Review: Adiamante, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

So, after a long period of not being able to read due to a combination of stress and physical problems that left me drained, during which I’ve tried different light rereads to get the reading going but without success, I finally managed to finish L. E. Modesitt Jr‘s Adiamante, which I had on loan from a long-time colleague.

Ten thousand years ago, after an age of massive segregation and ecological disaster resulting both from conflicts, overconsumption and a general disregard for the ecological balance, certain people – the cybs – were ostracised from Old Earth. They now return to exact revenge on the descendants of the perpetrators. The Old Earth people have learned and changed, something the returning cybs are unwilling to see.

I had absolutely no idea of either book or author but the cover hinted at hard SF of some kind. Soon enough it became clear that the book was written mainly as a way to put forward certain ideas, ideas regarding ways to conduct one’s life, both as an individual and as a society. At times this made the book hard going, with conflicts and scenes engineered not to drive some kind of story but to act as an arena for dialogues in which the ideas put forth could be displayed – a classic allegory. This puts characters in the passenger seat. Sometimes this is no trouble. For example if the ideas are interesting, or the way in which they are examined, are novel enough, or if the author is an exceptionally skilled writer, this may work. In this case it worked so and so – I would not venture as far as saying the prose was bad but it had a certain Clarkesian feel, in the way there is a tangible distance between protagonist/s and reader, despite the story being told in a first person perspective.

The cybs are representatives of ideas persistent in our present society, with the right and might of the strong prevails, and with the Old Earth people acting as advertising board for a philosophy where people respect the environment and have done away with money (instead you work up debts when you spend resources, debts you work off in different ways). Some aspects of this philosophy, like not protecting the weak or stupid (“because stupidity breeds”) instead letting those be killed off by the aggressive mutated wildlife, is entirely revolting.

In the end it was an OK read but nothing I’d recommend anyone, except if it was the only SF available from the airport kiosk and you really REALLY needed something for that flight ahead of you.

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: Surface Detail, by Iain M Banks

When I started out with Bank’s latest Culture novel – Surface Detail – I did so expecting a well written but gory, gruesome and bleak story. 100 pages in I knew he would live up to those expectations… 200 pages in, though, I was starting to wonder. Gory and gruesome, definitely. Bleak? Well, not so much, because where I expected a tale of deluded individuals searching for meaning in the meaningless and, in the end, dying meaningless deaths as a consequence this time the ongoing theme seems to be one of hope, of the value of holding on to one’s dreams.

Among the interesting features was the way the designated villain, Jolier Veppers, evolved into a textured person – callow, yes; greedy, yes; willing to spend lives to stay on top of the hierarchy, yes. A despicable person, yes. But despite this, a person, not a figure from some shadow play.

Another is how all the stories that this book is made from contribute to the central tale and theme. Some of them are decidedly gruesome reading – especially so the descriptions of the Pavulian Hell – but without them the story would had felt half made and shallow.

Despite all this the book was only jogging along pleasantly – if such a word can be used in the Culture context – until Lededje, main protagonist, meets Demeisen, avatar of the Culture Special Circumstances Agency Abominator-class Picket Ship Falling Outside Normal Moral Constraints. Then the tempo picks up, the pages just flying by. The Falling Outside Normal Moral Constraints really is a very sophisticated war ship, built to destroy. Such a Mind, and such an avatar, has to be able, independent, and, compared to a culture – the Culture – that tries to embody the original Star Trek ethos (everyone gets what they need to live, no money needed, peaceful explorers…) more than slightly psychotic. Set alongside Veppers, for example, or the war about the Hells, his very existence incites discussion on ethics and morality, and about what constitutes “evilness”…
I guess those who end up not enjoying this book will arrive at that notion for one or both of two main reasons – the description of the Pavulian Hell and the ideology behind the Hells, and the fact that such a mean character as Demeisen is also portrayed as somewhat likeable.

Endings are always hard. This one have three – a “real” story ending, followed by a few pages telling how the various characters ended up, and a third one, which I hesitate to retell as it’s a major spoiler… but you’ll only understand that third ending if you have read Use of Weapons, Culture novel #4.
Personally I could had lived without the intermediary, second, ending, but it doesn’t spoil anything and I can see how the author or the editor wanted this in, so… it’s OK with me.
The third ending… puts an added perspective on Use of Weapons, and I like that.

Recommended reading. IMHO. High reread probability.

Review: To Ride Hell’s Chasm, by Janny Wurts

The princess vanishes after her betrothed arrives for their marriage and everyone thinks she has been abducted when in reality she is fleeing for her life. Her only hope is Mykkael, the foreigner captain in command of the Lowergate garrison, but to some he is also the prime suspect – mainly based on his foreignness. The commander of the royal guard, and as such Mykkael’s commanding officer, feels he should trust the captain but is too bound by tradition and law to do so.
Mykkael on his part carries a heavy burden of guilt, a guilt which drives him to act in a way to draw suspicion, acting on his oath of loyalty to Sessalie’s king and not heeding command were he thinks it contrary to this oath.

To Ride Hell’s Chasm is a pageturner, even if the prose sometimes gets a bit dense, seamlessly intertwining discussions of racism, fear of the unknown, honour and ethics with good worldbuilding and strong characterisation.

I think it sad that such a good work is soiled by second rate craftsmanship when it comes to the book’s binding and production – usually I love looking at the maps that accompanies a book in the high fantasy genre but this time someone has sent low resolution placeholders to final print. The result is blurred, pixelated, artwork. A disgrace.

Anyone holding the book thinking of buy/not buy should look further than that – the tale is a good one, well worth the time it takes reading it. And strictly speaking – the maps are not needed to follow the story. Because Janny Wurts is real good at painting that picture in words, too.