Late winter and early spring are my long dark teatime of the soul when it comes to books: I want to read, but I just don’t have time (or when I do have the time, the motivation) to do so. Fortunately, I have audio books, a daily commute, and a dog that needs walking. All of these combine to insure that I keep reading in the winter months.
Ready Player One
It’s a hell of a thing to really get into a book … and then have it end. Of course, that ending isn’t a surprise — we all know it’s coming — but that doesn’t mean we don’t secretly wish the story would continue.
That was certainly the case with Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. The book takes place in 2045. Much of the world has been ravaged by a sustained depression. The joyless masses hide in the OASIS, a virtual world in the classic cyberpunk mode. James Halliday, mega-rich creator of that world, gives hope to billions when he dies and proclaims that ownership of the OASIS, his company, and his fortune will pass to the winner of a virtual easter egg hunt he’s created.
The book is told from the perspective of Wade Watts, a teenage “gunter” who spends his days attending a virtual school, and his nights hunting the OASIS for clues to Halliday’s quest.
I can’t say that Ready Player One is a great novel, but it is a tremendously fun one. Halliday was a game designer who was obsessed with the 1980s, which he envisions as an idyllic time of high geekery. As a result, his quest is filled with 80s references to things like War Games, Dungeons & Dragons, and RUSH. This transforms it from just another cyberpunk novel into a nostalgia-packed adventure.
I need to read it again some day, and see if it holds up once you get past the nostalgia.
The Creative Fire
It wasn’t fair to read Brenda Cooper’s The Creative Fire after Ready Player One. Any book would have found it a hard act to follow, but Cooper’s tale of a worker uprising on a generational starship seemed particularly pale in comparison.
It’s not that it’s a bad book. Cooper does an adequate job of introducing us to The Creative Fire, a ship that was on a centuries-long tour of local star systems and is now on its journey back home. She sets up an interesting social conflict between the workers and the elite, and introduces a young heroine eager to change the status quo. No, the problem’s not the setup — it’s the execution.
Life aboard the starship is highly regimented and segregated. Ruby is a member of the grays, the lowest caste aboard the ship and the one charged with manual labor such as growing food, tending to life support, and repairing ship systems.
An accident occurs, and suddenly the grays life is thrown into turmoil. They’re exposed to the higher castes within the ships, including the logistical blues. Ruby is a talented singer, and has long dreamed of a better life. The accident gives her a chance to act on that impulse.
The book’s at its best when it’s exploring the history of the generational starship, and revealing the societal twists and turns that led it to its current dystopian state. At the same time though, the novel owes much to the life of Evita Perón and this is where I found it tries too hard. It seems so dedicated to setting up Ruby as a latter-day Evita that she doesn’t have her own voice. She seems like an echo of an echo.
The book ends on an anti-climatic note. Perhaps I’ve read too much military SF, but I was hoping for a great, culminating battle, perhaps with a strident, victorious song by Ruby providing a stirring backdrop. Instead the final conflict just sort of … ends.
The Way of Kings
Words of Radiance, the second book in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, came out in March 2014. The first book — The Way of Kings — was exactly my kind of epic fantasy, involving a grinding war in an alien world ravaged by “high storms” and populated with alien creatures. When the second book came out I downloaded it almost as soon as it appeared on Audible.
I fired it up on my iPhone started listening … and then paused.
I’d read The Way of Kings a year ago, and while I remembered parts of it, the book’s easily big enough for me to have forgotten many of the little things. I wanted to go in with fresh memories of what came before so I stopped listening to Words of Radiance and went back to the original novel.
I’m glad I did. The Way of Kings tracks the personal growth of several characters, but no more so than its hero, Kaladin. He’s a surgeon’s son turned soldier turned slave, but he has the potential to be so much more. Of the course of the book, he begins realizing that potential.
The great thing about Sanderson is that he telegraphs all this. From the books opening pages, in which an assassin kills a king, he’s laying down the rules of his new universe. He’s explaining how magic works, he’s hinting at the nature of the storm-wracked world, and telling us how the next generation of heroes will rise to meet their challenges.
It’s all there … but you only see glimpses of the big picture when reading the book for the first time. Perhaps more so than any other book I’ve read recently, it’s the second read that lets you really appreciate the world and understand just out deeply Sanderson’s rules are embedded in it.
As part of my re-read I’m checking in Tor.com’s The Way of Kings Re-Read posts. Each post summarizes the chapter and speculates on what we’ve read. It’s a good way of picking up on details I may have missed, and its worth checking out if you are a Sanderson fan.