Posts Tagged ‘5 stars’

Book review: Lord of Darkness by Robert Silverberg

Thursday, March 28th, 2013

Robert Silverberg is a prolific and award-winning science fiction author, of whom I’ve read only a handful of short stories. They didn’t leave me much impressed, but when I found out he had written an historical fiction novel that was being reprinted for the first time in thirty years, I was intrigued, and I was fortunate enough to win a copy for review.

The new edition of Lord of Darkness by Nonstop Press contains a great introduction by Silverberg about how his book came to be. Long story short, it was inspired by the true story of 16th century English mariner Andrew Battell, who was captured by the Portuguese while pirating in South America and shipped to Africa as a prisoner, where he spent twenty years of his life—including some time living in the African interior with a cannibal tribe and their powerful, dangerous leader, Imbe Calandola, the titular “Lord of Darkness”.

The book did not do well domestically, due to the fact that bookstores shelved it alongside his science fiction works; sci-fi fans weren’t interested in a historical fiction novel, and historical fiction fans (who didn’t know to look for an historical novel in the SF section) never discovered it.

That’s a shame, because it’s an absolutely amazing book.

Much of the appeal comes from Battell’s story, which is fascinating in itself; though obviously by the time Silverberg had expanded it to novel-length, it had become more fiction than fact, but still true to the events detailed in Battell’s original account. But perhaps more than even that, what kept me engaged from the first page to the last was the narrative voice employed by Silverberg. It’s a first-person account, naturally, but Silverberg attempts to present it as if it might have come from the pen of a 16th century English Protestant man, while still keeping it comprehensible to the contemporary reader. It’s done masterfully, with an old-fashioned biblical cadence that is just wonderful. Here’s the opening paragraph:

ALMIGHTY GOD, I thank Thee for my deliverance from the dark land of Africa. Yet am I grateful for all that Thou hast shown me in that land, even for the pain Thou hast inflicted upon me for my deeper instruction. And I thank Thee also for sparing me from the wrath of the Portugals who enslaved me, and from the other foes, black of skin and blacker of soul, with whom I contended. And I give thanks too that Thou let me taste the delight of strange loves in a strange place, so that in these my latter years I may look back with pleasure upon pleasures few Englishmen have known. But most of all I thank Thee for showing me the face of evil and bringing me away whole, and joyous, and unshaken in my love of Thee.

I don’t know a thing about Silverberg’s own beliefs, but Battell’s come through clear as day; his dialogue is full of philosophical asides on almost every conceivable subject. This is a thoughtful book. It’s also not an easy one. Battell makes choices of a questionable moral nature, from working in the employ of his captors and nation’s enemies, to living as a member of a cannibal tribe. This is not a book for the squeamish: there are some disturbing scenes here. At one point Battell, determined to leave nothing out of his narrative, remarks that what he is about to reveal will make the reader hate and condemn him, and certainly that’s an option. Battell’s awareness of his choices and actions, and his analysis of them at the time as well as after fact, add depth both to said scenes and to his character.

A final word of warning: There is a lot of sex in this book, and it’s fairly explicitly described, though couched in sixteenth century language as it is, it loses a little of it’s, shall we say, vulgarity. If that’s the kind of thing that’ll turn you off a book entirely, you might want to give this one a pass.

That said, part of the triumph of the novel is bringing you, the reader, to places that make you uncomfortable (sometimes extremely uncomfortable) and then bringing you through them—not entirely unchanged, but perhaps now seeing the world around you in a different light. That’s one of the marks of Great Literature, and Lord of Darkness is an absolute masterwork. Kudos to Nonstop for bringing it back into print. [5 out of 5 stars]

Book review: The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

This is an odd review for me to write. I’ve read this book three times now. It’s the final volume in a four-book cycle. And I haven’t reviewed any of the previous books, but I have reviewed the series as a whole. However, I’m trying to review every book I read this year (wish me luck!) so here goes:

The Citadel of the Autarch is the final volume of Gene Wolfe’s career-defining masterpiece, The Book of the New Sun, which I’ve read every December (sometimes carrying over into January) for the past three years. It’s a dense, mysterious, powerful, bewildering, and moving saga that rewards rereads like nothing else this side of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. If you haven’t read it before, (A) do it!, and (B) I feel compelled to warn you that this review contains spoilers.

Following from the end of the last volume, The Sword of the Lictor, this book sees Severian heading north from Lake Diuturna, where he comes face-to-face with the war against the Ascians. I’ve long considered this book (along with the previous volume) as the weaker half of TBotNS, with the flight from Thrax (in Sword) and the war in this book being—to me—fairly uninteresting affairs. I had to reconsider that opinion when I recently reread Sword, and ran into the same situation with Citadel this last time through.

Severian approaches the war obliquely at first, encountering a dead soldier who appears to be resurrected by the Claw of the Conciliator, then accompanying said soldier to a lazaret where the war’s victims are being treated. At this point in the narrative, Severian transcribes a collection of tales heard during his time in the lazaret. During my first read, I was irritated with the break in the narrative that these stories created. The second time, I knew it was coming and was able to hunker down and power through, as it were. This time around, I found myself looking forward to the stories, especially “The Armiger’s Daughter”, which I read a couple of times, I love it so much now. When Severian leaves the lazaret (all too soon) he is thrust into the war proper, and though this section of the book is still one of the most confusing in the entire Book, it’s far shorter than I remembered. His direct involvement in the war over, he goes through a series of encounters with old “friends”, culminating in his becoming the Autarch of the Commonwealth (not a spoiler; he reveals this at the end of the second chapter in the first book.)

After that, there are a handful of chapters devoted to tying up loose ends or clarifying a select few of the sequence’s mysteries. For me, this is part of the big payoff of the series, but only part; most of the payoff is actually going back and reading it all over again to try and make sense of everything with a new perspective. As Severian says in the final chapter:

Have I told you all I promised? I am aware that at various places in my narrative I have pledged that this or that should be made clear in the knitting up of the story. I remember them all, I am sure, but then I remember so much else. Before you assume that I have cheated you, read again, as I will write again.

I can think of little else to say other than that this is a powerful conclusion to a SF masterpiece, almost a religious experience, with a scope of overwhelming extragalactic magnitude, but which also—viewed through Severian’s eyes—reaches down and touches at an intimately personal level. [5 out of 5 stars] for this final volume, and 5/5 for the Book as a whole.

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The Citadel of the Autarch

Book review: The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

Um…wow? I have now read this book twice in the past year, and am looking forward to regular rereads every December.

I had heard lots of fantastic things about Gene Wolfe, and this series in particular, so I figured this was the best place to start. The first time through, I thought it was good. A little slow in parts, and other times it was difficult to keep up with what was going on, but overall? Very enjoyable. I rated it a modest 3.5 stars, figuring I’d revise my rating up after subsequent rereads. A couple months later, I was still thinking about TBotNS, so I revised my rating to 4 stars.

Then some random impulse possessed me (I, who give little time to rereads, and had already done one this year) to do a reread in December, a year removed from my first reading. As anticipated, it was even better; but I was surprised by just how much better it was. As expected, much of the book made more sense, puzzle-pieces fit together more readily, and “good” parts from my first read felt like old friends. But many of the “slow” parts now raced by, and the handful of short stories retold by the narrator Severian—which before had mostly bored me—I now savored. I found myself moved (and rendered misty-eyed) by unexpected passages. It was, in a word, MAGICAL.

My new rating was to be 4.5 stars, but it wouldn’t stop there. For throughout much of the book, I felt almost like I was studying a religious text—which indeed, it is, at least in-story. There’s a depth to Wolfe’s book that invites scrutiny and searches for meaning. Not being much of a critical reader myself, I’m fine with the realization that I’ll never grasp 90% of the true substance of TBotNS; but just as someone like myself can be absolutely terrible at Go, yet appreciate the profound brilliance of the game, so too can I recognize the genius of Wolfe’s masterpiece. 5 stars it is.

This review tells nothing about the actual story of the book, and I will not apologize for that. Rather, I think that that is the way TBotNS is best approached; know that it ostensibly takes place millions of years in the future, and go from there. Be warned that though the first time through may confuse, it will also reward, and subsequent visits bring yet greater rewards. As for me, I’m looking forward to many years of rewards. [5 out of 5 stars]

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Book of the New Sun

Books read: Acts of Caine.

Wednesday, October 25th, 2006

The first book I read by Matthew Stover was the Star Wars book, Traitor. I whipped through it in 2 nights, and it still remains my favorite of all the many Star Wars novels. Until a month ago, it was also the only Stover novel I’d read. That changed when I read good things about some of his original novels, and found 2 of them at Half-Price Books shortly thereafter. They’re the first 2 (and currently, the only) books in a series called The Acts of Caine.

The first book, called Heroes Die, stands on its own as an excellent adventure story, but also sets the stage for the second book. The story takes place on a future Earth, where the human population has fallen into a caste-based society, and the popular entertainment of the time is “first-handing” Adventures. You see, through a process called the Winston Transfer, professional Actors are able to be transported off to a parallel Earth called “Overworld” — a land populated with dragons, elves, dwarves, and ogres, and where magick works. The Actors’ thoughts and perceptions are then transmitted back to Earth for their fans to experience.

Hari Michaelson is the most popular Actor of his time, specializing in particularly exciting and violent Adventures in his role as the assassin, Caine. His wife on Earth is also another famous Actor, who plays the freedom fighter Pallas Ril, and when a magick spell cuts her off from her connection to Earth, Caine is sent in to save her.

That much of the plot is fairly straightforward, but there are plenty of twists and turns along the way. Not only must Hari contend with the Imperial forces in Overworld’s capital city of Ankhana, but also with the heads of the entertainment Studio he works for. In fact, Caine is only allowed to go after Pallas by consenting to kill the new ruler of Ankhana, the self-proclaimed god Ma’elKoth.

The story itself is incredibly dark and violent, the text laced with profanity. Definitely not for a lot of people, but it’s never really gratuitous because humanity’s love of violent entertainment is one of the book’s big philosophical points. And there is a lot of philosophy in here; for all the f-bombs and blood and guts, Stover definitely has something to say in Heroes Die, and manages to give the reader something to think about, as well as a rip-snortin’ adventure.

The sequel, Blade of Tyshalle, takes place seven years later, and everything about it is double what Heroes Die was: Hari’s opponents, both on Earth and Overworld, are bigger and more terrifying; the depths to which the protagonists fall are lower, the stakes higher. The plot is twice as convoluted. As unthinkable as it seems, the violence is cranked up a couple of notches — reaching the point of distrubing, at times. And the philosophical musings come more frequently and more heavily.

At one point, a little over halfway through, I almost wrote the book off. Not that I wouldn’t finish it (I don’t feel I can judge a book until I’ve read every last word of it) but I didn’t figure I’d really enjoy the whole thing, not like I did its predecessor.

But it works.

When I finished the book last night, I was grinning like Caine. For as low as the book gets, I think the highs are that much higher for it. The ending is almost uplifting. And it makes you think — or, at the very least, it makes you want to think. I’ve got my next book (not the next Caine book, sadly — that hasn’t been published yet) sitting next to me, but I’m not anxious to start it because I’d rather just sit and contemplate Blade of Tyshalle. And that’s not normally how I operate. It’s just that good.

Now I can’t wait for the next chapter, tentatively called Caine Black Knife. (Well, I guess I can wait; I mean, I have to, right?)

Rating for both books:

Book read: Wyrms.

Wednesday, August 16th, 2006

Yesterday, I finished reading Wyrms by Orson Scott Card, for the second time.

It has the distinction of being the first Card book I’d read outside the “Ender” series. It was a bit of a departure from those books — even the “heavier” of the Ender books like Xenocide — and I decided that it was pretty good, but it really didn’t do anything for me.

Fast forward a few years, and now I own almost all of Card’s books, and have read most of those, and my impression is still that Wyrms is one of the weakest of the lot. So, wanting to read some more Card, and barely remembering a thing about Wyrms (though still maintaining my opinion on it), I decided to give it another read.


The book hasn’t changed any in the intervening 3-4 years, but apparently I’ve grown a lot as a reader. Wyrms is a great book. I’m a huge fan of early Card (like Treason, Hart’s Hope, and The Worthing Saga) and this ranks right up there with those.

The story revolves around the girl, Patience, whose father is the rightful Heptarch, but is slave to King Oruc. This makes Patience the rightful heir to the throne; there’s also the matter of a prophecy regarding the seventh seventh seventh daughter of the original Heptarch: which happens to be Patience. It seems that her destiny is to bear the Unwyrm’s child which will either save or destroy humanity, and the story essentially chronicles Patience’s journey from her home in Korfu to Unwyrm’s lair.

Like most of Card’s early work, everything about the book smacks of originality. The characters are sharply drawn, and quite memorable (aside from my own inherent forgetfulness) and the dialogue all has a very philosophical bent to it. One of my favorite aspects of the book is that whenever someone speaks, you feel like Card is imparting little nuggets of Truth to you. There’s definitely a lot of wisdom in the text, and a lot to think about as a reader. The climactic scene is as disturbing as the buildup leads you to believe it will be, and the denouement by contrast feels just the opposite: rushed and happy.

Though the book is rooted in science-fiction, based in a far-flung future on a colonized planet and concerned with genetic manipulation, reproduction, and evolution, it reads much more like a fantasy. As with most of Card’s sci-fi (the later Ender books included) it takes place in a fairly medieval setting, with kings and castles. The story itself revolves around the genre-standard quest or journey. In fact, I couldn’t help noticing that the day before I finished Wyrms, I read on Card’s website a review of a fantasy series that said:

“Too often, the world of a fantasy novel consists of: Two cities, a mountain range, a forest, and a desert. Oh, and a river here and there that will serve either as transportation or a barrier.”

And, sure enough, Wyrms has two cities, Korfu and Cranning; a mountain, Skyfoot; a forest, Tinker’s Wood; and though there’s no desert, there’s the Cranwater river that serves as transportation from the forest to the mountain.

Definitely fantasy. But definitely good. So I’m slightly dissatisfied with the ending; as with most fantasy, it’s all about the journey.

(*edit: Apparently, the system hiccupped when I first wrote this post, because it didn’t initially show up anywhere. Frustrated, I rewrote the entry and posted it — only to see that the first entry did make it through. I’ve deleted the second write-up from my blog proper, but if you want to give it a look, here it is.)