Saturday, October 29, 2011

Goliath by Scott Westerfeld

This is the final volume of Scott Westerfeld's steampunk trilogy. I've been eagerly awaiting this book, and went to the Mall of America to get it signed. Sadly, the line was very small to meet Mr. Westerfeld. My daughter and I were first in line, which was good. I say it was sad because the giant book-signing line was for a book from a Playboy bunny airing her dirty laundry. It upsets me that an idiot that is famous for taking off her clothes and having a rocky marriage to a basketball player draws more people than a story like Goliath and a talent like Scott Westerfeld.

In case you missed the other books in the series, or my reviews of them, let me sum it all up for you. The story is set in an alternate version of World War I. In this universe, the Archduke Ferdinand has a son that is orphaned by his assassination. His son, Alek, goes into hiding after the death of his parents and hopes to gain his father's place in the royal family one day. Austria-Hungary is part of the Clanker powers (they've developed advanced machinery that mostly runs on steam power). While he is in hiding an English air ship crashes nearby, and he assists in their rescue. England and Austria-Hungary are on opposite sides of the war and a deep philosophical difference. England is a Darwinist nation, this means that they have developed their technology through altering animals genetic code to make them useful in a variety of ways. The airship is actually an altered whale and strongly resembles a zeppelin.

Our main protagonist is Dylan, a.k.a. Deryn, Sharp. She is a midshipman on the Leviathan and is pretending to be a boy in order to service in the military. She is quick, strong, and smart. Dylan and Alek form an unlikely friendship, and Dylan falls for Alek. In the latest volume, Dylan's secret is revealed to some, and almost given away completely. We also see a few true to life historical figures such as Nicolas Tesla, Pancho Villa, and William Hearst.

One of the things that I really enjoy about this series besides the characters and story is the wonderful art drawn by Keith Thompson. Unfortunately, my favorite creature design, the weaponized manta ray ship, was not available online. There was no way, I was going to break the spine of my signed edition by putting in on the scanner. But each picture in the book is as detailed and as beautiful on the one on the right. I really wish more adult books would get back to illustrated novels, it really adds a little something. It's sad that it has mostly become a dead art in the West.

I can't say that the story offers any surprises for experienced readers, but it is enjoyable and well told. The creatures and locations are brought to vivid life by Westerfeld's deft and eloquent descriptions, and complimented beautifully by Thompson's finely detailed illustrations.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian by Robert E. Howard

My husband recommended this collection to me and loaded the audio book on my phone. I wasn't sure what to expect, or if I would enjoy it. Pulp fiction, like Conan, has a bad reputation with it portrayal of women and I was only familiar with the movie Conan, the Schwarzenegger Conan at that. It turns out much of what I know of Conan is not from the original stories, but from writers aping Howard's work and "borrowing" the character's name. 

The audio book opens with a foreword about the history of the Conan stories, and a look at the environment that created them. It is quite interesting for any bibliophile, whether they are interested in Conan stories or not. I had no idea that Howard and Lovecraft were friends, or that Howard was considered quite a "literary" writer. The book is read by Todd McLaren, who's voice is the embodiment of rough manliness. He creates a variety of voices for the various characters, and lends a quiet dignity to our hero.

This image isn't objectification in any way!
Over the years, when people have discussed Conan, I got the distinct impression that the stories objectified women as solely sexual objects. Though I can't comment on other similar works of the time, I can say that I did not get this feeling from Howard's work. Don't get me wrong, he eloquently describes the female beauties of the world in detail. It is often quite a sensual, almost erotic description. However, he takes no less care when describing Conan's physical beauty, or the bodies of other prominent males characters. Howard definitely had an appreciation for a fit human form, regardless of gender.

The volume includes 13 tales, plus the Miscellanea. Many of the stories have never been seen in this form before as they were cut for length or content on original publication. I enjoyed all the stories, though some stuck out more than others. There were tales of political intrigue, pirate adventuring, tribal war, and magical creatures. I really enjoyed "Queen of the Black Coast", a woman strong enough to match Conan's super human personality, thirst for adventure, and strength of will. "The Tower of the Elephant" showed us a bit of Conan's softer side, even if only for a second. Through out all the stories, the reader gets a sense of Conan's passion for life and all it's pleasures. He is very much a person that lives in the now, and without regrets. Conan, and his allies (no matter what their walk of life) have an honesty and integrity in all their deeds. Howard also shows a remarkable understanding of various cultures, commenting in his stories about how each place has its own ways and that one must adapt to the ways of the land you are in. Not a sentiment I expected to find in these tales, especially not stated so directly.

If you are looking for some adventure, or would like to puzzle out which fictional culture matches which real life culture, give this collection a read (or a listen).