Monday, May 30, 2011

On Basilisk Station (David Weber)

On Basilisk Station
(The Honor Harrington series, Book 1)
David Weber
Baen
Fiction, Sci-Fi
** (Bad)

On Basilisk Station (Honor Harrington)
DESCRIPTION: Honor Harrington's young career with the Royal Manticorian Navy positively glows, built on a strong academy showing and a fine turn as captain. Given a new ship - the aging HMS Fearless - retrofitted with experimental armaments, she becomes a reluctant part of a top admiral's pet project... but, despite her best efforts, the weaponry proves ineffective in real-space exercises. The crew, humiliated, turns on their new captain, who becomes the admiral's scapegoat. When the Fearless is reassigned to Basilisk Station, their degradation is complete.
Basilisk, considered of trivial importance to Manticore, is the traditional dumping ground of Naval screw-ups. The nearest planet is a worthless ball of moss peopled by primitive natives, smugglers outnumber legitimate traders, and politics have left the outpost virtually stripped of firepower to enforce laws... assuming any of the incompetents sent to patrol the place bothered trying. But Harrington refuses to turn her back on her duty, or her resentful crew. Her insistence on doing her job properly - in the face of impossible logistics, skeptical locals, and deliberate sabotage by her peers - rattles more than a few gilded cages back home... and unearths an enemy plot that might bring the mighty Manticorian forces to their knees.

REVIEW: I don't often read "big ships in space" books. Long, involved stretches of technobabble give me brain-aches. Convoluted military politics, cronyism, and backstabbing bore me. But I've been trying to expand my reading horizons beyond my safety-net of fantasy books. Perhaps I've misjudged the "big ships" genre of sci-fi all these years. After all, I managed to read and enjoy Elizabeth Moon's Trading in Danger without significant brain-ache. Maybe I ought to give those big-ship stories another chance.
Unfortunately, I chose the wrong book to start with.
Honor Harrington's world reads like a jumble of stereotypes, melding peculiarly old-school Earth terms with "modern" (by the story-universe's standards) references that feel forced. Harrington herself comes into the story with nothing to prove. She starts out as the stereotypical Perfect Captain - prodigal career, excellent at handling even difficult crewmembers, top-notch tactician willing to do anything to get the job done right, complete with an animal sidekick and conveniently poor mathematics skills (save when calculating complicated maneuvers on the fly in "top-notch tactician" mode) to make her "flawed and human" - and remains so throughout the book. Every scene not spent in her head features other people reflecting on her. Supporters sing her praises from across the stars, recounting her many great deeds, while her enemies shake their proverbial fists as she foils their evil plans with her brilliance. Surrounding Harrington is a blurry halo of names and ranks and political allegiences, few of whom distinguish themselves in any meaningful fashion. But, then, even the crewmembers of her own ship often fail to distinguish themselves in any meaningful fashion, and those who do fall into the nicely-worn ruts of genre convention (the Scotty-like engineer who can do anything with anything under impossible deadlines, the insecure junior officer who just needs a little confidence and the chance to shine, the initially jealous second-in-command who becomes one of the captain's staunchest allies, etc.) Between Harrington doing brilliant things and other people commenting on Harrington doing brilliant things are numerous info dumps, several of which involve people telling each other things about their own technology and convoluted Manticorian politics that they doubtless already know (or really ought to know, though Harrington - whose job would appear to be inherently political, given the rampant nepotism and back-scratching in the Royal Manticorian Navy - is given a plot-convenient aversion to politics to explain some of the info dumps.) The main thrust of the story becomes obvious before the halfway mark, though the characters take significantly longer to clue in, no doubt because they must filter absolutely every thought through the long chain of politics. It all wraps up in a cataclysmic battle that stretches out far too long, mostly to pick off incidental characters in manners I gather I was supposed to find tragic. At one point, the author slams on the brakes for a five-page history of interstellar propulsion and the problems of hyperspace travel... all of which, in a very long-winded and meandering manner, contributes exactly nothing to the tension of the scene that was interrupted. (Theoretically, it was part of Harrington's ruminations on the conflict at hand, but for some reason I found it difficult to believe that she actually would stop to think about such things at such detailed depth at a moment that required far more attention to the here-and-now.) At the end, I put this book down with a sigh of relief that it was finally over at long last... not to mention a distinct aversion to trying any more "big ships in space" books in the near future.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ptolemy's Gate (Jonathan Stroud)

Ptolemy's Gate
(The Bartimaeus trilogy, Book 3)
Jonathan Stroud
Disney Hyperion
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***** (Great)

Ptolemy's Gate (The Bartimaeus Trilogy, Book 3)
DESCRIPTION: John Mandrake's formidable mastery of magic, his well-chosen political allies, and a healthy, ruthless self-interest have carried him far from his old life as Nathaniel, the unappreciated apprentice to a weak master. A powerful young force in Britain's magician-ruled government, helping orchestrate the political propaganda to sell the increasingly-weary commoners on the country's flagging international wars, beset at every turn by jealous rivals, Mandrake has money, influence, fame, prospects... everything that poor little boy he used to be could ever have wanted out of life. If not for the pesky tinglings of an atrophied conscience, he might even convince himself he's happy.
The djinni Bartimaeus has seen better days. Once a force to be reckoned with in the ancient world, now - thanks to extended servitude in the material world, which weakens a spirit's essence - he can barely hold himself together... literally. But, (generally) uncomplaining and (more-or-less) loyal as ever, he suffers his chains in (near) silence, helping Mandrake patrol London's increasingly dangerous streets in search of foreign agitators and home-grown rebels, some of whom are developing immunity to magical attacks. He's seen it all before, of course, the rise and fall of empires: the names and the languages change, but the slavery of spirits like himself remains the same. Only one boy, in all his five thousand years, ever thought that the cycle of bondage could be broken, that spirit and mage might someday work together... but Ptolemy paid a terrible price for his faith, and most of his groundbreaking research was lost to the ages. A terrible pity, but even a five-thousand-year-old djinni knows better than to think human nature can ever change.
Kitty Jones has officially been dead for three years. After a moment of mercy (or foolishness) prompted her to spare John Mandrake's life, she's been hard at work learning everything she can about magicians and spirits, even going so far as to become an assistant to a particularly eccentric mage far outside the squabblings of the powerful Parliament. Her unusual encounter with the djinni Bartimaeus forced her to re-evaluate her assumptions about "demons." Coupled with her lingering dismay over the ineffective Resistance and other equally toothless commoner efforts to throw off their chains, Kitty realizes that someone has to act if the endless, futile cycle of slavery and oppression is ever going to be broken... but what can one commoner girl hope to do when even Ptolemy, a powerful magician and a prince in his day, was ignored?

REVIEW: Some trilogies are simply three stories stitched together by recurring characters. Others - usually the best - are a single story that takes three volumes to tell properly, a continuous arc from start to finish. The Bartimaeus trilogy is one of those. In this third installment, Stroud wraps up all the hints and threads tossed out in the preceding books. The shadows of darkness in the halls of Parliament that young Nathaniel scarcely noticed grow to dominate the life of John Mandrake, the hinted tale of Bartimaeus's peculiar bond with his former master Ptolemy comes full-circle, the injustice of an empire built on slavery in any form builds to an explosion with cataclysmic consequences. The story overall is darker and somewhat more complex than the previous two books, because the lives of Mandrake, Kitty, and Bartimaeus have grown much darker and more complex; all three have important lessons to learn, facts to face, and sacrifices to make if they want to see their respective worlds saved. I've read that some readers didn't like the turns it took, but I loved it for that same reason. Throughout, the sparkling wit and wry commentary of the titular djinni remains unabated, even when faced with near-certain death and destruction. This is a magnificent conclusion to a great trilogy, one of the few books that's tempted me to raise the bar above five stars.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Enchanted Castle (E. Nesbit)

The Enchanted Castle
E. Nesbit
Wordsworth Editions
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**+ (Bad/Okay)

The Enchanted Castle (Wordsworth Children's Classics) (Children's Library)
DESCRIPTION: The three English siblings Gerald, James, and Katherine usually summer with their cousin Betty at the family home in the countryside, where they can play and explore as proper children, far from the strict society rules of city life and boarding schools. But when Betty comes down with measles, they find themselves staying at Katherine's boarding school for the summer. With all the other girls gone home, it won't be so bad a summer holiday... and perhaps they can still find adventures. Their explorations lead them to a hidden cave and the lush gardens of a great castle, which they immediately declare to be enchanted. A sleeping princess who isn't what she seems, a troublesome magic ring, and a series of ill-worded wishes soon give the threesome a holiday they'll never forget!
This Wordsworth Classics edition, complete and unabridged, includes the original illustrations by H. R. Millar.

REVIEW: First published in 1907, this centenarian story shows just how far children's literature - and society in general - have come. The over-talkative narration dithers over, around, and behind the story as it follows three privileged English children more or less frittering away their summer holiday. There is no urgency, no enemy, no hardship, no wrong to be made right, no lesson for them to learn or consequences to face, as one would find in more modern stories. (Okay, I take that back. Once in a while, their adventures make them miss their tea. That's a fairly serious prospect for any child in any era.) Of course not. They're wealthy English children; they own the world, after all, and the world darned well owes them a pleasantly diverting (yet none too trying) magical adventure to fill an otherwise dreary summer away from home. In Nesbit's time, I suppose, simply being schoolchildren on holiday provided sufficient motive power to drive a plot. Anyone of lower classes, lesser education, or (Heavens forfend) less-than-alabaster skin color is brushed aside with casual backhanded insults and stereotyping. Nesbit's audience likely would have thought as little of the slights and slurs as she herself did - she clearly never considered the possibility that such individuals might read this book - but to modern eyes they glare. But it's unfair to blame her for being a product of her society... even if some of the language probably makes this book unfit for modern elementary school libraries. Looking past that, Nesbit concocts some truly imaginative moments, with a garden full of living statues and hidden wonders within the castle. The girls - Katherine and Mabel, the erstwhile "sleeping princess" - show a fair bit of pluck for their era, and manage to not be deadweight. I also liked the old-school illustrations by Millar; there's just something about a nicely-executed ink illustration that adds an extra touch of magic to any story. Considering how long ago this book was written, I might have been willing to give the story the benefit of the doubt with an Okay rating, but the ending sank that hope. (No spoilers here, but it somehow managed to make an already-pointless story even more pointless... an astounding feat which probably should be rewarded with a star all on its own, but won't be.) At the end of the day, The Enchanted Castle is an occasionally whimsical, mostly tedious window into the fictional expectations of a (thankfully) bygone era.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Well of Ascension (Brandon Sanderson)

The Well of Ascension
(The Mistborn trilogy, Book 2)
Brandon Sanderson
Tor
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

The Well of Ascension (Mistborn, Book 2)
DESCRIPTION: The Lord Ruler lies dead, His thousand-year reign over the Final Empire ended at last. In the capital city of Luthadel, the surviving members of the revolution's central crew, along with the idealistic young nobleman Elend Venture, struggle to establish a free government, where the once-enslaved skaa have equal rights and a voice in their own lives... only to find two enemy armies on their doorstep and a third on the way. When the Lord Ruler fell, the powerful noble houses who thrived under His regime wasted no time grasping for more power. Capturing the Final Empire's capital - not to mention the legendary stash of the rare metal atium said to be hidden within Luthadel's walls - would be a jewel in any would-be emperor's crown. Not only does Elend have to deal with threats from without, but turmoil and political backstabbing already threaten to topple his government from within... aided by plants and spies from the invaders beyond the city walls, and a traitor who has infiltrated the very heart of the crew.
While Elend and the others struggle to maintain control of Luthadel, the Mistborn girl Vin - former street thief, slayer of the Lord Ruler, beloved of Elend, pupil and heir to the legendary Kelsier, whose death has taken on holy overtones already in the minds of the liberated skaa - faces more disturbing troubles. A mysterious Mistborn assassin stalks the city streets, making her question her own allegiances. Strange powers reshape and strengthen the nocturnal mists that blanket the empire. And a force calls to her, possibly from the legendary Well of Ascension. The terrible events that led to the Lord Ruler's rise to power a thousand years ago seem to be repeating themselves - which means that the Deepness, a deadly entity He is said to have slain, may once again walk the world. Vin is determined to save the people of Luthadel, but how is she supposed to defeat the monster when she has no idea what it is?

REVIEW: Starting up not long after the events of Mistborn (the first book in the trilogy, reviewed here), this book follows through on the promise and the perils brought about by the fall of the corrupt Lord Ruler's regime. Idealists must temper their dreams with reality, and believers start to question their faith. More information comes to light about the thousand-year-old enigma of the Hero of Ages, a once-good man whose legacy somehow became the tyrannical Lord Ruler after unleashing the powers of the Well of Ascension. Between politics and studies, Allomancers fill the night with metal-fueled fights and bloody battles. For the most part, I found this a worthy sequel. My main complaint is that it felt too long. Sanderson keeps squeezing in more information, more twists, and more troubles, creating a whole second climax after the fairly traumatic (and very finale-like) siege of Luthadel. As a reader, I started suffering combat fatigue, wondering just how much more I was going to have to endure before hitting the end of the book. Having come this far, I expect I'll track down the third volume sometime soon, but I think I'll let my reading backlog thin out before then; I'm still mentally burned out after that final slog.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Golem's Eye (Jonathan Stroud)

The Golem's Eye
(The Bartimaeus trilogy, Book 2)
Jonathan Stroud
Miramax Books
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***** (Great
)
The Golem's Eye (The Bartimaeus Trilogy, Book 2)
DESCRIPTION: The boy magician Nathaniel, now officially John Mandrake, has risen far since his involvement in the theft and retrieval of the powerful Amulet of Samarkand. A favorite of the Prime Minister, his talent and ambition have put him on a fast track to a high-level career as a rising star in the great British Empire... and, naturally, earned him no end of enemies and rivals just waiting for the fourteen-year-old prodigy to slip up.
When a sudden, devastating attack strikes in the very heart of London, suspicion naturally falls on the Resistance, a terrorist group responsible for petty thefts and strikes on magician targets throughout the city. But Mandrake disagrees; the scale of destruction is much too large, the power involved too great for mere commoners to handle. To conduct his investigation - one which may make or break his promising young career - he is forced to turn to an assistant he once vowed never to summon again. A sarcastic, recalcitrant demon that managed to learn his birth name, and thus has a measure of power over the boy... none other than the five-thousand-year-old djinni, Bartimaeus.

REVIEW: This is one of those series that almost makes me want to throw in the towel on my own writing efforts. (Almost...) Stroud continues to build a well-devised alternate world, where a Britain built on slavery (of demons and, in more subtle forms, of non-magical humans) thirsts for global conquest. As part of the establishment, Nathaniel/John works tireless to preserve what he sees as the natural order of things, incapable of understanding the Resistance or the often-rebellious natures of his own bound spirit servants. Bartimaeus, with his trademark wit, watches events unfold with a somewhat fatalistic detatchment, save when he's ordered to involve himself on Mandrake's behalf; he's seen civilizations rise and fall for millenia, and considers such fleeting matters of the material world no real business of his own... an attitude he starts to question through the course of the book. Stroud adds another voice to the cast with Kitty, a commoner girl mentioned briefly in Book 1, who offers a glimpse into the heart of the Resistance and the often-counterproductive efforts of its members. Their stories meet in a tale of oppression, intrigue, and plenty of action, all enlivened by sharp writing and clever humor. I can't wait to start the third volume, which beckons from my reading pile even as I type.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Drawing Visual Illusions (Natalie Sirett)

Drawing Visual Illusions
Natalie Sirett
Metro Books
Nonfiction, YA? Art
***+ (Okay/Good)

Drawing Visual Illusions
DESCRIPTION: Visual arts are, in and of themselves, illusions: marks on flat surfaces, masquerading as faces, figures, and all manner of things. Some images do more than pretend to be something else. Through tricks of perspective and composition, they become something visually impossible - endless loops of staircases, shapes melding and metamorphosing, eye-twisting images that refuse to be interpreted in just one way. This book examines famous examples of visual illusions and explains how to make them yourself.

REVIEW:
I found this in the Last Chance bin at Barnes & Noble, and figured it looked different (and cheap) enough to be worth a read. Sirett starts out with a quick overview of materials for artistic exercises throughout the book... perhaps too quick of an overview. She then covers many basic ideas that make illusion art work, examining images by popular illusionary artists from M.C. Escher to Salvadore Dali as well as her own works. The exercises themselves - of which there were fewer than implied by the introduction and jacket blurb - tend to gloss over important steps of construction, which she seems to consider irrelevant (a gross miscalculation when dealing with illusions that depend on realism.) Toward the end, Sirett wanders completely off topic to play with pen and ink techniques of little relevance to the stated concept of optical illusions. I learned just enough here to add the extra half-mark to an Okay rating. As bargain buys go, it wasn't terrible, but it would've been better with a stronger focus and more detailed exercises.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

May Site Update, Reviews Archived

Been a while, but I managed to update Brightdreamer Books.

The previous seven reviews have now been archived and cross-linked, and I rotated the Random Recommendations page.

Enjoy!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Amulet of Samarkand (Jonathan Stroud)

The Amulet of Samarkand
(The Bartimaeus trilogy, Book 1)
Jonathan Stroud
Miramax Books
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***** (Great)

The Amulet of Samarkand (The Bartimaeus Trilogy, Book 1)
DESCRIPTION: At five years old, London-born Nathaniel lost his parents and his birth name, recruited by the Government to be trained as a magician. It may seem a raw deal, but by giving him up his parents actually did him a great favor: England, like many nations, is run solely by magicians, so their son now has a chance to truly advance in society. And he'll earn a name back on his twelfth birthday, an official name that - unlike his birth name - can't be used against him by rival magicians or angered demons. A dutiful student to a lackluster mage, Nathaniel might have gone on to a happy, if modest, career... until a moment of utter humiliation drives him to go far, far beyond what his master has ever taught him in pursuit of revenge.
After five millenia, the djinni Bartimaeus has pretty much seen it all. Like most of his fellow spirits - only a crude human would dub his kind "demons" - he has spent more than his fair share of time in bondage to magicians. Once summoned and bound by his name, he's pretty much stuck performing whatever mindless, short-sighted, and counterproductive task he's ordered to do. No great shakes as a life goes, but he usually finds a way to get his revenge in the end, so it evens out. When he finds himself summoned by a stripling twelve-year-old, Bartimaeus figured it'd be an easy gig: probably just a prank on a friend, or something equally banal. Nothing he hasn't done countless times before on behalf of countless previous masters. But the boy orders him to steal a very powerful artifact - the Amulet of Samarkand - from a very powerful magician. Stupid at best, suicidal at worst, but bound djinni must do as they are ordered.
What started as an angry apprentice's act of vengeance soon consumes both boy and djinni, as they face rebellious commoners, rival spirits, and a maze of dark conspirators that could bring England's government to its knees... and, not incidentally, leave both Nathaniel and Bartimaeus very, very dead.

REVIEW: When most books promise "wit," I mentally brace myself. I've been promised wit and humor far more often than I've actually found it (in books or movies.) This time, however, I had to agree with the reviews. Stroud gives the djinni Bartimaeus a uniquely clever voice, with many amusing observations and footnotes that embellish, rather than obscure, the narrative. Nathaniel's upbringing molds him into the perfect magician, right down to the sense of entitlement and willingness to use any means to achieve his own ends; through the course of the story, he shows streaks of terrifying ruthlessness, with just enough of a conscience to keep him on the "good" side. (I expect he'll undergo more profound transformations in the next two books.) Of the two characters, I have to say that I preferred Bartimaeus's chapters, but both have much to contribute. Stroud's alternate modern-day London starts out looking pleasant and prosperous, but a darker side to the magician-ruled England emerges through asides and passing remarks, most of which go right over power-blinded Nathaniel's young head. The story itself moves along very nicely, full of action and intrigue and amusing dialog. I found this book highly enjoyable, a witty tale that actually contains wit. It came close to losing a half-star due to Nathaniel's obstinate refusal to see the problems right in front of his nose, plus a little weakness in the ending, but I enjoyed the rest of it enough to forgive it. Hopefully I can scrounge up the next two books in the trilogy soon. (They also have shiny covers.  Shiny covers rarely hurt a book's chance of ending up in my reading pile.)