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.