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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Gopher Mars!

I don't usually post animal videos, but this really is very cute. It is space related, as well, as it is taken by a camera in Baikonur's space center. Check it out!

Got it from an article about the animals living near rocket launch pads: Launch Pad Animals, Ranked

More into the secret life of the gopher here: No one plays golf on Mars

Hand of Oberon, by Roger Zelazny (Amber series book IV)

book cover The pattern (ahem!) becomes apparent once again: same lead character doing stuff in random order just to make the story be the way it was imaged by the author, same boring exposition, same artificial drama that could have been avoided easily if Corwin would have acted like a real character and not some cardboard placeholder of the lead, same stupid and obvious twist at the end, giving the name of the book even if most of it was about something else, same lackluster secondary characters, completely oblivious and helpless if not for the main protagonist and the mighty writer god. Indeed, the mock metaphor is not so far stretched when you think that in order to do anything worthwhile, people have to step on a pattern drawn on the floor and follow the lines exactly, without stopping, or they die. Maybe so we understand the villain better, trying to spill the blood of the children of Oberon, in order to destroy the existing pattern and build one anew: a book worth reading.

In The Hand of Oberon, Roger Zelazny again throws his Corwin character into a series of unlikely events, wooden dialogues and implausible behaviors. All strange events, that by all established rules should not be possible, are completely ignored by the characters until they appear relevant to some great reveal. Again a villain must walk the pattern and they must stop him, by posting guards, by walking the pattern after him, yadda yadda yadda. No one even considers taking a stone off the ground and hitting him on the head with it while they are hopping around the magical Hopscotch (not to mention a rubber bullet gun which would have solved everything in most situations). No one interrogates the corroborating witnesses or the people involved in the same situations until it is too late and they themselves don't act unless confronted later on in a sort of "oh, yeah" moment that is nothing but embarrassing.

The ending is just as muddled, with a scene that sees the villain put in storage for later use and a great reveal that had been obvious for a book and a half. No one seems to really care that the shadow realms have different rates of time passage either, so instead of using some trump to go to the fastest realm to talk or plan and return with entire plans made up, they sit around in feudal palaces in Amber, looking all important. I mean, Zelazny never truly describes their attire (unless it's some girl, and then he must describe her to the size of her cups), but I think that a kevlar shirt and some blue jeans and sneakers would have done wonders to the politics of the place. Oh yeah, kevlar probably doesn't work in Amber.

One book to go until the protagonist changes. At least there is some hope there...

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Sign of the Unicorn, by Roger Zelazny (Amber series book III)

Audio book cover Sign of the Unicorn continues where the second book ended and ends with another cliffhanger reveal that more or less has little to do with the content of the book! While I admit this book is slightly more interesting than the first two, the way the characters act and particularly the way Roger Zelazny completely ignores some of the main points in those books is becoming increasingly annoying. And just like the guns in The Guns of Avalon were a mere detail in an otherwise completely unrelated story, the Unicorn is something that just appears twice in the same book!

OK, enough ranting. This particular volume of the story (because it would be quite impossible to read the book without the first two, so in essence it is still the same book) is hinting about the origin of the strange forces attacking the realm, as well as explaining some more what had happened to Corwin and the court intrigues that led to it all. More of the siblings make their appearance, but their characters are reduced to conversation pieces in feudal Poirot-like instances, when they just come when bidden or do something that is instrumental to the plot going... in the same direction it was going. Instead of walking around with two Ingrams on his belt, Corwin continues to depend on his sword and reflexes, while sleeping underneath the same roof as his murderous and treacherous relatives. Instead of getting the man who sprung him from jail and using his unparalleled gift, Corwin seems to have forgotten about him completely. When he misses an important piece of jewelry that actually saves his life, he just abandons it and goes to do his usual business. And what about Bleys? After finding a solution for enhancing the power of the tarot cards, he just decides to use it once, on a single person. What about Oberon, man?! He's your dad!

Apparently, it wasn't enough ranting. It is kind of difficult for me to accept the layout of the story. Like any young adult movie recently, the author takes your sight and nails it to his narrow perspective, his favourite character and the things he feels he needs to do. Same unsympathetic shallow characters, same disaffectionate way of describing events, same predictable deus-ex-machina devices to promote the plot. Thank God these books are short!

The Guns of Avalon, by Roger Zelazny (Amber series book II)

Book cover The Guns of Avalon continues the story from the moment the previous book ended. Roger Zelazny is taking his Corwin character through some shadow land towards Avalon, where he might find the answer to his desire to claim the throne: an explosive agent that works in Amber.

His plans are soon thrown into disarray by several happenings. We meet the smart strategist brother Benedict, another blood relative Dara, we meet Gerard as well as learn a little bit more about the Amber world. However, the dispassionate style of writing as well as the dispassionate style of reading the book by its very author, made me feel close to nothing about the characters or events described. Again, I felt like learning nothing, as all the interactions between characters are very shallow and there is nothing described in enough detail to expand on the knowledge of the world or on some skill that the characters have. The author has attempted to show in the book that Corwin is a compassionate man, saving women from rape and wounded men from dying, helping his friends and being reluctant to dispatch or even harm his treacherous brothers, yet it all comes out like some guy playing a multiple option game: "Do you want to save the woman or keep going?" "Oh, what the hell, let's save the woman, see what happens". The ending of the book comes down brutally, solving several problems in a very lazy way, avoiding any controversial decisions that Corwin would (and should) have taken and introducing a magical nemesis that has no reason to exist that the reader would care about.

I am starting to feel that I've stumbled upon a dud. Two out of ten books to go (five if we consider that from the sixth book there will be a different main protagonist), and the only reasons I keep going are a promise to finish the series and my lack of strength for doing anything else.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Nine Princes in Amber, by Roger Zelazny (Amber series book I)

Book cover Nine Princes in Amber describes a world in which only one place is "substance", the great city of Amber, while all others, including Earth, are just "shadow". Roger Zelazny doesn't really explain what is the difference, but we catch glimpses of the way Amber people can alter reality and that some of the things that happen in shadow cannot happen in Amber. Gun powder, for example, or perhaps even electricity. Great power can be channeled through tarot cards that hold the images of the children of Oberon or some other things, former king of Amber, while his numerous sons and daughters scheme and plan to take over the throne. The cards are drawn by a weird magician that seems to hold no political power, despite his amazing skill.

I took advantage of a flu that restricted me to bed in order to listen to the book in audio format, narrated by Roger Zelazny himself. While I enjoyed it, I didn't feel it taught me anything new. It was a pretty inconsistent story, as well. Princes and princesses and nobles, acting all smarty and aristocratic, dueling with swords and the occasional bow or crossbow, and some of the classic cliches encountered in this sort of context: like never killing your noble opponents, but imprisoning them or torturing/displaying them in order to demonstrate power.

In the end, the main protagonist remains a mystery. He starts with an amnesia, but soon he recovers his memory, making the entire memory loss kind of pointless. It is never quite spelled out who he is as a person, or what was it that he did on Earth. In truth, the book feels more like an introduction to the world of Amber, more like a teaser really, leaving the exposition of real character or description of the worlds to the following books. It is one of the first books from Zelazny, so maybe it will become better in the future. It is not explained why someone would want to rule Amber, either, as any other shadow world looks more appealing.

Even if I haven't fully enjoyed the story, I did promise a friend I would finish the entire Amber series, so we will see. After finishing it, I reserve the right to torture my friend in order to display my power by making him read something truly awesome and unsettling. I have not yet determined what yet, but a dark bird of my desire will carry my message and he will live in fear.

Zelazny himself died in 1995. I found a page written by George R. R. Martin, a beautiful remembrance of a mentor and friend. Apparently, he wrote the character Croyd (The Sleeper) in the Wild Cards series, one of the most interesting characters and appearing in many of the stories, even if very rarely as a main protagonist.