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.