Guy Gavriel Kay is now officially my favorite fantasy author. I describe him sometimes as the "kinder, gentler George R.R. Martin" but that sells shor...moreGuy Gavriel Kay is now officially my favorite fantasy author. I describe him sometimes as the "kinder, gentler George R.R. Martin" but that sells short the thing Kay does that Martin doesn't: tell complete stories with a beginning, middle, and end. I wouldn't exactly call Kay's sprawling novels "tight" per se, but then again, look who I'm comparing him to.
Kay's shtick has always been to write magic-lite fantasy that's really historical fiction in disguise. In Under Heaven the supernatural is on display more overtly than in any of Kay's books since Tigana, but how it is presented is different from most other epics, in which magic is treated almost as a stand-in for technological power. Here, magic only exists in the wild, as far away from civilization as possible, and instead stands for the untameable forces of nature.
The era through the looking glass this time is Tang Dynasty China, and while the historical parallels are expected, I think this is the first time in a Kay novel that the Sweep Of History itself is treated like a character in its own right. Most epic fantasy novels treat with individuals who are at the fulcrum of power and can turn the tide of gigantic events through their actions. The characters in Under Heaven may find themselves at the heart of the action for brief moments, but those moments pass and history moves along without them.
Also, Kay's predilection for poets and musicians is finally beginning to dawn on me. Despite the vast amount of implied carnage (some 40 million people die off-stage) this is perhaps his most beautiful and poetic work I've read so far. (less)
A fun, light read for the weekend, but lacking the depth I tend to look for in fantasy novels nowadays. It’s been a good while since I read an RPG tie...moreA fun, light read for the weekend, but lacking the depth I tend to look for in fantasy novels nowadays. It’s been a good while since I read an RPG tie-in novel and I don’t remember the game-play aspects being quite so blatant as they were in this one. Of course, I was a teenager then and probably blind to those parts. Also, I doubt that I really understood how nonsensical RPG worldbuilding could get sometimes, with its easy, cheap, too-powerful magic and cultural anachronisms galore (for instance, European-style fairies in a Middle Eastern-style desert country). Nevertheless, my memories of books like the DragonLance Legends series was that they would stand up on their own even without an understanding (and tolerance for) role playing conventions and formulas.
I don’t want to slam Death’s Heretic too much, though. It is what it is, and Salim Gadhafar, the priest-hunter forced into servitude to a death goddess he hates, is an interesting, complex character and I wouldn’t mind picking up another novel or two about his adventures. Once the story veers off into the Outer Planes it becomes really fun in a "Moorcock light" vein. Also, this book rekindled my interest in playing fantasy RPGs, so: mission accomplished.(less)
I waited too long to pick up book 2 in this series, so it took me a little while to regain a handle on the characters and plot, but once I did I found...moreI waited too long to pick up book 2 in this series, so it took me a little while to regain a handle on the characters and plot, but once I did I found this volume just as enjoyable as the first. The story felt more focused this time around, which is odd because the protagonists don't actually do anything for the first two thirds of the book. Instead, we see much more of the machinations of the villainous wizard al-Seppehr and his twin assassins (now confined to a single body with two minds).
Bear's world-building continues to amaze. In addition to the central-Asian cultural flavor, this has to be one of the most anthropocentric fantasy settings ever conceived, with the conceit that the sky itself over any given geographic region will change depending on the prevailing rulers and religious beliefs. In volume 1 this idea was presented as an odd bit of fantasy flavor, in book 2 it becomes a major plot point.
As in any trilogy, major confrontations loom ahead in book 3. Looking forward to it!(less)
I'm not sure if there's a movement toward Central Asian epic fantasy, or if it's just coincidence that I've recently picked up two books on that theme...moreI'm not sure if there's a movement toward Central Asian epic fantasy, or if it's just coincidence that I've recently picked up two books on that theme. Range of Ghosts isn't quite as captivating as K.V. Johansen's Blackdog, but Bear tells a tighter story and is better at detailing the various aspects of the many cultures she introduces, with touches of Tartars, Mongols, Tibetans, Arabs, and Chinese. The plot is nothing out of the ordinary for fantasy, but Bear's characters shine and her pace never plods.
The book doesn't stand on its own, so sequel reading is required, and Bear makes use of one of my epic fantasy pet peeves: the use of "destiny" as a rug to hide otherwise implausible coincidences necessary to the plot. Nevertheless, I find that I care enough about the characters and Bear's fascinating world to pick up book 2 next year.(less)
I appreciate an author who isn't afraid to be cruel to her characters. Even more, I appreciate an author able to create a fresh, memorable fantasy set...moreI appreciate an author who isn't afraid to be cruel to her characters. Even more, I appreciate an author able to create a fresh, memorable fantasy setting without following the current fads of the market (urban/steampunk/etc). Most of all, the blessings of the Old Great Gods themselves on K.V. Johansen for telling her story in a single, complete volume as opposed to the standard 7-book epic we've come to expect.
The story is simple: bad guy drives good guys from home, good guys go on a journey of personal growth, then return to kick ass. It's the world and characters of Blackdog that make it shine. The author seems to take her cues not from European romance, but from the geography and peoples of central Asia. There are gods of the earth and goddesses of lakes and rivers, but unlike most fantasy there is no royalty. Instead, the book is populated by a plethora of well-drawn characters who actually work for a living, who have to overcome the struggle of surviving day-to-day on top of rising against a demonic overlord, and who have no great crowning glory to return to once all the battles are over.
My only complaints, and they're minor, would be that there are so many little characters that by the end they start to bleed into each other, that the book sprawls maybe a little more than it has to, and that some of the names are extremely hard to pronounce even in your head (Gods forbid you try to say them out loud). Nevertheless, I have a feeling that this book and its world will be sticking around in the back of my head for quite a while. Nicely done.(less)
Tchaikovsky's "Shadows of the Apt" rolls along, and is just as entertaining as ever. Coming to volume 3, Blood of the Mantis feels less like a novel t...moreTchaikovsky's "Shadows of the Apt" rolls along, and is just as entertaining as ever. Coming to volume 3, Blood of the Mantis feels less like a novel than simply the next chapter in an ongoing saga. Whereas the previous book focused on all-out war and invasion, in this volume the carnage takes a backseat to spycraft and back-alley deals while the armies regroup.
The story divides into two major threads: one a McGuffin Hunt to a sleazy smuggler town on the edge of the Wasp Empire, the other a diplomatic mission to a city on the edge of the Spiderlands to drum up awareness of the omnipresent Wasp threat. In the midst of all this, there are a few chapters sprinkled here and there that seem to serve no other purpose than to check in with characters from the previous books and remind the reader that they exist and will be relevant in future installments. This is definitely long-form storytelling in the Game of Thrones vein, just with more clarity between protagonist and antagonist.
What I love that Tchaikovsky does, though, is that while the Head Honchos on either side of the struggle fall into Tolkienesque light-and-dark idealogical camps, the boots-on-the-ground soldiers and civilians, whether Ant, Beetle, Wasp, or what have you, are just a bunch of people - no more good or evil than anyone else. That humanization of the individuals on both sides of a conflict gives the ongoing story a lot more weight than any story of heroes vs. faceless minions could ever have.(less)
I’m really enjoying this series, more than any other fantasy novels I’m currently plowing through other than, possibly, A Song of Ice and Fire. And in...moreI’m really enjoying this series, more than any other fantasy novels I’m currently plowing through other than, possibly, A Song of Ice and Fire. And in this volume, with all his world-building out of the way, Tchaikovsky definitely sets out for GRR Martin territory. Like Martin, he balances dozens of characters and plotlines, each with their own motivations and impact on the thrust of the novel as a whole. And also like Martin, he avoids painting anyone as completely good or completely evil (with one or two exceptions). Unlike Martin, Tchaikovsky never makes you wonder which side of the conflict you’re supposed to be rooting for, but he goes to great lengths to humanize (insectize?) the antagonists so you can at least understand the “bad guys” point of view. (As I may have commented in my review of vol.1, the use of insect metaphors for the different races and applying them to the characters’ overall psychology is fascinating and very original.)
Also, and I’m really glad for this, Tchaikovsky continues to explore the effect of warfare on the state of technology. Despite the fact that magic exists, the victories and defeats of the competing forces hinge on technological advancement as much as on tactics and individual heroism. I especially appreciate the way that Tchaikovsky handles his technology – it’s not the same as in our own world, but it follows basic rules of logic and design and avoids the overall silliness that plagues much of Steampunk.
If the book has a weakness, it’s the lack of a strong central narrative. The first part of the book drags somewhat, and it’s not until halfway through that the fog of multiple plotlines crystallizes into a strong focus on the war to save the Lowlands from the Empire. Until then, it’s just a bunch of competing personal interests with the war as a backdrop, none of which seem strong enough to carry the weight of the story themselves. Then again, I guess that’s the whole point the author was trying to make.(less)
All my “out of my comfort zone” reading this year has put me in the mood for a straight-up, quest-driven, heroic epic fantasy, which it feels like I h...moreAll my “out of my comfort zone” reading this year has put me in the mood for a straight-up, quest-driven, heroic epic fantasy, which it feels like I haven't read in forever. And here's Wrath of the White Tigress to fit the bill. It has an interesting setting (somewhat but not strictly Middle-Eastern / Persian / Indian in flavor), conflicted protagonists (guilt-driven heroes are so much more interesting than those going for simple revenge), a tight, self-contained plot (wonder of wonders!), and a cool villain with clearly defined goals and abilities.
I really liked the bad guy, Salahn. If you had to pick an Evil Overlord to work for, this one strikes me as a better boss than most. None of that “you failed me in the slightest way, so now you must die” crap. Here's a guy who recognizes loyalty among minions, and I imagine he probably offers a pretty good compensation package. Yeah, he's evil and cruel, but at least you can respect him. (I guess it's a sign that I've been working for the City of Birmingham too long, that I'm considering Faceless Minion of Darkness as an alternate career path.)
Two other things I appreciate about this novel: 1) The story world is bigger than the story being told. The novel's Big Bad and the quest to destroy him aren't the end-all be-all of the setting's existence. The characters cross path with others who have quests, lives, concerns, and missions of their own that only intersect the main story in passing. It gives great depth to the milieu to know that everything you see isn't merely a prop for the story at hand. And 2), this is a biggie: the author doesn't promise a happy ending. Even though “fate” and various flavors of predestination are all on the table, Hayden makes it clear early on that happily-ever-after probably isn't in the cards. You gotta love it.(less)
This was an amazing debut, and I in no way expected to enjoy it as much as I did. It was certainly the most fun fantasy novel I've read in a long time...moreThis was an amazing debut, and I in no way expected to enjoy it as much as I did. It was certainly the most fun fantasy novel I've read in a long time. It's a comparison not many will make, but this book made me feel the same as when I first read Weis & Hickman's DragonLance novels back in the 80s, before elves, dwarves, and D&D character classes became worn out cliches. The world of Shadows of the Apt does have the feel of a gaming universe, complete with its own races and classes, but the ones here are so original and unique that the whole book feels fresh.
What might put some readers off is that all the races are based on insects - the villains are Wasps, the heroes are mostly Beetles and Ants, with the occasional elf-like Mantis or Moth thrown in for good effect. They're not bugs, of course, simply humanoids who share certain characteristics with those species.
A big bonus for me is that Tchaikovsky addresses one of my personal pet peeves about the fantasy genre - the lack of technology. Fantasy was trapped in the mid-to-late middle ages for most of the 20th Century. Even in a world where magic works, though, people will eventually discover things like gunpowder, alarm clocks, and flushing toilets. The world of the Apt is a magic-based world just on the cusp of a technological revolution, and part of the struggle is between the races who embrace technology and those who can't comprehend it. Good stuff.
My only quibble, and it's a minor one, is that the author seems to like his own characters a little too much: he isn't as overtly cruel to them as he should be. Much of this novel sets up plot lines and conflicts for future volumes, though, so hopefully he'll ratchet up the pain and personal cost to his characters as the series progresses.(less)
Probably the fastest 1,100 page book I’ve ever read. Even so, I’m tempted to give it as terse a review as possible, just for the sake of snark.
Storm o...moreProbably the fastest 1,100 page book I’ve ever read. Even so, I’m tempted to give it as terse a review as possible, just for the sake of snark.
Storm of Swords has a much greater sense of forward progress than Clash of Kings, despite the fact that when the book begins the War of Five Kings is pretty much over except for the backstabbing. There is a much stronger sense in this volume of important characters growing, changing, and following through complete arcs, whereas in the previous book there were a lot of wheels spinning in place. Because there are so many characters, of course, Martin spends the first quarter of the book just reintroducing everyone and reminding the reader where all of his game pieces are. But then the game pieces start moving around, and by the end of Swords everyone you care about has either significantly changed, been killed, or shown in a new light that alters any perspective you had from before.
Can’t say anything about the plot without being spoilerific, but if you’ve got this far in the story you a) know what to expect by now, and b) wont’ see most of this coming, and that’s the great frisson Martin’s created that keeps us coming back for these doorstoppers the size of Bibles.(less)
Now, that's impressive. It's been a long while since I last read Kay, and now I have a lot of catching up to do, since Lions of Al-Rassan was the best...moreNow, that's impressive. It's been a long while since I last read Kay, and now I have a lot of catching up to do, since Lions of Al-Rassan was the best damn book I've read in a long time.
Kay's fantasy novels are magic-lite, and his countries are really just stand-ins for real times and places in history. In Al-Rassan, the allegory is thicker than usual even for Kay, with the titular country representing Spain under the Moors, with three religious groups standing in for Muslims, Christians, and Jews. I can't even say they're "thinly veiled" references, since they really aren't veiled at all.
The novel is set against the backdrop of an epic Holy War, but it isn't about the war. Instead it's about three charismatic characters whose lives and loves cross paths and intertwine. In any other fantasy novel, these would be the leaders and heroes who take the situation by the reigns and defeat some monolithic, evil horde, but in Kay's more honest depiction of a country at war there is no dividing line between good and evil, and it's the unstoppable force of history that sweeps the leaders along in its wake. At its heart, Lions of Al-Rassan is about people from different worlds who care for each other very deeply and how they are torn apart when those worlds come to blows.(less)