Category Archives: Novels

Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

To cut to the chase, I was going to give this 6 stars (out of 10) as I was approaching the end of the story. Clarke put together so many solid sci-fi ideas in this novel, but the connection with characters just wasn’t there. However, this novel finished strong. The resolution made the emotional impact of all the science-y plot lines hit home. It may be some of the best “what if” writing – and it was written more than 60 years ago. Childhood’s End gets a solid seven stars (a strong recommendation).

 
The book starts when aliens make first contact with Earth. Mankind has to bow under the recognition of a superior race that has mastered the stars. The result may be a typical sci-fi utopia, but Clarke wrestles with the societal impact such peace and prosperity have. Again, he only semi-succeeds in this. Without revealing more, it’s only at the titular “end” that he reaches beyond the standard fare of speculative fiction. How would we today respond having all worldly troubles removed? Is that the dawn of a new age or merely a move to cultural stagnation? Clarke does his best to make the reader contemplate these issues.

 
His future “repudiates both optimism and pessimism.” There’s actually a poignancy that he finds here that sticks with you. It reminds me of how I felt toward the close of Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos. Maybe there’s a loss when humanity progresses past its inherent foibles. Many consider this to be Clarke’s best work. I’m not sure that I enjoyed it more than Rendezvous with Rama, but it definitely has deeper insight. A Top 100 Sci-Fi Book List that I’ve been reading through has this listed as #19 of all time. It may not be my #19, but I’m not going to quibble with this ranking. A solid book to add to your library.

 

7 stars out of 10

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The Mongoliad (The Foreworld Saga: Book1) by Neal Stephenson et al.

A while back I was listening to a podcast (I wish I could remember which one) where they were interviewing Neal Stephenson. Neal’s been one of my favorite authors since I read Snow Crash almost twenty years ago. The main material in the podcast was over his then most recent work Anathem, but what stuck out to me at the time was his interest in ancient weapons and fighting techniques. He later got together with several (many, if truth be told) authors with a similar fascination. They decided to work on a collaborative effort which involved a realistic world where many of these forgotten martial arts could be put on display in word form. Thus was birthed the first book in the Foreworld Saga: The Mongoliad.

I’ll list all the authors since I’m sure they all want credit: Erik Bear, Greg Bear, Joseph Brassey, E. D. deBirmingham, Cooper Moo, Neal Stephenson, and Mark Teppo. They combine to tell the fairly straightforward tale in 13th century Europe and Asia. There are dual storylines in play – one in Asia where a young warrior is trying to save the Mongolian Empire from courtly corruption and one in Europe following a band of knights on their quest to kill the Khan of Khans. The tales thread back and forth throughout the book with zero overlap and without much thought to pacing. There is however quite a bit of – I’m sure fairly historical – fighting and war-making. Unfortunately all the martial prowess cannot make up for the lack of actual plot.

The book started off slow, but picked up with some early character development. This however played out into a story that went nowhere. Half of this book is supposed to be a knightly quest, yet the heroes never went anywhere significant. The other half is supposed to deal with courtly machinations and intrigue, but only got as far as some thin innuendo. This book did have some interesting characters and seemed to set up some clever plot ideas, but ultimately the story just stops without anything coming to fruition. I’m not sure if this had to do with the multiplicity of authors or the foreknowledge of sequels to come, but typically there is some payoff at the end of a volume that makes you want to follow up. This book provided none. I have some curiosity to see what becomes of some of the characters, but probably not enough to take the time to find out.

I have looked at the Foreworld website, and in the past couple of years, they have put out many sequels and “side-quest” stories. There must be some depth to the series, I just wish this talented group of authors could have done a better job of introducing the world to the reader. Read this only if you have time to spare.

3.5 stars out of 10

photo: Jeff Abt

Chimera (Universe Eventual: Book 1) by N. J. Tanger

I am a Science Fiction nut. Really. I just did a quick review of the last 100 books that I’ve read – 59 of them were Sci-fi…and I hate to admit that I’ve been trying to make sure to add other genres into the mix. That being said, I’m extremely excited about my first Sci-fi review for my new site: Chimera the first book in the upcoming Universe Eventual series. I was lucky enough to be given an advanced copy of N. J. Tanger’s debut novel, and I can’t wait for you to be able to get a copy of your own!

The Stephen’s Point colony is on the edge of collapse. Its only hope rests in a new generation who hold the genetic key to a return to Earth. To survive they must struggle with the riddles of a madman’s prophecy and unlock the imprisoned mind of an ancient ship – Chimera.

 Fittingly, this novel follows two complementary stories. The first is about Theo Puck: a good-hearted teen who has skirted the colony’s rules in order to make life better for his family. The second follows Selena Samuelson:  a space miner’s daughter who is just trying to help her dad get one big score. The dual story lines – one male, one female; one on planet, one in space – drive the plot with a pace that keeps the pages turning. The characters are full of the life and vigor of youth, and even while they struggle under great pressures and responsibilities, they are not mired in the depression and angst that most young adult fiction substitutes for depth. Theo and Selena have real depth; the kind that connects you to their lives.

Reminiscent of Orson Scott Card’s early work, especially Treason and Ender’s Game, the storytelling has been well crafted – inviting the reader into a new world that is fresh and deep yet utterly recognizable. N. J. Tanger (actually a pseudonym for the writing team of Nathan Beauchamp, Joshua Russell, and Rachael Tanger) skillfully pulls from the best ideas of the genre. In lesser hands, this quest for survival in deep space would become a cliché, but they write like seasoned veterans – clean and crisp. The tempo starts high with the discovery of a murder and does not let up until the last page. The end of each chapter says, “You have time for one more.” I can attest, you do.

When I try to introduce the Sci-fi pantheon to my reading friends, I don’t throw them into to the deep end right away. Asimov, Clarke, Herbert, Banks are top shelf, but they can be a hard slog for someone unaccustomed to the style. Until now, I have started with the almost unavoidable classic of Ender’s Game; however, I now have a great alternative. This is the book to get people interested in science fiction.

Chimera is a bold start into the Universe Eventual trilogy. There is a lot of promise for what is yet to come. With the expectation met in the first installment, I believe it will be a promise kept.

8.5 out of 10 stars

I was lucky enough to get to interview N. J. Tanger about this book! Please check out my interview here: Into Chimera – N. J. Tanger Interview

Please check out these links for more info on the Universe Eventual series:

Universe Eventual Webpage

Buy Chimera on Amazon

Goodreads

UE Facebook

Concept art by Yong Yi Lee

Pastoral by Nevil Shute

Do you ever just want a good story? I’m not talking about a murder mystery, whodunnit, spy doublecross. I’m talking about a story with good characters with real emotions that you like. A story where it hardly matters where it goes because you’re just happy to go with it. For me, Pastoral was that kind of story.

Pastoral is a simple story of a Royal Air Force pilot that falls in love with a female officer on his base during the height of World War II. The situation of the time is tense (the main character flies many bombing sorties), but the relationship is not. The real battles are of the inner lives of the main characters – how can normal life work while the world is falling apart?

Nevil Shute is quickly becoming a favorite author of mine. Trustee from the Toolroom was one of my top reads last year. I gave it to family members for Christmas. It was a perfectly happy book. This book is not quite up to the same level as that one, but nevertheless, I found it most enjoyable. I wonder if I’m getting a little soft, but I delight in books where there are no bad characters. For lesser writers that would mean no story, but Shute writes great tales where you like everyone.

I will add that while this book is in essence a straight romance, Shute really is a master of action writing. The bombing operations read like you’re in the plane with the crew. The intensity of the physical drama pays off in the intensity of the emotional drama. This book should be a must read for fans of World War II aircraft.

My great uncle died while I was reading this novel. He was my last living blood relative to serve in the war. Losing him relegates that time truly to history for me. I’ll confess it added a poignancy to the story, a bittersweetness that made me wish it wouldn’t end. The title Pastoral is an interesting one for this book. I never see that word when associated with art or music that I don’t think of an idyllic rural scene but one always tinged with a little sadness. Maybe rural life has too much reality to be blindly perceived as fully happy. I don’t know, but just the title made me enjoy the book more.

7.5 stars out of 10

photo: Ryan McGuire

An Irish County Doctor by Patrick Taylor

I picked up the first book in the Irish Country series because I was looking for a peaceful read, and this little novel appeared to offer it. I am happy to say it did. The author himself is a medical doctor from Ireland, and this fictional narrative has heart and belief behind it. There’s not much to raise the pulse, but the plot is just right to pull you through this idyll. 

Dr. Barry Laverty is fresh out of medical school and heads to the country town of Ballybucklebo in hopes of being an assistant to the current town’s doctor, Fingal O’Reilly. The quaint town outside of Belfast is full of delightful characters who constantly need guidance – far beyond just the physical – from the two doctors. Barry gets a helping hand from the world-wise and gruff Fingal, and their burgeoning friendship is a delight to follow. The minor escapades of the novel resolve without too much issue, but An Irish Country Doctor is less about plot and more a glimpse into a world we all want to live in. 

If you’re looking for a charming vacation and light reading than this book would probably fit the bill. It deserves to mention the similar and superior James Herriot books. This tale does not quite have the ultimate charm of All Creatures Great and Small, but if you have already acquainted yourself with those, give this a go. 

My one caveat is the language. It’s pretty strong in the beginning. It grows milder as the book progresses, but it took away from the story for me. Whether it’s there for reality’s sake or for some other reason, I felt like it hurt the idyllic feel of the novel. Of course, I think cursing is lazy in real life or in fiction, but it’s worth noting. 

Taylor’s story made me want to go find a peaceful village and enjoy the one I live in more. I may not continue to the next one in the series right away, but I know there’s something for another rainy day. 

6.5 stars out of 10

Harpist in the Wind (Riddle-Master Trilogy: Book 3) by Patricia McKillip

The conclusion of the Riddle-Master series finds Morgon and Raederle struggling to find the mysterious High One and the reason for the war that has spread across the realm. The quest begins simply enough as they head for the ancient wizard’s city of Lungold. This book, like the other two, has almost all of its action take place on the way to destinations instead of at them. Morgon and his bride-to-be struggle on the journey and have their characters developed. They fall into traps, escape, get to Lungold, where they fall into a trap, escape, head to another destination, fall into a trap, escape…I think you get the idea. The main riddles of the book, if not the series, are who is the High One, who are the Earth Masters, and what does one have to do with the other? These questions have needed to be answered for a long time, and when they finally are, it almost really doesn’t matter.

Patricia McKillip’s writing is quite good. She describes details and emotions with a power to draw the reader into imagery. The effect is such that – like the illusion that the wizards of this book so often create – there is an illusion that this story has more of a plot than it actually does. Thankfully, in the final third of Harpist, the main plot is finally revealed, and yet when it is, there’s not really any more to it than what one kind of expects. The motivations behind the final reveal and what all the characters are fighting about are basically left to the idea that power corrupts. It’s vague, but at least the writing was nice.

There are moments of real emotion in the book. Raederle’s character is continually the touchstone for any strength this series has found. I have read many reviews that claim that this is that reader’s all time favorite series. My only conclusion is that they have connected with these characters in their brief moments of genuine insight. Each of them, especially Deth the harpist, have the potential to be major fantasy characters, but at the end of the day, plot helps flesh characters out, and these books were lacking in it. Florid prose does not a series make.

The Riddle-Master Trilogy had many good ideas and characters – even though their fullness didn’t quite pan out. There was enough here that I would be willing to try more from this author. If you read this series, you may not be disappointed, but there’s also plenty of other fantasy out there you should hit first.

5.5 out of 10 stars

The Riddle-Master Trilogy

4.5 out of 10 stars

Heir of Sea and Fire (Riddle-Master Trilogy: Book 2) by Patricia McKillip

The continuation of the Riddle-Master trilogy, Heir of Sea and Fire, gets going with a little more steam than the first book of the series did. That selection, The Riddle-Master of Hed, just seems to lag from the beginning and only developed a decent pace more than halfway through. This was not the case with this book. The pace starts steady and builds throughout to not a dramatic conclusion, but at least, a fitting one.

The heir mentioned in the title is Raederle, the promised bride of Morgon, the aforementioned Riddle-Master. The story follows her and an unlikely group of girls as they quest toward Erlenstar Mountain to find Morgon. Whether it’s because the protagonist of this tale is female or she has a better understanding of where she’s going with the story, the author seems to develop the characters in a more relatable way. Raederle becomes the first person that you care about. You understand what motivates her and how she’s torn between love of family and love of her promised Morgon. Her personal battles drive the story. Her inner world is more interesting than the world she’s moving through.

Unfortunately for the series, the unknowns about the motivations of the evil Ghistestlwchlohm (say that three times fast!) are hindering the real immediacy of the plot. Two books into a trilogy, the reader should have more of an idea about why the bad guy is bad. There is more innuendo about what is happening to the world than actual understanding. Yes, the characters have developed, the plot is still weak.

I’m far enough in that I will read the conclusion Harpist in the Wind, but the resolution to this series needs to reveal much more than it has until now.

5.5 stars out of 10