Monday, April 20, 2009

[Lisa’s Take] Mistborn Trilogy Book 1 (Brandon Sanderson)

Praise be to the Flying Spaghetti Monster: the fantasy genre is still good! I have to admit that I was having doubts this year – since Tigana, which I finished in January, I haven’t read a single fantasy (or extended/related genre) novel that really blew my socks off. There have been a few good things, but nothing that really drew me in, made me believe, and felt obligated to deliver the occasional sucker-punch to the gut.

Before I get too far into this review, let me issue a preemptive apology for the number of times that I compare the book to Lies of Locke Lamora – I’ll try to keep the number less than 5, but no hard promises here. Sorry.

So, the world of Misborn. If you’re feeling a little sci-fi, you could call the world post-apocalyptic: some event in the past caused huge volcanic eruptions that turned the sky permanently grey and ensured that ash falls like snow when the wind is blowing right. If you’re leaning in a steam-punk direction, you’ll note that the men and women nobles in the book wear complicated dresses and vests and carry pocket watches. If you’re feeling straight up fantasy, no ifs-ands-or-buts… you won’t be disappointed, either. The world is filled with magic, monsters, and evil overlords. The fantasy-tropes are definitely the strongest, but there are some cool genre-crossover points that spice the world up from the standard fantasy setting.

Next, politics and magic! The political system in Mistborn is pretty standard fantasy-fare: Immortal, God-Like Overlord reigns with an Iron Fist ™. Nobles live a life of luxury, filled with balls and riches and intrigue. The poor folks (called skaa, in this particular case) work as the slaves of the nobles, constantly beaten down and subjugated. As for the magic – Mistborn might have the most interesting magical system I’ve ever read about. I’d love to play a video game based upon this magic system: it’s just that awesome. I’m not going to go into it in this review, as finding out about it in the story is part of the fun, but I will say that it’s awesome, intriguing, and thought provoking.

Right – we have this awesome world and magic system, so what’s the plot? Remember how Lies of Locke Lamora was kind of a fantasy-heist? And how there weren’t really many other books that fell into the same genre? Mistborn definitely qualifies as another fantasy-heist, which is the most wonderful news I’ve ever heard. I could read fantasy-heist novels all day and never get bored, I think. The plot of the story follows a group of thieves and con-men as they plan to… well, I could tell you, but like the magic system I think I’ll let you read for yourself. Suffice to say that much like Lies, the plot doesn’t fall out quite how you expect it to, and there are plenty of twists and roadblocks along the way.

This review is getting long already, but I feel the need to put a word out there about Sanderson’s characterizations. They’re good – kind of standard, but with some of the generic archetypes shaken up a bit to keep them interesting. What Sanderson really excels at are the conversations and interactions between the full crew of characters (think the scene in Lies where they discuss why they steal). The interplay is spot-on, and the camaraderie is genuine and compelling.

The one negative I’ll dish about is that I didn’t always like how the action scenes read. Especially when you got two magical badasses fighting each other, Sanderson would often wax poetic about the fight scene – which is cool, because the magic system allows for that in a big way – but in a lot of cases I felt like he had a really clear picture of every movement and action that was supposed to occur in the scene, but when he described it I was missing something, or all the pieces didn’t fit together. It was a small thing, but I figured I have to mention something critical in this praise-fest if I’m to maintain any credibility.

One final note on the plot: Sanderson managed to put a couple of big old twists into the story that I didn’t see coming, which is always impressive. There was perhaps one item that I think might be a little plot hole, but I’m reading the book annotations now (which he has on his website, along with deleted/revised chapters – so cool!) and I’ll see if they clear up the problem. I do appreciate a story that manages to pull the wool over my eyes. Also, I managed to keep to my promise of mentioning Lies of Locke Lamora fewer than 5 times in this review, but let me be clear on one thing: while the genre and level of awesomeness in Mistborn are similar to Lies, they are very different books, especially in the scope of implications and world. Don’t let my comparisons make you think that they are in any way clones.

I finished Mistborn around 2:00 on Sunday afternoon. By 4:00 I had gone to the bookstore and bought the sequel, and I chewed out 100 pages of it amid my other Sunday evening festivities. This is the first time in a while that I immediately picked up Book 2 in a trilogy without needing a breather – I very much hope that the rest of the trilogy delivers.

The bottom line: get this book. Read it now. I was late to the party on this one, but it’s definitely a staple of new fantasy releases that you need to read. Is my recommendation resounding enough?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

[Lisa’s Take] Hand of Isis (Jo Graham)

Last year two brand new authors each released their first book. Jo Graham’s Black Ships and Jonathan Barnes’ The Somnambulist both blew me away and made it solidly onto my “top 5 books of 2008” list, along with two other first time authors (Galen M. Beckett and J. M. McDermott, if you’re curious). Within the last couple of months, Graham and Barnes each released a second novel – you can imagine my surprise and delight, both at the quick turnaround and that so many great new authors were succeeding.

I tore through Barnes’ new book in a day. I was a little disappointed – it was ok, but not great. I’m no good at delayed gratification, so I turned immediately to Graham’s new release, Hand of Isis, hoping author #2 could fix me up. Sadly I ended up being doubly disappointed: I’m now 0-2 on second books by promising new authors this year.

Hand of Isis is a re-telling of Cleopatra’s life story from the perspective of one of her handmaidens (though handmaiden is a bit misleading, given the strength and power that said sidekick wields). While it has some vague ties back to Graham’s first book (implications of characters reborn, old souls, and repeated destinies) it stands on its own as a story. There is a lot of good to be said about the book – the descriptions and portrayal of the world are absolutely lush, and the amount of research Graham put into this book might be even more impressive than the research she did for Black Ships. The character relationships were strong and poignant, and her interweaving of magic and gods with the established belief system of the time was very impressive.

Now for the less good bits. The most compelling part of Black Ships was Graham’s strong characterizations. You really got to know all of her main characters at a very deep and emotional level – thus why I ended up sobbing over the last chapter at lunch time. However, in Hand of Isis the characters weren’t as solid – I’m not positive what caused this problem, but I think in part it had to do with the idea that the main characters were reborn versions of the main players in Black Ships. I didn’t remember their quirks and defining features well enough to project them onto their reborn counterparts, and Graham didn’t spend time re-developing them. As a result – no big emotional connection.

The second problem I encountered was in the book’s pacing. The first third of the book was excellent and moved along very swiftly. The last third also was filled with action and major plot points that kept me reading. The middle third, however, dragged horribly. While Graham excels at relationships and world building, she really fell down on the political aspects, and the middle of the book read like a litany of politically-based, distant actions. It made for a very underwhelming middle of the book, and did a lot to lessen my overall opinion of the story. If I’d gone into the final section less grumpy, I imagine my review for Hand of Isis would be much more glowing.

This third item might be me feeling touchy, but I feel like Hand of Isis seemed a little “romance novel” in sections. I’ve seen at least one other author go from “promising new fantasy author” to “relegated to the romance section” and I’d hate for Graham to head that direction. That said, I did very much approve of her portrayal of sexuality and love, in all of it’s not-quite-standard forms. I know it sounds like a weird dichotomy to say that I liked her approach to sexuality but that some of the relationships seemed like a romance novel… but there it is. I honestly can’t think of a good way to clarify.

Finally, I touched upon a similar idea in my review of The Domino Men, but I think the world in Cleopatra was a little too “real” for me. In Black Ships I wasn’t at all familiar with the historical period Graham based her story in, so it felt to me like straight up fantasy. It’s pretty much impossible not to know a bit about ancient Egypt and the world of Cleopatra, though, so Hand of Isis really felt like historical fantasy, rather than “fantasy” fantasy… which always decreases my enjoyment a bit. Entirely a personal bias, and not at all the author’s fault.

So all in all Hand of Isis was fairly balanced between things I liked and things that were gripes, but my high expectations meant that I had further to fall from the disappointments. Unless you’re particularly a fan of Jo Graham, I’d say skip Hand of Isis and just read Black Ships – the latter of which I do highly recommend. I’ll definitely be keeping my eye on Jo Graham’s work and I’ll no doubt be excited when she releases her next book, in hopes that it will make it up to the level of her first release.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

[Lisa's Take] The Domino Men - Jonathan Barnes

The Somnambulist was one of the top 5 books I read last year, so you can imagine my excitement when JD came home with a copy of Barnes' new book, The Domino Men. He sent me a picture of it when he found it in the book store - as I hadn't even known Barnes was working on a new book, you can imagine the sort of thrilled noise I made.

Anyway, I think JD did a fine job describing the gist of The Domino Men in his review, so I'll cut straight to the chase.

Domino Men was good, but not great - not even in the same league as The Somnambulist, though to say so is definitely rooted in my own bias against "real world" settings. Unlike the Victorian and slightly Steam Punk setting of The Somnambulist, Barnes' latest endeavor is set in the same world, but modern day. Maybe it's just not "fantasy" enough for me, but whenever too much realism sneaks into my books my opinion immediately turns south.

The book also didn't seem as nuanced as I would have hoped - as JD mentioned, there was much less an air of mystery. Most of the plot was predictable and I called nearly all the major twists. I wasn't a huge fan of most of the characters, and though they were constantly suggested to be great schemers and mad geniuses, these aspirations were only thinly realized in the plot. I will admit that I made a decided sound of glee when The Domino Men came on screen (on page?) but few of the other players elicited such a response.

That said, I finished The Domino Men in one day (admittedly a day where I wasn't feeling great, so I did nothing but sit about and read all evening). Barnes' best feature as an author is his ability to write a damn good narrator - much like in The Somnambulist, my favorite character was the snarky, acidic narrative voice that starts breaking into the main character's accounting a few chapters into the book.

This powerful and entertaining voice coupled with Barnes' ability to keep a plot racing meant that while The Domino Men wasn't as good as its predecessor and wasn't quite my cup of tea... I very much enjoyed it. I'm thrilled that Barnes' fist novel was successful enough to merit a second, and I look forward to his future work (and hopefully work with a less futuristic setting).

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

[Lisa’s Take] (Song of Isaak Book 1) Lamentation – Ken Scholes

I’ve felt a little “meh” about the last few books I read, so I was looking for something really stellar to get me out of my funk. Based solely on the recommendation of Jeff over at Fantasy Book Reviews I decided to pick up Lamentation. No questions, no research – I didn’t even read the jacket flap, just picked it up and added it to the stack.

Granted that didn’t stop JD from reading the jacket flap, and then he almost talked me out of buying the book. I know better than to put any stock in jacket-flap descriptions, but with text like the following I was almost scared off by the level of triteness packed into a few sentences:
An ancient weapon has completely destroyed the city of Windwir. From many miles away, Rudolfo, Lord of the Nine Forest Houses, sees the horrifying column of smoke rising. He knows that war is coming to the Named Lands. Nearer to the Devastation, a young apprentice is the only survivor of the city – he sat waiting for his father outside the walls, and was transformed as he watched everyone he knew die in an instant. Soon all the Kingdoms of the Named Lands will be at each others' throats, as alliances are challenged and hidden plots are uncovered.

I mean… wow. Do you get more hackneyed than that? Named Lands. Kingdoms at war. Ancient weapon. Orphaned Apprentice. Hidden plots. Check! We’ve hit all of the standard fantasy tropes with nothing that sounds even slightly original. It didn’t help that when I took the dust-cover off the book was kind of a mauve-ish-pink color, so coupled with the title it kind of looked like I was reading a romance novel. Still, in spite of JD’s skepticism I held my ground and started Lamentation as soon as I got home.

I’m very pleased that I did. I won’t say that Lamentation blew my socks off – it didn’t bowl me over like Last Dragon or delightfully surprise me like The Magicians and Mrs. Quent – but it did prove to be far less trite than the description suggested, and definitely worth the read. The world is an original combination of fantasy mishmashed with sci-fi and a touch of steampunk, and the characters a fantastic balance of vibrant and subtle. I found myself instantly attached to all of the major POV characters, though I’ll admit that Scholes did touch on my pet peeve of establishing X-number of POVs then throwing in a random +1 from time to time. I certainly don’t mind prologues or epilogues that diverge from POVs, but random chapters thrown in irk me, as it really breaks off the close relationship and flow that sucks you into the main POVs. Very minor gripe, and I can see why he felt the need to switch it up to cover all the major action.

In addition to the great characterization, I loved how evocative Scholes’ prose was. While he didn't use any particularly exciting words or flowing sentence structure that characterizes some of my favorite books, he still managed to draw me in with his descriptions. Scholes created a very rich world of sights and smells and tastes - so rich that I’ve been on a stint of drinking sweet chilled white wines (both while reading Lamentation and well afterwards) because of his meal descriptions. Oh, and did you know that girls’ breath always smells like apples? Sorry – random silly thing that caught my attention and I latched onto it. Twice in the book Scholes described women’s breath as apple-scented, and it struck me as chuckle-worthy.

Perhaps the thing I appreciated most about Lamentation was the fact that Scholes didn’t insult his readers’ intelligence. When it said “Hidden Plots” it really meant it, and Scholes doesn’t feel the need to over-explain or treat you like a 4-year-old. He tells the story with all its intricacies, and you’d damn well better be paying attention if you want to put it all together. I appreciated the chance to engage my brain.

I ended lamentation with a renewed purpose when it comes to completely disregarding jacket descriptions, and a new appreciation for blindly following the recommendations of other geeky fantasy bloggers. Though there were a few first-time-author hiccoughs, Lamentation was still more evocative and intriguing than most of the other fantasy novels I’ve read this year. I’m definitely looking forward to finishing the rest of the series.

Monday, April 06, 2009

[Micro Review] JD's Take: Clay's Ark (Octavia Butler)

Heroic(?) sex criminal astronaut fights alien invasion... in the form of sexy mind-control virus.

I enjoyed this. It was an interesting take on invasion and free will both, and was short enough that "thought experiment" isn't a condemnation. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon, basically.

[Micro Review] JD's Take: The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman)

Boy raised by ghosts after brutal murder of his entire family. Copes.

Young adult? Maybe. Awesome? Hell yes. Gaiman's usual excellence in imaginative writing is on full display here, this is probably my favorite of his novels. Until I reread Stardust. Or Neverwhere. Shit. It's really good though.

JD's Take: Glass Books of the Dream Eaters (Gordon Dahlquist)

I'm certain that Lisa's Take will give you more detail, but here are my thoughts...

I didn't really want to like this book. Well, that's not entirely true. Rather, I should say that after the first 30 pages I was pretty convinced that I wasn't going to like this book. I even put it down for several months at that point. Here's why: The first section of this book feels like a Victorian romance novel. Although entertainingly written, it had me utterly convinced that I was about to have to sit through nearly 800 pages of a poor repressed woman's burgeoning sexuality in the hands of her whip weilding new lover(s). Seriously. I challenge you to read 35 pages and think otherwise.

So a few months pass, and I pick the book back up because Lisa *insists* it's worth my time. She tells me that I need to at least read the first point of view chapter for each of the three characters. This was a very sneaky thing to tell me, it turns out, since that takes you about 300 pages. Sneaky or not it was good advice, though in truth I was thoroughly hooked by the beginning of the second character. The writing is phenomenally entertaining, and the characters are unique and engaging.

First you have Celeste, who manages to not burgeon after all, which is probably for the best. She's a strong character who does not, in truth, take shit from anyone. Next we have "Cardinal" "Chang" a mercenary of a philisophical bent with a snazzy coat and very little sense of self preservation. Finally, we've got Doctor Svenson. He's not a great secret agent as it turns out, but a dandy doctor and entertainingly conflicted about everything he's ever encountered. The three of them, for reasons that are tenuous when viewed out of context, get involved in a plot to take over the world using Creepy Science. Hijinx ensue.

This isn't the first book I've read recently that I was tempted to describe as a book about sex in which nobody actually has any, but in this case the description is unfair. Better to say that this is an awesome Victorian adventure/mystery/fantasy novel with some sexual overtones. The pace of the book never lets up despite its intimidating length, the characters are consistant and fun, the world is fascinating, the fantasy elements are introduced sneakily and blend into the world seamlessly.

Basically, I highly recommend it.