Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 Review

Inspired by Geoff, I decided to keep a list of the books that I read this year. Below is the complete list, in (more or less) order of book completion. I didn't really have a goal in mind when I started, but I made it to 51 books, which seems a good number for a year. Maybe next year I can make it 60!

  1. The Phoenix Guards (re-read) by Steven Brust
  2. Fire in the Sun by George Alec Effinger
  3. Black Powder War by Naomi Novik
  4. Privilege of the Sword (re-read) by Ellen Kushner
  5. Dead Beat by Jim Butcher
  6. Wicked by Gregory Maguire
  7. Proven Guilty by Jim Butcher
  8. The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes
  9. Lord Foul's Bane (didn't finish) by Stephen R. Donaldson
  10. Territory by Emma Bull
  11. The Gunslinger by Stephen King
  12. Renegade's Magic by Robin Hobb
  13. Briar Rose by Jane Yolen
  14. My Own Kind of Freedom (not published) by Steven Brust
  15. Fire Study by Maria Snyder
  16. Otherland - River of Blue Fire by Tad Williams
  17. Sabriel by Garth Nix
  18. Black Ships by Jo Graham
  19. Sir Apropos of Nothing
  20. Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner
  21. Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik
  22. Before They Are Hanged by Jow Abercrombie
  23. Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay
  24. The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue
  25. Dies the Fire by George Alec Effinger
  26. The Automatic Detective by A. Lee Martinez
  27. Kushiel's Mercy by Jacqueline Carey
  28. The Dark Volume by Gordon Dahlquist
  29. Blood Noir by Laurel K. Hamilton
  30. Jhegaala by Steve Brust
  31. The Immortal Prince by Jennifer Fallon
  32. The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall
  33. Dragon Champion by E. E. Knight
  34. Tigerheart by Peter David
  35. White Night by Jim Butcher
  36. Holder of Lightning by S. L. Farrell
  37. The Magicians and Mrs. Quent by Galen M. Beckett
  38. Fevre Dream by George R. R. Martin
  39. The Sordid Tale of Jackie D (not yet published) by C. L. Witten
  40. Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie
  41. The Good Fairies of New York (didn't finish) Martin Millar
  42. Last Dragon by J. M. McDermott
  43. The Stand by Stephen King
  44. Little Brother by Corey Doctorow
  45. Man with the Golden Torc by Simon R. Green
  46. Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett
  47. Hood by Stephen Lawhead
  48. Too Many Curses by A. Lee Martinez
  49. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
  50. Scarlet by Stephen Lawhead
  51. Halting State by Charles Stross

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Lisa’s Take: Too Many Curses (A. Lee. Martinez)

It’s pretty much impossible for me to say anything bad about Martinez’ work – I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every shred of story I’ve read by him. I can’t even put into words how thrilled I am that he’s so prolific and so filled with delicious ideas. Too Many Curses is no exception to the precedent that Martinez has set – it’s a very fun read, it has interesting characters, it’s full of witty dialog and creative silliness, but it also still has a nice emotional balance.

The premise of Too Many Curses is that Nessy, a Kobold, is the house keeper of a castle for an evil wizard with a penchant for cursing his enemies in creative ways, then trapping them within his evil abode. You get people turned into owls who can only alliterate, ghosts trapped in mirrors, vampires that jingle, disembodied voices, and heroes trapped in bat form. When Nessy’s evil master suffers an untimely death, it’s up to Nessy to figure out how to reverse all the curses of her charges – as well as deal with the sudden turmoil that the castle is thrown into.

The story is fun and really give’s Martinez a chance to show off his creative side – he fires off one amusing curse after another, creating a colorful, endearing, and entertaining cast of characters. Sadly, loathe though I am to say it, it felt like his extensive cast was developed at the cost of two things: further character development after their initial conception, and a compelling plot.

The former of the two criticisms is the easiest to pin down – it’s as though Martinez had these awesome character concepts, but didn’t bother to develop them past their base idea. Yes – we understand that Nessy is staid, solid, and organized, while simultaneously being clever, good hearted, and possessing impressive intuition. I can assure you that we don’t need to be explicitly told this over and over and over. It felt like for all of the events happening around her, Nessy never changed – which could be a point unto itself, I suppose, but in the end it made me feel less like I was taking a journey with her, and more like I was watching an entertaining but un-dynamic movie.

My second complaint ties in with the first to some extent, though it’s also stands alone. As with the characters, I didn’t feel like the story had much of a sense of movement or pacing. The first two thirds of the book fell victim to the “and then this happened. And then this happened. And then this happened” syndrome. Granted, all the things that were happening were clever and entertaining, so it wasn’t too bad, but it was disappointing to see Martinez take a step back in his story telling technique from the excellence he had achieved in The Automatic Detective. That said, the story did culminate into a big, action-packed ending, which somewhat mitigated my complaints.

Well – I started off saying that it was impossible for me to speak ill of anything written by A. Lee Martinez, but I apparently had quite a few gripes about this one. All of that said, Too Many Curses was still an extremely fun read; it just broke the constant upward improvement momentum I had come to expect from his other books (which I have always read in order of release). I suppose it’s to be expected that it would be hard to surpass the absolute excellence of The Automatic Detective… he shouldn’t have set my standards so high! Regardless, don’t give this book a skip just because I had a few bad things to say – it’s still a really fun read! Just maybe read it before, say, Gil’s and The Automatic Detective.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Spreading the Love

In an effort to help Grasping for the Wind get a well-fleshed-out list of fantasy review blogs compiled and exposed, I'm re-sharing the list below. Yay bloggery!

7 Foot Shelves
The Accidental Bard
A Dribble Of Ink
Adventures in Reading
The Agony Column
The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.
Barbara Martin
Bibliophile Stalker
Bitten by Books
Blog, Jvstin Style
Blood of the Muse
The Book Smugglers
The Book Swede
Breeni Books
Cheaper Ironies [pro columnist]
Cheryl's Musings
Critical Mass
Dark Wolf Fantasy Reviews
Darque Reviews
Dave Brendon's Fantasy and Sci-Fi Weblog
The Deckled Edge
Dragons, Heroes and Wizards
The Discriminating Fangirl
Dusk Before the Dawn
Enter the Octopus
Eve's Alexandria
Fantastic Reviews
Fantastic Reviews Blog
Fantasy Book Critic
Fantasy Cafe
Fantasy Debut
Fantasy Book Reviews and News
Fantasy and Sci-fi Lovin' Blog
Feminist SF - The Blog!
The Fix
The Foghorn Review
Frances Writes
From a Sci-Fi Standpoint
Fruitless Recursion
The Galaxy Express
The Gamer Rat
Genre Reviews
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Grasping for the Wind
The Green Man Review
Highlander's Book Reviews
Jumpdrives and Cantrips
Lair of the Undead Rat
Literary Escapism
Michele Lee's Book Love
The Mistress of Ancient Revelry
Monster Librarian
Mostly Harmless Books
My Favourite Books
Neth Space
OF Blog of the Fallen
The Old Bat's Belfry
Outside of a Dog
Pat's Fantasy Hotlist
Piaw's Blog
Post-Weird Thoughts
Publisher's Weekly
Reading the Leaves
Realms of Speculative Fiction
Rob's Blog o' Stuff
Robots and Vamps
Sandstorm Reviews
SF Diplomat
Sci-Fi Fan Letter
Sci-Fi Songs [Musical Reviews]
The Sequential Rat
Severian's Fantastic Worlds
SF Gospel
SF Revu
SF Signal
SF Site
SFF World's Book Reviews
Silver Reviews
Speculative Fiction
Speculative Fiction Junkie
Speculative Horizons
Spiral Galaxy Reviews
Spontaneous Derivation
Sporadic Book Reviews
Stella Matutina
The Sword Review
Tangent Online
Temple Library Reviews [also a publisher]
The Road Not Taken
Urban Fantasy Land
Vast and Cool and Unsympathetic
Variety SF
Walker of Worlds
Wands and Worlds
The Wertzone
With Intent to Commit Horror
WJ Fantasy Reviews
The World in a Satin Bag
Young Adult Science Fiction

Foreign Language (other than English)

Cititor SF [Romanian, but with English Translation] [French]

Foundation of Krantas [Chinese (traditional)]

The SF Commonwealth Office in Taiwan [Chinese (traditional) with some English essays]

Yenchin's Lair [Chinese (traditional)]

Fernando Trevisan [Brazilian, Portuguese]

Human 2.0 [Brazilian, Portuguese]

Life and Times of a Talkative Bookworm [Brazilian, Porteguese]

pós-estranho [Brazilian, Portuguese]

Fantasy Seiten [German, Deustche]

Fantasy Buch [German, Deustche]

Literaturschock [German, Deustche]

Welt der fantasy [German, Deustche]

Bibliotheka Phantastika [German, Deustche]

SF Basar [German, Deustche]

Phantastick News [German, Deustche]

X-zine [German, Deustche]

Buchwum [German, Deustche]

Phantastick Couch [German, Deustche]

Wetterspitze [German, Deustche]

Fantasy News [German, Deustche]

Fantasy Faszination [German, Deustche]

Fantasy Guide [German, Deustche]

Zwergen Reich [German, Deustche]

Fiction Fantasy [German, Deustche]

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Lisa’s Take – Last Argument of Kings: First Law Book 3 (Joe Abercrombie)

This is a really hard review to write. When I reviewed book one I was delightedly picking it apart, finding all sorts of things to harp on – justified or not. After the second book I had a solid basis for comparison… I could revisit each of the knit-picks and talk about how they had been taken care of or improved in the second book. But now that a review for Last Argument of Kings has come around, I find myself lacking a good starting point. I can’t put together a plot summary, as that would be far to spoilery this late in the trilogy, and I don’t have any convenient lists to base things on. Hell, I don’t even have a good anecdote to start off with.

I suppose I’ll just keep it simple. I really enjoyed Last Argument of Kings a lot, and I’ll definitely be buying Best Served Cold, Joe Abercrombie’s next book. Big reversal from The Blade Itself, I know, so let it never be said that I won’t revise my opinions with good reason. That said, I didn’t like it quite as much as Before They Are Hanged. I wanted the improvement from book 2 to book 3 to be as great as the improvement from book 1 to book 2, and that just didn’t quite happen. My biggest gripe was the character POVs, yet again, as there were a couple of times where the POV would jump mid-chapter and leave me baffled. Sometimes these jumps in perspective were totally unnecessary and didn’t add anything to the story, which just frustrated me more.

Ack, let me stop before I rant, because that was really the one and only problem I had with the book. Other than that it was great – the plot was gray and gritty and had a whole lot going on. A lot of loose ends were tied up, and there were events from the first book that got tied back into the overall plot quite nicely. I called a few plot points, but didn’t call just as many. A couple of the “gotcha!”s were a little thin, but mostly they had solid foundation and made me go “No WAY!” Always a good sign. There were also some big plot points that didn’t get totally resolved – which felt right… in the end there was all this Crazy Stuff that happened, but the world didn’t really change. Cool in a real-world kind of way.

I was pretty attached to the characters by the end – not so much as in the second book, but still quite a bit. I catch myself using one of Logen’s catch-phrases sometimes, which says a lot for the writing style. There was one character that I struggled a lot with… once I thought about it I remembered that he had been mentioned briefly in book 2, but he really could have used a more solid foundation. Again, though, small gripe. I got a little teary when my favorite sub-character was killed off, and the author made me keenly aware of just how much people had changed, as well as just how much they’d stayed the same. I’d almost call it deep.

Well, I guess I did have a decent amount to say once I got going. I wish I’d written this review right after JD and I talked it over when he finished the book, because we really got going with a lot of food-for-thought. Maybe he’ll grace me with a complementary review and catch anything I missed.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Lisa’s Take – The Good Fairies of New York (Martin Millar)

I picked up this book pretty much entirely because it had a quote on the front and an introduction by Neil Gaiman. After all, if one of my favorite authors likes it, it can’t be bad, right? ...Right?

Funny, that’s what I thought when I saw Scott Lynch’s quote on the front of The Blade Itself, which turned out to inspire one of the nastiest reviews I’ve ever written. Granted, the later books in the trilogy turned my opinion around, but the fact remains that I shouldn’t trust author quotes, as it seems to always go badly. I didn’t even give this book the chance that I gave to TBI (which I slogged through to the end, gleefully finding things to pick on). I put down The Good Fairies after about a third of the book, and have had nary a regret. I didn’t really even mean to stop reading it – I had been forcing it down in spite of my lack of enthusiasm – but I left it on a table in the library and just sort of forgot it for a few weeks. When I found it again, I couldn’t muster any enthusiasm, so I gave up. I think it may still be laying open on the table.

The premise is that a group of fairies from Scotland accidentally end up in Manhattan due to political intrigue. Angry kings hunting them and the suchlike. They like whiskey, they aren’t world wise, and only some people can see them. They attach themselves to several different main characters, including a pretty artsy girl with a wasting disease and a fat, dickish, dead-beat violinist who can’t make his rent. Hijinks ensue. I suspect I gave up right around the time it would have gotten more interesting, but frankly it shouldn’t have taken so long to get to the point.

Aside from the book not really going anywhere for the first 110 pages… I really have nothing to say. The premise wasn’t all that original, and I hated most of the characters. The fairies were all obnoxious, and the main human characters were hollow. It’s like the author just piled more and more quirks (oh, she’s ill! Oh, she’s an artist! Oh, she’s collecting flowers, how interesting!) in an attempt to make them deep enough to give a damn about. It didn’t work. Part of the problem was probably the completely flat prose – there was nothing engaging or compelling about the words the author picked. Each sentence was just flat and bare… perhaps it was a stylistic choice, but it didn’t do anything for me.

Obviously, I’d say skip The Good Fairies of New York. I can’t make a definitive call, since I only read part of the book, but the first third was uninspired and lacked any sort of hook. If you want urban fantasy, read War for the Oaks. If you want fantastical beings out of their element, read American Gods. Or, if you want an opportunity to prove to me that I made a terrible mistake in not finishing, read The Good Fairies and then write a counter-review.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Lisa’s Take – Little Brother (Corey Doctorow)

Marcus is a high school senior in San Francisco and an expert in all things technology and security related – he can fry RFIDs, fool his school’s gait recognition software, and don’t even get him started on encryption algorithms. Then one day there’s a terrorist attack on the city and Marcus and his friends are picked up by the department of homeland security, imprisoned, tortured, and thrown back into the world with dire warnings about being on good behavior. San Francisco turns into a police state, and Marcus takes it upon himself to fight back against the tyranny.

Doctorow’s work is usually full of nifty (sometimes silly) ideas and far-fetched scenarios, so Little Brother was a very different experience from the other books of his that I’ve read. It was flat-out believable, realistic, and bleak look at a near-future scenario in which government-run security gets out of hand. The book itself is very absorbing, but when you take a step back and really consider the plausibility, the effect is pretty chilling

As always, Corey nails his characterizations head on. I’m not sure anyone has ever written a more believable 17-year-old boy – a good mix of hormones, smarts, and real emotion make it exceedingly easy to get attached to Marcus. The supporting characters are also strong, the technology is fun, and the story really moves along never getting bogged down (though he does sometimes wank poetic about tech for a little longer than a non-geek might appreciate).

Touching on what is becoming a bit of a theme in this blog - Little Brother is billed as a YA book, but will definitely be readable both by teens and growed-up-types. Corey doesn't pull any punches, and takes a really frank look at teenage life. I appreciate him not talking down in a book that was directed at teens, and the end result is that adults will not feel like they're reading something trite or below their level.

My biggest worry about the book is that the many, many, many pop culture references will be stale in 2 years. For now they make the book hip, up-to-date and very real… but soon a lot of those buzz words are going to fade to obscurity and might make the text seem dated.

Anyway, this review is coming off as stilted (what is it with me lately?) but the bottom line is that this is a great little read. It’s easy to plow through in a few hours, has some cool ideas, and will leave you with a pleasant afterglow as well as some food-for-thought. Hoorah.

Friday, November 21, 2008

JD's Take: Last Dragon (J.M. McDermott)

Framed as letters written by an old woman days away from death, her mind fragmented and jagged and brittle, her lungs full of blood, her hands palsied and pale, Last Dragon tells a story that will leave you cold inside, and sad... and somehow better.

There are two stories being told in these letters. The first is the obvious one. It's an adventure tale, with journeys and battles and fabulous sights and death. It's a tale of friendship and betrayal and all of the things that make up a fantasy novel. It's also none of those things. Our narrator feels to us as real and as fragile as any person I have known. She tells of her youthful adventure looking back, and the things that matter to her now as she lies dying are not what authors, even ones striving for realism, feel the need to tell us. Her story is told in circles, in fits and starts. She circles around the most crucial moments probing them gently, like a healing wound, before finally summoning the courage to recall, as best she can, the moments that defined her life. Moments of pain, or shame, or crippling doubt. While she does so, she tells of the trivial moments that caught, as she says, in the web of her memory. Emotional impressions, glances, words between friends before sleep. She jumps around in time as she tells the tale, and her memories are not always consistent or clear. She tells us of things that she didn't see as if she did, tells them as she imagines or as she was told or how she dreamt them to be.

She doesn't tell us the story start to end because that is not the story she's trying to tell. The second story is the story of her life after the events in letters she is writing, a story of pain that lasts a lifetime, of love and betrayals and journeys and marriages and empires and children and all the things that make up fantasy novels. This story isn't told, it's alluded to. It forms itself in our minds as we read her letters, the tragedy of her life, the pain of her decisions. It's a story that features very few of the people she knew in the first story. Its major players never get screen time and its passions go unresolved, but its poignancy is what we will remember, long after the details of her first story fade into the web of our memories.

Oh, and there's a third story in there as well. A brief and beautiful and sad exchange towards the end of the book that, uniquely, takes place in the writer's present. I'm not sure why, but it might have been my favorite part of the book.

This isn't a tale of adventure. It isn't a tragedy in the Shakespearean sense... you'll get no catharsis as you turn the last page. It won't inspire you, your pulse won't race, your mind will not turn contemplating the subtleties of the schemes. The end won't surprise you, the action won't thrill you, the sex won't titillate you.

This is the best book I've read in years. It isn't my favorite, but it is the best.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Lisa’s Take: The Man with the Golden Torc (Simon R. Green)

If you took Harry Dresden and mashed him up with James Bond, you’d get Eddie Drood, the main character in this… er… fun little book. I hesitate because yeah, it was a fairly fun read, but I’m not sure I’m up for giving it a rousing endorsement. Hmm, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up and take it from the top.

Meet Eddie Drood, the black sheep nephew of the Drood Family – enforcers of the supernatural world. With their secret estate filled with agents and laboratories, they’re the biggest force to be reckoned with if you’re a Bad Guy. Take every spy gadget you’ve ever heard of, mix it up with every magical spell or contrivance you’ve ever heard of, and you’ll get a pretty good idea of how the Drood Family operates.

Anywho, some Bad Shit goes down behind the scenes, and Eddie – formerly a (somewhat) respected field agent – gets declared rogue. All the baddies of the supernatural world come after him, along with a healthy dose of his own family and friends. Hijinks ensue, plots are uncovered, days are saved, romance blooms, &c, &c.

Man with the Golden Torc is a hella fast read – it’s unabashed candy, and goes down in a sitting or so with no problem. That said… I really didn’t like it that much. There are a lot of cool things and ideas in the books, but there’s not a shred of eloquence in their presentation. It’s just one long string of “and then this and then this and then this and then….” The plot had no flow at all, it was just like a dam broke and cool ideas came pouring out. There wasn’t really any interesting conflict other than the major plot point, and the story had no ebb and flow – just a constant fire-hydrant-like stream.

I also didn’t give a damn about any of the characters… Eddie Drood was kind of slippery to peg down as far as what kind of person he actually was. I suspect part of the problem is that I kept transposing Harry Dresden on top of him, which gave me a mental conception of a Moral Set that Eddie lacked – he kept trying to come off as bad ass, but then I’d pretend he was actually a good guy at heart. Who knows. The secondary characters will bland and forgettable (I can’t even remember their names now, and it’s only been a week).

So… what’s the bottom line here… other reader reviews on BN & Amazon suggest that maybe I’m being too hard on this one. It’s fully possible that when I read it I just wasn’t in the mood for candy, or maybe my expectation for the genre has been set too high by other similar series. Regardless, it’s fairly likely that I’ll skip the rest of the books in the series – I’m just not getting anything out of them. Of course, I say that now when I still have a few Dreseden File books in reserve… once I’m out of those, all bets may be off.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Lisa’s Take - The Stand (Stephen King)

Much like my baseless aversion to Westerns, I tend to avoid mainstream, prolific authors. However, so many people have told me “you HAVE to read The Stand” that I figured I better go through with it. I needed something non-fantasy to reset my expectations after the last book I read (Last Dragon, which was amazing, and will have a review forthcoming), so I figured I’d finally go through with reading The Stand.

Now – I think I griped about this when I reviewed The Gunslinger… but is it really fair to keep letting Mr. King go back and re-write his books? At least this time he didn’t get to change things around, but he did get to re-include 300-odd pages that were cut from the original edition. I’m just saying (yet again) that it seems like cheating. Also, can I bitch just a little about editing? It’s all well and good to let your pet author go back and add old text back, but when you update it don’t introduce anachronisms and inconsistencies, please.

Anyway, on to the book! The basic idea here is a post apocalypse story: the military has a security breach and an extremely virulent flu makes it out of the lab and into the wild, killing 90% of the population. The first quarter or so of the book deals solely with how the flu spreads, the reaction of the people, the military trying to keep things hush hush, major characters being introduced, etc. The second book chunk follows the main characters introduced at the start of the book as they make their way across the country, adapting to the change and dealing with the new world. They’re following mysterious dreams that seem to be leading them west. Quarter 3 is all about the new civilization that springs up around Boulder and begins to explore some of the strange, dark themes that everyone has been dreaming about, and the last fourth of the book is the war against that darkness. Vague, I know, but I don’t want to be too spoilerific. Suffice to say that the story starts as standard post-apoc, then takes a pretty significantly different tack from the norm, and gets pretty fantasy-themed and deep.

When it all boils down, the book was pretty damn good. I can definitely see why it was shortened in the first place – especially in the first half things drag pretty frequently. Still, by the end everything moves along very quickly and engagingly – I’m actually still having a hard time coming to grips with the fact that the book is over. I keep expecting to have more to read… which all in all is usually a good sign in a book. It left me fulfilled but wanting more.

Perhaps one of the most interesting things about the plot of the book is how much it got me thinking about the other post-apoc book I read recently, Dies The Fire, by S. M. Stirling. I was only middling impressed with Dies The Fire the first time I read it, but while reading The Stand I found myself thinking more and more about Stirling’s work, and really analyzing it: comparing it to King’s, debating what was worked and what didn’t, thinking about the places they followed a similar path, and the places where they diverged completely. Honestly it makes me want to revise my review of Dies The Fire from “skip it” to “read it.” Intriguing.

Plot aside, one of the biggest strengths in The Stand is the characters. They’re all just so real and believable – it’s impressive to see such human creations in a work of fantasy. When my favorite character was killed off (on my lunch hour no less) I had to try hard not to get tears in my chili. Even characters that I wasn’t as attached to had me pretty upset – I was choked up through most of the last 150 pages. Also, kudos to King for sprinkling his literature with some false portents – it’s refreshing to think “oh, I know exactly where THIS is going” and then to be proven completely wrong. My one character gripe is that it seems like a few of the “core” characters could actually have used more development… it was weird to have two “main” characters next to each other, where one had chapters and chapters behind them, but the other had only a few paragraphs. It’s a knit pick, but it made me feel a bit unbalanced.

Finally, I have one last negative thing to say: I feel like the author ruined the ending of the book. The final chapter ends with a very Real conversation, appropriately tinged with melancholy and doubt – it was a perfect ending. But then you turn the page and there’s one last little caveat… and to me it felt insulting in its explicitness. The author didn’t -need- to say what he said; he had already implied it. It really left a bad taste in my mouth.

Anyway, I think I might just pull those two pages out of the book, and then return it to my shelf. Overall it was a very complete, fulfilling, and satisfying read, and I can understand why people have bugged me for so long to read it. I’m glad I finally did.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Lisa’s Take: Tigerheart (Peter David)

So you know how whenever you hear words “a touching story for all ages” you expect to get a cavity from the saccharine nature of whatever was being described? Disney movies, kids books, cartoons – you know what I’m talking about.

Ok, now take that association and set it aside – get rid of all those sugary connotations and just take my words at their most literal value: Tigerheart is a story for all ages. I mean it. If I ever (heaven help me) spawn kids of my own, I’ll read this book to them when they’re 5. I’ll have them read it themselves when they’re 10. I’ll sneak it into their Stack when they’re teenagers and hope they’ll appreciate it enough to seek it out on their own when they’re 20 and 40 and 80. I absolutely think Tigerheart has something to offer a person of any age or gender – and it’s the first book I’ve read in ages that I’d be happy to curl up with and read through again and again.

Tigerheart is a variation on a Peter Pan story – it follows the adventures of Paul Dear, who undertakes a quest that leads him to the magical world of “Anyplace.” There he meets The Boy (who everyone says Paul might resemble just a bit) and becomes embroiled in a struggle involving Pirates, Indians, wild animals, and even witches. There’s bravery and cowardice, ingenuity and pride, the best of people and the worst of people. The story is fast paced and entertaining, and really covers the whole gamut of emotions.

The thing that shines the most about Tigerheart, however, is the narrative tone. If you’ve read any other Peter David (Sir Apropos of Nothing, or one of his many many comic book issues) you’ll know that he has an excellent, side-ways wit – sly, wry, and very self-aware. He brings this tone to bear throughout the telling of the Tigerheart story, which really puts the “all ages” shine on what might otherwise just be a really rollicking children’s tale. Add a bit of Victorian flare to the sentence structures, and you’ve got text that’s a hell of a lot of fun to read.

I started this review with every intention of launching into a rant about YA fantasy and how books like Togerheart make the term obsolete – but I find myself in such a good mood after reliving the book itself that I think I’ll refrain from said negativity. Go get this book and consume it – reading it won’t take but an afternoon. Tigerheart absolutely makes my “Top 5” list of this year.

Monday, October 06, 2008

[Mini-Review] Lisa's take - Fevre Dream (George R. R. Martin)

Vampires on Steamboats during the heyday of the Steamboat Era! Hoorah!

That preeeetty much sums up Martin's Fevre Dream. The one notable exception to that theme is that the Vampires in this story aren't of the typical variety - they've a bit of a similar feel to Brust's Agyar. Alternative and interesting, though still with some ties to canon.

Anyway, the story is so-so, the characters are... pretty good, and the narrative style is nice enough. I think if you wanted to write an english paper, you could fabricate some metaphors or deeper meanings to the story. Sadly, all of the mediocrity means that the book was a bit of a chore to finish. I wouldn't really recommend it, even to hardcore fans of Martin's work. Stick to the Fire and Ice stuff.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

[Mini-review] The Cloudmages Book 1: Holder of Lightning (S. L. Ferrell)

Erm. What to say about this book. I had kind of forgotten all about it until I saw it in the list of books I wanted to do a mini-review for. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t bad or anything… it was good, solid, welsh-influenced fantasy. It was at least marginally emotionally engaging, and in spite of being pretty thick it read quickly.

It just… wasn’t really anything new. Girl finds stone. Stone’s made of magic. There are lots of funny fantasy names. Girl faces adversity and meets up with a cast of supporting characters. Some of them are with her, some of them are against her, and there are (easy to call) inevitable betrayals. The whole thing was entertaining enough, it just also felt very “done.” I’ll admit that the ending surprised me a little in some aspects… but… yeah.

That said, I might go ahead and pick up the second book in the series if I’m bored. I’ve heard vague ruminations that the mediocre first book is a huge setup for some really stellar later work, so maybe we’ll see.

[Mini-review]Lisa's Take - The Raw Shark Texts (Steven Hall)

It's rare that I read outside the fantasy or sci-fi genre, but this particular work of fiction was recommended by a new acquaintance, and after drunkenly debating with him about it I decided to give it a read through. The tale is rather Jaws-esque, but with conceptual sharks, rather than actual sharks. Conceptual sharks? Why, conceptual sharks are just one of the many organisms that have evolved in the invisible spaces between theories and ideas.

It sounds pretty weird, but honestly this was a great book. Fun, deep, believable characterizations, a solid story, and nice pacing all combined with the crazy, original ideas to make a really entertaining read. Pick it up if you'd like a break from the standard fantasy fare that I usually foist on you via my reviews.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

[Mini Review] JD's Take: Too Many Curses (A. Lee Martinez)

This book is by A. Lee Martinez.

Do I really need to say more? It's his fifth book and third foray into the fantasy realm (realm being relative, the whole book takes place in one building), it does a lot of interesting things while being readable (I know! I read it!), humorous (though his continuing trend of replacing humorous with entertaining continues, and is awesome), and human (despite not having any humans in it beyond the first chapter or so).

So I'm not going to say any more, if you need to know more about Martinez go read the other four reviews. I will say this though: his blog looks interesting and he ranted about how other authors look down on him because he's not writing a series. I hope he never starts, he's far too good at creating fascinating one-shot worlds.

Also, it sounds like 3 of his books have been optioned, one attached to David Fincher, which is pretty awesome :)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

[Mini-Review] JD’s Take - The Innocent Mage (Karen Miller)

Innocent Mage  is a story about a fisherman's son who rises to political and social prominence in the Big City by staying True to His Roots. I should note that while he does *appear* to be the eponymous character, he is in no way a mage. Credit where credit is due, he is pretty innocent about most things... though he certainly isn't naive or air-headed which is typically how authors choose to let us know that someone is innocent. Anyway, while he's getting more and more respect (and similar amounts of bad blood from the people who don't like him because he's a filthy peasant, naturally) the magical world that he lives in is building up to what looks like a spectacular and fundamental Reality Failure, which ought to be fun but I'll have to wait for the next book to see if it happens. 

The writing is smooth, if unmemorable, and the characters are surprisingly nuanced. The plot moves along without belaboring anything, which is a relief because there are plenty of places where your jaded fantasy-reading brain will be like "oh shit, now I've gotta hear about how sad he is for 50 pages". 

Overall, I'd recommend this one if you're looking for an interesting fantasty read that isn't so in love with its world that is neglects the story, and isn't so in love with its characters that it neglects the reader. You might as well buy the second book too though, since it most certainly is not a complete narrative and ends on a cliffhanger.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

[Mini-Review] Lisas’s Take - Age of Fire Book 1: Dragon Champion (E. E. Knight)

I’ve been struggling with this review for a while – I keep trying to be nice about Dragon Champion (“Oh, maybe it would be good if it were supposed to be YA…”) but I’m giving up. A quick summary: Dragon Champion is about a dragon named Auron, and we follow him from hatching through early adulthood. There are some wolves, some hunters, some elves, some dwarves, magicians, and a big doomy war.

This book was mediocre at best, dragging at worst (which says a lot, seeing as how it was maybe 300 pages long). There were a couple of engaging characters and ideas, especially near the start of the book, but through the middle and end it was hackneyed and unoriginal. I didn’t really care about the plot or the characters by the end (mostly because the only two interesting characters had gone their separate ways). I just wanted to finish the damn thing, because there was no excuse not to when it was so short.

The bottom line: I won’t be buying the sequels, and I suggest you don’t waste your time with this one unless you’re between the ages of 10 and 14.

Week of Mini-Reviews

It’s that time again! Time for another week of mini-reviews! If you’re like me and have just a few words to say about a big backlog of books, this is your chance. Go crazy up until Friday.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Lisa’s Take: Jhegaala (Steve Brust)

The last few Vlad books have been fairly chronological, so it was interesting and refreshing to read Jhegaala, which jumps back in Vlad’s timeline quite a bit. Jhegaala falls in between Phoenix and Athyra, following Vlad’s escapades immediately after leaving Adrilankha in his flight from the Jhereg. He gets it in his head to track down his mother’s family, and sets out through the East to do so. When he reaches his destination there’s all sorts of fun intrigue, warring factions, misunderstandings, and general angst. As usually, Vlad ends up in a stick situation and has to extricate himself.

What’s not to like about this book? It’s another good installment in one of my favorite stories. As usual, it goes down like candy but still has enough of a kick and emotional impact to be compelling. It got loud chuckles from me on more than one occasion, and had me squirming uncomfortably at others. If I wanted to knit pick, I’d say that the whole “Vlad knows what’s going on and isn’t going to tell us” bit got dragged out longer than necessary, but that’s a pretty small gripe. I especially loved the chapter intros in this one – I want to go back and read them all together. Exceptionally amusing.

This is a short book, so I’ll keep the review short as well. Go read the latest Brust! If you haven’t ever read any of the Vlad books at all, then you’re severely deprived and should start consuming them from the beginning!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

JD's Take: The Dreaming Void (Peter F. Hamilton)

The Dreaming Void takes place 1500 years after the events chronicled in Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained and begins a new trilogy set in the same world. Which, of course, means that I really should have written reviews for those books as well... but I didn't. Ah well. *looks* Actually, I did write a review of Pandora's Star! Haha! Victory for me!

Mr. Hamilton is very good and making deep, interesting, characters set in wildly fantastic science fiction settings, which makes me very, very happy. In this novel we see him extrapolate the technology advances (and corresponding technology shifts) from the first series by 15 centuries, which is an interesting intellectual exercise that he handles with a deft hand and a keen sense that the story and the characters are far more important than the exercise. The new characters introduced are fascinating and really drew me into the story. Ironically, the older characters that I already knew from the previous books seemed... awkward. It's very possible that this was intentional... their reasons for remaining in the corporeal world are varied, but they are by far the exception and so they stand apart from the society they've watched grow and change. I won't give away which characters return, but there are a couple of old favorites and a couple of surprises still kicking around the galaxy.

I didn't really get drawn into the story until about halfway through the book but, at the same time, I was never bored in the least. It just... took him a while to reach the narrative "tipping point", where the story and the characters that have the weight to roll along on their own inertia... each interaction giving more energy to the force of the narrative flow. Those who like their books to each stand alone will be disappointed... as the first book in a Hamiltonian trilogy there are so many loose ends at the conclusion of the book that it hardly even has a climax. There is plenty of cool shit going on, but no thread of the story reached an end. This is no surprise to anyone who has read any of Hamilton's other work... he writes epic scale sci fi and he does it beautifully. For me, I wasn't disapointed by the end... only eager for the next tome.

Overall, I'd call this a promising introduction to the new trilogy, and an exciting expansion of the wonderful world he created in the previous books. I'm inordinately pleased to be looking forward again to another Hamilton novel to appear on the shelves... I was pretty bummed when I finished Judas and realized that it might be a while before I saw more from my favorite comtemporary SciFi writer.

Sean's Take: Rainbow's End by Vernor Vinge

Hai. I'm Sean. I'm normally really lazy and slack about posting reviews of what I read. I'll try to be better about it in the future (ha).

I originally introduced myself to Vernor Vinge [0] reading his space opera-tastic A Deepness in the Sky and A Fire On the Deep [1]. I found them enjoyable, mainly because his portrayal of computing technology in the far future was slightly better than "punch a few keys and photon torpedoes come out."

Fast forward a few years and I happen upon Rainbow's End, a short(ish) novel based on the universe Vinge started on in "Fast Times at Fairmont High" [2]. Grabbed a hardback from Amazon and got crackin'.

Vinge's characters haven't gotten much better over the years. They're certainly believable given the settings they live in. However, he really does like his asshole antihero protagonists who find themselves in anachronistic situations.

What's so awesome about Rainbow's End, however, is the shear idea density of this volume [3]. Each chapter has Stross-levels of current time-frame extrapolations, but they're significantly better thought out. Each piece seems logically fitted to the frame of the narrative rather than thrown-in.

This is not a book of jet-packs and FTL, however. And it's definitely not XKCD levels of "the future's pretty cool," either. The surveillance state is in full effect -- but, appropriately enough, most people rarely seem to mind [4]. More interestingly, it portrays the online world, not as a separate cyberspace a la Gibson or Stephenson, but multifaceted overlays on the real world. Characters going "off the grid" feel the same dissonance we would get in a location without, say, running water and electricity.

The palpable feel of "being left behind" by the current pace of technology is a consistent theme of the novel. Even those who would be on the forefront of technology today wind up being behind the cutting edge (see the middle-aged hacker who's still using a quaint laptop while everyone else has "smart clothing").

Bottom line: If you enjoy speculation about the near future, this is a must read.

[0] Vernor Vinge
[1] I have a serious soft spot for space opera, anyway. Blame Lucas, Roddenberry & company.
[2] Recommended if you want a quick intro to this work.
[3] *cough*
[4] This gives it an aura of legitimacy/believability to me, sad as that is.

Monday, July 28, 2008

JD's Take: Battle Royale (Koushun Takami)

Odds are pretty good that if you are one of the (2) people reading this, you already know what this book is about, but I'll give you the back-of-the-book summary regardless. In an alternate world much like our own (but worse!), Japan has decided that one way of reinforcing the power of the dictator is by randomly selecting a middle school class from each prefecture and making them fight to death each year. We open as a class of forty 15 year-old kids is taken to a remote island and set loose with a backpack each of supplies and told to kill each other off.

Good times.

What follows is a gripping story filled with twists and gut-wrenching moments. I found myself eager to read more, to find out who lived and who died. I was constantly surprised by the brutality of the author and the humanity of the characters. That isn't to say that the book is without flaws, far from it. I'm not sure whether it is a facet of the original text or the translation, but the writing is often stilted, repetitive, and immature. The characters repeat themselves endlessly, reusing the same phrases repeatedly, and often dwelling on the obvious far past the limit of my patience. Some of the characters are extremely unrealistic. The antagonists (whether they be the government, the guy running the show, or the classmates with a villainous streak) are usually flat and generically sinister (though there is a notable exception to this in the form of the Bad Girl character).

Overall, I found the whole work oddly compelling, and pushed past my annoyances with the writing style with minimal effort to see what happened next. The best part about the book is that it explores the themes of evil, violence, authoritarian government, betrayal, loyalty and human nature without dwelling overmuch on it, and makes a nice pulpy read out of it in the process. Now I just need to pick up the movie!

[Mini Review] Lisa’s Take – The Tide Lords Book 1: The Immortal Prince (Jennifer Fallon)

I’m sticking to a mini-review on this book, because I’ve been putting off reviewing it for lack of verbose content. I don’t feel like writing a plot description – every time I try the summary falls flat and just doesn’t do the book justice. So, a mini-review!

Jennifer Fallon is rapidly rising on my list of authors I like – I have a feeling that by the end of this quartet she’ll break through from “good authors” to “favorite authors” on my mental tally. She just does characters and intrigue so damn well – what other author can claim that they have given me an aversion to a particular beverage based solely upon one of their characters’ use of it?

Woo, tangent! Stick to the mini-review. At first I was afraid that The Immortal Prince would be too predictable (I called one of her “big reveals” quite early) but she got me pretty good with another one of her reveals – any time an author causes me to emit an utterance loud enough to attract JD from two rooms over, it’s pretty impressive. The characters were excellent and well developed (as always) and I can sense the potential for angst building towards a head later in the quartet. Did I mention that Jennifer Fallon is starting to rival Robin Hobb for angst levels? Impressive, I know.

Right. Thumbs up. Read this book, it is tasty goodness.

Monday, July 14, 2008

[Lisa's Take] The Dark Volume - Gordon Dahlquist

The Dark Volume is the most disappointing book I’ve read in the last year. Maybe even the most disappointing book I’ve ever read, period. It’s certainly the biggest disappointment I’ve experienced since starting this blog.

The aforementioned offending book is the sequel to The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters – a book that would almost certainly make it onto my “book top 10 list” were I to compile one. Glass Books is kind of a victorian-steampunk-fantasy-intrigue-mystery hybrid, a genre niche that I don’t think I’ve ever encountered elsewhere. When I first started Glass Books, I nearly put it down after 30 pages – it was rather thick and slow and didn’t seem to be going anywhere. But I decided to give it my customary 100 page attempt, especially given how entertaining the prose was, and by the time I’d made it through one of each of the character perspective chapters, I was totally hooked. The story unfolded with tantalizing slowness and was totally unpredictable – because the genre is so different, I had absolutely no idea where things were going. The characters also developed with the same delicious unveiling – building upon them bit by bit, never revealing too much all in one go. Glass Books was a novel to savor, something to really immerse yourself in and get swept along. It accelerated to the grand finale, then finished with an incredibly Victorian ending... think The Awakening. It was brilliant.

And then The Dark Volume went and ruined it.

The book started out on the wrong foot by demolishing the open, dream-like ending that Glass Books established. It took away any sense of ambiguity, or any interpretive open-ness that the first book established by diving straight back into the plot where the first one left off. This immediately put me on guard, as the ending of Glass Books was one of the best (and most gutsy) parts. I suppose you could argue that this was unavoidable with a direct sequel, but it could have been approached less jarringly.

Unfortunately, it didn’t get much better from there. Where Glass Books took its time and ramped up slowly and steadily, introducing layer after layer of plot and intrigue, Dark Volume just sort of throws it all at you , one thing after another. And then this happened. And then this happened. And then this happened. The “and then this” storytelling technique seems to be a more and more common theme in books I read lately – how about some pacing, people?

I also had some pretty serious gripes around prose and character development. Whereas in the first book the characters were revealed and grew slowly but surely, the sequel did nothing to further develop or deepen the 3 main characters. The new characters that were introduced were largely forgettable. Secondary characters from the first book did improve a bit, but only from increased exposure to the reader, I think. Also, where the first book had very entertaining (self-consciously overblown) prose, the second book was just verbose, without the tint of self-deprecation (appreciation?) that made the prose of the first book tongue-in-cheek, rather than arduous.

As if all that isn’t enough, then we get to the book’s ending, where it committed two more grave crimes. The first was trying to redeem itself at the last minute by jerking emotional strings. Gods how I get sick of books that reach the ending and go “hmm, I’ve managed to only tell a mediocre, lackluster story. Let’s try to make up for it by senselessly killing characters off, in hopes that the emotional impact will make there reader think the whole story was actually emotionally engaging!” Yeah. Oh, and then there was one other little niggling problem with the end of the book... in that it didn’t actually end! That’s right! The Dark Volume (much like The Great Book of Amber) isn’t actually a book! Haha, fooled you – get to the end of that last page and just SEE if there’s any wrap up or resolution. I can’t even begin to explain how disgusted I am.

Is there anything else I missed? The lack of viciously double-entendre’d conversations? The non-existent opportunities for Svenson to be awesome, rather than a useless puppy-dog? Chang only really getting to be badass maaaybe once? Even Miss Temple’s characterization was hollow at best.

Anyway, I should stop ripping before I get even grumpier. There is only one good thing to say for this book: the ending makes it clear that a 3rd novel will be forthcoming, and I can do nothing but cross my fingers and fervently hope book 3 will right the many, many wrongs of the book 2.

Monday, June 30, 2008

[Lisa’s Take] The Automatic Detective – A. Lee Martinez

As usual with Martinez’s work, this was an absolute delight to read. I really can’t fathom how goddamn creative this guy is – every book just has a zillion new and entertaining concepts.

The Automatic Detective is (relatively near) future sci-fi, in which an AI glitch in robots makes some of them human enough to apply for citizenship. Our protagonist is one such robot, a big, red, war-machine named Mack. Mack is going through the 4 year audit process to gain citizenship, working daily as a taxi driver, when events conspire to put him in the role of a detective. So – think your standard 30s, hard-boiled-detective story, and now cross that with an extremely creative sci-fi setting. There really aren’t words for how awesomely it works out. There are quite a few nods (direct rip-offs?) of the noir genre, and playing them out with Mack as the main character makes them a riot.

Martinez did a better job this time around balancing “cool ideas, humor and parody” with “actual serious story and characters.” JD pointed out that a lot of parody authors suffer from the problem where they’ll start out doing humor, then lose that perspective once the story progresses and gets serious. Early Pratchett is a good example. It takes a fine touch to keep up the satirical theme and keep things entertaining once the plot thickens – even more so to keep it fun without cheapening the storyline. Some of Martinez’ other works were heavily weighted one way or the other – starting out light and fun, then ending dire and plotfull – but TAD kept it well balanced. I’m pleased to see him growing as an author.

My one gripe with the book is one the seems to be cropping up a lot lately – it could have used a better editor. Just little things... a couple of stilted or unclear paragraphs, repeated words, etc. Not enough to really do my good review any damage, but a pet peeve that seems to be happening more and more often. Are editors just sucking these days, or have my standards risen?

Overall: super thumbs up. You can take this book out in an afternoon or so – like all of Martinez’s work, it’s a super fast, bite-sized read, and tons of fun. This book just begs to be made into a series; it has so very much potential, and I’ve got my fingers crossed that it will continue to parody the genre with many, many, many continuations.

Monday, June 23, 2008

[Lisa's Take] Kushiel's Mercy - Jacqueline Carey

I suppose should quit procrastinating on this review and just get it done. With all 5 other books in the two Kusheline trilogies I’ve procrastinated long enough that I couldn’t finish the reviews off – I don’t know what it is about these books that make them hard for me to review. So. Being as this is the 3rd book in the trilogy, I’m not going to do a plot summary – the spoiler possibilities are too perilous. If you have no idea what the theme of this series is about, thing fantasy-heavy alternate history with a big dollop of sexuality mixed in. My opinion of the book overall is good, so I’m going to start with the bad and then end with the good so as not to leave off the review with negative commentary.

Kushiel’s Mercy is by far the most flat of all the Kusheline novels. There. I said it. I’ve felt like all 3 of the books from Imriel’s Trilogy have struggled – at the start of the trilogy it took Carey a loooong while to get Imriel’s voice established as clearly separate from Phedre’s (the narrator of the first 3 books). His voice was differentiated eventually, but I still felt like all 3 books fell a little short of the high standard set by the initial trilogy. This third book was absolutely the weakest of the trio, with a plot that was pathetically predictable and contrived – I mean, really. I called Every. Single. Major. Plot-point. I kid you not. The book also suffered quite a bit from the “and then this happened. And then this happened. And then this happened.” syndrome, which is always displeasing. The whole thing read much more like a romance novel than the sweeping, epic, fantasy-political drama that the first three books established – I very much got the impression of Carey saying “this is me, riding out my franchise! Wheee!”

All of that said... I still enjoyed the book. If there’s one thing that Carey does well, it’s evocative and beautiful prose, and as always her words were a pleasure to read. Though the plot was predictable, it was still interesting and it never dragged. I loved her characters, and the interlude in the middle of the book that’s narrated from a different character perspective was very well done (much more so than her initial transition to a new narrator back in the first of Imriel’s books). In spite of knowing how things were going to end, the book still got me pretty sappy and smiley. It’s saying something when flaws as big as the ones outlined above don’t manage to ruin the experience... I’m sure my healthy dose of nostalgia and attachedness to the characters helps, but there’s still something impressive there.

Overall: positive thoughts. I’ll absolutely continue buying her books if she continues producing them.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

JD's Take: The Name of the Wind (Patrick Rothfuss)

Lisa already gave a pretty thorough review of this book, so I'll skip any summarizing and go straight to a discussion of its merits.

It's been a long time since I got this thoroughly drawn into a fantasy novel. The writing is fluid and beautiful, the characters distinct and interesting (with a couple of exceptions), the events exciting, and the world different enough from other fantasy domains to not be boring. I really, really didn't want this book to end, a wonderful and rare feeling.

A couple of minor faults cropped up. He reused a couple of phrases word-for-word within a page of each other a couple times, which jars me out of the narrative in an unfortunate way. Slightly sad, but more a fault of the editor than the writer. Neither the story nor the story-within-the-story have any sort of even semi-conclusion at the end of this book, a fact that is usually annoying but actually didn't bother me. Part of that is almost certainly the fact that he's apparently already written the entire series and submitted it as a single book. Again, not his fault the publisher decided to break it up. There's also the super-competent main character...

ah fuck this. I could almost certainly come up with some other stuff to complain about, but it'd be deeply pointless. Let me cut to the chase: this is one of the best books of any genre I've read in years. It's a serious fantasy novel that surprises and delights, it has dark moments and sublime ones. The prose is amazing and engaging. If you like fantasy at all, you will love this book. Put aside the distrust for covers with "Book 1" on them (you earned that distrust... I understand. Try anyway). I wouldn't recommend starting this book until you've gotten caught up on your chores, done your shopping, and finished your current video game though... all nonessential tasks are likely to be postponed until you close the back cover.

Monday, June 09, 2008

JD's Take: The Nymphos of Rocky Flats (Mario Acevedo)

I laughed this book off a couple years ago when it came out. With a title like that, who could blame me? Then the sequel came out, and then the third one. I decided that it deserved a chance, and I needed something fluffy to read, so I picked it up. Sooooo, is it worth the strange glances you'll get on the street reading this one? Let's find out together!

I imagine that Mario pitched the book like this:
Vampire Private Eye! Sex Crazed Mystery Women! Government Conspiracy! Vampire Hunters! HOW CAN IT FAIL???

And some poor publisher thought "You're right! It works for everyone else these days! Let's do it!" and thus the series was born. Sadly, the book... kinda... sucked. The writing was alright, but the plot seemed cobbled together out of internet forums (government radiation makes women horny! vampires seduce with a stare! Stakes! Nymphs! Area 51!).

The main character was well characterized, but such a huge cliche that no real work was required to make me "get" him (A vampire that refuses to feed on humans? How clever!) . The rest of the characters lacked any real definition... they could each be explained as a Cool Concept that wasn't ever flushed out. The vampire hunters are laughably characterized, and really didn't have any place in the story, they appeared to be added in because there wasn't enough drama with the main plot alone. If you've read Harry Dresden books you've seen the whole "let's just keep piling shit onto this situation until the sheer mass of it spontaneously combusts into a dramatic finale" schtick done well. This was done... not well.

The book reads quickly, and it was entertaining enough... but it had no emotional punch, no character empathy, no fascinating plot line to really engage you. It read like a Reader's Digest story... it kills a few hours but you don't get anything out of it.

Oh, and there is no on-screen sex in this book. Really.

Overall impression: skip it. Read some Anita Blake if you want vampire sex, or Harry Dresden if you want supernatural PI done right, or Umberto Eco if you want a proper conspiracy theory. This feels like a slapped-together Johnny-Come-Lately to the burgeoning Fantasy/Romance/Horror bastard subgenre.

[Lisa’s Take] Dies The Fire – S. M. Stirling

Here’s a nice easy review: cool premise, bad execution. Plain and simple.

The Cool: In 1998 something happens. There are big scary flashes of light, and suddenly everything electrical stops working. Planes fall out of the sky, city systems come crashing to a halt. To add insult to injury incendiaries stop working as well, so guns are also kaput. Dies the Fire follows two groups of characters through the resulting mayhem, as people come to terms with the situation and start to find new ways to survive. Turns out that Rennies and SCA people have the advantage (I kid you not). Stirling comes up with some really cool ideas and takes a very critical look at the implications of such a large scale disaster. He’s not afraid to examine some of the more gruesome aspects, and he manages to fabricate some intriguing circumstances. Another cool thing: Stirling also delves pretty deeply into the Wiccan religion for one of his character groups, which makes for some interesting reading.

The Bad: You know how people often complain that they don’t like sci-fi because the characters aren’t as good as in fantasy? Yeah. What they said. There are a couple of character issues here. First off, there are too many characters, and Stirling doesn’t do a good job keeping all his secondaries well described and differentiated. He either needed to cut down the core cast a bit, or make all of the core characters more memorable. This ties in a bit with the second gripe – even the two main characters aren’t all that interesting. At least they were original, but I never really connected with either... I was just largely “meh” about them. So sad. On top of the character issues are some problems with narrative flow... it was fine through the first half of the book, but towards the end things start jumping around, and it was just a little uncomfortable to read. The story also dragged on a lot longer than it should have – it’s obvious Stirling had a laundry list of “ZOMG Cool Ideas!1!” that he wanted to get to before the book could end.

So, the review was easy, but the bottom line isn’t. Given all the good and all the bad, I really don’t at all know whether to give this book a thumbs up or thumbs down. I guess we’ll go with a caveat: if you don’t mind lack of good characters or characterization and the lack of it won’t ruin the book for you, give it a read. If the cool premise isn’t enough to do it for you on its own – skip it.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

[Lisa’s Take] The Stolen Child - Keith Donohue

I picked up The Stolen Child at random from McKay’s... it had a pretty binding, and it was cheap cheap for a nice little hardback. I’m easy. Turns out it was a pretty good decision, as the book was a fast, original, and interesting read. I took out basically the entirely thing on a flight between DC and Atlanta, if that says anything for how quickly it reads – definitely a nice Sunday afternoon book.

The Stolen Child builds upon a common fairy tale – the myth that changelings infiltrate households and exchange human babies for goblin replacements. The story follows two boys... the “real” Henry Day, who was stolen away by hob goblins when he was 7, and the “replacement” Henry Day, who was once a goblin, but is now growing up as a human. The book alternates chapters between the two of them, and follows them both as the replacement Henry Day grows up, starts a family, and has children, while the real Henry Day remains perpetually a goblin-child. Not only are there a lot of really creative and interesting fantasy-based ideas in The Stolen Child, but it also touches upon some relatively deep themes.... displacement, betrayal, entitlement, etc.

Outside of the interesting story, the characters are fairly vivid and solidly developed. The prose didn’t blow me away, but it was above reproach and produced a lot of good mental pictures. The blend of fantasy clashing with reality was quite original. Overall the book was very good, and I don’t even really have any knit-picks, which is always a positive sign. Definitely give this one a read if you’re in the mood for some quick escapism that’s not entirely fluff.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

[Lisa's Take] Ysabel - Guy Gavriel Kay

I actually jotted a few notes about how I wanted this review to go when I was only half way through Ysabel. Now that I’ve finished the book and come back to those notes, I find them significantly less clever or applicable than I first thought them. The book’s second half and end game were moving enough that I don’t feel the least desire to be glib or dismissive. At the same time, I’m having a hard time getting a full review down, so bear with me.

The basic premise of Ysabel is this: 15 Year Old Ned Marriner is on vacation in Southern France with his father, a famous photographer. While exploring a cathedral that his father is taking pictures of, Ned has a run in with a strange, supernatural man. From there he, his friends and family become embroiled in what seems to be a mystical re-enactment of historical events. The story roams all over the countryside around France’s Aix-en-Provence and explores a number of real events and ruins.

Ysabel is a good book. It reads very quickly, is interesting and involving, has very good characters, and keeps you guessing. That said, I’m still going to have to file it into the “candy” category, rather than the “solid fantasy” category. It’s right on the line, but it just doesn’t quite stand up to the heavy-hitters of the fantasy world... I think maybe if it were billed as YA fiction it would be weighty enough to cross that line, but in the All Growed Up Fantasy league it can’t quite hold its own.

So what holds it back? The biggest glaring thing that put me off is the copious, copious pop-culture references. I understand that the author was trying to juxtapose the current state of the world with the deep, meaningful, historical events, but it detracted overall from the book. Amazon, iPods, Guild Wars, jpegs, google, Coldplay... if you can get over parts of the story sounding like a commercial, you’ll still be left wondering how the book will hold up in 5 or 10 years when this stuff is obsolete. Does he have a draft of the book that has tags MadLibs style? Will a 10th anniversary edition with updated hip references be printed? I think a similar feel could have been created without being quite so specific.

The other thing that put me off is that the book really did lean towards YA, like I mentioned above. The protagonist is 15, which doesn’t mean the book has to be rated PG-13, but is often the case. Privilege of the Sword is a good example of 15-year-old star that’s definitely still an adult novel. Nix is another that’s more like Ysabel. Cursing was glossed over, sexuality was... somewhat addressed, but mostly in an sideward or askance fashion. A very 15-year-old fashion. These are obviously minor points, but they’re the easiest to put my finger on and explain. They and a few other, harder to define things collaborated to make me less emotionally involved than I obviously should have been – less involved than the author expected me to me. This is often a problem for me in YA fiction. The result is that in the end of the book when I wanted my heart to be aching, when I wanted to be trying not to drip tears on the pages... I was just there. Reading. Absorbing words. Being told by the author what it should feel like, rather than experiencing it myself. It was a bit frustrating, to say the least.

Still, overall the book was very good, and it did pack an emotional punch, though somewhat dulled down. Maybe an emotional shoulder-clip, like when you walk through a door crooked and the frame catches you. The characters were strong, the dialog was excellent, and Kay’s descriptions of the countryside were evocative. I know just wanked philosophical about some the flaws, but don’t let the lengthy discussion deter you from reading it – Ysabel is absolutely worth the (very short) time required to read it.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

[Lisa’s Take] Before They Are Hanged: First Law Book 2 (Joe Abercrombie)

My review of The Blade Itself, the first book in this trilogy, was one of the more vicious reviews I’ve written. I really picked the book apart, and probably dog-eared 20 pages with things that irked me so I’d have solid ammunition.

I felt a little bad, ripping something apart like that, especially after a few people whose opinions I usually trust in books said I was being too harsh. So as penance I picked up the second book, Before They Are Hanged, as soon as it hit the shelves. Last week I was out of work with a fairly nasty cold, so I holed up on the couch and ready it pretty much straight through in 2 days. I thought it would be fun to go back through my first review and see how Mr. Abercrombie has progressed in his second stab at the fantasy genre.

Gripe #1 – Mishmashy, undefined plot
After TBI, I complained that the plot was not well defined, that it didn’t go anywhere, that it was predictable, and that it was all set up with no money shot. This problem was absolutely remedied in BTAH. There are three major plot lines, and each one has a good introduction, build up and climax. I think it helped this time around that the distinct groups were well separated from each other, so the author didn’t have worry about them overlapping and muddling each other up. In book 2 you’ve got 3 groups: the unwitting heroes searching for a mystical artifact, the men manning the front of the war in the north, and the Inquisition investigating drama in the south. Each plot line was equally well developed, had good screen time, and (most importantly) was engaging, interesting, and less predictable. I had some vague guesses as to what would happen when and where, but it was much more rare that I’d think “and now X is going to happen!” then turn the page and be proven correct.

Gripe #2 – Crossing the proverbial streams
In TBI the author had a lot of trouble keeping his POV characters separated and straight. This was much less of an issue in BTAH. There were still 3 or 4 times in the book that I got a little turned around, but whether because I had a better handle on the characters or because I was expecting it, I never had to re-read to figure out what was going on. I don’t know if Joe got himself a better editor, or if he’s done with some of the New Writer Blunders – but let’s hope it’s both. He also did a much better time distributing his POV time in book 2... there were no “primary” and “secondary” POV characters – they all got even screen time and actually made contributions to the plot.

I did experience one slightly jarring moment during the book’s end game: throughout the story the author had established a fairly smooth cycle of rotation through his characters and groups of characters – he rarely dwelled on one group for many chapters in a row. Then, during the climax of the book, he got stuck on the group of treasure hunters and stuck 3 or 4 chapters of theirs all together. I understand that it was a necessity, and that he just had extra chapters for them, but... it just broke up the flow of the book again, after such a nice cycling had been established. Tiny gripe.

Gripe #3 – Character Clichés
Boy, I was pretty vicious about the character clichés when I reviewed book 1. Man. I feel a little bad... but then I was pretty displeased after the first book. In book 2 Mr. Abercrombie makes significant improvements in his characters. They are all more solid and (largely) less prone to crazy out-of-character episodes. Bayaz still has some moments that don’t quite seem to follow, but he’s the only one I can complain about. Book 2 also spends a lot of time deepening and expanding upon the characters, so they’re less stereotyped, I think. Contributing to this is the point I mentioned above about the author giving more even face time to everyone, so we get more than just an initial impression.

That said, I did still have one new character gripe in this installment: I felt like some of the characters “reset” at the start of the book. It was as though they had started to develop a little in the first book, then when the second book started they went right back into the rut. Jezal, especially, suffered from this, as did Ferro. Luckily it mostly worked itself out after a couple of chapters from each POV.

I lied: two character gripes. The other problem I had is that Mr. Abercrombie isn’t very adept at making immediately memorable secondary characters yet. I’m a little spoiled – when GRRM creates a secondary character he does so in such a vivid way that the next time the character is mentioned the light bulb immediately goes off. In BTAH there are a few secondary characters that you meet in the beginning of the book, then don’t see on screen again until the end, and in some cases the re-introduction didn’t go smoothly. He got there eventually in all cases, so maybe by book 3 he’ll have it down.

Gripe #4 – Guttural Utterances
I complained in the first book that I was sick of Abercrombie’s characters saying their guttural utterances. Either he got a little better about it in this book, or I just didn’t seize upon it as something annoying. It did bother me how often people replied to questions with “Uh.” as a statement. “Uh” to me is a sound of uncertainty, rather than a reply – I really would rather he went with “Mm.” or “Hn.” or something. At least this time when I’m writing this paragraph I’m chuckling, rather than seething.

Well. I think revisiting all those points serves pretty well for a review. If it’s not obvious by now, I enjoyed the second book much more than the first – almost all of the issues that kept me from getting into the first book were resolved. I enjoyed the characters, the plot, the humor, and the surprising twists. I’ll certainly be picking up the 3rd book – and if you don’t mind having to bull your way though some of the first book’s issues, I’ll revoke my “don’t waste your time” judgment on the series as a whole.

Monday, May 12, 2008

[Lisa’s Take] Temeraire Book 4 – Empire of Ivory (Naomi Novik)

There’s a big dragon plague killing off all of England’s dragons. Temeraire goes to Africa to look for a cure. We also address the matter of slavery a bit, as well as loyalty and honor. Yay we have a plot!

I don’t mean to be too blithe about the premise of the 4th book in this series, because it was really an enjoyable read – it was just also awfully easy to codify down into a few short words. I don’t think that makes it less of a good book, but maybe a little simplistic.

There really isn’t a whole lot to say other than reiterating that it was a fun book... I feel a little bit like the series has gone down hill since the first installment, but maybe I have my hopes set too high. I think part of the problem is that Temeraire has been less of a major character with each continuing book... he seems to be getting flatter, rather than more developed, and he often takes the back seat to the plot.

Granted I could just be knit picking because Ms. Novik pissed me off at the end of the book – there’s very, very, very little that I dislike more than a jarring cliffhanger. I can handle being left in suspense, but turning the last page of the book and being totally baffled that it doesn’t continue leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Come to think of it, that’s how she started book 4 as well – just jumped right in to what was happening when the last book closed. Hnn.

That came off as harsh, but it should be taken in light of all the other extensive praise I’ve lavished upon her earlier books. I’ll definitely be picking up book 5... it just won’t necessarily be something that requires immediate reading. It can hang out and wait to break up the harder, more grown up fantasy.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Lisa's Take - Swordspoint (Ellen Kushner)

Swordspoint is the precursor to Privilege of the Sword, by Ellen Kushner. I don’t want to call it a “prequel” because they’re certainly not directly intertwined by any stretch – you can absolutely read Privilege first, then go back and read Swordspoint. In fact – that’s what I’d recommend.

I recommend reading in the reverse order for a very simple reason: I guarantee that if I had read Swordspoint first I would have put it down in disgust after a few chapters, and never picked it back up. As a result, I never would have read Privilege, and that would have been an absolute shame, since it was very enjoyable. You see... Swordspoint is SO very much a First Novel. It’s a little painful to read. I’m not even sure I can quite explain it... it’s like the author doesn’t describe or connect well enough. Some of it is just bad editing – POV jumps that aren’t differentiated, for instance. Other bits though... it’s like she’s expecting the reader to infer more is reasonable. She’s got her court intrigue and her implications all set up, but in some places it’s like you’re missing puzzle pieces or overtones that would make conversations and motivations make sense.

The result is that the first half of the book is rather disjointed and kind of frustrating to wade through. Luckily I was entertained enough to be reading about familiar characters that I stuck with it – and by the second half of the book she started hitting her stride and telling the story well. I’m not sure if she just got smoother as a story teller, or if I got enough grasp on the characters to fill in the holes.

Either way, I was very much enjoying the story by the end... and it entertained me so much that I’m currently re-reading Privilege. It’s pretty awesome to have some of the back story that’s implied (but never elaborated upon) brought to light, and it really gives a much more exciting tone to some of the scenes – particularly between Duke Tremontaine and Lord Ferris. I remember when I read Privilege for the first time that whole scene struck an odd note with me... but this time it makes so much more wicked sense.

So. If you enjoyed Privilege, by all means read Swordspoint. It’s good by the end, and certainly worth consuming if only to get some great back-story and have a greater appreciation for some of Privilege’s characters. Just don’t read it first, as it would be a shame to be entirely turned off of the entire series, solely because of some new-writer issues.

Lisa's Take - Sir Apropos of Nothing (Peter David)

A few months back a friend tipped me off on a book title that she found entirely hilarious, called Woad to Wuin. I also got a pretty good chuckle out of it, and figured that with a title that entertaining, I should probably think about picking it up. I came across it by chance a couple of weeks ago, and discovered that Woad to Wuin was actually a sequel to a book called Sir Apropos of Nothing. Feeling obliged based entirely upon the clever titles, I decided to pick the first book up.

A quote on the front of Sir Apropos of Nothing calls is “excellent fantasy satire.” But I’m not entirely sure that’s what it is. It’s certainly fantasy (sword fights, fantastic creatures, damsels in distress, magic, phoenixes, the works!) and it has some satirical qualities, I suppose (the main character hijacking his best friends’ destiny, knowingly and reflectively). Still, calling it satire makes it feel more clinical than I think it deserves. Maybe I’m just over thinking things, though.

Anyway, Apropos is born the son of a whore, but his mother is just sure he has a great destiny, since she swears up and down she saw a phoenix being reborn just before Apropos was brought into the world. He grows up largely being jaded and put upon, though he’s mentored by an orphan he meets in the woods. Eventually the plot contrives to have Apropos end up at the palace, where he accidentally gets to become a squire, and he sets out to retrieve the king and queen’s daughter from a life of seclusion.

If the plot sounded hackneyed, I assure you that it’s knowingly so, and does its best to laugh at itself as frequently as possible. It also makes ample use of opportunities to make horrible, horrible puns, which is always entertaining.

However, the most entertaining thing about the book, but what a Grade A ass Apropos is. Seriously – it’s pretty rare to get a bad person as the main character of a book, and it’s even harder to really do it well (*cough*ThomasCovenant*cough* …sorry, uncalled for, but I couldn’t help it). Sure, some of George R. R. Martin’s main characters are pretty nasty, but he’s got good ones to offset. Outside of him, I have a hard time coming up with anyone – even Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards aren’t bad bad – they’ve got loyalty and honor to each other and the cause and all that.

But no – Apropos really is as much of a self-serving jerk as you can get… and it makes for an incredibly entertaining read. I won’t get into potential for salvation and all that, since I could go on (even) longer and would risk spoilers, so let’s just leave it at this: I really appreciate how well Peter David wrote (and stuck with) Apropos’ flawed personality.

I’m rambling; I better get to a bottom line here. Sir Apropos of Nothing is definitely worth reading, especially if you’re starting to feel some drudgery in the fantasy genre. It’s got great characters and fantastic wit – and it will certainly read quickly, in spite of being 600-odd pages long.