Chronicles of the Black Company

By Glen Cook

Ok, first, an admission: I’m not quite finished with Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company, so I reserve the right to edit this review if the final chapters turn out to be absolute dreck. (Editor’s note: they didn’t.)

With that said, I’m pretty confident that won’t happen, because I’ve LOVED these books so far. Cook’s work first came onto my radar a few years ago, as I was looking for some “dark and gritty” fantasy. I ended up opting for Joe Abercrombie’s series The First Law instead. It did indeed satisfy my dark urge, but I ultimately found Abercrombie’s work a little dispiriting- I love a good anti-hero, but when entire books are made up of them, it can become a bit of a slog (full review of The First Law, forthcoming).

Despite writing in the same sub-genre, Cook’s work never left me with quite the same feeling. Sure, the members of the Black Company aren’t angels, but they demonstrate camaraderie towards each other, and when they do commit foul acts, it’s typically under duress. I think the story is well-served by being grounded in the generally morally acceptable character of Croaker, the Black Company’s physician and our protagonist. It also benefits from Cook’s magnificent vision of “The Lady” and her “Ten Who Were Taken,” whose dastardly desires keep the plot progressing in satisfying fashion.

In terms of writing, Cook’s style tends towards the short and choppy. He’s not prone to over-description, and tends to get straight to the dialogue/action, which I appreciate (as detailed in the “About Me” section, I’ll take plot over prose any time). With that said, if you’re looking for fantasy with a more “literary” feel, there are plenty of more appropriate options out there (for instance, The Name of the Wind, or The Dragonbone Chair).

However, if you’re into grittier, war-based fantasy, then I can’t recommend these books highly enough. They may not be for everyone, but Croaker and his merry band will stick in my memory for a long time to come.

Rating: 3- Highly Recommended

If you like this, you may enjoy: The First Law, The Broken Empire

Snowcrash

By Neal Stephenson

For whatever reason, Stephenson’s Snowcrash has found itself firmly tucked away against Gibson’s Neuromancer in my memory, to the point that while writing these reviews, I needed to go back and look at each to determine where one ended and the other began.

Snowcrash is perhaps less revolutionary and prophetic than Neuromancer, partially by virtue of being written several years after (still, 1992!). With that said, I freely admit that if I needed to re-read one or the other, I would choose Snowcrash without a second thought. Both books combine hacking intrigue with larger questions about artificial intelligence, the nature of reality, and the degree to which drugs can affect our perception, but for my money, Snowcrash is just a more fun ride. From the opening sequence, in which we find our hero protagonist, Hiro Protagonist (seriously) speeding madly in order to deliver a pizza on time, this book offers a lot to like.

While Snowcrash might not have been quite the act of imagination that Neuromancer was (at least for its time), there’s an argument to be made that Stephenson’s vision of the internet as a mix of “private walled gardens” set opposite what is essentially the wild wild west, is only becoming more accurate by the year. (Indeed, if net neutrality ends up going the way of the dinosaurs, those walled gardens likely to proliferate quickly.)

Towards the end of the book, things really start going off the rails, and while the plot may not always been easily digestible, there’s a lot of enjoyment (and some humor) to be had here. In particular, the shadowy and dangerous figure of Raven stands tall in my memory, cutting his way across the waves on his kayak. If you like sci-fi, and have any appetite at all for slightly more complex material, I highly recommend you give this one a try (there’s a fair amount of reference to ancient Sumerian text, but don’t worry, no Sumerian is required to enjoy the book!).

Rating: 3- Highly Recommended

If you like this, you may enjoy: Neuromancer, Ready Player One

Neuromancer

By William Gibson

Neuromancer is one of those books that modern sci-fi readers may dismiss as being “old news,” but they do so at their own peril. First published in 1984, Gibson’s novel was incredibly prescient; his description of “cyberspace” presaged much of what the world wide web would become, years ahead of its time.

Neuromancer’s influence can be seen virtually anywhere you look in the modern sci-fi scene. It popularized what would become known as the “cyberpunk” genre, and more modern works like The Matrix are direct descendants of the ideas Gibson explores. In fact, there’s a certain sense in which the very character of the modern day internet is indebted to Gibson’s vision (for more on this, check out Jack Womack’s afterword to the 2000 re-printing of the novel)!

The plot follows beleaguered hacker Henry Dorsett Case, who finds himself in difficult straits in Chiba City, Japan. In return for bailing Case out, a mysterious benefactor sets him on the path to find a piece of artificial(?) intelligence, and things get pretty crazy, pretty fast. Suffice to say, there are ninjas, samurai, a whole heap of drugs, and sojourns into cyberspace.

As a novel itself, Neuromancer is a little choppier than I’d like. It’s a challenging read at times, and wading through the characters’ slang can get tiring. Beach reading, this isn’t.

With that said, this is a cornerstone of the sci-fi genre, and I continue to be amazed that anyone could have written this book before the existence of the web. Like the subject of my next review (Snowcrash), this isn’t for everyone, but it’s certainly a worthwhile read for any one who enjoys sci-fi generally.

Rating: 2- Recommend with Reservations

If you like this, you may enjoy: Snowcrash

 

The Red Rising Series

By Pierce Brown

I took a trip to Iceland last fall, and in the process found myself frantically downloading books to my Kindle before I left. In the process, I ended up with Red Rising, which I hadn’t heard anything about previously.

Full disclosure: this isn’t a well-written book. I think the average sentence length is probably like 8 words, and let me tell you, this ain’t Hemingway.

“But Sam,” you say, “in your ‘About Me section,’ you say that you’re not interested in trashing authors’ work, right? Why so harsh?”

Also full disclosure: I basically inhaled this book, and its sequels Golden Son and Morning Star. Is it fine literature? Nope. Is it highly derivative of the Hunger Games? Yep. Did I read all three books within like 48 hours? You betcha.

Here’s the basic plot: in a futuristic dystopian society, a member of the downtrodden “Red” class manages to infiltrate the upper tier “Gold” class, and embarks on Hunger Games-esque adventures. And while I panned the writing of the first book, to be fair, the author is young, and improves over books 2 and 3. Throughout, Brown commands a strong control of the plot, and keeps the cliffhangers coming. If you enjoyed the Hunger Games (or even Harry Potter, for that matter), you’ll probably find something to like here. At the very least, it’s a good way to spend a lazy afternoon.

Warning: though this is something near young adult literature, there is a fair bit of violence and gore (a la The Hunger Games).

1/22/18 Editor’s Note: this book was initially given a rating of “2 – Guilty Pleasure.” As part of the blog redesign, all ratings of “Guilty Pleasure” have since been revised to “Recommended with Reservations.”

Rating: 2 – Recommended with Reservations

If you like this, you may enjoy: The Hunger Games, Harry Potter

H.P. Lovecraft, The Complete Fiction

By H.P. Lovecraft

I’m a certified “big book” lover, and so when I wander through bookstores, my eye often settles on the bulkiest books around (insert Sir Mix-A-Lot reference here). On just such an outing a few years ago, I found myself drawn to a suitably large tome, which revealed itself to be The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft.

I knew Lovecraft’s name, and that it was synonymous with weirdness, but that was about the extent of my familiarity with the author. A few short hours later, I had remedied that situation, by poring over his weird and wonderful tales of woe. Lovecraft is difficult to describe- he’s very much situated in a particular place and time (or at least that’s how it feels to read his work 100 years later), and yet he’s writing about fantastic and horrific concepts that seem to transcend time. His writing is compelling, and his imagination is truly something to behold.

The enduring nature of the words, images, and, well, creatures that Lovecraft created is a testament to his skill. I mean, how many other authors dead before 1937 are the inspiration for modern board games? (I HIGHLY recommend the game, btw.) If you’re a reluctant reader of the horror genre (and I count myself firmly in that camp), I’d still suggest giving Lovecraft a try, if only because of his over-sized influence on the modern fantasy/horror landscape.

Now, one very significant caveat: Lovecraft, by any modern definition, is well… pretty racist. Even if you’re inclined to grant the guy a certain amount of slack for having lived in a different era, your eyebrows are likely to rise on occasion due to his descriptions of “mulatto’s,” etc. My personal approach is that reading an author’s work doesn’t necessarily mean accepting their premises, but I can certainly understand if some people would just prefer to skip H.P. entirely.

Rating: 2- Recommend with Reservations

If you like this, you may enjoy: Edgar Allen Poe, George R. R. Martin’s Short Fiction

The Morgaine Cycle

By C.J. Cherryh

The Morgaine Cycle began in 1979 with the publication of Gate of Ivrel, but I didn’t encounter the series until 2016, when all 4 books of the series were long since published. Reviews of the series compare it favorably to the Lord of the Rings, and I eagerly sat down to begin my copy of The Complete Morgaine.

Full disclosure: I only made it half-way through book 2 before throwing in the towel. I enjoyed book one, but ultimately found the world to be pretty bleak and unsatisfying, and that dynamic didn’t seem to be changing by book 2. To be fair, part of that is the intentional tone of the story, but it just never quite clicked for me. Much of the plot development felt jarring; characters frequently engage in activities that seem ill advised, or swear oaths that end up constraining their behavior in dramatic ways, or otherwise make decisions for reasons that are difficult for a reader to fathom. The cast of characters was also quite small, which is a pet peeve of mine when it comes to “epic fantasy.” For a world to feel truly lived in, I think it needs more than a handful of named characters.

I’m sure there are plenty of other people for whom this series would be right up their alley, but it’s just not my cup of tea. If your tastes run similar to mine, then my advice to you is: skip it.

Rating: 1- Skip It.

The Expanse

By James S. A. Corey

Upon reading 2011’s Leviathan Wakes, it should be obvious why the series was later picked up for TV by the Sci-Fi Channel. The characters are engaging, the writing is clever, and the books are filled with cliffhangers leaving you wanting more. The brainchild of two authors, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, the series has since grown to 6 books, and aside from one or two hiccups, the story has remained highly engaging. These are true page turners, and the authors have been churning out new books in rapid fashion.

Generally speaking, The Expanse tends towards the “soft sci fi” end of the spectrum; there’s certainly plenty of talk of scientific principles, rocket propulsion, vacuum dynamics and such, but ultimately this is a series about people, not technology. James Holden and his tight-knit crew will quickly find their way into your heart, and I eagerly await books 7+.

I’ll continue to update this review as new books in the series are published, but with 6 books in print, I’m comfortable declaring that this series is: Highly Recommended.

Rating: 3- Highly Recommended

If you like this, you may enjoy: A Fire Upon the Deep, Old Man’s War