## the dark defiles

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , on December 28, 2014 by xi'an

The final and long-awaited volume of a series carries so much expectation that it more often than not ends up disappointing [me]. The Dark Defiles somewhat reluctantly falls within this category… This book is the third instalment of Richard K. Morgan’s fantasy series, A Land Fit for Heroes. Of which I liked mostly the first volume, The Steel Remains. When considering that this first book came out in January 2009, about six years ago, this may explains for the somewhat desultory tone of The Dark Defiles. As well as the overwhelming amount of info-dump needed to close the many open threads about the nature of the Land Fit for Heroes.

“They went. They dug. Found nothing and came back, mostly in the rain.”

[Warning: some spoilers in the following!] The most striking imbalance in the story is the rather mundane pursuits of the three major heroes, from finding an old sword to avenging fallen friends here and there, against the threat of an unravelling of the entire Universe and of the disappearance of the current cosmology.  In addition, the absolute separation maintained by Morgan between Archeth and Ringil kills some of the alchemy of the previous books and increases the tendency to boring inner monologues. The volume is much, much more borderline science-fiction than the previous ones, which obviously kills some of the magic, given that the highest powers that be sound like a sort of meta computer code that eventually gives Ringil the ultimate decision. As often, this mix between fantasy and science-fiction is not much to my taste, since it gives too much power to the foreign machines, the Helmsmen, which sound like they are driving the main human players for very long term goals. And which play too often deus ex machina to save the “heroes” from unsolvable situations. Overall a wee bit of a lengthy book, with a story coming to an unexpected end in the very final pages, leaving some threads unexplained and some feeling that style prevailed over story. But nonetheless a page turner in its second half.

## The winds of Winter [Bayesian prediction]

Posted in Books, Kids, R, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2014 by xi'an

A surprising entry on arXiv this morning: Richard Vale (from Christchurch, NZ) has posted a paper about the characters appearing in the yet hypothetical next volume of George R.R. Martin’s Song of ice and fire series, The winds of Winter [not even put for pre-sale on amazon!]. Using the previous five books in the series and the frequency of occurrence of characters’ point of view [each chapter being told as from the point of view of one single character], Vale proceeds to model the number of occurrences in a given book by a truncated Poisson model,

$x_{it} \sim \mathcal{P}(\lambda_i)\text{ if }|t-\beta_i|<\tau_i$

in order to account for [most] characters dying at some point in the series. All parameters are endowed with prior distributions, including the terrible “large” hyperpriors familiar to BUGS users… Despite the code being written in R by the author. The modelling does not use anything but the frequencies of the previous books, so knowledge that characters like Eddard Stark had died is not exploited. (Nonetheless, the prediction gives zero chapter to this character in the coming volumes.) Interestingly, a character who seemingly died at the end of the last book is still given a 60% probability of having at least one chapter in  The winds of Winter [no spoiler here, but many in the paper itself!]. As pointed out by the author, the model as such does not allow for prediction of new-character chapters, which remains likely given Martin’s storytelling style! Vale still predicts 11 new-character chapters, which seems high if considering the series should be over in two more books [and an unpredictable number of years!].

As an aside, this paper makes use of the truncnorm R package, which I did not know and which is based on John Geweke’s accept-reject algorithm for truncated normals that I (independently) proposed a few years later.

## Crossed Blades [book review]

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , on April 13, 2014 by xi'an

After Broken Blade and its sequel Bared Blade, Kelly McCullough wrote Crossed Blades that I had ordered along with Bared Blade. And once again I read this volume within a few evenings. It is still very enjoyable, maybe the more given that there is a continuity in the characters and the plots. However, I did prefer Bared Blade to Crossed Blades as the former was creative in terms of plot and environment. Here, in Crossed Blades, the main character Aral is facing his past, from the destruction of his religious order and of his goddess to the possible treachery of former friends and mentors, to his attempt to drown this past in top quality whisky… While dealing with an adopted teenage daughter in the midst of a typical teenage crisis. This new instalment is thus full of introspection and reminiscence of past loves, and frankly a bit dull at times, even though there is a (spoiler warning!!) massive battle against the culprits for the destruction of the order. The very end is a bit disappointing, but it also hopefully closes a chapter in the hero’s life, which means that the next volume, Blade Reforged, may run into new territories and more into simili-detective stories.  (Two more books in this Blade series are in the making!)

## Bared Blade [book review]

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , on March 23, 2014 by xi'an

As mentioned in my recent review of Broken Blade by Kelly McCullough, I had already ordered the sequel Bared Blade. And I read this second volume within a few days. Conditional on enjoying fantasy-world detective stories with supernatural beings popping in (or out) at the most convenient times, this volume is indeed very pleasant with a proper whodunnit, a fairly irrelevant McGuffin, a couple of dryads (that actually turn into…well, no spoiler!), several false trails, a radical variation on the “good cop-bad cop” duo, and the compulsory climactic reversal of fortune at the very end (not a spoiler since it is the same in every novel!). Once again, a very light read, to the point of being almost ethereal, with no pretence at depth or epics or myth, but rather funny and guaranteed 100% free of living-deads, which is a relief. I actually found this volume better than the first one, which is a rarity if you have had enough spare time to read thru my non-scientific book reviews, I am thus looking forward to the next break when I can skip through my next volume of Kelly McCullough, Crossed Blades. (And I hope I will not get more crossed with that one than I was bored with the current volume!)

## Broken Blade & King of Thorns [book reviews]

Posted in Books with tags , , , on March 1, 2014 by xi'an

Over the past few weeks, I read Broken Blade by Kelly McCullough, the start to a series of novels taking place in a fantasy universe and involving the same characters. As in many recent novels I read, the main character Aral Kingslayer is more an anti-hero, not very congenial and rather drawn towards booze and self-loathing. He is one of the last remaining Assassins of a religion which goddess got killed (with very little explanations on how and why this happened). Maybe this is a good enough explanation for his current psychological state, hence the “broken” in the title, but that does not make him more endearing! The story itself is more of a sleuthing one, Aral acting as the detective for hire and another character as the client seeking to recover her inheritance. (With the more unusual add-ons of ghouls and zombies and magics. And the more usual theme of corrupted police officers.) Nothing earth-shattering and still a pleasant ride (that made me miss my metro station once!). As an indicator of how I liked it, I already ordered the sequel Bared Blade. If only to see whether the novelty does wear out… Or not!

About a year ago, I mentioned reading Lawrences’s Prince of Thorns and being rather uneasy about the central anti-hero, a 14-year old at the head of a gang of murderers and worse. I nonetheless bought the second volume, King of Thorns, a few months ago. Once again, I am unhappy about the lack of moral and basic compassion of Jorg and found it difficult to trudge through the ethic morass that King of Thorns represents… In some sense, the character gets more depth and some minimal type of humanity, but most of his actions do not make sense and the added touch of Indiana Jones at some crucial point in the story is just annoying. And I am usually adverse at the mix of science-fiction and fantasy in vague post-apocalyptic universes.  Not recommended, despite the flow of highly positive reviews…

## the painted man

Posted in Books, Kids, Travel with tags , , , , , on June 9, 2012 by xi'an

Another of those fantasy books I bought on the spur of the moment, without prior information, and that I ended liking very much! Indeed, when I was in the UK in April, I bought a few books for my son in Fort William, of all places!, and The painted man by Peter Brett was one of them. My son got very enthusiastic about it and read it within a few days. Then kept asking about the sequel… (Note that the book strangely has an alternative title in the US, The warded man. With the same so-so cover. Why?! Because UK readers could not understand the word warded?! Because US readers would think The painted man was about American indians?!)

So I took the book with me to Guérande to see how good this was and I got hooked as well, finishing it in three days. The sequel, The Desert Spear, is already sitting on top of the to-read-pile! The central theme of the book(s) is a variation on the “fear of the dark” theme, when darkness is full of real dangers, also found in, e.g., Sanderson’s Mistborn series or Terry Goodkind’s (rather annoying) Wizzard’s First Rule or yet Barbara Hambly’s mosy enjoyable (if older) Darwatch trilogy. And, of course, the forerunner H.G. Wells’ Time Machine where morlocks feed upon elois… Not a very promising start, then, especially when the three main characters are three (pre-)teenagers embarking upon their own quest and of course doomed to meet at some point in the story. However, Brett manages to turn this classic in the genre into something different and highly gripping. One of the attractions of the story is that the demons (or corelings) that come out of the ground when the sun sets down are not described into painful details, only their deadly power matters and it seems so overwhelming that the notion of fighting them does not make sense, either to the inhabitants of this universe or to the reader. When one character, Arlen, decides to, nonetheless, it is a major surprise (mild spoiler warning!) that he survives the first night, the first month and then the whole book! Although there are several deus ex machina interventions to make this possible, the story flows rather nicely and Arlen turns into the major character in the book, Further, his growing powers against the night demons come at the price of distancing himself from the other people and (stronger spoiler warning!) getting more similar to the beings he obsessively pursues. Which is why the other characters are destined to meet him. And help him recover his humanity.

Of course, this is not a perfect book. Besides the recurrence of happenstance moments, some characters are too caricatural. For instance, as in several recent fantasy novels (Richard Morgan’s Cold Commands to just pick one!), one desert-related part of the world follows an Islamic-type culture that carries all the clichés about Muslim countries. This makes the book sounds quite ethno-centric, with the bigoted and superstitious but good at heart communities from the North getting the better part over the fanatic, sexists and untrustworthy denizens of the South. I am actually afraid the second volume The Desert Spear will see more of this simplistic opposition as the southern desert tribes start an invasion very much reminding me of the Muslim invasions of the 7th and 8th centuries… The female character, Leesha, is also rather inconsistent, from strong to weak to strong again, a flaw in the story, esp. against the much more coherent Arlen. But, all in all, this remains a terrific first book and many readers seem to have felt the same way from the mostly positive reviews on line. I am eagerly waiting to get my Desert Spear back so that I can read it!

## The Cold Commands

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , on April 1, 2012 by xi'an

…my intention is that anyone reading The Cold Commands should feel a constant sense of relevance in the narrative, an eerie familiarity of issue and circumstance, a intense sense of now. And that does seem to be something that the fantasy genre as a whole works quite hard at shying away from.” R. Morgan, interview on Science Fiction & Fantasy, Cot. 20122

Over the trip to Banff last week, I managed to read Richard Morgan’s The cold commands, which is the sequel to The steel remains, that I read and reviewed a while ago. It has the drawback of a sequel in that most of the novelty wears off: most characters are the same as in the previous volume, while new characters tend to die quickly and rather unexpectedly, the battle scenes are not very different either, and the plot is a continuation of the previous story. This said, the book makes for a decent middle book in the series (“in that sense, Cold is probably the least standalone novel I’ve ever written“, R. Morgan) as better discussed in this review (spoilers included), and I am thus looking forward the third volume. (Abercrombie’s second volume Before they are hanged was more disappointing by comparison.)

The most complex and interesting character in this book is certainly Ringil faced with powers he does not truly understand and with loyalty to his friends that almost certainly leads him to his death, if in virtual spaces. It must be brought to Morgan’s credit (or was it unintentional?!) that he even demotes one of the three main heroes of The steel remains, Egar, to a lackluster situation requiring the others to rescue him from his own stupidity! I also feel that the third character, Archeth, was under-exploited and too prone to soul-searching. At least within this volume. The depiction of the rising religious fanaticism of the Citadel is a well-constructed (if uncomfortably close to real-world religions) aspect of the book, even though why this is essential for the alien dwendas to return in the world escaped me. Other than that, I found myself enjoying for the first time the mix of fantasy and SF therein, a mix that I usually dislike (even in the Wheel of TIme, this usually puts me off!). This must be due to Morgan’s excellence in writing SF… Thus, if you are ready to face more graphic sex and violence,  while hoping that the final volume will show the best of Richard Morgan’s skills, I would clearly advise reading this second volume!