Monday, April 30, 2007

Ex Libris: March Books

Well, this is late as usual.

Here's my round-up of all the books I've read last March. Fortunately enough, I managed to read a number of books thanks to the fact that a couple of 'em were slight enough. Though the almost-same theme of the books did prove to be a hindrance. But more of that later.

First out of the gates was Steven Pressfield's The Gates of Fire, which I managed to finish before watching 300. Alas, historical truth (even in fiction-form) is a big downer on Hollywood myth-making and this was no exception. But dissenting opinions aside, that's neither here nor there.

Pressfield uses the story framework of Xeones, a fictional city-less boy intent on revenge and becoming a slave (or Helot) of the Spartans to chronicle the soldier-citizen society. This all concludes at Thermopylae (the legendary 'Gates of Fire') where 300 Spartan soldiers held off a million Persians. Pressfield uses alternating storylines to tell Xeones' story-- supposedly being the sole survivor at the foregone battle of Thermopylae-- and how events had led to him taking part of the battle.

Fortunately, it's Pressfield's fiction and prose that makes a difference in what could be a dry yet climactic point in history as he fleshes out the mythical (to us) Spartans and their fight to preserve their way of life. From King Leonidas (an older version of the movie character) who was the epitome of the perfect leader to the philosophical Spartan officer Dienekes (who is quoted to have said, when told that the Persian arrows blacken out the sun due to its multitudes, "Good, then we will fight in the shade"), Pressfield details the Spartans as a people who believed in war as a way of life. (Talk about badass: think Special Forces training everyday in lieu of CMT).

Ironically, I had bought this book on a recommendation of an office worker but it took me five years before I actually sat down and read it. Good thing I've managed to rectify my mistake.

On the other hand, I thought that since C.J. Cherryh's Gate of Ivrel and Leigh Brackett's The Ginger Star were both thin on the reading side, I'd make short work of them at the same time. A mistake since the middle section of both books detailed quests that were too-similar and easily confused if one reads off and on.

Both science-fantasies, Brackett's book is easily the most exciting of the two with her famous character, Eric John Stark, exploring an unknown planet in search for a missing friend while leaving a trail of death and destruction in his wake. Quite reminiscent actually of Matt Stover's Caine novels, which makes me wonder if Stover was influenced by Brackett.

Cherryh's book, on the other hand, is more thoughtful with the heroine Morgaine, a traveler from the future, intent on closing a time-warp gate on a medieval planet while dealing with the consequences of her earlier-- disastrous-- actions. However, Cherryh doesn't stint on the action especially when Morgaine bares her gate-sword, Changeling, that reminds one of Michael Moorcock's Elric and his damned Stormbringer.

Despite the shortness of the books (200 pages?), Brackett and Cherryh prove that the writers of yesterday could tell a story without becoming door-stoppers of today. Obviously, due to its length and form, characterization is a bit on the short side but both writers convey a sense of who these characters are (including Morgaine's sidekick, Vanye, whose viewpoint is center in Cherryh's book) in a few words without going into literary-esque or even Robert Jordan-esque length.

Weirdly enough, both books suffered from a weak middle with the chief protagonists suddenly passive and being carried hither and thither by events or antagonists, which was incongruous with Brackett's Stark since he impressed me as a right bastard who wouldn't take any shit from anyone. (Even Stover's Caine only took so much and this was only because he was half-paralyzed.) Unfortunately, am not surprised in relation to Cherryh's book since this passivity 'flaw' became somewhat bigger in her later works.

Still, both are good pulpish fun reads-- i.e. don't expect more and you'll be able to feel that "sensa wunda" that filled SF readers of yore.

Alas, my next outing, Terry Pratchett's Small Gods, was not as successful., which leads me to believe that I don't particularly favor humourous books. Don't get me wrong: I've read Pratchett's, having gone through his Nightwatch series. However, having read the first few chapters of this book, it seems that no matter how good a writer is, if I don't find the book interesting, then I won't find it interesting. (So if Pratchett ever does the Yellow Page, I don't think I'll bother.)

Lisa Goldstein's Walking the Labyrinth is a strange duck for me, with the lovely trade-paperback format and interesting concepts. In this first book of hers I read, mining territory usually ascribed to Charles de Lint and Neil Gaiman, Goldstein documents one Molly Travers as she 'walks the labyrinth' in search for her family-- originally members of the mysterious Order of the Labyrinth-- while avoiding dangers from such a magical mystery tour.

But despite the somewhat alarmed back-cover description of the story, Goldstein's story doesn't give the reader any sense that Molly is in danger. Frankly, I enjoyed Gaiman's description of such a 'labyrinth walk' in his Books of Magic series while the historical portion had been done better by Christopher Priest's The Prestige. (which I had recently read). Prose? Nothing spectacular; almost workman-like actually.

Still, I'm an optimist so am willing to give Goldstein another chance. That and the book cover looks damn nice. (Hey, I'm a sucker for a good cover.)

But the biggest suprise for me-- an enjoyable space opera read-- was Ken Macleod and his standalone novel, Newton's Wake. Macleod details a free-for-all between four groups (the Bloody Carlyles, America Offline, the Knights of Enlightenment, and the Demokratische Kommunistebund or DK ) as they try to expand throughout the universe after an AI war left the Earth destroyed. The Carlyles specifically control the skein, a multidimensional tunnel that leads to different planets, which helps them discover new places. Unfortunately, they've also discovered a fifth forgotten group of humans on the planet Eurydice with its own problems of long-lost AI war machines.

But what makes my first foray into Macleod's book fun is the humor interspersed in the almost-kitchen sink type of space opera action going on. Notable here is the character Ben-Ami, a playwright who creates plays like Jesus Koresh and a MacBeth-based one on Leonid Breznhev. Outrageous stuff really, which is fine since a closer look of the book would reveal rather thin settings and characters amidst the flash and bang.

But if one were to think about it, Macleod's work would be in the right vein of the pulp tradition, right? Just leave your brain at the door, jump in to enjoy the show, and don't forget the popcorn.


Biby Cletus said...

Nice post, its a really cool blog that you have here, keep up the good work, will be back.

Warm Regards

Biby Cletus - Blog

banzai cat said...

Er, thanks I think.

MulderandScully said...

fun reviews! if i were pressed for time and I can only read one of the books you've reviewed, which would you recommend?

banzai cat said...

Hrmm... since you prefer SF, I'd suggest the pulpy Leigh Brackett though Ken Macleod is a close second. Overall though, I'd push for Gates of Fire, especially since everyone's already watched 300 anyway. :-D