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Monday, August 3, 2009

"Land of the Dead" by Thomas Harlan (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Thomas Harlan Website
Order "Land of the Dead" HERE
Read Chapters 1-20 (with links to online glossary) from "Land of the Dead" HERE
Read FBC's Review/Overview of the series so far HERE

INTRODUCTION: Thomas Harlan series has been a big time favorite of mine since its first volume published in 2004. In this review of "Land of the Dead" I wanted to talk about the first two books "Wasteland of Flint" and "House of Reeds" in an extended introduction but then I realized those two books and the whole series set-up so far deserve a full post to do them justice.
The author' site linked above has a lot of extras including a glossary which in a very nice touch is also linked from the 20 free sample chapters of "Land of the Dead", images illustrating scenes from the book and much more.

OVERVIEW: The novel stands at about 420 pages and it starts with some notes about measurements and military ranks equivalents between the Mexica and the Japanese nomenclature. There are lots of small chapters based on the location of the action with the main two POV's being Mitsuharu Tadeishi and his former XO and now a battlecruiser commander Susan Kosho who is of exalted enough familty to be an acquintance of an Imperial Prince, while Gretchen's role and POV become more important in the second part of the novel.

The cover illustrates this change in emphasis since now we have Susan featured as opposed to Gretchen on the first two covers. In Tadeishi's thread there is the Musashi sub-thread about the legendary samurai of the 1600's who in this alt-universe fought with Yeyasu against the Yuan dynasty of Japan and is a role model for Mitsuharu who uses Musashi's tactics to plan his; however different the circumstances may be - samurai, swords and fighting bandits or Mongols vs guns, space, boarding hostile alien starships, fighting said nasty aliens, since the "civilization against barbarians" is a universal theme. This subtle touch added a lot to the novel for me.

ANALYSIS: In a very tight combination of military sf action with big space battles between behemoths, daring escapes using strange artifacts that bend spacetime and small scale hand to hand combat with sense of wonder space opera featuring vanished ultra-powerful aliens, strange artifacts and special humans with unexpected powers, "Land of the Dead" takes the series to the next level and truly leaves you wanting the next installment as soon as possible.

In many ways the novel is also the first one in which the superb series premise described in the earlier post linked above is finally exploited to the maximum and I think that is in no small part due to changing the focus regarding main characters.

I liked Gretchen Anderson a lot in the first two volumes and following the developments of "Land of the Dead" I am sure she will continue to have a very important role in what comes next, but focusing the novels on her almost by necessity meant an edge of society marginal view considering her "descendant of defeated enemy" birth. Also Green Hummingbird was fascinating but his main draw was the mystique of the Nauallis powers so well shown in the memorable Ephesus scenes from "Wasteland of Flint". But that works only if the mystique is preserved so to speak, so you cannot really focus a large part of the novel on him either.

Changing the focus to Hadeishi and his samurai ethos and to Susan Cho who proves a remarkably resourceful commander in addition to her high rank birth that automatically puts her in the center of the big picture in due course means that the novel can deal in a natural way with the "big picture" and it truly pays off here.

The new aliens that appear here are also very fascinating while the twists and turns keep coming and the novel is a true page turner despite maintaining the high density of content of the earlier novels too. I also loved the snippets of the Imperial house intrigues and the contrast between the two princes actions in "House of Reeds" vs "Land of the Dead" worked very well too.

Overall I thought that "Land of the Dead" was the first core-sf novel of 2009 that truly blew me away and it became of the novels I plan to re-read quite a few times across the years.


Jim Haley said...

Liviu, just curious how you feel about Land of the Dead as a starting point/entry point into this series? I remember seeing the first book back in '04, but I never read it and I don't recall seeing the second novel. Thanks for reviewing the whole series though, it's definately caught my interest.

Liviu said...

Thank you for your kind words;

Land of the Dead works as an entry point since the action so far is only moderately connected - book follows book, but each book is quasi-independent.

The necessary back-story (especially about Hadeishi) is introduced quickly

I read the book when I got the arc last month and then it made me re-read the other two and read this one once more until I could leave the series universe and it made me start seriously on Oath of Empire which is this week's read for me by and large - may intersperse the 4 novels with something else just not to get over tired of the series


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