Gene Wolfe, Shadow & Claw (2021, originally published 1980/1981)

Author: Gene Wolfe

Title: Shadow & Claw (Omnibus edition containing The Shadow of the Torturer & The Claw of the Conciliator)

Format: E-book

Pages: 528

Series: The Book of the New Sun #1 – #2

I don’t think I’ll be offering any new insight in this review – Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun has already been analyzed to death since its original publication date. Hailed as a masterpiece and having won numerous awards, The Book of the New Sun remains one of the key SF works over 40 years after its conception. I’m very content that I had finally gotten the chance to acquaint myself with this series. Both The Shadow of the Torturer and The Claw of the Conciliator are indeed worth reading, and I hope to get my hands on the rest of the series sooner than later. Was it however such profoundly intellectually challenging experience I dared to hope? Alas, not entirely. And the responsibility for this turn of events lies as much in me as in the books themselves.

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Akira Toriyama, Dragon Ball (1985 – 1989)

Confession time: as a kid, I was never into manga. Sure, I watched an the odd anime episode, from Tōshō Daimos to Captain Tsubasa (though the last was hard to endure, watching that football roll through the whole episode was sleep-inducing and I don’t think I ever watched a whole episode, really ;)), but I hadn’t taken to it at all. If all you had to judge Japanese art was Sailor Moon, well – I’m pretty sure you can understand my total lack of interest back then.

But fast forward to 2021, and voila! In April and May have devoured all 42 volumes of Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z and was so happy with it that now I’m looking for a nice edition to buy myself a treat 😀 And because I reviewed all the DB volumes on GR, I decided to take inspiration from Lashaan and post them here on the blog as well. What’s so cool about DB, I hear you ask? Well, a whole lot of stuff, really: the whimsy, the humour, the fantastical imagination of the author, the absolute mastery of simplicity in art (which, man, I have read some other mangas since DB, and none of them come close to Toriyama’s art), and, of course, the main protagonist Goku. While the whole idea for DB and its little hero is rooted in the Chinese legends of Monkey King (and you can check out my review of Liu’s take on this mischievous trickster here), Toriyama took it in such fantastic, unexpected directions, deftly mixing Western and Eastern popculture with mythology and martial arts ethos. And that last element was what surprised me the most, I must say: Toriyama’s depiction of martial arts, and martial artists’ ethos, is amazingly deep, even if delivered in an offhand, funny way. I actually think it’s the best that I had read. Hats off!

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P. Djèlí Clark, A Master of Djinn (2021)

Author: P. Djèlí Clark

Title: A Master of Djinn

Format: E-book

Pages: 396

Series: Dead Djinn Universe #1

Let me start this review by saying I that enjoyed Clark’s short stories set in the Dead Djinn Universe quite a lot; A Dead Djinn in Cairo was snappy and entertaining, offering a refreshing mix of ideas, and The Angel of Khan el-Khalili is a solid psychological story rooted in real events, showcasing Clark’s strengths in the short form. A Master of Djinn, on the other hand…

Yup, there’s no way around it: if not for NG I would have DNF’ed this book without a second’s hesitation. It was jumbled, incoherent, predictable, and boring. There are many reasons why I judge this book so harshly. First is probably the case of expectations versus reality: I really liked the short stories set in this universe and expected the novel to be more of the same, or even better. It was not to be.

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F. Brett Cox, Roger Zelazny (2021)

Author: F. Brett Cox

Title: Roger Zelazny

Format: e-book

Pages: 224

Series: Modern Masters of Science Fiction (University of Illinois Press)

A brand-new critical monograph on one of my favourite SFF authors – how could I resist? 😉 It also came out in an opportune time, when I was quite unhappy with the flat fun of A Master of Djinn after the highs of The Lords of the North, and needed something different to cleanse my palate.

Cox’s monograph delivered on both accounts; his writing is simple and informative, and very approachable considering the inherently academic character of his book. There’s obviously a long, quite exhaustive bibliography and a satisfactory amount of footnotes, but the language throughout is intentionally focused on communication instead of erudite fencing with other specialists on Zelazny’s work – maybe because, as  Cox indicates, there are no other Zelazny pros and very little academic output concerning his work. It may be, as Cox suggests, that the necessary condition of passage of time has not been yet fulfilled – Zelazny’s untimely death in 1995 might seem like aeons past, but it really wasn’t that long ago 😉. And while the genre itself has undergone several changes since then, it is still difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff and conclude, with a degree of certainty, what can be considered a modern classic and what was just a work accident.

And indeed, Zelazny’s works are so varied in terms of style and themes and worldbuilding that it’s not a surprise some of his books are better than others – and with the author of Lord of Light, the good books are among the best of what SFF has to offer, and even the weaker offer a dazzling profusion of amazing ideas and impeccable, evocative language. It seems, however, that in the US-UK SFF circles there is even a longstanding consensus of considering Zelazny an unfulfilled promise who after a strong start became a commercial writer with no ambition. Frankly, remaining far removed from this little world of authors and critics I was surprised to learn about this piece of “conventional wisdom” – to me, some of Zelazny’s latest works are among his very best. And that’s basically what Cox is trying to prove in his monography: going chronologically through Zelazny’s work, the author of the monograph attempts to refute this stereotype and show that Zelazny conducted ambitious literary experiments in his writing to the very end, delivering varied books, but not generally worse than at the beginning – but as to whether Cox’s arguments are successful, you probably should ask someone else, since I never doubted this assertion😉.

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Bernard Cornwell, The Lords of the North (2007)

Author: Bernard Cornwell

Title: The Lords of the North

Format: paperback

Pages: 383

Series: The Saxon Stories #3

Today I was supposed to publish a review of P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn, but, as The Saxon Stories’ protagonist Uthred would say,

Wyrd bið ful ãræd – Fate remains inexorable

Having started Clark’s novel after finishing The Lords of the North I haven’t done A Master of Djinn any favors; in fact, I’m actually pretty close to DNFing it – not because it’s so bad, (it isn’t that bad, after 1/3 it’s just mediocre and way too similar to Kate Daniels for my liking) but because Cornwell’s book was so much better.

With three books already read I feel I’m justified in saying that The Saxon Stories series is among the very best of what historical fiction genre has to offer. It’s well researched, believable, carefully constructed (or reconstructed, at least in part), dramatic, funny and heart-breaking in turns. The previous installment, The Pale Horseman, turned out to be one of the best books I’ve read in 2020; while The Lords of the North is slightly weaker, due to some repetitiveness in structure, it’s currently one of the best reads of 2021 for me.

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