The Tzer Island book blog features book reviews written by TChris, the blog's founder.  I hope the blog will help readers discover good books and avoid bad books.  I am a reader, not a book publicist.  This blog does not exist to promote particular books, authors, or publishers.  I therefore do not participate in "virtual book tours" or conduct author interviews.  You will find no contests or giveaways here.

The blog's nonexclusive focus is on literary/mainstream fiction, thriller/crime/spy novels, and science fiction.  While the reviews cover books old and new, in and out of print, the blog does try to direct attention to books that have been recently published.  Reviews of new (or newly reprinted) books generally appear every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Reviews of older books appear on occasional Sundays.  Readers are invited and encouraged to comment.  See About Tzer Island for more information about this blog, its categorization of reviews, and its rating system.

Friday
Nov102017

The Emperor and the Maula by Robert Silverberg

Published by Subterranean on September 30, 2017

Robert Silverberg’s introduction to The Emperor and the Maula explains the book’s origin. It began as a 30,000-word unfinished third of a projected novel (a space opera starring Scheherazade) that would be joined by contributions of equal length from two other writers to be named later. The book was never finished, so Silverberg cut his contribution down to 15,000 words and sold it to an anthology as a stand-alone story. This version is the 30,000-word story with the shorter story’s ending engrafted.

Silverberg gave the Scheherazade role to Laylah Walis, who crosses from Territorial Space into Imperial Space, an offense punishable by death. Laylah, an Earthborn woman, is immediately detained when she disembarks from the passenger ship that carried her to Harrar, the seat of the Imperial Government and homeworld of the Ansaaran. The bureaucrats who detain her are surprised that an alien from a backward planet like Earth has learned to speak their language. As a maula (a barbarian, unclean and uncivilized, a member of an inferior race), Laylah has desecrated the sacred world of Harrar by setting foot on it.

The bureaucrats, true to their civilized nature, engage in jurisdictional squabbles that delay Laylah’s execution. While they debate who should kill her and how it should be done, the story of the maula makes its way to the Emperor. He is fascinated to hear that this seemingly intelligent creature has willingly traveled to her certain death. He wants to know why, so he delays the execution and orders that the maula be brought to him. And so Laylah explains herself, night after night, leaving the Emperor with a cliffhanger at daybreak.

In the grand tradition of science fiction, Laylah praises humans, albeit slyly, quoting poetry and telling tales of fellowship, so that the Emperor will come to understand that humans, while primitive, are worthy inhabitants of the empire he rules. But Laylah also praises aliens. I think Silverberg was making the point that diversity is enriching, whether that consists of interacting with diverse alien races or with diverse human races. It’s hard to argue with that.

Silverberg laced this short novel with noteworthy observations about Ansaaran behavior. For instance, Ansaaran aristocrats feel that they are above the rules that govern society (because rules are meant to regulate the masses), while the lower castes feel that social order will be destroyed if rules are not rigidly enforced, not realizing that inflexible law and order benefits the higher castes to the detriment of the lower castes. Sounds a lot like America, doesn’t it?

Those are the things that make The Emperor and the Maula worth reading. Pretty much anything by Silverberg is worth reading, but The Emperor and the Maula is engaging and clever and, if it isn’t as complex as the Tales of the Arabian Knights, it is a worthy tribute.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Nov082017

The First Day by Phil Harrison

First published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on October 24, 2017

The First Day is told in two parts by two narrators. The first part is set in Belfast. Samuel Orr is a pastor who is married to Sarah with a son named Philip. He is having an affair with Anna, having courted her with gospel. After Anna becomes pregnant, tragedy ensues and Orr has a spiritual crisis, perhaps belatedly. His life changes, and then it changes again, as Orr makes an uncharacteristic choice that tears apart his family. Yet while Orr’s life changes, Orr seems to remain “his flawed, blunt self.”

What are we to make of Orr? Is he driven by the divine or is he a coward, hiding behind his religion to avoid sectarian responsibility? Is he a hypocrite who refuses to honor the values he preaches, or a sinner trying to find his way to redemption? Late in the novel, Orr counsels that fear and shame motivate almost everything we do, yet he understands that living in fear and shame does not make for a fulfilling life. The extent to which Orr feels either fear or shame is something of a mystery.

Anna, unlike Orr, is an easier character to understand and admire. She has an inner strength that allows her to hold true to her values. Anna is deeply introspective, a close observer of life who fearlessly internalizes its lessons.

The other key character in the first part is Philip, who at 15 has “turned his anger into a solid thing, a weapon” he wields as “a craftsman of hatred.” Orr and Anna are both the objects of his hatred, although as time passes, he seems to show genuine affection for his half-brother Samuel, Anna’s son with Orr.

The narrator of the first half tells the story in the present as it was told to him by its participants. The story builds to a surprising climax that occurs shortly after the narrator reveals his identity. The novel’s second half, now narrated by Samuel, takes place 35 years later. Samuel lives in New York and works as a guard at an art museum.

Samuel fills in his backstory, which includes a struggle to discover his own identity and to cope with his past. Events that force Samuel to confront his fears also build low-key suspense and anticipation as the reader wonders whether demons from the past will destroy or heal the Samuel of today.

Given that Orr is a pastor who sinned, it is not surprising that forgiveness is a dominant theme of The First Day. But the story is not simple. Orr’s opinions about forgiveness are rooted in his religion; they almost make it easy for him to be careless with others. His wife and family and lover never quite occupy his life in the same way that his own thoughts (of God or, more likely, himself) serve to fill his days. Philip does not seem the forgiving type while Samuel wonders whether forgiveness should be left to God (if God exists), and whether at the human level, some acts might not be forgivable.

Tension mounts as the story nears its resolution; the reader anticipates a confrontation of some sort, but the specifics cannot be predicted, only dreaded. The story is told in a restrained voice that underplays emotion without diminishing the novel’s drama. Anna is influenced by Beckett, who told writers to search for the honesty that lurks behind words. Phil Harrison has obviously taken that advice to heart. The First Day is an honest examination of intricate and evolving relationships between a flawed father and his damaged sons.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Nov062017

Strange Music by Alan Dean Foster

Published by Del Rey Books on November 7, 2017

Strange Music in the latest entry in Alan Dean Foster’s series of novels about the human empath named Flinx and his empathic pet/companion, a flying bat-lizard named Pip. As the novel opens, Flinx and Pip are living with his Flinx’s wife Clarity on Cachalot, a world covered with water, populated by friendly cetaceans. The world’s few humans, including Flinx, make their homes on floating platforms.

Flinx receives an unexpected visit from a Thranx named Sylzenzuzex, who has come on behalf of the Church, and indirectly the Commonwealth, to recruit Flinx’s assistance. This is not the first time the Commonwealth has set aside its desire to give Flinx a good mindwipe in order to exploit his empathic talents.

Someone has been using forbidden technology on the remote, developing world of Largess. That violation of Commonwealth law is bad enough, but the same person has kidnapped the daughter of an important leader, an act that might disrupt the balance of power on Largess and set back the unification that would be necessary for the world to participate more fully in the Commonwealth. Flinx must get her back and catch the scofflaw.

Communication with Larians is possible only by people who can carry a tune, as their language is sung. The language makes clear (but only to Larians) whether the singer is being honest. Flinx can sing a bit, but his empathic abilities allow him to emulate the innate Larian ability to detect deceit. He is therefore a perfect choice to investigate the problems that are taking place on Largess.

The musical language makes the dialog in Strange Music fun to read. It’s like Shakespearean rap with a Bob Dylan influence. The story itself is fun but a bit fluffy. Strange Music is a simple adventure story that rewards the reader with simple pleasures. A new character pops in rather too conveniently at the end, but notwithstanding that small complaint, I can recommend the story to Foster’s fans or to any science fiction fan who wants to spend time with an unchallenging read.

I should note that a forward by Kevin Hearne suggests in veiled language that Foster’s fiction doesn’t have any of those creepy liberal ideas that right-wing or libertarian sf fans so deplore. This has become a point of honor among certain sf fans who fail to embrace the diversity of thought that has always been the genre’s strength. I wonder, however, whether the comment applies to Strange Music. The novel is premised on the notion that a world’s worthiness depends on the ability of its people to unify, rather than living in clans that war with each other because of their cultural differences. That decidedly liberal idea seems to have escaped Hearne’s notice. The same could be said of certain other themes, such as the evil of persecution by a dominant religion, the value of empathy, and the equality of women (exemplified by the new character who pops in at the novel’s end). Like most intelligent science fiction, Strange Music seems to me to accept the value of liberal ideas as a given.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Nov032017

Devastation Road by Jason Hewitt

Published in Great Britain in 2015; published by Little, Brown and Company on July 3, 2017

The device that drives Devastation Road — a man wakes up in unfamiliar surroundings, having little memory of his past — has been used by many authors. The memory loss is meant to create suspense while leading to a surprising revelation when the protagonist’s memory returns. Jason Hewitt achieves the intended effect in a carefully controlled, moving novel that surprises again and again.

Owen wakes up on a riverbank, not sure how he got there or why he has a gun in his pocket. He has a vague memory of being on a trolleybus; he knows he is from England. He sees dead bodies in the river. He eventually meets a boy named Janek who speaks a Slavic language Owen doesn’t understand. Owen is able to piece together enough information to realize that he’s in a country he has no recollection of visiting, and that the year is 1945, about four years after the last year he remembers.

Finding a map on a dead soldier, Owen recognizes none of the place names, but feels drawn to the word Sagan. For lack of a plan, that becomes his destination, the boy his willing companion, although it soon becomes clear that Janek has an agenda of his own.

Fragments of memory return as Owen makes the journey with Janek. They are eventually joined by a Polish-speaking woman named Irena and her baby, apparent victims of war’s devastation. But Irena, like Janek, also has an agenda, and Owen finds her to be even more baffling than the boy.

As is customary in memory loss novels, Hewitt plants questions for the reader to ponder. What is the significance of the button in Owen’s pocket and the patch inside his jacket? Where is Owen’s brother Max and why does Owen feel that he somehow left Max behind? What was Owen’s relationship with Max’s fiancé? Owen’s background is mysterious due to his memory loss, but other central characters are also a mystery. Why is Janek searching for his Czech brother in Germany? Why is Irena so ambivalent about the baby she calls “it”? Unanswered questions drive the plot while sustaining the reader’s interest.

The questions are eventually answered in ways that are credible and unexpected. The plot is strong — it scatters enough dramatic moments to fill a trilogy — but the novel’s greater strength lies in its characterizations, its demonstration that it is impossible to truly understand other people, particularly when their behavior is a complex response to desperate circumstances, and that it might be just as difficult to understand ourselves. The powerful story and multidimensional characters make it easy to forgive the memory loss contrivance.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Nov012017

Ironclads by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Published by Solaris on November 7, 2017

About 20 years after Brexit, England becomes an American territory, giving the U.S. a convenient military base and a stepping stone to Europe, where ideological conflicts are translating into military conflicts, primarily with the Swedes and Finns, collectively known as the Nords. Sgt. Ted Regan and his two buddies (Sturgeon and Franken) are asked by a corporate Scion to find the Scion’s cousin, who disappeared on the front, the weaponized armor that encased him having gone dark. Since the military does whatever powerful corporations ask, the three grunts are separated from their assignments and sent to the front where they will carry out a rescue mission.

They are joined by a Brit named Lawes and a corporate tech guru named Cormoran who flies drones and hacks systems. Eventually they’re joined by a Finnish bioweapon named Viina. Needless to say, the mission is quickly FUBAR and the reader is treated to some battle scenes that are more intelligent than those served up by typical military sf. The soldiers struggle along until they discover just why they were tasked for this seemingly impossible mission.

Apart from the usual tech that attracts readers to military science fiction, there are some clever ideas here, including the notion of breeding and releasing millions of little bugs to block satellite views of troop movements and defenses. This is a relatively short, fast-moving novel, that tells an uncluttered story. Characters are adequately developed and Adrian Tchaikovsky’s prose is sharp.

The point of Ironclads is that most modern wars (and presumably future wars) are fought to advance corporate interests rather than national interests, and that politicians and military leaders are easily manipulated by corporations. That point has been made by other science fiction writers in more detail than Ironclads, but the theme is a good one, and it gives the entertaining story some bite.

RECOMMENDED

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