Implied Spaces by Walter Jon Williams

Implied Spaces by Walter Jon WilliamsIn science fiction there is an expected anomaly that is referred to by a phrase coined by Vernor Vinge. It is called the Technological Singularity, or Singularity for short. The idea is that at some point in the future our technology is going to advance to the point where we — as we are now — will not be able to understand it.

There have been many singularities throughout history. If we were to somehow show people of two hundred years past the internet and streaming videos and Skype and smart phones it would appear as magic to them. Thus the Singularity is just an extrapolation of the Arthur C. Clarke dictum about any sufficiently advanced technology.

Implied Spaces is about a post-singularity universe in which many universes, available via wormholes, have been created. These universes can be created with custom physics and following different laws and rules than our own universe. The worlds, born out of the minds of video game players, have evolved into a variety of places where people can choose to live. Death is no longer truly possible because of technological resurrections and Aristide travels around the universes with his wormhole edged sword and his AI avatar cat studying the implied spaces.

The implied spaces are the ones that exist, not by design but by implication. When people create universes they create certain things they are looking for. The implied spaces are the areas or things in the universe that exist, not because they were part of the design, but because the design implies they exist.

With that as a premise it seems hard to imagine how this book could not be excellent. The ideas involved are fascinating and have a certain symmetry to them that feels very well planned.

However, this is another book that I just didn’t love. Part of it is the post singularity setting. Much like the post singularity setting of Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief I found my inability to understand what was going on too much of a hurdle to cross. The advanced technology of the post-singularity universe feels like an excuse for the author to not bother explaining. Descriptions lack detail, characters lack substance, and the universe at large lacks any sense of reality. The whole feels like the outline of a poorly conceived video game that is badly in need of a concept artist to give some flesh and color to some of the concepts.

Walter Jon Williams’ writing is a bit spartan and feels undeveloped, almost choppy in places. This surprised me because previous Williams books have been long-winded enough that they begged to be shortened. Alas even when writing a shorter work with shorter sentences and smaller paragraphs he still comes across as telling too much.

I had a really hard time getting into this book, which might be setting, or it might just be me, unable to grasp the confusion that is a post-singularity universe. Your mileage may vary.

Assassin’s Quest by Robin Hobb

Assassin's Quest by Robin HobbI will start by saying that if you are looking for a book to lift your spirits and give you hope for happy times and lightness then you probably don’t want to read this book. However, if you don’t mind seeing a master storyteller show you how a character’s life can go horribly, horribly wrong then this is the book for you.

Robin Hobb tells the story of young Fitz with all the emotion that the character deserves. He is young and his passions are high and he vows, in his naïveté to avenge himself on King Regal. Fitz sees a man who has murdered and destroyed lives out of a simple child-like fear or naked ambition. Regal killed his own father to claim the throne but more personally he tortured and killed Fitz, who only survived because of the Wit magic that his mother’s lineage gave him.

The problem is that Wit magic is outlawed and an abomination and Regal hunts down all who possess it. Fitz’s death was also rather public so any who recognize him know him for the abomination that he is.

Unable to see his friends, his family or his loved ones again Fitz nourishes his friendship with Nighteyes, his wolf companion.

Fitz is an interesting character. He’s trained as an assassin but he isn’t very good at it. He fails at it many times, especially at the critical moment when he tries to avenge his own death. He is the son of a charismatic leader and soldier yet when he fights he turns into a berserker, wild and thoughtless. He is riddled with flaws both emotional and physical. His body has been poisoned and beaten enough times that he is frequently paralyzed by fear of being beaten again.

Verity is more heroic, Kettricken is more capable, Chade and Burrich are both more skilled. Even Nighteyes possesses a contentment with his lot that escapes the young bastard son of a deceased prince.

But Hobb chose Fitzchivalry as the hero of her books because he is the catalyst. His is the touch that sparks the flames in others. When Fitz is around then things start to happen. It was because of Fitz that Verity journeyed across the mountains to the Rainwilds, searching aid from the Elderlings. It is also because of Fitz that Kettricken fled Buckkeep to save her unborn child, and the Fool fled with her. Now it is Fitz, looking for Verity, that triggers a search from Queen Kettricken and the Fool that will take them across the mountains to discover not only what Verity sought but the bones of an ancient civilization buried deep in the heart of the mountains.

I loved this book like I loved the two before it in the trilogy. Amidst all the brutal punishment that Hobb deals out to Fitz across the course of this series there is a bit of bittersweetness to this ending. His choices could not have ended any other way.

This book also pushes a lot of my other buttons. I have always been a bit of a pushover for exploring abandoned or lost civilizations. Finding ghost towns is still exciting. Visiting archeological sites fascinates me. To have large portions of this book filled with Fitz and his party exploring abandoned roads and buildings, discovering the mysteries of a long lost people that no longer exist, was just the right thing to push the story over the top.

It is that hint of a deeper, richer history and a people that have vanished that intrigues me so deeply. It is that richness that drew me into Tolkien’s work when I first read it. It is that same depth that I look for and love in most fantasy books. It is the feeling that people lived here long ago and all we have is relics of their past that brings to me that sense of wonder that fantasy literature is so well known for.

I would have read it anyway. I would probably have loved it no matter what. Robin Hobb has convinced me at this point that she knows characters and what to do with them well enough that I trust her.

Assassin’s Quest is brutal. Fitz gets even more battered and beaten, both mentally and physically. But it is also beautiful. It is a story about how much Fitz is willing to sacrifice for his King, his people, for what he sees as right. It is also a story about devotion, about prophecy and about loss and what that means.

Fitz is surrounded by a cast of characters who bring their own powerful resonances to the story. Kettle, the exiled old woman who refuses to leave his side on his search for his King. Ketricken, the Queen of both the Mountain Kingdom and of the Six Duchies, in hiding from Regal until Verity returns. Starling, the minstrel that sees Fitz as a catalyst that will inspire in her an epic that will ensure her future. And last, but not least is the Fool, a pale, fey prophet who is Fitz’s best friend and probably the most fascinating and mysterious character in the series.

This is a satisfying, if bitter, ending to the Farseer trilogy. I couldn’t ask for anything else.

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry PratchettIn recent years Neil Gaiman has become something of a celebrity. As close as any author ever comes to being a rock star. He has legions of fans across many genres of fiction.

Terry Pratchett has also turned into a bit of an international household name. His satirical writing is some of the sharpest and poignant out there, also perhaps the most entertaining. He is fantastic at combining wicked satire with real drama to create hilarious and exciting adventures.

Many years ago, nobody knew who either of them were. Neil Gaiman was a news reporter and Terry Pratchett was a still unheard of comedic voice in fantasy — a notoriously hard sub-genre to write in.

They met and the result was Good Omens.

I wish I could summarize precisely why I didn’t enjoy this book. Everything I can point to is done very well. There is a great deal of religious satire that is treated for laughs but, somehow, kind of respectfully at the same time. It’s hard to get offended when the joke is so true and yet it feels well intended.

The story is about an angel, Aziraphale, and a demon, Crowley, have been living on the earth for untold millennia doing good or evil respectively. In that time they’ve become friends and will occasionally help each other out — as long as it’s on the down low.

When the Apocalypse strikes and nobody knows where it is because of a confusion with a misplaced infant the two team up to thwart it, having decided that they rather like living in the world and don’t want it end.

The story has some amusing anecdotes and some hilarious circumstances and asides. The whole is sharp witted, well written and amusing. In short it is what one would expect coming from Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.

I am baffled, then, by my reaction to it. Which was one of total apathy. I just couldn’t muster much interest in any of the characters. The situations, while funny, felt like they lacked any strength. It’s an amusing string of situations that build off one another brilliantly but only tenuously linked together with characters that feel underdeveloped and maybe a little like caricatures.

I can see the magic at work here. The authors have chosen a touchy subject matter to make fun of and they do it so well that it feels respectful even while they are poking holes in religious logic. The delicate hand that is required to do that is easily overlooked. When it’s done well, it looks easy. When it’s done bad it makes people mad or comes across as rude.

Pratchett and Gaiman have written a comedy classic that I just had a hard time caring about at all. If you are a fan of either of these authors you are likely to enjoy this book, but by the time the end finally rolled around I felt like I had read a book twice the length and it was a bit exhausting.

The Forgotten Door by Alexander Key

The Forgotten Door by Alexander KeyDoes anybody remember the old reading books they used to pass out in elementary school? It was a big, fat, textbook sized chunk of awesomeness that the teachers handed out every year, along with math and language books. The reading books were stuffed full of poems — mostly boring — and stories and snippets of books that were intended to broaden our horizons.

Mostly they probably did. I don’t remember much of them. I was that nerdy kid who took the book home and read it cover to cover in the first few weeks of school and then thought it was boring the rest of the year when the teacher assigned us to read things from it.

Except for two things. I remember clearly two distinct pieces of literature that I found in reading books. Neither of them were being used, probably because they had something good in them. Our school was giving away old reading books to anybody who wanted them. I’m pretty sure I was the only one who took some home.

These were old books. Ones that hadn’t been used in years. I took two of the same book home to share with my brothers. We found in those books the poem by A. A. Milne about the Knight Whose Armor Didn’t Squeak and I love that poem still.

The fascinating things was that, printed in the pages or one of those reading books (though not the other, even though they were identical in every other way), was the entire text of Alexander Key’s The Forgotten Door.

It was nearly a hundred pages long with illustrations and everything.

Alexander Key also created the source from which Disney made their movie Return to Witch Mountain — which, despite it’s name, is not a sequel. The movie is awesome and deals with many of the same themes that The Forgotten Door does.

I didn’t know any of that at the time. I didn’t know who Alexander Key was. I had not seen Return to Witch Mountain. I just read the first page of the story, expecting to skip it. After all, who wants to read a story that’s a hundred pages? (I read plenty of longer books, when I’m reading a story I like it short.)

I was completely entranced in the first paragraph.

I read breathless as Little Jon stumbled through the woods, his memory gone and his world far away.

The preaching about people being kind of monstrous is a little heavy handed now. The overt references to nasty people comes across as a little cynical and there is definitely a message in this book. However, all of that doesn’t matter because this book is one of the greatest.

It’s not a book of action. It’s not a book of confrontation. Little Jon wants to avoid those things and Alexander Key seems to be arguing that he is better off for it. This is a book that favors learning and growth over fighting and arguing.

Little Jon has fallen through a portal into our world. He lost his memory when he fell so he doesn’t know how to get home. Using his ability to read minds he befriends a family that will be kind to him and help him. In the process he runs afoul of racist and bigoted country folk that see his presence as an opportunity for nastiness.

The family that Little Jon adopts — Thomas and Mary Bean and their two children — are the only nice people in the book. As a child this made perfect sense. Of course all the people are mean. As an adult I realized that there are actually reasons for that. Little Jon picks up little bits about them that drop hints as to why they hate him, or hate Thomas Bean. It’s not much and it’s hardly a whole back story — which would have turned this into a Tom Clancy novel — but it’s enough to let the reader know that these aren’t just an angry mob of backwoods country folk that are intolerant of different people. Some of them are that. Some of them have traumatic or personal issues in their past that keep them from seeing how bad their decisions are.

Little Jon comes from a world where much of our technology isn’t needed. He knows nothing of automobiles and weapons but he is familiar with television and radio (this was written in the 1950’s so excuse the lack of computers and internet). The reason for that is his people’s ability to read minds. When Thomas and Mary Bean discover his ability they jump immediately to the conclusion that of course, if people could read minds they would stop having wars because there would be nothing to fight over.

I found that to be such a non-cynical view that it kind of shocked me momentarily. In most stories about reading minds it is terrible. It is better to not know the little things that people sensor from their own speech each day. I suppose Key is showing us the end result. If all of us could read minds then perhaps we would learn to only think the kind thoughts as well as say them. I imagine the beginning of that kind of world would be pretty awful for a while, though.

I find it completely engrossing to this day. I love it like I love few other books. If you haven’t read The Forgotten Door you need to. It really is that good.

The Narrows by Michael Connelly

The Narrows by Michael Connelly

At this point I feel like Michael Connelly never gets bad.

Harry Bosch is the kind of detective that is great to read about but would probably be terrible to work with. He’s confrontational, he’s obsessed, he’s reckless and he doesn’t toe the party line — pretty much ever. But he is all those things because he is also passionate. Each victim is like a personal letter to him pleading for justice. Harry can’t seem to let them go.

Even now, when he’s retired he has a job as a private investigator. The wife of an old friend from the FBI asks him to look into her husband’s recent death. She thinks he was killed. The police think he died of a heart attack.

Bosch investigates and finds the evidence he is looking for. His search crosses paths with FBI Special Agent Rachel Walling as she hunts down her old mentor turned serial killer.

The events of the book are fascinating and Harry heads down some wrong paths that lead him to the right place and vice versa. He is flawed. He jumps to conclusions and isn’t always right. Even evidence he thinks he has have other explanations.

The important thing is that he keeps moving. Harry often talks about momentum. If you let the case rest it loses momentum and then you never solve it. It’s a handy neurosis for a novel protagonist to have. It keeps the book moving along, never a moment for it to relax, to get lost.

The Poet, the serial killer than Walling and Bosch are hunting is every bit as intelligent and chilling as he was in the eponymous novel in which he debuted. This time he might even be better because this time Harry Bosch is the one in danger and probably in over his head.

However, being in over his head is what Bosch does best. He thinks best on his feet and when he knows he’s right, even if he doesn’t know why.

The Narrows is another one of the good ones. I am convinced at this point that all of Harry Connelly’s books are excellent. Definitely read this one.

Odd Girl Out by Timothy Zahn

Odd Girl Out by Timothy ZahnThis is the third book in Zahn’s Quadrail series and I liked it much better than the last two, though it still feels like a whole lot of lost potential.

Zahn posits a system of interstellar travel that is based off of trains. In fact it is almost exactly that. The Quadrail is a train that can travel across lightyears in just a few days. The hitch is that there is also some sentient coral that wants to take over the galaxy. The coral can implant itself in people’s minds if they touch it and it can take over their thoughts. It has already done so to millions of people across the galaxy.

If any of that sounds like too much of a stretch to you then don’t go any further because those are the least ridiculous things in these books.

Frank Compton and Bayta have been hired by the Spiders — the strange seven-legged robots that run the Quadrail — to stop it by being spies and detectives, because, obviously two versus millions sounds like fair enough odds.

So far that has lead to a couple interesting adventures but nothing that appears to be in the way of true success. I suspect that’s being saved for the last two books — at least I hope so.

This book starts, as almost all good thrillers do, with a strange visitor in Compton’s apartment. When he sends her away she turns up dead, shot with the gun that she stole form his bedroom. Compton gets launched into a chase across a backwater world that is filled with genetically altered aliens, mind-controlled assassins and layers and layers of deception and mystery.

I’ve been trying to decide why I liked this one better than the previous two. At first I thought it was because so much more of it took place on a single planet and avoided the Quadrail for once. Then I realized that that’s only partially true. Instead I think it’s because the stakes got real in this book. People get killed left and right and not all of them are irreversibly mind-controlled enemies. Previously Compton has been mostly loathe to kill people, unless he had to, and the Modhri (the sentient coral) tended to avoid it as well. Suddenly, in this book they both get desperate and the body count explodes.

Having people die does not make a story good but it can give a story more meaning. In this case it raises the stakes. There is never any doubt that Compton will live but he’s not the only character that could get killed or horribly mutilated.

That said, it still felt kind of bland. I’m not sure why this is. Usually Zahn tells an action-packed yarn of a story with compelling mysteries. This series has left me vaguely disappointed at every turn. With the first book it felt like a fluke, Zahn just had a miss. Then he decided to make the miss into a five book series… Each one is entertaining enough. I don’t put it down. I want to read the next one, just to see what happens and as a break between more involved fiction that requires more thought.

But it feels, wasted, somehow. Like there is a great series of ideas lurking here if only he could muster up enough courage to pull it off.

All things considered, this is a Timothy Zahn book, which means fun action, interesting mystery, smart characters and fantastic aliens. I just wish it had more… something.

Queen of Sorcery by David Eddings

Queen of Sorcery by David EddingsOnce again I have to say that this book has the most magnificent cover. The art is fantastic. The border just screams fantasy novel. The map in the background makes the whole thing feel epic — like a world-spanning story. Then there is the subtle image of an owl in flight and Polgara being scary and it leaves no question who the titular character is.

In Queen of Sorcery David Eddings decided to double his cast of female characters by adding one more. Now Polgara is no longer the only one. Ce’Nedra has a bit of a convoluted story for why she is with them but it mostly holds together, especially in the world it takes place in.

Once again we see that everybody in any given country can be defined by certain racial stereotypes and those stereotypes are not wrong. This time we get to pass through Arendia, where the people are excited about being medieval and self-absorbed and chivalrous (they have many good qualities but they are kind of dumb and overly pretentious). Next is Tol Nedra which is a money obsessed version of Rome, complete with Legionnaires and a succession war that has started before the Emperor has died. These people are defined by their love of money. Then we go to Nyissa where the people all wander around naked in the swamp and do lots of drugs and poison people.

Honestly I’m not sure why we’re supposed to think the Nyissans are any better than the Murgos. They have presented much more of a problem so far and are significantly creepier.

For that matter, why is racial prejudice okay in these books?

I enjoy the story. I like the books. I love the dialogue and the characterization — Eddings is truly a master at dialogue. Everything comes out natural, humorous and with layers of expression with only the words and no description needed to explain how it was said.

But everybody is racist.

Hettar kills Murgos because they are Murgos and never gets tried for murder. In fact they joke about killing Murgos as a pastime. Any time they find out a Murgo has been in the city they immediately jump to the conclusion he is up to no good. And they are never wrong about that.

In fact, now that I think about it. The entire group of ‘good guys’ is a mess of sociopaths. Barak is constantly offering to kill people for their convenience. Silk will barter a beggar out of his last penny before stabbing him in the eye and hiding the body. Hettar kills Murgos simply because they are from the same country as the people that killed his parents (it was brutal and he’s got a lot of emotional baggage from it, but it’s still murder). Even Polgara encourages Garion to burn a man to death by manipulating him and then expressing pride when he goes through with it.

At least Garion and Durnik show a little restraint.

That brings me to something else. I’m not sure who is the protagonist of this story. Garion is ostensibly the point of view character but there doesn’t seem to be much that he wants, other than to grow up and be independent in that way that most fifteen year old boys want. There is very little hindering him from that except himself and his own maturity. Perhaps Belgarath or Polgara. They want to reclaim the Orb of Aldur from Zedar who stole it from the throne of Riva.

Which might be the problem with this book. The point isn’t very clear. I know they are following Zedar south until he turns east into Cthol Murgos (which, why didn’t he do that to start with — oh, that’s right, we needed a tour of the western kingdoms). Other than that the characters have little motivation to be there. Barak just likes to kill things I guess. Silk likes to be devious. Hettar must think they offer him a better chance of meeting Murgos that he can kill. I know that there is a prophecy that says they will be together at some future point but I can’t decipher why they are together right now, other than that they are an entertaining bunch of characters and Eddings is brilliant at rolling them together so that friendships seem natural and the banter is truly delightful to read.

And that’s really all I have to recommend this book. I do think that some of the ridiculous is still meant as a satire. The single trait shared by everybody from a single country could be nothing else. I also think Eddings has imagined a world that, while simplistic in many ways is also very nuanced in others. There is a sense of history here that stretches back millennia and it feels right, somehow, like this is how things would happen in a world like this.

But the casual racism and the psychotic main characters aside, the dialogue is great. This book is worth reading just to watch how smoothly Eddings can layer meaning into a few spoken words. Most of the personality of these characters comes from the words they speak and few authors can do it as well as Eddings.

Books I read, Pictures I take.

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