Having been on a work trip, I find myself spending a lot of time in the car commuting and driving to various meetings. The result is a lot of time with audio books. It’s been a nice break and an opportunity to catch up on a few things I haven’t been able to get into in print. The following three books are what I’ve recently finished. Before my trip is over I suspect to finish two more, John Steakley’s Armor, and probably Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint.
Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregellis
I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m pretty much done with World War II. It’s just been done to death, hasn’t it? The History Channel might as well be Hitler Channel for crying out loud. Or at least that’s what I said before I listened to Ian Tregellis’ Bitter Seeds.
Beginning in the early stages of World War II, Bitter Seeds shows the secret history of the conflict between Germany’s Gotterelektrongruppe (Nazi mutants, a la X-Men) and Britain’s warlocks. Tregellis uses four points of view, two from each side, to tell an immense story in an intensely personal way. It works beautifully, interweaving real events with invented ones, while never losing site of the characters that drive them.
Structurally, the novel reminds me very much of Stina Leicht’s Of Blood and Honey. They both tell a story over a long period of time, jumping in at appropriate moments in the characters’ lives and then jumping forward to the next. It makes for a disjointed story at times, but allows the author to only show the important bits. Tregellis also writes incredibly descriptive prose without being verbose, making even his minor characters come alive. Narrator Kevin Pariseau takes all that and uses it to great effect, creating one of the best audio book presentations I’ve ever listened to.
Bitter Seeds is a novel that should appeal to fans of almost any genre. Even in its most reality bending moments it feels grounded, a history that’s just out of reach. I highly recommend it in any format.
The Hammer and the Blade by Paul S. Kemp
No matter how much I tried, I couldn’t make myself like Paul S. Kemp’s The Hammer and the Blade. It’s a well put together novel, with entertaining characters and a good enough plot. Yet, even with the masterful narration of Nick Podehl, it couldn’t overcome odd pacing, moments of sheer boredom, and plot devices that robbed the characters of agency. Oh, and a first chapter that I bounced on four times before finally getting past it.
Although I mention a host of issues, the one that most frustrates me is the pace and structure of the narrative. The novel begins with Nix and Egil (or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, or Locke and Jean, or Royce and Hadrian, et. al,) in a tomb, robbing it of the appropriate treasure and narrowly escaping with their lives. It’s dungeon crawling at its finest–funny, mildly horrifying, and pulse pounding. It’s also the last time the reader gets to enjoy that dynamic until the novel’s penultimate chapter. Instead, Kemp gives the reader the machinations of a morally bankrupt sorcerer or Egil and Nix sitting in a bar drinking, puttering around blasted landscapes, and all the while grousing. In either case it induced in me long stretches of disinterest.
All that goes to say, it didn’t work for me. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from trying it themselves; it’s been well received by hosts of reviewers I trust. My negativity could very well have been a result of wrong place and time for The Hammer and the Blade. I certainly won’t hesitate to give Kemp another shot with his next novel despite my frustrations with this one.
Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein
Can you believe I’ve never read Starship Troopers? Me either! It wasn’t the book I was expecting, bearing almost no resemblance to the film. I should have known better having read several of Robert Heinlein’s other works.
Told in the first person by Juan Rico, a recently graduated teenager who enlists in the military, Starship Troopers recounts his experience from high school graduation to commissioned officer in the Mobile Infantry. The result is a no-nonsense look at a future dominated by the military, where humanity has embraced notions of duty and responsibility to his common man. I found it both immensely moving and horrifying in equal parts.
The vast majority of the narrative centers around Rico’s training and conditioning, first in bootcamp, and later his memories of lessons taught in History and Moral Philosophy, a mandatory class every high school student is required to take. Throughout Heinlein waxes about social mores and the human condition–the things that separate us from other living organisms. It’s fascinating and stimulating, often making my mind wander away from the story itself as I pondered the implications.
For Heinlein these mind expanding moments are absolutely vital to the success of the novel because the narrative itself is bone dry (a fact only enhanced by Lloyd James’ detached reading). Rico shows little development as a character, often reacting to stimuli as designed, but rarely taking the time to ponder its implications. Instead, Heinlein leaves that to the reader. Very reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s work, Starship Troopers isn’t about the story, or even the characters, its about demonstrating a line of thought, a philosophical back and forth with his reader. Just like Rand’s work, the reader’s appreciation of it will vary greatly depending on the level of common ground he can find with author.
Either way, it’s a vital piece of science fiction history and a novel I recommend wholeheartedly to anyone interested in how the genre got where it is today.