Saturday, December 20, 2014

Review: Two Serpents Rise by Max Gladstone

Two Serpents Rise by Max Gladstone
Published: Tor, 2013
Series: Book 2 of the Craft Sequence

The Book:

Shadow demons plague the city reservoir, and Red King Consolidated has sent in Caleb Altemoc—casual gambler and professional risk manager—to cleanse the water for the sixteen million people of Dresediel Lex. At the scene of the crime, Caleb finds an alluring and clever cliff runner, Crazy Mal, who easily outpaces him.

But Caleb has more than the demon infestation, Mal, or job security to worry about when he discovers that his father—the last priest of the old gods and leader of the True Quechal terrorists—has broken into his home and is wanted in connection to the attacks on the water supply.

From the beginning, Caleb and Mal are bound by lust, Craft, and chance, as both play a dangerous game where gods and people are pawns. They sleep on water, they dance in fire... and all the while the Twin Serpents slumbering beneath the earth are stirring, and they are hungry.”

This is the second book I’ve read by Max Gladstone, and I really loved his first, Three Parts Dead. I’m planning to pick up Full Fathom Five, his latest in the same series, sometime in 2015.

My Thoughts:

Two Serpents Rise is set in the same world as Three Parts Dead, but since it is otherwise unrelated, I don’t think it’s necessary to read the series in order.  Gladstone’s Craft Sequence takes place in a very creative fantasy world where magic is wielded by both humans and deities, and the flows of power are determined by faith and economics.  I was delighted by the originality in Three Parts Dead, and it has been a lot of fun to see yet another corner of the world in Two Serpents Rise.  Some parts of the story in the first novel, especially those relating to graduate school, hit a little closer to home for me than the business and romance of Two Serpents Rise.  It was still really exciting, though, and I was easily drawn into the story.

The main characters this time around are Caleb and Mal, though there’s also a handful of memorable minor characters–such as the Red King, Caleb’s best friend Teo, and Caleb’s father—that play important roles in the story.  Caleb’s position is a difficult one, as he has to handle his troubled relationship with his father and his loyalty to the company that has replaced his father’s religion. Mal is mostly seen through Caleb’s eyes, but I thought the narration did a good job of showing that his perception of her was not altogether accurate.  I enjoyed the complexity of the characters, but I felt that they were not quite as intelligent as the protagonists and antagonists of the first novel of the series.  Part of that might have been due to the romantic subplot of the story, since Caleb tended to go a little stupid when he was struck by his attraction to Mal. I’m not a huge fan of romance in general or this particular character trait, but I thought it was handled pretty well within the larger story.

The religion this time is clearly inspired by Mayan/Aztec culture, though the details of the specific ‘Quechal’ religion and culture are fictional.  There is a lot of focus on the morality of human sacrifice, which is central to the Quechal religion.  I think this particular inspiration and its link to human sacrifice are pretty commonly incorporated into fictional stories, so it did not feel quite as fresh as the Alt Coulomb of Three Parts Dead.  However, I appreciated that it took a closer look at the idea of sacrifice as an important aspect of supporting a society.  The idea of killing a random person to appease a deity is hard to defend, but the infrastructure of their society depends on the micro-sacrifices each citizen makes, as well as the suffering inflicted on the surrounding land to extract the resources needed to keep the city running.  In general, I appreciated that the story does not take a simple approach to this and other topics, and that it instead portrays a more complicated world, where the way forward is not always clear. 

My Rating: 3.5/5

I preferred Three Parts Dead to Two Serpents Rise, but the second novel is still an interesting addition to a very promising series. I enjoy the way Gladstone combines ideas of business and economics with human magic and deities, and he has managed to use that to tell yet another exciting story. The fictional religion involved in this novel is based on Aztec and Mayan culture, which is something that seems to come up pretty often in fantasy stories.  This novel also had more of a romantic focus, and the characters seemed a little less intelligent than those from the previous novel. However, I appreciated that the moral situation was a bit more complicated this time, and that it was not easy to see how the problems within the story could or should be resolved. It was fun to see another corner of this unique world, and I’m looking forward to reading Full Fathom Five!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Current Challenges: Sci-Fi Experience & Vintage Sci-Fi Not-A-Challenge

I meant to do an introductory post on this earlier, but a series of work crises and an illness ended up derailing the beginning of my month.  It's time to celebrate science fiction with Stainless Steel Droppings and Little Red Reviewer!

The Sci-Fi Experience, hosted by Carl V. at Stainless Steel Droppings, takes place during the months of December and January, and focuses on sharing experiences of science fiction.  More information on the Experience can be found here, and the site collecting reviews from participants is here.

There are still a few fantasy books I need to finish off this month for my 2014 challenges, but I'm already starting in on some good science fiction.  My first Sci-Fi Experience novel will be Neal Stephenson's Anathem, followed by Christopher Priest's The Separation, which I have enjoyed on audiobook.  After that, I suspect it will be time to dive into the overlapping non-challenge...

The Vintage Sci-Fi Not-A-Challenge, hosted by Andrea of Little Red Reviewer, takes place during the month of January, and more information can be found here.  For the purposes of the challenge, 'vintage' is defined as science fiction that was published in or before the year 1979.  There are a lot of books I'd like to read for this challenge, but we'll see how far I can get in a month! I'm planning to start with C.J. Cherryh's The Faded Sun: Kesrith, possibly leading into the rest of the trilogy.  Other books I'm hoping to read are Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama (I really should have read it years ago!), Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, and Robert Heinlein's Farmer in the Sky.  If by some miracle I finish all of those, I suppose I could finally start reading the notorious Hugo winner The Forever Machine!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Review: The Dragon and the George by Gordon R. Dickson

The Dragon and the George by Gordon R. Dickson
Published: Ballantine Books, 1975
Series: Book 1 of the Dragon Knight
Awards Won: British Fantasy Society
Awards Nominated: World Fantasy Award

The Book:

Jim Eckert was a dragon. He hadn't planned it that way, but that's what happened when he set out to rescue his betrothed. Following her through an erratic astral-projection machine, Jim suddenly found himself in a cockeyed world - locked in the body of a talking dragon named Gorbash.

That wouldn't have been so bad if his beloved Angie were also a dragon. But in this magical land, that was not the case. Angie had somehow remained a very female human - or a george, as the dragons called any human. And Jim, no matter what anyone called him, was a dragon.

To make matters worse, Angie had been taken prisoner by an evil dragon and was held captive in the impenetrable Loathly Tower. So in this land where georges were edible and beasts were magical - where spells worked and logic didn't - Jim Eckert had a problem.
And he needed help, by george!

This is the first book I’ve read by Gordon R. Dickson, and I chose it for the 12 Awards 12 Months reading challenge.  I bought a really old copy of the book at a used bookstore, so this is one of my relatively rare physical books.  The Dragon and the George kicks off a very long-running series of Dragon Knight novels.

The Book:

I had the feeling that The Dragon and the George might have been intended to be a parody of a standard good-vs-evil fantasy, but it also seems to simply be that sort of a novel. There are a lot of jokes about various clichés along the way, but it doesn’t really go very far beyond them.  For instance, there’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek type stuff with a sorcerer who talks about a magical IRS, but he still fulfills the standard role of the wizard who guides the hero’s quest and provides support at the darkest times.  In another example, Jim becoming a dragon kind of subverts the ‘knight’ hero, but it doesn’t actually change his fellowship-gathering or damsel-rescuing in any major way. The characters were mostly stock, though often amusing, and everything progressed as you would expect in this kind of pseudo-medieval quest fantasy.

Because it does seem to be intended as light and comedic, there are a lot of things that just seem to be hand-waved away.  For instance, the whole story takes place because Jim’s fiancée is accidentally transported to a magical medieval land during a University astral projection experiment.  I guess astral projection was a popular topic in the 70s, but it comes across as pretty silly today.  I also found it kind of weird that everyone seemed to accept that the fantasy land—with its dragons, magic, etc.—actually was medieval Europe. Given how aggressive a few of the characters were about mentioning their nationalities, I wondered if this was to allow for some kind of tongue-in-cheek social commentary.  If so, I think it is probably too specific to the time and place of publication to be particularly meaningful to me. In these ways, as well as in its simple story structure, The Dragon and the George felt really dated.  However, I still think it would be an entertaining story for a reader in the mood for this kind of light fantasy.

My Rating: 2.5/5

The Dragon and the George felt to me like it wanted to be a parody of a generic fantasy novel while still being a generic fantasy novel. It was pretty cute and funny, but it never strayed very far from the expected. I think it may have been more unconventional when it was first published, but now it feels rather predictable and dated. It’s still an entertaining, undemanding, comedic novel, though, and I think it would be a pretty fun beach read for fans of light medieval-Europe style fantasy stories.