Month: February 2023

Sweet Silver Blues

Sweet Silver Blues 2

At the end of February I finished Sweet Silver Blues by Glen Cook. It was first published in 1987 with cover art by Tim Hildebrandt. The novel is the first in the Garrett, P.I. series. I have read Cook before and enjoyed the read. This novel is everything one would expect in 1987, which was surprisingly comfortable and familiar to me as I read. I kept thinking to myself, “well, we will never see novels like this again” and “boy, this feels like the 80s.”  I am not saying this is good or bad, I am just sharing that this is very much of its time. 

True to his writing style in other novels, Cook is spare in the details. He keeps the whole story flying along by use of bantering conversation. He does not write out every step of the way for the reader – he does expect the reader to fill in the gaps and surmise what has happened in the interval.  I do not feel this is really done nowadays in current fantasy.  I feel like now everyone details every step, every moment, lest the reader get lost or separated from the characters as, say, they march from a pier to a tavern. On occasion, the spare writing and the action-stylings makes it difficult to follow what specifically is happening – but it does not really matter what the specifics are. 

The expected 80s fantasy tropes are present and fun. Taverns and bars and a variety of fantasy species. There is a super fun thread between two characters related to health/diet and food. Its totally amusing and runs the length of the book; a subtle way to get the reader to engage with the characters without forcing them upon us. 

I went to see my major right after I breakfasted, three eggs gently fried in the grease of a half pound of bacon slowly cooked to a crisp, a mountain of griddle cakes on the side, heavily buttered and buried in strawberry jam.  Morley was despondent. He began holding a wake for my health. – pg. 128, chapter 27

The main character, Garrett, is a private investigator of sorts, probably a pre-cursor to the Harry Dresdens, Ishmael Jones, and Alex Verus of the now-world.  Garrett is ex-military (he is no fan of the military or the never-ending war that he had to attend) and he now runs a shop in TunFaire.  He drinks a lot, does odd jobs, and knows a lot of strange characters. We do not get much of Garrett’s background whatsoever, which is fine. I have gotten very weary of the long stories of a tormented background that somehow are the reason for whatever the character is currently. Garrett is awoken one morning by the Tate family, a family of gnomes.  The Tates have run into a sort of legal issue with one of their members being recently deceased and having a fortune in precious metal.

Its true:  an inheritance case among gnomes does not sound all that interesting.  The interesting part comes from the travel-adventure and the other, criminal, parties that are interested in the fortune in question. 

There are a number of parties interested, too. Most of them with criminal, malicious intent. There is also a sidestory that creeps about with Morley and his business intentions. Most of these threads, to be honest, get tangled and lost. I am not sure that the plot makes sense to the degree that it should or was written capably enough to produce the plot. At the end of the day, though, the story is a fantasy adventure and it seems like it all works out in the end.

Interestingly, there are a number of species of creatures that we do not see much in fantasy any more. For example, I do not know the last time I read a book with a centaur in it. There is also a Loghyr, which is a very strange character that in this novel is playing the rôle exactly of Nero Wolfe.  Garrett might borrow a bit from Archie Goodwin whenever he meets the Loghyr for a consultation.  I probably added a star to my rating just because this element of the story amuses me.

The best thing about the story, maybe, is that the vampires in it are bad. Not just bad vampires, but bad creatures. There is nothing romantic, sparkly, or intriguing about them whatsoever. Thank you, 80s.

There are enough fun things to make this series something I would continue reading. Especially since, currently, I am reading adventure, action, pulpy things. Garrett is interesting enough to read onward and the world populated by unicorns, vampires, and gnomes is different enough from the typical farm-boy progressions with elves and dwarves. I also like how the entire book is sloshed in beer, food, and mayhem. Truthfully, the banter does display a very, let us say, male perspective, so the book is probably geared toward a male audience. This sort of writing does not go over too well in 2023, I think. But the 80s were a blast and people should ingest this novel as the junk food that it is.

3 stars

The Engines of God

The Engines of GodOver the weekend I finished The Engines of God by Jack McDevitt (1935).  The novel was first published in 1994 and is the first in the Academy series. There is a long gap between this novel and the next in the series, so I am not fully convinced this book was supposed to be a series. The second novel, Deepsix, was published in 2001 and the last few pages of The Engines of God really seem like they are finalizing and there is no further except in the imagination of readers. I read the ACE edition with cover art by Bob Eggleton.

The first few chapters were, for me, very slow-going. I had been concerned that this would be like one of those Alastair Reynolds, Greg Bear, Peter Hamilton novels. I was unsure that I currently had the stamina to read a slog. A few further chapters in, though, the book does settle into a nice mellow pacing. In fact, this novel is actually exactly what I think of when I hear the words “space opera.” There is nothing I have read that more fits that category than this novel.  I think the book has suffered criticism through the years because readers have approached it wanting it to be something akin to one of those authors I mentioned above, but it just is not. That is not to say that it is pulpy or goofy.

The basic plot of the novel involves alien structures that a team of space-archeologists/anthropologists is working on placing in a historical timeline and/or researching to perhaps locate such aliens (extinct or not). At times, some of the threads of this plot were difficult for me to follow – not because, I think, that it is hard science or that it is too big a concept – honestly, I think the writing just does not sharpen the resolution enough on what is going on. Perhaps, there is not really all that much there, too. So, the concept is made to seem bigger than it is and is kept somewhat just out of focus. At least, this is how it felt to me.

In my opinion, this is not a hard-science fiction novel. This is a space opera that tries to be realistic. I remember 1994 and it is 2023 now and The Engines of God mainly takes place in the years around 2202:  and I do not think McDevitt got far enough into the future with his story. That is to say, I think the dying earth concept is pretty legit (will we make it to 2202?) but I feel his cultural and sociological concepts are right back in the 1990s. Sure, some of the technology seems sufficiently advanced, I suppose. I feel those things, too, would be further along. When I am feeling rueful and cynical, I might think I am being too optimistic. I think the author just tried to write his story with a realism so that his reader would feel the characters could be taken seriously as the main focus is on the “big idea” of the alien monuments etc. and not really on the technology of the times. The failpoint is that the author made the novel realistic to 1994… not 2200. And of course, only in science fiction can readers make such epistemological complaints, I suppose.

I think the main complaint of readers who did not like this novel is they felt they could not “engage” with the characters, and that the plot and characters were not immersive. It seems to me like that is a sentiment about the readers. I, personally, had no problem whatsoever liking the characters – they are all likeable and have their plusses and minutes, just like real people. I enjoyed the characters quite a bit. I felt they were interesting folk, if a bit scattered. Also, their conversation/dialogue was on par with the expectations I have for a 1990s space opera. Some of the “immersion” factor that readers talk about escapes me. However, I think I can make some guesses about it. The Engines of God is a super chill read. It is a space opera like daytime soap operas on television with a couple of shuttles, anti-gravity discussions, and some galactic star references. Even the two or three “action scenes” in the novel are just easy reading. I feel bad, in some way; the characters are having life or death moments and I am utterly mellow. Hey, characters do die! Characters do experience stress and drama and all of the key ups and downs of novels, but its all written so relaxed that its not a big deal, somehow. Hence some readers feeling it is not immersive.  However, for me, this is part of space opera:  no matter what happens, the show goes on.

The nitpicking:  what is the author’s fixation with Chablis? I was appalled and it was probably my biggest emotional reaction to the book, when the main character has a steak with a glass of Chablis. I just chalked it up to a weird moment. But then! Later on several characters are on the surface of a planet doing their archeological work (or whatever they think they are doing) and after hours they break out a few bottles of Chablis. The future is bleak, my friends………

Another thing, well, because this is a space opera and the plot moves on, there is an oddness to how the characters experience trauma, both physical and psychological, and then can suddenly refocus back into their work. Its jarring and strange. But at the same time, well, as a reader I certainly do not want to be dragged through some lengthy convalescing and rehabilitation scenes!

The main problem with the novel is that everything has soft edges. The overarching problematic (the aliens and their monuments) has blurry edges. The science has soft edges. The roles of the characters and their areas of expertise are all over the place and sketchy and random. In fact, its difficult to know if these members of “The Academy” are anthropologists or archeologists or engineers (and that too has so many very important subdivisions!). Its just like everyone – including all the pilots – is a generic scientist. Blurry and soft and all the inexactitude and vagueness that is kept in soap operas so that those forms of media can perpetually self-replicate as needed in any direction.  However, this should not be a criticism – because if a reader is looking for a general science fiction space opera: here it is. A lot of readers who tend to write critical reviews think every reader is looking for what they are. There is always something to be remeasured with regard to expectations of novels.

In the second half of the novel, some characters are researching/exploring a planet and of course things go sideways because people do not stick to their orders, make ridiculously stupid errors, and fail to use any kind of common sense. Do not attack the characters please, because I see these errors every day from real humans. Anyway, the scenes in this segment are very action-thriller (but chill…) and actually rather amusing. Native life forms with maybe hive-mind attack the “away team” and I think any good horror/SF flick director could make a movie just out of the team on this planet and their evasion and escape. It is sad when characters do not make it, but its worth it (maybe?) when the threat bringers are so savage in their comic book styling.

Overall, a good 3.47 stars. I do not know what that means. I am giving it three stars. I will likely read more in the Academy series because if I need some chill space opera, I like knowing where to find it. Plus, I think readers are too harsh on the 1990s. Recommended for readers who want beach-read science fiction and for readers who can separate textbook from fiction.

3 stars

The Naked Sun

Naked Sun newerI finished The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov yesterday and I really appreciate a lot about the novel. It was first published in 1957 and is the second in the R. Daneel Olivaw “series.”  I read the Spectra/Bantam edition with cover art by Stephen Youll. I read the first novel, The Caves of Steel, and enjoyed that one. There is a third novel, The Robots of Dawn, but it was published in 1983 – so a long gap between this novel and that.  I do intend to read that one eventually.  Here is the thing with Asimov – for me, he is a guaranteed 4 star read. I know many people take issue with his novel writing (in particular his characterization) and also many readers enjoy debating his sociological/historical concepts.  All of this is perfectly fine with me – debate away because he would have loved that sort of thing. That is the whole point of some science fiction and Asimov “gets it.”

I love being able to pick up an Asimov novel and have my expectations met. The standards for his writing always are high and he delivers every time. No, not all of his novels are the most fun novels ever. Sure, they are not perfect novels. I never, however, finish one of his books and feel like I wasted time or my mind is worse off or that I should have selected something else to read. Well, that being said, I do not know what I can rightly add to the conversation about Asimov generally or about this novel specifically. Having been published in the late 50s and being one of the most significant and popular books/authors, I hardly have any new insights about the novel.

Boeing 777The worst part of the novel is the main character’s attitude. Lord have mercy, there are points when he is so sour, petulant, snarky, and impatient I want to clobber him. I mean, I can understand some of his discomfort and his confusion, but his constant poor attitude is really grating. I would exonerate the other characters if they had, at any point, walloped Elijah Baley a nice good one. I mean, I like Elijah, but I really wanted to punch him in this novel. Anyway, Elijah suffers enough without me beating him up because he is undergoing a massive bout of agoraphobia. Amusingly, I finished reading this novel outdoors on a sunny day in which the sky was so clear and blue, I did have a hint of some of what Baley was experiencing. I looked up and watched a Boeing 777 overhead and felt that the world was so utterly open and expansive……

Anyway, I think anyone who has read this novel prior to the Great Pandemic Of 2020 should re-read it. I promise there are some uncanny, interesting, and relevant thoughts and comments in this novel that could make a reader wonder if Asimov was from the future or some sort of hazy prophet. I am not being super serious here – I just want readers to know that there is a bit of a reader-perspective shift due to current events and world events. Its strange because there are not many novels that actually become less dated and oddly apropos after so many decades.

As far as the storyline, its a locked room mystery on a far-distant planet named Solaria. The characters spend a lot of time on video-chat. Again, in 2023 we tend to take this sort of technology for granted or without much fuss. Its interesting to see Asimov know about this sort of tech and to force his characters into it. If you do not find this facet interesting, I wonder if you really enjoy science fiction? I think the overarching theme of the novel is the contrast between the Solarian world and the Earth world – to include their cultures and technologies. A reader who is disinterested in such a very obvious storyline will probably think this book is dull or too heavy-handed.

Overall, this is fast-reading novel.  It is a worthy read and valuable to science fiction. There is plenty of conversation/imagination sparking ideas in here that intelligent readers might enjoy conversing about. The main character is certainly annoying in this book, I would “like to” do a tally of how many times he says Jehoshaphat! – because it seems like millions. He is annoying, but even with this, the novel remains relevant and fun. The magic of Asimov, I guess. Recommended for all readers including those who read it several decades ago.

4 stars

The Written

The WrittenContinuing to read fun and adventurous novels, I read The Written by Ben Galley.  It was first published in 2010 and is the author’s debut novel. I think he revised it in 2017, but I do not know how I came upon this idea. Anyway, the thing to note is that I suspect Galley was rather young in 2010. I know, I know it sounds like am disparaging toward youth, generally, but my point is only that I am impressed. The novel (and indeed the series, which is called the Emaneska series) is self-published/independently published so this book does not come from the titans of the book publishing world. Many readers and reviewers have all kinds of opinions and feelings on self-published works, so I just wanted to be upfront about that fact.

The first few sections/chapters have a few bobbles. They are a bit weaker in writing skill than the rest of the book. I am saying this in this fashion because readers who “dnf” or quit the novel too soon may feel they have had enough of a taste to warrant that decision  However, the novel does even out and really start to pound out a nice pacing and storyline. Now, one of the bobbles that I mentioned is one of those things that readers who love mysteries will pick up on first. I predicted it, which makes it worse, because I rarely predict anything in a novel.

The main character, Farden, is in his rooms in the tower/castle building. He gets up and locks the door because he does not want any intrusions. Then Farden is inebriated and he falls into a deep stupor/sleep. Right then, right there I said to myself:  just watch someone will still come in the room. So it happens. The maid comes in the room in the morning. No, it does not make any sense to say that she has keys, because she is a nosy maid and would definitely have commented if she had found the door locked. Just a mistake that I think an author does not mean to make, but just happens. Does it affect the story? Absolutely not, because we are not reading about Poirot here.

I really enjoyed the way the book begins. The first several pages do a really good job of setting up a story – the reader will have questions after a wild and shocking opening. The reader is just thrown into a scene in the world and its snowy and bloody and THERE ARE BOOKS.

The story continues for awhile, we meet characters, we go a few places with our main character.  I think these pages are the ones wherein we are supposed to “get the lay of the land” so to speak. We should be developing our interest in the main character, learning how things operate in the world, and enjoying a few action scenes – that sort of give us a little background, but it is not obvious if this background information is really all that relevant. Nothing here is poorly written, but to the expert readers of fantasy novels, I suspect it seems a little meandering, as if the story has not really gotten its footing.

By halfway, though, I think the novel is nicely developed and a lot of fun.  On the Great Internet, I read that this series is “Norse inspired” and also that the main character has an addiction. Well, I think if readers come to this book expecting those themes to really take the forefront and standout, they will be disappointed. I am actually really happy that the novel did not bludgeon away at these alleged themes. I was concerned that the addiction subplot would be awful and annoying and I was afraid of the “Norse inspiration” to be stereotypically pasted-on rubbish. Truthfully, the “addiction” is not as expected and it is handled perfectly and is not sledgehammered. As far as inspiration – this novel seemed no more or less Norse than any other novel I have read recently.

So for a young author’s debut, Galley showed a lot of skill in keeping elements of his story corrected weighted. I have read plenty of veteran authors who seem to struggle with this ability and end up presenting readers with lopsided and annoying novels.

Even if I was not entirely sure where the storyline was going, I had a lot of fun. Some readers complained that the main character is overpowered and/or he has anger issues. I really did not see these same things and while I am not joining some Farden fan club, I think he was a solid character who did not annoy me at all. Usually, characters get on my nerves. One of the complaints that one could put forward is how the author uses Farden to tell the reader about the landscape. I mean, there are several paragraphs wherein the story seems to pause just so Farden can “enjoy the view” and tell the reader what he sees. This works once or twice, but it sort of began to feel like he was sightseeing and it was a bit contrived. There is nothing wrong, per se, with these parts, and they do serve the purpose sufficiently. It just sometimes feels like Farden should go be a landscape painter.  This is subtle and I am being nitpicky. I could easily assume that this sort of viewpoint sharing is developed and outgrown in the author’s other works.

Chapter fourteen came out of nowhere and gave me the “oh nos!”  I am such a sucker. Any author can get me, I swear. Anyway, chapter fourteen is when it all turns upside down and inside out and I feel bad for those readers who quit too soon because they missed out on some great stuff. Chapter fourteen is when all the build up and meandering gets focused and for the rest of the novel, the pacing and intensity is upgraded. I will tell you, the sly and subtle way in which the author breaks the reveal to the reader is so very well done – I had to read those paragraphs twice just to enjoy it again. Smooth, Galley, smooth….

The last half of the book is a rip-roaring adventure with magic and dragons and soldiers and fire and I do not want to give anything away. Suffice to say, its everything the best fantasy novels must have and even the enemies are interesting and wild.  Its fun and exciting, which is why most of us readers read fiction, I think. I enjoyed my time with the main character, in this setting, and on these adventures. No, I do not have all the background (shoe size, favorite color, eyebrow length) of every character. I do not really know the ins and outs of the magic system or the details of all the training of all the soldiers, mages, and monsters in the world. I am quite all right with not knowing. The characters live there, I do not. The characters go through the training – I do not have to, thankfully. So, I can happily accept prima facie all the sorts of things mentioned or alluded to without having to feel grumpy at the author for leaving me out of some secret, and boring, background.

All of that being said, there was one aspect that really bugged me several times in the story.  Farden is a Written (special mage type).  He also has obvious weapon mastery and hand-to-hand combat skills. Due to the fact that he may be a wee bit overpowered and he seems to love to be at center-stage, his gear and weapons are often in bad shape. He sometimes has to repair and replace them. The thing that did not sit right with me is that he just wanders the markets and stalls in the trading districts of cities and finds a blacksmith and just selects a weapon from what is available.

Well, a couple of things, I find it illogical that a special mage under the command of the city/government/higher mages is given all kinds of amazing training and knowledge and yet is not provisioned by these same people? He has to rummage in the city like any other soldier, citizen, farmer for a good weapon?  Secondly, well, Farden, if you insist on going to these stalls in the back alleys to buy your weapons on the cheap, this could be why your weapons are always broken, dull, and/or rusting. This is unacceptable. There has to be a better way to find quality gear in this land.

I really enjoyed this novel and am glad that I read it. I do intend to read the next in the series and also the other novels by the author. While there is not a whole lot of super original to this story, mostly everything in the story is done well and with skill. Therefore even if it is, technically, another story about mages with swords and dragons flying, so what? The pacing is nearly perfect, the characterization is solid.  There are some items I wish the reader could have learned more about, but then, there are several other books in the series for such opportunity. Had a great time with Farden and friends.

4 stars

The Mediterranean Caper

Clive MediterraneanI finished The Mediterranean Caper by Clive Cussler (1931 – 2020), which was first published in 1973.  I think it is the first in the Dirk Pitt (the main character) series, even though most lists have Pacific Vortex! listed first. I have also read that one, but it was published in 1983, but allegedly written first. It absolutely does not matter to the reader, though, so do not get caught up in the chronology.

I decided (in a whimsical and irrelevant way) that I would read a bunch of pulpy action-adventure things. I have been enjoying the adventure stuff more than anything else lately.  One cannot, I think, always be in the mood to read this sort of shlocky pulp. However, right now for me, it is a total escape and ease. Reading novels should be fun and while I can appreciate the heavy duty literature, I am content to be reading this rubbish.

The Mediterranean Caper is just one half-step away from the “men’s adventure novels” of the 50s and 60s. So, if the reader is not aware of that, they may have different expectations of this novel.  Unfortunately, because this novel hovers too closely toward the stylings of those men’s adventure writings, it has not aged well at all.  Honestly, I have read some of the usual crusty men’s adventure pulps – and The Mediterranean Caper does not quite measure up to their standards (whatever that may mean) either. Well, the so-called toxic masculinity, alpha male themes of the pulps usually gets combined with a splash of patriotism, lurid scenes with farcical women, stereotyped villains, all placed over a steady beat of gunfire.  In The Mediterranean Caper we get a thoroughly dislikeable main character, plot holes, stereotyped villains, and a level of ridiculous that ruins all of the shlock-genre’s standards.

This novel is completely “over-the-top.”  Anything and everything that happens is over-the-top. Imagine any scene or character in an action novel and then turn up the volume on every aspect. For example, a character who might be considered cocky is now nearly sociopathic. A scene that has some physical confrontation turns into a superhero battle but as if enacted by elementary school children.

The writing at some points is so ridiculously bad that its laughable – literally, like, one needs to laugh at the author level. The whole thing, frankly, is ridiculous. To his credit, Cussler (and his co-authors) did eventually modernize and swing their future novels from the shlock of the men’s adventure pulps toward a more mainstream, but still lightweight, airport novel. However, reading this earliest is going to be tough reading for most people in the 2020s.

I think readers will criticize the book because of its “pulpy” themes. For example, the misogynistic stuff is everywhere here and rightly to be complained about. The endless smoking also grates on the reader’s nerves, especially since even the characters refer to the cigarettes as “cancer sticks.”  The harsh and cruel judgment of anyone who is not the main character or his best friend is really awful, as well.  (e.g. the ship’s boy who gets growled at by Pitt)

However, I think it is also necessary to criticize the fact that the novel – even if it wants to emulate the most lewd, action-y novel of the 1950s – is utterly inconsistent.  Every character seems like a Gemini. Every character seems to have two sides and the reader never knows which they are about to confront. I think even pulp readers would want a story with more consistency.  The lack of consistency makes these characters, for example, shift from being utter jerks to being crazed lunatics.

Anyway, the ridiculous:  Pitt spends several sections of the novel without any pants on. I feel like he’s nearly a nudist. The only time that is “excusable” is when he is laying down in his shower stall with his legs up on the shower walls. I mean, at least he’s showering, I guess? Its quite absurd, though, how often this guy’s pants are off – and I am not including his “romantic” scene.

But the best line in the book is when the Greek military special forces (again, this is not really clear, I thought of this like SWAT or something) guy actually says: “Great thunderbolts of Zeus, my inspector, what has happened?” – pg 134, chapter 12. I admit it, I lost it. I snorted and laughed. Utterly over-the-top ridiculous. It is literally the last line one would anticipate, but there it is! Stupidity!  The moments of stupid/ridiculous are very frequent throughout the book. One that will stick in my memory for awhile is how Pitt hides a paring knife from the dinner table into his pocket and then later on cuts the mooring line on the boat he steals with it. Why? Because:

Too tired to rise, Pitt leaned over and cut the line with the faithful paring knife and kicked the gear level in reverse. – pg. 86, chapter 8

I kind of want to video real-life examples of this. I want people who are over-tired and injured to casually lean over the hull of bass boats or something and cut line with a kitchen paring knife. Ridiculous.

There is another scene that I want to mention because I do not think any of us will ever run into this scene otherwise. Pitt is making an escape in the wee hours and he steals a donkey to use as his getaway car. He climbs on the donkey but the thing will not walk. He decides this is because he is not using its name. So he starts calling it all kinds of male Greek god names. And then he checks the gender of the donkey and realizes its female – so when he uses the correct female Greek goddess name, the animal starts to haul his butt down the roadway. Ridiculous!

Anyway, lest I do not give credit where credit is due, I did like two features of the novel. The first is using a WWI plane to strafe the airbase and cause ruckus in the sea was a neat inclusion and a good idea. The second is using a submarine to maintain the smuggling operation is also interesting, though, I doubt that works in 2023. Still, I appreciated the uniqueness of this setup.

I cannot really recommend this to anyone – even those who can happily enjoy a 60s pulp novel. Literally, I see no reason to read this. It is over-the-top to an extreme level. The main character is hateable. The plot and characters are inconsistent. The ridiculousness is massive. In a very weak defense, the novel does not take itself seriously whatsoever.

2 stars