Thursday, November 30, 2006

Bangkok 8 by John Burdett

Bangkok 8 has all the usual components of a typical mystery/conspiracy novel – drugs, jewels, prostitution, the FBI, local police detectives, murder mystery, government cover-ups, corruption, and redemption. However, a person can easily read the book without ever realizing this – this is what makes it great.

I am about as ‘suburban white-guy’ as you can get, and I have not had the pleasure to visit Thailand (though as you would except of someone like me, I should point out that I like Thai food). I mention this because (to me) Bangkok 8 was a vision of Thailand – not the Thailand that I as a tourist would ever see or know, but the ‘real’ Thailand. The book is thoroughly modern, yet rooted in traditions of the East that cannot be equaled in the West. Have I gone a bit too far – perhaps, but when you read this book you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

Sonchai Jitpleecheep and his partner are the only honest cops in the whole of Bangkok – which is an interesting development as he is the half-blood son of a whore with a criminal past. His devout Buddhism and honesty set him apart and on a path to tragedy when his partner is killed in the line of duty. Honor-bound to seek vengeance, Sonchai finds himself teamed with a perplexing, beautiful, and very American FBI agent as the investigation turns from ‘who did it’ to ‘what will they do next’.

The murder-mystery-conspiracy plot of Bangkok 8 is good, but nothing new under the sun. The difference, and it’s a wonderful difference, is the point of view from Sonchai – he is all Thai, yet set-apart as a half-blood, and a keen observer as West meets East. I’m in no position to know if Burdett gets Thailand ‘right’ in this book, but it feels like he did.

Sonchai is a sort of metaphysical, karmic guide through the brothels of Bangkok while the wicked and biting exchanges between him and Agent Jones serve as the perfect vehicle for the cultural clash that is Bangkok 8. I now have the urge to visit Thailand to see this clash for myself, ideally as a somewhat removed observer, and to know whether the culture of the East is the future, the past, or something else.

On my 10-point rating scale, Bangkok 8 scores a very appropriate 8. The flavor of this book has all the spice of Thai chili and the moral ambiguity that Western culture cannot live with. I look forward to further adventures of Detective Jitpleecheep in Bangkok Tattoo and forthcoming Bangkok Haunts.

Related Posts: Review of Bangkok Tattoo and Bangkok Haunts (at FantasyBookSpot)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Android's Dream by John Scalzi

My review for The Android's Dream by John Scalzi is up at Fantasybookspot. It's a good, fun read, if not a particularly deep one. 7/10

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Mappa Mundi by Justina Robson

When is a book science fiction, hard sci-fi, or a thriller? Mappa Mundi by Justina Robson succeeds as all three at once. Robson takes a near-future setting with bio-technological advances at the edge of probability and surrounds it with political intrigue and grand plots with a distinctly dystopian feel. One can’t help but weigh actions versus motivations versus the consequences of potentially beneficial scientific advancement when used by the ambitious powers of the world, all the while wondering if this could really happen.

The central plot of the book revolves around the development of bio-technology that essentially integrates computer-type programming and the human brain. Natalie is the proto-typical well-intentioned scientist developing a body of work that can fix all mental illness and truly benefit human-kind. Of course her research is sponsored by government with aims of applying her results differently.

Jude is a special branch FBI investigator whose sister has become involved in something big and bad. His private investigation leads him to Natalie and her research and a connection to an elusive Russian criminal mastermind he has been pursuing for some time.

Experiments go wrong, various deaths occur, and opposing interests clash as events spin out of control and the technology horrifically realizes itself, building to an unanticipated conclusion.

As I wrote earlier, Robson succeeds in creating the elements of a great sci-fi thriller, and I’m a sucker for a strong leading female protagonist. While the prose is generally tight, it does get bogged down in technical language at times, causing a bit of confusion – I can’t say that it is an easy read.

Mappa Mundi begins with a prologue of sorts that introduces us to the significant characters at earlier stages in their lives, giving us a feel for them before we get to the events driving the story. I can easily see these introductions being cut from the book, but I’m glad they weren’t. They provide an important baseline for the characters, helping the reader to understand and question motives throughout events of the story. However, this approach gives the book a slow and somewhat confusing start.

Mappa Mundi allows enjoyment for both the thinking and the escapist reader, while providing the excitement and twists of a typical thriller. After its slow start, the pace increases to evoke the cliché reaction: I couldn’t put it down. On my 10-point rating scale, Mappa Mundi scores a 7 and a solid recommendation in spite of a few hang-ups. I’m looking forward to reading other offerings from Robson.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Update on Robert Jordan

Jordan posts a ‘little’ update on his blog where he talks about quite a bit of stuff. It generally sounds like his treatment for his amyloidosis is going well – at least as well as he can expect and hope for. He even gives a few hints regarding the final book (tentatively titled A Memory of Light) in his Wheel of Time series – specifically he references the characters Mat and Tuon as surviving the Last Battle and hints that he may write a follow up book or two. Curiously, he didn’t mention the separate trilogy that he announced he would write after Wheel of TimeInfinity of Heaven.

Keep fighting, RJ and don’t be too quick jump out of a perfectly good airplane!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A Milestone Reached

I started this blog about 10 months ago and yesterday it passed the 5000 visitor mark. A few weeks ago it passed the 10,000 page view mark. As you can imagine, it started slow, with a daily visitors numbering 5 or less and maybe 10 on a big day. Now the blog typically ranges from 20 to 40 visitors a day, with occasional big days numbering as high as 100.
Thanks to all new and returning visitors. I'm still a relatively small blog, but there is definitely a regular and growing readership.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Winners of the 2006 World Fantasy Award
  • Novel: Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
  • Novella: "Voluntary Committal" by Joe Hill
  • Short Fiction: "CommComm" by George Saunders
  • Anthology: The Fair Folk edited by Marvin Kaye
  • Collection: The Keyhole Opera by Bruce Holland Rogers
  • Artist: James Jean
  • Special Award: Professional: Sean Wallace (for Prime Books)
  • Special Award: Non-Professional: David Howe and Stephen Walker (for Telos Books)
  • Lifetime Achievement: Stephen Fabian
  • Lifetime Achievement: John Crowley

I haven't read many of these nominees, but I did read and review Kafka on the Shore. It is certainly worthy of the award.

I'm surprised that Kelly Link didn't win in the collection category, but I haven't read any of the nominees to justify that suprise.

It would have been nice to see Lou Anders at Pyr get the win, but then I don't know enough to say he's any more deserving than Sean Wallace.

Memory, Sorry, and Thorn Trilogy – Tad Williams

This trilogy is not quite a trilogy. Translation: the final book is big – so big that it was divided into two books for paperback publishing (To Green Angel Tower part 1 and 2). Why do I start out with this? It illustrates the main weakness of the series for me – it could have been tightened up, especially in the first book, The Dragonbone Chair. It starts slow, but once it gets moving it is a well-written and entertaining story.

In many ways, this is a standard/cliché epic fantasy. The main character, Simon, is a low-born servant, with mysterious parentage, who is thrown into extraordinary circumstances over and over again during a conflict that could result in the end of the world. There are ‘elves’, giants, dragons, trolls, ‘wizards’, and other beasts. There is no escaping the similarities to Tolkien, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. While much of the story will seem familiar, there are enough unique moments and surprises to keep it fresh. In the end it comes to the simple fact that Williams tells a good and entertaining story.

Simon is a simple orphan kitchen boy; a typical teen with angst, big dreams, and difficulty with authority. He is taken under the wing of the mysterious Dr. Morgenes, reputed to actually be a wizard. Times are changing, the old and loved King dies and is succeeded by his dark and brooding son, Elias. With Elias comes his advisor, a priest who inspires little but fear and is a darkly powerful sorcerer. The inevitable conflict arises between King Elias and his brother, Joshua.

Events around Simon spiral out of control and he flees for his life from the castle he has always known as home to where Joshua is building a resistance to King Elias and his sorcerous advisor, Pyrates. Times are tough, people are restless, and evil creatures of legend prowl the lands – war is coming, and it is more than just a war of succession. The undead Storm King is pulling the strings.

Great adventures and battles occur. Simon comes face to face with elves, trolls, giants, a dragon, and even a beautiful princess.

What makes Williams’ take on Tolkien-esque fantasy seem novel and fresh is the accessibility. His writing style is more contemporary and he focuses on characters. Interesting parallels between individual characters are drawn, and Simon is one of the more realistic heroes I’ve encountered. Simon’s first battle is one of the best scenes I’ve read of the realization of horrors of war.

The Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series rates a 7 on 10-point rating scale. I consider it “new classic” in the epic fantasy sub-genre, and strongly recommend it, particularly for fans of epic fantasy.

Related posts: The Dragonbone Chair, Stone of Farewell, To Green Angel Tower

Thursday, November 02, 2006

To Green Angel Tower – Tad Williams

It’s not the ideal way to start off a review, but I keep coming back to it – To Green Angel Tower is long. This final installment of Tad William’s Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy is so long that in its paperback form it had to be released in two volumes – each about 800 pages long. Either volume would be considered a fairly beefy book by itself, together, they are just plain long.

I know I’m coming off a bit rant-ish here, and there is some truth to it, but To Green Angel Tower is at the same time a worthy conclusion to William’s epic saga (did I really just use the word saga?). This book has all the elements of a successful (if somewhat un-original) end – horrible battles, hopelessness, stupid mistakes, super-human heroic action, dark magic, love, death, deception, a happy ending, and enough open ends to leave us wanting more.

The title, To Green Angel Tower, really provides the proper plot summary for this book. The major players of this epic wrap up what has been keeping them busy and converge at the Green Angel Tower – the key location of the end battle, and the place the story began. People take long and difficult roads to get there – some are hurt, even killed, and others are captured or otherwise delayed. Rest is assured; the key players make it where they need to be.

Ok, so here is a (obvious) spoiler – there is a happy ending. Really, could it have been any other way – we all knew it was coming. Our hero wins, but I won’t go as far to say whether he gets the girl or not. Yet there are still enough surprises to catch us off guard, to convince the reader that the end is a bit more than what we knew would happen. Mysteries are at once satisfactorily explained and left for the imagination and desire of more stories to come. Anyway, a good story is more about the adventure, the getting there, than about the end itself.

So, by now you may be wondering if actually like the book(s) or not. Of course I did. While all usual clichés are there, Williams does tell it well and even manages to surprise. There is character growth, and I’ve not ever read a better scene where a young hero realizes the true horror of war.
I’ve said it in other reviews of the series – this really is a “new-classic”. It is the next step beyond Tolkien – an example where the genre moved forward. On my 10-point rating scale, To Green Angel Tower (parts 1 and 2 together), rates a 6.5-7.


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