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Review: Daggerspell by Katharine Kerr

February 27, 2011 Leave a comment

I just finished Daggerspell by Katherine Kerr, which is the first book in her Deverry series.  The conceit is that hundreds of years previously a Gaulish people are mysteriously transported to a world they call Annwn (“no place”) before the culture was Romanized.  In this new world, mankind meets the woodland Elcyion Lacar (essentially elves, more in the Sindarian tradition of Tolkien rather than the more refined high elves) and the Wildfolk which are wild elemental spirits which can partially appear in the physical plane.  In addition, some individuals can access the power of dweomer, a magic system which consists of using the elemental powers to impact the physical world.  The origin of the people from our world, however, is unimportant in this book, where the major idea is of wyrd — having to make amends for poor decisions in a previous life.

The book revolves around Nevyn, who precipitated a series of events which led to the destruction of many lives, either by physical death or by tragedy.  As an apprentice of the dweomer, he swears to never rest until he is able to bring his love also to the art of the dweomer and resolve the tragic intertwined lives.  350-odd years later, Nevyn is still alive, acting as a wandering herbmaster, searching for the reincarnated souls who will eventually be brought together again.  Interestingly, each soul will resemble to a degree the personality of its original life, but may be born to another station, learn new skills, or have an entirely different relationship to the other souls (for example a brother/sister relationship becomes a father/daughter pairing many years later).

After recounting the story around Nevyn’s mistakes in the past, the book jumps to the “present” where Nevyn discovers the souls have been brought back and begin to come together.  In successive sections, two previous reincarnation episodes are told, where the souls either add to their wyrd or become slightly more enlightened.  Kerr helpfully includes a chart of the four time periods so that the reader can remember which soul represents each character.

The world-building is largely Celtic both in language and culture, set definitely at a medieval level, with various clans occupying and governing different regions in a semi-military structure.  Kerr introduces several strong female characters, particularly Jill and Lovyan in the present incarnation, who in many ways are the most important characters of the book. Jill because she is both the character around which each of the other characters revolves and because she is the agent of action.  Lovyan because she uses her inner strength to politically and maternally contain the conflict which erupts.

Daggerspell ends somewhat precipitously and it is obvious that editorially the story was split into two volumes (book 2 is Darkspell), but I’d recommend this book as a standalone just for the wondrous multi-layered growth of the characters/souls over the years.

4 1/2 out of 5 stars (finished February 27, 2011)

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Currently reading:  Dark Fire by C.J. Sansom, Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris,  Darkspell by Katherine Kerr, & Starship:  Mercenary by Mike Resnick

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Categories: Book Reviews Tags: ,

Review: Starship: Pirate by Mike Resnick

February 26, 2011 1 comment

After having been sprung from a detention center awaiting wrongful judgment in Mutiny, Wilson Cole takes the renegade crew of the Theodore Roosevelt into the outer frontier of the galaxy to avoid recapture by the Republic.  Out in the fringes, he must decide how the ship is to operate and decides that piracy might just be the ticket.

But first, they must decide what kind of pirates they should be.   Should they prey on small colony worlds?  On medical vessels shipping vaccines to needy worlds?  On rich cruiser lines guarded by other ships?  Cole must design a pirate’s code for the Teddy R so that they still remain somewhat ethical in this illegal trade.

Next, Cole must determine how to creatively operate as a pirate, since the crew quickly discovers that it’s nothing like the holos or books they’ve read.  For starters, a fence will only offer 3-5% of the value of stolen goods, which means that the crime really doesn’t pay very well.  His idea:  after “obtaining” some valuable items, act as treasure hunters and negotiate with the insurance companies for a much larger “finder’s fee”.  It works, sort of.

Soon, Cole meets a former pirate, who goes by multiple names depending on her mood and who offers to teach Cole the ropes if he helps her get her ship back.

I really enjoyed how Resnick shows how Captain Cole thinks through his options and develops a code of ethics for piracy.  His approaches to finding his marks, selling goods, and making his getaway are both creative and smart.

I was disappointed, however, in one thing.  Captain Wilson Cole is supposed to be an exemplary leader, but in this volume, he shows very little leadership.  Instead, he himself goes on all missions personally (à la Star Trek), which works to show how quickly he thinks on his feet and how he is able to size up a situation, but does little to show trust in his crew’s abilities.  This tendency began to irritate me more and more.

In addition to the amazonian pirate Val, who has an extremely strong personality in this book, I really enjoyed the alien fence who has adopted the name of David Copperfield.  David is obsessed with the works of Charles Dickens, even dressing as a Victorian dandy.  To get an audience with the fence, Cole (himself a bibliophile) introduces himself as James Steerforth, an old schoolboy chum of the literary character, and is immediately brought into David’s confidence.

It’s clear at the end of the book that piracy really isn’t going to work out for the crew of the Teddy R which sets up the next book in the series perfectly.

The series:

  1. Mutiny
  2. Pirate
  3. Mercenary
  4. Rebel
  5. Flagship

4 1/2 out of 5 stars (finished February 25th, 2011)

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Currently reading:  Dark Fire by C.J. Sansom, Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris,  Daggerspell by Katherine Kerr, & Starship:  Mercenary by Mike Resnick

Review: Starship: Mutiny by Mike Resnick

February 21, 2011 1 comment

The first novel in the Starship series, Mutiny, by Mike Resnick is a very enjoyable space opera romp.  In fact, I was unable to put it down and finished it in one day.

The Teddy Roosevelt is a ship to which the Republic Navy assigns officers and crewpersons it wants to forget about; it is essentially a career dead end patrolling the remote fringes of the galaxy.  Out of sight, out of mind.  That is, until Commander Wilson Cole arrives on the Teddy R….  Cole is one of those self-confident, innovative, insightful, and heavily decorated officers that constantly shows up his superiors, often through insubordination.  Although he says that trouble finds him, most believe he finds trouble.

On his very first watch, Cole discovers the enemy occupying a Republic world and ingeniously maneuvers the Navy to end the occupation.  …and is decorated again, although the decorating admiral does it with tightly gritted teeth.  Then, Cole begins to give the Teddy R‘s crew something to live for — he shows them discipline and respect, neither of which they expected again.

Several other episodes convince the crew that true leadership is creativity, recognizing good faith effort, and both the desire and will to take action as needed.  Cole’s physique is not imposing, so he must use his intellect to piece together tiny details to win the day.

Ultimately, however, no good deed goes unpunished, even after saving over 5 million lives.  And one cannot constantly show one’s superiors as incompetent and illogical, especially when it is done somewhat disrespectfully.

Resnick sets this novel in the earlier period of the Birthright universe (see my review here).  Mankind is still in its ascendancy, but alien races are members of the crew if still somewhat second class citizens.  Cole is notable for his unabashed non-bias against aliens; in fact, his best friend is a alien with an equal level of sardonic-ism.  He can quickly assess the strengths and weaknesses of each member of his crew regardless of his, her, or its origin.

It was pleasant not to have to follow complicated techno-babble or have to understand deep science concepts to follow the plot.  Instead, Resnick highlights leaps of logic and intuition.

The book is fast paced and witty — enjoyable but not overly deep.   It reminds me of Resnick’s own Birthright novel  in tone, as well as Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet series (see my review here), and Keith Laumer’s Retief stories.  If you enjoyed the Honor Harrington novels by David Weber (book 1 is On Basilisk Station), you’ll likely enjoy this one too.

One note:  this book has never been published in paperback for some reason, but is available as a Kindle e-book and as an Audible audiobook.

The series:

  1. Mutiny
  2. Pirate
  3. Mercenary
  4. Rebel
  5. Flagship

5 out of 5 stars (finished February 20, 2011)

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Currently reading:  Dark Fire by C.J. Sansom, Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris,  Daggerspell by Katherine Kerr, & Starship:  Pirate by Mike Resnick

 

Review: Eragon by Christopher Paolini

February 20, 2011 2 comments

This is the second time that I’ve read Eragon by Christopher Paolini.  I’d had a poor response to the book the first time I read it, but with several more recent recommendations, I decided to give it another shot.  After this re-read, I suspect that I had listened to an abridged version of the book, rather than the full text, since this time I felt that it had more depth.

Essentially the book is standard epic fantasy fare:

  • young boy whose parents are, or presumed to be, dead is more than he seems
  • wise, old mentor trains the boy but is eventually killed before training is complete
  • telepathic bond with a magical creature (in this case, a dragon)
  • a quest and a sword
  • a dramatic battle at the end

But for all of that, it’s still an enjoyable read, although it clearly has derivative roots in The Lord of the Rings and the Dragon novels of Anne McCaffrey, among others.

Some of its strong points:

  • Eragon himself exhibits some flaws.  He overreaches, he forgets previous lessons, and he becomes, for a short time, consumed with hate for revenge.
  • There are multiple factions within the “good guys”.  Often, the side for good is too united, which is perhaps a bit naive.  The rebel Varden are strained by tensions between the elves, the dwarves, the magic users, and those following the Varden leader, Ajihad.
  • I really enjoyed the characters of Brom and Murtagh, who again have more depth in their personalities and histories than a first novel might have.
  • I was touched by one early scene where a young Saphira (a newly hatched dragonling) is compelled to stay at a remote location and essentially leashed up in a tree for safety.  Her straining at the leash, not quite understanding why Eragon had to leave her was quite real to me.

There were a few areas, however, that were not as well developed.  For example, other than a few references in the book, Paolini was oddly silent on the tight bond between Eragon and his dragon Saphira.  Other novels using a telepathic, almost predestined, pairing of human and animal explore the emotional link much more clearly — and each separation from one another causes a painful tearing of their souls.

Plot-wise, I had two complaints:

  • The early wanderings to find the Ra’zac who killed his uncle seems quite random and not fully conceived, almost as if there had been a change in plot during the writing of the book.  I also thought the relative lack of clues to the passage of time hurt the novel a bit, since it was difficult to truly buy into Eragon’s education in swordplay, in magic, and even to read.  It was quite late in the novel by the time Eragon reflects that six months had passed since finding Saphira’s egg.
  • The final portion of the novel from the time that Eragon enters the valley of the Varden to the final conflict seems somewhat over lengthy and perhaps a bit underwhelming.  The pace might have been better if the Urgals had arrived literally on their heels and the battle fought immediately.

The ending is well set up for the next volume, which I plan to read soon, since I suspect that Paolini will be more original in some of the plot devices.

(btw, the movie is OK, but the detail and motivations in the book are better)

4 stars out of 5 (finished February 19, 2011)

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Currently reading:  Dark Fire by C.J. Sansom, Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris,  Daggerspell by Katherine Kerr, & Starship:  Mutiny by Mike Resnick

 

 

Review: So You Want to be a Wizard by Diane Duane

February 11, 2011 Leave a comment

This book starts off with a wonderful conceit:  a young girl, who seems to somewhat of a loner, ducks into the local library to escape notice of a bully.  There among the shelves, she lovingly touches the spines of dozens of books which she’s already read until she spies one that she’s never seen before.  The title reads, “So You Want to be a Wizard,” seemingly one of the myriad career books for kids.  Intrigued, she takes it home and finds that the volume is absolutely serious.  She can become a wizard, if she’s willing to pay the price.

She soon discovers that there is a whole unseen universe, where the trees recount their ancient battles with evil, where wizards protect the fabric of reality, and where young wizard apprentices must prove their mettle in service of good…. or possibly perish in the attempt.

Together with Kit, a neighbor boy who has also just recently taken the wizard’s oath, Nita must save the universe from being unmade.

I found the first scenes totally charming, since I can easily remember knowing each book on the library shelves and voraciously reading each one, sometimes one or two a day.  And, the author suggests that if you haven’t yet seen this book in your library, then you just may not be suited to wield the power.

The book is set near and in New York City and, frankly, it was shocking to see a reference to the Twin Towers.

One of the most interesting characters is that of “Fred”, a bright speck of light who is “accidentally” (there are no accidents) brought to earth via one of Kit and Nina’s first spells.  It turns out that Fred is actually a white hole whose mass is temporary stored elsewhere.  Fred provides many of the diversions by emitting large objects, mini-explosions, and light, but also supplies much of the humor due to his unfamiliarity with Earth (“….Schenectady.”  “Is that another world?”  “Nearly.”)  and also references to his elemental parts (“My gnaester will never be the same.” — after emitting some particularly large objects).

A jarring incident occurs early in the book as the two kids visit the local wizard advisories.  One of the advisories has a familiar, an exotic bird, who can foretell the future but seems very reluctant to do so.  To “encourage” the bird to speak, the advisory clenches his fit and punches the bird, and then threatens to do so again later if he doesn’t behalf.  This sounds both cruel and completely out of character for wizards who are protecting life.  I just don’t get it.

For me, the book had a few other inelegant parts, particularly as the three pass into another universe to find a book which names all things, and it doesn’t seem as fully realized as others I’ve read.  But, it was still enjoyable nonetheless.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars (finished February 11, 2011)

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Currently reading:  Dark Fire by C.J. Sansom, Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris, & Daggerspell by Katherine Kerr

Review: The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir

February 6, 2011 1 comment

Alison Weir’s eminently readable history covers one of the most tumultuous periods when dynastic and political machinations crushed the lives of many individuals, families, and rocked the people of England. For me, this is one of the most interesting eras since the time is so removed from our own, but yet is on the cusp of the modern. There are so many interesting and compelling personalities at this time, who are all drawn up into this story even tangentially: Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain, Sir Thomas More, Martin Luther, Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell, Francois I of France, Emperor Charles V, and of course Henry VIII, his six wives, and three living children.

I’ve read this particular history several times as well as numerous others, and find this work to be very accessible and enoyable. Although Weir does describe the politics surrounding each of the marriages and the vying for power that took place among the many noble families and for/against the reformed religion, her goal appears to make these incredible women real and sympathetic.  It’s more about the personalities and the world in which they lived.

Weir uses her sources to glean many details which provide color to Henry’s court, worked within Weir’s distinctive narrative style:  descriptions of specific pieces of clothing and residences, quotes from letters and diplomatic dispatches, etc.

Divorced, beheaded, died; Divorced beheaded survived

  • Katherine of Aragon’s life is extremely sympathetic and the sections of the book which describe the deprivations she was forced to are very compelling.
  • Anne Boleyn is neither the paragon of virtue nor the devil’s spawn that comes out of contemporary and even modern popular sources.  Striving to improve her family’s lot, to be sure, and probably unsuitable personality-wise to be queen in that era, but hardly evil.
  • Jane Seymour is perhaps the queen that disappears the most, since she largely kept herself subservient to her husband and was queen so briefly.
  • I think Anne of Cleves is one of the most fascinating characters; tragic, true, since she was abandoned by the king so rudely, but who was likely the wife who had the best outcome.
  • Katherine Howard is described as somewhat young and foolish rather than maliciously immoral.
  • Katherine Parr, a widow, attempted to give the king’s children a more normal family life and provided for them intellectually

5 out of 5 stars (finished February 6, 2011)

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Currently reading:  Dark Fire by C.J. Sansom & Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris

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