Thursday, 31 December 2015

A Cruel Wind (an omnibus edition of the original Dread Empire trilogy)

(Originally posted on Saturday, 7 August 2010)

My rating: 7/10 (high re-reading value - second novel)
Please read my post from April 2009 to find out about my rating.
Please read my post from May 2009 to learn about Glen Cook’s style of writing.

My rating for the whole trilogy is “only” 7/10 (good), but the second novel is a pearl rated 9/10 (very good). I will review and rate all three novels separately.

A Shadow of All Night Falling
My rating: 5/10 (low re-reading value)

What’s bad:
1. Slow pace.
2. Too little fighting.
3. Hardly any military action.
4. Lack of focus. It is clear that Glen Cook started to write this book without any clue how the story should unfold. Glen Cook himself admitted in an interview he rarely plans the whole novel in advance. In his other books it is not so apparent, but in this novel he failed to come up with some consistent plot.
5. The motivations of the main characters in the second half of the book are strange or plain unbelievable, comparing to the way the story started. The journey of one of the characters seems to be a suicide, considering who he will have to face.
6. The way of speaking by one of the characters is very, very, very annoying. I couldn’t understand half of what he was saying. Reading such babble was not enjoyable at all. It was more like a hard work.

What’s good:
1. Glen Cook’s style of writing (except for the slow pace and very little military action).
2. Some unique and interesting ideas about the main characters and the world they live in.
3. The very last part of the book – the action taking place in the castle tower – is very enjoyable and gripping.
4. The Dread Empire itself is only a dark and mysterious power far in the east, waiting for the right time to strike. Glen Cook created a great feeling about that empire and I wanted to find out much, much more about it. Great teasing and building an appetite for later books.

This novel is an important introduction to the Dread Empire series, but
on its own it’s only average.

October's Baby
My rating: 9/10 (high re-reading value)

What’s bad:
1. It was far too easy for Ragnarson to recruit a whole new army of mercenaries so fast.
2. The starting political situation in Kavelin was quite unbelievable, considering how easy Ragnarson achieved such a strong position.
3. The Dread Empire turned out to be somewhat weaker than I was expecting from the first book. I was surprised there were two countries
in the far east which were able to wage wars against the Dread Empire,
more or less successfully.

What’s good:
1. Glen Cook’s style of writing.
2. A lot of military action.
3. Very good and complex military elements, sometimes even better than in The Black Company.
4. Nice touch on the inner fight for power both in Kavelin and in the Dread Empire.
5. Very interesting and complex battle at the end of the book.
6. The preparations before this battle are especially enjoyable. Glen Cook created unique feeling about it.

After disappointing first Dread Empire novel I enjoyed the second one very, very much. The flaws I mentioned above are nothing compared to the good sides, especially to the great military stuff and the feeling about the final battle. This is a very good novel.

All Darkness Met
My rating: 7/10 (low re-reading value)

What’s bad:
1. The Dread Empire is suddenly corrupted by a scheme of enormous proportions, which is kept secret without any leaks and double-crosses (totally unbelievable). This scheme was probably supposed to explain the introduction of some new important characters and plot lines, but it didn’t work for me.
2. The character behind this scheme (and some other manipulations) is waaay too powerful and his motives are very strange and quite unbelievable.
3. The introduction of genetically(?) modified creatures created by one of the new characters. Some of those creatures are totally immune to magic and are virtually invincible. It makes the Dread Empire much more powerful, but it ruins its previous image of “dread”.
4. One of the new characters fighting on the side of the Dread Empire is unstoppable, but the explanation for his power is not good. What’s worse it seems that Glen Cook didn’t know what to do with this character at the end of the book and chose the worst possibility there was.
5. The geography of the east side of the mountains (the Dread Empire side) is nothing I have imagined after the first novel. I had similar problem reading the second novel.
6. The war on the western side of the mountains is described waaay too quickly and too generally (except for the battle at Baxendala which is quite interesting).
7. The most important moment of the war is solved by a quasi DEUS EX MACHINA. Even though there is some logic to it, it was totally unbelievable. I don’t want to spoil anything so I can’t explain it.
8. As a person Ragnarson is an asshole and Mocker is pathetic. They suddenly became different people from what they were in the previous two novels.
9. The end of the war is quite fitting, but the ending in broader aspect is very strange and somewhat disappointing.

What’s good:
1. Glen Cook’s style of writing (except the lack of realistic approach to some of the general plot aspects, as described above).
2. Full scale war against the Dread Empire.
3. A lot of action.
4. The book is gripping despite its obvious flaws.
5. Hilarious moment of the first public appearance of Radasher – one of the funniest scenes I have ever read in a book (any book, not only fantasy). It’s a nice little something added to a book that is definitely not a comedy.

The charm about the Dread Empire is gone – it is easily manipulated and it starts to use genetically(?) modified creatures. Glen Cook’s style of writing and a lot of action make this novel quite gripping, but there are too many unbelievable plot aspects to rate it any higher. It seems Glen Cook was trying very hard to write an exceptional book, but he went way over the top in my opinion. Comparing to the previous novel this is much worse, but on its own it’s still good.

The whole Dread Empire trilogy is a little like a rollercoaster – first novel is strange and slow-paced (for Glen Cook), the second novel is simply brilliant and the third novel is good (solid), but falls flat comparing to the previous one. As a whole I would rate A Cruel Wind as a good book (a good trilogy).

PS. I’ve also read “A Fortress in Shadow” – an omnibus edition of two prequels to the above described Dread Empire trilogy. First of all I wouldn’t call those prequels as Dread Empire novels, simply because the Dread Empire itself is not even mentioned in those prequels. Second of all I think Glen Cook wanted to show a creation of a quasi religion, but because he is a known atheist it felt like he was just mocking all the existing religions. I’ve read those prequels almost at the same time as Petty Pewter Gods (eighth novel of the Garrett P.I. series) and I was really pissed off (see my review of that Garrett book to know what I mean). Moreover the Dread Empire prequels on their own are simply bad novels. Most of the plot aspects (both general and specific) are unbelievable. The problems I had with the third novel of the original trilogy are nothing compared to those prequels. I wish I had never read them and I suggest to avoid them.

PS2. “A Fortress in Shadow” cost me significantly more than “A Cruel Wind” even though the overall number of pages is only HALF of the original trilogy. Believe me, this book was totally not worth the money.

Monday, 30 November 2015

David Gemmell vs. Glen Cook

(Originally posted on Tuesday, 27 December 2011)

I am a huge fan of Glen Cook and I usually love the grittiness in his books. However they are sometimes too depressing, considering especially the fact that almost all characters keep changing for worse. That’s when I switch to David Gemmell novels. They are gritty too, but I find them more positive overall.

I will compare David Gemmell’s style of writing to Glen Cook’s style.

Please read my post from May 2009 to learn about Glen Cook’s style of writing first.

1. Descriptions are very modest. (Glen Cook)

David Gemmell gives more detailed descriptions of places and people. Usually he keeps them not too long and doesn’t bore me, but the pace is slower than in Glen Cook novels. I prefer Glen Cook here.

2. The sentences are short. (Glen Cook)

David Gemmell writes longer sentences, but they are still not too long and are easy to read and understand. No preference here.

3. All the characters are flawed. (Glen Cook)

David Gemmell writes very much like Glen Cook, but there is a stronger line between good and evil. All his characters are flawed (in many different ways), but the weaknesses of the good characters are never repelling. David Gemmell shows that there are people who are able to stick to their beliefs and to be truly good no matter how hard it is for them and no matter what tragedy touched them. This is something that Glen Cook seems not to see. Glen Cook seems to think that every person sooner or later becomes a depressed self-destructing prick with no good ideas about the world and other people. His characters almost always change for the worse, which drives me crazy. David Gemmell on the other hand shows that everyone can become a better person, no matter how evil he or she has been so far. That’s why I like to read David Gemmell books alternatively with Glen Cook novels. They help me lift my spirit when Glen Cook books become too depressing. I prefer David Gemmell here.

4. Unexplained issues. (Glen Cook)

David Gemmell doesn’t give everything away, but Glen Cook is still much better at mystery and plot twists. David Gemmell novels are more explanatory an therefore easier to follow, but also more predictable. I prefer Glen Cook here.

5. Humour and irony. (Glen Cook)

David Gemmell is no match for Glen Cook considering humour and irony. There are some funny moments in some of David Gemmell novels, but they are nothing compared to Glen Cook books, especially to the first three Garrett P. I. novels or even to the first Black Company novel. I prefer Glen Cook here.

6. Strong and realistic military elements. (Glen Cook)

David Gemmell is almost as good as Glen Cook at describing war on a large scale, worse at describing single battles and much better at describing fighting on a personal level. He often gives description of sword (or other) duels, something that Glen Cook NEVER does. Unfortunately Gemmell makes some of those duels unbelievable. He also makes more in-depth psychological portraits of the soldiers and gives some of them an additional trait – heroism, a concept that is almost completely missing from Glen Cook novels. It's a trademark of all Gemmell novels. What's interesting is the fact that many of his heroic characters are ordinary soldiers. Not even the main characters. And not even the positive ones. Gemmell also shows that not every hero who willingly sacrifices his life for a bigger cause is properly recongnised later. But it feels so right to do it anyway. The bad side is that Gemmell sometimes concentrates on heroism too much and again loses some realism. Overall I prefer Glen Cook here, but David Gemmell gets a special point for his heroic characters. Usually they are simply fantastic.

7. Not clear magic system. (Glen Cook)

The use of magic in David Gemmell novels is very low and specific. There are hardly any offensive spells and the summon spells are used very consistently and logically. Glen Cook handles magic much more freely, but also more awkwardly. I prefer David Gemmell here.

8. The characters don’t speak perfect English (Glen Cook)

David Gemmell characters are using pretty sentences, even when they are not so smart, but I must admit it is compensated with a good personal background. Glen Cook characterisation is based more on the way the characters talk and behave than on giving descriptions or telling about their past. I prefer Glen Cook here.

9. The narration is sometime not smooth. (Glen Cook)

The main flaw of Glen Cook’s style of writing. David Gemmell’s narration is more smooth and easier to follow. I prefer David Gemmell here.

An honourable mention goes to my favorite David Gemmell novel Echoes of the Great Song. It's somewhat different than books from his great Drenai series, but it suits my taste perfectly.

My preferences are 5 for Glen Cook, 4 for David Gemmell (including a special poin for his heroic characters) and 1 “tie”.
Both authors are unbeatable at their strong points and that’s why they both have many die-hard fans. Glen Cook is slightly better considering that his novels are more fast-paced and his sarcastic humour is unbeatable. On the other hand David Gemmell's morality is much more to my liking, but it's a matter of taste.

I strongly recommend to try at least one novel by David Gemmell, for example “Legend” – his first novel. This book was originally published in 1984  and it has remained in print ever since. Please remember that David Gemmell wrote this novel when he thought he had cancer. It turned out later that he was misdiagnosed (or maybe a miracle happened?) and it is clearly seen by the way this novel ends. It is a very good novel nonetheless and it’s the first novel where readers met Druss the Legend – David Gemmell’s most famous character.

Below are 3 excerpts from “White Wolf” – a novel by David Gemmell I am currently reading. The first excerpt is about the iron code of Druss the Legend:

   “If you truly are like those killers who attack cities then why did you help those people when the soldiers were killing them?”
   “Had to, laddie. It’s the code.”
   “I don’t understand,” said Rabalyn.
   “That’s the only difference between me and the killers. They see what they want and they take it. They have become just like those beasts we slew tonight. Outwardly they look like the rest of us. Under the skin they are savage and cruel. They have no mercy. The beast is in me too, Rabalyn. I keep it chained. The code holds it.”
   “What is the code?”
   The axman gave a grim smile. “If I tell you, then you must swear to live by it. Do you really want to hear it? It could be the death of you.”
   The axman leaned back and closed his eyes. When he spoke it was as if he were reciting a prayer. The words hung in the air.
Never violate a woman, nor harm a child. Do not lie, cheat, or steal. These things are for lesser men. Protect the weak against the evil strong. And never allow thoughts of gain to lead you into the pursuit of evil.
   “Did your father teach you that?” asked Rabalyn.
   “No. It was a friend. His name was Shadak. I have been lucky with my friends, Rabalyn. I hope you are too.”

In the second excerpt we get a comment on Druss's code made by a regular soldier:
   "I know that code. It is a good one. It is dangerous, though, Rabalyn. A man like Druss can live by it, because he's like a tempest, raw, fierce, and unstoppable. We mortals, though, may need to be more circumspect. Holding too firmly to Druss's code would kill us."

In the third excerpt we learn what another memorable character – Skilgannon the Damned – thinks about riots:
   “There is so much anger,” said the youth.
   “Hunger and fear,” said Skilgannon. “It’s a potent mix.”
   “That man back there was saying the rights of the citizens had been taken away.”
   “I heard him. A few weeks ago that same man would have been blaming foreigners for their plight. In a few month time it might be people with green eyes, or red hats. It is all a nonsense. They suffer because they are sheep in a world ruled by wolves. That’s the truth of it.”

PS. "White Wolf" is a great novel (I have just finished reading it), but it is definitely not a place to start reading Drenai series - there are too many spoilers and references to earlier novels. As I said it is best to start with "Legend", then read "The King Beyond the Gate"
(Gemmell's second novel) and then read in the chronology of the Drenai history which really starts with "Waylander".

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Drenai series

(Originally posted on Tuesday, 1 May 2012)

Drenai series (or Drenai saga) is a great fantasy series by David Gemmell. Every Drenai novel has a separate story, so they all can be read as standalones, but there are some references between them.
In fact the novels were written not in the chronology of the Drenai history and that’s why wrote this post.

The chronology of the Drenai history:
1. Waylander (written in 1986)
2. In the Realm of the Wolf (written in 1992)
3. Hero in the Shadows (written in 2000)
4. The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend (written in 1993)
5. The Legend of Deathwalker (written in 1996)
6. White Wolf (written in 2003)
7. Legend (written in 1984 – the very first David Gemmell novel)
8. The King Beyond the Gate (written in 1985)
9. Quest for Lost Heroes (written in 1990)
10. Winter Warriors (written in 1997)
11. The Swords of Night and Day (written in 2004)

David Gemmell’s characters are unforgettable. Some of them are true heroes, like Druss the Legend (novels 4, 5, 6, 7 and 11) and some of them are a kind of anti-heroes trying to repay their earlier crimes, like Waylander (novels 1, 2 and 3) or Skilgannon the Damned (novel 6 and 11). There is also Tenaka Khan (novel 8),
a son of a Drenai father and a Nadir mother, who has to choose
what nation he really wants to belong to.

The novels 9 and 10 feature no great heroes, but some of the characters are very heroic on their own. To me the 9th was a letdown (the weakest novel in the whole series), but the 10th was better.

In the last novel Druss and Skilgannon fight together again, but the story takes place a thousand (1000) years after their death. It may seem silly at first, but David Gemmell pulled that stunt perfectly.

I think it is best to start reading Drenai series with "Legend", then read "The King Beyond the Gate" and then "Waylander". In fact these 3 novels were written in this very order. After that I would stick to the chronology of the Drenai history as described above.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

The Swords of Night and Day (the last – 11th novel in the Drenai series)

(Originally posted on Tuesday, 1 May 2012)

To me the best Drenai novels are: “Legend” and “Hero in the Shadows”, but here I would like to write something about the last novel in that series – “The Swords of Night and Day”.

I must admit this novel is not among my favourites, because it starts a little slow and there is too much about Jiamads – melds of men and beasts (called Joinings in earlier novels).

Nonetheless this novel is exceptional for two reasons. One is
the idea of Reborns – a kind of human clones. The evil empress
Eternal is using her own Reborns as brand new bodies for her soul, becoming practically immortal. The souls of Druss the Legend
and Skilgannon the Damned return to the bodies of their Reborns
as a result of a prophecy. The moral questions is what happened to the souls of all those Reborns? To me the idea of Reborns is a clear analogy to our world, where human clones could be grown as spare body parts.

The second reason is how David Gemmell explains the source of all magic. It’s all about ancient artifacts created by a lost civilization and about the way those artifacts operate. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I can’t explain it.

As I said this novel starts a little slow, but the ending is amazing.
It’s very moving and uplifting at the same time – a perfect finale
for the whole series.
Here is a spoiler-free excerpt:

    Stavut suddenly laughed. “You really still think we are going to win?”
    Druss looked at him. “Winning is not everything, Stavut. Men like
to think it is. Sometimes it is more important to stand against evil than to worry about beating it. When I was a young man, serving with Gorben’s Immortals, we took a city. The ruler there was a vile man.
I heard a story there. His soldiers had rounded up a group of Source priests, and they decided to burn them all. One citizen stepped out from the crowd and spoke against the deed. He told them that what they were doing was evil, and that they should be ashamed of themselves.”
    “And did he saved the priests?”
    “No. And they killed him, too. But that’s what I am saying, laddie.
I remembered that man’s deed, and it inspired me. Others who saw it would have been inspired. Evil will always have the worst weapons. Evil will gather the greatest armies. They will burn, and plunder, and kill. But that’s not the worst of it. They will try to make us believe that the only way to destroy them is becoming like them. That is the true vileness of evil. It is contagious. That one man reminded me of that, and helped me keep the code.”
    Stavut inserted the needle into the split flesh above Druss’s eye
and carefully sealed the cut. “You believe that you can defeat evil
with an ax? Is that not a contradiction in terms?”
    “Of course it is, laddie. That’s always the danger. However, in this instance I am merely standing my ground. If they come at me I will cut them down. I am not invading their land, or burning their cities, or ravaging their women. I am not trying to force them to bend the knee, or accept my philosophy or religion. Do I think we can win today?
I think we have already won. I have seen it in the eyes of the Guard. Will we die? Probably.”

Friday, 27 November 2015

Legend (by David Gemmell) re-read

(Originally posted on Sunday, 9 October 2016)

My rating: 9/10 (high re-reading value)

Legend is a very hard novel to review. You can't honestly describe it without quoting half of the book. To me almost everything was perfect.

What's good:
1. The main character – Druss the Legend.
Druss is a living legend – the best Drenai warrior ever, but he is 60 years old. He suffers from a bad knee and a bad shoulder, but he tries to overcome his age to inspire young soldiers facing a terrible enemy.
2. Unique battle setting.
There is a huge army of barbarians (half a million soldiers) coming to attack a Drenai fortress situated at the crucial mountain pass. The problem is that the fortress is manned by too few soldiers and everybody predicts that it will fall. The point of defending the fortress is to hold the invasion as long as possible – to allow as much time as possible to gather a proper army. There are six walls that are supposed to be defended one after another. The names of the walls are:
Eldibar – exultation, Musif – despair, Kania – renewed hope, Sumitos – desperation, Valteri – serenity and Geddon – death.
3. The preparations for the battle.
To me this was the best part of the book. It's not only about training volunteers or keeping other soldiers from deserting the army, but it is much more about moulding the defenders into an army that would not panic when confronted by such terrible odds. The crucial person for achieving such goals is of course Druss the Legend.
4. A perfect start of the book.
First 10 (or maybe even 15) scenes suited my taste perfectly. In every sense. Every little detail.
5. Cool, but believable characters.
Almost every main character is memorable. All of the main characters have their strengths and weaknesses.
6. Nadir leader – Ulric.
The “madman” who leads Nadir horde is in fact a very cunning person who creates his terrible image on purpose – he knows that the defenders will greatly fear his army without even seeing it in advance. He is honourable in his own way and he also understands the heroism of the defenders.
7. Interesting “cleric” characters.
There are some characters who are very similar to clerics (characters of the cleric class) from D&D games. They didn't become so powerful in a matter of weeks or months, but in a matter of years. There are exactly 30 such characters who had honed their talents for a very long time. They can't change the tides of the battle, but they are very helpful nonetheless. The cool thing about the Thirty is the fact that normal Drenai soldiers are rather afraid of them.

What's bad:
1. Defensive details.
Personally I imagined the defence of a high-walled fortress a little differently, but honestly I have no idea what it really looked like in Medieval times.
2. The end.
David Gemmell wrote this novel when he thought he had cancer. It turned out later that he was misdiagnosed (or maybe a miracle happened?) and it is clearly seen by the way this novel ends.

If you have never read Legend then you have missed one of the most extraordinary fantasy books ever written. I fully recommend it, even though my rating is not perfect.

Here are my favourite spoiler fee quotes:

    “(…) Everybody trembles after an action. It's what happens during it that counts. My father told me that after Skeln Pass he couldn't sleep without nightmares for a month.”
    “You're not shaking,” he said.
    “That's because I'm keeping busy. (…)”

    “What does the philosopher say of cowards and heroes?”
    “The prophet says, 'By nature of definition only the coward is capable of the highest heroism.'”

    “So,” said Serbitar. “We are agreed. I, too, feel strongly on this matter. We came to this temple as outcasts from the world. Shunned and feared, we came together to create the ultimate contradiction. Our bodies would become living weapons, to polarize our minds to extremes of pacifism. Warrior-priests we are, as the Elders never were. There will be no joy in our hearts as we slay the enemy, for we love all life.”

    “That was then,” said Rek. “I can't see a toothless old man being of much use. No man can resist age.”
    “I agree. But can you see what a boost to morale it will be just to have Druss there? Men will flock to the banner. To fight a battle alongside Druss the Legend – there's an immortality in it.”

    “(…) Have I depressed you?”
    “Not at all. You have told me everything is hopeless, we are all dead men, and the Drenai are finished. Depressed? Not at all!”

    “You don't drink. There are no women. You eat no meat. What do you do for recreation?”
    “We study,” said Serbitar. “And we train, and we plant flowers and raise horses. Our time is well occupied, I can assure you.”
    “No wonder you want to go away and die somewhere,” said Rek with feeling.

    “(…) Did you know Druss is on his way there?”
    “He agreed? That is good news.” She sniffed and wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her shirt. Then Rek's words came back to her. “He's not senile, is he?”
    Vintar laughed aloud. “Druss! Senile? Certainly not. What a wonderful thought! That is one old man who will never be senile. (…)”

    Serbitar appeared, a white cloak over his silver armor, his braided white hair covered by a silver helm. The Thirty saluted him. Rek shook his head. It was uncanny. Identical timing: like the same salute in thirty mirrors.

    “When was this?”
    “Your powers again?”
    “Yes. Does it distress you?”
    “It makes me uncomfortable. But only because I do not share the talent.”

    “(…) Tell me, Regnak, why do you travel to Delnoch?”
    “The possibility of stupidity can never be ruled out,” Rek told him without humor. (…)

    “A cold night to be out walking, sir,” he said, cursing himself for the respectful tone.
    “I have seen worse. And I like the cold. It's like pain – it tells you you're alive.”

    “(…) However, surely you have to die heroically before you can be immortalized in song and saga.”
    “A moot point,” admitted Bowman. “But I'm sure I will find a way around it.”

    “Men have failed me before,” said Ulric. “It matters not.”
    “It matters to me!” shouted the shaman, wincing as the effort stretched his back.
    “Pride,” said Ulric. “You have lost nothing; you have merely been beaten by a stronger enemy. (…)”

    “With a roar of hate almost tangible to the defenders, the Nadir swept toward the wall in a vast black mass, a dark tide set to sweep the Dros before it. (…)
    Breathless and panting, Bowman arrived to stand beside Druss, Rek, and Serbitar. (…)
    “Shoot when you're ready,” said Druss. The green-clad outlaw swept a slender hand through his blond hair and grinned.
    “We can hardly miss,” he said. “But it will be like spitting into a storm.”

    “You paint a pessimistic picture,” said the general.
    “I tell it as it is. It is a miracle that he's alive tonight. I cannot see how a man of his age, with the physical injuries he's carrying, could fight all day and survive.”
    “And he went where the fighting was thickest,” said Hogun. “As he will do tomorrow.”

    (…) He shrugged and did what he always had done when a problem eluded him: forgot about it.

    “Don't despair, old horse,” said Bowman, slapping Druss on the back. “Things could be worse, you know.”
    “Really? How?”
    “Well, we could be out of wine.”
    “We are out of wine.”
    “We are? That's terrible. (…)”

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Echoes of the Great Song (by David Gemmell)

(Originally posted on Sunday, 31 March 2013)

Echoes of the Great Song is by far the best fantasy novel I have ever read. It’s perfect – 10/10. It’s full of action and fighting, but at the same time it’s one of the most thought-provoking books I have ever read (all kinds of books, not only fantasy).

I must point out that Echoes of The Great Songs is not a classic fantasy novel, because it is mixed with ideas of a world-spanning deluge, a great pyramid covered under thick layer of ice and a powerful race of immortals (Avatars) being cut off from the source of energy for their advanced technology and having trouble maintaining their rule over (other?) humans (called Vagars) who are treated as lesser beings and as a tool to make Avatars ever-young. What’s especially interesting is the fact that most of the plot is described from the point of view of Avatars, not (lesser?) humans.

    "We lose much, Rael, by being ever-young."
    “And what is that?”
    "Flexibility. Understanding. Perspective. The physical frailties are many, but they are assuaged by a wealth of insights. All living things in nature grow, die and are reborn. Even the earth, as we have so painfully witnessed. Not so the Avatar. We have forgotten how to grow, Rael. To adapt and change. We are what we were a thousand years ago. Perhaps not even that. A thousand years ago the Avatar Prime and I designed the White Pyramid. It was a wonder, a work of genius from among a gifted people. What new inventions can we boast from the last two hundred years? What strides have we made? We are frozen in time, Rael, and we exist as merely echoes of a great song."

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Echoes of the Great Song re-read (David Gemmell's masterpiece)

(Originally posted on Monday, 17 April 2017)

My original rating: 10/10
My final rating: 10/10

Echoes of the Great Song is David Gemmell's masterpiece. Period.

It's THE most thought-provoking book I have ever read, which makes it by far the best fantasy book I have ever read. Well, it's not a classic fantasy, but it makes it even better. The book seems to be inspired by the biggest mysteries of our own world – mysteries connected with gigantic stone structures scattered all over the world that seem to have been built by an advanced civilization that somehow came to an end and vanished.

Gemmell must have been truly inspired because he imagined a tremendously thought-provoking yet very gripping story that can't be fully appreciated without actually reading the whole book. Every scene, almost every sentence is important to the overall plot. The story focuses on Avatars (who call themselves gods), but the point of view shifts from side to side, so the reader can learn how the Avatars are seen by “lesser humans”.

There is one thing I would like to point out and explain. Every chapter starts with a short fragment from legends of a tribe from which one of the main characters (named Touchstone) comes. He is a kind of slave to one of the Avatars (named Talaban). They respect each other and are almost like friends. At first I didn't get what the fragments were all about and now I feel rather stupid because of it. Those fragments actually describe what happens in particular chapters. But they give descriptions of events that are very twisted and/or primitive and can't be understood without reading the chapters. I suggest to read them again after finishing particular chapters. It was a touch of genius on Gemmell's side. He showed in a perfect way that we should not even try to understand literally any ancient legends or texts. It's impossible to describe complex events in very few words, especially by the survivors who are not advanced enough. The twisted descriptions don't prove that nothing really happened – something very important did happen, but the precise meaning of what happened may be lost forever. Brilliant!

There are many cool plot twists and I wish I could tell you about them without giving spoilers, but it is impossible. I have to also mention that toward the end of the book I literally had tears in my eyes. I can't explain why because it would be also like giving spoilers, but this fact speaks well of the novel. I believe that to fully appreciate the book you should not read ANY summaries of the plot. Trust me.

Below there are some spoiler-free quotes, but please remember that they are only the tip of an iceberg of great ideas and cool scenes:

    Talaban found it hard to disagree. Driving gold rods into the ice was an expensive exercise, and so far it had achieved little. “These nomads,” he said. “Will they fight us?”
    Now it was Touchstone's turn to shrug. “Who knows? Them's tough boys. They'll fight if they see the gold. They don't believe in Avatars no more. They know your magic is dying. They know the ice killed the empire.”
    “Wounded it,” corrected Talaban. “Nothing can kill the empire. We are too strong.” The words were spoken by rote and even Talaban had long since ceased to believe them. “And you shouldn't verbalize such thoughts. I don't want to see you lying upon the crystals.”
    “Straight talk?” said Touchstone. Talaban nodded. The tribesman leaned forward. “You Avatars are like elk surrounded by wolves. You still strong, but the wolves will tear you down. They know it. You know it.”

    “How long this new power last?” asked Touchstone.
    “If the chest remains in the ship, five years at the very least,” said Talaban.
    “Maybe you become gods again,” said Touchstone.
    “Maybe we will,” agreed Talaban. “But I hope not.”

    Viruk's action would not find favor with the High Council. They would call it provocative. But he didn't care. All-out war with the tribes was becoming increasingly inevitable. Every Avatar warrior knew it. Just as they knew the outcome.
    Without the zhi-bows the cities would fall within days. Viruk hefted his own bow, checking the power. It was low. Perhaps five bolts remained.

    “We lose much, Rael, by being ever-young.”
    “And what is that?”
    “Flexibility. Understanding. Perspective. The physical frailties are many, but they are assuaged by a wealth of insights. All living things in nature grow, die and are reborn. Even the earth, as we have so painfully witnessed. Not so the Avatar. We have forgotten how to grow, Rael. To adapt and change. We are what we were a thousand years ago. Perhaps not even that. A thousand years ago the Avatar Prime and I designed the White Pyramid. It was a wonder, a work of genius from among a gifted people. What new inventions can we boast from the last two hundred years? What strides have we made? We are frozen in time, Rael, and we exist as merely echoes of a great song.”

    “By the way, Mirani sends love.”
    Anu relaxed and smiled. “She is a good woman – too good for you, I fear.”
    “Who could disagree,” replied Rael, returning the smile. “She will not return to the Council. She spends her time now crafting pots and painting them.”
    “There will still be potters when we are a fading memory,” said Anu.

    “We have no choice,” said Shevan. “The barbarians are not ready for such knowledge.”
    The old man chuckled and sat down in a wide leather chair. “Not ready? Indeed they are not. But then we make sure they are not. We have made no effort to prepare them for the journey. Quite the reverse. We encouraged them to believe in our divine right to eternity.”

    “How the group is financed?” asked Caprishan. “Do we know?”
    “Not yet,” said Rael, “but it is safe to assume they are receiving aid from the Erek-jhip-zhonad.”
    “You want me to kill their king?” asked Viruk.
    “Not yet, cousin. We have enough enemies for now. At this stage we must be careful. Attacks upon Avatars must not succeed. We rule a hostile population. Once they begin to perceive us not as lords but as targets…” He did not finish the sentence.

    “Do not misunderstand me, Talaban. I value you highly, which is why I support you, but you must realize that we are a race under siege. We live with the constant threat of extinction. Such a situation breeds paranoia.”
    “You are right,” said Talaban softly. “I do despise what we have become. Once we ruled the world. Now we are parasites, sucking the blood from the Vagars. We contribute little.”
    Rael laughed aloud. “I might argue that we contribute greatly to the stability of the region. We are the enemy. We give them reason to unite. Without us there would be constant tribal wars and great devastation. All the while they look to us with hatred the general peace is maintained.”
    Talaban smiled. “You say you
might argue that. I take it you do not believe it.”
    “I tell no one what I believe,” said Rael. “I am the Questor General.”

    “I can't hear it,” said Yasha.
    “And yet the Music is all around us. The universe is a song, Yasha. We are part of it. Have you ever wondered why Man is so drawn to music? Why we gather wherever it is played. Why we dance to it, adjusting our bodies to the rhythms?”
    “Because it feels good,” said the Vagar.
    “Yes, it feels good. It feels
natural, for that is what it is. Those moments when music touches our souls remind us that we are part of the Great Song. All of us – Avatar, Vagar, tribesman, nomad. And every tree and plant, and bird and animal. We are all essential to the harmony of the Music.”

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Morningstar (by David Gemmell)

(Originally posted on Thursday, 12 March 2015)

Morningstar is a must-read book, but not perfect. My rating: 9/10

The best and the longest part of the book is about how legends are born, developed and remembered. The story vaguely resembles the legend of Robin Hood, but adds many fantasy themes, especially lots of magic.

In this book Gemmell polished every fantasy theme used by him to perfection. At some moment, while reading the book, I thought that most of these themes were used by Gemmell in his other novels, but never all of them in one book. In this regard Morningstar is David Gemmell's masterpiece.

BUT … Unfortunately there are two “buts” and both of them concern crucial combat encounters. Without spoilers I can say only that the first one is about combat against three extremely powerful enemies and the second one is about the final battle against much more numerous army. The story tries to explain the way these encounters happened, but it's not really convincing. These crucial combat encounters feel more like the background than the main plot, which is a rather controversial idea.

Morningstar is a unique Gemmell book because it's written in first-person perspective. It's the only such book by Gemmell I have heard of. And I must say, being a huge fan of first-person perspective books, that it is written VERY well. Maybe the very beginning (a kind of introduction) may seem a little awkward, but the main story is written in a great way.

Morningstar is the only book where I have enjoyed a bard character. This bard felt believable and I enjoyed the way he had to adapt his ways after he decided to spend much of his time in a forest community. Cool stuff.

Lastly I have to say that in this book there are many wise things to be found. Every Gemmell novel features wise quotes, but Morningstar in this regard is, again, a masterpiece.

Here are my favourite spoiler-free quotes. Enjoy!

    “There is always more to know,” she chided. “Even as you lie on your deathbed there will be more to know. Are you another Cataplas in an endless search for knowledge? It is not the mark of a wise man, Owen.”
    I shrugged. “How can the search for knowledge be foolish?” I countered.
    “When it is conducted for its own sake. A man who seeks to learn how to irrigate a field in order to grow more crops has not only increased his knowledge but found the means to make life better for his fellows. Learning must be put to use.”

    Jarek called the men together, ordering six to take cover on the right of the road, seven on the left. “Do not let fly until I do,” he commanded them.
    “What about me?” I asked. “What should I do?”
    “Stay with me,” he answered, then sat down at the side of the road with his longbow beside him.
    “How can we fight thirty?” I asked him as the fear started to gnaw at my belly.
    “You just keep killing them until there's none left,” he answered grimly.

    “Why did you talk to the knights?” I asked him. “Why not just attack?”
    “They were moving. A walking horse, when frightened breaks into a run. A standing horse will usually rear. It is this simple. I wanted the convoy halted.”

    Lualis was a glamorous place, so the stories would have us believe. And they were correct. But it was not the bright glamour that shines with golden light from all great sagas. It was the kind that attaches itself to acts of violence and men of violence. The city was dirty, vile-smelling, lawless, and fraught with the risk of sudden death.
    Jarek Mace loved it . . .

    I felt low then, a deep depression hanging over me. We tend to think of heroes as men apart – their angers are always colossal, but they rage only against the foe. We rarely see them in a damp forest, complaining about the cold, and never think of them urinating against a tree. They never suffer toothache; their noses are never red from sneezing in the winter. Thus we strip away the reality.

    We even follow this practise in life itself. The enemy is always reviled, pictured as the despoiler of women, the eater of babies, a living plague upon the earth, a servant of Satan. Wars are never fought for plunder or gain. Oh, no, they are always depicted as ultimate battles between good and evil. But then, looking at the nature of man, this is understandable. Can you imagine the scene, the great king gathering his troops before an epic battle. “Right, my lads,” he says as he sits upon his great black stallion, “today we fight for my right to steal gold from whomever I choose. The enemy are men much the same as yourselves. A good bunch, probably, with wives and children back home. And at the end of the battle, when I have more riches than I'll ever spend in a lifetime, many of them – and indeed, many of you – will be worm food or crippled. Better to be dead, really, because I'll have no use for you once you can no longer wield a sword. All right, lads. Let's be at them!”

    “Nothing is worth dying for!” he stormed. “And I'll tell you why: because nothing ever changes. There will always be kings, and there will always be serfs. Edmund has conquered the north, but he will die one day, and there will be other civil wars. And yes, the north will be free, because a Highland Edmund will arise. But nothing will change, Owen. Not for the likes of you and me. Not for Wulf or Ilka. The stronger conquer; the weak suffer. It is the world's way.”
    “It is the coward's way!” I stormed. “What man has made, man can change. Yes, there have always been despots and tyrants, but equally there have been benevolent rulers, strong man who cared for their people. But if men followed your philosophy of despair, they would build nothing. What would be the point of fashioning a home from timber and stone? One day the timber will rot and the roof fall in. Why learn which herbs will conquer which diseases? We are going to die, anyway. Why teach our children to read? They'll never be able to change anything!”
    For a moment he seemed taken aback, but it was more as a response to the passion of my argument than a result of the argument itself. “By God,” he said, “if you could fight like you can talk, you'd be a formidable opponent.”

    I have discovered in my long life that there are many words and phrases that have more power than any spell of magick. The most well-known is, of course, I love you. But by far the most deadly is if only.
    For these two words can strip a man's strength, his courage, and his confidence. They become the father of regret and anguish and pain. A man kneels by his dead children in a plague village and thinks, If only we had journeyed south in the summer. A farmer gazes at his rain-ruined crop and believes he would have been a rich man if only he had bred horses instead. Lives are ruled by if only.
    I have my father to thank for being free of the spell cast by these two words.

    “(…) I feel like a pawn in someone else's game. Whatever I do enhances the legend. If I was to piss in public someone would swear that a golden tree had grown from the spot.”

    “You are a romantic, Owen Odell. How will you feel when I am old, wrinkled, and white-haired?”
    “To arrive at that point will mean that we have walked life together, and I will be content. I will have watched each white hair arrive. That will be enough for me.”

    “That's all any of us has, Owen. Just days. A few moments in the sun. Yours were shorter than most, but you had them. My mother gave me very little, but she offered one piece of advice I have long treasured. She used to say, 'What you have can be taken from you, but no one can take what you have already enjoyed.' You understand?”

    There's only one way to find out, my friend. And no one lives forever. Face it, Jarek, would you want to grow old and toothless, with women looking on you with disdain?”
    “I am twenty-four years old. That's a little early to consider losing my teeth! And I expect to mature like a fine wine.”

    “I think he is just afraid of dying,” I said.
    He shook his head. “I do not think you are right. I think he was more afraid of winning.”
    I stopped and turned to him. “Winning? But then he would achieve all his dreams: riches, power, women.”
    “No, my friend. That would be the end of his dreams. What is there after a war but rebuilding, reorganizing? Endless days of petitions and laws and all the petty day-to-day running of a state. It is no different from having a shop or a store. Bills to pay, stock to order, workers to instruct. It would be dull, Owen. What need would the people have for a Morningstar?”

Monday, 23 November 2015

Dark Moon (by David Gemmell)

(Originally posted on Sunday, 27 July 2014)

My rating: 8/10 (low re-reading value)

The first half of Dark Moon is awesome, but as the main plot develops it gets more and more disappointing. An idea of a man with two personalities (dominant in the first half of the novel) was wasted in the second half. An idea of a humanoid/animal race that disappeared from the world (described in retrospect) turned out to be practically pointless. An idea of another humanoid/animal race coming out of their eternal prison and feeding on humans (the main plot of the novel) ended up illogical and disappointing. AND there was yet another humanoid race (described also in retrospect) before anything else had happened. That was TOO much, at least for me.

There are some small similarities between Dark Moon and Echoes of The Great Song, but the main plots and the main settings are VERY different. Echoes suited my taste perfectly till the very end (in fact only the very beginning was a little slow), on the other hand Dark Moon was more and more disappointing in the second half of the novel (when it really mattered). My final rating of Dark Moon takes into account the perfect start, but I am not going to re-read it. Unlike Echoes of The Great Song that I can’t wait to re-read.

Comparing Dark Moon to yet another Gemmell standalone – Knights of Dark Renown (7/10) I must say that Dark Moon is a little better because the characters are more interesting. Even though Knights of Dark Renown has one of my favourite quotes ever (about the lack of fairness of life) the novel overall is not really memorable.

There were several great quotes in Dark Moon too:

    “I have often wondered what constitutes heroism,” he said. “Tarantio and Vint are sword-killers. Most of people would call them heroes. But does heroism come naturally to swordsmen?”
    Karis shook her head. “Heroes are people who face down their fears. It is that simple. A child afraid of the dark who one day blows out a candle; a woman terrified of the pain of childbirth who says, ‘It is time to become a mother.’ Heroism does not always live on the battlefield.”

     “Pin not your hopes on the goodwill of rulers, Niro. My father once told me – and I have seen it to be true – that nothing is as long-lived as a monarch’s hatred, nor as short-lived as his gratitude.”

     “There’s no shame in fear,” said the old man. “But understand this – the coward is ruled by fear, while the hero rides it like a wild stallion.”

Friday, 30 October 2015

Alistair MacLean – a master of non-stop action

Alistair MacLean was a Scottish author who was very well known, mostly for his war novels that were made into movies, for example The Guns of Navarone (written in 1957 and filmed in 1961) and Where Eagles Dare (written in 1967 and filmed in 1968). Personally I think his war novels were great, but WEAKER than his best books (best in my opinion). My favourites are The Golden Rendezvous (1962), Night Without End (1959), The Satan Bug (1962, originally released under the pseudonym Ian Stuart) and The Last Frontier (1959, released in the US under the title The Secret Ways).

I remember perfectly well the first time I have read a novel by Alistair MacLean. It was titled Night Without End and I stumbled upon it while I was searching through my parents’ library. The cover was black and white with a patch of yellow and red. It looked like this:

Both the cover and the title was a mystery to me, so I looked at the first page. And I was lost. The action started from the very first sentence and never let up. I was so hooked that I read HALF of the book in ONE sitting. Most of MacLean novels are like this. He is a master of non-stop action.

On the site I found this sentence: “MacLean's books are exceptional in one way at least: they have an absence of sex and most are short on romance because MacLean thought that such diversions merely serve to slow down the action.” Yes, it’s true. Moreover MacLean books are not brutal. There is some violence, but never graphic violence. Such approach makes his books readable for teenagers, even though they are clearly written for adults. It was perfect to me when I read Night Without End for the first time (I was no more than 15 years old) and it is still perfect to me today. I don’t like horrors and I hate graphic violence.

Many novels by Alistair MacLean are connected in some way with sea and ships or snow and ice, probably because MacLean served in Royal Navy from 1941 till 1946 and took part in 2 Arctic convoys. HMS Royalist (with MacLean onboard) also escorted carrier groups in Operation Tungsten (against German battleship Tirpitz in the far north of Norway) and operated in the Mediterranean Sea AND in the Far East. Quite a journey.

The main-plot ideas of MacLean novels are very interesting and EXTREMELY varied. The action can take place on a sea ship (The Golden Rendezvous for example), on top of the Greenland ice-sheet (Night Without End), in the top-secret laboratory dealing with deadly viruses (The Satan Bug), behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War (The Last Frontier) or many other unique places.

Alistair MacLean is a master of first-person narration. In his novels narrated this way the reader knows no more than the main character, which is great. The story-immersion in MacLean novels is perfect and complete. No other author can compare to MacLean in this regard. To be honest after reading his novels I have trouble reading “normal”, third-person narration books, even today.

Most of MacLean novels are a little dated by today’s standards, but it makes them even more interesting and fun to me. It’s great to read such “vintage” novels as a refuge from today’s crazy high-tech world.

I am going to review my favourite Alistair MacLean novels. I will do it from my memory – the way I remember them after all those years. The last time I read them it was between 10 and 15 years ago. I am going to re-read them in the next year (2014), for the first time in original (in English). I will update my reviews then.

PS. Comparing Alistair MacLean to Glen Cook I must say that they are quite similar. They value action above all else. Their best novels are written in first-person narration. They are both very good at sarcastic or self-depreciating humour. Personally I think that MacLean is slightly better than Glen Cook at ALL these aspects.
If only MacLean had written fantasy novels.

(Wednesday, 27 November 2013)

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Alistair MacLean best novels

There are 4 books by Alistair MacLean that I remember as EXTREMELY enjoyable. I wanted to review them in detail from memory, but I remember only outlines of the plot. However I remember perfectly well their overall characteristics and the feeling they gave me. Below are mini-reviews of them. I will write more detailed separate reviews after I will re-read them the next year (2014).

What’s GREAT:

The Golden Rendezvous
1. Lots of good humour (mostly sarcastic).
2. Lots of action.
3. Lots of mystery and plot twists.
4. Pure first-person narration.
5. All action takes place on a sea-ship (kind of unusual).

Night Without End
1. Non-stop action.
2. Lots of mystery and plot twists.
3. Pure first-person narration.
4. All action takes place on the Greenland Ice-sheet (unique).
5. Narration gives the feeling of extreme cold and of exhaustion.

The Satan Bug
1. Lots of action.
2. Pure first-person narration.
3. Great humour, but not too much.
4. Plot about deadly viruses (something quite rare even today).
5. Narration gives the feeling of maddening fear of being infected with such a virus.

The Last Frontier
1. Lots of action and plot twists.
2. Third-person narration written ONLY from the point of view of the main character (it feels almost like first-person narration).
3. Plot about an undercover agent on a mission behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War (unique today, but dated).
4. Very insightful about normal people living on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain and about a totalitarian, non-democratic system in general.
There are maybe 7 pages in total in the whole book about such things (spoken in dialogue, not said by the narrator), but they are extremely TRUE, even today. MacLean captured the sense of what was happening behind the Iron Curtain quite well, even though he was never there – it was the fault of the system rather than the fault of particular nations. You have to read the book yourself to understand exactly what I mean and what MacLean meant back in 1959. Thought-provoking stuff, really.
5. In a way the book is prophetic.
The book was inspired by the events surrounding the Hungarian Revolution of 1956:
MacLean properly recognised the heroism of Hungarian people, but he didn’t use the book to encourage a war against the Communist Bloc. On the contrary – he was aware that such a war would lead only to devastation and that there would be no winners. MacLean hinted that a more pacifistic approach is needed and that the rhetoric of the West should change a little. He did it by hinting what a steadily growing political tension can lead to. Because of this approach the book was not well received in 1959 – at the peak of the Cold War. Considering the peaceful fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 and judging from such a HUGE time perspective Alistair MacLean seems almost like a prophet.

(Friday, 29 November 2013)

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Night Without End (by Alistair MacLean) re-read

My rating: 9/10

Night Without End is a unique book. All the action takes place on the Greenland ice-sheet. It’s really interesting to read about things that you would never realise without being there. MacLean clearly knew what he was writing about, probably because during World War II MacLean took part in two arctic convoys and he must had learned a lot there.

The action is non-stop, but it’s a different kind of action comparing to Glen Cook novels and I am not writing about the difference between fantasy and non-fantasy novels. MacLean was a great writer and he had
a knack for giving short, but quite precise descriptions of places and people, maintaining at the same time high suspense. The descriptions are richer than in Glen Cook novels, but this book is still a page-turner.

Night Without End is written in first-person narration and MacLean is
a master of first-person narration. The narration also gives very strong feeling of extreme cold and of extreme exhaustion.

I don’t rate Night Without End as a perfect book because the amount of exhaustion suffered by most of the characters is almost unbelievable.
I wrote almost because I don’t know what it is like to have a choice between starving to death or struggling on. I suspect that the survival instinct can be really powerful, but to what extent?

Below there are some quotes to give you an idea about MacLean’s narration and about the plot. The first quote is the very first sentence of the book. The last quote comes from page 18 – only page 18 because anything more would be a spoiler. Enjoy! (Please, remember that
70 degrees of frost in Fahrenheit units means -38 Fahrenheit degrees, which is equal to -39 Celsius degrees.)

     It was Jackstraw who heard it first – it was always Jackstraw, whose hearing was even match for his phenomenal eyesight, who heard things first.

     ‘Aeroplane,’ he announced casually.
     ‘Aeroplane!’ I propped myself up on an elbow and stared at him. ‘Jackstraw, you’ve been hitting the methylated spirits again.’
     ‘Indeed, no, Dr Mason.’ The blue eyes, so incongruously at variance with swarthy face and broad Eskimo cheekbones, crinkled into a smile: coffee was Jackstraw’s strongest tipple and we both knew it.

     Joss listened.
     ‘Engines sound OK to me.’
     ‘And to me. But engine failure is only one of a dozen possible reasons.’
     ‘But why circle here?’
     ‘How the devil should I know? Probably because he can see our lights – the only lights, at a guess, in 50,000 square miles. And if he has to put down, which God forbid, he stands his only chance of survival if he puts down near some human habitation.’

     ‘No need. Seventy degrees of frost will freeze blood and seal a wound quicker than any bandage. But bring the morphia kit. Any water in these two buckets?’
     ‘Full. But more ice than water.’
     ‘Put them on the stove – and don’t forget to turn out the stove and both the lights before you leave.’ Incongruously enough, we who could survive in the Arctic only by virtue of fire, feared it above all else.

     ‘My God!’ I looked at him. ‘Maybe they’ve crashed already.’
     Again the shake of the head.
     ‘Why not?’ I demanded. ‘On a night like this you wouldn’t hear a thing if they crashed half a mile downwind.’
     ‘I’d have felt it, Dr Mason.’
     I nodded slowly, said nothing. He was right, of course. The frozen surface of this frozen land transmitted vibration like a tuning-fork.
Last July, seventy miles inland, we had distinctly felt the vibration of
the ice-cap as an iceberg had broken off from glacier in a hanging valley and toppled into the fjord below. Maybe the pilot had lost his bearings, maybe he was flying in ever-widening circles trying to pick up our lights again, but at least there was hope yet.

     Like a fool, I immediately leapt to my feet to try to get a bearing on the vanishing plane and was literally blown head over heels by the tremendous slipstream from the four great propellers, slid helplessly across the frozen crust of the snow and fetched up on my back almost twenty feet from where I had been standing. Cursing, bruised and not
a little dazed, I got to my feet again, started off in the direction where
I could hear the dogs barking and howling in a paroxysm of fear and excitement, then stopped abruptly and stood quite still. The engines had died, all four of them had died in an instant, and that could mean only one thing: the airliner was about to touch down.

(Saturday, 4 January 2014)

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

The Golden Rendezvous (by Alistair MacLean) – pure fun

My rating: 9/10

This was the fourth, or maybe fifth(?), time I have read The Golden Rendezvous. And it was as great as ever. Lots of good humour. Lots of action. Lots of mystery. Lots of great characters. Pure fun.

However, there are some things that are a little unbelievable and this is why my rating is not perfect but “only” very good. On the other hand it’s a very strong 9/10 rating, close to perfect 10/10, and those little things are in fact a very low price for all the entertainment this book delivers.

Below are my favourite, spoiler-free quotes. There are a lot of them, but they only show a tip of an iceberg of great ideas and motives in this novel. Enjoy!

    I was unhappy. The crew were unhappy. The passengers were unhappy. Captain Bullen was unhappy and this last made me doubly unhappy because when things went wrong with Captain Bullen he invariably took it out on his chief officer. I was his chief officer.

     “Good afternoon, Mr. First Officer,” she said sweetly. She had a soft musical voice with hardly a hint of superiority or condescension when talking to the lower orders like myself, “We’ve been wondering where you were. You are not usually an absentee at aperitif time.”
     “I know, Miss Beresford. I’m sorry.” What she said was true enough: what she didn’t know was that I turned up for aperitifs with the passengers more or less at the point of a gun. Standing company orders stated that it was as much part of the ship’s officers’ duties to entertain the passengers as to sail the ship, and as Captain Bullen loathed all passengers with a fierce and total loathing he saw to it that most of the entertaining fell to me. (…)

     (…), I caught sight of Captain Bullen perched on top of the companionway leading down from the main deck. “Glowering” would probably be the most apt term to describe the expression on his face. As he came down the companionway and passed Miss Beresford he made a heroic effort to twist his features into a semblance of a smile and managed to hold it for all of two seconds until he had passed her by, then got back to his glowering again. For a man who is dressed in gleaming whites from top to toe to give the impression of a black approaching thundercloud is no small feat, but Captain Bullen managed it without any trouble. He was a big man, six feet two and very heavily built, with sandy hair and eyebrows, a smooth red face that no amount of sun could ever tan and a clear blue eye that no amount of whiskey could ever dim. He looked at the quayside, the hold and then at me, all with the same impartial disfavour.
     “Well, Mister,” he said heavily. “How’s it going? Miss Beresford giving you a hand, eh?” When he was in a bad mood, it was invariably “Mister”: in a neutral mood, it was “First”: and when in a good mood – which, to be fair, was most of the time – it was always “Johnny-me-boy”. But today it was “Mister”. I took my guard accordingly and ignored the implied reproof of time-wasting. He would be gruffly apologetic the next day. He always was.

     “Petty larceny on the part of the individual is theft,” Captain Bullen said morosely. “When governments engage in grand larceny, it’s economics.”

    And in Kingston the blow had fallen. We had no sooner arrived than the harbour authorities had come on board requesting that a search party from the American destroyer lying almost alongside be allowed to examine the Campari. The search party, about forty of them, were already lined up on the deck of the destroyer.
    They were still there four hours later. Captain Bullen, in a few well-chosen words that carried far and clear over the sunlit waters of Kingston harbour, had told the authorities that if the United States Navy proposed, in broad daylight, to board a British Mercantile Marin vessel in a British harbour, then they were welcome to try. They were also welcome, he had added, to suffer, apart from injuries and the loss of blood they would incur in the process, the very heavy penalties which would be imposed by an international court of maritime law arising from charges ranging from assault, through piracy to an act of war: which maritime court, Captain Bullen had added pointedly, had its seat not in Washington D.C., but in The Hague, Holland.
    This stopped them cold. The authorities withdraw to consult with the Americans. Coded cables, as we learnt later, were exchanged with Washington and London. Captain Bullen remained adamant. Our passengers, 90 per cent. of them Americans, gave him their enthusiastic support. (…)

    It had started off simply enough in the early fifties with an earlier Blue Mail vessel, the s.s. Brandywine. (For some strange whimsy, explicable only on a psycho-analysts’ couch, Lord Dexter himself a rabid teetotaller, had elected to name his various ships after divers wines and other spirituous liquors.) The Brandywine had been one of the two Blue Mail vessels engaged on a regular run between New York and various British possessions in the West Indies, and Lord Dexter, eyeing the luxury cruise liners which plied regularly between New York and the Caribbean and seeing no good reason why he shouldn’t elbow his way into this lucrative dollar-earning market, had some extra cabins fitted on the Brandywine and advertised them in a few select American newspapers and magazines, making it quite plain that he was interested only in Top People. Among attractions offered had been a complete absence of bands, dances, concerts, fancy-dress balls, swimming pools, tombola, deck games, sight-seeing and parties – only a genius could have made such desirable and splendidly resounding virtues out of things he didn’t have anyway. (…)
    The initial success of the scheme was fantastic. In stock exchange parlance, the issue was oversubscribed a hundred times. This was intolerable Lord Dexter; (…). He doubled his prices. It made no difference. He trebled them and in the process made the gratifying discovery that there were many people in the world who would pay literally almost anything not only to be different and exclusive but to be known to be different and exclusive. (…)

    He grunted and said: “Nothing I can do to help?” Half-question, half-statement.
     “No, sir.” The sight of the captain searching about the upper deck or peering under lifeboat covers would do nothing to increase the passengers’ confidence in the Campari.
     “Right then, Mister. If you want me, I’ll be in the telegraph lounge. I’ll try to keep the passengers out of your hair while you’re getting on with it.” That showed he was worried all right, and badly worried: he’d just as soon have gone into a cage full of Bengal tigers as mingle socially with the passengers.

     (…) Rusty, our youngest apprentice, went aft to work his way for’ard, accompanied by Miss Beresford, who had probably guessed, and rightly, that I was in no mood for her company. But Rusty was. He always was. Nothing that Susan Beresford said to or about him made the slightest difference to him. He was her slave and didn’t care who knew it. If she’d asked him to jump down the funnel, just for her sake, he’d have considered it an honour. I could just imagine him searching about the upper decks with Susan Beresford by his side, his face the same colour as his flaming shock of hair.

    Bullen looked at me without expression, looked at his drink, evidently decided that he preferred his drink to me – or the ill news I brought with me – and knocked down back the contents in a couple of gulps.

    When I awoke, it was twenty minutes to one. Not that I was immediately aware of the time when I awoke: I wasn’t immediately and clearly aware of anything. It’s difficult to be aware of anything when your head is being squeezed between the jaws of a giant vice and your eyes have gone blind, to be aware of anything, that is, except the vice and the blindness. (…)
     “Take it easy, sir. You just take it easy.” The man with the sponge must have a long arm, he was at least two miles away, but I recognised the voice for all that. Archie MacDonald. “Don’t you try moving now. Just you wait a bit. You’ll be all right, sir.”
     “Archie?” We were a real disembodied pair, I thought fuzzily. I was at least a couple of miles away, too. I only hoped we were a couple of miles away in the same direction. (…)

    I retired defeated to the bridge and took over from Jamison. Almost an hour later elapsed before another defeated man came to the bridge: Captain Bullen. He didn’t have to tell me he was defeated: it was written on him, in the sill, troubled face, the slight sag of the broad shoulders. And mute headshake from me told him all he needed to know. I made a mental note, in the not unlikely event of Lord Dexter turfing us both out of the Blue Mail, to turn down any suggestions by Captain Bullen that we should go into a detective agency together: there might be faster ways of starving, perhaps, but none more completely certain.

     “I’ll tell you when I come back.”
     “If you come back.” He went to his dispensary, came back with hypodermic and injected some pale fluid. “Against all my instincts, this. It’ll ease the pain, no doubt about that, but it will also permit you to overstrain your leg and cause permanent damage.”
     “Not half as permanent as being dead.”

    The gun lifted a trifle. The direct no-nonsense type, he didn’t believe in fancy speeches. Shoot them and be done with it. (…) My bad leg was under me and I couldn’t get up. I stared into the beam of light, into the black muzzle of the gun. I stopped breathing and tensed myself. Tensing yourself against a .38 fired from a distance of five feet is a great help but I wasn’t feeling very logical at the moment.

(Sunday, 13 April 2014)

Monday, 26 October 2015

The Last Frontier – a thought-provoking spy-thriller

My rating: 9/10

I have already written about The Last Frontier in this post:
Alistair MacLean best novels
Please read it first.

Just like in The Golden Rendezvous, the main characters in The Last Frontier are very lively and memorable. But there is one big difference: in the first novel the main characters were people with non-fighting jobs (mostly seamen) and in this novel the main characters are involved in secret-agent/spying/underground activities. All of them.

The Last Frontier is a page turner. It’s basically a thriller about a secret agent on a mission behind the Iron Curtain. There is lots of action and lots of plot twists. The best parts are those based on confrontations, usually between two people. And all kinds of confrontations are great in this book: melee-fights, long-range shootouts, false-papers bluffs, interrogations of captured men, negotiations with enemies and even good-guys animosity about a girl. Don’t worry about the last one – it’s a tiny, almost non-existent side-topic, which is done very well nonetheless.

There is some humour in this book, but much less than in The Golden Rendezvous. Obviously the topic connected with a totalitarian system was not helpful in this case.

I must also point out that the places of action in The Last Frontier are much more varied than in The Night Without End (Greenland ice-sheet) and The Golden Rendezvous (a sea ship). I can’t name them, because it would be like giving spoilers, but believe me there are many memorable settings. Alistair MacLean was really an artist as far as short-but-good-and-climatic descriptions were concerned.

All the action takes places in Hungary, but two most important people in the Hungarian underground who are friends and who help Reynolds in his mission are a Ukrainian and a Pole. I have no idea if MacLean did it on purpose, but it was fitting perfectly to the message of the book. Poland and Ukraine have some very difficult history behind them, considering especially what happened in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia during World War II (Ukrainians massacred around 100 000 Poles, including women and children), but I believe that young generations should not be blamed for what their ancestors did. The message of the book is perfectly fitting to my beliefs. Or maybe my beliefs are based on the message of this book? I have read The Last Frontier for the first time when I was a teenager and it may have had some kind of influence on the way I look at such things.

Well, I have to write a little about negatives. First of all, some things were too easy for Reynolds (the secret agent from the West). I was especially surprised how easily he entered a heavily-guarded hotel to contact a particular person and how easily he left it. I was also disturbed by things like hotel-fire escapes connected to hotel-bathrooms, not only in the hotel I mentioned, but also in another one. Maybe such things were common in the 50s in the West, but I doubt they were common behind the Iron Curtain then, even in Budapest. Fortunately there were few such things in the book, but when they did happen they were very striking, at least to me.

The main problem with this book were numerous historical inaccuracies especially about the World War II. MacLean wrote about those times to give a background for one of the characters, but exaggerated some facts and simplified others. At first I wanted to correct all the inaccuracies but there were too many of them. Moreover it would only distract you from the positive message of the book and its overall great value. There was a seed of truth in everything MacLean wrote, but don’t take this book as a precise historical account. Concentrate on the enjoyable action and on the message.

Below there are some spoiler-free quotes to give you some idea about what message this book contains. The construction of the main plot makes it impossible to quote anything about it without spoilers, but the bulk of the book is fast and enjoyable action. The message however is true even today. The Last Frontier was not well received in 1959 – at the peak of the Cold War and I wonder how it would be judged today. The parts that I quote below are only a part of the overall message and they can be fully appreciated only after reading the whole book (with all the tragic history of the main characters from beyond the Iron Curtain and tough decisions they have to make while helping Reynolds). Enjoy!

     (…) Again, the emotional colourings which would normally accompany the thought of the potentialities of a successful mission or the tragic consequences of failure had no part in his racing mind as he lay there in the freezing snow, thinking, calculating, planning, assessing chances with a cold and remote detachment. ‘The job, the job, always the job on hand’ the colonel had repeated once, twice, a thousand times. ‘Success or failure in what you do may be desperately important to others, but it must never matter a damn to you. For you, Reynolds, consequences do not exist and must never be allowed to exist, and for two reasons: thinking about them upsets your balance and impairs your judgement – and every second you give up to thinking along these negative lines is always a second that should and must be used to working out how you’re going to achieve the job on hand.’

     ‘By all the gods!’ Szendro slapped his hand on his thigh. It’s magnificent, it’s really magnificent. My professional jealously is aroused. To have a Britisher or an American – British, I think, the American intonation is almost impossible to conceal – talk Hungarian with a Budapest accent as perfectly as you do is no small feat. But to have an Englishman talk English with a Budapest accent – that is superb!’

     ‘Their barbarities, their enslavement and their massacres don’t steam from world conquest?’ The fractional lift of Reynolds’ eyebrows was its own sceptical comment. ‘You tell me that?’
     ‘I do.’
     ‘Then from what in the world –?’
     ‘From fear, Mr Reynolds,’ Jansci interrupted. ‘From an almost terror-stricken fear that has no parallel among governments of modern times.
     ‘They are afraid because the ground lost in leadership is almost irrecoverable: Malenkov’s concessions of 1953, Kruschev’s famous de-Stalinization speech of 1956 and his forced decentralization of all industry were contrary to all the cherished ideas of Communist infallibility and centralized control, but they had to be done, in the interest of efficiency and production – and the people have smelled Freedom. And they are afraid because their Secret Police has slipped and slipped badly: Beria is dead, the NKVD in Russia are not nearly so feared as the AVO in this country, so the belief in the power of authority, of the inevitability of punishment, has slipped also.
     ‘These fears are of their own people. But these fears are nothing compared to their fears of the outside world. (…) They cannot recognize enemies, and they can only be safe, only feel safe, if all the peoples of the outside world are regarded as enemies. Especially the west. They fear the west and, from their point of view, they fear with every reason.
     ‘They are afraid of a western world that, they think, is unfriendly and hostile and just waiting its chance. How terrified would you be, Mr Reynolds if you were ringed, as Russia is ringed, with nuclear bomb bases in England and Europe and North Africa and the Middle East and Japan? How much more terrified would you be if, every time the world tensions increase, fleets of foreign bombers appear mysteriously on the far edge of your long-distance radar screens, if you know, beyond any reasonable doubt, that whenever such tensions arise there are, at any given moment of the day or night anywhere between 500 and 1,000 bombers of the American Strategic Air Command each with its hydrogen bomb, cruising high in the stratosphere, just waiting the signal to converge on Russia and destroy it. You have to have an awful lot of missiles, Mr Reynolds, and an almost supernatural confidence in them to forget those thousands hydrogen bombs already airborne – and it only requires five per cent of them to get through, as they inevitably would. Or how would you, in Britain, feel if Russia were pouring arms into Southern Ireland, or the Americans if a Russian aircraft carrier fleet armed with hydrogen bombs cruised indefinitely in the Gulf of Mexico? Try to imagine all that , Mr Reynolds, and you can perhaps begin to imagine – only begin, for the imagination can be only a shadow of reality – how the Russians feel.
     ‘Nor does their fear stop there. They are afraid of people who try to interpret everything in the limited light of their own particular culture, who believe that all people, the world over, are basically the same. A common assumption, and a stupid one and dangerous one. The cleavage between western and Slavonic minds and ways of thinking, the differences between their culture patterns are immense and alas, unrealized.
     ‘Finally, but perhaps above all, they are afraid of the penetration of western ideas into their own country. And that is why the satellite countries are so invaluable to them as a cordon sanitaire, an insulation against dangerous capitalist influences. And that’s why revolt in one of their satellites, as in this country two years last October, brings out all that is worst in the Russian leaders. They reacted with such incredible violence because they saw in this Budapest rising the culmination, the fulfilment as one and the same time of their three nightmare fears – that their entire satellite empire might go up in smoke and the cordon sanitaire vanish forever, that even a degree of success could have touched off a similar revolt in Russia and, most terrible of all, that a large-scale conflagration from the Baltic to the Black Sea would have given the Americans all the excuse or reason they ever needed to give the green light to the Strategic Air Command and carriers of the Sixth Fleet. I know, you know, that idea’s fantastic, but we are not dealing with facts, only with what the Russian leaders believe to be facts.’
    Jansci drained his glass and looked quizzically at Reynolds. ‘You begin to see now, I hope, why I was neither advocate of nor participant in the October rising. You begin to see, perhaps, why the revolt just had to be crushed, and the bigger and more serious the revolt the more terrible would have to be the repression, to preserve the cordon, to discourage other satellites or any of their own people who might be having similar ideas. You begin to see the hopelessness – the fore-doomed hopelessness – of it, the disastrous ill-judged futility of it all. The only effect it had was to strengthen Russia’s position among the other satellites, kill and maim countless thousands of Hungarians, destroy and damage over 20,000 houses, bring inflation and an almost mortal blow to the country’s economy. It should never have happened. Only, as I say, the anger of despair is always blind: noble anger can be magnificent thing, but annihilation has its – ah – drawbacks.’

     (…) ‘Sorry to have been so long, Jansci.’
     ‘Not at all,’ Jansci, assured him. ‘Mr Reynolds and I have had the most interesting discussion.’
     ‘About Russians, inevitably?’
     ‘And Mr Reynolds was all for conversion by annihilation?’
     ‘More or less.’ Jansci smiled. ‘It’s not so long since you felt the same way yourself.’
     ‘Age comes to us all.’ (…)

     ‘Then what the devil am I supposed to have done?’
     ‘Nothing. That’s the whole point. It’s not what you do, it’s what you don’t do, it’s what you don’t show. You show no feelings, no emotions, no interest or concern in anything. Oh, yes, you’re interested enough in the job to be done, but the method, the how of it is a matter of absolute indifference, just as long as the job is done.
     ‘The Count says you’re only a machine, a mechanism designed to carry out a certain piece of work, but without any life or existence as an individual. He says you’re about the only person he knows who cannot be afraid, and he is afraid of people who cannot be afraid. Imagine! The Count afraid!’
     ‘Imagine,’ Reynolds murmured politely.
     ‘Jansci says the same. He says you’re neither moral nor immoral, just amoral, with certain conditioned pro-British, anti-Communist reactions that are valueless in themselves. He says whether you kill or not is decided not on a basis of wrong or right but simply of expediency. He says that you are the same as hundreds of young men he has met in the NKVD, the Waffen SS and other such organizations, men who obey blindly and kill blindly without ever asking themselves whether it is right or wrong. The only difference, my father says, is that you would never kill wantonly. But that is the only difference.’
     ‘I make friends wherever I go,’ Reynolds murmured.

    Jansci was wandering, not arguing, and he drifted from his own people to his youth amongst them. The transition seemed pointless, inconsequential at first, but Jansci was not an aimless wanderer, almost everything he did or said or thought was concerned with reinforcing and consolidating, both in himself and all his listeners, his almost obsessive faith in the oneness of humanity. When he spoke of his boyhood and young manhood in his own country, it could have been any person, of any creed, remembering with a fond nostalgia the happiest ours of a happy land. (…)

     ‘Mad?’ Reynolds swore. ‘He’s an inhuman fiend. Tell me, Jansci, is that the sort of man you call your brother? You still believe in the oneness of humanity?’
     ‘An inhuman fiend?’ Jansci murmured. ‘Very well, let us admit it. But at the same time let us not forget that inhumanity knows no frontiers, no frontiers in either time or space. It’s hardly the exclusive perquisite of Russians, you know. God only knows how many thousands of Hungarians have been executed or tortured till death came as a welcome release – by their fellow Hungarians. The Czech SSB – their secret police – were on a par with NKVD, and the Polish UB – composed almost entirely of Poles – were responsible for worse atrocities than the Russians had ever dreamed of.’
     ‘(…) And to all of that you might say: It is all one, it is all communism. And you would be right, my boy.
     ‘But what would you say if I reminded you of the cruelties of Falangist Spain, of Buchenwald and Belsen, of the gas chambers of Auschwitz, of the Japanese prison camps, the death railways of not so long ago? Again you would have the ready answer. All these things flourish under a totalitarian regime. But I said also that inhumanity has no frontiers in time. Go back a century or two. Go back to the days when the two great upholders of democracy were not quite as mature as they are today. Go back to the days when the British were building up their Empire, to some of the most ruthless colonization the world has ever seen, go back to the days when they were shipping slaves packed like sardines in a tin, across to America – and the Americans themselves were driving the Indian off the face of their continent. And what then my boy?’
     ‘(…) As to what I was saying, I fear that I talk too much and at the wrong time. You don’t feel even a little more kindly disposed towards our worthy commandant?’
     ‘Ah, well,’ Jansci sighed philosophically. ‘Understanding the reasons for an avalanche does not, I suppose, make one any more grateful for being pinned beneath it.’

     ‘It is essential, I think, to hammer home the idea of peace, the idea of disarmament, to convince the Russians, above all things, of our peaceful intentions. Peaceful intentions!’ Jansci laughed without mirth. ‘The British and the Americans filling the armouries of the nations of Western Europe with hydrogen bombs – what a way to demonstrate peaceful intentions, what a way rather to ensure Russia will never relax its grip on the satellites it no longer wants, what a way to drive the men of the Kremlin, scared men, I tell you, inexorably nearer the last thing in the world they want to do – sending the first intercontinental missile on its way: the last thing they want to do, because they know better than any that, though in the deep cellars in Moscow they may survive the retaliation that will surely come, they will never survive the vengeful fury of the crazed survivors of the holocaust that will just as surely engulf their own nation. To arm Europe is to provoke the Russians to the point of madness: whatever else we may not do, it is essential to avoid all provocation, to keep the door of negotiation and approach always open, no matter what the rebuffs may be.’
     ‘It is essential to watch ‘em like hawks, I would say,’ Reynolds commented.
     ‘Alas, I thought we had made him see the light,’ the Count mourned. ‘Perhaps we never will.’
     ‘Perhaps not,' Jansci agreed. ‘But he’s right, all the same. In the one hand the big gun, in the other the olive branch. But the safety-catch must always be on, and the hand of peace always a little in advance, and you must be endlessly patient – rashness, impatience could bring the world to catastrophe. Patience, endless patience. What matter a blow to your pride when the peace of the world is at stake?’
    Jansci paused and wearily shook his head. ‘The governments of the world may not be mad, but they are blind and their blindness is but one step removed from insanity. The desperate, most urgent need this world knows or will ever know, is the need for an effort without parallel in history to get to know ourselves and the other people of the world even as well as we know ourselves, and then we will see that the other man is just as we are, that right and virtue and truth belong to him as much as to us. We must think of people not as conglomerate mass, not conveniently, indiscriminately, as a faceless nation: we must always remember that a nation is made of millions of little human beings just like we are, and to talk about national sin and guilt and wickedness is to be wilfully blind, unjust and un-Christian; and while it is true that such a nation may go off the rails, it never goes off because it wants to, but because it couldn’t help it, because there was something in its past or in its environment that inescapably made it what it is to-day, just as some forgotten incidents, some influences that we can neither recall nor understand, has made each one of us what we are to-day.’

(Sunday, 8 June 2014)