Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Three 2011 Novels - Short Discussion: Appanah, "Locke" and Anderson/Herbert (by Liviu Suciu)

Since I am trying to showcase as many 2011 interesting books of various kinds as I can, but the number of full reviews I can do is limited, it is inevitable that some books won't receive as complete coverage as I wish. I keep the continually updated post with 2011 books read HERE, while I revise review priorities all the time as my last quite unexpected review shows and from time to time I will try to do a short discussion of several books that otherwise would slip through.


The Last Brother (A+, recommended unreservedly) by Nathacha Appanah (translation by Geoffrey Strachan) is a wonderfully written, emotional novel about a friendship between two very different boys. Raj a native of Mauritius, poor, more or less uneducated and with a tragic family history and David, an orphan Jewish boy from Prague that had found himself bewilderingly imprisoned in a camp on that remote and sometimes deadly island - due to an unforgiving climate and illnesses for natives and Europeans alike - by the British government after being denied access to Palestine in the early 1940's.

I heard about The Last Brother from the B&N newsletter on "new voices in fiction" and it intrigued me so I got a look the first time I saw it and I really liked it though I thought it was a bit too short to fully blow me away.

With the premise outlined above and with the book starting with Raj in old age recollecting what happened at least in general lines, there are few surprises as the direction of the story goes. The writing is top notch and the characterizations of Raj and David are superb, so the book becomes a page turner where you really get to care about the boys and you wish a miracle will happen and alter the already known events. The novel is pretty emotional but not in a particularly depressing way and I found myself very moved by many of the events and by the epilogue.


Hellhole (A, recommended to fans of large scale epics) by Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson is the start of an old fashioned space opera series that resembles the second author's Seven Suns sags in a lot of ways though its universe has different characteristics from the Seven Suns saga as far as FTL and the consequent distribution of power goes. The blurb below gives a good outline of the series' beggining though of course things are considerably more complicated and the characters cast is pretty big as befits a space opera saga.

"Only the most desperate colonists dare to make a new home on Hellhole. Reeling from a recent asteroid impact, tortured with horrific storms, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and churning volcanic eruptions, the planet is a dumping ground for undesirables, misfits, and charlatans…but also a haven for dreamers and independent pioneers.

Against all odds, an exiled general named Adolphus has turned Hellhole into a place of real opportunity for the desperate colonists who call the planet their home. While the colonists are hard at work developing the planet, General Adolphus secretly builds alliances with the leaders of the other Deep Zone worlds, forming a clandestine coalition against the tyrannical, fossilized government responsible for their exile."

"Hellhole" is traditional space opera and as noted above follows the same narrative structure as in both Kevin Anderson's series I've read - Seven Suns and Terra Incognita - with various pov's in various threads, in various locations throughout the settled universe - here there are 20 core-worlds exploiting 54 colony worlds of which the so called Hellhole is just one though it is quickly clear it will be the most important - threads that intertwine, separate, intertwine back.

As in Seven Suns and especially in the Terra Incognita series, important characters can die at any time so do not get overtly fond of anyone. The writing style is the clear one familiar from the above and the book is a fun adventure you do not want to put down, a bit on the campy side and predictable in large measure, but entertaining nonetheless since there are enough twists to keep things interesting and the characters quickly acquire the "root for/hate" characteristics so familiar from the earlier series.

As a series debut it ends on the typical KJA' semi-cliffhanger and I definitely plan to read the next as soon as I can get it, though my hope is the authors will keep the series manageable for its depth - currently I would say 3-4 novels, but of course if the universe expands considerably, could be more - since that was the one thing I disliked about Seven Suns, while Terra Incognita is among my current top fantasy series precisely by its relative compactness (though calling a series with three 600 page books compact stretches things a little, the natural comparison is with seven volumes sagas or 1000 page doorstops, not the slim 200 page The Last Brother above).


Up Against It (C, enough nuggets to make it worth a check but a minor disappointment overall) by "MJ Locke" has a very interesting premise and a great opening 40-50 pages but things go mostly downhill after that. There are quite a few nuggets like a newly awakened AI that steals the show in all its interactions with humans and a "genetic cult" with surprising philosophies and depth, but the writing style of the pseudonymous author is just not up to handling the interesting world building she created and the novel is mostly a pretty boring slog despite its supposed frantic pace and race against the clock for the inhabitants of Phocaea to save themselves from multiple threats. Here is a little from the blurb giving you an idea of the setting:

"Geoff and his friends live in Phocaea, a distant asteroid colony on the Solar System's frontier. They're your basic high-spirited young adults, enjoying such pastimes as hacking matter compilers to produce dancing skeletons that prance through the low-gee communal areas, using their rocket-bikes to salvage methane ice shrapnel that flies away when the colony brings in a big (and vital) rock of the stuff, and figuring out how to avoid the ubiquitous surveillance motes that are the million eyes of 'Stroiders, a reality-TV show whose Earthside producers have paid handsomely for the privilege of spying on every detail of the Phocaeans' lives.


In addition to Geoff, our story revolves around Jane, the colony's resource manager -- a bureaucrat engineer in charge of keeping the plumbing running on an artificial island of humanity poised on the knife-edge of hard vacuum and unforgiving space. She's more than a century old, and good at her job, but she is torn between the technical demands of the colony and the political realities of her situation, in which the fishbowl effect of 'Stroiders is compounded by a reputation economy that turns every person into a beauty contest competitor. Her manoeuvrings to keep politics and engineering in harmony are the heart of the book."

The two story lines indicated above, while theoretically converging in the last part of the book do not mesh well for the most part and the book jumps around without a clear focus and with little that conveys the sense of urgency of the events after the excellent beginning.

It is almost like Up Against It started with "how cool are these ideas and this setting!" and then fit a plot and characters around and the natural result is utter lack of coherence and continually disrupted narrative flow. While the cool ideas/setting keep the book readable for the aforementioned nuggets, the novel tries to be both traditional sf in which Geoff and his friends save the day and "realistic thriller" in which there are things like bureaucracies and parents and the two modes just jar badly one against each other.

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