Tuesday, December 14, 2010

[Lisa's Take] The Warded Man - Peter V. Brett

I’m currently in India for work, and the office network is extremely locked down: no gmail, no twitter, no google docs, no facebook, etc. I assumed that blogger would likewise be blocked, so I’ve been sitting on a pile of reviews for the last 2.5 weeks – imagine my delight when I discovered that blogger is not access controlled after all!

This year has been a year of overwhleming “mediocre” among the fantasy books I’ve chosen to read. There have been few truly excellent books in the stack of 40-odd novels I’ve consumed in the last 12 months. There has been some tasty candy, and one or two gems (*cough*Daniel Abraham*cough*) but overall it has been a very so-so year.

The Warded Man is a flagrant exception to that blanket statement about mediocrity. Granted, I read two thirds of it on the plane to India in a sleepy fog, but even allowing for that Brett has produced a truly excellent book. Unlike the last book that I read (that review is coming; it’s not pretty) Brett put in place the full history of his story, and thought through the social and economic implications of his hundreds-of-years war. To say that the characters grow and develop over the course of the book is a gross understatement – his characters positively transform through the flow of the narrative. The transformation of each character is believable, sincere, and utterly moving.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Brett’s first work is the realism of the world. He is not afraid to show the gritty side of humanity, all their faults and cruelties. However, unlike some current authors (Abercrombie is my favorite offender to pick on, the poor guy), Brett does not take the grittiness so far that it jumps the shark and falls off the cliff of believability. Brett also tempers the grittiness with a healthy dose of life’s loving and humorous aspects.

My single complaint with The Warded Man is that the last 20% of the book felt a little rushed – we had been meandering through the growth of each character, and suddenly they are all mature adults and all sorts of events happen all at once. I suppose this might be commentary on adulthood. Overall I did not take issue with the change in pace, but it did make certain things (the love-story aspect in particular) feel a bit tacked-on.

I finished The Warded Man gunning for the sequel. Alas, the only bookstore I can get to in Delhi is pretty small. I was VERY surprised to see the UK edition (called The Painted Man) on the shelves – I bought it just for the novelty of owning two identical books with different titles. The moment I get back to the states I’ll be picking up The Desert Spear, and I will spend the first couple of days of my vacation tearing through it.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

JD's Take: The Lions of Al-Rassan (Guy Gavriel Kay)

Kay writes historical fantasy. This isn't a thing I knew the first couple books of his I read. I finished Tiganna without every making the connection that it was a fictionalized Italy that was being portrayed, and I didn't care. The book was phenomenal, and knowing that it was historical fantasy would probably have prevented me from reading it. It smacks of Alternate History, which I typical don't enjoy at all. Clearly, I am a fool, and only luck and ignorance saved me in this case. I am a learning animal, however, and capable of accepting that Kay is a gentleman of phenomenal talent who I should in no way discount for arbitrary reasons. And so I read The Lions of Al-Rassan, and was richly rewarded for my open-minded, cosmopolitan, and generous nature. Lions takes place in a Kay-ian fictionalized version of medieval Europe, circa the 11th century and focusing, in part, on the life of an El Cid analogue and the conflict between Muslims, Jews, and Christians. If you are a student of history, you will see many historical parallels here. Otherwise, don't sweat it.

This is, in many ways, a book about a war that everyone knows is coming. One group, previously ascendant and militarily dominant has fallen into decline. Another group, largely exiled from their historical holdings prepares to return in force now that their centuries-old foe has weakened. A third group, historically persecuted by both sides has finally found a sort of safety in obscurity, and (correctly) predicts that the coming war will crush them between both sides. At the center of the story are three unlikely companions from all sides of the conflict who forge a strange but powerful friendship... knowing all the while that it is likely doomed.

The characters are well written, brightly characterized and interesting. They do tend towards being super-human, but then, they are extraordinary people. Their relationships are compelling, engrossing, tragic, and often gut-wrenching. The plot is tight and moves this pretty weighty volume along with ease. Overall, Lions is excellently written and I highly recommend it. My only real complaint, and I'll be the first to admit that it's pretty nit-picky, is that Kay uses one particular literary device far too often. While effective in moderation, there are only so many times that I'm willing to deal with the whole "let's tell you someone dies and then spend 10 pages teasing you about how you don't know who it is" before it starts to get on my nerves. Honestly, after the first time it actually detracted from the drama of the moment because I was pissed that he was "pulling that crap again".

Final balance: Lions is Kay at or near his very best, and I highly recommend it. It's emotionally compelling and deals with some pretty interesting Big Issues without ever getting bogged down in them.

[Mini Review] JD's Take: Territory (Emma Bull)

Territory really impressed me. It's a retelling of the Wyatt Earp/Doc Holiday/OK Corral story from the point of view of a young widow working in Tombstone as a typesetter for the local newspaper. It's filled with interesting historical flavor and the characters are nuanced and morally gray and interesting almost to a person. As the story unfolds, we slowly realize that there are magical forces at work in Tombstone influencing events in unpredictable ways. The slow plot pacing and character development work extremely well here, allowing us to assimilate the fantasy elements of the story into the familiar framework of a tale we know the broad outline of already without ever feeling jarring or forced. The introduction of those elements also warns us early that this story isn't going to play out the way we might expect either...

My only real complaint is that the book just... ends. There's no climax, no denouement, it just stops in mid-narrative. Clearly intended to be the first book in a series, I'd recommend waiting to read this until the sequel is available, lest you finish feeling unsatisfied.

[Nano Review] JD's Take: The Alchemist in the Shadows (Pierre Pavel)

This is the sequel to Pavel's "The Cardinal's Blades". See that review, but add in a "ARG WHY WOULD END THE BOOK THERE THE THIRD BOOK BETTER GET TRANSLATED DAMMIT" to it. :)

JD's Take: The Cardinal's Blades (Pierre Pavel)

Not one, but two of my friends responded the exact same way when told the title of the book I was reading was "The Cardinal's Blades": "Is it reverse The Three Musketeers?". My response was the same to both of them too: "Yeah, but with dragons. Kinda."

By "reverse Three Musketeers" what they meant was that the protagonists of the story are an elite squad of Cardinal Richelieu's Guard who are tasked with... delicate acts of force. The kind that get you disavowed and disbanded for five years as a matter of political expedience (which is where the story picks up). The squad is made up of a wonderful and diverse cast of french musketeers, duelists, gamblers, sneaks, nobles, and lovers who are fiercely loyal to their Captain. The Captain, and by extension the entire squad, are loyal to Richelieu, France, and the King (in roughly that order)... though honestly it seems like they just really like their jobs.

Oh and the dragons. So in THIS France of 1633, an ancient race of Dragons has long since taken human form and manipulate the politics of Europe from behind the scenes. There are little shoulder dragons flying about serving as pets and pigeons. There is a race of dragon/human hybrids that were created by the dragons of yore to serve as minions. So. There's some dragon-y stuff in there as well.

It took me a little while to really get into this book. For starters, it was written in French and like any translation has its fair share of quirks. However, the thing that really got to me was the author's tendency to break the immersion of the story by describing the city of Paris in historical terms. For instance, he might say while describing a chase through the muck-filled alleys of 17th century Paris that the villian turned down the Rue-De-Marque, which wouldn't become a bustling thoroughfare until 1850 blah-de-blah. It kept jarring me out of the story. However, eventually I became used to the author's style and really enjoyed the story. It's a fun, action-packed intrigue filled with exciting characters who all have a Dark Secret or three. Much of these are only hinted at in this book, and the prospect of occasionally breaking up my future readings with further forays into this Dumasian fantasy delights me.

It's candy, but sweet sweet candy indeed. I ended up enjoying it so much that I picked up the sequel immediately after finishing it and started right in without so much as a snack-break.

Friday, November 05, 2010

[Mini Review] JD's Take: The Way of Kings (Brandon Sanderson)

The Way of Kings is the first entry in what is going to be one of those series that takes up an entire shelf in my library. Projected to be 11 books long (and this first one weighs in at 1008 pages), I've made the regrettable decision to begin reading as soon as the first book was published. Those of us who read fantasy and science fiction have a name for people who start reading long, epic series at the onset: suckers. We've been burned, you see, by the Robert Jordans and the GRRMs of the world. With luck my blind, idiot faith that Sanderson's machine-like ability to churn out words at the feverish pace to which I've grown accustomed won't burn him out in the next 12 years or so will be justified. Alright so yeah, I'm a sucker.

Sucker or not, I'm glad I decided to read this now. This book was amazing. It completely engrossed me while I read it, and I've found myself thinking about it long past the end. The world he builds is fascinating and alien and wonderful. There's so much going on that I have no doubt at all that he'll be developing not just plot threads, but world details for years to come. Roughly, it's a world populated by humans, various near-human races, crustaceans wildlife, weird flora, magic, techno-magic, creepy spirit jellyfish things that are attracted to emotions and natural events, scholars, warriors, wanderers, strange societies, echoes of history long forgotten (and barely past), and enough plot-hints that don't get developed to keep your mind churning for the year(s) it'll take the next book to come out. Oh, and the world is constantly battered by vicious storms that sweep across the landscape in semi-regular, semi-predictable cycles. And gravity magic. And vast armies, and social injustice, and morally gray decisions, and miracles, and prophecy, and....

...and it's a very full book, is what I'm saying. I loved it. I eagerly await the next book. Now if Sanderson just keeps up his writing pace and doesn't go insane in the next decade, I'll be all set.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

[Lisa’s Take: Tooth and Claw (Jo Walton)]

I’ve been a bad little reviewer (and fantasy reader) lately; though I’ve started traveling for work again (giving me copious free time), I’ve been filling the hours with crocheting instead of consuming books at an ungodly pace. I may have to investigate picking up some audio-books to accompany my crafting binges, as it’s putting a severe limit on my “books read this year” list!

Anyway, I wanted to put up a quick review of Tooth & Claw by Jo Walton. In a word: delightful. I enjoyed Tooth and Claw more than I’ve enjoyed any book for a while. I enjoyed it unabashedly, I enjoyed it with no caveats, no buts, no places that the author needed to tighten up her work; no gripes about the characters or the settings or the pacing. When’s the last time I said that? I think it has been a distressingly long while.

Tooth & Claw is a Victorian fantasy or a fantasy of manners, much like The Magicians & Mrs. Quent or Swordspoint. Instead of humans, the characters are all dragons. It sounds a little silly as a premise, but it’s superbly executed; Walton has seamlessly retooled her world to accommodate the change. She’s thought about the economy, the religion, the landscape and the history – it’s artfully done. The story follows the heirs of a family as they are left reeling and fighting over their inheritance – it’s not deep nor epic in the premise, but the execution is truly wonderful.

I’ll keep this one short – I truly have nothing other than resounding praise for Tooth & Claw. It was a breath of fresh air amid the books I’ve read this year; all of which I’ve enjoyed, but most of which I’ve also had loud complaints about. It’s nice to know that I can still be impressed.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

JD's Take: Kraken (China Mieville)

Firstly, let me say that this book isn't for everyone. The text is dense and can be confusing. I'm sure there are plenty of critiques that could be made about the depth of the characters, the pacing of the plot, the weirdness, the deus ex machinas, the sea. I'm not going to make those critiques. Seek those details elsewhere.

This was a book that was a joy to read, not so much for the content as for the manner it was written. When Perdido Street Station came out, I reveled in the way that Mieville examined and explored the amazingly creative world he created without ever describing anything. We learned sentence after sentence, page after page, by little more than context clues. The story plowed through the world as it would, and we figured it out or we gave up. It was a wild pleasure, a native's-eye-view of the mad city that clearly existed whole cloth in the author's imagination. In Kraken, for really the first time since Perdido Street, I am once more caught up in the chaotic power of Mieville's ability to write without apparent regard for his audience. Instead, Mieville writes like a lover possessed and possessive. He mangles the language in beatiful ways. Fragmentary sentences, verbs very optional, are stitched together with London slang. He never misses a chance to use a five dollar word when the sound of it is more musical than a fifty cent word[0].

Kraken is set in modern day London, and a giant squid is stolen. In a way that feels very familiar to anyone who has read Gaiman, an everyman Londoner is brought suddenly into a world of hidden magic lurking in the secret places beneath the surface of London. I enjoyed the story in its own right. The magic of his London is powerful, striking, and (as the protagonist points out at one point) almost disappointingly obvious. The weirdness is like much of Mieville's work: neat. The creatures living in London reminded me a bit of The Weaver from Perdido. The characters surprised me in several instances, and made me smile often.

But that's not why I loved this book. It isn't for everyone. If you like your plots water-tight, your pacing metronomic, and your prose accessible... maybe skip this one. If you're in the mood for a weird modern fantasy about the end of the world written by a man who knows the worth of a good word... pick it up right away.

[0] Geeky moment of the review: in many ways this book reminded me of Tycho's writing in Precipice. A love of the language melded with a passion for the apocalyptic.

Monday, August 23, 2010

[Lisa’s Take] Shadows of the Apt Book 3: Blood of the Mantis (Adrian Tchaikovsky)

Series of books are always harder and harder for me to review the deeper I get into them, since there’s really no good way to do a good summary or recap without getting spoilery. Bear with me!

I’ll say this first: Blood of the Mantis was Good Enough. Good Enough to keep me reading the next book. Good Enough to be a pleasant diversion. Beyond that, I was fairly ho-hum about it. The story was interesting, but lacked a great ebb and flow. Tchaikovsky bounced around between characters and plot points so much that the whole book felt a bit frantic (though it did keep the pages turning). The characterizations were a little on the weak side, hanging VERY heavily on past character-building. I didn’t get a great feeling for the new characters introduced, but they also were Good Enough to stand, if not shine.

In lieu of a true story summarization, allow me to instead do a point by point recap of my thoughts on book 2 and discuss how they changed in book 3.

  • Easily the first 30% of the book was spent re-capping events from the previous book in excruciating detail.

This problem is totally resolved, thank goodness. Whether it was because I waited a little while to pick up book 3 (so the recaps were needed, rather than irksome) or whether he really did tone it down a notch, over-recapping was a non-issue in Blood of the Mantis.

  • The reader is introduced to several new characters and new powers come into play in the war as a whole. Personally, I did not find this change in scope appealing, as I’m more a fan of character-fantasy than epic/war fantasy.

The scope of book 3 was still more broad than the first book, but it did gravitate back towards more character and action centric than battle- and politics-oriented. I approved, with the caveat I mentioned above about character depth.

  • An additional problem I had with Dragonfly Falling was that it felt like Tchaikovsky kind of ran out of new ideas for the world.

This was definitely no longer the case in Blood of the Mantis. Tchaikovsky did an excellent job introducing new parts of the world and making the entire setting more rich. I highly enjoyed some of the framework he put in place for future books.

So… yay? Overall improvement? I don’t exactly have a glowing review to give to Blood of the Mantis, but as I said before: it was Good Enough. Amusingly, I think I can just copy-paste the final paragraph of my review of book 2, and it stands perfectly well for book 3:

  • > On the whole, all my complaining aside, I enjoyed Dragonfly Falling Blood of the Mantis enough that I want to pick up the third fourth installment and see where it goes. I’ll probably take a break of a few months before book 3 4 so I don’t run into the over-summarizing issue again, and I do hope the series returns to the excellence of the first book.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

[Lisa’s Take] Rainwilds Book 2: Dragon Haven (Robin Hobb)

I was pretty unimpressed with the first book in this two book series, but as I predicted in that review I still buckled and picked up the second book. I’m a sucker for Robin Hobb; what can I say.

Dragon Haven picks up immediately where Dragon Keeper left off – a few folks have told me that the abrupt ending to Keeper was because the two books were supposed to be a single volume, but the publisher snipped it in half at the last minute. The result was an extremely jarring end to book 1, and a weirdly paced beginning to book 2. As a reader you kind of just get dumped in the middle of everything with no ramp up… and not in the good way (where the good way is to the tune of: “OMG the middle of a sword fight! What could possibly be going on!?”). Much like book 1 ended me wrong-footed, book 2 started me off wrong-footed even though I was expecting it.

A few of my gripes from book 1 were resolved in book 2. In Dragon Keeper I felt like the editing was truly horrible: lots of repeated and contradictory information made the narrative tedious to follow. Dragon Haven suffered from this problem a lot less – there were still some reminders of past events, but they were a little more organic since they were meant to trigger your memories of the first book. A moderate improvement, to be sure.

After the initial juddering start, the story flowed fairly well. I munched the book down in a couple of days, and it kept me engaged enough…. But on the whole the story was like eating rice cakes. Kind of bland, don’t really fill you up, lacking in interesting ingredients – but you can keep munching on them indefinitely. I wasn’t emotionally tied to the characters, and the events in the book were enough to drive a story but not enough to really engage me as a reader. Furthermore, the interpersonal drama read like a teenage soap opera or romance novel: who’s sleeping with whom, who isn’t sleeping whom, and who would like to be sleeping with whom (but isn’t because they are repressed and shy). You know what the characters are going to do (“Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!”), you know how the story is going to end, and the world is preciously light on interesting fantasy tropes. Dragons! Meh.

I think part of the problem with the book is that it was missing Robin Hobb’s signature: searing, devastating, guttural angst. It’s what she does best, and boy does she ever know how to twist the knife. Sadly (Happily? Ironically?) Hobb’s usual kidney-punch was missing from Keeper and Haven, and I think that lack contributed to the very ho-hum nature of the book.

Bottom line? I’d say skip it, and keep your high opinion of Ms. Hobb as a fantasy author. Fingers crossed that her next undertaking is more gutsy and more potent.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

[Lisa's Take] The Stormlight Archive Book 1 - The Way of Kings ARC (Brandon Sanderson)

First and foremost, a plug! If you live in the Atlanta area, go check out Blue Elephant Bookshop in Decatur. They have a lovely little shop filled with a labyrinth of shelves, friendly book-geek employees, and an excellent fantasy section, especially for a smaller indie store. Plus, you’ll be in Decatur, which means you can stop and stuff yourself full of excellent food and drinks at Brickstore or Iberian Pig.

Now, why exactly am I plugging a little Decatur bookshop? You see: for reasons entirely unfathomable to me, a friend to one of my best friends decided she loves me far too much. I can tell because she works at Blue Elephant, and they received a stack of ARCs for The Way of Kings from the publisher. And friend-of-a-friend (who has now replaced best-friend in my affections – sorry, Christin!) decided to let me have one. Just over 1000 pages of unedited Sanderson-ey goodness, 2 months before the book release date. I don’t deserve such love.

*cough* Right, ok, I’m done effusing for real this time – on to the review!

Um. Wow. Where do I even begin? Sanderson has really outdone himself this time – according to his blog is has a whole pile of books to write in this series, and I am 100% thrilled by this news. Perhaps the most astounding thing about the ARC is that Sanderson tweeted his revisions (going from the ARC to the final product), and was cutting 10%-20% of each chapter, which is just unfathomable to me. Sure, there were times when he waxed verbose, but it certainly didn’t seem like the prose needed tightening up much. I’m very much looking forward to a re-read of the final draft. Either way, Sanderson has a ton of story to tell, and I am incredibly excited about it.

Goodness, I’m tangenting all over the place today: reign it in, Lisa!

The Way of Kings is everything you would expect from a Sanderson novel. There are 3 main viewpoints and perhaps 3 or 4 more supporting viewpoints, much like Elantris or Warbreaker. All of the viewpoint characters are nuanced, deep, and interesting. I really appreciated the variety of ages, backgrounds, and opinions the characters held – it was really nice not to have to follow 3 teenage urchins, or 3 noble but sheltered young women. All of the literary voices were distinct and exciting; only one viewpoint dragged at all for me (impressive in a book this long!) and even then not for long. Perhaps most impressively: Sanderson managed to create characters that bucked the standard fantasy tropes without falling off the other side, back into “your character is hackneyed, you’re trying too hard.”

Speaking of characters, the world that Sanderson has created for this book is practically a character in itself. I don’t even know how he comes up with so many ideas; the world is incredibly rich and intriguing. He investigates the country in which most of the action takes place very thoroughly, but you also get glimpses of other countries and parts of the world – tantalizing little tastes that reveal just how much story Sanderson has to tell. I also loved the sprinkling of maps and drawings that were included, it was fun to see how close my mental pictures were to what Sanderson and the illustrator had in mind.

As always, Sanderson is amazing at describing fight scenes, and he has way too much fun playing with physics. If you’ve seen Inception (the only movie I’ve seen in theaters since Christmas…) you have an idea of just how awesome fights with variable gravity can be. Sanderson has a very similar mechanism in The Way of Kings; we only get a small taste of it in this book, but it is incredibly cool. Sanderson is always great at character building and action, but one thing he also got me with in this book was suspense. He really managed to get me keyed up and on edge a couple of times… and he did so skillfully enough that I’ll overlook the fact that he kind of ganked the device from the Doctor Who episode “Blink.”

Phew. This is getting long – I should wrap up. In case you couldn’t tell, The Way of Kings pretty much rocked my face off. It was incredibly good and amazingly diverse; now that I’m finished with it I keep finding myself thinking “oooo, I’m going to read some Way of Kings! Oh, wait, it’s over, nooooo!” Perhaps the most impressive thing about the book is not Sanderson’s characters, world, or magic systems, but this: when you finish Way of Kings, you realize that all of that plot, all of that character development, all of that world building…. was still just set-up for book 2 and the rest of the series. It’s probably not fair for a setup book to be this freaking awesome.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

JD's Take: Anathem (Neal Stephenson)

Anathem is a big, think, dense book. There's no getting around it, so I'll just open with that. It's around a thousand pages long, thick enough to serve to reach the pack of the high shelf in your kitchen, and dense enough that you could pass it off as "intellectual" if you're feeling self-conscious about all the science fiction you've been reading. Don't let it intimidate you! This one is worth settling down with for the long haul and giving a good mulling-over. Don't worry, I'll try not to borrow Stephenson's loquaciousness for this review.

The first fifty pages or so were difficult for me. Not because of the denseness of the text, but because I thought Stephenson was trying to pull one over on me. The story takes place in a medieval-feeling monastery on an alien world, though we quickly learn that the world outside the monastery walls is more technologically advanced than the cloistered world within them. As the narrator, a monk named Erasmus, introduces us to life in the monastery we are necessarily introduced to the philosophy of the people who founded it. I've got a solid background in philosophy, so I immediately picked out the elements of Plato, Thales, and other early greek thinkers. However, they were presented with slightly different metaphors, new names, tweaked personal histories. I really thought for a time that Stephenson was trying to pull one over on me, trying to pass off the works of great historical thinkers as his own!

Fortunately, I kept reading. Before long, it occurred to me that rather than trying to co-opt the philosophers ideas, Stephenson was writing a primer on ancient thought and philosophical advances across the centuries, but couching it all in a fascinating new setting and some science fiction[0]. Clever! I settled down to enjoy myself. It was only much, much later that I realized what Stephenson was *really* doing, and by then I was already completely sold on the book both as a narrative and a source of interesting ideas. I won't spoil it for you any further, I'll only say: give it some time. If you don't know any philosophy, enjoy discovering it in an interesting way! If you do, you'll have fun seeing what he did with it.

So, that was my complaint with the book. I've heard another from a friend who didn't give it enough time: too much unnecessary new vocabulary. Yes, there are new words for simple things. Truck, phone, student, TV, monastery. These all get new words, and I can see where a casual reader would get frustrated having to learn vocabulary just to understand the story. It's a valid complaint, but you'll quickly become used to it (he's good at defining with context) and stop paying attention to it at all once you settle in... and there *are* good reasons for it. Partly it's just to emphasize that the culture you're reading about isn't of Earth. The rest I'll let you discover, but I have to emphasize this again: this is a book that you need to really invest some time and mental energy towards, not some throw-away space opera yarn.

Complaints out of the way, I loved this book! It was crammed with fascinating ideas from the very old (like Plato) to the very new (like quantum mechanics). The story that plays out on top of these ideas (I assure you, it's not the other way around) is well told, interesting, and occasionally completely gripping. The world is deep and fascinating, and I'm more than a little sad that I have to stop half-living in it now. The characters tend towards the flat, and there are times when it's easy to lose track of who a particular name corresponds to. There are exceptions to this, of course, and it's not nearly bad enough to be a show-stopper, just a weakness.

So, bottom line: I highly recommend this book. Next time you're feeling like you need something a little meaty, pick it up and make sure to give it some time to ramp up. You'll be well rewarded, both narratively and intellectually.

[0] In the acknowledgements, Stephenson mentions that the conceit of the book prohibited footnotes. That said, he created a truly excellent online reference for the sources of the idea seen in the book: http://nealstephenson.com/anathem/acknow.htm. Bravo.

[Lisa’s Take] Shadows of the Apt Book 2: Dragonfly Falling (Adrian Tchaikovsky)

Disappointment, thy name is Book 2. After how much I enjoyed Empire in Black and Gold, Dragonfly Falling was kind of a sucker punch to my enthusiasm. I started the second book in the Shadows of the Apt series immediately after completing book 1, with no room to breathe in between. This was a very big mistake. Easily the first 30% of the book was spent re-capping events from the previous book in excruciating detail. Not just little reminders to trigger your memory, but full-on rehashing of conversations, characters, and events. Every time I picked up the book I was annoyed – which is not a state of mind to enjoy anything.

The events of Dragonfly Falling pick up immediately after the end of Empire in Black and Gold, and the story quickly broadens both the scope of the characters and the breadth of the conflict. The reader is introduced to several new characters and new powers come into play in the war as a whole. Personally, I did not find this change in scope appealing, as I’m more a fan of character-fantasy than epic/war fantasy. The characters that I liked from the first book got less attention, and the characters I didn’t like got more face time. In particular, I was disappointed with Salma’s character development (he started out as one of my favorites, but the whole “Grief-in-chains” thing ruined him for me) and I was very, very bored of Totho’s whiny love-lorn drama by half way through the book.

An additional problem I had with Dragonfly Falling was that it felt like Tchaikovsky kind of ran out of new ideas for the world. In book one he had a 100% new world to explore and he gleefully ran around talking about all the incredibly cool and creative stuff in that world… but then in book two realized he had already explored everything, and there was nothing new left to talk about. He did manage to introduce a few different ideas, but they were all related to the old ideas –nothing truly original came into play.

Thankfully, after a thoroughly mediocre first couple hundred pages, the last third of the book picked up quite a bit. Totho got less whiny, Tchaikovsky quit summarizing past events, and Thalric continued his trend from the first book of being quite interesting. The book ended on a good note, and I even managed a healthy enjoyment of the more epic aspects (battle after battle after battle).

On the whole, all my complaining aside, I enjoyed Dragonfly Falling enough that I want to pick up the third installment and see where it goes. I’ll probably take a break of a few months before book 3 so I don’t run into the over-summarizing issue again, and I do hope the series returns to the excellence of the first book.

Monday, June 28, 2010

[Lisa’s Take] Shadows of the Apt Book 1: Empire in Black and Gold (Adrian Tchaikovsky)

It’s a good thing I generally listen to Jeff over at Genre Reader when he says a book is worth reading, because otherwise I would have taken one look at the cover of Empire in Black and Gold, laughed myself silly with the ridiculousness of it, and never picked the book up. I know I shouldn’t judge content based on cover art… but EiBaG’s cover is just SO awful and SO trite and SOOO video-game-over-the-top that I couldn’t take it seriously.

Luckily, I bought the book on a glowing review, sight-unseen, so I never had an opportunity to be put off. I was rewarded with a novel containing a rich world, fun and relatively complex characters, and really exciting blend of fantasy genres. There were pure fantasy elements, certainly, but also a healthy dose of steampunk and a bit of sci-fi. The three genres blended together very nicely and made for a very unique experience. I’ve seen a couple of reviewers complain about there being too much focus on battle sequences, but I didn’t find that to be the case; rather I thought the balance between intrigue, characters, and fighting was pretty well done. Additionally, the author has a Sanderson-esque ability to depict fights between several people extremely clearly and with a high level of bad-ass-ness.

On the characterization-front, I admired Tchaikovsky’s ability to build a cast that mostly bucked character- and fantasy-stereotypes without going so far as to fall off the other edge and end up back at “ridiculous.” This has been a big gripe of mine with a lot of modern fantasy authors (with Joe Abercrombie perhaps being the worst) so it’s nice to see someone who strikes a balance. His characters were well rounded and complex, often grappling with real issues. I particularly liked the character of Thalric, and Tchaikovsky’s investigation of good and evil and loyalty. Of the other main characters, the only one I didn’t feel particularly sympathetic towards was Totho, but that was likely because he got so much less “screen time.”

I will admit Tchaikovsky did toe the line a bit with his character relationships; sometimes his characters attitudes were refreshing and insightful, but other times they edged towards just a little trite. I called almost all of the major character developments, but not to an extent where I found myself saying “of COURSE that’s where this is going, get ON with it already.” Overall, it was not a flaw that reduced my enjoyment of the book.

Definitely give Empire in Black and Gold a read. It is refreshing and solid and did a great job shaking up the standard fantasy world and character tropes.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

JD's Take: The Long Price Quartet (Daniel Abraham)

This is the first time in years that I've read more than one book in a series back-to-back. In this case, I read the three entries in Abraham's quartet in a 2.5 week period. What made me perform this strange and uncharacteristic act? Was I trapped without a giant stack to tempt me after each one? Was I so thoroughly enjoying them that I couldn't stop? Was Lisa nagging me to finally read them and get them off of our stack once and for all? Yes, yes, and yes.

I read the first book, A Shadow in Summer, years ago when it first came out. I enjoyed it quite a bit at the time for it's interesting and well developed world and interesting and well developed characters. This despite the fact that I really hate the "sudden but inevitable betrayal" trope, where an author foreshadows the tragedy so broadly that you spend the whole novel cringing whenever anyone is happy. So. Years pass. Lisa write not one, but two reviews of this series for some reason, both of them glowing. Eventually, we go on a weekend trip and she slips the second and third volume into my luggage, and I get started.

I really enjoyed the series as a whole. For starters, each of the books actually feels like a separate tale that could stand on its own (a little less so with book 4, such is the nature of conclusions). This is a rare and wonderful thing. Bravo Mr. Abraham! The scope of the narrative is narrow and deep, meaning that we follow a small cast of characters across an entire lifetime of experience. This allows for a level of character development that you very, very rarely see. In fact, the wholse series could be viewed as an elaborately couched character study. An in-depth exploration of friendhip and rivalry and good intentions and the flaws that make us human.

The series could also be seen as a vast fantasy epic in which immensely powerful magics are used to shatter the world. Twice. Of course, you have to squint a little bit to see it that way. For starters, a fantasy epic basically requires a Villain, and there just isn't one. There are people who do terrible, terrible things, but even while I watched in horror I had a hard time criticizing them. It's said that everyone is the hero of their own story. Abraham's gift is in telling us those stories so convincingly that we believe them all. Every single one is wrong, of course, and conflicting. But while a given character is on the screen, we believe it. We see how they do what they do, and why. We see how they couldn't act in any other way. We believe that a good man is humble, even while acting with sweeping power and intense arrogance. We see how murdering thousands is the safest, most moral choice. We understand that a good man is a terrible, jealous, blind fool.

Another reason I'd never call this an epic is that the camera stays too close to the characters to show the breadth of destruction that is occurring in the story. Even while whole nations fall, we only see the very personal aspects of the change. It's like watching a movie about some great and tragic battle, but the camera never strays from tight closeups of one soldier's face, or a victim's, or a general's.

So yeah. Good story, good world, great characters. Not all perfect, of course. The final book fell short of many of the best things about this series. It didn't really stand on its own, it had a real villain (without a particularly compelling personal story), and it dragged pretty badly until halfway through. On the other hand, it did wonderful things with many of the characters, and the ending was one of the best wrap-ups to a long series that I've read in a very, very long time.

Overall, I'd say that this series is excellent. Well written, entertaining, different, deep, character driven and fun. Not perfect but awfully, awfully good.

[Lisa’s Take] The Hero and the Crown (Robin McKinley)

While clearing some of JD’s childhood books out of boxes in the office, I came across The Hero and the Crown, a Young Adult Newbery winner from 1984. Figuring it might be good light reading to break up some harder fantasy, I threw it into my stack. It ended up being a quick little read, and quite enjoyable. I also have to give it props for being pretty revolutionary, given that it was written 26 years ago.

The plot follows Aerin, daughter of a king, who is ostracized from the court and her peers for being awesome, strong, and dragon-slay-ey, rather than docile, fashion-obsessed, and girly. The plot follows her as she grows up from an awkward ugly duckling into a strong woman who stands against the darkness threatening the land. The flow of the story is a little jumpy, unexpectedly going back in time at points and then lurching forward faster than the prose suggests – in reality, this book wanted to be 600 pages, not 250. Still, pacing issues aside, the author makes some ballsy moves for a YA novel, being especially vicious with her main character’s well-being, and investigating themes that are touché even in adult novels (such as loving more than one person).

Also, let it be known that Robin McKinley writes horses better than any fantasy author I’ve ever read. I get so very sick of authors making stupid horse-generalizations and talking about galloping to a halt, neglecting gaits, ignoring personalities and ear-gestures, etc. If you don’t know anything about horses, don’t call attention to your ignorance. Either don’t talk about horses, ride a horse for a few weeks, or read McKinely’s book.

Anyway, the long and short of this review is this: if I had read The Hero and the Crown at 14 or so I would have been a die-hard McKinely fan for life. As it is, I can appreciate her potential and might pick up another book of hers from time to time and will definitely recommend her to my bookworm sister, who might still be young enough to appreciate her.

Friday, April 09, 2010

[Spring Cleaning][Lisa's Take] Kushiel's Legacy Series (Jacqueline Carey)

[Reviewer's Note: want to know just how bad I am about leaving partially-finished reviews sitting around? Here's a review I started over 4 years ago. I'm presenting it with no changes (and resisting the urge to comment at length). My only disclaimer is: yes, this is a very, very old and incomplete review.]

Kushiel’s Dart

It took me somewhere in the range of 2 and a half years to read this book. The first time I tried I made it a little over two hundred pages before I decided it was trite and dull, so I put it down. Buuut… then lots of people whose opinions I trust started saying how great and amazing it was. For quite a while I ignored them entirely, but eventually I was looking for a nice epic read, so I decided to give Kushiel a second chance. So I started over from the beginning… and as it turns out, I stopped within 10 pages of the plot thickening and the book actually getting good. Go figure.

This book is the first in a trilogy that follows Phedre no Delauny, a girl who has been marked by the god of punishment. Called an Anguisette, she is cursed to find pleasure in the taking of pain. Kushiel’s dart follows her through childhood and her training in the arts of espionage, and then (once the plot –finally- thickens) out into the wide world as she struggles to return home and foil a plot to overthrow the ruling powers in her home land of Terre d’Ange.

What originally turned me off about these books is that Carey relies heavily on the catch of the Anguisette to carry (no pun intended) her through the first half of the book. Until she proved to me that there was a lot more to the novel than what came across as a fairly trite twist on “life of a god-touched individual” I was a skeptic. Eventually though, she really hit her stride and the book opened up to be truly epic. The history and theology of Terre d’Ange may well be the most interesting and intriguing of any epic fantasy that I’ve had the pleasure (or pain) of reading.

Once I finally got around to giving Kushiel’s Dart a second chance, I ate through all thousand pages in perhaps a week and a half. It was just that tasty. Then I went on to read each of her next 3 books in rapid succession – so on to the next review!

Kushiel’s Chosen

The first thing I noticed when I started when this second installment in the Kusheline Trilogy began is that the map in the front of the book was zoomed out by a few levels. My first thought was “what? It can get more epic than the first?” and my second thought was “Hah, that’s totally Europe. I didn’t realize she ripped off Europe!” …but really the second thought is sort of peripheral. I was just entertained.

ANYway, Kushiel’s Chosen opens with Phedre resolving to track down and bring to justice the participant at the heart of the thrown-overthrowing-plot from the first book. Have I mentioned that this summary is exceptionally hard to write without spoilers? Phedre sets out with the aid of her Perfect Companion to follow a set of rumors surrounding said perpetrator. Of course, the plotting goes deeper than anyone could have guessed and when the pieces of the puzzle start to come together we end up with political intrigue, imprisonment on an island dungeon, kidnapping by pirates, and all sorts of other excitement.

Much like the map, the plot in this book takes a step out to be even more expansive and impressive. Where the first book examined Terre d’Ange’s history and theology, this second book studies the nature of love and betrayal. Yet again I was caught up and powered through this epic in a week or so – and it was oh so worth it.

Absolutely excellent.

Kushiel’s Avatar

Gyeh. Here I thought writing a plot summary one-book-removed was difficult… how do I summarize two books removed without being horribly spoileriffic?

[Spring Cleaning][Lisa’s Take] The Long Price Quartet – Daniel Abraham

Gods. I don’t even know how to begin to review this series. I read books 1 and 2 over two years ago and never got around to writing full reviews for them, though they richly deserved it. A few months back I tried to start An Autumn War but put it down after 30 pages because I was afraid I didn’t remember enough about book 2 to enjoy book 3. Eventually my curiosity at all the buzz overwhelmed my reservations and I tried again – and ended up reading An Autumn War and The Price of Spring basically back to back.

I won’t attempt a plot summary of 4 books that span 50 years – instead I’ll just ramble on a bit.

Never in all of my reading history have I seen such amazing character development. I’ve certainly read other books that span many years (or even a lifetime). The Long Price Quartet blows all others out of the water. His core cast of characters mature from teenagers to old men over the course of the 4 books – and they actually change and mature. Their outlooks and maturity levels vary, as do their handling of situations.

[Reviewer’s Note: this is where I set the review down and neglected to come back to it]

There’s no way I can pick this review back up and do The Long Price Quartet justice, and for that I apologize. It’s been a long time since I finished a book series and the hand a good cry (the last one was The Khaavren Romances, by Steve Brust, if you’re curious), but I finished The Price of Spring, closed the book, and then sobbed my eyes out. Finishing this series left a hole in my heart, like losing an old friend. Watching the characters grow and change, the way they interacted with each other and handled situations, their love of the vibrant world – it all had a huge impact. Sure, the books had flaws and weaknesses, but the overall picture they painted was astoundingly good.

I absolutely cannot wait for Abraham to get another book in the works – he has vaulted into a very high position on my list of favorite authors.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

JD's Take: The Windup Girl (Paulo Bacigalupi)

You might as well learn to pronouce that name. Although he has been around for a few years making quite a name for himself with short stories, this is his debut novel and it made for his 5th Hugo and 3rd Nebula nod, so it's not just me who thinks it was pretty damn good. He's young, talented, getting noticed, and I expect to see a whole stack of books with his name on the spine on my bookshelf in the coming years. Oh crap, I just gave away the conclusion of the review. Oh well, I shall press forward regardless!

What impressed me most about the novel was the world building. That's a phrase that is usually reserved for fantastic planets circling distant stars, with unknowable aliens populating them and strange religions pulling the strings. I use it quite deliberately in that sense, even though the story is set in a nearish future version of Thailand. This Thailand is set in an Earth whose global economy was annihilated not so long ago by a sudden and drastic oil crisis, leading to each nation (or smaller entity) contracting in on itself and readjusting. Around that same time, advances in genetic engineering made it possible for powerful agricultural companies to release plagues into the wild designed to destroy food crops around the world. This made it possible to corner huge markets with custom engineered staple crops that were immune to the plagues and sterile. Against that background each country struggles to remain independent of the agricultural companies, to improve their generipping abilities to create new foods, to gather and maintain seed banks of precious plants that can no longer survive in the wild. Bacigalupi does a great job of extrapolating this world, subtly changing everything from transit to weaponry to cooking. This Thailand has lost nearly every source of plant food. There are only a couple kinds of tree that can resist the GE beetles roving the landscape and only a few crops that they've managed to keep ahead of the rapidly mutating plagues that blight the land.

The people of this novel live in a world that is alien to our own, but echoes with elements of the world we know. They live in the skeleton of our world, but in stark contrast to books of the post-apoc genre (a label that I would have great difficulty applying to this book despite the fact that it takes place after an apocalypse) they are learning to thrive in it. They engineer crops to stay one step ahead of the constantly mutating plagues, they engineer specialized animals to power factories where they produce the kink-springs that power everything from radios to motorcycles. They create police forces dedicated to stopping the spread of human-vector plagues at any cost, they create networks of methane pipes to heat homes, provide light, and cook. Their religions have mutated to match the challenges of their world, and these too feel alien and strangely familiar. It's a wonderful setting, one that surprises and grounds the reader in equal degree. By setting this book in Thailand, Bacigalupi makes the people seem exotic and surprising without being unknowable.

Moving away from the world, which I've already spent far too much time on! The characters are nuanced and interesting! They have resources that aren't immediately apparent, they grow and change and learn. They are well varied, and they all act consistent with their character. The story is interesting and unfolds in sometimes surprising ways, branching suddenly and changing the plans of everyone (and the expectations of the reader). It also defies genre. It is science fiction certainly, but with a fantastic element or two. Post-apoc without any of the conventions of that genre. Not urban fantasy despite being very urban and having fantasy elements. Not steampunk despite the propogation of spring-and-gear powered everything and methane lights. Go in with an open mind... this was an excellent read and I highly recommend it!

[Lisa’s Take][Spring Cleaning] Servant of a Dark God (John Brown)

I need to poke around at the review database over on Fantasy News & Book Reviews, because I really have no idea how to feel about this book. I’m not sure the last time a fantasy novel engendered such a feeling of “meh?” in me – usually I either love it, hate it, or like it but have something solid to pick at. I’m curious to see what other folks thought of this book to see if they have any points that will sway my opinion one way or the other.

Pretty much everything about Servant of a Dark God is standard. Standard agrarian society – farms and villages, tradesmen and fairs. Standard cast of characters – young boy and young girl who are obvious love interests, father figures, young savants, bad guys, badder guys, and dubiously bad guys. Standard magical set up – magic that is known, magic that is outlawed and practiced covertly, and latent magical powers.

The author does through in some interesting(ish) twists – the conflict of the young male lead with his father and the investigation of family through the book are something you don’t see as often in this type of novel. Brown’s main character is highly conflicted and behaves exactly how a 16 year old boy should (forget the heroics, bring on the indecision and the angst). He also doesn’t mind being brutal with his characters – he’s happy to beat the crap out of them, kill them off, or otherwise.

Standard tropes or moderately interesting twists aside, I never had a feeling of attachment or emotional investment in any of the characters. I could tell when the author wanted me to be upset or happy, but the connection was never fully forged.

[Reviewer’s Note: at this point I set this review aside and forgot about it, so I’m picking it back up and wrapping it up.]

I dithered for quite a while about whether to put this book back on The Stack for JD, or to just shelve it in the library, and in the end I went for the latter. With as many fantasy novels as there are out there right now, there’s just not a place for “ok” books. That said, if someone came to me and said “Holy crap, John Brown wrote another book and it’s SO GREAT!” I would probably believe them, and pick it up without hesitation.

Spring Cleaning!

I'm really horrible about starting reviews then never finishing them. As such, I have a pile of reviews half finished in my drafts folder. In the spirit of spring cleaning, I'll be posting them this week in various states of completeness - I'll try to complete the ones that deserve it, and maybe just leave the others "as is." I recommend that my other slacker reviewers on this site do the same!

Happy spring!

Friday, March 12, 2010

[Lisa’s Take] Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (Susanna Clarke)

I first picked up this book about 5 years ago. I read the first 20 pages or so, decided it wasn’t for me, and put it down. This was before I started giving all books at least 100 pages to woo me. Past-Lisa was dumb. I’m GLAD Past-Lisa was deprived of this book – she didn’t deserve to read it. Present-Lisa is much cleverer, and realized after about 40 pages what a gem Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is.

This book is classed solidly in the historical/Victorian fantasy genre. Think of a similar setting to Naomi Novik’s “His Majesty’s Dragon” or Galen Beckett’s "The Magicians & Mrs. Quent", and you’ll have a good idea of what the world is like. The story starts of slowly, and moves at a sedate pace throughout many parts of the narrative, but Clarke’s language and subtle character building are engaging enough to get you through the slow parts. Her use of footnotes is especially interesting; while she does occasionally use them for comic relief, she more often uses them for careful world-building, fairytale tangents, foreshadowing, or clarification of past events. An interesting side-effect of the footnotes is that they makes you a very careful reader – you better damn well be paying attention if you want to get the full story!

I’ll be frank – I’ve had a very hard time writing “good” reviews lately. It’s simple for me to snidely pick at a book’s flaws when I don’t like it, or even when I do like it but the problems are glaring enough to be easy pickins’. But this year when a book has been truly good – solid throughout, plot-hole-free, unencumbered by trite characters or over-done fantasy tropes – I’ve had trouble coming up with a review that does that goodness justice. It seems like I’ve praised “good books” every way they can be praised, so when a truly exceptional gem appears I have no new descriptors to do it justice with.

I suppose I’ll have to fall once again to the hackneyed words of praise that I use so often. Strange & Norrell is an excellent book, and absolutely worth the patience required to get through the first 50 pages. It’s unique, intriguing, subtle, and vibrant. I count myself lucky – those who those who read this book when it came out have been waiting 5 years for more stories by Ms. Clarke; I’ve only been waiting a few months, but I’m already beside myself with anticipation.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

[Lisa’s Take] The Stepsister Scheme (Jim C. Hines)

The Stepsister Scheme is book number 12 for me this year, and has the dubious honor of being the first book I’m putting down without finishing. A couple of months back I picked up the second book in this series (The Mermaid’s Madness) without realizing it was a sequel. The description was intriguing; a continuation/retelling of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella, only with all the princesses being ass-kicking bad-asses. I started on The Mermaid’s Madness, quickly realized it was Book 2, and stopped to backtrack and pick up book 1. Don’t get me started ranting about how much it pisses me off when publishers don’t list on the cover or spine that a book is part of a series.

The only reason I gave The Stepsister Scheme 150 pages of my time is because I was stuck on a plane and had nothing else to read. The characters are stereotypical and hackneyed, the plot is incredibly pedestrian, and the jokes and attempts at humor made me roll my eyes every time. The book reads like something aimed at 13-year-old girls, except that from time to time it throws in some adult themes and dirty language. I dog-eared 10 pages out of the first 100 that had contradictions or repetitive language. I really have absolutely nothing positive to say. Oh – and the cover was embarrassing to be witnessed holding, just to add insult to injury.

I won’t wax poetic on this one – just skip it. If you’re looking for books that take a fairy tale or fantasy basis then twist it and add hilarity, pick up Company of Ogres or Too Many Curses by A. Lee Martinez.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

[Lisa’s Take] Rainwilds Book 1: Dragon Keeper (Robin Hobb)

I have a backlog of half-written reviews right now, but I wanted to write a quick blurb about this one while it was fresh in my mind.

Robin Hobb is one of my favorite authors. Her Farseer Trilogy was probably the series that turned me into a hardcore fantasy buff at 16, severing my ties to scifi and standard fiction. Usually she has amazing characters, interesting plots, and boy can she spread on the angst like no other.

That said, Dragon Keeper was a huge disappointment. It picks up a few years after the events of the Liveship Traders trilogy as the inhabitants of Bingtown struggle to recover from war and deal with dragons being returned to the world. It follows a small cast of characters (strong independent woman stuck in a stifling marriage, her husband’s suave secretary, a rough and uncouth captain of a river boat, and a young outcast girl trying to find her place in society) as they converge from various walks of life and end up traveling up the rainwild river with a clutch of stunted young dragons. The characters themselves are pretty strong, but unfortunately that’s not enough to offset the flaws.

First and foremost: who the hell edited this book? I gripe about poor editing a lot these days, but Dragon Keeper takes the cake. Every 40 pages some information was repeated or restated, sometimes contradicting earlier statements. It was annoying an jarring to the flow of the narrative, and a problem that would have been completely avoided with minor editing.

Secondly, while the repetition of info got me off on the wrong foot, but frankly the story itself was flimsy. Not a lot happened, and there wasn’t really any suspense or tension, outside of minor character drama. I enjoyed the story well enough, but didn’t feel any ebb or flow in the narrative. Adding to that feeling was the fact that the book didn’t have an ending – pages just stopped existing after one chapter. It could have stopped 3 chapters earlier and had the same effect. I practically experienced a sense of vertigo when I turned the page and there was nothing there. Words can’t express the sound of disgust I made.

Speaking of flimsy stories – I felt like the author leaned far too heavily on the contents of The Liveship Traders novels for a series that is supposed to stand on its own. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that a new reader would have been fairly lost, and wondering who the hell a lot of the bit-part characters were (characters that had a rich history in Liveship Traders, but drifted in and out of Dragon Keeper with no intro or explanation).

Was I happy with Book 1? Absolutely not. I did enjoy the book overall, kinda, but there was so much wrong with it that I finished it feeling angry. Will I pick up book 2? Probably. I’m a sucker for Robin Hobb, and I’ll cling to the hope that she (or her editor) will correct some of the problems in the sequel. Even if the next book is of equally poor quality, the strong characterizations will get me through it… I hope.

Friday, February 19, 2010

JD's Take: Makers (Cory Doctorow)

This one is gonna be pretty quick. I was very disappointed by this novel and don't really want to dwell on it. Cory's usual mad-creative ideas were in evidence, and his characterizations were better than usual. However, compared to his previous works this one just doesn't hold up. There are sections of page-turning-fun as you follow the cast of unique and flawed characters through a near-future pseudo-industrial revolution led by (who else?) the DIY tinkerers. However, the flow of the story is repeatedly stopped short and you'll be forced to endure 50 page long screeds about the evils of corporations, the dangers of "selling out", the corrupting influence of "suits" and lawyers, and the general shittiness of people in general.

I really enjoyed much of Cory's prior work (Eastern Standard Tribe and One Comes to Town, One Leaves Town, and Little Brother are particularly enjoyable). He has a knack for writing near future science fiction that ignores the practical, he just throws around ideas about cool things and pretends that the world will go along with them. This leads to weird future worlds that are LIKE a future we could imagine, filled with references to current-era events and people, but are so fundamentally UNreal that they become belief-suspending micro-worlds for us to play in. It's like the opposite of Halting State. That style is very much in evidence, but it's so bogged down by soapboxing and hystrionics that it's just not any fun to read.

Full disclosure: I gave up on this one 350 out of 450 pages in. This... might be the first time I've ever read that much of a book and quit.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

[Lisa’s Take] Pandora’s Star – Peter F. Hamilton

First thing first. Pandora’s Star is a great book. It’s exciting and interesting and original. It is to Sci-Fi what Tad Williams’ Otherworld is to Fantasy: epic, sweeping, exploratory –full of awesome and strange worlds that house interesting and sympathetic characters. Weeks after finishing it I’m still mulling over certain themes and situations. That said, I have a few words for Mr. Hamilton...

Dude. Seriously. Close to a thousand pages and you couldn’t write a damn ending to your book? Really? A cliffhanger is the best you could manage? Oh, and we need to have a little discussion about character names. In the first 50ish pages, you accidentally named 2 characters “Nigel.” One is a major player, and one is a little bit-character. I know this sort of thing happens in real life, but do me a favor and don’t confuse me while reading. On a related note, it would be fantastic if you could do a better job differentiating your characters and making them memorable. You had it down by the 2/3 mark of the book, but for at least 500 pages it was a struggle to figure out who was who. Oh, speaking of things you had down by the end of the book – good god could your chapter structure have BEEN more formulaic at the start? For hundreds of pages every single chapter started with a character-context-free, long-winded description of a technology or planet that went on for pages and pages before you finally remembered what was going on and reigned yourself in with a quiet little “ahem, where was I? Oh yeah, I was supposed to be talking about THIS character.” I know from the second half of the book that you can build worlds and environments incredibly well without going on tangential rants – why didn’t you apply that approach to the first half of the book?

*pant...pant... deeeeep breath*

Sorry. That got away from me a bit. I don’t know why anyone ever lets me rant.
Anyway, I obviously had quite a few gripes about Pandora’s Star but for all of that it was a fantastic read and I will absolutely be picking up the sequel. I loved Hamilton’s world building and his ideas about technology were incredibly cool. I was especially impressed by his investigation of body rejuvenation and the potential effects on marriage, friendship, and family. Maybe it’s just my lack of sci-fi reading for the past 10 years, but I also thought it was insightful to come up with a space exploration mechanism that made ships and shuttles obsolete. Like I said – still mulling over the book’s themes weeks later.

Bottom line: I think I’d classify Pandora’s Star as a staple of any sci-fi diet. Yes, it tweaked quite a few of my pet peeves, but it also managed to pretty much blow me away. Excellent.

Monday, January 11, 2010

[Lisa’s Take] Boneshaker – Cherie Priest

I admit that I’m a little put off by all of the Steampunk themed literature coming out lately. It feels like a late arrival to a bandwagon that is already pretty full. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Steampunk movement and I have the costumes to prove it… I just feel a little weird about the huge influx of Steamy books. Blame JD, he’s the one who got me thinking that things that are “in” are inherently not good.

Boneshaker is very Steampunk, complete with sky pirates, gear-filled clockwork, and wondrous inventions. And then there are zombies, another topic that puts me off a lot. Still, in spite of all of the thematic elements that are so popular right now… I managed to enjoy Boneshaker quite a lot. I’m not feeling very verbose at the moment, so I’ll break this down piece-mill.

Characters – The two main characters, Briar and her son Zeke, are solid and sympathetic. The supporting cast is colorful and varied, and I enjoyed each new character introduction. I thought it was really cool that Cherie Priest could pull of a good 35-year-old protagonist when so much fantasy these days centers around the “young adult” aged characters. My only character complaint was that Zeke read to me more like a 12 or 13 year old than a 15 year old… but that’s pretty minor.
Plot - I very much enjoyed the story, and I am always thrilled when an author can write a great, colorful story in a single volume. I’m getting a little fed up with the trilogy fad, so I’m happy to heap some praise on a single volume. Boneshaker had a strong setup, good narrative, and solid conclusion. There’s some space in the story for Priest to write another story in the world if she would like, but no real dangling plot lines.

Pacing - In spite of its 400-odd pagecount, Boneshaker reads incredibly quickly. I sucked this one down in about a day (hooray vacation!). The breakneck speed was fun… but I also would have liked to see a bit more ebb and flow in the pacing. There was a small reprieve before the book’s climax, but more contrast overall would have been nice.

There you have it; in spite of all my biases, Boneshaker was a good read. Not amazing or world-changing, but a nice bit of fun. Readers who are new to the idea of Steampunk will find some cool gems, those who are familiar with Steampunk will have a bit of fun, and even readers like me who are a bit jaded on the whole thing will eat their words by the end.

[Lisa’s Take] The Fionvar Tapestry (Guy Gavriel Kay)

Three books make up the Fionvar Tapestry: The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road. Usually I don’t read books in trilogies back-to-back-to-back these days, but the three Fionvar books were engaging enough to keep me reading. That said, I was a little burnt out by the second half of the last book so I was pretty happy to be done with everything. Next time remind me to take breaks between the books, if you please.

Anyway, the Fionvar Tapestry is straight up fantasy – 5 college-age students get transported to a fantastic world called Fionvar. They get caught up in the fight to save the people from a dark force that has awakened. Pretty standard fantasy trope.
Things I liked: I think my favorite thing about these books is that none of the characters really know what they’re doing, or what they need to do. When magic calls to them they often just go with it without really stopping to think things through… and often there are catastrophic results. The characters aren’t at all Mary-Sue-ish. They make lots of mistakes, they aren’t always likable, and they’re very real. As always, Kay does relationships, love, life, and death very well. The world was very believable and well developed – the races and magical systems were interesting, original, and varied.

Things I didn’t like: these three books were filled with things that I know Kay can do amazingly… but in this instance only did ok. The deaths didn’t quite make me hurt, the emotional connections didn’t quite make me grin. It’s frustrating to know the author is so capable of hitting the mark, but missed by half an inch this time. The death of one of the main characters during book 2 was particularly poorly done – the event was obviously supposed to have a monumental impact, but the character wasn’t solid enough by that point for me to care much. I also wasn’t a huge fan of the Arthurian Legend tie-ins… it felt a little like cheating.

Now, all of that said – the Fionvar Tapestry is still a significant cut above most other high fantasy out there. I’m holding it to an unfair standard by comparing it to Tigana, which is the best Strictly Fantasy book I’ve read in years. It’s also hardly fair of me to say “I know Kay can do better” when he wrote the Fionvar Tapestry much earlier than some of his later great works.

I’m not really sure what my bottom line is here. The Fionvar Tapestry is good, but not great. If you’re only ever going to read one or two books by Guy Gavriel Kay, skip these… or if these are your first Kay, don’t let them set a tone for all of his work, because goodness knows a lot of his later books are amazingly good. If you’re looking for some good, solid fantasy, the Fionvar Tapestry is probably worth reading… just give yourself some breathing room between them.

Friday, January 08, 2010

[Nano Review] JD's Take: Boneshaker (Cherie Priest)

Steampunk versus zombies versus steampunk. In walled off post-apoc alt-1890 Seattle.

I liked it, obviously.

JD's Take: Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad)

There's really nothing I can say about this book that hasn't been said a thousand times before, that's the problem with trying to review classics. Nevertheless, it was the first book I read in 2010 so I wanted to make sure I started the year off right by actually writing something down!

Heart of Darkness is sumptuously written with prose that flows like honey, and the actual narrative just gets dragged along by the sheer inevitable viscosity of the text. It's great fun to read because Conrad has such fun with the language, even if (if I may be allowed a quibble) the speaker (a gnarled old sailor) and the writing style don't really match. Still, any book that manages to get this quote in there is fine by me:
"For months--for years--his life hadn't been worth a day's purchase; and there he was gallantly, thoughtlessly alive, to all appearances indestructible solely by the virtue of his few years and of his unreflecting audacity."
There's a lot of content crammed into that short work, and it makes you think. About solitude, and ethics, and society, and darkness. Reading this from the relative comfort of 2010, I already know how I feel about most of the overt issues tackled here (for instance, I'm pretty solidly against exploiting other cultures or treating human beings as less valuable than animals because they're colored different, and reading vivid accounts of that sort of behavior isn't necessary to jar my thinking), but there are plenty of more subtle issues here that honestly did make me spend some time contemplating the nature of man as a social creature and of power and temptation and self delusion.

To sum up: this is a quick, powerful, worthwhile read with glorious (if baffling) writing and plenty of actual meat on it's bones to chew over even now.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

JD's 2009 Review

Me too! Me too! I didn't get nearly so much reading done this year as LisaBit (I blame gaming) it still ended up being a pretty healthy stack. Also, I'm terrible at both remembering things (that's why this blog exists!) and keeping up with things (that's why this blog updates so infrequently!) so this list may not be complete. Also also, I don't feel like looking up how to spell the authors' names so... I'm not gonna.

1. Whitechapel Gods
2. Jhegaala
3. Little Brother
4. Graveyard Book
5. Clay's Ark
6. World War Z
7. Counting Heads
8. Domino Men
9. Glass Books of the Dream Eaters
10. CthuluTech*
11. CthuluTech: Vade Mecum*
12. Tigana
13. Temporal Void
14. Mistborn
15. Halting State
16. Alpha Omega*
17. The Well of Ascension
18. The Hero of Ages
19. Dark Arts
20. Monster
21. Warbreaker
22. Blood of Ambrose **
23. The Family Business
24. The Man with a Golden Torque
25. Manual of Detection
26. Old Man's War
27. Misspent Youth **
28. The Forever War
29. The City & The City
30. Thirteen
31. The Ghost Brigades
32. As You Wish
33. The Devil You Know
34. Bar None
35. Red Wolf Conspiracy
36. Slaughterhouse Five
37. The Sheriff of Yrnameer
38. The Last Colony
39. Daemons Are Forever
40. Inheritor
41. Sandman Slim
42. Unseen Academicals
43. Frankenstein ***
44. Debatable Space
45. Matter
46. The Stranger
47. Zoe's Tale
48. Bridge of Birds

* Roleplaying
** Did not finish
*** Out of order (badly)

As for my top 5 (in chronological order, naturally).... Little Brother, World War Z, Tigana, The Forever War, and The Stranger. Several others deserve to be in that list but I left off because they are part of a series, which was a relatively simple way of trimming my list to 5. That said, I read all four books of Scalzi's Old Man's War universe this year, so it deserves particular mention.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Lisa's 2009 Review

In 2008 I read 51 books, and in my year-end review glibly said “maybe in 2009 I can make it to 60!” Well. This year I accidentally read 70. A grand total of 27590 pages, which equates to about 76 pages a day. I blame all the work travel – lots of plane time to bump up my totals! Here is the full list:

1. Backup by Jim Butcher
2. Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay
3. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
4. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams
5. Life, the Universe, and Everything by Douglas Adams
6. So Long and Thanks for All the Fish by Douglas Adams
7. The Sword by Deborah Chester
8. A Magic of Twilight by S. L. Farrell
9. Last Watch by Segei Lukyanenko
10. Small Favor by Jim Butcher
11. The Black Company by Glen Cook
12. A Magic of Nightfall by S. L. Farrell
13. The book of lost things by John Connolly
14. Lamentation by Ken Scholes
15. The Domino Men by Jonathan Barnes
16. Hand of Isis by Jo Graham
17. Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
18. The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson
19. Steward of Song by Adam Stemple
20. The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson
21. Peter and the StarCatchers by Dave Barry & Ridley Pearson
22. Nation by Terry Pratchett
23. Wizard of the Pigeons by Megan Lindholm
24. Conqueror's Moon by Julian May
25. The Stranger by Max Frei
26. Victory of Eagles by Naomi Novik
27. The City & The City by China Mieville
28. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein
29. Skin Trade by Laurel K. Hamilton
30. WarBreaker by Brandon Sanderson
31. Clay's Ark by Octavia Butler
32. The Exile Kiss by George Alec Effinger
33. Namah's Kiss by Jacqueline Carey
34. Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi
35. Act of Will by A. J. Hartley
36. Old Man's War by John Scalzi
37. Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay
38. Dead Until Dawn by Charlaine Harris
39. The Enchantments of Flesh & Spirit by Storm Constantine
40. The Bewitchments of Love & Hate by Storm Constantine
41. Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie
42. The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi
43. The Last Colony by John Scalzi
44. Monster by A Lee Martinez
45. Turn Coat by Jim Butcher
46. Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett
47. Mountain of Black Glass by Tad Williams
48. Sea of Silver Light by Tad Williams
49. Basket Case by Carl Hiaasen
50. Red Wolf Conspiracy by Robert V. S. Redick
51. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
52. Elantris by Brandon Sanderson
53. Havemercy by Jaida Jones & Danielle Bennett
54. As You Wish by Jackson Pearce
55. The Woad to Wuin by Peter David
56. The Magicians by Lev Grossman
57. Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link
58. Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner
59. Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi
60. Wolfskin by Juliet Marillier
61. World War Z by Max Brooks
62. Canticle by Ken Scholes
63. 500 Years After by Paarfi of Roundwood (re-read)
64. The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay
65. The Wandering Fire by Guy Gavriel Kay
66. The Darkest Road by Guy Gavriel Kay
67. Ariel by Steven R. Boyett
68. The Martian Chronicals by Ray Bradbury
69. Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart
70. Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Books that I read 100-250 pages of before putting down were: The Sword, Conqueror’s Moon, Basket Case, Woad to Wuin, and Wolfskin.

Picking my top 5 favorite this year is easier than most years – it seems like I read a whole lot of “so-so” books, with a few bright gems. In no particular order, my favorites are: The Magicians, Tigana, The Stranger, Mistborn, and The Ghost Brigades. And of course it goes without saying that I re-read 500 Years After because the Khaavren Romances remain solidly lodged as my favorite fantasy novels of all time.

I’m starting off 2010 already 400 pages into Pandora’s Star, setting myself up for some more sci-fi in my reading diet. I also have a backlog of several half-written reviews that I hope to post soon. Happy reading in the new year!