Wednesday, May 20, 2009

[Lisa’s Take] Wizard of Pigeons (Megan Lindholm)

Robin Hobb is one of my favorite authors – I’ve read her Farseer trilogy several times now, and it was one of the fantasy series that really solidified my love of the genre back in high school. As such, I’m always watching out for books written under her old pseudonym of Megan Lindholm; whenever I hit a used book store I go straight to the L section to see what I can dig up. I usually strike out, often finding “book two” in her old trilogies, but never book one or standalone books. You can imagine my excitement when I happened across Wizard of Pigeons, a short stand-alone novel.

Wizard of Pigeons is urban fantasy set in modern(ish) Seattle. It revolves around a homeless man who goes simply by Wizard, and who is granted certain powers of urban survival so long as he does not break a few rules. The magic system is fairly interesting a has a level of subtlety that is rarely seen – in some ways the powers of the characters in the book reminded me of aspects of the magic in the Nightwatch series. However, where this book really shines is in its description of downtown Seattle – the images and geography are spot on. Maybe it’s just my great love of the Emerald City, but I found the city descriptions to be incredibly evocative, so much that I could smell the air, feel the misty rain on my face, and taste the rich coffee.

After such a rousing endorsement of the setting I almost hate to type this next line, but alas… I’d be lying if I said I thought Wizard of Pigeons was worth the read. Where the environment and magic system where intriguing, the characters were less so. Wizard was kind of well developed, but the major secondary character drove me absolutely insane. I hated her so much that she actually managed to ruin a lot of the book for me. I wanted about 90% less screen time for her and 300% more screen time for the other wizards in the story, who were all interesting but didn’t get to be featured very heavily.

By the last quarter of the book I was literally only reading because it seemed like I didn’t have many pages left and it would be a shame to quit so close to the end. I wanted the final chapters to redeem the middle section that made me so angry, but I don’t think I was in much of a mindset to let it. I ended the book grumpy and disappointed, and though I recognized that the author made a bid at including her signature bittersweet finale, I couldn’t appreciate it.

I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone unless you are a particularly die-hard Robin Hobb fan, and also only if you have a strong stomach for extremely obnoxious female characters (ex: if Malta pissed you off during the Liveship Traders, don’t touch this book with a 10 foot pole). It may also be worth reading for lovers of Seattle, if only to see a beloved city in text form, and to have a little magic lent to the Market.

JD's Take: Halting State (Charles Stross)

Halting State is a near future science fiction novel that uses a mysterious digital theft in Scotland as a backdrop to both explore the Stross's projections of technology (and the world political stage) for the next 20 years and to posit some of the possible dangers of that technology's advance. While doing so, Stross adeptly writes a compelling story with reasonably good twists, likable characters, and enough action and suspense to keep you turning the pages long after you should have packed up and gone back to work.

The basic technological premise of the novel is that human interaction with technology continues to become more and more pervasive. Most everybody wears digital eyeglasses that give them an internet-enabled overlay (or several overlays) on the real world in order to augment it with additional information. For instance, the police use an overlay called CopSpace which recognizes people in their field of view and gives instant information about them (arrest record, personal information, etc). People can overlay maps onto their field of view to navigate, gamespaces into their view to seamlessly immerse them in a fantasy world while they navigate the real one, and endless other applications are hinted at or explored. All of this is powered by distributing the processing across everybody's (extremely) smart phones. Basically? The future is sweet. And really, there's nothing here that's particularly farfetched for the future of technology. I won't say that I believe the predictions, but it is certainly a compelling argument for the way that tech might progress.

We join our heroes as they are gathered together to investigate the theft of Sweet Gear from a bank in an MMO. The implications of this theft are that *someone* has broken the cryptography on the networks, and that is Bad. It quickly becomes clear that this is Very Bad Indeed, and has implications for national security and worldwide politics and economics.

The story is told entirely in the second person, and switches characters each chapter between one of 3 POV characters. This sounds awkward, and it could have been, but Stross handles it masterfully. Instead of being jarring, it feels like a DM narrating a scene to the character as you read. This, in turn, helps to subtly draw you into the very gaming-centric story in a very effective way. The other thing it does is to reinforce the importance of perceived reality to the story. In a world where you can augment your reality however you want, the second person perspective really drives home that "you see a man" is a much better construction than "there is a man". Frankly, this was a subtle and wonderful and clever decision and I loved it.

The story wasn't without flaws... there were weak characterizations in the supporting cast and some unconvincing technological guesswork, but that's all nitpicking. This was a great book and I highly recommend it. Just read it now, while it still sounds like compelling futurism and not one of the other two options (reality and "flying cars" futurism).

[Lisa’s Take] Peter and the Starcatchers (Dave Barry, Ridley Pearson)

After reading Peter David’s most excellent novella Tigerheart, I was feeling a soft spot towards Peter Pan stories. So the reason I picked up Peter and the Starcatchers was threefold: it was sitting on a “staff recommended” shelf at the book store, I was feeling fond of Neverland, and Dave Barry writes such a great news paper column that I figured his fantasy would have to be great.

Peter and the Starcatchers is kind of a Peter Pan Prequel (mmm, alliteration), the first in an ongoing series. It follows the story of a group of young orphans who get sent off on a ship that will take them to live in the employ of an evil prince. Their voyage does not go as planned, however, and through the course of the story we find out just how the ordinary boy Peter becomes the legend that can fly and defy pirates. We also meet Captain Hook’s precursor and discover the events through which he came to be plagued by a crocodile.

This book is definitely a kids book; I think a child between 8 and 12 would really love it. Sadly, it doesn’t live up to the “timeless tale” measure, like Tigerheart did. I chomped the book down on a flight home from Memphis, all in one sitting, but I really only kept reading it because I had nothing better to do. The story was fun and it was a creative and interesting take on Peter Pan, but there was no real substance to it. At times the narrative aaaaalmost took on a self-aware tone and injected a bit of humor… but in the end it fell short and missed the mark.

Peter and the Starcatchers is a good book for youths and young adults, but lacks the punch or depth to make it appeal to all audiences. If you pick it up looking for Dave Barry’s usual wit and humor, I fear you will be disappointed.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

[Lisa’s Take] Mistborn Book 3: Hero of Ages (Brandon Sanderson)

I kind of thought I’d have a lot to put into my review of the final book in this trilogy, but now that the time has come I don’t have all that much to say. I can’t do a plot summary without spoilers, and there just isn’t much that I feel like waxing poetic about. If you’ve read my reviews of books 1 and 2 you know that I adore the story, and book 3 continues to deliver on that promise. I didn’t enjoy it as much as book 1 (like book 2, book 3 is Good but not Great), but it was an entertaining tale. I’m pleased that the ending brought such great closure, and I was very surprised by the bold strokes that the author took in wrapping up the story.

Oh, I did have one little gripe: did anyone else feel that there was a pretty serious screw up (retcon?) in the capabilities of allomancy during one of the big final battles? Trying to remain unspoilery: the one involving a lot of Inquisitors? Maybe I was racing through the book’s climax so quickly that I missed the explanation of why this particular thing worked in that battle, but didn’t work in a number of other battles – I’d like to think that surely the author and the editor couldn’t both have miss it. Regardless, the fact that I got fixated on it in a “that’s not supposed to be possible” sense really broke up the book’s climax for me.

Anyway, at this point I’m really just rambling because I don’t have the juice to do a full review of Hero of Ages. I’ll wrap this up by reiterating that in spite of its (very few) faults, the Mistborn trilogy is truly excellent. It’s definitely the best fantasy trilogy I’ve read in a couple of years, sporting a compelling plot line, an amazingly awesome magic system, epic scope, and very well developed characters. I look forward to reading more of Bradon Sanderson’s work in the future.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

[Mini Review] Lisa’s Take: Mistborn Book 2 - The Well of Ascension (Brandon Sanderson)

I suppose I should post just a brief note on the second book of the Mistborn trilogy, as I’m already ¾ of the way through the final book. I’ll keep it short, and forgo the potentially spoilerfull plot summary.

The Well of Ascension was a Good Book, though perhaps not a Great Book. I felt it wasn’t as impressive as the first book for a couple of reasons, the biggest one being that it’s hard to rival the slow reveal of a world and magical system that took place in book one. There were still some cool new concepts in book two, but you didn’t spend 200 pages learning about Allomancy and going “Oh, awesome!!” so the overall novelty was lower.

I was also kind of annoyed by how Sanderson handled the relationship aspects of book 2 – a lot of the back and forth just annoyed the hell out of me, regardless of how much you could argue that it was in character. For about two thirds of the book I ground my teeth whenever the Elend/Vin dynamic came up, and the weird conservative overtones that snuck into the narrative rubbed me the wrong way.

Luckily the end of the book did a lot to rectify my gripes; when I finished The Well of Ascension I had a very “Empire Strikes Back” feeling in my chest. I wasted no time getting my hands on book 3, which I have been summarily tearing through. I also feel it worth mentioning that Zane might be winning the “Lisa’s favorite character of the year” award – some of the aspects of his characterization were really great.

Right, that’s it. Keeping this short, with the expectation of a longer ramble when I wrap up The Hero of Ages in a day or two.