The Stars My Destination (1956) by Alfred Bester

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The Stars My Destination is a brutal tale of vengeance and retribution carried out at the hands of Gulliver Foyle. An interesting re imagining of the Alexandre Dumas novel ‘The Count of Monte Christo’, where the protagonist is instead trapped in space and betters himself with the aid of science and physical upgrades. Foyle is vengeance incarnate and Bester does a wonderful job of making the hate filled character both pitiable and fearsome, without detracting from either feeling.

The book tells of Gully Foyle’s stranding on a ship for one hundred and seventy days dying but not dead before a ship passes and Foyle manages to fire all of his flares and beacons in hope of flagging the vessel down. The ship passes him and leaves him for dead. It is at this point that Foyle saves himself and begins his quest of vengeance, trying to track down and kill the man who gave the order to leave him to his fate.

It is the 25th century and humanity has gained the ability to teleport (jaunt) at will, by only the power of the mind. This capability has upset all social and cultural norms, with rich areas of the world now available to anyone who can jaunt. Bank vaults, prisons, government facilities, these are just a few of the secure areas that are suddenly threatened. The entire solar system is thrown into upheaval and a war between the inner planets and the outer satellites commences with no end in sight.

Meanwhile Gully Foyle manages the first ever ‘space jaunt’ to free himself from the wreck and begins his journey to restitution. Foyle is a bitter character, but he plays many roles wearing masks as he moves through society to track his prey. In a particularly haunting scene Foyle cuts a man’s heart out so he can interrogate him. Fun stuff…

Bester manages to foreshadow many of the common themes found in the cyberpunk movement of the ’80s and ’90s with corporations owning governments and electronic upgrades to the human body. The imagery is stark in places and beautiful in others, showing many facets of Bester’s world. The vast differences between the rich and the poor haven’t changed, rather becoming bigger and more insurmountable. Industries have risen and fallen based on the jaunt and there are many people who are new rich or new poor.

The Stars My Destination is a poetic and prophetic book. Read it.

4 Stars

Nyphron Rising (2011) by Michael J. Sullivan

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The third book in the Riyria Revelations follows our intrepid thieves Royce and Hadrian as they are once more hired by Princess Arista of Melenger. Thrace, the young girl who hired them in the previous entry returns, this time having been put on the throne of the Empire as a puppet, the church claiming that her slaying of the mighty beast proved she was the Heir of Novron. A young servant in the empress’s castle has the good fortune to become the empress’s secretary and Amelia quickly becomes a favorite character. Thrace is now known as Modina and is in a catatonic state, not eating or talking, and Amelia spends most of the time in this book trying to bring the young Empress out of her shell. Meanwhile the church has plans for their puppet ruler and the newly formed Empire quickly swallows kingdoms throughout the land, threatening dominion over all.

I found this book a little too ‘by the numbers’ and as such did not enjoy it as much as the first and second books in the series. Sullivan spends too much time making sure that the reader knows ‘unrelated’ pieces of information so that the series can progress, and not enough time making this individual book progress. There is alot of talking and not alot of action. I think this is one of the reasons that the publisher released the series in three books, rather than one. the first book wasn’t as good as the second and the third wasn’t as good as the fourth. Hopefully the fifth and sixth books justify the series’ sometimes rambling plot line.

Backstory is key here. Much time is spent discussing the pasts of Royce and Hadrian and while this is something that Sullivan does well, it is sometimes too much. A little more time stealing and killing and pushing one another’s buttons would have lent this book more of an air of adventure. As it is Nyphron Rising is the least exciting entry in the series so far but still a fast and enjoyable read.

The introduction of new characters made up for the slow pace of the book and between Amelia and Merrick Marius, a chess enthusiast hired by the Church to help with the war, the list of characters I look forward to reading more about grows in this book. Marius is only in a few scenes but he is calm and rational and slightly terrifying.

Read the first and second books before this and you will have a good time.

3 Stars

Solaris (1961) by Stanislaw Lem

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Solaris tells the tale of an entire planet that is sentient and it’s machinations and effects on the scientific researchers who visit the strange globe from which the book derives it’s name. Its a cool idea, an ocean, covering most of a planet that can think and act based on those thoughts. The ocean defies physics and has had human researcher’s baffled since it’s discovery some decades before the novel takes place.

Kris Kelvin arrives at Solaris Station to find that the researchers are shook up, dead or dying or living in self imposed exile. As Kelvin struggles to do his job under in-optimal conditions he begins to have delusions and visions and visitations as he seems to slowly go insane. An old lover appears to him, despite her suicide years earlier, and he struggles to find the meaning of this torment. It seems that the other scientists are undergoing similar delusions. Kelvin races to find the answer before it is all too late.

Lem writes beautifully and the feeling of madness and disbelief is palpable. The main message to be taken away from Solaris is that communication between humanity and any other form of consciousness is futile and will almost certainly end in dismal failure. Any alien man encounters will be so vastly different we might as well attempt conversations with an ant hive mind or a herring. There is an overbearing sense of darkness peppered with distrust and outright hostility that pervades the book but these all come from the human characters and their reactions to the situations thrown up by the Solaris entity.

It is interesting to note that the English translation of this Polish novel has been deemed second rate by the author, himself fluent in English. It is a shame because even as a second rate translation it is a powerful and moving book but it seems unlikely that another translation effort will be forthcoming. Lem also has derided the three film adaptations saying that the book is called Solaris, and not ‘Love in Space’, as all three focus on the returned dead rather than the psychological and philosophical themes that are at the books core. That said, the 2002 version staring George Clooney is certainly watchable, despite avoiding all of the difficult questions asked in the novel.

Solaris is a complex and deep novel that is worth the time and effort. A must for scifi lovers everywhere. Extra points for learning Polish for the sole reason of reading the book in it’s original and apparently superior form.

4 Stars

A Darkness More Than Night (2001) by Michael Connelly

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A Darkness More Than Night is an interesting reinterpretation of how to write a book based on a character you have used many times before. This is the seventh book in the Harry Bosch series and Michael Connelly really takes this book at a different tack. For most of the novel Harry Bosch is not the focus. Well, that’s not true, exactly. He is the focus of a murder investigation undertaken by another recurring character, Terry McCaleb. Bosch is frequently talked about and even seen on Court TV as he navigates the vagaries of criminal law, but not until later in the book does he really take the centre stage.

This is a novel way to approach an existing character and the reader really starts to doubt themselves. All of the clues in McCaleb’s grizzly murder book seem to point to Bosch. But Bosch is a good guy. But he has killed before. But there was a reason. But there is a fairly clear motive here too. But, but, but, around and around the readers mind goes wondering if they are wrong about the gruff detective. Maybe he snapped… Connelly does an excellent job of making you doubt yourself and Bosch as the tale progresses.

It takes a brave author to mess with his audience’s favorite character and Connelly really pulls it off. I wouldn’t recommend this book to a first time Bosch reader due to the nature of the story. Definitely read four or five before picking up A Darkness More Than Night as the emotional impact of the story cannot take effect if you don’t know and love the characters involved. Reading the series in order is a good idea but hardly necessary. Authors like Connelly, Lee Child and James Patterson build the back story into each novel, giving an effective ‘Previously on…’ that lets the new reader know the pertinent details while giving the veteran a quick refresher.

A Darkness More Than Night is a different direction for the Bosch series and definitely fits within the lore as a solid story with a heaping of doubt for a favorite character. Very enjoyable.

4 Stars

 

Avempartha (2011) by Michael J. Sullivan

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Avempartha is the second book in the Riyria Revelations, making up the second half of Theft of Swords. The lovable rogues Hadrian and Royce are back and have, despite their rules, taken another quest to help the poor and save the innocent. A destitute young girl has been asking for Riyria all over town and the pair of thieves find her and agree to take the job. It seems some kind of beast has been terrorising the young girls village and she has come to enlist their help. As per the first book the pair fight over it for all of two seconds and then agree to take the job for ten silver. Considering that the meal and clothes they bought her cost 65 silver, this is simply a charity case.

Many of the characters from the first book, The Crown Conspiracy, reappear despite this story taking place two years and many hundreds of miles away from the first one. It seems the Nyphron church has an interest in slaying the beast as well and have organised a tournament like challenge, inviting all of the best warriors in the land, noble and common alike, to the small village to fight for glory.

The beast is called a gilarabrywn, and is actually a creature of magic, a leftover from the war a thousand years earlier with the elves. The beast is very similar to a dragon but cannot be slain by conventional means. There is a sword, hidden in a nearby elven tower (Avempartha), which has the gilarabrywn’s true name written on it and is the only way to slay the beast. Enter Royce. The thieves have been hired by the young girl to enter the tower, find the sword and give it to her father. The father wants to kill the beast because it killed his entire family, excepting the girl, and he wants revenge.

This is strong sequel to the Crown Conspiriacy, and doesn’t suffer from the first book’s initial lack of focus. It is well written and the plot is enjoyable and moves along at a brisk pace. If you like fantasy but dont have the time for a true epic then this is a good middle ground.

4 Stars

The Road (2006) by Cormac McCarthy

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The Road is a masterpiece. There is no doubt. It is a perfect post apocalyptic tale which heaps death and destruction and ruin on the human race without ever really telling what happened. The survivors wander the bleak landscape, scrounging for food and shelter and safety. The Road focuses on two characters, the Man and the Boy. McCarthy names all of the characters in the book like this (the Thief, the Veteran…), because in this ash covered wasteland a name is only something that can be used against you.

The Man and the Boy are walking along a damaged and desolate highway, heading south, towards the ocean, towards possible salvation. The Road is full of despair and depravity with cannibals a constant threat and everyone a possible enemy. The Man has a revolver but only two bullets and he constantly reminds the Boy that suicide is the only option if they are caught. There are several occasions where the pair seem to be done for and the man is ready and waiting to kill his son and then himself. These moments are tense and heartbreaking and yet somehow, McCarthy weaves just enough blind hope into the tale that the reader is drawn into the tale, further and further until it’s dramatic end.

The Man is desperately afraid of a huge cannibal army that is roaming the area and all of his efforts to save himself and the Boy are desperate. They find food and shelter, only to move on for fear that the army is nearby. They come across atrocious acts, including a baby cooking on a spit and that only fuels the fear that the Man has. Interestingly it is possible that the cannibal army is only a figment of the Man’s imagination, a fever dream brought on by a lack of food and a plenitude of fear. The Man ‘sees’ the cannibal army marching past and the description is vivid and frightening, but it is also the only time that any colour is really mentioned in the entire tale. The Boy starts to talk and the Man shushes him so the cannibals don’t hear but then the boy asks if the Man sees them. The lack of colour elsewhere in the book and the strange conversation is surreal leading to the idea that it is all a dream. There are certainly cannibals and murderers all about but the cannibal army might just be a figment of his sick and weary mind.

It is the hope in this book that makes it so gut wrenching. If it was all bleak despair and dead babies and cannibal armies then the book would still be disturbing but much less heartbreaking. The small amounts of hopeless hope that the Boy shows the Man make the tale all the more powerful. The Man knows that it is useless. The Man knows they are done for. And yet he fights on for the Boy’s sake. He fights on against impossible odds to reach the ocean and possible salvation.

In the movie adaptation there is a scene towards the end where the pair have reached the ocean and they sit down to admire the sea. There is a sign on the beach which, if you look closely, say that this is in fact not the ocean, but Conneaut Lake Park. This has been generally thought to be a goof but I like it. Maybe they didn’t reach the ocean. Maybe they came to a huge lake and were fooled. It only adds to the sense of utter despair.

5 Stars

Gone Tommorow (2009) by Lee Child

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Jack Reacher is a God.

There is no other way to say it. You would think that reading about a character who has the brains to solve any mystery, and the brawn to beat up any opponent, and the balls to get any job done would be boring. Characters should be flawed in some way, broken and yet somehow able to overcome their short comings to save the day. Not Reacher. If he is flawed, then his distance from societal norms and conventions is his only flaw and it doesnt really stop him from doing absolutely anything he wants. No, Jack Reacher is a God, and that should make him boring to read about. When you pick up a Reacher novel, you know, beyond a doubt, that Reacher will kill the hell out of the baddies, shag the sexy lady and generally save the day without breaking much of a sweat. And yet, somehow, this only makes it more fun.

Gone Tomorrow is the thirteenth book in the Jack Reacher series and It was the first one I ever read. Having now read all of the books in the series, I decided to go back to the ‘start’ and see what hooked me. Frankly, I can see why. Reacher is riding a train when he sees a woman exhibiting all eleven signs on the suicide bomber check list. Not wanting to be blown up he confronts her, trying to talk her down. From there things spiral out of control, and only Reacher can save the day.

Reacher meets with a senator, a russian heiress and a ton of cops while trying to figure out the mystery, while the threat of imprisonment or death hangs over him the entire time. That isn’t enough to stop Reacher from finding the answers he wants, however, and by the end i’m sure you will agree. Reacher is a God.

5 Stars