Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Review - The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin

With the scope of Dune and the commercial action of Independence Day, Three-Body Problem is the first chance for English-speaking readers to experience this multiple-award-winning phenomenon from  China’s most beloved science fiction author, Liu Cixin.

Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.

This is a hard review to write as I have mixed feelings about this book. On one hand it is a powerful and extraordinary story with massive scope and vision. On the other hand it's incredibly slow and clunky beginning left me feeling a little drained (and confused) by the middle of the book. 

The Three Body Problem tells the story of the Trisolarans, an alien race whose civilisation has evolved in a triple star system on a planet where the forces of nature are in constant flux. Faced with eventual extinction, they decide upon a course of conquest (watch out Earth) in order to survive. Meanwhile on Earth, the threat of this impending invasion causes factions to form in order to determine our response (despite the fact the actual invasion is hundreds of years away due to the distances involved). 

Opening with a brutal scene set in during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Three Body Problem launches into a plot that involves lots of violence and death, questions over the objectivity of science, and a secret Chinese SETI project involving a virtual reality game. And herein lies my problem with the first parts of this book. There was so much background to take it in and get my head around that I found myself bogged down at times. The story itself moves at a very slow pace, and whilst it all comes together in the end wonderfully there were times I contemplated not finishing (my advice, keep going, it's worth it). I also really struggled to connect with the main protagonists in these early parts. Ye Wenjie's moments were fascinating but too few and far between. And Wang Miao really didn't have an impact on me until significant plot points started to become clearer (global conspiracies, alien contact, and the role of the Three Body game). In saying this once I reached the halfway point of the book things started to pick up and become more exciting and immersive, as earlier plot points became clearer and the direction of the book more concise. The last part of the book, from the perspective of the Trisolarans, was exhilarating (note, basic knowledge of particle physics may aid in your enjoyment) and made the initial slog worth it. 

The other saving grace for the Three Body Problem are the ideas and concepts that it deals with. I adored the notion of the Three Body game, and the discussions around alien contact and the SETI programs fascinating and complex. As someone who has long been fascinated by the prospect of first contact with an alien species I found how the Three Body Problem dealt with it to be both bold and original. I also enjoyed the snippets of political, cultural, and military history that were inserted (footnotes from Ken Liu, who translated this from its original Chinese, are provided) into the story. 

Where the Three Body Problem is mainly let down is in it's weak characterisation in the first half of the story. Those early chapters are where a writer needs to hook in its readers, and I felt that the Three Body Problem failed to do this adequately for my taste. Some other reviewers have mentioned a couple of issues with the translation, and that may be a part of the problem with the first half of the book. As a Hugo Award winner (Best Novel 2015) though I decided to persevere with it, and ultimately I felt the book finished on a high both epic in scope and execution that left an intriguing set up for the next instalment. 

The Three Body Problem was a fascinating and original story with some flaws. Ultimately though its incredible breadth and scope, when paired with its discussion of alien contact, make this book well worth the read. 

3.5 stars out of 5. 

A review copy was provided. 

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Money That Cuts Like a Sword - Seth Dickinson

We live in a time of accidental conspiracy.

Our fate — your fate, my fate, the destiny of everyone we love and all those we detest — is ruled by a global network of money, politics, and violence. This power surrounds us at all times. It influences our choices. Sometimes it topples entire nations. No one really understands how this system works, even though it would vanish overnight if we stopped operating it.

That system has the capability to annihilate itself in just a few hours of nuclear exchange. That's pretty crazy, if you think about it. And it's more crazy that the stability of the system depends, in part, on that threat.

We live on a suspension bridge, kept up by tension in the cables — and one of the cables is extinction.

It sounds fantastic, doesn't it? Almost supernatural. Forces beyond any mortal mind shape our lives! But we're constantly nonplussed. The global economy crashes and we sigh: oh, not again.

Somehow, we've made the daemon that runs our lives...kind of boring.

We need to make it exciting! We need to be thrilled and engaged. If we don't care about how the world works, we'll never fix it. But good luck trying to get addicted to articles about collateralized debt obligations or gerrymandering.

Enter fantasy!

Enter The Traitor Baru Cormorant, my debut novel: the tale of a brilliant young woman trying to rip apart an empire from the inside. Baru's frozen out of military and political power. She has to complete her mission without an army or a voice in government — at least until she can build her own army, and her own shadow government.

I wanted to write a fantasy about powerful, brilliant people battling for world domination. I wanted them to wield incomprehensible might — the power to alter millions of lives with one perfect, subtle incantation.

So I made Baru an accountant. She runs a bank. Kind of a weird choice for a book I'm trying to sell as an action-packed thriller, right?

I can't stand boring books. So I knew I had to solve a big problem. How do we make economics and politics as exciting as a swordfight, a battle against pirates, or open war? The book has all these things, but I wanted it to feel taut and thrilling even when Baru was behind a desk. The banking schemes and political maneuvers had to feel as lively, dangerous, and compelling as a duel to the death.

A good fight scene requires only two things, dear reader: rules and stakes. Rules so that we know how the fighters can win and lose. Die Hard works because we know that John McClane will get hurt if he steps on broken glass — and die if he gets shot. But Superman fighting Zod in Man of Steel doesn't work, because we have no idea how many super-punches it takes to kill Superman or Zod. It's all just noise and light.

And we need stakes, so that we care about who wins. When Ellen Ripley goes back to rescue Newt in Aliens, we care, because we want her to save her surrogate daughter! When Iron Man fights Thor in The Avengers, we...don't really care. It's violence without stakes or consequence. They get over it with a few quips.

And the clearer the rules, the sharper the stakes (not higher, mind, but sharper), the more we care! This is what's hard about writing thrilling economics. When Jaime Lannister gets his hand chopped off, we understand deep down what that means. We know he can't swordfight any more, and we know that it hurts. We know he'll be maimed for the rest of his life. Physical action is intuitively exciting, because we already know the rules and stakes.

But if Baru decides to lower the interest rate...who cares? So it's easier to borrow money. Yawn. Maybe a peasant can pay for a new horse, and avoid bankruptcy. But we've never met that peasant. We don't care. And what is an interest rate, anyway?

If you want to write thrilling economics and engaging politics, you need rules and stakes. You need the reader to understand, intuitively and without effort, what could go wrong — just like they do when someone picks up a knife by the blade. And you need a reason to care if something goes wrong.

So here's my advice, readers and writers:

We already know the rules of politics and economics, just like we know to be scared of that knife. What hurts us, in our day-to-day lives? We're not scared of swords. We're afraid of shame. We're afraid of disappointing the people who're counting on us. We're afraid of injustice — being robbed, exploited, or used. We're afraid of being alone.

Economics is the art of what people want, and how they get it. Politics is the art of convincing people to do what needs to be done. When you lose a money game, you get robbed, exploited, and used. When you lose a political gambit, you let down your supporters and shame yourself in front of everyone. Your dreams wither. Maybe you're imprisoned, or exiled, or executed by drowning. Maybe you just live a ruined life.

And if you're Baru, a deep-cover agent reporting to nobody but herself, on a life-long mission to liberate your home, then you're already so alone.

Before any swordfights, heists, cavalry charges, or exploding ships, Baru's best weapon is a pen and a sharp mind. She tracks movement and glances at parties, to map secret alliances. She detects treason in the back pages of secret ledgers. She exploits her own tax system to fund a rebel army. If she's discovered, she'll be drowned for treason and doom her parents to a life of slavery. Rules and stakes! 

In the end, a story is all about people. You don't need to explain the relationship between the money supply, inflation, and price levels — you just need to explain why someone in your story cares about it. 

If a reader loves a character, they'll follow her into anything. Even tax codes. 

Fantasy is powerful. When the Dark Lord invades with an army of ugly orcs, we know we should be afraid. But the world isn't threatened by a Dark Lord these days. It's threatened by the very daemon that made us so rich and powerful.

We need to claim that daemon's incomprehensible power for ourselves! We need to understand a bit of how the world works, and work and vote and labor to make it better. That's why I wrote a fantasy about a young woman who understands money and politics as well as she understands treachery and war — because she cares about the things we need to care about.

The Traitor/The Traitor Baru Cormorant is available to purchase/preorder from all good online retailers and bricks and mortar stores. You can check out some links here at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Booktopia, and Book Depository. More information can also be found here at Pan Macmillan for Australian residents. 

We here at Smash Dragons had the opportunity to read this a few weeks ago, and damn we were impressed. A truly magnificent entry in the genre, and a must read for all speculative fiction fans!

Friday, 18 September 2015

GIVEAWAY - Zeroes by Margo Lanagan, Deborah Bianchetti, and Scott Westerfeld

It's giveaway time here at Smash Dragons!!!

For the chance to win a copy of Zeroes by Margo Lanagan, Deb Bianchotti, and Scott Westerfeld follow me on twitter (@mdsummers) and retweet my giveaway post. 

It is that simple! 

It will be drawn on Saturday 19th September at 1pm AEST. 

This competition is for Australians only, as international postage is a killer.

Best of luck! 


Review - If Then by Matthew De Abaitua

In the near future, after the collapse of society as we know it, one English town survives under the protection of the computer algorithms of the Process, which governs every aspect of their lives. The Process gives and it takes. It allocates jobs and resources, giving each person exactly what it has calculated they will need. But it also decides who stays under its protection, and who must be banished to the wilderness beyond. Human life has become totally algorithm-driven, and James, the town bailiff, is charged with making sure the Process’s suggestions are implemented.

But now the Process is making soldiers. It is readying for war — the First World War. Mysteriously, the Process is slowly recreating events that took place over a hundred years ago, and is recruiting the town’s men to fight in an artificial reconstruction of the Dardanelles campaign. James, too, must go fight. And he will discover that the Process has become vastly more sophisticated and terrifying than anyone had believed possible.

I stumbled upon If Then whilst browsing online one day. I can't recall the exact circumstances, but I remember thinking that it sounded cool and weird. So when I finally had the opportunity to read this story I expected a tale that would fascinate and throw me off balance at the same time. And boy, was I not disappointed! 

If Then tells the tale of a post apocalyptic town that survives under the control and protection of computer algorithms called the Process. The Process runs everything, from food and job allocations right down to who stays in the town and who is banished. Sound weird? It is! Everything seems to be going swimmingly, until the Process starts making soldiers to fight in events that it is recreating from the past. When James, a citizen of the town, is forced to go and fight in an artificial reconstruction of the Dardanelles campaign from World War One, he discovers that the Process has evolved into something more terrifying and dangerous than anyone could imagine. 

I loved so many things about this book, from its surreal and weird setting right through to its horrific action sequences and off balanced tone. De Abaitua does a superb job of drawing you into the world he has constructed in If Then. Lewes is a perfectly described rural community, and at first you are led to believe that it is just like any other pastoral society. That is until De Abaitua sprinkles his narrative with tidbits about neural impulses, drones, and computer algorithms. This environment of normality broken by reminders of its constructed nature constantly threw me off balance and kept me enthralled as the story progressed. The Process itself, and how it controls humanity, is also incredibly well described and creepy. I adored the dark and cold tones of its reign over humanity, and found its management of Lewes fascinating (albeit very cruel in a cold and rationalistic way). 

I also adored the characters of James and Ruth, and how they both evolved as the mysteries of the Process and the town were revealed. Their discovery of a construct called Hector, right through to James serving as a stretcher bearer in an artificial Dardanalles campaign, is what drives If Then.  Through their eyes De Abaitua takes us on a journey that not only explores the horrific nature and senselessness of war but also asks questions about the value we place on people beyond an economic sphere. Ruth in particular does this magnificiently, when she questions the existence of the town and her husband's role in it (James is the town's bailiff). This philosophical and thoughtful tone worked brilliantly throughout the novel, especially when it was also incorporated alongside the horrors of trench warfare or a forced eviction from the town. 

And the action sequences... holy hell... horrific... jarring... and utterly encapsulating the utter waste that occurred in World War One. As someone who has studied war (I have post graduate credentials in military history) I was stunned by the accuracy and sheer hopelessness that De Abaitua was able to capture in this story. The pace was also frenetic, just when I was feeling level and settled I was thrown off balance by a twist or insertion of weirdness that added yet another rich layer to an already complex tale. If Then is only 400 odd pages, but it feels like a much larger and deeper tale due to De Abaitua's skill at weaving an amazing story. 

If Then is an incredibly enthralling and original tale that still has me thinking about it weeks after I read it. A brilliant entry onto the scene, If Then is a must read for anyone even remotely interested in speculative fiction. 

4 out of 5 stars.

A review copy was provided. 

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Review - A Crucible of Souls by Mitchell Hogan

When young Caldan's parents are brutally slain, the boy is raised by monks who initiate him into the arcane mysteries of sorcery.

Growing up plagued by questions about his past, Caldan vows to discover who his parents were, and why they were violently killed. The search will take him beyond the walls of the monastery, into the unfamiliar and dangerous chaos of city life. With nothing to his name but a pair of mysterious heirlooms and a handful of coins, he must prove his talent to become apprenticed to a guild of sorcerers.

But the world outside the monastery is a darker place than he ever imagined, and his treasured sorcery has disturbing depths he does not fully understand. As a shadowed evil manipulates the unwary and forbidden powers are unleashed, Caldan is plunged into an age-old conflict that will bring the world to the edge of destruction.

Soon, he must choose a side, and face the true cost of uncovering his past.

I've had an itch that needed scratching for awhile now.

You see... I grew up loving big fat epic fantasy. 

No joke, I couldn't get enough. 

Tolkien, Williams, Eddings, Jordan, and Feist... all of them were consumed with a zeal and a love that took me on many an adventure. And then I stumbled upon Sara Douglass in my teenage years, and it was game over. A local author... writing epic fantasy... hell yes! I was hooked to the genre, bonded for life. I eagerly awaited every new release from Douglass, lining up at bookstores (the internet was still young people!) to purchase first editions as they pulled them from their boxes to put on the shelves. Epic Fantasy was on the rise here in Australia, and life was good. 

And then, it wasn't. 

Somewhere along the way big fat epic fantasy stumbled, and the rise of darker and edgier books such as the ASOIAF series, and the sudden growth of the YA market, saw big fat epic fantasy basically disappear in Australia by the time I had hit university. And that was ok, because I loved (and still do) the ASOIAF books.. and I enjoyed reading about the adventures of Harry Potter. And come on, who doesn't love Joe Abercrombie and his work?!? Fantasy was still chugging along and growing nicely, and there were new Australian authors appearing to satisfy my need for great local writers (Trudi Canavan, Karen Miller, and Kylie Chan spring to mind). But I still felt like something was missing. I yearned for a big fat epic fantasy that would sweep me away to another world. A book that would celebrate much loved tropes without being cliched and predictable. And a traditional story that took me on a journey filled with danger and adventure. 

And so I went looking for one. I scoured the shelves at the bookstores, and searched high and low for something to fill that hole. And then one day, whilst searching Amazon, I stumbled upon a self published book called A Crucible of Souls by a fellow called Mitchell Hogan. 'Nice title', I thought.. and clicked on the link. The book seemed to be gaining good feedback from people, and the blurb sounded intriguing, so I investigated further. Upon discovering he was Australian I quickly slammed the BUY NOW button and dove in, hoping for the best. 

I was not disappointed. 

A Crucible of Souls scratched that itch, and then some. 

And that brings me to today, with Harper Voyager's release of the paperback version of this book (Hogan was signed to HV last year following the success of his self published stories). And I must admit, I had some concerns. Would they fiddle with the story too much? Would characters and scenes that I loved be cut throughout their editing process? Would the story still be as good as it was when I first took that leap of faith in 2013? 

Well I am happy to report that it still rocks. And, in fact, it may just even be better this time around. 

A Crucible of Souls tells the story of Caldan, a young man whose parents were mysteriously slain years earlier by forces unknown. Raised by monks, and initiated into the arcane mysterious of sorcery and magic, Caldan eventually decides to learn more about his parents and why they were killed. Striking out from the monastery that has sheltered him for most of his life, Caldan is faced with dangers long thought buried, as the shadows of evil grow and circle around him, and the world teeters on the edge of destruction. 

(Got your epic fantasy feels working in overdrive yet?!? Good... read on!)

So what did I love about this book? EVERY-DAMN-THING!

Like I mentioned earlier, A Crucible of Souls scratched that itch that was bugging me for years on end. It features everything that I love about big fat epic fantasy. It has a central character who basically embarks on a 'Hero's Journey', an enthralling and incredibly amazing world that blew my brain sideways (I mean come on... magically enhanced golems people), and a unique and captivating magic system that frankly is among my favourites ever written (and I'm a Sanderson fan!). But it also goes even further. Hogan embraces what is truly great about traditional epic and sword and sorcery fantasy and its tropes and blends it with more modern elements to make it a fantastic read. The characterisation throughout the story, from Caldan right down to the lowliest peasant, is strong and full of agency and depth (yes you want to strangle Caldan at times for his idiocy.. but that was part of his charm I found). The battles, chases, and confrontations are all exciting, tense, and extremely well written, and the story and pace of the book fluid, fast, and dynamic. Just when you think Hogan will succumb to standard cliches he twists the plot and takes you along a different avenue. I ripped through this book all over again in a frenzy, and adored every minute of it. In fact, I think this version from Harper Voyager is an improvement (which is high praise indeed seeing as I adored the self published version) over its predecessor. The story itself feels a little tighter and quicker, and some of the padding has been cut out where it wasn't needed. And the maps... oh the maps! They were a wonderful inclusion at the start that added yet another layer to an already brilliantly described world. 

So did I notice anything that I didn't like? No, not really. If I had one small criticism it would be that I wanted to know a little more about the magic and its various orders, but that in itself is the tiniest complaint and probably me just being too picky seeing as it's the first novel in a series (you don't want all of your secrets revealed too quick!). 

A Crucible of Souls was my favourite book of 2013, and it deserved the Aurealis Award it received that year. This version is better, and it hits all the markers that epic fantasy and sword and sorcery fans want and crave. Hogan has weaved a truly sublime tale that acknowledges and embraces well loved tropes whilst also offering something new and fantastic. Not only has Hogan scratched that itch that was bugging me, he has in fact held me down and tattooed this book onto my soul. 

Australia's answer to Rothfuss and Sanderson, A Crucible of Souls is an absolute must read for old and new fans of the genre alike!

5 out of 5 stars (I would give it more if I could... I love it that much!)

A review copy was provided.