Archive for Locus Award

space opera by John Scalzi [book review]

Posted in Books, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 15, 2019 by xi'an

John Scalzi, author of the memorable Old Man’s War, has started a trilogy of which I only became aware recently (or more precisely became re-aware!), which has the perk of making two of the three books already published and hence available without a one or two year break. And having the book win the 2018 Locus Award in the meanwhile. This new series is yet again a space opera with space travel made possible by a fairly unclear Flow that even the mathematicians in the story have trouble understanding. And The Flow is used by guilds to carry goods and people to planets that are too hostile an environment for the “local” inhabitants to survive on their own. The whole setup is both homely and old-fashioned: the different guilds are associated with families, despite being centuries old, and the empire of 48 planets is still governed by the same dominant family, who also controls a fairly bland religion. Although the later managed to become the de facto religion.

“I’m a Flow physicist.  It’s high-order math. You don’t have to go out into the field for that.”

This does not sound much exciting, even for space operas, but things are starting to deteriorate when the novels start. Or more exactly, as hinted by the title, the Empire is about to collapse! (No spoiler, since this is the title!!!) However, the story-telling gets a wee bit lazy from that (early) point. In that it fixates on a very few characters [among millions of billions of inhabitants of this universe] who set the cogs spinning one way then the other then the earlier way… Dialogues are witty and often funny, those few characters are mostly well-drawn, albeit too one-dimensional, and cataclysmic events seem to be held at bay by the cleverness of one single person, double-crossing the bad guys. Mostly. While the second volume (unusually) sounds better and sees more action, more surprises, and an improvement in the plot itself, and while this makes for a pleasant travel read (I forgot The Collapsing Empire in a plane from B’ham!), I am surprised at the book winning the 2018 Locus Award indeed. It definitely lacks the scope and ambiguity of the two Ancillary novels. The convoluted philosophical construct and math background of Anathem. The historical background of Cryptonomicon and of the Baroque Cycle. Or the singularity of the Hyperion universe. (But I was also unimpressed by the Three-Body Problem! And by Scalzi’s Hugo Award Redshirts!) The third volume is not yet out.

As a French aside, a former king turned AI is called Tomas Chenevert, on a space-ship called Auvergne, with an attempt at coming from a French speaking planet, Ponthieu, except that is should have been spelled Thomas Chênevert (green oak!). Incidentally, Ponthieu is a county in the Norman marches, north of Rouen, that is now part of Picardy, although I do not think this has anything to do with the current novel!

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2016 by xi'an

I do not remember precisely for which reason I bought this book but it is most likely because the book popped up in a list of suggested books on a Amazon page. And I certainly feel grateful for the suggestion as this is one of the best books I read in the past years. And not just the best fantasy or the best Gothic book, clearly.

Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was published in 2004 and it soon got high-ranked in most best-seller lists, winning the same year both the Hugo and the Locus prizes. But, once again, while it caters to my tastes in fantasy literature, I find the book spans much more, recreating an alternative 19th Century literature where fairies and magic plays a role in the Napoleonic Wars, including Waterloo. The tone and style are reminders of Dickens, the Brontës, and Austen, but also Gothic 19th Century masters, like Ann Radcliffe, Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley. Even the grammar is modified into archaic or pseudo-archaic versions. But more importantly and enticingly the beautiful style reproduces some of the light irony of Dickens about the author and the characters themselves. Utterly enjoyable!

The story itself is about a new era of English magic launched by the two characters on the cover, after centuries of musty study of magic without the power or the will of practising any form of magic. (The book enjoys close to 200 footnotes documenting the history of magic in the past centuries, in a pastiche of scholarly works of older days.) While those two characters can manage incredible feats, they seem to have a rather empirical knowledge of the nature of magic and of what they can do about the ancient magicians of the fairy kingdoms that border Northern England. There is no indication in the book that magical abilities are found in other nations, which is most advantageous when fighting the French! A central axis of the plot is the opposition between Norrell and Strange, the former hoping to take complete control of English magic (and buying any book related to the topic to secure them in a private library), the later freely dispensing his art and taking students in. They also clash about the position to take about the fairy or Raven King, John Uskglass, from excluding him from the modern era to acknowledging his essential role in the existence of English magic. They separate and start fighting one another through books and newspaper articles, Strange leaving for Venezia after loosing his wife. Eventually, they have to reunite to fight the Raven King together and save Strange’s wife, even though the final outcome is somewhat and pleasantly unexpected. (Mind this is a crude summary for a novel of more than 1,000 pages!)

While it seems the author is preparing a sequel, the book stands quite well by itself and I feel another book is somewhat unnecessary: Dickens did not write a sequel to David Copperfield or another perspective on (the Gothic) Great Expectations. But in any case Susanna Clarke wrote there a masterpiece a feat that I hope she can repeat in the future with an altogether book. (And while I liked very much the Quincunx for similar reasons, I deem Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell to be far far superior in its recreation of Victorian Gothic!)

ancillaries [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on June 5, 2016 by xi'an


“When you’re doing something like this (…) the odds are irrelevant. You don’t need to know the odds. ”

After completing the first volume of Anne Lecke’s Ancilary books, I bought both following volumes in the trilogy. Alas these two books were quite disappointing when compared with the first one. Even though there still was some action present in those volumes, the scope was awfully limited, mostly filled with dialogues between the ship AI and characters on the spaceship and on a local planet. And endless cups of tea that bored even the tea addict in me. The space opera somewhat turned into a closet opera with about the same level of action as when brooms fall out of the said closet! The last book ends up (small spoiler) with the creation of a local republic and the move to more autonomy of the AIs involved in spaceships and space stations. There are a few interesting digs into this direction of what constitutes intelligence and sentience, but the pace is way too sluggish and I had trouble completing the books, as the excitement of the initial book was lost. I think this is another trilogy that would have truly benefited from a global editing, rather than (apparently) building from the first volume…

ancillaries [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2016 by xi'an


“A Radchaai would have tossed that coin. Or, more accurately, a handful of them, a dozen disks, each with its meaning and import, the pattern of their fall a map of the universe.”

How good must a novel be to win five major awards the same year?! Among which the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, and Locus awards. Pretty good, I would bet, and this is clearly the case with Ann Lecke’s Ancillary Justice. Which I picked in Oxford two weeks ago mostly because of this tag. And of an unusual cover. And even because it involved the word ancillary. Actually the cover looks less unusual and artsy when put together with the next two volumes, as shown above. An obviously deeper, more literary, and all inclusive review of the whole trilogy can be found in Slate, but I have only completed the first volume. (I realised only when writing this post that some controversy comes with the Hugo Award given to this very book, raised by some conservative or worse sci’ fi’ writers, who complained that it was selected for political rather than literary reasons. Read the book before reading the arguments, and they then just fall apart as grossly political!)

“Information is security. Plans made with imperfect information are fatally flawed, will fail or succeed on the toss of a coin. “

At a first come first serve level, the story is a traditional space opera where a galactic empire methodically conquers new planets and turn the lucky survivors into new citizens, while the others are turned into brainless warriors controlled by an AI that doubles as a spaceship. The major ship in this story is called Justice of Toren and the soldiers are called ancillaries. All this very connected to the history of the Roman empire. Although this approach has presumably been tried in many other sci’fi’ novels, this feature means that the ancillaries are aware of all other connected to the AI, while retaining some degree of autonomy. And it brings very interesting interrogations on the nature of self in such a hive civilisation. Interrogations that quickly get unexpected answers [warning!, spoilers ahoy!] since one of those auxiliaries, Breq, develops an independent line of thought and eventually reaches complete libre-arbitre. While keeping his or her elite soldier abilities, which turns him or her into a ruthless avenger. I write him or her because the novel and this auxiliary are constantly unclear about the sex of the other characters, which seems to have become such a private matter that it cannot be directly mentioned in the conversation… A fairly interesting concept, once you get around this missing degree of freedom in interpreting the relations between the characters. The empire is of course governed by an emperor, called Anaander Mianaai, which has a massive schizophrenic issue in that by creating many copies of himself or herself over thousands of years, they have drifted in their personalities and now partly escape the control of the associated AI… The final chapters of the first novel see Breq fighting and killing several of those copies. (There are spaceoperaous moments in the novel, which even matter in the grand plot, but they are dealt with very lightly so that the psychological bits are the true flotsam of the novel. I am most obviously looking forward the second volume [procured thanks to ‘Og readers’ links to amazon associate!].)