Review of The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson

SFFaudio Review

Fantasy Audiobook - The Alloy of Law by Brandon SandersonThe Alloy of Law: A Mistborn Novel
By Brandon Sanderson; Read by Michael Kramer
11 hours – [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Macmillan Audio
Published: 2011
Themes: / Fantasy / Magic / Allomancy / Feruchemy / Series / Mistborn /

Ed. – Welcome to Jeff Miller (aka The Curt Jester) to the pages of SFFaudio! This is his first review for us.

Having just finished reading the Mistborn trilogy I was delighted to see that a new novel in the Mistborn universe is about to be released.  The world-building, plotting, and characters of the original trilogy got me hooked and there is plenty of potential for new books in the same universe.

The original series is epic fantasy with elements of Tolkien eucatastrophe. The Allow of Law is a standalone novel with a different feel to it.  It takes place 300 years after the events of The Hero of Ages. The cultural stasis that had been maintained by the Lord Ruler has fallen apart and Scadrial is approaching a more modern age reminiscent of the turn of the 20th Century. The societal structure has changed to reflect a paid working class along with the influential families tied to the previous society.

A prominent part of the Mistborn series is the use of Allomancy and Feruchemy.  Alllomancy allows those born with the ability to ingest and burn certain metals and alloys for physical and mental powers.  Feruchemy is similar, though the same metals and alloys are worn and used to store attributes that can be released later.  The fallout at the end of the original trilogy sets up the case where the use of one or both of these powers is more common along with the ability to use two new metals.  Those having both abilities are called Twinborn.

The main protagonist is Waxillium Ladrian, a rare Twinborn, who falls into the Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark template.  Born to a prominent family he spent much of his life working in the Roughs using his abilities as a sort of Marshall. Common to this template he is also the emotionally-wounded hero with past events playing a part in his dealing with other people.  Circumstances bring him out of this life to have to lead his family business and as you might expect further circumstances involve him in investigating a series of robberies and kidnappings in the city.

Add in the roguish wisecracking partner along with the intelligent young woman and a nearly indestructible villain and you have all the standard devices similar to the superhero genre.  The difference is that Brandon Sanderson makes it all work seamlessly and you don’t feel the sharp-edges of a put-together template. The use of Allomancy and Feruchemy provide a good framework, but it is really his characters that shine and make his novels so worthwhile.  While I enjoyed the original trilogy more, I still quite enjoyed this novel and his taking the series in a different direction.

At 336 pages this is almost a novella by Brandon Sanderson standards and it certainly appears to be a start of a new series involving these characters. While this novel is considered standalone, it would be much better understood in context if you had read the original trilogy first.

Michael Kramer is once again the reader for the Mistborn series. Kramer is the type of reader who is skillful enough to read a story without making his character voicing forced. He provides enough differences in character speech patterns and accents to help you easily follow the story.

Posted by Jeff Miller

Review of Confessor by Terry Goodkind

SFFaudio Review

Fantasy Audiobook - Confessor by Terry GoodkindConfessor
By Terry Goodkind; Read by Sam Tsoutsouvas
20 CDs – 24 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Published: 2007
ISBN: 9781423316589 
Themes: / Fantasy / Series / Magic / War

The final novel in Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series begins in near-hopeless darkness. The hero of the series, Richard Rahl is not only a slave to the black hole of evil known as the Emperor Jagang, but he’s also been stripped of his magical powers, forced to play a murderous game rigged against him, and wakes to find an unhealthily devoted fan of another team trying to stab him to death. How can he possibly get free, save his wife, his friends, and his kingdom from millions of life-hating fanatics of the Imperial Order come to burn his followers from the earth?

The answer takes some doing to get to. Between you and the final resolution lie some brilliant set pieces; epic sequences of pulse-pounding battle action (and sports action in a game best described as naked football to the death with rocks); and some of the most glaciated, pace-killing, engine-gumming dialogue ever laid out on the slab of an otherwise well-paced story. Some of the characters are interesting and likable, but lord, don’t get them talking! They blather on about the principles of a well-lived life, the course of prophesy, and the evils of mindless devotion to religion so long, you wish you could conjure a little Wizard’s Fire to shorten the book.

Completing the tale also takes a healthy dose of credulity to accept a non-magical mensch getting up after two nights without sleep to play a brutal blood-sport for hours on end and then slice his way through a million-man army before hiking to the top of a mountain to fight his way through a packed room of elite warriors. But even more so, it takes a strong stomach for clinically detailed, lavishly prolonged violence against women. Apparently, it isn’t sufficient for Jagang to be bad; he has to be over-the-top, heinously Dark-Lord evil. What should be a quick, stark characterization draws on so long, it begins to feel like a creepy fetish.

This is the only novel of the entire series I have read, and I’m certainly glad of it. It was entertaining, overall, but I can’t imagine wading through ten-thousand pages of Goodkind’s uneven prose only to get to the slightly anticlimactic climax that Confessor brings. In sum, it wasn’t bad, but it isn’t good enough to be great, and certainly not good enough to cap a dozen books in a way I would have found satisfying.

Posted by Kurt Dietz

Review of The Voice from the Edge Vol. 1: I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison

SFFaudio Author of the Month Review

Science Fiction Audiobooks - The Voice from the Edge: I Have No Mouth and I Must ScreamThe Voice from the Edge Vol. 1: I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream
By Harlan Ellison, read by Harlan Ellison
5 CD’s – 6 hours [UNABRIDGED stories]
Publisher: Fantastic Audio
Published: 2002
ISBN: 1574535374
Themes: / Science fiction / Collection / Series / Post-Apocalypse / Artificial intelligence / Utopia / Dystopia / Magic Realism / Love / Hell /

ed. – This is one of two Harlan Ellison collections that were released by Fantastic Audio. The second is called The Voice from the Edge: Midnight at the Sunken Cathedral.

There are two basic reasons to invest in a short story collection by a single author. The first is to experience first hand the stylistic, thematic, and technical contributions the author has made to his genre and to literature in general; the second is to sample the dynamic range the author covers, to gauge the extent of his palette.

This audio book delivers the first in spades. With Harlan Ellison’s friendly, yet curmudgeonly introduction, we are thrust immediately into the gritty rawness he helped bring to science fiction. Such stories as the harrowing, lurid, complex title story, the gleefully offensive misogyny and sociopathy of “A Boy and His Dog”, the pop-cultural, pejorative ranting of “Laugh Track”, and the sophomoric sexual preoccupation of “The Very Last Day of a Good Woman” clearly delineate the dark, adult-oriented themes he introduced, as well as his predilection for unlikable anti-heroes who often leave us feeling a bit less comfortable about ourselves. And on such material, his distinctive narrative style shines. He curses with conviction, and his voice handles guilt, revenge, and damnation with seeming familiarity.

In the overall story choice, we also have a remarkable demonstration of the range of Ellison’s writing. Compare the patient, redemptive power of “Paladin of the Lost Hour” to any of the stories mentioned above, and you’ll see what I mean. Throw in the sly, haunted twist of “The Time of the Eye”, the overwrought post-modernism and tedious beatnik vamping in “’Repent Harlequin!’ said the Tick-Tock Man”, the sublime, hellish search for love in “Grail”, and the puzzling juxtaposition of the truly horrific and the trivial in “The Lingering Scent of Woodsmoke”, and you cover quite a swath of not only the science-fiction spectrum, but the fiction spectrum in general.

Unfortunately, the use of a single narrator for all these stories blurs their uniqueness, especially since that narrator is Harlan Ellison. His delivery style can be enjoyable, but it is so raw, so exaggerated, and so pervasive that it tends to flatten the relief of the work itself. I can’t say that I question the wisdom of having Ellison narrate, for on any single story his voice adds the confident insight that only an author can bring to his own work. But this is a collection, and the diverse stories deserve a wider range of vocal performance to truly showcase their differences. My advice is to make the best of this paradox by taking the collection slowly. The quality of the material, the exceptionally crisp sound and the fine, user-friendly packaging make this an audio book you should not miss. Just make sure to pace yourself.

Review of Legends II: Volume One

Legends II: Volume 1Legends II: Volume One
Edited by Robert Silverberg; Stories by George R.R. Martin & Anne McCaffrey
Read by Graeme Malcolm & Alyssa Bresnahan
3 Cassettes – 5.25 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Random House Audio
Published: 2004
ISBN: 0739310828
Themes: / Fantasy / Series / Collection / Dragons / Knights / Royalty /

The tag line to this audio book is “New short novels by the masters of modern fantasy”. Would it have knocked out any teeth to use the word “novella?” It’s like calling a pack of number 2 pencils “a pallet of light-duty lumber.” A novella is not merely a novel that was born sickly or abstained from performance-enhancing drugs; it is a distinct literary form with a tighter focus in theme, setting, character, and time. Has the novella become such a bane to publishers that they seek to disguise it with a new name, as politicians have disguised the apocalypse of global warming with the ambivalence of climate change? I hope not. The literary form of Goethe, Conrad, Silverberg and Leiber still has a lot to offer us today. Its name should be spoken with pride, and its name-bearers sold, bought and read (or listened to) without shame.

A great place to start is George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire: The Sworn Sword”, which is a fine example of a fantasy novella. It is tightly focused on a single, weighty event in time: The final clash between the proud, nearly-extinguished ser Eustace, and the desperately aggressive Lady Webber. Caught in the middle are our protagonists: Dunk, the simple knight with a sense of right and wrong that supersedes his own pride and safety, and Egg, whose compassion for even the lowest grows every time we see him. Heraclitus proposed that character determines destiny, and this is certainly true here. Everything that occurs within Martin’s tough, gritty, complex tale feels like an inevitable result of the characters and their choices. For those looking for lots of sword-banging, spell-casting action, this isn’t the place to find it. This story deals more in verbal confrontation, shades of revealed truth, and the nature of honor and treachery. My only quibble is that the ending, hard-won as it is, is a little pat, especially after the moral ambiguity of Dunk and Egg’s first story “The Hedge Knight” and the foregoing mass of this one. But given everything else about this absorbing tale, hewn from the same wood as the rest of the Song of Ice and Fire, this is a very minor point.

Martin’s pacing is slow and deliberate, shining a light into all the crevices of the personal, moral and physical terrain covered here. Graeme Malcolm’s reading is fittingly unhurried and considered. A British accent is a must for high fantasy like this (in my opinion), and Malcolm’s is dignified and readily intelligible to the American ear. There is even a compelling, extensive introduction to tune your ear to it. I think you’ll enjoy Malcolm’s voice characterizations, as well, as they are subtle, yet distinct, and seem well matched to the characters. Some music is present, mostly as punctuation between the book title, the introductory material, and the story itself, which is helpful. It also accompanies the brief prologue and epilogue to the story, which is not helpful, but also not too distracting.

Anne McCaffrey’s story “Pern: Beyond Between” is much less successful. It seems less a novella (let alone a wee novel) than a doughy short story that got rolled out a little too thin. The main ingredient is the disappearance of Lessa and Hoth into the great unknown of Between, but sifted in are travels in space, time, and Between; a few changes in viewpoint; and even a digression into a different genre. Sadly, the result never quite rises off the page. You will never quite taste the wistful loss and the painful discovery this story hints at, nor feel the fullness of the characters in your belly. It will leave you hungry for the Pern you remember from the original novels. And should you have missed these rightfully revered classics, I highly recommend skipping the appetizer-sized review of it which precedes the story. It gives a little too much away.

As with the first story, the reading of this one is wonderful. If Alyssa Bresnahan’s voice isn’t the voice I heard in my head while reading the original Pern series, no one’s is. It is the perfect complement to McCaffrey’s prose, flawed as that may be. Again, music is used to separate the introductory material from the story, and this time it is kept sensibly out of the narration.

The sound and production quality of both these stories are exceptional; however, they make an oddly matched pair. McCaffrey’s story could be safely given to your emotionally stable ten-year-old niece, but some of the language and themes of Martin’s would blister the poor child’s ears. And the packaging? Even calling it bland would imply an effervescence it sorely lacks. And of the 11 authors represented in the hardback version of this book (which lists only a tiny bit more than this audio book), only two are represented here. How much would you have to shell out to hear the novellas from all these distinguished authors? I shudder to imagine it. In short, while one of these stories is outstanding and the narrations excellent, this audio book does little to attract a new audience to the novella, and it certainly does not provide great value for the money.

Posted by Kurt Dietz

Review of Startide Rising by David Brin

Science Fiction Audiobooks - Startide Rising by David BrinStartide Rising
By David Brin; Read by George Wilson
12 cassettes – 17.5 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Recorded Books
Themes: / Science Fiction / Galactic Civilization / Genetic Engineering / Aliens / Dolphins / Chimpanzees / Series /

The Terran exploration vessel Streaker is on the run from the combined forces of five galactic civilizations that are hunting for them. Low on resources and staying just one step ahead of their pursuers the ship and crew crash-land on an obscure water-world called Kithrup. Soon after, in orbit above Kithrup, the might of all five galaxies fights each other for the right to claim “the prize”. The prize being that the crew of Streaker has the co-ordinates of what may be the most important discovery in millennia, the coordinates of mothballed fleet of starships that may be over two billion years old.

The second book of the Uplift Series, Startide Rising is the winner Nebula, Hugo, and Locus Awards for Best Novel of the year (1983). At the center of the Uplift Series is the idea that an “uplift” of intelligent life is necessary in order to create sentient and spacefaring races. The species that uplifts another is called a “patron species”, the species being uplifted is called a “client species”, this process is deemed absolutely necessary for the development of intelligent spacefaring civilizations. This makes sense to the Humans because on Earth the Humans have by this point genetically re-engineered both Dolphins and Chimpanzees, uplifting them to sentience. Which immediately begs the question of “who uplifted humanity”?

Recorded Books did a beautiful job on the cover, the specially commissioned painting is perhaps the nicest ever done for an audiobook. Unfortunately the cover and the packaging, are the best thing about this novel. As with many multi-volume series the paperback and hardcover versions of this book include: A glossary, a cast of characters list, a prologue, an epilogue, a postscript and a drawing (in this case of the Terran starship). Now obviously the drawing wouldn’t be able to be conveyed by a narrator, so it’s loss isn’t a big deal. But the exclusion of the glossary and the cast of characters was probably a mistake, for this novel especially, this information might have helped. I don’t really blame the producers for excluding it though, at 462 pages (making it 12 cassettes) this beast is way too long as it is.

David Brin‘s has peppered some very interesting ideas throughout the novel. Some of the ideas presented are new spins on old themes, others are quite original and interesting, at least to my ears. The overall premise of “uplift” is interesting, and would definitely be worth reading about, except for one minor issue. This is a horrible novel. Its very very very talky, there are way way way too many characters, virtually every scene that WOULD be of interest takes place off-stage, in the past or is happening and being related by a third party indirectly! George Wilson, the reader, does his best to sort out much of the muddle, no small task with more than a dozen characters, none of which are major players in the plot. These flaws along with reading the unreadable voices of many dolphins, are almost too much for poor George. And it was certainly too much for me. I lost track of who was speaking and what they were talking about many times! This is an unforgivable and deadly sin for a novel and makes me wonder how both readers and writers of science fiction could give this novel an award of any type let alone both the Hugo and the Nebula! I’ll admit that, much of the difficulty here is probably a result of this novel being a part of a series, with established characters and continuing themes. One reason for which all in all I much prefer stand alone novels. But even among series novels this was perhaps the worst novel I’ve read in years. Were I not writing a review for it I wouldn’t even bothered to have finished it. That said, maybe like Neville, the last living man on the Earth in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, I’m really the one who’s abnormal. Maybe this isn’t a bad novel at all. Maybe, it really is a good novel and I’ve got something wrong with me! Maybe a cast of dozens talking endlessly about events that just happened, are happening elsewhere are happening now but being related by a no-name character reading a sensor bank really is interesting. If that really is interesting and I just can’t appreciate it I’ll just have to live without it because I’m not going to listen to any more of the Uplift Series.