Category Archives: Reviews

AMERICAN GODS – Neil Gaiman (2001)

American GodsI’ve only seen the trailer of Starz’s adaptation of American Gods, but that firmly set the face of Ian McShane as default for one of its main characters – Mr. Wednesday, an incarnation of Odin. Ian McShane plays Al Swearengen in HBO’s brilliant – and sadly uncompleted – Deadwood. The mannerisms of that cunning brothel owner suit Mr. Wednesday well, and as books aren’t read in a vacuum, my Mr. Wednesday turned out to be an incarnation of Mr. Swearengen. Kind of fitting for a book about the dark side of Americana, and the casting people of Starz must have thought so too.

American Gods is Neil Gaiman’s most famous and acclaimed book: it won the Hugo, the Locus Fantasy, the Nebula, and the Bram Stoker award. Worlds Without End has it as number 6 of their most read books, and it’s on spot 2 of their list of SFF’s most nominated books.

I guess most people reading this know what the book is about: “gods and mythological creatures exist because people believe in them. Immigrants to the United States brought with them spirits and gods. The power of these mythological beings has diminished as people’s beliefs waned. New gods have arisen, reflecting the American obsessions with media, celebrity, technology, and drugs, among other things.” The book’s protagonist, Shadow, finds himself at the center of a conflict between the old and the new when he is recruited by Mr. Wednesday, just after being released from prison.

I’ve read the 10th anniversary edition, which added 12.000 words that were cut for the first version, and the praise on its back cover leaves no room for doubt: this is speculative fiction of the literary kind. I’ve written about speculative fiction’s obsession with Literature before, so I will not repeat that here, but rest assured, American Gods is no pulp indeed. Not being pulp does not make it a masterpiece either, so let’s start this review already. Continue reading

THE RISE AND FALL OF D.O.D.O. – Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland (2017)

The Rise And Fall Of D.O.D.O.Neal Stephenson wrote one of my favorite books: Anathem. His last book, Seveneves, was one of my favorite reads of 2015. So I looked forward to this new tome – 752 pages – especially since the blurb seemed to promise good old-fashioned fun.

Yes indeed, fun! Anathem & Seveneves are dense, serious books, but The Rise And Fall Of D.O.D.O. has the aura of a Dan Brown book: the discovery of old documents, secret government agencies, the past that turns out to be different from the official narrative, betrayal, mystery, magic.

Could it be that Stephenson again tapped into that youthful enthusiasm that characterized his brilliant sophomore effort Snow Crash and the outrageously bonkers The Diamond Age – a book that’s probably a bit too self-aware for its own good.

And what to think of the addition of Nicole Galland – with whom Stephenson (and a bunch of others) co-wrote The Mongoliad trilogy, and who primarily writes historical fiction? The dust jacket has this on their labor division:

Written with the genius, complexity, and innovation that characterize all of Neal Stephenson’s work and steeped with the down-to-earth warmth and humor of Nicole Galland’s storytelling style, this exciting and vividly realized work of science fiction will make you believe in the impossible, and take you to places—and times—beyond imagining.

Yet the colophon places the copyright solely with Neal Stephenson, who “asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work”.

I’m guessing the main idea came from Stephenson, and he wrote the bulk of the book, with Galland acting as editor / beta-reader deluxe to keep things “warm” and the sentences light. Why? To make sure Stephenson’s latter-day heavy-handedness doesn’t get in the way of revenue. This is clearly a commercial release, aimed at a big audience. Both covers show this: the secret file, the comical dodo, the military stamp lettering, the cheesy slogan – “Think you know how the world works? Think again.”

That’s not necessarily a negative. Summer’s here, and to start the season I was up for escapist beach reading: a few thrills, a bit of alternate history, some cool technology and lots of adventure.

Did I get that?

Continue reading

THE DOSADI EXPERIMENT – Frank Herbert (1977)

The Dosadi ExperimentOkay, I urgently need to reread the entire Dune saga. In my mind Dune is the best series I’ve ever read, and the two final books (Heretics and Chapterhouse) are the best of the series – contrary to a popular opinion the series became bad after Children Of Dune. The thing is I’ve read those books at the onset of my adult rediscovery of speculative fiction, and my mileage wasn’t high at the time: maybe I was too easily awed?

Popular opinion also has it Frank Herbert didn’t write much else that’s good. Both Whipping Star and The Santaroga Barrier proved to be utter pulp indeed. Yet The Dosadi Experiment is supposed to be one of the few books still worth reading.

The Dosadi Experiment is set in the same universe as Whipping Star, but it’s a very different book: it doesn’t feel as absurd & cartoonish. It’s not really a sequel either, so you can read them independently. As usual, Val’s Random Comments does a great job summarizing the basic premise of the novel, so I won’t dwell on that too long: basically Dosadi is a planet with extreme living conditions on which some conspiracy secretly put inhabitants to see what such conditions would do to their society, in order to gain insight in politics and power systems.

That gets me to the million dollar question already: yay or nay? Continue reading

UPROOTED – Naomi Novik (2015)

Uprooted 2Uprooted caused quite a stir when it was published: it was nominated for 6 awards, and it won 4. I’m aware that awards have less and less to do with artistic quality and more and more with the industry of publishing, but still, I was intrigued, especially after I realized fairytales still have lots of potential: C.S.E. Cooney’s powerful short story collection was one of my best reads last year.

Novik apparently was inspired by Polish fairytales – her mother is Polish, her father Lithuanian – but I’m not sure to what extent. Fairytales are fairly universal – there were versions of Sleeping Beauty in ancient China too. The Wikipedia entry on Uprooted seems knowledgeable, and if it’s more or less complete, it seems the Slavic influence is surface level only: names and the sounds of names. That seems enough for a crowd that craves authenticity and deep roots.

Anyhow, Polish or not, the subject matter is straightforward and recognizable: nondescript village girl turns out to be hero extraordinary with the help of an elder mentor. The apprentice quickly outclasses the teacher, and together they take on the evil forces – an evil forest. Continue reading

SIRIUS – Olaf Stapledon (1944)

SiriusI wrote a 10-page analysis of Last And First Men, Stapledon’s 1930 cult fiction debut. I wasn’t fully convinced by it, but I understood its historical relevance. I didn’t really plan to read another Stapledon title, but I came across Sirius in a second-hand store for 5 euros, and both the cover and the subject appealed to me, so I took my chances.

No 10-page review this time – I’ll try to make it snappy. Unlike Stapledon, who manages to make a mere 188-page novel drag and drag and drag. Not that he doesn’t set a bar for himself – the narrator of the book calls himself a “novelist” trying to “penetrate” into the “essential spirit”.

After all, though a Civil Servant (until the Air Force absorbed me) I am also a novelist; and I am convinced that with imagination and self-criticism one can often penetrate into the essential spirit of events even when the data are superficial.

That “essential spirit” is a bit of a recurring theme. Sirius, the dog with a human intelligence that is our protagonist, likes musing about it. Reading is believing – and I guess this book’s defenders will claim the fact that a dog utters the next quote excuses it. Continue reading

NON-STOP – Brian W. Aldiss (1958)

Non-StopNon-Stop is a short book by today’s standards: only 160 pages in a pocket edition. Yet it manages to cram quite a lot of content in its small space: a nice analogy for a book about a generational starship.

Some claim giving that away is spoiling it, but the knowledge is out in the open on page 21, and the book was published in the US as Starship.

Non-Stop/Starship is the debut novel of Brian Wilson Aldiss, and one that left me wanting to read more of his work.


The book is not entirely without problems. It’s partly 50ies pulp, especially in the character department. Today’s readers might complain about a lack of depth or character development. Yet to do so would be the result of superficial reading. Indeed, there’s only 160 pages, and Non-Stop generally focuses on plot, so drawing complex characters wasn’t Aldiss’s main intention. There’s simply not enough room for it. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing there. Consider the very first two sentences – great, great lines by the way.

Like a radar echo bounding from a distant object and returning to its source, the sound of Roy Complain’s beating heart seemed to him to fill the clearing. He stood with one hand on the threshold of his compartment, listening to the rage hammering through his arteries.

It’s in passages like this, often almost hidden, Aldiss manages to say profound things about being human – namely, about humans being bodies. Spread throughout the novel there are similar observations – about love and feelings too. What more character depth do you want? Is “being a body” flawed enough for today’s crowd?

There are some other small problems too, but lets not dwell on those. Non-Stop is a very rich book – I made 4 pages of notes, a ton for such a short book – and this review wouldn’t do it justice if I start nitpicking. I won’t elaborate on all the book’s goodies either, but focus on two big -isms: postcolonialism & existentialism. Continue reading

BRING UP THE BODIES – Hilary Mantel (2012)

Bring Up The BodiesReviewing a sequel is a bit harder: you can’t spoil too much for readers that haven’t read the previous book, and there’s the danger of just repeating oneself if the books are similar.

None of that in this take on Bring Up The Bodies – the much-lauded sequel to the equally lauded Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s historical novel about the rise of Thomas Cromwell, the troubles surrounding Henry VIII & Anne Boleyn, and the downfall of Thomas More.

Spoiling stuff is not a problem, as most people are familiar with the most famous Tudor story. Book 1 ended with the execution of Thomas More, and this book will end with the execution of Anne Boleyn: it’s out in the open on the back cover too.

And I won’t be repeating myself when I discuss the core ideas of this book, as it’s way different in scope and focus.

But before that, let’s just get all this out of the way: Bring Out The Bodies was a thoroughly enjoyable read; it’s a stylistic triumph again; again top-notch pacing; the story is stranger than fiction, even more so in this book; and again, this is better than palace fantasy. And yes, also for this sequel Mantel had to make choices: historians will keep on debating about Cromwell’s role, so she does not pretend to write a biography, but historical fiction indeed.  Continue reading