Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Night Soldiers

Title: Night Soldiers
Author: Alan Furst
Genre: Historical Spy Fiction
Published: 1988

Rating: 8.5/10
Recommendation: Good read even for those new to the genre.

Summary: Khristo Stoianev witnesses his brother get killed by the local fascists and gets recruited by an NKVD agent to be trained as a secret agent for the USSR. He is trained in Moscow and then sent to Spain in the middle of the civil war. There he becomes more involved in intrigues until he has to flee Stalin's purges and runs away to Paris. But his adventures are far from over.

Reactions: This is not the genre I am familiar with. I was recommended Night Soldiers after singing accolades to The Shadow of the Wind which could also be called a historical novel, albeit not nearly as definitively. Night Soldiers follows Khristo from 1934 to 1945 and provides glimpses of various momentous WWII events.

Furst does very well with the setting. In addition to providing some necessary background to the events, he also manages to portray the mood of the era very well. For example, Khristo's first impressions of Moscow:

And though the Moscow of his dreams - grand boulevards, golden domes - was as he had imagined, it shared the stage with a riptide of ordinary life. For every glossy Zil or Pobeda that disgorged important-looking people into important buildings, there seemed to be ten carts pulled by horses: the carts piled high with coal or carrots, the horses' breath steaming from flared nostrils, the red faced draymen drunk and cursing like maniacs. The streets were crowded with old women in black dresses and shawls, bearded Jews in back homburs, Mongolian soldiers with flat, cold faces. [...]
Yet, a moment later, turning the corner into Arbat Street he saw, he was almost certain a ballerina. His spirit swooped, that such glory could exist on earth.

I enjoyed reading descriptions of various places, meeting a various cast of character Furst narrates, following Khristo's insight into the politics of spying. At the same time, the reading went fairly slow. I spent several weeks on this 450 page trade paperback. Partially, the slow reading came from the need to keep track of various characters in the book. Partially, it was due to the structure that moved away from Khristo every so often to introduce a completely new cast that eventually would make a connection with the main plot. I didn't feel there was any particular climax to the plot, but sustained level of interest that comes from feeling invested in a character.

One aspect I enjoyed about Night Soldiers is that it's not written in a sentimental way. While the overall mood is far from happy, a lot of scenes that could be turned into tearjerkers are instead treated as facts of life at the moment. While I really felt for the characters in some of the scenes, especially towards the end of the book, I am glad that I didn't end up feeling completely depressed by the end of the novel. Combined with seeing Inglorious Basterds last weekend, this has been a great WWII period immersion. Recommended.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Hugo Award Winners 2009

The Hugo Award winners were announced at the WorldCon last night. And the winners are:

Best Novel: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
- I am very glad The Graveyard book won! Read my review above.

Best Novella: The Erdmann Nexus by Nancy Kress
Best Novelette: Shoggoths in Bloom by Elizabeth Bear

Best Short Story: Exhalation by Ted Chiang
- Also a very deserving winner in my opinion

Best Professional Artist: Donato Giancola
Best Graphic Story: Girl Genius by Kaja and Phil Foglio
Best Editor, Long Form: David Hartwell
Best Editor, Short Form: Ellen Datlow

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form: Wall-E
- I am one of the few people who was not super impressed by Wall-E. Pixar has made better movies.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form: Dr. Horrible's Singalong Blog by Joss Whedon
- I am really really glad to see it on the list. Neil Patrick Harris is just amazing not to mention Joss Whedon (!)

Best Related Book: Your Hate Mail will be Graded by John Scalzi,
Best Semiprozine: Weird Tales by Ann VanderMeer and Stephen Seagal

Campbell Award for Best New Writer: David Anthony Durham
- In my to-read pile right now. One more reason to pick up Acacia soon.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Briar King

Title: The Briar King
Author: Greg Keyes
Series: The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bones, book 1
Genre: Epic fantasy
Published: 2003

Recommendation: If you like character-driven epic fantasy, you will love this book.
Rating: 8/10

Summary: Thousands of years ago Genia Dare won the war, freeing humans from Skasloi overlords. Her descendant, Anne Dare is a princess of the throne and may have a much bigger role to play than she dreams of. For the Briar King is starting to awaken in the far away forest and no one knows for sure how the world is going to change.

Reactions: I have been meaning to read Greg Keyes for some time now. There are many praises written about this series and I was not disappointed in the least. The Briar King is a well-woven story bringing together a diverse set of characters.

The story switches between several story lines each chapter, but after some time you can start to see a bigger picture coming together. I am very impressed with how the plot is crafted to tie in the story lines and keep a good pacing in each individual quest at the same time. My biggest disappointment is that there is very little closure at the end of the novel. It's definitely not meant to be read as a stand-alone and in many ways just a start of a story rather than a complete book.

I also enjoyed getting introduced to Keyes' characters. Some of them may sound like stock characters; there is a royal family, a cheeky princess, a traveling monk, a rough woodsman, and a knight. Yet somehow, each of them manages to stand out, capture attention, and make you want to meet them in person. I felt quite involved with most of the characters by the end of the book and wanting to know more.

At the same time, Keyes sticks to the traditional epic fantasy tropes. It's easy to tell the good characters from bad. The good guys all possess heroic traits, while the bad guys are outright villains. All in all, it's a traditional fantasy epic, well written and fun to read. I would definitely recommend to anyone who enjoys the genre.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

July Recap

Poof and July is over. It is now the hottest month of the year in this hemisphere and I am planning to take a vacation at the end of it, which means I will have to stock up on some airplane reading. As for July, the reading went fairly lively for me and for the first time in a while I finished 5 books. Here's the tally.

Books Read: 5
  1. The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  2. Grimspace by Ann Aguirre
  3. I Like You: Hospitality Under Influence by Amy Sedaris
  4. Sunshine by Robin McKinley
  5. Finger Likin' Fifteen by Janet Evanovich
Favorite Book: The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Male: 1
Female: 4

Posts: 7

Thanks to Carl V., David Anthony Durham, ediFanoB and Hagelrat for leaving comments this month. It's great to know you've visited :)