Fragments by Dan Wells

Fragments by Dan WellsLet me just start by saying that if this wasn’t written by Dan Wells I likely would never have picked it up. The cover is possibly the least interesting book cover I have ever seen. Luckily, I was able to get past that.

I feel like there are certain things that Dan Wells does really well and things that he is only mediocre at. His settings never feel fully realized. It’s almost like the places he describes are only partially there, like the distance is shrouded in that mistiness that video game designers use when your computer doesn’t have enough memory to show the horizon. When he is describing real cities like in much of this book the setting feels like a place that he drove through or visited once, or even worse looked up on a map.

With that out of the way I can talk about what Dan Wells is good at. He is good at atmosphere, terror and mystery.

Fragments picks up where Partials left off with a world broken by disease and war. Kira is trying desperately to find a cure that will save the human race from the disease that is slowly killing them and hopes to discover the secrets to her own past at the same time.

Kira is no different from most teenage literary protagonists in that she wants to figure out where she fits what she is and why she is there. These are universal questions which is part of the reason they are used in young adult fiction so much.

Dan Wells channels the atmosphere of desolation and destruction remarkably well. The world feels like our world after it has been rapidly depopulated. The part of me that loves ghost towns longs to look into this world, to explore the ruins of our civilization. The emptiness and the danger are real but I couldn’t help but wonder if the fortuitous use of canned food in this society twelve years after the apocalypse is realistic. How many cans of tuna re still good twelve years later? Probably a surprising number but it made me wonder every time they stopped and ate some tuna — also carrying cans across the desolated midwest sounds like a very bad idea. The degradation of gasoline over time is treated realistically but the characters are still able to find rope in hardware stores and long abandoned computers start working as soon as they are supplied power.

I’m not even sure how realistic that is. I have computers that I have put away in storage and fired them up and they work great six or seven years later. Theoretically, if nothing happens to them, then they should still work. I also know that modern data farms go through an unseemly number of hard drives every day due to mechanical failure. They are constantly building in redundancies and swapping out parts because when you have a million processors and hundreds of thousands of hard drives, chances are one of them is going bad right now. I feel dubious that turning on power to a data farm twelve years after it died that the entire things would work without some kind of maintenance. (Almost all the uses of technology in this book are problematic, unrealistic and sometimes jarringly misunderstood but I’m trying to get past that.)

That’s probably the least unrealistic part of the book because Kira and company traverse most of the breadth of the continent on horses in a barren wasteland with no food or water and the only rain falls as acid that burns and scorches the skin and poisons and kills everything. The midwest United States is not populated enough to find shelter every day, it just isn’t. I’m not even convinced you would want to do it with a car under those circumstances.

Leaving aside the fairly naive discussions of computers and networking usage, and the impossibleness of the journey Dan Wells is great at telling a story that is equal parts fascinating and terrifying. Some of the action scenes and moments of tension are the best I’ve seen in quite some time.

That’s because these are the areas in which Dan Wells excels. Atmosphere, terror and mystery. The mystery in the book is intriguing, if a little bit of a letdown upon discovery, and drives almost all of the plot. The terror both long term and short term feel real and powerful. This is a delicate act to pull off. Dan Wells expertly builds a world that is so completely broken that even living in it is terrifying — the future is bleak, possibly nonexistent — and the he fills in the moments with bits of real tension and fantastical action set pieces.

I’ve begun to feel that Dan Wells hasn’t improved as much in his skills over the course of his novels as I would have expected. Many of his weaknesses still remain. I find with each novel my desire to read the next one decreases just a little. Here’s hoping I like the next one more.

Warhorse by Michael Morpurgo

Warhorse by Michael MorpurgoWarhorse is a powerful story about, surprisingly enough war and horses. Specifically World War I — when horses were still used actively alongside tanks and armored vehicles — and a horse named Joey.

The story is told form the horse’s point of view which is both fascinating and more powerful than I had expected. The horse cannot talk, not even to other horses but is capable of forming powerful friendships with people and animals nonetheless. Joey starts life on a farm, is sold to the British Army at the start of the War and then is passed around through several countries as he is captured and used by French farmers, German soldiers, and finally back to the British Army at the end of the war.

In all those places he touches somebody’s life and makes it better in profound and believable ways.

It feels at times like a grand epic of war and the brutality of fighting at a time when the technology with which people killed one another was changing so rapidly that whole countries got left behind. At other times it is the melancholy tale of a horse and his friends — human and animal — as they struggle to stay connected in a world that is falling apart around them.

Warhorse is for those of us who read horse stories when we were children. It is for those of us who have longed deeply for another life and passed through trials to find it. It is for those of us who find friends and then miss them when life drags us apart and away from each other. It is a story for everybody.

Morpurgo writes with wonderful imagery and never once breaks away from his tight horse’s view of the world. His prose is smooth and powerful and in the end it is just right.

This is a short book so it won’t take much time to read. You won’t regret it.

Waterfall

WaterfallWater is one of the more beautiful things in nature and becomes all the more precious when it is scarce. People who live in places where it falls from the sky regularly really don’t understand how wonderful and complex water can be. It bubbles and burbles and sings over stones and fallen trees, rustling through the grass as it seeks it’s way to low ground.

A stream this small probably won’t ever make it to the sea.

Beyond the Shadows by Brent Weeks

Beyond the Shadows by Brent WeeksI have been continually surprised by these books, which I think might have something to do with why they sold so many copies when they were released.

Brent Weeks started out with a book that felt clunky and raw but had enough power behind it that I could see he knew where he was going. He knew how to tell the story but maybe not how to write it. I think I may have even compared him to George Lucas.

That was a grossly unfair comparison. With the third book of this trilogy Brent Weeks pulled off some surprises that more experienced writers wouldn’t want to try. Most impressively to me he took characters from the first two books that I loathed and made me care for them, more than once.

There were several times in this final book where I realized where things were headed and I would say to myself this is where we discover that this story will take six more books to tell. Several times I recognized where things were going and knew that it had to be longer. Brent Weeks pulled through and packed it all into the last half of a fantasy book without making it feel rushed or skipped. He did that by focusing on the characters and what they were going through — their personal lives. During the day they were defying gods and raising armies and learning magic and meddling with ancient powers beyond their control, but all that was just a side note to them. I liked that the hero of the story — Kylar — while he does some very amazing things and becomes insanely powerful, is not the savior of the world (despite some rather poignant Christian imagery). In fact characters that seemed to take a minor roll in the first book became brilliantly essential to the ending in a way that felt right.

Many times countries and worlds are saved by many people working in concert, it’s rare that one person is ever in the position to do all the work. I liked that not all the questions were answered. Not all the people survived or found happiness. Some of the sacrifices were real and painful and so much more powerful than simply giving up a life.

I find it difficult to discuss the book much without spoiling the previous volumes so I will leave it there. Brent Weeks pulled together a surprising number of threads and spliced them into a satisfying conclusion with such power that it felt breathtaking by the end. In the course of just this trilogy he has gone from a writer that I compared to George Lucas to a writer that astonishes with his storytelling. And he did it in only three books.

Albuquerque

Albuquerque

It is knowing the answer to the question ‘green or red?’ and being willing to apply it to everything.

It is musicals and concerts like a big city and always seeing somebody you know at Wal-mart like a small one.

It is speaking Spanish at the grocery stores.

It is complaining about the cold when it’s below 40 and the heat when it’s above 90.

It is about seeing hiking trails from your house and seeing your house from the hiking trails.

It is about more shades of brown than you ever imagined existed.

It is dry air and dry dirt and dry rivers.

It is Home.

The Stonehenge Gate by Jack Williamson

The Stonehenge Gate by Jack WilliamsonThere are a number of reasons why Jack Williamson is awesome. Many of them I’ve even talked about on this blog. He moved to New Mexico as a young boy with his family in a covered wagon. If that isn’t enough he started writing and publishing science fiction when he was 17 and continued to write for the next eighty years. In that time he imagined many of the modern conveniences that we take for granted coined the word terraforming and was also the first to write about a space station that simulated gravity by spinning.

Amongst his surprising resume of literary merits are decades of speculation about the future. Jack Williamson spent his life wondering what the future would be like and he adapted and changed with it so that he could continue to fit into the future that he quickly found himself in.

At the same time his books and stories have never lost a certain sense-of-wonder quality that permeates every word. Jack Williamson always feels like Jack Williamson — that’s mostly not a bad thing.

Jack Williamson started out writing for the pulps, because that was what you did. Unless you were Alfred Bester or Robert Heinlein chances are you couldn’t get science fiction published in the slicks. The pulps were called that because the paper in the magazine was the rough pulpy paper found in cheap newsprint. They also tended to cater to a different audience — one of mainly teenage boys — the same demographic that comic books would later replace. In fact comic books are a pretty fair comparison. Comic books used to be cheap and full of cheap thrills with over the top villains, idealized heroes and hordes of helpless citizens. Pulp stories like the more famous ones by Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft tended to be adventure stories, yarns about violence and thunder and muscular heroes. That didn’t mean that they weren’t well written. In fact many times they needed to very carefully crafted in order to not reveal the silliness of it all.

Jack Williamson entered directly into that tradition and thrived for many years.

The Stonehenge Gate feels like a hark back to that time of early twentieth century pulp fiction with an adventure that drags the characters into a much larger galaxy.

The characters are an interesting bunch. The narrator hardly speaks — choosing to let other do the talking — and rarely acts in any way other than to follow those around him. Instead of using a main character who is interesting Williamson chooses to surround him with interesting people.

Imagine my dismay when, in the middle of book he is briefly separated from his friends.

There are a number of extreme coincidences. There are four college professors in New Mexico. One of them discovers a stonehenge-like structure beneath the sand in the Sahara. Another of them just happens to be an archeologist and another has a strange hereditary birthmark on his forehead and a grandmother who told him stories about stealing the key to Hell and ‘the road to heaven leads through the gateway to hell.’

Without giving anything else away suffice it to say that they discover a Stargate-like passage to other worlds and a millions-year-old history of other races on other planets scattered across the galaxy. There is a great deal of discussion of slavery and ethics and history and evolution and Williamson does a creditable job of making his altered evolution of man seem possible, if a little bit fifteenth century in it’s cradle of life scenario for the earth.

Jack Williamson has always been a good writer, his stories have mystery and depth that feel wonderful. He’s matured a great deal as a writer and a storyteller, which is to be expected after eighty years in the business.

The book itself is a mixture of that good old early days wonder, social commentary and slogging, plodding plot development as the main character seems to spend most of his time locked in a cell as the world and events and people around him make things happen.

To be fair he is a literature professor, and he is nearly sixty so leading slave revolts and hopping across the galaxy is probably not in his usual job description. It just seems like maybe somebody else would have made a more interesting character from which to tell the story.

Most of the good feelings I had for this book were nostalgic remembrances of old science fiction I read as a boy. This feels so much like one of those old stories of exploring and seeing things so preposterous that it doesn’t matter any more how real it is. The amazing thing is that it has this feeling while keeping most of the future tech and wonder firmly grounded in the possible and maybe even the probable. Perhaps it’s the magic of godlike aliens and stonehenge gates leading to other worlds that made it so fantastical.

I would recommend this book to anybody who longs for a trip back to the days the Weird Tales or Amazing Stories. It will make you happy and feel modern at the same time.

Wilson Arch

Wilson ArchIn southern Utah, just off of United States Highway 160 is a rather large and obvious landmark. A naturally occurring sandstone arch in this part of the world is actually not a unique sight, it’s not really even a rare one. Just a few miles away is the entrance to Arches National Park in which dozens, if not hundreds of these arches exist in a variety of shapes, styles and sizes.

What makes Wilson Arch so much different is that it isn’t part of a park or a monument. It’s not out of the way and you don’t have to know where it is to find it. It’s just right there.

You literally can’t miss it.

As an added bonus, if you climb up to it and look down the other side you get a gorgeous view of southern Utah.

Books I read, Pictures I take.

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