I classify a good book as one that I enjoy when I'm reading it, but I can put it down and go to sleep at a reasonable time at night. An exceptional book is one that keeps me reading until my eyes fail to focus around 4 am, or sometimes even to dawn. Finding an exceptional book is a joy, but finding too many in a row makes it hard to function during the day. Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan ($13.95, coming early March) is an exceptional novel, as well as being a first novel. The story starts hundreds of years after Digital Human Storage was perfected. With DHS, all of a person's memories and personality can be electronically pulled from one body, shipped to another location (including other star systems), and downloaded into another body (known as a "sleeve"). Every sleeve has a tiny recording device built in so that the current inhabitant of the sleeve can be brought back to life in a new sleeve if the old sleeve dies-unless the recording device is also destroyed or the person had previously filed a request not to be brought back for religious reasons. (The Catholic Church decided that the soul rests with the body, not with the digital recording of the person, and so Catholics refuse to be brought back in another sleeve-making them the favorite targets for lethal criminals since only Catholic victims won't come back to testify against their killers.)
But where do spare sleeves come from? The very rich can afford to clone themselves, so they always have extra sleeves waiting. Those who can't afford cloning can rent the sleeve of a criminal. When a person is sentenced to 30 years, for example, their digital self is stored for 30 years and the government rents out the sleeve, sometimes by the day to somebody who wants to visit another continent without taking the time to physically transport their old sleeve across the ocean, and sometimes for years. After 30 years, the criminal might even get his old sleeve back-but it's more likely he'll have to accept whatever is available that day. Those who can't afford to rent a criminal's sleeve might be able to afford a synthetic sleeve-the senses aren't as good as a real human body, but it's better than nothing.
Takeshi Kovacs grew up in a tough neighborhood on a colony planet, where he went from minor street criminal to gang member before becoming an elite commando in the U. N. Envoys, the force the U. N. would digitally transmit at near instantaneous speed from colony planet to colony planet to fight wars or to replace a local government that had turned hostile to the U. N. After he left the Envoys, he found that his skills were useful for things like industrial espionage. But his last job went wrong, he and his girlfriend were killed, and he was sentenced to a long period of storage for his crimes.
So, Kovacs is rather surprised to wake up in a new sleeve, 168 light years away, on Earth. A rich industrialist who has been gaining power and wealth for centuries was found dead inside his very secure mansion with his data storage unit destroyed. He's rich enough to have equipment to automatically transmit a copy of his digital self to a secure storage location every 48 hours, but his last backup transmission was 44 hours before he was found dead. The cops are sure it was a suicide, but he's sure he was murdered. Given the kinds of enemies he has made over the centuries, he's decided that he needs somebody with Kovacs' kind of background to work as a private investigator to find out what happened, so he's negotiated a contract with the prison officials on the colony planet that specifies that if Kovacs takes the case and solves it, he'll not have to serve any more of his sentence and he'll get a substantial payment, but if he fails to solve the case he'll have to go back to prison for the rest of his sentence. Thus begins a very hard-boiled detective story set in the 25th century.
There is a lot of graphic violence and some graphic sex in this novel, so be warned if such things bother you. I found it hard to put the book down. (Actually, I did put it down at 10 pm, but not for long, and I finished it at 5:30 in the morning.) With many twists and turns and explorations of strange aspects of how Earth works in this universe, Kovacs does solve the case, but we are promised that this is just the first case for Kovacs. I'm eager for the next one.
War of Honor by David Weber ($26.00) is the tenth novel in the series, and the fattest at 861 pages of story, plus glossary. Most of the Honor Harrington books are primarily action, but a few are primarily political thrillers. About the first half of War of Honor is political in-fighting, on Manticore, within the Manticoran Alliance, and within the new government on Haven. But various stupid moves on the part of the new government on Manticore create several situations that could lead to war, and by the end of the book there are military attacks on various fronts.
After picking up a new Honor Harrington book, I usually stumble around for a couple of days from lack of sleep. While the political in-fighting in this novel was interesting and enjoyable, I found that I was able to put the book down at a reasonable time of night--until I got very near the end of the book.
I had been hearing good things about Patricia Briggs for some time (like people telling me that of the 30 books they picked up last trip, the Briggs was one of the two that they enjoyed the most), and I noticed lots of people wanted to find used copies of her out-of-print books, but her books almost never come back used. So I picked up Dragon Bones ($6.99).
Ward of Hurog is the large teenage son of the lord of Hurog, an abusive man who is a great war-leader. Since his father nearly beat him to death several years ago (and injured his brain enough to destroy his ability to do magic), Ward has been pretending to be simple-minded. When his father suddenly dies, he must convince everybody that he is actually capable of ruling. The vicious king would prefer to declare him incompetent, so that he can pass control of Hurog to a supporter. Ward has listened to enough ballads about heroes to have a stubborn belief in doing what's right, no matter the what the odds are or the political dangers. And he has the family ghost to give him advice. When the king refuses to save a section of the empire from an invading army, Ward joins a small group determined to defeat the much more powerful invading force.
The characters are interesting, the story is fast-moving, and (unlike many recent fantasy epics) there were few enough main characters to keep them all straight. After reading the book, I'm also a Patricia Briggs fan.
The sequel, Dragon Blood ($6.99), starts about four years later. Ward is now securely Lord of Hurog and wants to spend his time helping his people rebuild from the war. But the vicious king is still plotting against Ward and various of his family members, while a civil war is brewing. When an old friend escapes the king's torturers and comes to Ward for help, he is forced by the king's actions to join the rebellion. I enjoyed the second book slightly less than the first, but it is still recommendable.
Scott Westerfeld is another author I've heard lots of good things about, but never sampled. I was surprised that The Risen Empire ($24.95, due mid-March) was being pushed as a space opera, since all of his earlier works seemed to have a buzz for being thought-provoking science fiction with a strong literary flavor. The Risen Empire does in fact have lots of battles, politics, and some romance, but it also is thought-provoking with a strong literary flavor. The Risen Emperor has ruled his empire for 1600 years, ever since shortly after he killed himself to prove that his eternity treatment works. Those who serve him well can also receive the treatment and become Risen after they die. (And after 1600 years, much of the power and wealth of the 80 worlds is in the hands of the Risen.) He also has the Political Apparatus, a force of carefully conditioned enforcers, to deal with those within his empire who might oppose him.
The primary external enemy of the Risen Empire is the Rix Cult, which believes that the proper role of humans is to bring about superior intelligences, such as compound minds that control and utilize all the computer capacity of an entire planet. The Rixwomen (they had disposed of the unnecessary gender) believed in personal upgrades, not recognizing a boundary between animate and inanimate. They also didn't recognize any difference between states of war and peace with their neighbors, since their society was a constant jihad, a ceaseless missionary effort to propagate compound minds.
Much of the warfare is conducted on the nanotech level, with piloted spy-craft the size of a piece of dust against security devices of similar size.
With sentences like, "His dress uniform crawled out of its case like an army of marauding ants.", I'd have to say this novel still has substantial thought-provoking and literary components, no matter how many battles are fought. This is the first of a two-book series.
Timothy Zahn's Manta's Gift ($24.95) is a pleasing blend of hard science and action-adventure. While exploring Jupiter, Jakob Faraday discovers a herd of huge manta-like critters, the Qanska, swimming through the atmosphere. It turns out that the Qanska are intelligent, and the humans and Qanska figure out a way for Matt Rainey, a quadraplegic human, to be place in the womb of a Qanska and be born with the personality of the human but the body of a Qanska. Matt then spends much of the book learning about the Qanska culture and the ecology of Jupiter.
Eventually the humans decide that the Qanska could not have evolved on Jupiter, and therefore must have an interstellar drive that they are trying to keep the humans from finding out about. Faraday is removed from control of the Jupiter operation, as are many of the other experts on the Qanska, as a ruthless political operative from Earth tries to force the Qanska to hand over the secret they claim not to have. Matt, who is neither completely human or completely Qanska, had been having trouble figuring out where his loyalties should lie up to this point, but now he has no trouble figuring out which side to help.
The Warrior's Bond ($7.99) is the fourth in Juliet E. McKenna's five-part fantasy series that began with The Thief's Gamble ($7.99), where we meet Liavek (a young woman who prefers to support herself in games of chance that are less a matter of chance than the other players believe, but if times get tough she's willing to engage in a bit of burglary) and Ryshad (a soldier who has been ordered by his lord to seek revenge against those responsible for torturing a relative to death). In the first book, they discover that the bad guys of the sorcerers of Elietimm, who were responsible for the collapse of the old empire 24 generations before, and they thwart a plot of the bad guys. In the second book, The Swordsman's Oath ($6.99), we see most of the action from Ryshad's point of view, as he thwart's another plot of the bad guys while exploring a lot more of the world and discovers what happened to the old empire's lost colony 24 generations before. In the third book, The Gambler's Fortune ($7.99), we see the action from Liavek's point of view as she searches for old magic that might be used against the bad guys, and in the process discovers their roots and thwarts another of their plots. In The Warrior's Bond, we learn what Rysahd was doing while Liavek was having her adventures in the third book. His lord and some representatives from the lost colony are trying to get aid from the current remnant of the old empire, but several of the major houses see this as an opportunity to jockey for power while knifing others in the back (both figuratively and literally). Rysahd has his hands full fighting mundane enemies in this book, without the nasty sorcerers making a single appearance in this book. It's still an exciting read, and I'm impatiently waiting for the final book (published in England in October, but no word on when it will be published in the U.S.).
Cerulean Sins ($23.95, due early April, signing at Uncle Hugo's April 21) by Laurell K. Hamilton is the latest Anita Blake novel (and the first where the title doesn't refer to a monster-owned business establishment). In between the sex scenes, Anita has problems. A representative of the Vampire Council has shown up a month early to deal with Jean-Claude, the Master Vampire of St. Louis, and both the representative and her more powerful mistress are vicious bitches, and both are messing with Anita's head. While Anita is fighting them, she comes to the attention of the Mother of Them All (who Anita refers to as Mommy Dearest), the original vampire who is so powerful that she created the Vampire Council and then went to sleep for the next 1000 years--but she finds Anita so interesting that she is starting to wake up. And Anita is trying to help the police with a preternatural serial killer, but the head of the department (Dolph) is cracking up because he wants grandchildren and his only son is dating a vampire who wants to "bring him over" so that he will be 25 years old for eternity, wiping out the chance for grandkids. And then there are the international terrorists following Anita around.
If you've read the rest of the series, you're already addicted and will have to buy this one, too. There is a major continuity problem in this one, but it also has some great Anita-lines for humor. It's neither the best or the worst of the series, but it's fun and moves the story line along.