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!