Review – Armada – Ernest Cline

Armada

Hello Internet. Welcome back for Review #56. Yes I know, it has been another long wait, but this time it’s been worth it. Today we look at one of the most nerdy and reference-prone writers ever, and he’s back to deliver much the same good as last time.

One thing I have learned about Ernest Cline is that he’s mostly a writer of very escapist fiction. Which is a very light way of saying his stories are all stereotypical “geeky white male teenage hero overcomes impossible odds and saves the day leading to a happy ending, and gets the girl”, with unimaginably massive amounts of 80s pop culture, science fiction and amazing music geekiness thrown in for good measure. Which is unsurprisingly a good idea a grand total of once before you need to shake up the formula a little to have it continue being considered original. And I mean, it really does depend on the delivery the first time around.

I think what I’m attempting to say is the Ernest Cline has attempted to do the same thing twice. Ready Player One was a fantastic book. Beyond fantastic, actually, carrying with it the same control of wit, tension and characterisation any of the good Star Wars movies have. Good Star Trek episodes also have a similar feel. Cline encapsulated this “premise is unoriginal but the delivery is flawless”, which actually made for an amazing book which is comforting in its familiarity but engaging in its general amazingness. But then he tried to do the same thing once too many times (when actually once was quite enough thank you very much).

Armada is, broadly speaking, thematically the same as Ready Player One. However, structurally it’s a mess. The first act drags on, the second act doesn’t explain, answer or clarify nearly as many of the overarching questions as it should and the third act is practically a single statement containing the “twist” everyone can see coming and the characters going “whoooaaa” really loud and then going on with their lives. And while I can’t help but liking the characters (well, most of them), I don’t connect with the protagonist of Armada half as much as I do with Wade Watts (though I do want to steal his jacket).

Also, plot wise it’s not very cohesive. While I admire the general idea of Armada – a spaceship from a boy’s favourite videogame appears in front of him during class – the segue from that into painfully useless backstory for a full third of the book before *any* mention of the reason for the flying saucer’s appearance is death-by-a-thousand-papercuts-and-dunked-in-a-pool-of-vinegar painful. And this theme continues throughout the entire terribly-ordered novel.

Ultimately I must ask myself why I put myself through it. Oh it does have Cline’s fantastic signature reference-soaked style, which made the massive suppository of this book easier to… well you get the gist. But a book’s poor substance can’t be plastered over with a million nerdy references. Or a billion. Though not for want of trying, gods above. And Armada doesn’t have it where it counts, and therefore falls flat.

Armada was published in 2015 by Crown Publishing Group. It can be found on Amazon here.

Yours: J.M. Pear

Review – Armada – Ernest Cline

Review – Illuminae – Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Illuminae

Hello Internet. And after what could potentially be the longest break between updates on this site ever, Review #55! Yeah I don’t even have an excuse for this one. It’s been ages. Yeesh. But on to the sci-fi!

Illuminae is nearly exactly 600 pages long. I finished it in about one-and-a-half sittings. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, it certainly tells of one key factor about this book: it’s not very information dense at all. On a scale of large-print Dr Seuss hardcovers to pocket editions of Words of Radiance printed with 5pt font on Bible paper, Illuminae is much closer to the former. I devoured this book in much the same time I would a manga volume or a SAO light novel. Which raises several questions, the first being “why?” and the second being another “why?”.

Why (the first)? Well the book isn’t exactly novel one would be able to accurately translate to an ePub file or a raw text file. This is because instead of just text with chapter headings this book (framing device included) is a paper representation of a staggering number of different computer files, webpages, data dumps and AI core readouts detailing in rough chronological order the events onboard several spaceships filled with refugees fleeing from a pursuing warship. It’s the equivalent of a found-footage [zombie movie] IN SPACE. [Yes, there are zombies in this book, created in the stereotypical “tests on human subjects gone wrong” plot before being set loose in a spaceship with one air network. Guess how that pans out?]

Why (the second)? Well Illuminae’s central “gimmick” is that it tells its story through a bunch of seemingly (at first) disconnected documents of varying formats and relevance which all have distinct layouts, images and fonts. Instead of using third-person omniscience to pry into the hearts and minds of our protagonists, for example, it shows us a heavily encrypted diary entry (glorious misspellings and all). Instead of telling us that a massive spaceship explodes with heaps of passengers dying it [shows us a complete list stating the names of the deceased in alphabetical order, neatly next to their passenger number and identifying photo]. Which is one of the most effective ways to show mass character death in any book ever.

But there is a problem. If Illuminae were a normal book, it would be horribly mediocre. It’s unbearably clear in the parts that are even only kinda in prose (a character describes events in like a log or something) that neither author can really hold their own when it comes to plain text. Whether this is because of lack of skill on the authors’ parts or the fact that it looks boring next to a chat log filled with typing quirks and dialogue or a blueprint of an uber-massive spaceship I don’t know. But beyond that, I believe that written “properly”, the characters and scenarios would be a little… flat. A little too predictable. A little too clichéd or expected or otherwise the same as many other sci-fi/[horror] books out there. All that really makes it interesting is the fact that it will be nearly impossible to print a pocket edition. And does that justify somewhat mediocre use of science-fiction tropes? Hell, I hope so.

Illuminae was published in 2015 by Allen and Unwen. It can be found on Amazon here.

Yours: J.M Pear

Review – Illuminae – Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Review – Zeroes – Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan and Deborah Biancotti

Zeroes.jpg

Hello Internet. Welcome back for Review #54. And as the new paradigm continues, so does the inexorable march of the universe into heat death. But with Zeroes, we can enjoy it along the way.

Scott Westerfeld is an overrepresented author on this site, and there are some good reasons for this. For one, he’s very hit-and-miss in the way that some of his books are like bullets and miss you, while some of his books are like baseball bats with barbed wire around them which can not only hit you but seriously do damage to your feels, current mental state and internal organs. But I think that sometimes he doesn’t deserve half the credit he gets. This time around, the authors working with him are at least as responsible for the awesomeness that is Zeroes as the man himself actually is. Some quick googling has convinced me to add some of these newcomers’ works to my to-read list (currently objectively longer than the lifespans of several suns); and to hunt down a copy of Zeroes which has Westerfeld’s name printed way bigger than the names of the other authors (as my copy rightfully has them all the same size and the other copy is so mockable). Oh it is good to be writing these reviews again.

Zeroes is about teen superheroes who used to be like the Teen Titans but now are more like Young Justice. Now all working pseudo-independently and dealing with their actually kind of sucky powers, they need to band together to save a girl’s dad when some scumbag decides the rent for his drug dealing loan is finally up. Or something. I didn’t really care that much as the real interest in Zeroes is watching the characters collide with each other and rediscover anew their powers with a backdrop of fast-paced, addictive action. So basically this book is really good character development with awesome set pieces and the casually good style Westerfeld delivers on all his best days (which I’m sure is the result of the other authors as well).

And what character development! The characters are all well-defined, interesting and if not immediately likeable then at least sympathetic. As they all have their own completely (sometimes radically) different and bizarre problems, their angst is all structured accordingly and brings a new splash of bright neon colour to the traditionally cut-and-dried grey slab of angst a YA novel normally indulges in. For example, it’s fine to have a person with limited social skills in your novel feel like they’re invisible, but when they literally can’t be remembered after a few minutes and are actually socially adept they have a much more interesting and therefore well-written problem.

So Zeroes is a very well-made sometimes wacky reconstruction of the teenage superhero trope, which is refreshing in all sorts of ways. The twists are all surprising enough that I genuinely had fun and felt shock when they took effect, and the whole novel felt close enough to a cinematic movie blockbuster that I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if it got picked up for one someday. Sometimes my work rocks.

Zeroes was published in 2015 by Simon Pulse. It can be found on Amazon here.

Yours: J.M. Pear

Review – Zeroes – Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan and Deborah Biancotti

Review – Leviathan Wakes – James S.A. Corey

leviathan-wakes

Hello Internet. Welcome back for Review #53. And as another Space Opera fills my viewscreen, I affix my crosshairs on it and tighten my fingers around the laser turret controls, waiting for the right moment to pull the trigger and release a barrage of superheated plasma that will annihilate everything in its path. Muah-ha-ha-ha! MUAH-HA-HA-HA! MUAH-HA…*dissolves into a fit of hacking coughs mid-cackle*. *clears throat*. Uhm…

Space Opera as a genre is one normally about grand, massive-scale adventures of the type seen in the Culture novels or Star Trek. Intergalactic space-farers on ships with technology light-years ahead (quite literally) of modern technology dealing with fantastic problems which can often be a way to analyse the human condition or place modern problems in a more objective and entertaining context. But one thing not often seen amongst these grand, galaxy-spanning novels is one set rather close to home. And this is where the first novel in the Expanse series comes in (*ding*. Gods know what count it is now). Set just far enough into the future for mankind to have conquered interplanetary travel, the stars beyond are still out of reach. And the problems faced by the two protagonists are ones which are solely the result of other humans. [Mostly].

Yes that’s right. Two protagonists. Leviathan Wakes uses the point of view of two different characters. Although, said difference between them is negligible at first. Both Holden and Miller are the same gender, roughly the same age and complexion, have similar reactions to being in imminent danger (which is to keep a reasonably cool head then freak out later) and thanks to what I feel is lack of creative foresight have the same style of narration. Both are in third-person and have similar organisation of ideas in their writing and for some reason that gave them the same speaking voice in my head, despite the descriptions in the book. This lead to some confusing times when the two characters eventually and inevitably met and had a conversation with the same voice, like Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap (*ding?*).

It’s really easy here to refer back to one of the most impressive uses of differing styles to represent different points of view in literature, which is the book Will Grayson, Will Grayson (yes it has a comma. Yes it bugs me). The two authors even go so far as to use different fonts as well as styles of writing, giving the characters immediately distinct personalities from the beginning. Now I don’t suggest going this far for a mostly serious novel such as this, but the point stands. It isn’t until halfway through the book where the real differences between Holden and Miller emerge (coincidentally when they meet) and the book shows off the dynamic between the optimist and the cynic through some slightly heavy-handed discussions about transparency of information and the tendency of people to be innately good.

Now all this isn’t to say I don’t like Leviathan Wakes. It’s actually pretty amazing. I admire the detailed plot, the otherwise well-characterised and diverse cast, [the alien space vomit zombies] among other things. There are nice, engaging elements sneakily pilfered from other genres like horror or noir, and all in all the pace of the novel is very well set-out. Terrible shame they had to cast Lindsay Lohan, however.

Leviathan Wakes was published in 2011 by Orbit Books. It can be found on Amazon here.

Yours: J.M. Pear

Review – Leviathan Wakes – James S.A. Corey

Review – The Stormlight Archives – Brandon Sanderson

the-way-of-kings

Hello Internet. Welcome back for Review #52. This time I take a look at a stupidly large fantasy series which will in no way shape or form cost me too much of my sanity. HA! Who am I kidding?

Where to begin with this series? Well, I have found a quote from Patrick Rothfuss at a comic-con panel which perfectly sums up High Fantasy, and I’d like to mention it here (forgive my paraphrasing): “Tolkien was the first big High Fantasy writer, and he’s left his fingerprints all over the genre”. And this, dear readers, is why the Stormlight Archives work so well as a fantasy series. Tolkien’s fingerprints are there alright. There’s a map of the world in the opening pages. There are feuding kingdoms, ruled by nobles and kingly types. There are established gods with pantheons intricately designed and very dangerous. Magic abounds, but only for a certain few who know how to use it. There are different languages throughout the in-depth world that are helpfully translated by the author. And there are epic-scale wars between different factions over power, land and precious resources. But what makes the Stormlight Archives different? It is a twisted subversion of whatever Tolkien cooked up.

Roshar is not the green, idyllic landscape of New Zealand, oh no. Roshar is a world of blood and storms, feuding politics and barren plains of hard rock. The world is stone grey, and the people more so. It’s like someone took A Song of Ice and Fire, retextured the battlefields, gave out a couple of suits of power armour and vibroblades, and censored all the tits. Which is a shame, as describing something as “like Game of Thrones with more magic and less sex” immediately alienates most of the fans of the hit book/tv series. The multilayered novel flips perspective between main characters whose stories intertwine together beautifully. And the nicest touch is the addition of small images at the beginning of paragraphs that denote which character’s point of view the chapter will be following. Also, I can appreciate as a writer that it’s more engaging if you swap perspectives on a cliff-hanger; but it’s more satisfying as a reader when you swap perspectives just before it gets boring, not just as it gets exciting (this makes for nicer, better-paced reading).

And it really helps that every instalment in the Stormlight Archives comes like a small art gallery, in thick tomes with full-page illustrations every fifty pages or so (and when your volumes are close to 1000 pages, that’s a lot of illustrations). The first books (currently four physical books, or two books in four volumes) are all written with a plot so intricate it must have required tweezers and a microscope, and the world is built with the same love and care that a cook bakes a birthday cake or an artist paints a portrait. These books are above and beyond any high fantasy books I have ever come across in sheer scale, and considering they’re part of the Cosmere collection (which is potentially the biggest epic any single author has attempted to create, ever. Like, period) they have lore which builds on lore that builds on lore which doesn’t even exist in the book series. I could spend hours looking through this book, and every other Cosmere book, picking them apart. But who has the time?

The Way Of Kings was published in 2010 by Tor Books. It can be found on Amazon here.

Yours: J.M. Pear

Review – The Stormlight Archives – Brandon Sanderson

Review – Bluescreen – Dan Wells

Bluescreen

Hello Internet. Welcome back for Review #51. This is the first review of the new paradigm! Basically a review of the same quality as before, just with longer breaks between the reviews. And to begin, a cyberpunk novel. Ahh, is it good to be back or what? (Don’t answer that.)

It took me until halfway through this book to figure out exactly what was wrong with it. That is a disproportionately long period of time for me to have a little feeling niggling at the back of my head as I walk through the world of a book (or run, or sprint, or step onto the really handy person conveyer belt thingie they sometimes have at airports and watch as the world passes me by). Superficially, Bluescreen is not a bad book. That’s probably why I continued to read it for as long as I did after my subconscious immediately took issue with it. And for the damnedest time I was just sure that telling myself that “oh, it’ll get better later, you gotta stick with it” would mean that this would actually be true and this book would magically turn into the book I needed. But of course I was left with the book I inevitably only justly deserve (Batman references for the win!).

Bluescreen is a cyberpunk novel. Self-proclaimed by the blurb, and the themes of poverty, greed, corruption and immorality against a backdrop of a gritty dystopian hard sci-fi megalopolis really prove this. Bluescreen walks, talks and acts like a cyberpunk novel, brain-jacks and all. And of course, having read (maybe about three chapters of) William Gibson’s Neuromancer and a sizable chunk of Charles Stross’ Accelerando, I know a lot about cyberpunk (</sarcasm>). But I am damn sure of one thing. Cyberpunk might be a gritty, crapsack dystopian view of the future where people rely on the digital world for their only joy, but by the nine hells it should not be full of third-person woe-is-me wow-look-at-how-shit-the-world is ANGST!

I now have a proper definition of the difference between vanilla dystopian science fiction and honest to gods cyberpunk. If there is even a passing referral of any form of teenage angst, it’s a dystopian sci-fi. If the protagonist is hard as balls and does many forms of weird science future-drugs for breakfast (here’s looking at you, Henry Case), then it is cyberpunk. If most of the book is about the invasive omnipresence of technology in this not-so-far-away future and this is a clear straw facsimile of problems in our modern world today, it’s dystopian sci-fi. If the action in the book is driven by the protagonist’s attempts to remain sane or hold on to their moral high ground as it gradually gets taken away from them by forces they cannot even begin to fight in any way, it is cyberpunk. Is there a clear line in the sand I am drawing here?

As a writer, this is a very big distinction. Hell, as a DM in a cyberpunk-themed RPG I’ve been having fun with, this merging of heathenish angst-ridden third-person sci-fi swill with one of the more gloriously underappreciated genres is downright heretical. So this book irritates me in many subtle ways, and it has the indecency to be well-written, properly thought-out and have complex enough plots and rather likable (if sometimes irritatingly overqualified) characters. Why is my job never simple?

Bluescreen was published in 2016 by Balzer + Bray, and can be found on Amazon here.

Yours: J.M. Pear

Review – Bluescreen – Dan Wells

Hiatus (and Reboot!)

Hello Internet. You know who I am.

<<Hey guys. I’m Joe, Jester’s handler. You’ve probably seen me around as the guy who updated the blog during the Christmas Break.>>

Joe and I have something to tell you. Upon finishing the fiftieth review uploaded consistently on this site, we have decided to make some serious changes.

<<Thanks to challenges I have been facing in the real world at the moment (being a student is stressful), I’m going to be changing the update schedule of the site from every week to a more “wherever I manage the strength to summon Jester from his dark pit of misanthropy”.>>

Basically he’s stressed and I’m not really at full form either. My generally humorous demeanour has descended into expospeak and bad hyperlinking. I’m even struggling to put together coherent sentences sometimes.

<<In short, this site is being rebooted to a newer, more laid-back schedule in the hopes that neither Jester nor I go insane or lose what little will to live we already have, and focus on more important things.>>

I’d make a joke about being insane already, but…

<<Yeah, don’t. It’s insensitive to insane people.>>

When was I ever concerned about sensitivity?

<<You should be.>>

This is the reason we need to stop. We argue on definitions of the personality of my character.

<<We hope you understand.>>

Goodbye for now.

Yours: J.M. Pear

<<Cloud Pixels>>

Hiatus (and Reboot!)