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sounding like a commercial, you’ll still be left wondering how the book will hold up in 5 or 10 years when this stuff is obsolete.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.