Review: The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan Doyle

When I was a pre-teen I loved the Sherlock Holmes stories. I can’t now seem to remember why but perhaps it was the general spookiness of the cases he handled that drew me in? Anyway I’ve always felt that these were class mysteries and I have regarded them highly ever since, even if I can’t remember reading one during the last 30-35 years that have passed. When the Fellows at the Green Dragon started to talk about doing a mystery genre group read and when Holmes and the Hound of Baskerville I was eager to jump the train as I viewed it as an opportunity to read and discuss a genre I don’t usually spend much time with, through a book I was pretty certain to like.

I was disappointed.

First, the story. I didn’t think it held up well either as adventure or as mystery. Compared to what I think of as “modern” standards the adventure was missing and the mystery is a very simple one.

Secondly, the characters. They all fell flat. I realise that the Holmes novellas and stories aren’t about character development but when the general scenery is more alive than the people acting upon it there’s not much to attach to.

Thirdly, the society. The cultural norms of the time jars.

This is in itself an interesting discussion, of course. Presently more than a few books that initially were published during the late 19th and first half of the 20th century are subject to extensive rewriting, so to better fit our cultural norms. Personally I am aghast. A book is a book and as such is an artefact of it’s time. Changing it is falsification of history, no less. If they need be reprinted do so with an introduction explaining the context but do under no circumstances rewrite them.

However, many of those books are unreadable to me today – I spend more time being horrified (over such things like people thinking facial features a marker of intelligence normal) than actually reading the story.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was such an experience to me. Educational. Historically interesting. But utterly unreadable as what it was originally meant to be – an adventure and a mystery, exhibiting the astounding capabilities of Sherlock Holmes.

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Series review: Vatta’s War, by Elizabeth Moon

Some books and series leaves you turning them over and over, again and again, to understand, to figure them out. Vatta’s War is NOT one of those. It is fast paced straight forward space opera, which means that there’s drama but precious few surprises – what you hope will happen, or guess will happen, pretty much do. Every time. This could be tedious, boring, uninteresting.

It isn’t.

The pace is so fast that at first you don’t notice how well written it is. But the fact is a story this predictable has to be very well told not to be uninteresting same same stuff, and uninteresting certainly isn’t a word I’d associate with Vatta’s War.

Main spice is Ky Vatta’s shame over the discovery that she gets a thrill not only from adventure, from taking command, but out of killing. She know she won’t be able to tell her father – she’s still pretty young – because she can’t face her disappointment in her, and when he is killed in the attack on her family she carry this with her; the dread at what she is, and the regret for not having told her dad. Carrying this darkness she enters on an enterprise to revenge her family nemesis.

She soon learns that the attack was not directed at her or her family as such but that the attack was part of a plan to take over the known universe, engineered by pirates, and the quest widens from one of avenging to one of preserving basic human freedoms. In the course of the action she almost alienates her sole surviving same-generation close family member, cousin Stella, who gets terrified when she learns what kid cousin Ky is capable of. Stella’s old flame Rafe, on the other hand, is intrigued as he recognises something of himself in Ky… Mutual attraction ensues, something none of them are willing to acknowledge until after their respective duties make them go different ways.
This last thing the author uses to add tension between the “Rafe uncovers what’s wrong with the monopolistic corporation controlling universal communications” and “Ky tries to found a multi-national defence force while hunting pirates” storylines and it is done in such a manner that the reader doesn’t feel manipulated. Which is a feat in itself.

And never ever does the author let the reader forget the question about if you can fight for peace, and what the toll is on those who are tasked with this fight, as their lives is in constant contrast with the values they are said to protect.

All main characters fight against the preconceptions of other people. Some of them try to use it in their favour, like Stella, or Aunt Grace. Stella did something stupid in her youth and have ever since been marked as the family idiot. Aunt Grace, who on the outside is a dotty old spinster but really is Vatta Enterprises head of security, recognises that Stella isn’t what she’s marked as, initiating her into the life of the corporate spy. They both use their disguises to the advantage of the family.

Ky and Rafe respectively have a harder time of making anything good out of the widespread misconceptions about each of them, mainly because to do what they want to do they each need to be trusted by others and those others have to see beyond the public images history has fostered to be able to give them this trust.

None of above is evident at the start. Rather the story and the characters expand through the course of the books, finding more depth in each new instalment, as what happens to them gets ever more complex. That is one of the major reasons such a straightforward tale can keep up interest and engagement from the reader, because even when the story is predictable the scope widens continuously, placing ever new challenges in front of the protagonists; challenges which seems probable, in line with the story, no less.

So – good writing, good storytelling, good plot, and good character development equals, in this case, a series which is both entertaining and a good read. Go head and read it.

Review: Victory Conditions, by Elizabeth Moon

It’s not often that I want a book or a series that I like to come to an end but with Victory Conditions, the concluding Vatta’s War volume, this was certainly the case. And not because I wanted it done and over with but because I wanted to know how it would end.

Being a formulaic space opera I was reasonably sure that it would be a happy one for everyone (even if there’s no such thing as “happily ever after” with good SF) but there was that nagging little idea that maybe, maybe not…

Again the story is told from multiple viewpoints, with each storyline contributing to the sum total – Rafe downplanet on Nexus II, fighting against corporate inertia and suspicion; Stella, changing the future forever when she patents the shipboard ansible; and Ky, trying to win the war against arch-villain Gammis Turek and his pirates; and all of them trying to make odd ends meet in their relationship to their respective heritages and personal expectations… not to mention the driving question – would Rafe and Ky manage to get together, or would “duties” interfere? Because really – how the war in space would end was predestined.
This is space opera, after all :D

On the minus side this last book was a bit impersonal. Up until then most of the people Ky interacted with had names and faces but after the battle at Moray this changed; then it was just about her and her directing the battle. Maybe this is what happens to people who kill for a living – they distance themselves from their comrades so not to get hurt when they get killed? Or perhaps it’s just that the series is about to end and there’s no time to properly introduce new faces.

The actual ending I think was… what I had expected, but a bit weak compared to the quality of the rest of the storytelling.
The story definitely stopped in the right place, though, because from there onward it would had been a very different kind of story, whichever turn it would had taken.
Or so I imagine.

All in all an entertaining and enjoyable read, worth the time it took reading it.

Review: Command Decision, by Elizabeth Moon

In Command Decision, book #4 in the Vatta’s War series, Ky Vatta proves she’s able to command a multiship space force… but will she get the funding that she need?

This novel is a bridge, much more so than the previous books, in that it’s main aim is to make the happenings in the concluding book credible. We get to follow what has happened to InterStellar Communications, to the embryo Vatta Enterprises Stella nurses, and Ky’s struggles to found Space Defence Force.

A lot of the details felt… too detailed – I often felt “now, let’s get on with the STORY” while reading it, but in hindsight this might be because the story demands that we leave space for a while, following Rafe’s tries at unravelling what is wrong with the communications network.

As the others – definitely not a standalone, but worthy of the series.

Review: Engaging the Enemy, by Elizabeth Moon

I’ve found it very hard to write up individual reviews for the Vatta’s War books so these will be real short ones, in anticipation of the series review I will write up later.

At the end of Marque and Reprisal, book #2, Ky Vatta had started to realise that her only honourable alternative was to try to locate remaining family members and to try to find the person responsible for the attack on her family. In Engaging the Enemy, book #3, she takes one step further – she starts to see that this is something that not only has to do with her family but with the power balance in their part of the known universe, all the while struggling with the implications of being someone who need to do something which needs be done if the world is to stay safe, this something being in conflict with the common idea of what is acceptable behaviour.

The book ends with an escape from a skirmish with the enemy – a real cliffhanger… Which means this book, just like Marque and Reprisal is blatantly part of a series, not to be read on it’s own. But I enjoyed it, just as I enjoyed the previous books.

Review: Marque and reprisal, by Elizabeth Moon

The initial reason I started reading Elizabeth Moon’s Marque and Reprisal, number 2 of 5 in the Vatta’s War series, was I was stuck in Umberto Eco’s Baudolino; after almost three weeks I had managed to get to page 98, thanks to an overly ornamental language and introverted snooty jokes, and I was in dire need of something light and fast paced.
(I will probably finish Baudolino. Some time.)

Reviewing Marque and Reprisal is not easy. It is so definitely not a stand alone novel, and it ends in the middle of the story (continued in Engaging the Enemy); neither of which would define good literature. On the other hand I got sucked into the pages, eager to know what would happen next – and that was exactly the kind of book that I had looked for.
So, a good book nonetheless :D

Yet again we follow Kylara Vatta, and we get to understand that recent happenings (as of Trading in Danger) were not isolated incidents. As they say – mayhem ensues, leaving Ky with huge responsibilities… if she can handle them.

Moon manages to build a vivid universe, with living people inhabiting it. Ky is almost over the top heroine, she’s so able and daring, always succeeding with the most far fetched plan, but it’s balanced by the darkness she carries within her.

It’s interesting how someone harbouring such a delight in killing can seem so likeable, and I think much of the dynamic that drives this story comes from that apparent contradiction, especially when it’s set against what she tries to accomplish – to restore her family and their (peaceful) shipping business, in a time of violence and war.

A series perhaps not for the snooty, but worth reading for the rest of us :D