchise) Stormtrooper, Delilah S. Dawson’s Star Wars: Phasma seemed designed to help fans get a better glimpse into this new character (a tactic that Disney is now using so they don’t have to bother with characterization on screen) who looked to be a breakout villain. But basically, what we have here is a backstory for Phasma—but told from a third-hand retelling (which is just a horrible way to write a tale). No one, not even the captured Rebel repeating this information onto another high ranking Stormtrooper named Captain Cardinal, even considers that the stories of Phasma’s upbringing are whole truths, lies, or could be given by an unreliable narrator. So if you’re coming to this novel, as I was, hoping to find out more about her personality or discover what makes Phasma tick, then be prepared for disappointment because this book is completely devoid of any kind of real characterization.

The problem with these new canon books is that while they can often offer more clarity and motivations of these new characters, they still need to have an interesting back story. Phasma is still mostly a cipher here, and even the rationale of Cardinal trying to solve a “murder” seems suspect. While the analogy that the First Order is model for the rise of the Nazi’s, Star Wars: Phasma offers no new wrinkle here, they are what you think they are and they have no redeemable value.
I’m unsure why Dawson took this route with Phasma, who could’ve been more than the sum of her chrome parts we’ve seen in both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. I don't have an issue media of books, comics, and animated TV shows being used by Disney to flesh out certain character’s back story -like Phasma and probably Snoke- but I do want something more interesting, more worthy than what is presented here.