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The Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King book review

The Wind Through the Keyhole takes place between the events of Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla, the worst and best novels of the Dark Tower series. But The Wind in the Keyhole isn’t a Dark Tower novel, no matter what the book cover says, it’s three nested stories, one taking place in the Dark Tower “present” of our gang traveling on to their next destination, one that Roland tells while waiting out an ice storm, the Starkblast, and a children’s story that his younger self tells in the story to a child.

the wind through the keyhole

None of those stories are very good on their own. The present frame is very brief and nothing much happens in it. Roland’s past story is the best of the bunch, but it gets tossed aside for the children’s story and once that’s done, it ends quickly and abruptly. The children’s story isn’t that good. Stephen King starts out trying to channel fairy tales but tells it in such detail and with his usual tics, abused women, evil con men, random references to 20th Century America in a fairy tale setting, that it never passes muster as a children’s story. Tim’s story is strong in places, but once the tiger and Maerlyn come on the scene, it turns into a parody of a fairy tale.

But with all that, The Wind Through the Keyhole works. It’s better than the last two Dark Tower novels, not because of its plot, but its charm. The stories aren’t very good, but they have enough world building and enough fantasy to make up for it. When he wants to be, King is still a good writer and the Dark Tower was a fantasy series that had real potential once upon a time. But King couldn’t figure out what he wanted to do with it and The Wind Through the Keyhole suffers from that same problem.

Stephen King might have turned The Wind Through the Keyhole into a full-fledged Dark Tower novel and jettisoned the Tim tale that takes up nearly half the book. It would have made for a better version of Wizard and Glass. But King already finished the Dark Tower series and trashed it while doing it. And I get the feeling that it’s really the Tim story that he cared about and that all the Roland nested stories were just a way of publishing it and selling it to a large audience.

The Wind Through the Keyhole is not the worst example of a writer selling his shopping list. It’s a pleasant book in its own way and fans of the series will want it. But what The Wind Through the Keyhole really does is remind you of what the Dark Tower series could have been and might still be.

Judgement at Proteus by Timothy Zahn book review

The cover for Judgement at Proteus calls it the Quadrail finale which sums up the downturn of the series. What could have been a perfectly entertaining open ended series unnecessarily became an arc that strangled the life out of the premise of a detective using his wits to solve mysteries on a train that runs between the stars.

Judgement at Proteus

The first 100 pages of Judgement at Proteus is borderline unreadable if you haven’t read the previous Quadrail book and it still dances on the edge of being unreadable even if you have. Still Timothy Zahn eventually recovers and Proteus Station eventually becomes the setting for some of the same logical games and switcheroos influenced by 40’s and 50’s spy and detective movies as the rest of the series. But it’s only when Judgement at Proteus leaves the massive alien space station and goes back to the Quadrail that it picks up properly and gets back into the flow of murder on the interstellar express.

Still the arc drags Judgement at Proteus down and the series suffers from the need for constant new revelations. The Modhri, a menacing pod people enemy who lives as intelligent coral that can take over any body is replaced as the series foe by the Shonkra-La a genetically engineered variant of the Fillies, who were once the master/slave race that ruled/destroyed the galaxy. And their main weapon, a telepathic whistle that can take over the mind of any race, except humans, is weak.

The Shonkra-La are basically equine Nazis, and Zahn manages to sell the idea, and even manages to make me overlook that the enemy’s big telepathic weapon can be defeated through the simple expedient of earplugs. Still the Shonkra-La, like the Modhri, is an enemy who would rather spend time gloating and entrapping Frank Compton in complex conspiracies, and only later charges at him with all its minions. And Zahn milks a certain amount of pathos out of the Mohdri’s transformation from a parasitic to symbiotic entity.

There are logical and plot holes in the Judgement at Proteus that you can drive a Quadrail through and it’s disappointing that Zahn or his publishers chose to end the series instead of continuing it as an open ended series. This book and the last have both been weak due to the arc, but I still have fond memories of a series that began with Night Trail to Rigel and offered a dose of classic Science Fiction with Asimovian mystery solving.

Echo by Jack McDevitt book review

There’s an entire industry built on turning the music you love into easy listening elevator music. Jack McDevitt‘s books are mostly elevator music versions of older Science Fiction novels. They’re easy to read and they carry a soothing mood along with them that feels like riding in a glass elevator while listening to a completely unrecognizable, but somehow recognizable, easy listening piece of music that once belonged to a great composer.

echo jack mcdevitt

Don’t let the cover fool you. This isn’t really space exploration or hard science.

The Alex Benedict novels are the weakest of Jack McDevitt‘s work. Like the rest of his books they’re set in what feels like a future Canada, where most people have the tastes and attitudes of the 1950’s and 1960’s. But the Benedict novels happen to be set tens of thousands of years in the future, which makes the whole thing less credible than the Academy novels.

Like so many Jack McDevitt novels, Echo is about a quest for something deeply meaningful to the human soul with profound blah blah. In this case, as in so many cases, that’s aliens. The problem is that the last Alex Benedict novel, The Devil’s Eye was about a showdown with a powerful race of aliens who eventually help save an endangered planet. But in Echo, everyone acts like Sunset Tuttle, a researcher who spent his life looking for aliens and then left behind a mysterious artifact, is insane for searching for a third alien race, even though there’s already a major alien race that everyone knows about.

But the artifact catches the attention of Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath who try to hunt down its origin. There are a few attempted assassinations, lots of conversations, a chase scene and eventually a journey to find a mysterious alien world that is more and less and more than it’s supposed to be. If you’ve read these before, then you know what to expect. Jack McDevitt is channeling some classic movies here and the twist is, like the rest of the book, adequate.

Echo is easy listening. It pretends to be about something important, but it’s not. It pretends to make you think, but it doesn’t. All the portentous quotes at the beginning of every chapter, that still sound like Jack McDevitt even though they are meant to be from fictional writers who aren’t him, are just as light as the book.

If you have to take a trip somewhere, Echo is an acceptable companion. It’s junk food dressed up as something classier and more nutritious. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad for you. Just don’t expect anything from the science or the ideas. When you encounter aliens who talk, think and look exactly like us, and are also run by a matriarchy which worships a goddess of reason, along with about pages of ponderings on how first encounters change societies, without ever really showing it happen in the book, except with a place called “Alien Pizza”; don’t be too disappointed.

It’s only easy listening.

In Milton Lumky Territory by Philip K Dick book review

The existence of In Milton Lumky Territory, in its slim trim top shelf cover and packaging is a testament to the ongoing obsession with Philip K. Dick. Even Science Fiction grandmasters don’t get this kind of treatment, having obscure non-genre books hauled out and presented all over again.

There’s a reason why Philip K. Dick didn’t make it writing straight fiction. In Milton Lumky Territory reminds you why. in milton lumky territory by philip k dickPhilip K. Dick wasn’t a good writer. He was an interesting writer. Good writers can tell a good story. Interesting writers can make a bad story interesting.

When Philip K. Dick was working with a pallette of robots, space travel, time travel, police states and altered reality, he could make a bad story interesting. In Milton Lumky Territory doesn’t have those things. Instead it has Bruce Stevens, a somewhat immature but ambitious buyer for a discount house, who is mechanical and unimaginative, we have Susan, a classic Dick female character, hysterical, needy and predatory, whom he falls in love with before realizing she was his fifth grade teacher, and Milton Lumky, a depressed sick paper salesman, who is also the closest thing to the book’s Dickian character.

And that’s about it. Susan drags Bruce into a personal and business relationship and then wrecks it and in a creative act of imagination, apparently his first such act, he envisions what things might have been like if their life together had worked out.

There’s not much more than this, but that’s not unusual for Dick’s non-genre fiction, which usually end in practical failure, but some form of spiritual renewal. The blurb calls In Milton Lumky Territory, Dick’s best non-genre work. It’s not. Not even close. Philip K. Dick calls it his favorite book. That part is probably true and you can even see why, but there’s nothing worth the read.

Dick wasn’t a good enough stylist or capable of creating enduring characters that would have made his career as a mainstream writer a success. He was good enough to tell a story, but not good enough to take it to the next level. And there is no next level in In Milton Lumky Territory because there’s no imagination. The very thing that Bruce Stevens achieves in the end is absent from the book.

Philip K. Dick could bring theology and philosophy to science fiction, but he had trouble bringing it to the everyday life where literary fiction wanted it. In Milton Lumky Territory reminds us that it’s just as well that Dick wrote Science Fiction and not literary fiction.

The Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan – Book Review

Greg Egan is one of the best Science Fiction writers of his generation and the Clockwork Rocket, part of the Orthogonal series, the clockwork rocket greg eganreminds you just how amazing he is. Mixing philosophy, mortality, historical fiction, feminism the physics of an alternate universe, while set in a version of Renaissance Italy populated by aliens whose female sex has to die to reproduce the species on a world threatened by the fragments traveling at it from the past across the universe with the only answer being a generation ship that will dramatically upgrade science over a thousand years that will pass in four years from a civilization that is only capable of launching a clockwork rocket. The Clockwork Rocket is Science Fiction as a fireworks display of ideas.  It is Science Fiction at its best.

40 years ago, Asimov wrote an uncharacteristically bad novel, The Gods Themselves. The novel won a Hugo because it was about the environment and all that kind of important stuff, but it was a disaster because Asimov, in trying to write a novel set in an alien universe with aliens with three genders and little recognizably human about them, was operating completely outside his zone.

Greg Egan’s The Clockwork Rocket takes on an alien universe with alien characters and makes it work beautifully. It works most beautifully at its beginning, as Egan slowly draws out Yalda’s biology with a fairy tale beginning that slowly drops new shocking revelations while still grounding the character and the world in a few familiar reference points. This mix of the old and the new, the familiar and the strange, works, transforming the life on Yalda’s world into a mysterious but horrifyingly familiar coming of age story.

The Clockwork Rocket slows down once Yalda is at the university and takes on a bit of the grad student in the 40’s air, but it remains fascinating and speeds up again as Yalda’s theories revolutionize her society and predict an end that she has to avert in generation ship built inside a mountain and launched by primitive explosives. It’s clever and compelling. None of the individual parts are all that new, but Greg Egan takes things that did not work all that well individually and turns them into something amazing together.

This is a story of science and discovery, but it’s also a story of mortality. Every effort that Yalda makes to live life on her own terms, in a species where giving birth to children means death and women have to take birth control pills to survive, the efforts that she then makes to save her species, don’t save her from her own mortality.

The Clockwork Rocket is a book about light. It begins with the death of Yalda’s grandfather as he dies going to light in a tremendous explosion. It is bisected by the Hurtlers, light streaking across the sky and warning of the danger to the world, and it ends with Yalda giving in and taking in the light to die and give birth.

Viewpoints Critical by L. E. Modesitt book review

Reading an L. E. Modesitt story is like sitting down on a bus next to another passenger who suddenly begins talking to you. At first it seems like he might have some interesting ideas, but then you realize he’s actually the most boring person in the world.

There are good writers and there are bad writers. Then there are mediocre writers. L. E. Modesitt is a mediocre writer. He doesn’t L. E. Modesitt viewpoints criticallack for ideas. There are plenty of ideas in Viewpoints Critical, some that are even intriguing. He’s even good enough as a world builder. He can put one word after another and even introduce the occasional stylish flourish into the mix. But his characters are cliches and his plots are dead on their feet.

Reading an author’s short stories can give you some insights into his writing. Viewpoints Critical, a collection of L. E. Modesitt’s short stories does that. And the insight is that L. E. Modesitt is a hopelessly mediocre writer. Some of his early Science Fiction stories have promise. They even read like watered down Heinlein. But that’s all that L. E. Modesitt ‘s writing ever has. Promise. Potential. And then nothing.

L. E. Modesitt is not a storyteller. There are writers who are and are deficient in everything else, but they can tell a story. L. E. Modesitt  approaches a story the way that a carpenter approaches a building project. He sets it up and builds it and it’s functional, it holds things up, but it’s also soulless, bland and boring. Give L. E. Modesitt a fantasy setting and within a 100 pages it becomes a task list with the protagonist working his way up through barrel-making (I wish I was joking) or being a police officer. Occasionally he’ll kill a bunch of people and resolve a political problem that way. Then he’ll go back to what he was doing before.

The stories in Viewpoints Critical are not that bad, but they share the same symptoms of mediocrity. Forced to set a story in the present day, strips away L. E. Modesitt ‘s worldbuilding skills and leaves him with the bland characters and the checklist. L. E. Modesitt ‘s default mode is didactic. Even when the stories don’t directly preach at you, they’re a task list of another kind. There’s no sense of wonder or surprise. Just the dull knowledge that the author has set out to do something and by the time he’s finished, it’s done.

Not all of the Viewpoints Critical stories are this bad. Some of the earlier stories have that sense of potential, but it’s very brief. L. E. Modesitt is comfortable with the didactic. Everything from the politics to the magic to the tools works in a very limited way and the story consists of him telling you how they work at great length.

There’s something to be said for that, but mostly it’s like sitting on a bus while the passenger next to you tells you in great detail what it’s like to work at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Every book and story that L. E. Modesitt writes seems to be another excursion to the Fantasy or Science Fiction version of the DMV.

Tears of the Sun by S.M. Stirling book review

The idea of filling in some of what was going on at home during the quest of Rudi and the gang for the magic sword must have seemed reasonable to Stirling when he sat down to write Tears of the Sun. The problem was that he couldn’t think of anything that actually happened.

Most of the four book quest plotline was already dragged out with lots of dinners and repetitive conversations, but Tears of

sm stirling tears of the sun

the Sun is just dinners and repetitive conversations. It’s all the annoying ceremonies, the discussions of weapons and the remarks about how the world has changed that made up the background of the Change series, filling out an entire book.

The closest thing to an interesting story or something actually happening in Tears of the Sun is the Dunedain heading off to Boise to rescue Thurston’s family to use them to break down Martin Thurston’s reign. It’s also one of the smallest parts of the book. Instead Stirling dwells endlessly on Tiphtane D’Ath, another of the lesbian blond superhumans, except this time without the genetic engineering of the Draka justifying her existence. Tiphaine isn’t actually interesting and spending a hundred pages in her head while she broods and makes the same bad jokes is no picnic. But it’s still a picnic compared to Yseult Liu, the younger sister of Odard Liu, who is about as interesting as watching paint dry on the wall.

Just to make things worse, instead of making Tears of the Sun into a prequel novel, S.M. Stirling turns into a flashback hybrid which is unnecessarily confusing. To make matters worse, the flashbacks are scattered and set on the thin pretext of having to explain what happened to Yseult Liu and a few other characters. So a bunch of flashbacks, where mostly nothing happens, are intertwined with a present where nothing happens. And it’s sometimes hard to tell the two apart, but mostly it doesn’t matter because nothing happens.

S.M. Stirling has been turning the Change novels into a shopping list slowly, but with Tears of the Sun, the shopping effect has actually kicked in. It’s a novel that should have been broken down and rewritten. Instead it got turned in, printed and shipped because bestsellers are bestsellers and a bestselling author can do no wrong.

Stories by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio

Some short story anthologies begin with an introduction, others with a manifesto, usually having to do with this being an astounding feat of genre bending in a marketplace where everyone else hews to genre. Stories, edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio, is the latter kind of collection, accompanied by a manifesto and a mission statement.

Stories draws from a list of writers that leans more to the lit crowd, and like most genre defying collections that draw together authors, many of whom have little experience with the genres, let alone bending them, the outcome is messy and amateurish.

There are quite a few stories about men going mad, in two of them they might either be mad or confronting an evil that no one else believes in. There are multiple stories of sibling rivalry between a dominating and mild-mannered pair, two of them are even twins. There are several Christmas stories, which must either have something to do with the timing or maybe the authors were at some point told this would be a Christmas anthology. How otherwise to explain several stories about Santa Claus.

The actual quality varies wildly. The worst of the stories, “Fossil Figures” from Joyce Carol Oates, is from a lit figure, and written in the usual clunky mannered style she’s known for, complete with a childish plot and political rants, reminding you of something a college freshman would hand in to class. The best may be Neil Gaiman’s “The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains”, which despite his genre bending manifesto, is solidly genre, or Michael Moorcock’s “Stories”, whose opening pages are a knowing or unknowing critique of this collection, complete with mentions of posh agents dumping off genre slumming stories.

A lot of the stories are so bad they could only have been dumped here. Richard Ford’s “Polka Dots And Moonbeams” is completely gibberish. Gene Wolfe’s “Leif In The Wind” is yet another “astronauts going mad on a long distance voyage” story. “Mallon The Guru” from Peter Straub is pointless and “Goblin Lake” from Michael Swanwick has the usual problems with his work.

But on the other hand there’s Roddy Doyle’s entertaining “Blood”, Stewart O’Nan’s “Land of the Lost”, Kat Howard’s “A Life In Fictions” and Jonathan Carroll’s :”Let the Past Begin” that make up for them. Not enough maybe, but it’s a start. And most of the rest are somewhere in between.

Do the stories in “Stories” fulfill Gaiman’s manifesto of making you want to turn the page to see what happens next? Mostly they don’t. Even the better stories aren’t pageturners, mostly they fall into the category of, “And things get worse from there.” There are occasional eye-opening surprises, like the ending of “Blood”, which shifts your perspective. Mostly though they do the expected thing and if you don’t know what’s coming next, then you haven’t read many stories before.

The worst material comes from the authors with the least experience writing the supernatural, horror, fantasy or science fiction, and that repudiates the genre bending manifestos, because to know how bend a genre, you first have to know it. Without that, attempts by Kurt Andersen or Joyce Carol Oates are not just poor, they read as if they were written by amateurs, because they are.

Crack’d Pot Trail by Steven Erikson book review

Crack'd Pot Trail Steven EriksonBoiling down Steven Erikson’s megaword Malazan novels to something more novella size might have seemed like a good idea, but it’s an old idea bogged down by one note characters and even older lectures on the meaning of art.

Despite the cover, Crack’d Pot Trail is not a story of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, unless you count a novel where they only appear on the last page as being a story of them. It is a story of several sets of stereotypes journeying together through the wasteland and stabbing each other in the back or eating each other along the way. And I’m making it sound more interesting than it is.

Erikson introduces several poets going off to a contest, depicts them as broad stereotypes, as talentless hypocrites and parasites of various flavors, so we don’t particularly care what happens to them. Then two broad parodies of heroes, self-righteously vicious religious sociopaths. And an assortment of characters who matter less. Along with a narrator who serves as a mouthpiece for Erikson’s views.

The setup is that the group has run out of food for some reason and has begun eating the artists, deciding who to eat through an impromptu contest to decide who will be eaten. It’s a decently ghoulish premise, but Erikson doesn’t bother to credibly set it up, and while the butchery is going on, there’s a wagon driven by mules that nobody really seems to mention as potential dinner.

Erikson doesn’t care much about the credibility of the setup, because it’s only a vehicle for him to make his points about art and they aren’t very good points.

A story in which characters meet and exchange stories has potential, it’s been done many times before, but Erikson doesn’t bother much with the stories part. Brash Phlucker (yes that’s a character’s name and it should give you some idea of the nuance Erikson brings to the table here) delivers comic relief poetry. A second poet goes on about eggs as some sort of metaphor for being out of ideas. A third tells a long and overwritten love story ending in cannibalism. The narrator tells the story of the trip in Erikson’s own horribly overwritten prose.

Erikson gives us every indication of an unreliable narrator, so the twist isn’t much of a surprise. It’s just not a twist that makes much sense, since while the narrator does sic the heroes on the carriage, there was no real probability of it ending in death until some random events took place.

As a novella, Crack’d Pot Trail wouldn’t be quite adequate, as a novel it ranks with publishing your own shopping lists.

The Last Colony by John Scalzi book review

The Last Colony by John Scalzi Like other Scalzi novels, The Last Colony is an idea for a book in search of a book. Scalzi comes up with acceptable worlds and plots, but lacks the ability to tell a story, to fill it with realized characters or make you care about anything on the page. Oddly his only living characters are aliens and they don’t show up nearly enough of the time.

The Last Colony is decent enough as a concept, the uber manipulative human Colonization Authority has decided to defy an alien federation that is taking control of galactic colonization with a hidden colony that will operate at a back to nature level to avoid showing up on their radar. That’s fine as far as it goes, but once the actual process of running the colony is exhausted, Scalzi has no characters to bring to the table, except the alien general whose vision is behind the Conclave.

The dialogue is bad, the characters are robotic and the only good thing about The Last Colony is that it’s short. Too short to really be able to complain about anything. There really isn’t anything new here, but when the shelves are full of non-books, The Last Colony actually looks decent enough because it passes for classical Science Fiction.

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