You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Subtle Knife

The Subtle Knife is the sequel to The Golden Compass, part of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. In this book, Lyra finds a boy named Will Parry in a world that exists between the worlds they are from. Will shows her how he found a window from his world to the world of Ci'gazze, where Specters attack adults and leave them catatonic while leaving the children to fend for themselves. Will shows Lyra to his own world (more like ours) and she visits the Oxford there in an effort to learn more about Dust, which she learns is called dark matter. She is pleased to find a female scholar studying the subject and she helps her with the research. But Lyra is dismayed when a strange upper class man steal the compass.

But the primary story belongs to Will. Will is a prototypical hero in that he is (something like Lyra in the first book) searching for his missing father. However he lacks the appeal of Lyra to be a driving character. Whereas Lyra is brave, headstrong, and somewhat impulsive, Will is more reserved and careful. This does make them a good team. Part of the conflict is that Lyra can't accept that her mission is to help Will find his father instead of searching for her own. The golden compass tells her as much, but her unwillingness to follow through and instead continue her own search does not prove successful.

Lyra and Will approach the thief of the compass to get it back, and he promises to return it to them if they will retrieve a knife from the world of Ci'gazze that he desires. The knife turns out to be a valuable artifact. Acquiring it provides Will with great power but it also comes at a cost. The children of Ci'gazze become their enemies. The knife is a burden that Will must bear, and using it becomes painful. He uses the knife to cut a window between worlds and retrieve the compass for Lyra. Yet they learn that Lyra's mother is allied with the thief, bringing the evils of the first book into this one.

As the plot unfolds, we learn that there is a man plotting to wage war against the creator god, known as the Authority. Pullman brings in myths about heavenly wars and angels. Most of this is background rather than direct action, though this is fitting for a middle volume of a trilogy. However I was still left a little empty at the end, without seeing Will and Lyra accomplish an important goal. Will's search is satisfied, but only briefly. Lyra is still relegated to the background as Will's helper. Yet overall it is a satisfying story. The tension builds as we learn more about traveling between worlds, the building war against the Authority, Will's father, and the powers of the knife. The story comes together, yet there still enough conflict left for the next book. B

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The God Engines

The God Engines is a science fiction novella by John Scalzi. The main character is Ean Tephe, captain of a starship with a god as its source of power. The society is ruled by a theocracy and uses the captured enemy gods of its Lord to power its technology. Tephe's counterpart is the religious leader on board his ship, Priest Andso. Tephe and Andso are occasionally at odds as they vie for power, but it is Tephe who is assigned a special task to convert the people of newly found planet.

As the story unfolds the faith of Tephe and Andso are tested. Tephe must figure out what he believes, for his faith has implications on the structure of their society and the life of everyone aboard his ship. The climax is a distillation of the conflicts of faith as it is tried by reason. At the crucial moment, he must make a decision based on conflicting lines of thought.

The story is largely driven by dialogue and the inner thoughts of the protagonist. I felt like there was room for more detail on the society, the ship, and the people; however it works well as it is. The style is sparse yet the plot is gripping. The end provides a set of intriguing twists that keep the reader pulled in. B

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Saturday, November 13, 2010

Mad Ship

Mad Ship is the second book in Robin Hobb's Liveship Traders trilogy. In this sequel, the Vestrit family's liveship Vivacia comes under the sway of Kennit, the pirate who captured her at the end of the first book. Instead of becoming resentful, Vivacia embraces her new captain. While Kennit and Vivacia come to admire each other, their emotions and memories entwined through the magic of the wizardwood, jealousy grows in Kennit's girlfriend and Wintrow--Vivacia's only family member on board. Though Wintrow is possessive of the ship, he comes to regard Kennit as a strong father figure, ironically with more compassion than his own father chained in a cabin. Wintrow urges Kennit to get rid of his father, and Kennit obliges by imprisoning him on an island. This part of the book is the most intriguing, with the characters growing and their allegiances shifting. Kennit uses his pirate tactics as part of a bigger plan to eliminate the slave trade and make the lives of refugees better, and Vivacia is drawn to him for that. Wintrow still sees him as a murderous pirate, but comes to see him more like Vivacia, partly thanks to the bond they all share.

Meanwhile back at Bingtown, Wintrow's sister Malta starts a journey from being a spoiled girl to a strong woman, much like Althea's transformation in the first book. At first she only wants her father to come home to give her everything that the rest of her family won't. When Althea come home on another liveship, Malta and the Vestrit family are scandalized. Althea agrees to live a more domestic life, but then Brashen comes to give the family the news that their ship has been captured and Malta's father and brother may or may not be alive. This is a wake-up call for Malta. At first she tries to use her feminine charms to convince her old beau to help her, then to convince the Rain Wild Trader man who has been courting her. She comes to realize the depth of the politics involved, and how little others can help her.

The Satrap of Jamaillia, who is nominally the ruler of Bingtown, is convinced by his platonic consort Serilla to visit the town to make peace. Serilla is tired of the Satrap's weakness and venality, and she hopes to escape from him in Bingtown. But on the voyage she discovers that the foreign ships he has escorting them are planning some sort of coup or attack. She manages to get the Satrap into Bingtown and in the care of the traders there, but a riot breaks out and the town is burned, presumably by the foreign forces. Malta's courter Reyn seizes the Satrap and takes him to the Rain Wild city up the river, though Malta is injured in the process.

Reyn has become under the sway of the last dragon in a wooden egg buried under the city. It is the dragon eggs that are the secret source of the wizardwood: the large eggs contain the memories of dragon ancestors, and they store the memories of Liveship families and crew then create an illusion of consciousness in the figurehead out of the memories. However, the serpents that track the ships and eat the bodies thrown overboard are in fact young forms of dragons that have lost their memories and their ability to transform into adults. But at the same time that Malta helps rescue the last dragon from her ancient egg, Wintrow rescues the serpent with memories from its prison.

While the story starts off slow, there is a lot of dramatic tension as the Vestrit family struggles even before discovering the fate of the ship. It is interesting to see Malta grow as her aunt did in the previous book, but even more dramatically. The relationship between Althea and Brashen continues to grow as they take command of the liveship Paragon, which has long been mad. We discover a clue to its madness in its creation: it was manufactured from multiple dragon eggs which must have added too many conflicting memories. There is a lot of interesting politics in Bingtown and between that city and Jamaillia, though the Satrap is not as interesting as he could be due to his weakness. It is good that Serilla is with him to be both stronger and more interesting.

There is a shift in power from the older generation to the younger, as Reyn starts to take some control and Malta takes charge of her life. As the story progresses, different elements start to coalesce to make a satisfying conclusion, as well as a strong hook to the next book in the series. B+

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Monday, November 01, 2010

The Minority Report and other stories

Philip K. Dick had a wonderful talent for taking a great philosophical idea and turning it into a fun story. Most of his stories that I've read deal with a single protagonist struggling against a powerful force. Nearly all have the protagonist making a discovery that makes him question the nature of reality. Along with this is a healthy dose of paranoia.

In "The Minority Report" the main character is Anderton, the creator and manager of the Precrime unit, a police unit that catches murderers before they commit their crime. He is stuck in a quandary when the system reveal his name as the next murderer. He first suspects his new assistant, then his wife. His whole worldview comes into question, since his career is founded on the accuracy of the Precrime unit, which has eradicated murder in the society. One way he can make sense of the situation is to actually kill the victim, who is the alternate manager of the Army side of Precrime. He comes to realize that the three versions of the report include three different realities, each one responding to his awareness of the previous.

"We Can Remember it for You Wholesale" has a protagonist who decides to have memories of a trip to Mars implanted instead of an actual trip. When the facility starts the process, they find that Quail already has memories of a trip to Mars. Though they try to send him away, he returns and demands his money back. Quail struggles to make sense of the two sets of memories in his mind. Is he an office clerk who fantasizes about Mars, or a secret agent who has been a spy there? The end is different from the movie, but with an interesting twist.

"Paycheck" concerns an engineer named Jennings who finishes a contract with a secretive company and has his memory of his last eighteen months erased. Unlike Quail, Jennings has no memory of his work, but when he is detained by the state's secret police, he discovers that the seven trinkets he decided to receive in lieu of his pay help him to escape and find out more about the secretive company. In "Second Variety", a long war between North America and Russia is left to the killer robots that the Americans have created. Major Hendricks discovers that the robots have evolved to a point where they can mimic humans, and are not only targeting the Russians. These two stories have interesting premises but lack the philosophical punch of the first two. The concepts drive interesting and action-filled plots. Jennings in "Paycheck" is fighting against a secretive company and a powerful state; Quail is battling for his memory and identity as part of his fight against the powerful spy agency. Dick excels and making fun stories that make the reader think. One finds oneself questioning reality along with the characters. A-

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