Sunday, September 30, 2007

"The Big Bad Wolf" by James Patterson (Thriller)

This novel is another one in Patterson's well-known Alex Cross series. It takes place when Cross is making a career change, in training with the F.B.I. And he becomes involved in a case, trying to track down what turns out to be an abduction ring.

It seems that someone is providing a very interesting - and illegal - service to high-paying customers. This service involves the acquisition and sale of a very precious commodity - live human beings, based on whatever criteria you want. Some customers want women, some want men, and what they do with their acquisitions is up to them. The people who are abducted include people from wealthy families, or students, a variety of ages, depending on a customer's taste.

Some parts of the story are told from the point of view of the victims. Finding themselves abducted, and then trapped somewhere with a person who has paid to have them in their power, strictly controlled and not knowing exactly where they are, cut off from contact with the outside world - it's obviously a frightening experience.

But the people doing the abductions have some dissension within their own ranks, and this is one of the things that allows Cross to start following the trail to the main ringleader of the operation.

Enter the Wolf.

In the past, the Wolf was a KGB agent, with suspected mob connections. Patterson shows some scenes from the villain's point of view, and he is brutal - violent, murderous, absolutely unhesitating about eliminating anyone if it suits his purpose to do so.

In the meantime, Alex Cross is also contending with personal problems, as he fights for custody of his son. It seems that Christine Johnson, the boy's mother, is fighting back pretty hard, and the whole thing takes a tough emotional toll on Cross.

Some of Patterson's novels seem to take on a larger-than-life quality. Admittedly, there is a certain James-Bondishness to Alex Cross at times, and a villain like the Wolf does come across a little like over-the-top Bond villains, too.

But, then again, that's all right with me - I actually prefer an author to err on the side of making things more interesting and exciting than settling for mediocrity. I read for entertainment and enjoyment, after all!

And, of course, throughout all this, there's the one thing that's always very consistent in Patterson's Alex Cross novels. It's all very intense, with short chapters in which one thing after another keeps happening, and it's a very addictive writing style Patterson has. Very unputdownable.

And there are some connections to other Cross novels, Kyle Craig, the villain from "Cat and Mouse" makes an appearance, and Patterson used the Wolf in a later novel, "London Bridges."

Saturday, September 22, 2007

"The Fountains of Paradise" by Arthur C. Clarke

This novel won both the Hugo award(1980) and the Nebula award(1979), in the "best novel" category. That's by no means a small accomplishment, heck, a lot of science fiction writers are happy just to get nominated.

The story deals with Vannevar Morgan, a highly accomplished engineer who want to take on a new, very ambitious engineering project. He wants to build a space elevator.

The idea of a space elevator is by no means pure fiction - it is theoretically possible. The idea is to literally build a cable that would be anchored on the surface of the Earth at one end, and a counter-weight at the other end, in orbit. This would make it possible to build elevator cars that could ride the cable into orbit. It would have an advantage over traditional rockets. You see, rockets have to expend a lot of energy and burn fuel just to maintain their position over the surface of the Earth when they're still close enough to feel the Earth's gravity strongly, and then use up even more energy to keep climbing. If you have a solid object sitting on the surface of the Earth that you can stand on or climb up, you don't have expend energy to maintain a position - so you can just focus your energy on increasing your altitude, and that is much more energy-efficient.

Of course, I'm not a physicist, but that's the way it's been explained to me by people who should know.

This novel shows Morgan go through several stages while trying to make the project come to fruition. First he has to try to get support and funding, which isn't easy. Many possibilities are considered, including starting on Mars instead of Earth; Mars has lower gravity, which would make the work easier. Of course, with two moons, one of which orbits quite closely, you might have a little problem if it ran into your elevator cable.

Throughout the novel, Clarke provides his trademark attention to scientific detail. If you like your science fiction to have good science in it - and I certainly do - you'll appreciate that. There are plenty of fascinating physics and engineering ideas here.

But it's not all just about discussing the science; the plot has some good twists, and some exciting parts. When the elevator is well on its way to completion, some problems make a daring rescue attempt necessary. Morgan has to ride up to a group of people stuck farther up the cable, and bring them life-saving supplies until they can be properly brought back home. These scenes show a nice interplay of the scientific ideas and some action and excitement.

Clarke is sometimes criticized for not having well-developed characters, although I'd say the lead character, Morgan, is a good character, and the supporting cast are written at least competently. But, of course, Morgan is the engineer whose story this really is focused on; it becomes a very personal story for him.

There are also some descriptions of the distant past and the even farther future, that show how humankind's ongoing aspiration to learn and reach beyond our limits can be truly amazing over time.

Anyway, I'd say that this novel is very good, and very consistent for Clarke - I wouldn't say there's any big departure in style here from his other works of read, which is fine - I like my science fiction with good science and bold ideas. An enjoyable read, well worth a look.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

"The Winter King" by Bernard Cornwell

This is actually the first part of a trilogy, but I felt it worked quite well as a novel on its own - even though the ending sets things up for the story to be continued.

This is a re-telling of the story of King Arthur. Of course, it's been done many times. There are lots of fiction books based on the legend, not to mention books that try to document the truth of the story, as far as possible. And the story's also been told in film; I'm quite partial to the 1981 movie "Excalibur."

Anyway, one thing that struck me about "The Winter King" was the wonderful job it does of telling a story that's been told before, and yet keep it fresh, interesting and dynamic. This is accomplished in a number of ways.

One thing that's neat here is the way some of the characters are portrayed. Cornwell presents them in a way that makes sense and doesn't outright contradict what you'd typically expect, but still puts a creative twist on the characters. Like Sir Lancelot. Instead of the brave knight and strong leader second only to Arthur that a lot of Arthurian retellings portray, this Lancelot is a flake. He's just good at grabbing credit and making himself look good, regardless of whether he's really done very much.

And Guinevere is portrayed as majestic, strong-willed and somewhat manipulative and opportunistic.

Arthur himself is portrayed as having all the qualities he should - a strong leader, charismatic, a great fighter, yet still humble and respectful of others, most of the time. But he does have flaws. His falling in love with Guinevere is impulsive at best, and causes huge problems when he breaks off his previous engagement, or betrothal. The political implications pour gasoline on the political fires that lead to violent conflict.

Also, Cornwell uses his imagination to fill in details about things we don't know much about form the Dark Ages. Druidic religion is something that is very much shrouded in mystery, or so I've been told. The druids portrayed here are believable and seem to fit nicely into the setting. Corwell shows us a religion deeply rooted in nature as well as polytheistic, but the various gods that are worshipped are all closely tied to aspects of real life.

The story is told in the first person from the point of view of Derfel, who trains to be a soldier and serves Arthur. Faithful and loyal to Arthur, Derfel also has his own personal story, and goes through considerable growth and development as a person himself throughout the story, he's not just there to relate the events around him.

The plot is very sophisticated, and would take an awfully long time to describe. Much of it centres around Arthur's devotion to Mordred, the infant who is to be king. But until Mordred grows up, Mordred has to be protected - and that's no easy task. Saving Mordred's life proves to be a task that takes considerable skill and wit. I like that, though, Arthur is not just a fighter or the best swordsman, he and his followers have to be constantly thinking ahead, trying to stay one step ahead of their enemies.

And I really enjoy the way Cornwell brings the setting to life; his attention to detail will make you feel as if you're right there with Derfel, experiencing the sights and sounds and smells of Dark Ages Britain. You'll feel what it's like to try and fight in a heavy suit of armour, or to go through grueling training with a sword, or watch Druids casting spells.

A very enjoyable read - definitely recommended. I'll have to read the rest of this trilogy some time soon.