Saturday, May 27, 2017

A Book Review: Lost Gods by Brom

Six years ago, a book called The Child Thief introduced me to the weird and the wonderful world of Brom. Who is Brom? An established artist, Brom mostly works with materials associated with Gothic fantasy. I am not arty, but Brom's arts evoke in me a sense of wonder, mystery, and terror, and I like it. A simple look at his painting is enough to make you feel curious about the story behind it.

Indeed, there are stories behind Brom's paintings, and who is better to tell you these stories than the artist himself? So it is no surprise, Brom is also a talented storyteller. His debut, The Child Thief, was very well received by the readers. Since then, Brom has established a good publishing record.

So what sort of books does Brom write? He writes fantasy, but it is difficult to identify Brom's books with a known sub-genre in fantasy. Brom's stories are fairytale-like, but it is also dark, twisted, and violent, and he serves it on a plate of spaghetti western. Brom's latest book, titled, Lost Gods, is perhaps his best novel yet.


Chet Moran, age 24, has done stupid things in the past and he paid for it by getting himself locked up in the jail. Now that his sentence is due, Chet wants nothing more than a second chance at a new life, with his pregnant wife, Trish.

On a night highway, lit by a pale moon, Chet and Trish drove a beat up car to South Carolina and starting a new chapter in their life. Their destination, the home of Chet's estranged grandmother, Lamia, whom Chet believed would offer them a safe haven until the little family can stand on their own feet again. When the couple reached the journey's end, they found themselves greeted by an eerie island, an island whose memory is looming with legends of witchcraft and ancient evils. However, if the place gave the couple any goose bump, it was quickly dispelled by Lamia's warmth and radiant smile.

“Lamia is still the kind grandmother from my childhood”, thought Chet.

So the couple settled down in Lamia's old house, and they were bathing in the joys of Trish's coming baby. The future is finally looking bright for Chet and Trish.

Or is it?

My thoughts on this book:

Over the years I realized, if you are longing for a dark and twisted story, then you can trust Brom to quench that thirst. Lost Gods is set in the purgatory, but this is not the purgatory from Catholicism. No, Brom's purgatory is a fascinating place where the gods and the demons fight to gain the souls of the dead. Here Brom teases a very interesting idea – what happened to those gods who no longer have any believers? (Hence the books' title, Lost Gods).

Ok, this idea is not new; in American Gods and Discworld novels, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett both based their stories on this idea: a god's (or a religion's) power is only as strong as the number of its believers. The world, then, is a play field where the gods (religions) compete each other for believers in order to ensure their continuous survivals. While this idea is common sense, but when a master storyteller wraps it in narratives, then it suddenly opens a gateway, inviting its reader to review the nature of belief from a very different perspective.

In Lost Gods, Chet Moran is the main protagonist. I like Chet's character. In this book, Chet is just a normal man who is fighting for a chance to make it up to his family. This is a story about his redemption. Chet may lack the martial prowess when compared to fantasy heroes such as Roland Deschain or Harry Dresden, but he makes it all up with a lot of heart, and I rooted for his character straight away. Chet is a very human hero, he has a stout heart but little prowess. This is why, when Chet steps into dangers you will hold your breath for him, but when he succeeds you will also cheer for him. This also means, Lost Gods builds tensions, it immerses a reader under a sense of real danger, and its conclusion, although bitter sweet, is very rewarding.

Brom always illustrates his own books. While there are only 6 illustrations in Lost Gods, but they are excellent. Not only do these illustrations help us envision Brom's imaginative and wonderful characters, but they also reflect the attractive qualities of Brom's arts; the mystery, the wonder, and the terror. Below are a few sample illustrations from this book.

Lost Gods is a fine tale. This is probably Brom's best book up to date. This book is Gothic, horror, fantasy, western, and fairy tale rolled into one. Once again, Brom demonstrated, he is as a talented author as he is a brilliant artist. I cannot wait to read what strange and wonderful tale he has in store for us at the next time.


I happen to be in possession of a spare copy for this book. Therefore, I am going to do a give-away competition on my blog.

The rule:

Simply comment below and share with us, what is your favorite dark (or grimdark?) fantasy book and why. I will enter your name into a draw. In 2 months time, I will announce the winner of the draw, and I will mail the book to you free of charge. But please note, this competition is ONLY for people living in Sydney, Australia (because at this stage, I am not mailing the books internationally).

In the future, I may be doing more, occasional give-away competitions on my blog, and I may also expand the competition to my international readers. So stay tuned to my blog channel and I hope you enjoy reading my reviews as much as I enjoy writing and sharing them. Until the next time, happy reading!

Saturday, May 20, 2017

A Book Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Why does the thunder rumble in the sky? Where did poetry come from? What causes the tremors in the earth?

Once upon a time, an ancient people had the answers to these mysteries. These people dwelt in Northern Europe, where the light of its summer days were as long as the darkness of its winter nights. They told colorful stories about gods and monsters in a cyclic cosmos, a cosmos that began with a creation and would one day end in Ragnarok, and then resumes with a creation again. They believed this cycle is never ending, just like the sun and the moon, the summer and the winter, and the fire and the ice. To these people, the distant heaven and the dreaded hell were meaningless to them. Instead, they believed the sacred revealed itself in all living things, here and now, because the world is full of wonders as it is full of terrors. These tales are very old.

Fortunately, these ancient stories are not completely lost in the passage of time. Today, these stories are known as Norse mythology, and it has inspired a generation of fantasy literature. Indeed, Norse mythology is the tale of all tales, it is the DNA in iconic works in the genre, such as The Lord of The Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, Dungeons & Dragons, and A Song of Ice and Fire. Yet, due to its age, and the style of narrations, modern readers may find Norse mythology a bit dry. Just pick up one of the Eddas and you will see what I mean.

When Neil Gaiman announced, he was going to fashion Norse Mythology into a book with a novelistic arc, the news excited many readers (including me). We know Neil Gaiman can spin ripping yarns, so what can we expect from the author of American Gods and Stardust, should he directs his talents to forging a novel about Norse mythology?

The answer arrived a few months later. Norse Mythology arrived at my doorstep with thunder and lightning. And behold, Thor's hammer dominated the book's front cover. Its look was majestic! But what about its content?

Simply putting it, I really like this book!

On the other hand, to those who are expecting an epic fantasy novel, you will be disappointed. Norse Mythology is a “retelling” of the Norse myths. When I read this book, it didn't feel like a novel. This book is similar to Kevin Crossley Holland's Norse Mythology. It consists of multiple stories about the adventures of the Norse gods, starting from the creation and ending at the Ragnarok. While there is an overarching theme that connects the stories, but its structure is far from being an epic fantasy book. Instead, Neil Gaiman retold these ancient tales using words that are easy to understand. Meanwhile, many Norse gods appeared in the stories; Odin, Thor, Loki, Tyr, Freya, etc, who, in today's world, still have the days of the week devoted to their names. Colorful and vibrant, these characters are very human, but they are also deeply flawed. In my opinion, the most interesting character is Loki. He is mischievous. In some stories Loki was the villain, yet in others he appeared as an anti-hero. I also noticed, the stories at the beginning of the book were humorous and lighthearted, but the book increased in its shade of darkness as the gods gradually moved towards the Ragnarok.

When viewed holistically, these Norse myths are conveying the theme of cycle – from birth to life to death and rebirth – like the cyclic phenomena we often observe in the nature. I found this theme particularly interesting. Why? I have a hypothesis. I think every culture and its mythology (metaphysical belief) is shaped by the natural environment it inhabited. Let me explain.

Say, for example, in the Bible, the god of Judeo-Christianity is angry at the humankind. The Bible's overarching theme is the reconciliation between the god of Abraham and his people, via the offering of sacrifices. Now, let's look at the geographical climate for the birthplace of Judeo-Christian mythology. This metaphysical belief originated in the deserts of the ancient near east, where resources were scarce and the climate (such as rainfall and drought) could heavily impact people's livelihood. So it stands to reason, in the ancient near east, due to the harsh living conditions, people would think they were punished by their god because they committed some offense. Then in the Bible, they established a system of ritualistic sacrifices to asking their god's forgiveness, not only in this world, but also hoping for the arrival of a better world through the apocalypse.
On the other hand, in the case of Norse mythology, the ancient Nordic people inhabited in Northern Europe, where the days are extremely long in summer but very short in winter. The climate in the Nordic land is polarized from one season to the next. Inevitably, this also means, the amount of available resources fluctuate, cyclically, between the different seasons in a year. I speculate, from this observation, these people extrapolated a metaphysical interpretation about the cyclic cosmos. They came to believe that sacredness is revealed by the wonders and the terrors in the world, here and now, while the concept of a distant heaven or hell were of no concern to them. This is why, when Christianity first arrived in Northern Europe, the Nordic people felt no connection with Christianity altogether.

There you have it, that is my speculations, on how climate and geography can shape a culture's view about life, its metaphysical beliefs and its associated mythology, and often leading to significant cultural differences.

Ok, enough with my rant. Back to the book. Let me just say Norse myths is my favorite mythology, and Neil Gaiman did a wonderful job at retelling it. In Norse Mythology, Mr. Gaiman made these stories fun and easy to read. It serves as an excellent introduction to the Norse myths, and I highly recommend this book to fans of the fantasy genre.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

A Book Review: Death's End by Cixin Liu (Remembrance of Earth's Past #3)

Imagine a life in a bubbling lake of hot tar. Is that even possible? Surely, life cannot exist at such a place, right? Yet, scientists discovered, at Pitch Lake, the world's largest naturally occurring asphalt lake, up to 10 million microbes live in every gram of this black, sticky goo. But Pitch Lake is just one of the many unthinkable places where scientists have discovered life. On the other hand, I think we can say, life finds a way to adapt and survive in the harshest circumstances - Life IS survival, those who didn't aren't alive anymore.

There are, however, many says to survive, and not all life forms are the same, so what is the best way for the intelligent life to meet the adaptive challenges? In Death's End, the conclusion to the phenomenal sci-fi epic, Remembrance of Earth's Past, author Cixin Liu explored this question, not only for the humankind, but for the survival of the entire universe. This book's scope is breathtaking, I have never read a book as vast as Death's End. This novel brings the trilogy to a satisfying (and mind-bending) conclusion. Meanwhile, I think this trilogy is a magnum opus in the science fiction genre.

Like its 2 predecessors (The ThreeBody Problem and The Dark Forest), the plot in Death's End revolves around a mystery. I racked my brain and I am still unable to write a spoiler-free synopsis for this book, so my review will just have to go without it. I think it will suffice to say, we meet a new protagonist in Death's End. Her name is Cheng Xin, an aerospace engineer. From here, we follow Cheng Xin to the end of the universe.

Author Ken Liu once again took the helm for translating the book from Chinese into English. I have not read Death's End in Chinese, but I thought the English translation is seamless, it is very smooth and well written. The book made occasional references to Chinese cultural items unfamiliar to the western readers, but Ken Liu included useful footnotes to helping English readers understanding its significance.

This trilogy is “hard” sci-fi. The first book, The Three Body Problem, was about theoretical physics. The second installment, The Dark Forest, was about evolution and sociology. In Death's End, it talks about both theoretical physics and evolution. From evolution to the string theory, Death's End covered a broad range of theories in science! Some of the sciences mentioned in this book are established theories, while others are probably speculative. There are a lot of hardcore science theories in this book. Yet, Cixin Liu has this amazing ability to graft a scientific theory from its spatial/mathematical presentation to the bone and marrow of literature, allowing his readers to envision the extent of it through literary devices.

Let me put it this way, you can read a journal paper about the string theory, or the 26 dimensions of the universe. You can read the mathematical equations that model these theories, but it is impossible to “visualize” what it actually looks like. For example, we can visualize a 2 dimensional world, something like a painting, from our 3 dimensional perspective. But can you imagine what a 4 dimensional world looks like from our dimensional perspective? It is impossible, right? But in this book, Cixin Liu transplanted these ideas into literary terms, which helped his readers to visualize what it “could” look like. His writings captured the grandeur and the vastness of the mysterious universe, it made me reflect on the reality that by comparison, humanity is so small and our history within this universe is so very, very brief.

The story in Death's End is rich as its scope is expansive. There are many characters in this book, and every one of them received a vivid and well-rounded portrayal. None of them are caricatures. Some parts of this book are outright frightening, while others are hopeful. Throughout the whole book, it depicted the characters' feelings and experiences genuinely. As readers, we accompanied these characters on their journey through despair as well as hope. By the time I turned to the last page in this book, I found it hard to part ways with some of these characters. I look forward to the day when I will be re-reading this trilogy and visiting these characters again.

Death's End is an interesting book. It is inherently thought-provoking. From my interpretation, at its core is a story that unifies science and philosophy, to exploring a question. That is, the question at the beginning of my review: What is the way to survival? In our world, we talk about survival with ideas such as altruism/love and selfishness. Some people assert, altruism/love is incompatible with survival. These people claim, if survival is the only thing that matters, then altruism/love is a mistake so in order to love we must subscribe to some mystic/religious view. They want to force us into believing it is all or nothing!

Well, I strongly disagree!

Why? This is because these people forgot to mention, survival have 2 levels; individual survival as well as group survival, and these 2 are not the same. Selfishness may benefit an individual's survival within a group, but on the other hand, we all need group survival, collectively, or our existence will cease; and group survival requires altruism/love. We can observe this tension, between love and selfishness, in humanity. To use an analogy, we are 90% chimps and 10% bees. The “chimps” part of us has allowed us to individually thrive in the society, but the “bees” part of us has improved our chance at survival by being collective as a group, as a civilization. I think the truth is, our fragile existence in this universe stands on the tension between altruism and selfishness, and we will probably die out without either one of them. In my interpretation of the book, I think this is where Death's End is pointing a direction to the answer to survival. I think this book provides a thought experiment, showing us that love doesn't come from some mystic/religious origin. In the face of survival, love is not a mistake. 

Instead, the instinct of survival dictates that we ARE love. 

Love may appear counter-intuitive and impossible, but to survive we have become love (and selfishness), just like the microbes at Pitch Lake has found a way to adapt and live in a sea of bubbling hot tar. It is mind-bending, rendering this naturalistic view about love equally as majestic as (if not more majestic than) the mystic/religious view about love.

I highly recommend this trilogy to the fans of the sci-fi genre, especially to those who are fond of hard sci-fi stories.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

A Book Review: The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu (Remembrance of Earth's Past #2)

In 2015, Cixin Liu's The Three Body Problem won Hugo Award for Best Novel, but it was only the beginning of a sci-fi epic in three acts. The second installment in this trilogy is called The Dark Forest. Like its predecessor, The Dark Forest was originally written in Chinese, and it received an English translation. This is a “hard” sci-fi novel (think of hard sci-fi as something like Arthur C Clarke's 2001 Space Odyssey).

The Three Body Problem was great, but I like The Dark Forest even more. This book is mind bending. I am going to avoid spoilers in my book review. This is why, this review will be devoid of a synopsis. Meanwhile, I find it difficult to describe my feelings after reading this book. Fortunately, I came across a video tribute for this book, it is called “Waterdrop”. The video captured my feelings; it is free of spoilers, and it is stunning.

I will start my review this way

Take a minute and think about these 2 questions:

Question 1 – if intelligent, extra terrestrial life exists elsewhere, then what would be humanity's position within this vast, and dark, universe?

Question 2 - if there exists a technologically advanced alien civilization, then why haven't they contacted us?

Now imagine this scenario. An alien civilization, with technology more advanced than ours, is coming to earth to wipe out humanity. We have 450 years until the alien fleet arrives on earth. The clock is ticking. How will we ensure humanity's survival? How will such an event affect us? This is the premise for The Dark Forest, and it revolves around 2 axioms for cosmic civilization:

Axiom A – Survival is the primary need of civilization

Axiom B – Civilization continuously grows and expands, but the total matter in the universe remains constant.

These 2 axioms provide a key to humanity's salvation. Can you figure what it is? Halfway into the book, I figured out the solution to the problem, but it did not diminish my enjoyment of this book. Not at all. This book had me eagerly turning the pages because its plot twisted and turned unexpectedly. Meanwhile, the book's deeply flawed, but humane characters sank me right into this story, where I stood on these characters' shoulders, and witnessed the struggle for humanity's survival. This book seated me on an emotional roller coaster, some chapters landed me in a bottomless despair, while others lifted me to the crest of hope. What a remarkable journey this is!

In terms of its storytelling, The Dark Forest differs greatly to The Three Body Problem. This is a character driven story, and it thoroughly explored each character's life, thoughts, and emotions. I like what Cixin Liu has done here, it shows that he is a versatile author capable of varying his storytelling method, to establishing a different ambiance in the sequel.

The Dark Forest also differs to The Three Body Problem in terms of its themes. While The Three Body Problem was based on theoretical physics and numerical methods, The Dark Forest is mostly about evolution and sociology. This also means, some readers may find The Dark Forest more accessible than The Three Body Problem. For me, while I found the themes in both books equally attractive, but I did find the themes in The Dark Forest more thought provoking than its predecessor, it invites an exploration in philosophy.

I am going to stop my review here lest I spoil the story. Let me just say, The Dark Forest is a stunning piece of work in the sci-fi genre. This is one of the most satisfying, fun, and thought provoking book I have read. I highly recommend this trilogy.

End of book review

Below is an extra section, this is where I will share my personal reflection on this book. If you don't want spoilers, then please refrain yourself from reading this section.

WARNING: spoilers ahead:

Humanity has been asking this question: “Are we alone in this universe”?

This question has prompted numerous scientific researches into ET life, and it also inspired a generation of science fiction stories. Personally, I think it is very likely that we are alone. That is, we are most likely alone even if intelligent alien life exists elsewhere.

Huh? How can that be?

We have the tendency to anthropomorphizing the universe. We project our human morality (or, local morality) to the universe, believing that our local standard on earth, about kindness and generosity, is some sort of a cosmic standard to measure how things ought to be. The extent of this romantic notion can be seen in our popular sci-fi movies, such as Star Wars and Star Trek, where it imagines a galactic civilization in which various species of sentient creatures can peacefully co-exist. Yet, this is a scenario entirely based on the human values.

Think of it this way. Morality and cultures are products of adaptive challenges, for survival. It is a product of nature as well as nurture. Most human cultures share similar moral values, because we have similar biological makeup; we all live on earth, where the geological environments are similar and our distances from each other aren't so great. But if there exists some intelligent alien life on some planet thousands of light years away, then there is no guarantee they would be similar to us in anyway, both biologically and culturally.

This means, who knows what moral value may exist in an alien civilization, whose biological makeup and planetary environment are utterly “alien” to ours?

This is why, even if alien civilizations exist, then their values may not align with ours, leaving us "alone" in this universe.

Now, given those 2 axioms for cosmic civilization, is it really wise to persist in our romantic notion about the universe? Or perhaps such a romantic notion could invite our extinction?

The universe is 13 billion years old. If intelligent alien life exists elsewhere, and their civilization is older than ours, then there is no telling how technologically advanced they are. For the last 50 years we have made tremendous progress, reaching the information age. Yet, according to Kardashev Scale, for all of our progress in computers, energy generation and space flight, we haven't even reached type 1 civilization! So imagine, what would a type 2 or type 3 civilization look like? The depth of their technological prowess may be beyond our wildest imaginations!

In fact, if there exists an older, and more technologically advanced alien civilization than ours, then could it be that they are hunters stalking the dark forest that is the universe, scourging for its limited supplies and resources? Meanwhile, humanity, whose progress is comparable to a young child, lit a bonfire for the hunters and shouting naively: “hey I am here and I am nice, come to me and let's be friend!”.

Is that really wise?

This is why, I think we should discard our romantic notion about the universe. Just because our value is X doesn't mean others' value is X too. Instead of naively extending our invitation and generosity to the sky above, we ought to extend our standard, that of kindness and generosity, chiefly to our fellow human beings. Meanwhile, we should forever stay vigilant against the vast universe, to safeguard our fragile civilization therein.