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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.

Sword of the Lady by S.M. Stirling book review

Sword of the Lady by S.M. StirlingI realized what was bothering me about Sword of the Lady by the time the endless series (now on its third book in the second chapter of the sprawling Emberverse series) reached Maine, populated by Vikings. Stirling’s original idea for Dies for the Fire was a good one. Tolkien and many fantasy writers have tried to reach back to reconstruct a fantasy pre-history for Europe, Stirling reversed that by constructing a fantasy post-apocalyptic history based on the heritage of the different peoples who make up America. It’s interesting in theory, but it’s also impoverished in practice.

Stirling’s Viking Disneyland Maine is not only implausible, it’s less interesting than the actual Maine. Much less. And that follows true for most of his America or Montival. At every turn, Stirling gleefully tears down every element of the old America, replacing it with a dim feudal society where everyone can only belong to one culture. If you live in Maine, you better be Swedish or learn to pretend. If the Mackenzies were just trying to survive in the first chapter, by Sword of the Lady, Rudi and Mathilda are openly talking about how loyal a vassal Fred will be for their children’s inheritance. Is there anything admirable about that? Only if you contrast it with the sociopathic Cutters who just kill or rape everyone outright. A typical example of Stirling’s subtle touch.

There’s not much to say about Sword of the Lady. This series has gone on too long and it spills into still another book. Sword of the Lady should have been incorporated into Scourge of God. Instead it ends with yet another cliffhanger. Along the way Rudi and Mathilda turn Boise into another feudal kingdom, spend time eating and hanging out in a Swedish household in Wisconsin and then go on to Maine and do the same thing, battle corsairs and finally land on Nantucket, before receiving a vision that the extra-dimensional aliens they call gods, took away human technology to save us from ourselves.

Poul Anderson, The Dancer from Atlantis, book review

Poul Anderson, The Dancer from AtlantisThe Dancer from Atlantis isn’t one of Poul Anderson’s better known books and there’s a good reason for that. For one thing its premise is the same old, “People go back in time and want to change history by averting a tragedy, only to discover that their attempts to change history are what cause history to happen the way it did in the first place”. Anderson tops off this premise with a good deal of historical speculation, which I suspect was the meat of the story for him, placing Atlantis as a volcanic island next to Crete, and coming up with some interesting historical speculation about ancient Greek history, the nature of the Minotaur and the Greek alphabet. But the Science Fiction tends to take a back seat to the historical speculation.

The premise of The Dancer from Atlantis is that a time traveler’s vehicle goes awry sucking away in its wake four different people from different eras, Reid, a disenchanted American architect, Oleg, a Russian ship’s trader, Ulin, a Hun patriarch, and Erissa, the dancer from Atlantis of the title. Anderson spends the better part of a page on exposition that tries to make some kind of sense of the idea that a time traveling vehicle would for some reason suck up four random people and deposit them safely in another era without taking anything else along, and doesn’t come close to succeeding. But that isn’t The Dancer from Atlantis’ problem.

The real problem is that we know where the story is going, and it’s nowhere good. Reid’s passivity makes the narrative additionally frustrating. Even when the Acheans have repeatedly told him that they’re on friendly terms with Lydia, the high priestess of Minos, and after Erissa has told him that in the wake of Atlantis sinking, Lydia affirmed Prince Theseus’s rule over Minos, Reid can’t seem to put two and two together, or do anything useful until the spear point is actually at his throat. And what he does, is to act out the same series of events that got Erissa raped and enslaved in the first place. When at the end everyone is sent home, having learned to be better people, it’s a weak and unconvincing climax to a story that had little reason for existing except in order to play some creative revisionism with Greek myth.

George R.R. Martin Sandkings story collection book review

There’s no denying George R.R. Martin’s abilities to create a fictional and mythological world quickly and easily, he does it time and time again throughout these stories. But there is also an undeniable grimness and sense of futility that pervades these worlds. From the first story, The Way of Cross and Dragon in which an Inquisitioner serving an interstellar Catholic Church of the distant future who believes in Truth above all else discovers himself to be a liar , to the last eponymous and most famous of the stories, a Hugo winner badly botched by the revived Outer Limits, Sandkings, which can be seen as A Portrait of Dorian Gray with carnivorous alien lifeforms, human effort is usually destructive and at best a meaningless blink in the vastness of eternity.

In the House of the Worm takes a look at a Time Machine like future in which the sun is a dim cinder, the surface of the Earth is uninhabitable and humanity is divided between the last remnants who hold lavish grotesque balls and have faith in the inevitability of decay, and the Grouns, altered versions of men who have come up from the deeper bunkers. As the story unfolds, the decadent nobleman who stumbles into the dark discovers their nature, the error of his own people’s belief system, a new source of technology, and the lairs of the Changemasters who genetically engineered great White Worms who are working their own way up through the bunkers. However when he returns home, his stories are nothing more than a diversion that no one believes and he barely survives execution.

This is typical enough of George R.R. Martin’s stories in Sandkings. Action and adventure may occur, but they will always give way to futility. Fast-Friend, the weakest of the stories in the collection, involves a main character whose use of a genetically engineered miniature woman “angel” with the mind of a child for sex, places him in a borderline evil category, schemes to capture the woman he once loved before she became a Fast Friend, an interstellar being capable of traveling across star systems, with his ship, before deciding to let her go. And that too is another reminder that women rarely come off too well in these stories.

Story after story offers nothing but a grim look at humans and highlight the futility of human activity. From the start of the collection to the final end when Simon Kress is being dragged into the home of the orange Sandking maw by its spawn who wear his face and reflect his evil nature, the stories in Sandkings have nothing even faintly positive to offer, and their only peace is the peace of death.

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