Somerville, MA, United States | Member Since 2005
Ever since I was a kid, I've been fascinated with World War One and the huge transition point it represented in history. Despite knowing a good bit about the subject, I was still very impressed with The Guns of August. Tuchman accomplishes what few history writers pull off, which is to make readers forget what they know about history and see its drama unfold through the eyes of people at the center of events, who didn't know what would happen next. The book’s very detailed, but has the sense of narrative of a novel.
Tuchman opens, with a fitting sense of moment, at the 1910 funeral of King Edward of Britain, where the heads of future belligerent states gather on still-cordial terms. From there, she sets the stage with a portrait of Europe as it stands in the early 20th century, and the policies, mindsets, histories, and cultural attitudes that shape each country's leaders, as they look towards a war that everyone is certain will come. She captures the relationships and self-fulfilling expectations that drive those leaders towards fateful decisions, like players in a Shakespearian tragedy, and the gears and wheels of military plans inexorably grinding forward while diplomats search in vain for the "halt" button. Then comes the tremendous drama of the war's first weeks, when vast armies are in motion, the fate of nations hangs in the balance, and choices are made that will come back to haunt both sides. While there are probably better "academic" works on the war and books that better capture the horrors of trench warfare, I don't know of any that so well explains the key players and the flow of events, while conveying the excitement, fear, hope, and desperation that gripped each country as the crisis exploded. It was hard not get a little caught up in the emotions of events, such as the brave defense of Belgian forts, even knowing that initial success wouldn’t last against overwhelming forces.
Is Guns of August a perfect work? Probably not. Like all historical writers, Tuchman has her biases, and seems to put primary blame for the war on Germany. In her version, they’re aggressors who blindly refuse to put aside preset invasion timetables, even when the option of avoiding war with a less menacing France seems at hand. Other historians probably have more subtle pictures. Also, Tuchman covers politics and battles in equal levels of detail and some readers might get bored with the play-by-play descriptions of maneuvers and clashes that fill the latter half of the book (though I enjoyed that part myself).
However, the positives far outweigh the negatives. As a chronicle of a crucial forty days in human history, The Guns of August remains fresh and alive even half a century after its first publication (when much was still in living memory). On the audiobook experience, I thought that the narrator did a good job with French, German, and Russian accents. Apparently, there’s another audio version out there, but I don’t know how that compares.
PS. If you enjoy this sort of narrative history, I recommend seeking out Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast, which is more informal, but driven by a similar enthusiasm for recreating the moment of decision.
If you've read The Hunger Games and other dystopian science fiction novels, the premise of Red Rising is a familiar one. The hero of the story, Darrow, is a tough-beyond-his-years teenager from the lowly "Red" mining caste, which spends its days drilling under the surface of Mars. Turns out, though, that Mars has been terraformed for centuries, and the Reds, like other color-coded castes, are dominated by the "Golds", who consider themselves to be superior to all other humans and therefore the natural rulers.
The first few chapters are a little rushed and clunky. Darrow gets on the wrong side of his masters and nearly pays for it with his life, except a rebel group rescues him at the last moment to recruit him for a special assignment. They remake him to look and act like a Gold, with the goal of having him rise up to a position of power in Gold society. This was the point at which I nearly stopped reading, because the tropes felt so overdone.
Luckily, the story becomes much more engaging once Darrow and a crop of young Golds are thrown into the trials of the Institute, which is designed to find those with the most leadership potential and weed out the least capable. The Golds, as we learn, fear decadence and have a Darwinistic philosophy to keep it in check. Accordingly, the Institute is a vast competitive proving ground that falls somewhere between the arena of The Hunger Games and the battle school in Ender's Game. Students are assigned a house (each named after a different Roman/Greek god) and placed in a large, open preserve where they must figure out how to defend a base, make use of resources, and conquer the other tribes. Fans of the aforementioned books will probably enjoy all the scheming, combat, alliances, double-crossing, and tests of character. It's not original stuff, but Brown makes good use of factions, symbols, and the personalities of his central characters to keep the wheels of the plot turning -- and to make some deeper points about the nature of governance and social order, as they evolve from law of the jungle.
If the characters are a little too crafty and mentally tough to be fully believable as teens, the taut storytelling and good sense of pacing kept me hooked until the end. The echoes of the Iliad, with interfering "gods" and warriors trying to build names for themselves, might strike some readers as cheesy, but I enjoyed them. At this point, the youths-forced-into-contrived-war-games subgenre of science fiction is rather crowded, but Red Rising will probably please fans of it. There's plenty of setup for the next book, which promises dangerous political games amongst the grownups.
I enjoyed the audiobook narration, which uses an Irish brogue to suggest the Reds, and an upper-class British accent for the Golds. Tim Gerard Reynolds does a good job of switching between the two, for Darrow's inner monologues and spoken dialogue. A few of the side characters might have been easier to distinguish.
David Mitchell’s sixth novel is a globe-and-time-hopping six-part meditation on the way death shapes human existence, though we may try to deny it beneath the trappings of modernity. As in Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten, there isn’t a traditional narrative drivetrain, but a loose story thread that passes through multiple characters, all of whom seem like they might have come from different novels, but are pulled together by a shared degree of separation.
While Mitchell has always played with magic realism, here he goes for out-and-out fantasy, an indulgence that editors might would have talked a less-established writer out of. If you recall the ageless villain in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Mitchell has expanded this mystery into an ongoing supernatural war between two factions of immortals, the Anchorites (who prolong their lives by sacrificing psychically-gifted victims) and the Horologists (who are reborn into new bodies each time they die, but also with a sacrifice of sorts).
For the first four acts of the novel (roughly 400 pages), this conflict remains mostly in the background, with bits of it spilling a la Murakami into the primary characters’ lives, usually in the form of visions or encounters that they don’t understand. The first act follows Holly Sykes, whom we meet through her own words as a teenager in 1984 England, when she runs away from home. In the second, she becomes an important figure in the life of a charming but manipulative young Cambridge University libertine, who has just schemed himself into a corner. In 2004, we see her through the eyes of her husband, a journalist covering the awful early days of the Iraq occupation, who has a glimpse into Holly’s psychic gifts at a crucial moment. And later, she becomes friends with a cantankerous 50-ish author whose star is falling fast, and a vehicle for some good “literary” wit.
As always, Mitchell’s ability to hop between tones, styles, places, and voices is impressive. The first four acts of the novel have to be read as separate stories, though the reader will notice shared elements, images, locations, characters, and ideas that ripple and reflect through them. And, of course, that each protagonist is older than the last, gradually shifting the perspective on mortality. However, several of the characters feel more like artfully crafted "types" than real people, and I wondered if so much time needed to be spent in the worlds of privileged students or famous novelists to make the point. (Maybe?)
The fifth act, where the paranormal Anchorite/Horologist war at last comes to the fore, dragging in Holly, may strike readers as a little silly, with its talk of “psychic voltages”, “old souls”, and “chakra eyes”. There’s an elaborate history here, and we take a trip back to Czarist Russia and 19th century Australia, but the essential struggle isn’t complex. One side seeks eternal youth via a system that exploits others; the other seeks deeper continuity, but has limited power. Looked at one way, it’s fantasy cosmology; looked at another, it’s the very struggle in our souls.
So we arrive at the last act, told from an older Holly’s perspective, set in a grim 2040s where the supernatural good guys have been unable to save humanity from the consequences of its own actions, though there’s a ray of bittersweet hope. In trying to hide from our own individual mortality, do we collectively hasten it for civilization? Good question.
Probably more than Mitchell's other novels, this one is written in the security of a fanbase, and might frustrate the non-initiate who randomly pulls it off a shelf. But, I'm part of the club and I couldn't help but enjoy the ambition, ideas, craft, storytelling, connections, and resonant themes. I also had fun reviewing it in my mind afterwards, working out deeper meanings -- as one needs to with Mitchell.
The voice actors are mostly pretty capable, though Eddie’s and Crispin’s sound a little too old, and some accents might have been better.
I enjoyed Jon Ronson’s 2011 foray into the world of psychopaths and special interest groups out to protect or demonize them, and this seemed like a good book of his to read next. Though published in 2001, just before 9/11 and the Bush and Obama presidencies drove conspiracy theory and anti-government groups to new levels of hysteria, it’s an enlightening window into how fringe groups form around certain rallying ideas and code words.
As advertised, Ronson discovers that Islamic extremists in Britain, anti-government paranoids in the US, racist groups, anti-Catholic groups, and a man who claims that the world is ruled by secret alien lizard people all have something in common: fear that a shadowy cabal of bankers, businessmen, media elites, and politicians is scheming to impose some sort of Orwellian New World Order. In their own minds, these extremists are fighting a resistance against those who would turn them into, to use a well-worn internetism, weak and helpless “sheeple”.
As in the Psychopath Test, Ronson carefully humors his subjects and lets them express themselves in their own words, which sometimes veer towards the Monty Python-esque. Hard not to find the bumbling Islamic activist, Omar Bakri Muhammad, somewhat ridiculous, as he makes over-the-top pronouncements, then furiously backpedals towards a more genial facade whenever challenged. Same with KKK leader, Thomas Robb, who is trying to rebrand his organization with a more friendly image after being inspired by some leadership books from the self-help section. Ronson’s own self-deprecating wit is also amusing, if a little distracting at times.
Other people Ronson spends time with, though, seem like they might have a point, such as the survivors of the infamous Ruby Ridge Incident, in which the feds seemingly came down on a misunderstood survivalist family in Idaho with excessive force. His investigations into the claims of anti-Zionist groups raises a question: are Jewish film moguls really just acting out their own insecurities about being Jews in Hollywood... and giving some people the wrong idea? And when Ronson joins Alex Jones (of Infowars fame) and several others in investigating the Bilderberg Group, a publicity-shunning private conference of political, business, and academic elites, it’s somewhat unclear where paranoia ends and dull reality begins. Is a bacchanalian gathering in the woods of Northern California about rich old men celebrating dark, perverse rites of power, or just harmless, fraternity-like fun? Is it scarier to think that these people might indeed have a lot of influence over the world’s affairs... or that they don’t?
Ultimately, this might be a little too light-hearted of a book on extremism -- Ronson, not surprisingly, doesn’t spend much time in the company of the most hateful or militant types of groups, such as neo-Nazis, so his character studies tend more towards crackpots and self-promoters. And this *is* a pre-9/11 book. Still the character studies are interesting.
Audiobooks narrated by their own authors are a mixed bag, but Ronson’s pleading voice adds a lot to the funnier parts, like when he talks about trying to “tone down” his Jewishness.
Though not a long book, All Quiet on the Western Front is the prototype for nearly every modern novel about going to war. Young men with their heads crammed full of patriotism and dreams of glory volunteer for the army. There is a strenuous boot camp with a martinet drill instructor. Then the horror and carnage of battle, which often amounts to hunkering down and hoping not to be hit by shells fired by a far-off enemy, while nearby comrades are randomly cut down by shrapnel, explosive, bullets, and poison gas, sometimes to die hideous, lingering deaths.
The story is told through the eyes of Paul Bäumer, an everyman character whom Remarque never defines in much depth -- though part of this is the conceit that Paul, at 19, sees himself as a person who was unformed before war claimed him. The novel, written in the immediate tense, reads more as a series of fragmentary scenes and impressions than an ordered narrative, which might put off some readers, but I think this adds to its effectiveness. Over the course of the novel, Paul and his companions experience all the usual responses to modern war. There's horror, disillusionment, shell shock, and alienation from the civilian world, with its self-satisfied values and artificial lives. To Paul, the ability to care about the things that his student self once cared about is lost, the only meaning now in small, primal acts of life and in his comrades-in-arms.
The prose is haunted by bleakness and despair, though there are some scenes that are quite beautiful in their melancholy humanity, such as Paul's visit to a camp of Russian POWs, or of his regrets after being trapped in a shell hole for a few hours with a dying enemy soldier, who, now disarmed, is little different from himself. There are a few moments of levity, such a scene where a pompous teacher gets his just desserts, but they're few. For their part, the sequences set in the trenches are rich in images of dull, hellish squalor, such as passing time by killing ever-present corpse-fed rats, or the cries of a wounded man slowly dying somewhere out in No Man's Land. Yes, no surprise that the Nazis banned this one for "defeatism" (and got to relive it all at Stalingrad).
Though the specific causes of World War One are now buried in the dustbin of history, the reader doesn't need to be familiar with them to grasp the essential themes. All Quiet on the Western Front still maintains its timeless message of youth pointlessly squandered by the impenetrable stupidity of politics. When Paul's companions discuss the reasons they've been sent to fight and die, they can only observe that they never had anything against the French, nor the average French soldier against Germany, but, as always, the few people who make and benefit from policy aren't the ones deemed young and physically fit enough to die for it. While no 21st century generation is likely to experience the kind of wholesale meat-grinder warfare that could wipe out thirty thousand lives in one battle, we shouldn't forget the naivete that led to it, or the callousness it inflicted. These are aspects of modernity that have hardly left the world, even a century later.
Audiobook narrator Frank Muller gives a restrained but haunted reading that fits the spirit of the text well.
Fillory, the magical land in this series, is a flagrant riff on CS Lewis's Narnia. In Lewis's classic children's books, the young protagonists entered the world through a magic portal, had adventures, and got into trouble, but had Aslan the lion (and Christ figure) to set them on the right path again. Here, though, the heroes aren't children, but jaded young adults, and the gods are a lot more fallible. And magic is dangerous.
In the hands of other writers, such a premise might not have gone beyond parody, but Grossman's marvelous mix of creativity, snark, grimness, and squirmy truth shows that he had more serious things in mind. His story might be a metaphor for the messy process of growing up, for reaching that age where you've outgrown childish things, but haven't fully abandoned them. It’s when you find out that the world doesn't always answer your dreams with wish fulfillment, but with sharp edges. So it happens with the mopey, self-absorbed Quentin Coldwater and his disaffected friends, who, after learning magic at a special university that recruits the smartest misfits, manage to open a gateway to Fillory, which they become rulers of after removing a monster. Though not without death and suffering, and not without quite a bit of angst.
In this novel, the nearly-thirty Quentin, who was banished from Fillory at the end of the last book, returns to Earth, while his friends continue on as rulers of the magic land or go on other missions (in the case of Julia, the hedge witch now turned demigod). There, he takes up a post as a professor at Brakebills, until something/someone from his past comes back to haunt him. Along with a new character named Plum, who has her own secret, he joins a team of renegade magicians to carry out a mission for a talking bird, who wishes them to recover a lost suitcase. This suitcase, well-guarded and kept closed by powerful magic, once belonged to one of the Chatwin children.
If this is meant to be the last adventure in the Magicians universe, it finds its way to a somewhat expected, but not unsatisfying conclusion. Yes, Quentin finally matures and embraces being an adult, and his friends have their own growth. The plot is a little more rushed than previous entries, as Grossman works his way towards tying up all the loose ends, sometimes at the expense of spending enough time with his more interesting or likable characters or fully addressing some of the series' outstanding questions (who’s behind the Neitherlands?).
Still, he has talent as a writer, which stands out in more than a few moments. I especially liked a journal sequence that reveals, with fitting Britishness, more about the relationship between the Chatwins and Fillory. As in the previous books, there's plenty of snarky humor, with irreverent young adults talking back to monsters and one another, but Grossman can also do emotional honesty, existential doubt, and genuine wonder. There's poignancy to a few scenes, such as Quentin's emotional response to his father's death, or a surprisingly beautiful scene in which one world comes to an end and another is born. A creative duel between Quentin and a ghostly being has an otherworldly creepiness to it, as well as an extra layer of emotional tension.
Overall, I think that readers who enjoyed books one and two will like this one, even if it lacks many surprises in overall plot arc or character development. Grossman has created a world whose biting twists on traditional fantasy are as much of a pleasure to explore as the original thing was when we were kids. These books ain't for kids, and that's okay by me. Audiobook narrator for the series, Mark Bramhall, brings his usual droll style, though I felt he gave a little less personality to some of the characters than before.
Gone Girl is 2012's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, that gritty suspense thriller that everyone and their mother was reading. For the first half, it sucked me in with well-drawn characters, a setup that has its fingers on the pulse of the times, and a delicious sense of Hitchcockian misdirection.
The two narrators are Nick and Amy, a thirty-something pair of would-be yuppies whose magazine careers and New York City lives were derailed by the Great Recession. They have now downsized their dreams to the Midwest, characterized as the home of corn chip casseroles, bland earnestness, and shopping at Walmart. There, Nick took care of his ailing parents and opened a bar with the last of Amy's trust fund money. And, there, their marriage fell apart.
Starting from page one, we get Nick's side of things: a perpetually unsatisfied wife and a life that seems to be going nowhere. Then, on their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy disappears, leaving behind signs of a struggle and a trail of clues in the form of an anniversary scavenger hunt. Nick blinks and stumbles his way through the ensuing police investigation, and there's the sense that he's not telling us everything.
Interspersed with Nick's narrative are journal entries from Amy, painting a picture of a fairytale marriage that sours after a husband stops trying. And there's just a hint of control freak insecurity, perhaps triggered in part by being the inspiration for the goody-two-shoes protagonist of a series of saccharine children's books written by Amy's own parents over the decades, the source of her small family fortune.
It doesn't take long before the reader gets the sense that Nick, while somewhat evasive and not exactly the husband of the year, is falling into a trap. Clues in the investigation and public opinion are going against him.
Then comes a twist, and we learn that a few things about Nick and Amy’s marriage have been misrepresented. Here, the novel began to get unbelievable for me, though the suspense remained enjoyable. Would Nick be arrested? How would his sleazeball lawyer, his media appearances, his oddball sister, Amy's wealthy, creepy ex-boyfriend, a deranged father, and a couple of desperate types in a short-term housing park play into the plot? As Nick's defenses steadily crumble around him, against a far craftier opponent, Flynn keeps us guessing, even rooting for a guy who was initially hard to like.
When the story reaches its endgame, it escalates into pure absurdity, a sort of screw-turning, Stephen King-like nightmare scenario (think of him in suspense mode, not monster mode). Somewhere, a few psychologists are doing face palms. But, if you're willing to shut off your brain, it's fun, in a deliciously dark way.
All in all, this novel showed a lot of promise for roughly the first half. Flynn obviously *reads*, and has a sense of craft. I loved the unreliable narrators and the ambiguity. Unfortunately, though, once the game is revealed, the novel morphs steadily into airport bookstore territory. This isn't necessarily bad, but I'd hoped for a bit more psychological complexity. Oh well.
The two audiobook narrators are good. Kirby Heyborne, who performs Nick's parts, ranges from bemused calm to barely suppressed anger. Julia Whelan, who takes Amy's, has a girlish chipperness that works well.
I've already written a review of the Winds of War, the first half of this marathon two-part historical drama. War and Remembrance picks up right where that one left off, shortly after the Pearl Harbor attacks. Now, the US is fully in the Second World War, and Victor, Warren, and Byron all see action in the Pacific. Meanwhile, Byron's Jewish wife, Natalie, is trapped in fascist Italy, where a series of misjudgements and bureaucratic tangles have blocked the escape of her and her uncle. And there are a few other dramas, involving characters we'd met before, such as Leslie Slote and Pamela Tudsbury.
As in the previous book, Wouk masterfully illustrates how the war unfolded and how it looked to the Allies, with the much-pounded British grasping the full urgency of the situation while America was only beginning to get into gear. His overview of the politics and fighting takes into account the bumbling mistakes made by both sides, and the many opportunities the Axis powers had to achieve some devastating victories, on top of those they'd already had over the dithering Allies. If Wouk's narrative is to be believed, the fate of nations can turn on a single faulty report from a scout plane or a lucky accident of timing.
Compared to the first book, there are more scenes of battle and combat, which are well-written. There’s a subplot concerning the development of the atomic bomb, involving Rhoda’s lover, Palmer Kirby. We can see the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union on the horizon. There’s more from the fictional German general, Armin von Ruhn, whose cerebral apologism for fascism becomes ever more disquieting, considering that his views don’t seem all that far off from those held by present-day right-wing groups, though his analysis of the war remains compelling. And there’s a subplot that exposes the horrors of the Holocaust, through both the eyes of a Jewish character interned in Auschwitz and the chillingly mechanical viewpoint of the camp’s commandant.
If the plot turns are a little more soap opera-like, with the main characters getting into drawn-out dramas and crossing paths strangely often, they’re still absorbing. Through the storyline involving Natalie, her uncle, Aaron, and her friend Leslie, it becomes easy to see how Holocaust denial paralyzed much of the civilized world, which wanted to believe that the terrible stories were mostly just propaganda by people with an agenda (I couldn’t help but think of climate change deniers). The two Jews, as they struggle to find an out, get ever more inexorably trapped in the Nazi web, ending up in the sham showcase ghetto of Theresienstadt, and these desperate scenes are gripping.
Both this novel and the Winds of War should really be thought of as one long work, though not everyone will want to power straight through both of them in sequence, as I did. As before, my compliments to Kevin Pariseau for his spoken performance. When I at last reached the final page, while biking along a lake in Massachusetts, I felt that I’d completed a real journey across eight profoundly world-changing years of history. Through the sheer scale, vision, energy, investment in storytelling, and deeper truth-seeking of his drama, Wouk has left a work for the ages.
At over 100 hours, this audiobook and its sequel are a commitment, a 20th century War and Peace. Over 2000 pages, Herman Wouk spins both a family saga and a sort of “bearing witness” document, a detailed history of World War Two that leaves no one excused for humanity’s greatest calamity (so far) and the many acts of blindness on both sides that allowed it to unfold as it did
The fictional narrative centers around an American naval family headed by one Victor “Pug” Henry, a stolid, unpretentious career officer of classic mold. Yearning for a battleship command, Victor is instead sent to be the US’s naval attache in 1939 Berlin, at a time well before most Americans had any desire to get embroiled in another European mess. Because of his thorough reports, Victor finds himself coming to the attention of FDR, who makes him a high-powered informal go-between. Meanwhile, Victor’s two sons have their own stories -- one training as a Navy pilot, while the other “finds himself” in Italy, where he gets involved with a Jewish author and his lovely, headstrong niece. These two, trapped in Europe, become significant viewpoint characters in their own right. Others enter the narrative, too, including Victor’s wife, who is beginning to chafe at the sacrifices of being a Navy wife, and his daughter, who takes a job at a NYC radio station. While most of the action happens behind the lines, we do get a few tastes of the shooting war.
Wouk’s style is a bit nostalgic, but the characters are well-written and credible. For all the contrivances in the plot -- such as Victor managing to meet Hitler, FDR, Churchill, *and* Stalin -- Wouk makes us believe that such path-crossings were plausible. Maybe one family wasn’t in so many places, but history did have plenty of small actors who played such roles. In any case, the small details of the characters’ thoughts and actions give events a full, living color. Sometimes Wouk pulls the camera back and explains in a clear, compelling way what was happening on the broader stage, which was a counterpoint that appealed to me, since the protagonists seldom have all the facts themselves. It’s to his credit that almost nothing feels irrelevant -- personalities and family lives seem to dovetail neatly into greater events and vice-versa.
No, Herman Wouk isn’t Tolstoy, but he’s certainly a writer with a strong grasp of the forces of history, gentle insight into human behavior, the ability to connect small-scale events with large ones, and a storyteller’s gift for putting it all in familiar terms, through the eyes of some memorable characters.
What pleased me most about this book, though, and a big reason for my enthusiastic recommendation, is its absence of simplistic rah-rah patriotism. Instead, Wouk soberly examines the causes of the war and the dangers of nationalism and ideology. He also notes the hypocrisies of British and American imperialism, and the self-absorbed apathy of both countries in the face of fascism’s self-image of surety. One of the most fascinating features of the novel is the inclusion of the memoirs of a German general, translated decades after the war by Pug himself. There’s a creepy familiarity to his critiques of the “decadent” West, and one begins to remember that evil is often rationalized away, sometime quite convincingly, by those who worship strength and power. This mattered at the time the author was writing, around the height of the Vietnam War, and it matters now.
Ultimately, this novel and its sequel are a rich mix of intimate and broad-scale human themes, 20th century history, and wistful nostalgia for a time when the American middle class family embodied all that was hopeful. Audiobook narrator Kevin Pariseau rises to the occasion, with some impressive imitations of certain famous figures, a range of accents, and a narration voice that has both friendliness and gravity. Put the sequel on standby, because you’ll want to know what happens next.
This short, smart existential novella is a gem. After the protagonist, Soren Johansson, a devout Mormon, dies of cancer, he finds himself in a room with four other people. There, an officious demon cheerfully informs everyone that they’ve all failed to follow the one true religion (which I won’t spoil, but suffice to say, it’s not one of the obvious candidates) and consigns them all to a variety of hells.
For the protagonist, hell is a bigger-than-the-known-universe library containing every possible book (including those whose contents are just random characters, i.e. the vast majority). And the only way out, according to a posted notice, is to find the book containing one’s own life story. Hell does operate according to a few rules, which can’t be broken. There are food dispensers, which give out any meal requested. Non-carried objects return to their place at the end of each day. People who die are returned to life.
At first, Soren does what most people would do: he explores, forms relationships, tests the rules, and discusses solutions to the shared predicament. But days, then months, then years pass. The denizens of the library form societies. Soren experiences wandering and loneliness. He falls in love. Then violent religious mania hits people, and hell really does become hell. So, he escapes to deeper levels, in search of both his lost lover and answers.
I won’t give away what happens from there, but Peck does eventually make it clear that there’s no easy way out. The author’s wry sense of humor makes the haunting philosophical questions go down easy, but that won’t stop them from swirling uncomfortably in your mind later. As I see it, this is a book about what faith really means. What happens if God utterly defies all our expectations? Would we still believe? Could we let go of our belief? And I don’t think Peck is letting non-believers off the hook, either -- if we contemplate the hell of a purposeless reality, might it be better to have some ray of hope in a greater meaning, however slender?
Beautifully unsettling questions. I’m glad I spotted this one in an audible sale.
The first in this series, Altered Carbon, was all the rage a few years back. It was a gritty, hard-boiled detective story set in the 25th century, complete with pithy first person narration by sardonic tough guy male protagonist. The universe is a little reminiscent of the one in the movie Blade Runner, with powerful corporations that run everything and crime syndicates and rebel groups in the shadows. The most notable technological feature of this reality is the ability to back human consciousness up on a "cortical stack" implant, allowing people to "resleeve" in a new body if the old one gets excessively damaged. The implications of this made for some interesting twists, both in terms of plot and human themes.
In this novel, a loose sequel to Altered Carbon, Takeshi Kovacs has put aside the detective work and is back to his former trade of soldiering. He's serving as a mercenary on behalf of a corporate power battling rebel fanatics on a planet whose civilian populace is receiving the brunt of the misery and suffering. He's feeling about ready to jump ship on his contract when a pilot points Kovacs to a xenoarchaeologist in a prison camp, who knows something about a gateway leading to an ancient, derelict alien starship -- the find of the century. Can he put together a team to stake legal claim?
As with many sequels to hot first novels, the dazzle factor of the author’s style and universe has worn off a little, and this reader notices the formula a little more. For those who liked the grit, hard-boiled cynicism, manga-like universe, over-the-top sex scenes, and action movie machismo of Altered Carbon, Broken Angels brings more of that, but the characters and plot are more familiar and forgettable. While the part surrounding the entering of the long-dead ghost ship, the high point of the book, has a cool eeriness similar to the opening of the movie Alien and its own horror to deliver about the fate of a superior civilization, the story leading up this point isn’t hugely riveting. Yes, the sequences about locating a corporate backer (without being screwed over by the same), recruiting a squad of soldiers from the colorful personalities found in a pile of discarded cortical stacks, battling nanobots, and discovering what became of a previous expedition to the alien ship, were a pleasant audio distraction while I was doing yard work, a lot of other science fiction novels could have done as much. The war going on in the background had potential to be interesting, but wasn’t fleshed out much -- I suspect it will come more into play in the next book.
All in all, this is a recommendation for those who loved Altered Carbon and want to go further into the Takeshi Kovacs universe, but other readers could probably take it or leave it. Audiobook reader Todd McLaren has a square-jawed voice that suits the hard-boiled nature of Morgan's prose well and keeps it from coming across as too self-serious, but his sultry-voiced women can be a little irritating. Particularly the "sassy black girl" voice.
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