Wednesday, February 27, 2008
High level plot summary: Nevare Burvelle is the second son of a New Noble - which is to say nobles elevated to their status as a prize of war, rather than by inheritance. As a second son, it's Nevare's place in life to enlist in the military, train to become a cavalla officer, and make his family proud defending the country. Unfortunately, Nevare gets caught up in the magic of his country's sworn enemies, and the two forces war for possession of him. Book 1, Shaman's Crossing, primarily follows Nevare's entry into the military. Forest Mage recounts his status as an outcast and struggle to stay in his world when the magic is pulling him away. The final book, Renegade's Magic, largely focuses on Nevare's role in the magical world. There's obviously a lot more to it than that, but I'm already edging close to spoilers, so that will have to do.
I think I proved in my review of Territory that a story that's good enough can make me get over any preconceptions I have about how much I'll dislike the world. When I started Shaman's Crossing, I immediately recoiled from the very harsh military aspects of the book, and considered putting it down for a while. Luckily, Hobb developed Nevare, his supporting cast, and the magical world surrounding them well enough that I stuck with it. Honestly the book had some Ender's Game-ish overtones... but I suppose that's to be expected when writing about the hazing that teenage boys are capable of.
Forest Mage really did the best job of the three books at showing off the Angst that is Robin Hobb's specialty. Let's face it - she does angst better than anyone else out there. She just has a way of making it really hit home and be believable. So while I never got all that into the second book... never really saw where it was going, or what the expected start and end points were - boy did she ever twist the knife slowly. The Whole Damn Time. Ouch.
I really thought that the final book would be my favorite of the trilogy, as it had the most fantastical focus, but it just didn't grab me all that thoroughly. I think it's largely due to the fact that I never liked the supporting cast of the last book as much as the cast from the first two books, so basically the only person who got screen time that I gave a damn about was Nevare. I didn't really care about the feelings or fate of anyone else in the 3rd book, and that did a lot to detract from the plot.
Overall though, I feel like the characters weren't as well developed as I can usually count on from Robin Hobb. Her emotional wrenching is largely based in the fact that she creates such vivid, engaging characters, and that was really lacking here. It's too bad, because the world she crafted is quite interesting and original - I can't think of any book I've read that has anything like it. It just seemed like the big overarching themes never quite connected with the actual people and situations. It's hard to put my finger on.
Hmm, this review is sounding more mediocre than I intended. I've mostly been comparing Robin Hobb to herself, which isn't entirely fair, because she's still leaps and bounds above the majority of other authors I read. This trilogy is no exception - it really is a good read, and worth finishing... it's just not quite as shiny as her Farseer books, for instance. I also think that people not quite as off-put by the military theme might enjoy it even more than I did; it can be hard to really get back into things after a start that rocky, regardless of how great the story is.
Hmm. I'm rambling a lot. Bottom line: it's good, read it. Be ready for Hobb's Trademark Angst - you won't be disappointed (though you may wonder if she's starting to go a little soft in her old age).
And yet, that's what Stephen King did with The Gunslinger. Granted, he had a 30-odd year gap in there - he started The Gunslinger when he was a sophomore in college (1970), then the updated content was released in 2003. Maybe when you've been on The Scene that long, you can bend the rules a little - god knows that people change a lot in that many years, and that one's writing skills can come a long way.
Still, it seems like cheating.
In the introduction to The Gunslinger, King justifies just why he made the updated edition, mostly citing how the series had changed and developed on the way to the final book, as well as describing some of the first-time-writer mistakes he had made, and some character introductions he wanted to clarify, etc etc. Honestly, I wish he had done this justification -after- the text of the book, rather than at the start, as it left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. I would either have liked to have not known, or to have known before I bought the book so I could have looked for an older edition. Regardless, it got the story off on the wrong foot for me.
The general gist of The Gunslinger is that Our Hero, Roland, is chasing a mysterious Man In Black (not that Man In Black) across the desert. The story has a very "old west" feel to it, which also put me off initially (see my review of Territory for a ramble about Westerns), but I was intrigued enough by the first chapter or two to persevere. As the novel develops you start to get some interesting glimpses into Roland's past, and a the idea of Roland's world as a parallel world to ours begins to develop. There's also a very entertaining Dark Magic undertone that develops, which (predictably) appealed highly to my love of fantasy. I can't really say much more about the plot without starting to give things away, so I'll leave it at that.
The plot's subtones, the short length of the book, and the high praise I've heard for the Dark Tower series kept me reading through the end of the book, even though I wasn't wowed. I ended the book on the same note that I started it... interested, but a little sour.
I've rambled a lot in this review about some "meta" issues that aren't entirely valid for basing a whole review on, but I felt that they were worth mentioning, as they did influence my opinion of the book. Stripping those aside, I still feel like I can't give The Gunslinger a hearty thumbs up. I will say that it's goddamn impressive for having been written by such a young and inexperienced writer. Overall... I will also say that it's "pretty good" without any other qualifiers. Some of the themes King gets into are interesting, and the blending of genres is very fresh. I think it was good enough to convince me to try out the second book - though I'll admit I'm in no hurry at this point. Next time I'm looking for a foray outside of hard fantasy, and I don't have any other "fluff" books to fill in, I'll probably track down The Drawing of the Three.
Monday, February 25, 2008
"Billions & Billions" is a collection of essays written and compiled by Sagan in the last few years of his life. They cover a broad array of topics and disciplines, but they all focus on causes and ideas that Sagan held in high regard. There are three parts, with each part broken into 6 or 7 chapters.
Part I is "The Power and Beauty of Quantification" and focuses on just that; the endless human quest to classify and quantify; to urge to discover. Sagan meanders through such diverse concepts as the hunter-gatherer nature of professional sports in our modern society to the methods of discovering extrasolar planets.
Part I contains the most "hard" science and math, with a few exercises that help demonstrate the power of mathematics and the scale of the numbers Sagan works with throughout the book. Fret not, mathematophobes, as Sagan does an excellent job of helping the reader through these examples step by step.
Part II is called "What are Conservatives Conserving?" and covers Sagan's thoughts on protecting the world from humans, and humans from themselves. He discusses global climate change from the point of view of an economist as well as a planetary biologist. His examples demonstrate, quite elegantly and simply, the causes and dangers of global warming.
With tact he refutes (and subtly rebukes) claims that global climate change is either a complete sham or not nearly as serious as the scientific community at large believes it to be. This section explores the possibilities of alternative energy, while simultaneously cautioning against the dangers of nuclear energy, especially the utter insanity of nuclear weapons technology and the Cold War arm's race.
Part III is "Where Hearts and Minds Collide" is a collection that deals with mankind. One essay, which was published in both America and Soviet Russia in the midst of the Cold War, seeks to enlighten both sides to the very human nature of their adversaries, rather than propaganda-fueled caricatures. Another article discusses abortion from many different angles, but primarily from the idea of when it is "OK" to abort a fetus.
The final chapter deals with death, specifically the death of Carl Sagan. Sagan relates the discovery of the disease that would eventually claim him, and his struggles against it. He talks of his family, of the treatments, and of both hope and despair. He mulls for a few pages about death, and what dreams may come, or in his case what does not.
The last passage is written by his wife and partner of over 20 years, Ann Druyan. She relates the final struggle of Carl Sagan, against pneumonia. She tells the all-too-human story of their love, and the love their family shared.
This was a very moving book for me. Though I've long known the name Carl Sagan, I have only recently begun to explore his works and philosophy (if it could be called that) in earnest. This book embodies Sagan's core ethos and modus. He was a man who passionately sought enlightenment and betterment through science and education. He, like so very few humans, saw beyond the mundane happenings of our little planet, but, like fewer still, it made him realize the fragility, beauty, and rarity of our existence.
The book is suffused with Sagan's trademark wit, humor, and warmth. His writing style is very conversational and inviting, and never feels elitist or haughty.
"Billions & Billions" should be mandatory reading for anyone who fancies themselves a scientist, no matter what their discipline.
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
You perceive that my book buying process is always well-reasoned and carefully planned.
Anyway, if had read the description, I wouldn't have bought the book, and that would have been a damn shame. As it turns out, Territory is a western, with a touch of fantasy and magic. And I - well, I don't like westerns. Or at least some little corner of my brain is convinced that I don't; I'm really not sure where the perception came from. I know when I was little my mom did her best to feed them to me, and I loved Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid... years later I discovered and came to adore Firefly... over Christmas I read The Gunslinger (review forthcoming) and was at least not bored by it. And yet, if someone says "Western" to me, I cringe and make faces, without fail. It's entirely irrational.
Woo! Tangent! Where was I... Ah, yes: Territory. It's a western. With magic. And I'm really glad I bought it, because it was very, very tasty. The story takes place in a New Mexico Territory town called Tombstone and follows a number of colorful characters. There's Mildred Benjamin, a young widow with a venomous wit (get it? Widow? Venomous? Heh.) and dreams of becoming an writer (whether she realizes it or not). There's Jesse Fox, a mysterious drifter who tames horses and is fleeing to Mexico when he happens across Tombstone. Oh, and then there's Wyatt Earp, his brothers, Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, and a number of other well known cowboy figures. I didn't quite notice that the book was a western until I realized that the name Doc Holliday sounded familiar for a reason... shows how knowledgeable I am when it comes to that genre.
The premise of the story is that there has been a stage coach robbery and different groups of people are vying to have the participants covered up or brought to light. Mildred and Jesse get drawn into the conflict separately and unwittingly, and we go from there. The whole thing is very character driven and interesting, with a lot of emotional impact for such a short book. The element of magic is veeeeery subtle and develops to be a bigger and bigger part throughout the book. It's a really interesting approach overall, and I liked it a lot.
I had a couple of small gripes, as I am wont to do. The first is that it's short, and it feels short. I was left wanting more in (kind of) an unpleasant way, rather than a nice way. The second problem was that the end felt a little cobbled together... I don't know if it was rushed, or if the climax wasn't... explosive enough or what. It just seemed like the last 30-40 pages didn't quite work as well as the rest of the story. I'd be willing to attribute the latter to something stylistic with the western genre... but honestly both of these things are issues I had with War for the Oaks (Emma's other book) as well. Both of the books' endings just sort of clattered to a stop, a little bumpily. Hard to put my finger on a more precise description, as nebulous as that is.
Still, don't that that put you off. This was a great, fast, entertaining read, and I'd definitely recommend it. I hope Emma continues to put out more literature.
Monday, February 18, 2008
What a relief.
I don't even know where to being in the list of Things That Put Me Off This Book. The original title of this list involved the word "hate," but I changed it in deference to all of the people who have insisted that T.C. is amazing - I just don't have the heart to use the H word in the light of their glowing adoration. But... it was just so awful, and so bad, and so useless. I may have exaggerated about the bloody knuckles, but the brain-numbing was entirely true. I was just so frustrated and sick of this book, I was at my wit's end.
The setting: Thomas Covenant is a leper. He had a golden life before - a successful author and family man - then he got sick and his wife took their son and left him. The start of the book is explaining this scenario, and expounding upon Covenant's ostracism from society. "Leper, outcast, unclean" is drilled into the reader's head here, and will continue to be for the rest of the book - I assure you. Then one day as Covenant is walking into town, he gets hit by a car. Would that he had just died there - but alas he suddenly finds himself in a fantasy dream world. This start was at least a little promising.
Unfortunately, from there the book degrades into Trite Overdone Epic Fantasy. Turns out Covenant is related to a historical hero in this new world, owed to the fact that he has half a hand. Oh, and also because he has a Magic Ring (definitely not the One Ring. Definitely.). He's discovered by the townspeople and they take it upon themselves to get him to The Revelstone (not Rivendell, I promise) so that a Quest (not Fellowship) can be formed to go the Mt Thunder (not Mt Doom) and foil the evil plans of Lord Foul (not Sauron) who hopes to destroy the land. You might begin to get an idea of my first real problem with this book. Don't even get me started on the parallels to Ring Wraiths, Ents, Riders of Rohan or whole other slew of minutiae.
Now, don't get me wrong - flagrant ripping off of one of the foundations of the fantasy world is bound to happen. There will always be ties in fantasy to the pioneers of the field, though this is a particularly glaring example. In spite of the glaring connections to Tolkien, I at first held out hope that the book would be good. The opening of the book was at least a bit compelling, and the idea of Thomas Covenant not as a reluctant hero, but as an "absolutely viciously opposed to the whole idea and entirely incredulous hero" had some serious promise. Unfortunately, Donaldson was a lot more preoccupied with this grand fantasy world that he'd obviously been planning meticulously and mulling over for years, than actual character development. Who needs characterizations when you have all sorts of exotic words and magical plants to talk about?
I've actually got two character development issues. The first is the secondary characters (because I feel like doing seconds first, so there). With the exception of 2 or 3 of the secondaries... they all blur together. They have no individual personalities or defining traits, or anything at all to make them interesting and unique. Once The Quest was formed, I spent pretty much the whole time going "wait, who was that again? I know he's old... and magical... um..." It was not a good thing. The second character issue is Covenant himself. His internal struggle with his self-image could be interesting, but... I'm not sure. It's just not well done. A lot of the thought paths the character follows don't make sense in any light, even considering that he has no self-worth. His approach to self-appraisal doesn't change or develop in spite of what's happening in the book, and he has absolutely zero motivation to be going along with the Grand Historic Events that he's being dragged through, so everything just doesn't really make much sense in the end. It's frustrating to see what could be such an entertaining premise be executed so poorly.
Those are all the major issues I had with the book, but I did have a few other knit picks that really drove me nuts. Ever since I read "The Blade Itself" I've noticed myself getting hung up on things like this more and more often. Honestly, I don't know if it's a -bad- thing, per se, because if I'm going to review with a critical eye, I need to point to specific instances. Still, some of them edge towards the "really bad" end of the spectrum, rather than the "pet peeve" end, so they bear mentioning.
The most glaring item is the fact that the book is made up entirely of the absolute more boring, bland, dull prose you can imagine. I don't think there's a single interesting word in the thing, except for the ones that Donaldson made up to go with his fantasy world, and all of those are contrived. The next best thing caveats nicely.... any time you're writing a book riddled with enough esoteric high fantasy pulled-out-your-rear words that you feel the need to create a glossary - just don't. Glossaries are just SO annoyingly useless. How about instead you describe things meaningfully and create a rich world that's memorable, rather than one that has to be constantly defined? Finally, tied in again with uninteresting prose... if you're going to have you character curse all the time, come up with something more imaginative than "hellfire." I kid you not, there was one 3-page section where Covenant said "hellfire" "with great emotion" over 10 times. You have no idea how hard I had to try not to start keeping a tally. It was really, really bad.
So - I actually left this review sitting for a while, thinking I might have the willpower to go back after a break and try to finish the book. As it turns out: I didn't. I don't plan to. I have absolutely zero interest in reading any of the other Thomas Covenant books. I've been told that some of Donaldson's other work is really great, so maybe I'll try that here in a year or three once I've had a chance to recover from this one.
Anyway, while I was in Seattle I entered a Barnes & Noble and toodled my way over to the fantasy (heh, misspelled that "fantasty" the first time) section. My eyes were drawn directly to a new release called The Somnambulist. I got the "this is going to be a good one" premonition, but I figured I'd read the first couple of pages, just to be sure. The following is what my eyes met, so you can see how I was convinced to go ahead and buy it.
Be warned. This book has no literary value whatsoever. It is a lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvincing characters, written in drearily pedestrian prose, frequently ridiculous and willfully bizarre. Needless to say, I doubt you'll believe a word of it
Well. If that doesn't epitomize one of my favorite narrative styles, I don't know what does. Tongue-in-cheek, self referential, verbose, and well spoken? Yes please!
It turns out I was right - The Somnabulist was a real treat. It's sort of a... "post-VictorianSteampunkMagicalHorrorTrue-crime" mashup. Yeah, I think that more or less covers all of the genres spanned, though I might need to throw in a dash of "conspiracy theory" just to be thorough. The only book I know of that can compare to it thematically is Glass Books of the Dream Eaters - which is also excellent.
The story follows a man named Edward Moon and his stage partner, the Somnambulist. Edward is a magician who sometimes doubles as a investigator, and was once a high man in society, well renowned for his amazing shows and his detectively abilities. However, the book meets up with Edward a little later in life, when he's started getting a little shabby around the seams - less popular, and perhaps less sharp than he once was. The Somnambulist is Edward's partner and friend, and he is a paragon of The Silent Protagonist. Also, he doesn't bleed, which makes for a dandy addition to Moon's nightly magic performance.
I should mention that there's really a 3rd major character - the narrator that I gushed about above. The narrator is absolutely my favorite character in the book. He's entirely biased, kind of an ass, and as he warns you in the first page, quite happy to lie to you in order to further the plot. Granted, he usually comes out and admits his biases and deceptions in a timely fashion, but he's totally unrepentant about it. I've never encountered such a well-developed third party.
Anyway, the book follows these three and an extremely color cast of secondary characters through a murder investigation shrouded in mysterious circumstances. I can't say much more without starting to give the plot away, but some generic listing of the supporting cast might intrigue you, as you get to meet circus freaks, butcherous knaves with the manners of schoolboys, mediums, harlots, poets, condemned ex-allies and albinos. Oh My.
There really isn't much more to say, other than to reiterate how damn much I enjoyed The Somnambulist. Truly. It was a complete surprise and absolutely riveting until the end... I didn't guess a single one of the Big Reveals, which is more than most books can say these days. Go read it now!
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
For a while now I've been turning over the compelling points of a rant I have inside of me about the Anita Blake books by Laurel K. Hamilton. Still, I feel a little guilty commandeering this bookish space for something that's not a review, so I've refrained from fleshing out and posting said rant. However, last weekend I finished the latest Harry Dresden novel, by Jim Butcher, and I realized that if I did sort of a "comparative rant," it would be nearly like a review, and as such wouldn't deviate nearly so excessively from the theme of the blog. Right? Right??
*cough* Justification Stated! Begin rant—er, comparison!
First of all, what do these series have in common? A bulleted list, for your pleasure:
- Proliferation. Butcher and Hamilton each put out a couple of books a year in their various series, which amounts to about one Blake and one
book a year. The Dresden novels are about to have their 10th book published, while the Blake books are coming in at number 16. The former series started in 2000, and the latter in 1993, so they're pretty similarly paced for churning out books. Dresden
- Genre. It can be argued that
was a pioneer of this particular genre, which roughly falls into the category of Fantasy-Horror-Mystery. Somewhere around book... oh... 7 or so, Hamilton started wandering more into the Romance-Fantasy-Horror-Mystery genre, but we'll get to that. Hamilton
- Character profile. Hard-ass, wise-cracking detective solves crimes, helps out the police, calls on the forces of the fantasy world, believes in the power of Good, makes deals with the bad guys anyway, and is worried their being seduced by the Dark Side of the Force. Yup, that about sums up both Anita and Harry.
- Candy! These books are not deep or thought provoking. Occasionally they can be moving, but they aren't great works of literature. They are pure Candy Fantasy - you suck them down in a few hours, a day or so at most, then blink in confusion when you realize they're all gone already. They're not filling, but they sure were delicious going down.
- Formula. Both of these series have books that are formulaic. That's absolutely not a bad thing, for reason's I won't go into, but if you'd like a fairly decent argument, check out this blog post. The formulas vary a bit between the two series, but both tend to follow a fairly straight-forward pattern resembling:
1) bad stuff starts happening
2) mystery circumstances appear and develop
3) bad guys materialize
4) clues appear
5) bigger bad guys or worse stuff shoes up
6) events get complicated by extenuating circumstances
7) the showdown goes down
8) everything getting resolved tidily.
Obviously, that's quite a number of overlapping points. Both series have a very similar tone and gritty feel to them. So, what's my problem with the Anita Blake books? It's simple: I flat out despise the latest installments. The last book I found even slightly worthwhile was book 9 (Obsidian Butterfly), and everything from then on has been an utter, useless waste of time. Unfortunately, Laurell K. Hamilton has a fantastic hook to keep drawing me back with... the first 6 books or so were really really damn entertaining, and so I got attached to the characters. I was also a young impressionable 15-year-old when I started them, which probably had a lot to do with it. I cared a lot about the people and the world, so now I can't put it down, even when the whole thing has gone to crap. The latest book (The Harlequin) made a teeeensy bit of progress back in the direction of "actually a decent book" but only the most minuscule of improvements.
Oof - that's just the sort of ranting that I set out to avoid, so let me stop before I really get going and start breaking this down point by point in that comparative fashion I started out with.
Perhaps the most glaring change that has come over the Anita Blake books is that, like I mentioned earlier, they've gone from Fantasy-Horror-Mystery in their genre to being more of a Romance-Fantasy-Horror-Mystery. I strongly resisted the temptation to write "Romance" in all caps. Seriously. Don't get me wrong, the books always included a very strong sexual overtone (kind of comes with the vampire territory, after all), and from the very start there was lots of sexual tension. It worked well with the story, and it made sense. Even in book 6 (The Killing Dance) when Anita finally caved and started doing the nasty, it was still good stuff. People have sex, yay! Books should have romance, sex, and relationships. That's what real people do, so books should do it as well.
...but then the sex started commandeering the plot. In a big way. Sure there's a contrived reason behind all the sex, but honestly book after book after book a greater percentage of pages were just sex scenes. Occasionally the scenes fed the plot; more often they were just gratuitous. Book 12 (Incubus Dreams) didn't actually have a mystery in it. I know, go figure! That's practically a mystery in itself! I went through a romance novel phase when I was 18ish, and there just isn't any differentiation between “Fantasy-influenced Romance” (a burgeoning genre, as it turns out) and the tripe that Laurell K. Hamilton started dribbling out around book 10 or 11. I suppose you might be able to call the shift "series evolution" but I can't really be sympathetic to that argument when the plot is so non-existent. Even shojou manga has deeper plots than this, and certainly more memorable characters - which brings me to my next point:
Characterizations and character development. If there's one thing that can be said for Jim Butcher, it's that he knows how to make some solid characters (actually, if there’s only ONE thing to be said, it’s that his goddamn hilarious. But that’s beside the point). Honestly, he's a lot like George R. R. Martin (or at least GRRM writing A Game of Thrones): when a character is introduced, he's described from a deep perspective... you get looks, sure, but you also get an immediate grasp on personality, motives, etc. Butcher and Martin both have a knack for making you remember. I'm not entirely sure what the whole of the trick is, but I do know it's something that
Their angst just isn't believable anymore. For 9 books now, I've watched while Harry Dresden got the absolute shit knocked out of him (predictably, he always does), and I've watched Bad Stuff happen to people he cares about. And it gets me EVERY time. The people that Jim Butcher has created in his fantasy world are so very real - they change, they mature, they are subject to faults and reconciliations, and stupid decisions or brilliant insights. I know them all really well, so I actually give a damn. After book 7 or 8,
Unfortunately, that doesn't mean that she (the author) doesn't care. She constantly professes in her blog how attached she is to her characters, how good of "friends" they are. I can totally understand the sentiment - I was in mourning for weeks, maybe even months when I finished The Khaavren Romances because I missed the characters so much. The problem in this case is that
Jim Butcher has no such compunctions. Harry's world is a dangerous and bloody one, and people die. That's how it goes. It hurts, and it may be a cheap emotional hook, but it does its job.
Oh my, it seems I've come to the end of the little list I'd compiled. It feels like maybe there are a few things I've glossed over or forgotten, but when it comes right down to it, I'm feeling pretty great now that I've gotten this long-stewing rant off my chest! Let me wrap this up quickly with a couple of final caveats:
- Anita Blake isn't all bad. The first few books really were quite good, though their sense of style is getting a little dated now, 15 years later. I mentioned in passing that the last book in the series was an improvement, and that's entirely true. It at least had a good plot line and less romance-novel sex, which is enough to keep me reading "just one more" for now.
- Harry Dresden isn't all good. The first book or two really took some time to ramp up while Butcher hit his stride. Still, I can't leave these things alone - I try to space them out to break up other books, especially the un-good ones, but it's really hard to leave them sitting on my stack for long. And hey, who knows, maybe when Butcher hits book 10 in April he'll take a similar downwards spiral. I guess we'll see.
Right! That's it! Congrats if you made it to the end of this REALLY long rant! I'll stop now.