Monday, June 27, 2011

Book Review: In the Garden of Iden by Baker

In the Garden of Iden (The Company, #1)In the Garden of Iden by Kage Baker

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

2.5 stars

My first exposure to Kage Baker's writing and to her Company series. In our future (about two centuries ahead of us), both time travel and immortality are discovered. As with most time travel scenarios in science fiction, history can't be rewritten, so said travel is of limited use to the plot and the science is foggy at best. Time travel then becomes a means to transport the reader to a different point in our past. Equally useless to the entrepreneurs of the 24th century is immortality, which can only be applied to very young children and requires extensive cybernetic enhancement.

The Company (aka Dr. Suess) still finds a way to make a buck, sending scientists back to the distant past, recruiting young children from the native population, installing immortality, and putting them to work by scavenging and salvaging priceless art, books, plants, etc. for re-discovery and re-sale (by the Company of course) in the 24th century.

Mendoza is an orphan from the Spanish Inquisition rescued and then recruited by the Company at the very edge of the Pit. After several years of operations and education, she receives her first field assignment, not in the New World (as she desired to be as far as possible away from 'the monkeys'), but in dreary damp England. While collecting rare specimens from the Garden of Iden, she falls in love with one of the manor's servants, a fiercely fanatical Protestant young man adrift in a resurgence of Catholicism courtesy of Queen Mary and Prince Phillip of Spain.

I enjoyed the historical aspects of the novel, especially England during the Counter-Reformation. Kage Baker did a good job of immersing me in both Spain and England. I still prefer Connie Willis' writing style as evidenced in The Doomsday Book and her other Oxford time travel novels and stories.

I'm not a fan of romance, especially teenage romance (and Mendoza is in her late teens while on this first assignment), so I struggled through about half of this book. I also missed some of the humor (or failed to register it as such) exhibited by her fellow agents and their reactions to the 'monkeys' (the cyborg agents' derogatory term for mere mortal men). The predictably tragic ending arrived to my great relief and the novel finally moved back to the original mission - preserving plants.

Perhaps I took the fear and loathing of the immortal agents towards human beings too much to heart. It concerned me that these agents of the Company felt such disdain and dread towards their former brothers and sisters. Commerce and computers seized the day, while the monkeys scampered about and threw bananas at each other. I got the distinct impression that the Company and civilization of the 24th century felt humans were irredeemably inclined to violence and destruction, in a constantly repeating cycle.

I read this novel as part of the Beyond Reality June 2011 book of the month selection for science fiction. To follow or join in the discussion, please stop by our site.

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Book Review: A Field Guide to the Stars and Planets by Paraschoff/Menzel

A Field Guide to the Stars and Planets (Peterson Field Guides)A Field Guide to the Stars and Planets by Jay M. Pasachoff

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I checked this dense compact field guide out from my local library in the hopes of using it in the field with my telescope. Due to its size and weight, I found it nearly useless to use in the dark with my red flashlight at my telescope. The atlases were too small, requiring my reading glasses, and the binding too stiff and tight to allow the field guide to be laid flat and free up a hand to adjust the telescope.

The information provided in the guide appears current as of a dozen years ago (circa 1998). I'll run through the table of contents with some observations below:

1. A First Look at the Sky - How to differentiate between a star and a planet. Includes a pair of sky maps showing the brightest stars with arrows showing the pathways that help observers find them.

2. A Tour of the Sky - Highlights of the seasonal skies for both hemispheres and a bit on solar observing.

3. The Monthly Sky Maps - Maps are drawn to minimize distortions in regions of the sky most studied, using 45 degrees altitude (halway up the sky to the zenith).

4. The Constellations - History and origins of the constellations and where they can be found in the night sky.

5. Stars, Nebulae and Galaxies - Descriptions of stars, star clusters, nebulae, galaxies (including our own) and quasars. Includes color photographs of the most familiar objects.

6. Double and Variable Stars - Includes graphs and charts.

7. Atlas of the Sky - Fifty-two charts, each accompanied by a half-page (three or four paragraphs) detailing the best tourist destinations for the observer (like a travelogue for your vacation to the stars). This was the main reason I checked out this field guide but, as I mentioned above, the binding prevented me from effectively using this guide while out on my star safari.

8. The Moon - I read this chapter several times and used the excellent maps of the moon during an extended observing period (over several days) in April 2011.

9. Finding the Planets - Tips and timetables for tracking the planets (mostly the easily observed planets like Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn).

10. Observing the Planets - A tour of all the planets (including the recently demoted Pluto), with lots of color photos.

11. Comets - Description, observing and photographing tips.

12. Asteroids - Only two pages long, includes a table of the brightest asteroids.

13. Meteors and Meteor Showers - Table of major meteor showers and how to observe them.

14. Observing the Sun - Concise breakdown of the sun's composition, but the majority of the chapter deals with solar eclipses and how to observe them.

15. Coordinates, Time and Calendars - Definitions of right ascension and declination and an analemma graph and photograph.

After reading this field guide, and being disappointed in its field usefulness, I decided upon the Sky & Telescope's Pocket Sky Atlas for use on my observing nights. While the Pocket Sky Atlas lacks the travelogue features of this Field Guide, it makes up for that in ease-of-use and weightlessness.

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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Gemmell Award Winner for Best Novel: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

I just realized I have not posted many book reviews penned prior to the inception of my WordPress blog (circa October 2010). After reading the recent announcement from Tor that Brandon Sanderson, one of my top ten favorite authors, had won the David Gemmell Legend Award for Best Novel, I felt the need to post my review, from August 2010, of the winning novel: The Way of Kings.

The Way of Kings (Stormlight Archive, #1)The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The initial installment of the Stormlight Archives epic fantasy series stormed through my early September. Filled with the whispering wind of world building, the clatter and clamour of conflicted and conniving characters, the fermenting furor and flustering foreshadowing all building to a thundering tumultuous tempest that is yet the calm before the impending Everstorm.

Sanderson built a world far removed from our own, a rocky seemingly barren continent repeatedly ravaged by highstorms that routinely pummel the landscape and settlements with boulders and anything else it can find to hurl westward (or leeward, as highstorms always originate from the east). Plant and animal life adapted to this harsh environment by developing tough skins (exoskeletons are the norm here) and defensive mechanisms (prehensile plants that retract into their shells when approached or threatened). Humans build in caves, crevasses or very sturdy stone buildings, always facing leeward, with slanting roofs and sides to channel the wind from the highstorms over and around the structures.

Stormlight forms the foundation for the magic systems introduced and ironically is renewed or originates from the highstorms. Gems, like diamonds, garnets, topazes and emeralds, are infused with stormlight if left outside during a highstorm. The currency of the monetary system includes tiny chips of gems imbedded in spheres of glass and double as lamps, torches and other light sources. For those lucky enough to be magic wielders, the spheres also provide a ready reserve of energy for Lashing or Soulcasting. Having previously read Sanderson's Mistborn series, I can't say I wasn't a little disappointed in the Lashing magic system, for it's similarity to Allomancy (at least from a physics point-of-view).

Through several characters, who just happen to be scholars, we learn some of the history, philosophy, mythology, anthropology and religion of Roshar. Vorinism is the dominant religion of the times, but we see glimpses of how different it may have been in the distant past, especially when most history is written by the conquerors or the last man standing. Prejudice and some persecution persist, based on people's eye color (current elite of society have light colored eyes, as opposed to the lowly darkeyes) and slavery is common, although slaves receive reduced wages in most cases. The most perplexing unanswered question stemmed from women covering their left hands (referred to as their safehands) for modesty's sake. Not being genitalia, I wasn't sure why a left hand (as opposed to a right hand) would evoke lust or some other unseemly immodest emotion in men. But, I'm not judging, just curious, as there are many examples from our own world of strange gender customs and modesty mores.

I related to and enjoyed many of the characters, especially Kaladin (heroic surgeon/spearman/slave/savior - this book focuses most on this character), Szeth (reluctant assassin), Dalinar (noble war leader tortured by visions during highstorms) and Wit (lives up to his name). Strangely, for the first time while reading a novel by Sanderson, I didn't connect well with the female characters: Josnah (a heretic and devoted researcher/scholar) and Shallan (Josnah's ward/student with a secret scarred past and a secret ulterior motive).

Sanderson excels at action sequences, vividly portraying amazing feats of magic, thrilling fight scenes and stunning battle sequences. At times, I forgot I was reading, becoming completely absorbed in what looked and felt like a spectacular cinematic experience. Hollywood screenwriters and directors could definitely learn something from Brandon Sanderson.

The ending left enough unanswered questions and new revelations to make me cringe at the two to three year wait for the second novel. I can't say I was 'happy' with some of the discoveries, especially Dalinar's final vision (actually a repeat of his first vision but our first glimpse of it). I would love to expound on this and rant a bit about the religious or philosophical repercussions, but I fear spoiling a key element and don't want to scare prospective readers away from a magnificent epic fantasy.

I appreciated Kalladin's struggles and triumphs, yet he has much to learn and finally has the resources and encouragement to achieve Life before Death, Strength before Weakness and the Journey before the Destination.

September 16th Addition: Brandon commissioned (and personally paid for) beautiful interior illustrations, color endplates of glyphs and maps, natural history sketchbook excerpts, various military maps all presented as character created to complement his excellent textual world building.

Here are some photos I took of the end plates from my first edition:

Click for larger image

Click for larger image

And finally, to top off the interior artwork, Michael Whelan created the stunning coverart (Click here for the artist's notes on creating the cover artwork).

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Monday, June 20, 2011

Book Review: Daughter of the Empire by Feist and Wurts

Daughter of the Empire (The Empire Trilogy, #1)Daughter of the Empire by Raymond E. Feist

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I could never see myself becoming a Mara, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading of her struggles and setbacks, her uncanny ability to turn even the most desperate tragedy into a resounding triumph. Daughter of Empire occurs on Kelewan, the home world of the Tsuranuanni, the flip-side of the coin that embodies the Riftwar Saga (as told mostly from Midkemia through Magician, Silverthorn and A Darkness at Sethanon).

Despite a near complete lack of traditional fantasy elements, this novel delivers an astonishing number of surprises, twists, intrigues and gambles. The rich world of Kelewan and the culture and heritage that is the Tsuranuanni Empire infuse all aspects of the reading experience. Mara's journey from virginal novitiate to one of the twenty gods of the Tsuranuanni to ruthless Ruling Lady of one of the oldest Houses in the Empire steeped us in her gut-wrenching grief, unflinching resolve through spousal abuse and sweet relief through each successful gambit in the Game of the Council.

I plan to continue reading the rest of the Empire Trilogy and highly recommend this first installment in that series.

For more discussions of Daughter of Empire, led by one of the authors, Janny Wurts, and including a Q&A thread with Raymond E. Feist, follow this link.

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Book Review: Elvenbane by North and Lackey

ElvenbaneElvenbane by Andre Norton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

2.5 stars

I listened to this novel while commuting in May 2011. I found few characters to relate to or care for. I rolled my eyes multiple times at the antics of the adolescents, chalking their behavior down to young adult fiction norms. However, when the adults behaved with even less maturity or even common sense than the youths in their care, I cringed and about gave up reading further. It became a chore to finish. Too much melodrama.

Shana seems to be the only one with any inkling of where her moral compass points and overflows with her need to pursue what she perceives as doing the right thing. Laudable, but not always the wisest course. She came across as a bit over the top.

I thought young adult fantasy would be similar to a fable, or a similar story type that teaches a moral or other shows an example of a character trait to strive after. Perhaps this subgenre has changed beyond recognition in the three (almost four) decades since I read similar stories.

Aasne Vigesaa read this Brilliance Audio production and did a fine job, only using a couple of strange pronunciations of words a couple of times (most notably 'ubiquitous' which only appeared once in the novel).

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Friday, June 3, 2011

Book Review: The Winds of Khalakovo by Beaulieu

The Winds of KhalakovoThe Winds of Khalakovo by Bradley P. Beaulieu

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Prince Nikandr Iaroslov, of the Duchy of Khalakovo, one of the mountainous islands of the Grand Duchy of Anuskaya, harbors many secrets. He contracted a fatal wasting disease, as has his sister Victania, for which he desperately seeks a cure. His lover, Rehada, is a native Aramahn, scorned as the 'Landless' by the 'Landed' citizens of the duchy. Rehada, in turn, harbors secrets of hate and revenge for the murder of her infant daughter by the Landed. Scorning her peaceful Aramahn heritage, she joins the splinter terrorist sect called the Maharraht, seeking to secretly strike back at the invaders The Aramahn work with the Landed, setting an example of peaceful coexistence, unconditional love and all-encompassing forgiveness, while the Maharraht strive for action, sabotage, subterfuge and lethal violence to rid the islands of the hated Landed.

Princess Atiana Radieva, of the Duchy of Vostroma, arrives with the rest of her family to seal the arranged marriage with Prince Nikandr, becoming the third and final side of this love/hate triangle. She and her two sisters grew up with Nikandr, teasing him and their brother, Borund, relentlessly and sometimes cruelly. Nikandr dreads leaving Rehada, has little hope of forging any emotional connection to Atiana, and fears what will happen should the Vostromans discover his disease. As with most arranged marriages among aristocracy, all is not romance and roses, political influence shifts hands, trade concessions secure Khalakovon natural resources for the Vostromans, all to strengthen these two Duchies as the islands are wracked by years of famine and blight. The starving peasants care little for the political posturing, seething with unrest and starting to riot over scant rations.

I could appreciate the new twist on a fantasy world, using Czarist Russia (and possibly the Cossacks in particular) as a basis for the ruling regime. I didn't quite grasp the connection from land-locked unforgiving Ukraine or Siberia with a naval-like empire of wind ships, which appeared to be (from the limited descriptions provided by the author) some sort of strange sailing monstrosity with masts on four sides (top, bottom, port and starboard). Landing, even on an eyrie perch, must have been a nightmare, and what happens in an emergency when you need to 'crash' land on the sea or land? Masts break and sails rip dramatically, but completely impractical and short-sighted.

The magic system as revealed through the actions of various bit players also did not lend itself to easy understanding. The Aramahn bond with elemental spirits through various semi-precious stones and the Matri (the Duchy matriarchs) manipulate the aether from the cold dark, forcing order upon the world's winds over the entropy of the natural and spiritual worlds. This, together with a thin skin of worldbuilding left me with nothing but the forward fast pace of the events unfolding to keep my attention. Not even the tragic ending could bring any emotion to the surface for Nikandr, Atiana or Rehada. The growth experienced by these characters failed to convince me to believe the actions they took. Even Rehada's confession to Atiana lacked conviction. Nikandr's professed love for the pivotal Nasim, even though Nikandr seemed willing to sacrifice himself for the boy, just didn't ring true. Much too much 'telling' and sparse 'showing' prevailed throughout the novel.

Kudos to Brad Beaulieu for providing me with a crash course in Slavic vocabulary, including words he crafted for this world that look and sound like their consonant-heavy guttural Eastern European counterparts.

I doubt I'll be following the further permutations of Nikandr, Atiana, Nasim or the Flying Cossacks. The pacing kept me wanting to read what happened next, but when I finished, I found I didn't care what had happened.

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Thursday, June 2, 2011

Book Review: A Darkness at Sethanon by Feist

A Darkness at Sethanon (The Riftwar Saga, #4)A Darkness at Sethanon by Raymond E. Feist

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The final installment to the Riftwar Saga series contained page-turning action and most of the answers to mysteries and questions posed from earlier in the series, including a surprise twist that posed ... more questions. While I enjoyed reading A Darkness at Sethanon, I felt the characters gained less growth this time around, being more reactive to the harsh circumstances thrown at them on their quest to stop Murandamus. The Pug, Tomas and Macros cameo chapters intrigued me the most, providing more background about themselves and the other elves, and more worldbuilding with glimpses of rift space and the end or beginning of the universe.

I enjoyed reading this series and feel it provides a good solid fantasy adventure story.

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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

First Third of My Summer Reads - June 2011

Just a few of my favorite things . . . thanks to participating in GoodReads groups and as a guest reviewer for

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by Scott Westerfeld 

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Anything else I tackle this month can be found on my current-month book shelf at GoodReads.