Archive for October, 2010

The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson

October 30, 2010 Leave a comment

The Well of Ascension is the middle book of the Mistborn trilogy and as such it doesn’t have the same bright newness of the first book nor the satisfying denouement of the final one.

After taking down the Final Empire, Kelsier’s crew must now find a way to rule, tediously organizing a government and gathering resources to support the people. Vin becomes essentially the Mistborn successor to “The Survivor” and Elend accepts the mantle of benevolent philosopher king.

(For another book that wryly describes what happens after the Dark Lord is defeated, I highly recommend Villains by Necessity by Eve Forward.  It’s very definitely a memorable book.)

Much of the novel focuses on the political maneuvering to retain the crown while multiple armies march on the capital. A rogue, insane Mistborn alternately attempts to suborn Vin, kill her, and attract her romantically; at the same time, she attempt to discover which of the crew has been replaced by a kandra, a shapeshifting race with unknown goals.

Like the previous book, each chapter is headed by short texts from some larger document which continues to reveal the backstory of the Lord Ruler.  It’s enjoyable to try to draw conclusions about his motives.

As always, the magic system is fantastic.  Sanderson expands it with previously unknown metals and alloys and further illumines the talents of feruchemy.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars (mostly because it is a second book and is slower at times — October 19th, 2010)

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The Dune Encyclopedia

October 29, 2010 2 comments

“>I am unabashedly a fan of the Dune novels by Frank Herbert, in particular the first Dune book which I read for the first time when I was a freshman in high school.  Since then, I have read Dune at least once a year.  I have also enjoyed the largely panned 1984 David Lynch movie and the SciFi Channel miniseries.

A wonderful less known work, however, is The Dune Encyclopedia compiled by Dr. Willis E. McNelly.  The book is no longer in print and no longer (and arguably never) considered canon by the Herbert Estate.  The book holds a unique position, however, since it was authorized by Frank Herbert and he wrote a forward in which he stated:

I must confess that I found it fascinating to re-enter here some of the sources on which the Chronicles are built.  As the first “Dune fan,” I give this encyclopedia my delighted approval, although I hold my own counsel on some of the issues still to be explored as the Chronicles unfold.

The Encyclopedia was published in 1984 between God Emperor of Dune (book 4) and Heretics of Dune (book 5) and thus Herbert’s forward was prophetic:  the later books do not completely mesh with the information in the Encyclopedia.  (And the expanded universe novels by Kevin J. Anderson and Brian Herbert explicitly contradict it.)  Some who have enjoyed the depth in the Encyclopedia retcon this by stating that since the Encyclopedia was written in-universe in 15540 AG and many of its sources were from facts colored by propaganda, the encyclopedia was accurate as known by people of the time.

The Encyclopedia is exactly that:  an alphabetical listing of people, events, organizations, and unique items in the Dune universe.  What makes the book so charming is that McNelly gathered more than 30 contributors to write the entries, each with a differing style and depth.  Clearly, he found botanists, political scientists, historians, economists, scientists, linguists, and other creative writers to expand upon the material found within Herbert’s books.  What this does is create a depth and a witty, clever collaborative effect to the entries.

To give an example of some of the entries:

  • There are multiple entries on one of the key characters in the book, Paul Atreides.  One is almost a fairy tale or a mythological story about how he got his name, complete with genies which clearly shows how historical personages can be mythologized over time and distance.  A second entry is a research report written that disputes that Paul ever existed as purported (complete with research footnotes).  A final entry attempts to rationalize his prescient ability using a philosophical bent and the scientific method.
  • Entries on the political entities (Landsraad, Sardaukar, Great Houses, Great Convention) invent a back history to describe how the tenuous arrangement came to be over thousands of years. Invented emperors, battles, Great Houses, and events are sprinkled throughout the entries to create an aura of authenticity.
  • The entry on the face dancers is extremely creative.  Evidently a biologist or a physician was involved as it explains physiologically how (with some advanced scientific knowledge) face dancers could be created from standard humans.

For me, this book is a never-ending fun read and I often pick it up and browse a few pages.  I always find something new.

5 out of 5 stars

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Kindle part 1: What’s the deal with ebooks anyway?

October 27, 2010 2 comments

My plan is to write a series of posts covering my experiences with the Amazon Kindle. Obviously, mileage may vary depending on reading habits and comfort with technology.

This post will focus on my thoughts on ebooks in general.

Needless to say, I read a lot of books and own a lot of books (between my wife and I, we have a library of over 4,800!). I love browsing for them, handling them, the smell of the ink, and cataloging them. Sadly, I’ve purchased second copies of some books just because I like their packaging (omnibuses can quickly become my downfall).

So the question was: would I ever convert to e-books? The answer is a qualified yes.

My first exposure to e-books was via my Palm handheld. Several prominent science-fiction publishers (Baen in particular) began releasing some backlist books in this format to entice readers to purchase later volumes in these series (go to the Baen Free Library to check it out!). When purchasing David Weber’s latest Honor Harrington novel a number of years ago (I think it was War of Honor), the Baen published hardback included a CD containing all of the previous volumes electronically. I quickly found that I enjoyed the portable nature of these books — especially when I had a few moments free at lunch, in a waiting room, or anywhere else where I’d have my Palm device with me. Even the small screen of a Palm or my Treo didn’t bother me.

But the device itself never really disappeared — often when reading a dead-tree work, you can become so engrossed that the physical book doesn’t even register. You don’t even notice turning the page. I never quite felt that with the small devices.

I also didn’t see the ebook as a replacement for the physical book, but rather as a portable extension. I found myself reading the electronic book when I was out and about, but reverted to the physical copy when I got home.

In addition to the portability, I really benefited from having a decent number of books with me. For example, when reading the David Weber Honor Harrington books, I could immediately start on the next one without interruption, or could switch quickly to another genre if I wasn’t in the mood. Certainly, traveling was ideal with my Palm, although I always seemed to pack at least one physical book, partly due to the strain on the battery.

In the advent of the Kindle era, the first year, I honestly read many books on the device which I already owned, but my reading pattern changed:  I generally did not switch to the normal book at home.

It hasn’t been until more recently (last six months or so) where I’ve felt more comfortable buying a book exclusively for the Kindle itself. I think this is especially true for non-fiction books and newer-to-me authors, where I don’t have a collection to keep complete.

Frankly, I’ll likely buy more ebooks as publishers begin embracing it more for all of their new books and their backlists. The inconsistency of the available books is perplexing to me. Some authors and genres are well represented; often specific books are oddly missing.

For me, there is still joy in browsing the shelves at the local bookstores and used bookstores. And, I still buy books there, probably too many — especially if I own the rest of the series. But I’m getting much better at pausing, checking whether a book is available in electronic format. I’ve often thought about the quote from Seinfeld:

“What is this obsession people have with books? They put them in their houses like they’re trophies. What do you need it for after you read it?”
— Jerry Seinfeld

Now, I definitely reread my books, but I have begun to question whether having a physical (and heavy — take it from me who has had to move my boxes 4-5 times between apartments) copy is as important as having the text readily available to me, wherever I am?

I hope bookstores never go out of business.  But it really makes me wonder whether the form of the media itself really matters, or is it the content?  With the caveat that if I think I own the content, there isn’t fine print somewhere that I’m merely renting it.

I’d love to hear what you think!

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Setting the Record Straight: American History in Black and White by David Barton

October 25, 2010 6 comments

Setting the Record Straight:  American History in Black & White by David Barton.  I was very disappointed with this book, and believe that the back cover blurb and a recommendation I received were misleading.

First, my expectations. I thought that the book was going to be presented as a series of biographical vignettes which would highlight the political and cultural (societal, philosophical, rather than artistic or scientific) achievements of African-Americans in the history of the United States. I expected that the author’s viewpoint would condemn the horrific institution of slavery, but would also bring to light certain instances where, in spite of the difficulties, African-American individuals had a clear, profound impact. I was also expecting that the author’s tone would suggest that many of these instances have been forgotten and perhaps expunged from our American heritage education.

As I read the book, I was disappointed that mentions of prominent African-American thinkers, orators, and political figures were frankly too brief. Without question, Barton suggests that the treatment of black Americans was evil and unlawful. The context of the individuals he did use in his arguments was certainly eye-opening to me.   For example, I had no idea that so many black representatives (comparatively) were elected to the Congress in the 10 or so years following the Civil War.

So, the anecdotes were interesting to me, as was the path to voting rights for African-Americans. Although I was familiar generally with the attempts to keep black voters from exercising their rights through the years, I never comprehended how systemic this was and to what lengths that people prevented the vote.

What I found most disagreeable about the book was its political bias. From page to page I wondered if the book shouldn’t have been entitled: American History in Black & White: The Racist and Misguided Agenda of the Democratic Party, Then and Now. The author constantly reveled in revealing how the Democratic party itself was inherently pro-slavery, racist, and believed in the supremacy of whites and how the Republican Party was abolitionist and constantly fought to gain acceptance of the equality of the races. And, while the evidence presented seems to support this view, it certainly seems a mistake to draw parallels with the modern day parties. It certainly seemed to me that the author had an axe to grind. Which, in turn, made me question whether there either might be other interpretations of the evidence or that additional evidence to the contrary was omitted.

Now, the bias against the Democratic Party and for the Republican Party seems quite clear throughout the text, but it wasn’t until the final pages where Barton explicitly states it:

As many today have lost their knowledge of the black political history known so well by previous generations of black Americans, and as the black Americans have in recent decades become solidly aligned with the Democratic Party, many African Americans today have picked up the Democrats’ long-standing hatred for Republicans without understanding its origins; yet the racial issues behind the generations-long Democratic hatred for Republicans is well documented.

Also well documented is the fact that African Americans made their earliest and some of their most significant political and civil rights gains while affiliated with the Republican Party — and that progress is still continuing in this generation.

Now, Barton goes on to say that “no vote should be cast solely on the basis of any party”, but the damage via bias was unfortunately done for me. How can I trust the evidence when his neutrality is so repeatedly questioned?

On the positive side, there are enough nuggets of interest here that have already caused me to do some additional web searches for more information, which is always a sign of a good non-fiction book. But sadly, some of those searches were to test the data itself….

Definitely not a horrible book and eminently readable as a history of the political parties on the race issue during the nineteenth century, but not what I expected.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars (October 24, 2010)

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The Lost Fleet series by Jack Campbell

October 21, 2010 1 comment

I just finished Jack Campbell’s (pseudonym of John G. Hemry) The Lost Fleet series which is made up of six books:

It’s been a few few years since the first novel was published, so I decided to re-read the first few again before diving into the last two.  First off, I have to say that I love the names of these books since they invoke the names of ships in the age of sail and also reinforce the commitment and will of the fleet and its commander.

The storyline is about a fleet of Alliance ships which, due to a trap, are caught far behind enemy lines and must laboriously jump from system to system in order to (1) protect their own star systems since the fleet action leaves the Alliance woefully undermanned and (2) deliver a copy of their enemy’s hyperspace key.  After the trap is discovered and the admiralty staff is brutally executed, the command devolves upon one man, Captain John Geary due to the fact that his promotion to captain predates any other officer by at least 80 years.

Captain Geary had participated in one of the earliest battles of the war nearly 100 standard years earlier and in a daring last stand was forced to abandon ship in a life boat in hibernation.  Granted posthumous promotion to captain, he was found by the fleet just prior to the enemy engagement.  In the intervening years, the legend of “Black Jack” Geary’s heroic last stand grew, both in popular culture (his name is used as an oath and to describe certain aggressive, valiant behavior) but also cultivated by a war-weary government who needed to inspire its population and military.

Meanwhile, the Alliance has forgotten the ideals for which it stood and even military tactics to the point where crews and materiel are merely thrown at the enemy.  Fleet captains have become more political animals than tacticians and commanders, leading by consensus and charisma rather than merit and strength of will.

Geary is forced to literally wrest away command, re-inspire faith in the tenets of civility and morality (e.g. not attacking non-military targets unless defending oneself),  counteract the unattainable vision of “Black Jack” Geary, and bring his people home.

What I enjoyed most:

I love stories where an individual is thrust into authority precipitously and must rise to the occasion.  In particular, the author does a great job describing how Geary wrestles with the “Black Jack” name and all it means to the current generation.

I like what I call “nuts and bolts” scenes.  By this I mean when authors take some time to walk through specifics on how a job is done, what thinking goes into a decision, and not merely surprises the reader with an unexpected fully hatched plan almost out of nowhere.   The definitions of up, down, starboard, and port as it relates to three dimensional space was also very clever and believable.

I found the ancestor worship consultation (?) faith to be very interesting.

The concepts of time and distance that are part of the military positioning and tactics.

  • These books really made me think of the rather large spans of time it would take for two space flotillas to engage, even considering speeds of fractions of light speed — hours and days instead of minutes.  The two sides would be on edge for days, knowing that the confrontation was nearing, but unable to strike.
  • Also, the speed of light would greatly impact how soon the fleets would even see each other.  For example, if a fleet arrives (via hyperspace) into a planetary system, it would instantly be able to see the fixed emplacements such as planets, moons, and orbiting stations as well as the positions of ships in the system as of, say, 4 hours ago — the time it took the light to travel across the system.  But, conversely, a ship already in the system would not see the invading fleet at all until 4 hours had passed (or less if the fleet was moving toward it) because the light from the arrival would not have hit the observer on the ship.  This concept was fascinating to me.

There are enough different plot elements — initially taking command, freeing prisoners of war, counteracting rebellion and even treason within the fleet, suspicions that there is another enemy — that the books never become a trudge from point A to point B to point C.

I would have to say, however, that the last novel ends more abruptly than I expected; it does have a solid enough ending that I didn’t get the impression that a direct sequel is needed.  According to his website, two additional outrigger series are contracted:

One will be called The Lost Fleet – Beyond the Frontier.  These will continue to follow Black Jack and his companions as they deal with events following VICTORIOUS.  The other series (The Phoenix Stars) is set in a formerly Syndic star system as the poeple there cope with the ongoing collapse of the Syndicate Worlds.

As I think about the books, they remind me strongly of other series which I’ve enjoyed:

  • John G. Hemry’s JAG in Space series which starts with A Just Determination for the, to me, realistic portrayal of the military of the future in space.
  • The Military SF Honor Harrington novels by David Weber (starting with On Basilisk Station) for the portrayal of the “enemy”.  The corporate Syndics who are essentially oppressing their citizens who are largely ignorant of the big picture is very analogous to the “People’s Republic of Haven”.  There are also a lot of comparisons that could be made of the conflicted main characters, the strength of will, and the military creativity.
  • The Seafort Saga by David Feintuch (starting with Midshipman’s Hope) — one of my all-time favorite series, especially the first 4 or so — which similarly describes an individual who is thrust into command before his time.

4 out of 5 stars (series as a whole, read late September thru 10/13/2010)

Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

October 11, 2010 Leave a comment

What are some of the key characteristics I look for in a fantasy novel? Well, a complex but consistent magic system, unique and complete worldbuilding, compelling characters, an unpredictable plot, and an author’s ability to reserve some secrets for later (or never). The first book in the Mistborn series, The Final Empire, has all of that.

First off, the magical system(s). Sanderson creates a pair of interrelated, but separate, magic systems based on the user’s use of metals. Differing metals cause differing outcomes, and specific alloys of these metals change the talent. While an increase in strength or senses might not be that unexpected, the author’s creativity in the talents of pushing or pulling metals was. Instead of an all-awesome telekinetic power like the Jedi in the Star Wars saga, the talents are much more constrained by physical laws. For example, one can push against a metal object, but one’s own weight and leverage is taken into account. One can pull a metal toward oneself or push it away, but it must follow a straight line trajectory; one cannot cause objects to hover in the air or spin around a target.  Using thrown coin bits and metal latchings on buildings to basically Spiderman yourself through a city was fascinating.

Another part of the system is that the citizens of the Final Empire either have no talents, have a talent with a single metal (a Misting), or have access to all talents (a Mistborn). While the Mistborn, for the most part, occupy a privileged class in the society, they aren’t necessarily more powerful or skilled in each individual talent. Those Mistings, for example, who can only “soothe” or “riot” people’s emotions can often achieve much greater subtlety in the art — to better effect and with less metal resources required.

And that’s just the first system. The second allows a person to store attributes (such as eyesight, strength, or memory) in metals to effect some of the same results.

Why is this cool? It’s logical — I suppose ironic for magic — and it obeys natural laws. It also categorizes the metals, something that a more scientific analysis might do:

  • pushing vs pulling
  • physical, mental, temporal, and enhancement effects
  • internal vs external effects

While reading the novel, I was instantly drawn to the “heist movie” aspects like Ocean’s Eleven, where a charismatic individual gathers a group of specialists to build and execute a complicated plan to steal the treasure. Kelsier builds a crew of Mistings with the goals of taking down the oppressive government and to steal the Lord Ruler’s rare metal stash. Not surprisingly, elaborate plots within plots are required to build a secret army, infiltrate the nobility, and set the noble families into chaos.

As one might expect, with so many moving parts, political machinations, and organizations with competing plans, there are multiple setbacks. Sanderson gives hints of other characters and other undercurrents of society which, undoubtedly, he’ll build upon in later books — for example, what is the purpose of the Steel Ministry, the Obligators, and the Inquisitors? What are the secrets of the persecuted Terris people and their strange version of metal magic? What happened 1000 years ago to create the Final Empire? And what is the Darkness which led to volcanic ash falling continuously from the sky, the disappearance of all green plants and flowers, and stars being obscured from view?

Other series which resemble this book in tone are the heist novels in the Gentlemen Bastards series by Scott Lynch (The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies) and the dark, underworld novels of the Night Angel Trilogy by Brent Weeks (The Way of Shadows is the first novel, and the only one I’ve read so far).

I highly recommend Brandon Sanderson’s website. On it, he has essays on the creative process, shows status reports on all of his works in progress (including the completion of The Wheel of Time), and annotations on each chapter of completed novels.

The story continues with The Well of Ascension and concludes with The Hero of Ages.  I also recommend Sanderson’s stand alone fantasy novel, Elantris.

4 1/2 out of 5 stars (finished September 30, 2010)

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