His Dark Materials

By Phillip Pullman

In my most recent post, I reviewed Phillip Pullman’s new book, The Book of Dust, which returns us the the world (universe? multi-verse?) of the original trilogy, His Dark Materials. That in turn caused me to detour from my previously scheduled reading list in order to plow through the original trilogy once more (and detouring was particularly difficult, because Brandon Sanderson’s latest epic just came out!).

Consisting of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, the His Dark Materials trilogy was published between 1995 and 2000, and it is a difficult series to describe. On one hand, it definitely spills over into the “young adult” genre (Amazon pegs it as being for those “10 and up”). On the other hand, this is a series just teeming with adult themes (the innocence of children, the fall of man, original sin, a corrupt church, etc.). This is no sugar-laden lullaby of a fantasy story, but rather a thoughtful, cynical adventure that mixes religion, science and morality into potent brew. I admit I had forgotten just how “out there” the story eventually gets; how many children’s stories have you read lately that feature a knife that may or may not be able to kill God? Probably not many.

Part of Pullman’s charm is that he’s able to pull the reader along through a narrative that could easily seem clunky in another author’s hand’s. There must have been ample temptation to over-explain as he painted an increasingly complex story, but instead he’s able to use an almost minimalist style to just add enough detail to paint a vivid picture in the reader’s mind, while keeping his focus on our child protagonists, Lyra and Will. Ultimately, this is a universe (multi-verse, I guess) in which magical, unexplainable things happen, and Pullman asks us to just take that on faith (which is ironic, I guess, given the content of the story). I, for one, was happy to go along for the ride.

Ultimately, this is a trilogy that straddles the line between childhood and adulthood, both in terms of the reading level, and of the story itself. So while I don’t recommend that anyone run out and buy The Golden Compass for their ten year-old, this is a perfect series for an adventure loving teenager with a slightly cynical bent (or for an adventure loving adult with a slightly cynical bent, for that matter). Still not sold? Well did I mention that there are fighting armored bears with opposable thumbs?

If that doesn’t sell you, nothing will!

Rating: 4 – Highly Recommended

If you liked this, you may enjoy: The Book of Dust, The Witches.

 

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage (Book of Dust, Book One)

By Philip Pullman

It feels strange to be reviewing Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage immediately on the heels of Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire series, because the two works could not be more dissimilar (at least not while remaining within the fantasy genre). But after the creeping darkness of Lawrence’s work, returning to the world of The Golden Compass comes with a sweet sense of homecoming.

For those readers unfamiliar with Phillip Pullman, he broke out in 1995 with the publication of The Golden Compass (also known as “Northern Lights” in the UK). Along with its sequels The Subtle Knife (1997) and The Amber Spyglass (2000), the books composed the His Dark Materials trilogy, which were childhood favorites of mine (and, I’m sure, of many others). The original trilogy cataloged the adventures of Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon, not to mention some badass panserbjorn (armored bears!). If your only exposure to Pullman’s original trilogy was the 2007 movie version of The Golden Compass, then I beseech you to forget what you’ve seen and just give the books a try. In any case, I’ll have more to say about the original trilogy shortly, as I’m now being sucked back down that rabbit hole.

La Belle Sauvage emerged 17 years after the original trilogy concluded. It is the first book in a new trilogy, and functions as a prologue to Lyra’s tale. The book follows the young boy Malcolm Polstead, who lives with his parents at an English tavern known as The Trout, which just happens to be next door to a nunnery where Lyra (as an infant) has been squirreled away. Malcolm is a classic Pullman protagonist- young, clever (though not formally educated), earnest and spirited. He’s a hard character not to like. Early on in the book, Malcolm becomes aware of some potentially nefarious activities surrounding the nunnery, and the story follows his escalating involvement in attempting to keep Lyra safe.

Often in my blog posts, I talk about how, for me, “plot trumps prose.” But with that said, there are some authors who just have such a natural way with words that I can only gape in admiration, and Pullman is certainly one of those rare few. Rationally, I know that Pullman hasn’t been sitting at a desk slowly crafting this story for the last 17 years, but I can’t quite shake that suspicion, because his prose is just so thoughtful and polished. Perhaps it’s just that I have a soft spot for the Brits (I grew up on C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Roald Dahl, etc.), but there’s just something so refined and careful about Pullman’s use of language, like there’s never a word out of place.

Ok, back to the review. Overall, I enjoyed this book very much, even if the narrative wasn’t quite as compelling as that of The Golden Compass (if I’m being honest with myself, it’s probably just that it didn’t include those sweet, sweet armored bears). Like Pullman’s other works, this is a perfect book to curl up with by a fire and sip English tea. I very much look forward to the next two books in the series.

Rating: 4 – Highly Recommended

If you liked this, you may enjoy: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, The Witches

The Broken Empire

By Mark Lawrence

I first picked up Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns (Book one of The Broken Empire trilogy) in 2012, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure what to think. Let me start off by saying, this series is DARK. Not horror, exactly, but definitely inspired by the way in which someone like George R.R. Martin straddles the line between horror and fantasy.

The series follows “Prince Honorous Jorg Ancranth,” and so I suppose he does deserve the title of “protagonist,” but he’s the most sinister protagonist that I can recall in modern fantasy. Due to some pretty gnarly childhood trauma, Jorg has a very dour outlook on life, and his perspective is further warped by his later association with a cadre of similarly sinister highway-men types. Prince of Thorns follows Jorg’s attempt to re-claim his birthright, although a fair bit of the book simply follows him and his brotherhood as they inflict mayhem across the countryside.

The series itself is written in first-person (Jorg’s perspective), and so there is a fair bit of cognitive dissonance involved for the reader (insofar as Jorg is a bad dude who does bad stuff). There are also times when, as a reader, I found myself pulling back and saying “what, this guy is supposed to be like 15?” (spoiler: yes, yes, he is). As a reader, you need a certain amount of mental flexibility in order to make it through the book, and you may well feel a little dirty by the end.

With all that said, why should you read this series? Because it’s really, really, good! And the good news is that it only gets better after book one. Lawrence really hits his stride with book two (King of Thorns), and it doesn’t hurt that Jorg gets a little more humanized by that point, which helps to reduce some of the cognitive dissonance of identifying with his perspective in book one. Granted, the story never strays from the category of “pretty damn dark,” but at the very least, you can understand why Jorg does much of what he does in the latter two books.

So to recap: do you like fantasy that’s full of moral ambiguity (and perhaps even straight-up darkness)? Do you like “darker” works by authors like Brent Weeks and Joe Abercrombie? Then do yourself a favor and give this series a try. It doesn’t hurt that if you make it through The Broken Empire, you’ll be ready to move onto Lawrence’s next trilogy, The Red Queen’s War (spoiler, I think it’s even better than his first!).

Rating: 4 – Highly Recommended

If you liked this, you may enjoy: The Blade Itself, The Way of Shadows.

Old Man’s War (Old Man’s War, Book 1)

By John Scalzi

Old Man’s War was my introduction to John Scalzi’s writing, and while it may not be my favorite book of his (that would be Red Shirts), I have very fond memories of it.

The premise is a great one: at a point in the distant future, mankind is dispersing through the galaxy, and human colonists are in need of protection from various hostile alien species. Enter our protagonist John Perry, a 75 year-old Earther who celebrates his birthday by enlisting in the Colonial Defense Force (CDF). The idea here is that the CDF wants old people with experience but little to lose, who are then given new (young, strong) bodies in return for their commitment of service.

Here’s where things get a little weird (which is a Scalzi-special). You know how from time to time you may come across people saying things like “you have no idea how much hanky panky goes on in nursing homes?” And then you immediately steel yourself against that knowledge, and desperately try to forget you ever heard it in the first place? Well, permit yourself to be open to that information for just an instant, and then imagine what would happen if a bunch of those nursing home residents were given new, strong, virile bodies. Spoiler: they get freaky pretty quickly.

Anyway, this section of the book is all in good fun, and it’s sort of cathartic to read about Perry (whose wife had passed away years ago) relieving his younger days. From there, the book transitions into more of a straightforward tale of militant space exploration, with all the alien and spaceship conflict that typically entails (there are definitely hints of Heinlein here). There’s definitely more to the story (and at least one pretty incredible coincidence to help drive the plot along), but I won’t spoil the story.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book. At 332 pages, it’s a relatively quick read, and Scalzi keeps the plot moving along in a way that demands your attention. The book also spun off five sequels (though I think I petered out around book five), so if you enjoy this one, there’s plenty more Scalzi to go around. If you’re looking for a military-themed sci fi novel, you could do much worse than Old Man’s War!

Rating: 4 – Highly Recommended

If you liked this, you may enjoy: The Forever War, Red Shirts

 

For We Are Many (Bobiverse, Book 2)

By Dennis Taylor

Last week I reviewed the first book in the “Bobiverse” series, We Are Legion (We Are Bob), which I found to be a surprisingly engaging “hard sci-fi” novel. Book two, For We Are Many, picks up right where book one left off, with former human (now AI replicant) Bob and his many clones attempting to re-settle Earth’s population, while simultaneously exploring the universe and encountering new friends and foes.

Make no mistake, this series is definitely on the “hard” end of the sci fi spectrum (it’s pretty readable, but a lot of the plot and action sequences depend on engineering, space physics, etc.). Being a soft sciences kind of guy, I readily admit that Taylor’s science could be total BS, and I wouldn’t know it, but I get the impression that he’s done his research. In that sense, and in terms of the books’ comedic bent, I think The Martian is probably the closest comp I can come up with.

During the course of the books, the eponymous Bob continues to create clones of himself, both to perform specific tasks (like monitoring an alien civilization), as well as to expand his (and humanity’s) ability to explore and eventually colonize distant planets. I did find it occasionally difficult to follow the proliferation of the various Bobs, which number in the dozens (hundreds?) by the end of the second novel. It’s a bit of a strange situation, as each of the Bobs retains a certain core identity, but continue to evolve and diverge from the original Bob’s perspective as they exist separately from him. Because they’re all basically the same person, it can be a struggle to keep track of who is who, though Taylor does a good job of making sure that doing so is not necessarily essential to following the plot.

I did find myself drifting a bit towards the middle of the book, which primarily focuses on re-homing humanity and terraforming planets, but the action picks back up with the emergence of a threatening alien civilization (who receive the tongue-in-cheek moniker of “the Borg,” as all true Bobs are trekkies). By the novel’s end, I was happily back in the saddle, and am eager to see what book three holds.

To recap: this series is fun and provocative, if a little bit more on the “techie” side of things than I typically go for (the author is a computer programmer, which won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has read any of these books). You should absolutely start with book one if you’re considering picking up the series, and if you like that, you should absolutely give book two a try!

Rating: 4 – Highly Recommended

If you enjoyed this, you may like: The Martian, A Fire Upon the Deep

We Are Legion (We Are Bob)

By Dennis Taylor

Wow, another pleasant surprise! Like Kings of the Wyld, I picked up a copy of Dennis Taylor’s We Are Legion (We Are Bob) without doing much in the way of research (it helps that it’s currently available as a free rental on the kindle store).

Here’s the pitch that got me to take a chance on it:

Bob Johansson has just sold his software company and is looking forward to a life of leisure. There are places to go, books to read, and movies to watch. So it’s a little unfair when he gets himself killed crossing the street.

Bob wakes up a century later to find that corpsicles have been declared to be without rights, and he is now the property of the state. He has been uploaded into computer hardware and is slated to be the controlling AI in an interstellar probe looking for habitable planets. The stakes are high: no less than the first claim to entire worlds. If he declines the honor, he’ll be switched off, and they’ll try again with someone else. If he accepts, he becomes a prime target. There are at least three other countries trying to get their own probes launched first, and they play dirty.

The safest place for Bob is in space, heading away from Earth at top speed. Or so he thinks. Because the universe is full of nasties, and trespassers make them mad – very mad.

The beginning of the book is a little rocky, but it also turns out to be a bit of a red herring. What Bob does on Earth isn’t actually all that interesting- it’s once he launches into orbit (and starts making copies of himself) that things get fun. Once you reach the meat of the book, you realize that it’s really more of an extended thought experiment about how someone might react when put into the odd (but not impossible?) situation in which Bob finds himself. If you could create more copies of yourself, would you? How many? What if they turned out to be very similar, but not identical to you? What if one of them insisted on calling itself “Homer,” primarily to get a rise out of you?

In tone, the book is quite similar to Andy Weir’s The Martian, insofar as it’s a mix of somewhat campy sci-fi humor and more technical “hard science” about what is going on during Bob’s travels. I will say that the book definitely is not high brow literature. The writing is by no means bad, but this is a book about plot, not prose (or character development, for that matter). I did cringe occasionally as Taylor inserted various pieces of sci-fi lore for color, but as in something like Ready Player One, it’s all done with a good humored wink and a nudge.

To sum it up, this is an entertaining speculative novel about space travel, cloning, artificial intelligence and the colonization of the stars, all with a significant dose of sci-fi camp thrown in for good measure. If that sounds like your thing, I highly recommend you give it a try! I’m on to book two

Rating: 4 – Highly Recommended

If you enjoyed this, you may like: Ready Player One, The Martian

Revenger

By Alistair Reynolds

I’m a relatively recent convert to science fiction, and spent a considerable portion of my first twenty-some years fuming about why libraries insisted on lumping dry old sci-fi in with my beloved fantasy books. That began to change around 2011, when I encountered Dan Simmons’ incredible and challenging novel Hyperion which, fittingly enough, was more of a sci-fi/fantasy hybrid (or at the very least, a sci-fi/literary fiction hybrid).

Since then I’ve slowly but surely incorporated more sci-fi into my literary diet, and have had the pleasure of reading several books by noted sci-fi guru, Alistair Reynolds. I first read Reynold’s House of Suns (more on that in a future review), but my most recently read Reynolds (say that 3x fast!) is Revenger.

Like Hyperion, Revenger is sort of a hybrid of several different genres, though it still fits comfortably within the “sci-fi” range. A review I found on Amazon described it thusly: “Basically, it’s Treasure Island meets Moby Dick, set in space, with a nice Blade Runner-ish color palette and a cast of character worthy of a Terry Gilliam movie. I loved it.”

I really can’t argue with any of that assessment! The story follows Arafura Ness who, along with her sister Adrana, decide to leave the relatively comfortable world they grew up on, in search of interstellar adventure. The sisters’ desire to set out from their home is assisted by the revelation that they have the rare talent to be “bone readers,” which enable them to provide a vital service to ships searching for lost treasure.

This lost treasure ends up being one of the most fascinating parts of the story, to me at least (though I’ll admit to having a certain preoccupation with the treasure in “Treasure Island” as well, and indeed remember having one dream in particular about having discovered the hoard for 10 year-old self! If only…). Essentially, in this universe exist a number of “baubles,” or planetary enclosures that only open for very specific periods of time. So for instance, a ship’s captain may determine that a certain bauble will be open for a week, starting tomorrow, and so will position their crew to raid the planet’s treasures during the time that the bauble is open. The downside is that when a bauble closes, there is no way to manually open it, and so if any crew members are left inside, it’s game over.

Arafura and Adrana do indeed find themselves embroiled in adventure, but as it turns out, they may have bitten off more than they can chew. I’ll leave the plot summary there, except to note that there are SPACE PIRATES, so that’s pretty cool. Reynold’s writing is solid, and I found the book to be highly readable. There’s some “hard science” space travel detail, but in general this is more a book about interstellar adventure than anything else (did I mention the SPACE PIRATES?).

Overall, I found this to be a very enjoyable read. In fact upon finishing it, I was surprised to see that it had been 400+ pages, as it felt much shorter to me. While it’s not my favorite Reynolds work so far (that’s House of Suns), I’m more than comfortable recommending this one to anyone with a passing interest in science fiction or adventure.

Rating: 4 – Highly Recommended

If you liked this, you may enjoy: House of Suns, A Fire Upon the Deep.