Tuesday, September 09, 2014

[Lisa’s Take] Traitor’s Blade by Sebastien de Castell

Editor’s note: I started out trying to make this review spoiler free, but then I got to ranting and gave up.  So proceed with caution if you are wary of spoilers (meta-spoiler: you don’t really want to read this book, so it probably won’t be a problem).

I picked up Traitor’s Blade while killing a bit of time at a Barnes & Noble and read the first 20 or so pages while lazily sipping a coffee.  My initial impression was pretty solid – the writing style wasn’t super sophisticated, but something about the enthusiasm of the narrative reminded me a bit of the early Dresden Files; maybe not super polished, but  entertaining and chuckle-worthy.  I particularly enjoyed the early banter between the three main characters – Falcio, Kest, and Brasti.

I decided Traitor’s Blade wasn’t necessarily worth the price of a hardback, but it seemed worth purchasing on Kindle, so I did so.  Aaaand then things went downhill.  As the book progressed it started feeling like Another Fantasy Author Who Decided To Novelize His D&D Campaign.  Nearly every single plot event hinged on weird serendipity or unbelievable coincidence – the right people just happened to be in the right place at the right time, even though it was totally baffling or geographically infeasible for them to be there. There are certainly instances in which the author could have gotten away with that (for example, if he had left The Tailor as an unexplained, strangely mystical character who happened to know where to be and when, rather than resolving her in the way he did, which was far too mundane to explain the happenstance).  Add to this a magic system that had whiffs of being cool and interesting, but mostly was just referenced via vague hand waving, and I was well on my way to soured on the book.

Early in the story I thought that Sebastien de Castell might be setting himself up to be a feminist ally in the fantasy novel space; something that is sorely needed given how frequently fantasy authors fall into tropes that minimize women.  There was an exchange early on where the main character says something to the tune of “You’re doing that like a girl,” to which the response is “Well that’s a really stupid thing to say, what does that even mean?”  My feminist ears perked up at that, and I got my hopes up.

And then.  And then.  As women were introduced to the novel, they one by one fell victim to those classic minimizing tropes. The one who was raped and killed as a motivation for the main character to be a berserker.  The one who is a spoiled clueless bitch.  The one who could have been above it all as a godly benefactor, but instead her character boiled down to maternal instincts.  Oh, and then my favorite:  the mystical, magical courtesan who literally tries to rape the main character into loving her.  As in, Falcio says “no, stop, please don’t” multiple times, and then she still has sex with him and because she is a beautiful woman (while he is a base and feral man) it all is ok.  Oh, and afterwards she cries because her glorious sexing couldn’t heal him and convince him to stay around – evidently her fulfilling, independent, mystical life could no longer be the same without him.  Oh, and then Falcio misses her a bunch and feels bad for leaving his rapist.  What is this, I don’t even.

Anyway, do yourself a favor and skip this one.  I nearly put it down after 100 pages, but decided to give it a second chance.  After a certain point I felt like I was just continuing to slog through it to give myself ammo (me? Ammo for ranting about a book?  That doesn’t sound plausible). This is not a shining addition to the current fantasy new releases.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

[JD's Take] S. by Doug Drost

This is a very hard book to describe, for a number of reasons. First, it's very, very layered. Second, it's challenging to balance useful description and not giving away spoilers.  I'm going to do my best to describe the (physical) book, the experience of reading it, and the most obvious summary; but not in that order.

So I need to start with some terminology before I can talk about this book. First, the physical, real life artifact that you read is called simply S. and it is written by Doug Drost[0]. S. is a slip-covered hardback volume, and within that slip-cover is a novel titled The Ship of Theseus, by the mysterious and notoriously private V.M. Straka. SOT is a fictional novel written around 1949 (3 years after Straka's death) and the particular copy that you have in your hands is one stolen from a high school library circa year 2000 by a 16 year old named Eric.

With me so far?

Eric goes on to become a Straka scholar, and leaves his underlined and benoted copy of SOT in the college library one day after leaving quite hastily. It is found by a young undergrad named Jen who works at the library. She leaves it for him to find again, but not before reading a couple chapters and making some notes in the margins. This continues for months as Eric and Jen leave layers of notes to each other in the margins of the work, while finding themselves caught up in a decades-old mystery that lures them deeper and deeper into the world of Straka.

Still with me? Good, because I didn't even mention the book's translator F.X. Caldera who is present throughout the original work in the form of extensive footnotes, and whose relationship with Straka becomes another plot line entirely as we proceed. Caldera will serve as one of a variety of unreliable narrators on our journey. I love unreliable narrators (they make you think) which is good because I'm pretty sure there are 5 in this book, simultaneously.

So now we have our cast. Straka - a prolific radical writer of the 20s, 30s, and 40s whose works inspired many of the pro-labor and anti-fascist movements of the day but who took great pains to never reveal his true identity. Caldera - the translator of Straka's works for decades who struggled to protect Straka's identity (and claimed to not know it) while acting as the caretaker of his work and legacy. Eric - the modern day scholar with a sketchy academic history struggling to resolve the age-old question of Straka's  identity to make his career. Jen - the disillusioned and naive woman,  months away from graduating and looking for control in her life.

And that's just in the margins.


The book itself is gorgeously produced. The illusion of the book, as a well-loved and abused copy of SOT is taken to ridiculous and wonderful extremes. The inside covers are strained, the pages are yellowed at the edges. The markings from the original library are stamped on the inside covers. Looking for a credit for Dorst or an actual copyright date? Better get a magnifying glass, it's very well hidden. Throughout the book are hundreds of margin notes by Jen & Eric in a variety of colors (and obviously, different handwriting), underlined and circled passages, little doodles and the like. I think I counted 3 pages that are just SOT and nothing else. Stuffed between the pages are a variety of artifacts that Jen & Eric left for each other as they worked together. Postcards, handwritten letters, newspaper clippings. I truly cannot imagine what it must have cost to make this book.The people who handled their graphic design work get a lot of credit in interviews, and rightly so.

The story is gripping. I found myself totally immersed in the world. It demands your attention, to track the story in SOT, the "real-world" people and events that it is an analogy for, the discussions in the margins and the footnotes, the happenings in J&E lives and how they relate to everything else. There's a lot going on, and the nature of the marginalia is that you get it out of order. On one page you might have notes from months apart between Jen & Eric, alluding to events that you don't have any knowledge of yet (maybe ever), or referencing footnotes 8 chapters ahead in the book. You'll want to read where you can spread the book out a bit. Keep a notebook by your side. Get involved. It's rewarding[1].

This is the book that I was hoping a certain other "novel-with-ephemera stuffed into it and a promise of mystery"[2] that I reviewed on this site several years ago would be. That one was a disappointment, this one was exactly what I wanted. A fun read that left a lot of things up to me, that demanded my attention, and rewarded me for everything I put into it. If that sound interesting, I recommend it, and you should read it quickly because I need someone to talk to about it, dammit. It's been a week and I'm still spending some time most days trying to decipher a code or three or reading theories online. And learning how to use PGP so I can... nevermind. I've said too much already. They are watching and it is raining.

[0] J.J. Abrams gets a credit there too, because it was his brainchild.
[1] Well. I was rewarded. Your mileage may well vary. :)
[2] No, I'm not linking to it. I'm lazy and I don't want to accidentally read the review again. I think I was quite mean.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

[Lisa's Take] Year Review 2013

2013.  Better known as: the year in which Lisa barely posted any reviews at all because the fantasy landscape was so gorram bleak.  I made it to 50 books this year, by the skin of my teeth, but only because I did a boatload of re-reading - 20% of the books I read this year were re-reads, because I needed something to keep me invigorated.   Did anyone else feel let down by 2013? 

By the statistics, I read 19839 pages in 2013, an average of 55 pages a day - both up a bit from 2012, against all odds.  Average book length was 389 pages.

Anyway, my top picks for the year.  Um.  I'm going to skip on re-re-re-mentioning Daniel Abraham/James S. A. Corey, since they've topped my list for the last couple of years.  Suffice to say they still do, but there's no need to beat a dead horse.  So in no particular order, things I enjoyed:

1) Mark Lawrence's Broken Empire Trilogy.  These were gorier and darker than I usually like, but to some extent I felt like Lawrence accomplished what Abercrombie is always shooting for (and generally missing).  I loved the setting, and the slow dawning realization that the setting maybe wasn't what you were set up to believe it was.  The ending was a bit odd, but overall it was solid.
2) Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. It's a love story written to everything that comprised my childhood. I couldn't resist it, even though the writing was dubious at best.  Endearing characters, a clever set-up, and heaps of nostalgia made it work.
3) Mary Robinette Kowal's Glamourist Histories, of which I slurped down 2 in a row while on vacation before deciding I needed a little break.  I was reading these in juxtaposition to The Broken Empire, so you can imagine that the difference was a bit jarring.  I loved these books, in no small part because they filled a hole left in my shelf by the completion of Galen Beckett's Mrs. Quent trilogy.
4) The Rook by Daniel O'Malley.  Love, love, loved this for the main character, the world, and the storytelling.  I'll be interested to see how book 2 comes together without the memory-loss trope employed by the first.
5) River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay. Predictable?  Me?  Naaah. Honestly I spent most of this book wondering if I really was going to like it as much as the rest of Kay's body of work.  Everything felt so understated and sedate... though undeniably beautiful, of course.  I spent quite a bit of the book going "this is too slow..." and then suddenly it was the last 40 pages and I was just crying and crying.  He has a way of sneaking up on you.

I'm tempted to rant a bit about the books that were disappointing or left unfinished, but instead I think I'll just shut up and cross my fingers that 2014 is a better year for books.  My full reading list is below!

Throne of the Crescent MoonbySaladin Ahmed
The Lies of Locke LamorabyScott Lynch
The Human DivisionbyJon Scalzi
The Rise of Ransom CitybyFelix Gilman
Unclean SpiritsbyMLN Hanover
Darker AngelsbyMLN Hanover
The RookbyDaniel O'Malley
The Daylight WarbyPeter V Brett
Great north road byPeter F Hamilton
GreenbyJay Lake
Vicious grace byM L N Hanover
The Windup GirlbyPaolo Bacigalupi
Ready Player OnebyEarnest Cline
River of StarsbyGuy Gavriel Kay
BendingbyGreta Christina
The Magicians GuildbyTrudi Cavanaugh
The Tyrant's LawbyDanile Abraham
Variable StarbySpider Robinson/Heinlein
The RithmatistbyBrandon Sanderson
Abaddon's GatebyJames S. A. Corey
The Stranger's ShadowbyMax Frei
Prince of Thorns byMark Lawrence
Shades of Milk and Honey byMary Robinette Kowal
Glamour in GlassbyMary Robinette Kowal
King of thornsbyMark Lawrence
Ship breakerbyPaolo Bacigalupi
TiganabyGuy Gavriel Kay
The Foundling byD. M. Cornish
From the dust returned byRay Bradbury
The New Watch bySergei Lukyanenko
RequiembyKen Scholes
Stations of the TidebyMichael Swanwick
Cold SteelbyKate Elliott
The Ocean at the end of the lanebyNeil Gaiman
Red Seas under Red SkiesbyScott Lynch
The Incrementalists bySteve Brust and Skyler White
The republic of thievesbyScott Lynch
The inexplicablesbyCherie Priest
Killing RitesbyM. L. N. Hanover
Emperor of ThornsbyMark Lawrence
HildbyNicola Griffith
Innocent MagebyKaren Miller
SteelheartbyBrandon Sanderson
DodgerbySteve Brust
TaltosbySteve Brust
Dragon bySteve Brust
Yendi bySteve Brust
TiassabySteve Brust
Jhereg bySteve Brust
TecklabySteve Brust

Friday, March 01, 2013

[Lisa's Take] Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

Hrm, hum. I suppose I should actually get a review down for Throne of the Crescent Moon, given that it’s up for a Hugo and all. 

I will go ahead and come clean: one of my favorite authors of all time is George Alec Effinger.  His Marid Audran books (starting with When Gravity Fails) are an absolute delight; I’m overdue for a re-read at this point.  When Gravity Fails can best be described as “cyberpunk set in a near-future middle east.”  If you are at all familiar with the conceit behind Throne of the Crescent Moon, you’ll see where I’m going with these; where Effinger wrote sci-fi set in the middle east, Ahmed has produced a historical fantasy set in the middle east.

I was understandably excited when I heard about Throne – with such similarities to one of my favorite series, how could it go wrong!  And it certainly did have a lot going for it – an interesting world with a solid magic system, a colorful city with vivid sights and smells, a narrative that moved along with a pleasant ebb and flow while never dragging. But for whatever reason, I never really connected with the story and the characters.  It’s so frustrating, because the main character is totally awesome on paper (if you’ll pardon the pun) – how can you go wrong with a 60-year-old, crass, out of shape, completely un-suave, un-extraordinary hero?  I expected him to be worming his way into my heart with every page – but for some reason he never quite developed from the sketch of awesomeness into a believable and endearing character.

To run through the major players: Adoulla seemed like I’d love him, but I didn’t.  Raseed and Zamia actively grated on me (as so often happens with naive young lovers in fantasy).  I adored Litaz and Dawoud and their deep, devoted, “friends as chosen family” relationship with Adoulla, but the two of them didn’t get enough screen time for my taste. Overall the characters were pretty hit and miss.

Ugh. I don’t know where I’m going with this. I really wanted to be wildly in love with Throne, and at the end of the day I wasn’t. Effinger did a similar conceit much better, and I kept looking for his excellence in Ahmed’s book. Totally unfair of me, but there it is.  That said, I do see a lot of promise in this particular debut, so I’ll almost certainly pick up the sequel in the near future.  Here’s to hoping for a more positive experience!

Friday, February 08, 2013

[Lisa's Take] The Black Sun's Daughter Book 1: Unclean Spirits by M.L.N. Hanover

It is no secret that in the last 2 or 3 years I have becoming a huge fangirl of Daniel Abraham.  My top 5 list in 2012 and 2010 both included books by him, and he only missed the 2011 list because of fierce competition.  Hell, my 2012 list actually contained 2 entries by him: one for his fantasy work on The Dagger and Coin, and one for his Sci-fi collaboration with Ty Frank (written as James S. A. Corey).  I was tepid on the first book of Abraham's I read (A Shadow in Summer) – looking back, my mini-review is fairly positive, but I remember being put off by some of the in-character childish rashness of the young protagonists.  In spite of a bumpy start, by the end of the Long Price Quartet I was thoroughly hooked.  With the addition of Dagger&Coin and The Expanse… yes, I’ve become a slavering fan, rabid for more books.

So you can imagine that I was duly horrified to learn that Abraham has a 3rd pen name: M.L.N. Hanover. And that he uses that pen name to write *gulp* trashy-looking urban fantasy.  You know – the type that has midriff-baring, flowing-haired beauties with tramp-stamps on the cover.  To say that I was mortified by this discovery is pretty apt.

I put this black mark against one of my favorite authors out of my mind for the better part of a year.  But with every work of Abraham’s I read, I craved more.  Faced with a 6 month period during which nothing from The Expanse or Dagger&Coin would be released… I caved and picked up Unclean Spirits, the first in his series of Urban Fantasy.  I bought it for my kindle, because science forbid anyone see my with a cover that looks like that.

I read Unclean Spirits cover-to-cover in less than a day.  It chagrins me a little to say it, but I enjoyed it. Quite a bit.  It’s not stunningly amazing like this more current works – it lacks polish with the flow of the language, especially – but the pacing was great, the characters were solid and endearing, and the plot engaging.  At first I felt like the supernatural elements of the world were a little forced, but once I got into the flow of the novel it worked for me. 

As for the protagonist: she’s a feminist, she’s an atheist, she’s unashamed of her competence and her sexuality, and she’s all around awesome.  Hanover (Abraham?) writes women well, and lays out some greatly controversial issues as just the bare, real facts – no, there’s not a god, yes, women are equal to men, and yes, you can be young and inexperienced but still smart and competent.  I loved it.

I’m going to stop writing here; I’m afraid if I go on I’ll get going on a lengthy rant about the idiotic marketing decisions made in regards to book covers.  It disgusts me to know that such good writing is hidden behind such a trashy cover.  I know if I was put off by it, then hundreds of other fantasy fans probably are as well, and it’s not fair to the author or his work.  No, really, I’m stopping now.

Bottom line: if you like Abraham and need something to tide you over, this is a pretty enjoyable read.  It definitely falls into the category of “candy” but I’m happy to keep popping skittles until I have another Dagger & Coin novel.  It looks like Abraham is still releasing books in this series, so maybe the more current ones will be even better!

[Lisa's Take] The Rise of Random City by Felix Gilman

After doing a lot of slacking with regards to reading last year, I’ve been working on getting myself back into gear this year.  To that end I’ve been eschewing TV and devouring books instead.  After a re-read of Lies of Locke Lamora, I felt invigorated and ready to recommit.  Woo!  (I exaggerate: a re-read of one of my favorite books was nice, but a trip to and from India totaling almost 60 hours of travel time, played a big role in forcing me to read.  Heh.)

Now, with that preface out of the way:

Maaaan, The Rise of Ransom City was a serious disappointment. I mean really.  The Half-Made World was one of my favorite books of last year – I loved the world, I loved the characters (even the unlovable ones) and I loved Gilman’s writing style.  I even made my “book shriek” noise when I saw the sequel on the shelf at Barnes & Noble; my excitement was that great.

So what went wrong with Ransom City?  To be honest, Gilman did his job a little too well.  Ransom City is told from the point of view of Harry Ransom, something of a mad scientist.  The format of the book is such that Harry is writing his memoirs in the form of a journal or letters, which an acquaintance of his then recovers, compiles, edits, and publishes (with a few revisions and footnotes).  Gilman manages to make Ransom’s character incredibly real… and therein lies the problem.  Ransom is young, ignorant of the world, egotistical, boastful, and generally not a very likable man.  Gilman captures that and portrays it masterfully, using Ransom’s memoirs to paint a vivid picture of a supremely dislikable man.  Ransom made me gnash my teeth and have deep frustration building in my gut – I took no pleasure in reading about his exploits, because his personality infuriated me so much.

It’s true, through the course of the book Ransom grows and starts to become an ever-so-slightly better person,  but it was nigh impossible for me to shake the negative impression I had of him.  It was with great relief that I finished the last page of the book and could put him out of my head.

I suppose that’s the bulk of it: Gilman did his job as a writer too well and made his protagonist too believably dislikable.  That was rough.  But there was another factor in why Ransom City was a disappointment.  When it comes down to it, the sequel didn’t live up to the excellence of the predecessor.  I didn’t get enough of what I wanted: weird west alternate history with altercations between The Gun and The Line and awesome spaghetti-western-style shootouts.  For all that Ransom meddled in the magic of the land, we the readers got few deep glimpses of the opposing forces set up in the first novel.  In a phrase: needz moar stand-offs.

So yeah.  Ransom City disappointed me.  That said, I will still be eagerly awaiting book three, with high hopes that we’ll get back to the excellence of the first book.