Saturday, July 28, 2018

A Book Review: The Midnight Line by Lee Child (Jack Reacher #22)

In the last twenty years Lee Child wrote more than twenty thrillers, featuring his famous creation, Jack Reacher. Just when we think the series is running out of steam, The Midnight Line, the 22nd entry into the series, bursts into the scene and providing readers with a breath of fresh air. In comparison to Lee Child's earlier works, such as Make Me, the pace in The Midnight Line is slower, and the tone is more thoughtful. The result is a Jack Reacher book that reads more like a detective novel than an action thriller, and I liked this book.


Jack Reacher walked passed the pawn shop window in a small Wisconsin town. He saw a class ring. It was tiny. The ring belonged to a woman, her initials were carved on the inside. On the ring said: West Point, 2005.

2005, a rough year; Afghanistan and then Iraq, it was a tough time to graduate. Why would she pawn her ring and gave up 4 years of hard work? Curiosity seized Jack. He had to know.

Just like that, Jack began to search for this woman. The quest took him to the upper Midwest, from the small towns to the middle of nowhere. Along the way Jack encountered cops, gangs, bikers, and a strange PI wearing a black suit. The more Jack dug into this, the more harrowing his journey became.

This time, Jack is treading the midnight line, and some lines should never be crossed.

But we are talking about Jack Reacher, and his first rule is that no one should cross him either.

My thoughts on this book:

The Midnight Line had Jack Reacher doing more detective works than playing the action hero, and this is a welcomed change. This also means The Midnight Line is slower in pace, especially in comparison to the earlier, more action-oriented entries such as Make Me or Gone Tomorrow. I guess this book is a slow burn, but for those with patience, the story did deliver a satisfying conclusion, alongside some twists and surprises.

The theme of justice permeates throughout this series, and The Midnight Line is no exception. This time, Jack Reacher is still the lone ranger exacting justice in a small Midwest town. However, in this book Jack was confronted by the grey areas of morality, where things aren't exactly black or white. I will not spoil the story, but in this book, for the first time, Jack faced a dilemma, where he had to choose between either the law, or being humane. As usual, I believe Jack Reacher did the right thing in the end, and this is what made this character so enduring and the stories so satisfying; unlike the most of us, Jack is the person who can do the right thing.

The Midnight Line is a good detective novel, and most of the book is believable. This does not, however, mean the book does not require suspension of disbelief. In fact, the one flaw of this book is that Jack Reacher's character requires too much suspension of disbelief. Too much suspension of disbelief? But all heroes in action thrillers, such as James Bond, Jack Ryan, Robert London, they all demand readers to suspend their disbelief to some extent, isn't that right?

Well, as I read more and more Jack Reacher novels, I find myself in the need of suspending more and more disbelief to enjoy them. While I would call myself a fan of Lee Child's works, but admittedly the suspension of disbelief is becoming too much and it is starting to tarnish my enjoyment of these books.

Let me explain. In 1997, Lee Child released the first Jack Reacher novel, Killing Floor. At the time, Jack Reacher was 37 years old. This means, 20 books and 20 years later would put Jack Reacher's age to 57 at the start of The Midnight Line. In this book, the baddies described Jack Reacher with figures of speech such as,"the bigfoot coming out of the forest", and "the incredible hulk". The narratives in this book had me envision Jack Reacher looking like a WWF wrestler on the green side of thirties; six foot three, two sixty pounds, big shoulders and thick arms. However, Jack Reacher is a drifter, he doesn't work out and his diet for the last 20 years consists of cheese burgers and pancakes with bacons. Not to mention he is 57 years old. Yet, this book still described Jack Reacher as a one man tank, who can fight and take down men like Mike Tyson in his prime. How is that possible? I think this book is demanding too much suspension of disbelief from its readers. It would be interesting to see how Lee Child will depict Jack Reacher in the future books, as our beloved hero grows older and older.

That is my only qualm with The Midnight Line. Otherwise, if you don't think about Jack Reacher's age too much, then this book is a very good action thriller. It has a gripping story with twists and turns, and it has enough actions along the way to spice up the story. Pick up The Midnight Line, relax on your couch, and have fun with the book. You won't regret it.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

A Book Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

If you are a movie enthusiast, then you probably have heard, or seen, Stephen Spielberg's new movie, Ready Player One. The movie is an adaptation of a science fiction novel of the same name, written by Ernest Cline. The novel, Ready Player One, was published in 2011 and it won multiple awards.

I thought the movie was ok, but it piqued my curiosity about the book, and so I read it last week. What I discovered was that the book and the movie are almost completely different to each other, and while the movie was ok, but the book is great.


It is 2045 and the reality is ugly and harsh; global warming, energy crisis, and pollutions sent the economy into a neverending contraction, and the unemployment rate rocketed skyhigh. In this new world, most people are living in poverty and misery. This is why people are escaping into OASIS - a virtual reality where you can live, work, and study, as anyone you wish to be.

Life, in 2045, is a humongous, MMORPG!

Like the billions of people on the planet, Wade Watts is another lonely soul who only feels alive when he is jacked into OASIS. Wade has dedicated his life to solving the greatest challenge in OASIS. The challenge was created by James Halliday, the creator of OASIS, and it consists of puzzles based on the 1980 pop culture that Halliday was obsessed with. Whoever can be the first to solve the challenge can also win the ultimate prize, inheriting all of Halliday's wealths as well as the control of OASIS itself.

For the first time in the human history, being a pop culture geek gives you an advantage in life, because you stand a chance at winning the challenge and become the most powerful person on the planet. Like many of his fellow geeks, Wade dreamed of being the winner. But when Wade became the first person to solve the first puzzle, he discovered a shadowy force who will stop at nothing to win Halliday's prize, even if it means turning OASIS, a video game, into a game of life and death...

My thoughs on this book:

If you:

  • are a science fiction fan
  • are fond of cyberpunk fictions
  • are a geek of the 1980s pop culture
  • like a a good story
  • are the kind of person who likes to think about technological advancements and its impacts on  the society, so on and so forth.

Then you will love this book, just like I did.

Steven Spielberg's movie adaptation was good, but it was more of a family friendly, action adventure film that wowed the audiences with glorious CGI. But story wise, I thought the movie was average. If you have seen the movie and you liked it, then I would highly recommend reading the book. Actually, if you haven't seen the movie then I would highly recommend that you read the book before you watch the movie. Why? This book rocks.

I mentioned in my intro, that the novel is almost completely different to the movie. I am not going into a detailed discussion about the differences between the movie and the book. After all, I am writing a book review, not an article comparing the book to the movie. In my review I will mostly be talking about what I liked about the book, and occasionally mentioning how it differs from the movie.

Ready Player One is a science fiction novel with elements of cyberpunk, this is a sub-genre with defining characteristics such as a combination of high tech and low life. The common theme in Cyberpunk is where the technology advances too rapidly for the society to catch up, and therefore it causes radical changes, or breakdowns, in the social order. The cyberpunk world is also Orwellian, where the government is often weak and corrupt, and powers are often in the hands of a few wealthy elites. Meanwhile, the inhabitants in a cyberpunk world often experience social problems, such as a big gap between the rich and the poor, loneliness, drug abuse, so on and so forth. Furthermore, the technology in cyberpunk fictions is usually not far-fetched, but a near-future projection from where we are today, featuring technologies such as artificial intelligence and cybernetics. The prominent examples for cyberpunk, are books written by authors like Philip K. Dick, Richard Morgan, as well as movies and TVs such as Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, and Altered Carbon.

I am not a huge fan for sci-fi, but the rebel in me drove me to love cyberpunk. This is because the subgenre is prophetic and thought provoking, and my personal view is that unless we can change the way do and think about things, then at the current trajectory we are heading to a cyberpunk future, and it will not be a bright future. 

How does cyberpunk fit into Ready Player One?

This book explores loneliness and escapism, and the story is set in a future world where our existing economic model, one that achieves growths by expending resources, begins to contract due to resource shortages and global warming. As a result, there is mass poverty and unemployment. In the world of Ready Player One, real life becomes unbearable, and people escape into a virtual world instead to live, work, and study. After all, in the virtual world things aren't so bad.

This book placed a heavy emphasis on depicting, what it is like to be living in such a world, and it really hits you, a reader, in your ethos and pathos. But this is also why the book is far superior to the movie adaptation, because the movie glossed over the aspects of living in such a world, and the story lost much of its power in comparison to its source material.

In other words, the book is a cyberpunk masterpiece, but the movie is a action adventure, pop corn flick.

There is nothing wrong with a fun movie, but I am just surprised at how much of the story's meaning is lost in the process of adapting it into a movie. Anyway, on the bedrock of VR technology and a torrent of 1980 pop culture references, this book explores loneliness and escapism, not in a mocking and disdaining tone, but it humanizes escapism, it peels back the layers surrounding the issue, and then asking the readers two questions:

  1. What made Wade lonely?
  2. What made Wade happy in the end?

I will leave my would-be readers to enjoy the book and come to their own interpretations. But it suffices to say, the story didn't blame technology and entertainment as the sources for loneliness. Instead, this story argues that the cause for our loneliness, and its solution, rest in something  more fundamental to our human nature. What is it? I encourage you to read this book and find your own conclusions.  

Some readers may disagree with the views being presented in this book, and that is fine. Even then, given the context of the present day, this book is still worth reading because the subject matter is interesting and it affects us all. Meanwhile, for those who have seen the movie but haven't read the book, then I will highly recommend reading the book, because the story that was originally envisioned by Ernest Cline is so much richer than the movie adaptation.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

A Book Review: The Core by Peter V. Brett (The Demon Cycle #5)

At 856 pages, The Core is the finale to Peter V. Brett's epic fantasy saga, The Demon Cycle. I love this series, and I was expecting great things from this whopping tome. Did this book deliver? I would say for the most parts, The Core is excellent, but the book also has some small problems which prevent it from being a perfect book.


Arlen Bale and Ahamn Jadir, these two men were once enemies, but now they are uniting their strengths to bring Sharak Ka, the final war, to the demons. Arlen and Jadir hatched a desperate plan, in which they would capture a demon prince and force him to reveal the location for the Mother of Demons. But they are racing against time, because their actions triggered the swarm, an event where demons are launching an all-out assault against the human forces.

Meanwhile, Leesha, Innerva, Ragen and Elissa must rally and persuade their people to letting go of their petty differences and working together against the swarm. This is because they need to buy themselves previous times while Arlen and Jadir are reaching for the Core.

The stakes are high, and with the final war reaching the boiling point, both Arlen and Jadir are not expecting to return from the mission alive, but will their sacrifice be enough to save humanity from the demons' claws?

My thoughts on this book:

The Core delivered a satisfying conclusion to the series, but there are a few bumps and mishaps along the way. At this point, the story has quite a few characters, and Peter V. Brett was trying to tie up every story threads. While Mr. Brett was able to attend to every character and every story arc, but it also made the book very long. This book suffered some pacing issues, especially in the book's mid section.

For example, this book brought back Ragen and Elissa and then started their own story thread. Ragen and Elissa were Arlen's foster parents from the first book, and I liked them. However, between book 2 and 4 we never heard from them again, and so I was not invested in these two characters. This is why, when The Core suddenly brought back Ragen and Elissa, I just didn't care about them. Most of Ragen and Elissa's story took place in the book's mid-section, and those pages were slow moving and uninteresting. I would have preferred more explorations on the characters whom we became familiar with in the last two or three books, such as Ashia, Asome, and Innvera. Make no mistake, Ashia and Innverva received a lot of spotlights in this book, but it wasn't enough.

Speaking of Ashia, who was introduced in The Skull Throne, she remains one of my favorite characters in this book. Her part of the story was fun and exciting, but the conclusion to her story also felt a bit rushed, as if there should be more in her story but it was left untold. Meanwhile, characters such as Abban also received a healthy dose of attention in this book, but while Abbam started off as a very interesting character in The Desert Spear, but his story's conclusion rendered his character a wasted opportunity; Mr. Brett could have done so much more with Abban's character, but it was not so.

The focus in this book is on Arlen, Jadir, and Renna, as the three of them ventured into the Core and slaying The mother of Demons. It suffices to say, out of all the story threads in this book, this trio's story arc is the most interesting. Once the trio arrived at the Core, the story finally revealed all the answers to our questions; the truth about The Deliverer and the prophecy, the origin of life, and how the "demons" came to be. Without spoilers, let me just say this is where the story took a twisted turn from "epic fantasy" to "science fiction". I mean, I have written a review for each of the previous installment, and throughout it all I have been saying that the "demons" in this saga reminded me of the xenomorphs from the movie, Alien; these creatures are not evil, but just predatory animals hunting human for food. Apparently, my take on the nature of these monsters are confirmed by Arlen, the main protagonist in this book. How? Well, I leave the would-be readers to enjoy the story and find out for themselves.

The Core is a satisfying conclusion to a stunning fantasy saga. The book does suffer from some pacing issues, and it could have been better if it was shortened by 100 pages. Yet, this book is excellent nevertheless. When I reached the last 200 pages of this book, I could not put it down, instead I kept reading it until I reached the very last page, where I let out a sigh of content. This book tied up every story thread, while leaving rooms for another series. But for now, The Demon Cycle is one of the best fantasy series of the modern days, it is an interesting twist to the concept of good versus evil, and it deserves to be read. I cannot recommend this series enough.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

A Book Review: The Skull Throne by Peter V. Brett (The Demon Cycle #4)

The fantasy trope features one archetypal hero, a savior, whose destiny was foretold in a prophecy. 

The Demon Cycle series, however, turned this fantasy trope up side down, giving us two heroes instead of one, in a backdrop where the prophecy foretold the coming of one savior. Not to mention, the two heroes are after each other's blood because of the prophecy. Indeed, the premise of "two saviors" is a twist to the fantasy trope, but it also makes the story more mysterious. It keeps the reader guessing at the truth behind the prophecy. Was the prophecy wrong? Or, perhaps there is something more sinister behind the prophecy's origin?

Multiple would-be saviors each claiming to be the one true messiah, sent by the same god? Is it just me or does it remind anyone else about religions in our own world? Just saying, you konw?

Anyway, The Daylight War ended with a cliff hanger, but the supsense continues to mount in its sequel, The Skull Throne. This is the 4th installment in The Demon Cycle series. On Goodreads, some readers remarked that The Skull Throne sufferred from the "middle book syndrome". I think it is true, that the pace in this book was not as brisk as in The Daylight War, but it is still a very good book. Furthermore, I think Peter V. Brett has matured as a writer, for The Skull Throne is more compact than its predecessors.


The Sharak Sun, The Daylight War, is nigh!

The Krasians and the Northerners waged this war because of two men; Arlen Bale and Ahamn Jadir, each hailed by his countrymen to be The Deliverer, a savior, foretold by an ancient prophecy, to unite and lead mankind to vistory against the demon invasions. Here is the problem - the prophecy foretold the coming of one Deliverer, not two. Indeed, for the Sharak Sun is rooted in religious disagreements, and men have killed each other for less.

In the midst of war, Arlen challenged Jadir to a duel, and it ended with both Delieverers falling over the edge of a cliff. With Arlen and Jadir suddenly gone from the world, mankind's chance for wining the demon war also dwindled.

In Krasia, Jadir's depature left behind a power vacuum. His sons and warlords are fighting against each other for The Skull Throne. The infightings sent Krasia into a turmoil.

In the North, Leesha and Rojer, representatives of Cutter's Hollow, set out on a mission to forge alliances with powerful dukes and duchesses of the The Free Cities. The North must unite, to repel both Krasia as well as the demon invasions.

One thing remains unchanged - without Arlen and Jadir, humanity is not strong enough to beat back the monsters. Only Renna Bale, the wife of Arlen, knew the fate of these two missing men.

Curiously, Renna has also disappeared...

My thoughts on this book:

The Skull Throne raised the stakes of the story to a new height. This book split the plot into multiple threads. It introduced more characters, while hinting at a forbiding truth behind the Delieverer and the prophecy. Among the host of newly introduced characters, my favorite one is Ashia, who is the daughter-in-law to Jadir. The Krasian society is patriachal, a culture that favors the strong over the weak. Under this culture, being a warrior is the most prestigious vocation for a man, where women and those men who aren't strong enough to be warriors are treated as second class citizens. In Ashia's story, she was born a princess, forced into an arranged marraige, but secretly she received warrior training since her childhood and her martial skills exceeds most of her male peers. Despite her superior combat skills, Ashia needed to overcome the social expectations, to be a warrior, not for her own glory, but to protect her infant son. I like Ashia's character, and I want to read more about her in the next book.

In the meantime, The Skull Throne had Arlen, Jadir, and Renna starting their own branch of storyline. I don't want to spoil it too much because the plot they are following is the core to the whole saga. Let me just say that I enjoyed reading about the tension between Arlen and Jadir's relationships. For the first time in the saga, these two former friends are brought back together, and it is very interesting to read about their perspectives of the demon war, each according to his belief.

Another storyline invovled Abban, Innerva, and the polotical struggle for the Skull Throne. In this story thread, Innvera was an intriguing and well-written character as usual, but I felt Abban's character was a wasted opportunity, because his potential was not fully explored. Having said this, the political scheming and the fight scenes for the throne was nail-biting stuff!

The third storyline invovles Leesha and Rojer, and their mission to forge alliances with The Free Cities. I still don't like Leesha's character, because I continue to find her "holier than thou" attitude annoying. However, I really liked Rojer's part of the story, it was intriguing and it delivered unexpected moments. Let me just say, the last 100 pages of the book was a bit of a Red Wedding, and it sets the scene for the much anticipated finale, the fifth installment titled, The Core.

The Skull Throne is a strong entry to the series. The book may have sufferred from pacing issues, but its excellent storytelling and memorable characters continue to grip me. The series, as a whole, is one of the best fantasy series out there, and I highly reocmmend it to my fellow readers.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

A Book Review: The Daylight War by Peter V. Brett (The Demon Cycle #3)

The picture on the left is a woman dressed all blue, her face veiled. The image is thrumming with mystery and dynamic energy, as if action and suspense are waiting for you in the book. This is the cover for The Daylight War, and it is the third installment in The Demon Cycle. In this book, the tensions between Krasia and its northern neighbor have reached a high point, with an all out war looming over the horizon. I am happy to report that The Daylight War is an excellent book, its quality is on par with its two famous predecessors, The Painted Man and The Desert Spear. This series keeps getting better and better.  


Arlen Bale and Ahamn Jadir, once up a time, these two men were as close as brothers, until an ancient prophecy divided them. Now, Arlen and Jadir are enemies, and neither of them will rest until another is dead; for each man is hailed by his fellow country people as the Deliverer, a messianic figure whom the prophecy foretold would lead humanity to victory against the demons. But here is the problem – the prophecy foretold the coming of only one Deliverer, not two. Is the prophecy wrong? 

Meanwhile, the night of the new moon is fast approaching. In the dark of the night, the demons are rising, and they are mustering their forces to attack the cities and the towns. Their goal is to kill both Arlen and Jadir before either of them can reach their full potentials and become humanity's leader.

The stakes are high, for humanity has only one chance at beating the demons. With Arlen and Jadir at each other's throats, however, their followers are also after each other's blood. These conflicts are setting the stage for The Daylight War. Will this war send the world plummeting into darkness? Or is the heart of men big enough for two saviors?

My thoughts on this book:

By now, I have read 2000 pages of The Demon Cycle series. The more I read it, the more I become aware, and fascinated, by the philosophical explorations in these books. Previously, in my review for The Desert Spear, I mentioned the demons in this story reminded me of the xenomorphs (from the movie Alien). In Arlen and Jadir's world, the monsters, like the xenomorphs, are representing the calamities from the natural environment, and so they are not "evil", but merely predatory animals hunting humans for food. 

However, the monster problem in Arlen and Jadir's world became the driving force, for the evolution of two cultures, Krasia and The North, and they differ vastly from each other. This also means, The Demon Cycle is a story that highlights, and explores, the cultural clash between these two groups of people, a clash where the theological difference, about the nature of the monster attack, plays a central role.  

The Northern religion teaches that the monster attacks are the Creator's punishments for mankind's sin. In the Northern theology, humanity is hopeless, and people can do nothing than waiting for a messiah to save them. On the other hand, the Krasian religion teaches that the monsters are sent by Nie, who is synonymous to chaos but opposite to their god Everham; in the Krasian belief, when one fights against the monsters, he is fighting for the glory of Everham and overcoming chaos, and thereby proving his worth to to enter Ala (the Krasian heaven).

In other words, the clash between the Krasians and the Northerners is due to their theological difference over an age old question – why is there suffering in the world?

Careful thinkers can see that each belief faces its own conundrum. If the monsters are the Creator's punishment for mankind's sin, as the Northern religion proclaims, then it does not explain why, the motivator to sin, rooted in evil, exist, or where it comes from. In other words, if the Creator is the ground of all things (including evil, which led to sin), then the Creator must be evil, otherwise the Creator cannot be the ground of all things. One may argue that evil is just the absence of an all-good Creator like darkness is the absence of light. But if that is true, then evil is a non-being and so evil does not exist at all, this explanation doesn't sit well with religious canons and holy texts. Furthermore, if evil is the just the absence of an all-good Creator, then it still won't explain "why" (the purpose) there is evil. 

On the other hand, if the monsters are sent by Nie (chaos) to test mankind's worth for entering Ala (the heaven), then this would implicate that chaos/evil is equally as powerful as the Creator. This would render the Creator and evil as equals wrestling over the control of mankind, like a chess game, and so the Creator is not the most powerful entity in the universe. If this is true, then doesn't this mean the Creator may not be the Creator after all? Furthermore, under the Krasian belief, the purpose of life is about passing a series of tests in this world so one can gain enough credits to live forever in heaven after the physical death. Not only is this belief selfish, like some kind of spiritual capitalism, but it also renders life meaningless.

In the story of The Demon Cycle, the Krasians and the Northerners evolved into polar opposite cultures due to their differing theology about the problem of suffering, a suffering caused by the monster attacks. The Krasians evolved into a warrior culture, and their society is founded on the belief that taking up a spear and killing monsters can get one to heaven. As a result, the Krasian culture values the strong over the weak. On the other hand, the Northern culture evolved into a passive one, because they believed the monsters are the Creator's punishment for mankind's sins, so they shouldn't be fighting the monsters, instead the Northerners believe they should wait for a messianic figure, foretold by the prophecy, to save them.

But what about Arlen? He is the main hero in the story, and what does he believe in? This is where The Demon Cycle becomes very interesting!

Instead of giving us one messianic figure like in the classical myths and fantasy stories, The Demon Cycle give us two messianic figures. One is Jadir, who embodied the Krasian faith; he is strong, and he sincerely believed in the prophecy about the Deliverer. Furthermore, Jadir believes himself to be the Deliverer, and so he sincerely believes that salvation lies with him conquering and uniting the mankind to fight against the monsters. 

In contrast, Arlen, as far as I can tell, is an atheist. There aren't many atheist heroes in fantasy books and I love The Daylight War all the more for it. In the story, not only does Arlen reject the Krasian prophecy about the Deliverer, but he also rejects the Northern belief that monsters are the Creator's punishment for mankind's sin. This is because Arlen saw the truth, that the monsters, much like lions and wolves, are just animals hunting for food, they are just calamities from the natural world that happen to people. I mean, could the world be another way, where there is no earthquake and storm, where lions are herbivores, and wasps don't' sting? For Arlen, the fight is not for the glory of god and the messiah against "evil, but a matter of survival, so every man and woman should be fighting against the monsters for themselves, for all are Deliverers.

The Daylight War, and the series as a whole, has everything I love about fantasy books. The worldbuilding is masterful, and its characters, vividly portrayed, have substance. On the premise of this wonderful tale Peter V. Brett explored the philosophy behind culture and religion, and how these human constructs can deeply affect the people and the world they live in. This is fantasy literature at its best. I highly recommend this series. 

Until the next time, happy reading!