Category Archives: Novels

Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold (Vorkosigan Saga: Book 2)

As a Science Fiction reader, there are few classics, celebrated authors, important series that I have not taken a dip into at some point or another. However, I’ve always kind of avoided the Vorkosigan Saga. When looking for the next thing to read, it always gets touted as “the best” or “in the top SF series ever written.” I don’t know if it’s the sheer number of volumes, the reviews it gets as space opera, or – just being honest – that it has a female author that has kept me so reticent all these years. Probably it’s because I’ve never had a friend of mine – and this is amazing due to its popularity – never tell me I should read them. Well I finally broke down and started the series, and guess what? It’s good.

One of the difficult things about the Vorkosigan Saga is where to start. I would avoid trying to decipher the reading order initially from all the fan sites and reviewers. The books are now being put into chronological order instead of publication date. While this is fine and dandy, I don’t know if it does the series any favors. Shards of Honor was the first novel in the series published (even though now it gets called Book 2), and I think it’s a great place to start to get the tenor of Bujold’s writing. It’s pre-Miles, the hero that drives most of the following books, but it situates the universe well. And, it provides the historical backdrop for most of the following stories.

Cordelia Naismith is a captain in a planetary survey for Beta Colony. Her goal is to scientifically chart new worlds and their natural characteristics. Unknowingly she stumbles into intrigue that involves Barrayar – a military based society that is trying to flex its muscles. She finds herself united with Aral Vorkosigan, a Barrayaran commander, that is fighting his own internal political battle with members of his planet’s ruling elite. Together they walk a knife’s edge of loyalty, subterfuge, and honor while the fate of planets hangs in the balance.

There is a lot going for this book. Great action sequences, large scale interplanetary strategy, traitors, and spies, but at the heart what wins the day is the relationship between Naismith and Vorkosigan. Bujold expertly writes the “human” factor. While the heavens may be in chaos, she makes sure to keep the story honed in on the thoughts and feelings of her main characters. This is why the series is so well liked. You relate to the characters. You become enmeshed with their lives and hope for their good. Sure there are many well crafted meta-storylines creating the high drama, but it’s the drama of the heart that makes this book a winner.

Shards of Honor is not the best book in the series, but it’s a great introduction. Fast paced, witty, and grand in scope, I bet you, like me, will have to read more.

6.5 stars out of 10

photo: realisticshots.com

Lord of All Things by Andreas Eschbach (Samuel Willcocks, translator)

Every four or five books, I like to take a chance on a book I’ve never heard of. It gets me out of ruts. Such was the case with Lord of All Things – originally written in German and then translated into English. The reviews I saw promised “The Book of the Year!” and “A Celebrated Achievement” and yada yada. Sometimes they are, but this one wasn’t. This is a book that was about three times longer than it needed to be and yet didn’t tell the whole story. There were some really great parts, but on a whole it was just an okay read. It needed a good editor.

Hiroshi and Charlotte begin as childhood acquaintances with remarkable gifts. Hiroshi is a extremely smart technical genius with a gift for robotics on a mission to end all want; Charlotte is a diplomat’s daughter with an unbelievable gift for languages and the handy ability to see into the past of any object she touches. Two ordinary children who may, or may not, change the world. They meet throughout their lives to drive each other toward their individual destinies.

This novel read as something between a Frank Capra screenplay and an alternate history textbook. There was a lot of grand vision – which was good – trying to mesh a different past than we’re used to with a future that would be idyllic. The problem is: that if a sci-fi book could figure out how to change the future in a couple hundred pages, we would be hard at work making it a reality. Instead, the author seems as much as a loss as most at getting it accomplished – even in fiction. In some ways, it would have been better for the author to have accepted the idealized Communism that Capra spouted to get a good story than trying to be so nuanced for our modern enlightened age. Robots just can’t overcome the foibles of the human heart. And, let’s not even get started with aliens.

This is a hard book to dismiss or recommend because it had a lot going for it, but there were a lot of inept parts too. Certain characters used as foils shouldn’t have even been in the book, and the author just missed on the ending. The middle of the book was really good with a lot of driving force. Let’s just say, I think the author has some skills, but he needs a good editor to make them shine. Here’s to looking forward.

4 stars out of 10

photo: wikipedia

The Fold by Peter Clines

First off, if you haven’t read 14 by Peter Clines yet, no need to continue farther. Go read that book now! Yes, it is imperative. Then come back here, and we’ll talk about The Fold.

Good, now that we’ve got that over with you can understand why after reading 14, I quickly purchased a copy of The Fold. I had read a review that said that this book took place in the same world as its predecessor but wasn’t exactly a sequel. A “side-quel” I think they called it. That pretty much sealed the deal for me. I loved 14, but I didn’t know if I was ready for those characters to change a lot from where I left them. The story was so original; I wanted to keep it fresh for a while. So The Fold seemed like a perfect way to get more without spoiling the original. It sorta succeeded.

Mike Erikson has an eidetic memory – which means he can remember everything. Absolutely everything. His mind is a constant surveillance device through which not even the smallest grain of information can slip. And he’s a nice guy. Mike was a great character, and I would like to read other stories with him in it – especially if they had a Moriarty to his Holmes. Anyway, he gets convinced to go work on a secret DARPA project called the Albuquerque Door that could possibly be a way to instantaneous travel…but of course, things are not quite what they seem.

If you read 14 (and if not, didn’t I tell you to go do that now!), then let me just float out there that this is basically a retelling of the same story with a different cast, location, and doorways. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but it’s basically 14: Round 2. The characters were good again – they make me like Peter Clines as a person and I know nothing about him. The story twists were fun. I really liked everything about it, but it kind of felt that I was living in the same dimensional gambit used by the two books. Don’t get me wrong, I liked this second helping, but part of the sheer power of 14 was the originality. This story, besides the details, was inherently unoriginal.

Peter Clines, if you read this (first – you’re awesome): I love this world that you’ve set up and I want more. Just next time, let’s not do a lovable bunch of interesting characters stumbling down the adventure of discovering some Tesla-like scientist’s secrets. I mean sure, it’s worked so far…okay maybe one more, but after that, let’s open up this world some.

PS. I’m about to get to your Ex-Heroes stories, I’m sure they’re good. Keep on writing!

Ok to recap, 14 – great, The Fold – good. And spoiler alert: yes, there are green cockroaches.

6.5 stars out of 10

photo: wikia.com

On the Beach by Nevil Shute

“In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river”

-T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

I’ve been avoiding On the Beach ever since I became addicted to Nevil Shute’s novels. Partly because it’s his most acclaimed piece of writing (or at the very least, the most widely read) and partly because of the subject matter. The book takes place in the nebulous time of the late 1960’s after a nuclear war has devastated the world. Fallout has already rendered the Northern Hemisphere completely uninhabitable, and the radioactive cloud is slowly moving southward. The story follows a small group of friends in Australia as they live under the approaching inevitability of death. It is a powerful tale of hope and honesty and love.

I’ll be the first to say that if you are a reader and you’ve let a year go by without reading a Nevil Shute book, then you have missed out on a joy in your life. His books reveal the best parts of humanity in a way that doesn’t make them trite, but instead, noble. Not the kind of nobility that makes you want to rule and lead, but the kind that makes you want to live better and enjoy the every day. On the Beach excels at getting to the heart of who we are. Shute rarely has enemies in his books. It’s like each novel is a refutation of the belief that one must hate something in this world to prove their worth. Even at the end of all things, there is room for love to overcome.

The action follows several naval officers, both Australian and American, as they seek to find a solution to the catastrophe. Now that the world’s purpose can be wholly turned to survival, there is a turn from the day to day struggles of life. Relationships are real and vital. Enjoyment of each hour is what is looked for. It is like a quest for utopia in the darkest hour. The recent Seveneves by Neal Stephenson pushes for an idea that survival is the most important ideal. On the Beach, while not against self-preservation, posits that survival is not the highest ideal. In fact, maybe it’s integrity.

There are solutions to the world destroying itself, and Nevil Shute has done a service in making us think about it. While this book was extremely enjoyable in an eyes half full of water kind of way, I can see why one might not rush out to read it. It will move you if you do.

8 stars out of 10

photo: Forrest Cavale

The Fall by R.J. Pineiro

Every now and then, I like to take a chance on a book that I haven’t heard anything about. I’ll admit that cover shopping can play a big part of this. It’s probably what made me pick up R. J. Piniero’s The Fall. That and the tagline that read something like: “A man takes a jump from a weather balloon only to end up on another Earth where he’s been dead for five years.” Ok, probably not the premise of high brow literature, but hey, it does sound like fun.

I don’t know if it’s me, but I keep pulling up parallel dimensional travel books a lot lately. It’s definitely in vogue right now. And where it used to be confined mainly to space stories involving intergalactic anomalies like ST:TNG’s “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” now it seems like they happen in science fiction more and more on Earth. This probably says something about how self-absorbed we are with ourselves, or maybe it’s just to tell stories that are relatable. Either way, the dimensional travel aspect of this book is fairly basic and is really just a so-so plot device to create tension.

Jack Taylor, ex-Navy SEAL, is one of those “I can do anything” military MacGyver supermen that parade through throw-away action novels. He’s got some relationship troubles (so he’s not actually Superman); but all in all, he does whatever he wants however he wants. When confronted with his alternate Earth, he’s momentarily confused that this America uses the metric system, but ultimately he adapts in about a half hour to his surroundings. His brilliant wife – who happens to be part hacker, part biker chick while actually the lead scientist on big NASA projects – has her own adventures against a power obsessed general who is basically a one man Illuminati. Together this typical American couple has to try to get Jack back to his own Earth and real timeline.

I know suspension of belief is necessary for the rollercoaster rides of today’s action genre, but even though I thought I was in with the “balloon jump” premise mentioned above, this cliché-ridden construct was ultimately too much schlock for me. I don’t want to impugn Clive Cussler by saying this is Clive Cussler-lite, but that’s what I felt while reading this. If unstoppable heroes in pseudo-science stories are what you’re looking for – and you don’t want to travel to Mars with John Carter – then The Fall is the book for you.

4 stars out of 10

photo: jamesbrittin.com