Review: Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

IMG_20150519_185019-2

Yes, I should have read the book first and then seen the movie, but when Starship Troopers was released in the cinema I was only eleven years old. And at the time my reading list wasn’t quite as extensive as it is now. But I have finally managed to get to this one and let’s just say it wasn’t what I was expecting after having watched the over the top action movie more times than any person really should over the last fifteen years. The names are the same. That is pretty much the extent of the crossover … Thankfully I will add.

I will say this to begin. I fully understand why this book is so highly rated. The ideas, especially when put into context of when the book was written, are thoroughly thought provoking. The battle scenes are presented like a scene from a blockbuster movie and really put you in the driver’s seat for the action. The philosophical questions posed in this future earth have not dulled with age.

Reading this I constantly found myself stopping to think that the arguments Robert A. Heinlein is presenting are very convincing. His characters talk of our time with disdain and even mock our system of government. And although the world they are living in seems so utterly ridiculous, you end up nodding along as they discuss why the way we do everything is wrong.

There were a couple of times when I actually thought I was sitting in a classroom myself hearing a lecture/debate on morality, civil service and the best way to govern a country. Those bits of the book were the highlight for me; the discussions and thoughts conveyed regarding personal sacrifice for the greater good. And when that is wrapped up in an action packed military fiction, you just can’t complain.

The description of boot camp and life in the mobile infantry is so gritty and thus, to its core so real. I have never served in the military but I imagine that anybody who has could relate to this book. The story follows Rico as he joins the mobile infantry and travels the stars to battle the Bugs. In many ways this book didn’t need to be science fiction. The Bugs could have been replaced with foreigners from another country, and the spaceships with planes. But it wouldn’t have been the same.

Heinlein’s words are a pleasure to read and have you drifting through pages with ease. Some classic works of SF can be a tad dry. This was vibrant, full of slang which helped to make it feel like our society and, most of all, believable.

If I had to point at something I did not like I would say that I wasn’t the biggest fan of the way it ended. However, I cannot in any way suggest a better ending, so I will say he ended it well. I feel that this book could easily be one that students should study in high school. I know that many of the books that I read in my schooling did nothing to get me thinking differently. Yet, this book achieved just that, and all the while had marines splattering aliens across distant planets. What more could you ask for?

 

Rating 5/5

Review – The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bollard

IMG_20141223_194210~2

Batman & the Joker. Enough said. No point in reading any more of this review … But if you do choose to, I would actually suggest you go out and get yourself a copy of The Killing Joke instead, and read that.

I have loved comics for a long time, but for most of that time my allegiance has been to Marvel. You can thank the X-men and Wolverine for that. But in recent years my interest in DC and other publishers has risen (Image, IDW, Dark Horse etc.). I don’t know whether it is due to the Dark Knight films or the Arrow TV show, or whether I am looking for something different, but I have found my recent foray into DC to be enthralling.

The Killing Joke was the most recent graphic novel in my long list of ‘to read’ comics. It is a standalone story, never published as individual comics and created by the legendary Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta) and Brian Bollard (Judge Dredd). It truly feels like Batman. It is gritty, dark, and gripping. Everything we have come to expect from the Dark Knight.

What sets this apart from other Batman comics I have read is the emotion. Comics have their own ability to create atmosphere. The merger of text and illustration provides a different insight compared to a regular book or movie. I haven’t read a comic in years which had me stopping at frames to think, “Whoa, intense!”

The Joker is a classic villain. In The Killing Joke he is at his best. His dialogue is terrific. It was a joy to read. Batman really takes a back seat in this and it is a good thing, because this is a story about the Joker. We are provided with the Joker’s backstory. And this is what the graphic novel is about. The turning point which transformed an ordinary man into the Dark Knight’s most famous adversary.

Make sure that you get your hands on the deluxe version in which Brian Bollard has re-coloured each panel to ensure the story is told as it was originally intended. The artwork is immaculate. Every scene draws your attention, making you study the figures and items in the background. I had to read it twice straight away to make sure I didn’t miss anything! That’s how good it is.

I recently read the Dark Knight Returns, consider by most to be the single greatest graphic novel of all time. As great as it was, I enjoyed The Killing Joke more. I actually can’t really flaw it. I was sad when it ended, that is the only thing I can say. I wanted it to keep going. I don’t want to spoil anything but I highly, highly recommend.

Rating 5/5

Image credit: The Killing Joke; Alan Moore and Brian Bollard (Deluxe edition, 2008)

Review: Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen Donaldson

2014-08-16 10.31.58

I have seen multiple lists of iconic fantasy novels to read. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant have almost always made an appearance. Because of that I finally managed to find the time to read the first entry. I will be upfront, I did not really enjoy Lord Foul’s Bane. I knew little about it prior to picking it up, other than the fact that the main character was an anti-hero.

Having read the book, I now feel that much of this book’s success can be attributed to it being one of the few Fantasy novels of its time to push certain boundaries. Therefore I need to give it credit where credit is due and say that Thomas Covenant is a terrific anti-hero. By the end of the book I actually disliked him more than at the beginning. I do not want to spoil anything for would be readers but there is a particular event at the start of the book which really surprised me. And not in a good way. In a way that instantly made me want to read something else because I detested the character so much.

What saddens me is that Donaldson is a great writer. At times I really loved his descriptions, names and characters. But as a whole I just found it tiresome to finish the story. I didn’t care whether Thomas Covenant achieved anything. The basic premise of the story reminded me heavily of the Lord of the Rings. Yet it was different enough not to feel like it was borrowing too heavily.

What I particularly liked was the different cultures which Donaldson developed, such as his giants and the people of the plains. They were a unique take and I found that refreshing. Saltheart Foamfollower was a character I instantly liked and, to be honest, kept me reading when I considered giving up. After finishing the book I hopped online to see what others had thought. Normally I do not do this but as I really didn’t enjoy the book that much, I felt that perhaps I had missed something.

Never have I come across such polarizing reviews. It seemed that people either loved it or hated it. One star or five. I found few reviews that sat in the middle. Many of the negative reviews centered on that certain event at the beginning, and I can understand how that could turn someone away from reading any more of the book quite quickly. However, I found that when I read why people loved the book I started to see their points.

Lord Foul’s Bane is best looked at through a lens. It may not be the best story, but it set out to create a unique world, with an anti-hero main character whose actions and behaviour go against what we expect in a novel. I think you need to consider when it was written whilst judging it. Fantasy writing has changed significantly since then. Modern novels trend towards faster pacing, more dialogue and less exposition. Donaldson covers some great themes in his book and I think it is true to say that reading the Chronicles is hard work. You almost feel as though you are studying an ancient roman text. That being said it is an exceptionally well written story.

So now I ask myself would I recommend this book to my friends. The short answer is no. I do not feel that I would be looked upon favourably in doing so. But credit must be given. I understand why some people would love this book. And Donaldson is a great writer. I have simply decided it is just not to my taste.

Rating: 2/5

Review: The Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie

Imdff

You know you have read a top class book when it’s over and you feel depressed. I have post trilogy depression, amongst the worst kind of book related disorders. One where you have invested so much of your time and soul into a multi character epic that you tend to forget that in the morning you have a job to go to. Yet at the same time I feel like my eyes have been opened to a new world. Grimdark!

Prior to reading Abercrombie’s work I had never experienced such truly gritty and dark fantasy. I now know it is a genre of its own, but to be honest I look at it more as ‘Real Fantasy’. In a similar fashion to the mass market popularity of Game of Thrones, where other fantasy series have failed to grow, the First Law gives us everything we would expect from a well constructed fantasy universe, but also gives us characters that could have come from a history book. They don’t just have faults, they live and breathe by their faults. Reading Joe Abercrombie’s books has shown me how characters can be despicable and make you root for them at the same time.

Logan Ninefingers and Glokta are amongst the most interesting and unforgettable fictional characters I have ever come across. Ferro and Jezal made choices throughout the books that felt so real. Often one expects a book to go a certain direction, or a character to say or do a certain thing, especially in fantasy writing. Not for Abercrombie’s characters. As I turned the pages my inner voice was constantly saying no, no, don’t do that, don’t say that. However, this only kept me wanting more.

The Last Argument of Kings is a fine climax for the trilogy. I don’t want to spoil anything here, so I will only say that it was good to see things come together in the final battle. Abercrombie takes us into the head of the many POV characters. Using his amazing blend of vivid description and gritty language, we are taken right into the thick of it. I bled with the characters. Swore alongside them. I cringed and laughed with them. Few books draw you in so deeply. I felt I lived the First Law rather than read it. And that is the biggest compliment I can give Mr Abercrombie.

I feel there is little need for me to do an in depth review of this book. It is extremely well written. All of the characters that you love are back and in fine form. The story develops in an interesting way and does not repeat itself. There is action, emotion, suspense, drama and just about anything else you need in a good book. Just go out and read it.

I don’t often recommend books to my close friends but I will be telling every fantasy fan that I know to pick up these three books and get stuck into them.

Rating 5/5

Review: Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett

IMG_20140210_181636

Wizards and Football…Hold on, did you just mention two of my favourite things together? Unseen University and Football, Discworld and Football. I think my brain just melted a bit.

That was my reaction when Unseen Academicals was released. Sadly my reading list was too large. But now I have finally gotten around to reading Terry Pratchett’s foray into the tug and war of foot-the-ball. Being upfront, I had very high expectations of this book. Did it meet those expectations? Short answer – no. However there was no way it could have ever done so. So I will pass my judgement with an open mind.

All of the Discworld novels are entertaining. It is extremely rare to pick one up and not turn the pages with enjoyable ease. Unseen Academicals is no different. Give it a go, you most likely won’t regret it.

To begin with, I thought there would be a lot more football in this book. And yes, the overarching premise is a revolution to Ankh Morpork’s ball game, to make it more closely resemble modern day football, yet there is more focus on a handful of characters working in the University. I found them genuinely likable for the most part. I wasn’t in love with them though.

The story is tied into one of these characters in particular, Mr Nutt, who is an interesting fellow; polite, skilled and articulate. I liked Mr Nutt the most and will not go into revealing any of his secrets. I don’t want to spoil the book. Any part with him in it kept me interested and it was worth reading just to uncover more about him.

I found the toughest parts to get through those focusing on Glenda; the tough, motherly night kitchen cook. She was a great character, but the end of the book had a lot of Glenda. I feel it would have been better served with a bit more football or focus on the actual Academics.

My biggest criticism is an odd one, but it is the fact that the Librarian did not get enough of a cameo. I can understand that a character who cannot speak is a difficult one to write about in length, but this was the opportunity to do so! (An Orangutan for goodness sakes. The perfect goal keeper.) His participation in the actual football had so much potential, but was too brief to be memorable.

That aside, Vetinari stands out once again. I don’t need to go on in length as to how well Pratchett writes this tyrannical man. And the side story, which sees Juliet, one of the University’s staff, modelling dwarf designer clothes, was an interesting change. More dwarf culture is never a bad thing.

The sporting culture of Ankh Morpork was terrifically colourful, even if those colours were primarily sickly shades of browns, yellows and greens. You get a real sense of the common people milling together in the streets and those scenes stand out for me with vivid imagery.

Overall this was more of a story about a few quirky individuals, which used the coming of proper football to the Discworld as a backdrop. A little part of me wonders, if the roles had been reversed and the actual game had been centre stage, with the drama of the University’s staff less prominent, would it have made for a better story.

We will never know. But we will have enjoyed the book regardless!

Rating 4/5

Review: The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

Cover of "The Blade Itself (First Law)"

Cover of The Blade Itself (First Law)

Say one thing about Joe Abercrombie, say he is a master of modern fantasy. I will be honest I have not had the chance to read a great deal of new fantasy. I am still working my way through piles of the classics. But having read ‘The Blade Itself’, I now realise I need to pay more attention to the new wave of fantasy authors.

Abercrombie’s writing is absolutely stand out. It is fluid and gripping, with a terrific use of both modern and old vernacular to truly paint a picture in your mind. Often I took a moment to re-read one of his metaphors or quirky descriptive phrases because they were that good! I found myself thinking, ‘God what a brilliant way to describe that.’, something I don’t do that often when I’m reading. The book is full of curse words you rarely see in fantasy writing and I sincerely believe that if used properly they really add to the story. They provide a gritty realism to the world often missed by traditional fantasy authors. So hat’s off to Joe for changing the way I think about my own writing.

The true strength in ‘The Blade Itself’ is the diversity and sincerity in its characters. Few books have twisted and uncouth characters as the main protagonists. Sure there are some great examples, but this has got to be up there as one of them now. Every POV character is flawed. But not flawed simply to have a flawed character, flawed in a real sense. Each character is utterly believable, which in a fantasy setting is not always possible.

They are selfish, frightened, mean, arrogant, and deplorable at times, loveable at others. From start to finish you are wondering whether you should be cheering for a character or hoping they plunge into an endless chasm. If Tolkien had his Fellowship of the Ring, Abercrombie has his Band of Merry Misfits.

And that is what the book seems to boil down to. I haven’t started the rest of the First Law trilogy, and do not want to give away big spoilers, but this book is a tale of gatherings. Whilst most first books in a trilogy culminate in a disaster or reveal a large looming catastrophe, this one only hints at a larger issue, but really focusses on getting the characters together. I found it unusual to flick over the last page and think to myself, ‘I don’t really know where this is going, and don’t know whose side I should be one.’ But damn, I can’t wait to read more.

There were no particular scenes that jumped out to me. If you ask me what was your favourite bit? I find it hard to pinpoint any particular event. Yet the whole thing kept me turning page after page. And there is no truer sign of a good book. If you like hard edged fantasy, go buy this book!

Rating 4.5/5

Review: Dragonlance ‘The Lost Chronicles’

Dragons of the Hourglass Mage

Dragons of the Hourglass Mage (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently finished Weis and Hickman’s ‘the Lost Chronicles Trilogy’. This comes close to 17 years since I first read the original Dragonlance Chronicles. I was drawn to these books by my love of the characters of Krynn and the original tales that have been read by millions since their publication. To many, Dragonlance is synonymous with dungeons and dragons and is seen as a mild fantasy setting, which tends towards adventure and swords and sorcery rather than more serious epic fantasy. However you look at them, the original Dragonlance trilogies are an easy and highly enjoyable read, made famous by the Heroes of the Lance which populate the tales.

The Lost Chronicles fill in the gaps from the original Chronicles and provide us with some insight into what happened to our Heroes in between the first novels. It also details events previously mentioned, but never fully explained, in particular where characters broke off from the main group and continued in the background. It is important to note that the three books of the Lost Chronicles could actually be read standalone and each cover separate stories. Though there is chronological order and some characters crossing over, each book focuses on different heroes.

The first book ‘Dragons of the Dwarven Depths’ provides us with the tale of the Heroes’ escape to Thorbardin after their escape from Pax Tharkas. It is a tale that in itself is enjoyable to read and allows us to return to the characters we grew to love when first reading Dragonlance. Tanis, Flint, Tass and Caramon all carry out their adventure to the dwarven kingdom and we are provided with the amount of action and inter character banter that we have come to know. The first thing I noticed is that the grand scale of the original trilogy was lost in this book. It seemed much more like a one off story or adventure. That isn’t a bad thing, but threw me off a bit as when I pick up a trilogy there is a certain scale I have come to expect. Tass and Flint shine strongest in this tale and their interaction with the dwarf Arman Kharas was a pleasure to read. I enjoyed the story of Thorbardin and would definitely recommend it to fans of the series.

‘Dragons of the Highlord Skies’, the second novel in the trilogy, drew my attention to a greater extent. It deals with Laurana and Sturm’s journey to Icewall castle to obtain the dragon orb from Highlord Feal-Thas. It is a tale I have always wanted to hear more about and is presented in great fashion. A few new characters are thrown in which provides some extra conflict and the climax of the book is well received and exciting. The book also follows Kitiara, who is a character we love to hate, but also garners some new sympathy. It was great to get to know her better. The only disappointment in this novel is that from the very beginning you are waiting for the first meeting between Kitiara and the death knight Lord Soth. However this does not come until the very end and is for my tastes a little short, given the lead up to it.

 As for the final book in the trilogy, I loved it. ‘Dragons of the Hourglass Mage’ covers the tale of Raistlin’s journey to Neraka. Raistlin is by far my favourite character and is the sole focus of this book. I believe that many other Dragonlance fans would appreciate a book which hones in on the famous mage’s aspirations and allows us to enjoy all that is Raistlin Majere. The story follows his transition to a black robe and his uncovering of Queen Takhisis’ plot to seize control of all magic. As always we see him weave his schemes with guile and ferocity and I found myself flying through the pages much quicker than the first two. Sadly the ending is a bit short, however this is more a result of the story’s place in the Dragonlance timeline. It ends at a point where the original Chronicles tell the rest of the tale, and as such feels a little abrupt. That being said it rekindled my love of the cunning mage.

It is always hard to top a masterpiece, and looking back at the Lost Chronicles I can say that I am glad to have read them. But I now see them more as appendices to the original tale. They provide us with further insight into the motivations driving the Heroes of the Lance and show us previously unseen events. If you have read the original Chronicles and are looking for more of your favourite characters, then I recommend these books. If you are looking for a traditional trilogy with epic scope and a long story arc, return to the original Chronicles or Legends trilogies.

Rating: 4/5

Review: The Truth by Terry Pratchett

Truth

There is no doubt about it, whether you enjoy his books or not, Terry Pratchett is a master of storytelling. His ability to use a single sentence or word to paint an image in the reader’s mind is incredible. In a genre full of exposition and detailed description he is able to convey, with ease, vivid and lively locations and diverse and quirky characters using phrases that in themselves tell you nothing about their physical appearance.

‘The Truth’, discworld’s 25th novel, is no different. Characters dance from the pages and within moments of being introduced to them you feel as though you know exactly where they have come from, what they had for breakfast, and what they like to do on their weekends. Ankh-Morpork continues to evolve into a squalid, yet loveable cesspool of civilisation that reminds us of everything that the real world and the Fantasy genre have to offer.

Something I find when I read a discworld novel is that from the first page I have a warm feeling and thoroughly enjoy Pratchett’s introductions. However a fault, if I can find any in his writing, is that I tend to find my interest diminishing the further I read. A friend once said to me, “I feel like when I read one of his books that he got a really good idea, began writing and then realised he had to finish it somehow, almost as an afterthought.” Occasionally I have to agree.

‘The Truth’ deals with the arrival of newspapers and journalism to Ankh-Morpork and for the most part the characters are not too different from ones that have appeared in previous books. In many ways I was reminded of “Going Postal”, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. The main character, William is likeable enough and the rest of the cast (dwarves, vampires and talking dogs), all add a certain charm. The villains in the book are also well presented and a great take off of the ‘brawns and brains’ crime outfit.

The book’s strength is in its evolution of the newspaper. As things come together and William begins to get papers into the streets, you find yourself wanting to read more and see what happens next. The sub plot of the attempted replacement of the Patrician, I found to be less interesting, though vital to the story. That being said, as ever Lord Vetinari stands out as a brilliant character, and when he is involved in the dialogue I cannot get enough.

Without spoiling anything, I felt the end of the story was average on the whole. Though not by any means poorly plotted or written. I think I was merely expecting the tale to go in a different direction. I did though really enjoy “The Truth” and find myself smiling whenever I read one of the discworld novels.

As with most of Pratchett’s novels I would recommend this to my friends. I would however recommend it after most of the others that I have read. Therefore my final rating reflects not poor quality, but a comparison to his other great works. If you are seeking a smile and a wonderful mockery of the modern newspaper give it a go. If you are looking for your first discworld novel, then start with ‘The Colour of Magic’ first.

Rating: 3.5/5