Cambridge, MA | Member Since 2005
The Swerve is a Pultizer-prize winner, and justifiably so. In a compact way, it manages to tell fascinating, well-researched, stories of both the Epicurean philosophers during the Roman Empire, and the intellectual and religious struggles of the late Middle Ages. These two threads are both really well done, and full of fascinating and illuminating details: monks were not allowed to discuss the books they copied, Epicurus presaged our modern understanding of atoms and evolution, the Papal secretary wrote a joke book, and so on. Greenblatt just does a wonderful job in illuminating these time periods, and how they relate to our own way of thinking. Similarly, the reader is excellent, and the many languages invoked in the book flow naturally from him.
The only downside, and it is a small one, is in the argument itself, that the discovery of the poem "On the Nature of Things" was a critical event in that led to the world becoming modern. I was convinced that the rediscovery of Lucretius was certainly one of the elements that led to the "swerve" and the Renaissance, but there are already other forces at work, many alluded to in the book, that play at least as big a role. However, Greenblatt really wants to make the poem central, though, so we get a somewhat more evasive account of other factors, such as the popularity of humanism, that were also important. As a result, the book becomes a little strained in its main argument, but it doesn't detract from a wonderful historical account. Greenblatt uses all of his considerable ability to make his argument, one that you may or may not buy, but that you are certain to enjoy if you like Medieval, Roman, or intellectual history.
Let me start by saying: I am a huge Sanderson fan, I think I have listened to (and generally liked) almost everything he has written, certainly over 100 hours. I think this book, is in many ways, his weakest. Part of this might be the young adult nature of the story (though I generally like YA SF novels), but I think a lot more has to do with some flabby plotting and rather self-indulgent writing.
While Sanderson's books are always heavily about characters discovering how an elaborately-built fantasy world works, Firefight takes this to a ridiculous extent. Pulled out of the setting of Newcago, we are presented with a flooded New York, where once again David has to figure out a slew of mysteries that look a lot like those in Steelheart: how does the world work? What are the weaknesses of the Epics? What secrets are allies and enemies hiding?
It starts to get a bit tedious, especially as much of the middle of the novel is spent repeatedly pondering these questions and wandering through the (not particularly interesting, once the initial rush has worn out) city. It is compounded by the fact that many questions are unanswered, and some of the ones that are not always particularly satisfying. Finally, the characters (besides David and maybe Firefight) themselves are not very interesting, as most are painted as cyphers in the same way the world is.
These problems cause the book to drag in the middle. The initial visions of Babylon Restored are great, as is the wham-bam terrific final third (where all the pay-off is), but it is undeniably uneven in tone (seriously, the metaphor thing is getting tedious!) and pacing.
The reading is great, and, ultimately, I was riveted at the end of the story, but this is not the place (or the series) for Sanderson newbies. Start with Mistborn, and then come back to this later.
This was an unexpected treat.
Erikson, who I know from his well-regarded grim and gritty fantasy work, turns out to be a very funny writer with an obvious deep love for science fiction. This book is both parody and pastiche, primarily of Star Trek (mostly Kirk-era Star Trek), but there are nods to other subgenres as well, from military SF to cyberpunk. To get full enjoyment out of this book, a passing knowledge of Star Trek is a must, and the more you know (and love) science fiction in all of its occasionally cheesy glory, the more fun you will have.
The story itself is surprisingly compelling, as are the characters, given that the book is essentially a parody. Erikson somehow manages to send up many genre conventions (the entire bridge crew beaming down to new planets, the tough space marines who shout "hooah" at every challenge, rogue AIs, and more) by having a main character who manages to be in on the joke, but in a more subtle way than the characters in Scalzi's similarly-themed Redshirts. Indeed, the captain is a complete bastard, albeit an endearing one, an over-the-top parody of Kirk that makes even Futurama's version seem well-behaved. Erikson puts his skills to work, ensuring that the plot remains engaging and the characters interesting, even as the story lurches from bizarre encounter to bizarre encounter. At the same time, he doesn't shy away from occasionally sharpening his parody to more biting satire at the expense of some more worn-out SF tropes.
I don't usually laugh at Audible books, but friends have repeatedly stopped me to ask why I was giggling with my headphones on in the street. This is not only due to Erikson's writing, but also the incredible, multi-voiced (and occasionally enhanced) MacLeod Andrews, who delivers the best comedy performance I have heard on Audible.
So, if you are a Star Trek fan, or at least are familiar with it, this is a no-brainer and probably the funniest science fiction since Hitchhiker's Guide. If you aren't as familiar with the conventions of the genre, or have never seen any Star Trek outside of the J J Abrams reboots, I have a feeling that a lot of the humor would pass you by. For the right kind of listener, however, this is pure gold.
This is not a bad story, but it is constantly undermined because the authors make it very clear that they believe their work to be Gritty and Relevant and Political (yes, the capitals are implied), by hitting you over the head with these points repeatedly. At times, the lack of subtlety is distracting to the point where I caught myself actually rolling my eyes while listening.
It is as if the authors took the typical Young Adult dystopian SF tropes and turned them up to 11, sprinkling liberally with random sex and strings of profanity that sound like they are drawn from South Park (seriously: there is a minute long sequence where a character describes everything around him as excrement, using the word dozens of times).
As a result, there is never a chance for the story to breathe. Not only do you get the simplified political divisions of Hunger Games-style SF, but, in case you missed it, there are repeated monologues about the nature of said political system. Ominous new technologies are described, and, in case you missed them, characters repeatedly tell you how ominous they are. Cliches also abound in the characterization, especially the women: the two main female characters are a moody diva and a sex-crazed hooker. These issues may be less apparent in the book, but in the audio, they are obvious and repeated.
Some of the readers (mostly the women) are good, a couple are horrible (oh man, the guy who reads the role of "Doc" is painful!). The story is never bad, and there is some fun world building, but I expected a lot more given the glowing reviews.
I assume you won't listen to this until you have listened to the previous 100+ hours of books in the Commonwealth Universe. That is, I assume you wouldn't even be reading this review unless you were already a fan of Hamilton. If you are, I have good news! This book is great, and shows real evolution in Hamilton's writing.
If that worries you, it shouldn’t: there is a lot of typical Hamilton here: we return again to the Commonwealth Universe, old characters re-appear, the book title is again bad, the worldbuilding is incredible, and the plotting is propulsive. And the man can write action scenes!
But some things have changed, nearly all for the better. For example, the two dozen character perspectives that Hamilton typically uses are reduced to just a few, allowing the reader to better settle into the characters and the story. This is combined with a slightly shorter overall book (closer to 20 hours than the usual 30+) which makes the plot feel tighter and more focused without losing the worldbuilding and detail that Hamilton is famous for. Also, the way Hamilton has traditionally built up the central mysteries in his books is by having characters with secrets in their backgrounds that are only revealed gradually as the book goes on. Here, he greatly reduces his use of that crutch, making the twists and turns in the plot involve less unexpected slight-of-hand, which helped me engage with the plot.
Finally, Hamilton does some very clever things with the plot of the book, building up expectations based on the previous Void Trilogy that are subverted in interesting ways. The end result is that this feels like the best written Hamilton book to date, while keeping all of the usual cool elements - hard(ish) science fiction worldbuilding, universe-scale action, and tight plotting – that have made his books so great. And Lee, as usual, is awesome.
Honestly, if you have spent 100+ hours with Lee and Hamilton, you probably are going to get this. Just be ready to find excuses to listen to your audio book, because it is excellent…
The original trilogy of Old Kingdom novels are some of my absolute favorite "young adult (but really for adults)" fantasy novels. The world building is terrific, the characters wonderful, and the writing style helps bring everything to life with appropriate mystery and majesty. In this new novel, Nix finds his inner George Lucas, presenting a prequel explaining the background of a character in the original series, though to much better results than Lucas achieved.The return to the Old Kingdom is welcome, and this book has some very clever elements that I won't reveal so as not to ruin surprises, but it never quite hits the heights of the prior three books.
Part of both the cleverness and slight difficulty engaging with the book is is due to the fact that it turns many of the tropes of YA fantasy novels on its head - the main heroine is asocial, not interested in romance, and generally aloof. But that isn't all. The book is full of YA tropes: we are taken early on to a magical academy full of potential enemies and allies (obvious shades of Hogwarts) or we are introduced to Parents Who Don't Understand the Heroine (shades of every YA book ever) or we are made aware of the character's special destiny. But the book turns every one of these tropes on its head, in ways that are sometimes satisfying, but also occasionally off-putting. Still, it is never boring, and I very much enjoyed the experience.
The reading is great, and, if you have read the other Old Kingdom books, you should certainly read this as well. Otherwise, you really, really should read Sabriel now - it is excellent, and, in its sequels Lireal and Abhorsen, sets up mysteries that Clariel answers, even if not always in the most ultimately satisfying way.
I am surprised at the relatively small number of people who appear to have read/reviewed this Audible book - Max Gladstone is, for my money, one of the most inventive writers of fantasy working today, and this book is excellent. It draws on both the urban fantasy (Noirish twists! A bit of romance!) and the epic fantasy (Undead wizards! World-threatening events!) genres while adding more than a bit of the New Weird mentality of Melville and Vandeermer. Set in a richly imagined world that somewhat parallels our own, but where gods were real, and eventually overthrown by once-human wizards, the books takes its setting seriously while never losing focus on creating living, breathing characters and exciting action scenes.
Even without the fantasy elements, this books well as a tale of nationalist unrest, religious fanaticism, corporate intrigue, and, yes, parkour - but the magic matters too. While the action is interesting and the relationships between characters feel real, Gladstone has created a very unique magic system, and seems to have a knack for describing magical wonders and horrors in ways that feel both fresh and literary. As an added element of originality, though the previous novel was set in a very Western setting, this one takes place in an Aztec-like city, filled with pyramids and with a history of human sacrifice. It is rare to see a setting inspired by Mesoamerican myths, and this was very well done.
I read the first book in the series before listening to this one, but I think Two Serpents Rise could stand on its own as well. Excellently read, and very different from anything else out there, I strongly recommend it to fantasy fans who might be tired of either epic swords-and-sorcery or urban vampires and wizards.
Collections of short stories, especially collections with many readers and many authors, are very hit and miss on Audible. This is one of the better ones, though it comes with a caveat - the bad stories are pretty bad, and the bad readers even worse - so the four star rating requires you to skip around a bit. Others have pointed out that the chapters are a bit weird, but that is only for two or three stories, after which they serve as a useful way to skip. (I'll also provide guidance on where the stories are)
And you should make sure to catch the fantastic ones here:
Scott Lynch's (Chapters 16-33 in the Audibook) A Year and a Day in Old Therradain has all of the charm, wit, and worldbuilding of the best of Lies of Locke Lamora, but with a great new character and new setting. Oceans 11 in a fantasy world.
Joe Abercrombie (Chapter 3 in the Audiobook) offers a Ambercrombie-ish tale of an entire criminal underworld hunting a mysterious package among lies and complex plots that is fun and not nearly as dark as his other work. It is read by the same narrator as Lynch, who is great.
Garth Nix's Cargo of Ivories (Chapter 58) is a story from his latest series about a puppet wizard and a knight hunting dangerous gods. I love Nix's style, and this was a nice example of his more adult work, with some clever wit along with the action.
Rothfuss's Lightning Tree (Chapters 70-71) is the story of Bast, and his relationships and schemes in the town where Kvothe's Inn is located. Witty, fun, and, surprisingly, given Rothfuss's tendency for massive tomes, tightly written.
Gaiman's entry (Chapter 66) is a story from Neverwhere, and will appeal to you greatly if remember (and like!) that novel, but is likely be a bit confusing otherwise.
Martin's piece (the final chapter) is more of a history of some pre-Game of Thrones events, you will enjoy it if you like history and the GoT universe (which I do), otherwise it will feel like a list of names and dates.
There are others that are good. I don't usually read mysteries, but I enjoyed a couple of them a lot (Big Brass and the second story, What Would You Do?), I also really liked a couple of weirder stories - Tawny Petticoats by Swanick and Inn of the Seven Blessings by Hughes. You may have different favorites.
Sometimes the readers are terrible and the stories are good, and sometimes the opposite is true. Overall, though, it is a terrific collection, if you are willing to skip around to find the gems and aren't annoyed that some of the stories are disappointing.
Krakatoa is almost amazing, but ends up merely good. All the elements of an excellent book are there: Simon Winchester is funny and engaging; the science is interesting; the period of history is fascinating; and Krakatoa has important implications for today's world. Further, Winchester covers all of this - the science, the history, and the modern implications. So, the problem isn't the facts, or the underlying material, instead it is in the way that he weaves them together.
The book aims for Bill Bryson, using Krakatoa to discuss various fascinating issues, but, unlike Bryson, Winchester can't seem to bring them all together very well. Many interesting points are raised, but never truly connect, making most of the book feel disjointed. For example, the history of Batavia is a major story early in Krakatoa, but Batavia itself is undamaged by the volcano, and there is little follow-up to help us understand why the author spent so much time on the city. Or take the intellectual history of plate tectonics, which is introduced through some plummy personal anecdotes, but then mostly abandoned later in the story. A stronger narrative might have concentrated on a few people or institutions, and how they were effected by Krakatoa, but instead we are taken on a whirlwind tour where little sticks in the memory.
It certainly isn't bad, and I did learn a lot about a fascinating period, but between the somewhat disjointed story and the occasional over-reach (Krakatoa lead to the rise of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism?), I often found my attention wandering while listening.
I came into this book with high hopes - it had been compared to Ready Player One, which was a really fun young adult style wish-fulfillment romp for grown up geeks. I understand the comparison, since this is also a wish-fulfillment romp for grown up geeks, but, man, is this book bad.
It is badly written, and not just in a first novel kind of way. It is full of awkward phrases and mediocre descriptions, sure, but the problem goes deeper. The novel is set in Medieval England, but there is no attempt to actually engage with the setting which is barely described, and everyone acts (and talks) like 21st century stock characters.
It is badly plotted. Very little happens overall, and much of it makes little sense. This would be okay if the author wasn't trying to justify consistent rules for the universe he creates, but Meyer spends a lot of time setting up the world and magic system, making all of the glaring logic problems hard to ignore. Further, much of the joy of a time travel novel is seeing the interaction between the time traveler and the setting, but the main character is entirely incurious and Meyer uses the excuse of an "alternate timeline" to avoid any consequences of their actions.
That leaves us with the humor, which many people seem to like. I am a fan of geek reference humor (see: Scalzi, Stross, Ready Player One, etc) but this generally fell flat, though there were some cute moments. More troubling is the fan-fiction feel to the whole novel, where all the main characters are all-powerful computer geeks in a world full of dumb brawny people. And, of course, there are no women in the novel for reasons that are, ultimately, both stupid and insulting. At least the reader does a game job, providing excellent, completely over-the-top voices to accompany the story.
The reviews of the book repeatedly mention that it is good value for money, since it is a cheap self-published novel. It may be worth the money per page, but it isn't worth 10 hours of your time. There are many better books out there to scratch your geek wish fulfillment fantasy.
The last Laundry novel was a bit disappointing - eschewing much of the office politics and humor and instead telling a straight-forward story where Bob Howard, IT guy/secret occult agent, has to defeat a church of (surprise!) evil evangelicals, an obvious target. At first, The Rhesus Chart looks like it is going to be the same, as we are quickly introduced to a nest of vampire high frequency traders with an scene-chewing bad guy at the helm.
However, just as a resign myself to the cliche, the plot twists, and thickens, in interesting and unexpected ways. Plot elements that seemed clumsy and obvious turn out to be cleverly re-purposed, and the whole book, while retaining the macabre, becomes a lot more fun. Helping this is a return to the sharp humor and office politics of earlier books, with a mix of LOTS of amusing geek references along with some fairly clever lines.
And, of course, the reader is amazing.
There are only a couple downsides, one of which is that the coming of Case Nightmare Green is again not deferred (clearly many more novels are ahead!), and that the story is a little flabby in the middle, slowing down a bit more than needed before speeding towards its conclusion.
So, if you are reading the Laundry novels, this is a must-buy. If you haven't, you really should (though you could skip the last one). I am really happy the magic is back in this excellent series!
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