That is all.
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
by Terry Pratchett
This is a book by Terry Pratchett and it is about a disc-shaped world, but it is NOT a Discworld book. That's an important note. Strata was first published two years before the first Discworld book, The Color of Magic, so you can think of it as sort of a precursor to the series.
Kin Arad wrote the book on terraforming--literally. Thanks to gene engineering and other stuff she's lived over two hundred years, most of it for The Company, which is in the business of terraforming planets to make them habitable for humans. The idea is for humanity to spread out as much as possible to ensure the continuation of the species. The technology for the terraforming comes from artifacts left behind by a dead species known as the Spindle Kings. Another interesting side note is that in this universe Rome was founded by Remus and called Reme and Vikings colonized North America (called Valhalla), mating with Native Americans (or Native Valhallans I suppose) and eventually taking over Europe.
Then one day Kin is paid a visit by a supposedly lost space pilot called Jago Jalo, who shows her a cloak of invisibility and tells her there's more goodies to be found on a mysterious planet. She decides to travel with him to this planet, along with a Kung (a four-armed paranoid alien who sees violence as the first and best solution) named Marco and a Shandi (a big bear-like alien with walrus tusks who eat a very specialized diet--mainly each other) called Silver. Jago soon dies of a heart attack, but the other three go on to find a planet that is completely flat and contained in a sort of bubble with its own stars and planets. (Unlike the Discworld, this flat disc-shaped world is not carried by four elephants on the back of a giant turtle.)
Unfortunately, their ship crashes on this planet, where they soon bump into Vikings who are searching for North America, which doesn't exist here. Not long after that they come under attack from dragons. Demons, genies, flying carpets, and even the Grim Reaper also call this strange place home. But who built it and why? That is the question.
This was an OK book, but not really great. I read somewhere that it's a parody of "Ringworld" by Larry Niven, which I've never read; if I had I might have understood this better. That Kin's "real" Earth is an alternate history just makes things more confusing than they already are. Some of the action scenes were a little confusing as well. Having read all the Discworld books, I know Pratchett is capable of better, but then this was one of his earliest works, so it's not right to punish him just for setting a higher standard for himself later on.
Really there are some books, including a few of the Discworld books, that should be shorter, but this is a case where a little more length might have been helpful. I felt like I didn't really get to see enough of this flat world with all its magical inhabitants. As well Kin and the other characters felt a little flat--pun intended--so a little exposition might have been nice. (But character development has never been Pratchett's strong suit, even in the Discworld books.)
Another thing to note here is that while the Discworld books are fantasy, this is aimed more at science-fiction readers with space travel and aliens and whatnot. Of course there is some fantasy as well, just not as much of it.
Overall I'd say there's no reason to read this unless you're a big Discworld fan, or like me you got it in a box of other books and had a couple hours to kill.
That is all.
Sunday, April 19, 2009
Making Money (Discworld Series, Volume 36)
By Terry Pratchett
At last we come to the end, at least until October when the next volume in the Discworld series comes out. For now though, I’ve read all of the adult Discworld novels in the series, concluding with “Making Money” the second installment to feature conman Moist von Lipwig.
Last time we saw Moist in “Going Postal” he was charged with resurrecting the post office in the metropolis of Ankh-Morpork and in the process found himself going straight. A little time has gone by since then, with Moist still engaged to golem rights advocate Adora Belle Dearhardt and managing the post office efficiently. A little too efficiently really, as Moist has the itch for his old criminal ways that he scratches by breaking into his office at night and picking every possible lock in the place. Fortunately the city’s uncontested tyrant Lord Vetinari has a solution: he wants Moist to take over the Royal Bank and shake up the system to meet modern times.
Now here is where we have to branch out into the hypothetical story on the book jacket and what actually happens.
On the book jacket it sounds like Moist is going to take over the bank and start printing paper money. Until then the city has relied on the gold standard, using a variety of coins for its money. By introducing paper money and taking Ankh-Morpork off the gold standard, he makes new enemies and runs into dangerous situations.
What actually happens is that probably a quarter of the book is spent just getting Moist into the bank and introducing all the key players like Mr. Bent, the manager who can add pages of numbers with only a glance and worships gold like a god, and the Lavish family who run the bank, especially Cosmo, who wants to make himself into Lord Vetinari. At the same time, Adora and her Golem Trust have found some ancient golems, who make things very interesting. The rest of the story involves an audit and recriminations about missing gold—and the golems. As for the paper money, it doesn’t come along until the very last chapter of the book.
So like one of Moist’s customers for cheap diamond rings, I feel a bit cheated here. This wasn’t exactly the book I thought I was going to read. Admittedly it still is a fun read, but I kept thinking, “When are we going to get to the money? WHEN?” The actual running of the bank, the story promised on the jacket, seems like it’s going to happen off the pages. No matter how good the rest of the book is, it’s hard not to feel disappointed by that. Though I suppose a conman like Moist can’t be any more outrageous than the Lavish family who were running the bank.
What saves this book for me, and made me really, REALLY want to give it four stars against all reason, is that I like the Moist character. Having now read the entire series, he reminds me mostly of Rincewind the cowardly wizard. Like Rincewind, Moist is that breed of noble coward who doesn’t want to help anyone but seems to end up doing so anyway. Whereas Rincewind achieved this by running away from danger, Moist does it by using his very persuasive mouth. That’s what makes them both fun antiheroes, unlike those brave, strapping heroes in most fantasy novels. And for personal reasons the idea of accountants traveling around like gypsies has me laughing so hard I needed an Igor to stitch me back together. So overall it’s not a bad addition to the series (and provided Pratchett’s health holds up long enough he’s already sown the seeds for a third Moist adventure) but there have been better among these 36 volumes.
And that does it. Overall I have greatly enjoyed this series because not only are the books a lot of fun, but there’s a lot of wisdom to be garnered from them as well. Even “Making Money” seems ripped from today’s headlines with all the trouble in the real banking system. To do smart and funny takes a special talent and Pratchett is indeed very talented.
That is all.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Thud! (Discworld series, Volume 34)
by Terry Pratchett
I feel the book's title needs an explanation. Thud is a game sort of like chess combined with Risk or Stratego that's played by trolls and dwarfs on the Discworld. The object of the game is to reenact the legendary battle of Koom Valley, in which dwarfs and trolls fought each other over a thouand years earlier. There's been bad blood (or whatever trolls have) between the two races ever since.
And thud is also the sound made when a troll club whacks a dwarf over the head. That dwarf is a rabble-rouser in the metropolis of Ankh-Morpork who has been rallying dwarfs to fight trolls on the eve of Koom Valley Day. The murder takes place deep underground in a dwarf mine, which complicates things for Sam Vimes and the City Watch, as the dwarfs are not keen on outsiders wandering around their mine.
The murder is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, though. Even as the whole city seems ready to explode, a strange dwarf sign begins cropping up all over the place. As well, a priceless painting of the battle of Koom Valley has disappeared from the city museum. Somehow Vimes has to put all these pieces together to find out who murdered the dwarf--and why. Oh, and he has to do it all by six o'clock when he must read Where's My Cow? to his infant son--with all the appropriate noises.
This installment of the series I take it was supposed to be like The Da Vinci Code (or a lesser extent the National Treasure movies) in that there's a murder that leads to the unraveling of an important historical mystery. While I think overall Pratchett is a much better writer, Brown's story probably moved along a little better; Thud seems to plod along until an ending that generally makes it worthwhile. It probably needed a couple of good chase scenes thrown in there to get things moving.
On problem I had in particular was I really became bored with the Angua werewolf character. This is the fifth book that features her in a significant role, but all she ever seems to do is whine about being a werewolf--that and smell stuff and threaten to rip people's throats out. By now it's like, "I GET IT! Being a werewolf sucks! Let's move past it, shall we?" But that's the problem is that none of the secondary characters are really allowed to grow much. The relationship between Angua and Captain Carrot hasn't really moved forward since the beginning. You'd think after what's probably ten years or more they'd be getting serious, or something.
Vimes is the only character who seems to be given any development. Since appearing in "Guards! Guards!" (volume 8) he's gone from a lonely drunk to a civic leader with a wife and son. That kind of growth is what allows you to like the character more, not to mention it keeps him from stagnating like the others. It's too bad some of the others (like Angua or Carrot) aren't really given this same opportunity to develop.
Anyway, it was still an entertaining book, with a good message about racial tolerance and all that. And as I said earlier, it picks up in the end to make up for some of its deficiencies in the thrill department. It really could use a better title, though if you look at all 36 series titles, none of them really seem especially clever. I suppose it's what's on the inside that counts--isn't that what they always say?That is all.
Friday, April 10, 2009
Monstrous Regiment (Discworld Volume 31)
by Terry Pratchett
In the remote country of Borogravia, war is the national pasttime. The problem is that lately Borogravia has been as successful at war as the Detroit Lions are at football. Like desperate countries everywhere, though, they claim they're winning, despite the evidence to the contrary.
Because of all this war, villages are pretty much down to the elderly, children, and women. One of these women named Polly Perks decides to cut off her hair and join the army so she can find her brother Paul, who disappeared years earlier in the war with neighboring Zlobenia. She soon joins a regiment (really more of a squad) with other young people including a pyromaniac, a potential psychopathic killer, and schizophrenic, as well as a troll, a vampire, and an Igor--the latter being one of those hunchbacked assistants to mad scientists everywhere.
Though of course Borogravia is winning the war (wink, wink) there's no time to train the new recruits in warfare. But before they can get to the front, they come under attack from Zlobenian forces. Polly uses all her cunning to defeat the enemy, but from then on this monstrous regiment is on the run. Their only hope is to retake their country's stronghold and free the prisoners inside, including Polly's brother. To do so, though requires the regiment to put themselves in great danger from the enemy--and their own superior officers.
In "Jingo" Pratchett took on war from the perspective of the invader. Now in "Monstrous Regiment" it focuses mostly on the defender. The key point is that Polly and the other Borogrovians are not bad or evil. They're just doing their job and defending their country--and each other. It's the ones in charge, like the insane god Nuggan or the never-seen Duchess, who are the bad ones. That's good to remember because in any war there's a tendency to demonize the other side so that they seem like demons instead of real people. Otherwise it would be hard for a country to want to go to war and kill other humans not so different from them.
Though I'm sure this was unintentional, the conflict between Lieutenant Blouse and Sergeant Jackrum reminded me of Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead." In both the inexperienced young officer thinks he's in charge while the sergeant thinks he should be the REAL boss because of his experience and the officer should just be a figurehead. Things go much better for the lieutenant in this book though.
While Borogravia and Zlobenia sound more like the Balkans, there are references to the second Iraq war with the term "shock and awe" and the concept of embedded reporters. That allows readers to easily relate to the story, despite the presence of fantasy elements. William de Worde and Otto the vampire photographer of "The Truth" (Volume 25) make a cameo as the aforementioned embedded reporters while Sam Vimes and members of the City Watch also appear in the story.
The one knock I have on this book is one that I've had on a couple other of the Discworld ones. Sure there's a vampire, troll, and Igor in the regiment but they don't really contribute much to overall story. Actually the vampire and troll sit out most of the conclusion. Other than the vampire's jitteriness at needing coffee (to keep him from draining people's blood) that allows for a couple of Vietnam allusions predating "Tropic Thunder", he doesn't do much and the troll does less. At least the Igor serves as the medic. They could easily have not been in the book and it wouldn't have affected the story much. The example I used before was it's like having a few pieces left over after putting together a jigsaw. The pyro, schizo, and even the psycho all have their uses in the story, but the most monstrous characters seem just there to make the jacket sound more interesting. A pity.
Still, this is a good book with humor that doesn't dumb-down it's very non-humorous subject matter.
Join me now in a verse of "War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothin'!"That is all.
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
Night Watch (Discworld Series, Vol. 29)
by Terry Pratchett
NOTE: My previous reviews of the series have covered up to volume 27 "The Last Hero." Volume 28 "The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents" is one of the four young adult books in the series that I will not be reading at this time.
In the 28 other Discworld books a lot of sci-fi/fantasy staples have already been lampooned: heroic quests, magic swords, wizards, witches, vampires, werewolves, elves, and so forth. The one staple not yet really tackled has been time travel. "Night Watch" takes care of this glaring error in relatively entertaining style.
As his wife is involved in a long labor to give birth to their first child, Commader Sam Vimes of the City Watch is involved in cornering a cop-killing madman named Carcer. In hot pursuit of Carcer, Vimes climbs up onto the roof of the library for Unseen University (the school for wizards) during a thunderstorm. When a bolt of lightning strikes the library, Vimes and Carcer are transported back in time 30 years.
And of course it is a pivotal moment in the history of the metropolis of Ankh-Morpork. The brutal Lord Winder has been heavily taxing people and rounding up any who dissent. Revolt is fermenting, all it needs is a spark.
Vimes takes on the identity of his mentor in the City Watch, John Keel, after the real Keel is killed by Carcer, who joins a secret police force known as the Unmentionables. Vimes has enough time to teach his younger self a few lessons about policing before that spark hits and the entire city erupts in violence. Now Vimes has to somehow keep the peace, keep himself (both of himselves) alive, and bring Carcer to justice. A tall order to be sure.
This book is an interesting addition to the series because it provides a little more background on some of the Ankh-Morpork characters like Vimes, Lord Vetinari, Nobby Nobbs, and even Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler the crooked merchant. I was disappointed there was really nothing included about the wizards, especially the Librarian--who was turned into an orangutan in a magical accident; I kept waiting to see if there'd be an appearance by him in human form.
My biggest complaint though is the story drags a little. Part of that is the nature of time travel stories like this. We already know there's going to be a riot because technically it's already happened. And we know in that riot there's going to be a final showdown between Vimes and Carcer, just like you knew Marty McFly would have to have it out with Biff Tannen in "Back to the Future." It's inevitable, so let's just cut to the chase.
Still, like most of these books, there's a good message underneath the action. In particular is the concept that the reason they're called "revolutions" is that they typically go in a circular fashion. Or in other words the new regime is rarely better than the old one. The main point of reference in the book is the French Revolution, only in this case no one loses their heads--literally at least.
We're down to just three more of these books now.That is all.
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
By Ethan Cooper
Just about anyone who's ever gone out into the working world has held a job like Tom's Job: a job that is a real J-O-B, not a career. It's the kind of job that pays the bills (barely) but isn't a lot of fun. That's what allows a reader like myself to connect with this novel.
Tom's Job follows Tom Howell through five days of his life as he attends a big conference in New York. Tom works as an editor and writer of business newsletters for a small publisher in Minneapolis. He is also the ghost writer of a biography for a business titan, Jack Ostron, who has cameos in Mr. Cooper's previous "Smooth in Meetings" and "In Control." Every day Tom trudges to work to endure the interference of his annoying boss Bob before heading back to his bachelor apartment. The only bright spots in Tom's life are the bi-monthly visits of his seven-year-old daughter Katie and his work on a novel about corporate life called "Smooth in Meetings."
Tom's trip to New York becomes complicated by the presence of his boss's daughter Lisa, who is also Tom's boss, and a beautiful but reckless conference coordinator named Melanie. As if this isn't enough to juggle, Tom has to put up with Bob and Sandy, an obnoxious newsletter writer and would-be self-help guru. Plus there's the countdown to the conference Tom has to host. Even as everything seems to be going wrong, finding a way to muddle through is Tom's Job.
This was an engrossing book for me because I felt a real kinship with the character. As someone with a dead-end job, bachelor pad, and annoying boss--everything but the adorable daughter--I could really sympathsize with Tom Howell. At his core Tom is a dreamer and idealist who'd be happier chatting about literature or writing his own opus, but like most of us (especially in this economy) he has to make ends meet however he can. And so the struggle for Tom and all of us is to find some way to stay sane in this workaday world while part of us yearns to be free of it.
That is all.