Monday, May 23, 2011

Book Review: Orbus by Neal Asher

Orbus by Neal Asher is the follow-up to Asher's The Skinner and The Voyage of the Sable Keech, and part of his larger Polity future history (Gridlinked and the subsequent Ian Cormac books, The Technician, Hilldiggers, etc.) It continues where The Voyage of the Sable Keech left off and has a number of recurring characters, but while it's not strictly necessary to have read them to follow what's going on here I'd recommend reading them in order.

Spatterjay is a marginally habitable planet that lies just outside the territory of the the AI-ruled interstellar society known as the Polity, best-known for the virus that pervades its bizarre ecology. Transmitted by the bite of a leech-like creature native to the planet and able to infect almost anything, it gradually transforms its carriers, making them stronger, tougher, and virtually immortal- and, in the case of non-native life like humans, transforming them into monstrous, mutated creatures if they don't get sufficient nutrients from their species' native environment to maintain enough of their natural biological processes enough to prevent the virus's genetic material from supplanting them entirely.

Both the planet's name and its human population, commonly called “Hoopers,” are a legacy of the devastating war between the Polity and the alien Prador, when the infamous war criminal and collaborator “Spatter” Jay Hoop aided the Prador by helping round up millions of human prisoners into concentration camps on Spatterjay. Beyond Spatterjay lays the Graveyard, a vast and mostly uninhabited expanse filled with the burnt-out ruins of worlds ravaged during the war. It is now neutral territory providing a buffer zone between the Polity and the Prador Third Kingdom, inhabited only by a few isolated settlements eking out a living in the ruins and by criminal elements using it as a refuge where the warships of both great powers are forbidden to go.

Jericho Orbus is one of the oldest Hoopers of all- one of the original humans imprisoned by Jay Hoop, and one of the very, very few to actually survive. His sanity shredded by the horror of what he saw and suffered, and of what he had to do to survive, Orbus became brutal even by the standards of Spatterjay's frequently violent culture. He spent centuries sailing the  fearsomely dangerous seas of Spatterjay, eventually becoming  the captain of a crew of other shattered men and women who served as outlets for his all-consuming rage- as masochistic as he was sadistic, and able to survive the punishment he dished out thanks to the superhuman resilience granted by the virus.

This might have gone on indefinitely, were it not for a near encounter with death during the events of The Voyage of the Sable Keech that nearly led to a total takeover of his body by the virus. The psychological and physiological shock of having almost his entire body irrevocably altered by the virus and then returned to something at least resembling human jarred something awake in him, the parts of himself he had to bury to do what he had to do to survive the unimaginable horror of his past- his humanity.

Sniper, an artificially intelligent polity war drone built during the Prador War and since gone freelance, has decided to make himself scarce after receiving a summons from the ruling AIs of the polity, who have some questions for him about his role in recent events on Spatterjay. Lying low, he and his companion Thirteen, a fellow free drone, stow themselves away in the cargo hold of a small freighter, the Gurnard- a freighter captained by none other than Orbus, who has found a new life for himself as he tries to overcome the brutal centuries-long nightmare of Spatterjay. They are caught by the Gurnard's AI- which allows them to remain as passengers and seems oddly sanguine about the discovery of a fugitive war machine hiding in its cargo holds.

Meanwhile Vrell, a rogue Prador infected with the Spatterjay virus and transformed into something even more fearsome than the rest of his kind, has seized control of a Prador dreadnought and is headed to the Graveyard to lie low. The King of the Prador Third Kingdom has taken an interest in a relic of the Prador's past that now resides there, a powerful, monstrous entity that is thought to be mythical by most of his species- and will be at the heart of events driven by something older and more horrifying still. And when Orbus finds himself and his ship recruited for a covert Polity intelligence operation in the region, it becomes apparent to sniper that the sequence of events that led to a superhumanly dangerous man with a burning hatred for the Prador and a rogue war drone with centuries of experience that was literally born to fight them finding themselves together on a freighter bound for the graveyard was not a coincidence

Orbus is an excellent space opera and a great addition to Asher's future history. As usual, Asher's action sequences are top-notch here, and the events of the story provide plenty of scope for them. The central story is interesting, with lots of action and some well-paced and well-executed revelations about the Prador, the Spatterjay virus, and the nature of Orbus' mission into the Graveyard.

It was nice to see more about the Prador, a race of crab-like aliens that have been enormously important to the history of the Polity but have usually been peripheral figures, at most, in the events of most of the books. Orbus helps drive home just how disturbingly alien they are. Prador society is staggeringly oppressive, exploitative, and cruel by any sane human's standard. This is not out of malice, but because Prador are highly competitive organisms whose biology- specifically their high fecundity combined with the ability of adult Prador to control their children through pheromones- makes it possible for groups of Prador to work together as a cohesive unit without the sorts of instincts, behaviors, and emotions that human social bonds depend on. There was no selective pressure favoring the evolution of the capacity to feel sympathy or pity or loyalty, so Prador don't feel them. It's nothing personal.

Orbus was a side character in The Voyage of the Sable Keech, and a rather disturbing one, so it's interesting to see him given a larger role as he retries to regain his humanity. He doesn't stand out as much as some of the other characters, but in this case it works. Rather like Asher's portrayal of an autistic boy in The Shadow of the Scorpion, some of the criticisms of Orbus' characterization that I've seen elsewhere were directed at the very aspects of the character that I liked and thought made the character ring true. Orbus is generally fairly subdued, quiet, has a somewhat flat affect, and doesn't stand out as much as those around him-  in other words, he acts the way people trying to put themselves back together in the aftermath of devastating psychological trauma very often act, and that made him quite compelling to me.

I definitely recommend Orbus to fans of Neal Asher's Polity universe, and Asher's work as a whole to any fan of space opera. Frustratingly if you're an American reader, most of his books have seemingly been released in every industrialized country on Earth except the United States, but they're well-worth seeking out. (I strongly recommend The Book Depository if you're an American looking for something from the United Kingdom; they ship free worldwide and I've had nothing but positive experiences dealing with them. Third-party sellers at can also be helpful.) Neal Asher continues to impress.

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Saturday, May 7, 2011

Book Review: Stonewielder by Ian C. Esslemont

Stonewielder is Ian Cameron Esslemont's third book in the Malazan epic fantasy setting that he created together with Malazan Book of the Fallen series author Steven Erikson. Like Esslemont's previous Return of the Crimson Guard, it's events are contemporaneous with those of Erikson's books but focused on other parts of their shared universe. Chronologically, it is set after Esslemont's Return of the Crimson Guard and seems to take place around the same time as Erikson's Reaper's Gale or Toll the Hounds.

The Korelri subcontinent  and it's numerous nearby islands are home to several nations, with a largely sea-based economy and culture. Stretching along its northern shore is the Stormwall, a vast fortification that holds back the yearly assaults of the Stormriders, a mysterious seaborne race wielding powerful magics who have assailed the wall for hundreds of years for reasons unknown. It is defended by the Stormguard, a military force assembled from professional soldiers, press-ganged conscripts, and religious warriors dedicated to the patron deity of the wall and of Korel, a goddess known only as the Lady whose worship is Korel's principle religion. Years ago, the Malazan empire's attempted conquest of the region ended ignominiously when their invasion force mutinied and its leaders set themselves up as the new rulers of the Korelri territory they had conquered, forming an uneasy peace with the other political powers of the region and the native Korelri now under their rule.
Greymane is a former officer of the Empire's army who left to fight for the Crimson Guard, a mercenary army dedicated to the Empire's overthrow, and is now trying to settle into a peaceful civilian life as a swordsmanship instructor. The Malazan Empire and its new Emperor have decided to send a new expedition to Korel to bring its traitorous former generals to heel- and for reasons unknown, he wants the wanted traitor Greymane to lead it.
Meanwhile, the Stormguard is struggling to continue fulfilling its ancient task, with its ranks growing thinner each year. The Stormwall itself is faltering, with the accumulated damage to the  Wall from the Stormriders' renewed assault each year accumulating faster than it can be repaired and threatening the ancient structure with collapse. No one knows who the Stormriders are or what they want, but if the Stormwall falls they have the power to lay all of Korel to waste. Like the rest of Korel, the leaders of the Stormguard place their faith in the Lady and Her protection... but what does She actually want?

Stonewielder is a fine addition to the Malazan universe and Esslemont's best book to date. The book is well-paced, and  Esslemont successfully juggles a large number of characters and plot threads and is able to keep things well-paced. The central plot is interesting and build to an excellent climax. As a Malazan fan, it was nice to get a closer look at locations that are only alluded to in Erikson's books, and Esslemont creates an interesting setting with Korel.

The action scenes are exciting and evocative, and there are some truly impressive sequences here. The battles tend to feel more “military” than those in Erikson's books, probably due to the comparatively lower level of power possessed by most of the characters here compared to some of the prominent figures in Erikson's books. The character's are a bit more life-sized, and there's less emphasis on the sort of awe-inspiring acts of individual skill and heroism common in Erikson's books and more on the clash of armies made of brave but relatively average men and women, standing side by side with their comrades. I like the sort of stuff Erikson does with the vast power of someone like Quick Ben or the larger-than-life prowess of characters like Kalam and Karsa Oorlong, but the contrast Esslemont provides is also quite interesting and effective.

Esslemont's abilities as a writer have developed noticeably. His writing style in Stonewielder
has grown smoother, and lacks the occasional awkwardness or clunkiness of description or dialogue seen in Night of Knives and Return of the Crimson Guard. Stonewielder seems, for lack of a better word, more confident than Esslemont's previous work. I enjoyed those books overall, but in them Esslemont's writing sometimes sometimes had an  awkward, stumbling, nervously restrained quality, like an intelligent but shy person giving a public speech. The awkwardness is gone, and Stonewielder feels much stronger as a result. 
Stylistically, Esslemont's writing is more straightforward and less given to digression and introspection than Erikson's. Which is preferable is subjective, but both writers do well with their respective styles and both have created a good fit between style and subject matter, with Esslemont's more austere writing working well for the more down-to-earth story he's telling.  (Down to earth by Malazan standards, I hasten to add, which is sort of like saying someone is “short compared to most other giants.”)
Stonewielder is a fine book and a worthy addition to the Malazan series. It's not something I'd recommend for people new to the series, who are likely to be quite lost without the context provided by earlier books, but it is very strongly recommended for anyone familiar with the previous Malazan books. (If you're not familiar with it, I strongly recommend the whole thing for fans of dark epic fantasy in the vein of things like Glen Cook''s Black Company series. Start with Erikson's Gardens of the Moon and Deadhouse Gates.) If you're a Steven Erikson fan who didn't care for Esslemont's previous work, I'd still recommend giving Stonewielder a shot. Esslemont is really coming into his own here, and I'm eager to see what he'll do next.

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