Vagabonds – Dirty Unwashed Potential

81nxmr1dtrlVagabonds, by Hao Jingfang, is the latest Chinese science fiction novel that Ken Liu has skillfully translated from its native tongue for readers’ enjoyment. While I really hope this trend continues and begins to branch out to every culture possible, I find myself struggling to grasp and enjoy Chinese Science Fiction every time I foray into it. When I dug into the Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin, I was fairly sure the issue was with me and my rudimentary understanding of Chinese culture. However, when it came to Vagabonds I had a much harder time pinning down what wasn’t clicking.

On its surface, Vagabonds has an interesting premise that would capture the heart of any fan of golden age sci-fi. Earth is a capitalist paradise, while Mars is a Socialist utopia, and they do not get along. After many years of war, a ceasefire is announced and a selection of students from both worlds are allowed to travel between the planets and put on a miniature world’s fair to display the brilliance and achievements of their home planets. We follow the POV of two individuals, one from Earth and one from Mars, who find themselves changed by their time on their respective new planets. Each of these POVs returns home to find themselves different from their peers and incompatible with their old homes. The story is about these protagonists trying to reconcile what they learned while away from home and prevent future conflict across the stars.

Initially, I was really enjoying Vagabonds. The premise is cool, the culture shock is captivating, the world-building is engaging, and the theoretical ideas surrounding capitalism and socialism by Jingfang feel like fresh takes that I was keen to hear more of. But, my joy and engagement did not last. As the book continues to chug along, and the perspective shifts from a split POV to focusing primarily on a single character, my interest began to wane. Vagabonds feels like it suffers way too much from long and uninteresting self-reflecting eulogies from its cast, and ideas that are just not deep enough to support its gigantic page count.

You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the names of any of the POVs and cast, and that is because I cannot remember any of them. The characters are all unmemorable and fairly dull, which makes the fact that the book explores their feelings about every gust of wind and falling leaf drag on the reader like swimming with lead weights. The more that the book shifted from its core arguments of capitalism vs. socialism to the exploration of how its boring cast felt about events – the less I liked it. There are still some great ideas in the story, but they are absolutely not worth the amount of time it took me to dig them out of the rest of the filler.

Vagabonds is a book with a powerful premise that lacks in execution. Its enormous page count is unwarranted, and its characters carry the story about as well as sieves carry water. If you are a huge fan of golden age science-fiction and if you don’t mind a clunky narrative with an unwieldy page count, you might really enjoy it. But, if you find yourself having to choose between Vagabonds or a different enticing read – I would likely recommend that you go with the later.

Rating: Vagabonds – 5.0/10
-Andrew

Cold Iron – Not My Speed, But A Great Book

41spu0t5ddl._sx331_bo1204203200_I am playing a little bit of catch up this week and knocked out some books from last year I was unable to get around to reading. One of these books was Cold Iron, by Miles Cameron. Many of you likely haven’t heard of Cameron, but he is a bit of an underground superstar. While he is not well known, he seems to have a particularly fervent niche following that absolutely loves his work. This work primarily consists of a grimdark epic fantasy series called The Traitor Son Cycle (the first book is The Red Knight) which is five books long, each of which is massive. I think a lot of what makes Cameron stand out as an author is his unique narrative style and prose. It is very distinctive, favoring more detailed descriptives and intricate worldbuilding over dialogue, and it tends to be very polarizing. Unfortunately, when I read The Red Knight I found myself in the “not a fan” group of the split, but with Cold Iron, I was hoping to give Cameron a second chance because I loved his new premise.

Cameron’s new series follows the story of Aranthur, a young man attending a magical university in “The City” where he is hoping to learn to be a mage. He is from a rural farming community with fairly successful parents who saved up a bit to send him there, and he has high hopes for making a future for himself as a Magus. Interestingly, this all changes during a chance encounter on his way home for spring break, where he leaps to the defense of some innocents with a sword he bought on a whim – thus beginning his newfound journey to become a swordsman in a world of magic.

The premise of Cold Iron is as simple as it is captivating – a reversal on the “boy discovers he’s a magic prodigy” trope. The idea of someone taking up the sword in a world of people throwing fire seemed intriguing and possibly ridiculous, and I was hooked from page one. Cameron paints an impressively detailed world that takes some time to get familiarized with. He makes up a number of words and terms that you need to slowly learn, and while they do help characterize the culture, they also make it hard to read the book at any speed. The pace of Cold Iron overall is super slow and if you are not up to a thoughtful meandering book this might not be for you.

The characters are also very deep. Aranthur is a complex bundle of emotions, often favoring curiosity and manners over all else. He feels like a gentleman scholar, who is unsure and unconfident due to his young age, and he is an easy protagonist to rally behind. The side cast is all also deep and varied, which helps a lot with the slow pace of the book. By this I mean, although you spend a huge part of the book sitting around tables listening to the cast small talk – there is enough variety and complexity to the personalities in play that conversations are engrossing despite being about nothing. However, all of these positives still didn’t help me get past my principle problem with Cameron’s work – I simply do not like his prose.

To be perfectly clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Cameron’s prose, it is just not to my personal preference. His narration is very slow and meticulous, preferring to spend a lot of time diving into the thoughts and observations of his characters. I feel he likes to focus on the small things going on around his characters, the minute coming and goings of people going about their daily tasks. This style does an incredible job painting a very vivid picture of his characters, but probably due to my ADHD, I tend to find it slow and boring. Mechanically his writing is very impressive, and just because I didn’t like it does not mean you (my reader) won’t.

I didn’t finish Cold Iron. I got about 70% of the way through because I was heavily invested in the story before the slow pacing of the narration just calcified my interest in continuing. If you are the kind of person who lives for dialogue and fast-paced action in a series, you might have the same issues I did with Cold Iron. But, if you are ok with taking things slow, and find the idea of full immersion in a medieval European fantasy setting appealing, then I definitely think you should pick up this book despite my reservations. Cold Iron has a story, and a premise, worth reading – even if that reader isn’t me.

Rating: Cold Iron – 6.5/10
-Andrew