Tag: Book Review

I try not to think about theme when I am writing. Falling in that pit is the quickest way to lose a story. In a literature class you were told that theme is what the author is trying to convey, a central idea or meaning to the story. In rare exceptions, that might be true. In truth, authors have no idea what themes will manifest when they start a work. A few will pretend they had a grand design to start, but I never believed it.

I view my writing as an argument I am having with myself. I am not writing to satisfy a theme, but to find one. When I am satisfied with the argument, I know I have finished and I start editing and re-writing to strengthen the salient points.

The coronavirus pandemic makes writing without a theme difficult. Every word you write screams "you have missed the point. What about…" And that list is long, but familiar. The use of technology to control society, consumerism, the dangers of big government, individualism, and daily challenges our worldview are in every headline?

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Dreams and the White Gold Wielder

White Gold Wielder fantasy book cover

As children all we have dreams. As infants we lack income, property, and choice and we are fragile and slow to grow compared to the rest of the natural world. As soon as we achieve enough independence to think and wander on our own, society dictates we get an education, attend church or temple, or at least recognize a higher power. Unable to chart our own course, dreams are all that remain.

When I was a child, daydreaming was a sin. A protestant farming community expects the children to contribute. I suppose it is better than the alternative; running and hiding from predators. Never mind that the daydreamers created the civilization and society that now shunned them.

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This Day All Gods Die

Cover image for This Day All Gods Die

What life is valuable? More precisely, whose life is valuable? Is your life more valuable than mine? Does your position, title, salary, or family relationship make your contribution to this small planet more valuable than mine?

This is not a small question. We ask it in fiction yet ignore it in reality. On this globe, everyday decisions have determined that some lives are more valuable than others.

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The One Tree

Have you been locked in an emotion or a feeling for weeks while ignoring events around you? Have you looked up to find that it is a fresh spring day, the birds are chirping, and the air is crisp against your skin, then wonder how you missed it? That is what reading The One Tree is like. It is a deep dive into the character of Linden Avery, a character who never sees the spring day, or understands the events around her because the bitterness of her past consumes her.

The One Tree—more so than the books that went before it—shows the flaw in Stephen R. Donaldson's writing. Here, at last, I can agree with those that say there is never anything good about Donaldson's characters. Seen primarily through the eyes of Linden Avery, her miserable past, her inability to experience joy, weighs down this epic tale.

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Chaos and Order and Theme and Madness

Chaos and Order science fiction book cover

Those real-people reviews on Amazon and Goodreads have difficulty finding themes in The Gap Cycle; imagining a more clueless lot is difficult for me. At the end of The Real Story Stephen R. Donaldson summarized his intent, his themes and—in broad strokes—outlined the story he prepared. The Gap Cycle is not an attempt to mimic the Wagnerian epic of Der Ring des Nibelungen, but it is about the moral conflict between humanity’s desire to survive as an individual or as a group. From The Real Story:

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The Collected Works of Arthur C. Clarke

The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke science fiction book cover

2001: A Space Odyssey was boring. There I said it. I know you were thinking it. After the chimpanzees smash bones to Thus Spoke Zarathustra there is about a hundred minutes of nothing until we get to, "Open the pod bay doors," followed by a light show that requires the high of psychedelics to be appreciated.

That 2001 was boring did not stop it from becoming the most influential film made in my lifetime. The accurate (1968 accurate) depiction of space flight with ships matching rotation and a Pan Am stewardesses clomping along in gravity boots were a needed reality check to Star Trek's Enterprise and Lost in Space's Styrofoam sets.

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The Nature of Evil, or The Wounded Land

Cover image to The Wounded Land

What is Evil? Does it exist? When you speak about the world, do you define an act, a person, or a group as evil? I have called Donald Trump Lord Foul since the 2016 Republican National Convention, by association am I calling him evil? If evil does not exist, then what is that quality we identify as evil? Is evil a treatable sickness, disease, or mental condition? The question of evil is a foundation for good fiction. Science fiction and fantasy fiction settings provide a rich playground to study the question. Is a race of mammals that eats other mammals evil? Orc eats human, human eats pig; evil depends on your perspective.

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Cover image A Dark and Hungry God Arises

How much can humanity consume? Earth is a solitary realm. She has a long past, most of it devoid of humanity. Thanks to plate tectonics and the unique chemical ability of sediment and stone to record images of Earth's past, we know that other creatures once roamed the plains and forests, or swam the deep oceans of our world. The Kansas prairie is full of fossils from the Permian geologic period. This was a key time in our evolutionary history. The diversification of amniotes into mammals, turtles, lepidosaurs, and archosaurs was a key to our evolution. But 250 million years ago, something happened—a runaway greenhouse effect caused by an explosion of methane in the atmosphere—that caused nearly all life on Earth to vanish. It took 30 million years for Earth's ecosystems to recover.

In A Dark and Hungry God Arises the third book in Stephen R. Donaldson's The Gap Cycle humanity stands at the door of an extinction event that comes from the deep dark of space. In this book we get closer to the real story promised us in the first book of The Gap Cycle. Morn Hyland's crisis aboard Captain's Fancy becomes an existential fear of genetic mutilation by the Amnion. A personal horror that all of humanity faces if the UMCP cannot prevent it.

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First-Person Fail: The Extraditionist

The Extraditionist fiction book cover

I grabbed The Extraditionist as a Prime Early Access Deal. I was looking for something outside my diet of science-fiction and fantasy. I figured a good crime novel was the way to go. I might have been right, this was just the wrong novel.

This is supposed to be a novel about a drug lawyer—they call them Extraditionist south of the equator—that is all slime but is looking for a way out. He needs one more score, and he will stop with his murdering, drug dealing, clients to live on a beach somewhere. A standard criminal wants out storyline.

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Reviews, Rape, and Forbidden Knowledge

Cover for Forbidden Knowledge

Before the Internet, I did not read book reviews. Professional reviewers—those paid to churn out a weekly summary of the latest media—tend toward promotional hype – when the product is from their corporate overloads – to sanctimony – when the product is from a competitor. For science fiction, professional reviewers are especially complicit. The dullest, drawn out, un-stories get five-stars while the exciting, mind-bending stuff is never reviewed. The Internet has magnified the disease to a condition as accepted as pimples.

I used to choose books by their dust jacket summary and scanning the first, middle, and last chapters. A “New York Times Bestseller” sticker never swayed me to read a book. Most of the “sold” copies required to get such a sticker are sitting at the bottom of bargain-bins, unread.

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Hile Troy! The Illearth War

Cover for The Illearth War

Hile Troy! Just kidding. Hile Troy, the character introduced in Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Illearth War is one of my favorite fantasy fiction characters. Sure, the name helps, but it’s his story arc that fascinates me.

Hile Troy, like Covenant, is summoned to the Land through the same magic that started the story. But his arrival was a mistake. Atiaran, (the woman that led Covenant to Revelstone in Lord Foul’s Bane) in an act of despair, attempted to call Covenenat to the Land. Whether to get revenge for the rape of her daughter, or to save the Land is unclear because she is consumed by the power of the summoning.

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The Real Story

Cover image for The Real Story

The first time I finished The Real Story I was tired from a stressful day at work. I had curled myself against a stack of pillows with my dog sleeping in the crook behind my legs. The plan was to read a couple of chapters, then turn-in early. The thirteenth chapter spoiled my plans.

In this short, tightly written, novella Donaldson illustrates what science fiction can look like when you throw away the exposition and speculation about science and focus on characters. Ships spin for gravity, space stations are home, mining the belt for ore is a way of life, the gap-drive allows ships to cross vast distances in the blink of an eye. These are facts accepted by the characters inhabiting the world. Donaldson doesn't waste ink on how those things became. They simply are.

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The Crisis of Lord Foul’s Bane

Cover Image for Lord Foul's Bane

I come to this review in a crisis. While chasing my dream of writing science fiction, I forgot my age. Stephen R. Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant lit my desire to write. I found Lord Foul's Bane in the school library, a paperback fantasy on a shelf full of dusty, hard-covered tombs. Lord Foul's Bane entered my world at another crisis point; high school. The story of a man rejected by his world was the life of every thin high school nerd in the early eighties.

I devoured The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Donaldson's writing was a revelation. He ignored that tired advice of the simple word is better. Lord Foul's Bane forced me to read with a dictionary nearby. I loved it. With every beat of a sentence I thought to myself, I want to write like this.

I tried, but divorce and households emptied of joy marred my transition from childhood to independence. A journey made more difficult by parents that were unable or unwilling to help. American culture is fertile ground for such stories. My story spans thirty years before I sat down to finish my fist science fiction novel.

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Children (Spiders) of Time

Children of Time book cover

Spiders and ants and human beings, Oh My! Adrian Tchaikovsky massive work of science fiction won the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke award for Best Novel. An award it deserved. This book is an important work for science fiction fans missing the fanciful, yet probable, speculation Arthur C. Clarke made famous. Children of Time both accepts the hard science of space travel and challenges your understanding of intelligence and awareness.

Reviews of Children of Time put it in the hard SF genre. I am not a fan of hard SF. I find it boring. The endless speculation of characters turns into pages of exposition to support the fanciful ideas of the author. Clouded story arcs vanish beneath the weight.

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First Person and The Good Girl

Here is another book I would have skimmed over or missed because the story is told with first-person narration. Lucky for me, Audible was giving it away as part of their Twentieth Anniversary Celebration.

By lucky, I mean lucky-ish. By the end of the fourth or fifth chapter I knew how the story would end. It might have gone differently, I might have been kept in suspense, but once again a good author hoisted her story on its petard with the first-person narrative style.

I know, I bitch about this all the time. I promise, when I write a review about The Handmaid's Tale, or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I will praise their expert use of the first-person, until then we have tropes, cliché’s, and The Good Girl.

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On Writing Well

This book has become mantras I recite as I edit my work. I first turned to it when I worked for Cargill. After ten years in retail, I was rusty on the basics of a good paragraph. When you are heads down on a project, struggling with how to say it, the advice in this book grounds you to what is important: pulling weeds.

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