Friday, February 27, 2009

[JD's Take] Domino Men (Jonathan Barnes)

Wooo! Barnes wrote another book! This is the good fellow who brought us The Somnambulist, which I loved. It was a great pulpy Victorian mystery with a healthy smattering of the occult, the supernatural, the alien, and the downright weird.

Domino Men is set in the same world as The Somnambulist, something that took me a while to figure out since the time has been moved forward to modern day London. Still, even my legendarily bad memory was prodded before too many chapters had passed me by, which was a nice surprise. I have now ruined that surprise for you. Sorry.

Though some of the players are the same, this is a very different novel. It's less a mystery and more a horror story. Not one of those namby-pamby horror stories you get these days. There are no evil dogs or sleep deprived men wielding axes. This is more like Lovecraft with a decidedly British bent (you'll get to a point in the story, stop reading, and think "did Adams write this?". Honest!) and less of the racism. It ignores literary tropes, classic story arcs and the like. You know from the beginning how it will end (more or less), and then it does (more or less). Though he kept some elements from The Somnambulist (a surprise narrator, for instance!) it's clear that this isn't so much a sequel[0] as another story in the same world.

The bad news: some of the characters were disappointing. There were at least two (maybe more like three) parties that were described, pretty much everywhere, as these elaborate schemers. Masters of the long game, slowly setting up their plots to change the fates of men and gods. That sort of thing. None of that really... came up though? Like they set up all these elaborate plans and they were largely totally meaningless. I'd tell you more, but I think I'd spoil some things. However, to prod my memory after you read it, I'll give you keywords[whited to avoid minor spoilers]: [glass gun][old man waking up][domino men]. Here's the counter-argument keyword: [child actors].

That kind of segues to my other complaint, which is that nobody's actions ever seemed to make any difference. The story reads as a series of things happening to the world, and then resolving themselves, and none of the many character's many actions mean a damn. Of course, that plays into the whole Lovecraft thing, so it might be a wash.

In any case, I thoroughly enjoyed the solid writing, the engrossing story, the imaginative world. Though not a perfect gem, it's still a worthy use of your time and money, and I recommend it.

[0] Actually, my memory is bad enough that the events in this book *might* have been set up in the first, but I don't think so.

[Lisa’s Take] A Magic of Twilight (S. L. Farrell)

I wasn’t overly impressed by the first S. L. Farrell book I reviewed, so I haven’t been going out of my way to pursue his work. But a couple of weeks back I found myself on a business trip having grossly underestimated the number of books I needed to keep me entertained, so I had to hit the airport bookstore (which are hardly known for their impressive fantasy selection). Pickins’ were slim, so I went with an author that I knew would probably be at least marginally entertaining, and ended up with A Magic of Twilight.

A Magic of Twilight reads a lot like something by Jennifer Fallon, which is to say that it’s solid political fantasy with good characterizations and plenty of drama, betrayal, and intrigue. The setup is pretty classic for this sub-genre: there are POV characters, a magic system, governmental factions at odds, strong but aging monarchs, and persecuted minorities. Hmm. I’m making a lot of lists, which never codes well for the overall tone of my review. Let me skip to some details.

Characters, delicious characters! First and foremost, I have a question. What is it with S. L. Farrell and sexually abused young girls? Sorry, I just had to put that out there – both books I’ve read by him have involved exploitative sex, which seems an odd recurring them. Anyway, glib questions aside, there was good and bad to be had in regards to the characters in A Magic of Twilight. My biggest complaint is that while there were a whole handful of PoV characters, only one or two of them really felt all that real. Even though we were inside a lot of different heads, the tone and emotions didn’t change very much. The only truly distinct voices where Dhosti and Ana (and later the commandant), which is a shame since they all had so much potential.

The other big character gripe I had is that… hmm. How to express this. I feel like the author wanted to create “gray” characters, rather than ones that were distinctly black and white, good and evil. This worked out ok with one or two characters, but with some of them it just made them seem wishy-washy or underdeveloped. I feel like Farrell needed to establish a stronger character personality baseline before he tried to muddy the waters with ambiguity. Still – all of that said, the characters managed to be interesting and engaging. I was emotionally invested in their wellbeing, and I found myself picking rather unexpected favorites towards the end of the book.

The story itself was quite good, though for the most part it can be codified down into major political fantasy archetypes. Regardless, it was still entertaining, and save for a lull in the middle it moved along quickly. There was one particularly neat aspect: I felt like most books would have stretched the first half of the book longer, and ended it at the major plot turning point near the middle of the book. AMoT kept that first half more condensed instead, and moved along from said Big Plot Point into a whole second chunk of story. It was kind of cool, and definitely shook up what I expect from the standard “trilogy” breakdown. I’m really interested to see where book 2 goes.

I do have one serious gripe about the plot: without being too revealing, the “big twist” at the end put a sour note on the entire book for me. I felt like it broke a couple of characterizations, lacked motivation, and was included more as a way to make the reader want book 2, than as a well considered story progression. Honestly if not for the last few pages the tone of this review would have been much more positive overall – but finishing that way put me in a grumpy place.

Regardless, for all of the negatives I found to harp on, I did enjoy A Magic of Twilight. I may not run out and buy the sequel immediately, but I’ll be looking to it to tide me over until the next Jennifer Fallon book makes it to US shores.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Lisa’s Take: The Sword (Deborah Chester)

Ok, I’m going to state right up front that I didn’t give this book a particularly fair shot. Honestly I never intended to from the start. Call me a bad person and a naughty book reviewer, but it’s the truth. I’m doing my best this year to get some of the chaff cleared off my shelf, which means trying really hard to not pick up the newest, shiniest book that I just bought, but rather take out some things that have been sitting there for years.

I’m not actually sure how The Sword made its way onto my stack. I know that it cropped up new sometime during my junior year at Tech, so… about 6 years ago? It doesn’t look like something I’d buy – the back and first few pages are very trite, and there’s nothing about it that would have drawn my interest. Who knows, maybe I grabbed it solely because it was pretty and blue. Needless to say, its lack of immediately interesting features didn’t give me any particular compulsion to pick it up whenever I went back to the shelf for a new book.

Then last week I was packing for a business trip and feeling a little belligerent. General “I have to go out of town” testiness. I went over to my bookshelf and said “you know, I think I’m going to pick something that I know will be awful, just so I can write a particularly vicious review!” Like I said above, I wasn’t really looking to give anything a fair shot. So I picked up The Sword.

I gave The Sword my usual 100-page grace period, choking it down in a couple of hours one evening on my business trip. By the time I started it I was in less of a mood, so I was approaching it with a much more open mind, but the book was determined to live up to all of my preconceived notions. The plot could have been from an instruction manual about how to write a fantasy novel – some complex names, a king who gets predictably betrayed, elves, precocious children, terrifying beasts and handlers with mythical talents who can calm and harness them. Throw in a couple of magical artifacts and you’ve pretty much got a textbook fantasy plot.

It’s not really that there was anything particularly bad about the book… sure, the author’s description of the King’s body guard started as “protector” then moved to “possible betrayer” and finished up as “best friend in the entire world and I can’t believe he’s DEAD DEAD DEAD” but other than that one little bobble the plot and characters were consistent - just… very shallow. Chester toed the line of painting some evocative images, but always fell short because of her propensity for “telling” the reader, rather than showing them. The text was often a bit stilted and even when describing great beauty it didn’t flow. The result was a distinct lack of emotion for the characters and their peril on my part, and an overwhelmingly blasé reaction (is it even possible to be overwhelmingly blasé ? Seems like an oxymoron, but I don't know how else to describe it) when I reached the end of my 100 page trial.

So, there you have it: my completely unfair and biased appraisal of The Sword. If someone out there wants to speak up and tell me I made a mistake, I’ll be happy to pick it up and finish – I was left with the impression that if I had read a bit more the plot might have gotten meatier, but I just didn’t care enough to persevere. One more book knocked off my distressingly large stack, and probably -10 points to my reviewer credibility score! Hoorah!

Monday, February 02, 2009

Lisa’s Take: Tigana (Guy Gavriel Kay)

Tigana has some issues. The author pulls some tense-switcheroos that are a device to try and pull the reader into the current action; these switches don’t work. The prose at times gets choppy. Kay sometimes puts his words to the paper in such a way that it’s hard to really sink into the text and go with the flow. The editor missed some seriously glaring grammatical issues. There was one minor plot hitch that seemed a teensy bit contrived. One of the characters rang ever-so-slightly untrue to me.

There. It’s out of my system. On to the more important point:

Tigana is a masterpiece.

Really. I don’t think I’ll be able to put together effusive enough text to describe how much I enjoyed this book, nor portray just how astoundingly impressive it was. I’d be starting this review off with text along the lines of “this may be the best book I’ve read this year,” except that since Tigana is the first book I finished in 2009, it just wouldn’t sound quite as impressive. Regardless, it has certainly set a high bar to reach for the other 59 books I’d like to finish this year.

The book’s prologue opens with a man sitting on the bank of a river on the eve of a battle. He’s reflecting on the fight to come and the sure defeat that he and his comrades face. In a few short pages, a mellow, soft, sweet mood is set, overlaid with both sadness and pride. It’s an impressively subtle setup, and was certainly a portent of the mastery with which the rest of the book would be presented. Fast forward some unspecified amount of time, and we start getting into the meat of the book – which is to say meeting all of the excellent characters. As these many and varied individuals are introduced, the underlying current of the story begins to be revealed: one of the provinces of The Palm, where the story takes place, has been magically erased from history due to the vindictive actions of a dictator. The story follows the cast as they work to free The Palm from the two wizards who hold it in thrall, and restore the name of their beautiful homeland.

I know, the wizard thing sounds a little hokey, but I assure you it’s presented with enough subtlety so as not to become clichéd. Magic as a whole in Tigana is a very understated thing – it simply exists as a part of society without the author (or the characters) needing to fixate on it and expound at length. Which leads me nicely to my next point. The word “subtle” keeps coming up in this review. The reason is that everything about Tigana is subtle. The ways the author introduces the characters. The definitions of good versus evil versus gray. The conflict and pain and plans and resolutions: Kay does a magnificent job subtly showing, painting, demonstrating all of these things without having to explicitly tell you so. It makes for a gorgeous and seamless depiction of his characters, story, and world.

Ok, ok, I’m kind of starting to wax philosophical, so I’ll try to bring things back on track here. The story was magnificent – it was personal but still had an epic feel to it, and it covered a reasonable passage of time. I absolutely loved getting a fully flushed out fantasy story that was in a single volume, rather than being broken up into a “trilogy” (air-quotes included due to the fact that so few fantasy trilogies these days are actually trilogies, but rather most a single volume broken into three chunks). The characters were gorgeously developed and easy to relate to, and so very real that the choices they faced left me feeling torn up inside. The book’s pacing was superb and it never lagged or stretched on too long, nor did it rush at any point. Finally, taking this review a little further than I usually do – the themes that Kay addressed in the book were much deeper and more profound than most fantasy novels dare take on. This exploration might have raised my bar for meaningfulness in fantasy.

The ending of the book left me aching and teary, but still bittersweetly happy and very satisfied. I don’t know what I expected from the end of this book when I started it, but Kay managed to both surprise and fulfill me in ways I couldn’t have anticipated. So, if you couldn’t tell – a couple of very minor knit-picks aside, I absolutely adored Tigana. I’m glad that I continued to read Kay’s work; I enjoyed Ysabel well enough, but it was nothing compared with the subtlety and mastery he exhibited in Tigana. I’ll definitely be picking up some more works by him soon.