Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Lisa’s Take: The King Raven Trilogy Book 2 – Scarlet (Stephen Lawhead)

I’m posting this review close on the heels of my review for Hood because I don’t want anyone to get away with reading my Hood review and thinking that King Raven isn’t a trilogy worth reading. I’ll admit that after Hood I was a little ambivalent – the story dragged in places and my own preconceptions about the characters muddied the waters of the characterizations that Lawhead was trying to establish. Still, something about the book sparked a craving for more in me, so I picked up Scarlet a week or two later.

If I hadn’t read so many other Damn Good Books last year, Scarlet would probably make my top 5 list. I really, really enjoyed reading it, and I was quite grumpy when I finished it since book 3 (Tuck) isn’t out yet. Talk about a serious turnabout from book 1!

Scarlet takes a significantly different tack from Hood. Rather than being third-person-omniscient with a penchant for POV character profiles, Scarlet begins as a story told in the first person. Our narrator finds himself imprisoned, being forced to tell his jailor anything and everything about the current terror to king and crown – our very one Hood, who else? Will Scarlet is an immediately likable character for his wit – his manner of speaking and personal touches had me drawn in within a few pages. As the story progresses we find out how Will came to join Hood’s band, and the events that lead up to his capture and imprisonment.

Like the first book, the main flow of the story sometimes jumps over to another 3rd person POV character – it was a little more jarring in Scarlet than in Hood, since it broke up the smoothly flowing narrative, but overall I think it was a necessary decision to introduce conflict and suspense into the story. By the second half of the book the disjointed views synchronize, and the change was done very smoothly.

The second best thing about Scarlet was that it introduced several new characters – and knocked off a few that I never liked in the first book, anyway. It also started to get much more into the shenanigans and plots that you expect out of a good Robin Hood story. So much more happens in the second book than the first, it’s hard to believe that they’re really related.

Anyway, if it isn’t obvious by now, I truly enjoyed Scarlet and I’ll definitely be buying Tuck as soon as its out. I hope that book 3 can continue to live up to the high standard set!

Lisa’s Take: The King Raven Trilogy Book 1 – Hood (Stephen Lawhead)

What I’m about to say may make you think that Stephen Lawhead’s Hood isn’t the best book – but take it with a grain of salt, I’ll clarify in a moment.

The most interesting part of Hood was the author’s note at the end. I’ve been fairly fascinated with the Robin Hood mythology since watching the BBC series last year – until then I had no idea that there wasn’t really a specific Robin Hood “canon,” I had just assumed that there was one great master work out there that Disney, the BBC, and everyone and their uncle was playing on. After watching the show on BBC I started to poke Wikipedia to learn more about the Robin Hood history and discovered that rather than a specific canon, there was really just a collection of tales and folklore that had grown and been elaborated upon over the years.

With that in mind, Lawhead’s discussion of the mythology and his decision to take Hood out of the usual established setting (Nottingham, Sherwood forest, &c, &c) and move it to Wales in the late 1000s was fascinating. The move was artfully done and pulled upon many of the well known mythical elements while still being very true to (historical) form. The sheer amount of research that must have gone into completing this novel is astounding, and left me with a new appreciation for the historical fantasy genre.

Right – less waxing poetic about the afterword and more elaborating on the book itself. I’ll be frank: when I finished Hood I was only middling impressed. If I were a good little reviewer I would have written this review as soon as I finished, but as it was I procrastinated and read book 2 (Scarlet) in between and my opinion of the series jumped up about 34 notches. Still, I’ll restrain myself from gushing about Scarlet and try to stick to my impressions of Hood for now.

There were two major problems with Hood: one problem belonged to the book, and one problem was mine. The book’s problem was that it just… didn’t really go anywhere. Young, irresponsible prince loses his family, land and people. It’s very unfair. He tries to get them back and is laughed at by The Man. He tries to give up but is nearly killed and then embarks on a personal journey of self-discovery to gain confidence and purpose. By itself this is a thin premise – luckily when wrapped in the trappings of Robin Hood and presented with Lawhead’s pleasant writing style and touch of wit, the story takes on enough life to keep things interesting. Still, I couldn’t help feel like most of the story could have been accomplished in half the time, letting us move on to the more rollicking parts of the adventure.

My personal problem that I projected onto the book was that I have so many preconceptions about the characters in the Robin Hood mythology that sometimes the characters in Hood felt muddy – I was mixing up my idea for who they should be with the picture that Lawhead was trying to paint of them. This wasn’t so much a problem for the main crew, but Merian was a particular sticking point for me, as she diverged the furthest from my charachterly conceptions. Regardless, this frustration was entirely self-imposed, and not something I can stick to the author.

I know that most of the text above is tepid at best, but do bear in mind that that Hood was compelling enough to make me continue the series, which is certainly saying something. Though the pacing could have used some work, the sheer scale of research and historical accuracy with which the story was laid forth was very impressive, and I loved how thoroughly Lawhead took the existing stories of Robin Hood and made them his own.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Lisa's Take - Backup (Jim Butcher)

Let it never be said that I'm not a huge sucker. Fangirl of the worst kind. When I saw a new book in the Jim Butcher section I snatched it up with glee - a little slim hardback called Backup. I glanced at the premise long enough to see that it was a novella set in Harry Dreseden's world, following a secondary character (I'll refrain from saying which, as I spoilerized JD a bit without thinking).

I hate to say that I was disappointed... but I was disappointed. First off, it was a pretty big punch in the face when I realized I was shelling out $20 for a teensy little book - some nonsense about it qualifying as a special edition. Apparently there's a leather-bound, signed limited run out there for $60; I would have happily shelled out for that! $20 for a plain old undersized hardback rubbed me a bit wrong. Then, of course, was the niggling problem that Backup is short, clocking in at 70 pages. I finished it in just over half an hour. $20 for half an hour of entertainment. That's an even worse rate of return than a trip to the movies, which I'm notoriously grumpy about. Piffle.

That said, the story was fun and I always like to read more about Harry Dresden. Mr. Butcher adeptly showed that he could write from a different character's perspective - he captured the mood and feel of the Dresden setting while making the new POV distinct and interesting. He got some solid laughs out of me, as always, and it was fascinating to learn a little more about the character whose head we occupied.

Bottom line - save yourself the cash and come borrow this book from me instead. I'll make us some coffee while you read through it, and then we can do a little Dreseden-related squeeing.