Monday, October 22, 2007

Lisa's Take: The Black Jewels Trilogy (Anne Bishop)

(In a clucking tone of voice) TRIIIIIPE tripetripetripetripe. Tripe.

By all that's holy, I really don't know how I finished this trilogy of books. I think perhaps it was only for the feeling of conquest that comes with completing an exceptionally thick volume - which this certainly qualified as, with the trilogy bound into one book. Surely there were some redeeming features to be had, but I'm having the worst time calling them to mind now. When you get right down to it the prose was dull and uninspired, the characters didn't even approach anything resembling original, compelling or consistent, and the plot tried SO hard to be full on intrigue, emotion, and convolutions... but was really just straightforward and predictable. Also made of holes. Perhaps the only thing I can say for the books is that the universe and premise behind it was original and at least marginally interesting. If I stretch really hard there might have been 3 lines of dialog that got something resembling a chuckle out of me. At least said dull and uninspired prose was digestible enough to keep the words flowing. That's as much praise as I can manage.

This is the part where I classically would type "That said, you might still consider this book if...." but no. Not this time. Maybe, MAYBE if you're a 16 year old girl who reads nothing but Mercedes Lackey or Laurell K. Hamilton you might find this trilogy worthwhile. Personally, I can muster nothing but scorn and scathing words, so I will leave this review laconic - which is to say, I will end it right here. How's that for a bad review of a bad book?

Lisa's Take: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

I know, this is an odd break from my usual diet of fantasy, sci-fi, fantasy, and more fantasy, isn't it? I blame boredom - I was stuck immobile while a few other people investigated a corn maze, so I rooted around in their supply of satchels and purses until I came across something to keep me entertained. I found The Kite Runner, which I had no idea was such a well known and acclaimed work (movie is in production, and held up with all sorts of controversy). Shows how much attention I pay to the Straight Fiction Genre as a whole.

Anyway, I can understand how The Kite Runner has garnered so much acclaim. It's one of those books that... pretty much can't help but get good reviews and recognition, much like any movie about (for instance) 9-11. The problem is that I can't decide whether it's only good because it's so startling, or if it's actually good in its own right. I suppose I'll start with a quick summary and then go from there.

Kite runner is a story about a man named Amir. The plot follows him through his childhood, cataloging the betrayals he perpetrates and the path that his life follows afterwards as he comes to grip with living as a coward and eventually seeks redemption. It begins in Afghanistan in the 70s and the political unrest there is both a reflection and a backdrop for the whole story.

That's a fairly paltry summary, but to be honest there's just not -that- much content I can summarize without getting spoilerific, so I'll leave it at that. The day I picked up Kite Runner I read about 40 pages, and it was good enough to keep me hooked and legitimately borrow the book. The images it evoked were both clear an engaging, and I found myself quite drawn into the image the author painted of childhood in the summer. Of course this just made the impending turning of the plot for the worse that much more painful - I was in quite an awful mood the day the book got depressing, and it was really very effecting.

That said, the author did a few things that really prodded my pet-peeve button and did a lot to detract from the story. Gripe number one was the constant and flagrant overuse of "Little did he know." It wasn't always phrased that way, but I swear to god if I had to hear the main character say "I didn't know then, but..." one more time, I was going to punch someone. Gripe number two was that the whole thing was just too... tidy. Not in the literal sense (as there was violence and gore enough to offend even the most staunch sensibilities) but in the sense that everything just sort of worked out and fit together juuuuust so. Old childhood nemesis cropping up at exactly the expected moment, that sort of thing. While the first half of the book pretty much took me, if not by surprise, without a sense of "oh, here it comes," the second half of the book was just one instance after another of "ah, I see, now this is going to happen, and then that, and the timing will go just so." Right at the very end I thought the author might shake things up and tarnish the obvious perfection that was impending... but, he didn't. Not really.

That said - The Kite Runner is still one of those books that can't get bad reviews. It's well written enough that you can get over it's faults, glaring though they are to any but the most pedestrian of readers, and the story and events in it are controversial enough that you can't bad mouth them without being called an ass. What a way to gain acclaim! I guess in the end I'll say it's a good book - but it certainly gets a lot more credit than it's truly due. Still, it's worth the read.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Lisa’s Take – Vellum (Hal Duncan)

There is, perhaps, nothing in the world more infuriating than a book that could just almost be absolutely incredible… but, rather than pull through and be remarkable, manages instead to be awful, painful, and frustrating. Vellum is the first book I’ve ever read that quite fits this bill, truth be told – the occasional novel might be dull with brilliant flashes, or excellent with bad aspects that bring it down, but nothing quite like this. For my first trick, I will attempt a plot summary. I’m wildly torn between saying that there’s just too much to summarize, that the paths and meanderings of the text are too divergent to condense into a few sentences… versus saying that there’s not enough there to make a summary out of – the story too thin, the characters too inconsistent. Still, I’ll try.

There’s a war coming between heaven and hell, and the angels that (brutally) run heaven are trying to make sure that all the unkin (fancy name for more angels) in the world have chosen a side. They don’t really care which side the unkin choose, just that every person is either for heaven or against it. Sounds more or less straightforward; you’ve got 6 or 7 characters fulfilling various roles in this fairly tidy little notion.

Except that then you’ve got the Vellum, too.

The Vellum is this concept of… hmm. I guess the closest analog in sci-fi/fantasy would be the concept of parallel universes – universes in which every scenario, every situation, every development of a character. This is also pretty straightforward, except that then Mr. Duncan introduces the idea of Time as a Three Dimensional Beast – so every few chapters put your characters in a blender, give it a whirl and pour out a new smoothie of relationships, roles fulfilled, setting, genre, and time period. Oh, and eventually there’s some sentient nano-tech. Had to throw that in there.

Now, I still think Vellum could have worked out, in spite of the time- and role-bending. Ducan has some seriously awesome ideas… classic fantasy transposed over a modern world, alternate histories for both world wars, hard cyberpunk and Gaijin Ninjas, ancient Sumerian; the list really just goes on and on. But instead of just writing the damn novel, the author chose to break everything up into third- and half-page chunks, mixing his ideas, his time periods, metaphors… so that instead of the smooth, bendable expanse of vellum that he preaches, you’ve basically got a wadded up, crinkled piece of paper. I literally had to sit down and force myself to read, because there was zero in the way of flow or continuity. You couldn’t keep a handle on the characters long enough to get attached to them or know them. Say you liked one of his worlds and ideas? Too bad! It’s gone before you could do more than start to form a vague inkling of appreciation.

I could go on with the ranting, but I’ll desist before I get incoherent in my frustration. The bottom line? Reading Vellum was thoroughly infuriating and unenjoyable… and then just to ice the cake there’s no end, no winding down – the book just stops, presumably so that the sequel (Ink) can pick up. Too bad that I won’t be picking it up.