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The Children of Hurin 1st Edition by J. R. R. Tolkien and Christopher Tolkien
The Children of Hurin 1st Edition

pixielate_com, November 9, 2007

The Children of Húrin, also known as Narn i Chîn Húrin, is the latest J.R.R. Tolkien book. The stories of Túrin (son of Húrin) appear in earlier works like The Silmarillion, and are now released in full novel form thanks to tireless editing by his son, Christopher Tolkien. The tale takes place in the First Age of Middle Earth, and is somewhere between the Silmarilion and The Lord of the Rings in style, audience, and readability.

Húrin defies a god and his entire family is cursed. We experience most of the story through Húrin's son Túrin, who journeys through the entire western half of Arda - befriending Elf, Man, and Dwarf alike - to escape his doom.

You don't have to be a die-hard Tolkien fan to enjoy this book. While you can read The Children of Húrin as a stand-alone work, I do recommend reading The Silmarilion, or at least having some familiarity with the First Age. I do not recommend this as your first experience with Tolkien, due to the book's dreary theme and heavy style.

The language is dense. VERY dense. Dialog and descriptions are highly formal. The number of unique names for people and places is enough to fill a sizable appendix. The main characters change names a good four of five times each through the course of the story. Many of the places have similar names, and some of the important items in the book even have names. Side effects may include bouts of violence in fussy readers. If you feel that committing names to memory is important to your reading, you may want to put a bookmark in the appendix, make some index cards, or have a copy of The Silmarillion handy. For Tolkien fans, this excessive use of proper nouns is expected, and is very important to the charm of Tolkien's works. Tolkien was a linguist, and for every new name, new meaning is bestowed upon the characters and places.

Beyond the language, the themes are familiar and classical. The story is relatively short, but each chapter is almost episodic in structure. Túrin travels to a new place, makes friends, enemies, and horrible mistakes. All of these mistakes occur as a direct result of his rashness, or by dark, coincidental irony. His mistakes force him on to a new locale and new mistakes. People who seem untouched by Túrin's folly inevitably get drawn in later. There's not a lot of internal dialog, so most of the characterizations are created by actions. The overall effect is that you're reading an ancient epic, and I'm sure this is why The Children of Húrin is often classified as epic high fantasy, in the purest sense of the genre.

Christopher Tolkien has a lengthly foreward and appendix, explaining his editorial process, and describing the source materials used to create the novel. Foremost is C. Tolkien's insistence that the novel is published "with a minimum of editorial presence, and above all, in continuous narrative without gaps or interruptions, if this could be done without distortion or invention, despite the unfinished state in which [J.R.R. Tolkien] left some parts of it." (p.7, Preface) I expect that this process may have a deliberate effect on the story, as some of the passages are only summaries of action, contain alternate tellings, or are threads dropped or terminated with little or no pretense.

The posthumous releases have been a subject for hot debate among Tolkien fans, who question how much of the releases have contained creative writing. I have no strong opinions on Christopher Tolkien's editing process, which he's made very clear for readers. I recommend reading the entire work and appendices before forming your own conclusions. I'm a fan of Middle Earth and will happily receive this and any future Tolkien stories set in this rich, fully-realized world.

Read The Children of Húrin if you're a Tolkien fan, or enjoy classic and epic tales of fantasy. Don't read it if you're disheartened by constant tragedy. Few tales of the First Age have happy endings.
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The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks
The Algebraist

pixielate_com, October 31, 2007

When I was in school, one of my favorite treats was a plain Hershey’s chocolate bar. No almonds, no cream, just sweet, luscious chocolate. I would get one very day, breaking off each individual little block and savoring it. I would carefully fold up the foil wrapper to use as a bookmark, just to keep that wonderful smell around for a while longer. It was that good.

A few months back I ran across one of those same treats in a vending machine. I hadn’t had one in years, but suddenly all the memory of those wonderful moments came rushing back. I was practically drooling with anticipation as I watched the bar drop to the bottom of the machine. But moments later, something horrible happened. It wasn’t good. It was still chocolate, to be sure, but nothing like the ambrosia I remembered from my youth. I was bitter about it for weeks. Sadly, this leads neatly into Iain M Banks’ latest novel, The Algebraist.

I’ve been waiting for this book for a long time. I discovered Banks with The Player of Games about ten years ago, and promptly tracked down everything else he’d ever written and devoured it. I loved his minimalist style of setting and characterization that could flower into extravagant detail when the moment called for it. I loved the sweeping epic feel of his Culture novels where miles-long super-intelligent warships indulge in not only combat, but political intrigue and social hobbies as well. In short, he was one of my favorite authors.

Sadly, he publishes somewhat infrequently, and that 10 years since my first discovery have only yielded four new novels. Look to Windward was the last, and satiated my hunger nicely, but it wasn’t long before I was anxiously checking the web to find out when I could expect another treat. Finally The Algebraist hit the shelves and I snatched it from the shelf and rushed home, quite prepared to devour it in a single setting.

In The Algebraist; human civilization is still recovering from the results of a disastrous holy war against its own artificial intelligences. The network of wormhole gates that once allowed rapid transit between thousands of scattered planets has been damaged by war, leaving many systems cut off. Large portions of the once comprehensive galactic government have broken off to form their own governments, or fallen under the sway of warlords.

Fassin Taak is an archeologist of information, dredging useful bits from a sea of unsorted data gathered over billions of years by a race of spectacularly long-lived aliens who dwell deep in the atmospheres of gas giants. He inadvertently uncovers a secret that represents both danger and opportunity to every significant power in the galaxy, and must race to put the clues together and work out his own divided loyalties before any of the vast organizations pursuing him can either kill him or force him to their side. The result includes ambushes, chase scenes, and vast space battles, but in the end, the result doesn’t quite satisfy.

The Archimandrite Luseferous is intended to be a great boogeyman, committing horrible atrocities that should make you cringe and shiver whenever he appears. Unfortunately, his actions are so excessive that they almost become cartoonish, and lose much of their impact. Even worse, the parts of the story that feature him are told from his own perspective, which eliminates any sense of fear or uncertainty about what his motivations or limits are. Instead of horror or fear, Luseferous inspires mostly just distaste, and a desire to perhaps flip the pages a little quicker to get to the next part of the story.

In the end, while the characters and settings are all as richly developed as you would expect, they are also mostly recycled from Banks’ previous novels. Fassin himself is very strongly reminiscent of the conflicted protagonist from Banks’ first space-opera; Consider Phlebas. A very similar group of gas-giant dwelling aliens has appeared before in Excession, and the fundamental “Search to discover a great secret towards which great powers are striving” plot is common to many previous books. Overall, throughout most of the book I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that I’d read it once already. It was still good, chocolate is, after all, still chocolate, but The Algebraist doesn’t really measure up to Banks’ previous novels, and left me feeling like I might have been better satisfied reading one of them instead.
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Orphans of Chaos by John C Wright
Orphans of Chaos

pixielate_com, October 31, 2007

Orphans of Chaos was described to me as Harry Potter for adults. Students have magical powers, but as a slant, the teachers are actually their enemies. I don’t think this comparison does an accurate job of portraying the mood of the book, but it comes close.

Orphans of Chaos - the first of a trilogy of fantasy books by John Charles Wright - takes place in an ambiguously old-fashioned boarding school in the UK, where five teenage students with no memory of their past start to realize their school is a jail, and their teachers are captors. The children stop taking their daily medicines, which awakens their dormant magical powers: each from a different and equally powerful paradigm. They slowly learn that they are hostages in a classic power play. All involved, including their teachers, are gods or servants of heaven. Narrated by one of the children - Amelia Windrose - they embark on a series of adventures to regain their memories, their powers, and escape their fate as political pawns.

The book is written in a somewhat florid style. I enjoyed the pace, which alternates between dialog and adventure. The language and plot elements are evocative of a pseudo-Victorian setting, though we later learn that the book takes place around modern day. All of the adventures and magic are entertaining. Though there may be an overload on the number of minor characters involved, all of the people (gods?) have intriguing backgrounds.

There are a few places where the book falls short. There’s not a great continuity on which of the five children are involved in adventures or conversations. The children that are part of the action seem to be selected arbitrarily. Some of the descriptions of magic start out as plausible and easy to follow, and morph into the ridiculous by the end of the paragraph - I think this is done on purpose for comic effect, but I didn’t find it very amusing, just annoying. In some places, we’re given exposition in a very dense and unlikely format.

But perhaps most of all, I felt the light sexuality too overt and a little disturbing. This may be a credit for some of my readers, but I’m violently opposed to any glorifications of pedophiles in books. We never learn the girls’ ages, but we know for sure that they’re not women, even if they have the necessary features. And yet, the girls are constantly seducing or are seduced by their teachers. I can handle overtones, but the scenarios - especially towards the end of the book - were constant and served little or no purpose for the story.

I think I will read the rest of the trilogy, just to see how the adventure proceeds. And there’s hope for the “bad guys” yet. I can’t put a book down until I know for sure whether or not the characters are dynamic. There’s a definite attachment for Amelia built up, and though the rest of the children sort of disappear towards the end of the book, I’d like to be reunited with them. The occasional flaws and annoyances are minor enough, and the concept entertaining enough that I’ll continue reading. I recommend this book to any fans of young adult fantasy who aren’t put off by wordy, moderately-paced stories.

Originally posted to pixielate.com/booksmovies
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