Thursday, December 26, 2013

Superfreakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

This week I've decided to review the sequel to Freakonomics, Superfreakonomics where Levitt and Dubner return to explore the economic rationales behind some of humanity's (and in some cases monkeys') weirder behaviors. I again found this book to be interesting and it raised some very interesting points, but at the same time I began noticing a trend of extremely loose organization that seemed to be inherent in both books. In the introduction the authors straight up admit that the book doesn't have a unifying theme or a central goal and as a result the book gets kind of muddled because it lacks a goal. A lot of the information presented within the book create interesting anecdotes that make good dinner conversations, but I feel like a lot of the further reading to educate yourself on the subject is left with the reader rather than with the author.

It's very hard for me to pin down exactly why I don't care for the sequel as much as I enjoyed the first one but I get the feeling it might be because it's simply more of the same that you got in the first book. Levitt and Dubner go through data to challenge commonly held assumptions and introduce economic concepts and make them applicable to the lay reader. It's very much like the first book and exposes how to apply an economic mindset to any situation and interpreting it based on incentives, cost versus benefit, and other factors. While it certainly introduces a handful of new concepts and helps to further the education of the lay reader in economic principles and research, I feel like Superfreakonomics isn't quite as ground-breaking as its predecessor. The problem is I can't really come up with any evidence to support my opinion, it's all really down to my feelings.

Is the book your time? Probably. It certainly raises a lot of good questions and challenges many commonly-held assumptions within larger society. I just feel like it focuses entirely on simply challenging assumptions and trying to make your head explode with the incredible more than anything else. With no clear goal or no overarching points it comes across as a collection of interesting anecdotes that could very easily be forgotten rather than being applied in the larger world to challenge our perceptions. It's certainly interesting, but I don't know if it will really stick with people.

Overall, interesting, but it's lacking a something I simply can't identify.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 19, 2013

On Basilisk Station, by David Weber

I want to preface this review by stating that I really liked this book, but there's one particular detail that overall is really minor but bugs the ever-loving hell out of me. It may seem kind of small to a lot of my readers but it's symptomatic of much larger issues I've encountered in fiction and part of a personal crusade. However, I want you all to take away from this that despite my frustration this is a really awesome book and I think anyone who's a fan of space opera should definitely check it out.

On Basilisk Station is the first book in the Honor Harrington series which follows Honor Harrington and her service as a ship commander in the Royal Manticoran Navy, as well as looking at the larger political and military intrigues between the Kingdom of Manticore and the People's Republic of Haven. I had heard great things about this series but had initially hesitated in starting because it's a long-running series that's currently twenty years old and apparently shows no signs of stopping. I managed to find the first book for free on my kindle (which will save me a bunch of shelf space since I intend to continue with the series) and decided to go ahead and give it a shot. I was very pleased with the book and glad that I decided to start reading this series.

This book introduces us to Honor Harrington, as well as the larger picture such as the Kingdom of Manticore and the People's Republic of Haven and sets the tone for a future conflict between these two powers. Through no fault of her own Harrington gets assigned to Basilisk Station, the dumping ground of the RMN's mistakes and is left with only her single aging light cruiser, the HMS Fearless, to protect and enforce order within the Medusa system. Instead of giving into despair and accepting that she's been abandoned, Harrington decides to actually enforce the orders she's been given by command and starts to seriously shake things up. Along the way she uncovers a far more sinister plot that may put the very danger of Manticore at stake.

Probably the greatest strength of the Honor Harrington series is its main character, which is desperately important if you're trying to create a character-driven series. Honor is an incredibly competent spaceship captain, tough as nails, driven to not only advance her career as an officer but also to execute her duties to the fullest extent possible. She is definitely someone I would want in command of a warship and would trust to be able to not only get the job done, but do it right as well. I definitely look forward to more of Harrington's adventures in the future and hope they are just as enjoyable.

In addition to Harrington being a great character I really enjoyed the glimpses of the larger political machinations going on while Harrington is shaking things up at Basilisk. You get to see not only the intrigues among the Manticoran Admiralty and Parliament, but also the plots of other powers as they try to extend their influence into the Medusa system. Oddly enough I actually enjoy reading about these sorts of political intrigues, which is a lot of why I love Song of Ice and Fire as well, and since they're very well and realistically written I look forward to watching the political situation develop alongside the military situation in future installments.

What really frustrates me about this book though, is a certain aspect of Harrington's backstory that the author decided to include and it doesn't really need to exist within the novel. Sadly, like a number of strong female characters part of Harrington's backstory is sexual violence. Granted, she beats the ever-loving crap out of her attempted rapist and the navy really wanted her to press charges so they could kick his ass out of the service, but it's still frustrating that a well-rounded lead female character has, almost by obligation, sexual violence as part of her past. And it's not like this event is really even necessary because all it really does is make Harrington hate Pavel Young (her attempted rapist) even more. Young is already from an aristocratic family and put on the fast track to promotion because of his lineage despite the fact that he's an incompetent and barely qualified for command of his own ship. Harrington could hate him solely based on him being a spoiled rich kid and if she was a male character that would be the entire basis of their antagonism. Furthermore the sexual assault isn't even used as an excuse to explain why she's a tough and competent starship commander, Harrington is just driven to be the best possible captain she can regardless.

Obviously, yes, sexual violence (and violence in general) against women is a big deal and we should be doing everything we can to fight this almost casual acceptance in some circles that violence against women is a fact of life and we can't do anything about it. I don't think Weber meant any ill-will when he included this particular aspect of Harrington's backstory, but I think it's a strong example of how even the best authors can kind of fall into this trap. There is some merit because it's not the end-all-be-all of who Harrington is and why she is the way she is, but it's still a frustrating and unnecessary addition.

Despite my frustrations I thought Harrington was well-written as a person and I was really interested in all the political events going on around her. I did find it a little hard to follow at times because the perspective shifted suddenly, but I suspect that was because of the formatting on the kindle rather than any fault of the author. If you're a fan of space operas and political intrigue I'd definitely recommend checking this series out.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Astra: Synchronicity, by Lisa Eskra

This week I've decided to review yet another book that I picked up for free at some point with my Kindle and as of writing is still free on Amazon. Unfortunately I had a lot of issues with this book and while I found out that it was part of a series by an author, sadly I did not feel interested enough in this book to pursue the series in the future. Overall the book felt really rough around the edges and could have stood to be polished a lot more. For a first book from an author it's pretty promising and I hope that her writing continues to develop and get better in the future, but for the first book of a series it turned me off entirely.

When I started reading Astra: Synchronicity, I thought that maybe I had jumped into book two in a three part series because there's a lot of background information that's sort of glossed over and I felt like I was just supposed to know all of this already from another book. This novel felt like a lot of part-twos to a trilogy because it had a muddled beginning and no clear end. Yes, some issues got resolved within the novel, but there were numerous, much larger issues which remained to be solved by the characters, and the promise of new and interesting problems as well. I felt like when the book wasn't working on the main plot for the future novels it was just sort of muddling around trying to waste time so it could be a full book.

Throughout all of the novel I still didn't really feel any connection with the characters. If pressed I could identify for most of the main characters a clear cut motivation that drives their progress through the novel, but I felt like they were more just actors playing a role rather than people earnestly driven by their goals. Again, this is probably mostly because it's the author's first book and so she is still working on developing her characters into fully-fleshed beings, but I didn't feel any emotional investment in them as characters and wasn't particularly concerned if they succeeded or not. Obviously it's very hard to make people care about your characters and take an emotional investment in them, but for whatever reason I just couldn't bring myself to care and wasn't particularly interested in what will happen to them.

On the subject of characterization, I was particularly frustrated with our male and female leads, Magnius and Amii. I didn't find anything particularly objectionable to them as characters but I was really frustrated with their "Will we or won't we romance." Now, my readers are no doubt aware I'm no big fan of romance and I'm sure writing a situation where both parties are involved are unsure of what they want out of the relationship can be a challenge and it takes a lot of work to be done well, but unfortunately the tension between Magnius and Amii seemed to be more because the characters suffered from extreme swings in their core personality. I just found myself wishing they'd make up their mind so we could get back to this galaxy-shaking plot that was taking place as well.

The biggest thing I noticed with this book is that the author is really trying to create her own giant, galaxy-spanning epic story with all of these really neat ideas, but I'm afraid that it's kind of an ambitious undertaking for a first-time author and as a result it struggles. In the first fifth or so of the novel we're introduced to a lot of different plot threads and they only get tied together after the twenty-percent mark. (I read it on my kindle, okay?) And with all these different plot threads you get the sense that this is going to be a massive plot that's going to take our characters all sorts of places before it's finished with them. By the time I reached the halfway point I was absolutely certain that this book would introduce a major conflict and fail to resolve it so other books would have a driving plot.

Obviously, I'm not opposed to huge epics. I'm a fan of Song of Ice and Fire, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Girl Genius, and Fullmetal Alchemist, series that all have this really big over-arching plot that gets resolved over the course of a series. Or, in the case of Song of Ice and Fire, might get resolved. Eventually. We'll see. However, doing a large, sprawling epic well takes a lot of work and dedication and maybe, just maybe, shouldn't be the first thing that you attempt as an author. True, I haven't written a work of fiction in my life, but having some experience certainly can't hurt before writing your magnus opus. And I very clearly got the impression the author knew what story she wanted to tell, what aspects she wanted to implement, and how she wanted all of it to end, she just didn't have the experience to pull it off as well as the work deserved. For most authors, even my favorites, their first book will not be their best book and it will take them time to develop their writing style. Trying to do the beginning of a huge epic for your first novel is certainly ambitious but I think it's a classic case of your reach exceeding your grasp.

Overall I thought the book was competently written for a first novel, even if it felt a little disorganized. By the end Eskra had tied all of the various plot threads into one big plot...rope I guess, and there was a very clear direction as to where she was headed. Since the first book is free it can't really hurt to check it out, but I just didn't feel enough of a connection to want to continue with it further.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Gunheads, by Steve Parker

This week we return to the world of Warhammer 40,000 with Steve Parker's book Gunheads. I was actually a pretty big fan of one of Steve Parker's other books, Rebel Winter, and when a friend recommended this novel to me I decided to go ahead and pick it up. Overall I thought it was rather enjoyable, but it doesn't really deviate too much from the standard 40k formula. If you're looking for something fresh and exciting then this definitely isn't your fare. If you're interested in a very familiar and well-written Imperial Guard novel then you could do a lot worse than Gunheads.

The plot starts of pretty compelling, with the Guard landing on the planet Golgotha to try and recover Commissar Yarrick's famous Baneblade superheavy tank, the Fortress of Arrogance. Because Golgotha has been dominated by the orks for the past forty years, as well as the planet being an inhospitable desert, the Guard is going to attempt a quick retrieval rather than trying to conquer the entire planet and bring it back into the fold of the Imperium. As the brutal desert conditions continue to take their toll and machinery breaks down it becomes a race against both the clock and the orks to find the Fortress of Arrogance and leave Golgotha.

Despite the interesting plot, I realized about halfway through Gunheads that this book started feeling very familiar to me and felt a lot like a Gaunt's Ghosts novels with different characters. Basically you have an Imperial force, desperately outgunned and outnumbered, struggling for survival as they try to achieve their objective. You kind of know that they'll reach an objective in the end, but maybe not the one they'd hoped, and some of the characters will survive, but not as many as you'd hoped either. Plus there's plenty of decent, fighting soldiers in the army, and some of them might even be generals, but there's plenty of loonies in the commissariat and higher ranks to balance that out and a couple of bad apples among the rank-and-file. The challenge for the author then becomes how to make the book new and interesting so that readers have a reason to come back for more. In my opinion Dan Abnett accomplishes this very well by having his Ghosts go through a number of different interesting situations and how the Ghosts will manage to get out of this scrape. What I really think Gunheads does well and what sets it apart is focusing on the tank arm of the Imperial Guard. After all, the awesome tanks are a very good reason why most people choose to play Imperial Guard but most of the novels focus on the (very frequently) helplessly outmatched infantrymen as they try to take on the worst the universe is able to throw at them. The tanks, however, are glorious warmachines and may not be the most sophisticated or fanciest of armored vehicles, but when you see them in battle they make a good account for themselves and it is truly epic. Gunheads focuses almost entirely on the tanks and it was a rare treat to watch them in battle. (Plus, as you all know I'm a super fanboy for tanks anyway so it was a really good fit.)

Beyond the dealing specifically with tankers and their own specific challenges, this book really doesn't push the envelope or bring anything new. If you've read a bunch of other Guard novels like I have, you can kind of see where this one will be going and it won't disappoint in that regard. The Adeptus Mechanicus have some ulterior motives, the leading general's gone mad with his quest for one last victory, and everyone else is tryin to survive to get off this particular Emperor-forsaken-rock. This book even feels like part of a larger series with its references to events that have happened before the novel and the feeling that we were going to meet these characters again in the future. I did do some research and found out that a lot of the characters had been introduced in a short story that Parker had written before, but there hadn't been anything else written featuring these particular characters. I get the feeling, much like the characters in Rebel Winter they may disappear off into the what-ifs of 40k and we're left to conclude they just had awesome adventures and managed to do what you can only really hope to do, survive.

If Gunheads doesn't really break new ground, it at least trods the old ground competently and it's a pretty good read. And sometimes you don't want to read something terribly complicated that explores genres, and sometimes you just want to read something fun and escape in the fantasy for a little while. And really, that's what I chose to accept Gunheads as, a fun little tank fantasy with a familiar storyline that I'm not ashamed of enjoying. If you're a fan of the Guard and their tanks I'd definitely recommend checking it out.

- Kalpar