Read: The Casual Angel, by Hannu Rajaniemi

The Casual Thief has been lurking in my TBR-pile ever since I first pre-ordered and then fetched it from the SF Bookshop, two years ago. There are, of course, multiple reasons for this delay, but I really did want to understand what was going on in that faraway version of our future universe populated with the Sobornost, the zokus, Jean de Flambeur, and Mieli, in The Quantum Thief and The Fractal Prince books, so though late I did recently began to read it.

It was, from the start, as splintered – post-modern, if you so wish – as the previous installations. Rajaniemi has a brilliant imagination.  He has peppered his tale with references to contemporary pop culture and ancient mythologies galore, and armed with those images one can easily conjure explosive, florescent, fractal, visuals to go with a tale, and it is told in shards – sometimes having to wait for things to make sense. The Thief  – Jean – is on a quest that neither he nor the reader fully understand the ramifications of, to find the Kaminari jewel, but is he a tool, and for whom, or is he self-determined? Mieli, wandering the universe to find her lost lover. Is she a tool (too)? Is this a game? Do I care? Am I made to care?

Am I compelled to read beyond the first pages?

Yes.

As I once more dived into the fantastical imaginary world that he built, and as I kept adding his world-specific concepts and their labels to my mental dictionary, the pace slowly but surely picked up. And surely soon everything would come to a conclusion, surely soon everything would start to make sense? But as  I kept turning pages, searching for content and meaning, the more I felt left floundering in the void, hope for sense and conclusion diminishing as the number of pages left to convincingly pull the trick dwindled.

The visuals and imagination is both daring and stunning, as is the world-building. But beyond that at least I need something more than one more fantastical set of props and toys, more than what if fireworks. More than a creeping revelation that everything is a game, and relative.

I found it difficult to engage with the characters, to feel for them. At times it felt a bit like I was in the middle of a Skylanders challenge, or dropped on a Minecraft plain. Cunningly designed to keep your attention, but impersonal. It is possible to smile at the odd Harry Potter reference; at the gesture of showing how storytelling creeps into our reality. But still – impersonal.

There are other authors – like the late Iain M Banks, whose Culture universe is as post-human as this one – who manages to pull it off with more conviction, adding depth beyond wonder, despite veering off on personal rants against (or for) this or that.

I do think the trilogy would benefit from being read as one book, in one sequence, as I imagine that will make the experience an easier one. Maybe then one would be able to empathise with Jean, with Mieli. As it is I didn’t feel the experience worth the effort to start it all over again, just to test this hypothesis.

Kudos though  to Rajaniemi for the trilogy being well crafted, imaginative, and consistent; I imagine that a lot of people will enjoy reading it, as did I, as long as it lasted. Fireworks can be fun. Our stories do make us who we are. Just not a once more into the breach-experience for this one.

Read: The Fractal Prince, by Hannu Rajaniemi

The Fractal Prince is a hard book to review. It picks up where The Quantum Thief left off. But were left it off? And were to? The Thief is after something but what, we don’t know, just as no one else in the tale seems to. Except perhaps Matjek, the head of the disembodied Sobornost; those who believe Mind is more precious than Matter and thus have left it behind. Who might be the one the Thief is after.

But not even the Thief knows, being denied his Sobornost qualities as part of a punishment.

Making any sense? Weeeell…

In this book the Thief is trying to get hold of a back-up copy of Matjek and the hunt takes him to Earth. And beyond everything else the Thief is a con artist so he cons his way into Earth politics, meeting up with the other thread of this story – the Gomelez sisters, living on an Earth were stories are viral, in all respects; in a post-apocalypse so wide it could just as well be another part of the galaxy.

The Earth parts I think the best. The overall context is still Brit SF, what with quantum theory and metaphysical minds, but Rajaniemi’s vision of a future Earth is poetic and visually wonderful, even in it’s monstrous ruin, filth and poverty.

Rajaniemi writes well – he manages to drag me into the book even as I sometimes have no clue about what really is going on. Not a book for everyone but I, I am looking forward to the next one which I hope will hold the conclusion.

I want to know what this is about!

Read: The Hydrogen Sonata, by Iain M Banks

So, at last, the latest Culture novel – The Hydrogen Sonata. Waited for, and welcome, even if it took some time to get around to. And it starts out promising. An entire civilisation – the Gzilt – is about to Sublime.

Throughout the Culture experience references are sometimes dropped about the Sublimed – entire civilisations that has decided they are finished with this corporeal existence, ready to transfer to another dimension. Still there, somehow, but not in any material way, and not bothered or bothering with everyday life of the physical.

So, do this novel give us any new clues, cues, or questions?

Well, not really. Because while the story do centre on the last days of the Gzilt it only makes clear that civilisations about to Sublime are just like any other civilisation – small-minded, scheming, conniving, lusting for acknowledgement, and on an individual level just trying to survive.

On the brink of Sublimation the holy text of the Gzilt is at risk of being revealed as a fraud; perhaps the result of an experiment initiated by a long-Sublimed civilisation not around to judge the success but maybe trying to send an envoy revealing the truth. Immediately the powers that set great personal pride in the finalisation of the process to Sublime starts to take measures, trying to ensure that the process will continue as planned.

But also starting to connive are some Culture ship Minds. Not entirely sure what they will do if and when they discover the truth they seem to meddle more for the general joy of it than anything else, and we get to read some funny dialogue all the while.

In the end nothing that happens – deaths and mayhem included – will change anything.

Of course there is discourse on some topics familiar to the reader of Banks’ Culture books, such as what makes one sentient; what is the ideal way to organise society, politically and economically; and the value of morality. Nothing of this feel like it adds anything to the discussion.

It is possible that my present mood makes the book injustice – while I read this my dad had a bad stroke which didn’t get treated decently despite that fact that he already was at the hospital. Such things puts something of a wet blanket on just about everything.

Because to be honest I never felt the story to drag and the dialogue between the ship Minds often made me smile. But nonetheless I feel confident in saying that while The Hydrogen Sonata is an able addition to the Culture sphere it isn’t up there with for example The Player of Games. Like with Excession this should be read by those who already are addicted to this particular universe.

Read: Excession, by Iain M Banks

Excession, fourth (or fifth, depending on how you count)  in line of the now ten Culture novels penned by Iain M Banks, is a galaxy-spanning space opera. But it is also something else – the rare Culture novel that I actually was close to put down unfinished.

It didn’t get even close to running until page 280 or so of 455. And even then it didn’t go all the way.

Throughout the pages we meet a number of ship Minds and humanoids, every one of them into “it” for some reason or other – be it self-interest or long-time political intrigue – and even to me, who normally enjoy that kind of story the plot becomes too clever, too Byzantine to follow. Time and again I had to ask myself “now, this name, who is this human or Mind? what did this human or Mind do previously? who is this human or Mind associated to?”

And what was this “it”? Different for each participant, of course – for some of the humanoids it was the offered chance to be a part of Special Circumstances, the secretive branch of Contact doing covert work for the Culture. For the ship Minds and their long term existences it was mainly about politics and intricate plotting. And I have to admit that I just didn’t manage to keep track of it all.

I can see the workings of an idea behind it – how the ship Minds with their long life expectancies plots beyond the  event horizon of mere humans, however long-lived compared to our time period, and how this affects the humans involved. And how these “artificial” minds have private motives and drivers… which in our eyes would make them “human”.

Perhaps.

It is not enough to give this story enough energy to make it an inspiring read.

All in all I don’t think Excession does either the Culture or Banks justice, not with books such as Player of Games, Look to Windward, Inversions and Surface Detail – or even Use of Weapons or Consider Phlebas – out there to compare with.

Go read those first.

Then, when you’re a convinced Culture fan, feel free to read or ignore this work.

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.