October 7, 2009

Book review: "Prince of Storms" by Kay Kenyon and "Starship: Flagship" by Mike Resnick

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Prince of Storms, by Kay Kenyon

Prince of Storms
By Kay Kenyon
Pyr / ISBN: 1-978-15910-279-1

Starship: Flagship, by Mike Resnick

Starship: Flagship
By Mike Resnick
Pyr / ISBN: 1-978-15910-278-8

Fans of course are already familiar with one of the biggest frustrations that comes with genre work -- and that's when a person will become interested in a series of related books but only when the series is already halfway over, forcing the person to have to go back and read all the previous titles in order to even begin to understand the one that most recently came out. And that just goes double for book critics like me who will often receive free copies of such titles out of the blue, many of them frankly modest sellers only that could really benefit from some extra publicity; for example, science-fiction publisher Pyr is notorious for constantly sending me "part 6 of the 'Destroyer of Worlds' tetralogy" or whatever, with neither them having the resources to mail the previous five novels nor with me having the time to read them in the first place. But the good news is that in our modern times, more and more online resources exist to help us understand these sometimes insanely complicated backstories, without having to literally sit and read all the previous volumes in a given series; between Amazon, Goodreads, Wikipedia and official publisher/author websites, it can in fact sometimes be ridiculously easy to get up to speed, which allows us to simply start with the volume we just happen to have at that moment, for whatever reason we ended up with that one instead of the first title in the series.

For example, take two such books I recently received from Pyr, the first of which, Kay Kenyon's Prince of Storms (part four of "The Entire and The Rose" series), seems especially intimidating to just jump into feet-first; because in reality, it's actually one of those quasi-fantasy tales you sometimes see within the world of SF, ones that rely on such futuristic tropes as spaceships and laser guns but in actuality have much more in common with the work of JRR Tolkien -- elaborate races, grand mythologies, feudal political systems, unpronounceable names -- all set in a very earthy type of environment that barely evokes the common sterile images of most science-fiction (with of course the best-known of all these being Frank Herbert's "Dune" series, from which all other quasi-fantasy SF series seem to heavily borrow, a far-future science-based tale to be sure, but that might as well have hobbits and rings of power for all the Toklienesque elements found within it).

Thankfully, though, a couple of days* spent reading the entire series' background information online, as well as the hundreds of user reviews now posted of the first three volumes, presents us with a world that's not too terribly difficult to understand: it turns out that in Kenyon's universe, there's actually a parallel dimension of existence known as "The Entire," with Earth (known to them as "The Rose") simply a smaller and newer offshoot, a place bordered by magically vertical rivers of energy that one can "sail" across to get from one place to another, folding the space-time continuum along the way in order to make the journey faster (yes, just like in "Dune"), but with the specially trained pilots essentially assured of going insane after a lifetime of doing so (yes, just like in "Dune"). Much like Stephen Donaldson's quasi-fantasy series from the 1970s and '80s, then, "The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever," Kenyon's "Entire and Rose" series is mostly centered around an Earthling named Titus Quinn, who travels back to this alternate universe after visiting there a first time and forgetting the experience; what the first three books mostly consist of is Quinn slowly remembering all the details of this universe (including the elite "Tarig" race who have ruled the Entire for thousands of years, the intellectually equal "Jinda ceb Horat" that they are in a constant state of war with, the Chinese-like "Chalin" humanoid race created to be the Tarigs' servants, and a lot more), not to mention the growing alienation between himself and his abandoned daughter Sydney, raised by a race of telepathic riding beasts known as the Inyx, lied to by the Tarig concerning her father's true motivations, who has decided instead to "go native" and become his enemy, and who now goes by the more Entire-appropriate name of "Sen Ni."

Whew! And that of course bring us to an unfortunate problem with such complicated quasi-fantasy series, when you try to simply pick them up in the middle; because when I sat down to actually read Prince of Storms, I realized that although I had done a good job at understanding all the major events and characters fueling this uber-storyline, I still had barely any clue about the dozens of minor characters holding the whole thing together. And of course this can be much less serious an issue based on what kind of SF series it is (but more on that in a bit); but it's a notoriously difficult situation with quasi-fantasy tales, in that such tales include just so many made-up names that are so hard to remember, and so many Shakespearean complications regarding families and clans and races and alliances and the like. And now combine this with the fact that I myself don't particularly care for fantasy tales to begin with, mostly because I can't stand the overdone preciousness of the writing that seems to inevitably come with such books, the overly complicated mythology and the infuriating habit among such writers to never use contractions. ("I do not know why the word 'don't' does not exist in our language, Flinthy the Wise! I do not know why!") So at the end, then, despite all the work put in to get myself up to speed, I still found Prince of Storms only middling at best, a thoroughly genreriffic tale that will only be enjoyed by hardcore genre fans; although in its defense, I should mention that existing fantasy fans go nuts for these books online, with many of them declaring "The Entire and the Rose" one of the best quasi-fantasy tales ever written. You know already whether you're one of these people or not; if you are, it will be worth checking this out no matter what I in particular have to say.

And that brings us to the second book under examination today, Mike Resnick's Starship: Flagship, part five of his "Starship" series -- and like I said, this one has a backstory that's much easier to pick up on, because the "Starship" series is ultimately a nice simple space opera (you know, like "Star Wars"), and by their very nature space operas tend to be not that difficult to understand. Ultimately it's the story of one Wilson Cole, charismatic and popular captain within the military of the sprawling Galactic Republic, who eventually goes rogue over his growing dissatisfaction with the bureaucracy-saddled Republic and its gradual turn to evil; each book in the series, then, is a nearly standalone tale concerning the adventures of Cole and his ragtag crew within the battleship Theodore Roosevelt (or "Teddy R" as it's affectionately known), each title reflecting the state of that ship's relationship with the Republic in any given year -- so Starship: Mutiny is about the year they break away from the Republic, Starship: Pirate is about the year they decide to be privateers, etc. Flagship, then, is the last book in the series, the one where Cole decides to topple the Republic for good, once and for all.

And indeed, Resnick's book seems to suffer nearly the opposite problem of Kenyon's, in that it's so simple to nearly be insulting at points; you know, one of those corny shoot-em-ups designed primarily for teenage boys and the Comic Book Guys they eventually turn into, full of cheesy one-note characters whose one notes are then infinitely hammered home over and over, like a two-by-four to the back of the head (and seriously, Resnick, I get it, okay? Valkyrie really likes killing people, I f-cking get it already). As I've said many times before, such simplicity isn't necessarily that bad just unto itself -- after all, it's these exact kinds of books that make up the vast bulk of all genre novels that are published in any given year, the kind that fetishistically deliver every little touch that a SF fan is looking for and not an ounce more, with Resnick's 33 Hugo nominations and five wins proving that he's doing something right -- just that it's hardcore genre fans who will be the only ones to truly enjoy a book like this, a title that can very easily be skipped over by those who are merely casual fans of science-fiction.

Still, as I've hopefully shown today, it's easier than ever these days to become one of these fans if you're so inclined, and surprisingly easy to get caught up on multipart series without necessarily having to read the entire series in question. The next time you yourself come across a title that seems intriguing, but tells the middle stories of a long-running saga, I encourage you to keep all these things in mind.

Out of 10:
Prince of Storms: 7.3, or 8.8 for fans of quasi-fantasy
Starship: Flagship: 7.6, or 8.1 for fans of space opera

Read even more about Prince of Storms: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Read even more about Starship: Flagship: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

*And yes, in both cases, it really did take me two entire days to read through the hundreds of user reviews now found online of these series' previous books, at places like Amazon and Goodreads. At first this may seem like an excessive amount of research just to get caught up on the developments of a middling science-fiction series; better, though, to compare this to the amount of time it would take to read all the actual books in that series.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:28 PM, October 7, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |