Category Archives: Review

The Dragon Waiting By John M. Ford

thedragonwaiting

 

This book is set in an alternate 15th Century Europe where a pagan Byzantine Empire dominates Europe and Christianity is a minor religion. Except for a rump buffer state, France has been carved up between England and the Byzantines. The empire is infiltrating the Italian city states and is now plotting against their English allies. A magician and a small group of like-minded individuals travel to England to attempt to stymie its plan.

Initially the setting struck me as a bit strange in the sense that a lot of the big name political characters and institutions are the same as in our world. Surely, the failure of Christianity to dominate Europe would have a multiplicity of effects, great and small, that would alter history more radically. Then I remembered the vampires and put such thoughts aside.

Though short, this novel is challenging. It is very dense and sometimes deliberately opaque on characters’ motivations. Some sentences are knots of meaning, elusive or enigmatic. It’s up to the reader to decode it without the easy cipher of exposition. This made it difficult to bond at first with some of the characters and to sympathize with their aims. The Byzantine Empire may be the ultimate villain, but it spends most of the novel as a distant shadow. A big help in interpreting the text was the fan-made commentary Draco Concordans. (Thanks to the reviewer Niki on Goodreads whose review mentioned it.)

I struggled through the first half of the book. I struggled to care. But by the end, I loved it, won over by its rich detail, thriller pace, and memorable images. It’s not an easy read, but if you stick with it, it’s a rewarding one.

 

 

The Affirmation By Christopher Priest

the-affirmation

 

Peter Sinclair has broken up with his girlfriend, lost his job, and is miserable. He has moved from London to the country to renovate a house for a family friend while he tries to rebuild his life. He starts to write a book about…

Peter Sinclair has won the lottery and left his home city of Jethra to travel across the impossibly vast Dream Archipelago to undergo an operation that makes him immortal. He carries with him a book about a version of himself living in an imaginary city called London…

At the start of the book, it appears clear that the first Peter’s world is reality and the other is a wish-fulfilling fiction, but these two worlds merge and interact to the point that initial perception is challenged. What you have here is effectively a rolled cake of two realities then sliced in such a way that you can see the distinct layers but not the swirl.

And the jam in between these layers is absolutely packed with scrumptiousness. This book has a lot to say about the nature of creativity, memory, and the perception of reality. Is an imagined London any more real than an imagined Jethra simply because a physical version of the former exists?

There are surprises and revelations throughout the book, both stories are engaging, but it’s best to approach the book with dream-like acceptance. Don’t get too hung up on teasing the two threads into something clinically logical, but instead delight in their entwining. The ending is absolutely perfect for the book. It ends like a dream.

Cyteen By C.J. Cherryh

cyteen

Ariane Emory runs Reseune, the only cloning lab on Cyteen, with an iron fist. Her directorship makes her one of the most powerful people on the planet. When Jordan Warrick falls foul of her, his son Justin and his azi ‘brother’ Grant become pawns in her efforts to control him.

This book took me four years to read. Obviously, I didn’t actually spend four full years reading it. I started it, put it down several months, picked it up again, read some more, ignored it for another couple of months and so on. The politics at the very start is bewildering and I just couldn’t connect emotionally with Justin and Grant’s plight. The writing was very good but I found the conversations very repetitive. After I noticed a pattern to many of them, I couldn’t unsee it.

The book really only gathered momentum for me when the second Ari entered the story. Her manipulation by her uncles, her gradual realization of who she was, and her struggle for identity engaged me. In fact, this might be terribly blasphemous, but I think if the story had started with her, I would have enjoyed it much more.

Madouc By Jack Vance

Madouc

 

In many ways, the Lyonesse Trilogy consists of three threads which connect sometimes very tangentially. There is the competition between the various kingdoms, the conflict between the mages, and the quests into ‘fairyland’. Each of these stories is dispersed through the novels in varying doses.

In the final volume, it felt at times like Vance had left himself with too much to do. Every now and then, he hit the fast forward button and events whiz by almost in summary. At other times, tangential and inconsequential matters were lingered over. A great deal of writing was spent establishing characters only to rid them from the book in a sentence.

Maduoc eclipses to a greater or lesser extent the main characters from the previous novels. I felt Glyneth in particular got short shrift. Where, for instance, were these swords she brought back from Tanjecterly? The concentration on Maduoc compresses the ultimate conclusion of the struggle between Aillas and Casimir, making it feel a little rushed.

And yet, the novel makes up for these dashed expectations. Shimrod’s adventures in the previous novels, at times made disjointed and abrupt by the opaque central mystery now click into place. More importantly, Maduoc is an engaging character and her adventures kept my interest throughout. I was particularly moved by the ultimate fate of one of the minor characters. It was very well done.

The Green Pearl By Jack Vance

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Though this book is called The Green Pearl, the pearl itself bookends the story, the vast bulk of which is devoted to Aillas’s efforts to defeat the Ska and Casimir’s political machinations. Aillas proves to be every bit as crafty as his enemies though his subjects appear remarkably calm when their king disappears without warning. Shimrod also pops up here and there to fathom the mysterious Melancthe.

The book is filled with adventure, colourful characters, and clever scenes. Dhrun fades into the background, taking a backseat to Aillas and Glyneth. The trip to the delightfully named Tanjecterly was particularly entertaining if nearly a separate story.

The fact that it’s a sequel works very much to its favor in that we’re clear from the start which characters we’re supposed to root for. The only fly in the ointment was Father Umphred. His interminable campaign to build a cathedral really got on my nerves. I suppose he isn’t meant to be a sympathetic character, but I could have done with less of him. All in all, it is a very satisfying read and a worthy successor to Suldrun’s Garden.

 

Suldrun’s Garden By Jack Vance

Garden

 

This book is the first of trilogy set in that magical time of medieval anachronistic romance when knights charged about in the Dark Ages in a manner more befitting several centuries later. Vance has plonked several legendary realms (for example Ys, Avalon, and Lyonesse) on an archipelago in the Atlantic, the Elder Isles, which sinks without trace (or record) centuries later.

The book has a low key start  in the palace of Casimir the King of Lyonesse. However, it quickly becomes clear that the garden is merely the starting point of the story and it quickly expands to include other warring kingdoms, mages, and magical creatures.

Vance’s world is a brutal one. People die a lot and sometimes randomly. Bad things happen. There is one brutal twist which really shakes up the story. However, the omnipresent narration distances the reader from events to some degree so it never tips into the realm of grimdark. The mood is often more akin to that of a classical fairy tale.

The world building is detailed but in some ways random to create kind of a ‘springy’ effect.

There are a couple distinct threads in this story most of which branch out from Suldrun. The mages’ subplot on the other hand starts out separate but eventually intersects with the others.  However, perhaps thanks to an embargo on mages on intervening in political matters, it feels as their struggle and the kings’ rivalry often just glance off each other. The book is full of digressions and tangents, but the imaginative scope of the book cannot be denied.

There are loose threads at the end but you would expect that given it was obviously envisaged as part of a trilogy. One thing I did have a problem with was the epilogue which I suppose was meant to wet the reader’s appetite for the next volume but, to me, felt very much like somebody just hit the fast forward button, speeding events by without context.

 

The Night Land By William Hope Hodgson

The Night Land

 

The book begins in the 17th century. The narrator recounts his wooing of his love, the Lady Mirdath and her death after she gives birth to a child. He experiences a vision of the far future when their future incarnations will meet again.

His future self lives in the Last Redoubt, a gigantic pyramidal structure which houses the last remnants of humanity on an Earth plunged into eternal night. The Last Redoubt is encircled by monstrous horrors waiting through millennia for its power source (the Earth Current) to fail. These nightmarish creatures and forces map out the surrounding landscape with names that really capture their power and horror: the House of Silence, the Road Where The Silent Ones Walk, the Watching Thing of the South-East, the Valley of the Hounds are so on. I had not really expected the geography to be so busy or so poetic.

The hero makes mental contact with a woman from a lesser redoubt, a reincarnation of Mirdath. When the earth current protecting her people fails, he dons armor like a knight of old, and sets out to find her.

Sounds pretty compelling, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, the book itself is much less so.

Firstly, there is the language barrier. Because the book is written from the perspective of a 17th century gentleman, Hodgson employs a lot of archaic terms and spelling which might put people off. Having said that, I got used to these stock words pretty early on and they were worn into my memory by repeated use.

Everything is repeated repeatedly. The most egregious example is the focus on food and sleeping. Let’s take a few examples of the former for a moment.

I did ope my scrip, and take thereform three tablets, the which I chewed and did eat.

And I sat me down in a little clear place among the bushes, and did eat three of the tablets.

And I eat my three tablets, and drank the water that I did get from the powder.

I eat two tablets, the while my belly did cry out for an wholesome and proper filling

I should now eat four of the tablets

I eat two of the tablets and drank some of the water

And here I eat four of the tablets; for truly so many were my due

I had eat three of the tablets, and drunk some of the water.

And it goes on and on, a dreary, lulling beat between digressions and places where nothing happened, other places where something almost happened. and the occasional place where something actually did. It became so numbing that when some crisis occurred it took a surprising length of time for its import to seep through my oppressing ennui and my emotions to properly engage with the narrative once again.

This improves somewhat once he finds his beloved. There are some frenetic scenes and powerful images. However, they are islands on a sea of gloppy sentimentality out of place with the supposed omnipresent danger the hero and his companion face. It’s as if the lights go on for  vast sections of the book, the birds begin to sing, and flowers blossom.

Worse, this syrup is tainted with poison. In the midst of all the repetitious talk of love and devotion and the daintiness of the girl’s feet, the main character considers whipping his ‘Baby-Slave’ for an act of ‘naughtiness’, considers it again and again, before finally acting on his impulse. The first mention of whipping her killed any sympathy I had for him, and the later incidents confirmed my initial reaction.

The Night Land is often described as a flawed masterwork. In some ways, the deliberately aged language inadvertently works to excuse its glaring faults. It fools the reader into placing it into the 17th century instead of the year it was published (1912). War of the Worlds was already over a decade old for example.

I think it would be more accurate to say that this work contains elements of imaginary brilliance combined with baser and more toxic substances to form an ore that glitters at a distance but is dull up close. It is up to you to decide for yourself if it is worth the effort to extract the value from it.