Intriguing Shadow Realms | Nine Princes in Amber (The Chronicles of Amber #1), by Roger Zelazny

Nine Princes in Amber (The Chronicles of Amber #1)
by Roger Zelazny
Published by Avon (1986)
Rating: ****

Introduction

The thing about finding genres of books that you prefer reading is that you’re able to locate books in the genre a lot quicker. Since I properly began reading science-fiction and fantasy books (in that I took my reading of the genre a little more seriously), I’ve been trying to tick off the classics – the books people recommend as foundational texts that have introduced new dimensions of storytelling, or pushed the boundaries of the genre. Zelazny’s Amber Chronicles series was one of these, recommended to me because I enjoy worlds that have complex, but complete and intricate magic systems. It was also recommended because I enjoyed reading Brandon Sanderson.

Plot 

Carl Corey wakes in a medical clinic, with little to no knowledge of who he is or how he got there. He finds the manager of the clinic, and learns that he was recovering from a car accident in a private clinic, paid for by his sister, Evelyn Flaumel. Fleeing from the clinic, he heads to her house. That is where he discovers his identity, as Corwin. He hides his lack of memory from her – and everyone he comes into contact with, discovering his family and his relationships which each of them.

As one of his brothers, Random, makes contact with him, he decides to try to seize the throne of Amber, which is currently held by his brother Eric. Thus begin his adventure across the shadow realms, mixing reality and fantasy.

Amnesia as a plot device

Personally, one of the best creative decisions I’ve come across in recent times is Zelazny’s decision to give his character amnesia. Amnesia is a curious, painful thing: with the loss of memory is the loss of identity, and the desire to build oneself up is evident right from the start of the book when Corwin chooses to flee from the hospital because he feels unsafe over there. Additionally, amnesia adds layers of complexity to the plot. Aside from Corwin’s concealment of his condition throughout the book – which has a huge impact on the way he behaves with others (compared to what he actually wishes to ask), it allows for the reader to be introduced to Amber and the Machiavellian family that seems to rule it along with the protagonist. Corwin is learning these things almost for the first time, and so are we. This allows for a natural introduction of detail, a natural world-building, where no amount of description feels too dreary since Corwin needs to know all the information to help him make better decisions.

Pacing

Zelazny uses few words to communicate intricate plot depths. The pacing in this book is incredible, and I found myself exhausted after reading it because so much happened in just over 150 pages. I speak, and write, in very long sentences, with a lot of commas. Zelazny uses short sentences – crisp, and to the point, achieving his ends with what feels like minimal effort.

Conclusions

Quite honestly, Amber’s construction is extremely complicated – and for a while, I was not sure whether Corwin was in the real Amber or not. The discussion of shadow realms makes it even more complex. However, that’s what has me intrigued, and I’m also eager to see what happens next in this family. It’s why I hope to be reading the whole series.

Spidey Sense | Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Children of Time (Children of Time #1)
by Adrian Tchaikovsky,
Published by PanMacmillan (2015)
Rating:
****

Introduction

In 2016, this book seems to have set the Science Fiction world alight. My discovery of the book was only in late 2019, and this was my first read in 2020, which was quite a nice way to start off the year. What intrigued me the most when I found the book on Goodreads was the fact that the author’s last name was Tchaikovsky, and for a while, I thought there was a connection with the famous composer. Turns out there is none. Then I discovered that the author was a legal executive – and the commonality in profession and vocation perhaps drew me to the book even more. This was a solid read, and I’d gladly recommend this as an excellent starter book for those curious about themes that you will meet frequently in Science Fiction/Fantasy writing.

Plot

An experiment seeks to uplift monkeys to sentient levels through an engineered nanovirus, in order to place them on a habitable planet. Unfortunately though, that project is tampered with, and all the subject monkeys are killed. Nonetheless, the nanovirus is transported to the intended planet, infecting several species of insects. Spiders end up becoming the chief beneficiaries as a result of this “botched” experiment. Thus begins one prominent narrative throughout the book, which explores spiders as rulers of their planet – looking at the kind of society they set up. The second, interconnected narrative is a group of humans fleeing from Earth, now destroyed by a final world war – who end up finding the spider-race planet. Thus begins an intermingling of worlds.

History 

Over the past few years, I have noticed that the Science Fiction/Fantasy books that I enjoy indulging in the most are books which have elaborate histories constructed for the world they seek to establish. This, for me, enables a greater contextual understanding of the issues that the book seeks to deal with, and allows me to immerse myself in the world that the writer envisages with more ease. With this genre particularly, there needs to be an element of relatability for me – a fine tightrope between creating a distinct world and actually allowing for some elements to continue uninterrupted from the world we know. History does this best. Tchaikovsky accomplishes this wonderfully. Aside from all the chapters aboard the ship fleeing Earth, Gilgamesh, Tchaikovsky weaves the history of compelling spiders like Portia, looking at how her species develops language, understands rules to live by, and develops culture to pass down through their civilization. It’s amazing.

What’s even more remarkable is the fact that Tchaikovsky weaves what is clearly an inter-generational saga into a singular, mammoth book, without losing track of the key plot points he seeks to elucidate. That takes a fair amount of foresight, and inspired writing. For me, only one other author has managed that successfully, and perhaps that speaks to how recently I’ve discovered how much I enjoy this genre, but that’s Cixin Liu.

 Conclusion

This book is a great introduction to science-fiction/fantasy because it establishes a planet afresh, and perhaps gives the nicest overview of the kind of dilemmas the genre seeks to engage with.

Skyward (Skyward #1) | Brandon Sanderson

Skyward (Skyward #1)
by Brandon Sanderson
Published by Gollancz (2018)
Rating: ***  

Throughout this book, I felt like I was reading Artemis, by Andy Weir. I try to refrain from making comparatives, but the premise of both plots are extremely similar: a female protagonist attempting to disprove society, outer space, and an identity conflict which pervades across the protagonist’s relationship with other characters in the book. I left the book thinking it merited a 4-star rating, but the more I thought about the ending, the more my feelings, and consequently, my rating dipped. To be fair, I think this book is truly an exemplar of 3.5-star writing. I’ll attempt to justify my conflicting emotions throughout this review. A couple of things I’d like to clarify: this book isn’t like any other Sanderson material. If you’re coming into this book expecting something similar to Mistborn – it isn’t there. You’d rather adjudicate this book on its own merit.

Spensa has always longed to be a pilot like her father –  even when he flees in the middle of battle and is shot down by his own side in punishment for cowardice. Spensa is one of the descendants of a wrecked space fleet who found a precarious refuge in the caverns of a graveyard of a planet while an unknown alien species launches constant attacks, trying to destroy what civilization humanity has managed to recreate. Spensa and her family have to live under her father’s dishonorable reputation, even though Spensa is certain that he wasn’t a coward and that there has to be more to the story. Getting into flight school will be hard enough, but graduating will be even harder — many cadets and pilots don’t survive their first encounters with the enemy. In a predictable conclusion, Spensa participates in several heroic acts in an epic battle sequence at the end.

Let’s deal with the positives first, for I do think the book has plenty.

The characters are incredible. There’s a depth to each one of the individuals Sanderson creates, and each of them help with plot development greatly. What I admire about Sanderson’s writing is his ability to create character arcs for every one of his characters, without it feeling forced onto the reader. Sanderson cleverly masks each individual’s history: whether Cobb’s, Ironside’s, Gram-Gram’s, and even Jerkface’s, into their interaction with Spensa. This allows the reader greater understanding of each character’s motivations and weaknesses, with an easy comparison to Spensa’s own. Another result of doing this is that the focus never wavers from Spensa herself, which allows Sanderson to develop her to the fullest in this book.

Another component of the book I enjoyed greatly was the conflict Sanderson creates in the atmosphere. There are numerous levels to this, which deserves some appreciation. The first is of course, the conflict between the Krell and the DDF, which plays out in a very strategic set of wars. The second, is the conflict between Spensa and everyone around her – who doesn’t believe she is worthy of flying: either because of the fact that her father was a coward, or because she possesses a “defect”. Sanderson attempts to weave the two together in the conclusion – which I don’t particularly enjoy, but we’ll get to that later. The last, is the conflict Sensa senses in herself. Continuously driven by her fear of being labeled a “coward”, she resists using the term, and finds herself confused, at several junctures about whether her actions smell of fear, or of “cowardice”. This emotional conflict is a marvelous layer to the plot, which I think drove the narrative in this book.

Finally, Sanderson seems to have done some research before writing. I think the space opera elements of Skyward, in terms of the machinery and weaponry involved, is not any that’s present in literature today. The schematic drawings provided in-book were super fun to peruse through (although I feel like that’s something the publishing house added), the detailing was excellent. However, at times it felt like Sanderson got trapped in a pit of overusing the phrase “g-force” to describe any sensation Spensa felt in her Poco jet. The level of research I think tells most when it comes to M-Bot, which is a figment of his imagination, but I think, the funniest character in the book, with the wittiest one-liners. M-Bot’s technological prowess is phenomenal. Considering this is the first book in the series, I’m really hoping for more of M-Bot in later books to come. And more Doomslug.

Now, the negatives.

See, for all the joy Spensa the character gave me, I didn’t really understand several parts of her world. A conversation with a friend revealed that we were both equally clueless about how her world functions. To me, this is a big deviation from Artemis, which despite it’s own flaws, did a phenomenal job of world building. You almost had no questions to ask. Here, you’re left wondering how exactly/where exactly that world fits into our understanding of the galaxy, which I think is a bit problematic. Moreover, the lack of world building is an issue because this is the first book in the series. It feels like Sanderson lacked clarity about what he envisaged the world to be like. The first book, for me, is really important to gauge whether or not I’m going to be hooked to the series. Good first-books balance plot development and world-building really well, and Sanderson is capable of this: he shows us that through The Final Empire. This, however, falls flat in comparison. As a consequence, it feels like descriptions of the world in future books in the series are afterthoughts/additions to help plot flow better.

The second thing I disliked was the ending. I’m still actually quite confused about what actually transpired – because while I understood the action taking place on-ground/in-space, I didn’t understand the layering that Sanderson had done – in terms of Spensa’s final interaction with her mother/grandmother. It left a lot to be explained – something I’m hoping comes out in the next few books. I’m quite certain that it’s meant to be vague, to allow for development later in the series. The level of vagueness though, was a little too much.

To conclude: absolutely thrilling, fast-paced book. Great plot, amazing characters. Vague attempt to be profound at the end, unclear world.

You see my confusion? This is a 3.5 dilemma situation.

A friend of mine offered some good insight. I think this, unlike Mistborn, is meant for the younger side of the YA spectrum audience. An enjoyable read, but one I’m okay skipping out on. Which is sad, because Space stuff is usually right up my alley.

The Broken Earth Trilogy | N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season (Broken Earth #1)
by N.K. Jemisin
Published by Orbit (2015)
Rating: ***

The Obelisk Gate (Broken Earth #2)
by N.K. Jemisin
Published by Orbit (2016)
Rating: ****

The Stone Sky (Broken Earth #3)
by N.K. Jemisin
Published by Orbit (2017)
Rating: *****

This year I have several goals I’d like to accomplish with my book-reading. The first, of course, is a target number. What’s more important to me, however, is that I’m able to accomplish reading a diverse set of books over the course of the year. Diverse in terms of genre and in terms of authors I read. And I plan to do this by spending more time searching for books. Additionally, there’s this quest to read authors in full – so I can comment critically on their style of writing. The final desire I have is to be able to critically review books – from a literary perspective, I’d like to understand more about genres and offer more comments on writing.

A small step to that is writing this blog. This context is essential to understand why I read N.K. Jemisin. In 2017 November, I stumbled across Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem/Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy – which absolutely blew me away. While I was on the Internet, I discovered that Jemisin not only beat Liu’s final installment to a Hugo Award, but bagged herself three consecutive Hugos. That is not an easily accomplishable feat. I have found few Award-winning books to really resonate with me, so I thought I’d give it a shot. This is one of those series’, which for me, built-up over the course of the three books – which is reflected in my ratings of the trilogy.

How do you start to review a series that repeatedly explores the way the world ends?

The premise of the series is intriguing. The Broken Earth trilogy is set on a massive continent called the Stillness, in a far-future Earth wracked with periodic disasters known as Seasons. These Seasons aren’t just bad storms: they’re massive, apocalyptic events that last for generations, reshaping the world and its inhabitants. Those who survive huddle into Comms, protected communities that try to wait out the destruction, then crawl out and rebuild civilization before the next event. There are also remnants of an advanced civilization that persist throughout the destruction: giant, floating crystals called Obelisks.

Among the survivors of humanity are “orogenes,” individuals who can draw incredible magical power from reservoirs of the Earth. But while these orogenes serve a useful purpose for society, their training and treatment is brutal. They’re taken from their homes as children and brought to the Fulcrum, an order that trains and certifies them under the supervision of yet another order, known as the Guardians. When the Seasons come, they’re often singled out for death from Stills, their non-magical counterparts.

Good fantasy is always enjoyable to read because of the origins of thought and premises. In that regard, the series is fantastic. Jemisin is rare in her ability to understand the vastness and scalar nature of time when it comes to geology, but more crucially, is able to apply this understanding to create a sense of linear plot development. Her characters are well-crafted, and the shifting perspectives she provides for the central figures are refreshing and enjoyable, throughout all three books.

My independent assessment of the books, however, largely vary. I believe The Fifth Season was a lot of world-building, which is understandable for a trilogy, but did not create the level of plot engagement that I desired. There’s a lot in terms of plot-line convergence – in that Jemisin tries to reach conclusions to strands of thought that have begun, but in places, the book is agonizingly difficult to read – especially in its description of child abuse. It also made the protagonists difficult to like. If that was a deliberate choice, I think it affected a large part of my reading experience, which reflects in a lower rating.

The Obelisk Gate does a great job of balancing world-building and plot – which reflects in a 4-star rating. I think a large reason why I enjoyed it a little more was also because of the fact that I had context to why the world was so bizarre. If you’re someone who Wikipedia searches for plots and jumps in to the middle of the series, I think it might get slightly difficult to enjoy this one. What I especially enjoyed was the diversity in the cast – something that develops especially here. As a piece of feminist literature, and I use the tag deliberately, the book is able to explain oppression and power-dynamics a lot better than other fictional pieces. It gets you thinking. Being the middle-book, it does a fair enough job of creating longing for the conclusion. I docked points here because the writing and dialogue became boring in parts, dipping in their pace and their efficacy – and I say this as someone who enjoyed Lord of the Rings and other Tolkien works thoroughly.

The Stone Sky is downright incredible. It is the most fitting conclusion to the series, it’s difficult to imagine things ending any other way whatsoever. Jemisin’s writing hits peaks in it’s descriptiveness and it’s sense of apocalyptic society. It mirrors exactly what society is today. If the previous book got me thinking about power dynamics, this book got me thinking about internal prejudices a lot more. The dialogue is extremely powerful – and creates a sense of focus about the human experience and a pleasurable existence, in terms of having a family you love, and a support system that helps you overcome anything in the world. The prose is delightful and enjoyable. The characters make unexpected choices, but reasoned ones – and the reasoning is one that keeps you hooked.

It is, by far the best conclusion to a series I’ve read. I’d recommend the series on the whole – I think it’s worth reading. Fighting breaks in momentum with the first book might take time, but it’s a series that’ll keep you hooked once you start. Every Age must indeed come to an end.