Friday, February 24, 2017

The Last Days of New Paris

by China Miéville
210 pgs

I don’t know how to begin to describe China Miéville’s latest book The Last Days of New Paris (I feel like I say that every time I try to describe one though). It’s an alternative-history story with two separate time-lines. One takes place in Paris in 1950. Europe is still embroiled in the second world war and Paris is still occupied by the Nazis. But it’s a Paris unlike anything a normal mind could imagine. Years earlier Paris was rocked by the “S-Blast” an explosion of surrealistic energy, which brought to life unfathomable “manifs.” These manifs are surrealistic artworks, some part-human, part-machine, others, even more bizarre and impossible.

The second timeline takes place nine years earlier, in 1941 Marseille, where a group of refugees has gathered in the home of Varian Fry. These refugees are surrealist artists, and while there, they’re joined by Jack Parsons, a scientist and occultist, who believes he can capture the artists’ creative power in a battery and use it to re-create the legendary Golem of Prague. But Parsons underestimates the power he’s tried to harness and the battery sets off the S-Blast.

Nine years later, the manifs still move uncontrolled through the streets of Paris and the Nazis have been trying to create and control their own manifs, which they believe will help them win the war. It’s up to a small group consisting of a young man named Thibaut, an American photographer named Sam, and an “exquisite corpse” manif to stop the Nazis.

I’ll admit that several times while reading this book the thought occurred to me that I wasn’t smart enough to truly appreciate Miéville’s story. I’m not an Art History graduate, so I’m sure my level of appreciation for the story is only a fraction of what it could have been. Regardless, though, I enjoyed the book a lot, and was once again in awe of what Miéville accomplishes every time he tells a story. His books are unlike anything else you’ll ever read.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Blade Itself

by Joe Abercrombie
609 pgs  (First Law series #1)

Most of what I had heard about Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series compared it to George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, a series I decided to stop reading until Martin either finishes it or dies, since it’s a coin toss which will take place first. The comparison between the two is hard to avoid. They’re both character-driven epic fantasy series, which focus on anti-heroes and a motley assortment of fascinating characters. They both rely heavily on political machinations and shun the stereotypical elements of the genre. The Blade Itself does an excellent job of setting the stage for the series.

Logen Ninefingers is a famed and ruthless warrior from the North, nicknamed the “Bloody-Nine,” ever since losing a finger in battle. He’s now trying to leave that life behind, but continually finds himself dragged back into it. Sand dan Glokta is a crippled torturer for the Union. Once a young swordsman himself, he was captured and tortured for years by the Union’s enemies, barely able to move himself, he now uses the same methods of torture used on him to extract information from those who oppose the Union. Jezal dan Luthar is a cocky young nobleman reluctantly being trained to compete in his nation’s greatest sword tournament. And there’s Bayaz, the first of the Magi. A pudgy, balding wizard who is the subject of legends, but whom no one believes to be who he claims.

I mentioned the comparison to Game of Thrones, and while there are definitely similarities between the two, there are as many, if not more, differences. Abercrombie’s characters all seem to have redeeming qualities, which show themselves periodically and suggest that at their core, they’re relatively good. Abercrombie’s story contains an underlying sense of humor. There’s not the same sense of dread and foreboding, which GOT has, and which gives you a sense that ultimately, things will not end well for anyone. The final difference worth pointing out? Abercrombie’s story is done. Since he finished the trilogy, he’s written some stand-alone books and some short stories, which all take place in the world of the First Law, but the story arc of the series itself is complete. Ultimately Abercrombie’s story is one which stands firmly on its own footing and is one of the better ones in the genre.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Unseen Academicals

by Terry Pratchett
400 pgs  (Discworld series #37)

In Terry Pratchett’s 37th Discworld book, Unseen Academicals, Pratchett sets his satirical aim at the game of football (soccer). The wizards of Unseen University are faced with a financial crisis. In order to ensure the continuation of a large financial endowment to the university, and to avoid having to resort to eating only three meals a day, the wizards are faced with the task of participating in a game of foot-the-ball.

Foot-the-ball is a violent street sport played in Ankh-Morpork. No real rules exist, the game resembles a street brawl more than an organized sport, and referees use poisoned daggers. Death is not a possibility, it’s an expectation. The wizards, whose idea of exercise historically has been raising a fork repeatedly to their mouth, decide that if they’re going to embark on this new more active lifestyle, the game needs to be tamed with some rules.

With the help of the city’s ruler, Lord Vetinari, a handful of rules are implemented in order to make the popular spectator sport more civilized. Players will no longer be allowed to use their hands, which the wizards hope will significantly reduce their likelihood of dying. The position of goal keeper is devised, which will reduce the potential for scoring, but which should replace the crowd’s anticipation for seeing a player’s death with seeing only one or two goals scored each match. Referees are also given whistles to replace their daggers.

The game of football provides a lot of the action in this story, but Pratchett also throws in a couple of budding romances, which are equally as entertaining and humorous. Trev Likely, the son of a legendary foot-the-baller, falls madly in love with the beautiful, but not-so-bright, Juliet Stollop, a chain-mail fashion model. and Juliet’s boss, Glenda Sugarbean, falls in love with Mr. Nutt, an orc.
I have only a handful of Discworld books left to read. Unseen Academicals was the first book to come out following Terry Pratchett’s diagnosis with a form of Alzheimer’s. Thankfully he was able to continue writing for a few more years, despite the effects of the disease, which eventually ended his life and all those living on Discworld.  

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Ruler of the Night

by David Morrell
333 pgs  (Thomas DeQuincy series #3)

Ruler of the Night concludes David Morrell’s fantastic Victorian era trilogy featuring the real-life historical figure Thomas De Quincey. Known for his autobiographical essay Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, De Quincey had a profound effect on our understanding of the nature of addiction. Once again, Morrell places De Quincey and his 22-year-old daughter Emily at the center of a murder mystery. This time, the murder they’re assisting Scotland Yard detectives Ryan and Becker in investigating is the first murder to take place on London’s new train system.

A high-profile solicitor is brutally stabbed to death in the locked first-class cabin of a train leaving London. De Quincey and his daughter happen to be traveling on the same train and are the first to investigate the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death. The murder turns out to be the first of multiple attacks to take place on the fledgling railway system, and the De Quincey’s investigation leads them to the highest echelons of British society.

This was a great series. I’ve enjoyed several of David Morrell’s books already, and fortunately, I have quite a few of his catalog to get to still. It’s obvious he’s been writing for a long time and has become a master at creating multi-layered characters and well-plotted storylines. My understanding is that this is the last book in the series, but I’m hopeful at some point down the road Morrell will decide it’s time to revisit Victorian England and check in with Thomas De Quincey and find out whether he still relies on the dangerous daily intake of laudanum to function.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Great Zoo of China

by Matthew Reilly
393 pgs

The Tournament, the last book by Australian author Matthew Reilly I read, was a big disappointment for me. I admit I don’t have high literary expectations when I read one of Reilly’s books. I fully anticipate the need to suspend my sense of disbelief, disregard my understanding of the laws of physics, and ignore my tendency for using logical thought processes when I pick one of his books up, but The Tournament lacked the thing I do enjoy about his books: mind-numbing action sequences.

With The Great Zoo of China, Reilly returns to his trademark style of storytelling. Unfortunately, though, I couldn’t get past the fact that someone else had already written almost the exact same story several years earlier, and did it far more successfully.

Dr. Cassandra Jane “CJ” Cameron is one of the world’s most renowned experts on alligators. She’s also a freelance journalist and is sent on assignment from National Geographic to China to preview a top-secret zoo the People’s Republic of China is planning to unveil to the world soon. When she gets there, she learns that for the past 40 years, Chinese officials and scientists have been working to build what will undoubtedly instantly become the greatest zoological park in the history of the world.

Forty years ago a nest of giant eggs were discovered deep beneath the earth’s surface in rural China. The eggs were not fossilized, but were instead found to be in a deep state of hibernation. For years they were watched and monitored until one of them finally hatched…and a dragon emerged.  Without the rest of the world knowing, the PRC built a high-tech zoo and breeding program for the dragons and now, with a population of over one hundred live dragons to showcase to the world, they’re ready to make their discovery and accomplishments known.

Unfortunately for CJ and the rest of the experts brought to China for an early preview of the zoo, things quickly go horribly awry. The dragons are far smarter than anyone foresaw, and they soon find a way to circumvent the security measures in place to protect the park visitors.

Early in the book Reilly has one of his characters mention Crichton’s Jurassic Park, and questions the Chinese on the sanity of what they’ve done, so it’s not as if Reilly is trying to copy Crichton without acknowledging him as his inspiration. But if you’re going to imitate someone who did something as well as Crichton did, you better make sure you can do it at a high enough level to qualify the imitation as a form of flattery. Unfortunately, Reilly doesn’t. It’s a fun book, but it’s a disappointment when considered next to the original.

★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Secret Speech

by Tom Rob Smith
403 pgs  (Leo Demidov trilogy #2)

In 1956, Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, gave a speech behind closed doors to the leaders of the Soviet regime. In it, he condemned Stalin and those who carried out his ruthless decrees. The purpose of the speech was to usher in a new era in the Soviet Union, an era in which the government acted in the best interests of its citizens, and the citizens didn’t live in constant fear of being condemned by coworkers, neighbors, and even family members, and sent to work in a Siberian gulag for the rest of their lives.

The speech was quickly leaked to the press and soon the MGM agents, police, judges, and everyone else who had helped Stalin maintain his genocidal dictatorship found themselves constantly looking over their shoulders, in fear of the reprisals which were occurring throughout many of the cities in Russia. Leo Demidov, the former officer of Stalin’s secret police, and the hero of Smith’s first book Child 44 is no exception.

In his years working for the secret police, Leo had sent hundreds of his countrymen to the gulags and torture chambers, and his past is determined to catch up to him. Fraera, the wife of a man Leo had betrayed and sent to a gulag in Siberia seven years ago reenters his life and is determined to destroy the new life Leo has tried to create for himself, his wife, and their two adopted daughters.

I read Child 44 a few months ago, which tells the story of Leo’s pursuit of a sensational mass murderer who prayed on children throughout Russia, and I considered it one of the best books I had read in a long time. The Secret Speech is a very different type of story, but it’s just as compelling. This time around the scope of the Smith’s story is broader and he includes several themes which made it a difficult book for me to put down.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★