The Books of the South (Chronicles of the Black Company, Series Book 2)

By Glen Cook

I reviewed the first “Black Company” omnibus back on June 13, and *spoiler alert* I loved it. This is a dark, gritty series in which there aren’t always clear lines between hero and villain, and I’ve lapped it up. The series’ first book was published in 1984, so while I’m tempted to compare the book’s grittiness and real politik to the more popular A Song of Ice and Fire, the truth is that Cook’s opus predates GRRM’s (A Game of Thrones was published in 1996).

It’s very difficult to review the series’ second omnibus, The Books of the South, without offering major spoilers. Cook shares GRRM’s propensity for killing off heroes and villains alike, so even knowing what characters remain by the outset of the second omnibus would reveal key plot points about the earlier books. With that in mind, I’m going to opt to just provide some general thoughts, rather than risk any unintentional reveals.

Sticking with the general remarks: Cook’s short, choppy prose has an old-school feel to it, but part of what I find remarkable about these books is that they seem so timeless. If someone had introduced me to the books, and told me they had just been published, I would have had no reason to think otherwise. Some of that dynamic is no doubt due to the centrality of war in the narrative (after all, in the immortal words of Fallout 4 “War, war never changes”). Cook himself served in the US Navy, and his writings are imbued with the kind of weariness and fatalism that I imagine must come naturally to those who have worn the uniform.

People reading this review will presumably fall into two camps: either you have, or you have not, read the previous collection of stories. If you haven’t, I’ll repeat my exhortations from the prior review: if you like war stories, the dark and dour, and shades of grey in the moral spectrum, then I can’t recommend these books highly enough. If you prefer stories in which the good guys can be counted on to survive and prosper, these are not the books for you. Proceed accordingly.

Assuming you read the first omnibus and enjoy it, embark upon the second with confidence. It takes a little while to get going, and there are definitely some parts that ring hollow (I didn’t care for the use of the narrator for the second book, in particular, and the third book seems out of place), but overall, I was more than willing to go along for the ride.

Rating: 3 – Highly Recommended

If you liked this, you may enjoy: The Broken Empire, The Thousand Names.

The Inheritance Trilogy

By N.K. Jemisin

So I’ve taken a mini-break from fantasy/sci-fi in order to read some nonfiction (I’m currently enjoying re-reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for the umpteenth time). But never fear! I have a deep repository of past reads to draw from, so the blog shall march on.

I picked up The Inheritance Trilogy last November, after coming across it in a bookstore in Asheville, NC. At almost 1500 pages, it passed my “Sir Mix-A-Lot” test, and so ended up coming home with me. As the title would imply, the this is actually a collection of three books in one: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, and The Kingdom of the Gods. The first book introduces us to the city of Sky, the center of the kingdom, which is run by a ruling family who (I’m oversimplifying here) have managed to subjugate the gods who created the world. Our initial protagonist, Yeine, is summoned to Sky from her more rural home, where she is plunged into political machinations, as well as the internecine drama of the gods. Throughout the later books, readers are further introduced to the history which has led to the gods’ downfall, which involves a heavy dose of self-imposed punishment and penance.

I think the word that really resonates with me when I think of this trilogy is “original.” Perhaps not so much in the source material (Jemisin clearly draws on worldly religious traditions and lore), but certainly in the execution and the framing. This is indeed a work of “fantasy,” but one that doesn’t share much similarity to the epics of Jordan, Martin, etc. Instead, we’re treated to a more slow moving, character-based drama. Much of the conflict in the books arises as a result of one character’s determination to do X, even when X is going to make their life more difficult, etc. There’s a dream-like quality to much of the plot, but the story moves along at a brisk enough pace to avoid losing the reader’s interest (most of the time).

I hedge a little on the “most of the time,” because I think the trilogy does lose some steam as it progresses. The first book, IMHO, is the best: we’re still so new to the situation that each new piece of information feels important, and by showing us the city of Sky through Yeine (who is not familiar with it), Jemisin gives herself an easy method of slowly revealing the larger story to us. I still enjoyed book two quite a bit, though it seemed to get a little bogged down in the relationship between some of the primary gods (though to be fair, their relationship is kind of the crux of the story). By book three, I felt like things had slowed down considerably, and my interest definitely waned.

To recap: this is a long, dreamy fantasy trilogy that is a significant step away from more traditional fantasy world-building. The conflict tends to be emotional and interpersonal – there’s little explicit combat. Instead, Jemisin poses a whole new set of questions: what would it mean to fall in love with a god? What would it be like to be a mortal, made into a god? What about being a god, made into a mortal? How would one cope?

If those sorts of questions interest you, give this a shot. If your tastes run more towards “swords and sorcery,” you may want to give this one a pass.

Rating: 2 – Recommended with Reservations.

If you liked this, you may enjoy: Assassin’s Apprentice, The Name of the Wind.

The Martian

By Andy Weir

I started reading The Martian in 2013, having heard that it had been picked up for what would become the 2015 movie starring Matt Damon (if you haven’t seen the movie, you should, but read the book first!). While being optioned for a movie may not always been a guarantee of quality, in this case someone in Hollywood made the right call, because this is a special book.

The plot is a fairly straightforward one: in the not too distant future, a group of American astronauts become the first humans to walk the surface of Mars. Via a series of unfortunate accidents, team botanist Mark Watney is injured on the planet surface, leading the rest of the team to presume him dead. Now stranded and alone on an inhospitable planet, Watney is challenged to survive long enough to allow someone, anyone, to attempt to perform some kind of rescue.

The Martian ends up being a remarkable story because of the author’s ability to blend two unlikely themes: science and what might be called “heart.” This is very much a “hard science” book — Weir has done meticulous research on what methods and items would be available to someone in Watney’s situation, and quite a bit of the book comes down to Watney musing about technology and biology. However, Weir never loses sight of the fact that the real pulse of story is the degree to which a reader cares about Watney himself, and goes out of his way to make Watney a humorous and relatable protagonist. Make no mistake, this is a funny book, and not just by the normally dour standards of science fiction.

The second half of the book zooms out to incorporate more characters back on Earth, as people in NASA-like agencies work to try to improve Watney’s chances of survival. These interactions can admittedly get a little cheesy (especially in the movie version), and yet, I don’t think I would have it any other way. There’s a lot of gritty, dark writing out there, much of which I love dearly, but there’s also something to be said for an old-fashioned “humanity bands together” story. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself shedding a manly tear or two on the subway.

There are very few people to whom I wouldn’t recommend this book. Maybe if you really, really hate potatoes? (You’ll get it when you read the book.) If you’ve been meaning to get around to reading it, let this be your kick in the pants!

Rating: 4- Mandatory Reading

If you like this, you may enjoy: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Leviathan Wakes