Right now I’ve only read one book that I haven’t given at least the mini-review treatment – Last Argument of Kings, the conclusion to Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy. Since I read it about a month and a half ago now, I’m not going to review it. I put that one to the back of the review queue when I was busy with wedding planning then getting caught up once that was over, figuring the world didn’t really need yet another review of this novel (as you’ll see if you scroll down to the links below) and that anybody who had read the first two probably had a pretty good idea of whether or not they wanted to read the final volume in the series (which should definitely be read before this book, starting with The Blade Itself and followed by Before They Are Hanged). Plus I’m a little over halfway through Abercrombie’s latest novel, Best Served Cold, right now and will most likely be discussing it in relation to the series in that review.

So I’m just going to say a little bit about the series in general and link to some of the aforementioned numerous reviews for anyone who does indeed want to read a review of Last Argument of Kings.

The First Law trilogy is a partially serious, partially humorous epic fantasy series in the tradition of the trend toward “gritty” fantasy. (Yes, I used that word. Oh well, I’m straying from my review rules in this and just saying whatever comes to mind and not rereading it 100 times and revising it. Note: Haha, that was funny of me as I am writing this sentence after reading it for about the tenth time.)

On the outside, it may seem a little bit like stock fantasy but what sets it apart is the way in which it is told, although I still wouldn’t say it’s one of the best fantasy series I’ve ever read. It’s full of dark humor and is very readable. For the first part of each book, it didn’t seem like a lot was happening plot-wise, but the characters themselves and their cynical observations kept me reading. The part I really enjoyed in the latter part of the series is the way the author started out with a fairly standard predictable, fantasy plot and then took it in a different direction.

Although I found these fun to read, they are not for everyone – especially those who prefer to stay away from books with violence, bad language, and sexual content. I also would not recommend them to people who enjoy likable characters who tend to do the right thing. If you are looking to read uplifting stories about heroics, nobility, and the goodness of human nature, these are not for you, and the final volume is the most depressing of the three.

Now I need to get back to reading Best Served Cold so I can review that one soon. I was hoping to have it finished by Wednesday (the US release date) but that didn’t happen so I’m hoping to finish it this weekend instead. If only I could read faster… Now, for the promised links of actual reviews of Last Argument of Kings (conveniently found on the review index on Fantasy Book News & Reviews, with the exception of Jeff’s own review):

The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden
by Catherynne M. Valente
496pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 9/10
Amazon Rating: 5/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.51/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.36/5

In the Night Garden comprises the first half of Catherynne M. Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales duology. The second volume, In the Cities of Coin and Spice, was released in 2007. Often compared to The Arabian Nights for its style of stories within a story, In the Night Garden was nominated for the 2007 World Fantasy Awards and won the 2006 Tiptree Award. The book itself is very beautiful with some illustrations by Michael Kaluta, and its actual contents are also very impressive – full of imaginative, intertwined fairy tales told in a lush prose style.

It’s difficult to describe the plot of In the Night Garden since it is a series of interconnected stories rather than a novel with a straightforward plot line. It begins with a young girl who was shunned for the black marks around her eyes that most believed marked her as a demon. She wanders the palace gardens of the sultan by herself for thirteen years until one of the sultan’s sons is curious enough to ask her why her eyes are so dark. Lonely after her years of solitude, the girl tells him that her eyes were not always that way but contain stories put there by a spirit. The boy begs her to tell him just one of these tales and is so spellbound by them that he keeps seeking her to hear more.

There are two main stories within this volume that the girl tells the boy – The Book of the Steppe and The Book of the Sea. Although these two are separated, the second story does tie in with the first. With so many stories within stories, the book is mostly comprised of short sections that switch between viewpoints often. For instance, The Book of the Steppe starts with the girl, then moves on to a short section about a prince who is dissatisfied with his wealth and leaves his home. He soon becomes hungry and breaks the neck of a goose in order to feed himself. However, the prince is then confronted by a witch claiming the goose is her daughter and is horrified to see the bird has turned into a young woman. After this, the witch begins telling a tale, then within her tale she tells a story told to her by her grandmother. The book continues to go back and forth between these tales but within them are woven in tales belonging to all sorts of other characters – a wolf, a tavern-keeper, a beast-maiden, a marsh king and many others. Interspersed throughout all these are brief interludes containing the girl and the boy and sometimes the boy’s sister, who punishes him for visiting the girl in the garden.


Because of this format, this is a book I wish I had picked up when I had more time to dedicate to reading instead of when I only had a few moments here and there. This is really a book that demands some actual time to sit down and read in large chunks. Also, I’d recommend reading it in a relatively short timespan because there are parts that tie together and it helps to remember what happened in the previous stories. Due to the timing of when I started reading this, it took me a month to finish it. When I was reading the second story told by the girl, it kept triggering memories of the first story but it had been long enough since I’d read it that I found myself flipping around a lot trying to remember where I’d read about that character or event earlier. So while I would definitely encourage people to read this book, I would also encourage them not to start it while in the midst of vacation/wedding planning as I did – wait until there’s time to savor it.

In the Night Garden is very well-written with some beautiful prose and some very nice touches of humor throughout it, particularly when dealing with conventions of fantasy tales. One of my favorite sections was the Marsh King remembering when a prince came to slay his friend the Beast. Since Beast had never bothered this prince at all, the king asked why he came to dispose of him:

“I am a Prince,” he replied, being rather dense. “It is the function of a Prince – value A – to kill monsters – value B – for the purpose of establishing order – value C – and maintaining a steady supply of maidens – value D. If one inserts the derivative of value A (Prince) into the equation y equals BC plus CD squared, and sets it equal to zero, giving the apex of the parabola, namely, the point of intersection between A (Prince) and B (Monster), one determines value E – a stable kingdom. It is all very complicated, and if you have a chart handy, I can graph it for you.” (pp. 110 – 111)

This scene continues with a discussion about civilization and the definition of a monster that must be killed and is very amusing. Many of the characters had great storytelling voices and the Marsh King was one I especially enjoyed.

This book is full of imagination – anything can happen. Talking stars and animals, men with dogs’ heads, maidens with animal parts, and other wonders are contained within the pages. It can also be dark at times and not all the stories are happy. Other aspects of the book that I enjoyed were the little feminist twists and the “Cinderella” story. Throughout the book, there are parts where it breaks out of the mold of traditional male/female roles that are often seen in fantasy but it is not overdone since it’s the way things happen – occasionally, the woman is the stronger one or the one finding and carrying the man away. I love retold fairy tales and really enjoyed the version of “Cinderella” in which no woman wanted to be the “lucky” one selected when the wizard was searching for an apprentice.

The only issue I had with the book is that since there are so many interconnected stories with so many different characters, there is no time to really connect with any one of them. I’m not saying that is a flaw since it is just the nature of this type of structure, but as someone who reads primarily for characters, I did miss really getting to know some of them.

In the Night Garden is a brilliant, unique book containing many tales woven together, adventure, and wonder. It has that quality of letting go of reality common that makes young adult books so endearing yet it seems to be written for an older audience. I’ll definitely read the next book and have already ordered it.

9/10

Read an Excerpt

Other Opinions:

Archangel
by Sharon Shinn
400pp (Paperback)
My Rating: 8.5/10
Amazon Rating: 4.5/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.21/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.10/5

Archangel is a novel in Sharon Shinn’s Samaria series, featuring a world in which angels and humans live together in harmony. The Samaria series is not published in chronological order, but on her website Shinn recommends reading the books in the following order (by release date): Archangel, Jovah’s Angel, The Allelluia Files, Angelica, and Angel-Seeker. There is also a novella in the To Weave a Web of Magic anthology called “Fallen Angel” that was published after the novels. Although this novel is supposed to be science fiction, it seems more like a fantasy novel. However, I read the blurb on the novel that spoiled other books in the series, and there is a reason it is labeled science fiction instead of fantasy.

Every twenty years a new angel is chosen by the god Jovah to lead the people. The beginning of the Archangel’s ascension is marked by the singing of the Gloria, which must be led by the mortal woman chosen by the god to be his wife, the Angelica. If the Gloria is not sung and attended by the appropriate people, Jovah will express his displeasure with thunderbolts. First he will destroy a mountain, then after a few days the river, and eventually the entire world if the Gloria is not performed to his satisfaction.

This is posing a bit of a problem for Gabriel, who is to become the new Archangel in 6 months and cannot find the woman chosen by Jovah to be his new wife. Although he has known he is to become Archangel for years, Gabriel kept putting off seeking the oracle to find out whom he is to marry. He figures he will have plenty of time to find her, and of course, every woman dreams of becoming the angelica so she’ll be thrilled when he gives her the news. What Gabriel did not count on was Jovah’s choice of Rachel, a farm girl who has not been in the location he was given for many years. After much searching, Gabriel has almost given up hope until he meets the slave girl who tends his fire in the morning and discovers that she is Rachel – who despises the prospect of becoming the new Angelica.


Archangel is somewhat romantic in that there is some emphasis on the relationship between Gabriel and Rachel, but it is far from being a mushy, sicky sweet love story. Occasionally, the two got along, but for the most part Rachel and Gabriel argue. Or, more precisely, Gabriel tries to be kind to Rachel and Rachel is not very nice to him in return. In the very beginning of the story, the oracle told Gabriel that the Angelica would counterbalance him, which meant she would most likely humble him since he was an arrogant man. That’s how it works, but honestly, I’m not quite sure how Gabriel put up with Rachel. At first, Gabriel is a bit disturbed by the fact that Jovah chose a slave girl for him, the Archangel of all Samaria, even though he was working to undo slavery in Samaria. Once he came to accept Rachel’s humble origins, he did try to be very understanding to her, but she never tried at all. In fact, she did quite the opposite, and basically did everything she could to be a thorn in his side.

Part of the story is told from Gabriel’s perspective, but more of it is from Rachel’s perspective and it’s really more her story than his. Because of this, you know about Rachel’s past and how much she has lost, so she’s at least somewhat more sympathetic than she would be otherwise. Even so, she became harder to empathize with the further I read. She was one of those characters you just wanted to knock some sense into. Once Gabriel got over his issue with her slavery, he was almost too perfect, and she couldn’t just be even a little bit nice to him? He was a just man who was trying to make changes for the better throughout the land, and he did his best to ensure Rachel was as happy as possible. Yet stubborn Rachel always had to be difficult, and even though it makes sense with her character, I still wanted to yell at her to get a grip and quit being so immature and silly. Early on, I loved Rachel, and although I never really disliked her, I did like her less later and can see some readers coming to despise her.

Archangel is about more than just Rachel and Gabriel, although they are the main focus. It’s also about Rachel adjusting to her new life and Gabriel’s attempts to undo the problems created by his predecessor, the Archangel Raphael. Raphael lacked Gabriel’s strong sense of justice and could be bought by the merchants. He was the one who allowed one race of people to be enslaved, and he turned out to be worse and worse.

Religion did play a major role in the storyline, but it seemed like part of the setting to me rather than preachiness even if part of the novel was about having faith in Jovah. Samaria’s lands and people tended to have Biblical names and it was closer to the Old Testament than the new one – there was no Savior mentioned, just a god who needed to be pleased or smiting would commence. The people of Samaria tried to uphold the laws, but there was one group of people who believed differently from the rest, the Edori (who adopted Rachel at a young age when her parents died). Most of the people believed Jovah was supreme but the Edori believe that he was created by another being and answers to his creator. They also believed any person could talk to Yovah (their name for Jovah) even if he was not an oracle or angel. At Rachel’s wedding, she converses with one of the oracles about the beliefs of the Edori and he wonders who taught them these beliefs and where they came from, which I am hoping is explored in further books. I would like to know more about Jovah, where he came from, and which beliefs about him are actually true. The world beliefs in this novel and how they were executed was one of my favorite aspects of the book.

Archangel was a wonderful book with an intriguing setting based on Biblical ideas. Although I loved the main heroine for about half the book, her attitude did become wearying toward the end, but it was always readable and kept me wanting to find out what happened next. I’d definitely like to read more of the books in this series.

8.5/10


Note: I started this as a reply to a comment on my review of Marooned in Realtime, but it grew to the point where I decided to split it out into its own post.

Well, the most important Asimov to read is the Robot-Empire-Foundation series (which is actually three separate series that he joined into the same universe after the fact). Wiki can give you the full list in chronological order, but I think how you read them depends on what you’re looking for.

In my opinion, the natural entry points are Caves of Steel (the first robot mystery), Foundation (the first foundation book published), or Prelude to Foundation (the first foundation book chronologically, at least as far as the ones written by Asimov himself go). I didn’t include The Currents of Space, the first Empire book, because I really think the Empire books are the weakest of the three series and I mostly read them as background for the Foundation books that came after the series were connected.

Caves is a detective novel in a sci-fi setting, more or less. It posits an interesting future Earth where the cities have been domed over and the land in between is reserved for robot agriculture. At this point Earth has also colonized many exoplanets and the people on them have created a distinct culture that is very different from Earth’s. Most of the conflict in the book is between Earth and Spacer culture and centers around the use of robots, which Spacers take for granted but Earthers only accept in a very racist/slave owner sort of way.

Foundation is probably the most famous book Asimov ever wrote, even though it’s actually a collection of serial shorts he wrote over the course of a decade. In some ways, it is like Marooned because it tries to capture human events on an epic time scale. The difference is that Foundation is concerned with the course of civilizations rather than individuals. The galactic empire is slowly falling, and Foundation is mostly about how you pick up the pieces of humanity after decline and fall.

Prelude to Foundation is exactly what it sounds like, a novel dedicated to the events before Foundation itself. It tells the story of a young Hari Seldon, the genius who tried to mitigate the damage of the collapsing empire. The reason I’d include it as one of the entry points to the series isn’t as much about chronology as it is about the story itself. Asimov’s early work was pretty rough by modern standards. It was all about the ideas, and things like characterization were not handled all that well. In addition, because Asimov’s ideas were so wonderful they have been copied and expanded upon since his original versions came out. They tend to lose some power now because you think “well, that’s just like x” except that you have to stop and realize that Asimov was the one who did it first and made x possible. Prelude, however, was written in the 80′s when Asimov was a much more complete storyteller, so it is more accessible to modern readers than Foundation might be.

Other starter Asimov that’s worth looking at are the robot short stories (collected in I, Robot among many others, which has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the movie), The Gods Themselves, Nightfall, or Azazel (for something a little different). Personally, I think a lot of his best work is in his short stories, so grabbing a collection is not a bad way to get into his writing.

Orbit announced today that Little, Brown UK announced the audio version of Transition by Iain M. Banks will be available as a free podcast beginning on September 3, its publication date. Banks is best known for his series of science fiction novels set in the Culture universe, but he writes some science fiction novels not set in the Culture and this is one of them (he also writes mainsteam fictions as Iain Banks). I’ve read two of the Culture novels, The Player of Games and Use of Weapons, and absolutely loved them both. They were simultaneously intelligent and entertaining, and The Player of Games was one of my very favorite books I read last year. I really want to read some more of the Culture novels, and Against a Dark Background sounds intriguing, too.

This week over at Babel Clash, the new Borders Sci-Fi book blog, fantasy authors Joe Abercrombie (author of the First Law trilogy and Best Served Cold) and Brent Weeks (author of the Night Angel trilogy) have been virtual brawling. I almost missed this because my RSS feed for this blog had stopped working, but fortunately, I heard about it in time to catch it – it has been a most entertaining debate.

Speaking of Best Served Cold, that’s what I’m reading right now. It’s already out in some countries, and it will be out in the US on July 29 (although I’ve heard Amazon is already shipping it). Best Served Cold is a stand alone book set in the same world as the First Law trilogy. So far, it’s pretty good – although, like First Law, it’s not something I’d recommend to people who like characters with tendencies toward goodness and heroics and all that jazz.

I’m halfway through a review of Archangel by Sharon Shinn and hope to have that up in the next couple of days. It’s almost the weekend; I always have more brain power for writing reviews then.

Marooned in Realtime
by Vernor Vinge
288pp (Paperback)
My Rating: 8/10
Amazon Rating: 4.5/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.04/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.94/5

Vernor Vinge, in the days before he became a three-times-running Hugo award winning author, was merely a two-times-running Hugo nominated author. Last year I reviewed the first of those two novels, The Peace War. The second novel, Marooned in Realtime, is a sequel to Peace in the sense that it takes place in the same universe and timeline, but you have to think rather broadly to call it a sequel given the fifty million years that pass between the two books. Then again…

Mysteries are inherent to the lives of many living in the small community around Korolev Castle. The Rag-Tag Town is a collection of a few hundred survivors that represent the last dribs and drabs of humanity. Why this might be, nobody knows; whatever caused the rest of the human race to disappear happened while the survivors were trapped in bobbles, a sufficiently advanced technology that removes a chunk of the universe from reality by wrapping it in an impenetrable sphere. No time passes within bobbles though, and eventually bobbles burst to release their contents back into the normal frame of spacetime exactly as they were when the bobble was created.

Beyond the great mystery of what happened to billions of people on Earth and spread throughout the Solar system, many of the town’s residents have much more personal mysteries. Some have no idea where-or when-their neighbors come from. Even many of those who do know are not sharing their knowledge since most of them are the high-techs, a group of people who were bobbled very close to the disappearance and have the highest levels of technology and power-and therefore intrigue-in the community. Wil Brierson, former detective, has an extra mystery: he doesn’t know who bobbled him fifty million years ago, taking him away from his life and family in the 22nd century and throwing him into an unimaginably distant future.

Unfortunately, not all of the mysteries are quite that old. Yelén Korolev, the woman who has been gathering together the last remnants of humanity over the course of millions of years, has been killed. The murder weapon: old age. The computers controlling the town’s bobblers were hacked to initiate a hundred year bobble while Korolev was stranded outside in realtime, leaving her to live out the next forty years as the only person on the planet before she finally succumbed. Now Brierson has to start unraveling some of the secrets surrounding the last members of the human race to figure out who killed her before the fight to fill the power vacuum left by her death destroys them all.


In my review of The Peace War I said that it felt like a throwback sort of novel, more like a Golden Age sci-fi book than one that was written in the 1980s. Marooned in Realtime had a similar feel, but for a completely different reason. While The Peace War had a similar structure to many of the stories that came out of that age, Marooned in Realtime reminded me very specifically of Issac Asimov’s Robot mysteries. Beyond the stylistic similarities that it shares with Peace, Marooned seems to draw on many of the same character archetypes that Asimov used in books like The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. In particular, Brierson and his de facto partner Della Lu map nicely onto Lije Bailey and R. Daneel, so it was very easy for me to think of Marooned in those terms.

All of these similarities make it difficult for me to judge Marooned objectively. The Robot novels are basically what I learned to read by and have remained some of my favorite science fiction books ever since (despite Asimov’s early flaws as a storyteller, which I certainly acknowledge). So reading Marooned put me back in my happy-fuzzy-little-kid place, and it would be almost impossible for me to have not liked it because of that.

That being said, Vinge was a better storyteller at the time he wrote Marooned than Asimov was at the time he wrote Caves. Brierson and Lu are much more human than Bailey and Daneel (and not just for the obvious reason), and the supporting cast Vinge created are certainly crafted with more subtlety than what Asimov wrote. Even more impressive, though, is that Vinge – at the late date of 1986 – manages to create a world that is as far outside the experience of many modern sci-fi readers as Asmiov’s was to his readers in the 1950′s. While hard sci-fi has thoroughly explored the social and technological implications of space travel, it has not gone nearly as far in looking at travel across great gaps of time, and most of those books still get caught up in playing with the rules of causality or the implications of MWI. The bobbler gives Vinge an opportunity to look at time travel in a very intuitive way: by making it into something that isn’t really time travel. The universe continues on as normal, it’s just that certain parts of it drop out for a while and then reappear. It is an entirely linear one-way process that is simple to understand, and because of this Vinge can focus on what is really going on when humans live out their lives on a geological time scale.

The RTT is also rendered very well, and it provides a very clear picture of Vinge’s technological singularity concept. (Of course, it seems a little odd that the point of the singularity is that we cannot predict what the other side will look like and this book takes place entirely on the other side of it, but the disappearance of most of humanity neatly sidesteps this issue.) There are enough elements carried forward from Peace that Marooned can be rightly called a sequel, but the circumstances of the RTT are so different from the world of Peace that it feels like of bit of a cheat to connect them in that way. Peace‘s world was interesting; Marooned‘s town is unique. Vinge did flavor Marooned with a bit more of his math and computer science background than appeared in Peace, but being the geek that I am, that didn’t exactly hurt it in my view.

Marooned in Realtime lacks the tremendous depth and scope of Vinge’s later works, but the fascinating ideas behind many of his recent books are present in full force. Despite the distance between them The Peace War should still be read before Marooned due to spoilers, but ultimately, both should be read and enjoyed.

8/10