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.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Hydrogen Sonata

The Hydrogen Sonata is a novel by Iain M. Banks in his Culture universe. The Culture features highly advanced artificial intelligence and technology, as well as a loose confederacy of societies. However not all the cultures in the galaxy are part of the Culture. When the Culture was being created among many different species and systems thousands of years earlier, some decided not to join. One of these was the Gzilt, who backed out at the last minute for unknown reasons.

In the present, the Gzilt have decided to Sublime, to leave behind the physical world and enter an existence of thought and expanded consciousness. But just before the final event, when everything must be synchronized, a hitch has occurred. A Zihdren diplomatic ship arrives at a Gzilt outpost and upon revealing its payload it is destroyed by a Gzilt ship. The Culture vessels nearby frown on this and decide to get to the bottom of the incident.

The secret behind the incident is apparently the nature of the Gzilt holy book, which is different from all other holy books in the universe because it's revelations have always proven true. Now it is widely suspected that the Zihdren, a culture that Sublimed ages ago, were in fact responsible for delivering the holy book. The Culture vessels are concerned that if this secret were reveal then it would put in jeopardy the Subliming which has been planned for decades.

Most of the action centers around Lieutenant Commander Vyr Cossont, a low level soldier in the militarized Gzilt society. Cossont has four arms so that she can play an instrument called the elevenstring, created to play a piece known as the Hydrogen Sonata. The cumbersome instrument always manages to stay with her despite her waning desire to play it, and it becomes an ongoing joke that it is hard to get rid of. Many of Banks' novels features strong female leads. Cossont is not a typical Banks central character. She is very much a reluctant heroine. She is pulled into the situation by her superiors and feels ambiguous about the mission, much as many of the Culture vessels do. As a lead character she is not the strongest, being led instead of driven. She is not a well skill agent of Special Circumstances, the Culture intelligence agency that is crucial to many of Banks' novels.

The most interesting characters in the Culture are usually the AI Minds of the spaceships. They are highly intelligent and eccentric, bordering on pathological. There are several Minds in this story who take an interest in the events and attempt to figure out the missing piece of the puzzle. However quantity appears to have substituted for quality here. I found myself missing the unique character of a Mind and its avatar. The avatar that Cossont deals with is powerful and cunning, but his personality doesn't seem to show for most of the story.

The plot follows Cossont as she attempts to retrieve a device that contains the personality of an ancient human she had met years ago. The idea is that this person, who as part of the negotiations to create the Culture, remembers the secret that is so dangerous to the Gzilt. Much of the story is a big chase as Cossont and her allies try to race whoever in the Gzilt hierarchy is trying to stop the big secret from coming out. We also see scenes of the conspirators in the Gzilt military. There is no shortage of wonders, such as the vast city that wraps around a planet's equator, called a Girdlecity, where much of the action takes place. And all the characters use powerful technology. Together it makes for some good suspense. The stakes seem high, even though the Subliming never seems in any actual danger. Between the average plot and the average characters, the story is pretty good even if it's not one of Banks' best. B

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Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Storm of Swords

A Storm of Swords is the third book in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. The story follows the characters from the previous two books and adds some new ones. The first chapter is from the point of view of Jaime Lannister, the kingslayer and kings guardsman who is a captive of the lady knight Brienne. Brienne has been charged by Lady Catelyn with taking Jaime to King’s Landing to exchange him for her daughters, but Jaime doesn’t make it easy on her. Despite Jaime’s needling of Brienne, a more human side of him emerges. In flashbacks we see his decision to kill King Aerys and the forces that shaped him. Through the course of the book he comes to appear more honorable, even returning to rescue Brienne rather than leave her to the men who released him.

One of the themes running through the book is the constant changing of fortunes. Jaime is a clear example, going from captive at the beginning of the story to captain of the kings guard at the end. It’s also true of Jon Snow. Jon is one of the black cloaks guarding the wall, or as the wildlings call them, the crows. Jon has to prove himself to the wildlings and convince them that he has turned against the black cloaks, but he faces many who do not trust him. The wildling girl Ygritte takes his side, going so far as to seduce him to show the others that he is one of them. But when they cross the wall to threaten the north of the kingdom, Jon escapes to warn his brothers at the wall. But even when he helps fight off thousands of wildlings with only a few men, he finds that the lords who arrive to help do not trust him either. Over and over he is forced to prove himself.

Much of the plot revolves around the events in King’s Landing and in particular the young King Joffrey. Sansa Stark is still there though she is out of favor and seeking a way to escape. Tywin Lannister, the head of House Lannister and Joffrey’s grandfather, and the effective ruler of the kingdom, orders his son Tyrion to marry Sansa and secure a claim to House Stark. Tyrion, the imp, dutifully obeys his father but can’t bring himself to consummate the marriage. Instead he continues to see his concubine Shea. He knows that no matter how kind is he to Sansa she will always hate him as a Lannister. Tywin is his usual sarcastic and resourceful self. He has also suffered a reversal, with his father taking over as Hand of the king. He is put in charge of the treasury but discovers it is a thankless and untenable task.

There are many times when a character’s fate takes a reversal from the beginning of a chapter to the end. This is most evident with Arya Stark. The book starts with her trying to reach her mother Lady Catelyn. She is with her friend Gendry, but they part ways, and every time she thinks she’s getting closer she finds herself further away. A scene where the Hound catches up with her is one of the most chilling.

The only story line that doesn’t see a reversal of fortune directly is that of Daenarys, the queen in exile. She uses her dragons, her wits, and her loyal servants to amass power and make her way back to Westeros where she intends to conquer the kingdom and rule again. Though there is one reversal when she discovers the truth of a prophesy that says she will be betrayed three times.

This is the best book of the series so far. There are so many plot twists and reversals that it’s hard to remember where things started. There are new characters and forces introduced. The Others, the ghostly undead who terrorize the north, make their way towards the wall. A mystical knight who supposedly can’t be killed roams the western part of the kingdom and makes trouble for the king. King Stannis and his witch use dark magic to see the future. There are plots and more plots. And we learn about the characters’ motivations and backgrounds, making the new ones and old ones more human. It is definitely a fun read. A

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Friday, November 16, 2012

The Magician King

The Magician King is the followup to Lev Grossman's The Magicians. Where The Magicians was a dark coming of age story about young people learning how to use magical powers, this book is about a search for a quest and the discovery of something more. It's also a parallel story about an even darker coming of age.

Quentin is king of Fillory, the magical land he and his friends found in the previous story. He rules with his friend Julia from high school, and his friends Janet and Eliot from Brakebills, the school of magic they graduated from. Ruling over this small tranquil land is pretty boring, so the four of them have decided to go on a quest. Since they are looking for a questing beast, it's more of a metaquest, a quest for a quest. When Quentin makes one choice and one of their servants dies, they rethink their plans.

The book is also the story of how Julia learned magic. Rejected from Brakebills, she went on a dark journey that took her into the hidden underworld of magic. She found secret magic houses and magician mentors. She invents her own spells and discovers an ultrasecret group of magicians who lead her on the ultimate search for power.

Bored, Quentin decides to visit the outermost island in Fillory's realm. After having a ship outfitted, he and Julia travel there to find it nearly deserted. But he hears about a magic key that is on an island even farther out, and finally decides to seek it. But when he and Julia find the key, they are thrust into an unwanted quest: suddenly they find themselves back in the real world.

With both of them confused and upset, Julia takes the lead. She uses her wild magic and her underworld connections to find a way back to Fillory. They retrace her steps to learning magic and Quentin learns some of what she had to go through to get where she is. On the way they discover clues to the real quest, and start to put them together. It turns out that Julia's past is one of the keys, as well as one of Quentin's friends from school.

This story has several layers. One layer is Julia's magical education and how it compares to Quentin's. Another layer is the unexpected nature of the quest. One quest leads to another until the real quest is revealed, and it turns out to be a threat to the existence of Fillory itself. Another aspect is Quentin's malcontent with life in Fillory and always expecting something more interesting. The irony is not only does he find it, he is rejected from Fillory altogether. It's great reading about Julia and contrasting her history to Quentin's. The story has plenty of twists to keep the reader interested (even beyond the mild spoilers here). While the previous book has its dark spots, this one has a darker thread running through it. The ending is bittersweet, and apparently final. But Quentin is just good enough and just complex enough to want to read another story about him. A

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Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Broken Kingdoms

N. K. Jemisin's The Broken Kingdoms is the sequel to The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. The story takes place a few years after the events of the previous book. Oree is a blind artist in the city of Sky, the large tree where the ruling Arameri live in the top. Oree lives in the lower, poorer, section where she makes a living selling her artwork to the tourists who visit the area. While she is blind, she has the ability to see magic, an ability that she keeps secret.

Oree discovers the body of a dead god in a nearby alley one day. Since the change in Arameri leadership, the minor gods have been free to roam the city and the rest of the country. However there are factions that are not so happy with the new order of society. The formerly dominant religious order resents its loss of power.

Oree makes another discovery when she finds a strange man in her trash bin. When she sees him glowing in the sunlight she names in Shiny. Shiny is dark, quiet, and moody. She suspects he is more than he seems. Her suspicions are confirmed when he is killed but comes back to life. Oree and Shiny have come under the attention of some people in the guard force. Oree has also gained the attention of a secretive group who is against the current power structure. It turns out that Oree is special and may be quite valuable. This makes her quite vulnerable, since she is nearly powerless to escape when she is captured.

The story turns dark when Oree's lover, a lesser god, is murdered. She becomes familiar with the power structure of the city and learns Shiny's true identity, which she must keep a secret. Shiny's plight is tied to the events of the previous book and the history of the world. Oree's goal is not just to survive but to keep herself from being used as a weapon and stop the murders of the gods.

The author describes the story adroitly from Oree's point of view. The reader gets a sense of her vulnerability as a blind woman, yet she also has flashes of sight which are sometimes enjoyable and sometimes troubling. The events of the first book are the background to this book as the story is expanded. There are enough players to make the plot interesting and mysterious, and questions keep popping up. Oree's world is populated by many new godlings, some benevolent, some not, and some just mysterious. The story is fun and interesting, and a nice followup to the first book. A-

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