Thursday, October 22, 2009

JD's Take: Foreigner Series [Books 1-3] (C. J. Cherryh)

I have now read something like six C.J. Cherryh books, and have yet to write a single review. This is a shame, and since I just wrapped up reading Inheritor, I thought I'd rectify this failing. The books covered here are Foreigner, Invader, and Inheritor. These stories are all set in the same world, and follow the same character. I've read them over the course of 3 years... so I'm not going to pretend that I remember a lot of specifics. Instead, this will be a sort of holistic review.

First: the world. A human colony ship jumps into a distant galaxy and is promptly lost. It manages to find an inhabitable planet, builds a space station and eventually colonizes the planet thanks to a political rift between the pilots and the passengers. This planet has intelligent life already, a race called the Atevi who are tall, ebony skinned humanoids with golden eyes and a steam-engine level of technology. At first things go reasonably well, but what with one thing and another the ship leaves orbit in search of home (leaving the humans on-planet stranded) and war breaks out between the Atevi and the humans. The Atevi win quite handily and the humans frantically make a treaty that leaves them control of a large island off the mainland but nothing else. The treaty's basic idea is that a single human will live amongst the Atevi, learn their language, and act as a interpreter and diplomat to ensure the peace (he is called the Paidhi). In return, the humans will slowly release their technology to Atevi hands, in a way that is carefully calculated to not overturn the economic stability while still advancing their technology level to eventual parity. Fast forward 200 years and we meet Bren Cameron, the young new Paidhi and our protagonist.

These books aren't about things happening. In general, only two or three things happen in the entire book (and they aren't short books). They aren't about romance, as Bren is totally isolated from other humans and Atevi don't feel love. They aren't about action either. Though violence happens it is just as often off-screen as on. These are books about a smart and a good man trying to understand an alien psychology well enough that he can prevent the violence that always lurks just under the surface... a goal that often puts him at odds with his own species. This psychological understanding is primarily driven by an understanding of the Atevi language, and musings on the language fill a large portion on each book, along with explorations of the complicated political structures that make up Atevi society (which, because of their alien psychology, don't translate well into human thinking).

Reading this books is intellectually engaging, and you need to be prepared to actually think while you read. Previous description aside... they aren't boring books at all. Although very few big events happen in them (in fact, the goal is often simply to prevent big things from happening), there are small things happening all of the time. I think I could best describe reading these books as becoming wholly engrossed in a masterfully played game of chess. It becomes your world, and you spend as much time as you need to understand the implications of each move. As the game progresses, every motion ripples outwards and forward as pieces are moved into extravagantly complex arrangements... each piece protecting another, or blocking some gambit, or maneuvering for an attack. Your heartbeat speeds up every time a player picks up a piece, your shoulders tighten, your palms sweat... not because the move itself is explosive or surprising but because you can feel the game building to a crisis point and once the tension builds too far everything is going to tip and all of the structures are going to collapse. When the crisis finally comes, the casual observer might see very little to react to. A piece or two is taken... and the players continue to stare impassively at the board. But you, who are totally absorbed in the game see something else entirely. You see a power structure that shifted irretrievably. A mistake! Someone slipped, and his opponent moved to take advantage and now the tone of the board is completely shifted and it's all just careful mopping up from now on. Unless, of course, it wasn't a mistake at all...

And nobody who wasn't totally absorbed even noticed that anything happened. By the end of the game the board is totally changed. Someone will look at it and ask you "how did he win?" and you will shrug, unable to find the words. They will think "what a boring game", and in a sense they are right. Until you commit there is very little for you in the game, it is only in engrossing yourself that you see the drama and the excitement and the slow buildup of tension. Cherryh makes it easy for me to become engrossed... I imagine that is not true of everyone who picks up these books, and I imagine many people will walk away thinking "what a boring game".

So yeah. These are challenging books, they require you to think and to be willing to feel your heartbeat raise and your shoulders tense for five or six hundred pages. The writing is solid, but the first fifty pages will feel weird to you each time you pick one up. I'm not sure why, something in the way sentences are phrased perhaps, but the feeling always fades (at least for me). The Atevi, and the Atevi world, aren't all that different from humans and earth... it isn't world building on a grand and original scale. Rather, the focus is very much on understanding the way a similar but alien race thinks and reasons and lives. It's subtle and certainly not for everyone. I can only handle one of these books a year or so, and there are something like seven more waiting for me. This might actually be the only long series of books that I read more slowly than they are written, but I'm basically totally fine with that.

JD's Take: Sandman Slim (Richard Kadrey)

So this guy comes back from Hell bent on revenge, the way one finds oneself doing, for the brutal killing of his girlfriend. He was sent, still living, into hell and ended up fighting in the gladiatorial arena down there to stay alive. So he's pretty much awesome at killing things, and before being sent down he was an incredibly gifted magician (both of which equip him solidly for his chosen career path (Mayhem Application Engineer)). So anyway, he comes back to revenge himself on the people who sent him to Hell and who murdered his girlfriend.

The problem with Sandman Slim is that the main character, by dint of living in Hell for seven years or just natural inclination, is an unrepentant asshole. He isn't a very sympathetic character, and it's hard to really care all that much about his suffering and whatnot because he's largely an emotionless revenge machine. That sort of thing *sounds* really badass on paper (especially if that paper is a character sheet, I've found) but it makes it hard to become emotionally involved with his story. He moves through a world filled with interesting characters, cool magic ideas, horrible creatures, awesome cosmology and all that sort of urban fantasy stuff, and it is all very cool! The friends he makes *are* quite interesting and sympathetic, but they are very marginalized and rarely get any screen time and don't get to develop at all... the same could be said about all of the cool elements. Kadrey just seems to neglect the parts of the book that were interesting and stay tightly focused on a protagonist that doesn't draw the reader in.

Then there's the revenge bits: these were all... weird. None of his victories felt like triumphs, perhaps because it never seemed like it was any effort or risk to him. I'm not sure how to describe a revenge fantasy novel in which the various revenges aren't actually cathartic at all. Firstly because you don't care all that much about the wrongs that were done to this guy, and secondly because the obstacles seem trivial and he walks through the actual revenges like he's out getting groceries.

All this sounds pretty negative, and I guess it is. I didn't *hate* the book but I don't feel like I got anything out of it either. There were lots of very, very cool ideas that could have been fleshed out into fascinating aspects of the story and I dearly wish they had been. Give me a scene of the arena fights! Show the immortal alchemist more! Play with the punk rock girl spider person more! Instead, I found that the most singularly positive thing about the book is that it's form factor is totally awesome, if you're into kinda weird sized printings. Which I am. So there's that.

Otherwise? Pass probably.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

[Lisa's Take] Thomas the Rhymer (Ellen Kushner)

You don't see this particular book of Ellen Kushner's in bookstores all that often, so I nabbed a copy when I happened to spot it at Borders. It's a slim little volume, clocking in at only 260ish pages, but it is the winner of the World Fantasy Award in 1991 and has a glowing cover-blurb from Neil Gaiman. Needless to say, my expectations were high.

The story is a novel-style re-telling of the classic ballad of Thomas the Rhymer (who is in turn based upon a real 13th century Scottish laird). According to the ballad, Thomas is seduced be the queen of Elfland and tricked into staying in her fairy world for 7 years. When he returns to the human world she gives him a parting gift of prophecy.

Kushner's take on the story is true to the traditional ballad, but she takes the tack of telling the tale from the point of view of 4 characters: Meg and Gavin, two surrogate parental figures; Elspeth, a friend and potential lover; and Thomas himself. Her approach is interesting and lends a certain depth and sense of realism to the legend.

The prose is lovely, as is always the case with Kushner's work, and the story moves along fairly quickly. Unfortunately, the book never quite connected with me - there was something missing, though I can't for the life of me put my finger on what. I think part of it was that Meg and Gavin seemed a bit shallow as characters; I didn't empathize with them as greatly as I did Thomas and Elspeth. I also thought the story laid it on a little too thick with some of enchantments of the Elfland queen - it got to the point where I found myself thinking "ok, I get it, she's unfathomably desirable and Thomas is hopelessly entranced. Can we move on?"

In the end, I suppose this book was a mixed bag. The writing style was lovely, and it was an interesting way to approach a classic story. Sadly, I felt let down from where my expectations were set by so much glowing praise, which cast a pall on my opinion as a whole. Take from that what you will, and maybe only pick up Thomas the Rhymer if you're in the mood for something classic and poetic.

[Related Aside: I realized in writing this review that I've now been disappointed by 3 or 4 books that I picked up (at least in part) because of a cover-blurb by Neil Gaiman. Maybe I should take a hint: read his books, but not the books he recommends...]

Friday, October 09, 2009

JD's Take: The Sheriff of Yrnameer: A Novel (Michael Rubens)

After my first few pages of this book, I took a moment to try to describe it to myself. The best I could come up with was if you asked Terry Pratchett to write a story in the style of Douglas Adams. This seemed... hyperbolic to me but there is a fair amount of truth in the description. The setting has the same absurd-but-recognizable futurism of Douglas Adams that makes you think "well of course in the future the dust kicked up by a scuffed foot will form the logo of the planet's sponser!", and the writing has a style that cannot help but remind you of Pratchett.

We enter the story in medea res with the main character Cole (think Han Solo being played by Space Quest's Roger Wilco) being dangled upside down and preparing to have his brain filled with the ravenous young of the collector his loan shark sent. He had just robbed a fellow smuggler who in turn had just robbed an adorable pair of dwarves. Who in turn had just robbed a casino. Sadly, that money was nowhere near enough. The creature dangling Cole is Kenneth, a Lovecraftian horror of an alien creature with a pleasant and soothing baritone voice that belays his natural inclination to lay eggs in people's brains and his unconscionable love of soap-opera style drama. One thing inevitably leads to another and we follow Cole across the galaxy with a ship stolen from his arch-rival and filled with smuggled freeze-dried orphans on a search for a Utopia. Adventures are had along the way, the way they so often are.

The plot is well-paced, but predictable... you will in no way be surprised by the character development arcs of any of the half-dozen characters who have them. Sadly too, some of the more interesting secondary characters are quite regrettably left to languish, narration-less, along the borders of the story. These are, of course, quibbles. Yes, it's a tad predictable but this story will have you flipping pages with complete disregard for work schedules or sane sleeping habits. The witty writing, inventive world, and flawed characters make it challenging to find that perfect break to set it down.

Is it as good as a book by the aforementioned giants? Not quite. It is fun, frantic and highly entertaining however; a page-turner that will make you wish Mr. Rubens would quit wasting his considerable talent on that no-good day job of writing for the Daily Show and focus on what's really important: expanding and improving the desperately under-served genre of humorous imaginative fiction. Pratchett won't be around forever and it's totally unfair of us to depend on A. Lee Martinez to see us through those dark days ahead. Verdict: absolutely pick up this book.

[Lisa's Take] Havemercy (Jaida Jones & Danielle Bennett)

Havemercy is the debut novel from Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennet, two newbies to the fantasy world. The first line of the Barnes & Noble synopsis characterizes it as a “stunning epic fantasy debut” – the back of the book also loudly exclaims the epic-fantasy-ness of the book, as well as harping upon it’s steam-punk roots.

…no. Sorry, but no and no. There is nothing “epic” about Havemercy. It follows 4 main characters (a magician in exile, a student, a tutor, and an airman) in first-person format through what is mostly a character-examination and romance. There’s a bit of action near the end, but overall the book is a relationship study – which is a fine sub-genre of fantasy, but is most certainly not “epic.” A more apt description would be that Havemercy is “a fantasy of manners,” much like Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint – in fact I’d go so far as to say that Havemercy wanted to BE Swordspoint, as it investigated a lot of the same themes and had a very similar overall feel… only without Kushner’s refined language and ability to build emotion and attachment.

Oof, I’m rambling and edging towards a rant… let me reign this back into something resembling a review.

Havemercy started off with a lot of promise. As is my habit, rather than reading the back of the book for an idea of what to expect I opened it up and read the first few pages. The first section was from the point of view of Royston, aforementioned magician in exile. The first person tone was interesting, refined, and a bit tongue-in-cheek, which always suits my fancy. The next view point was Rook, the whore-loving, foul-mouthed, hotshot dragon-rider. I laughed my way through his whole chapter, pretty much loving his dirty, jaded commentary, especially when taken next to Royston’s more courtly air. Thom and Hal, the other two POV characters, were a bit dull in comparison… but they were distinct and well-developed, which is more than I can say for many books.

Sadly other than solid and entertaining characterizations, there isn’t much good to say about the rest of the book. By half way through not even Rook’s internal monologue was keeping me interested. The story and the relationships started to fall victim to a lot of relationship clichés as well as standard fantasy clichés. There was one revelation in particular that actually caused me to say “seriously??” out loud – the woman on the plane next to me gave me quite a look of confusion.

Anyway, the bottom line is that Havemercy started strong and then just sort of did a slow, leisurely spiral into mediocrity and finally into outright poorness. It was a relief when the book ended (none of the big emotional hooks in the last 50 pages did so much as twinge at my heart, even though they were clearly meant to). Skip this one, unless it happens that Ellen Kushner is your favorite author and you don’t mind reading her inferior little sisters.

Monday, October 05, 2009

[Mini Review] JD's Take: The Devil You Know (Mike Carrey)

There's a guy named Felix Caster (what IS it with serial-modern-fantasy authors and ridiculous names? It's like newscasters and terrible puns!) who exorcises ghosts for a living. This is a convenient talent to have, it turns out, since the world was positively overrun with the buggers a few years back and they can really be a hassle. He's out of the game now because he did Something Bad, and because all of the best heroes are reluctant heroes and coming out of retirement earns you hero-bonus points. Aaaanyway he needs some cash to help a friend so he takes a job, it turns weird and the mob gets involved and he gets his ass kicked by one person after another until in the end he uses his Clever Clever Brain to outwit the badguys, save the day, find and lose a lover, and still get paid (or not).

If this sounds an awful lot like Harry Dresden, you'd be pretty spot on. The primary difference is that this is British. It was enjoyable and I'll probably pick up more, but I keep saying that about ol' Harry too, and time is making a liar of me. When it comes right down to it, these books all feel the same and while I enjoy them while I read them, it's hard to feel motivated to pick up another. This series might be more likely to catch my interest because I get to decipher obscure London-isms while I read it, and it left me with an intriguing next book hook. If you loves you some Dresden Files, this is absolutely worth a look.

JD's Take: Daemons Are Forever (Simon R. Green)

Guilty Pleasure. Those are the words that I find myself hiding behind as I try to summarize the world of Daemons (and the first book in the series: The Man With The Golden Torc). Starring Eddie Drood (AKA Shaman Bond) who is a rebellious member of the Drood family, the all-powerful family that has been secretly protecting humanity from all things supernatural, extraterrestrial, magical, super-scientific, and generally weird since time immemorial. They fight secret battles clad in invincible golden armor and they control the governments of the world, all without rumour of their existence ever reaching the mundane humans they protect. Oh, and obviously there are some James Bond overtones.

Sure, it's a ridiculous world, and the events of the books don't do a terribly good job of making it seem convincing. That's the second biggest flaw with this series so far: you suspend a truly epic amount of belief to swallow the story. The biggest problem with the writing is that Green has a really bad habit of using the same phrase more than once within a couple pages. It's jarring as hell to hear a distinctive phrase like "wind of fury"[0] twice on the same page, and it happens over and over throughout the book. I think it annoyed me in the first book too. Basically: it needs a crueler editor. There are other problems as well: the characters sometimes act out of character and the much-vaunted invincible armor is pretty casually penetrated by any and all foes of the Drood family up to and including a guy in a bar.

That said, the writing is fun, the plots are fast moving and engaging, and I find the books to be highly enjoyable fluff. I like that, unlike Bond movies, the world changes and the actions of the characters have lasting and meaningful impact. The first book shifted rather dramatically the world in the second book, and that's a nice thing to see and rare in modern-fantasy-serials. There's a lot of very fun side-characters and world-building weirdness to enjoy, and the supporting cast is definitely one of the strengths of the series. I mean come on! Jack the Ripper is a recurring character and they've dubbed him "Mr. Stab". Just like the first one, I found myself flying through the book in obsessive-mode and thoroughly enjoying it... I just felt a little guilty when anyone asked what I was reading.

The short answer: these are books that are best described as "fun", and left at that. I'll certainly keep picking them up... in paperback.

[0] Not an actual example

Saturday, October 03, 2009

[Lisa's Take] The Red Wolf Conspiracy (Robert V. S. Redick)

You know that kid from school when you were 7 years old? The one who always had to be the absolute best and everything? You say “I got a lollipop!” and he says “Well I got a magical lollipop that was made from ground unicorn horn and brought across the sea by pirates and it glows in the dark and makes it so I never have to take baths!” He’s probably not a bad kid at heart, he just has to one-up everyone; he over-embellish even the most mundane situation and tacks on more and more unbelievable things trying to make himself look cool.

I kind of felt like Red Wolf Conspiracy was that kid. There was a core of a good story and some really nifty ideas about magic and history and worlds… but the author just took on too much. It’s as though he had a hundred cool ideas, and rather than dole them out in a few stories or books or worlds he decided that he had to get them all into this book right now or he might never get another chance.

The story started out pretty strongly, introducing interesting characters and setting the scene with skill. The world felt a bit like Victorian London at the start, and Redick skillfully added layers of intrigue and magic to his basic premise through the first third or half of the book. I was quite engaged, I enjoyed the characters, and tore through the first 200 pages with alacrity. I absolutely loved the idea of the Sisterhood (Sisterhood of the Lorg, maybe? Can’t recall the name now) and I desperately wanted the author to do more than just toe at the implications of it. The main character’s language-magic was also really neat and original.

Sadly, after a solid start the second half kind of fell apart. It stopped reading like a well-crafted, subtle, adult-fantasy and started feeling more like a slip-shod kids book, with magical elements thrown in to impress and awe rather than to serve any useful purpose in the story. Several of the character meetings and plot points felt extremely contrived, and I couldn’t suspend my disbelief enough to get over it and enjoy the book. I stopped feeling an emotional connection to the characters because I was so grumpy with the downward turn in quality – it was a terribly frustrating experience.

Luckily the ending of the book managed to salvage things a bit, so I finished the story just “disappointed” instead of “actively annoyed.” I really don’t know how to resolve such a great first half with such a shoddy second half. Did the editor get sleepy half way through the book and not finish it? Or did the publisher insist on a limited page count, so rather than exploring concepts at a leisurely pace, Redick felt like he had to smoosh everything in quickly? I don’t know, but it didn’t work out.

I want to be optimistic and say that surely some of the “first writer foibles” will be remedied in later books. I guess I’ll see how accommodating I’m feeling when book 2 hits the shelves – I’d love to see a story that is as polished overall as the first half of Red Wolf Conspiracy.