Monday, February 28, 2011

Mind Games

Title: Mind Games
Author: Carolyn Crane
Series: The Disillusionists, book 1
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Published: 2010

Recommendation: A fun adventure with a unique streak that urban fantasy readers will be sure to enjoy.
Rating: 7.5/10

Summary: Justine Jones is a hypochondriac who is barely coping with her paranoia about the vein star disease and trying to keep it together. Everything changes when she meets Packard who offers to cure her of her fear in exchange for training her to become a disillusionist -- someone who can break down a hardcore criminal and rebuild them from scratch. Justine's discovery of her new world is just beginning.

Reactions: I have seen good reviews of Mind Games on several review blogs that I follow and I did not regret picking up the book. It was a really quick read -- I read most of the book in one sitting and enjoyed it.

The world in which the book takes place is contemporary with a couple of twists. One twist is the existence of highcaps -- people with a genetic mutation that allow them to develop a superpower. The superpower can be rather typical such as telekenisis or telepathy. There are more rare powers too; Packard is a highcap who can see people's psychological structures and understand. The premise of Mind Games reminded me of Martin's Wild Cards premise a lot, but I guess that's just the type of plot device that's easy to use.

On the other hand, I thought the idea of disillusionists and having the main character be a hypochondriac was pretty unique and interesting. The disillusionsts themselves are regular humans who are capable of learning a technique for channeling their emotions into others. I liked Justine for being an interesting character despite her flaws. She came out very real and sympathetic and I would continue reading the series just for her. I just hope, she doesn't deteriorate the way many urban series heroines tend to. If you don't know what I mean, just read my reviews for Anita Blake series.

Just as many other enjoyable urban fantasy books, this is not the type of reading that would make you think deeply. I find that most urban fantasy novels just lean too much towards pulp adventure and easy writing, which makes them less effective and memorable than many of the science fiction works for example. This is no exception -- very fun, but not very deep. The other problem with this book was the number of male interests Justine has in the book. Two men make her tremble at every touch and another two are there for eye candy and maybe casual sex. The "romance" plotline just went over the top.

Still, I will be looking forward to other books by Carolyn Crane. Give me a fun adventure to read any day :)

See also: Those who like Mind Games would also be likely to enjoy Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Company

Title: The Company
Author: K.J. Parker
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2008

Recommendation: An excellent read for those who enjoy gritty fantasy.
Rating: 8/10

Summary: Kunessin comes back to Faralia to find four other men who were part of A Company during the war. He gets them to move to a remote island where they can start a new life for themselves with their new wives and indentured servants. But nothing is ever simple and there's more than one secret hidden on the island.

Reactions: This is the first time I've read anything by K. J. Parker, but all the hype I've heard about the book is true. The Company is a really solid modern fantasy novel that is both character-centric and action-heavy at the same time.

The first thing that happens is that we get to meet the five survivors of the A Company, who served together many years and now are getting reunited again. General Kunessin is the leader and the mastermind of the trip whom the rest would follow to the end of the earth. The other four are pretty distinct characters also and we get to learn quite a bit about each person's history throughout the book. In fact, I think the best parts of the novel are those revealing the men in new light through the stories of their past together. In many cases, it made me think worse of the characters, but there's a fascination to following them even as you like some of them less and less. By the time the secrets are out, I was already pretty invested in everyone there.

At the same time, the book has a good dose of action and the plot moves along quite well. There are a couple of interesting twists and the ending is very well written if not quite what I wish it would be. It reminded me of the blog post that's been making its way around the blogosphere on how fantasy is losing its shininess. Well, I am in the camp that enjoys gritty fantasy, even though I am a sucker for happy endings at the same time.

Overal, The Company was an excellent read. Lots of interesting characters and character development in addition to pretty good plot twists. Highly recommended.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Lifecycle of Software Objects

Title: The Lifecycle of Software Objects
Author: Ted Chiang
Genre: Science Fiction
Published: 2010

Recommendation: An interesting take on the life of software intelligence.
Rating: 8.5/10

Summary: A story of Ana and Derek who work for a company that make digients - sentient technological beings that the company sells as pets to their customers. The project is a success at first, but it's not long lived, and then Ana and Derek discover what it means to be the long term digient owners.

Reactions: Ted Chiang has been a favorite author of mine ever since I've read his short story book Stories of Your Life and Others. I was excited to hear that he was writing a longer piece of fiction -- The Lifecycle of Software Objects is a novella sized effort. When I found that Subterranean press put it online for free, I started reading.

I liked the story, but I feel that it's not the author's strongest work. Part of the issue is that most novellas do a bit more in terms of plot development. I guess I expected more conflict build up and resolution. Even though objectively you could say there are both in the book, I ended up feeling that the ending let me down a little bit by being a non-solution of sorts. Some of the things I expected to see are unresolved at the end and that is disappointing.

On the other hand, there's plenty to think about in this story. It takes a pretty positive approach to AI. In some ways, I was holding my breath for a violent conflict -- software vs. humans! But the story ends up going in a very different direction and lots of interesting questions are posed about the co-existence of humans and machines as well as what a relationship between the two could be like.

I liked how Ana and Derek develop their digients and all the different types of issues that crop up. Some of them are very much like the issues of raising a child and some are entirely in the domain of software engineering, e.g. hacked frameworks and compatibility with obsolete software. As an engineer, I appreciated some of the points being made and it's clear that Ted Chiang has some experience with the software industry.

Overall, it was an interesting and thought-provoking read and I would certainly recommend it to anyone even remotely interested in AIs.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Emissaries from the Dead

Title: Emissaries from the Dead
Author: Adam-Troy Castro
Series: An Andrea Cort Novel, book 1
Genre: Science Fiction
Published: 2008

Recommendation: A fine space-opera with lots of plot twists.
Rating: 7.5/10

Summary: Andrea Cort gets sent to One One One, a world owned by AIs to solve two murders that occurred there. The world is hell for someone afraid of heights such as Andrea Cort and it's a heck of a political situation too -- with AIs engineering a new sentient species on this world and claiming an ownership of them. Now it's Andrea's job to discover the murderer who has started sending her death threats too.

Reactions: I picked up this book on a bookseller's recommendation. I've never heard of Adam-Troy Castro before, but apparently he's well known for his short fiction works. This is his first novel and it's certainly well-written for a debut.

Andrea is a pretty interesting character of the sort I enjoy. A tough, smart, capable woman that has some serious character flaws. She's pretty abrasive from the start and mishandles some situations, but at the same time pretty admirable for how she's handling herself. The plot is well-paced though we get some pretty big info-dumps in some places in particular on various character's backgrounds.

It's a fun read, following Andrea, who keeps digging up more mysteries than one would think possible. Her cognitive deductions and the plot twists keep the book interesting, but at the same time it's not always quite believable that she managed to just jump to that explanation given the facts presented earlier in the book. I appreciate the complexity of the mysteries and all the surprises, but towards the end I felt there were just a few too many of those and the last of them is a bit of a stretch.

Still, I think I will consider picking up another Andrea Cort novel in the future and I recommend it to you also if you enjoy a space opera/mystery thriller with lots of plot twists and tortured, misanthropic, but at the same time smart characters.

See also: If you liked this book, you might also enjoy Song of Scarabaeus by Sara Creasy.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

January Recap

This month ended up being much more about book shopping than about book reading. My to-read pile has been somewhat replenished with new things I am excited to read, but somehow I barely managed to find time to read. Some of it is due to a couple of TV-watching marathons. I already mentioned Darker Than Black.

The second marathon, later in the month was for watching the first two seasons of Friday Night Lights. It's a show about a high school football team in Texas in a little town where everyone is crazy about football. While, I still don't even know all the rules to the game, the show itself is pretty entertaining. Lots of character development, drama and some pretty good actors (not to mention easy on the eye).

So with that I only managed to finish two books:
  1. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
  2. Shadow's Edge by Brent Weeks
Favorite Book: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

I am just hoping that I can catch up on some reading in February because I am already falling behind on all sorts of goals.