great SF books

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Re: great SF books

Post by schiksalgemeinschaft »

Fuck, and that on the day I finish Dune.

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Re: great SF books

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I've just finished Embassytown by China Miéville. Worth checking out.

I don't think it is quite representative of his other works, because based on what I've read, I'm not very interested in his other books (except for 'The City & The City').

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Re: great SF books

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schiksalgemeinschaft wrote:I've just finished Embassytown by China Miéville. Worth checking out.

I don't think it is quite representative of his other works, because based on what I've read, I'm not very interested in his other books (except for 'The City & The City').
In addition to The City & The City, I also enjoyed Perdido Street Station, a decrepit cityscape with various bizarre aliens and a plot that didn't reveal itself until about half way through. I tried Kraken though and bailed fairly early, it seemed like a standard heroic quest plot that didn't really engage.

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Re: great SF books

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Thanks for the tip...

I've just fininshed Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. It had been sitting on my shelves for 2 years or so, stupid I didn't pull it out earlier, what a trip. Funny, original, fast. Deserves it's status as a classic.

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Re: great SF books

Post by Hayao Yamaneko »

I enjoyed Snow Crash too. He's a fun writer.
Cryptonomicon is a lark also.

Glad to see recently that Joe Cornish got the job of making Snow Crash into a film - I thoroughly enjoyed Attack the Block, and I reckon that tone would translate well.

I've had Reamde on my shelves for ages but I've heard it's a bit rote airport thriller.

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Re: great SF books

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Hayao Yamaneko wrote:I've had Reamde on my shelves for ages but I've heard it's a bit rote airport thriller.
Yup, still fun but no SF at all. A wild ride though. There was no way to predict what was happening at page 500 from what was happening at page 100.

Now Anathem was pretty interesting and ambitious SF. Stephenson was inspired by the Millennium Clock of the Long Now Foundation to create a layered monastery whose various members only interact with the outside world every 10, 100 or 1000 years.

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Re: great SF books

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orangettecoleman wrote:Just finished the "Revelation Space" trilogy by Alastair Reynolds - it was excellent once it got going (which took a few dozens of pages). The ending seemed kind of rushed but the other books set in the timeline/universe of Revelation Space flesh those events out apparently... I might let those wait a few months though, after a few months and 2000 pages spent in the Revelation universe.
I'm just halfway through the first book. Man, Reynolds is so so good. On pair with the greats.

I love it when I discover something new of this caliber.

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Re: great SF books

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Already finished the second book in the trilogy, Redemption Ark. A must read for all Banks-fans.


Also, found this website:

http://www.worldswithoutend.com

It's an excellent resource, good databases with all kinds of lists, reviews, etc. A sort of goodreads for SF and Fantasy.

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Re: great SF books

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Just finished House of Suns by Reynolds, a stand alone book set in a different universe than the RS-trilogy. Man, all SF fans reading this that are not on the Reynolds train already should hop on immediately, the guy has tons of talent and imagination. Even if you don't like Banks, give this a try, it has a definite voice of it's own.

Also, much much much better than The Reality Dysfunction by Peter F. Hamilton, what a major letdown that was. Never reading anything of him again.

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Re: great SF books

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schiksalgemeinschaft wrote:Just finished House of Suns by Reynolds, a stand alone book set in a different universe than the RS-trilogy. Man, all SF fans reading this that are not on the Reynolds train already should hop on immediately, the guy has tons of talent and imagination. Even if you don't like Banks, give this a try, it has a definite voice of it's own.

Also, much much much better than The Reality Dysfunction by Peter F. Hamilton, what a major letdown that was. Never reading anything of him again.

Yeah, Reynolds rather gothic take on the space opera is addicting...... And yes...Hamilton is very, very annoying...
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Re: great SF books

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I've been posting reviews of all the SF books I read on worldswithoutend, but since there's no discussion option over there, I thought I'd repost them here, for those who might be interested. I'll start with my most recent one.



DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? - Philip K. Dick - 1968


There are 2 main problems with this book: its philosophical themes are a mess, and the action/detective part of its plot isn't well conceived. Nonetheless, it's still a fun read.

The question of the possible "humanity" of artificial intelligence is one of the main themes, but it's worked out poorly, because the androids and the science behind them are worked out very poorly. The androids are practically full blown biological humans, except for some detail in their bonemarrow, at least, that's the only way for scientist to see. Yet they can't get children? They do get drunk though. They can't control their physical, sensual passions? They lack empathy, but can sometimes love eachother? They die inevitably after about 4 years, because of a cell replacement problem? (If so, why bother hunting them down?)

Dated notions of empathy make the mess even worse: there is talk about empathy not working for carnivores, since they are hunters, and would empathize with their prey. The fact that humans do hunt, is brushed aside. PKD clearly is not a philosopher nor a behavioural psychologist, as empathy is observed in all kinds of animals.

A thing that makes the book very quirky is its focus on animals. Real, live animals are a status symbol on future earth, but this choice seems mostly due to the resulting word play with the title. (On a sidenote, the title is not really coherent with the story itself, since androids in the story are not electric, but living, organic entities, not made of electric circuits like the fake animals in the story. Moreover, PDK also fails to ask the important question wheter there truly is a difference between organic nerves transporting electric signals and anorganic circuitry transporting electric signals.)

The fact that the empathy tests to determin wether an individual is an android or not rely for the most part on humans' empathy with animals is very strange too: as if an apocalyptic world war would turn us all into vegeterians. Again, PKD doesn't prove to be a great social thinker by making these strange choices. The different relationships between humans-androids-animals-electric animals seen forced and ill-conceived.

As a result of all this, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? isn't a book that gives one new insights on what it means to be human at all. Diverse authors like Asimov and Banks have written much more interesting books on AI. Hell, even the Star Trek Voyager TV-series explored the humanity of AI in a much more interesting manner. PKD basically reduces it all to "the will to live" and "empathy".

The other problem I hinted at in the beginning of this review is the plot. While this could have been an interesting thriller set in an SF-world, it also falls flat in that respect. The androids can't point and shoot, and the protagonist is able to track down and kill all of his oponents mainly because of sheer luck.

Having said all that, I mostly enjoyed reading the book. It's not too long (192 pages in my edition), PKD has some good ideas, the setting is good and the atmosphere interesting, and the language and imagery is excellent at times...

But, this is definetly not a timeless SF classic with interesting lessons about humanity like the Dune-saga or the Foundation trilogy - in dealing with questions about AI and humanity, Philip K. Dick just scratches the surface, in a messy, clumsy way. Yet that's part of it's appeal I guess: clumsy is cute, in a way.
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Re: great SF books

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I've finished it yesterday. Here's my review:



THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS - Ursula LeGuin (1969)

The Left Hand of Darkness is the first book I've read of LeGuin, and it is great. Although it surely is SF, big parts of it read more like an adventure novel about friendship, set on a barren world - so don't expect laser guns, giant AI-cores or wormholes. It combines a sense of wonder with some original ideas, an emotional ending, and, at times, beautiful prose.

It's an A-list book, that very much has its own voice, but it's not extraordinary. It could have been A+ though, if LeGuin had fixed 3 quibbles...

First, it could have explored in some more detail the consequences of evolving and living on an artic world. LeGuin manages to do so to a significant extent, but I have the feeling there could have been at least a bit more.

Secondly, LeGuin should have been able to truly write about the gender neutral inhabitants of Gethen as really gender neutral. As the novel is, they come across too much as just men without a sex drive 4/5th of the time. Their feminine and/or neutral side isn't explored that much, or a bit stereotypical (E.g. the fact that they see no shame in crying). A couple of times it is simply stated that this or that in their society is a result of them not being "men" (e.g. there is no war), but that isn't really felt in most of their actions (e.g. there is murder due to political rivalry, so...), nor in the structures of the societies LeGuin created. As such, this isn't the important gender book some claim it to be, not even seen in its historical context.

Finally, some of the characters could have been fleshed out a whole lot more, such as the king, Tibi and Obsle. This could have enhanced the emotional impact of the book even more.

Since LeGuin clearly is an excellent writer, I believe she, with more attention to these 3 points (basically more investment in the characters/worldbuilding and some more thought and research about the links between climate, biology, gender and society) could have pulled of a book that would've been extraordinary, and at the same time 50, 100 or even 200% longer, i.e. more good stuff to indulge in as a reader.

If she had done so, TLHoD would have been the true Artic brother of the first book of Dune, and I would have rated it the full 5 points. (After 150 pages in, I kind of settled on a 4 score, but the emotions I felt at the end swayed me to give it 4.5...)

That all said, most importantly: I enjoyed the book immensly. TLHoD is, regardless of its relative brevity, an excellent, intruiging read, and definitely recommended. A classic indeed, that has aged very well.

4.5/5
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Re: great SF books

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Review of a book I read last year:


EMBASSYTOWN - China Miéville (2011)


As a linguist, I must say that one of the basic linguistic premises of the book - that a race of aliens can't use metaphors/signifiers (or even think about the concept of the content of the metaphor) unless they refer to things that happened in reality first - is totally unbelievable from a linguistic point of view.

There are a number of reasons for this, one being that the aliens are able to communicate about concepts in need of a new signifier, so that they stage events in reality to use a figure of speech later. If they are able to communicate about them, the new signifier isn't really needed in the first place, and they are able to think abou them too. Logically, this short-circuits.

Also, figures of speech in human language that are based on metaphors start out as refering to reality too, and only in a later stadium get their additional meaning as figure of speech. There is nothing complicated or deep about this, nor does it alter the way we think.

Sadly, since to book is a bit pretentious about its linguistic concepts, and if you know a thing or two about linguistics, that makes the story fall flat. It's not only back cover posturing, but also the heavyhandness of the theme itself in the book, the kinda stupid wordplay with TwoNames, etc.

On the other hand, a big enough part of the rest of the story, its worldbuilding, the depiction of the aliens (as well as their double voiced language) is often interesting, with some original ideas. Characterization isn't great though, and some parts of the book are pretty boring.

Conclusion: Embassytown is an okay book, but it is not to be taken too seriously as a philosophical/linguistic sci-fi treatise on the Saphir-Worph hypothesis.

3/5

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Re: great SF books

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Just finished the multiple award winning...



ANCILLARY JUSTICE - Ann Leckie (2014)

It's a clever book, with a few great, thrilling moments. What I like best of it is the cold, harsh nature of some parts of Radch society. The AI/ship part of the story is also well done, but it reminds me a bit of Banks' ship minds and other AIs elsewhere to be called truly original. It's destinct enough though, so no sweat there. Near its end, the book also features some good phrases on the (non-existing) freedom of the will: (the illusion of) choice is it's most important theme. Leckie at first makes you think there are choices, but ultimatly, not so. Cleverly done.

On the other hand, it's not as epic as I thought it would be: it's actually a pretty small story, without a lot of characters, exotic worlds, interesting technology, or notable aliens. Aside from one (crucial) part, the story of this book could've just easily been a political intrigue set in ancient Rome. It's not really high concept space opera on a grand scale.

Much has been said about the book's gender issues, but that isn't crucial to the story at all. It's fresh to have mostly "she"s instead of "he"s, and it works pretty well, but it's not an important aspect that truly advances the story. (But: it's not believable at all that a highly advanced AI cannot distinguish between biological gender, so Leckie should've edited out the parts where that happens, it could've been easily done without hurting the story or the rest of the gender stuff.)

Ancillary Justice is recommened, and I will eagerly read the sequel, but for now Leckie is not a space opera writer of the same caliber as Reynolds or Banks, as some reviews tend to suggest. She might become one, and although her writing is a bit wooden at times, this debut definitely proves she has great potential.

4/5

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Re: great SF books

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schiksalgemeinschaft wrote:Just finished the multiple award winning...



ANCILLARY JUSTICE - Ann Leckie (2014)

It's a clever book, with a few great, thrilling moments. What I like best of it is the cold, harsh nature of some parts of Radch society. The AI/ship part of the story is also well done, but it reminds me a bit of Banks' ship minds and other AIs elsewhere to be called truly original. It's destinct enough though, so no sweat there. Near its end, the book also features some good phrases on the (non-existing) freedom of the will: (the illusion of) choice is it's most important theme. Leckie at first makes you think there are choices, but ultimatly, not so. Cleverly done.

On the other hand, it's not as epic as I thought it would be: it's actually a pretty small story, without a lot of characters, exotic worlds, interesting technology, or notable aliens. Aside from one (crucial) part, the story of this book could've just easily been a political intrigue set in ancient Rome. It's not really high concept space opera on a grand scale.

Much has been said about the book's gender issues, but that isn't crucial to the story at all. It's fresh to have mostly "she"s instead of "he"s, and it works pretty well, but it's not an important aspect that truly advances the story. (But: it's not believable at all that a highly advanced AI cannot distinguish between biological gender, so Leckie should've edited out the parts where that happens, it could've been easily done without hurting the story or the rest of the gender stuff.)

Ancillary Justice is recommened, and I will eagerly read the sequel, but for now Leckie is not a space opera writer of the same caliber as Reynolds or Banks, as some reviews tend to suggest. She might become one, and although her writing is a bit wooden at times, this debut definitely proves she has great potential.

4/5

Agreed... I would also hazard to say the novel also owes a nod towards an unlikely genera.. The romance novel...(at least as written by Jane Austen)

The love (unrequited...for a great many reasons) between the "ship" and her favorite (and not so favorite) officers cannot be neglected.

A good read... As is its sequel...
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Re: great SF books

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Dohol wrote:Agreed... I would also hazard to say the novel also owes a nod towards an unlikely genera.. The romance novel...(at least as written by Jane Austen)

The love (unrequited...for a great many reasons) between the "ship" and her favorite (and not so favorite) officers cannot be neglected.
very true, now that you mention it. I'll pay attention to it when I read Ancillary Sword.

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Re: great SF books

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didn't finish...


RINGWORLD - Larry Niven (1970)

This book is considered Hard SF, and I can understand why, but to me Ringworld feels more as Sesame Street SF. I feel that if one wants to write Hard SF, the social science part of the science has to check out as well - for human societies and alien societies alike. Yet, in this book the characters are caricatures, and the aliens are just odd (orange fur and a rat like tail!) and different (two heads! 3 legs!), but not alien, since they are just versions of human stereotypes (aggressive brutes, smart cowards).

Niven's vision of future humanity is far off anything really conceivably possible, and falls flat on its face because of details that seem cute or original at first, but in the end just expose Niven as a very superficial social thinker: in the book, individual humans enter voluntarily into televised battles to the death, just for the right to have three children? (Yet, everybody is allowed 1 child, without the need to risk death at all.) What sane person would do that?

It's not only the social science that's lacking, it's also basic scientific concepts. A supposedly highly advanced alien species that can move planets does believe in breeding for luck: a human character whose 5 ancestors all had luck in some lottery must be a "lucky" character, and solely for that reason is selected for a highly dangerous expedition. Really? This is considered Hard SF? Any scientist will tell you chance theory and math work differently. People knew this in the 70ies too.

Anyhow, I was bored out of my mind after 10 pages, and annoyed by the shallow characterization, the shallow science, the shallow prose and the shallow dialogue. I continued until page 110, but things didn't change, the occasional fun idea or mildly interesting observation notwithstanding.

If an author can't convince me after more than 1/3th of a book, he didn't do a good job, so I stopped reading. A waste of time, and yet another lesson not all classics merit their masterwork status. I can understand why this became a classic though: the concept itself of a "ringworld" still has merit in SF, and lots of people are easily fooled by surface details.
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Re: great SF books

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Just finished the English translation of this Chinese hit:


THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM - Lui Cixin (2007, English edition in 2014)

This first book of the Three Body trilogy isn's so much SF set against the backdrop of Chinese history, but rather the reverse: a book about the history of the Cultural Revolution seen through the eyes of scientists. It takes quite some time before it turns into SF. If it weren't for the dust jacket blurb, you wouldn't really know this had anything to do with aliens until about page 270 (of 390 pages), and only the final 60 pages are what could be called full blown SF - luckily of the thrilling, mind-blowingly epic kind. But this long build up doesn't matter, because it's an excellent story, and it is the first part of three: Lui Cixin really takes his time to set things up, and that pays off. The book has real depth and attention to detail, both character as science wise.

The Chinese dimension is really interesting. One gets insider insight in the madness of the revolutionary era. I'm surprised a book that is this critical was allowed to be published in China itself. It only proves that my understanding of China is very limited, and reading this opened up things a bit.

Parts of the book are devoted to the world of an online game, and that has a kind of magical realism feel to it - a mythical, Wolfeian kind of storytelling. It reminded me a bit of the sequences of Reynolds' House Of Suns devoted to a virtual reality game, and it's theme is partly the history of science itself: Stephenson's Baroque cycle popped in my mind at times too. It's intriguing and harrowing. Good stuff.

The last part of the book owes a lot to ecological themes. In a sense, this book deals with the same questions and problems that Dune's Leto tried to solve with the Golden Path.

The prose is strangely detached and at times very beautiful. The narrating voice is more fluid than in most Western books, and that makes for an interesting read too.

I can't wait to read the 2nd volume - which promises to be much more SF - and I would be utterly disappointed if the translation of the 3rd volume wouldn't get published.

The series as a whole will undoubtly become classic. The Three-Body Problem is highly recommended. Mandatory reading.

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Re: great SF books

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THE FIFTH HEAD OF CERBERUS - Gene Wolfe (1972)

I once read that most of Wolfe's main characters aren't fully aware of the true nature of their world nor the role they play in it. This is for sure the case in The Book of the New Sun-cycle, and their successor, The Book of the New Urth. To a large extent, it is also the case for the protagonists in the three interconnected stories in this book, that predates Wolfe's most succesful cycle about 8 years, but already shows a lot of the same ambiguity, narrative techniques (most notably the unreliable narrator) and themes (like the theme of memory).

The first story (about 75 pages) deals with a boy who discovers his true origin, and is the most SF of the 3 stories of the collection, and the easiest, most 'normal' read. The second story (about 60 pages) is very different stylistically, and reads as a mythical story. In that respect it resembles some of the stories that are told by some the characters in The Book of the New Sun, most notably in the 4th volume, where Severian participates in a story-telling contest. It's excellent, but it's not an easy read - one needs to pay attention to every detail. It's has hardly anything to do with how most SF feels like. The third story (110 pages) sits somewhere inbetween those two: not an easy read, but the prose is less dense than that of the 2nd story. I'd say it is, in a way, a cross between Kafka's Der Prozess and an adventure novella. It has thrilling, baffling passages that alone merit the purchase of this book.

Since The Book of the New Sun is practically my favorite series ever, Wolfe has writen a benchmark that makes for hard competition with himself. Yet, most fans of SF, mystery prose, intricate fantasy, the poetic and the bizarre will find The Fifth Head of Cerebus an intriguing, rewarding read nonetheless. But, be warned, it requires a bit of an effort, as most good things in life. I wouldn't call it a fullblown masterwork, but a minor classic it surely is.

3.5/5

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Re: great SF books

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NEUROMANCER - William Gibson (1984)

This book was hard work. I'm not sure if that hard work really paid off. I liked some parts, and there were some amazing sentences here and there, but overall this was too much stream of consciousness writing, and I didn't really connect with Gibson's consciousness. It doesn't have the density of a book like Gravitiy's Rainbow, but still, Neuromancer is a very dense book by any other standard, and it left me tired. It does get a bit easier, with a lot more exposition, towards the final 3rd of the book.

Density and unclear writing aren't marks of valor per se. It might seem highbrow or sophisticated to read a dense book, and that's undoubtedly part of the novel's appeal - it adds to the reader's own sense of prestige -, but one could easily argue that because of the style the characters are not clearly drawn and lifeless. The writing adds to the sense of chaos, but at the same time hides possible plotholes and almost violently forces the reader to suspend disbelief. I wonder wether the story itself would suffice to create the same effect.

So, one could debate Gibson being either a sloppy writer or otherwise a mad genius that only the willing and able can truly appreciate. Since I know myself not to be a reader of only easy digestible stuff, and I enjoy cracking tough nuts like The Book of the New Sun, I'd vote for option 1. All and all, contentwise there wasn't enough there to justify Gibson's formal approach. At times, I just wanted to quit, and I read on mainly because it has such a legacy.

As for the cyberpunk part of Neuromancer's influence, I really liked Stephenson's take on the matter in Snowcrash a lot better. It had the same vibe, but because of more precise and clear writing, the outreagousness of the world it painted impacted a lot more. Snowcrash simply is a much more exciting book, with a more exciting story about more exciting characters in a more exciting world.

Some reviewers pointed out that Neuromancer may have well been written under the influence of drugs, and at times I had that feeling as well. It's outlandish and outerworldly, but it felt disjointed and random too. While I can imagine some readers to enjoy it, I feel it doesn't live up to the hype. A blurry, messy book.


---------------


Next one is fantasy, not SF, but didn't want to start a new thread. A magnificent book, highly recommended!


A SHADOW IN SUMMER - Daniel Abraham (2006)

From the first pages on, you know this book is going to be something extraordinary: it grips you, and both the world as the characters are utterly convincing, from the moment they are put to the page. It is fantasy, but it is very much its own thing, and escapes Tolkien's heritage seemingly effortlessly.

It is original and poetic, emotional and thrilling - and yet it doesn't feature any high fantasy action, magic fireballs, enchanted swords or shrieking dragons. Still, the magic is of the best I've come across, and even without a lot of violence the book is a page turner.

It's an exciting story, yet the writing is restrained: Abraham could have taken the ideas behind the magic and showed off, chosing the spectacular path of letting the andat do all kind of neat tricks. Yet he doesn't. He only lets the reader in on what's needed for the story, and in doing so makes that story much, much better than in the hands of a lesser writer.

So, Daniel Abraham clearly is a master. Although this is 'but' a debut, it feels like a very balanced and mature book of someone who has been writing lengthy stories forever. There is no filler here, there is no side plot put in for cheap entertaining effect, no clichéd character for the reader to hang on to. Abraham shows wisdom about the human condition throughout the book, and chooses beautiful images and phrases more than occasionally. This book isn't a lucky shot or a one-off thing. It breathes mastery.

A Shadow in Summer is the first in a series of 4, but it is a story that can stand by itself. At the end of the 331 pages, it comes to its own conclusion. There are no cliffhangers, and yet I can't wait to read A Betrayal in Winter.

I'm surprised this doesn't get mentioned more often in lists or recommendations, and it's a shame it only has 19 reads on this site. I could go on and on about it, but the prologue of the book will do its own bidding. Get it. Read it. Spread the word.

5/5

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