Book Review: Echoes of Old Souls

“I’ve lost you, forever, so many times. And I’d do it all again.”

I have a word for you: lyrical.

It’s a word that I cannot apply to nearly enough literature, but I must apply it here. Like the echoes to which it speaks, this collection of short stories (By Nika Harper) resonates with the beauty of old souls returned. I want to call it a ghost story, but that wouldn’t quite be doing it justice. Tales of rebirth might be more accurate, but they run the gamut from stirring elegies of sorts to the humor many might more generally associate with “the Nikasaur,” to downright “spooky” tales of what connects us to this earth, and however many lives that might entail.

Of course, the short story format may not be immediately apparent to everyone. Echoes of Old Souls is divided into chapters, and the only thing denoting the chapter change are the names of those old souls contained within. So if you’re not careful, you might mistake it for a building of quite a cast of characters (which it is, in many regards, anyhow). When I say short, I mean very, very short. Most stories are only a couple pages long and it feels more like you are hopping from brain to brain rather than getting in-depth engagement with characters—but what Ms. Harper manages to do in those short spans is admirable.

Her writing has a poetic quality that paints some very human, if ethereal portraits—in all their myriad shades. It’s a fine debut, and will engage your curiosity.

Book Review: Halting State

This was my first involvement with a Stross novel—to the chagrin of some of my more varyingly read friends—but after this unique little stepping off point, I think there’s potential for some trail prodding down his road after this. Halting State is a near-future Sci-fi novel set in a post secession Scotland (relevancy and timeliness points!). That, however, is not the point of the novel—that lies in the crime.

A crime, you ask? Egads, who lies at the heart of this madness? Well, that’s the question. The crime in question is a digital caper, one that has left Hayek Associates—economists for online games—robbed, in a way that suggests someone’s making use of cryptographic keys. Enter the cops, panicky insurers, and an ex-game developer filling the role of partner and consultant to the aforementioned cops. These take the form of three different protagonists, sent to tackle a robbery that only seems to form the first piece in a very large puzzle.

To begin, I would be remiss if I did not address the POV, as it will no doubt put a lot of people off—and very nearly did to me—in the manner of its approach. From the earliest days of English class it was beaten into all of our heads that second person POV—let alone second person POV for THREE different branches of a novel—is bad. Very bad. So bad you want to whack it with a stick.

Naturally, Stross broke that stick and threw it in the woods, before proceeding to mix his language with a whole bunch of technobabble. It’s daunting, and it’s off-putting, but my one assurance here is that to stick with it is to break free—as the novel goes along, its pacing and enjoyability increases quickly.

Unfortunately, I’ve got to pick a little more before I praise. The character-loving soul inside me was not satisfied. Surprisingly, the panicky insurer was the most entertaining and engaging of the heroes; of the others, one seemed utterly unnecessary to the greater mobility of the plot, while the other manages to bring some good twists into the mix. (Full disclosure: I adore the Song of Ice and Fire saga. This should indicate the level of twist snobbery that is involved in that analysis.)

All this said, if the first bit of the book is pressed beyond, what remains is a well-paced, well-penned mystery that knows enough not to dwell on any one point too long before a new piece of the mystery arises and the plot as a whole tumbles forward. There is sufficient action for entertainment, a delightful course of thrill, and enough detail to leave you bobbing your head along in understanding when the reveals do happen.

Halting State is a book with its share of troubles, but in all, it is an entertaining, well-plodded mystery set in a uniquely built world. It’ll steal some hours away before you know it—you just have to stick it out.

Book Review: The White-Luck Warrior

If you know anything about R. Scott Bakker, it’s that his writing is not about to pander to his readers. After the success of his enthrallingly bleak series, “The Prince of Nothing,” we shifted twenty years into the future with The Judging Eye, as the opening of “The Aspect Emperor” series. Though it continued his history of quality literature, even for fans, it could come across a bit dense.

Yet if The Judging Eye stoked fears this upcoming author had stumbled, The White-Luck Warrior puts us right back into the mind of one of fantasy’s best and brightest. It’s a thick, philosophical, and highly intelligent read (and if “A Song of Ice and Fire” is dark, I’d say Bakker’s works are borderline nihilistic) that can make for an information overload at the outset, but an incredibly thoughtful and rewarding experience for those who stick with it.

For those who aren’t familiar, The White-Luck Warrior is a fantasy novel following numerous characters across the mythical “Three Seas.” Mimara, stepdaughter of the Aspect Emperor, teams with Achamian, the world’s only lone sorcerer, in a quest for vengeance and understanding. Sorweel, a captured prince (made king with the murder of his father) and hostage to the Aspect Emperor’s grand northern march, struggles with whether to believe in the Emperor’s quest to avoid apocalypse, or to kill him for the gods and his own sense of revenge. Esmenet, the Emperor’s wife, struggles to hold together a failing empire, while her son continues to manifest dark tendencies, and all the while the White-Luck Warrior trudges closer to an endgame none may predict. Through these, and dozens of well-thought-out side characters, the Three Seas comes together in all of its unsettling—and crudely satisfying—glory.

And that is where we begin: world-building. Bakker is a master of detail, and his world comes together in rich and engaging imagery. It breathes history, and while the previous novels gave us a Middle Eastern-style setting for a welcome change to most Europe-centric fantasy novels, this one takes us into the north, a primeval and wild place, made of ruins, dust, and trees. The narrative moves with force, and for all the history ground within its pages, it never slows in that regard. The depth with which Bakker writes leaves one wondering how many pages of notes he must have dedicated to this particular world.

For me, Bakker’s distinctly philosophic style makes for a unique bent in a genre stifled with stereotypes, but it can trip some people up, particularly in the pacing. That said, it does wonders for fleshing out the characters—as all have their particular codes, their views, their joys and fears, which allow Bakker to stretch his mind to its utmost. As well as many people’s moral codes.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—these aren’t series’ for the faint-hearted. Characters are complex, layered, and driven as men and women often are, but even the best have their dark moments, and with Bakker, they’re guaranteed to be dark indeed. There is a lot of evolution here in this book, and you may begin to see characters in new lights—and I daresay a few will certainly surprise. But villains and heroes certainly will still blur. Plus, here we get to see even more of that wacky Anasaurimbaur family—in all it’s crazed, homicidal glory.

Backtracking to the topic pacing now…I daresay that could be the book’s one issue. Certain portions of the book are quicker than others, and Achamian/Mimara’s sections in particular can suffer through a bit of a slog (haha, yes, I made a funny—readers will understand), largely due to the prevalence of thought over action. Until the end of course—and what an end! Hope you’re in the mind for cliffhangers, because you’re going to be handed a doozy of one—leaving readers with about as many questions as answers.

If anything, though, I do question the name of the book. Certainly The White-Luck Warrior is an influence to be felt behind the scenes…but while he does have an important moment, I don’t think he’s quite at the level yet to earn the titular. His parts are few, far-between, and decidedly fleeting. A touch off-putting I suppose, but minor as far as complaints go.

That said, I wouldn’t back down from labeling this one of the best books of the year, and certainly a fine way to be kicking off this decade. If you enjoy fantasy, I highly recommend it.