Jack of Shadows

by on Aug.15, 2010, under books

On the suggestion of a family member, I recently read an older sci-fi/fantasy novel called Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny (the person recommending it is an English professor who loves Doctor Who, so it is easy to give his recommendation some credence).  I am being accurate in labeling it both science fiction and fantasy as it takes place in a distance future where the Earth has long since stopped rotating (to be more accurate, it is in synchronous rotation) and while the residents of the day-side have continued to advance in science, the dark side has taken to the arcane arts and maintains a feudal society based on seats of magical power.  In this world, the protagonist, Jack of Shadows, was born of the twilight zone and as a result has magic that is rooted to shadows themselves rather than any geographical location.

In this story Jack, a thief, finds himself quickly at odds with some daysiders that results in his death (which seems to merely be a temporary inconvenience).  When he returns to being, he takes on a long-term mission of vengeance against those that wronged him.  This journey leads him on a quest for power which, as we all know, corrupts.  But Jack was never really the good guy to begin with, so a turn from shady to deeper shadow is not all that out of character.

While the story was a rather short novel, the world that Zelazny imagined in it had a lot of potential for further exploration and was well thought out.  Though it showed some of its age in the portrayal of technology.  For instance, Jack ends up spending some time dayside using up computer time at a university.  Given that the book was published in 1971, it is no surprise that computers could hardly be depicted in any other way than as mainframe systems that process data and spit out print results.  And one item that struck me as odd was the use of candles as the primary source of artificial light everywhere.  I guess electricity was not likely distributed well darkside, and dayside there was hardly need of lights if there was window access, but it seemed a little odd and was something on which the author failed to elaborated.

Generally though, I rather enjoyed the story.  It was a far cry from most of what I’ve grown accustomed to reading lately, but definitely in a good way.  It has led me to consider broadening my literary horizons – perhaps by reading more of Zelazny’s works.  But we shall see what lands on my reading list next.  A bunch of co-workers (many of which have Nooks) have expressed an interest in starting a small book club where we actually read in coordination.  If that happens, it will likely shape my reading list for a time and I may find myself peppering those reviews with notes from the group.  And as always, I’m open to suggestions on new books.

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Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was

by on Aug.08, 2010, under books

Per the suggestion of a friend/colleague, I located and read this first of three books by Barry Hughart in the The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox series.  The book and series follow the adventures of a Number Ten Ox, a simple but strong Chinese villager of no particular status, and Master Li, an anciently old and incredibly shrewd sage.  The books very much follow the model of the Sherlock Holmes adventures in that the are from the perspective of the companion to the wiser protagonist.

In this first volume, all of the children between the ages of 8 and 13 in Number Ten Ox’s village seem to befall a plague that puts them into comas.  Seeing as the abbots cannot figure out how a plague could possibly target children of a particular age range, Number Ten Ox is sent to the nearest city to find a wise sage to help shed light on this mystery.  After being rejected by most of the wise men in the city for having such a laughably small amount of coin to secure such services, he finally stumbles upon Master Li Kao – who is old cold, hung over, lean as a bird, and very old.  Ox prepares to leave without bothering him when he discovers that he had once one a prize from the emperor making him one of the wisest men in China at the time.  After sobering him up and getting some food in him, he takes the case.

The root case, as it turns out, is easy to solve – the kids who were afflicted had been eating leaves that were poisoned as they collected them to feed to the silkworms; children under 8 were not used for such tasks and children over 13 refrained from such impulses.  The mystery of the poisoning also was quick to be solved, but the mystery of the cure turned out to be an adventure neither of them could have expected.  With Master Li riding on Number Ten Ox’ back, the pair trek all over China, wend through various labyrinths and face off against monsters, ghosts, immortal dukes and various other characters in their travels, making friends and foes alike.  And in the end they find that their journey is not nearly the serious of random coincidences it initially appears to be.

While this tale incorporates a significantly greater amount of mysticism and magic than one would tend to find in a Sherlock Holmes tale, it certainly makes for a similarly entertaining and brain-teasing adventure.  And the narrative format of being written from the perspective of an ancient Chinese man of humble roots really yields a unique perspective.  Even though there is no cliffhanger to the story – it is well encapsulated – I can easily see myself reading through the second and third books in this series.

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by on Aug.05, 2010, under books

As promised, this review is close on the heels of my review of book three (mostly because I pretty much read them back to back).  Overall I’m definitely getting into the flow of these books and I’m interested to see how long they will stretch out.

In Chill Factor, Joanne managed to save the world from both the nihilistic tendencies of the god of Djinn under the ownership of a misguided teenager and a dirty cop that switched to drug smuggling to Djinn smuggling (partially due to her own past meddling).  And in the end when faced with the choice of joining up with either the newly discovered Ma’at or her old job with the wardens, she opted for neither.

In Windfall,  we find Joanne doing her best to stay off of the aetherial radar – most poignantly as a weather girl on a Ft. Lauderdale local TV affiliate.  It pays the bills and keeps the wardens from bothering her … mostly.  But when strange things start to swirl around her (e.g., freak storms, missing wardens, Djinn standoffs in the streets), fingers start to migrate in her direction.  But having a Djinn boyfriend that is barely holding himself together (literally), having limited abilities herself due to her Djinn tether and the unborn Djinn daughter in her belly, and having her recently divorced sister mooching off of her all seem to hamper her ability to do much to clear her name much less save the day.  But she manages to make a dent none the less.  And in the end, things change fundamentally once again.

While I’ve been enjoying Rachel Caine’s first-person perspective throughout these novels, I have to say that I’ve seen a marked improvement in her writing form in this book.  Where many of the past volumes had about 3 or 4 long chapters, this one had about 7 shorter chapters that each had an interstitial arc that nicely wrapped up into the main story arc by the end.  It made the story much more interesting to read and added a narrative element that introduced a key alternate perspective as well as pertinent background that would otherwise have been difficult to integrate.

Once again, this story ends with drama in progress, so I will likely be starting book five as soon as I can.  Though I’ve taken a brief break from it to read another book recommended by a friend.  So I will likely be reviewing that book before another Rachel Caine review appears here.

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Chill Factor

by on Aug.03, 2010, under books

I’m writing this post belatedly because I’ve since read the fourth book as well and will likely start the fifth book soon.  But I’ll attempt to try and keep the events separated enough now to review the third volume (and I’ll likely write another post shortly reviewing the fourth).  Anyway…

So in the first book, Joanne Baldwin was a weather warden on the run (being that she accidentally killed a prominent weather warden in the process of getting a demon mark thrust into her) and died at the end to save the world from the evil growing inside of her.  In the second book she is reborn as a Djinn, but quickly learns that (a) being a Djinn isn’t as easy as it looks and (b) the price of her afterlife was higher than she could have imagined – in the end she spends her life force to make it right, and is then gifted with rebirth as a human.  Now in the third book, she has unfinished business to attend to – namely that a punk teenager has bound to his service the most powerful Djinn in existence.  And they are holed up in Las Vegas.

Through this story Rachel Caine continues to build out the canon behind the Djinn, their origins, and their nature.   What I find most interesting about Joanne’s character is that she holds nothing back – she will confront anyone about anything regardless of whether she is out-matched, out-powered, or out-classed.  In that way, she is a bit like a small, yippy dog – always barking at everything and everyone.  But she has the bite to back it up.  And unlike many of the protagonists I’m accustomed to reading about, Joanne hardly ever has a clue what she is getting herself into.  But that rarely stops her from jumping in mouth first.  And once again the smaller struggle she is working through seems to have world-changing repercussions if she fails.

Once again, there are moments of male-ogling that I could do without.  But they are less frequent and the story is definitely compelling enough to make it a non-issue.  And while this book does not end in nearly so much of a cliffhanger as the second volume had, it still ended in a way that left me eager to see where things may go next.  What really makes the series easy to breeze through is that each volume is fairly short (a little over 300 pages).  And through many of them, the timespan between volumes is no time at all.  So the series is very fluid.  If you are looking for an easy-read series with some action and some mystical elements set in a familiar setting, The Weather Warden series is a great choice.

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Heat Stroke

by on Jul.20, 2010, under books

Since I ran out of Jim Butcher books to read (for now), I decided to go back to a series I started based on his recommendations.  I picked up and started reading the second book in Rachel Caine’s Weather Warden series, Heat Stroke.  I had read the first volume, Ill Wind, a few months ago and rather enjoyed her writing then.

Rachel Caine’s writing style is somewhat similar to Jim Butcher’s style in the Dresden Files series, but a bit more femininely-oriented.  Instead of references to slasher movies, etc., there are references to fashionable attire.  In place of guy-ish sexual tension and subtle female objectification, there is, well, some pretty overt male objectification.  But both deal in some good fights both physical and magical in nature.  And both describe the use of their respective magics as a balance of mystical powers and application of physics.

In this second volume, we see the story line from Ill Wind continued quite literally – as in almost no break in time between the arcs.  It would be nearly impossible to summarize the plot of this book without partially spoiling the ending of its predecessor.  So if you haven’t read the first book but plan to, I suggest you stop reading here.

Ok, for the rest of you – the end of the last book had Joanne Baldwin throwing all of her power into stopping a pretty deadly demon-based scenario from unfolding by absorbing two demon marks into herself and allowing them to effectively cancel each other out … thoroughly killing her in the process.  But her newfound Djinn ally, David, saved her by converting her into a Djinn.  At first this seemed a pretty sweet setup for a happily ever after, but it seems her ‘birth’ as a Djinn was a costly process that had consequences that no one had anticipated – amongst which was a rift into the Void (the realm from which demon-kind hail).  So after having a couple of days to adjust to her new existence, she has to jump right into the fray of fixing some things that it seems no one else has the power to fix – including trying to keep her hair from turning up curly every time she turns solid.

Unlike the previous volume that ended in a sort of serendipity, this one ends with a pretty big cliffhanger.  So naturally I will be continuing to read through book 3.  So far the female perspective appreciation of hunkiness factor hasn’t turned me off to the series yet (I guess I’m that big of a geek that the weather and magic talk drive me to soldier on).  But I sense more of it to come – if it becomes overwhelming I may have to cut my losses, which would be ashame as I do enjoy the overall narrative.  The only complaint I can offer is that the book, while only about 200 plus pages, was divided into only 3 chapters.  I guess to an extent I’ve gotten used to Butcher’s screenplay-esque chapter handling.  Again, I can tolerate this as I will stop where I feel the need to stop, but it is nice to have more frequent clean breaks.  But I will continue on – potentially straight through the whole series … or at least until Jim Butcher releases something else.

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