Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Lisa's Take - Temeraire Book 2: Throne of Jade (Naomi Novik)

Let's see... I finished His Majesty's Dragon Saturday morning, then that evening went out and bought the next 3 books. I would have finished Throne of Jade at lunch Tuesday, but I had to cut my lunch time in half, which meant I had 30 niggling pages hanging on that had to be pushed until dinner time. Still, I finished the book in under three days - I trust you take that as an adequate indicator of how drawn into the world I am.

I will refrain from re-gushing over the same details of the world and the book as I did in my review of book 1; if you haven't read that review yet, I suggest you start there, and then try this one on for size. Throne of Jade does something fairly brilliant in the realm of fantasy, and instead of doing the same thing in the same setting over again, it takes a quite new tack. When it comes to light that Temeraire is a rare Chinese celestial dragon, China is displeased and demands he be brought before the emperror. So, instead of rehashing the same ideas as the first book, we get a whole new setting and quite a number of new, interesting topics and developments. There's a lot more political intrigue this time around and fewer of the heart-in-throat aerial battles. Regardless, the book stays true to the underlying themes from the first book.

That said, this time around I'm ready to knit pick a bit. Two thirds of this book was occupied in telling about the 8-month boat trip from England to China. There was a lot of plot happening, and a number of pertinent points were brought up... but it started to drag after a while. It could be argued that this was the author's intention, which is to say that she really wanted to impress the doldrums of the journey, but especially in this case that seems a thin excuse. I would much rather she'd kept it a bit shorter and then devoted more of the book to the happenings in China. The latter part of the action seemed a bit squished in and hurried, as though she were rushing to fit everything in before she hit her word-count limit.

Near the end of the book I also found a couple of moments where it seems like characters acted... well, out of character. Especially Temeraire's behavior made me do a couple of double takes, as though Novik didn't do a good enough job justifying what caused his reactions. Sure, he's supposed to be a finicky belligerent teenager (in essence) during this book, but that doesn't mean he should be jarringly unpredictable.

Aaaand, that's all I've got. I had to work pretty hard just to come up with those two critiques, truth be told. I suspect if I hadn't been reading with a critical eye, or if I hadn't read it directly back-to-back with the previous book, I would have had nothing to complain about at all. Once again I give this book and it's predecessor a resounding thumbs up - absolutely a must read for newly released fantasy. I suspect I'll have a review of book three finished within a week, at the rate I've been going.

Lisa's Take - Temeraire Book 1: His Majesty's Dragon (Naomi Novik)

I don't know that I could possibly start this review off with sufficient exuberance - I feel like I'd need more exclamation marks, made up words and capital letters than can possibly be healthy or acceptable in a literary blog. Instead I'll just keep it to this: I absolutely could not be happier with His Majesty's Dragon. Less than 2 days after I finished it, I'm already about 30 pages from the end of book 2; when I went to the book store I bought books 2-4 immediately, not to mention the girlish squeal of glee that escaped me when I discovered that there was more than just the trilogy I was expecting. I am entirely thrilled.

I'm trying to recall if I've read any Dragonly literature since my Ann McCaffrey kick back in high school. Back during my freshman year I plowed through every single Dragonrider of Pern book in a matter of a few weeks. I suppose my last book (Guards! Guards!) had some dragon-bits, but it was at least in part incidental to the story, rather than the main focus. Hmm, I hadn't realized it had been so long...

Tangent aside, this book is simply fantastic. The basic premise is straightforward: take the Napoleonic Wars, and imagine that all of the countries possess, in addition to the traditional military and navy, an aerial division of manned dragons. I'm truly impressed by how skillfully she inserted dragons into the history, the change really is about as seamless as you can get. As for the plot itself, the book follows Will Laurence, a naval captain turned aviator. When his crew captures a French vessel that has an egg on board, they can't make it back to port before the egg hatches. When the dragon emerges it attaches itself to Laurence, who names it (Temeraire, if you hadn't guessed) and cares for it in spite of knowing being drafted by the aviators will be the end of his naval career.

Aside from the exceptionally interesting premise, there are a few other noteworthy things about this book. First and foremost: the characterizations are absolutely stunning. Both Laurence and Temeraire are especially vivid and convincing, and each of them develop richly throughout the story. The entire cast of supporting characters are also well developed and inspire a great amount of emotion. On top of these points, the plot is excellent and engaging - it reads like candy and inspires all sorts of appropriate emotions while not being too predictable, and certainly not over-done. The dialog is excellent and the story is historically accurate; I can't even begin to imagine how much research she must have done.

As an amusing, if irrelevant, site note: Naomi Novik is massively adorable. She's a total geek - did her grad studies in Computer Science, was part of the design or dev team for a Neverwinter Nights release, and is in general googley-eyed and cute. Clearly more authors need to be of a geeky nature and personally pleasing to me!

The bottom line: get this book and devour the hell out of it. It's too good to ignore - just be prepared to immediately go invest in the sequels.

Lisa's Take - Guards! Guards! (Terry Pratchett)

tIf there's nothing quite as bad as having high hopes for a book and having them dashed, conversely there must be nothing quite as nice as having high hopes for a book and having them fulfilled. I got my first taste of Prachett about 8 years ago when I picked up The Color of Magic, Pratchett's first Discworld novel. I was mildly entertained, but it wasn't spectacular and just didn't quite deliver, so I never really kept going with the series. Finally after another 4 or 5 years of badgering by various individuals, I decided to give the Discworld novels a second try, this time starting with a different story thread - the Guards thread rather than the Rincewind thread. I was assured that the Guards thread is some of his best work, and that he had a few dozen books under his belt by the time he started it, so there would be no more New Writer Blunders.

Guards! Guards! (I love writing out that title, I get to be so exclamatory) follows the mishaps and adventures of 4 nightwatch guardsmen who are, respectively, a Drunk, a Sleaze, a Blustery Coward, and a Definitely-Not-Long-Lost-King. When Dark Forces connive to infest the city with dragons, it's up to the aforementioned quartet to get to the bottom of the mystery. Really there's not a huge amount of story there, so I'll leave my summary at that to avoid spoilers.

Basically everything about this book was spot on. It had an interesting story that at first glance seemed predictable, but then turned out not to be. It had solid entertaining characters that actually *gasp!* developed via the plot line. It had excellent, witty dialog that got quite a number of chuckles out of me, particularly as many instances struck a Monty Python-esque chord with their pacing and delivery. Finally there was a healthy dose of intrigue, good guys in black, bad guys in white, clever and daring escapes, incredulous romances, and entertaining footnotes. Have I mentioned I'm a sucker for footnotes?

Anyway, the bottom line is a resounding thumbs up for this book - it's most certainly worth the read, and I know I'll be continuing to devour the rest of the books in this storyline. Seeing as how I'm nearly out of Dresden File books, I think these will serve nicely to break up other more serious fantasy.