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Title: Memory
Author: Lois McMaster Bujold
Year: 1996

I hate being disappointed by good authors. After reading books such as The Vor Game and Mirror Dance I’ve come to expect that everything McMaster Bujold touches turns to, if not gold, at least silver; all books read so far have been good or very good. With enthusiasm, I throw myself into Memory, but instead of being pulled in by a marvellous story, I find myself in some sort of marshland and have to drag myself through the first half of the book. After that, I find some dry land underneath my feet, and story becomes more solid and the journey towards the end is even enjoyable. This does not remove all the mud from inside my boots, though.

Miles Vorkosigan has suffered defeats before, but none so humiliating as when he wakes up and realises that he’s had a seizure, and not only that, but also that he has accidentally maimed a man he was supposed to rescue. In fact, this foul up is so bad that he tries to hide it behind something even worse: A lie to his superior officer, the almost omniscient Illyan of Barrayar’s Imperial Security. After being dismissed, he only has a short breathing space before Illyan becomes seriously ill; sabotage cannot be ruled out. Miles is unexpectedly called into the fray to sort things out and find who is really behind this devious plot and for what purpose.

Summarising the story as I just did, the novel seems fairly interesting, but that is mostly because it’s a summary. About half the book is spent on something vaguely interesting setting the stage for the real plot. This is by far too long an introduction. Some authors can get away with this (see Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks), but in Memory, McMaster Bujold can’t. I feel that this books could have been reasonably good if it was edited properly, cutting down drastically on certain sections, expanding others. However, in its current state, there are too much unrelated or uninteresting passages to make this a good read.

So, why do I still give it three snails? Why not less? That would be strictly impossible, for although the rule of the author’s ability to turn things into precious metals has been broken, even the darkest parts of the marsh are sprinkled with specks of silver and gold. She knows what she’s doing and she does it well. Also, she knows her characters, and Miles himself never ceases to be interesting. This isn’t enough this time, but I’m sure Memory is an exception to a rule rather than something more ominous.

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Title: Mirror Dance
Author: Lois McMaster Bujold
Narrator: Grover Gardner
Year: 1994

After having resolved the chaotic appearaance of Miles Vorkosigan’s clone (called Mark) on Earth (as depicted in Brothers in Arms), Miles thinks that he can relax for a while, enjoying the company of his beloved Quinn. But while he takes it easy on the way back to the Dendarii mercenary fleet, his brother hastens to use his being Miles genetic mirror image to order parts of the fleet to destroy the cloning facilities he loathes so much, and to rescue the clones bred there for the gruesome purpose of providing bodies to aging power brokers.. However, the attempt is foiled and Miles has to rescue his brother, and is killed in the prcoess and Mark is left to fill the vacuum left by the Vorkosigan Lord.

This novel has one of those titles I love so much. Not only does it sound nice, but it is also a tool that can be used to describe the book. The Mirror Dance of Barrayar is a dance done with a partner, and they alternate copying each other’s movements as if watching oneself in a mirror. The novel is suffused with references to mirrors, and the relationship between Miles and Mark is the most pertinent one. Mark strives to find himself, to break away from being a mere reflection of his twin brother.

Although I think that this relationship is the main focus of the novel, it still possesses the same witty and quick-paced action seen in any book in the Vorkosigan saga, albeit somewhat subdued and not the main attraction this time. Even though the story development feels a bit slow in the middle of the novel, the overall impression is positive indeed.

As for the narration, there are, to my knowledge, two narrators who have produced several (if not most) novels by Lois McMaster Bujold, and Grover Gardner is the better of the two. He is not excessively good, but he is competent and very well suited to read these kinds of stories, especially the bits with much Miles in them.

To be honest, I have difficulties finding anything bad in this novel, excluding what I have already said about the middle sections of the storyline. Mirror Dance is a complex narration, yet straightforward, and manages to handle difficult and interesting themes without becoming too engrossed with them. I am inclined to say that it is the best book I have read by McMaster Bujold so far, with the possible exception of The Vor Game.

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Title: Brothers in Arms
Author: Lois McMaster Bujold
Narrator: Michael Hanson
Year: 1989

Brothers in Arms is the story about how Miles Vorkosigan (the main character in many of McMaster Bujold’s books) runs into trouble trying to be two persons at the same time, one the admiral of a freelancing fleet of mercenaries and the other a lord of Barrayar. To cover the potentially dangerous revelation of the fact that the two are one and the same person, he invents an explanation of the existence of a clone. The only problem is that the fabrication turns out to be true, and with a clone in the centre of a plot to overturn the government of Barrayar, the novel gathers momentum.

Having previously read three books by the author (The Vor Game, Barrayar and Paladin of Souls), I think Brothers in Arms is the weakest link in the chain so far. It is written before The Vor Game, but takes place after the events of that most impressive novel. The strength of the books about Miles is his character and the often ingenious plots, combined with fast-paced and witty action. Sadly, Brothers in Arms simply does not reach the same level as The Vor Game. Some of the brilliance glimpsed in the latter novel can still be sensed, but not at all in the same abundance.

I still think the novel is worthwhile, though, since the author is competent and is skilled enough to compose a thrilling story. However, in order for a thrilling story to be enough, it has to be almost perfect and that is not the case here. Striving to clear all Hugo Award winners, I will go on reading Mirror Dance, which is a sequel to Brothers in Arms and earned the 1995 award. Hopefully, there is a reason as to why the former received the Hugo, whereas the latter did not.

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Titel: Paladin of Souls
Författare: Lois McMaster Bujold
Utgivningsår: 2003
Recenserad: 2007-06-06
Status: N/A

Det här är tredje boken jag läser av Lois McMaster Bujold (efter The Vor Game och Barrayar) och jag fortsätter att bli imponerad över hur välskrivna och genomtänkta hennes böcker är. De kanske inte är de mest tankväckande och engagerande böcker jag läst, men berättelsen är alltid väl utformad, befolkad av trovärdiga och intressanta karaktärer samt skriven med ett språk jag gillar. Alla dessa egenskaper stämmer in på även Paladin of Souls, som till skillnad mot de andra två nog bör klassas som någorlunda traditionell fantasy.

Bokens handling kretsar kring änkan Ista, moder till rikets drottning, som ger sig ut på pilgrimsfärd för att slippa undan alla problem hemma. Ganska snart visar det sig dock att hennes mörka förflutna hinner ikapp och att nya faror hopar sig. Hennes pilgrimsfärd förvandlas till en kamp för överlevnad på en ganska stor skala. Tro, frälsning och relationen till gudar känns central för mig och höjer boken över de flesta andra i sin genre.

Avslutningsvis vill jag påpeka att fyra sniglar är exceptionellt bra för att vara så pass traditionell fantasy som det här är, för jag är verkligen allergisk mot den genren. För att sammanfatta är det alltså framförallt att boken är ett gott hantverk, kryddat med intressanta koncept och idéer som gör att den blir bra.

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Titel: Barrayar
Författare: Lois McMaster Bujold
Utgivningsår: 1991
Recenserad: 2006-12-20

Barrayar utspelar sig långt innan The Vor Game, men de hänger ändå ihop eftersom handlingen i båda böckerna är centrerad kring Miles Vorkosigan. I Barrayar medverkar han dock inte så mycket själv, eftersom han inte är född ännu. Istället är huvudpersonerna Cordelia och Aral, Miles föräldrar. Den gamle kejsaren har dött och Aral blir ställföreträdande härskare eftersom kejsarens arvinge bara är ett litet barn. Med denna nya post kommer mycket lidande och krig, både för dem personligen och för Barrayar i allmänhet.

Ett mordförsök på Aral och Cordelia skadar den lille Miles, som ännu bor i Cordelias mage och de tvingas använda främmande teknologi för att försöka få fostret att överleva. Samtidigt delas imperiet i ett inbördeskrig och de båda måste kämpa båda för att återta makten och sitt barn. Utöver detta finns en mängde trådar som handlar om relationerna karaktärerna emellan.

Bujolds främsta förtjänst är att hon skriver bra dialoger. Karaktärerna interagerar med varandra på ett övertygande sätt som dessutom ofta är rätt roligt när det kantas av kommentarer som huvudpersonen (Cordelia, oftast) tänker, men inte säger högt. Jag tycker tyvärr att berättelsen som helhet inte når upp till samma klass som The Vor Game. Barrayar är dock lite annorlunda i stilen och framförallt är den mycket seriösare. Jag ger den tre och en halv snigel.

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Titel: The Vor Game
Författare: Lois McMaster Bujold
Utgivningsår: 1990
Recenserad: 2006-11-30

Lois McMaster Bujold är för mig helt okänd sedan tidigare, vilket kan tyckas märkligt eftersom hon hunnit kamma hem hela fyra Hugo Award för bästa roman. I The Vor Game tar hon med oss på en fartfylld, genomtänkt och rolig resa. Det hela tar sin början när Miles Vorkosigan, son till imperiets främste befälhavare, stationeras på Kyril Island för att lära sig ett och annat om disciplin och det militära livet. Därifrån utvecklas historien raskt till ett spel på hög politisk nivå och med många förvecklingar och intressanta vändningar. Miles kastar sig huvudstupa in som en av de person kring vilken hela intrigen cirkulerar, frågan är om han är man nog för uppgiften.

Jag gillar den här boken starkt av två anledningar. För det första är den författad med ett språk jag verkligen gillar. Det blir aldrig långrandigt, samtidigt som det är träffsäkert och aldrig flackar eller känns svagt. Inte heller urartar det hela till en vild malström av hjärndöd action. Istället presenteras en intrig som i varje skede av boken (utom möjligen i början) fångar mitt intresse och får mig att vilja läsa vidare. För det andra är huvudpersonen en av de skönaste figurer jag mött på väldigt länge. Det är svårt att här beskriva honom med några få ord, men hans uppsluppna dryghet och skarpa sinne gör att boken blir väldigt underhållande; så pass att jag skrattade högt flera gånger.

Avslutningsvis måste jag erkänna att jag verkligen ser fram emot att läsa mer av författaren; hon har imponerat i denna första bok. Någon gång ska jag också ta mig tid att läsa någon fantasy hon skrivit, då jag känner på mig att det kan vara riktigt bra. Nu hoppas jag bara att The Vor Game inte var en tursam olycka utan att hennes övriga författarskap har lika mycket att ge!

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This year’s Hugo Award for best novel will soon be announced, so I thought I’d summarise my thoughts about the nominated novels. In case you’re not familiar with the Hugo Award, it’s one of two major science fiction and fantasy awards, awarded by the World Science Fiction Society (by popular vote at various conventions). You can read more about it here.

Below, I have written something about each of the five nominees and ordered them in the order I think they deserve to win, with the best novel first. We’ll know which novel actually won on August 20th, but if they deviate from my own opinion, they are of course wrong.

Update after the winner was revealed: I’m happy that N.K. Jemisin won the award. It was the only really good book on the list. Neal Stephenson’s would have been a contender if the last part had been transformed into a short epilogue, but the others don’t come close. The right book won!

N.K. Jemisin – The Fifth Season

N.K. Jemisin’s novel The Fight Season is nominated for a Hugo Award this year. I normally don’t read fantasy, but I thought this looked interesting and decided to have a go. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised and I found this book rather interesting.

The setting is a geologically very active super continent that undergoes cyclic cataclysms where life is about preparing for the next catastrophe. There is a mix of advanced technology from earlier, fallen civilisations and magic related to geological activity and heat.

The story is composed of three threads; three women experiencing a different part of the setting and a different stage of the approaching catastrophe. The narrative is well written, the characters believable and also quite interesting. The story itself is rather bleak and there’s plenty of oppression and tragedy involved, but not to excess.

I like a couple of things with this book. First, I like the concept of cyclical catastrophes that influences everything in the setting. Second, the story is well written using a device I have actually considered using myself at one point (spoiler: the three women are actually the same person at different times).

Do I think the book should win this year’s Hugo? I don’t know, yet, but it beats the only other nomination I’ve read so far, which is Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie. Also worth noting is that three of the five nominees this year are women.

Neal Stephenson – Seveneves

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson explores a scenario I’ve been interested in for a long time. The basic idea is that the entire surface of the Earth will turn into an inferno for several thousand years, wiping out all life. Humanity gets about two years to prepare for survival in orbit.

The first part of the book focuses on humanity’s collective attempt to launch as many people and as much resources as possible into orbit, turning the ISS into the centre of a “cloud ark” meant to be self-sustaining and able to survive without any support from Earth. This is of course problematic, not only from an engineering perspective, but also from a political and social one. This part is great! The second part covers the time after the catastrophe and is good too.

The third part of the book takes place thousands of years later and is really bad; I seriously wish I had stopped after the second part. It feels pretty much like taking a good hard science-fiction novel (the first part) and sticking a mediocre far-future soft science-fiction novel to the end. It doesn’t work at all. I care neither for the characters nor the story. The third part should have been an epilogue, which would have chopped a few hundred pages off the book. That would have been no bad thing considering that the book is 880 pages long.

My suggestion: Read the first two parts. Then, regardless if you liked it or not, do not read the third part. Here’s what happens (spoiler): They find out that there were other projects apart from the cloud ark, including one to burrow deep into the mountains and one to survive deep in the oceans. All three succeeded and the third part is an extremely roundabout and boring way of saying that.

Ann Leckie – Ancillary Mercy

I have now finished Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie. Overall, the books are competently written and worthwhile to read. The first book is significantly better than the following two, but far from awesome. To be honest, this feels much like Lois McMaster Bujold, just slightly worse and not as funny (there are some good parts though; I loved the translators). They might be fairly bad for non-initiated readers, so I only recommend the first book to people who already like reading space opera. For the rest of you, there are better books in this genre.

Jim Butcher – The Aeronaut’s Windlass

I’ve now finished The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher, which means that I have read all the nominees for this year’s Hugo Award for best novel. I’ll write something about my thoughts in general later; I’ll stick with this novel for now.

The Aeronaut’s Windlass is a strange hybrid of fantasy, steam punk and intelligent cats. While the world is not described in detail, it’s clear that the surface of the planet has been abandoned and that most people live in very tall towers, or spires, that were left behind by an earlier civilisation. As the title implies, airships of various kinds are central to both the plot and the setting.

It sort of works, but let’s start with the good things. The characters are interesting and mostly well-written. They are also varied and are reasonably well-connected to the story. I also like airships in general, although I like the magic aspect much less, especially on the personal level (they have gauntlets of some kind that can channel ethereal energy). The setting with an abandoned surface is also cool.

What doesn’t work is the narration. The entire book feels too much like an action TV-series with almost no time to breathe or build characters or setting. One climax has barely passed before the story rushes on to the next. Most chapters finish with cliffhangers that would have been more suitable in a periodical of some kind, but make for a very tiring experience in the long run. To put it bluntly, the pacing in this novel is awful. Furthermore, there’s nothing really ingenious or imaginative about the plot, and the novel probably fits into the category of things I could have written myself given enough time.

So, while I like steam punk, the setting and the characters, this is not a good novel. It would be great as a setting for table-top role-playing or similar though. I haven’t fully decided which book I think deserves this year’s Hugo, but I’m quite sure it’s not Jim Butecher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass.

Uprooted – Naomi Novik

I usually don’t read much fantasy, but this year I have decided to read all the nominations for the Hugo award for best novel, which includes both science fiction and fantasy. Uprooted by Naomi Novik definitely belongs to the second category.

The setting is small-scale fantasy heavily influenced by Slavic fairy tales. The main character grows up in a small valley where one girl every ten years is picked by the mysterious wizard living in an isolated nearby tower. She is picked because of her latent magical powers, and the rest of the story is about her finding out about these powers, the wizard, his tower and how they fight the dark forest threatening the country.

The book is interesting because of the somewhat unusual influences from Slavic fairy tales mentioned above, plus the setting itself. However, it’s also an example of why I don’t really like reading certain kinds of fantasy. Way too many pages are spent on describing magical battles or adventures that would work well in a film (which I think is planned), but don’t add much to a book. The book is fairly long, but the story would be very easy to summarise because so much time is spent on just describing what happens.

While I think the book was worthwhile, it’s far from the best of the nominees I’ve read so far. I only have one left now, which is The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher. I’ll try to summarise all the nominees once I have read the last one!

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I haven’t updated this site in a while, which is a pity, especially since I actually write things I could post here. To remedy this problem, here’s a round-up of all the novels I read up to this summer, excluding any novels that were nominated for the Hugo award since I’m going to write a separate post about that shortly. Without further ado, here’s what I’ve read recently (in chronological order):

Ann Leckie – Ancillary Sword
Ann Leckie – Ancillary Justice
Ann Leckie – Ancillary Mercy

I have now finished Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie. Overall, the books are competently written and worthwhile to read. The first book is significantly better than the following two, but far from awesome. To be honest, this feels much like Lois McMaster Bujold, just slightly worse and not as funny (there are some good parts though; I loved the translators). They might be fairly bad for non-initiated readers, so I only recommend the first book to people who already like reading space opera. For the rest of you, there are better books in this genre.

Mira Grant – Feed

I’ve now finished Feed by Mira Grant. It’s a well-written and fast-paced book about political intriguing in a zombie-ridden future version of the US, as observed by a team of bloggers covering the presidential race. I don’t really like zombies and I could get better intrigues elsewhere, so this isn’t my cup of tea, but if you do like zombies, this might be a good read. All three books in this series were nominated for Hugo awards, but none (rightfully in my opinion) won. I Am Legend remains the only zombie book I really like (or vampire book, or whatever).

Katherine Addison – The Goblin Emperor

I have now finished The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. It was a long time a go I read a “normal” fantasy novel (China Miéville doesn’t count as normal) and I sort of know why. Even though the book is fairly well written and carefully thought out, it simply didn’t appeal to me all that much. I do appreciate the fact that this is one novel, though, not a series, which is, sadly, rare nowadays.

The setting was well-depicted but not terribly interesting. The only thing that made the novel worthwhile was the fact that it was well executed. The characters were also rather good (as in realistic and interesting), except for the main character which was a little bit too good (as in not evil). I found the names almost impossible to keep up with, though, and the book just has too much made up language (including formality levels which don’t exist in English, but that were sort of covered by using old English pronouns).

So, overall, well-written, but not my cup of tea.

Kim Stanley Robinson – 2312

Some thoughts after reading 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson:

In general, I admire the author’s ability to mix science and fiction into novels that are surprisingly interesting to read. The Mars trilogy is a good example of this. I also think he’s pretty good at creating interesting characters and stories about them, as for example in The Years of Rice and Salt.

Therefore, I’m a bit disappointed with 2312. It contains a lot of science and a lot of fiction, but they feel disconnected. While interesting on their own, this feels more like a half-hearted novel interspersed with small speculative science essays. Even though the book is almost 600 pages long, it still feels like I didn’t get to know either the characters or the setting. The story feels much like an excuse to introduce the setting and is in itself rather boring.

I should perhaps say a few words about the book. The story takes place in 2312 as the title suggests, in a world where most of our solar system has terraformed or is in the process of being so. The plot focuses on a conspiracy that threatens mankind’s fragile existence outside Earth, and the efforts to reveal and thwart the conspirators. This sounds reasonably interesting, but the novel feels disconnected and therefore not very interesting.

Ian McDonald – River of Gods

I have now finished River of Gods by Ian McDonald. In short, it’s a science-fiction novel set in India one century after its independence from Great Britain. The story combines elements of a futuristic society (AI, nano technology, genetic engineering) with traditional Indian themes. The character gallery is diverse and interesting. The story appears fragmentary at first, but is tied together rather neatly. I liked this book a lot and I’m definitely going to read more by Ian McDonald. He’s very good at both describing society and the people living in it, not seldom making it both fun and interesting. If I were to liken him to other authors, I would choose William Gibson, Neal Stephenson and John Brunner.

Ian McDonald – Desolation Road

I decided to start reading Ian McDonald’s novels from the beginning, which means Desolation Road (1989). This is after being rather impressed by both River of Gods and Luna: New Moon (scroll down for my earlier ramblings). The novel starts with a certain Dr. Alimantando, student of the intricacies of time and space, who gets lost in the red deserts of terraformed Mars and founds a new settlement: Desolation Road.

Strange people get drawn to, arrive in or escape to or otherwise arrive in the settlement. The narrative quickly spirals out of control, including side stories about the world’s best snooker player, a guitarist capable of channelling demonic forces through his electric guitar, a corporate worker slowly advancing through the ranks of his company by replacing everyone under him with robots, a little green man who may or may not be real, and, for some reason, Glenn Miller. It all tied together in the end, somehow, so it’s not really a short story collection, but could have been.

This is magic realism on Mars, probably with a seasoning of some hallucinogenic drug. On the whole, it’s very entertaining, quite chaotic and a bit too long. Desolation Road didn’t feel similar to either River of Gods or Luna: New Moon. It’s not the best book I’ve read, but it was entertaining throughout. Next on the list: Out on Blue Six.

Ian McDonald – Out on Blue Six

More Ian McDonald! Out on Blue Six is the weirdest book I’ve read in a while and reading it felt a little bit like reading Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. It has the same I-have-no-idea-what-the-hell-is-going-on-but-I-sort-of-like-it feeling.

The story is set in a distant future in the Compassionate Society, where computers force everybody to be happy by pairing them up with the right partner, shepherding them into the right career (one that makes you happy, that is) and so on. It’s just that not everybody is happy. Some people want a little bit of anarchy, some people want to break the rules. This is what the story is about, or at least where it starts. Then down the rabbit hole it goes and it’s extremely hard to summarise what happens next, but it contains the King of Nebraska, angels, a teleporting woman with a cybernetic cat, judgement day (literally) and lots of raccoons.

Unfortunately, the book suffers from the same problem as Gravity’s Rainbow does: I don’t really care about what happens, neither with the main characters nor with the plot. Since Pynchon’s language is extremely entertaining to read, I still liked Gravity’s Rainbow, but while this book is entertaining, it fails to be anything more than that. I have a feeling that I won’t remember anything about this book five years from now, whereas many parts of Gravity’s Rainbow are still with me, even though it was seven years ago I read it.

Ian McDonald – Chaga

I’ve now finished Chaga by Ian McDonald (Evolution’s Shore in the US). After having read a couple of his earlier, rather bizarre novels, this one is much more serious and feels comparable to the later novels that I liked a lot.

This novel is the first in a trilogy focusing on Kenya and the impact on the country and its people when alien life starts spreading from a crash site on Kilimanjaro.

In short, the novel is fairly interesting and rather brutal, but not as sophisticated as his later novels. One thing I didn’t like in particular was that the book almost felt like it could have ended after about two thirds, and the remaining third didn’t feel interesting enough.

While I don’t regret that I read the novel, it’s still not as good as either the later novels written in a similar style, also about emerging economies (India, Brazil, the Moon) or the earlier, more freaked out ones. I will probably not read the remaining two books in the trilogy. I am, however, looking forward to the sequel of Luna: New Moon, which is projected for a release later this year.

Charles Stross – Neptune’s Brood

I’m done with Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross, having previously read Saturn’s Children (which is completely unrelated story-wise, but takes place in the same universe). Neptune’s Brood is actually far better than the previous one, so I recommend anyone interested in Charles Stross to read this one instead.

The story is complex and revolves around an interstellar banking fraud of epic proportions. The main character is drawn into the intrigue, first mostly as a scholar of interstellar banking frauds, but as the plot thickens, she turns out to have a much more involved role than that of a random bystander. The novel contains a few really entertaining characters, is generally well-written and overall a better story than Saturn’s Children.

The setting is post-human space where androids and other life-forms have supplanted mankind, but where things still work much the way they would if humans were still around, except on a bigger scale. While interesting, the setting is not the main attraction here, the characters, the storytelling and the plot are. The novel was shortlisted for the Hugo Award in 2014.

James S.A. Corey – Leviathan’s Wake

I just finished James S.A. Corey’s book Leviathan Wakes, a novel that felt very interesting while immersed in it, but which does appear a bit bleak in retrospect. I think this might be at least partly because the book has some appealing points, such as great characters and dialogue, but lack something that makes it interesting in the long-term.

I don’t feel like summarizing the plot, but we’re talking about fairly realistic and sometimes brutal interplanetary science fiction with lots of space ships and stations. The book is character-focused and with interesting characters in general, this makes it a good read. However, I don’t feel it’s good enough to continue reading the series (this is the first book in a series called The Expanse).

James S.A. Corey – Abaddon’s Gate
James S.A. Corey – Caliban’s War

Against better judgement (see my previous review), I have now read two more books in The Expanse series, which brings me to a total of three. I decided to keep reading after I watched the TV series, which was better than expected.

However, I must say my initial judgement was accurate. While there are entertaining characters and sometimes interesting plot elements and a well-written setting, the overall story lacks something. I’m still not sure what it is, but the overall story just feels unsatisfactory to me. I probably need to think about this, but it seems the plot is too superficial and works mostly like an action movie.

I would give the latter two books perhaps 3/5, so they might still be worth reading if you really liked the first book. If you found the first book fairly good but not excellent, then that’s probably enough. Do watch the TV series though! Looking forward to season two. But I’ve read enough in this series. Any suggestions for what to read next? More Charles Stross is high on my list.

Charles Stross – The Family Trade

After having read two books by Charles Stross (Saturn’s Children and Neptune’s Brood; I highly recommend the latter), he has established himself as a very intelligent author capable of writing intriguing stories populated by interesting characters. I selected The Family Trade as my third book more or less randomly, which might have been a mistake.

The book is parallel-worlds fantasy (modern US with some kind of medieval alternate history were the Vikings has colonised America). While he does some interesting things with the “world walking” itself, as well as some interesting things with the settings, I’m not impressed at all. As is the case in Neptune’s Brood, economics plays a certain role, but ignoring that and some of the violence, this novel feels like something Stross would have written when he was 20 (he was 40 when the book was published). It’s also the first book in a long series and there’s very little chance I will continue with it. Definitely not my cup of tea!

Charles Stross – Accelerando

Accelerando by Charles Stross is one of those books that it’s really hard to wrap your head around to write a review. It’s a chaotic collection of short stories that are sometimes hard to follow but great at least some of the time. They describe the transition from a modern society (or a parallel version of it at least) to a post-human technological singularity through the eyes of three generations (before, during and after the singularity).

After the first few pages, my expectations for the rest of the book sky-rocketed, but I must say that the rest didn’t really impress as much. While some concepts and the language never become boring, the book simply isn’t coherent enough to work well as a whole.

One criteria I think is interesting to evaluate when reviewing books is if, in theory, I could have written the book myself. Accelerando places itself very firmly in the “no way what so ever” category, much more so that most other science fiction I read. It’s not only the way Stross writes (which is probably the main reason for reading the book), but the audacity and scope of the imagination on display here.

If you’ve read this far and think this sounds cool, you should give this book a try. I expect people who won’t like the book stopped reading after the first paragraph, so no reason to tell them to avoid it.

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Some of you might have noticed that over the past weeks, tags have been added to the posts on this website. I’ve done this gradually and over quite some time, so even though I’ve used more than one thousand different tags, it really wasn’t that tedious to do (besides, most of the tags are simply paste/cut from the post content). Doing this, I listened to audio books at the same time (No Country for Old Men and Use of Weapons), so even though I think it should be mostly correct, I’d be grateful if you report any inconsistencies you might find. Suggestions for how to improve tagging are also welcome.

I view tags as a freer form of categories, further specifying and categorising the post. Previously, I’ve been forced to use the search function to group things together. For instance, if I wanted to link to my reviews of Stephen R. Donaldson‘s Gap Cycle, I had to make a link to a search query, which would return any results containing the words “Gap Cycle”, thus returning a lot of posts (such as this one) which mentions the Gap Cycle, but contains no information about it whatsoever. Now, I can link to a tag called the Gap Cycle, and, voila, the five reviews are displayed properly. This is of course just an example, there are lots of other advantages, such as making it easier for the visitor to find similar or related posts.

Going through old posts, I also noticed that pingbacks were disabled for a large majorit of the site’s content (I’ve no idea why), so enabling them lead to a huge increase in comments (pingbacks count as comments). This means that the recent comments is cluttered for now, but that should be back to normal as soon as people comment on new articles. The idea is of course that pingbacks should be updated when they appear, not one thousand at a time.

The tags can be used in two ways. First, in the Archive, they are displayed as a cloud containing the 50 most popular tags, and as an alphabetical list containing all tags (1069 at present). Second, in the footer of each post, the dags attached to that post is listed, making it easy to find other posts using the same tag. For instance, in order to view other posts like this one, find and click the tag “Site related” below. Third, I hope that there will some day be a powerful search function in WordPress, which would allos the visitor to combine various categories and tags, this enabling a display of, say, all Reviews, In English of Hugo-award winning novels written by Lois McMaster Bujold. Alas, that is yet in the future, but tags are here now and they are here to stay.

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Title: Consider Phlebas
Author: Iain M. Banks
Narrator: Thomas Harte
Year: 1987

Reading the works of an author in reverse chronological order sometimes has a certain merit. For instance, I think it’s safe to say that, as time goes by, the average writer learns from his or her mistakes and develops into a more skilled craftsman. Of course, the author might also change style or develop in ways not at all interesting to a given reader, but that at least is certainly not the case with Iain Banks. On the contrary, I feel lucky to have started with fairly late books such as Look to Windward, because if I would have started with Consider Phlebas, the likelihood is that I would never have learnt that Iain M. Banks at his best is a truly brilliant author.

Consider Phlebas tells the story of the of the mercenery Horza, currently employed by the Idirians, who is at war with the Culture (which of course is the focus of many of the author’s later novels). His mission is to find and destroy a Culture Mind (i.e. the artificial intelligence that once resided in a Culture ship). The problem is that it has hidden itself on Schar’s World, which is inaccesible to both the Culture and the Idirians. On his way, he joins up with the crew of a mercenery craft and manages to use them to achieve his own goals. Of course, the Culture also has an agent sent out to stop him.

Compared to other novels, this setup doesn’t sound like much. It isn’t. But before I go into why I don’t like Consider Phlebas, I’ll try to explain that even though this is fairly mediocre space opera, Banks still manages to add his own touch. Throughout the novel can be glimpsed what only comes in later books: intriguing plots, entertaining character portraits and, most important of all, a display of a vivid and out-of-the-box imagination.

However, these are merely glimpses of the brilliance of other Culture novels, and not enough to illuminate the rest. The biggest problem is that Banks isn’t very good at space opera (compare with Lois McMaster Bujold, for instance) and that makes the mission of turning the story of Consider Phlebas interesting almost impossible. This feels like a first try where the author hasn’t yet found his style, but on the other hand, The Player of Games was published the year after, even though I don’t know how publication dates relate to actual writing here (not to mention The Wasp Factory, which was published before Consider Phlebas, but shouldn’t be counted because it’s very distant from space opera).

To end on a slightly more positive note, the author absolutely finds his style later and even though I didn’t enjoy this book, I look forward to reading any other of his novels. He is also fairly active (Matter was published last year, and the reason I don’t think it’s brilliant might be because I compare it to greater works). To sum things up, Iain Banks is a great author, but in 1987 he hadn’t yet developed his talent enough to make Consider Phlebas worthwhile.

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