Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Can’t a Book Just Be a Book?

This should be a short rant that hopefully won’t piss too many people off…that being said…

Is anyone else just a bit tired of all the cross media ‘pollination’ going on? Can a successful SFF work remain only in book form? Does it have to become a comic, graphic novel, animated series, soundtrack, or movie? Am I the only one who’s a bit tired and insulted by apparent need ruin my imagination? Simply said, no graphic comic or movie will ever exceed the images I create in my head. If I enjoy it in book form, I don’t want to see it in any other form. Now, I will admit, Peter Jackson’s LotRversion was spectacular, and I enjoyed his creation. But, the little things he did ‘wrong’ still annoy me, and now my original mental images of the series are forever polluted by his production, however well done it was.

Yes, I know that it brings more popularity and notoriety to the genre, which insures its survival and helps to guarantee there is a large number of authors out there producing quality and entertaining stuff – victory through numbers. But I for one don’t cheer with the latest announcement of a ‘new’ movie or comic.

Forever by Pete Hamill

Foreveris an extraordinary work of speculative fiction that you will find shelved in the general fiction or literature areas of a bookstore rather than sci-fi/fantasy. It is the story of a proud city and the people that make it so: New York City, specifically Manhattan.

Cormac O’Conner was born outside of Belfast in about 1723. We first meet him as the 8-year old son of a blacksmith. Cormac learns that he is not a Protestant like those around him; he is not even one of the oppressed Catholics. Cormac’s mother is descended from a long line of Irish Jews and his father is pure Irish Celtic. Cormac is raised in the duel life of a Protestant by day and his secret education as a Celt and Jew by night.

Tragic events affect the O’Conner’s, and Cormac flees Ireland to New York City in 1740 with the justice of Clan to perform. He arrives in New York to find a tiered society with the Irish and African slaves at the bottom. Honor-bound to do good and aid the oppressed, Cormac finds himself at the heart of a rebellion and in league with a powerful African shaman and slave. He is rewarded for his efforts with the gift of eternal life, so long as he never leaves the island of Manhattan. Cormac awaits the prophesized arrival of a mysterious tattooed woman who can guide him to the Otherworld as his past haunts him, as he observes and lives New York and its long history, as he unknowingly searches for a love to set him free.

Foreverhad me hooked from its first few pages to the end of the novel. The back story is plot enough for this book, but it is about so much more than one Irishman living in New York. This is the story of the people that founded, guided, and made New York what it is. Not just the powerful, but dirty immigrants, indentured servants, and freed slaves. Nor is this book just a clever re-telling of the history of New York. Foreveris a contemporary book as much as anything. My first thoughts were that since Foreveris so rooted in the New York of today (it’s filled with references that already are fading from my memory) that it will never be the classic it deserves to be. Later reflection made me realize that’s precisely the reason it is a classic.

On my 10-point scale, where 5 is a take-it or leave-it novel, and 10 is simply unsurpassed (note: I’ve never rated a book a full 10, and doubt that I will), Foreverranks very high with a 9. This book receives the highest recommendation I’ve given in a review yet. No, it isn’t the perfect book – the voice is a bit inconsistent and often in contrast to the time period covered and you’ll probably see the ending coming from some distance away (though the ultimate resolution isn't so clear), but the quality of the writing and story lift the book to a must read for fans of any genre.

Monday, February 27, 2006

What Bin am I?

This entry was inspired by a comment I made to a post titled There are Other Worlds by Larry, but its been brewing for some time with Jeff VanderMeer's thoughts on politics in fantasy adding a key ingredient as well. And for those looking for a decent rant on the subject by someone far more informed than me, check out this bit by author Hal Duncan.

What is ‘fantasy’? When you here the word ‘fantasy’, do you think of epic fantasy, high fantasy, new weird, magical realism, horror, science fiction? Are these all part of the same genre to you, or distinct? Does fantasy need to be completely divorced of the real world, its troubles, politics, etc.?

Classification of fantasy seems to fall victim to the human need to carve out a territory - draw a line. The human mind works by categorizing things into bins, which can basically be thought of as drawing lines. There is an innate need to separate things into distinct categories. 'Fantasy' often gets the traditional epic fantasy categorization due to the typical first experience with fantasy - often a Tolkienesque series. Other early experiences with 'fantasy' often have their own labels - horror, fairy tale, sci-fi, daydream, etc.

People simply tend to not move beyond this process of creating bins of distinct categories. While fantasy is a branching spectrum that ranges through many sub-genres and from pulp to incredible literature, people tend to dismiss this and revert to the comfortable categorization.

A reinforcement of this categorization is the motivation of the reader. Many read for pure escapism and don't want the issues they see and deal with every day to be present - they want to escape these into an ideal of some sort. This is very valid motivation, and one I often have. Other readers seek to learn and grow through what they read, and they seek out 'fantasies' that reflect to varying degrees our own world. Reflections can be dim or so like our own 'real' world that they aren't truly reflections at all. And the reality is that most readers fall between the two extremes on either end.

So, with so many people now having their first introduction to ‘fantasy’ with Harry Potter, is the definition of ‘fantasy’ going to shift? Perhaps – and I’d love to see it happen. I will be sticking with the term speculative fiction, since I believe it covers it all – that’s the bin where I file these books away.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Favorite Rants and Other Posts

The Chosen by Ricardo Pinto

The Chosen by Ricardo Pinto is the first book in The Stone Dance of the Chameleon trilogy and it is an ambitious effort to say the least. Pinto has created a more realized world than I have seen in a majority of the speculative fiction available. The culture of peoples is at once alien and reflective to our own.

The Chosen rule the world over humans, their hybrid offspring and other beasts of burden. A delicate balance exists between the Lesser Chosen, the Greater Chosen, and the Wise (a race of mutilated slaves elevated to unsurpassed knowledge). The Great Balance is in flux as the health of the God Emperor fades.

Imagine an educated, spoiled male teenager, trained in the knowledge of his culture, but raised outside where things are much less formal. Now imagine said teenager traveling to the center of the world, becoming immersed in the middle of deadly politics, and yet generally doing what he wants. This is Carnelian.

Carnelian is the son of an exiled Ruling Lord of the Greater Chosen, Sardian. A contingent of other Masters arrives one day to end Sardian’s exile and bring him back to the center of the world where he will assume a leadership position in times of political upheaval among the Chosen. Carnelian faces the harsh reality of who he is and what it means to be Chosen. Death and mutilation of lower races are nothing to the Chosen and Carnelian struggles in this world so foreign to what he has known. Fear and loneliness lead him to impetuousness and the discovery of a forbidden love.

The Chosen is a fully realized novel and an ambitious debut by Pinto. In fact the novel is so fully realized that it suffers from awkwardness. The world Pinto has created is so foreign to our own that its descriptions are at time difficult to follow. The levels of racial bureaucracy are not easy to follow without a glossary or notes. All this (and more) is available at Pinto’s website, The Stone Dance of the Chameleon, but inclusion in the book would have been preferable.

The Chosen is refreshingly not an epic fantasy novel after medieval Europe or anything European at all. Much of the novel has a Mayan feel to it, though I can’t claim enough knowledge of the Maya or other American tribal lore to know how much inspiration was found there.

On my 10-point rating scale where 5 is a take-it or leave-novel I’m not likely to recommend and a 10 is unsurpassed, The Chosen rates 6.5. This is an ambitious debut, and I look forward to seeing where Pinto takes us, but the flow of the narrative suffers too much from awkward descriptions. Other flaws are that I did not find myself caring very strongly for or against any characters and the book was too easily set aside and at times difficult to pick up again; however by the end of the book, these issues lessened significantly. The conclusion is both satisfying and open ended, and this clearly the first installment in a larger body of work. The Chosen has flaws but the ambitious and even risky story Pinto has begun is rewarding for those with the will to give it a chance.

The sequel, The Standing Dead, is currently available with the conclusion of the trilogy forthcoming.

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Online Medieval and Classical Library

This is a very interesting website that someone at wotmania (thanks Finbul-Ragnar) brought to my attention. The site is The Online Medieval and Classical Library, and it contains an extensive library of various translations from many medieval epics. He was specifically recommending The Saga of Grettir the Strong as a great read for fans of fantasy. This is quite literally what much modern speculative fiction is made of.

I look forward to spending some time going through the various stories here.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Gateway Books

I have a confession to make: I am a fan of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. I have read all of the books multiple times, I post regularly at wotmania.com, I religiously follow Jordan’s blog, and I anxiously await the final volume in the series. However, my ‘addiction’ to that series has served as a gateway to other speculative fiction works. I began visiting the message boards at wotmania, which eventually lead me to it’s OF section. Now, WOT was not the first fantasy I’d ever read – before the internet proved to be a catalyst to my ‘addiction’ I had read The Lord of the Rings, the Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide, what was available in Steven King’s Dark Tower series, way too many Star Wars novels, a few Weiss-Hickman books as a young tyke, and a few others. However, WOT truly awoke an addiction in me that has lead me discover just how wide a genre speculative fiction is and some its literary merits.

These gateway books, as I refer to them, come in many flavors. Perhaps it was the Chronicles of Narnia for you, or The Wheel of Time, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Star Trek, Dungeons and Dragons, Weiss-Hickman books, Eddings, Goodkind, Moorcock…the list could go on. People’s views towards these beginnings change often change with time. Some regard their original gateway books with nostalgia; others despise the very works that brought them to the speculative fiction realm. Some shun the genre altogether or gradually loose interest. The latter is a real shame since speculative fiction has so much to offer beyond cliché and tacky cover art. Serious works of real literature are not uncommon, if less common and obscure. And the former is an equal shame, as those books have merit all their own and at the very least served a mean to an end.

So, while I’m still anxiously awaiting Book 12 in The Wheel of Time, I’m also eagerly exploring the world of speculative fiction. Terry Pratchett’s humor and satire, Neil Gaiman’s satire and gritty truth, China Miéville, Charles de Lint, Steven Erikson, Gene Wolfe, Kim Stanley Robinson and others have all shown me that speculative fiction and literature do overlap, yet still entertain. What’s next? Well, more of the list above and new (to me) authors like Jeff Vandermeer, Umberto Uco, Gabriel García Márquez, etc; and Robert Jordan of course.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Riddle of the Wren by Charles de Lint

The Riddle of the Wren is the third de Lint novel I have read – the first two being Forests of the Heart and The Little Country. De Lint seems to have two ‘styles’ of writing that are better defined by when he wrote rather than what he wrote. His earlier books, such as The Little Country and The Riddle of the Wren (which I believe is his first book), are stand alone and not quite as well written as his later work. Much of his later work are part of a loose ‘series’ centered in the fictional city of Newberry. While these novels are stand-alone, they are set in the same place and have some overlapping characters and places (possibly events as well, but I don’t know since I’ve only read one of the Newberry books). Anyway, on to the review…

The Riddle of the Wren is a difficult book to summarize. The setting is best described as earth-like, or perhaps more specifically, pre-industrial England/Scotland-like. Much of the inspiration is from Celtic myths centered in the British Isles, and a majority of the book is set in other, parallel worlds after typical Faerie myths.

The protagonist of the book is 17-year old Mindy, living with her father who runs the local inn. Her mother died when she was very young, the father is abusive, and society is unkind (an understatement) to women in general. Mindy is plagued by dark dreams, that are more real than they seem. To not give anything away, I’ll just say that she leaves on an adventure that crosses the boundaries of the world and brings her into contact with a few companions, we see her grow, we meet good and evil and see some overlap of the two.

While the story is unique and I haven’t read anything quite like it, the parallels to Tolkien are rather glaring. De Lint and Tolkien are both inspired by Celtic myth, so it is difficult to know how intentional it was versus being similar due to the same source material. But, there is a ‘Gandalf’ character and an ‘elvish language’ along side of some other similar creatures.

Parallels aside, The Riddle of the Wren is a very enjoyable novel with a story that is not quite like anything else I have read. The quality of writing is good, but nowhere near as good as de Lint’s later novels. In short, I recommend the book and encourage everyone (especially people interested in celtic music) to read a novel by de Lint. On my rating 10-scale where 10 is an unsurpassed novel (I’m not sure I’ve ever read a 10), and 5 is a take-it-or-leave-it novel that I probably wouldn’t reread, and anything less than 5 is not something I’d likely recommend, The Riddle of the Wren rates a 6-6.5. In comparison, it is approximately the same as I rated The Little Country, while Forests of the Heart is more like 7.5 or even 8.
Related reviews: The Little Country

The Druid King by Norman Spinrad

The Druid King by Norman Spinrad is an interesting book to classify. It appears that it was originally marketed as historical fiction, yet I found it in the sci-fi/fantasy section at Half Priced Books. In the end, I would put it at about 90% historical fiction with 10% fantasy thrown into the mix.

The book is the story of Vercingetorix, the charismatic leader of the Gauls during the time of Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, and a national hero of France to this day. Vercingetorix is the son of Kelltil, the leader of one of the larger Gallic tribes, coming to manhood in a time of increasing Roman influence in the lands of the Gaul. The death of his father sends Vercingetorix fleeing into the forest and into the tutelage of the Druids. Guided by the Arch Druid and inspired by visions of the ending of an age, Vercingetorix becomes both a man of action and a man of knowledge.

An early alliance with Caesar ends and Vercingetorix sets out to unite the tribes of Gaul and rid the land of everything Roman. The rest is the story of two military geniuses clashing and a struggle against inevitability. The book ends with an epic battle that military historians still study today, in a remarkable sequence of battle and vision.

I picked this book off the shelf because it looked interesting, and it was both interesting and very informative. However, this book fails to be the book it could be. One of the most intriguing aspects of Vercingetorix is his education as a Druid, yet relatively little of the Druid tradition is explained satisfactorily. The language of the story ranges from too dry to too flowery, and the book is easily put aside. But, the interplay of the two great leaders is well done and their charisma does infect the reader. The book ends with a bang that improved my opinion of it dramatically.

The Druid King is a book I will recommend, but with conditions. Those interested in military, Roman, or Gallic history are encouraged to pick this book up, realizing that it is not the best written historical fiction available. Anyone who wants a story of a tragic hero up against incredible odds fighting the most powerful military force in the world, a story that happened for real in this world 2000 years ago, should also consider The Druid King, with the above reservations in mind. On my rating scale of 1-10, where 5 is a take-it-or-leave-it book, 10 is unsurpassed, and anything below 5 is typically not recommended, The Druid King scores a 5 – 5.5, with the extra 0.5 due the last 40 pages.

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire is a retelling of the Cinderella fairy tale that most of us know decently well from the author that has retold other well known stories such as Snow White (Mirror Mirror) and The Wizard of Oz (Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West). This is the story of what could have actually happened to inspire the fairy tale we’ve come to know.

The story begins with a mother and her two young daughters arriving in Holland in the 17th century. The family is fleeing tragic events in England and has no financial prospects with a lack of men and sons. A kind painter takes in the family in exchange for housekeeping duties and the use of one of the daughters as a model. A commission to paint the daughter of a local tulip merchant inspires the painter to produce his greatest work ever, and provides the opportunity for our family to move up and become servants for the wealthy merchant family.

Tragedy strikes the merchant family with the death of the wife, which sets the stage for our mother to marry the wealthy merchant. Alas, there is now a stepmother, two step daughters, and beautiful Clara – the subject of our painter’s masterpiece. A royal visit comes, and there is indeed a ball with a missing slipper and all. The pieces are all there, if not in quite the way expected.

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is much more than a retold fairy tale; it is a literary tale of the meaning of beauty, of misfortune, ambition, deception, abuse and even love. The writing is easy to read and fast paced for a book without much action. While you’ll probably find the book shelved in the sci-fi/fantasy section, the tale is grounded in reality and truly contains no fantastical elements beyond metaphor.

If you want magical beasts, epic battles, and masculine heroes, this book is not the book you are looking for. If you are looking for a tale that is relatively true to its historical place about the coming of age of young women, the ambition of elders, of beauty and love; this is the book for you. I’ve also read and enjoyed Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Maguire and found this book to be similar, if more subtle. I enjoyed Wicked more, but found the quality of writing and flow of the narrative to be better done in Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister.

On my rating scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is unsurpassed, 5 is a take-it or leave-it book, and less than 5 would not generally be recommended, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister scores a 6.5. The book is an enjoyable read, with a lot to say beyond the retelling of a fairy tale, but in the end, it is a subject matter that I can’t claim to be overly attracted to. However, the book is well done enough to earn a recommendation.

Review: King Rat by China Miéville

King Rat is Miéville's first novel. It is set in a late-90s London (not in fictional New Crobuzon like his other novels - Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council). The imagery and language is dark and gritty, as I've come to expect from Miéville. The use of London street slang can be a bit difficult to understand for us 'Americans', but in the end context creates understanding and it adds to the atmosphere of the book. Right beside the coarse slang of the streets of London is the industrial music of late-90s, Jungle. Jungle plays a key role in the story and will especially appeal those familiar with the music and the Rave-type scene. Miéville is fantastic at creating the mood of a city through his descriptions. In King Rat I felt he gets it just right - in the other novel I've read by him (PSS) it seems a bit over done at times.

Upon returning to London, Saul is arrested and blamed for the death of a family member. Shortly after his arrest he is rescued from jail by a mysterious man calling himself King Rat. This man has inhuman strength and agility and smells of an animal - a very dirty and stinky animal. Saul has much to learn from King Rat - about himself and the world as he has never seen it.

In this new world, Saul learns of The Piper - the same Piper from the fairy tale that rids Hamlin of rats and ultimately its children. The Piper can play his tune to the entire world's species, he is in town, and he wants both Saul and King Rat dead.

The story is well told, if not as engrossing as Perdido Street Station. At times you can taste the world of Saul and King Rat - and you wish you couldn't. Overall it is a good read, though I hesitate to call it a great read. On a 10-scale, where 10 is unsurpassed and 5 is a take-it or leave-it book, I score King Rat at 6.5. In comparison, I'd probably score Perdido Street Station at 8.5 or even 9.

Related Reviews: The Scar

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova received a lot of hype in the summer of 2005. It was proclaimed as ‘this year’s Da Vinci Code or the ‘Dracula Code’ and on almost every book reviewer’s list of recommendations. The comparison to The Da Vinci Code made me nervous about a book that otherwise sounded like a great read. So, instead of rushing out and buying it, I kept my eye out and found a used copy at the local independent bookstore. It was near the top of the Stack for a while, and I finally got around to reading it.

In short, comparisons to The Da Vinci Code are unfortunate for The Historian. Yes, there are a few superficial similarities, but below the surface they quickly and thankfully disappear. This was the long way of saying that the The Historian is a beautifully written book that thoroughly entertained and even educated me, all the more impressive since it is Kostova’s first novel.

The story is told by a narrator who is a middle-aged historian about a dramatic series of events that took place in her late teens. Our historian is exploring her father’s library and discovers a book containing some old letters that are addressed to: “My dear and unfortunate successor”. The reader is immediately sucked into to the methodical and suspenseful explanation of the meaning of these words and events of her father’s life in graduate school when he became this “unfortunate successor”.

We embark into an adventure through cold-war Europe, dusty libraries, spectacular churches and monasteries, and the mystery of the undead, particularly the most famous undead of them all – Dracula. While Dracula and vampire lore play a key part in this book, the story is more of tale of coming of age, love, the clashing of cultures, the similarity of mankind, and price of hatred.

One a 10-scale, where 10 is unsurpassed and 5 is a take-it or leave-it novel, The Historian easily scores an 8, and I’m tempted to score it a 9. Parts of the novel seemed rushed after the build-up and some conveniences in the plot are unsatisfactory in their explanations, but these failings are minor at best and easily overcome through the overall quality of the storytelling. While, for a book about vampires, The Historian is low on action, it is high on suspense and I highly recommend it for any audience above the pre-teen level, though maturity and life experience will go a long way toward fully appreciating it.

Friday, February 03, 2006

The Little Country by Charles de Lint

Sometime in early 2005 I had the luck of picking up a Charles de Lint novel at used bookstore when an unexpected layover happened. The book was Forests of the Heart, and it was really excellent, so de Lint went on the list of authors to keep a watch out for. At a more recent trip to a used bookstore, I scored a few old deLint novels and threw them on the Stack (yes, capitalizing the Stack is necessary due to its size and strange dominance over much of my life). Last year as I waited for an anticipated book to arrive in the mail I needed a book to read, and grabbed The Little Country.

The Little Country is set in Cornwall, England in modern times (it was written in the early nineties, so a couple references in the book may seem dated, but this has no impact on the story). Within the novel is another story (classic play within a play sort of thing) that is set around 1900, but the exact timing isn't clear or really important.

The central character is Janey Little - a moderately popular musician, in her circles, who specializes in older Celtic style music. She is a realistic character with plenty of flaws, and very likeable. An old book, with much mystery about it is discovered in the attic, and the story is off. This book has been long desired by a secret society with ambitions to take over the world (yes that is it, but it's not nearly as cheesy as it sounds). The book is special, even magical and the center of many problems about to be faced by Janey, her grandfather, best friend, and fresh off the boat, former lover. Yep, there is a traditional love story buried in here, but those who don't go for romances will still enjoy the story.

The story within the story follows another female central character, and is altogether more fantastical in nature, but still grounded in a world where magic has moved on. There are witches, smalls, and faeries. In the end you know the stories are going to come together, and they do - though both could really stand on their own with deLint's skill at telling a captivating story.

In the end, I enjoyed The Little Country quite a bit. I suppose it would be 6-7 on my 10-point scale where 5 is a neutral, take-it or leave-it novel and 10 is unsurpassed. It wasn't quite as good as Forests of the Heart, but I will probably read it again one day. I continue to be amazed and entertained by de Lint's ability to take old tales, myths, and legends and relate them to the modern world and human nature. Another plus is his ability to create real, believable characters and his skill at writing realistic and likeable women. All the de Lint novels I have read feature female characters at the center. And finally, music lovers should love deLint as music plays a key role in his writings and form the backbone of his stories. Any music lover will appreciate it, but anyone with a like or love of traditional style Celtic music absolutely must read de Lint.
Related reviews: The Riddle of the Wren

The Anvil of the World by Kage Baker

The Anvil of the World by Kage Baker is an intriguing first effort in the fantasy genre (Baker is better known for her sci-fi). The book is a bit hard to classify or pigeon-hole, which is a good thing. If you combine the classic fantasy motif of a mysterious protagonist with a shady past with a dash (or two) of Terry Pratchett, then you’re getting close to what Baker has created with in The Anvil of the World.

Smith is a Child of the Sun running from his past and looking for work in the breadbasket city of Troon. His cousin has hired him as the caravan master for a journey to Salesh by the Sea. Smith anticipates an easy trip across the land, and is disappointed when events do not allow this. It seems that the caravan is full of ‘Smith’s’ – we have Mrs. Smith the gourmet cook, Mr. and Mrs. Smith and their three children, some other Smith’s, a runner, a courier, Lord Ermenwyr and his nurse, and a mysterious traveler of the Yendri race. No one is of course who they seem, and are any of them actually named Smith?

Attacks, death, demons, injuries, destroyed cargo, and a crying baby keep things interesting as the caravan journeys to the sea. We even learn who some of our mysterious travelers are along the way.

The tale continues in Salesh as Smith once again changes careers in his quest to avoid the past, and of course, a journey of destiny with the fate of the world at stake.

The Anvil of the World starts off with something of a slow start – I found myself waiting see what’s going on and not particularly caring about the characters. However, don’t despair – sticking with the book is well rewarded. Slowly, Baker’s subtle use of humor and pun sinks in and the characters are masterfully rounded out. The subtle humor becomes not so subtle at times and social commentary begins to bleed from the story, all in clever, humorous ways that I thoroughly enjoyed. A magical duel between mages may well be the best I’ve ever read and brings a whole new understanding of the old saying: ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’.

The book is fast paced, a quick read, and overall, well done. The writing can be inconsistent at times, but its witty nature easily overcomes this. Kage Baker is an author whose books I will now be on the lookout for, and recommend you do the same. On my 10 point rating scale where 10 is unsurpassed and 5 is a take-it or leave-it novel, The Anvil of the World rates a solid 7 – a hearty recommendation.

Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson

While I can’t claim to have read lots of books that would be considered Cyberpunk, I can say that what I have read hasn’t captivated me in the way other sci-fi and fantasy tends to. Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson is a Cyberpunk novel that did.

Snow Crash was first published in the early 1990s and set in an alternate reality where hyper-inflation has caused the essential crash of government with private corporations stepping up to take control. These corporations operate as independent nations with ‘franchises’ throughout what remains of the U.S. that operate as city-states under a corporate rule. The computer world has evolved into the creation of the ‘Metaverse’, which is a 3-D virtual reality version of the internet. An interesting note is that Stephensen independently coined the term ‘avatar’ for use in his Metaverse; though at this time it was in use elsewhere.

Hiro Protagonist (did I mention that Stephensen enjoys the occasional pun?) is a 30-year old independent hacker who is working as a pizza delivery guy for a ‘franchulaite’ operated by the Mob. Hiro is the half black, half Korean son of a WWII vet who carries a Samurai sword and is the best sword fighter in the world. A series of unfortunate events leads to the formation of a partnership with a 15-year old courier named Y.T. (not whitey ). A new drug on the scene known as Snow Crash threatens the Metaverse and society as a whole…

As I’ve come to expect from Stephensen, this book is a not-so-subtle commentary on the corporate institution and the role of religion in the basic human condition. The origins, consequences, and benefits of religion are explored in interesting ways as Hiro, his ex-girlfriend, and a librarian daemon dig into Snow Crash. Another fun sidebar is that this book appears to be an origin for the comment of Agent Smith in The Matrix about humanity being a virus.

The first 10 pages were the hardest as they required me to adapt to the writing style, though in retrospect it was a great stand-alone short story. The pace picked up once I became acclimated, and by 100 pages in I was thoroughly into the book. Translation – a bit of slow start, but well worth sticking with it. A few leaps in logic occur, but generally the book is very well written with an engaging story in the clever writing style of Stephensen. On my 10-point rating scale where 5 is a take-it-or-leave-it novel and 10 is unsurpassed, I rank Snow Crash at a solid 7.5. I highly recommend the novel to fans of Stephensen and the Cyberpunk sub-genre as well as those who aren’t traditionally fans of this style.

Sleeping in Flame by Jonathan Carroll

Sleeping in Flame by Jonathan Carroll is a bit difficult to classify. Urban fantasy, new weird (even though this book was published in the 1980s), a modern fairy tail, magical realism, and horror fantasy all apply but fail to complete the image. Call it what you will, the view Carroll gives us is into the true world.

Walter Easterling is a former actor turned screenwriter living in Vienna. A recent divorce and reaching the rather depressing age of 30 are taking their toll on him. His close friend introduces him to the thoroughly alluring Maris York, a part-time model and artist fleeing from a hellish relationship. Love blossoms in a well-written tale of two lovers coming together and completing each other.

However, darkness never leaves the narrative. Love this wonderful appears to have a price as things awaken within Walter. Unexplainable, magical things begin to happen in his life, leading him to explore his origins in greater detail. What he discovers is both shocking and frightening, and it threatens everything important to him.

One of the greatest assets of Sleeping in Flame is the seemingly lost art of being able to tell a complete story in less than 300 pages. It was a pleasure to read a full-length fantasy novel that doesn’t double as a weight training device. Sleeping in Flame is a different novel from main-stream fantasy or horror, but isn’t a unique story. Troubled guy meets troubled girl, they fall in love, odd and dangerous things happen…It’s an old story, but this story is told very well, with a twist for lovers of fairy tales. The end of the novel screams for further comment, but alas, I cannot.

On my 10-point rating scale where 5 is a take-it or leave-it novel and 10 is unsurpassed, Sleeping in Flame rates a 7. The book was easy to read and enjoy, though perhaps a bit too easily set aside. The darkness of the tale makes you question the ultimate outcome, and the ending…well the ending doesn’t disappoint in this respect.


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