Tuesday, 27 December 2011

The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer

This phenomenal book is the most powerful war story I have ever read. Sajer (real name Mouminoux) born in Alsace of mixed French / German parentage was drafted into the Wermacht at the age of 16 and sent off to fight in the gruelling battles of the Russian front as a member of the elite Gross Deutchsland division. Sajer had the misfortune to be on the wrong side at the wrong time (he joins up shortly before the catastrophic German loss at of Stalingrad). Most of the book recounts the dreadful ordeal of a German army in retreat. There may be difficulty for the modern reader because it is clear that Sajer and his comrades were proud of the efficiency and bravery of the German forces. The book does not dally with politics but it is clear that they looked up to Hitler, believed in the Third Reich and believed in what they were doing. They saw themselves as defending civilisation against the savagery of the Russian hordes and even hoped that the Americans and British would come to support their cause.

At its heart though this is a book about an ordinary foot soldier caught up in the bloodiest battles of the largest conflict in history. It is a story of courage and pride as well as brutality and despair.

Although I had never heard of it before discovering my copy in a second hand bookshop I have since discovered that Sajer's book has proven both highly influential and highly controversial since it's publication in French in 1965. On the one hand armies recommend the book to recruits as an accurate portrayal of a soldiers life in battle. On the other hand some historian's have pointed to historical errors in the text. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that it is entirely a work of fiction. Sajer himself admitted the errors and staunchly defended the book as an description of his wartime experiences as best he could remember them. You can read a brief summary of the controversy on wikipedia and a more detailed list of arguments for and against here: http://members.shaw.ca/grossdeutschland/sajer.htm. Certainly the book is well enough written, even in translation,  that it could stand as a novel. On balance, however particularly given the support of fellow veteran's of the Gross Deutchsland division I think we can accept the book as a true reflection of Sajer's experiences even allowing for some mistakes in the details.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

Asimov's foundation trilogy is universally hailed as a classic of science fiction so it is easy to forget that the original stories were written in the 1940's approximately equidistant between the times of Jules Verne and the present day.

The basic setting is a far future period in the wake of the collapse of a pan galactic empire. A farseeing psychologist predicts that humanity will descend into a 30 millennium dark age unless something is done so he establishes a foundation(or two) in a far flung star system in order to ensure that civilisation is restored in just one millennium.

Unsurprisingly the science in this trilogy seems amusingly quaint to a modern reader with space faring societies still relying on coal and oil while the mysterious "atomic power" represents the elusive pinnacle of scientific achievement. The pinnacle of physical science that is because psychology has transformed from the crude understandings we know today into a precise quantitative science capable of precisely predicting the behaviour of large groups of humans thousands of years into the future.

Regardless of the comical science the good news is that the stories are well written and still held my attention to the end. I found myself eagerly following the exploits of Asimov's characters although I will admit that I found the smugness of the psychologists annoying by the end of the sequence.

This trilogy only covers half of the Foundation's millennium and Asimov didn't get to write a follow up until the 1980s. It will be interesting to see how he integrated the discoveries of the intervening 30 years.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell

Cornwell has a knack of finding interesting periods of military history as a setting for his novels and Azincourt (Agincourt to you and me) is another winner. Its the middle of the long struggle between the Plantagenets and the Valois for the throne of France that came to be known as the hundred years war. This fascinating period marks the end of the age of chivalry. New tactics and new weapons meant that heavily armoured nobility on horseback were no longer invincible gods of the battlefield. At the time of Agincourt the Plantagenets of England seem to grasp the new realities more quickly than their Valois adversaries and in a number of critical battles the nobility of France were decimated by foolhardy charges against disciplined armies of massed archers.

As well as the battle of Agincourt itself Cornwell also describes the   siege of Harcourt which proceeded it.The tale of how a few hundred determined defenders held off King Henry's thousands is fascinating in itself.

There is a story tying it all together of course involving a young English archer who joins the army to get away from a death sentence at home. Needless to say his trouble follows him and he must contend with mortal enemies form home while trying to fight off the French.

Friday, 21 October 2011

The Map of Time by Felix J Palma

Wonderful historical romance (in the broad sense) with a time travel twist. H.G.Wells is the central character who links three tales of time travel. To my mind the first two tales are better than the last but all are imbued with a wonderfully Victorian sense of adventure. In the year 2000 for example we have a dashing British officer battling metal clad automatons with a cavalry sabre.

The extremely high quality of the english translation (by Nick Caistor) is also noteworthy. The writing is vivid and captivating. At no stage did it feel like I was reading a translation.


Thursday, 20 October 2011

Flood by Stephen Baxter

Forget the 10m rise in sea levels predicted by proponents of global warming. What if the waters kept rising until every piece of land on the planet was submerged. Baxter's terrifying novel postulates vast sub surface aquifers busting through and flooding the planet's surface over a few short decades.

The back story to this novel relates the experience of a group of former hostages who somehow live long enough to experience all the stages of this extinction level event. The real story though is Baxter's description of the collapse of humanity in the face of overwhelming natural forces. I found it genuinely scary and it brought home to me how precariously balanced out existence really is.  At first I was disappointed in the portrayal of the surviving members of humanity fighting over ever diminishing scraps of land rather than investing serious efforts into a transition to a water bound world but to be honest this is probably a correct prediction of our response.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Rebel by Bernard Cornwell

Start of a series and a great tale in its own right set during the US civil war. I actually found it hard to warm to Cornwell's main protagonist, a feckless Northerner who somehow ends up fighting for the South. Nevertheless the civil war setting is so beguiling and so well painted that this matters not. Most of the book is actually set in the very early days of the war with civillians North and South working themselves up into patriotic fervor. Their naivity is exquisitely portrayed by Cornwell and the reader winces again and again at their foolishness.

The railway had revolutionised logistics and troop movements. The industrial revolution had revolutionised supply and armament. Technological advances had brought the murdering power of artillery to a new pinnacle and the miniƩ bullet had finally made the rifle a practical infantry weapon rendering both the heroic infantry charge and battlefield cavalry effectively obsolete. Neither the generals nor the populace had yet grasped these new realities but all delusions are harshly swept aside in the climax of the novel at the first battle of Manassas (Bull Run) where the hard reality of modern warfare is brought bloodily home to all protagonists.

Armageddon by Max Hastings

Hasting's excellent portrayal of the fall of Hitler's Germany makes for compulsive reading. The sheer scale of the warfare has never been equaled.

While Hastings endeavours to give a flavour for what it was like for the men women and children caught up in the maelstrom of war he also has plenty to say about the conduct of the politicians, the generals and the armies they commanded. Those addicted to glorious portrayals of the allied landings on Normandy's beaches might be upset at Hasting's dismissal of the Western allies poor soldiering later in the campaign. Nevertheless the lacklustre performance of the American and British armies compared to the Nazis they faced and compared to the unstoppable Red army in the East is widely enough acknowledged to remove the taint of controversy from Hastings work.

It must be said that while he may praise their soldiering Hasting's pulls no punches in highlighting the depravity and brutality of both the Nazis and Stalin's forces. Indeed one of his central themes is that it is the very brutality of their regimes that made them so good at warfare. This brutality allowed Stalin's generals to make bold thrusts heedless of the enormous cost in human life, that inspired German teenagers to fight to the death in the ruins of their cities.

The fact that depraved men make better soldiers is somewhat depressing and suggests that Tyrants will always prosper but some hope can be gained from the fact that the miracles of production in American factories were at least as important as the blood sacrifices of the Red armies in overcoming the evil of Hitler's regime.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Terrific first novel set in a grim future world after the contraction which follows the end of the oil fueled expansion. Not only is this world forced to rely on pre-industrial energy sources it had also been driven to the brink of starvation by genetic experimentation gone wrong. Most of the world relies on US controlled genetically modified produce for survival but the kingdom of Thailand has managed to remain independent with it's own seed bank. There is a host of other good stuff in here and the book is strongly recommended.

I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett.

The continuing adventures of teenage super witch Tiffany Amber sees her pitted against the malevolent spirit of a witchfinder. Not to my mind vintage Pratchett but an enjoyable read none the less.

Silesian Station by David Downing.

The continuing adventures of a British/American reporter trying to survive in Nazi Germany in 1939. As war approaches out hero has swapped his British passport for a US one in order to remain with his German son and girlfriend a little longer. Again he is forced to play one side off against the other in order to survive but he can no longer ignore Nazi evil and takes increasing risks to work against them. I am really enjoying this series.While the hero John Russell's spy story escapades are as implausible as they are entertaining  Downing's portrayal of Nazi Germany is utterly believable and utterly horrifying.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

In the aftermath of a terrorist atrocity in San Francisco a teenage hacker gets caught up in the inevitable security backlash. It's a case of the cure being worse than the disease as the fear of terrorism is used to justify brutality and totalitarian surveillance by the department of homeland security.

This young adult novel is a great adventure story but it is also the most political Doctorow novel I have read yet. This is a novel about post 911 America and it sails close enough to the truth to be genuinely scary. Of course the fact that the last book I read was set in Nazi Germany didn't help.

To be honest,I am not fully convinced by Doctorow's political beliefs but he is always worth reading. A word of warning though. Doctorow's depictions of teenage gamer culture are surprisingly inept given it's prevalence in his young adult fiction. He gets the basics right but genuine gamers will find his use of leet speak and his mangling of manga themes cringeworthy.

Zoo Station by David Downing

John Russell is a reluctant spy but as an English reporter living in Nazi Germany in 1939 he finds that the British, the Russians and the Germans all want his services. Can he maintain his personal integrity as he is forced to trade one side against another just to survive? Brilliant spy story set against the back drop of a country that is descending into evil madness.

Friday, 29 July 2011

American God's by Neil Gaiman

This is probably Gaiman's best known work. This multi layered tale of ancient Gods struggling to maintain an existence in modern day America has spawned a "spot that mythology" mini-game among its many fans. It is certainly a well researched tale and I enjoyed it a lot more than the only other Gaiman book I have read: "Neverwhere".

Both of the Gaiman books I have read remind me of Terry Pratchett in some way although their styles are quite different. To my mind Pratchett's work seems to flow more easily and is probably the better for it but Gaiman's work, although more laboured has definite depth. It is interesting to note that Pratchett and Gaiman are firm friends in any case.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, Sword Song by Bernard Cornwell, and Brethren by Robin Young

I stumbled across a book review post from 2008 on my other blog that I am reposting here for completeness: 

Monday, May 19, 2008

Several hours on plane during the last week afforded me some time to read three books by three authors I do not normally read.

First off "Neverwhere" by Neil Gaiman.

I can't shake the notion that I have read Gaiman before but I cannot remember what or when. In any case "Neverwhere" (author's preferred text adapted from radio screenplay) is an enjoyable enough yarn. It paints a picture of a seedy under city of London, home to those who have "fallen through the cracks". London Below reminds me vaguely of Mieville's New Crobuzon but Gaiman's novel is far more lightweight than the Perdido street sequence. Gaiman's lighthearted take on fantasy might best be compared to the work of Terry Pratchett or Douglass Adams but Gaiman's writing does not reach the same heights of side splitting humour or piercing satire as either Pratchett or Adams. Enjoyable but far from classic stuff.

Next up is "Sword Song" by Bernard Cornwell.

Ireland is one of those countries that has bad memories of British redcoats and that has probably dissuaded me from reading more of Cornwell's better known series of novels about a redcoat named "Sharpe". Nevertheless I will admit to having enjoyed the couple of Sharpe novels I did read so it was a relief to come across a Cornwell novel about an altogether less contentious period of history. Sword song is set in 9th century Britain when the country is divided between Saxon and Dane. The hero was born Saxon but raised by the Danes a device which provides plenty of opportunities for angst as our hero works with King Alfred to strengthen the Saxon position. "Sword Song" is a very enjoyable historical novel with ample sword and axe wielding and a generous helping of viking longboat thrown in for good measure. My one complaint is that Cornwell tries too hard to create conflict for the hero. It was the same in the Sharpe novels that I recall. You just know that the hero will do all the hard work to resolve the plot drama but will receive none of the rewards.

Finally "Brethren" by Robyn Young.

This novel charts the twin careers of an initiate into the Knights Templar and a Saracen Sultan at the time of the crusades. It is a terrific setting for a historical novel and so far I am enjoying it. I am slightly concerned about a secret society with accompanying secret text that has cropped up. With any luck this won't interfere with the serious business of besieging castles but ever since forcing myself to read the ludicrously inept "Da Vinci Code" I recoil in horror at the mention of secret societies.

Friday, 8 July 2011

The Evolutionary Void by Peter Hamilton

This is the concluding volume of the Void Trilogy and as you might expect from Hamilton is is superior quality Sci Fi. The Pilgramage of the living dream fleet to the void seems unstoppable and it turns out that the accelrator faction have their own plans for the pilgrimage. Everyone else thinks that the interferences with the void will cause the death of the Galaxy but can anyone stop them?

The Fantasy alternate storyline set in the void which was such a novelty in the first two books get comparatively little attention here other than that which is required for the resolution of the "main" sci fi plot. Nevertheless Hamilton does a masterful job of pulling all the many strands together into a tidy conclusion.

My one concern about this trilogy is that I could really have used a wiki or at very least a list of characters to guide me through the complex overlapping strands. Remember this story is set in the future universe of Hamilton's previous Starflyer saga and many threads carry over so there is a lot to remember. Sadly I couldn't find any comprehensive reference on the net and that did hinder my progress slightly.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

In Her Name: Empire by Michael Hicks

The first book of Michael Hicks Fantasy/Space Opera Hybrid is a free download for anyone who registers on his website. While you might have initial reservations about a self published work this one is actually pretty good. Humanity are fighting a war for survival against an ancient race of blue skinned humanoids who live only to fight for the honour and glory of their empress. A young human boy is captured by these Kreelans and brought back to their home planet to determine whether or not he has a soul. Over time the boy learns the many of the Kreelan's mysteries and even comes to respect their martial code of honour but will he ultimately betray his humanity? 

Aside: Self Publishing is very much in the news this week with the news that J. K. Rowling is planning to self publish and distribute her own ebooks from her website. Of course Hicks' motivations and Rowling's motivations are entirely different. Hicks self publishes because he couldn't get a publisher. Rowling will self publish because she doesn't need a publisher. Nevertheless these two authors taken from the two extremes of the book market indicate just how much ebooks can challenge traditional publishing models.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Surface Detail by Ian M Banks

With virtual realities offering a form of immortality to the races of the galaxy some groups are not satisfied with ever lasting paradise for all. They have created virtual hells in order to keep people on the straight and narrow for fear of eternal punishment. Their neighbours are so upset by this cruelty that war has broken out. The Culture gets involved in its own bumbling way with the help of an escaped slave girl.

Another great read set in Banks' Culture universe.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

The Name of The Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

This book has gotten more gushingly positive reviews than any fantasy novel in recent memory and yet it took four years for Rothfuss to break through to the wider public conciousness. Perhaps that is just the time lag between the USA and Europe. Perhaps it is that grown up fantasy was very much hidden behind all those teen vampire novels when it was released back in 2007. Whatever the reason for the delay Rothfuss is here in a big way now and he is getting top billing from book stores to coincide with the release of the follow up novel.

I really don't need to add much to all of those glowing reviews. It is very well written. It does break new ground with its use of parallel timelines, its mocking of so many genre conventions and its strong characterisation. It is a nuanced book that would probably reward re-reading with new insights and understandings.

That said, I don't particularly like the main character Kvothe - the gifted scholar,  renowned hero, arcane magic wielder and Kingslayer who has retired to a quiet life as an unknown innkeeper in a  far away town. Given that the whole point of the series is the story of Kvothes life as recounted by himself over a three day period this is a bit of a problem for me.

Ah well. I'll read the books none the less. Perhaps he will reveal a more sympathetic side in the follow up episodes.

Monday, 30 May 2011

The Edge of The World by Kevin J. Anderson

This is the opening volume of a new fantasy series by the author of the excellent Seven Suns saga. We have a world split North and South between two blocs  each claiming to hold the only true faith. The war between them is based on a misunderstanding but that is irrelevant now as atrocity leads to atrocity. To Anderson's credit he doesn't paint the sides in black and white although I am pretty sure we are supposed to empathise with the more "European" bloc. The King of this Northern region has a spiritual goal to send an expedition westward to the edge of the world where monsters and maybe even Gods live but the squabbles of the ongoing war interfere.

Being the first book of a new series it spends more time on character development than on plot but the stage is set for some interesting adventures ahead. I am looking forward to reading them.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Behemoth by Peter Watts

Behemoth follows on from Starfish and Maelstrom concluding this saga of a future world threatened by a bug from the deep oceans.

This is a more conventional adventure story than the first two books with heroes and villains and an epic final confrontation. Watts does keep us guessing for quite some time as to who is hero and who is villain however. This is facilitated by one of Watts major themes: the conflict between the greater good and personal sentiment.

The most powerful humans in Watts world are the Law breakers. Vastly powerful controllers who are subject to no law other than a genetically manipulated conscience. They will kill a thousand in order to save a million.

A bit confusing at times and the end when it does come feels a bit rushed. Nevertheless has to be recommended as the closing chapter of an excellent sci fi trilogy.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Nova War by Gary Gibson

It took me a while to get into this the second novel of Gary Gibson's Shoal Sequence because it is a long time since I read the first novel "Stealing Light". Nevertheless I enjoyed the story once I got up to speed. An ancient race called the Shoal rigidly control all access to faster than light travel which enables them to act as benevolent overlords to all other "client" species. As sequence unfolds we discover all is not quite as it seems and that the Shoal's motives may not be quite as altruistic as it first appears.  Complicated Space Opera but good stuff none the less.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

The Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan with Brandon Sanderson

It is hard for me to be objective about Wheel of Time. Thirteen hefty books (and a short story or two) over the last twenty odd years is too much of an investment for the concluding volumes of the series not to be brilliant and I am convinced that they are. The dreary confusion of the middle volumes is long forgotten, Randland hurtles towards Tarmon Gai'don (the final battle) and I can't wait for book 14 to see how it turns out.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Let The Great World Spin by Colm McCann

Colm Mc Cann's award winning New York novel is weightier stuff than I usually read but still very approachable and enjoyable. The interlocking stories all take place in the shadow of Philip Petit's astounding 1974 tight rope walk between the newly built Twin Towers. The stories themselves involvesaints and sinners, rich and poor and there is more than a hint of gritty realism. This is after all pre-Guliani New York in all its seedy glory, a far cry from the theme park city we know today. Not all the loose ends are tied up and not all the stories have happy outcomes but yet the book as a whole is more life affirming than depressing. Recommended.

Down and out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory L. Doctorow

I enjoyed the setting of this near future novel where mankind has achieved immortality and the economy is based entirely on a tradeable analog of esteem called "whoofie". The story is somewhat forgettable though. It is entirely possible that I am missing deep symbolism and allegory. This is a story about a future utopian world that just happens to be set in Disney land after all.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Maelstrom by Porter Watts

Starfish, Peter Watts brooding novel about a bunch of misfits living and working under the deep ocean could have worked as a standalone novel but it is actually the beginning of a trilogy and Maelstrom is the follow up episode.

With the main characters released from the ocean depths the claustrophobic psychological drama gives way to adventure story. It is a good one though and Watts still manages to keep you thinking about the characters and their roles. The main plot is about an ancient life form from the bottom of the ocean that threatens to destroy humanity and everything we know. Watts is quite ambiguous though about who his heroes are. Is it the controlling agencies who are fighting against the infection but who routinely sacrifice every human right of their subjects "for the greater good"? Is it the psychologically scarred heroine who deliberately spreads the doomsday bug as a form of twisted revenge? Is it the various misguided individuals who worship this Typhoid Mary and help her macabre quest? Is it the artificial intelligences who become entangled in the plot for their own motivations? Read this excellent thought provoking novel and decide for yourself.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

"The Gathering Storm" by Robert Jordan with Brandon Sanderson

If I had to pick a defining theme of the Wheel of Time saga then I would have to say arrogance. The arrogance of the Dark One and his forsaken, the arrogance of the Aes Sedai, the arrogance of the Seanchan, the arrogance of the Wise Women, and even the arrogance of Rand himself are all central to the plot and its many twists and turns. Think of all the times you groaned in frustration when the arrogant pigheadedness of the heroes prevented them from listening to people who could actually help them. Remember also the delicious moments when the most arrogant are finally pulled down to size.

"The Gathering Storm" is the first book finished by Brandon Sanderson after Robert Jordan's untimely death. I put off reading it for some time but my recent enjoyment of Sanderson's Mist-born trilogy reassured me that he could write and I finally took the plunge. I am delighted to report that not only can Sanderson write well but he has also done a masterful job of preserving the feel of the series and his depiction of good old WoT arrogance is central to this.

I am once again enthused but Wheel of time and very much looking forward to the remaining two books.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Delver Magic, Book 1, The Inner Sanctum by Jeff Inlo

To the best of my knowledge Jeff Inlo has never had a publishing contract. Yet he has written many novels and makes them widely available on the internet. This immediately raises my suspicions. Surely if he was any good some publisher would have picked him up and he wouldn't be reduced to "vanity" publishing his books on the internet?

Well I am happy to report that contrary to my initial prejudice Jeff can actually write and this novel the first of a trilogy is actually a pretty good fantasy Yarn. The plot is set in a world long purged of magic where only a few believers still remember it's existence. Strange things start to happen when the magic starts to leak back due to the machinations of a malevolent force and humans are once more confronted with long forgotten creatures such as Elves, Dwarves, Goblins and Vampires. The good aligned races must overcome their own prejudices and work together in order to breach the inner sanctum where this malevolence waits.

While this is all fairly standard stuff the book's main protagonist is a Delver, a race of Inlo's own creation. Delvers are gifted with a curiosity for all things and they have extremely keen senses combined with an agility and physical endurance that makes them well suited to any job that requires investigation. Ryson Acumen our hero is just such a Delver and Inlo has drawn him well creating a likeable and interesting character who held my attention to the end of the book.

Although this is the first of a trilogy the story is complete in itself. I liked the book well enough that I will probably read the other books later but I don't feel the need to look for them straight away.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Halo by Tom Maddox

Maddox's first novel from all the way back in 1991 explores the emergence of machine conciousness in a near future world scenario. As the machine intelligences take their first steps towards independent conciousness the humans who interact with them are forced to consider the meaning of their own consciousness.  Maddox's prose is quite literary for a sci fi novel but his plot tends to wander a bit. There is a bit too much mysticism and a bit too little explanation for my liking. 

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Starfish by Peter Watts

A ragbag collection of sociopaths are bioengineering to live and work in the deep ocean maintaining the geothermal energy plants on which the future world depends for its electricity. Apparently the mega-corporation who sent them down thinks their peculiar personalities makes them just right for the job. Needless to say there is a lot more going on down in the depths than anyone anticipated and what starts out as a story of dysfunctional humans living in extreme conditions turns out to have consequences which threaten all life as we know it. This is really superior sci-fi and a highly recommended read. It is only after finishing it that I realised it is the first part of a trilogy. Indeed this first volume was such a satisfying and complete read in itself that I think I may wait a while before tackling the follow on books. 

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Saturday, 29 January 2011

FTW by Cory Doctorow

Interesting "Young Adult" novel which combines a good story with a political tract. Doctorow uses a story set in the near future world of mmorpg gold farmers to share his left of centre views on globalisation and the exploitation of workers. There is a tonne of economic theory in there too. Even if you don't entirely agree with Doctorow's political stance it is still a pretty good read. It is also interesting to see gold farmers as heroes for a change given the fact that they are more ussually spoken of with derision by many mmorpg gamers and bloggers. Chinese players in particulary are subject to a considerable amount of racist abuse because of the gold farming issue. 

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Mistborn: the final Empire byy Brandon Sanderson

 A new fantasy series for me and a very enjoyable one. Brandon draws a masterful picture of a segregated society with an enslaved underclass who are kept underfoot by an unthinking nobility. The whole structure is held together through the godlike powers of a malign immortal ruler. The book tells the story of a revolution plotted by a rare defiant group of downtrodden ska (the underclass) who wield the magical powers of Allomancy and art supposedly denied to their class. .

It is good stuff and a great read.  The necessary magical system  (Allomancy) is a bit over explained to my liking but that is a personal preference. Fantasy requires some form of magical power and you can either make it all a big unexplained mystery (as was popular with earlier writers like Tolkien) or you can try to classify and categorise the whole business turning it into an invented science. Sanderson has very much gone for the latter.

I am looking forward to the remaining two volumes in the trilogy. The only reservation I have is that if the rebellion succeeds then segregated society that formed such a core feature of the setting will collapse. I wonder will Sanderson be able to make the world which replaces it as interesting to read about.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Northern Lights Trilogy by Philip Pullman

I actually red the first volume of this trilogy more than ten years ago when I picked it up at a newstand before boarding a transatlantic flight. I guess I was initially taken aback when I realised that it was actually a kids books but the more I read of it the darker the story became and I quickly realised this was superior children's fiction - in the same league as Harry Potter or maybe even better.  It took me a decade to get around to reading the next two books but 11 year old daughter is a complete book worm so when I saw a single volume collection of the trilogy on sale in a local book fair I thought:" Why not?. If I don't like it she probably will."

As so much time had passed I started again with book one and kept reading to the end. I really enjoyed the series for its imagination, for its writing and for its sheer audacity  but ... I don't know whether I want my daughter to
read it or not. It is a great great story but it is also an extremely subversive one. The whole plot of the book is actually about overthrowing God. The Christian Churches are very clearly portrayed as the bad guys. It is actually very cleverly done with many references to Christian mythology.

Its not that we are a particularly devout family. To tell the truth I probably don't believe any of that stuff myself but my daughter is at a very young very impressionable age and she does still believe. She might enjoy the book immensely but then again it could confuse her or upset her. On the other hand I am not big into censorship without explanation so if she expresses an interest in the book I will discuss it with her and if she still wants to read it I can be on hand to talk about the ideas in the book if required.

Oh and as for the books themselves: The first volume (Northern Lights) is the tightest and best and sadly the storyline gets a little too unfocussed in the final volume (The Amber Spyglass) but nevertheless the trilogy should really be read as a single work and taken together it is a genuine masterpiece.