Thursday, October 20, 2011

[Lisa’s Take] Acacia – David Anthony Durham

I do so love being proven wrong about a book. I recently posted in a comment over at The Tattered Scroll:

I’m about 200 pages into Acacia right now, and I’m finding it… ok. I’m not super caught up by the plot or massively engaged with the characters, and the writing style is only so-so. The world is interesting enough that I’ll keep reading, but I do hope it perks my interest a bit as it goes on,
As promised, I stuck with Acacia… and I was richly rewarded. Eventually.

This first volume in the trilogy is broken up into 3 books, each in the 200-250ish page range. Book 1 was almost entirely setup and background, and didn’t grab me at all. The main POV characters seemed dull and one dimensional, with the exception of the relationship between Leodan and Thaddeus. It felt like the author was doing a lot of telling and not a lot of showing; I discovered a new pet peeve in the form of:

“Let’s talk, Person A,” said person B.
“How do you feel about X,” Person A asked.
Person B began to speak about {insert long exposition here}
This is an odd thing to get caught up on, but given how much I enjoy witty dialog it was extremely jarring any time a conversation progressed for 2 or 4 statements, then branched off into a long exposition that was supposed to be dialog, but not presented as dialog.

Then book 2 started and Acacia got GOOD. Suddenly the characters were no longer flat and uninteresting. The four main(ish) POV characters grew up, which helped a great deal (so often children in literature are one dimensional). Suddenly Acacia seemed less “remote historical drama” and more character-driven drama, with personal struggles and gains. From this point on I positively chewed through the book, delighting in each turn.

And then book 3 hit and we discover that David Anthony Durham has a little Joss Whedon in him – or perhaps George R. R. Martin, given that this is the book-realm, rather than the TV-realm. Durham becomes absolutely vicious and isn’t afraid to send heads flying. I don’t think I’ve felt so stabbed by in-book betrayals since reading The Lion of Senet 6 years ago. Book 3 ends in a tumult of action that surprises and horrifies, cuts, thrills, and induces shivers. The best part of all of that? The part where it Actually Ends. I get so sick of “trilogies” that are truly just a single book broken into 3 pieces with no distinct narrative arc in each book. Acacia defies that trend and leaves you with a entire story to mull (while still managing to leave you craving more).

So there you have it – I went from totally tepid to pretty pleased with Acacia. I'm going to write off the rocky start to "new trilogy growing pains." I’ll be bouncing my way over to the bookstore tonight to pick up the second and third books right away (though I may break them up with a couple of other recent releases I’m anticipating, such as The Broken Kingdom).

Monday, October 10, 2011

[JD's Take] Thunderball (Ian Fleming)

This is the first of what I hope will be a series of "movie vs. book" comparisons of the James Bond books. I've been reading through the series in no particular order, and my intent is to compare the film treatments and the novels, because it amuses me.
These reviews will contain spoilers!

First though, I feel like I can and maybe should give a general review of Ian Fleming's legendary series of spy thrillers in general. The James Bond stories were written between 1953 and 1966, and it shows. The conflicts are classic postwar and cold war struggles of nations, mixed with some rogue actors who tend to operate at the same scale. They are also sexist and racist in the casual way of novels from this era. To a modern reader this can be very off-putting, although half the time it just comes across as vaguely hilarious. If you're familiar with the movies, Bond himself might come as a bit of a surprise. He's a dangerous spy with a love for fast cars and fast women. That much came across pretty well. What you don't see often in the books is his cruelty and obsessive focus when he's on a job. And where in the movies he's a smooth-talking charmer in the books he's... not. Oh, and the gadgets are far more realistic in the books. :)

So without further ado.... Thunderball!

The Book
Because I'm a rebel, I boldly started with the 9th book in the series. Take that, established conventions! So, we start out with a James Bond being lectured by his boss. M thinks that he smokes too much (around 60 cigarettes a day, of the unfiltered variety he imports from eastern Europe somewhere), drink too much (a bottle of bourbon a day to take the edge off) and is generally in poor health. So, M sends bond to a health spa to be treated the finest in 60s-era health treatments! Bond is... not amused. So, he goes through a whole infomercial of steam baths, near-starvation, toxin purging, massage, traction, and hot nurses. There he casual starts some shit with another of the patients when he discovers that he might be associated with some drug smugglers. The smuggler tries to kill with with a traction machine, so Bond returns the favor by locking him in a steam box. Hilarious trips to the hospital for the smuggler, recovery sexing from the hot nurse for Bond... overall, that's a win.

Next, we are introduced to Blofeld, the most famous Bond villain of all time. He's a master schemer, manipulator, and secret keeper who has gathered a team of the best criminal minds in the world to form a co-op of evil (SPECTRE) that arranges extortion, thefts, murders for hire, kidnappings, drug smuggling and probably littering around the world for shared profit. They have a new scheme now, intended to be their last hurrah before breaking up so they never get caught. They're gonna steal some nukes, hide em, and blackmail the US and the UK with the threat of nuking a major city if they don't pay up. Pretty solid plan, really.

Anyway, one thing leads to another and James Bond is sent to catch them in Jamaica. He does, and it's actually pretty cool. There's an underwater fight scene, some actual sleuthing, a bad guy with freakishly large hands, and a gadget! The gadget, in this case, is a Geiger counter disguised as a camera. He woos the bad-guy's chick and manipulates her into helping him track down the nukes. This gets her tortured. Um. Did I mention he's kind of a dick?

The Movie
Sean Connery does all that same stuff! The movie version is actually pretty close to the book in terms of plot. They combined some characters (and gave Felix Leiter an extra hand), naturally, but that's no tremendous sin. They added a totally boring section where the Jamaicans have a big... voodoo... party of some sort. I'm not going to lie, I actually nodded off a bit through that section (I've seen this movie dozens of times though, to be fair). They made the bad-guy's boat into a boat/submarine just for laughs, and gave Bond some extra gadgets while they were at it. Oh, and no torture.

Still, on the whole the movie followed the book very closely, and I enjoyed both of them.

Friday, October 07, 2011

[Lisa's Take] The Mists of Avalon (Marion Zimmer Bradley)

When I was 13 or so and just starting to get pretty hard-core into fantasy, I remember my mom borrowing The Mists of Avalon from the library to read. It seemed like it was always in a place of honor at the library - I was constantly noticing it and wondering about it. When my mom brought it home I grilled her with great curiosity, but received tepid feedback; something to the tune of "oh, it's not really worth the time" or "you probably wouldn't like it." Given my reverence for my mom's opinions, I shrugged and never thought twice about it.

Years later, Mists of Avalon comes onto my radar as part of NPRs top 100 fantasy and sci-fi novels. I decide that regardless of teenage experiences, it is probably pillar of fantasy I should have read - and frankly after reading Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave, I'm looking for some Arthurian Legend that's a little better (I was only middlingly impressed by Crystal Cave). So I pick up Avalon, and discover that my mother is quite clever - what better way to keep a 13-year-old from getting over her head in sex and mature themes than by feigning indifference? Well played!

Anyway, I digress. Mists of Avalon is a re-telling of Arthurian legend over 70-years that are best well known - that is to say, from about the time Uther hooks up with Igraine until the end of Arthur's reign. For an added twist, the story is told entirely from the perspective of the women of the legend - primarily Morgaine (Morgana le Fay) but also Igraine, Guinevere, and others. After finishing the book I delighted in reviewing Arthurian legend (something I've never before taken much interest in) on wikipedia and comparing how Bradley interpreted the core events of the tales.

Mists of Avalon is not a page turner - it is sedate and composed; it never rushes or hurries, but likewise it never lags. It has pulses and crescendos, but never races towards one event or another. It reads very much like life, with passions and tragedies, but also with the every day. The characters are all incredibly real, an effortless mix of good and well-meaning tempered with jealousy and flaws. There aren't really any villains in the book; you can understand why each character takes the actions they do, and it's always perfectly reasonable (be it inspired by envy or misunderstanding or a hope that they are Doing the Right Thing).

I would not have appreciated this book at 13, and 15 years later I feel like I can only appreciate it in part. I think this is one I might need to revisit in 30 years when I have more life experiences under my belt. On this reading it was engaging and moving, but I can see where it would move me more when I've had more applicable experience (motherhood (or not), growing old, etc). I'm also... not entirely sure how this book would be received by a male audience. I feel like any comment I make is going to raise hackles, so maybe I'll just push it on JD and see what he thinks (though given his reaction to the delicious Victorian drama Tooth and Claw, I have some idea of how that will go).

My goodness - I had a lot to say about Avalon! I still have a lot in my head, honestly; it was a very thought-provoking read, and I have the great and overwhelming desire to go read Once and Future King now. Arthurian Legend Obsession - Go!

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

[JD's Take] The Black Prism (Brent Weeks)

I enjoyed Brent Weeks' first series (as he calls it: "That Ninja Book") enough that I read it back-to-back-to-back. I certainly didn't think that it was the most sophisticated or deep, but it was a really fun story and it pulled me along thanks to tight pacing and exciting action. It was, in a word, popcorn. So, I picked up The Black Prism expecting, more or less, more of the same.

Boy was I surprised.

The Black Prism introduces a world that is dominated by two things: the immensely powerful magic users (known as Drafters) that craft different colors of light into a magical substance (Luxin) with various properties and the brutal war fought 16 years before the story starts that tore the kingdoms apart as they battled to decide which of two brothers was the rightful head of the magical college that all drafters attend. To add fuel to this fire, the magical college is also the church, and its leader (called the Prism) is the pope-equivalent (and the only person capable of drafting all 7 colors).

The story primarily follows four characters. Gavin Guile, who is the Prism. A member of his elite guard who was once betrothed to him name Karris Whiteoak. Kip, boy growing up in a tiny village devastated by the war and personally devastated by his mother's drug addiction. And Liv, a student at the magical college who is from the same village as Kip.

Shockingly, I just remembered all of that off the top of my head... which says a LOT about just how into this book I got. And that's really the beauty of this novel, the world is fascinating, the magic system is well designed and deep, and the characters just draw you in, both into their troubles and their struggles and their triumphs but also into the world itself. This ends up being one of those books that you stay up too late reading, only to find yourself dreaming about the world all night.

One of my favorite things about the book was the way the war served as a backdrop, a subtext, to everything that happens. A lesser storyteller would have told me about the war, the causes of it, the battles that were fought, who won and why and how. Instead, Weeks tells the story of these characters who have all, one way or another, been totally ruined by the war. Each of them struggles to deal with the mess that the war made of their lives. The characters are interesting not because they spend the whole time angsting about it, but because they are realistically damaged goods trying to overcome that damage. This style of slow, contextual reveals of the details about everybody's past and place in the world also lets Weeks show you how these people are in the present... only to mess with your whole view of them later when their past is revealed. Everything turns grayer, more morally ambiguous, less obviously the story you think you are being told as the book goes on.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that in many ways, this book feels like a Bradon Sanderson novel. The magic system has that scientific styling and attention to detail that I associate with Sanderson. The scope and style and characterizations are similar enough that if you didn't tell me who wrote it, I'd have guessed that the Sanderson-Tron 3000 had managed to spit out yet another book without me realizing it.
This should, in no way, be taken as criticism.

Here's the part where I list bad things, but I'm not in the mood. I loved this book, and I highly recommend it.

Finally, here are some of my favorite/least favorite things that are BIG SPOILERS:

-At page 100 I guessed that Gavin was actually his brother. I was very pleased that this wasn't the Major Reveal at the end of the book as I was afraid it would be.
-I loved how my opinion of Gavin kept shifting. He kept wavering between Noble and Monster. Towards the end of the book, I think I hated/loved him on a 20 page cycle.
-The green prison. Holy shit, THAT surprised the hell out of me.
-Liv switching sides was completely in character, but surprising to me from a meta-story kinda level.
-Is it just me or are there 4 prisms alive in the world right now? Man, this religion has some holes in it.
-I hope he wraps up this "Kip keeps the dagger a secret and ruins everything" plot line in the first 50 pages of the second book. It's not going to be terribly interesting.
-In the acknowledgements he says the whole idea came from a friend saying "wouldn't it be neat if instead of [fantasy trope], [the opposite of fantasy trope]?". My current theory is "The main character is the good twin/evil twin".