Tuesday, June 26, 2012

News

Hi, everyone! I just wanted to let you know that I haven't vanished.  I've been on vacation, and I just haven't had the time I expected to write new book reviews. Posts will resume by next week at the latest!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Review: Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein


Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein
Published: Astounding Science Fiction (Analog), 1956
Awards Won: Hugo Award

The Book:

“One minute, down and out actor Lorenzo Smythe was -- as usual -- in a bar, drinking away his troubles as he watched his career go down the tubes. Then a space pilot bought him a drink, and the next thing Smythe knew, he was shanghaied to Mars.
Suddenly he found himself agreeing to the most difficult role of his career: impersonating an important politician who had been kidnapped. Peace with the Martians was at stake -- failure to pull off the act could result in interplanetary war. And Smythe's own life was on the line -- for if he wasn't assassinated, there was always the possibility that he might be trapped in his new role forever!” ~WWend.com

I’ve read a fair amount of Heinlein (The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and various short stories), and I enjoyed Double Star. It seemed much lighter and action-focused than other Heinlein novels I’ve read so far.

My Thoughts:

Double Star is a pretty short, fast-paced novel, with a kind of light, not-too-terribly-serious tone that made it a lot of fun to read. I don’t think that Double Star really comedic sci-fi, but it just has an enthusiastic, good-natured attitude that really makes it easy to get caught up in the story.  The novel focuses on the actor ‘Lorenzo Smythe’, the highly skilled—and incredibly conceited—man who gets caught up in the great impersonation.  At first, I thought I would find his narration irritating, since he spends an awful lot of time thinking very highly of himself, or alluding to great works of theatre.  However, his whole character seems to be treated with a certain amount of humor.  Rather than making me roll my eyes, his pomposity seemed to invite laughter.  I also really enjoyed the way his character develops throughout the story.

While I thought Smythe was a surprisingly fun lead, not many of the other characters in the story are very thoroughly fleshed out.  One of the most memorable was the politician’s secretary, Penny.  Penny is the only female in the story, and she’s portrayed as emotional, childish, petulant, and almost entirely motivated by her crush on her employer.  Her colleagues treat her with a kind of friendly condescension, once even playfully threatening to spank her if she didn’t behave.  This was a little irritating to read, but it didn’t bother me as much as some other 1950’s portrayals of women.  For one thing, Penny’s work is actually valuable to her political team, and Smythe’s impersonation would have likely been doomed from the start without her help. For another thing, I have to admit that many of the characters in the story are shown to be more than a little ridiculous.  In this light, Penny seemed silly, as other characters were silly, rather than offensive.

The story was exciting and quickly paced, and I felt that it built tension well. There were some very tense occasions where a failure on Smythe’s part could have been disastrous or even fatal.  I appreciated that Heinlein did not derail the tension with lengthy political discussion, even though the story was about politicians. The politician Smythe impersonates, John Joseph Bonforte, has a strong presence in the story despite his physical absence, and it is through Smythe’s studies of his role that we are shown some of his views.  The main message one could take from this story would be against racism.  This being science fiction, Heinlein did use Martians and other aliens as the ‘other’, but racism is an issue involved both in Smythe’s personal life and in Bonforte’s politics.  Given its temporal proximity to the Civil Right’s Movement, it seems like Double Star must have been particularly relevant to the political environment of the time period in which it was written.

My Rating: 4/5

I think Double Star might be my favorite Heinlein novel to date.  It seems to lean more towards the juvenile end of the Heinlein spectrum, but it still engages with some political issues that were likely especially relevant at the time of its publication.  The story is ridiculous at times, but it is fast-paced and I found it very easy to get caught up in the excitement.  Some character portrayals, such as the childish secretary Penny, are a bit tiresome, but they never seem mean-spirited.  Like most novels, Double Star is a product of time period, but I think it still offers a fun experience for modern-day science fiction readers.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Review: Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch



Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

Published: Gollancz/Orion Books, 2007

Series: Book 2 of the Gentleman Bastard Sequence

**Spoiler Alert: This is the second book of a series, so there will be spoilers of the first book, “The Lies of Locke Lamora”.  If you haven’t read the first novel, stop here to avoid spoilers!

The Book:

“After the brutal ending of "The Lies of Locke Lamora", Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen have left their home of Camorr, relocating to the foreign city of Tal Verrar.  Despite their physical and psychological scars, the Gentleman Bastards soon get themselves involved in a new confidence scheme.  Their target: arguably the richest man in Tal Verrar, Requin, who rules a high-end gambling empire from his Sinspire tower.

However, nothing ever goes quite as simply as the Bastards might hope.  Enemies from the past show up to foul their plans, and soon Locke and Jean are persons of interest to the legitimate powers of Tal Verrar.  The two of them will have to handle assassins, poisons, pirates, corrupt leaders, and their increasingly distrustful marks, if they hope to maintain their claim that they are ‘richer and cleverer than everybody else.’ ” ~Allie

As I’m sure you know from the recent posts on this blog, I’ve been reading this book along with a number of other bloggers over the last five weeks.  Red Seas Under Red Skies is clearly a sequel, so I would not recommend reading it before The Lies of Locke Lamora. Red Seas is less of a stand-alone novel than Lies, and it seems to set up a number of plot points to be resolved in future novels.  

My Thoughts:

Red Seas Under Red Skies begins with Locke and Jean dealing with the ending of The Lies of Locke Lamora, so it is really necessary to have read the first book.  Early in the book, the chapters alternate between featuring the story in the present and memories of the past, in the same manner as Lies. However, this technique is dropped partway through the book in favor of a chronologically told story.  I thought the alternating chapters worked well in Lies, both in terms of controlling the pace and giving the story more of a context, and I had hoped it would be used to enrich Red Seas in the same manner.  I suppose the technique was abandoned here because Locke has no history in Val Terrar.  I think it would have been really interesting if Lynch had used this device to contrast the main romantic subplot of this novel against Locke’s history with the still-mysterious Sabetha. 

I’m still enjoying Lynch’s world building, and I appreciate the way he’s starting to slowly show more of his world's politics and history. The city of Tal Verrar did not feel quite as developed as Camorr, but then again Tal Verrar is not the sole locale for this story.  The Bastards travel much more this time around, and Lynch also ends up spending a lot of time detailing his world's pirate culture.  I enjoyed the pirate sections, though the plot twist that resulted in their inclusion in the story seemed a little farfetched.  While none of the places felt as vivid to me as Camorr, I was happy to see more of Lynch’s world and its peoples.

The story in Red Seas seemed more convoluted than it was in Lies.  Locke and Jean are much more than simple thieves, and they have a tendency to get seriously involved with the power structure of every community they visit.  While this definitely makes for an interesting and exciting story, the inclusion of so many different factions with different agendas ended up making the main story seem a little cluttered.  Almost everything becomes clear near the end of the novel, but the climax of the story seemed a little late and rushed. There are also a few subplots that are left conspicuously unresolved, which I imagine will be featured in Republic of Thieves, the third novel in the series.

Though the pacing is a little jumpy, there’s plenty of the excitement and humor that made Lies such a fun book to read.  There’s also still plenty of violence and profanity, though it seemed consistent with the characters and communities portrayed. I missed Camorr and its people, but there were plenty of colorful new characters.  Perhaps I was just feeling a little wary due to the wide sweep of character deaths in Lies, but I found it a little harder to get attached to the characters this time around. However, I really enjoyed the character development of Jean and Locke.  They were not able to just shrug off what happened in the previous novel, and I liked seeing how their experiences shaped them.  All in all, I had a lot of fun reading Red Seas.   

My Rating: 4/5

Red Seas Under Red Skies is a sequel to The Lies of Locke Lamora, and the first novel is definitely required reading to appreciate the second.  Red Seas continues the humor, excitement and adventure that made Lies such fun, and it takes the reader to new and interesting locations and cultures. Some of the plot points seemed a little too farfetched, but I was more than willing to suspend my disbelief.  I do wish that alternating past/present chapters could have been used here as effectively as they were in Lies, perhaps to expand upon Locke’s previous love life in conjunction with their present time line’s romance subplot.  The pacing seemed a little inconsistent, as well, with a climax that seemed too rushed, given the more sedate pace of most of the rest of the novel. Overall, it's an entertaining continuation of the Gentleman Bastard's story, and I can't wait to see what happens next when Republic of Thieves is published!