Wednesday, June 04, 2014

The Way of Kings

The Way of Kings is long - fantasy long. And this is only the first of a multi-volume saga. This was much harder to really get "into" than Sanderson's other books. It does, however, seem to borrow from some of his other ideas and even names. (Occasionally, I think I remember a character or event, only to realize it was from another book.) By the end, I was eager for the next book in the series.

The novel is told from the point of view of a number of different characters that (at least initially) seem to be unrelated. I found the story of Shallan to be my favorite. I was eager for more "installments" of this arc while going through other sections. Shallan is attempting to steal a Soulcaster from Jasnah, a heretic nobel academic. She apprentices herself to Jasnah to become close to her. In the process, she comes to become attached to her master and enjoy her studies. She also gains feelings for the ardent Kabsal. However, it turns out Kabsal was trying to kill Jasnah with poisonous bread. (The antidote is in the jam - Jasnah is known to not like jam.) Jasnah soulcasts the jam into something else, and Kabsal ends up being the one that dies. (Jasnah soulcasts Shallan's blood to heal her.) From this episode Shallan begins to learn that Jasnah and herself can soulcast without a soulcaster.

The other arcs involve an assassin, a nobel who has dreams, and Kaladin, a slave. Kaladin was initially the son of a "dark eyes" surgeon. (In the society, light eyes were nobles. Another society was mentioned where leadership is entirely based on age. It seems very open, until one realizes that the dominant clan simply kills off other pretenders before they get too old.) He joins the army to help protect his younger brother who was drafted. However, he gets in trouble, especially as his powers begin to manifest themselves. Eventually, he helps train a lowly "bridge crew" to be brave fighters. They come back and rescue the army of a rival ruler (even though they could have just escaped to freedom.) After doing this the ruler buys their freedom and gives them a spot in the military.

These arcs all go together for a large story about a society that is cycling through a fall. They are fighting a human-like class of people called parshinde (who happen to be similar to their docile servents the parshmen.) There are, of course, some magical and supernatural powers. And there are a number of philosophical questions involed. Many of the characters are torn by situations that do not have clear cut black and white morality. (Is it okay to harm somebody to prevent them from harming other people in the future?) The philosophical interludes slowed the action, but they could often be more interesting.

My biggest complaint of the novel is the bizarre names. This seems to be an issue with all Fantasy works. There are so many "odd" names that I have trouble telling them apart. With the many different stories going, I'd think the names were the same, when they weren't (or that they were different, even though they were the same.)

I also see elements of many of Sanderson's other novels here. You could almost create a unified universe by adding in Mistborn and even the Alcatraz series. Alas, this is "long fantasy". But, as far as fantasy goes, it is pretty good.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Hellstrom's Hive

Hellstrom's public persona is an insect afficionado that spends most of his time making nature documentaries from his isolated compound in a remote corner of Oregon. The locals pretty much ignore him and let him go about doing what he does. However, the happenings inside this compound are much more complex than first meets the eye. He is part of a community of humans acculturated to an insect-like behavior. Through a number of biochemicals, people are brought into the fold and their behavior is controlled. Breeding is carefully carried out to maximize the most desirable traits. (Breeding with outsiders is also encouraged in order to bring in valuable mutations.) The compound is built primarily underground, with a number of tunnels and elevators leading to different areas, including one area carrying out research in advanced weaponry. Even dead bodies are sent to the vats to become the next meal. Resources are very efficiently used. Anybody that stumbles into the area is often exterminated (and thrown to the vats.)

Into this setting, we have some agents of a super-secret government agency. They managed to uncover portions of the plans for the weapon that were accidentally left on the desk of an MIT library. The first agent was put to the vats, so a new crew was sent out. This crew didn't make it, so another crew came out. A large team ended up descending on the compound, though not many survived. (Hellstrom's compound also had a number of security measures, including radio blockers as well as audio listening and communication equipment.)

The novel ends as Hellstrom's group sets off a major explosion in Asia and the government workers invasion fails. During the story, we find ourselves sympathizing with Hellstrom, in spite of the community that seems to go against the core beliefs of western society.

What could become of this society? Would it eventually encompass all of humanity? We see that the insect-like humans still maintain some of their free-thinking. They occasionally violate hive orders (though is that for the betterment of the hive itself.) They also allow an agent to escape the hive, due to a limited chemical treatment. (He was weaned off the control chemical, but maintained the "member" chemical. Thus, the drones ignored him, even as he retained the ability to act on his own.

The society reminded me a little of the Formics in Orson Scott Card's Ender books. (However, in this case, they are true humans rather than an alien species.)

The book also provides some criticism of the politics of both the left and the right. Being in the early 70s, Hippies and Vietnam would have been on people's minds. The Hive is the hippie commune taken to extreme: everyone is totally free to do what they want - as long as they do it the hive way. The secret government agency is plagued by infighting and internal conflict and ends up seeking its personal goals, rather than what is best for the country.