Book Review: The High Crusade by Poul Anderson

TheHighCrusadeFollowing in the footsteps of my The Broken Sword review is another Poul Anderson masterpiece, mostly unknown to modern readers.

The High Crusade is a book about English knights, priests, and peasants from the medieval period who take over an alien spaceship and begin to fight the aliens on other planets. It’s fun, exciting, and from that premise comes one of the most interesting explorations of the medieval mindset I’ve ever read.

To be honest, the weakest part is the characters. It was pretty clear which direction the characters were going to go, and with the medieval mindset it was clear the person who broke fealty was doomed from the get go. This is honestly a flimsy weakness, though, since the book is excellent despite this.

Before I get into spoilers, I can’t recommend this book enough. If you like science fiction or the medieval age, this is right up your alley.

SPOILERS BELOW

The main thrust of the book is Sir Roger’s campaign against the Wersgorix Empire. He’s successful only because he’s modifying medieval warfare to the new technology they acquire, and because the aliens have had a relative peace due to the empire controlling much of the galaxy.

The most interesting element is the idea that Earthlings will go into space far in the future and find a feudal system throughout the galaxy!


If you liked this review you might like some of my others:

Book Review: The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien

Book Review: The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe

Book Review: The Fifth Season by N. K . Jemisin

You may also like my work on writing:

What is Science Fiction?

Turning a Hobby into a Career

Writing Philosophical Science Fiction

Book Review: “The Broken Sword” by Poul Anderson

anderson_broken_sword_carterI previously covered Poul Anderson with my book review of The Enemy Stars. It was okay, but with The Broken Sword, I feel like he really shined as an author.

The Broken Sword is a fantasy novel, but it’s set in real locations during the viking age of Northern Europe. The twist is that there are actual faeriekin, as they’re called, who are the legendary creatures of old. Interestingly, this means the gods of various locales exist as well, with Odin and Thor being mentioned prominently, as well as various Celtic deities. The Christian god is mentioned as well, in the context of being the “new god” that the old ones fear. It’s an interesting idea.

The story opens with an elf named Imric, who steals a child from a viking leader named Orm and replaces the child with a changeling he sired with a captured troll woman. To celebrate the child, one of the Aesir, the Norse gods, gifts a cursed sword to Imric. The changeling and the human child grow up separately, but look similar in appearance. The human child is named Skafloc, and he comes to understand the elfs’ ways, going so far as to make love to the elf women at times. The changeling is named Valgard, and he becomes a ruthless beserker.

Before I get into spoilers, I want to say that I absolutely loved this book. I think it was one of the best fantasy novels I’d ever read and by far the most interesting thing I’ve read from Poul Anderson yet. The ending didn’t awe me, but it was satisfying. I would say this is a hugely underrated classic of fantasy.

SPOILERS BELOW

One of the odd parts of the book is how Valgard kills basically his whole family, except his foster sister. She flees, and is smitten with Skafloc, who she doesn’t know is her brother. This whole relationship was a little off-putting, but I think that was the point. When their relationship is revealed by the ghost of Orm, it’s shocking and ruins any chance they had to be together.

As far as the ending goes, while I understand a “happy ending” was impossible, I still wished for it as I read. I knew it was coming, with Odin being seen previously multiple times, but it was still sad to see happen.


You might like some of my other reviews:

Book Review: The Fifth Season by N. K . Jemisin

Book Review: The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien

Book Review: The Gray Prince by Jack Vance

Book Review: The Fifth Season by N. K . Jemisin

jemisin_fifthseason-tpI’ve had this book recommended to me multiple times over the past year, but just recently picked it up. I’m glad I did!

The trilogy of novels started with The Fifth Season is critically acclaimed, the first book winning the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2016.

The Fifth Season is three stories in one, told throughout the novel. The first follows a young girl who revealed supernatural powers, the second follows a young woman in the Fulcrum (which is essentially a guild for the orogenes), and the third story is in second person following an older woman. The stories switch between each POV throughout the story.

Throughout the three stories you explore a little about the characters but a lot about the world. Honestly, the world as a dying Earth with strict social structures and a magical system based on geology was creative and unique.

A few things I don’t like:

  • Damaya doesn’t seem to have much of a character, and is a little obvious as far as her characterization goes. She has no real growth or change, and seems to remain the strong-willed overly intelligent girl right from the beginning.

To be fair, she does have some interesting storylines, like the one with the kids bullying her in the Fulcrum. I also like the interactions she had with her Guardian.

  • The second person sections were creative, but difficult to read. Honestly I had so much trouble adjusting to it, but once I did, I enjoyed what I read.

A few things I like:

  • Syenite and Alabaster’s story is the most interesting story in the book. It’s got character development, growth, change, and mysteries that are explored. I loved it.

Syen is a little shallow, but Alabaster was fascinating. When they’re first introduced it was awkward and uncomfortable. As they went on, they maintained a level of awkwardness but it was understandable.

  • The big star was the worldbuilding. N. K. Jemisin’s worldbuilding is fantastic. From the fully-developed organization and culture to the magic system everything is fleshed out and interesting.

Before I get into spoilers, let me say this: the book is award winning. It’s well deserved.

I think this is one of the best written books I’ve read in the fantasy genre, and would recommend it to anyone who errs on the side of experimentation and creativity with genre fiction. Despite how picky I am, I would say it’s fantastic.

SPOILERS BELOW

The first main twist in the book is the fact that all three storylines follow the same character. I absolutely loved that revelation. Syen as a character was a little boring, but the story was told so brilliantly that it didn’t matter.

What’s more is that Alabaster basically made up for Syen’s lack of depth. ‘Baster was forced to continually impregnate other orogenes due to his status as a ten ring. However, he was most likely a closeted gay man. He also never fell in love with Syen, which made a ton of sense.

I think at this point my other major complaint can be aired: the lack of love. I understand this was probably intentional, given the world the story takes place in, but it felt alien and inhuman, transferring that oddity to the characters. It was also apparent when Syen had her first child. You felt little to no love between mother and child, and made Syed seem robotic.

Now, I want to talk about the ending, so I’ll give you a nice warning and white out the text below:

ENDING SPOILER

Syen ends up killing her son in the end, to kill the Guardian that was bonded to her. It was heartbreaking and sad, but also felt soulless because it didn’t seem like Syen even cared about the kid to begin with. I kind of don’t understand why she had to kill him anyways if the obelisk was all ready moving towards her for aid, or why she didn’t just launch more projectiles at the ships.

The ending revelation as to what caused the Earth to get into its “current” state was interesting. I also noticed the distinct lack of description of the moon, and when they revealed that humanity killed Earth’s child, I knew it was the moon (as did most readers I’m sure). So for the book to end with the question from a damaged Alabaster concerning the moon was a nice surprise. 

All in all I would, again, recommend this book.


If you would like to support me, please use my Paypal link.

You may also like some of my other reviews:

Book Review: Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine

Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Book Review: Trading in Danger by Elizabeth Moon

Book Review: The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien

51r6XIPWmoL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Oh my, this is a big one. I first read Tolkien back in middle school. Like many other people, I was forced to read The Hobbit and discuss it in class. I remember vividly the cassette recording my teacher played of Tolkien himself reading the “riddles in the dark” section of The Hobbit. It was fantastic.

But today I want to review the sequel. Most critics agree that Tolkien outdid himself with his sequel, The Lord of the Rings.

The book is technically three books. These are The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. And even further than that, each book has two parts to it. This is especially seen in the last two books, where the stories diverge between Frodo and Sam and the rest of the fellowship.

The story is concerned with the events after The Hobbit ended. Bilbo Baggins is in Bag End, and has his ward Frodo. The story opens with Bilbo’s birthday. He’s 111 years old but doesn’t seem to have aged. He still has the invisibility ring he got at the end of The Hobbit, but doesn’t seem to be adventuring anymore.

However, like The Hobbit, Gandalf arrives and everything changes. Bilbo uses the ring and leaves it behind, leaving for the land of the elves. Frodo is given the ring instead, and it’s revealed the object belongs to Sauron of Mordor, the great evil to the East.

The story follows Bilbo and his friends as they take the ring through Middle Earth to destroy it in Mount Doom. Honestly, the book ramps up once the hobbits leave the Shire. It especially hits its stride when they meet Strider, who is also known as Aragorn.

That leads to my one complaint. It’s one that’s been leveled at the book in modernity: Aragorn is good at everything. He seemingly has little flaw, despite his wanderings with the Rangers. The other issue with the book is the lack of progression in the Frodo and Sam story line. Once they get to Mordor it picks up, but it certainly drags at times.

As far as positives, I can’t speak enough praises to this book. Tolkien blends song and poetry with prose in unique places in the book, and it’s beautifully written. His world is thoroughly developed, the world-building being a step above every other author of the time (though I’d still prefer Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian).

If all you’ve ever seen of Lord of the Rings are the movies, you’re well-equipped to understand the story. However, much is redacted from the books to cover a 9 to 12 hour run time. Characters like Tom Bombadil and scenes like the return to the Shire are completely left out (the latter being one of my favorite scenes in the book).

I would recommend this book to anyone who loves fantasy, as it was basically the guidebook on how to write fantasy during the 20th century.


If you like my work consider supporting me with a donation! http://www.paypal.me/FrankOrmond

You may also like some of my other reviews:

Book Review: The Gray Prince by Jack Vance

Book Review: The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe

Book Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

What is Science Fiction?

9262561366_05ea466cff_bMy family and I discussed some of the more recent Frankenstein movies, and the conversation drifted into the original novel by Mary Shelley. Inevitably, that brought out discussion of the original novel being the first science fiction novel. Apparently, this was a position Brian Aldiss held as well.

Now, I believe that science fiction, as a form of literature, is not so easily defined. As such, a distinct division between what was and was not science fiction is nearly impossible. However, I believe that there are various requirements that a story should meet to be considered science fiction:

1. It must have been written during or after the Enlightenment.

I would argue that science fiction didn’t exist until the Enlightenment. I would say that prior to this, any sort of fantastical or imaginative speculative fiction wouldn’t have had any concern for scientific ideas.

Now, the timing is intentional. Books like Gulliver’s Travels and Icosameron fit this element.

2. It must have been concerned with a scientific idea.

Even if that idea is as simple as “could we go to another planet?” or “what will life look like in 1,000 years?” Works that explore the possibilities of a hollow earth or people who live on the moon also fit this requirement, and if they were after the Enlightenment, fit the first as well.

I would also include some “soft” scientific ideas in here, such as psychology or politics. Thus, utopias or dystopias can be explored in detail in science fiction. I would exclude current politics or military science from this, if they were by themselves as scientific ideas.

3. It must have been concerned with speculation.

This means that a direct, realistic explanation of an even does not fit. Likewise, general fiction that doesn’t speculate anything isn’t a science fiction novel.

Now here’s the issue: space opera and military science fiction can speculate on the use of space faring technology or fighting aliens, but they don’t expound on those ideas. Nor do they need to!

I think these three elements must be included. Rod Serling once said, “Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science fiction is the improbable made possible”.

So was Frankenstein the first sci-fi novel? No, I don’t think so, though it may have been the first “hard” science fiction novel, but that’s a different story. Perhaps this is overthinking it, or maybe I’m missing some element that would define certain stories and not others.

What do you think?


You may like some of my other work on this site. Make sure to check me out on Twitter and Instagram.

Maybe some of my reviews:

Book Review: The Gray Prince by Jack Vance

Book Review: The Ship of Ishtar by A. Merritt

Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Maybe some of my work on writing:

Writing Descriptions

Finding Your Writing Style

Maybe my poetry:

Poetry: “Cardinals in Spring Snow”

Book Review: Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine

34081658._UY200_.jpgDavid D. Levine held an AMA on Reddit not too long ago. I ended up asking a question of him, which he took the time to respond to! I’ll link my tweet on it here.

But hearing from him encouraged me to read his book Arabella of Mars.

From the start it was an odd read, something I had to adjust to right away. The issue wasn’t the tense or narration, but the way the story read. The setting was something like a Victorian age understanding of space, with Mars being settled by English colonists, and the vacuum of space replaced by an atmosphere and sailing ships.

Before I get to spoilers, let me say: I recommend this book if you like older literature and science fiction. It’s right in that sweet spot.

SPOILERS BELOW

The book is in three parts. The first is her on Earth and her issues there. From there we end up in the air between Earth and Mars. Again, this book is based in an almost Victorian understanding of space. Third, the book is on Mars.

Right in the first few chapters Arabella is taken from her home on Mars and moved back to England to live as a proper noblewoman. While there, her father dies, relatives essentially kidnap her and plan to murder her brother, and they escape to Mars. This is, again, all in the first few chapters.

I will admit to two criticisms I have of this book. The first is at this point in the story, when Arabella is at her worst. It honestly surprised me that things could turn so grim for the girl. I felt like quitting the book here, but luckily I pushed through.

In the second part we have Arabella taken aboard the Diana. Arabella pretends to be a boy and tries to enlist in the Navy to get to Mars, but is luckily intercepted by a merchant captain who offers her a ship to learn on There’s a robotic navigator clearly inspired by the chess-playing Turk, and the Indian captain who seems to have a certain nobility about him.

Most of the adventures in this part are exceptionally well thought out and interesting. I found myself drawn into the story here, and concerned about both the “time bomb” aspect of getting to Mars as soon as possible, and tension of Arabella hiding her sex. It’s well-written! Almost reminds me of Treasure Island in this section.

Then we get to the third part of the book, when Arabella’s sex is revealed and she helps land the ship on Mars to find a rebellion of Martian natives. It’s an interesting situation, and here Arabella really shines. She knows the Martian customs and helps her ship from being destroyed. Then, she’s able to negotiate for food and water and get permission from the Martians to talk to her brother.

This is where my second complaint in the book exists: the Captain accompanies Arabella and seemingly has no purpose in anything. He has nothing to do. It honestly feels a little lazy given how well-written everything else is.

The ending of the book was satisfying, which is what you want for an ending (the resolution of which was set up from the beginning). In fact, all of Arabella’s  problems seem to stem from her father’s poor estate planning, which is hilariously brought up towards the end as being the solicitor’s fault.

As far as everything goes, I would say the book is a satisfying read with plenty of adventure. My own love of military science fiction drew me in when we dealt with actual sailing ship situations. Arabella is basically treated as a new recruit on a Navy ship (even though it’s a merchant ship).

All in all, David Levine nailed it. I hope the next one is as great!


 

If you liked this, you might like some of my other reviews:

Book Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Book Review: Warship by Joshua Dalzelle

Book Review: Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge by Mike Resnick

 

Book Review: The Gray Prince by Jack Vance

download (2)I’d previously reviewed Jack Vance’s The Dragon Masters, which I loved. Like that book, The Gray Prince is a blend of science fiction and fantasy. Jack Vance is a master of that blend, and I recommend him to anyone who would desire reading that kind of mix.

However, I can’t readily recommend The Gray Prince. As a book it’s okay, but I feel it ends abruptly and lacks cohesiveness. There’s also a few other issues.

The book follows a small family, with Schaine Madduc returning to her homestead from the space port. Kelse, her brother, is antagonistic towards their old friend Jorjol. Jorjol is a native Uldra who was raised on the homestead, but in later days has become known as “The Gray Prince”, a leader of a rebellion against the human land barons, who took the aliens’ lands.

The main problem with the book is its use of the alien language and personal names. The Uldra use several unique terms that are difficult to explain. Vance describes it in passing, but mostly uses them to immerse the reader in the world. That’s normally fine, but in this instance there’s so many terms that I couldn’t follow it.

The names are another issue. The first third of the book I kept confusing Kelse and Schaine, and I thought Uther Madduc (Kelse and Schaine’s father) was Jorjol’s actual name. I had to refer to a character list online to figure out everything!

As another positive, the morals of the book are interesting. One could say they’re “shades of gray”, to throw a turn of phrase. The land barons are by no means the “good guys”. Uther and Kelse were both clearly bigoted towards Jorjol, and the consequences of those actions are seen in the events of the book.

Ultimately, I’d say that the problems with the book have to be weighed against the creative worldbuilding and storytelling. I think Jack Vance was a talented enough writer to warrant a read of this book, if only because of the recommendations online. However, I think it was just “good”, not great.


You might like some of my other reviews:

Book Review: The Ship of Ishtar by A. Merritt

Book Review: Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny

Book Review: Trading in Danger by Elizabeth Moon

You might also like some of my other work on this blog:

How to Tell if Your Writing is Improving

Writing Descriptions

Poetry: “Cardinals in Spring Snow”

Poetry: “Cardinals in Spring Snow”

Northern_cardinals_on_snow

Two cardinals hover,
In warm morning light,
Twirling to old lands,
Crimson wings alight.
~
Rolled clouds move swiftly,
Ready to burst forth,
White manna poured out,
Paint on rusted earth.
~
Bird chirps cease,
Hidden crickets quell.
~
The warm red feathers,
Loosing foggy breath,
Warmth sought inside holes,
Life hiding from death.
~
By next cold sunset,
A cardinal flew away,
Shivering alone,
The snow’s price was paid.

 


It snowed here recently. As a result, I saw wildlife get covered in it. The image of Spring life covered with snow was an incongruity I couldn’t ignore.

– Frank Ormond

Writing Descriptions

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I was talking to an author friend of mine about his book. Honestly, it was a great read and I was impressed by one element in particular: his descriptions.

He was great at it! Not too many, but not too few. It felt like he let the reader’s imagination control the imagery, but gave enough to ground the story to a specific image. It worked well.

That being said, I noticed my own failings quickly. I’m awful at over-description!

The Curse of Over-description

The symptoms are straining for any author trying to craft amazing fiction. You get bogged down describing in detail every facet of a world you’re trying to build. It’s especially easy for speculative fiction or memoirs, because you really want to paint a picture in those genres.

There’s a good way to fix it, though. You simply have to figure out what a reader needs. It helps to have friends to read your work in the early stages, or alpha readers when you get to the point of allowing strangers to take a look at your manuscript.

My friend ended up explaining that he didn’t actually have the same issue I did, but that he did have his own issue. You see, there’s an equally dangerous possibility with writing: under-description.

images

A Barebones Manuscript

The Curse of Under-description

The symptoms are easy to fall into once you start to “trim the fat” in your writing. There’s too many ways to end up with a barebones manuscript.

You need to make sure to figure out what’s important to properly convey. Is it really important that the reader knows that the spaceship you’re discussing had five PD-40 Ion Engines with small carvings of elephant tusks and inscriptions in runes around the edges? Or is it better to say there’s five ornate ion engines?

Well, it depends. You can do “info dumps” as Ben Bova called them, but don’t do them constantly. You need a gentle touch!

Once again, those early readers are important. Get a friend to read through it, someone who’s going to be honest with you.

Hopefully this helps you! It comes from a personal place to me.


 

Maybe you’ll like some of my other posts on writing:

Where the First Draft Ends and Second Draft Begins

Going from Outline to Manuscript

Writing with Inspiration

Or maybe a couple of my reviews:

Book Review: The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe

Book Review: Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny

Book Review: Trading in Danger by Elizabeth Moon