Yendi by Steven Brust

Yendi by Steven Brust

I find that my days of not taking Brust seriously are definitely coming to a middle. That is to say, the only thing I can do after reading this book is fall back on witty quips that were written by somebody much more clever than I.

This second book in the Vlad Taltos series actually takes place before the first one. While the first book was a fresh take on fantasy that brought some incredible newness into the genre in the nineties, the second one feels like it’s stuck in the same pattern. It loses all of it’s tension because we know how things turn out and the sometimes clever banter and sometimes painful puns have gotten old.

All of those things could be forgiven if this book was not so boring.

There is very little going on at any one time except a lot of talking heads. I still know almost nothing about what these characters look like, what their surroundings are, even their ages. There is a lot of talking, though. Vlad talks his way into a gang war, then talks until his enemy can’t help but hire assassins just to shut him up. Then there’s some kind of weird bit about who is the heir to the throne and it’s a good three chapters of talking before the reader is thoroughly confused enough for us to pretend that the characters must know what’s going on, at any rate. Then there’s some fighting with really vague descriptions and some goofy discussions about how powerful people are and how scary they are — without ever actually showing us the scary.

That’s pretty much it. Good dialogue can be very entertaining to read. Good dialogue has tension. This book has none.

I get the feeling this is kind of the MO for Brust’s work. The first book I kind of gave it a pass because his style was occasionally funny and kept me interested. With this second book I found it dull and unaffecting — which according to the spell-checker is not a word.

There are some people that just love Brust’s style and I understand that. It’s not for me. I acquired these books as an omnibus of three novels so he’s got one more chance to make me love his characters. As it is right now, I’m must not feeling it.

Purple

PurpleNature provides an infinite variety of fascinating biology. There are more strange and unknown things in this world than dreams of men, or something. One fascinating but not all that strange things is nature’s flowers that will bloom and grow wild while the trees around them are becoming yellow and dying with frost.

There is also the cursed puncturevine from which goatheads sprout that is apparently capable of disguising itself as a multitude of different plants and never dies. Cockroaches and goatheads will rule the world.

Sly Mongoose by Tobias Buckell

Sly-Mongoose

Tobias Buckell doesn’t like to keep readers waiting. Instead he shoves us into the heads of larger-than-life characters and hurls us into a zombie apocalypse in space.

The story starts with Pepper, some kind of centuries old super soldier (who is already familiar from the two previous books in the series) who is deorbiting onto a planet using a makeshift heat shield and a spacesuit, because that’s how he rolls. From there we are thrown into a world of floating cities, airships, acid clouds, hidden aliens, Aztec descendants and the ultimate democracy.

Pepper is a fascinating person, he is a force all to himself but he is not without feeling and we get little hints here and there why he roams across the galaxy throwing himself into every brutal fight and war he can find. That’s when he starts to feel a little bit human, he becomes less of a force and more of a person.

Tobias Buckell writes in a quick and sparse style. It almost feels too fast, at times like things are happening too quickly to keep up with. His prose is short, the sentences minimal and the paragraphs small enough to be taken in at a glance.

This book is short and packed with action that let’s up just enough to show characters going through real change and fighting for what they believe in. It’s one of those stories where amazing people triumph against terrible odds and I can’t recommend it highly enough. You probably don’t have to read the first two books in this series to understand this one but I can’t see why you wouldn’t want to.

Sly Mongoose is another powerful story by Tobias Buckell written with a fascinating background and a great premise in a fully imagined future that realistically combines the use of billhooks and swords with weapons that communicate directly with the brain through the nerve endings in your fingers.

Tobias Buckell will keep you turning pages.

Abaddon’s Gate by James S. A. Corey

Abaddon's Gate by James S. A. Corey

It’s no secret at this point that James S. A. Corey is the pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. It’s also no secret they are telling a story that is going places.

In the first novel we were introduced  to a noir detective story set in the backdrop of space in a solar system rife with political strife and machinations and filled to the brim with people living in asteroids and moons. The second gave us a political thriller with three political factions fighting over an alien technology that they really didn’t understand and had no hope of controlling.

This third volume is more of an adventure yarn with squabbling governments and cryptic alien discoveries.

The series is tied together by the constant recurrence of James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante. They are the only recurring character in each book and have been some of the least interesting characters of each book so far. In this third volume they finally start to develop some actual character that is beyond the broad-brush stereotypes that they have been given. Each book introduces new character points of view in order to make the solar system seem bigger and more populated. Each of those new characters leaps right off the page and becomes more powerful and interesting than the main crew that share each book with them. Holden especially started out as a bland naive do-gooder who screwed things up by being too trusting in the common good.

In this book he finally starts to make decisions that make sense, it still screws things up but now he has the sense to recognize when it was a mistake on his part and feel bad about it — he’s learned from his past. We also get to see the rest of his crew being awesome at what they do, which is not always fighting and killing things.

The other characters in this one are Bull — a New Mexico native who moved out to space to get away from his past and Anna a Methodist pastor living on one of the moons of Jupiter.

Corey does an impressive job of portraying a religious character without making her seem trite or silly. Many science fiction writers seem to ignore religion completely and those that don’t paint it as silly or obnoxious. The portrayal of a New Mexican man is also a nice touch. I heard Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (who are from New Mexico) say that they chose his character because they needed somebody who would seem different to the rest of the world when they read about him. This struck me as funny at first because I didn’t think he was different at all (I also am from New Mexico). Since then I have heard other people talk about how unusual New Mexico is to the rest of the world — our culture and ethos are not like anywhere else apparently — that I have come to recognize that perhaps they made the right choice.

Abaddon’s Gate is six hundred pages of non-stop action and high stakes thriller. Corey finds time to sprinkle moments of true character growth and to populate the narrative with characters from all walks of life, the rich and the poor, Belters, Earthers and Martians. It’s all done with attention to detail that leaves the future of mankind solid and well-defined. I have no trouble believing that this is our future when I am reading these books.

Abaddon’s Gate is probably the best of the series so far. It stakes people against something vastly more powerful and shows how they deal with their feeling of inadequacy in a larger universe — the answer is, for some of them, badly.

My one complaint is in the portrayal of Mormon culture in this book. The Outer Planets Alliance has appropriated a generation ship built by Mormon colonists attempting to settle another solar system. The OPA retrofits it to look like a warship, hoping it’s vast size will intimidate others into leaving it alone. All of this is fine. The problem comes from the descriptions of the inside of the ship. The command room has filigreed statues of angels guarding the entrance — wings spread over the doorway — and pastoral paintings adorning the walls.

The problem I have is that talking to an actual Mormon or just walking inside a Mormon church for ten minutes would have corrected these errors. Mormons do not believe angels have wings, angels are people who have died and are resurrected. People don’t have wings, angels don’t have wings. The descriptions of pastoral scenes and large statues of Christ all over the ship felt wrong to me too, but I can see where the mistake might be made. If I wasn’t a Mormon I might not have noticed these things — for all I know the Methodist pastor is just as poorly conceived — but they did bother me. For a series that has struggled to get so many other things right I felt a little bit betrayed that James S. A. Corey wouldn’t do just a few minutes of research.

I mean they could have called me…

It’s a mistake I can overlook because, once again, despite the mistakes, Mormon’s are portrayed in a positive light. I know this is a bias. Corey shows people and knows that some of them are religious and some aren’t. There are different cultures, different economic backgrounds, different religions and different ways of looking at every problem.

Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck play well off of each other. Abraham has the character and the emotional scenes down to an art form. There is nobody better to make me feel emotion for a character (something that’s pretty hard to do — I don’t empathize easily). Ty Franck is good at knowing when the setting needs more detail and the story needs more explosions (not always literally). His pacing is what keeps these books tearing along at a significant fraction of the speed of light.

Abaddon’s Gate is a powerhouse of action (again not always the violent kind) that will leave you feeling raw and emotional by the end. I would recommend starting with the first book, Leviathan Wakes, but once you do you’ll be committed to something truly astonishing.

Books I read, Pictures I take.

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