Frank Herbert, Dune (1965)

Author: Frank Herbert

Title: Dune

Format: Paperback

Pages: 528

Series: Dune #1

Everything’s been written about Dune many times over, so forgive me if my review will be somewhat off beat this time. I don’t feel the need to detail the plot or the worldbuilding. 

Dune is unequivocally a masterwork of SF, a SF at its best, openly acknowledging its ties to myths and the belief in universal truths of human cognition. But Dune also reaches way beyond SF, having become one of the few absolutely crucial works of fiction of the 20th century. And yet, and yet, while I admire it with passion, it’s a book I cannot love. It leaves me cold and uncaring. It leaves me wanting to pick it apart, and dirty my hands in its bloody insides, and emerge holding the offending element in my palms, triumphant in finding what fault exactly makes me less than welcoming toward it.

But the truth is, I suspect I know it already.

Nice opening, huh? So now I’m going to subvert your expectations, and launch into a lengthy consideration of the socio-ecological ramifications of Herbert’s universe. Kidding!

Though not entirely.

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Hilary Mantel, The Mirror & the Light (2020)

Author: Hilary Mantel

Title: The Mirror & the Light

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 883

Series: Thomas Cromwell #3

“We have all read the sermons. We could write them ourselves. But we are vain and ambitious all the same, and we never do live quiet, because we rise in the morning and we feel the blood coursing in our veins and we think, by the Holy Trinity, whose head can I stamp on today? What worlds are at hand, for me to conquer?”

The Mirror & the Light, the grand finale of Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, is, like the two previous books, a precious and unique tour de force. I say this without hesitation: to me, this trilogy constitutes the best of what Western literature of the last several decades has to offer. It’s a true modern classic; a required reading that I cannot recommend highly enough. I have read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies before this blog was even an idea, so I haven’t written reviews for them and I doubt I will anytime soon – definitely not before a reread, and these are books that require a lot of effort and attention to be fully appreciated 😉; what I can say here is that all three deserve the highest praise as rare masterpieces.

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Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red (2002)

Author: Orhan Pamuk

Title: My Name is Red

Format: E-book

Pages: 335

Series: –

“To avoid disappointment in art, one mustn’t treat is as a career. Despite whatever great artistic sense and talent a man might possess, he ought to seek money and power elsewhere to avoid forsaking his art when he fails to receive proper compensation for his gifts and efforts.”

The Turkish 2006 Nobel Prize Winner in literature, Orhan Pamuk has gained popularity in the West mainly through two books: My Name is Red (first published in 1998) and Snow (first published in 2002), but by that time he was already very well-known – and quite controversial – in Turkey. Pamuk, born in Istanbul in a multicultural family (his grandmother was Circassian), explores in his books the liminal space between cultures and religions, where ideas, aesthetic preferences and beliefs clash and mutually influence one another. In the case of My Name is Red, that exploration is enriched by deeply philosophical musings on the nature and essence of human perception – both of the reality, the outside world, and of the idea and existence of God. The aesthetical angle of the novel, presented through many-voiced conversations on seeing, imagining, painting, change, and style, and on the nature and purpose of art, constitutes a fascinating examination of cultural differences between East and West, Islam and Christianity.

This deeply philosophical essay is deftly hidden in a complex love story, which in turn comes neatly packed into a murder mystery. Taking place in turbulent times, in wintry Istanbul in 1591, My Name is Red offers a kaleidoscopic view of a multitude of diverse, sometimes contrary perspectives; a plethora of unreliable narrators;  tongue-in-cheek play with other literary and artistic works – and  with itself, twisting and turning and changing rules of the game mid-play; instances of breaking the fourth wall, and plenty of other postmodern literary devices – all employed in service of a cavalierly conventional story.

“Doubtless, you too have experienced what I’m about to describe: At times, while walking through the infinite and winding streets of Istanbul, while spooning a bite of vegetable stew into my mouth at a public kitchen or squinting with fixed attention on the curved design of a reed-style border illumination, I feel like I’m living the present as if it were the past. That is, when I’m walking down the street whitewashed with snow, I’ll have the urge to say that I was walking down it.”

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Dean Koontz, Odd Thomas (2003)

Odd Thomas

Author: Dean Koontz

Title: Odd Thomas

Format: Paperback

Pages: 446

Series: Odd Thomas #1

Koontz is a very prolific writer; he wrote over a hundred books and plenty of short stories, and has been a household name for American horror/thriller genre for ages. Somehow I had never been drawn to his work, maybe because I’m no great fan of horror 😉. I did read a King or two, and didn’t enjoy it, and I didn’t expect to change my mind for Koontz. But Bookstooge highly recommended both Odd Thomas and Lightning, and patiently kept recommending it, until I finally grabbed the book and read it. And I’m happy that I did, even if I won’t be going back to Odd Thomas’s world anytime soon.

Odd Thomas is a 20-year-old short order cook; he lives in a small, sleepy town and his most fervent wish is – for both the town itself and him in it – to remain this way forever. The slightly artificial, allegorical character of the novel, which from a certain perspective can be seen as an inherently old-fashioned yet very modernly, thrillingly written moral fable, is discernible from the first sentences – actually, from the moment when we learn that the name of Odd’s town is Pico Mundo. Small world, indeed.

Odd Thomas is a very likeable character: extremely humble, unprepossessing and caring, self-deprecating, gentle and well-behaved, he is the perfect image of a perfect boy as envisioned by an old-fashioned grandma. You’d all want him as an in-law (if you didn’t know better). Really, with his manners and unending optimism and willingness to selflessly serve others he is a character who’d feel more at ease in 1950s than in our wild 2000s. And that’s also intentional, I wager (well, I would if I were the wagering sort – which I’m not 😉).

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Neal Asher, The Line of Polity (2003)

The Line of Polity

Author: Neal Asher

Title: The Line of Polity

Format: Paperback

Pages: 485

Series: Agent Cormac 2

This review was promised in our summary post for 2019, so I actually twisted my right arm with my left to sit down and write it in the middle of sunny summer ;).

Having reviewed both the first installment, Gridlinked, and the third installment, Brass Man, I’m in a bit of a pickle when it comes to choosing the content for this entry. Probably, it would be sufficient to say that The Line of Polity was the book that thoroughly and inevitably sold me on Asher’s Polity universe, and even if I don’t agree with all the political and ideological views of the author, I plan to remain a devoted fan.

Polity is not as pleasant and safe place as Banks’ Culture, nor is it as boring ;). The immense and mind-bogglingly diverse universe (..and I’m sure I could find another -verse fitting here :P) containing Polity, the human society ruled by nearly omniscient AIs, is a wonderful treat for all SF fans. But Asher goes further than just worldbuilding, however impeccable: he creates a world alive – rife with conflict, ambitions, and emotions, not only human, but also AI. And for a series featuring amazing battle sequences, both in the space and on the ground, Asher spends a lot of time considering the sentience. True, his AIs are very human, but reading Polity books I have a feeling they are this way by design, and not simple lack of thought or convenience. After all, they have been created by humans, influenced by the constant contact with humans, and, in a world where alien sentient races are considered more of a myth or a cautionary tale from the past than reality, AIs remain in a direct relation to humans. This relation can morph into a myriad different constellations: a mirror image, a role model, a dependent, spoiled child, a doted-upon prodigy, a master, an apprentice, a pest, a threat, a hobby… Asher deftly shows the variety of responses possible between sentient beings, each of which has something the other doesn’t possess, and subtly incorporates them into his tightly woven narrative.

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