Variable StarVariable Star

Variable Star
by Spider Robinson and Robert A. Heinlein
320pp (Hardcover)
My Rating: 9/10
Amazon Rating: 3.5/5
LibraryThing Rating: 3.88/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.51/5

Variable Star is, as described in the preface, “a posthumous collaboration, begun when one of its collaborators was seven and completed when the other was seventeen-years-dead.” Happily, it is not the disaster that one might fear would result from such a situation. Most of the reason for that is the sheer level of talent of the two collaborators: the grandmaster Robert A. Heinlein and the man many believe to be his successor, Spider Robinson.

The story opens with Joel Johnston having what he considers to be a very bad day. After a magical night at the prom his fiancée and the love of his life wants to marry him. Jinny wants to marry him so badly, in fact, that she reveals a secret to him: she is not who he thinks she is. Not the poor orphan he fell in love with, with whom marriage would be a financial uphill struggle, but rather the heiress of the largest financial empire in the history of humanity. She whisks him away to the family’s luxurious hidden compound, introduces him to her family (who find him quite acceptable), and can hardly wait to begin their life together. Joel takes the only rational course available to him – he hops on the next colony ship out of the solar system.

It will be twenty years (from Joel’s perspective, Lorentz demands ninety from everybody Joel left behind) before the ship arrives at its destination, a star which was obscured from human sight before civilization expanded beyond the fixed perspective of Sol. During that time Joel has to not only recover from his Bad Day but also adjust to the life of an interstellar traveller and space colonist. Though he is to be a simple farmer and part-time musician he is surrounded by people with remarkable talents. His roommate is a telepath, capable of the only method of communication back to Sol that can bypass that annoying speed limit of c. He is friends with the Relativists, the humans who actually power the ship’s propulsion through meditation. And he works for the Zog, the master botanist who is probably the only person who can keep a small colony fed on a world that is alien to all the crops they bring with them and thus the key to their survival after landing. Assuming, that is, they live to the end of their trip.

Despite the nominal collaboration, it needs to be said that Variable Star is definitely a Spider Robinson book. I do not mean that to be a condemnation or even a criticism; Robinson is an immensely talented writer and I am a fan of his work, but with that statement a number of other facts about the book must follow. There will be a certain amount of late-60’s era optimism and culture, which is wonderful. There will be a certain amount of introspective wrangling and gnashing of teeth, which is OK. There will be a certain amount of punning, which…we’ll not discuss. Clearly, though, most of Heinlein’s contribution was in the setting, characters, and structure of the story. This makes sense, as Robinson’s afterword reveals that he worked from only seven typed pages and fourteen index cards of story notes that Heinlein started but abandoned in the 1950’s.

Judged as a Spider Robinson book, however, it is outstanding. I have never read Robinson’s novels for story or plot as, despite a long list of truly excellent short stories, he never really seemed to nail down the best way to pace and structure a full-length novel. I don’t know if it was the influence of Heinlein’s notes or just due to the love and respect Robinson had for his friend that is obvious on every page, but he manages to mostly solve that problem in Variable Star. There are a couple of places where the story starts to get bogged down by Robinson lingering over his favorite themes, but they are usually resolved quickly enough to not damage the overall impact of the book.

But as with most of his books, the real reason you read Variable Star is Spider Robinson’s prose. And as with the other aspects of this book, the extra love and craftsmanship Robinson put into his writing is wonderfully obvious. This book reads like an alternate-universe-Pratchett book, one where he was born in the Bronx and decided to spend his life writing sci-fi about musicians and Buddhism. Robinson (thankfully) manages to repress his love of overly-complex puns and stick to straight up wit and beautiful, expressive language. Even in the places where the plot wanders a bit or the characters stretch credulity you simply do not care because the words themselves are such a joy to read.

I highly recommend Variable Star not just for fans of Heinlein or Robinson, large as those groups may be, but for anybody who loves reading.


The Blade ItselfThe Blade Itself

The Blade Itself
by Joe Abercrombie
531pp (Paperback)
My Rating: 8.5/10
Amazon Rating: 4/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.14/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.15/5

The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie’s debut novel, is the first book in The First Law trilogy. The final book in the trilogy (The Last Argument of Kings) will be released in the UK in March 2008, and the second book in the trilogy (Before They Are Hanged) will be released in the U.S. in March 2008. According to Abercrombie’s blog, The Last Argument of Kings will most likely be released in the US in September 2008 which I was happy to hear because it is not nearly as long a wait as I had been expecting it to be. I keep hearing that it’s the best book in the series and The Blade Itself was already rather good, especially considering it was a first-time novel.

Logen, a barbarian warrior known as the “Bloody-Nine” for his fighting prowess and nine remaining fingers, finds himself and his cooking pot the only survivors of his village after a fight against the Shanka. Since the North is becoming overrun by these creatures and his family and friends are all gone, Logen decides he may as well travel south. While he is camping, a half-dead wizard’s apprentice visits the barbarian carrying the message that his master Bayaz, the First of the Magi, is summoning him. Tired of controlling his own destiny and seeing no more enticing options, Logen brings the apprentice back to Bayaz.

Glokta, a nobleman, was a fine swordsman destined for glory, but a war and time as a prisoner in the opposing side’s torture chamber changed all that. Now a cripple missing half his teeth, Glokta has joined the Inquisition and is himself a torturer, although he often questions why he does it. The torturer becomes a pawn in the Inquisition’s political scheming when the Arch Lector promotes him. Eventually, Glokta is given the task of watching Bayaz and obtaining proof that he is an imposter – after all, everyone knows the First of the Magi must be long dead by now.

The Blade Itself is somewhat traditional fantasy, but it is also not completely standard fantasy fare. There are warriors, mages, battles, a kingdom, and a prophecy; however, the lines between good and evil are somewhat blurry and there is more realism than in a lot of typical fantasy. For instance, Logen is not a handsome warrior who makes women swoon – he’s hideous with scars and a face that’s been pretty beat up over the years as he has been involved in fights.

This story is more about the characters than the plot. Personally, I rather enjoyed that aspect of this novel, but I have read a few complaints about the beginning just being a long character introduction and nothing happening until later in this book. It is true that the actual story takes some time to get going, but the well-written characters and the wry, sardonic humor prevalent in their points of view kept me reading even without a lot of action and plot developments. Also, some of the characters who show up less often may seem irrelevant to the story for a little while. Toward the end, the story did begin to come together and there was more actually happening, but some may find the book difficult to get into if character-driven stories are not their kind of book.

The prose was not overly florid but crisp, which is just right for a character-driven epic fantasy. It seemed very quality and fluid – there were not many awkward phrases or typos distracting me from the story. The thoughts of the characters are interjected throughout the story, but I did not find it jarring or out of place. It painted a very clear picture of the people in the book and I found very early in the story that I wasn’t just reading the dialogue, but I could hear the tone of voice used and see the facial expressions of each of the characters as they spoke.

Not only were the characters well-developed but they made the story. The three main point of view characters – Glokta, Jezal, and Logen – were very human, flawed yet likable. Abercrombie really got into the head of each character and gave them each their own quirks and personalities, making them feel very real and alive.

This story would not fall into the category of comedic fantasy, but there is a lot of humor prevalent throughout the story. The phrasing, the character’s thoughts, and the descriptions of some of the minor characters like the king and the lord chancellor were thoroughly entertaining.

The Blade Itself is an impressive debut novel and I look forward to reading the sequels. It may take a while for events to develop, but the characters and brand of humor certainly made it a worthwhile book that was hard to put down in spite of a slow beginning.


I’ve been debating whether or not to do one of those summaries of the Best of 2007 lists. Since I’ve not read a large number of books that came out in 2007, it doesn’t seem fair to pick the best of 2007 and my favorite books of 2007 doesn’t seem like it would be all that useful since I’ve read about 7 books published in that year. (Although if anyone is curious, my favorites of the few I did read were The Name of The Wind by Patrick Rothfuss and Flesh and Spirit by Carol Berg followed by Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch. Currently, I’m reading Joe Abercrombie’s debut The Blade Itself which has potential to be better than any of those since I’m a fan of sardonic, well-written characters so it may dethrone them.)

So instead I’ve chosen the stories I read in 2007 that are the most memorable to me – the types that kept me thinking about them long after putting the book down.

by Storm Constantine

Yes, I cheated and put all the books together – the copies of the books I have are all contained in an omnibus called Wraeththu anyway so it’s not quite cheating. This series may not be for everyone, but the lyrical quality of the prose, the uniqueness of the story, and the unforgettable characters made it easily my favorite story I read in 2007.

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

This is a story of politics and love that portrayed both the “good” guys and the “bad” guy, showing the “bad” guy in a light that made you feel like he might not be so horrible after all, particularly since he had a motive for the main reason a lot of people did not like him other than being pure evil. Gorgeous prose, gray characters, and an ending haunting in its sadness made this one memorable.

The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons

If you look at this book in relation to the previous Hyperion books, it is filled with flaws and inconsistencies. However, if you just focus on the story and try to forget it was the last book in a series, this is an excellent bittersweet story about a Messiah, her teachings, and her relationship with her first disciple.

Lords of Rainbow by Vera Nazarian

This book had a few flaws, but it was amazing considering that it was only the author’s second novel and convinced me that Vera Nazarian is a name to watch out for. Well-written, poetic prose, a convincing female protagonist, excellent world-building, and well-developed main characters made me realize I must immediately read any future novels by this author!

In Conquest BornIn Conquest Born

In Conquest Born
by C.S. Friedman
560pp (Paperback)
My Rating: 7.5/10
Amazon Rating: 4.5/5
LibraryThing Rating: 3.76/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.68/5

In Conquest Born, published in 1986, is the first published novel by C.S. Friedman, who is now known primarily as the author of the Coldfire trilogy. This space opera was originally written as a stand-alone novel, but a sequel called The Wilding was released in 2004. The second novel takes place approximately 200 years after the events of In Conquest Born and features completely different characters so it sounds as though you do not have to read it in order to finish the story – only if you are curious about what happened to the various races of people as a whole.

The Azeans and the Braxins are involved in a never-ending war against each other. Faced with the need to adjust to life on a harsh planet, the Azeans have used genetic engineering to alter themselves accordingly and have embraced and strengthened the telepathic ability belonging to some of their kind. The Braxins have bred a race of leaders known as the Braxana, who are ruthless and untrustworthy. The Braxana have been known to break peace treaties between the two peoples and plot against their own families in order to seize power.

All Azeans have been altered to have golden skin and white hair, so when Anzha, a girl with blood red hair, is born to an Azean family, she is immediately made an outcast and denied citizenship. After watching her parents die a slow and agonizing death due to a Braxana, Anzha’s amazingly strong telepathic abilities are discovered. The Institute, the center of knowledge dedicated to teaching telepaths and researching these abilities, takes Anzha under its wing and attempts to manipulate her. Anzha only has one drive in life – taking revenge on the Braxana who murdered her parents. Thus the vendetta between Anzha and the Braxana Zatar begins.

Although there are some physical battles in this book, the plot largely focuses on political manipulation and enemies attempting to out-maneuver one another. The intelligence of the characters was refreshing and I felt that Friedman pulled this off very well. Many books that attempt to show devious people outsmarting others end up making the characters look stupid since you can see very big, obvious errors in their reasoning. This book actually made the characters look like they had brains, and I enjoyed seeing how the schemes played out.

The various races in this book were well-developed with distinct histories and beliefs. The values of the Azeans and the Braxins were so different that you could see why they continue to be at war with each other, even if the cause was long-forgotten.

Characters in this book were not black or white but gray, and I always appreciate an author who can pull off the feat of characters who are not clearly good or evil. The Azeans and Braxins both had their dark sides, yet their main representatives in the book (Anzha and Zatar) were not so despicable that you could never feel sympathy for them. I found both to be enjoyable characters, especially if you’re not in the mood to read about perfectly nice goody-two-shoes-type characters.

Although I really enjoyed this story, the politics, the characters, and the portrayal of the various races, In Conquest Born is not flawless. The beginning was slow, making the story difficult to get involved in, and at times events were a little confusing. The prose was decent enough, but the story did not always flow very well as it jumped from character to character. Sometimes it switched from third person to first person from the perspective of a character who had not been mentioned previously (and was never a point of view character again), which could be rather jarring. Also, a rather large number of typos prevented me from getting lost in the story as well as I could have.

In Conquest Born contains many ingredients for an intelligent, well-plotted novel with interesting characters and diverse races; however, it fails to mix them in a way that creates a connected story. In spite of that, I do believe it is compelling enough to make it well worth reading.


I have heard a lot about Tanith Lee’s dark fantasy stories and have wanted to read some for quite some time. However, the stories I’ve heard the most about seem to be her older stories that are hard to find, so I was thrilled when I came across an omnibus edition of The Secret Books of Paradys in Borders the other day. Apparently, this came out last month and I never heard a thing about it. It’s now toward the top of my “must have” list.

After that, I was thinking if only Flat Earth books would come back in print so I could read those. A couple of days ago I read this post on The Swivet, which mentioned that Norilana Books has acquired the rights to The Flat Earth series and are planning to publish it in 2009. I’m very excited since I’ve been wishing I could find these series by Tanith Lee for a while now.

Now I just need to get a hold of The Secret Books of Paradys… I think I know what to do with any Christmas money I receive.

Here is a message from Terry Pratchett posted on Paul Kidby’s site today:


I would have liked to keep this one quiet for a little while, but because of upcoming conventions and of course the need to keep my publishers informed, it seems to me unfair to withhold the news. I have been diagnosed with a very rare form of early onset Alzheimer’s, which lay behind this year’s phantom “stroke”.

We are taking it fairly philosophically down here and possibly with a mild optimism. For now work is continuing on the completion of Nation and the basic notes are already being laid down for Unseen Academicals. All other things being equal, I expect to meet most current and, as far as possible, future commitments but will discuss things with the various organisers. Frankly, I would prefer it if people kept things cheerful, because I think there’s time for at least a few more books yet :o)

PS I would just like to draw attention to everyone reading the above that this should be interpreted as ‘I am not dead’. I will, of course, be dead at some future point, as will everybody else. For me, this maybe further off than you think – it’s too soon to tell. I know it’s a very human thing to say “Is there anything I can do”, but in this case I would only entertain offers from very high-end experts in brain chemistry.

This is very sad news for Terry Pratchett, his family, and his many fans. I was very sad to hear about this – it’s a tragedy for this to happen to anybody, but it’s especially heartbreaking when it happens to somebody as clever and witty as Terry Pratchett is.