Friday, August 23, 2013

Review: Ghost Story

Ghost Story is book 13 of the Dresden Files. It is a direct sequel from Changes, and if you haven't read that book you'll not get very much out of this book, because it picks up directly where Changes start. Given that that's the case, I'm going to spoil this book if you insist on reading further on this review.

Dresden was murdered at the end of the last novel, and he wakes up as a ghost, 6 months later, at the start of this one and is charged with investigating his own murder. Unfortunately, there's a complete shortage of clues, and Dresden wanders from situation to situation, trying to resolve more urgent problems than that of his murder, which in fact, he deduced correctly fairly early on in the novel.

In many ways, fantasy is about wish-fulfillment. In some ways, this is Dresden's wish-fulfillment. He gets to see how crucial he was to the community, and how much things went wrong without him for 6 months. The mystery as such isn't much of one, but again, is more like an action movie. It does end up with a setup for the next book, so it's clear at this point that Jim Butcher has given up on standalone novels and is only writing for folks who'll read the entire series.

Only recommended if you're willing to slog through the entire series.

Re-Read: Ender's Game

This is my third time reading Ender's Game, and I've read the previous incarnation of the novel (which began as a short story in 1977) several times over the years. I started reading it because of the upcoming movie based on the novel.

There are several things that date the novel at this point: the first of which is the superpowers of the world back in 1977 were the Russians and the Americans. Obviously, that has changed recently, and but the book doesn't reflect that. Fortunately, this background has little to do with the main focus of the novel.

The novel is compellingly readable, but it lost a bit of impact between the short story of the same name and the conversion into a novel. The short story was focused at it's core: if the horror of war could be distilled away into a child's game, then we could perhaps train children to become amoral warriors. The novel is quite a bit more nuanced, meandering into issues of xenocide, the rightness of abusing a child, no matter how brilliant and no matter how important the purpose. What's worse, the ending of the novel makes it clear that Ender's sacrifice was unnecessary.

Nevertheless, the book, when it does focus on Ender and his travails, is excellent, providing many examples of leadership that real world managers and executives would be well-advised to emulate. Highly recommended.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Review: Changes

Changes is book #12 in the Dresden files. In many ways, the series reminds me of a RPG game. As the characters get more and more powerful, the ante has to ramp up, otherwise, the characters are left with no challenge in their lives.

At least Butcher is willing to make drastic changes in his milieu, resolving a major plotline that's been long-running in the series, which is the war between the White Council and the Vampiric Red Court, while Dresden, the main character, undergoes a major life change as well, picking up yet another family member, a new job, as well as a new life state.

The bad things about the book is that the plot feels like it's been reused. The "little girl in trouble" scenario feels a bit old, because it was just used a couple of books ago. Finally, the end of the book feels very much like a cliffhanger to get you to read the next book in the series. Regardless, there's thrills galore, lots of explosions, and many set pieces. There's not much boring investigation work, but at least Butcher seems to have given up on the "I got bonked on the head, fell unconscious, and woke up someplace different" mode of investigation.

It's good summer reading, a lot like any of the summer blockbusters. I'll pick up the next book in the series soon.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Review: Turn Coat

Turn Coat is book 11 of the Dresden Files. The series finally comes full circle, as Dresden now has to bail out the very person who was his "parole officer" at the start of the series. We finally get a good view of the White Council HQ, as well as the politics involved in the wizards. I still found myself wondering why the wizards seem to be so ineffectual in the world if  there were so many high powered individuals wandering the globe. There's a grand climax with big battles. It seems nothing ever gets resolved with a big bang in Butcher's milieu when it could be resolved by multiple nuclear options.

It's still an enjoyable read, though the series is starting to get to the point where Butcher is introducing as many new mysteries in each novel as he's resolving them.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Review: Small Favor

Small Favor is book 10 of the Dresden files. It is so far the best book yet. It's action packed, exciting, and is the equivalent of a summer blockbuster movie.

Harry Dresden is finally behaving like a good hero of the traditional sort: rather than being an investigator who "investigates" by getting thumped on the head, he's now actually driving the action in the novel. For me, anyway, this reads much better than the older novels.

This is the first novel from Jim Butcher where I didn't see gaping plot holes. Everything does come together neatly, and the ending is quite satisfying. The only problem with the series is that jumping into the series at this point is that you'd lose some of the context, but unlike other fantasy novels, Jim Butcher does tie everything in the story off at the end of the novel, so even if you only read one novel it works by itself.

Recommended.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Review: Neptune's Brood

Neptune's Brood is set in the same world as Saturn's Children, but is not a direct sequel in style, tone, or humor. This is a feature, since Saturn's Children, as much as I enjoyed it, was a Heinlein Pastische, and you don't need too many of those.

Science Fiction is often called the literature of ideas because it's frequently lacking in other areas like character, plot, and pacing. As a hard science fiction writer, Stross demonstrates this in this book, which frequently reads more like a treatise in interstellar commerce than a novel. There are long expositions abound in which the reader is lectured to (shades of Asimov) about Fast Money (cash), Medium Money (investments), and Slow Money (interstellar bitcoinage), and how Spanish Prisoner and other fraud schemes would occur in the absence of FTL travel and only lightspeed communications.

Now, all this works only because the characters are all post-human, including the narrator/protagonist (Krina), a historian/accountant who specializes in audits and has a sideline/interest in investigating slow money fraud. As a result, she can "beam" to various locations and travel via starship to places without a beacon. The plot revolves around Krina's visit to her sister Ana. When Ana disappears before she gets there, Krina investigates and gets dropped into a web of intrigue when everyone she talks to, works for, or is arrested by wants a piece of whatever Ana seems to have found before she disappeared.

Like you would expect in a science fiction novel where all the fun happens in the exposition, Krina isn't much of an active entity in the story. She gets dragged and dropped by other forces outside her control pretty much throughout the novel, and never really initiates anything herself. This allows her to exposit on topics that Stross considers important for the reader to know.

The ending, much like with Saturn's Children, comes together in a hurry after the great reveal (which isn't terribly exciting), and leaves the reader with most of the loose ends tied up and a deeper understanding of how Charles Stross feels the entire financial system is. There are lots of snide remarks about investment banking, bankers, accountants, and bank branches (one of them is a pirate outfit), but in the end, the reader isn't likely to gain any more expertise in economics as a result of reading this book than he already had. (On the other hand, Nobel prize winner Paul Krugman liked the book, but of course he would)

Now it sounds like I didn't enjoy this book, but I did. It's just that the audience for this book is likely to be incredibly narrow (geeks who enjoy Economics). To that audience, I'd highly recommend this novel. It explores many ideas that few other science fiction novels do. For anyone else, I'm afraid you're going to have to enjoy lectures or the novel just won't work.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Review: White Knight

White Knight is book 9 of the Dresden files. What impresses me about this book is that Jim Butcher seems to actually be tying up loose ends faster than before. We get a recurring villain, a hint of the overall plot arc, as well as lots of action. I thought the finale was very suitable for a big-bang hollywood movie, and given the popularity of urban fantasy, I'm surprised that there hasn't been a movie series optioned for it. (There was a tv series, but it definitely doesn't have the bang or the sizzle of the books) It's quite possible that having the lead character be male is the problem.

Dresden tracks down a serial killer of women magic practitioners, only to discover that the person responsible dressed up like him. It turns out that there's an organization involved in the killings, and the plot deepens as Dresden struggles to outwit everyone as well as taking responsibility in his new position as a warden of the White Council.

Mildly recommended. Good summer reading.