Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie
The Blade Itself (The First Law, #1) by Joe Abercrombie
A fairly solid fantasy adventure book. This isn't really at the same level as Game of Thrones or Name of the Wind, but it is not actively bad, and was enjoyable to read. The author apparently writes movie scripts too, and the book could very well be the novelization of a hollywood action movie. There is not much character development, and the world building and magic system are kind of meh. However, there are falls off cliffs, parkour and extended fights on tops of buildings, and several reasonably comic minor characters.
Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice by A.S. Byatt
This book was a complete disappointment. It doesn't have an index, the chapter headings are entirely obscure, and I can never find the stat blocs when I try to use this during play. The basic problem is that they devoted far too much space to flavor text, and not nearly enough to the crunchy bits and the supporting infrastructure needed to make the crunchy bits useful. While an original and creative effort, I would not recommend this book to anyone but collectors and completists.
The Player of Games (Culture, #2) by Iain M. Banks
A thoroughly delightful book. _The Player of Games_ is intelligently written, fast paced, and very playful. The book takes Gurgeh, master game player, from his peaceful, utopian home in the Culture to the primitive Empire of Azad. Among other things, Azad is a satirical image of empires, both in the present and the space-opera future. At times it reads like Gulliver's Travels, at other times like a crossover between a Culture novel and a Star Wars or Honor Harrington book.
As usual, Banks creates vivid and memorable characters, along with dramatic locales and action set pieces. Who wouldn't want to have long Sunday conversations with Chamlis Amalk-ney, or see the slums of Groasnachekor and visit the Fire Planet Echronedal? It could all be made into a very nice RPG-splat book, and makes for addictive reading. And while this isn't a pure book of ideas like _The Man Without Qualities_, everything in it rests on a solid bedrock of intelligence. Consider the following aside by one of the characters:
"And what is free will anyway? Chance. The random factor. If one is not ultimately predictable, then of course that's all it can be. I get so frustrated with people who can't see this!
Even a human should be able to understand it's obvious."
I just loved this part. It mirrors a thought I had in college during one of the intro philosophy courses, but that I could never find mentioned in any of the course literature on free will. Even in small, throw away sentences like the above, Banks shows more acuity than the vast majority of writers who actually study these subjects.
There are a few weak points to the book. One is due to the central conceit of the novel, the actions of an utterly brilliant game player. Since the author is not an utterly brilliant game player, he can only refer to the central action of the book from a distance. This becomes more and more noticeable as the book progresses. And of course, this being a Banks novel, the Beige Team wins in the end, and is generally superior through out. It is kind of like Ender's Game for the MetaFilter set. :) Still, given all the delightful crunch and sparkle, we can forgive Banks for that.
Post Mortem, ~3 years later One way I judge a book is by the size of the skull pile that it accumulates. For instance, reading Iris Murdoch has ruined many books for me, either because they come across as a pale shadow of Murdoch's work, or because the ideas in her work have sort of pre-emptively critiqued and dissassembled the new story that I am reading. The Player of Games has a collected a veritable mountain of skulls, and has ruined dozens of other books, movies, and tv programs for me. It's assumed a sort of archetypal role, and I'd say that I mentally reference Azad in about 5%-10% of the media products I experience. It really is a brilliant humanist? leftist? critique and summation of much of our culture. In light of that, I'm retroactively raising my review to 5 stars.
Post Mortem, ~3.5 years later While thinking of explanations and metaphors for something else, I re-invented the symbolism of Echronedal. I'd initially passed the planet over as just a really neat bit of sci-fi world builing, rather than as a symbol of malevolently wasteful empire.
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
A long winded and deeply stupid book about a vampire who spends 500 years searching for the absolute perfect caretaker for his library. The ending is ironic though, since just as he is winnowing down the candidate pool everything is moving to eBooks anyway.
The Ruins by Scott B. Smith
The Ruins is a story of conflict between Man and Nature. In this case Man is represented by 5 sheltered and somewhat ditzy college kids, while Nature is championed by a malevolent, mile-wide, super-intelligent, highly mobile, acid-blooded plant. The Plant might also have psychic abilities. After 500 pages, Nature wins.
There were some good things about this book. The book reads quickly. The author makes an effort to connect the character's moral failings with the mistakes they make and their eventual fates. About 300 pages in, there is a nice subversion where the characters discuss how, after the rescue, they will be portrayed in the movie version of the events. At least belatedly, they become aware of what genre they are in.
There are a lot of bad things about the book. One is that about 200 pages in you realize the characters are screwed. The antagonist is completely overpowered, so you don't feel any hope that the characters will win/survive. The characters are not very likable or intelligent, so you don't care that much that they won't survive. The characters are completely passive in the face of the Plant's assaults. They never try to burn or cut up the Plant, even though they have plenty of highly flammable tequila and a good sharp knife. The Plant's Mayan guardians are laughably ineffective, and as far as I can tell their patrols have yet to stop anyone from venturing on to the forbidden hill (see: shoddy ending). The Plant itself, while it has some interesting qualities, isn't scary in a large scale way like nuclear war and zombies are. In total, the Plant has killed about 50 North Americans, about as much as a poorly designed on-ramp. Unfortunately for the Plant, in a month or so the missing person's trail will lead to the hill, and then they'll hire some contractors to pour gasoline on the hill and that will be the end of the Plant.