30 May 2015

Books: The Rebirths of Tao By Wesley Chu (2015)

When Wesley Chu's first book in this series, The Lives of Tao, proved to be a huge success in early 2013, publisher Angry Robot released the second book, The Deaths of Tao, in the fall of that year instead of early 2014, meaning that it would take book three, The Rebirths of Tao, a whole year and half before seeing publication. I noted that in my review back then that a delay may mean moving on. Not because I did not like Chu or this series, but because I would probably forget all that happened in book two. 
Which proved to be true. But since I was not going to go back and re-read the previous two books (listen, l want to read a lot of books and re-reading anything means it has to be special) I just plodded along until the author got me somewhat caught up in the timeline. 
"Many years have passed since the events in The Deaths of Tao: the world is split into pro-Prophus and pro-Genjix factions, and is poised on the edge of a devastating new World War; the Prophus are hiding; and Roen has a family to take care of. A Genjix scientist who defects to the other side holds the key to preventing bloodshed on an almost unimaginable scale. With the might of the Genjix in active pursuit, Roen is the only person who can help him save the world, and the Quasing race, too. And you thought you were having a stressful day."

The concluding arc to this series is well handled and Chu -very good at pacing and creating a believable world- also has a way with character interaction and dialogue. Tan Roen was always a great character, but with added bonus of a time-jump (right about a decade) we get a Roen and Jill's 16 year-old son Cameron and Marco, a British fighter who seems to have had too many adventures with Roen over the years, and they are always bickering. This, of course, leads to some great conversations. We also get a sweet potential relationship with Cameron and the daughter of the Genjix scientist whom is defecting. There is some great interaction here between her, Cam and Tao (who was once in Roen's body, but now resides in Cameron. Long story. Read the other two books).

Another good aspect of the time-jump is to add the geo-political aspects that come into play now that the world knows of the aliens. It's a fun James Bondian style adventure with megalomaniacs trying to end the world (and while that aspect is not very original, all can be forgiven due to other positive things about the this book and the series as a whole). I'm unsure if this series could be called "urban fantasy", which seems to me a new sub-genre that includes the works of Jim Butcher's (Dresdin Files) and Tad Williams (Bobby Dollar). Part of me hates this, because it clearly means that to find new readers of science fiction and fantasy, authors can no longer write the traditional ways of fantasy -no magical worlds- that it has to be set in our own reality so to speak. That this is the only way today's readers can accept a fantasy world is that it has to be set in the present. Then again, there is some truth to the notion fantasy and science fiction became to formulaic in the late 80s and 90s that lead to this current trend (though I think TimPowers has been doing this for years). 

In the end, The Rebirths of Tao brings it all to a satisfying end and yet I know Chu is setting up for another round -which I read begins next year, a stand-alone trilogy that begins with The Rise of Io. In the meantime, Chu returns to the bookstores this July with Time Salvager

And as I've mentioned before, I love time travel stories. 

21 May 2015

Books: The Grace of Kings By Ken Liu (2015)

When I started reading the fantasy genre back around the 1979 or 80, a lot of the writers that went through where influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien. The late 1970s, all of the 80s and part of the 90's where dominated by authors who grew up loving The Lord of the Rings. Just as much as Isaac Asimov, John C. Campbell and Robert Heinlein influenced some to become scientists and create their own books, Tolkien's reach was extraordinary. Sadly, s I grew older, I aged out of some authors that I read, in particular Piers Anthony. I adored his Xanth series for a hot minute, before I suddenly realized he was creating a formula that meant the later books were, essentially, predictable. The puns helped, but you knew that each Xanth book would follow the same layout as the previous and Anthony seemed no longer able to deviate from it. His early work, especially in the science fiction tales, were filled with wonderful ideas, but now he has devoted his final years on issuing one Xanth book after another. 
So I left the genre behind for a while, something I think I've written about before. Since then, I've read only a handful of fantasy books, mostly Tad Williams whose prose style I like. But I never got into the "urban fantasy" subset of this genre. Those are tales set in the real world, our world, but features many signature fantasy elements like magic, wizards and dragons. TV shows like Once Upon a Time appeal to non-fantasy folks because they're set in place that a viewer can identify. On some psychological level, I think these urban fantasy shows, books, and comics makes folks more comfortable viewing and reading them because it's more tangible, more "real". It's like fans of reality TV shows; they enjoy it because while they know there is some creative editing going on that propagates the fake drama, they see everyday things like cars, Starbucks and smart phones. They can "identify" with these reality stars.
But then George R.R. Martin came along and upset the applecart. His Song of Ice and Fire series owes much to The Sapranos than to the world Tolkien created, though. Martin created an elaborate world, filled with castles, horses, and dragons. But he populated it with characters that come straight from 1970s crime dramas and the European idea that heroes and the villains all live within a gray world where wrong and right blur continuously. Martin did something else most fantasy authors never did during its coming of age in the 70s, you never knew who was going to live and who was going to die. When reading the first book in that series, A Game of Thrones, I'm assuming no one saw the death of Ned Stark coming. In doing so, in killing what many thought could've been the main character of a multi-volume fantasy series, Martin changed the rules and in doing so, changed the fate of fantasy books to come. 
So this brings me to Ken Liu's The Grace of Kings, the first book in his Dandelion Dynasty trilogy. Part of the reason I took on this book was mainly because of three writers I follow on Twitter, Wesley Chu, Saladin Ahmed and Kate Elliot. And though Liu had won the Nebula and the Hugo Awards, I was not aware of him (I generally don't read short-stories). Yes, being out the book business since Borders folded in 2011 means I missing out of a lot. Still, I have enjoyed the works of those previous authors, so I thought I would try this book out.
Much like Martin, Liu upsets the applecart, creating an epic fantasy that spans decades and features a lot of action, a lot of death (and the gallons of blood that comes with it) and three dimensional characters (especially the women).
The plot starts with the land of "Dara that has been united under a single banner, that of Emperor Mapidéré. The archipelago had once been a divided set of kingdoms, all of which felt some pain living under one ruler. We meet the young, troublesome boy named Kuni Garu, who's described in the book as "a boy who prefers play to study", one who's mischievous and brilliant, hailing from the Cocru city of Zudi. Across the world, Mata Zyndu is a massive child: tall, with double pupil eyes, and the last child of the Zyndu family, most of whom had been killed in the war that unified Dara. Each man finds his way under the harsh regime of Mapidéré: Kuni assembles a gang of bandits (amongst other exploits too numerous to list), and eventually rises as the self-styled Duke Garu, a bold move for someone born of common blood. Meanwhile, Mata assembles his own army, and determined to reclaim his family's honor and place in the world, sets off to war. Each begins their own rebellion against the Imperial Army, and eventually, their paths cross. Each regards the other as a brother, and together, they drastically change the balance of power in Dara. However, once their war is won, the real struggle for power begins, and the ensuing conflict is far more devastating than the battles that came before."
While most of the fantasy genre has its roots in medieval Europe, Liu takes on the Han Dynasty of China in his tale of revolution, rebellion, and what leadership really means (though he uses this, I think, more as a stepping stone than a full parallel). In doing this, he opens the genre that seems stagnated and that allows him to play with form and style, something I admit took me a while to grasp. And Liu writes both Kuni and Mata as complex people, even if Kuni is less heavy handed in his approach to war and conquest than Mata -who is the epitome of what Star Trek's Klingons may have become if allowed. 
There are many characters that come and go like dead leaves in a whirling wind, but the book is close to a character study between two men who have two different points of view when it comes to destroying a bad empire and rebuilding it into something better. The fact the Liu does not shy away and make one too liberal and one too conservative is great example of his writing style.
In the end, though, the book's prose, while dense like Martin's series, is far easier to digest. Perhaps because Liu chose a more modern narrative? I don't know. I liked the book, I liked the fully drawn characters and I liked the idea of reading something that was the same, yet different. 
Yet, yet, once again, I have to say I'm not always onboard for the casual way in which life is treated here. Death, I know, is what happens in wars, revolutions or what not. People die both young and old, but it's the mass acceptance of death that sometimes turns my stomach and what appears to be the appeal for these 21st Century take on fantasy. I realize that this is a fiction book, that the people are not real, but it still does not appease my idea that wars are horrible on the common folk. Yes Kuni seems to want to avoid killing soldiers unnecessarily, but it does not absolve him that sometimes him (and Mata) are just as horrible as Emperor Mapidéré. 
Maybe that was the point?

07 May 2015

Books: The Dead Lands By Benjamin Percy (2015)

One thing that struck me as I pages through Benjamin Percy's dystopia novel The Dead Lands was how much I've seen all of this before. Yes, there is some creative passages and interesting world building -like the mutated creatures that haunt the land that reminded me of the old 1950's B films about the effects of nuclear fallout- going on, but the essences of what might happen if the world was to end and the survivors had to pick things up is very familiar. Turn on the news and you see men wanting power and what they will do to get that power, mostly through fear and intimidation, but also seem to have no qualms about hurting and killing people as well.  

In this post-apocalyptic reimagining of the Lewis and Clark saga, a super flu and nuclear fallout have made a husk of the world we know. A few humans carry on, living in outposts such as the Sanctuary-the remains of St. Louis-a shielded community that owes its survival to its militant defense and fear-mongering leaders. Set 150 years from on or around our time, this post-apocalyptic reimagining of the Lewis and Clark saga, tells the story of a super flu and nuclear fallout have made a husk of the world we know. A few humans carry on, living in outposts such as the Sanctuary-the remains of St. Louis-a shielded community that owes its survival to its militant defense and fear-mongering leaders. Many within Sanctuary know the water is nearly gone (unaware that their Mayor, Thomas Lancer, is hoarding it for his baths with his twink Vincent) but because they fear him and the men (all men) who work under him, no one is willing to speak up. But then a rider comes from the wasteland beyond Sanctuary's walls. She reports that world is moving on and is coming back to life, that west of the Cascades, rain falls, crops grow, and new civilizations are thriving. The girl comes with a message to one Lewis Meriwether from a man named Aran Burr, requesting him to venture to Oregon. But the girl Gawea warns that there is danger: a powerful of army of men that pillages and enslaves every community they happen upon. Against the wishes of the Sanctuary, a small group sets out in secrecy. Led by Lewis Meriwether and Mina Clark, they hope to expand their infant nation, and to reunite the States. But the Sanctuary will not allow them to escape without a fight.

While the historical Lewis and Clark are an aspect of the fictional ones here, I'm unsure if this book was supposed to be some sort of metaphor or allegory; because either I missed it or it was edited out to make the book shorter than its 400 pages. Like most dystopian themed novels, we see the rise of a nearly fascist empire replacing a representative government. Yes, the people of Sanctuary are thrown back in time to live like an old western town right out of a John Wayne movie, and that maybe the more truthful, but it's telling how today's authors see that if things were to fall apart with a super flu or a nuclear strike, good old democracy will be the first thing to end after the deaths have subsided. And Percy goes into great detail to sort point out the obvious, that 1% are easily corruptible and the other 99% are just fodder for their horrible goals. I can't argue with that logic, but I also sort of found it annoying just the same. Still, I'm a realist and I see men, particularly white men, believing the reason they survived a pandemic is thrust authority down everyone's throat that the liberals have taken away from them. 

In the end, the themes are nothing new here, and all the characters (even the "heroes") are damaged and mostly unlikable (another theme of modern novels). And thanks to Game of Thrones, be aware that Percy is willing to kill a character at any moments notice. It's a well crafted novel, but clearly no new themes was to be broke here as well. 

03 May 2015

Books: The Fifth Heart By Dan Simmons (2015)

Dan Simmons started his writing career penning novels in the horror genre, tales like his 1985 debut Carrion Comfort. But while he wrote other books like A Winter Haunting, Summer of Night, and Song of Kali, he turned to science fiction in 1989 with his critically acclaimed Hyperion Cantos and IIium/Olypos books. He's also written a mystery series under the name of Joe Kurtz. In 2007 he began taking on historical fiction, starting with The Terror, a fictionalized account of Captain Sir John Franklin's doomed attempt of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror to force the Northwest Passage in 1845–1848. In the novel, Franklin and his crew are plagued by starvation and scurvy and forced to contend with mutiny and cannibalism, but they're also being stalked across the Arctic landscape by some sort of monster. He followed that up with 2009's Drood, which was about the final five years of Charles Dickens life as struggled to finish what would be his last (and never finished) book, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The novel is narrated by Dickens' friend, novelist Wilkie Collins. Like The Terror, the plot mixes fiction and biographical facts, but because Collins spent a good number of years under the influence of opium, and it's derivative, laudanum, author Simmons gave us an unreliable narrator so long time fans of Dickens could not take umbrage with the acts that take place in the book. 
I've read both of the books, and enjoyed them. I skipped over, but still own, Simmons 2011 novel Black Hills and his 2013 Abominable (which I don't own, but still want to read). Both of those books continued his current run of mixing fiction with history. Which leads us to his latest novel The Fifth Heart
I admit I'm not a Sherlock Holmes fan and have never read a Henry James novel, but the idea of the Great Detective getting a Portrait of a Lady author mixed up in a murder mystery that spans London, New York, Washington, and Chicago was too tempting to pass up. Plus, with my fondness for history, Simmons books are always a fun read. 
It's London in1893, and a despondent Henry James has decided to end his life. But as he stands on the precipice between life and the undiscovered country, he discovers he's not the only one under the bridge contemplating their demise that night. Indeed, it appears that Sherlock Holmes (whom James always assumed was a fictional construct) is waiting for him. Holmes convinces Henry James that they need to travel to America to solve a mystery because James is a well know friend of the family. The murder mystery part begins, actually in 1885 with the suicide death of Clover Adams, wife of the esteemed historian Henry Adams -member of the Adams family that has given the United States two Presidents. Clover's death appears to be more than it at first seemed; the suspected foul play may also involve matters of national importance. Holmes is currently on his Great Hiatus -his three-year absence after Reichenbach Falls during which time the people of London believe him to be deceased. But apparently, Holmes has faked his own death because, through his powers of ratiocination, the great detective has come to the conclusion that he is a fictional character. This leads to serious complications for James -for if his esteemed fellow investigator is merely a work of fiction, what does that make him? And what can the master storyteller do to fight against the sinister power -possibly named Moriarty- that may or may not be controlling them from the shadows?
Once again, Dan Simmons takes us on journey into the past, mixing real history with fiction. We get another unreliable narrator -by the fact that we never learn who is actually writing the book. Well, obviously it's Simmons, but we get another writer who jumps in once in a while, one who is never identified (is it Simmons? Henry James? Arthur Conan Doyle? John Watson?). Still, the book reads like a buddy comedy film at times as well, which I actually think makes the narrative work better than his previous journeys into the historical fiction genre. It's a long book, well over 600 pages and while dense with real history, you cannot help but like the cantankerous Henry James, who ends up being the perfect foil for Holmes antics. It's also fun when we meet real life figures like Teddy Roosevelt (very bullish) and Samuel Clemens, AKA Mark Twain (and whom I pictured asactor Jerry Hardin, who played a version of Twain the Star Trek: The Next Generation 2-part episode Time's Arrow. There is also a visit to the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, the same one featured in Erik Larson's nonfiction book The Devil in the White City.
We do get a bit of metaphysical antics about whether Holmes is real person, who's life has been fictionalized by author John Watson and published by his editor, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in The Strand. There is also some "meta" aspects to as well, and up until Holmes mentioned Hercule Poirot, I was going to give the novel the benefit of the doubt. This book also made me think of the classic short film An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge at the beginning. 
Still, out of all his recent historical fiction books, this was the breeziest of them all and one many -including Sherlock Holmes fans- will enjoy.