Book Review: The Three-Body Problem

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From Goodreads:

With the scope of Dune and the commercial action of Independence DayThree-Body Problem is the first chance for English-speaking readers to experience this multiple-award-winning phenomenon from  China’s most beloved science fiction author, Liu Cixin.

Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.

The Three-Body Problem is, I believe, the first large translated work from Chinese that I’ve read. The majority of books that I read were written in English, then translated into other languages as necessary, so reading the reverse was a refreshing experience. As this is a translated work, with the translator playing a prominent role, including a cover credit, I feel that I need to break my review into two parts—the translation, and the story itself.

And so I start my review of the translation by talking about the story. The story follows Chinese culture through various time periods, from half a century in the past up through the present day. The style of writing differs based on the time period, and, at least to me, so did the tone. I am not entirely sure if the tone was in the original this strongly, and was simply well translated, or if that was added during the translation to enhance the effect. Either way, it really works.

A note, however: This means that the first section or two may, at times, feel slightly clunkier than the rest of the book. Go ahead and push through. Even if you don’t like the grammar of the translation, it does get more “natural” feeling as you go. (Either that, or I simply got used to it and stopped noticing after a while.)

The culture also comes through strongly in the translation. Especially in the first part, which is largely based on historical events, the translator, Ken Liu, included footnotes explaining some of the events and names to a western audience. These were incredibly helpful, and, because they came during slower parts of the book, didn’t break the flow for me. It made it apparent that I was reading a translated work, and I’m fine with that.

About the work itself. As I mentioned above, the story follows several time periods, and this was perhaps the most jarring thing about it. It gives several chapters in one time period, just enough to get to know some characters, begins to build into something that looks interesting, then jumps to the next time-period and resets with new characters and so on. It can lead to a bit of a whiplash feeling, and was probably my least favorite part of the novel.

Unfortunately, this also kept the novel from gaining momentum for me. Every time I thought something big was about to happen, we changed scenery, and my interest dipped. I honestly was bored enough with it halfway through that, had it not been a Hugo nominee, I might have put it down to come back to at a later time.

But I’m glad I kept reading. Once we got to the main timeline of the story, things really started happening, and the plot got a lot more interesting. There are a lot of really cool science aspects to this story, and the author deals with them quite deftly. I thought the science and the plot were woven together quite well—this is the kind of book that puts the science in science fiction.

The ending of the book was huge, as well, even though it felt like a large amount of set-up for the next book. It fulfilled a lot of the promises made in the earlier sections of the book, and, at least in part, justified their existence.

In summary, The Three-Body Problem has a slow and jerky start that nearly threw me off, but I’m glad I stuck with it, because the ending was worth it. The translation is far more than adequate, and I’m glad this book was so well done for English-speaking audiences. It wasn’t my favorite book on the Hugo list this year, but I see its merits, and I have no problem with it winning the award. I give it a high 3 of 5 stars, and I have hopes that the next two books in the trilogy, without the need for the build-up at the beginning, are even better.

Liu Cixin’s (Chinese) blog.

Goodreads.

Amazon.

Novel Review: City of Stairs

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From Goodreads:

Years ago, the city of Bulikov wielded the powers of the Gods to conquer the world. But after its divine protectors were mysteriously killed, the conqueror has become the conquered; the city’s proud history has been erased and censored, progress has left it behind, and it is just another colonial outpost of the world’s new geopolitical power. Into this musty, backward city steps Shara Divani. Officially, the quiet mousy woman is just another lowly diplomat sent by Bulikov’s oppressors. Unofficially, Shara is one of her country’s most accomplished spymasters — dispatched to investigate the brutal murder of a seemingly harmless historian. As Shara pursues the mystery through the ever-shifting physical and political geography of the city, she begins to suspect that the beings who once protected Bulikov may not be as dead as they seem — and that her own abilities might be touched by the divine as well.

Robert Jackson Bennet plays a nutcase on Twitter. And he does it quite convincingly. I was expecting, at the very least, for City of Stairs to be filled with some of the same craziness that doesn’t really seem to add up, even though I’ve seen not only friends but also authors and editors whose opinion I respect saying nothing but good about it on Twitter and blogs.

As usual, they were right. City of Stairs was surprisingly perfect for my tastes.

The plot itself takes a while to get going, and that’s not a problem at all. Accept that there’s going to be a bit of a learning curve during the first few chapters, and relax. The world is cool. It’s heavily Russian-influenced, and so it’s probably best to accept that you’re never going to pronounce the names quite correctly.

But once you get through those first few chapters, things begin to pick up, and the book is a sequence of brilliant moments by the end.

The book uses a lot of tropes—the small but highly intelligent female protagonist, the hulking barbarian brute with more depth than first meets the eye, the wealthy former lover with the insufferable attitude…

It’s all there. And it’s all done just right. These characters are not just the tropes—they’re people. Who just happen to conform to the tropes, but you love them anyway. Especially Sigrud.

The setting, as I said before, is largely Russian based. Other than that, it’s a fairly standard fantasy milieu, with fallen gods and ancient but unpredictable magic scattered around the pages. Epic battles, long histories, and well-kept secrets dot the background, giving it a rich, well-imagined feel to it. The world of Shaypur and the Continent is one that feels immediately familiar and at the same time fresh and exciting.

The ending is done just right, and I feel like, even without a sequel, City of Stairs is quite satisfying in its own right. That being said, there is a sequel! City of Blades! I can’t wait for this one!

The book made the long-list for the Hugo this year, and, without the Puppy slates, likely would have been a finalist. It deserved that position–it’s definitely in the top 5 books I read last year. I was enjoying it so much by the end that, when I left my copy at home, I bought the e-book on my phone at full price just to get the last 50 pages for my morning train ride.

In summary, City of Stairs was a brilliant epic fantasy, told as an intriguing mystery story set in a pseudo-Russian society with gods, magic, spies, murder, the whole nine yards. It should have been on the Hugo ballot last year, and you need to go out and get a copy now so that you’re ready when the sequel drops in January. Five of five stars without question.

Robert Jackson Bennett.

City of Stairs on Goodreads.

City of Stairs on Amazon.