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40 years old
January 22, 1979

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  1. The Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman

    Yesterday, 07:20 PM

    The Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman


    A band of friends meet at the Inn of the Last Home in the town of Solace. Five years ago they went their separate ways, searching for evidence of the lost gods. Their findings were inconclusive, but their reunion is interrupted by the news of vast armies allied with dragons on the march and the arrival of strangers bearing a crystal staff...and the long-lost power of healing. The continent of Ansalon is riven by war and it falls on this band of heroes to save it from destruction.

    The Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy is one of the most famous works of epic fantasy of the 1980s. Published in 1984 and 1985, the trilogy and its immediate sequel series (The Dragonlance Legends) have together sold almost 30 million copies, making them one of the biggest-selling series of that decade. Millions of fantasy readers started out in the genre by reading these novels.

    The question arises, then, is it a good idea to revisit these works as an adult and risk ruining nostalgic teenage memories in the process?

    The answer is mixed. The paradox at the heart of enjoying the Dragonlance Chronicles is what age group it's actually aimed at. The generally jovial tone (even when quite dark things are happening), the casual dialogue (this is a trilogy where medieval fantasy characters say "Yeah!" a lot) and the extremely breezy pace make this feel like a series aimed at children. I don't mean YA, I mean 7-10 year olds. The prose is simple and easy to read, and it feels very much like a work aimed in writing style at the same kind of audience as The Hobbit. There's moments of whimsical humour, stirring action and intriguing worldbuilding which do withstand comparison with Tolkien's work, despite the less-accomplished writing.

    However, there are moments when the series abruptly goes much more adult. There are several sex scenes (albeit mostly of the "fade to black" kind) and female characters are threatened with sexual assault on a fairly regular basis. Tanis Half-elven also can't even meet a stranger on the road without carefully explaining how his mother was assaulted by a human man, leading to his conception and outcast status from both communities. The trilogy is also painfully 1980s in how it tries to have both strong female characters (Laurana, Tika, Kitiara, Goldmoon) and then gets them into situations of undress, or wearing revealing armour or clothes (Tika, at least, gets to make some wry observations on this that makes me suspect Margaret Weis was rolling her eyes as she wrote to market requirements). There's also a quite spectacular amount of violence, including characters being beheaded, turned to stone or set on fire on a fairly regular basis, and some psychological horror in the form of Berem, who is cursed to die and live again so often that he is going insane.

    If you can overcome the tonal dissonance - the gap between the lightweight, juvenile writing and sometimes darker, more adult content - then it's possible to enjoy the Dragonlance Chronicles as a fast-paced, popcorn read. The trilogy does have another key feature (or bug) which is that it is an attempt to adapt no less than twelve Dungeons & Dragons adventure modules into a coherent story. Several times the narrative cuts away from our heroes embarking on another side-quest only to come back to them after that quest is completed, leading to the heroes thinking wistfully back on adventures that the reader never experienced (such as the journey to Ice Wall Castle, or Raistlin's completely out-of-nowhere return to the main story in the closing pages of the third book). This does make the story feel somewhat incomplete. It also means that the stories are extremely fast-paced: the Chronicles trilogy features a bigger story and more characters and events than The Lord of the Rings in about 50,000 fewer words. Some will enjoy the breakneck pace, others may lament the lack of character and plot development this results in.

    The Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy (***) is fast-paced, fun and easy to read. It's also simplistic, juvenile in tone and has not aged fantastically well. Truth be told, there's much better options available for both adult and children fans of fantasy these days. But if you can overlook the issues, there is still some fun to be had in revisiting Tanis, Raistlin, Caramon, Flint, Goldmoon, Riverwind, Tas, Kitiara, Sturm, Laurana, Gilthanas, Lord Soth and the rest of this memorable bunch of archetypes. The trilogy is available now in the UK and USA.
  2. The Lady Astronaut Series by Mary Robinette Kowal

    28 August 2019 - 12:58 PM

    Book 1: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal


    3 March 1952. A sizeable meteorite crashes into Chesapeake Bay, obliterating most of the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. As the USA reels from the disaster, which kills millions, the resulting ecological damage threatens to start a runaway greenhouse effect which will make the planet uninhabitable within a century. The world's nations rally to begin a crash space programme to colonise the Moon and Mars to save as many people as possible.

    The Calculating Stars (which has just won the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Novel) is the first novel in the four-book Lady Astronaut series, which takes place in an alternative history where a meteorite strike in 1952 threatens the future of the human race. The title refers to the main protagonist, Elma York, a WWII transport pilot and mathematician who finds herself at the forefront of the mission to save the human race. This effort involves a multi-national effort via a trans-national space race involving thousands of people.

    Numerous issues are raised and explored by The Calculating Stars, including an exploration of the Space Race starting earlier, using less sophisticated 1950s technology; a confrontation of sexism and racism in the setting; the damage caused by the meteorite and resulting climate change, complete with deniers refusing to believe anything bad will happen; and an exploration of the intersection of science, societal change and technology.

    This multitude of plot points contributes to the book's length. At over 500 pages, it's a fair bit longer than most SF novels tend to be these days, but the sheer amount of material that needs to be explored means the pages fly by. The Calculating Stars is also written in an extremely easy-to-read manner, with prose that lacks artistry but also doesn't get in the way of the story. In this sense The Calculating Stars feels like an old-fashioned Hugo Award winner, like Spin or Rendezvous with Rama, eschewing stylised prose and in-depth characterisation to instead focus on the plot and the high concepts.

    The book does adopt a more modern outlook by tackling 1950s issues of sexism and racism head-on. An interest social point from World War II is that women were able to take on a multitude of roles, from working in bomb factories to flying non-combat aircraft (apart from in Russia, where they were able to serve more freely on the front lines), but the second the war ended they were expected to go back to being housewives and mothers. The meteorite crisis means that once again women have to take a front line role as mathematicians, programmers for the very early computers and in other roles that a lot of men are unhappy with. Some have suggested this problem is overstated in the book, but if anything it probably undersells it (if anything, Elma's husband being a paragon of equality-supporting hunkness who supports her every decision feels a bit convenient, but given everything else going on it's an understandable approach), and not tackling the issue would be highly unrealistic.

    Months and sometimes years flash by in chapters and the sheer scale of the effort to save the human race is impressively depicted. The novel does not shirk away from the darker side of human nature in the time period, but it also highlights its good points, such as the much greater acceptance of scientific discovery and exploration. Some may question the realism of us being able to get to the Moon more than a decade earlier than in real life, but Kowal's afterword provides some compelling arguments.

    The Calculating Stars (****) is both a traditional, even classic-feeling SF novel and a modernist, revisionist take on a fascinating time period, celebrating the human spirit in full. As others have said, it is an enjoyable mix of The Right Stuff and Hidden Figures. It is available now in the UK and USA. It is followed by The Fated Sky and the forthcoming The Relentless Moon and The Derivative Base.
  3. Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

    02 August 2019 - 04:20 PM

    Spinning Silver


    Miryem's father is the village moneylender, but his kindness and gullibility means he isn't very good at his job. When Miryem takes over, she finds ways of turning silver into gold and getting those who have taken advantage of her family for years into paying up. Her skills are so great they even attract the attention of the supernatural Staryk, who make her an offer: turn silver into gold three times and she can become a queen. Miryem seeks to defy the Staryk, leading her into a very dangerous alliance...

    Naomi Novik is a former video game designer turned fantasy author, best-known for her epic "Napoleonic Wars but with dragons" series, Temeraire, and her single-volume fantasy Uprooted. Spinning Silver is another stand-alone fantasy, a modern fairy tale which pits a young woman against the lords of winter with the fate of her homeland and her family in the balance.

    The opening 100 pages or so of Spinning Silver are as fine a slice of modern fantasy as one could wish for, with vivid descriptions of the landscape, an excellent depiction of small town politics and life and a small but memorable cast of well-drawn individuals. Miryem's development from hapless young girl to accomplished businesswoman is well-handled and the transition from a straightforward rustic story to one of an emerging supernatural threat is compelling.

    Where the book starts to falter is that decision that, rather than keep this a small-scale fantasy, the author decides to make the story more epic, bringing in events in the capital city, multiple new POV characters, a second supernatural threat, the emperor of the land, religion (the main characters are Jewish, although the setting is fictional) and other elements as well. And it has to be said this transition does not work quite as well as it should. Novik's strict, disciplined POV structure and tight writing does not handle the expansion in scale very well, and the story becomes diffused as too many new elements are added into it. I was put in mind of Peter Jackson in Hobbit Trilogy mode being asked to handle a fresh adaptation of Snow White and by the time he's done with it, it's a trilogy with a cast of thousands and an incongruous Orlando Bloom cameo.

    This is not to say that Spinning Silver is a bad novel, just one where the strong elements are drawn out over far too long a page count and constantly interrupted by less-interesting characters, side-plots and, oddly, a lot of words spent on the economics of luxury apron trading. When the novel is firing on all cylinders, it's phenomenally atmospheric and richly detailed. When it isn't, it becomes a bit of a slog, not helped by an awkward POV device where we have to spend the first paragraph or two of each new POV shift trying to work out which character we're now with. This is fine in the opening hundred pages when we only have two POVs, but when we get to the end of the book and there's half a dozen in play, it's more of an issue.

    Eventually the book ties together is disparate plotlines and we get a somewhat satisfying end, but it feels like the book has to take a lot of unnecessary detours to get there.

    Spinning Silver (***½) is well-written with lots of great individual scenes and moments, but the overall pacing and structure is awkward and flawed.
  4. Live-action WARHAMMER 40,000 TV series in development

    17 July 2019 - 10:17 PM


    Fran Spotnitz of The X-Files and The Man in the High Castle is developing a TV show based on the Eisenhorn saga by Dan Abnett, set in Games Workshop's Warhammer 40,000 universe. This is the story of an Imperial Inquisitor rooting out heretical cults and followers of Chaos who is forced to embrace the weapons of the enemy to defeat them, and ends up in a precarious situation. There are eight books so far in the series with two more to come, so they have plenty of material to work with.

    This series in particular was probably chosen because of the relatively tight focus, small scale and small cast of characters, all of which make this more practical than some of the other stories in the setting.
  5. The Wayfarers Series by Becky Chambers

    02 June 2019 - 12:35 PM

    The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers


    The crew of the Wayfarer are a tight unit with a complicated history. Rosemary Harper is a newcomer to the vessel, having to find a way of fitting into the crew whilst also avoiding her own past. But all of the crew of the Wayfarer have their secrets and their demons. When the ship accepts a commission to fly all the way to the galactic core (a journey of a year) to build a new hyperspace tunnel, these secrets will come spilling out.

    The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is the debut novel by Becky Chambers and the opening volume in the Wayfarers series. The novel was crowdfunded on Kickstarter in 2012, a result of Chambers not being able to find a publisher for the book, and it has since been a huge success. It was nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke, British Fantasy Award and Kitschies, and its two sequels and the series overall have been nominated for Hugo Awards.

    The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet opens in a highly familiar manner, with a cast of mistmatched characters living together on a spacecraft being established. From Blake's 7 to Farscape to Firefly to Colin Greenland's Tabitha Jute trilogy to Chris Wooding's Ketty Jay series, this remains a rich and engaging way of establishing character relationships and drama, and here is no different. What is slightly more unusual is the structure. There's relatively little in the way of space heroics or daring-do, with instead the focus being more on character exploration. Through successive episodes, we learn more about each of the characters on the ship: new clerk Rosemary, reptilian navigator Sissix, the medical officer/cook Doc Chef, the navigator Ohan, fun-loving engineers Kizzy and Jenks, buttoned-up algaeist Corbin, ship's AI Lovelace and Captain Ashby.

    Despite it's moderate length (just over 400 pages), The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is therefore more of a themed anthology or mosaic novel, a collection of short stories focused on each character with their shared mission (to the titular angry planet) cohering the fragmented narratives into a whole. It's a successful structure, meaning we get to know the crew in great depth before they come together to confront a crisis at their destination.

    It's also a refreshingly non-violent space opera. There are moments of jeopardy and danger, but Captain Ashby is a pacifist who doesn't carry weapons on his person or his ship, so they have to think their way out of each situation rather than opening up with guns blazing. It's a more old-skool form of space opera in that sense, with people out-thinking their opponents rather than nuking them.

    On the negative side, the chill pace of the novel means the ending explodes almost out of nowhere, with the entire plot wrapped up in near-indecent haste. That's not necessarily a huge problem - the book is very literally all about the journey, not the destination - but the ending of the story does verge on the perfunctory, although the individual character arcs do have satisfying endings. Some may also find it odd that we spend an entire novel building up the characters only to promptly abandon them: the sequels A Closed and Common Orbit and Record of a Spaceborn Few pursue (mostly) different casts of characters in other parts of the galaxy. However, the Wayfarers series is ongoing and we may revisit these characters further down the road.

    The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (****) is a highly entertaining space opera, with a laudable focus on rich characters and a refreshing desire to avoid the cliches of the subgenre. The book's relaxed pace and lack of tension may not be to everyone's liking, but it makes for a different and enjoyable focus to the book.



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    22 Jan 2019 - 11:51
    Dun dun dunnnnn ...
    Have a good one.
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    22 Jan 2018 - 08:24
    Same as below. Better make it a good one because it's 40 next year.
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    22 Jan 2010 - 15:32
    Happy Birthday, now go out and get wrecked :)
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