Tuesday, September 25, 2012

[Lisa's Take] Lightbringer Book 2: The Blinding Knife (Brent Weeks)

It pains me deeply to say this, but I was a little disappointed by The Blinding Knife.  Don’t get me wrong – it was a great book!  Excellent!  Spectacular in some ways, even!  But taken as a whole it left me feeling a bit let down.

A bit of background: I adored the Shadow books, and then Black Prism completely blew me out of the water.  I was stunned at how much of a better writer Weeks became between his first trilogy and his second; Black Prism was a tighter, more believable story.  I suppose I had hoped that momentum would carry into Blinding Knife – but of course it’s unrealistic to expect that kind of exponential growth from anyone, even one of your favorite authors.

My gripes about the book fall loosely into two categories: gripes that are probably legitimate (when considering that this is a work of fantasy), and gripes that even I can tell are kind of silly (when considering that this is a work of fantasy).

Regarding legitimate gripes: I called every twist in the book.  There was not a single thing that surprised me, even a tiny bit.  There was one thing near the end that confused me [1] but that’s not the same thing. Also, about half way through the book I started feeling like Weeks was drawing on the same tropes he used in the Shadow books (they love each other but they can never be together!  Woe!  But now they might be able to be together if only circumstances didn’t conspire to have one of them horribly maimed! WOE!).  There was still a ton of brilliance and originality in the details of the story and the world itself, but when it comes to major themes and the ebb and flow of the action, it felt very familiar and very done.

As for gripes that I think are kind of silly… once again I hesitate to bring feminism into my book blog, but it niggled at me throughout the book so I suppose I’ll just get it out of my system.  So.  Women see colors better than men, right? Kip is the [MINOR SPOILER?]first male superchromat [/MINOR SPOILER] in ages at the Chromeria, and the teachers and his classmates all remark on it.  If that’s the case, why is the society in the book still so very male-centric? Sure, there are some strong women, but they make up only half of the Spectrum and seem to be in the minority in the Blackguard (though that is arguably realistic, since women are physically less powerful by default). But you’d think if women were so often superior with colors, they would hold a majority in positions of power.  There are even some subtle things about the speech of people in the book that would likely be different – why would a society centered around strong women default to male-gendered wording, for instance, or always assume maleness in an anonymous strong person?

Weeks took some great strides to make his female characters strong and independent, but in the end most of his female PoV characters fell victim to love or lust, as though all they needed in their lives was a man to complete them. The one exception here is [MINOR SPOILER] Teia [/MINOR SPOILER], but she was also the most minor of the PoV characters – I will be shocked (SHOCKED!) if she makes it through the next book without having a man to attach herself to.    Oh, and as a slightly more minor manifestation of the same gripe – if Gavin Guile’s internal monologue says just ONE more time “oh, she was/is/will be so easy to seduce and win over to my way of thinking” I will stab someone.  With an actual knife, not a toothless little color-sucking knife.

I can’t be more specific on “ladies who need men in their pants” without getting into spoilery territory, but color me (heh) disappointed.  For both of the items above, Weeks started with a strong idea and then didn’t take it out to its full world-buildy completion point.

Hah, boy – funny how my list of “silly gripes” doubled the length of my “legitimate gripes.”  I wonder if that is telling?

Anyway, I don’t want this review to end with any takeaway other than: I really, truly did enjoy this book!  It was great and awesome as a whole and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.  I ate through almost the entire thing in a weekend. I was just a little let down since I expected Weeks to step up his game, but instead I was given another dose of “more of the same.” Which is nothing to complain about when “more of the same” is a rollicking good time, with several good gut-wrenching twists thrown in.

[1] [SPOILER] namely how the knife suddenly behaved in a completely different/inconsistent way regarding color transference[/SPOILER]

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

[Lisa's Take] Freedom & Necessity by Steve Brust and Emma Bull

I really have to get a review for Freedom & Necessity written before it fades from my brain. This was the last book by Steve Brust that I hadn’t read; upon completing it I can officially say I have read every novel he has written (including all the obscure stuff like To Reign in Hell, Agyar, Cowboy Feng’s, as well as The Sun, the Moon and the Stars). Given that I was first turned onto Brust 10 years ago and that he instantly became my favorite author, I think I’ve done a pretty good job spacing out my enjoyment. It feels nice to say “I’ve read it all!” though. Finishing it also means that I’ve read nearly all of Emma Bull (I have 2 of her books to go).

Anyway, I first tried to read Freedom & Necessity while moving between my Junior and Senior dorm in college. I remember sitting on the floor while I waited for the resident life coordinator to come give me my new keys. I was jittery and hot and not at all in the right mindset. I read about 15 pages, couldn’t get into the narrative, and set it down. 7 years later I decided to give it another shot, mostly because I was looking for low-hanging fruit to clear out of my stack. It proceeded to take me longer to finish than any other single book I’ve read in the last 5 years.

That sounds like a bad thing, and in some ways it bothered me that it took the better part of two months to wade my way through it. But at the same time, it felt somehow _right_ to space it out. There were times when the pacing was slow and I ended up slogging through political rants (be warned, this may turn some people off), but there were other times when it induced a pleasant sort of nostalgic heartache to wait to read the next chapter. The story is written as a series of letters exchanged between four close friends during Interesting Times, and spacing out the chapters felt a lot like waiting excitedly by the mailbox for the postman to arrive. It was fitting.

Despite the slowness, Freedom & Necessity was one of the most emotionally evocative books I’ve read in a while. The 4 characters each have very distinct relationships with each other, and every relationship is poignant and deep. The tension between James & Susan is particularly good; when it came to a head my heart was pounding and I felt like I could cut the air with a knife. The end of the book had me dizzy with anticipation, and I had a good cry over the final few chapters. The last time I recall being so emotionally moved by a book was at the end of the Long Price Quartet.

Freedom & Necessity is not nice light beach reading, but it is worth the time investment to get through it. While the political ramblings can be a bit of a turn-off, the rest of the story more than makes up for it, presenting an engrossing combination of Victorian-era literature tinged with hints of magic.

Monday, April 16, 2012

[Lisa's Take] Among Others by Jo Walton

I’ve been struggling with my review of Among Others for several weeks. I consumed it in a single weekend, and it was just… so much more than I expected out of a young adult fantasy novel by Jo Walton. I’ve enjoyed her other books, but Tooth & Claw was really just merry Victorian fluff, and the King’s Peace was well executed, but slightly dull and sedate.

Among Others, though... what do you even label it? The back-cover blurb doesn’t do it any sort of justice – a girl at boarding school who can talk to faeries? Really? No. That’s not what it is. It is an ode to science fiction and fantasy literature. It is a commentary on the resilience of youth, and the ways in which young people should not be dismissed. It is a discussion of the strength of women, and a firm statement that flies in the face of the “beautiful princess needs a prince charming to rescue her” trope. It is a frank look at budding sexuality. It is real, it is good, and it should be required reading for every geeky teenage girl from age 13-21.

I don’t know what else I can say except to say how much I admire Jo Walton for writing and publishing this work of art – it is exactly the sort of literature we need at a time when it feels like there is an active push from certain governmental parties to belittle women, our strength, our capability, and our ability to govern ourselves, mind and body. Maybe I’m letting current events color my reading too much, but I feel that Among Others couldn’t have come at a more perfect time.

It occurs to me that talking about feminism and politics doesn’t paint Among Others as the most enjoyable read; but that’s part of the magic. For all of the Big Ideas that it covers, it is still a delight to consume. Anyone who has been reading sci-fi and fantasy since childhood will chuckle their way through this book, elated by a character who is discovering the same books the reader enjoyed when they first started braving the literary genre. Weighty Issues aside, Among Others has excellent pacing, lovable characters, and a fantastic story.

Ignore the silly cover, ignore my rambling – Among Others was nominated for a Hugo for a reason. Go read it now, in one sitting if you can manage it.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

[Lisa's Take] Seed - Rob Ziegler

I really need to get a review written for Seed before it leaks out of my head, but it’s proving to be a challenging book to write about.

The setting is near-future post-apoc; some unnamed disaster has left huge portions of the country a barren desert, entirely unable to be cultivated. A corporation called Satori reigns supreme, handing out their genetically modified seeds, which are the only plants that can grow in the barren climate. The story follows two sets of characters: poor drifters working their way across the mid-west, trying to survive; and several makers within Satori who are responsible for making the seed, and who are also experimenting on the population.

The best word I can come up with to describe Seed is “stark.” It is a dusty, bleak story with strong characters, surprising betrayals, and a truly weird and original sci-fi-esque streak of living buildings. I can’t say I enjoyed the read… it was a little too depressing and desolate to truly enjoy. I did find the book compelling, however, and filled with extremely interesting concepts. I loved learning more about the world and characters, it just left me a little heart-achy.

I’d definitely recommend Seed, just know that you’re not getting into a shiny happy book. Well written and moving: yes. Idyllic happy ending: less so.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

[Lisa’s Take] Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

I don’t remember how I originally got a hold of a copy of Ender’s Game, but I do remember that it came into my possession when I was 13, in eighth grade. I read most of it during stolen moments on a team-building retreat for school, and I finished it on the bus-ride back to civilization after a few days in the woods.

It was the first book that I finished, turned over, and immediately restarted.

After my second read-through, I think I managed to go about a month Ender-free. Then I read it again. The cycle repeated over the next 5 years; I read that book 13 times between 8th grade and my freshman year of college. When Ender’s Shadow came out, I read Shadow and then sat the two books side by side and read them in tandem to see how the pieces fit together. At some point I tried to read the other sequels but never got into them; I just kept reading Ender’s Game over and over.

Being busy with class finally broke off my frequent re-reads, and then suddenly it was 10 years later. Saturday night I sat in my living room chatting with friends and out of the blue it came to me that I hadn’t read Ender’s Game in a full ten years.

Sunday morning I got up and immediately pulled my favorite old copy off the shelf. It is easily my most-loved book; the edges of the pages are soft as velvet, and the corners are completely worn away (making each page look like paper out of Battlestar Galactica). I curled up with coffee and brunch, and I didn’t look up until 2 hours later. As always, I made it to page 120 (Locke and Demosthenes) before I was jolted out of my reverie; that chapter has always broken up the flow of the narrative for me. I think on my first read-through it took me longer to get through that one chapter than it did the rest of the book combined. I picked the book back up Monday morning and finished the remaining 200-odd pages on the plane to Baton Rouge.

This is hardly a real review – surely the fact that I’ve read Ender’s Game 14 times, and the fact that it is one of the most renowned pieces of science fiction out there should stand as reason enough that I think it’s fantastic and worth reading. I did, however, want to get some thoughts about it written down now that I’ve read it with an adult perspective.

First and foremost – in 15 years, I have never before taken the time to read the introduction to Ender’s Game. I wasn’t interested the first time I read the book, and then every subsequent re-read I was too eager to get into the story to stop and read the introduction. This time I read it and was pretty entertained – I had no idea that Card was so inspired by Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. He comes across as a bit arrogant at times, but it was an intriguing glimpse into his mind and motives.

My second observation was how much more I was engaged by the adult-exchanges at the beginning of each chapter (between Graff, Anderson, and whomever else). When I was a kid the exchanges just seemed sinister; as an adult I found humor (and sometimes wistfulness) that I had never detected before. I was also much more attuned to Graff’s state of mind throughout the book – I had never before noticed his weigh/stress issues and never really understood the legal repercussions of his actions.

The last big difference between this read-through and when I was younger was how much more I questioned the skills, intelligence, and capability of the children in the book. When I was 13 I was very nearly of an age with them, so it did not seem at all out of the ordinary that they spoke and acted like adults (as I perceived myself to do at that age). The mindset stuck with me through all my subsequent re-reads. This time, looking on it with a critical eye, I found myself more doubtful and skeptical as I compared them to children in my life – my 6-year-old twin sisters, or JD’s 8-year-old nephew. In some ways I still found the childrens’ depictions realistic; especially their energy and sponge-like minds, and also their cruelty. But every time I tried to frame their focus and intellect in line with “would my very precocious sister ever manage that?” I found myself answering no. It was interesting what a difference 15 years can make in my mindset.

If you read and loved Ender’s Game as a kid, I definitely recommend giving it another read as an adult. Of course if you have never read it – shame on you; you need to remedy that right this minute.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

[JD's Take] Under Heaven (Guy Gavriel Kay)

Every time I read a new Guy Gavriel Kay novel, I become more solidly convinced that he is perhaps the most talented living author of fantasy that I have had the pleasure of reading. It is true, that I have in no way read the entirety of his oeuvre, and it is also likely that I have been cherry-picking his best works as I work my way through it. But the rest of the books are going to have to really suck to outweigh the brilliance of Tigana, The Lions of Al-Rassan, and Under Heaven.

Like his other works, Under Heaven takes place in a fictionalized version of a historical setting. This one is much more thinly disguised than the others I've read; it is impossible to mistake this setting for anything other than historical China (specifically, the Tang dynasty). In fact, I'd say that it's the least fantastic and most historically linked of his books that I've read. The story follows a man named Shen who... ah, I hate summarizing books when I review them, and I feel like any attempt would fall short. So I'm deleting what I had and skipping that part.

The book sparkles with Kay's usual adept characterizations and clever integration of fantastic elements with historical lands, customs, and cultures. The writing is generously sprinkled with poetry, and that helps lend the whole thing a sort of... thoughtful atmosphere. I became wholly absorbed with this book in a way that I haven't had happen in a very, very long time. I read all 600 pages of it over a single weekend (an unheard of feat for me) and was genuinely sad when I had to turn that last page. This was one of those books that had me reading the author's notes at the end just because I was loath to admit the story was over.

Perhaps my favorite thing about the story was the focus of it. Shen becomes involved with politics at the highest level, and tremendous, society-shaking events begin to happen around him. Despite the eventually revolution, the start of a decade-long war, and a fundamental shift in the country's society that happen during the book... they are never the focus of the story. This is the story of a man with a burden unasked for, a story about dealing with family and lovers and danger and your own smallness. It is not a story about war and revolution and blood and sacked cities and high politics, those are simply things that happen in the background of this one man's struggle and when that struggle finally ends... so too does the story. Long before the end of the war, without telling us much (if anything) about the large-scale events that we saw start. There are hints though, intriguing morsels narrated to let us know that his story isn't over... but THIS story is. It's a hard trick to pull off (and a hard effect to describe! Read it yourself and see what you think) but it is done masterfully here.

In short, this book is brilliant. I have nothing bad to say about it... at least not now, several weeks after putting it down. Instead, I find myself missing it like an old friend that I haven't talked to in too long.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

[Lisa’s Take] The Void Trilogy (Peter F. Hamilton)

I kick-started my book list for 2012 by shotgunning all three books in Peter F. Hamilton’s Void Trilogy: The Dreaming Void, The Temporal Void, and The Evolutionary Void. This netted me a whopping 1973 pages in a little over 3 weeks. I’m pretty sure the last time I consumed that many pages from a single series back-to-back-to-back was either when I first got my hands on George R. R. Martin at Christmas 2003, or maybe the Kusheline Trilogy in 2006. Either way, it’s been a damn long time since I was compelled to read so much so quickly.

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of literature that can be classified as “massively multi-genre.” Tad Williams and China Mieville are high of my list of favorite authors due to their ability to produce works that break out of the typical genre stereotypes. When I picked up The Dreaming Void, I was expecting good old-fashioned hard sci-fi, softened up with a bit of decent character development – you know, pretty much what I had come to expect when I read Hamilton’s Pandora Star and Judas Unchained.

My expectations were met for about a hundred pages. I was enjoying the story and the characters, and I was tickled pink to see a lot of familiar faces from his previous duology. I was finding the technology a little less accessible that that of Pandora’s Star; the story is sufficiently far in the future that technology has progressed to the point of “sufficiently advanced as to seem like magic.”

Then all of the sudden I started a new chapter and the book went from hard sci-fi to medieval fantasy.

I was… baffled, to say the least, but I greedily enjoyed the change of pace, expecting it to be a one-off occurrence. It wasn’t. With increasing frequency you start to get glimpses into the fantasy-esque world inside the void, and see how that ties in with the sci-fi world outside. I loved the juxtaposition, and honestly felt myself more attached to most of the void characters than anyone outside. At the end of the second book I was literally choking and crying on the plane. I’ve never read a sci-fi classified book that moved me so much.

I can’t recommend these books enough for fans of either sci-fi or fantasy. If you’ve never dabbled in sci-fi as a genre this might be an ambitious start, but anyone who enjoys the genre (or wants to be convinced that the genre can be enjoyable) would be well served by picking up the Void Trilogy. My books for the rest of the year are going to be hard-pressed to live up to such an excellent start.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

[JD's Take] Year Review 2011

Another year, another even shorter book list. At least my trending is going down! 2009 I had 48 books, 2010 36, and this year... 36 again. Maybe I've stabilized? Still, my total pages dropped from 15,403 to 14,545 and my pages/day from 42.3 to 39.8.

My top 5 books for 2011 (drum roll please!), with the standard "order not relevant" disclaimer:
1. The Black Prism (Brent Weeks)
2. The Wise Man's Fear (Pat Rothfuss)
3. The Stranger's Woes (Max Frei)
4. Allow of law (Brandon Sanderson)
5. The Desert Spear (Peter V. Brett)

The other books I read in 2011 are a pretty big step down from those, actually. I was lucky to get 5 that really excelled. It's not that I didn't enjoy them (I did!) or that there weren't excellent and well written books in the remainder (there were!) but I just can't bring myself to set them next to those five, which were truly outstanding. Honorable mention definitely goes to Embassytown, which was excellent but wasn't "enjoyable" in the usual sense. Plus it killed my numbers for the year because it took me like 2 months to read those 300 odd pages!

Here's the full list:
The Child Thief (Brom)
Red Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson)
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (N.K. Jemisin)
The Desert Spear (Peter V. Brett)
The Name of the Wind (Pat Rothfuss)
The Wise Man's Fear (Pat Rothfuss)
Machine Of Death (North, et al)
Tiassa (Brust)
Summer knight (Jim Butcher)
Death Masks (Jim Butcher)
Blood Rites (Jim Butcher)
Thunderball (Ian Flemming)
On Her Majesty's Secret Service (ian flemming)
You only live twice (Ian flemming)
Empire in black and gold (Adrian)
The Way of Shadows (Brent Weeks)
Chasing the moon (A. Lee Martinez)
Shadow's Edge (Brent Weeks)
Beyond the Shadows (Brent Weeks)
Embassytown (China Mieville)
The princess and mr whiffle (Pat Rothfuss)
The man with the golden gun (Ian Fleming)
Casino royale (Ian Fleming)
Software Estimation: Demystifying the Black Art (Steve McConnel)
Tooth & Claw (Jo Walton)
Nobilis (Jenna Moran)
The Black Prism (Brent Weeks)
The Stranger's Woes (Max Frei)
Broken kingdoms (N.K. Jemisin)
Snuff (Terry Pratchett)
Stations of the tide (Michael Swanwick)
Live and Let Die (Ian Fleming)
Bitters (brad thomas parsons)
The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins)
The osiris ritual (George Mann)
Alloy of Law (Brandon Sanderson)

[Lisa's Take] Year Review 2011

And this year, in 2012, I resolve to post reviews in a more timely fashion... hah. Yeah. That's off to a good start! Sorry for the delay - better late than never, right? Here's my 2011 roundup.

I only reached my yearly goal of 50 books this year by the broadest definition. If you include the 8 books that I didn't finish (many of which I didn't even give my usual "100 page test" before discarding) and if you include the two books I'm (er, I _was_ at the time of drafting this) only half way through as the new year begins, then you can VERY generously say that I read 51 books in 2011.

That said, my page count was slightly higher than the previous year, clocking in at 22149. I read an average of 62 pages a day, and my average book length was 434 pages. So I suppose that's not too horrible.

The best books of the year? Honestly for a good portion of the year I expected to not even be able to pick a full 5 books (see: How Pat Rothfuss Ruined my Life). When I went back through my list I found that such a thought was awfully pessimistic; though I discarded many mediocre books, there were still some gems mixed in. So, in no particular order (well, no particular order save for the first book) here are my top 5 for 2011:

1) The Wise Man's Fear by Pat Rothfuss
3) Mechanique by Genevieve Valentine
5) The Black Prism by Brent Weeks
2) The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman
4) The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson

The two big surprises on that list are Gilman and Valentine; both of them deserve far more publicity among fantasy readers than they are currently getting. I would happily turn around and re-read either of their books, and will be adding both of them to my "buy their new releases without question" list. As for the other 3 authors - well, I am nothing if not predictable. Brent Weeks was new to me this year, and I am jonesing badly for anything he writes now. Sanderson and Rothfuss - what is there to say? Two wonderful Old Reliables.

Now, without further ado - the full list!

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N K Jemisin
The Broken Kingdom by N K Jemisin
The Affinity Bridge by George Mann
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
Never Knew Another by J M McDermott
The Name of the Wind by Pat Rothfuss
The Wise Man's Fear by Pat Rothfuss
Flirt by Laurel K Hamiliton
Liriel by Garth Nix
The Scar-Crow Men by Mark Chadbourn
The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie
Bullet by Laurel K Hamilton
The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart
Bayan's Gold by Peter V. Brett
Tiassa by Steve Brust
The Dragon's Path by Daniel Abraham
Farlander by Col Buchanan
Machine of Death by (Misc)
Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks
Chasing the Moon by A Lee Martinez
Shadow's Edge by Brent Weeks
Beyond the Shadows by Brent Weeks
Cowboy Feng's by Steve Brust
The Stranger's Woes by Max Frei
The Magician King by Lev Grossman
The Osiris Ritual by George Mann
Mechanique by Genevieve Valentine
Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi
The Black Prism by Brent Weeks
Halo by Alexandra Adornetto
The Scarab Path by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Ghost Story by Jim Butcher
The Half-made World by Felix Gilman
The Winds of Khalakhovo by Bradley P. Beaulieu
Creatures of Light and Darkness by Roger Zelazny
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Acacia by David Anthony Durham
Kingdom of Gods by N. K. Jemisin
Other Lands by David Anthony Durham
The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson
Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey
Cold Magic by Kate Elliott
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Cold Fire by Kate Elliott
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
The Sacred Band by David Anthony Durham
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones
The Paths of the Dead by Steve Brust

I feel I should say a word about the books I didn't finish, in hopes that someone can encourage me to give them another go (or learn from my mistakes)… but this post is already quite long and full of lists. I’ll save that for another time. Here’s to hoping I finish more books in 2012!