Just for Fun 2015

The second book in the Collegia Magica fantasy series. The main character Anne was a minor character in the first book “The Spirit Lens”.

Publication year: 2011
Format: Audio
Running time: 17 hours and 18 minutes
Publisher: Audible
Narrator: Angele Masters

Four years ago Anne de Vernais’ father was tried in absentia and found guilty of treason, murder, and the use of foulest magic. He’s still on the run. This judgement has torn her family apart: her mother is crazy and lives with Anne’s uncle far away, and Anne’s own younger brother is a hostage and kept in the most notorious prison in the land. Anne is the only one left to care for the estate but without money that task is increasingly hard.

Anne’s younger sister is the only one who hasn’t been affected as much because she’s a student in the Collegia Seravain, studying magic. But now her tutors have send a message that she had died in a magical accident. Anne travels to the university but her sister has already been hurriedly buried and she finds no answers to her questions. Anne herself doesn’t believe in magic and the cavalier way her sister’s death is handled makes her furious to all so-called magicians.

But when Anne returns home a visitor is waiting for her with terrible news: the king commands her to come to the court as one of the queen’s maids of honor. The king has given away de Vernais estate and Anne no longer has a home. She’s able to take with her only a few things, among them books and her sister’s things. The messenger is none other than Portier de Savin-Duplais, the man who hunted down Anne’s father’s conspiracy and made Anne take the stand against her father. She loathes him but it turns out that he has been appointed her “jailer”; the one whom she has to report every few days. Portier is also the manager of the queen’s household.

Anne has no choice: she’s dragged to the court where she hasn’t been in many years and where she’s just a traitor’s backcountry daughter. But the court is full of schemers, the king is away in war, and the queen is sickly and since she hasn’t been able to produce a live heir, people are thinking that king Philippe will set her aside and take another wife. The queen’s step-mother has a lot of power. The queen is a great supporter of magic and she has one court magician. Dante is ill-tempered and feared by the whole court. He’s also whispered to be a necromancer. But almost nothing is as it seems at first glance.

Anne is only 22 and not familiar with courtly ways but she endures at first and soon she’s trying to get to see her brother and get to the bottom of the mysteries surrounding her father. On the way, she finds out a lot about herself and the world around her.

Most of the characters are the same as in the first book, the Spirit Lens, but Anne sees them very differently and doesn’t know their history and secrets. This gives them another viewpoint.

This is a wonderful mystery story with twists and turns. The world is gorgeous; lots of details and people. Excellent continuation to the previous book and it sets up the third book wonderfully.

The third and final book in the series
Publication year: 2014
Format: print
Page count: 423
Translator: Antti Autio
Publisher of the Finnish translation: Gummerus

The whole trilogy has lots of cool concepts and science which might exist at some point and the last book is no exception. Theoretically, it should be easier to read because most of the concepts have been introduced in the previous books. But it’s not, at least for me. This time we get to see lot more of the zoku society. They’re like live action roleplayers with high tech that brings everything really alive.

Sobornost (the bad guys) are fighting a civil war and the surviving characters are caught in the middle. The master thief Jean de Flambeur finds out just what he used to be like… and intends to steal a ring from Saturn.

Like before, I think that the setting is the major attraction with technology which behaves essentially like magic, and are named after magical entities such as djinn or dragons. For me at least, this actually made it harder to think of them as tech.

The book has lots of references to various comic book and fantasy and SF characters (even a Finnish one is seen once). Jules Verne is a clear inspiration, after all the most significant zoku society in the book is the Gun Club and its leader is Barbicane (from “From Earth to the Moon” and “Around the Moon”). I enjoyed them.

However, I felt that the characters and plot were buried under cool concepts and setting. I highly recommend reading “The Quantum Thief” and “the Fractal Prince” first and preferably back to back so that you don’t have the chance to forget the names and concepts.

The 8th book in the series.

Publication year: 2013
Format: print
Page count: 432
Publisher: Del Ray

William Laurence washes up in a sea shore. He has no idea who he is and how he has gotten there. Fortunately, he’s saved by a local nobleman.

Meanwhile, Laurence’s dragon Temeraire, the dragon transport ship, and the rest of the dragons have problems. Laurence fell overboard during a storm and the ship was damaged. Temeraire wants to go immediately to look of his captain even though the nearest land mass is Japan which doesn’t allow foreigners. However, he has to help with the ship and Iskierka is having their egg and wants Temeraire to make sure it’s safe before he goes.

Back in Japan, Laurence has remembered his name… but doesn’t remember anything about the last eight years. He thinks that he’s still a ship’s captain and dealing with the very suspicious Japanese is difficult. Fortunately, he speaks Chinese and lots of the Japanese speak it, too. Laurence manages to escape but not without help and he meets the local dragons, too.

The book has three parts. The first is set in Japan, the second in China, and the third part returns our favorite dragons to the fight against Napoleon.

The amnesia forces Laurence to take a long hard look at his life and the people around him. This brings quite a lot of angst and slows the pace a lot. However, I quite liked the Japanese dragons and the clash of different sort of honor definitions and rules.

The rest of the book advances the overall plot and the book ends in a cliffhanger. And I have no idea when the next book might come out.

Overall I liked this book a lot. Amnesia plots are a bit hit or miss with me. They can be hilarious (Buffy’s “Tabula Rasa” comes to mind as well as Star Trek TNG “Conundrum”) but can also go very, very wrong. This is in between for me. Not hilarious at all, since it just brought more angst to, well, everyone and it seemed that Laurence is really unsatisfied with his life which is sad. Other things bring to humor to the book, though: Iskierka is jealous of Temeraire’s Chinese lover and it was fun for a few incidents but got old really fast.

The clash between cultures is always interesting and there are several cultures here compared to the British (and each other). Novik also references a few historical incidents which I almost always like.

The first part has a lot of introspection and so it’s pretty slow but the last third makes up with that when the dragons join the war effort again.

Publication year: 2014
Format: Audio
Running time: 10 hours (includes the novella Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome)
Publisher: Audible
Narrator: Wil Wheaton and a group of narrators for the novella

The SF premise for the book is a disease, a strain of bird flu, which has wiped out a lot of humanity. But about one percent of the afflicted suffer from “lock in”: they’re fully conscious but can’t move or respond to any stimulus. It’s called Haden’s syndrome. This is millions of people and because the wife of the president of USA was one of the first victims, USA spent a whole lot of money and time to find a cure. They didn’t find it but they did manage to find a way for the lock in people to interact with the world. They have neural implants which allow them to take over a robot body or interact with each other in a virtual world. The story starts 25 years later, when Hadens (as they are called) are part of the US society.

The book is actually a police procedural. The main character is Chris Shane who has just started working in the FBI. She or he (the gender is actually never revealed) is suffering from lock in and works with a robot body. His/her partner is Leslie Vann who has her own issues and an interesting past. They are given a tough case which at first looks like it could be murder but might be suicide.

This is exactly the kind of SF I enjoy and I really liked Lock in. Scalzi takes a premise and then extrapolates how it would change a world much like ours. There are people who hate Hadens and legislation is done concerning the robot bodies (threeps). But some Hadens are media darlings.

The novella is available for free here: http://www.tor.com/2014/05/13/unlocked-an-oral-history-of-hadens-syndrome-john-scalzi/ It’s quite different in style from the book and it showcases the world very well. It’s done in a TV documentary style with statements from people who were near the center of things when the disease first started. Each person has just a paragraph or two but most of them have personalities which show through. The novella shows how people and the government reacted to the outbreak of the disease and then how people’s opinions about the Hadens and the robot bodies grow and change.

The final book in the Vampire Empire series.

Publication year: 2012
Format: Audio
Running time: 14 hours, 49 minutes
Publisher: Buzzy Multimedia Publishing
Narrator: James Masters

The book starts about a year after the start of the series.

Empress Adele has started a war against the vicious vampire clans of the north. Her trusted men stand with her: Anhault who has been promoted to the commander of the Empire’s armed forces and her consort the mysterious Greyfriar. At the start of the book, the men are leading the assault against vampires and their whole group is pinned down in France. But Adele comes there personally and uses her geomancy powers to strike the vampires down. However, the humans are losing the war and the best way to win it, is for Adele to use her powers again and again. Unfortunately, that weakens her too much. Also, she has to deal with her ministers who have more ambition than her.

Soon, they hear that the vampire prince Cesare has killed his own father the king and wants to become the king. He also wants to lead an assault against the humans so Adele and Greyfriar don’t want him as king. There’s one obvious choice but that would separate the two.

Adele has grown into a leader. However, her compassionate side sometimes tries to overwhelm the Empress who must do tough choices for the survival of her people. Essentially, she has the power to kill a lot of vampires but she starts to think that some vampires might not be evil so she doesn’t want to kill them. The problem is that we’ve only seen one non-evil vampire; the rest want to slaughter humans and drink their blood. Peaceful co-existence isn’t really possible between predators and prey.

Greyfriar was an interesting character at first but after falling in love with Adele he hasn’t changed at all. He’s absolutely loyal to her. He would like to save his people but he knows that it’s not possible, really.

This book has more large-scale battles than the previous ones. It’s also more focused on romance than the first book. Despite having some intrigue, it has lot of action, too. Oh, and no sex scenes.

This time, we also hear about how these vampire reproduce; no, they’re not undead and humans can’t be made into vampires. However, that myth is still alive and some humans have bought into it.

The ending ties up all the smaller plotlines but the fate of the world is still undecided. I was also a little disappointed that the Grayfriar’s true identity wasn’t revealed to the people at large.

A stand-alone book set in the Promethean Age series.

Publication year: 2014
Format: print
Page count: 332
Publisher: Prime

One-Eyed Jack is the personification (Genus Loci) of Las Vegas, or rather one of the two personifications. The other one is his partner and lover Stewart, also known as the Suicide King. They’re in trouble because the personifications of Los Angeles (Goddess and Angel) are trying to kill them and to tie Las Vegas to L. A. Then Stewart vanishes and Jack panics. He conjures up the ghost of John Henry to help him. But two John Henrys show up.

In San Diego a vampire finds a way to get rid of his mistress and then he heads to Las Vegas as well. Why? He looks a lot like the King of Rock and Roll and Las Vegas is familiar ground to him. Meanwhile, back in 1964 two spies known as the American and the Russian are on the run from the Assassin. They’re somewhere in Manhattan when they hear that the Assassin has left for Las Vegas. Of course they follow him.

In this book, Bear plays around with media ghosts. They are characters familiar from various TV shows and movies (and books, I guess, too), and have become archtypes in the minds of (Western) people. The spies are from the year 1964 and they’re not named. They are all very recognizable and behave like their archtypes. While being media ghosts gives them some powers, on the other hand they’re also limited to what they can do; the genre powers and limits them. I’m fairly familiar with them and enjoyed them quite a lot. There are also some legendary ghosts from history. But the current day legends shape them, as well. On the other hand, the genus locii were real people before they died in the city they’re now tied to. Apparently, their lives somehow reflected the idea of the city and that’s why they’re now tied to it.

One-Eyed Jack is part spy story and part vampire story. It also has a smidgen of Western in it. It’s chock full of famous characters and I had a blast reading about them but I don’t think it’s fair to spoil them in a review.

The book has a lot of point-of-view characters, two of them in first person, the rest in third person. However, there’s low chance of getting confused because every (short) chapter has a heading which indicates the POV character. Jack and the undead, named Tribute, are the first person POV characters and they’re quite different from each other.

This is quite different from the other Promethean Age books. I think it’s readable without reading the other books, though, because the magical aspects as explained.

The first book in the pulp adventure series set in Venus.

Publication year: 1932
Format: print
Page count: 183
Publisher: Del Ray (printed in 1991)

I’ve read more than a few Tarzan books, the first three Pellucidar books, and the Mars series in my youth, but this is the first time I read Burroughs’ Venus series. To my surprise, I found out that the first three Venus books have also been translated but in 1930s but there aren’t any reprints that I’m aware of. I’ve never seen the translations.

The book starts with Carson Napier contacting Burroughs himself. Carson is determined to travel to Mars in a rocket ship. In order to tell people on Earth about his adventures, Carson will keep in touch with his telepathic powers which he learned from a Hindu mystic. Carson also tells his life’s story to Burroughs. This ties the Venus series into the same world where the Tarzan and Pellucidar books happen.

Carson takes off in the rocket but the calculations were wrong and he ends up on Venus instead of Mars. There he encounters a human race which lives on gigantic trees. The humans call themselves Vepajans and they are a remnant of a once great race which invented immortality and made great technical strides. The men are armed at all times and seem to be fighting against the local animals. However, they also have human enemies and soon they capture Carson who has to find a way to escape.

The book contains many of Burroughs’ staples: a strange new world with humans who have different customs and cultures, strange beasts, and adventure. There is even a Princess whom Carson falls in love with and has to rescue. The story also contains political satire with the two human cultures: The Vepajan Empire had strict class distinctions (between merchants, wage earners, slaves, and brain workers) and even though the Vepajans claim that the classes didn’t interact at all, the empire was also so egalitarian that anyone (I presume anyone male) with sufficient skills and intelligence could rise to the thinking class of doctors and scientists. Yet, there were people who were unhappy with the empire and rose in rebellion. Their leader was Thor and so they’re called Thorans. The Vepajans are all beautiful or handsome and very courteous while the Thorans are often plain or ugly and insulting. The Thorans won and killed a lot of the Vepajans before the rest managed to escape.

The humans are now split into Vepajans and Thorans. The Vepajans still enjoy immortality and are almost free of disease but only half of the women are able to bear children. They don’t have slaves or servants; everyone is equal except for the king and his offspring who are almost revered. The Vepajans don’t have religion and when Carson tries to explain the concept to them, they find it ridiculous. In contrast, the current day Thorans are ignorant and weak willed people who are ruled by their former rebel leaders with an iron fist. The Thorans possess guns and ships which the Vepajans no longer have.

The locals again have just one language which, we are told, is a lot easier to learn than English. For example it doesn’t have irregular verbs. Therefore Carson is able to learn it in just three weeks.

Venus, or Amtor as the locals call it, has heavy cloud cover and the locals have never seen the sun, moon, or stars. The vegetation is gigantic and the climate is so warm that the locals need very little clothing.

Carson is an athlete but he isn’t a soldier and while he can fence he’s a novice and not the overwhelmingly skilled swordsman that John Carter is. But he’s a courageous, friendly man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, as is usual for a Burroughs hero. His fair hair, blue eyes, and light skin marks him as different from the Venusian people.

The beginning of the story is a bit slow when Carson is told a lot about Amtor but after that the pace picks up. It’s the first book in the series and ends in a cliffhanger.

The final Barsoom book.

Publication year: 1964
Publication year of the Finnish translation: 1977
Format: print
Page count: 160
Publisher: Taikajousi
Finnish translator: Seppo Ilmari

The book is composed of two novellas: “John Carter and the Giant of Mars” and “The Skeleton Men of Jupiter”.

In the first novella, John and his wife Dejah Thoris are riding when their thoat is shot from under them and Dejah is kidnapped without a sound. John hurries back to Helium. Before Dejah’s grandfather Tadors Mors can organize a search party, he gets a ransom note. Pew Mogel wants Helium’s iron mines in exchange for Dejah’s safe return. John doesn’t agree with that and instead he sends Helium’s air fleet and Tars Tarkas’ green men all over Barsoom to look for her.

Then he gets a message from Tars to meet with him in an abandoned city. Unfortunately, this turns out to be a trap and a group of white apes attack him. This is unusual because the apes don’t really work together. Then a huge giant attacks. He’s about 40 meters tall.

In the second novella John himself is kidnapped by a red martian and a group of skeletal men who turn out to be from Jupiter. The skeleton-like men are called Morgor and they a race focused only on war. They have already conquered almost all of Jupiter and are now determined to conquer Mars as well. They know that Helium is the strongest nation and want John to betray them.

The first novella is written in third person which was a bit jarring to me. It’s fast-paced and has more large scale battles than usual in a Barsoom book but the only new thing it brings to the series are some really nasty beasts.

The second novella is again written from John’s first person POV and feels more like the previous Barsoom books. John is whisked to Jupiter which is as fantastic world as Barsoom; obviously it has breathable air and it’s warmed by lot of volcanos. The red light from the volcanos also color everything pink or red when outside. Also, the four moons make seas so turbulent that no-one can navigate them in a ship and they can be only crossed by flying. Also, clouds cover the planet constantly, so the people there have never seen the sun or stars. It’s always daytime on the planet. Also, most plants seem to be man-eating variety.

The most warlike people on Jupiter are the Morgor who look skeletal; their skin is a thin parchment over their bodies so even internal organs can be seen when they’re standing in front of light. They don’t have art and only use science for war. They are arrogant and brutal towards all other intelligent species whom they consider inferior to them. However, as usual, John encounters also new friends. This story has also more humor than the previous books.

Unfortunately, the latter story don’t have a real ending because it was intended as a start for John’s adventures on Jupiter.

11th book in the Barsoom series.

Publication year: 1941
Publication year of the Finnish translation: 1976
Format: print
Page count: 268
Publisher: Taikajousi
Finnish translator: Seppo Ilmari

This story was published originally in four parts but they form a whole. Storywise, this feels like a culmination of many of the tropes Burroughs used in his earlier stories; they’re all used here. A kidnapped gorgeous woman, new cultures which have stayed hidden until now, the main character putting on some new leathers as a disguise, vile villains, and heroic heroes. Yup, it’s a Barsoom book!

The narrator is once again John Carter. He’s come to visit Edgar on Earth and tells him a story about Llana, his granddaughter, although she’s not the main character, John is. The story starts when John is looking for adventure and solitude. When he’s flying above Horz, one of the biggest dead cities of Mars, he sees a group of Tharks attacking a red man and he has to help. Together John and his new friend Pan Dan Chee kill all the Tharks. However, Horz isn’t dead after all: a hundred warriors come appear and take John captive.

It turns out that Pan Dan Chee and the other warriors from Horz aren’t red Martians but have white skin and blond hair. They are of the ancient Martian race which people think have died out. They have been hiding out in Hortz and don’t allow any outsider to live. Their jeddak is sad but resolute; he must condemn John to death and Pan Dan Chee, as well. They are sent to the old dungeons.

In their further adventures, John encounters his granddaughter Llana who was kidnapped by a too-eager suitor but escaped. Naturally, John tries to take her home to Gathol. This is, of course, not easy.

This is actually a pretty good representation of the Barsoom series, full of adventure. Apparently, these were written as a parody of Burroughs’ own previous works. It is quite remarkable how none of the bad guys recognize John even when he has shown his remarkable strength and fighting skills and even openly told people that he’s from Jasoom. Unfortunately, it also has the same problems as the previous books: very black and white world where the good are beautiful and the bad people are easy to recognize on sight. Good guys also get along very well. Enjoyable, if you like that sort of light reading.

Llana is actually pretty good female character even though not as independent as her mother Tara. But she doesn’t really have a chance to shine; most of the book she’s off-stage. We’re told that she’s good with the sword but she isn’t given a chance to use it.

The ninth book in the series.

Publication year: 1940
Format: ebook from Gutenberg
Page count: 192

The incomparable Dejah Thoris has been in a flier accident and was injured terribly. Helium’s best doctors can keep her alive but not cure her; only one man can do that: Ras Thavas, the Master Mind of Mars. But he has disappeared and John Carter leaves Helium to search for him. His friends and family (clearly remembering previous times…) plead him not to go alone and he takes with him one man from his guard: young warrior called Vor Daj. Together, they fly towards Ptarth where Ras Thavas’ erstwhile apprentice lives because they hope that he has some clues to the great surgeons’ whereabouts. However, (and extremely fortunately for our heroes) their miraculous compass is just a bit off and the flier takes them near the Toonolian Marshes which is rumored to be full of savages. Strange creatures take John and Vor Daj captive and transport them on the backs of huge birds to the city of Morbus.

The strange creatures are hormads and live in Morbus. They are vat grown red men (and indeed all seem to be male) who are grotesque and hideous in appearance. They’re also slow-witted. The most intelligent of them have formed the Council of Jeds and have imprisoned Ras Thavas and forced him to work for them. The hormad jeds intend to conquer whole Mars with their rapidly grown synthetic men. They aren’t good with the sword but because they can’t be killed, the jeds intend to just grow so many of them that they will take down everyone else with sheer numbers.

This time the narrator is Vor Daj. Early on, he sees a beautiful girl and falls in love with her. The girl, Janai, is also imprisoned in Morbus and Vor Daj wants to free her. In order to do that, he realizes that he has to put his brain into a body of a hormad so that he can be near her and protect her until he and John figure out a way to escape. So, he asks Ras Thavas to do that and the great surgeon agrees. So, Vor Daj’s body is hidden while he starts his adventures in a horribly deformed body. Of course, things go wrong and soon Vor Daj is in danger of losing his real body. He also keeps his real identity a secret from Janai, fearing that she will forever see him as a hormad.

The hormads are an interesting invention. Their bodies and faces are usually twisted; one might not have legs and another might have an ear growing in the middle of his face. Yet, they’re unkillable; parts just go on moving and a new body can be grown to a head. They can only be destroyed with fire.

Vor Daj meets another new culture which is a described as a group of primitive savages. They are not tharks nor red men but marsupial Martians who hop around with their tails and hind legs. In contrast to the other Barsoomians, they don’t show bravery in war but instead only attack when they have overwhelming numbers on their side.

The hormads are imaginative and quite horrible in their desires. The most intelligent ones want red men bodies and force Ras Thavas put their brains into the bodies of captured red men. So, it’s not possible to know who is who. The book even has a little philosophy about it.

Unfortunately, there are some sloppy errors in the book. The worst of them is perhaps the mix up with two characters but the ending is also less satisfactory than the other Barsoom books because we don’t know the fates of the major antagonists. They can be assumed but we don’t see them.

Also, even though the Martians spring fully grown from eggs, which we are told in this very book, there is a slave boy in this book.

Still, this is a very imaginative book and worth reading if you’ve enjoyed the previous books.

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