Off the Bookshelf: Early Summer 2017

I got a respectable jump on my Summer Reading List for 2017 in late May and June, reading five books by June 30 (though I got in the last one, Revenger, with only a few hours to spare). It was a good reading pace, and it puts me on target to finish the 17 books on my list by Labor Day.

The Player of Games

First up on the list was The Player of Games (Amazon) by Iain Banks . It’s the second book in The Culture series involving a post-scarcity galactic civilization. Sprawling, inclusive, and unrelentingly civilized, the Culture is like Star Trek’s Federation … only more so. Ruled in partnership with artificial intelligence, few human needs go unmet in the Culture. What it does lack, however, is any sense of risk — as a civilization the Culture has achieved a kind of utopia, and while that’s find for most people, it’s not for Jernau Morat Gurgeh.

Gurgeh is the “Player of Games” — he’s the best at what he does and what he does is play every game known to humanity and its allies … and win. Bored by the the lack of challenges, Gurgeh lets himself be recruited to play the civilization-defining alien game of Azad. The game is so complex that the winner is crowned emperor of the empire of the same name.

It’s a challenge that Gurgeh can’t resist, but within hours of arriving within the Empire of Azad he realizes that all the safety implicit in the Culture are gone. At first viewed as a curiosity by the aliens, he quickly becomes a threat — and threatened — when he starts winning games.

The Player of Games was at its best when exploring the three-gendered, cut-throat civilization of the Azad and Gurgeh’s reactions to it. The book is more polished than Banks’ first novel, Consider Phlebas, and Banks creates some stirring alien vistas (particularly the inferno world at the end of the book, which is swept by a line of life-consuming fire at regular intervals).

Strangely, the least satisfying part of the book was the game of Azad itself. I found myself wanting more specific details on how the game itself — it’s mechanics, how it was played, the strategies and tactics used to win, etc. In short, I was looking for something more like Ender’s Game, in which Orson Scott Card’s characters — and the reader — had to learn how to wage a war in space. When Gurgeh plays the game, Banks rarely goes into details about actual game play, instead painting the game in broad strokes that tie back into the geopolitical, religious, and intellectual manipulations in the larger empire. I get why he did that, but in the end Banks tells us how clever Gurgeh is; he doesn’t let us realize that for ourselves.

The book took a little too long to get started — I think I was about 1/4 of the way in before we got anyway near Azad — but looking back that groundwork was needed to establish the nature of the Culture and to contrast it with the civilized barbarism of Azad (I suspect this is particularly true for those who were unfamiliar with The Culture series)

Thrawn

This summer I pledged to make good on one of my promises from last summer: reading days. In order to truly relax and lose myself in my books, I wanted to take off multiple days during the summer and do nothing but read, preferably at the beach. Our vacation schedule made that difficult but I did get in one beach day … and Thrawn (Amazon) by Timothy Zahn is the book I took with me.

For those who don’t know, Grand Admiral Thrawn was the red-eyed blue-skinned who led the imperial navy after the Battle of Endor in the original Star Wars Expanded Universe. He became an iconic character, and one of the defining ones in Zahn’s Dark Force Rising trilogy.

For Thrawn, Timothy Zahn tells the admiral’s origin story, from his arrival on a backwater planet in the Outer Rim to his steady rise through the Imperial ranks to his investigation of a mysterious Imperial building project that is silently devouring resources and warping the galaxy’s economy. The events take place in the years following Episode III, and takes Thrawn’s career right up to the edge of Episode IV.

There were two things I found intriguing about the book. The first is how Zahn portrays Thrawn and his staff as honorable sailors working to defend the Empire but becoming increasingly concerned about its excesses. The second are the hints at a great and hidden threat within the Unknown Regions, one that the galaxy at large is woefully unprepared for. We know from subsequent new era novels that the First Order — the imperial remnant we saw in The Force Awakens is based in the Unknown Regions, as is Supreme Leader Snoke. Is Snoke the threat? Or another bastion against that threat?

All in all it was a good book and a fast read; the final space battle wasn’t quite as impressive as I’d hoped for, but it was a satisfying book nonetheless.

Victory Conditions

After four summers of reading I’ve finished Elizabeth Moon’s five-book Vatta’s War series. The books began with Ky Vatta learning that her family had been killed and their interstellar shipping business nearly destroyed by a pirate conspiracy. After struggling with that reality, she spent the next three books trying to convince planetary governments of the pirate threat while simultaneously assembling a space force capable of confronting those pirates.

It all comes together in Victory Conditions (Amazon) with a satisfyingly large scale space combat and the tying up of a large number of loose threads. I liked where Ky ended the books — she’s admiral of the Space Force and human civilization has been shaken out of its complacency — but I was disappointed by Turek, the pirate admiral who served as her shadowy antagonist for most of the series.

For much of the books Turek was in the background, assembling his powerful-but-undisciplined pirate fleet and striking at target’s like Ky’s family. I kept expecting him to come to the fore and start monologuing like a proper space opera villain but instead he remained a cipher, more the idea of the brilliant pirate admiral than the real thing.

It’s ultimately a minor disappointment; the series was a good read, and I’m looking forward to the follow-up series, Vatta’s Peace.

The Emperor’s Blades

I’m always on the look out for a good epic fantasy series and the Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne Series by Brian Staveley fits the bill. In the first book – The Emperor’s Blades (Amazon) we’re introduced to three children of the emperor Sanlitun hui’Malkeenian:

  • Kaden, heir to the emperor, currently studying to be a monk
  • Valyn, Kaden’s brother who’s been studying to be an elite warrior known as a Kettral since he was a kid
  • Adare, their older sister, the only one among them who remains in the capitol city

In the opening chapters of the book the emperor is assassinated by a conspiracy that may or may not have its roots in an ancient race of immortal humanoids known as the Csestriim. In some ways, the book reminds me of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen; its magic system of wells — hidden fonts of power that certain people can use — reminds me of the warrens in Erikson’s book, and both prominently feature military units that make good use of both practical and magical skills. Unlike the first book in Erikson’s series, The Gardens of the Moon, I greatly enjoyed The Emperor’s Blades.

The Gardens of the Moon was epic fantasy, but its transitions between scenes were choppy and it threw far too much at the reader. The Emperor’s Blades does a better job of world building, slowly introducing us to the book’s magic system and its implications, the giant birds that serve as the Kettral’s avian mounts, and the world’s old and new gods.

I expect that the Chronicles of the Unhewn Thrown should sate my thirst for epic fantasy nicely while i wait for Brandon Sanderson’s next Stormlight Archives novel to be released.

Revenger

Alistair Reynolds’ Revenger (Amazon) is a cool transhuman novel about a smashed solar system, ancient alien artifacts, and space pirates.

Yep, space pirates.

Reynolds postulates a far future solar system — not ours — in which several civilizations have risen and fallen. Humanity’s civilization is the latest of these, and they eek out an existance salvaging the technological remains of those who’ve come before. The human race has given up living on planets in favor of a variety of space habitats. Most are content to live out their lives in such places but an adventurous few venture out into the solar system looking to explore ancient ruins that hold profitable (but often dangerous) relics. These relics are hidden in wordlets that conceal a singularity at their core and strange technology that shrouds them in an impassible shell for years or decades at a time.

These space-faring archeologists are preyed upon by the Nightjammer, legendary pirate ship with black solar sails that ruthless slaughters the crew of any ship it captures.

I read this book in a frenzy during the waning days of June, and I loved it. As he did with House of Suns, Reynolds creates a well-constructed and intriguing universe. It’d be perfect for a Numenera campaign; it’s science-as-magic artifacts matches up nicely with that game’s own lost technology themes while Numenera’s character creation mechanic lines up nicely with the pirates-in-space vibe of Revenger.

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