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!