Book Review Archives

REVIEW:The Last Hero by Terry Pratchet

MY RATING:

(For more Discworld reviews, see The Great Pratchett Review Table)

Thanks to our own lovely and talented Tim, I was able to get my hands on the coffee-table sized version of The Last Hero, the one with Cohen in all his geriatric glory on the cover. What a treat this book is. The Last Hero is the story of a group of unlikely heroes who attempt to stop an old threat, namely the Silver Horde, from destroying Discworld. It seems that Cohen and his gang want to give the gods what for, which, unfortunately, will also result in bad things for the rest of the Disc.

The Last Hero, clocking in at around 40,000 words, is very short book, more of a novella really. The story itself is rather fun, if short, being a conglomeration of parodies: the moon landing, fantasy evil overlords, and the lone hero against impossible odds are just a few of them. However, The Last Hero really requires some knowledge of the previous Discworld novels, as Pratchett doesn’t wast time with character introductions or backstory re-hashes. Everything is in service to the plot, and the action move along at a brisk and humorous pace. We meet old friends such as Rincewind, Lord Vetinari, Cohen and Corporal Carrot. Of course there is the usual Pratchett word play, which reminds my of Jimmy from Airplane!, frequent use of footnotes, normal seeming situations that rapidly become comically unusual and, of course, Death.

But where this book really shines is in the artwork. Paul Kidby replaces the usual artist, Josh Kirby, and he brings a more ‘realistic’ style to the Discworld. His takes on the appearance of all the characters are refreshingly different yet still manage to capture the feel of each character. That being said, I think the best artwork in the book are the drawings of Leonard of Quirm, the Disc’s version of Leonardo da Vinci. Kidby does an incredible job of mimicing da Vinci’s artwork style while infusing it with typical Discworld insanity. My favorites would be the drawing on the Common Swamp Dragon, the painting of the Rimfall, and the sketches of the space ship, The Great Bird. In fact, The Last Hero is just chock full of great eye candy and I spent as much time just looking at the art as I did in reading the book.

While not the longest story in the Discworld canon, I have to say that the artwork alone in The Last Hero elevates this book near the top of the best Discworld novels. If you’re a Discworld fan and you haven’t read this book, do yourself a favor and get it. You won’t be disappointed. I may have to ‘lose’ this book and, thus, not be able to return it to Tim…

REVIEW: 2007 Hugo Award Short Fiction Nominees

Like last year, I undertook a project to read the short fiction nominees for this year’s Hugo Award. (I undertook a similar Nebula short fiction reading project this year, too.) All the Hugo nominees were available online for free reading. Hooray for the Internets!

Overall, this was a fun project. However, I am still coming to terms with the fact that my tastes do not always mesh with those of the award-nominating populace. I guess I still have the misconception that award-nominated fiction represents the best of the best. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I expect all the stories to be 5-star knockouts. This just isn’t the case.

That said, all but one of the stories were good or better. I was somewhat disappointed by the McDonald story, especially in light of how much I enjoyed River of Gods, but otherwise this is a strong batch of stories; stronger, I believe, than this year’s Nebula nominees. Coincidentally, two of the Hugo-nominated novellas (by Melko and Shunn) are also 2006 Nebula nominees.

While I’m comparing, the 2007 Hugo nominees contain a much larger percentage of science fiction stories than the Nebula nominees, which is fantasy-heavy. Oddly, my usual indifference towards fantasy seems to have been overruled in the Hugo nominees. The few that are here made quite good impressions. The Nebula ballot had some stories that left something to be desired.

In a nutshell, then, here are my impressions of the stories in each category, sorted from most to least enjoyable, except where ties are indicated by rating. Linked story titles point to the online versions. My winning picks are the tops ones listed in each category.

NOVELLAS

Lord Weary’s Empire” by Michael Swanwick

The Walls of the Universe” by Paul Melko

Inclination” by William Shunn

Julian” by Robert Charles Wilson

A Billion Eves” by Robert Reed

NOVELLETTES

All the Things You Are” by Mike Resnick

Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter” by Geoff Ryman

Dawn, and Sunset, and the Colours of the Earth” by Michael F. Flynn

Yellow Card Man” by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Djinn’s Wife” by Ian McDonald

SHORT STORIES

Impossible Dreams” by Tim Pratt

The House Beyond the Sky” by Benjamin Rosenbaum

Kin” by Bruce McAllister

How to Talk to Girls at Parties” by Neil Gaiman

Eight Episodes” by Robert Reed

Reviewlettes of the stories follow….

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REVIEW: The Hedge Knight by George R.R. Martin

REVIEW SUMMARY: My first foray in Martin’s well-regarded fantasy series.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A squire named Dunk carries on the tradition of his dead master and enters a jousting tournament to begin his career as a knight.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Exceptional storytelling; excellent pencil work and coloring.

CONS: Too many characters, houses and relationships to keep track of.

BOTTOM LINE: A fine introduction to A Song of Ice and Fire.

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REVIEW: His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik

REVIEW SUMMARY: Surprisingly engaging read that I honestly couldn’t put down.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Will Laurence is a British navy captain during the time of Lord Nelson and when Napoleon was threatening to engulf all of Europe. But in a bit of alternative history, dragons are real and take (multiple) riders into battle. Laurence ends up a rider through what he considers bad luck, but ends up making the friend of a lifetime in his dragon Temeraire. The two then ride for the King in defense of the islands from the might of the French.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Very fun story, sympathetic characters, a setting that isn’t at all fantasy save for the dragons (strange, but true.)

CONS: Some of this has been done before by Ann McCaffrey

BOTTOM LINE: If you want a quick read, this book will hook you in and end up well worth your time.

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REVIEW: Ports of Call by Jack Vance

REVIEW SUMMARY: A non-traditional book that was very fun to read.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Myron has been cast about on a sea of change. He floats from place to place encountering very different points of view and a story in every port.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Vance’s command of the language is subtle and fun. Non-traditional conventions, interesting characters, and good storytelling. Almost reads as a collection of short stories.

CONS: Neither a linear story nor a character study, this book may turn some readers off. Booksplit somewhat by accident (according to the author.) Light on sci-fi elements.

BOTTOM LINE: Fun set of stories that chronicle the travels of a young man adrift in the big universe.

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REVIEW: Sun of Suns by Karl Schroeder

John and JP experimentally dispense with the usual review format to discuss Karl Schroeder’s latest book, Sun of Suns.

Sun of Suns is set in the world of Virga, an air-filled balloon three thousand kilometers in diameter whose major artificial light source is named Candesce, the sun of suns. There are smaller suns that exist to provide light to the many cylindrical habitats around Virga, which are spun up to create their own artificial gravities. Virga is low tech and the towns, built of wood and rope, are strung together to form nations. The story concerns Hayden Griffen, citizen of Aerie, whose parents were killed when they tried to assert their freedom through the creation of their own sun. Years later, Hayden seeks revenge on the man responsible: Chaison Fanning, head of the fleet of Slipstream, the nation that conquered Aerie.


John’s Rating

JP’s Rating

John: Cool book! This gets big points for sensawunda. The world Schroeder created is amazing…even if its unique physics took some getting used to. Fortunately he frequently works it into the story through things like floating water spheres, ropes and wires to pull yourself along, etc. That reminder was always there just in case you become too wrapped up in the human story of Hayden’s quest for revenge.

JP: Yup, this has sensawunda by the bucketfuls. And while the built world of Candesce is extremely cool, I was reminded of the following: The Integral Trees, Last Exile, and The Amazing Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello, and that is a good thing.

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REVIEW: Fast Forward 1 edited by Lou Anders

REVIEW SUMMARY: A good example of why I love reading short fiction.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The first volume of a new original fiction series – this one containing 19 stories and 2 poems.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: 15 stories good or better; good sampling of the literary range sf has to offer.
CONS: 4 stories mediocre or worse. 2 short poems that escape me.
BOTTOM LINE: A promising start to a hopefully long-running series.

Fast Forward 1 marks the beginning of a bold, new, annual science fiction anthology series; bold because it is often said that the number of anthology offerings is already high, yet here it is. Its goal is to provide original, sf-only stories that offer “windows on the future”, as Editor Lou Anders’ insightful, reference-laden introduction puts it. Or, as the book’s subtitle puts it: “Future fiction from the cutting edge.” This first volume does indeed have some great contenders to add to the sf field, blasting the series off with a promising start. Take that, crowded anthology field!

It helps that Anders has assembled some of the field’s brightest stars, mostly veterans, and some newer voices, too. Having a cool John Picacio cover to get passersby to notice that is also a great help. The collection of visions depicted here is indisputable proof that science fiction is the literature of ideas.

Not all the stories worked for me, but it’s rare for any anthology to do otherwise. (Insert YMMV disclaimer here.) Even “Best of…” anthologies are hit and miss. But on the whole, Fast Forward 1 has lots to offer. Standout stories here include “The Something-Dreaming Game” by Elizabeth Bear, “p dolce” by Louise Marley and “Wikiworld” by Paul Di Filippo.

Reviewlettes follow, except for the reviews of Robyn Hitchcock’s two poems, “They Came From the Future” and “I Caught Intelligence”. Look, I’ve been a fan of Robyn Hitchcock ever since “Balloon Man“, but not even he can make me like poetry. On the bright side, anthology-rating-wise, the poems’ short-short length had no impact on the book’s rating.

On with the reviewlettes!

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REVIEW: Keeping It Real by Justina Robson

REVIEW SUMMARY: A great book – over before you know it!

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Agent Lila Black is on her first mission for the Otopian NSA. Her mission? To guard and investigate the lead singer of the The No Shows rock band, who happens to be an elf. However, she is far from normal herself, even in a changed world intersecting with elven, faery, and even demon worlds. Her assignment leads to a plot much more involved than she had ever imagined and takes her through her own internal struggle and growth.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: A great blend of science fiction and fantasy! Imaginative characters, while based on previous fantasy archetypes – have their own unique aspects and personalities. Quickly pulls you in, and picks up speed from there.

CONS: The introduction, laying the basis of the book, could have been better.

BOTTOM LINE: Keeping It Real is anything but "keeping it real". It transports the reader to a familiar world with an intriguing fantasy and sci-fi twist.  Some good old fashioned espionage wrapped in futuristic technology and fantasy magic. If you are a fan of sci-fi or fantasy Keeping It Real has something for you!

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REVIEW: The Last Continent by Terry Pratchett

MY RATING:

The Last Continent is the sixth Rincewind novel, and it seems that Pratchett may have been running out of steam. What more, exactly, can you write about a man whose primary ability is in running away and who is very good at not doing magic? Thus it is with The Last Continent, where we really don’t get much of anything new, and certainly not about Rincewind. The story is basically about how the Wizards of the Unseen University end up on the Last Continent (aka – XXXX), but 3000 years in the past, and Rincewind’s adventures in present day XXXX and how those two settings finally mesh.

Rincewind, as you might expect, spends most of his time running away from everything, especially the supernatural kangaroo, who seems to have something interesting for Rincewind to do. The UU wizards, meanwhile, are trying to figure out how to make it back to Ank-Morpork for lunch, which will occur in a few hours plus three millennia. As such, there is very little interaction between the threads, although there are some inklings that the wizards in the past have caused/are causing problems in the present. I was never really sure, exactly, how this was done, or who was using Rincewind to try and set things right. The climax doesn’t really explain much, although there is a lot of rain involved. In fact, the whole never felt like an extended gag about Australia (which XXXX is similar too). Unfortunately, while the individual gags may be humorous, like the Mad Max-ish dwarf, and the goofy place names (Didjabringabeeralong), it really felt like Pratchett was beating a dead wombat, with just more, “Hey! Let’s make some more fun of how Australians talk and their strange vocabulary!” It got old quickly and I had to force myself to keep reading at some points.

That’s not to say there aren’t good things here. There certainly are. The ensuing discussion between the wizards as Ponder Stibbons attempts to explain time travel and paradoxes is quite funny. As is the scene where the god of evolution shows the wizards how evolution works and Stibbons points out how it can be made more efficient. Also, the explanation for how the platypus was created is quite funny, and, as you can guess, involved a committee. Of wizards. Rincewind is still his same old cowardly self, the Luggage gets a little screen time but in a familial way and Death makes a quick appearance and is always good for a laugh. And there are the little funny bits sprinkled throughout, but they don’t elevate this book above being an average Pratchett book.

Which is to say, while The Last Continent isn’t Pratchett’s best by a long shot, it does have its moments, and its certainly better than your run of the mill fantasy with elves story.

(See the entire Pratchett Reading List here.)

REVIEW: The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett

REVIEW SUMMARY: A good book overall, but weak on plot.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Discworld plunges towards an ominous red star and the only thing that can save it are the most powerful magic spells, one of which lives inside the head of the reluctant Wizard Rincewind.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: A quick and funny read.

CONS: Light on plot; seemed to drag on a bit despite the humor.

BOTTOM LINE: A better overall reading experience than The Color of Magic, even if only slightly.

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REVIEW: The Last Colony by John Scalzi

REVIEW SUMMARY: Another excellent read by Scalzi.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: John Perry and Jane Sagan are assigned to lead a new colony world only to discover they are pawns in a risky game played by the Colonial Union.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Well-written narrative; excellent storytelling; fun characters; gives closure to this superb series.

CONS: Scenes of space colony life not as interesting as the other parts; one minor, but unfortunately obvious, foreshadowing of the ending.

BOTTOM LINE: Except for a few minor glitches, this lives up to the reputation of the previous books.

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REVIEW: Mainspring by Jay Lake

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Clockmaker Apprentice Heathor is visted by the Archangel Gabriel. Hethor is tasked with discovering the Key Perilous and re-winding the Mainspring of the world before it runs down and the Earth stops rotating.

PROS: Wildly inventive, filled with rollicking old-school adventure SF, Hethor is an interesting and sympathetic character.

CONS: Hethor escapes many deadly encounters, secondary characters not fleshed out, high body count and sporadically overly violent.

BOTTOM LINE: Mainspring is a wildly inventive novel infused with old-school adventure SF action. If you’re looking for something different that has lots of ‘sensawunda’, pick up Mainspring.

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[Update: added review of final story, “An End to All Things”.]

Like last year, I undertook a project to read the short fiction nominees for this year’s Nebula Award. Only two of the nominees were not available online this year. One of those (Michael A. Burstein’s “Sanctuary”) I read in Analog, the other (“An End to All Things” by Karina Sumner-Smith) I couldn’t get a copy of, so it was not reviewed. (If I manage to get my hands on a copy, I’ll update this post.) [Update: See review below.]

Once more, I thought this was a fun project as it makes me feel like I’m keeping in touch with the best that the current short fiction landscape has to offer. Or is that a fallacy? Although I enjoyed immensely all of the novella nominees, some of the shorter works were considerably less than stellar. In their defense, those tended to be the fantasy stories; my partial indifference towards that genre couldn’t bode well for them anyway. Nonetheless, I remained hopeful, expecting – perhaps naively – something special from stories that are nominated for awards.

I’m not sure if it’s a trend or just something I notices because, in this age of Internets, looking up the information is so darn easy, but it seems that more and more short fiction that I read draws upon history and mythology to tell their stories. This year’s nominees initiated Wikipedia lookups for Helen of Troy, Henry David Thoreau, Narcissus, Walpurgis Night, Erwin Schrödinger and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Science fiction is nothing if not cause to brush up on history. Apparently.

In a nutshell, then, here are my impressions of the stories in each category, sorted from most to least enjoyable. My winning picks are the tops ones listed in each category.

NOVELLAS

“Sanctuary” by Michael A. Burstein (Read a preview)

Burn” by James Patrick Kelly

The Walls of the Universe” by Paul Melko

Inclination” by William Shunn

NOVELETTES

Two Hearts” by Peter S. Beagle

Little Faces” by Vonda McIntyre

The Language of Moths” by Chris Barzak

Journey into the Kingdom” by M. Rickert

Walpurgis Afternoon” by Delia Sherman

SHORT STORIES

Henry James, This One’s For You” by Jack McDevitt

An End to All Things” by Karina Sumner-Smith

The Woman in Schrödinger’s Wave Equations” by Eugene Mirabelli

Helen Remembers the Stork Club” by Esther M. Friesner

Echo” by Elizabeth Hand

Pip and the Fairies” by Theodora Goss.

Reviewlettes of the stories follow….

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REVIEW: Deadstock by Jeffrey Thomas

REVIEW SUMMARY: A refreshing blend of science fiction, horror, mystery and action.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Shapeshifting private detective Jeremy Stake is hired to find the rare, bioengineered doll of his rich client’s daughter in the dark, gritty setting of Punktown, a futuristic metropolis of alien creatures, mutants and inter-dimensional travel.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Imaginative setting that you’ll want more of; consistent and enjoyable pacing; awesome second half; successful juggling of multiple story lines.
CONS: Some plot turns were predictable.
BOTTOM LINE: Come for the plot, stay for the setting.
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REVIEW: Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The continuing adventures of Rincewind, this time in China! Err, the Counterweight Continent.

PROS: The usual Pratchett wit, wordplay and funny characters.

CONS: A bit slow in the middle.

BOTTOM LINE: A worthy entry in the Rincewind series. Anyone who likes Rincewind should read this one.

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REVIEW SUMMARY: This anthology makes a good argument for why you should be reading short fiction.

MY RATING:

[Note: When rating an anthology, I usually weight the stories according to length: novellas count twice as much as novelettes, which count twice as much as short stories. Since I did not know for sure the lengths of the stories in this anthology, I weighted each one equally.]

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: 16 original stories of science fiction.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: 4 standout stories; variety of styles and sub-genres.

CONS: 2 weaker stories.

BOTTOM LINE: More good stories than bad; worth the read if only to sample the variety sf has to offer.

The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction is the first book to be published by the Solaris imprint and aims to serve as their manifesto: to publish “outstanding science fiction and fantasy, whatever the form.” Like a large majority of anthologies, your story mileage may vary, but overall, they are off to a really good start.

The book’s brief introduction talks about science fiction’s short form and it is clear that editor George Mann values the “sparkling gems” the format produces. He succinctly cites what’s so exciting about the short form: the “single conceit”, neatly packaged for the bite-size consumption, long enough to explore that single idea (though some stories here could have used an extra page or two to provide better closure) and sometimes the launch pad for linked or longer stories. Short fiction delivers sense of wonder in its purest form.

Perhaps more important to regular short fiction readers is the publication of a promising new anthology that doesn’t add to the already-crowded “Best of…” or themed anthology set, but instead offers a various sampling of what the science fiction genre can accomplish. There are indeed many “gems” here. Standout stories included “C-Rock City” by Jay Lake & Greg van Eekhout, “The Bowdler Strain” by James Lovegrove, “Last Contact” by Stephen Baxter and “Third Person” by Tony Ballantyne.

Reviewlettes of the stories follow….

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REVIEW: Eric by Terry Pratchett

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Eric is Pratchett’s novel parodying the classic tale of Faust.

PROS: Some amusing bits

CONS: Not as funny as other books, very short book.

BOTTOM LINE: Aside from continuing the adventures of everyone’s favorite Wizzard, Eric just doesn’t hold up compared to other Discworld books.

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REVIEW: D.A. by Connie Willis

REVIEW SUMMARY: D.A. reads like Robert A. Heinlein on speed!

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Theodora Baumgarten is erroneously enrolled as an IASA space cadet and subsequently tries to find out why.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Fast-moving story; Willis’ writing style is thoroughly engaging and highly entertaining.

CONS: Somewhat predictable, especially for fans of Heinlein’s juveniles, to which this story pays homage.

BOTTOM LINE: An excellent novella.

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REVIEW:Bright Of The Sky by Kay Kenyon

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Former starship pilot Titus Quinn is coerced into returning to the mysterious realm, the Entire, by the Miranda corporation. Miranda wants Titus to discover a way to use the Entire as a shortcut for interstellar travel. Titus has other ideas.

PROS: Unique setting both physically and societally; Titus Quinn is a compelling anti-hero.

CONS: Some clunky writing; a drawn out ending; weaker secondary characters.

BOTTOM LINE: Bright Of The Sky effortlessly blends science fiction concepts and world-building with fantasy story telling to create a unique and intriguing whole.

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REVIEW: Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett

REVIEW SUMMARY: Pratchett’s clever wit and humor throughout a story of time manipulation.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Two Monks of History and the granddaughter of Death race to stop a young genius from completing the perfect clock – one that will halt time as we know it.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Pratchett’s humor is in typical form – a chortle, guffaw or snort on practically every page; some light philosophy.

CONS: A bit of re-used humor.

BOTTOM LINE: Good additon to the Discworld line.

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