Saturday, November 24, 2018

Book Review: The Three Secret Cities by Matthew Reilly

I bet you when Matthew Reilly sits down to write a new book he probably thinks about how to make it more explosive than the last one. Matthew's latest book, The Three Secret Cities, is his most explosive and action-packed book up to date.

The Three Secret Cities is the 5th installment in the adventures of Jack West Jr, who, alongside Scarecrow, are Matthew's most enduring creations. The Jack West Jr. series, a hybrid of Indiana Jones and Mission Impossible, is among my favorite action thrillers of all time.

I have met Mathew in person while attending his book signing events. Matthew is a good bloke, and I once asked him if Hollywood has any plans to adapt his books into movies. He answered that the current focus of Hollywood is superhero movies, and since his books are big-scaled action thrillers so there is nothing on the horizon yet. But man oh man, if a studio ever decides to adapt one of these Jack West Jr. books into a movie, then it will be a visual spectacle to behold!

What is in the latest Jack West Jr. book? Without teetering into the spoiler territory let me just say this book follows the aftermath of The Four Legendary Kingdoms. This time, Jack and his trusty friends are on a hunt for three relics and three ancient cities of legendary proportion. Only with the relics in hand can they stop the Omega Event – an apocalypse to end all lives in the universe.

The Three Secret Cities made numerous references to ancient mythologies, and I liked how Matthew gave these old stories and legends a new spin so they have connections to the modern world. As with his previous books, Matthew's writings were pulsing with a cinematic quality. I could visualize everything he wrote as if I was watching an action movie playing out on the silver screen. Meanwhile the book's explosive plotline, moving at a neck-breaking pace, transported me to a world of treasure hunting, blazing guns and exploding aeroplanes (and tanks) and I loved every page of it!

Ok, you probably noticed my recurring use of words such as "explode" and "explosive", and you might have even developed the impression the book is like a Michael Bay production, with fiery infernos and loud booms thundering across the land and sea. Well, while this book is explosive, but the quality of the story is much better than most action movies of the similar type. The book has a fair share of actane-driven actions, but Matthew also dedicated his considerable talents to build great characters and a compelling plot. The characters in this book are surprisingly deep and I cared about them. In this book Matthew did not hesitate at casting his characters at harm's way, and as a result there was a genuine sense of danger in this book. People die in this book and some chapters had moments that shocked me, while others had me biting my nails and paging through the chapter furiously to find out what fate had in store for these beloved characters.

I flew through this 430 page book in 3 sittings because I could not put it down. This is action thriller at its finest. There are very few authors in the world who can pull off this sort of spectacle and Matthew is one of them. The chart for best-selling thrillers is dominated by US or UK authors such as Lee Child, James Rollins, Dan Brown, Clive Cussler, so on and so forth, this is why I am very happy to see one Australian author standing proudly among these giants. A week ago I entered a reading slump, but The Three Secret Cities rekindled my appetite for reading and now I am eager to resume my bookish adventures.

Sometimes you just need forget your troubles and hop on a fun and thrilling adventure like this one. The Three Secret Cities is a damn good thriller. Get it, read it, and have fun!

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Book Review: Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan

Twenty years ago we were saving files by inserting 1.44Mb plastic disks into bulky desktops, but today with a mobile phone in hand, we can upload and download gigabytes and terabytes of information, from anywhere in the world. We live in an era where science and technology are advancing at an exponential rate. More and more things are getting digitized, and we are creating and storing information at a volume greater than ever seen in the human history. Not only has technology changed the way we live and work, but it has also changed our values. As we ponder on the role of technology in our future imagine this scenario; what will the world be like if our brains can also be digitized and downloaded into a new body?

In Altered Carbon, a cyberpunk, detective noir, Richard Morgan explored the socio-economic impacts, as well as the costs, for immorality. Netflix has adapted the book into a TV series, which was well received, but I prefer the book for its rich characterizations and philosophy. If what I said above interests you, then please read on.


Takeshi Kovac stares into a mirror, and a stranger stares back at him. It seems like yesterday when the police broke into his hotel room to arrest him, and in the process, shot his girlfriend dead. But Takeshi knows the episode took place many years ago, because today he woke up in a new body.

Welcome to the 25th century, where immortality is no longer an elusive purpose of life preached by religion, but it is a matter of digitizing and storing a human brain in a device called the "stack".

Is there a cancer is growing in your body? Have you lost your right arm? No problem! Simply transfer your stack from your existing body to a new one, and then voilĂ , you are as good as new. There is more; the more $$$ you pay, the better the body you can wear, to start your new life with extra an oomph!

It was in this sort of a world where Takeshi Kovac was brought back to life. The man who arranged Takashi's altered carbon procedure was other than Laurens Bancroft, a billionaire whose wealth has afforded him not only centuries of life span, but also status and influence comparable to that of a god. What does someone like Laurens want with an ex-convict like Takeshi? Just a few days ago Laurens died, and the police concluded it was a suicide. The billionaire, however, insists he was murdered, and he believes Takashi is his Sherlock Holmes.

My thoughts on the book:

Altered Carbon is a slow burn and I love it. The opening chapters established the world in the 25th century and the worldbuilding was intricate; there were tall buildings twinkling with neon lights, flying cars, and most importantly, a socio-economic tension boiling under the surface because of the altered carbon technology. The world in this book has a sense of scope and complexity not seen in Blade Runner, and it wasn't long before I was immersed in Altered Carbon's dystopian, cyberpunk world. Thirty pages into the book and I knew this one is not just a cyberpunk detective novel, but a introspective story taking a look at the philosophy of belief systems and morality. 

The book's main protagonist, Takeshi Kovac, is a classical anti-hero. He was dragged into the Bancroft's murder investigation against his will, and in the process Takeshi dug up piles of dirty secrets in the high society. Here the book posed an interesting question:

If life is a race, then not everybody starts on the same line, some people are bound to be more privileged than others. The more privileged you are, the more resources you have to help you get ahead. However, the lifespan of a person is finite, with age comes sickness and death. This also means no matter how privileged you are, the amount of wealth and power you can accumulate in a lifetime is limited by the biological clock ticking inside your body. Furthermore, if it is in the human nature to be corrupted by power, then the magnitude of the corruption, and accompanying harm a corrupted but powerful individual can inflict on others, are also limited to one lifespan only. Therefore consider this, what will happen when an already privileged individual can go on accumulating power and wealth, and therefore corruptions, infinitely? And how will immortality affect a person's relationships with his/her fellows, such as marriage, for example?

The book doesn't stop at exploring the consequences of immorality, it also touches on another question. Our biology, such as intellect, strength, and beauty, can determine our success in life. What will happen to the society, if people can wear their bodies like driving different cars, such that being rich means you can buy a better body and enter the race of life with in a Ferrari, but being poor means you can only afford a crappy body and enter the race of life on a bicycle? At the start of the next "race", the rich who won the race in a Ferrari can now upgrade to a helicopter, while the poor who just pedaled to the finish line on a bicycle has so little resources and must enter the next race on the same bicycle, which is now more battered than before.

I thought about these questions, and to be honest, if this is the outcome of immortality, then I don't want it!

Altered Carbon has a thought provoking story, but it does not forget to be a fun and thrilling ride. This is a detective noir made of interlocking mysteries, the supporting characters are memorable, and the plot is very clever, it will surprise you from the start to the finish. Despite being the first book in a trilogy, but the book's concluding chapter tied up every story thread, and leaving no loose end. This also means Altered Carbon is a stand alone novel.

I have seen the Netflix TV series, but. I prefer the book. This is because the book has richer characterizations and philosophies, which are enhanced by the book's use of first person perspectives (that is, from the viewpoint of Takeshi himself). While the first person narratives may be more limiting than the third person narratives, but in this book the first person narrative worked very well, because it allowed the readers to look into Takeshi's experiences and thoughts. For example, I particularly enjoyed a section where Takashi was reflecting on his altered carbon existence and then pondering on the definition of self and soul.

Admittedly the book moves at a slower pace than the TV series because it is not action packed. However the book is rich with a colorful world and and interesting characters, and the story will leave you with food for thoughts. I think Altered Carbon will find admirers in readers of sci-fi and detective fictions, especially in those who like to think about the effects of technology in a society.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

A Book Review: Port of Shadows by Glen Cook

It is said fantasy stories have this trope:

  • An evil overlord who is scheming to unleash chaos upon the world
  • The fulfillment of a prophecy, which foretells a hero, a descendant from a special bloodline and therefore wielding a special power, will rise up and defeat the evil overlord and restore order.

It's almost as if:

  1. It is almost as if all struggles must be good vs evil and order vs chaos instead of a genuine conflict of interests
  2. It is almost as if the overlord can only be defeated by the "chosen one" instead of a well coordinated military attack or stratagem, executed by a unison of multiple parties.
  3. It is almost as if the normal, average people cannot help themselves and must wait for a savior from a special bloodline to be born and save them by fulfilling the prophecy.

This is a trope called, "The chosen one", and it is deeply rooted in the western mythologies and legends, which in turn tracing its origins to the stories from the ancient near east. While I find this trope interesting but I am not overly fond of it. I mean, if stories are meant to tell us something about ourselves and therefore instill social values, then I think the "chosen one" trope is sending us the wrong message and it can be quite harmful! How? Because it creates tribalism and then encouraging a culture of personality cults in the society!

This is why, even though I like fantasy, but I do not like the sort of stories similar to Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. In fact, if every fantasy books has a chosen one hero then I would have hated the genre. Fortunately in the last 20 years, fantasy authors are beginning to subvert the chosen one trope while favoring realistic depictions for the nature of mankind and our conflicts. The grimdark movement, in particular, is the most prominent leader in this shift of narrative paradigm.

How did the grimdark genre come into being? The birth of grimdark is sometimes attributed to Glen Cook and The Black Company series. The first book in the series, The Black Company, was released in 1976, and it was the first fantasy story that truly blurred the line between "the good guys" and the "bad guys". The tales of The Black Company followed a band of mercenary, who was employed by the "good guy" to prevent the "bad guy" from being resurrected. The story was narrated by the company's historian, Croaker, who was trying his best to be objective in the company chronicles. However later on the company realized the nature of their employment was not so much about saving the world but rather to help their employer gaining the upper hand in a struggle for power and dominance. The Black Company is told from the perspectives of the "grunts" and it subverted the chosen one trope in every way; there is no prophecy, no chosen one, and there was no evil overlord, but only ambitious warlords who outdid each other with their appetites for power and control. Heck, in the end the so called overlord was even defeated by a company of mercenary soldiers fighting in a well coordinated military attack!

The Black Company was a success and Glen Cook went on to write 8 sequels, and the series became a major influence and source of inspiration in the fantasy genre today. The final book in the series, Soldiers Live, concluded the story with a harrowing line, "soldiers live. And wonder why". In my opinion it is one of the best finishing line in a fantasy series, it leaves the reader pondering and reflecting at the story they just read. Although the 9 book series completed the history of The Black Company, but there is a 4 year gap in the company history between book 1 and book 2, and it had some fans asking questions about it. 20 years later, Glen Cook finally released the much anticipated "midquel" to address that gap. The book is called Port of Shadows, and this is book 1.5 in the series.

The opening chapter in Port of Shadows reunited readers with the series' beloved characters, such as Croaker, One-Eyed, and Goblin. The company was employed by The Lady and they were garrisoned in a small town, in preparation for their employer's campaign in the north. Their order was changed when The Lady charged the company with a new mission to track down and capture an individual called Tides Elba, rumored to be one of The Takens. But the hunt for The Lady's enemy devolved into the strangest chapter in the company's chronicle, when a mysterious woman known as Mischievous Rain, tread into town.

Port of Shadows is not the best in the series, but it is also not the worst. The story is decent but there are some glaring problems with its structures. The book is divided into 3 narrative arcs; two of them explored the history of the Senjak sisters, and one following the company's footstep in the present. The narratives about the past is interesting because we finally have a glimpse into the Senjak family, but it did not transition well into the narratives in the present, and as a result the book felt very choppy and confusing.

Admittedly I had no idea what was going on in the first third of the book. However, about 120 pages into the book Mischievous Rain appeared in the story, and the book suddenly became very interesting and the pace quickened and it was beating at a fast tempo. I can't talk about the story too much without intruding the spoiler territory, so instead let me just say the book's intrigue is figuring out the true identity for one of the central characters as well as the real history about the Senjak sisters. While I would like to believe that I have worked it all out, but the ending left a lot of rooms for ambiguity and further discussions. It suffices to say in this book Glen Cook was playing with the theme of an "unreliable narrator" (i.e. When there are multiple accounts for an event but they contradict each other in some details, then how do you tell which account is more reliable than others, or if any of them is reliable?). Personally I love this sort of stuff, but I also understand this is not everyone's cup of tea. This also means Port of Shadows is likely to attract divisive reviews. Some people will love it, while some will hate it.

The narratives in The Black Company series have always been ambiguous, so I believe long time readers of the series will have no qualm with the narrating styles in Port of Shadows, even though the first third of the book was very confusing. But for a new comer, Port of Shadows is not a good place to start the series. Therefore if you wish to jump on the bandwagon of Glen Cook's famous creation, I would recommend starting from the first book, The Black Company. As for me, I like Port of Shadows, I think it is a solid book, and it is always interesting to read more about The Lady and the Senjak Sisters. Apparently Glen Cook is writing a real "sequel" in the series, tilted, Merciless Rain. There are no words yet about the release date for this book, but Port Shadows has wet my appetite for it. Hopefully the book will be in my grubby hands very soon. Bring it on!

Saturday, November 3, 2018

A Book Review: The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

How will you describe WWII and those who were involved in it?

If you were raised and living in the west, then the answers are most likely to be something about the Allied and the Axis forces; such as the nuclear bombings in Japan, the Battle of Britain, the Nazi concentration camps, or the Normandy landings. You might even supplement your descriptions with Hollywood productions, like Saving Private RyanSchindler's List, and Dunkirk. But if I ask you to describe what was happening in the other parts of the world during WWII, such as in China, for example, then the chances are you have a very vague idea of what was happening over there.

In some Asian countries, such as Taiwan, their history classes are teaching both the West and the East's roles in starting and ending WWII, including the historical contexts and the build up to WWII and its aftermath. However in the western history class, we learn about WWII mostly from the western perspective only. If the purpose of studying history is to learn from humanity's past so we can better understand ourselves and each other, then it seems in the west we are learning from only half of the picture instead of the full one. May I suggest, perhaps this is one of the reasons why the 21st century geopolitics remains a minefield despite the universal desire for peace.

It seems more discussions are needed in this area.

Popular culture is a good way of getting people to think and discuss an issue, and this is where poets and artists can lead the way. Perhaps this is why a young Chinese American author, R.F. Kuang, chose to write a grimdark fantasy novel inspired by the (second) Sino-Japanese War and the Nanjing Massacre. The book is called, The Poppy War, and it has generated a great deal of buzz since its release in 2018. A quick search for The Poppy War on Youtube can return dozens of positive reviews. In fact, this book appeared on my radar because dozens of booktubers have recommended it. The Poppy War thoroughly entertained me, but upon further reflections I also realized its cultural significance. 


Rin had two choices in life; she could either fulfill her guardians' wish and marry a merchant thrice her age, or she could get out of  servitude and despair by climbing the ladder of meritocracy. When the exam results were announced Rin surprised everyone. Not only did she pass the exam, but she scored the highest mark in the Rooster Province, which meant a ticket to the most prestigious academy in the empire – Singegard.

And so Rin arrived at the empire's capital city with hopes and dreams, only to find herself becoming a target of discrimination by her classmates and teachers, all because she is a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south. For Rin, though, acing the academy is the only way forward, because the alternative is going back to her hometown and fulfill the arranged marriage. Therefore Rin worked hard at the academy, and in the process she discovered she has a talent for the mythical art of shamanism, which was as dangerous as it was unearthly.

The third Poppy War broke out when the federation of Murgen resumed their invasion of Rin's country. Rin had a tough decision to make: her shamanic power could save her country and her people, but it would cost her humanity and perhaps even more, so should she do it? 

My thoughts on this book:

The Poppy War is an impressive book. There is no mistake this book is grimdark. The story is very violent. Chapter 21 contains graphic depictions of genocide, from wholesale slaughter, beheadings, rapes, human experimentations, infanticides, so on and so forth. Whatever horror and suffering the mankind is capable of imaging and inflicting on their fellows, this book has it. But here is the thing, the genocide in this book is not entirely fictitious but a close description for the Nanjing Massacre which took place in 1937. But what happened in the real event was far more brutal and horrendous than its "fantasy" counterpart.

At this point, some readers may protest against the inclusion of heavy and graphic violence. However, the violence here is not gratiduous entertainment, nor is it used for the purpose of shocking its reader. No, the violence in The Poppy War serves a purpose - to show the readers what it is like to be the surviving victims of a genocide. It is to show its readers the depth of sorrow and hatred felt by the surviving victims in the aftermath. The book described those feeling so well and it let me share the characters' emotional journeys. I was able to feel what they felt.

The Poppy War is not content to stop here and simply let us grieve with its characters. Instead this book went deeper to explore more questions.

Is it justified for one to repay a genocide with another genocide?

And how does one become a person capable of killing millions? How does such as person go from point A, to point B?

I leave the readers to discover the story and the answers for themselves. Despite its heavy themes, The Poppy War does not forget it is fantasy fiction and that it should be interesting and fun to read. Characterization and worldbuilding can both make or break a fantasy novel. I already stamped my approval on characterizations, so what about the worldbuilding in this book? Most English fantasy novels are set in the pseudo medieval European world, but The Poppy War is set in the puesto late 19th century China, so is the worldbuilding here convincing?

The answer to that question is a resounding, yes. The worldbuilding in The Poppy War also has my stamp of approval. The author pulled from classical Chinese literatures and culture into her worldbuilding, to create a world which feels like a real and authentic version of the late 19th century China. I believe western readers may find The Poppy War a refreshing change from the pseudo European setting which have been rehashed to death in the English fantasy literatures. However, the author embedded so many references to the Chinese culture and she left plentiful of easter eggs and I am not sure the western readers can spot them all. Here are a few examples:

  1. Rin's teacher, Jiang Ziya, is a direct reference to the famous chancellor of the same name, who helped King Zhou to overthrow the tyrannical king Shiang in the 11th century BC.
  2. Two supporting characters, Baji and Suni, are from the Chinese classic novel, Journey to the West.
  3. The Keju examination system in this book is a very accurate portrayal of the Confucian meritocracy system in ancient and medieval China.
  4. In the book, a character called Kitay discussed a military strategy about "borrowing" arrows from the enemy by sailing boats full of strawmen into the enemy terrority on a misty night and get the enemy shooting arrows at them, this is a direct reference from a Chinese classical novel called Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Those are a few examples, but there are more easter eggs and cultural references in the book and they may be difficult to spot by western readers who are not familiar with the Chinese culture and classical literatures. This is why I believe the author could have helped her western readers by including footnotes in the book. Otherwise the world in The Poppy War feels as real and authentic to the medieval Chinese culture as Tolkien's Middle Earth feels real and authentic to the medieval English and Nordic culture. The great worldbuilding and the compelling characters made this book a blast to read, and there is no doubt this is one of the finest fantasy books of 2018. It is even more impressive considering it is a debut. Despite my praises, however, I do think The Poppy War has one tiny problem.

What is the problem? The Poppy War felt disjointed in the middle. The book's first half narrated Rin's life in the military academy, and the story introduced us to a host of supporting characters, such as Rin's teachers and classmates. Then about half way into the book (minor spoiler ahead), the war broke out, forcing Rin to graduate prematurely from the academy and joining a squad of imperial assassins, and over here we are suddenly introduced to another host of new supporting characters, leaving the supporting characters from the first half undeveloped and off-stage until much later on. I thought the transition, from the first half of the book into the second half, was not well handled. As a result the narratives did not feel cohesive and the pace slowed in the middle, it made me feel like I was reading two separate but very good books rather than one excellent and cohesive novel.

The seamed transition at mid book, however, is but a very small flaw. On the whole, The Poppy War tells a compelling story, with deeply flawed but likable characters. The worldbuilding is masterful and it will surely be refreshing to the western eyes. Furthermore, the book's connection to the Sino-Japanese war and the Nanjing Massacre serves as a sombre reminder of humanity's cruel tendencies to each other, but it is also culturally significant considering it is a part of the WW2 history not well known by the populace in the West. The Poppy War has my recommendation. R.F. Kuang is grimdark's new and proud daughter, and I cannot wait to read her next book.

P.S. If you are a sensitive reader, then before you pick up this book you may want to check out the trigger warnings from the author herself.