Saturday, June 16, 2007

Make ready my ship, general!

I keep meaning to post about various books I've read lately, and I keep putting off the post. So now I've got several such posts to write! First, three recent reads on the Space Opera front:

:: Dread Empire's Fall: The Praxis, by Walter Jon Williams. The basic idea behind the Dread Empire's Fall trilogy is that much of the galaxy has been conquered and brought into the Empire of the Shaa, a fairly mysterious alien race, under a guiding philosophy called "the Praxis". But as The Praxis opens, the last of the Shaa rulers is about to die, which means that their Empire is about to undergo some serious change -- change that one of the Empire's dominant races, the insectoid Naxid, are plotting to exacerbate by basically rising up and taking over. In this book, Williams engages in the good old standard plot where one minor military officer recognizes the signs of enemy conspiracy but can't convince his higher-ups that there's anything going he has to take matters into his own hands. (None of this is spoiler, really, since it's all spelled out on the back cover blurb.)

What's good about the book is? Well, Williams's universe has more of a sense of hard-SF plausibility about it than most "space opera war-in-a-Galactic-empire" tales. The movements of starship fleets take weeks and sometimes months to execute, and the battles aren't matters of giant ships getting really close to one another and then firing lasers back and forth, but rather ships from great distances firing missiles and then waiting hours to see if they hit anything. The combat sequences are really well done here, and they're a nice change from things like the Battle of Endor in Return of the Jedi. Particularly welcome is the way Williams can set up these kinds of space battles without devolving into the kind of terminal infodumps that cause the books of, say, David Weber to grind to a halt when they should instead be ramping up to real excitement.

Williams's characterizations tend to be limited, I found. The two "lead" characters -- Lt. Gareth Martinez and pinnace pilot Caroline Sula -- are sharply drawn, with lots of motivation behind them. Few of the other characters are so three-dimensional, I found.

The biggest problems I had with this book were in the world-building and in the pacing. This first book of the trilogy is called The Praxis, and yet we learn very little about this guiding religion of the Shaa empire. I suppose it's at the heart of the way the society Williams creates is almost entirely stratified according to class, but "the Praxis" itself doesn't seem to factor much into the story. Additionally, little is learned of the Shaa themselves. Williams does an excellent job of showing us his world, but I found too little sense of just why this world is the way it is.

The pacing was the biggest problem. Too much of this first volume feels like wandering through backstory -- and, in the case of pilot Caroline Sula, it actually is wandering through backstory, as her past is shown through long flashbacks into her earlier life. There's literally more than two hundred pages of set-up and character stuff before we ever actually get to the meat of the story, and I have to admit that I came close to setting the book aside several times before the tale finally kicked in.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the second half of The Praxis sufficiently that I plan to read the second installment (and, unless that one completely blows, eventually finish the trilogy). If you decide to pick this one up, just keep plowing through those first 230 pages or so. It gets a lot more interesting later on.

:: Sigil is a comics series that I've picked up in TPB format, starting Mark of Power. Thus far, what happens is that a group of four wildly-different individuals are brought together by circumstance in the midst of a war between humanity and a reptilian race called the Saurians. Our hero, Samandahl Rey, is for some reason branded on his chest with the mark of the Sigil, some kind of mark of great power, which he uses in a moment of rage to annihilate a large part of a city. Rey and his three new cohorts have to flee, all the while seeking revenge on an old Saurian enemy of Rey's, whilst also fleeing government agents who want to acquire this new weapon that can destroy entire cities.

At least as far as the first volume goes (containing eight or so issues of the original comic), this thing is just about all-action, all the time. So far I've found it a fun read, and I've already picked up the next two volumes in the series. The art thus far is pretty good, although I found the action sequences a bit hard to follow, artistically.

:: I really got a kick out of The Metabarons, though. This series relates the sprawling saga of a race of genetically-perfect warriors called the Metabarons. Imagine if the Jedi had been warriors along the lines of Conan the Barbarian, and you'll have it.

These stories are full of lust, blood, war, sacrifice, and exactly the kind of Big! Bold! Gestures! that I tend to crave in story. If melodrama isn't your thing, then avoid The Metabarons like the plague. But there's just something hugely operatic about this series, in a Wagnerian way. The art is stunning -- panoramic and beautiful. It took me twice as long to read Book One of Metabarons as it did to read Book One of Sigil, because the art is so intricate. (It must also be admitted that the dialogue of Metabarons tends to the dense, and almost stilted, language of The Big Epic. Partly this may be due to the fact that the story was originally written in French and then translated, but while I had no problem with it, other readers may find the dialogue not to their liking either.)

I'm a bit confused about the publishing history of the Metabarons series in TPB format. There seems to have been two separate publications of these tales, under two different titles, so one has to pay careful attention when buying these to make sure that one's actually buying the right volumes and not simply buying the same volumes with different names. Book One, for example, seems to exist as both The Path of the Warrior and Othon and Honorata, published by two different companies (Humanoids Publishing versus DC Comics). I'm also not sure if each book contains the same groupings of issues, so if one mixes and matches from both -- which I'm doing -- there's a possibility of either duplicating material, or missing material entirely.

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