Saturday, February 24, 2018

A Book Review: The Darkness That Comes Before, by R. Scott Bakker (The Prince of Nothing #1)

"The thoughts of all men arise from the darkness. If you are the movement of your soul, and the cause of that movement precedes you, then how could you ever call your thoughts your own? How could you be anything other than a slave to the darkness that comes before? "
          - R. Scott Bakker, The Darkness That Comes Before

Do our thoughts "come" to us ? Or, do our thoughts occur when we "want" it to? And what precedes our thoughts? While Friedrich Nietzsche could (perhaps) offer us some insights into this philosophical question, but R. Scott Bakker, a philosopher and a fantasy novelist, wrote Prince of Nothing, an epic fantasy of three parts, to explore, not only the question of what comes before, but also the consequences of "certainty".

Over the past decade, Bakker's fantasy trilogy has gained great renown in the genre (especially in the Grimdark fantasy community). A number of Bakker's fellow writers, and fantasy enthusiasts, are citing this trilogy as the example for what fantasy can offer – a vehicle to explore philosophy, beliefs, politics, and the human condition.

The Darkness That Comes Before is the genesis for this trilogy.

For 2 years, this trilogy sat on my bookshelf and I did not read it. I put this this series on hold because it has a reputation for being a heavy read and overly complex. With the arrival of 2018, however, I made a resolution; I said to myself that this year, I will read this trilogy.

With much fear, trembling and excitements, I opened the first page in The Darkness That Comes Before. After five moonless nights, I finished reading this book. What are my thoughts? Well, it is... complicated. Let me begin my review with a synopsis for the story.


Two thousand years ago, an apocalypse scarred the world of Earwa. Two thousand years later, hundreds and thousands are gathering to fight in a holy war. Many faithful souls vouched to die, for what they believe, to be the righteous cause. This is a time of great violence, but it is also a time for great opportunities.

Indeed, opportunities. Out from the desert came a mysterious traveller - Anasûrimbor Kellhus. He is a warrior, a prophet, a sorcerer, and his charismatic presence can charm thousands of followers. What is Kellhus' mission? Is he the messiah or a tyrant? This is a question that can only be answered by the man himself, in due course. What we do know, however, is like all histories, the history of this great event will have its conclusion written by the survivors.

My thoughts on this book:

It is very difficult to review this book. A quick search on Google shows those who read this book have divisive opinions about it. Some people absolutely loved it, while some people couldn't stand it. My own opinion about this book lies somewhere in the middle; I liked this book, sure, but I didn't love it.

I was really surprised that I only liked this book but didn't love it. I mean, this book promised an epic story, set in a grim, dark world. It has top notch characterizations, it explores philosophy, beliefs, and the human condition. Onset, almost everything in this book ticked my checkboxes. Yet, I just didn't enjoy this novel as much as I thought I would.

Why? A few reasons. Firstly, let me discuss the worldbuilding in this book. I love the world that Bakker has built here. The world of Earwa is unlike any other world in the genre. Instead of the pseudo, medieval European world so common in fantasy, Bakker gave us a world that felt Middle Eastern, and at times, Byzantine. When I was reading this book, I felt its world was living and breathing. It was a world inhibited by nasty, nasty people, but it was also rich in culture, religion, history, and lores.

Despite the greatness in Bakker's worldbuilding, but I just couldn't cope with the names for the places and people in this book, because those names were too alien. It is a norm in fantasy books to have characters and places with weird names, but this book took the genre convention of "alien names" to a whole new level, and this level is just too much for me. Take, for example, the name for one of the major characters; his name (as mentioned), is Anasûrimbor Kellhus. Meanwhile, his father's name is Anasûrimbor Moënghus... Tell you what? This book has dozens of characters and places with this type of strange names. The two names I mentioned are just a taste, to give you an idea of what I am talking about here.

It suffices to say, while I was reading this book, the overly strange names often had me confused about who is who, or where is where (and sometimes I confused "who" with "where", and vice versa).  Furthermore, the first 100 pages were difficult to absorb because it was full of infodumps. Make no mistake, Bakker's writings were superb. His prose was well written and lyrical. The problem, though, he dumped too much worldbuilding information, such as the history and geography details, into the first 100 pages. When this "infodump" is compounded with really strange character and location names, then as a reader, I felt the rest of the book was cumbersome and unwieldy.

Despite the problems I mentioned above, I did like this book. I liked Bakker's narratives, of how, he explored the human conditions via his complex, and tormented characters. I also liked how the philosophy, about the origin and the nature of belief, was explored and blended into the overarching story. The Darkness That Comes Before is very smart, very complex, but it is also an entertaining story.

Hopefully I haven't scared you off from trying this book. Yes, The Darkness That Comes Before is not an easy read, but it is not as difficult to read as Steven Erikson's Gardens of the Moon. The chances are, if you are a veteran to the fantasy genre, then you will be fine  as long as you remain attentive during your readings. Who will I recommend this book to? I believe, those readers who are fantasy enthusiasts (especially of the grimdark genre) may like this book.

Stay tuned for my next post, where I will review the sequel, The Warrior Prophet.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

A Book Review: Morningstar by David Gemmell

David Gemmell, best known for his epic fantasy novel, Legend, is a seminal author in the genre. A decade after his passing, Gemmell's stories, about noble heroes, are continuing to attract legions of readers and admirers. He wrote very good fantasy novels. Anyone who likes this genre should read Legend.

In Morningstar, David Gemmell gifted his readers with a pleasant surprise. In contrary to the usual story about an exemplifying hero, he gave us a Robinhood-like story, it is the journey of an anti-hero coming to be a hero. In the end, the readers are left with a question – Does the past of a hero really matter?


What makes a hero?

Stay a while and listen, to the story of Jarek Mace, also known, as Morningstar. Most people believe, Morningstar was the very incarnation of honor itself, but very few souls know the true history of Jarek Mace; before he became Morningstar, Jarek was once a thief and a soldier of fortune.

So, how did Jarek become Morningstar? Or, perhaps the whole story about Morningstar is but romances and fictions, invented and sung by tavern bards in exchange for a few coins? If you want to know the truth, then listen to the accounts of Owen Odell. Just remember, sometimes the truth is stranger than fictions.

My thoughts on this book:

Morningstar was written in the first person narrative and told from the perspectives of Owen, who, was a comrade of Jarek Mace (who would become Morningstar). The story borrowed from the tale of Robin Hood, and it took on the structure of a forest bandit taking on a tyrannical king. The difference being, while Robinhood was (sort of) noble, Jarek Mace was very far from being a shining example of virtue. No, if you read this book, the chances are that initially you will dislike (or even despise) Jarek Mace.

Through the course of the story, as if by pure luck, whenever Jarek Mace did something to further his own interests, he somehow ended up looking like an honorable hero and so his reputations grew. It was almost as if the title of Morningstar was thrusted upon Jarek against his will. As the book went on, however, the events gradually changed Jarek and his companions. Was Jarek redeemed in the end? Read this book and find out for yourself. But I think this book explored a fascinating question – What matters more? What makes a hero more, or less, of a hero? I leave the would-be readers to explore this story and decide for themselves. As for me, I parted from Morningstar's bitter sweet end, with questions and thoughts that lingered on my mind for many days afterward.

In terms of the writings, I found Morningstar a very well written and a compact book. This novel, a stand alone story, counts to only 280 pages. Yet, in such short spaces, David Gemmell depicted such a lively world, and his characters were very colorful. This book was also very well paced. Among the gallons of sword and sorcery actions, this book also left plentiful of spaces for worldbuilding and character developments. I think fans of David Gemmell would find many things to like about this book.

It is rare to find a stand alone fantasy novel, and it is even rarer to find one that is also thought-provoking and somewhat unique. Morningstar is both, and it is among David Gemmell's finest works. I highly recommend this book to those who are fond of epic and heroic fantasy books.

Until the next time, happy reading!

A Book Review: The Demon Crown by James Rollins (Sigma Force #13)

Every year I look forward to reading a new Sigma Force novel. What are these books about? It is a series of thrillers written by best-selling author, James Rollins, featuring a fictional task force within the US DARPA program, named Sigma Force. The primary functions of Sigma Force are: counter-terrorism, research, and covert operations. The operatives in the team are scientists with highly trained military skills. In other words, each and everyone in Sigma Force can fight like James Bond and think like Stephen Hawkings. Storywise, every Sigma Force novel blended science and history into the storytelling, and these books feel like combinations of Isaac Asimov novels, Indiana Jones, and Mission Impossible movies. This series is damn good, and it is the reason why I started reading thrillers. If you have yet to read a Sigma Force novel, then you really have to read one of them.

Last December saw the release for the 13th installment in the series, titled, The Demon Crown. This book has a very interesting premise. Not only did it entertain me for hours but I also learned a thing or two I didn't know about wasps.


In 1903, Alexander Graham Bell led an expedition in Italy. The team uncovered a cahe of bones preserved in ember. The artifact's inscrptions warned of a horror, a secret, that if released into the world, may doom humanity. The team decided to hide the artifact away, but they did not wish not to destroy it; for the strange relic also contained the secret of life after death.

More than 100 years later, during a research trip on an island off coast of Brazil, a team of scientists encountered a terrifying nightmare – all life on the island was extinguished by an unknown species. As the scientists were preparing to report the strange discovery, a shadowed agency attacked them with brute force, killing them all. Only one scientist, an entomologist, Professor Ken Matsui from the Cornell University, survived the armed attack.

Meanwhile, during his career break on the island of Maui, Commander Grayson Pierce of Sigma Force faced an assassination attempt. Between Alexander Graham Bell's discovery, the attack in Brazil, and the plot to kill commander Grayson Pierce, could there be a link between these events? Sigma Force is tasked to solve this lethal mystery, and their only clue is that all three events can be traced back to the founding of the Smithsonian Institute. This time, Sigma Force is racing against the clock to prevent a global catastrophe...

My thoughts on this book:

It was fun to read The Demon Crown, but this book also made me re-evaluate my perspective, about humanity's position on earth. I mean, we (the homo sapiens) often think we are the biggest deal on earth. We think everything on this planet exists for our benefits so we can do whatever we want with it. The fact is, when you look at the data for the distribution of biomass across different organisms, or, survival/dependability between species, then we discover that we are not the biggest deal on earth at all. I mean, for example, insects, not humans, is the group with the largest biomass out of all terrestrial organisms (not to mention there exists 900,000 known types of insects too). We live on a planet of insects, not a planet of humans. And the truth is, if some types of insects become extinct (such as bees), we will die out too. On the other hand, the survival of some insects may not depend on our existence. For example, it is said that cockroaches can out survive us following a nuclear apocalypse. After I read this book, I was reminded that we (the humans) need to respect our surroundings more, because we are not the masters, but only co-inhabitants, with other organisms on this planet, where our very own survivals are depending on them. I don't like to talk about politics, but I am becoming increasingly aware, of the importance on making decisions based on scientific data and facts instead of on ideological camps, this is becoming more important especially in this era where cultural and ideological wars run rampart in the media and social media to cloud our judgements.

Ok, enough of my ramblings about the environment, back to the book review. The Demon Crown, like every Sigma Force preceding it, is a fast-paced, thrilling ride. This book is addictive, with many twists and turns that warrant a roller coaster ride. Certain themes in this book reminded me of Jurassic Park. The book mentioned some interesting sciences (but some of it borderline science fiction). I especially enjoyed the well written, and fascinating chapters describing the behaviors of the wasps and swarms; if James Rollins had written my biology textbooks from back in the days then I would have been a much better student in the biology classes.

In terms of the book's characters, from Gray, Seichan, Monk, Kowalski, Kat, and Painter Crowe, all of our beloved characters from Sigma Force returned in The Demon Crown with styles. This book followed the structures from previous books, with two parallel story arcs. The first story arc consists of the non-stop actions from Gray, Seichan, and Kowalski in the Pacific Islands. The second story arc relates the adventures of Monk and Kat in central Europe. There is a good sense of character progression here, as the story explored how the past events are continuing to affect our heroes' emotions and relationships. Furthermore, the story gave me a sense of dread. It felt like the characters were immersed in terrible dangers, where we can never tell if these heroes can survive their adventures unscathed.

I am very happy with The Demon Crown. I am a long time fan of Sigma Force series, and I think this book is a worthy addition to the series. I have no idea how James Rollins is able to publish these amazing thrillers, year after year. This man's creative powers must be immense. Currently, there is no news for the next Sigma Force novel. But judging from James Rollins' publishing records, a new Sigma Force novel should (hopefully) arrive near the end of 2018, and so I am eagerly anticipating for Mr. Rollins' next Sigma Force novel to come knocking on my door.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

A Book Review: Blood for the Blood God by C.L. Werner (Warhammer fantasy)

Last year, during a visit to a second hand book fair, I came across a novel dressed in eye-catching artworks. The book, titled, Blood for the Blood God, costed a dollar. Its front cover depicted a mighty-thewed warrior cladded in a suit of dark armor, and his hands were clutching the haft of a menacing battle axe. 

"My, oh, my", I thought, "An adventure of blood and thunder! This stuff should be right up my alley."

I took a closer look at the printings on the cover and read, "Warhammer Fantasy".

Warhammer? I have heard of this franchise, it is something to do with the tabletop miniature games, but I don't know anything of the story behind it. The book costed only a dollar, and so I decided to give it a try. Over the next 7 months, Blood for the Blood God sat on my over-crowded bookshelf, forgotten. Last week, though, the book popped into my mind while I was rearranging my shelf. This time, I decided to read it straight away. Feeling excited, I opened the book and ventured into the world of Warhammer for the first time.

My afterthoughts? This book was a hit and miss for me.

This book started with a memorable fight scene - A powerful, brutal warrior known as Skulltaker emerged from the desert wastelands. He then challenged a mighty chieftan to a mortal kombat. Both combatants died in the duel. The chieftain's death led to power struggles, and his legacy was divided into smaller tribes. Eons later, the Skulltaker returned to the mortal world, and he resumed the quest to vanquish all ruling chieftains in the chaotic desert. The next 380 pages of the book narrated the story, of how the desert tribes united in a desperate attempt to stop Skulltaker's killing sprees.

The world in this book is very grim and very dark. The story itself is a feast of violence and treachery (which translates to plot twists and turns). None of the character is morally good and noble. In other words, this is not a typical Tolkienian fantasy novel about good versus evil. No, instead, Blood for the Blood God bears the hallmarks in the "grimdark" fantasy genre.

Grimdark fantasy may be my favorite genre, but I didn't like this book.

After the explosive prologue, the story dipped in its pace and the book became really boring. There were a lot of action scenes, but the characters were uninteresting and I didn't care for any of them. I lost interest in this book after reading one hundred pages of it. I wanted it to be over. Yet I persisted and finished the book anyway just in case it gets better. Did my persistence pay off? Yes and no. Granted, the last 30 pages of the story was interesting, and it delivered a surprised ending. But the memorable ending just couldn't outweigh the fact that 87% of this book was boring and a drag.

That is right! In my opinion, the good bits of the book were the prologue (20 pages) and the ending (30 pages), where most of the book (350 pages) was uninteresting and slow. I wanted to like this book because it is my first time reading a Warhammer novel. In the end, I came away from this book feeling disappointed. Will I be reading more Warhammer fantasy books? Yes, I will, because I found the world of Warhammer to my likings. Perhaps I will scout Goodreads for Warhammer books with at least 4 star ratings. Meanwhile, despite a setting in the world of WarhammerBlood for the Blood God just didn't do it for me.

A book review: QF32 by Richard Champion de Crespigny

In 2009, Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and his crew landed a severely damaged Airbus A320 on the Hudson River. All 155 passengers survived with only minor injuries. It was a miracle in the history of aviation. Do you know, there exists an equally miraculous incident in Australia's Qantas airline?

Indeed, in 2010, Captain Richard Champion de Crespigny and his crew landed a heavily damaged Airbus A380 (Qantas Flight 32) at Singapore Changi airport. The captain and his crew saved the lives of 440 souls onboard the aeroplane. For the first time, the story behind this miracle is told in a book called QF32. My book club selected this book for our January reading.

Aside from the story about Qantas Flight 32, this book is also a biography for Captain de Crespigny. The first half of the book provided an overview for Captain de Crespigny's early life until he became a captain at Qantas airline. I was surprised to discover, Captain de Crespigny once started a successful IT company called Aeronaut Industries. In fact, when my colleague saw me reading this book, we had a chat about it, where my colleague mentioned he once purchased a software from Captain de Crespigny's company (my colleague still has a receipt signed by the man himself). Speaking of coincidences!

After reading the first half of QF32, I thought Captain de Crespigny is a multi-talented man with fascinating life experiences. However, that was only half of the book. The second half was where the drama of Qantas Flight 32 unfolds. I liked the narrations in this book; it was fact driven, fast-paced, and it also provided blow-by-blow accounts for the incident. While the narratives contained technical information, but I opine, the readers don't need to be experts of aviation to understand the technical details in the book. In other words, if you have read Andy Weir's The Martian and the technical terms in that book didn't bother you, then you will be fine with QF32 also.

If you end up reading QF32, then make sure to read the appendix section. This is where Captain de Crespigny attached the damage assessment report for Qantas Flight 32. The damage to the aircraft was catastrophic! I was amazed, at how the captain and his crew were able to land the plane at all. I think the story in QF32 shows that when you have good, responsible people who know what they are doing, then even the worst disaster can be salvaged to save valuable human lives.

I recommend QF32. This is an incredible story. If you like the movie, Sully, then you are likely to enjoy this book too.