The Fountains of Paradise…

The Fountains of Paradise…

 

… a.k.a. the (other) one with the space elevator

Arthur C. Clarke found perfection in Sri Lanka and I both admire and envy him for this. Some of us spend a lifetime searching for this kind of perfection, while he not only managed to find it, but he lived with it and allowed it to inspire him in writing absolutely amazing novels… among which “The Fountains of Paradise”.

I read this one well after “Rendezvous with Rama” and “Childhood’s end” (both of which I absolutely adored) and, for some reason, I honestly thought that I shouldn’t have expected that much from this book. After all, lightning had already struck twice in the case of Sir Clarke’s novels and I had also been disappointed by “The City and the Stars”, or worse, “The Last Theorem”.

But this… Between the physics, the dreams and the characters…

This is one of those books that delves well into science-fiction waters, all the while not forgetting that the person delving is still a human being. Most authors like to pluck their readers from their comfy armchairs and throw them to some planet revolving around Altair, where they must fight squirrel-looking giants. But with Sir Clarke, the starting and ending points are almost always on boring old Earth… home. He is forever bringing the aliens to us, but not in a terrible sort of way, and he never lets us forget that we have a brain and that we might as well use it in order to welcome our guests properly.

We return once more to a certain island that ends up becoming the centre of the world and we watch a clever engineer build a really impressive bridge to the stars, despite the obstacles men and gods throw his way. He is remarkably intelligent, surprisingly modest (although he might just seem so because he never has the time to brag) and understanding. Sir Clarke tends to cram plenty of characters in his books, thus making spotlight stealing an almost impossible sport. However, Van Morgan does steal the spotlight and manages to hold it, even with his calm and hard-working demeanour that would normally label him as a boring old nerd. But, somewhere between the science and the professionalism, he grows on you… so much so that the last pages of the book are heartbreaking and almost unbearable.

This is not an action-packed novel. Most plots are related to Van Morgan’s attempts to find himself a sponsor and convince a group of monks to relocate their temple, and to King Kalidasa’s fear of being overthrown by his brother. Not very exciting stuff, many would think…  except that the present and the past are intertwined beautifully and we are shown just how correct some legends are.

The Prefect… a.k.a. “I know what you did last summer”, now in 3D

The Prefect… a.k.a. “I know what you did last summer”, now in 3D

I swear Alastair Reynolds is like crack. It’s bad for me, expensive, ghastly long and yet I always find myself reaching for one or another of his books whenever I go shopping. This novel was even worse, because I figured that if I had read Revelation Space and Chasm City, I might as well go for this one. Also, I am currently in the middle of Galactic North…

Anyway!

The Prefect is a tragic, high-tech detective story occurring between (and thanks to) two of the most traumatic events the humans settled around Epsilon Eridani had ever been subjected to (so far). It involves revenge, one evil electronic entity who wants to save everyone by killing them (first “wft?” moment), another evil electronic entity which turns out to have actually been misunderstood the whole time (a situation which could have led to something quite awesome if only the Clockmaker had made another appearance in the series), revenge, some minions, over-the-top technology and implants, revenge, an atomic trio formed of an old and wise prefect and his two juniors (one young female who is never in control of anything and one genetically modified pig who is actually better at his job than the rest of the genetically modified humans), deadly technology and a supreme commander who must continuously stay awake and in complete isolation and still manages to kick a**… oh, and did I mention revenge?

It’s long, it’s over the top (the two tags that should always be used when describing an Alastair Reynolds novel, which is a shame, because his short stories are awesome), but it’s fun… even the incredibly over the top, almost cartoonish bits. Such as Gaffney’s escape from prison which is straight out of any 90s movie involving Bruce Willis and baddies (see Die Hard). But, it managed to keep me glued… or better put, high. Also, the whip-hound is one cool weapon.

The book ends on a deceitful high note, because the reader (especially if subjected to other books in the series) does end up with a lot of questions, such as: where the hell are the prefects when the melding plague starts destroying the habitats and how come they weren’t able to stop its effects? And even more so, where the hell is the Clockmaker during the Revelation Space ark? See, I told you it’s crack…

Still, it was fun and easy to read (despite reaching the 600+ page count – seriously, are authors paid per word nowadays? Whatever happened to books that managed to be brilliant in 200 pages or less? – See Fahrenheit 451).

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi… aka “Beam me up, Scotty!”

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi… aka “Beam me up, Scotty!”

Let’s face it, science-fiction writers bluff a LOT. With the reader, with their characters, sometimes with the whole universe and other times even with themselves. This novel, however, reached a whole new level (practically invented it), because this author has bluffed his way through the entire story. And I’m not just saying that because its protagonist is an almost omnipotent thief.

The first couple of chapters are fantastic. The prison and what the thief goes through inside it are described perfectly and yes, the whole thing gets you hooked. Unfortunately, after the first couple of chapters, the book turns into an anime script (with very few exceptions).

This would have been a pretty fun read if not for several lethal facts:

*Grown-ups with, literally, centuries of life experience are acting like a bunch of moody, angsty teenagers. I get the eccentricity is some cases, but this is almost ridiculous. I expected huge egos, limitless power and almost omniscience… and I got huge egos, cheap tricks and almost no one having any kind of control over anything.

**Something that was quite disturbing and unforgivable for me… and, I should think, for any female individual reading this book: the sex scene… which the author tries to gloss over by repeating several times that no, Mieli was not present during the important bits because her mind wasn’t actually connected to her own body (consent, anyone?), so it was actually ok… no, no dear author, it really wasn’t…

***The showdown – much like the entire book, come to think of it – is so choked on terminology (one that is never quite explained, mind you) that you can barely understand what the hell is going on. It is one giant linguistic/phraseologic chaos… featuring lethal particle beams, computer viruses… and honest-to-God sword-wielding pixies straight out of a “Magical Girl” game/anime…

Recommended to: people who like lasers, conspiracy theories (although the storytelling fell quite a bit short in the build-up), explosions and anime!!!

Still, the book gets two stars (on Goodreads) because I liked the ship (though I understand that it gets destroyed at some point in the future, so there’s that…), the time beggars scene and because the whole thing wasn’t boring. The pacing was pretty well done and while there will be groaning in annoyance and LOTS of eye-rolling, there won’t be any sighs of boredom or keeping one’s eyelids open with toothpicks.

Deception by Amanda Quick… aka “Ms. Wingfield and the Pirate Nanny”

Deception by Amanda Quick… aka “Ms. Wingfield and the Pirate Nanny”

As I stated in another review, nobody can write bluestockings and over-the-top heroes like Ms. Quick.

Miss Wingfield and Mr. Chillhurst are no different. Olympia is a rather absent-minded adoptive mother of three, almost ignorant in terms of society rules and regulations, but well-versed in translating and decrypting old diaries… Which is why Jared, undercover viscount masquerading as a pirate masquerading as a tutor, requires her expertise. And if he just happens to find her attractive and suitable for the part of future countess, who’s to blame?

Together they battle propriety and back-stabbing associates, while solving a century-long mystery (although, disappointingly, we never get to hear about the actual treasure, as the story ends before they leave for the island where the treasure is supposed to be buried).

As in most Amanda Quick novels, we also have a flock of supporting characters: three surprisingly well-mannered boys, despite one TSTL episode; one hilarious housekeeper; his family and her new friends, who are basically a bunch of lovable busy-bodies AND two surprising lesbian couples (Olympia’s beloved aunts and Chillhurst’s “former acquaintances”). Given the fact that this book was originally release in the early 90s, this is serious stuff and Ms. Quick may be considered an ice-breaker of sorts.

I always recommend Ms. Quick to people who want to get onto the historical romance bandwagon, but don’t know where to start. Her books are usually fun romps, with charming characters and themes/mysteries that are light enough not to steal the romance spotlight.

“Ravished” by Amanda Quick… aka “The fossil whisperer and – quite literally – Beast from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast”

“Ravished” by Amanda Quick… aka “The fossil whisperer and – quite literally – Beast from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast”

Somehow, when I first came in contact with this genre, I was lucky enough to stumble upon two pretty good books that managed to get me hooked on historical romances. The first one was Julia Quinn’s “To Sir Philip, with love”. The second was Ms. Quick’s “Ravished”. Need I say more?

Nobody can write bluestockings like Ms. Quick. Nobody! While other such heroines tend to be wallflowers with certain literary pursuits or budding journalists, Ms. Quick’s heroines usually don’t give a damn on what the society regards as proper and are experts in their field of work… all the while not being very impressed with the antics of their over-the-top heroes.

Harriet and Gideon are the perfect example. He’s a huge, brooding and lonely beast of a man with trust issues and a penchant for allowing society think the worst of him. She’s “almost” a slip of a woman with an unusual hobby, overlapping teeth and a streak of independence, who’s used to getting her way. Still, when she stumbles upon the hideout of a gang of thieves, she summons the master of the land and practically demands that he free her beloved caves. I immediately liked Gideon because he believed her. He did not belittle her for her hobby or think that she had some sort of mental condition, despite the manner in which she received him, and he ended up solving the pest situation, though with some difficulty.

As always with Ms. Quick, there is a gaggle of charming secondary characters (family and friends), some really interesting dynamics between the protagonists (and I’m not just talking about the horizontal tango here – for example, he’s not wary of impending pregnancy, but rather of his betrothed being brought to town to “acquire polish”) and a really old mystery to be solved (though you kind of see that one coming). He’s trying to be forceful and frightening, she’s having none of that and manages all tight situations surprisingly well. Together, despite all expectations, they are quite sweet and a force to be reckoned with.

Yes, all the way!

The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem… aka “Science Bros – The Original”

The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem… aka “Science Bros – The Original”

Before Rodney McKay and Carson Beckett, before Tony Stark and Bruce Banner… there were Trurl and Klapaucius.

Whether exploring the Universe, getting kidnapped to save this princess and that nation or wanting to invent the perfect society, these two are forever getting into trouble and bantering away while getting out of said trouble, quite possibly until the end of time or even beyond it. And don’t even get me started on their mentor. I swear I had a female version of his terrifying me all through college.

Although most of the collection revolves around these two “mad” scientists, there are also a number of “fables” focused on electronic knights, their diamond-like ladies and inhospitable lands to be conquered. Although these stories are written in a fashion even more accessible than the “Cyberiad” itself (they appear to be almost bedtime stories – and rightfully so, since I recall reading fragments of these in elementary school), a closer look will lead an older reader to well-hidden meanings and a special kind of magic. Having re-read them last year, it felt almost like watching the elements from the periodic table take human-like shape and embark on great adventures. Mr. Lem somehow made chemistry romantic!

As other reviewers have done so before me, I too must praise the translator. (Un)fortunately, the only version of the Cyberiad translated in my mother tongue is a rather old one (twenty years old, to be precise). This means that the translation, while being a really good one, is singular (hence the book’s out-of-print status).

There are certain authors (especially in the science-fiction genre) who manage to turn their words into life. Stanislaw Lem is such an author. And even if this life is lived by characters made of liquid metals and noble gases, it is still life. I think that this motif, alongside Trurl and Klapaucius’ godlike abilities (and childlike behaviours) are what both surprised and impressed me most in this collection. Definitely an oldie but a goldie!

The Secrets of Sir Richard Kenworthy a.k.a. “Am I really reading a Julia Quinn novel?”

The Secrets of Sir Richard Kenworthy a.k.a. “Am I really reading a Julia Quinn novel?”

Lately, Ms. Quinn has been writing rather bland books… but this one was actually kind of insulting. Which is new for her… and hopefully a situation not to be repeated.

You probably already know the premises: a peer of some kind comes down to London to hunt for a bride in two weeks or less. (Hmm, somebody, somewhere should really write a reality show scenario on this.) Anyway, he finds the pale redhead (based on the previous descriptions of Iris, I’d have expected her to be a really washed blonde, but not a redhead, and how are redheads fading away exactly? That kind of melanin would have entailed at least similar eyebrows and maybe some freckles… so how and where to is she fading exactly?!) to be adequate to his tastes and requirements, kisses her in a awfully brutish way, in order to compromise her and whisks her away to his far, far, FAR away home.

I had so many issues with this book, after just a hundred pages or so, it wasn’t even funny anymore.

First of all, how can Iris still stand the creature after that really, really botched kiss (to be read “assault”) that compromised her? Secondly, how can her parents/aunts/clan force her to marry the cretin? After all, she was caught “kissing” him by one of her own aunts, who is supposedly able to keep her mouth shut. They were never seen by anyone else, so how would the gossip actually start? And even if the gossip did start, Iris was already on her way to becoming a spinster, so why would the entire thing have caused her to be shunned by society, even provided that her aunt could really not keep quiet? And don’t even get me started on the parents…

Moving on. As their trip north began, so did the questions. Why isn’t he poorer? After all, he’s only a “Sir” and up to that moment it had been hinted that he might have only wanted her for her dowry, even if there was really not much of it… Why is he so well-known (where was he going since the innkeepers know him, but the whole of London doesn’t) and, of course, since this IS supposedly, a romance novel, why isn’t he banging his wife? Then, for about fifty pages, as we get to the house and the ties start binding, I entered a serious state of denial. I saw the disaster coming, but I still refused to believe it.

no… No… NO! This kind of plot CANNOT exist in a Julia Quinn novel! She’s not Jo Beverly! She’s not Virginia Henley! Noooooo!!!!!

Alas, it did exist.

Never before have I witnessed such a slap in the face of womanhood (because we can’t even talk about feminism here); no, actually I have noticed this before, back when I was trying to survive through some Company of Rogues novels.

I cannot even begin to describe the complete disappointment I felt not only with the book and the characters, but with the author as well. Ms. Quinn! I started reading historical romances thanks to you! I managed to escape the crappiness of reality at times, thanks to you and other authors like yourself, authors I discovered because I liked your novels so much! What have you done!?!?