Friday, March 27, 2009

[Lisa’s Take] The Book of Lost Things (John Connolly)

Imagine The Wizard of Oz: a young child experiences trauma and gets whisked away to an alternate, magical world inside his brain. Instead of munchkins and scarecrows, mix in a handful of well known fairy tales – the gruesome Brothers Grimm versions, not the squeaky clean Disney kind. Add a dash of philosophical dithering on destiny and growing up, and you pretty much have a solid picture of the plot and themes in The Book of Lost Things.

It’s a really promising premise, and John Connolly delivers a solid book. The plot moves along nicely; his takes on the classic fairy tales are interesting, dark, and sometimes humorous. And yet... I’m having a hard time coming up with the rousing endorsement that you’d think would logically follow. I’m not really sure what the cause of the disconnect is – I just didn’t get as caught up in the plot and characters and stories as I wanted to be.

I suspect there are a couple of contributing factors here – first is that I’ve read Tad Williams Otherland books, which are really the master work in fantasy when it comes to taking existing folk and fairy tales and mashing them up. Once you’ve seen it done so well, it makes later works feel less original; much like trying to go back and read Neuromancer after reading contemporary cyberpunk.

The other problem is that my internal heuristic for when the book would end was thrown off in The Book of Lost Things. You know how when you’re reading a book you get a feeling for the pacing of the end of the story by how many pages you have left? If you have 20 pages left to turn, you figure “wow, the end is really near! Things are going to happen quickly!” but if you have 100 pages left, you think “this can’t be the big climax – I still have chapters and chapters to read!” Unbeknownst to me, The Book of Lost Things had about 100 pages of author interviews, reprintings of the original fairy tales, and discussions of the author’s use of the tales. So as I was nearing the end of the story, I kept thinking I had a hundred pages left, so surely there would be so much more to tell—then I turned the page and it was over and I was confused and disappointed.

Neither of these items is really Mr. Connolly’s fault – only my own preconceptions and expectations coloring my enjoyment of the book. As such, I’ll neither recommend nor discourage you from reading this book. I think it could be enjoyable and entertaining (perhaps even rewarding) to the right reader in the right mindset, and I think it was a good work – just not for me right at this moment.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

[Lisa’s Take] The Nessantico Cycle Book 2: A Magic of Nightfall (S. L. Farrell)

Even though my reaction to A Magic of Twilight was rather lukewarm, when I saw A Magic of Nightfall in the bookstore I was excited and picked it up right away. For all of the flaws in book 1 it still left me wanting more, so Nightfall got prioritized pretty quickly in my stack.

I’ll say one thing for A Magic of Nightfall – it’s ballsy. Book 1 didn’t exactly end of a cliffhanger, but it did leave off in the midst of some action, and I was fully expecting Book 2 to pick up right where that action left off. Farrell, however, had other ideas, and Nightfall starts after about a 25 year gap in time. Needless to say, I was quite surprised…. but Farrell pulled it off pretty well. I was impressed by how naturally and organically the jump in time was executed. The characters had all aged and changed and developed in the intervening period, and I think the gap was necessary to move the story a long and really take it to the epic level that Farrell was aiming for.

Speaking of ballsy, the author makes a couple of moves within the first few chapters that left my jaw hanging open – I won’t elaborate since it would be impossible to do so without spoilers, but I will say that Farrell really stepped up to the plate and showed that he’s not afraid to take charge of his characters. Very Martin-esque in that regard.

For all the panache and promise that Nightfall started out with, I had high hopes for the book. Unfortunately, a lot of my gripes from the first novel wormed their way back into play. The biggest trouble surrounded characterization, yet again. Much like in Twilight, I didn’t feel all that attached to any of the characters and I felt like they had some inconsistencies. Farrell did a better job this time around of making his characters motivations make sense (and some of the motivational ambiguities from the 1st book were cleared up), but I just didn’t feel an emotional “umph” around any of the characters. Even some of the characters that I had started to sympathize with in the first book just didn’t quite make a connection with me during book 2. It was frustrating – I wanted to be emotionally wrapped up in the characters and their plight, but there was just something missing.

Character gripes aside, the story itself was (much like the first book) pretty solid, pretty engaging, and pretty good.
“Pretty” is cropping up a lot in this review – I should work on my synonyms. Fairly solid. Somewhat engaging. Moderately interesting. Reasonably good. A decent variety of words to express how I felt about the other aspects of the story. It had a nice ebb and flow with good buildups and lulls, all climaxing towards a solid finish. That said, by the end of the book I was kind of ready for it to be over. I raced through the last 80 pages not because I was on edge about how the story would end, but because I just wanted it to be done with already. I think this might be a personal problem, rather than a problem with the book itself – I do know better than to load too much epic fantasy into one month, so it may be that I just didn’t get enough variety in literature the last few weeks since I packed in both Twilight and Nightfall.

Well. A lot of that text sounds mediocre-to-negative, but believe it or not, A Magic of Nightfall was a good book. If you enjoyed A Magic of Twilight you’ll certainly enjoy its sequel, and (like me) will probably appreciate some of the polish to the characters and the risks that Farrell was willing to take as an author. I very much approve of the epic scope the Nessantico Cycle, and I look forward to seeing where the author takes his readers for book 3 – since just at this moment I have no idea where the plot could be headed! The bottom line: read it, but maybe give yourself a sufficient breather between books 1 and 2. Fill the gaps with some nice funny Pratchett or clever Doctorow, then be ready to plot head-long into the more dense epic fantasy that Farrell provides.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

[Lisa’s Take] Last Watch (Sergei Lukyanenko)

I kind of never thought this book would come out in the US. After all of the drama with the movie side of things, and after the release date getting pushed back so many times, I had pretty much given up hope on ever getting to read the final book in the Night Watch series. I was down about it, but more or less resigned to my fate.

So you can imagine the sound I made when I saw Last Watch on the shelf – or rather the string of excited curses that were entirely inappropriate for a quiet little bookstore, but that escaped before I could contain myself. This was the 3rd fantasy release in a week that caught me totally off guard, and definitely the most thrilling of the 3.

It occurs to me that many people might not be familiar with this little gem of the fantasy, so let me explain a bit. The Night Watch quartet is a series of books by Russian fantasy author Sergei Lukyanenko. They qualify for my mental niche of “massively multi-genre fantasy.” The books are set in modern day Russia, so they have a dash of “urban fantasy.” The books are built on the premise that in addition to humans, there are people who are called Others who have other-worldly powers. These Others fall into two factions – Light Others and Dark Others. The Light Ones have the powers that we usually equate with high fantasy – witches, prescience, healing, spell casters. The Dark Ones have powers from the “fantasy horror” end of the spectrum – vampires, werewolves, dark wizards. A truce was made between the Light and Dark to prevent them from warring each other into oblivion, and the Night Watch was set up as a coalition of Light Ones to watch over and monitor the Dark Ones, while the Day Watch was set up as a coalition of Dark Ones to monitor the Light Ones. Maintaining the balance of power is paramount, and the main character spends a lot of time playing a political balancing game while philosophizing about the nature of good and evil. Add that dash of political fantasy and philosophy, and you have a book series that touches on practically every fantasy sub-genre there is.

The books garnered enough claim in Russia to inspire a movie that smashed all sorts of nation-wide box office records. In 2004 the movie was subtitled for an English audience (with awesomely engaging text, I might add – lots of interesting after-effects and interplay with the on-screen action). It was pretty well received, though it never saw more than a limited release in independent theaters. The film did well enough to secure the US-release of the second movie, Day Watch, which also gained the attention of Fox Searchlight. Good old Fox secured the rights to the 3rd movie and promptly ditched most of the original cast and ran the project into the ground.

Luckily, the movies did well enough to inspire Miramax to pick up the novels, translate, and publish them in the US. I loved the movies for their somewhat bizarre, abrasive, but engaging approach to dark fantasy, and I especially loved their take on magic. As such, when I saw the books on the shelves I picked them up right away. I never got around to writing full reviews for any of the books in the series, but I figured that I should at least highlight them in this blog as I finished up the final installment.

I really can’t say enough good about the Night Watch books – they are an incredibly fresh breath of air amidst all of the ho-hum, been-there-done-that fantasy on the market these days. They make me wish that the US saw more foreign translations, because it’s just a marvelous experience. The premise of the series at first glance seems a little “comic bookish” (not to disparage any of the excellent graphic novels out there) but the deep characterizations and human aspects of the main characters, as well as the keen examination of “good” and “bad” really elevates the whole shebang to a higher level. For all their depth the books still read incredibly quickly, but manage to be both emotionally engaging and have a dash of self-aware humor that keeps it interesting. All four books are great, but I will say that Last Watch was the strongest, and finished off the series on a high note for me.

Well, this has gotten longer than I expected, so I’ll wrap it up. Procure these books. Read them all in a long weekend. They’re so very worth it, and a great change from the established fantasy norm in the US. Also, if you happen to read them without seeing the movies first, I’d love to hear your feedback, as I’m not sure how much my prior exposure to the films influenced my opinions. Happy reading!

Sunday, March 08, 2009

[Lisa's Take] The Black Company - Glen Cook

Allow me to start off this review by saying, loudly and passionately: Damn it. I'll get back to why in a moment.

The Black Company is a dark, gritty, military fantasy following a group of elite mercenaries as they are pulled into a struggle between good-- well, no, not good. Between evil and potentially more evil. Published in 1984, The Black Company is definitely one of the pioneers of the military fantasy genre and it wouldn't surprise me if a number of current authors who are a fan of R-rated gray fantasy (*cough* Joe Abercrombie *cough*) looked to this series for inspiration.

I'll admit that even though The Black Company only clocks in a little over 200 pages, it took a bit to engage me. The first 3 or so chapters read as though they came out of a magazine serialization - repeating of character information we'd already been presented with, odd re-stating of plot points in each chapter, and a very story-like quality to the chapters, with each presenting its own introduction, conflict, and resolution. This seemed to abate a bit by the mid-point of the book - either that or I just got used to it.

As I mentioned, The Black Company clocks in at about 218 pages. Today so much fantasy seems to be judged on the thickness of the book, rather than the quality between the covers - and this book pointed out to me just how much I've fallen victim to the stereotype of "thicker is better." When I picked up The Black Company I assumed it was a big, fat tome of a fantasy novel, but discovered that it was actually the first 3 books of the series republished in one volume. I immediately soured on the book, but continued reading - and I'm extremely glad I did. Cook manages to pack more plot, conflict and characterization into 200 pages than most contemporary authors do in 500. He has a way of laying out the plot in what seems a stark, plain telling, but that in reality has layers of implications and a lot of depth. When I first started reading I actually had a hard time because I was charging through the text so fast that I was missing important plot details - he really expects you to pay attention to every word, every sentence, and every character nuance. Cook trusts his reader's intelligence and plows ahead through the major plot points assuming you'll be able to keep pace.

At first I was a little put off by the stark styling of The Black Company, but by the end of the first book I found myself very emotionally engaged. I didn't mean to start in on the second book right away, but I was 10 pages in before I realized what I was doing. Somehow, unbeknownst to me, Cook had tied me up in his characters - made them deep and complex and compelling in spite of the spare words used to describe them. The fantasy genre has changed a lot in the 25 years since Cook published the first book in The Black Company, but I think a lot of contemporary authors could take a couple of pages from Glen Cook's book (so to speak).

Now - back to why I started this review off with a bit of passionate cursing. From the time The Black Company really hooked me, about half way in, I kept having a niggling sensation that it felt a lot like The Book of Amber (10 short fantasy novelettes published in one big omnibus. Well worth reading). However, I kept assuring myself that this was only a trilogy - after all, I had all 3 books in one volume! Then I started this review and did a bit of digging about the books' history and discovered that The Black Company is, in fact, the first of 10 books. I didn't mean to throw myself head long into another huge series, dammit! (read: Woohoo! I have another 9 books to enjoy!)

Goodness, this review really go lengthy, given the relative shortness of the book in question. The bottom line here is that in spite of its bumpy start The Black Company is a really great read.