Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Bazil Broketail Series

And now for the F of SF & F:

A few years ago I was browsing in the SF & F section of my local McNally Robinson and stumbled across A Dragon at World's End by Christopher Rowley. I bought it on Impulse because I liked the sword pictured on the cover. I mean, A dragon with a sword? Awesome! Otherwise it was the first fantasy novel I'd bought since my dissapointment with the fantasy paperback pulp mill back when I was in high school.

Yikes, I don't think I can count the number of times I've bought a book only to find out it's the third or fourth in a series. Fortunately the books of the Bazil Broketail series are quite readable as standalone novels. Recently I was able to pick up the rest of the books in the series from a combination of used bookstores and AbeBooks.

Although the series is named for him, Bazil the broketail dragon is the companion of the protagonist of the novels, the dragonboy Relkin, although the point of view is not limited to him. The narrative usually follows the boy but often switches to one of the witches or their allies and sometimes to the bad guys. Seldom does it follow a non-human. Further, while the POV is mostly third-person limited, it sometimes switches to omniscient.

I can't really explain why I like this series so much. Certainly these books have flaws. I guess it really just boils down to the fact that they are just plain fun. The world is vividly realized and has every detail fits within the internal logic of that universe.

The dragons in this universe deserve a word or two of description. First of all, most of the dragons in the books cannot fly. These are the so called wyverns of the Argonath. Now if you look up the classical definition of wyverns in our world you'll probably find a description like "a small dragon with two legs and bat-like wings". In Bazil's world, however, wyverns are a branch of the dragon family that originally lived along ocean coasts both in the water and out. They have no wings but many can walk on just two of their four legs. Only the large four ton brasshides go about on all fours. Wyverns can talk and are dexterous enough to manipulate tools such as shovels, axes, and swords.

Long ago the wyverns pledged to fight for the humans of the Argonath. In return they are kept well fed and are served by dragonboys who trim their nails and such. While they prefer fish or meat, they will eat the much more readily available noodles and bread - so long as there is plenty of akh to put on it. The ingredients of akh vary, but the best is made from hot peppers and fish sauce. It is said to be too strong for humans.

There are wild dragons that normally live in the frozen north but sometimes range down and harass humans. These wild dragons can fly but neither they nor the wyverns can beathe fire. Only the legendary ancestors of the modern dragon had this ability.

Amongst the flaws of the series, one of the worst is the the relative power magic has in this universe yet it is underutilized. For instance, In the last novel the new main antagonist attacks by creating huge tentacled swamp worms that batter down all defenses and seem impervious to most attacks. However, he only sends one wave of one worm per fort. Why wouldn't he continue sending worm after worm? From what I can tell using magic doesn't seem to be that taxing to him. His bag of magic tricks all seem to be based on making a big fire and throwing someone in. In return, many soldiers of the Argonath were killed by the worms, including dragons.

To me, however, the most annoying flaw is that Mr. Rowley often skips parts of narrative. For instance, in the first portion of the eponymous first novel Bazil and Relkin spend quite a bit of time trying to get into the army. Yet once they do get conscripted the story immediately shifts to a campaign against the Master's of Padmassa, jumping over the intervening campain against the Teetol people. Now I understand that the lesser campaign doesn't have much to do with the series' main plot against the evil wizards but it sure would have added alot to the story of Bazil and Relkin.

In fact, the novels mostly seem to fit into a pattern whereby the first half follows the adventures of Bazil and Relkin, often meaning little to the rest of the plot, then there is a massive battle against the bad guys, then everything gets wrapped up in a few pages. There are, of course, several exceptions to this pattern, but still. . .

Judging from the uniform size of each novel I'm guessing he had a contract for about 500 pages a book.

Series rating:

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas!

We couldn't locate our copy of the Alastair Sims version of Dickens' Christmas Carol to watch last night so I attempted to read the original work. Thanks to Project Gutenberg, the online compendium of past literature that has entered the public domain, I found a scan of the first edition book. But my eyes were really dry and irritated so I only made it to the appearance of the first Spirit. I'll probably get to it later today so no review on Christmas day this year. But I still highly recommend it!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Peter F. Hamilton's Paradox

I've been reading quite a bit of British SF recently. I'm still not sure that I like it.

Peter F. Hamilton never fails to weave a compelling tale. So far I've read his Novel Fallen Dragon, the Commonwealth Saga, and a third of his Night's Dawn Trilogy. All are in the Space Opera genre.

From these books I have concluded that his greatest talent lies as a world builder. Unfortunately this leads to his greatest flaw, excessive bloat in his novels. What is bloat? Basically it's the fluff inserted in what should be a 300 page novel that makes it into a 700 page novel. So many times when reading these books I had to fight the urge to just skip a few pages. For instance, every transition in narrative is lead by a description of the planet, region, city, neighbourhood, or any of those in combination, no matter if he has previously introduced the area. Such a description can range from the cultural to the economic, the political to the personal, or the geographic to the biological.

Fine, that at least can add to the atmosphere. What really gets me are the long segments where politics and economics are discussed. It's kinda like watching CSPAN or asking an accountant how his day went.

Another major annoyance I have found with Peter Hamilton's novels is the constant shifting of POV (point of view) between a large number of characters. In the larger novels there can be so many characters that when the narrative shifts I'm often left wondering, "Who is this?"

Potential readers should also be warned that Hamilton's work is rife with violence and fairly graphic sex.

So now let me get to the point implicit in the title of this post:

My favourite Hamilton work so far is Fallen Dragon. It's gritty and often quite dark, yet I found it compelling and the characters easy to relate to. Also, it has a unique set up regarding space travel in that while FTL (Faster than Light) travel is available, it's too expensive. Furthermore they don't have artificial gravity so travellers must cope with the effects of zero gravity. However, the plot of revolves around one huge chronological paradox.

(Major spoiler alert!)

Okay, here's a quick rundown of the sequence of events that lead to the paradox (please, if you haven't read the book, don't read any further):

A rich teenager finds out that his dad hired a girl to be his girlfriend (remind me again why he hates his dad) so he runs away. To get off planet a friend of his gives him some very powerful hacking software. A violent military career follows until he travels to a planet where he finds out that the hacking software came from alien technology. More plot ensues, he learns about an alien time portal which he uses to go back in time to before he left his home planet. Using technology gained from the aliens he makes himself young again but changes his identity and becomes the friend that gave himself the alien software to begin with.

So how does that work? He's only able to leave his home planet in the first place because he's given the alien technology. But his future-self wouldn't get the technology unless he left his home planet. So how does the cycle begin? Furthermore, he wouldn't be aware of or be able to infilitrate the base of the humans using the technology without having the technology himself.

Rating for Fallen Dragon:

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Steven Gould's 'Shade'

Wow, a first review is kinda intimidating. But, this particular story really hit a nerve so I've gotta say something. So here goes: Shade by Steven Gould

This short story is freely available on TOR.com, Mr. Gould's publisher.

Some of you may be familiar with Doug Liman's stinker of a movie, Jumper, which came out earlier this year (the DVD is already $9.99 up here in Canada). Well, that horrible piece of SF cinema was based on one of my favorite novels of all time, Jumper by Steven Gould. Mr. Liman's trashing of this story will be the subject of a future post; this post is about a story set in Mr. Gould's original Jumper universe (believe me, this universe thing has gotten complicated since Steven Gould has also published a prequel to the movie that has nothing to do with the original novel).

Spoiler alert!

Shade is the third story set in the original Jumper universe following the eponymous novel and it's sequel, Reflex. In this short story we find Davy and Millie branching out and trying their hand at humanitarian aid work. The story actually is told from the view point of a young African boy living in a refugee camp.

Okay, so this plot is a broad departure from the format of the novels. But Mr. Gould did lay the ground work for the Rice's 'bleeding heart' philosophy and there is an opportunity for some 'Jump' based warfare in the later half of the story. To be precise, some rebels come to shoot at the refugees and, after taking a gun from one of the men, Davy decides not to shoot at the bad guys. Instead he uses a nifty jumping trick that he learned in Reflex to flood out the rebels with a lake's worth of water from Canada.

Come off it! Your high horse that is, Mr. Gould. How long do we have to put up with this 'don't shoot back at the bad guys' crap and it's equally facile corollary, 'or you'll be as bad as them'. Where does that come from anyway? Dear readers, go out and rent Dark Knight and see how stupid this philosophy is. Think of how many lives could have been saved if Bruce had simply killed the Joker first opportunity he got. Not satisfied with a fictional example? Okay imagine Hitler being assassinated before the final solution of the Jews was thought up.

What's more, Davy's water powered attack on the rebels, if it ever occurred in the real world, would be a crime against nature. Okay, yes, I'm Canadian, but that's not why I object to the theft of Canadian water. Rather, it's because I think Humans have messed with the ecosystem too much already. What right do we have to breed like rabbits till we choke the earth and fill it with our poisons until nothing can live on the planet. Okay, that's harsh. But the reality of the situation is that while Canada probably could spare the water (or so many Americans would like to believe), its sudden introduction to an African desert would be catastrophic for the local (and undoubtedly unique) flora and fauna. The arrogance to believe we have the right to support ourselves at the cost of all else is what has led us to our current state of ecological disaster.

I'm sorry, but this story simply doesn't work for me.


An Introduction, of sorts. . .

Over the years I have read quite a few Science Fiction (and most of it's sub-genres) and Fantasy novels. More and more I've felt the need to post my thoughts in some forum or other. I think this will suffice.

Okay, so I'm not a fast reader, but as I read 'em I'll try to post reviews of them. There is also a sizable backlog of those books I've previously read. But besides reviews I will also rant about various topics related to the worlds of SF&F such as the preposterous claim that J.R.R. Tolkein was not a good storyteller :P

Feel free to comment on any of my posts, but try to keep things relevant and I may even reply.