Saturday 4 July 2009

Book Reviews

The Highwayman
R.A. Salvatore
Pan MacMillan
Review by Brad Harmer

Here's an open plea to all writers of fantasy: Just because Middle-Earth was a giant sprawling epic, it doesn't mean that yours has to be as well. Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone is barely 150 pages, and David Gemmell's Legend wraps up in around four hundred. Say it with me now: length does not equal depth.

On that note, here is R.A. Salvatore's latest novel The Highwayman. The big surprise? It's the first book in his new "Saga of the First King" series. As result, not much is going to happen, as a story which is supposed to take three to four hundred pages is turned into a trilogy that will have to spread nearly a thousand. See my happy face.

First, we're introduced to two characters, Bran Dynard and Sen Wi, they have a baby, and then they die. The thing is, they aren't killed until about nearly hundred and fifty pages into the four-hundred page book. They're introduced like they're major characters, and then: "BANG! Hope you enjoyed the prologue. Here's the real beginning.".

Their kid is the titular Highwayman, who suffers from cerebral palsy, but can overcome his ability by mastering his Chi. By mastering his Chi, he can talk, become a master swordsman, and is definitely not Zorro, okay? Definitely not Zorro. Anyway, he's out to find out more about his now dead parents, and indulge in all kinds of swordplay along the way.

This book isn't all bad. Salvatore is a good writer when he doesn't get bogged down under his own bumpf, and the action sequences are very cinematic. Swordfights are a hard thing to get done right in a book, and Salvatore pulls it off. He's had more practice than most, granted, but it's still a fun read from that respect. The disability that the Highwayman suffers from makes the reader empathise with him very well. Most of the characters are actually pretty good. They're original, all well-defined, and despite the similarities of their names (Bransen, Bannagran and Bernivvigar are all major characters), I was never confused as to which was which.

However, the pacing is way off. This could have been a fun one-off novel, but once again a fantasy writer's inability to write something a little bit shorter than The Count of Monte Cristo has totally skewed the pacing in what should have been a quick-read swashbuckler, and is instead a turgid exercise in patience.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating
Lots of battles and gratuitous swordplay. Some moderate torture scenes.

Sex/Nudity: None

Swearing: Some mild.

Other points in favour: We should cut him some slack. This guy killed Chewie.

Summary: A wasted opportunity, brought down by its own ego. Probably okay if you're into that sort of thing, but there are many better examples of the genre. - 4/10

Daniel Suarez
Review by Brad Harmer

There’s not enough cyberpunk around. Probably the most important science-fiction sub-genre ever, and its more or less petered out these days. Daemon, the debut novel from Daniel Suarez, isn’t technically cyberpunk, but it at least draws inspiration from there, and mixes in a healthy dose of mainstream thriller influences to create a highly enjoyable and fast paced book. There are car chases, malicious artificial intelligence, and a massive conspiracy holding it all together. So, what makes it different from The Matrix series?

Matthew Sobol, programming genius, founder of Cyberstorm Entertainment, one of the richest and most powerful of Silicon Valley’s elite, is dead, but his final creation lives on to execute his last will and testament.

At the moment of Sobol’s death, computer programmes around the world burst into life, creating an entity known as the Daemon. The Daemon infiltrates our hyper-connected society, gathering secrets, stealing identities. Soon it has the power to change lives as well as the power to take them: those who serve the Daemon are rewarded; those who defy it are eliminated. Recruiting acolytes from the dispossessed and disaffected, the Daemon secures a growing stranglehold on the world’s most precious commodity: information. And once you control information itself, how easy would it be to remake the world?

It’s up to an unlikely alliance – Peter Sebeck (a computer illiterate detective) and John Ross (a white-collar hacker, with a ton of secrets) – to challenge the monster that Sobol unleashed from beyond the grave. But before they can confront the Daemon, they have to find out what it wants.

The blending of technology that actually exists now combined with some high sci-fi, is something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s obviously intended to hint that this is just a few years or months into the future, and that this kind of stuff isn’t that far away from what we have now. But unfortunately, the stuff like the automated killer hummers and the sunglasses that hover icons over everyone are just that little bit too far fetched to be seen as realistic. As sci-fi, they work. However, placed side-by-side with modern day technology, the effect is a little jarring. And the killer motorcycles bristling with blades? Sorry, but they are just dumb, and someone should have edited those out.

The scenes that take place within The Gate (a fictional World of Warcraft/Age of Conan style MMORPG), and Over The Rhine (a WWII FPS) are some of the best, and the crossover between the real world and second dimension that the Daemon has created is nothing short of genius. Its only when the video-game-esque action spills over into the real world that it looks a little dumb. They are frequently way too unrealistic in terms of their pulp style, contrasted with the gritty and realistic depiction of blood and gore through the rest of the novel. The high-tech/low-tech, the pulp action/the CSI grit - Daemon is just too much of a mish-mash of incongruous takes on the subject matter to really feel like a solid piece of work, and the last thirty pages or so unfortunately devolve from a good techno-thriller into a really shitty nineties action movie.

As mentioned earlier, Daemon has a stab at both cyberpunk and the modern thriller; but as a result of that it doesn’t manage to quite nail either. Fans of thrillers will be put off by the pseudo-techno-babble and “leet” parlance that peppers the novel, and fans of cyberpunk will sneer at the action set-pieces that require extraordinary suspension of disbelief. That’s not to say that it is a bad book. It’s just a book that may have a hard time finding its true audience, as it never really decides what sort of book it wants to be.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
Several creative death sequences. Very descriptive gore.

Sex/Nudity: None

Swearing: A realistic amount

Summary: A book that’s so divergent in its style that it’s hard to really know what to make of it. It’s a very original idea, but could have been executed a little better. I look forward to Daniel Suarez’s next novel, as once he hits his stride, he could do very great things. – 6/10

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