Pirates of Nirado River takes place in an alternative universe where kids have been forced to form ad-hoc pirate gangs that cruise down the rivers aro...morePirates of Nirado River takes place in an alternative universe where kids have been forced to form ad-hoc pirate gangs that cruise down the rivers around Dog Lake in tricked out canoes. These gangs fight wars with crap apples, commit arson on abandoned cabins, and poach rabbits off Crown land. When one or more gangs have a dispute, they settle it through complex negotiation, kidnapping, and bondage.
All of the above is true, except for the “alternative universe” thing. Actually, the pirate gangs are just “clubs” (the precise amount of formal organization is never made clear) that children belong to based on age group. The Nirado River Pirates are one such club, with children aged 11 and 12 in it. There are a few other bands: the Dog Lake Pirates, the Spruce River Pirates, and the Silver Mountain Pirates. But the (potential) arson, rabbit poaching, and rampant crab apple warfare are all true; I swear.
This book is perhaps the furthest from my usual fare that I’ve read all year. I’m making a conscious effort to read more young adult fiction in an attempt to stay connected to what the students I’ll be teaching are reading. This, of course, is not young adult fiction; it’s a chapter book billed for ages 7–12. I am doubtful I would ever have picked this up on my own.
The school where I’m doing my student teaching practicum is reading this. Every class has to read it together and do some kind of activity based on the book, culminating in an assembly next week with a visit from the author. Michael Setala is local and the book is set nominally in an area outside our city, though it doesn’t really matter. Our class is reading the book this week, so I read it in preparation. At 78 pages of large print, it was not a massive infringement upon my time. Indeed, my tea hardly got cold.
Children’s literature is, in some ways, a whole different ballgame from adult literature. I don’t know how to review it (or really how to read it, for that matter), so take this review with a grain of salt. From what I know of children’s literature, though, writing it must be hard compared to writing adult fiction. An author writing adult fiction has the benefit of being on relatively even ground with the audience, who will have about the same vocabulary and comprehension skills (though authors are probably more practised in these categories for occupational reasons). With children’s literature, the author is writing to an audience whose skills are neither developed nor nuanced. Moreover, the variation across and within age groups is staggering. Some 6-year-olds are reading chapter books for 10-year-olds while their older siblings struggle with the 6-year-old material. So not only do authors have to get in the right mindset to write stories that will captivate kids, but they need to write in a language that is meaningful.
What I’m trying to say is that I have the utmost respect for children’s authors and their labours.
But that doesn’t mean I’ll let just anything slide. If anything, I’m going to be more critical, because what children read is almost as important as what they eat—food fuels the body; books fuel the mind.
Pirates of Nirado River is set to the northwest of Thunder Bay, Ontario. Thunder Bay is my hometown and the only place I want to live (though I may move away for a few years until I find work here). I love this place, even though I am not the most outdoorsy type of person, and I’m always thrilled to learn of fiction set here. While this book is set here, it’s not really set here. All the author does is drop the names of some local rivers and landforms. I feel like the story could be transposed to any other location with rivers and a mountain and work just as well. Perhaps this universality is a virtue for the book and its potential audience, but I think it undermines any argument in favour of this book simply because “it’s set in Thunder Bay”.
For all its sweeping universality, though, Pirates of Nirado River contains a lamentably uncomplicated story. The Dog Lake Pirates are trying to burn down the Nirado River Pirates’ cabin in retaliation for something they think the Nirado River crew has done. So the venerable Captain Corey decides to negotiate, and after several misunderstandings, all gets resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, and they sit down for some rabbit stew. I suppose Setala is trying for the message that compromise and conversation are better ways to resolve conflict than all-out fighting; he wraps the message in several scenes of crab apple warfare for some action goodness. But the conflict and its resolution seem wildly unbalanced.
At its core, the conflict is basically a territorial squabble between gangs. It’s not very interesting, so I can understand why it only takes a few chapters to resolve. There is no real meat to the story, just scene after scene of the Nirado River Pirates paddling up and down the river to meet with various gangs and fling crab apples. It’s supposed to be invigorating and suspenseful, but it’s unremarkable more than anything else.
The only part of the plot that really got my attention was the two attempts to burn down the cabin used by the Nirado River Pirates. I don’t know who owns the cabin or the land it’s on, but I doubt they would take kindly to arson. What kind of “club” structure is this that encourages children to retaliate by burning down cabins? And this cabin is off a lake, presumably in a wooded area, where an uncontrolled conflagration can easily lead to a forest fire. Where is the forest ranger? Who’s supervising these hooligans?
On some level I’m sure I’m taking this too seriously when I should just sit back and enjoy where the story takes me. I disagree, but the plot isn’t the only problem with Pirates of Nirado River. Its characters are similarly dull and lifeless. Now, just as Setala does an excellent job describing the action, he also does a good job describing the characters themselves. I don’t take issue with how he describes them. But the characters he creates through these descriptions are just as uncomplicated as the conflict they solve. There are never any moments of doubt, nor are there moments of heroism, of treachery and betrayal, or of regret. Children experience emotions every bit as complex as adults; they may not be able to understand the emotions using the same language we do, but those emotions are there and should be portrayed in the characters they read about.
Also, Pirates of Nirado River is a boys-only book. The single female character is someone’s mother, and I think she has about one line. There are no older or younger sisters hanging about, let alone any girls in the gangs proper. From cover to cover, this is a book about boys doing stereotypical boy activities. Granted, they resolve their problems through level-headed discussion, which is commendable. Ultimately, though, if we ask girls to be a part of a reading experience—such as when an entire school reads a book—we should try to find books that will appeal to them as well. I’m not saying Pirates of Nirado River appeals only to boys, but it doesn’t go out of its way to make it easy for girls to identify with the characters or their problems. Despite its positive theme and upbeat conclusion, as far as genders go in this book, girls are invisible—and I find that deeply problematic.
I feel a little bad adding this book to Goodreads and then eviscerating it. To be fair, it’s not so much poorly written as it is poorly conceived. The book itself is probably—I don’t have much experience to go on—fairly typical for the kind of fare I expect we’re feeding children. But it’s not amazing, and if anything it’s too simple, especially for an older audience like my Grade 8 class. In the afterword, we learn that the author wrote the first draft of this story when he himself was around 12 years old … and frankly, that explains a lot. There’s a reason most authors have consign the first novel they ever write to the deepest, darkest corner of a locked drawer in the bottom of their filing cabinet: no matter what the skill level or the intent, the product just isn’t that good. Pirates of Nirado River is an earnest effort and definitely something I would love reading if it came from someone in Grade 7 or Grade 8. From an adult trying to write to children … it’s lacking.
And we arrive now at the final instalment of my reviews of the Godspeaker trilogy. Picking up soon after the end of The Riven Kingdom, Hammer of God...moreAnd we arrive now at the final instalment of my reviews of the Godspeaker trilogy. Picking up soon after the end of The Riven Kingdom, Hammer of God is the epic battle between Mijak and Ethrea, between Hekat and Dmitrak (for Mijak) and Zandakar and Rhian (for Ethrea). Portents, prophecies, faith, and family are all important parts of this book, as Karen Miller propels her plot towards its final, brutal confrontation.
Miller spent the first two books building up Mijak as not just a credible threat but an overwhelming, nigh-invincible one. Not only are they aligned with demons and practising human sacrifice, but the people of Mijak are just fierce (and not in the fashion way). Time and again, Rhian or other Ethreans moan about how, with no standing army, Ethrea will fall before the Mijak warhost without mounting any real resistance.
So the majority of this book concerns the struggle to cobble together that resistance. Before she can create an army, Rhian must secure permission from the trading nations that do business with Ethrea—part of its treaty with these nations prohibits the development of an army. She also needs to persuade these nations to lend their fleets to her cause. But the threat of Mijak is far-off and far from apparent. And even if it weren’t, Rhian would still have to deal with the ambassadors’ prejudices against her age and sex. She has a hard enough time with her own dukes, and even her husband.
I’m ambivalent about the way Miller deals with Rhian and Alastair’s relationship in this book. In many ways it feels like a rehash of what happened in The Riven Kingdom. It would be nice to see Alastair’s character develop further—though, to be fair, he starts to come round by the end.
Theirs is not the only relationship that seems trapped in a complicated epicycle of quick-tempered indignation. Rhian and her dukes (especially when discussing Han or Zandakar), Dexterity and Ursa, Hekat and Vortka, all display the same characteristics. Miller’s characters, when angry, always seem to be angry in exactly the same way.
Once again, Hammer of God strikes me as somewhat longer than ideal. As with the characters’ relationships, the plot orbits a very complex yet very repetitive set of conditions. It just seems like there isn’t actually as much story here as there should be for a book this size. I was eternally waiting for Miller to get on with it, for Mijak to show up, and for the battle to begin.
Yet when an author builds up an enemy as virtually unstoppable, it’s very difficult to then defeat that enemy without a clunky deus ex machina or equivalent. Miller has already waded deeply into such territory by invoking prophets and miracles, but she stops short of declaring everything destined and ordained. Rather, God sends a little help, but we have to do the rest.
Somehow, she manages to avoid making her resolution too clumsy. Instead, it comes down to the personal conflict between Zandakar and his surviving family members. He tries to reconcile with them rather than kill them, and his inability to do so is both tragic and essential for the conclusion of the story. Zandakar is the only one who can stop the Mijak warhost, turn it around, and return to remake Mijak in a more beneficent image. It all makes sense. I love it when endings make sense.
As far as conclusions to a trilogy go, Hammer of God does what one would expect. However, it drags on a little longer than it should. I can’t praise it for keeping me on the edge of my seat. Neither can I complain that it’s boring, confusing, or poorly written. Like a good deal of fantasy, it’s a series I’ve enjoyed but not one that will stick with me in much detail. Empress presents a high barrier to entry for a lot of readers, but the other two books definitely change the tone and footprint of the series.
The only part of this book that truly aggravated me was the end. Once again (and I can say this without spoiling it, because I won't reveal any detail...moreThe only part of this book that truly aggravated me was the end. Once again (and I can say this without spoiling it, because I won't reveal any details), Richard manages to avoid the consequences of the tragedy introduced during the rising action. Maybe I'm just sick. Maybe it's wrong of me to want characters to suffer. But this guy's luck is incredible.
The redeeming aspect of the end is that there are sort of consequences (the chimes), but they won't make an appearance until the next book. I guess that's okay. But this reveals Goodkind's heavyhanded writing style that mars the previous books.
I must say that from a philosophical standpoint, the books are actually getting easier to stomach, not worse. Almost everything I read about them told me to expect the opposite. Instead, the amount of exposition is now tolerable. Maybe it's because Richard's character has evolved to the point that the philosophical arguments Goodkind is trying to espouse actually make sense from Richard's perspective. He has the whole "burdened hero" motif. Or perhaps I'm just too naive (or maybe too jaded) to actually pay attention enough to pick out the philosophy Goodkind is apparently attempting to impress upon his readers.
Compared to the last book, however, this book is rather slow. It reminds me of The Stone of Tears, although I'll admit that this one has more action in it.
Goodkind struggles with portraying all of his characters and putting them in interesting situations. Some authors pull this off well (i.e., George R.R. Martin). Others, like Goodkind, are very good at creating a lot of characters and giving them important roles in certain parts of the story, but then later they fade into the background. This is also noticeable in the next book when it comes to Verna and Warren. This is a shame, because many of those characters are interesting. Some of them get less page time than the villains. The books are already rather long, but maybe a different editing approach would have allowed our favourite recurring characters some more time to shine.(less)
**spoiler alert** This was better than the previous book, The Stone of Tears, but not necessarily great. My major problem with The Stone of Tears was...more**spoiler alert** This was better than the previous book, The Stone of Tears, but not necessarily great. My major problem with The Stone of Tears was that the majority of the book was a slowly-paced journey across the land from the Mud People to the Palace of the Prophets. It only picked up toward the end. In this book, because time and space are relative, the journey from Aydindril to the Palace of Prophets occurs over the space of a couple of chapters, and we don't actually experience it. Yay!
The action in this book is faster-paced. One of the primary antagonists, Tobias Brogan, is truly insane and you'll enjoy seeing the "logical" conclusions he reaches during his literal witch-hunt. Richard, on the other hand, continues displaying monumental feats of idiotic passion (which turns out to be the Wizard's Third Rule). I know we're supposed to love characters who put passion before reason and turn into unstoppable dreadnoughts when the person they love is threatened. But you can only do that so many times before you need to learn that your enemies are smarter than you. By that I mean, Richard is not initiated into the history of the Midlands. Jagang has the advantage of a knowledge of history on his side. Richard recognizes this, which is why he's an idiot and retrieves a journal from the Keep in the first place--he knows he has to learn and seek knowledge (he is the Seeker after all).
But I digress. Richard's choices aside, this book may be the first one whose themes I rather like. Brogan's failed witch-hunt reveals that any operation to route a conspiracy is vulnerable to turning into a conspiracy. Richard learns about the Wizard's Third Rule--passion is a very powerful, unpredictable element, and it is perhaps what makes humanity so persistent in this world and in his. But it must be tempered with reason, because passion is irrational and prone to jumping to conclusions that may ultimately be harmful. The very beginning, in which Jagang captures the Sisters of the Dark who fled the Palace at the end of the last book, shows us that evil people really don't get a break.
The main purpose of this book is to hand off the story arc from "Richard vs. the Keeper" to "Richard vs. Jagang the Dream Walker." I'm not sure why Goodkind does this, other than the fact that he neutralized the Keeper's threat at the end of book two and wanted to write nine more books. He could have used the escaped Sisters of the Dark to cook up a new plan to free the Keeper. Instead he's segued into a fight over the balance and the evolution of man. I must admit I like this better; one of the issues unique to fantasy that I enjoy dealing with is the nature of magic in humanity's evolution. At what point does magic die out and science replace it?(less)
The Great and Secret Show reminds me of the only Tim Powers novel I’ve read, Last Call. And that, for anyone wanting a one-sentence review (contingen...moreThe Great and Secret Show reminds me of the only Tim Powers novel I’ve read, Last Call. And that, for anyone wanting a one-sentence review (contingent upon understanding the nature of my opinion of Last Call), is that.
In many ways, coming across a book that doesn’t interest one even though it’s a good book makes writing a review far more difficult than coming across a bad book. But if one truly reads widely—and it’s something I take pride in doing—then it will happen. So what then?
I could try to praise The Great and Secret Show for its merits, for the characteristics that endear it to other readers. Clive Barker brings an impressive imagination to the table. His credentials portray him as someone more in the “horror” camp of speculative fiction, and that’s borne out by the book—not horror in the nu-school sense of gore and death, but horror in the old-fashioned sense of dread, evil, and doom.
There are times when Barker’s baddies are positively Lovecraftian. Behind the shadows, lying in wait, pulling the strings, exist the Iad Uroboros on another plane of existence. They are the stuff of nightmares’ nightmares and want only to slip into our dimension, drive us mad, and subjugate the empty shells of human beings who are left. If that doesn’t describe an Old One, I don’t know what does. Thankfully, there is a magical "ocean" called Quiddity lying between us and them.
Central to the story is the attempt by one character to upset this balance. Randolph Jaffe is a sociopath who stumbles upon the secrets of Quiddity and the Art, gradually morphing into a less-than-human being known as the Jaff. He recruits an unconventional scientist, Fletcher, to help him with a final apotheosis. It goes wrong, but Fletcher turns against him. The two transcend human existence and wage war, embodying aspects of what a more limited mind might call “good” and “evil”. Their battles bring them to a temporary rest in Palomo Grove, California.
And then it gets to the weird, horror part of the story, what with the impregnation and the children and the creepy love-at-first-sight. But even this is good, in a sense. Even this I can understand. Barker needs to provide the reader with more human characters—the story of the endless battle between the Jaff and Fletcher has grown thin. But as various humans become drawn into the conflict, the stakes increase. The bad guys become more real, and suddenly this becomes a battle for reality itself.
For the right audience, I can see how this book would be the pitch-perfect blend of creepy horror and high-stakes urban fantasy. Alas, at times it drags, feeling far longer than it needs to be. Plus, this just isn’t my favourite corner of the fantasy realm. I enjoy a bit of darkness with my fantasy, particularly when that darkness has its origins in our own, flawed human nature, as Barker portrays through Jaffe and, to some extent, Kissoon. Yet I’m very picky when it comes to the ways in which urban fantasy deals with the interface between the magical and the mundane. The Great and Secret Show approaches the supernatural as a very spiritual, personal experience, whereas I tend to prefer magic that is showier, flashier, more style than substance. Is that crass of me? Probably. But I just like its stark contrast against the backdrop of an otherwise ordinary, regular world.
So, there is much working in favour of this book. And I’m having a hard time understanding why I didn’t enjoy it much more than I did—but this problem itself indicates to me that, for whatever reason, the book and I just didn’t click. Is this what dating feels like? I’m sorry, The Great and Secret Show: it’s not you; it’s me.
Spiritwalk bills itself as “the sequel to Moonheart”, and while this is technically true, the events of Moonheart are only barely linked to this book....moreSpiritwalk bills itself as “the sequel to Moonheart”, and while this is technically true, the events of Moonheart are only barely linked to this book. Reading it will spoil certain outcomes from Moonheart, but you could probably read it without having read the first novel. I wouldn’t recommend this course of action, however, simply because it seems that Charles de Lint doesn’t spend as much time in Spiritwalk developing the atmosphere of the worlds in which this story takes place. Whereas Moonheart was a vast and sprawling tale of faerie, intrigue, and wild magic, Spiritwalk is a narrower but more disjointed story about the tensions between magic and the mundane.
This was not an easy book for me to like. Urban fantasy like this generally takes longer to endear itself to me, but de Lint really hit it out of the park with Moonheart, which had that perfect balance between character and plot. In comparison, Spiritwalk tends to vacillate wildly between the two, usually to the detriment of the former. My case in point would be Esmeralda. She is mentioned early on in the book as an absent friend who once spent time at Tamson House, and eventually she materializes to become a major character. I didn’t like her though—her self-confidence and self-possession came off as annoying and heavy-handed. She always sounded like her explanation of events was always right. And though de Lint hints at a much deeper backstory to Esmeralda, he doesn’t actually share much of it.
In general, it seems like Spiritwalk spends very little time fleshing out its main characters. Poor Jamie, now the guardian spirit of Tamson House, learns the hard way that he can’t leave the House behind and wander the Otherworlds. I enjoyed this story arc, for it is familiar and predictable, but de Lint executes it very well. Jamie naturally misses his interactions with the wider world, so he tries to “get out” more. Yet this leaves the house vulnerable to a bad guy who wants to leech its magical power. For all that this is very interesting, however, de Lint spends very little time focusing on what Jamie has learned—I think we spend about two chapters total seeing things from Jamie’s point of view before returning to less interesting characters.
I should mention that this house-getting-taken-over plot is ostensibly the core plot of the book. In many ways, Spiritwalk feels like a series of connected novellas; the book is split into four major parts, with the final, Ghostwood, containing shorter named chapters as well. Though they are connected through common characters and a clear progression from one to the next, each could also be read standalone. Now, there’s nothing wrong with taking several novellas and publishing them as a single volume—but then, please, advertise them as such. Alternatively, if the goal is to present the works as a single work, then adapt them into a single novel. Spiritwalk takes the middle path, hence my difficulty with it.
There is nothing technically amiss here: de Lint once again shows his skill as a writer and a storyteller. Sometimes I found the way he uses magic somewhat frustrating … growing up on epic fantasy has trained me to expect intricate, systematic magic, and the wilder magic that de Lint portrays here doesn’t sit as well with my orderly soul. (This portrayal of magic, I find, makes it very easy for plots to veer in unexpected directions while the author claims that “the magic did it”—and while I don’t accuse de Lint of that here, I can’t say I enjoyed the opacity of the magic’s presence either.)
So, Spiritwalk is a competent work. But that’s just it … it feels very mediocre. I liked it well enough, but I wasn’t excited by it. It didn’t wow me like Moonheart or bring me closer to the characters who appear in both. It was kind of like, years after a successful movie comes out, the studio releases a cheaper-budget TV movie sequel to capitalize on the anniversary. The same elements are there, but the screen feels smaller, the scope less ambitious, and the actors weary of their roles.
After reading Faith of the Fallen, The Pillars of Creation let me down.
It seems like a great big detour away from the plot. I actually don't mind that...moreAfter reading Faith of the Fallen, The Pillars of Creation let me down.
It seems like a great big detour away from the plot. I actually don't mind that Richard and Kahlan aren't present until the end, nor do I mind the plot of this book itself. Those factors alone would have made the book fine. The book itself, however, is just poorly written.
The protagonist, Jennsen Rahl, is half-sister to Richard and a "hole in the world"--ungifted, no gifted person can detect her with the gift. Coincidentally, this gives her the potential to destroy all magic in the world. Oops.
I found Jennsen an annoying character. I don't object to having antagonists manipulate the protagonist into doing their bidding--that is fair and also fun. Jennsen is just not that likable, at least in my opinion. The way that she resolves certain predicaments was improbable. She manages to avoid a snake in a swamp--one that apparently eats everyone else who tries to get past it--and arrive on the doorstep of an expository sorceress. I'm willing to accept that her heritage bequeaths her certain abilities, but it's all very convenient.
Oba Rahl, another of Richard's half-siblings, seems entirely unnecessary to the entire plot of the book. He overlaps with Jennsen at certain points, but Goodkind shunts him off to the side during the climax (which I thought was supposed to be the most important part of the book, so I'm very glad that Mr. Goodkind has corrected me on that). Oba shares traits with Darken Rahl: he is ruthless and has a taste for cruelty. Unlike his father, however, Oba is not cunning. And he hears voices, which can often be bad for your health.
It's a shame that this book wasn't better. I enjoy it when a series takes the time to portray the main characters from the point of view of secondary ones. But at the end, the story was just not very satisfying.(less)
This book was bad. I found parts of it way better than the first book, Wizard's First Rule, and parts of it abysmal. The only saving grace was the fac...moreThis book was bad. I found parts of it way better than the first book, Wizard's First Rule, and parts of it abysmal. The only saving grace was the fact that I'm a sucker for crowning moments of awesome, and this book has quite a few.
Richard seems to be turning into a Mary Sue (or Marty Stu, if you have it that way). Don't get me wrong--I love to torture a character, rip away his world, and do bad things to him in general. But you need to make them stick. When you send someone through this pain and they emerge completely whole and happy, what's the point? So far Richard seems to be a rather static character. Yes, he's learning more magic, but he's still a headstrong idiot.
And what's with Kahlan being raped nearly every second chapter? Seriously, I could do without that. Rape is a very potent device, which is why it shouldn't be used too often, especially not on the main character.
Weighing in at 979 pages, this book is a doorstopper that could have been edited down to a respectable 500-600. Parts of it were unnecessary, adversely affecting the pacing of the entire story. By the end, I just--well, I wanted it to end.
The story has merit. The characters are likable (not loveable). With some effort, I find the books enjoyable. But they could be better.(less)
Some people are just, to quote Daffy Duck, “dith-spicable!”
Empress is about a girl who grows up with no name, in a dirt-poor village on the edge of a...moreSome people are just, to quote Daffy Duck, “dith-spicable!”
Empress is about a girl who grows up with no name, in a dirt-poor village on the edge of a desert, unwanted and unloved. She gets sold to a passing trader, who anticipates being able to train her as a concubine. This event triggers something in the girl, some hidden ambition or untended guile. She gives herself a name—Hekat—and begins plotting, eagerly soaking up everything Abajai the trader can teach her. When she discovers that he only sees her as a commodity, that his investment in her is purely so he can get a better return, and that she is nothing more than a slave, Hekat runs away. She insinuates herself into the barracks of the local warlord and eventually inveigles her way into the ranks of warriors themselves—no mean feat for someone born in a backwater and malnourished and mistreated all her life.
Hekat’s learning curve is meteoric and remarkable. She goes from not having names for anything—she herself is a “she-brat” and her presumed mother and father are merely “the woman” and “the man” to having a name for herself, for her country, and for the various cities within it. She learns that people routinely travel more than a couple days’ walk from the village, that massive cities larger than she could ever have dreamed exist, that warlords raise vast warhosts to do battle. She learns how to ride, how to fight, and more. Hekat would be a textbook example of a Mary Sue … if we were supposed to like her.
Many writers enjoy taking characters like Hekat and creating pathos as a result of their struggles. Karen Miller opts instead to test the reader’s ability for empathy to its limits. Hekat is not a likable person. She hurts people and enjoys it. She is vicious and ready to retaliate at any opportunity. If she is wronged and does not have the strength to retaliate, she remembers until she does. In this way, Hekat keeps trading up, starting as the poorest and most wretched of creatures and attaining—well, without spoiling it, the book is called Empress, mmkay?
Is a character still a Mary Sue even if she is completely unsympathetic while everything goes right for her? I don’t know. I’m not even sure it’s right to call Hekat the protagonist of the book—I suppose that depends if you think she should succeed. Then again, there’s also the fact that she thinks she has “the god” on her side. And unlike in our world, where the fundamentalists’ cries of, “Strike him down, God!” are generally met with silence from on high, this god is quite direct in its responses to such requests. So is it evil if what one does serves the god and it indicates this?
Beyond Hekat’s personal flaws there is the larger world of Mijak and beyond to consider. Mijak is a country firmly in the grasp of religion. Each of its warlords has a personal high “godspeaker”, a priest who communes directly with the nameless god that Mijak people worship. This high priest has under their charge thousands of lesser godspeakers, who collect offerings from the people for the god and explain the omens the god gives people. Everything in Mijak revolves around the god, as indicated by the language: temples are called “godhouses”, months are “godmoons”, offering bowls are “godposts”, etc. As many other reviewers have pointed out, this is repetitive to the point of annoyance.
Mijak culture, aside from its godliness, seems remarkably impoverished. I don’t know if this is intentional or merely a consequence of Miller’s writing. At one point, Hekat purchases “stories” on clay tablets. Beyond this, there isn’t a lot of time spent establishing how the Mijak people make art, literature, drama. These are people who are technologically on the same level as the Babylonians, thereabouts. But they seem to lack much of interest in the lineages of their warlords, in stories depicting grand deeds from the past, in tales of heroes and villains. Each day is just another day serving the god.
I’m ambivalent about how much I enjoyed Empress. It’s a hefty book, and it could stand further elision at points. Yet I also ripped through it at a hearty pace—I was intrigued enough by Hekat’s deviousness, by her machinations versus Nagarak, that I wanted to know what would happen next. However, I never felt immersed in the world like I have with other fantasy novels. I suppose it’s fair to say that Empress is a very focused book, and so it is good at what it does, but it lacks the wide depth-of-field and rich background that I also enjoy.
**spoiler alert** Might as well just call this book, "And everyone lived happily ever after."
I acknowledge that I may have some sort of sadistic strea...more**spoiler alert** Might as well just call this book, "And everyone lived happily ever after."
I acknowledge that I may have some sort of sadistic streak in me to want the author to kill off main characters, or at least have something bad happen. Whenever it looked like someone we cared about was going to die, I cheered (thank you for staying dead this time, Ann). The fact that Goodkind broke all the rules he established does not impress me. However, I suppose that was his goal from the start--the theme of the book, and the series itself.
Honestly, overall the series was not as bad as many made it out to be. When I started reading it, I read about the series. Most people focus on Goodkind's use of Objectivism. I agree that it's there, and in some places, it is very annoying. In some books it overwhelms the plot, but most of the books have a good story to them.
As a writer, Goodkind is not my cup of tea. His characters tend to give long speeches. Moreover, as I mentioned above, I am tired of everything working out happily ever after for the good guys. I did not form enough of an attachment to either Ann or Warren to really feel sorry for their deaths. If Kahlan had died, or if her memory hadn't been restored--that would have been respectable. And I'm not just mad because no one died. The ending itself was contrived to grant everyone happiness: Rachel somehow being of royal blood and therefore now the Queen of Tamarang? Adie just happening to fall for Friedlich? It felt a bit anticlimactic--sort of like the ending to Harry Potter (which I didn't actually read; I just read the spoilers and that was good enough).
This last trilogy was very interesting. I enjoyed the Chainfire spell and its integration into the use of the boxes of Orden. Even though it was a bit of a deus ex machina, Richard's use of the Sword of Truth to operate the boxes of Orden made sense.
Judged purely on the merits of its story (and not its themes, which as others say, are heavily entangled with Objectivism), The Sword of Truth series is not bad but could be much better. Many of the characters are very interesting: Richard is a compelling and admirable protagonist. But sometimes the plot seems to nudge them ever so slightly if they get off track; sometimes the story isn't paced right.
The entire series reminds me somewhat of The Wheel of Time, including its length. I could not get past the third book of The Wheel of Time--in the case of this series, I've read all eleven books because my coworker lent them to me sequentially. Had she not done that, I may have consigned The Sword of Truth to the same category in which resides The Wheel of Time.
If you have a summer to spare for these like I did, then give them a try. Do not clear your schedule, however.(less)
This is the second map book I’ve read recently, the other being A History of the World in Twelve Maps. These two books are similar enough that I coul...moreThis is the second map book I’ve read recently, the other being A History of the World in Twelve Maps. These two books are similar enough that I could spend the entire review comparing them, but I’d rather not do that. So let me make the comparison now and then move on: On the Map is neither as detailled nor, for me at least, as satisfying as A History of the World in Twelve Maps (or H12M, as I’ll call it from now on). Simon Garfield covers very similar territory less thoroughly. I’ll give him some points for style, but otherwise, H12M is the far surperior choice for people interested in history, maps, or the history of maps.
Where the two books diverge is probably in their audience: On the Map is ostensibly more about maps, with history as a backdrop to the story of cartography; H12M is more about history told through maps. So there’s that. But this is not good for On the Map, because I found that H12M often exceeded it in terms of the detail it goes into about the development and creation of maps.
I was thinking about how I read and remember non-fiction books while reading this. It has been over a year since I read H12M. I don’t remember much about it. My memory sucks. Why did I bother to read the book at all if I don’t remember anything that I learned from it? And if I’m not going to remember much from a book, why should I care if it is detailled or not?
Well, hopefully I did learn something from it, and it will bubble to the surface of my mind at the appropriate moment at a cocktail party where I can regurgitate it and look smarter than I am. And when that happens, it’s the details I recall. While reading about the Cassini project to map France or the acquisition of the Waldesemuller map in this book, I recalled Brotton’s discussions in H12M—I even went so far as to pull the book from my shelf and glance over those sections again.
So when I read non-fiction (and this is where I’ll stop comparing On the Map to H12M, I promise), I need little details that will get stuck in my brain like burrs. I’ll feel the itch but won’t necessarily know they are present until they resurface. Unfortunately, Garfield’s surface-treatment makes it harder for those burrs to form.
He’s at his best when discussing individuals, and particularly contemporary individuals he can interview himself. His journalist credentials are obviously on display when he discusses how he tracked down and met with an obscure person in the maps world. And those chapters are lovely. They don’t always stick to maps per se as the topic of discussion, but they show, as Garfield probably intends, the human element of mapmaking. Garfield successfully chronicles the way that mapmaking has mirrored the political and philosophical differences throughout history.
Some of my favourite chapters discuss how people relate to maps. Chapter 8 chronicles the rise of the atlas, and Chapter 16 talks about the evolution of guidebooks. Garfield goes beyond the nitty-gritty of how these maps were produced and talks more about the business and economics behind the mapmaking. I enjoyed reading about how the public seized upon maps as a new way of seeing their world (these days, who doesn’t check out their house on Google Street View?). And the idea that guidebooks revolutionized travel across a newly-industrialized Europe, especially for single women, was very interesting. It puts into perspective the literature of the time that I love to read.
In later chapters, Garfield goes on to address the rise of digital mapmaking. I wish he had done more with this: he pretty much just says, “it exists, and here’s how GPS works” but doesn’t go much deeper than that. He doesn’t talk too much about the surveillance implications of mapmaking. He doesn’t talk much about geocaching. He seems more interested in chronicling the rise of the various GPS and satnav firms, who bought whom, etc. For some people I’m sure this is very fascinating, but it wasn’t quite what I was looking for, and it didn’t match the human element that Garfield elucidates in previous chapters.
On the Map is a very uneven book. At times it is sumptuous in its discussion of maps and mapmaking. At times it is disappointing in the directions that Garfield pursues—some of these are a matter of taste, some are a matter of style. It’s not my favourite map book, but I’d recommend it if all you want is a sporadic discussion of mapmaking.
My first fantasy experience, and what sparked my love of fantasy, was The Belgariad by David Eddings. Since I've matured (that was in grade seven), I'...moreMy first fantasy experience, and what sparked my love of fantasy, was The Belgariad by David Eddings. Since I've matured (that was in grade seven), I've come to realize that much of epic fantasy is, in fact, fairly formula-dry stuff. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Most of Wizard's First Rule is predictable if you are familiar with the genre. In the first part of the book, combined with a terrible amount of dialogue exposition, this is almost unbearable. It gets better toward the end though. By that time, the exposition decreases, replaced by rather clumsy foreshadowing.
Much of the story is fairly enjoyable, if you do recognize that it is ploddingly predictable and instead focus on having fun. The main character, Richard Cypher, is an idiot. I love it when the main character is a victim of Plot Induced Stupidity; this seems to happen to Richard every second chapter in one form or another. I love this, almost as much as I love a main character who is competent. His powers as a the Seeker, this series' "Chosen One" champion, are inimical to his own psyche and even limit themselves based on his convictions. This seems to be part of Goodkind's message throughout the novel, which is that tools (i.e., magic) are neither inherently good nor bad. People use them for good or bad ends.
Once again, the gods who created this poor, forsaken universe had the sheer malevolence to create an artifact (in this case, the three boxes of Orden) that could do one of three things to the person who opened them: a) Give them power over everything in the universe b) Kill them or c) Destroy the entire universe. When will gods learn that leaving these sorts of things around is incredibly stupid?
I read up on Goodkind before I started reading this book--my coworker has been rereading them over the summer, and she convinced me to try them, even though I'm sure I had passed them up for some reason or another. The later books, apparently, are merely thinly-veiled treatises on Ayn Rand's Objectivism. Inklings of such viewpoints are present in this book. They don't interfere too much with the plot--they certainly guide Richard's actions, but overall his actions are pretty much consistent with the "save the world" mentality that seems to come over those determined to save the world. The worst manifestation of philosophical dogma comes with much of the dialogue, especially in the first part of the novel.
Goodkind claims not to be a fantasy author, that he just uses fantasy to tell tales of humanity. Well guess what? That makes you a frelling fantasy author! And most fantasy authors manage to cloak their philosophical viewpoints better--they show, not tell through lots of dialogue.
I may seem harsh toward the end of this review. Honestly, Wizard's First Rule is a good book. If you like fantasy, you would probably enjoy it. If you like fantasy that acts as a vehicle for more profound themes, then you'd probably read into this book as much as Goodkinds wants--whether you disagree with his viewpoint or not is totally up to you. It won't change the fact that this is not an excellent book--excellent books are good regardless of whether or not you agree with their philosophy.(less)
**spoiler alert** Halfway through World Without End, I gave this summary: "sex and architecture in the English countryside, 1337." This is not entirel...more**spoiler alert** Halfway through World Without End, I gave this summary: "sex and architecture in the English countryside, 1337." This is not entirely accurate; World Without End is not entirely composed of sex and architecture—just mostly.
I have plenty of complaints about this book. The characters are diverse but flat; the themes are of dubious worth; the conclusion is far from satisfying. Like I said, plenty of complaints. But let me start with something I can't fault: Ken Follett's ability to create conflict.
Conflict is the lifeblood of a story. World Without End sometimes reads like a book without end, but it's bearable, because Follett is constantly introducing new conflict. Although all of his characters can be sorted into "protagonist" versus "antagonist" camps, there is sufficient moral ambiguity that Follett can pit characters on the same side against each other.
Follett seizes upon 14th century English society as the source of much of this conflict. His obsession with architecture can be irksome, but it's also useful, for he furnishes us with rich descriptions of life in Kingsbridge and nearby villages. So much historical fiction is focused around the nobility or life at court that often peasant life gets overlooked. I also appreciate the look at strife between nobility and clergy, between clergy and city, and even among the various levels of clergy. Even without the plague, life in the 14th century was not easy. With the plague, I can see how it would become intolerable.
Wait, does this sound familiar? If so, then you've probably read The Pillars of the Earth. As many other reviewers note, World Without End is far too similar to its predecessor. And unfortunately, the differences are usually unfavourable ones. For example, this book lacks a sympathetic clergyman to compare to Prior Philip, who was such a great protagonist in The Pillars of the Earth.
In fact, Follett's portrayal of the clergy in this book is decidedly negative. There are very few, if any, truly devout clergymen. Most monks are painted as manipulative and self-serving (Godwyn, Philemon) or mindlessly obedient (the nameless monks who go along with those two). The physicians have little interest in progressive medicine. Oh, and most nuns are lesbians!
Come to think of it, that's a good summary of all the characters in World Without End (except the lesbian thing—that's only nuns). Every character is a schemer; knowledge is something to be used for leverage or plotting. When Caris observes Bishop Henri and Canon Claude engaging in some hot XXX Ho Yay, she thinks nothing more of it than, "Oh, you did look funny." There's no deeper analysis, no consideration of the moral or spiritual implications of homosexuality. It's not even important enough to merit a motif; it's window dressing.
This lack of depth is an epidemic among the characters. Most of them don't change over decades: Caris at 10 is just as manipulative as Caris at 20 or 30; Ralph holds a grudge for two decades after being punched in the nose. And don't get me started about Godwyn. It's not a question of believability or realism either; I'm sure that there are people in real life as obstinate as Godwyn or as selfish and brutish as Ralph.
Rather, these characters participate in such shallow introspection. Caris is so focused on what she wants, but she complains whenever she has it. She pushes Merthin away, even though she loves him and wants to have lots of sex with him, because she doesn't want to become a man's property. I acknowledge what Follett is trying to say here about a woman's status in 14th century English society. Nevertheless, by the third or fourth time she and Merthin broke up, I was beginning to wonder if I was reading tragic historical fiction or some form of soap opera.
Then, after declaring for the final time that they can't possibly be together, Caris and Merthin get married. Conveniently Caris manages to renounce her vows and still run a hospital; conveniently the charges of witchcraft against her never rear their ugly heads; conveniently Brother Thomas dies at the right time, and Merthin gets to use the letter Thomas left behind to blackmail the king.
After making it into such a sinister plot point, Thomas' letter was little more than something to ensure a happily-ever-after for Caris and Merthin. I have to confess I'm somewhat biased against happily-ever-afters, so maybe I'm overreacting here . . . but it doesn't feel deserved. These two characters rejected happiness over and over, and Follett still settled it upon them at the end, even as they kicked and screamed and refused the honour.
World Without End successfully invokes England's rich history, but Follett's execution is clumsy. I say this having fully enjoyed The Pillars of the Earth; its sequel, unfortunately, is very flawed. Rather than a moving return to Kingsbridge and its inhabitants, World Without End is a cautionary tale that conflict is necessary to a story, but it is far from sufficient.
I’m pretty sure that if there isn’t already a sport that involves mocking what people of the past predicted our society would be like, then we need to...moreI’m pretty sure that if there isn’t already a sport that involves mocking what people of the past predicted our society would be like, then we need to invent it. Right now. Tomorrow: Science Fiction and the Future has some gems. It opens with a piece by Isaac Asimov, who begins:
Predicting the future is a hopeless, thankless task, with ridicule to begin with and, all too often, scorn to end with. Still, since I have been writing science fiction for over a quarter of a century, such prediction is expected of me and it would be cowardly to try to evade it.
Brave words from a brave and prolific author who gave us laws of robotics, the term robotics itself, and the Foundation series. Asimov immediately acknowledges the futility of the task he has set himself, as well as the ridicule he will receive for such statements as:
Sports also will be stressed in the world of 1990 as a good and harmless time consumer. I suspect that the great sports novelty will be flying. Small motors, mounted on the back, will lift a man clear of the ground.
Now, this book was published in 1973, but the original form of this essay, “The World in 1990”, was published in 1965. So it is further removed from 1990 than the book’s age would indicate—but only slightly more so than 1990 is removed from us here in 2011! And I still don’t have a jetpack for playing aerial golf.
I could go on, but it wouldn’t really be sporting of me. Asimov is right: predicting the future is a hopeless and silly task, and I suspect the academic tone he takes in this piece is there for effect (if you are going to be silly, be silly all the way). Yet even amid this facetious undertaking, there are currents of the tensions of the 1960s: “What will the situation be a generation from now, say in 1990, assuming that we avoid a thermonuclear war?” For those of us born into a world that does not, generally, fear the looming thermonuclear apocalypse, this question elicits snickers—I know it did from me. It makes me wonder what the next generations will think about my generation’s obsession with global warming and other environmental issues. I hope that this obsession, like our obsession with avoiding nuclear war, ultimately makes such concerns obsolete for our children and grandchildren.
The remainder of Tomorrow is an eclectic compilation of various works of science fiction, both prose and poetry. These works span several decades, with excerpts from an E.M. Forester story from 1928, to an adaptation of Rod Serling’s “Class of ’99” into a playscript. There is a breadth of material here, all organized around the common theme of stories that show us what the world of tomorrow could be. They are glimpses of our possible futures.
As an avid science-fiction reader, this book tickles my brain cells but does little more than that. Just as I’m starting to think, it shifts gears slightly and moves on to the next piece. Nevertheless, there are still some gems in here. I liked reading Asimov’s essay, and there is a neat Arthur C. Clarke short story, “The Awakening”, which I swear I have read in a different form somewhere.
I looked at this book in a group of two other people for my English curriculum instruction course. We had to evaluate the book’s value as a possible textbook: would we buy a class set? Our professor provided a detailed list of criteria. My group concluded that, while the book has an amazing amount of nostalgia value, it would not make a suitable textbook in today’s classroom. Tomorrow’s time, alas, has come and gone. But I still borrowed the book to read it in its entirety anyway.
Reading this book was like reading someone's plot summary of this book. I can't tell if it's Maria V. Snyder's writing or worldbuilding at fault; rega...moreReading this book was like reading someone's plot summary of this book. I can't tell if it's Maria V. Snyder's writing or worldbuilding at fault; regardless, the outcome is the same: we are never fully-immersed in this story. Like a stage play, Poison Study is a diorama with two-dimensional scenery and live actors. The only thing keeping the fiction from tumbling down is that thin fourth wall.
Ixia is a former kingdom that suffered a coup d'etat just before Yelena was born. Throughout the book we hear horror stories of monarchy and how life under military discipline is better. I'm sure there's both truth and fiction in such propaganda, but not having seen the kingdom of Ixia, I can only judge its successor state. Now divided into eight military districts, creatively designated MD-1 through MD-8, Ixia is ruled by Commander Ambrose. Together with his generals, who each administer a district, the Commander (as he is called) crafted the military-like Code of Behaviour. Ixia is really serious about the rule of law, and there are no exceptions to the Code. Everyone works, everyone wears uniforms, and every punishment for every infraction is predictable. This really sucks for Yelena, who killed someone in self-defence, since the punishment for murder of any kind is execution.
On its surface, Ixian society is interesting. However, it is as much a fantasy as the magic that later appears in the book. I can easily imagine a military coup followed by an unrelenting Code of Behaviour. But to have such a code cover every possible infraction? I doubt we can ever develop such an iron-clad law that we would have no need of lawyers. Human behaviour is too dynamic, too intricate, to ever fully classify in such a manner. And humans are so creative—both when it comes to good acts and bad ones—that it wouldn't be long before someone ends up in front of the Commander for a crime as-yet unanticipated.
When it comes time for the plot to rescue us from plot summary, Poison Study struggles but doesn't find a niche. And this isn't actually a problem of plot so much as one of characterization. In particular, the two villains, Brazell and Mogkan, fall squarely into the sinister, moustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash school of villainy. In fact, nearly every antagonist in Poison Study is a brute, an idiot, or both. The exceptions are usually characters who turn (either from face to heel or vice versa), e.g., Valek and Rand. Valek begins as the stern, somewhat antagonistic master who will not hesitate to replace—i.e., kill—Yelena should she prove unsatisfactory as the food taster. He warms to her (understatement). Rand is the former king's cook, now the Commander's cook, who has gambling problems that make him beholden to a traitor. He also warms to Yelena (understatement laced with tragedy). These characters, in addition to Yelena, demonstrate that Snyder can write good characters, so Brazell and Mogkan rankle me even more. They just make all the classic villain mistakes, and Yelena's victory seems to owe more to those mistakes than any particularly clever planning on Yelena's part. I don't like those kinds of endings, and Yelena was definitely clever enough to win on her own.
To be fair to Snyder, I really liked Yelena, and she almost makes Poison Study worth reading. Her dilemma is real even if her world is not realistic. She has few allies and fewer friends, and she's still trying to run away from her past. Snyder's intriguing magic system doesn't get a lot of development in this book, something I assume gets remedied in Magic Study. Yelena's need to hide her magic is not, itself, a source of much suspense—we've all seen it before. But Snyder pairs this with a need to learn and develop her powers lest they overload her, which would be fatal to Yelena and dangerous for other practitioners. Thus, not only does Yelena have to keep her abilities secret from her magic-sensing master, but she has a year to develop them or face assassination by an Ixian sorceress. It's a tight deadline, and that is suspenseful.
I must admit, I was rather expecting Poison Study to have more to do with poison than magic. This isn't a criticism of Snyder, because it's her choice how to write the book; my interpretation of the title and the teaser just led me to expect something else. And it didn't quite prepare me for the sudden romance near the end—again, however, Snyder foreshadowed it and developed it throughout the story. So consider this a caution, not a criticism.
No, Poison Study is not a bad book. Unfortunately, watching Yelena reclaim her life—literally—and vanquish her personal demons, saving the country as bonus, is marred by a very pedestrian narrative style. The exposition is not so much dry as it is utilitarian. By focusing only on what is relevant to her plot and not on how Ixian society would realistically function, Snyder creates a world that serves its purpose but nothing more. It's the type of worldbuilding that is perfectly acceptable for entry into the country club of worlds, but only just, and all of the fancy-dressed well-to-do worlds look down on this one. And so do I.
Somewhere between the title of the book and the fact that it is a fantasy setting, I became convinced that The Edge of the World was set in a world th...moreSomewhere between the title of the book and the fact that it is a fantasy setting, I became convinced that The Edge of the World was set in a world that is literally flat, with a ship that literally sails off the edge. This mistaken perception is entirely my fault, and it quickly became obvious that I was wrong when I began reading the book. Just thought I would warn you in case you laboured under the same generous delusion as I did.
Instead, The Edge of the World is one of the lazier stories I've read this year. I mean, Kevin J. Anderson has himself a world with frelling sea serpents. That's badass, man! And what does he choose to do with this storytelling boon? He squanders it on a pathetic, poorly-conceived religious war that stretches on for fifteen years.
And not. A Single Thing. Happens.
Your "obvious hyperbole" alarm should be ringing by now, but I am not exaggerating too much. The Edge of the World is a long but quick read because almost nothing of any interest or importance happens in the story. Characters live and grow older. Some of them die. Some fall in love, give birth, raise children. But none of it really seems to matter.
The problem lies with the central conflict, which is so contrived that I can't take it seriously. The two major religions of the known world happen to be distributed by continent, so that the Tierrans worship Aiden and the Urabans worship Urec. An accidental fire burns down their mutually holy city, Ishalem, sparking a war between the two continents/religions. Well, not exactly a war. More like a state of mutual aggression. Both sides commit atrocities, build navies, and do some raiding of fishing villages. But neither side's leader seems to have any desire to prosecute the war to any extent. Anderson does his best to make both leaders sympathetic, multi-dimensional characters. Unlike their followers, who do their best to imitate mindless zealots and stereotype the other side as inhuman, heretical monsters, these leaders are rational men who know that both Tierra and Uraba benefit more from peace than war. It just seems, thanks to the actions of various subordinates and serendipity itself, like they have no choice in the matter.
Anderson seems to trying to comment on how easily religion can be twisted for political purposes, as well as emphasize the horrors of blind hatred at the hands of the masses. There are some truly terrifying moments when the Aidenists or the Urecari commit one atrocity or another against their heinous enemies. Ultimately, however, I don't care about either side in this religious war, because Anderson does not spend enough time making his religions convincing. Like his people, the religions themselves are paper-thin caricatures of the real thing, designed only to further the plot. This undermines their ability to make any grand point about the horrors of religious war.
It is tempting to blame this on the multitude of characters and viewpoints Anderson makes available to us. There are so many characters and so many subplots, and we jump from one to another so quickly that it is difficult to become invested in any one plot. But Anderson does the same thing in his Saga of Seven Suns series, and it's not a deal-breaker there. No, the real problems with his religious war are timing and realism.
Are we supposed to believe that the Aidenists and Urecari have lived on adjacent continents for centuries yet are ignorant of each other's societies? That's absurd. Either they would have already gone to war, or the degree of interaction between the two continents would be far greater than it is at the beginning of this book. Instead, the Tierrans and Urabans know almost nothing about each other, despite their proximity and the fact that we know the former, at least, love to trade at Uraban ports. That's not how societies work, and Anderson never offers any explanations for how such an unlikely stasis could persist.
Yet persist it does, even against Anderson's attempts at exploration. For a book called The Edge of the World, most of the action takes place on the continents of Tierra and Uraba, with precious little exploration being done. The first time the King of Tierra sends a ship out to explore the vast unknown, it gets unceremoniously wrecked by a Leviathan (which is awesome). The second time he does this, the ship doesn't even get out of port. The only real discovery that happens in this book is the result of a journey across a desert to this world's equivalent of the Far East and the Mongol Empire.
With that second failure at an exploratory expedition on Tierra's part, my enjoyment of this book really soured. Criston Vora, the only survivor of the first expedition, shows up after a decade of self-imposed hermitage just so he can go on the second voyage. And what happens? He watches the arkship burn. Harsh. I felt as if Anderson had crossed the line between confronting his characters with adversity and smacking them against a brick wall. Seriously, what is the point of making me read about not one but two expeditions that go nowhere? The loss of the first ship was fine, but with the second ship's loss, I started to wonder if Anderson really wanted to explore the rest of his world. He seems content enough, at least for the majority of the book, to spend time not waging his silly little war.
So as a book of exciting exploration and adventures, The Edge of the World is a huge disappointment. And as a book of an intense religious war filled with moral ambiguity, insane priests who think their job is to go about burning churches, and depressed sailors, The Edge of the World still manages to be bland and boring. I found the political machinations just as predictable as I found the lack of exploration surprising.
I have only mentioned one character, Criston, in this entire review. That's not to say that Criston is the only important or noteworthy character; many of the main characters are struggling to do the best they can with the plot Anderson hands to them. Criston merely served to demonstrate a point for me; otherwise, I would not have mentioned him at all. For if there is one thing I want you to walk away with from this review, it is an understanding that this book is so mired in generalities that it almost feels like it was pulled from a random story generator.
Kevin J. Anderson has never impressed me with his characterization before, and he has not changed that opinion here. I don't mean to indict him just for The Edge of the World, because even though it is an unsatisfying read, I can still tell it is a sincere effort. So yeah, you do get points for trying, but that's not nearly enough.
Some books are better left unexplored, not because they are so bad they're good or so bad they're bad but because they're so bland they aren't worth your time.
We have arrived at the end of a second trilogy, and I'm feeling regret—but not in a good way. Kushiel's Mercy at first seems like everything we need t...moreWe have arrived at the end of a second trilogy, and I'm feeling regret—but not in a good way. Kushiel's Mercy at first seems like everything we need to send Imriel and Sidonie out in style. This is the culmination of Imriel's adventures, his final chance to sever himself from the taint of traitor's blood. And it's the final chapter in a slow, simmering love story.
Going into Kushiel's Mercy, Carey has set up two expectations. Firstly, we're going to see the resolution of Sidonie and Imriel's declaration of love. Secondly, Imriel will have to find his mother and bring her back to Terre d'Ange for execution. We knew he would have to do this ever since Melisande went missing back in Kushiel's Scion, and he acknowledges it just before Ysandre sets him the task. This is a difficult mission, and a perfect one with which to conclude Imriel's trilogy. It's so damn perfect, in fact, that I totally didn't see the twist coming; I was just so intent on contemplating the search for Melisande.
The twist is brilliant. Well, OK, I'm not a big fan of how Carey makes all her characters, including Phèdre and Joscelin, carry a big aggressive Idiot Ball for the entire novel. And the way Carey sets up the stakes, it's pretty obvious that Imriel is going to emerge the hero of Terre d'Ange, avert civil war, and dispel any notion that he could ever be the traitor his mother is. So this brilliant twist sows the seeds of its own mediocrity. Let us leave that aside, for the moment, and instead look at some of the better consequences of Carey's plotting.
The only way for Imriel to get close enough to the resident wizardy bad guy is to change his face. But wizards are good at detecting that sort of magic, so the transformation has to be good enough to fool the wizard—so good that it will fool Imriel as well. And this means that for the first time ever we see a shift in narrative perspective; as Imriel takes on the identity of Leander Maignard, so too does his narration. His voice changes noticeably, acquiring the haughty, dismissive, and enthusiastic attitude of Leander and dropping a lot of Imriel's moodiness. It is, in a way, quite refreshing. And it's fun, too, to see Imriel's new personality fall for Sidonie all over again.
But there's only so much of Imriel-as-Leander we can take before we need Imriel again. My patience was beginning to wear thin just as Carey instigated his restoration. When it happened, I remember looking at how much of the book was left and thinking, "Now what?" I was sceptical that there was enough story left to cover nearly 400 pages. In the end, Carey makes a good effort at it, but Kushiel's Mercy is a very messy book with a very messy plot.
Astegal, the Carthaginian general who initiates the mind-altering, princess-kidnapping plot, is an idiot. He's supposed to be some kind of military genius, but it seems like he failed to do the research when it comes to Terre d'Ange. Firstly, he chose to make an enemy of Imriel. This is a man who went halfway across the continent, nearly freezing to death in the process, to avenge his slain wife. This is a man raised by a woman who carries in her head the Name of God. This is a man who's on a first-name basis with the Master of the Straits. You do not mess with Imriel de la Courcel (unless you're Sidonie). Of course, villains always think they have the super-special plan that will finally dispatch the hero, so Astegal's audacity is justifiable in this sense.
His second mistake is less understandable. Having freed Sidonie of the enchantment enamouring her with Astegal, Imriel gets around to asking if she's pregnant with Astegal's child:
"No," Sidonie smiled wryly. "I married Astegal in Carthage. The rites were all Carthaginian. There was no invocation beseeching Eisheth for fertility." Her expression turned quizzical. "And I never said a word about it. I must have known, somewhere deep inside me, that I didn't love him."
So let me get this straight, Astegal: you go to all this trouble of working a spell that convinces everyone in the City of Elua, including Sidonie, that you and Sidonie are in love. You and your wizard ally have obviously put considerable thought and preparation into this plan. And having executed it successfully, you proceed to marry Sidonie and try to impregnate her—quite vigorously, she says. Yet at no point do you bother to learn or recall that D'Angeline women, and only D'Angeline women, can only become pregnant by first saying a prayer to their fertility goddess.
That, my good evil general, is a very big detail to overlook. If you still had a head, I would advise you to smack it right now. But Imriel and Sidonie took that from you, because you suck at your job.
What can I say? I like antagonists who present a credible threat, and Astegal never does. Even when it's a given that the hero will succeed, it's still possible to make the reader worry about the price involved. Carey does this in Kushiel's Chosen, where Phèdre meets with failure after failure, only succeeding near the very end, with a lot of help. Imriel faces no such difficulties. All he has to do is blunder forward through the story, trusting that the plot will take him to a successful conclusion.
While I'm being curmudgeonly, let me comment on the absurd amount of sex in Kushiel's Mercy. I haven't discussed the sexuality in this series much since Kushiel's Dart. It's a complex issue that would make a great paper for some English student. The central precept of D'Angeline society is "Love as thou wilt." This applies not only to selection of sexual partners but to the practice of sex itself. Sidonie and Imriel spend the first part of Kushiel's Mercy exploring BDSM, which is more mainstream in D'Angeline society than it is in ours. It's only natural that Imriel and Sidonie have some intense reunion sex after he rescues her from Astegal's enchantment. But it seems like these two drop their clothes every few pages, dallying often enough that their encounters tax even Carey's ability to vary her descriptions.
On a deeper level, I'm having a hard time deciding how much of the sexuality in this series is just an excuse to write sex scenes. The D'Angeline attitude toward sex may seem more permissive, but Carey shows us only a narrow slice of that world. BDSM was also Phèdre's thing; making it Sidonie and Imriel's thing makes me wonder if this is more about Carey's preferences for writing sex scenes than it is any thematic statement about sexuality. Another review of Kushiel's Justice expressed disappointment that the series hasn't featured gay male characters. There are allusions to such relationships, but unlike Phèdre's liaisons with Melisande and Nicola, we have yet to see it explicitly depicted. On the surface, it appears that Carey is conforming to the double standard that girl-on-girl is hot but guy-on-guy is not. However, it's important to remember that Imriel has legitimate baggage from his time in Daršanga; some of his experiences have left him with terrible memories associated with having sex with men. So I was pleasantly surprised to see Carey write a sex scene for Imriel-as-Leander and another man. So maybe this elision is not deliberate on Carey's part. Nevertheless, the seemingly-unrestricted sexuality of this series is actually much narrower than it initially appears.
We have come to the end of the second trilogy of this series. Just as Imriel has come of age beneath the shadow of his mother's deeds, this trilogy will forever be judged against the first one. And the problem with that comparison is that the two trilogies really are very similar. Rather than depart from the formula of the first three books, Imriel's adventures continue along lines similar to those of Phèdre, albeit with less Earth-shattering consequences. But no one has ever succeeded by lowering the stakes from previous stories! This trilogy, and Kushiel's Mercy, fails to break new ground or go to the next level, whether it's in the sex, the relationships, or the political intrigue that snares these characters at every turn. Kushiel's Mercy particularly is very messy, with antagonists who aren't the least bit threatening and a plot sabotaged by the sappy romance between Sidonie and Imriel. I think it's perfectly possible to read this book and thoroughly enjoy it (if you're sleep-walking through it), but this is not the conclusion to a trilogy that I was expecting.
How many people have sat down one day and said, "Gee, I think I need to learn more about the history of misogyny!"? I did! I saw my coworker reading t...moreHow many people have sat down one day and said, "Gee, I think I need to learn more about the history of misogyny!"? I did! I saw my coworker reading this and expressed interest in it. Unfortunately, I don't think the brief part of A Brief History of quite sank in at the time ... I was expecting something a bit more....
For anyone largely uninitiated into gender issues or the history of misogyny, I would recommend this book as a good read. Holland is a good writer, and he covers the subject comprehensively. However, the book was difficult to finish. It didn't pull me into the analysis of misogyny like I had hoped. This book suffers from several oversights or deficiencies that don't detract from the material in the book so much as they prevent the book from achieving its full potential.
Firstly, it should be called A Brief Western History of Misogyny. Jack Holland starts in ancient Greece and Rome and works his way up to Victorian Britain and 1960s America. Yes, he briefly detours into pre-colonial India and China, and toward the end he turns his gaze on Taliban Afghanistan and the Muslim Middle East. Overall, however, his overview of misogyny is written from a Western perspective. It's understandable, since most of modern society can trace its roots to ancient Greece and Rome. However, I would have liked to hear in more detail about the other ancient cultures that contributed to modern society (mostly Eastern cultures), as well as a little expansion into tribal Africa.
Secondly, Holland's adherence to the historical pattern of development is often at odds with his tendency to draw parallels to the various contributing factors toward misogyny (his favourite appears to be dualism). This is why I had to force myself through some parts--they just felt very dry.
Finally, I think Holland over-extends his analysis a little too much. I do agree when he points out the misogynistic aspects of the Holocaust, of Nazism, of communism, etc. Sure, fine. However, these mentions feel more cursory than other areas of the book. I don't think he did these topics justice.
A Brief History of Misogyny is exactly as advertised. It's brief, and it's a history. It's comprehensive and informative. It's not an incredibly entertaining book, so if you're worried your non-fiction enthusiasm is waning, don't read this book right now. On the other hand, if you're like me and spontaneously develop a desire to learn more about misogyny, then this book will serve that purpose fine.(less)
For a book called The Innocent Mage, set in a land protected by a magical barrier, where the practising of magic is a capital offense for the Olken an...moreFor a book called The Innocent Mage, set in a land protected by a magical barrier, where the practising of magic is a capital offense for the Olken and a birthright for the Doranen, not a lot of magic actually happens in this book. Karen Miller dangles the potential for magic like a carrot before whacking the reader with the stick of scenery-chewing dialogue. While there is plenty to enjoy about the slow-simmer of worldbuilding in which Miller engages here, some of the same decisions that make Miller’s world of Lur so interesting also make for a duller read.
Asher, a lowly fisherman, stumbles his way into the employ of Prince Gar (whose name either sounds like a Klingon or someone trying to clear their throat of phlegm—take your pick). Turns out this is part of a prophecy, though (not a spoiler, it’s like in the second chapter) in which Asher is going to save Lur from the destruction of its magical barrier, but probably at the cost of his life. Good for the kingdom, not so much for him. Then again, Miller goes out of the way to make Asher into an arrogant prickly pear of a jumped-up peasant, so why should we care about what happens to him?
It’s actually remarkable, this penchant Miller has for unlikable main characters. First Hekat (who, really, is a type of distilled evil) from Hammer of God, then Barl (who is more annoying than evil), and now Asher. I applaud her willingness to write characters that readers have little choice but to dislike. And it’s nice to watch Asher mellow (a little) over the course of the book. However, reaching that stage requires one first not to roll one’s eyes too much at the cliched crutch of prophecy jumping up Asher from fisherman to prince’s assistant. I kept waiting for Asher’s fairy godmother to remind him that he has to leave the ball before the stroke of midnight.
Before I talk about problems with prophecy, however, I’d like to continue talking about character. There is something about Miller’s characterization that distracts me. At first I wanted to call it "one-note", but that isn’t accurate. Plenty of her characters change and reveal different sides throughout the book—Asher and Gar are the two most notable examples, but even the minor characters like Darran get moments of lucid two-dimensionality. No, I think my issue is with the portrayal of the antagonists, from Morg/Durm to the pint-sized pest in Fane to the blithering Jarralt. Miller’s villains tend to be over-the-top and moustache twirling. There is nothing subtle about them, and their performances tend to be repetitive. Morg’s refrain of "bitch, slut, treacherous whore," as he continues to obsess over Barl, definitely reminds us of how twisted he has become, but it also gets old after the tenth time. Similarly, while I find Fane’s personality plenty believable, she also tends to be melodramatic at the best of times.
This melodrama extends to the plot and dialogue as well. The Innocent Mage is a long book, and it seems unnecessarily so considering how little actually happens. Rather, Miller fills pages with repetitive dialogue. Characters spend a lot of time talking about the same things over and over. They discuss, then remind each other of these discussions, then maybe revisit the discussions. There are lots of hypotheticals. Some of it is interesting, most of it isn’t, and little enough of it actually involves the cool sigil magic Miller uses in A Blight of Mages. And, as with the character issue, it puzzles me, because when Miller takes off the brakes and actually makes things happen, the book jumps into a pleasant gear that both entertains as it passes the time in a way that her dialogue just can’t match.
The more I read of her work—and I’ve read a lot more of Miller’s novels in a shorter span of time than I have many other, probably better writers—the more it seems like she favours structure and story over specifics. There’s no denying that she has a rich imagination as well as the ability to put that imagination on paper. Lur, the Olken, the Doranen, and their curious society are all interesting set pieces in an original fantasy world. I like how Miller portrays the uneasy dynamic between the mundane Olken, who are usually servants and merchants, and the arcane Doranen, who are the ruling class. And this is where her pairing of Asher and Gar gets interesting. Similarly, while Morg’s takeover of Durm is a predictable outcome of his poking his head beyond the Wall, it’s also deliciously well done and leads to a climactic twist that I really didn’t see coming (because I wanted a slightly different setup for the second book, but oh well).
Morg’s involvement is interesting in light of the prophecy that casts Asher as the Innocent Mage. To what extent does the prophecy anticipate Morg’s return? I assume it does, in the same way that Barl anticipated the possibility of Morg gaining access to the Weather Orb. I’m a bit wary of prophecy as a plot device these days. Played straight it robs much of the meaning from a character’s actions; subverted, it’s equally predictable as a rejection of the notion of fate and destiny. Playing with prophecy is like playing with fire (for both writer and characters). And I’m not really inclined to be charitable in this particular case, because Dathne the prophet is pretty useless. She exists solely to worry and remind us that the prophecy exists. Maybe Miller puts her to better use in the second book (in fact, I’d bet on it), but for The Innocent Mage she is essentially a plot device.
The Innocent Mage reminds me a lot of The Riven Kingdom. It shares the same slow pacing and tendency for redundant dialogue. It also has an interesting society and a clear conflict. I can’t help but be harsh in my critique here, because this is a book that lacks polish—at the same time, I should also point out that I read this long book fairly quickly, during a busy work week, because I couldn’t put it down. So despite my criticisms, this remains an intensely involved book. It is a reminder that there is a difference between quality and enjoyment. I don’t think The Innocent Mage stands out for me as a fantasy book of especial quality or imagination. But it was certainly a fantasy book that I enjoyed. Miller’s style might not always appeal to my particular sensibilities, but her story remains, at is core, interesting and powerful. Good storytelling always wins out in the end.
**spoiler alert** The world of The Giver, Jonas' world, is one without sunlight, without colour, without anger or love or indeed any strong feelings a...more**spoiler alert** The world of The Giver, Jonas' world, is one without sunlight, without colour, without anger or love or indeed any strong feelings at all. Sexual urges are a suppressed by a daily pill. Jobs are assigned by the community's Council of Elders. The only one who remembers—whose job is, in fact, to remember—what life was like before humanity went to "Sameness" is the Receiver of Memory. And Jonas is the lucky new recruit for the job.
As a reader of hardcore fantasy, I noticed that Jonas' relationship with the Giver is as an apprentice's relationship to a wizard. The apprentice often does things he's not supposed to do, and as he learns, he begins to question the world around him, often with the encouragement of the wizard. Likewise, the Receiver's position in the community is as a sort of shaman, offering counsel based on what wisdom the "spirits," the memories he holds, can give him.
That's the key to the world in which Jonas lives. Despite their retention of advanced technology, people have chosen to live in a too-stable society, have deliberately engineered their world and themselves so as to ensure that society remains stable and "same" for as long as possible. The mentor/apprentice relationship of the Giver and Jonas exists for the benefit of the reader, so we can understand why this world is an undesirable one. And Lowry fleshes out this world in a subtle way, through Jonas' interactions with his friends and family, as well as a little exposition here and there. The result is a dual-layered story that makes The Giver young adult fiction adults can still enjoy. I saw "release" for the euphemism for euthanasia that it was long before Jonas learns about it, but one doesn't have to be quick to connect the subtextual dots to get something out of this book. I suppose that's why it deserves all these awards and whatnot. It makes kids think. I can go for that.
The Giver earns high marks for its depiction of a utopia. Almost from the first page, I was stuck in a cringing expression as every sentence went against the very core of my being, went against my ideas of what it means to be free, to be an individual, and to be happy. Upon closer scrutiny, her society isn't as seamlessly functional as Lowry tries to make it, but she still deserves praise. It was truly terrifying and a strong reminder of why I would never want to live in a perfect world.
But I can't shake the feeling that The Giver is missing something, something essential for me to rave about a book's quality. Was it the fact that Lowry doesn't explain why everyone chose to go to "Sameness"? Plenty of post-apocalyptic fiction never bothers to explain How We Got Here. Well, what about the lack of any real conflict until the end of the book? But that's part of the utopian vision Lowry's examining. No, it's the ending that bothers me. And here's why.
Utopian fiction often consists of an act by the rebellious protagonist designed to change society or at least make people "realize" that life can be different. Still, the outcome of the act can be ambiguous, with society remaining unchanged and the protagonist often defeated—the idea being that the author's intention is to provoke thought in the reader. (The former, "happier" approach seems more prevalent in movies. I think the studios think it sells more.)
In The Giver, Jonas succeeds in his rebellious act. We never really learn if it has the effect on his community that he hopes it will. (The fact that we don't learn what happens to Jonas doesn't bother me at all.) My issue, however, is that I had a "So what?" moment during the ending, because Jonas appears to be doing exactly what the previous, failed Receiver trainee did: leaving the community to deal with its memories itself. Granted, Jonas is going fugitive instead of euthanizing himself, but the goal is the same. After spending so much time explaining how the previous Receiver trainee's actions didn't have much of an impact, I was underwhelmed that Lowry's master plan was "more of the same, try it again."
With worthy themes and an interesting look at utopia, The Giver deserves some of its constant praise. Nevertheless, there's a weakness in its final act that undermines the book's narrative. Yes, The Giver is a powerful reminder of how much we like our sunshine. But it also makes me hope that if you ever have the chance to take down a utopian society, you come up with a better plan than Jonas does. The Giver sets the stage but is always grasping at ideas that seem beyond its reach or ability to convey. This is good utopian literature, but there is much better utopian literature, for kids and adults alike.(less)
How useful is an angel when you trap its soul in Hell, cut the wings off its body, then stuff the soul in a giant mechanical simulacrum of an angel? W...moreHow useful is an angel when you trap its soul in Hell, cut the wings off its body, then stuff the soul in a giant mechanical simulacrum of an angel? We find out in Iron Angel, the sequel to Scar Night.
There was a brief period of time at the beginning of Iron Angel where it looked likely to eclipse Scar Night, perhaps even earn four stars. As I continued reading, both those possibilities became less and less likely. Scar Night has much that this book does not: a fascinating setting, an interesting antagonist, and a suspenseful story. By dint of Alan Campbell's writing, Iron Angel manages to scrape by with two stars.
What redeems much of Scar Night is its fascinating setting, the suspended city of Deepgate. Combined with the eponymous ritual enacted by Carnival, this at time created an atmosphere of suspense and perhaps even dread. Deepgate has this alien but vaguely familiar nature; I picture some sort of dark, overrun Victorian London hanging above a massive pit. For a series entitled "the Deepgate Codex," however, it seems like we're destined to spend little time in Deepgate from now on—Iron Angel takes us to the other side of the world!
Campbell fails to create a new setting worthy of Deepgate's legacy, and without such a place to tether the narrative, the book quickly becomes unwieldy. Hell almost serves this purpose, and Campbell's attempts to portray that transformation of souls into walls, floors, doorways, weapons, etc., was a little creepy (in a good way). But Iron Angel doesn't come close to providing any replacement for Deepgate. The characters are always in motion, always trying to get somewhere, and the book fails to convince me that they're going to accomplish anything in their journey.
I had reservations about the protagonists of Scar Night, and Campbell does nothing to mollify me in its sequel. Dill and Rachel are still useless at doing anything they try to do. It's actually amazing to watch. Combine this with the mess of antagonists in the book, and the story becomes what I'm going to call "frustratingly unfocused."
So we have the "gods," who at some point were cast out of Heaven, which is now sealed away. Dead people go to the Maze/Hell and as food for the Mesmerists, who are led by King Menoa. The exception would be Deepgaters, who mostly got fed to Ulcis; their souls now reside in the blood of Carnival (but that's only tangential to the story at this point). I give credit for Campbell's attempts to inject moral ambiguity: not only is King Menoa evil, but the gods are nearly as bad:
"If his creatures win, mankind faces the same oblivion Ayen sought to bestow upon us."
"And if you win," Cospinol said, "mankind faces slavery."
"A kinder prospect, surely?"
The talking head there is Rys, who's younger than his brother god Cospinol but a much bigger jerk. So both the gods and the demons are out to get humanity! Lovely.
This presents a problem, however, because it raises the question: for whom should we cheer? Clearly neither Menoa nor Rys will be gracious victors, although the book seems determined to steer us into Rys' (or at least Cospinol's) camp. Who has humanity's back? Rachel and Dill? They're incompetent at everything, even at just trying to run away from the conflict! If these two are our only hope, then I say just throw in the towel now, because humanity's done.
Rachel tries very hard, and for this Campbell punishes her by ignoring her for the middle part of the book. We follow her from Sandport to Deepgate and then to Cospinol's ship; after that we completely ignore her until she reunites with Dill during the novel's climax.
Dill, on the other hand, is about as opaque as coal that's been dunked in black paint. We get a very limited sense of how he's dealing with being pulled out of Hell only to get sent back to Hell, this time while his corporeal body gets possessed (and Rachel lifts not a finger to help exorcise Dill's body, I might add). For all that Dill arrives in Hell inhabiting a room that is his soul, I still have no idea what's going on in his head. He just seems eternally bewildered and/or determined, as if he has a switch and those are his only two states of being. He doesn't so much make his own decisions as do what others tell him to do (Rachel has the same problem, but at least she volunteers before she's ordered, so she makes it look like it's her choice).
So there's all this pressure on the protagonists, and they just aren't up to the job. Campbell has created this wonderfully messy conflict, but it's all dressed up with no one to resolve it. I don't care if Rachel and Dill do wind up saving the day in God of Clocks—right now, as it stands, they are not believable saviours. Fantasy, by its nature, gets a wider leeway when it comes to suspension of disbelief. Hence, when you start having problems with believability, you need to step back and rethink things.
That's the bottom line on Iron Angel. It feels more like a first draft than a finished draft, and I wish it weren't the finished draft. There's a sliver of potential here. And Alan Campbell is, for the most part, a good writer. I quite enjoyed his description of Hell, of Cospinol's airship, and his portrayal of John Anchor. It's these small things that earn Iron Angel another star, so I'll grudgingly give it two, and I have a feeling I'll ask my friend to loan me the final book, if only so I can confirm my hope that it doesn't get any better. You might disagree, and that's fine; for me, however, Iron Angel doesn't pass muster.(less)
I’ve never really considered what the collective noun would be for a group of mages (coven might work, but it has more specific connotations than just...moreI’ve never really considered what the collective noun would be for a group of mages (coven might work, but it has more specific connotations than just a gathering). Blight is probably as good as any. The mages of Dorana certainly seem to fit the description. Never have I met such a pack of whiny and entitled people. I was happy to see their country destroyed.
Yes, it is this fury that Karen Miller has inspired in me with A Blight of Mages. Barl Lindin is an unranked mage (she’s not good enough to sit with the cool kids and go to Hogwarts). She is stuck toiling in obscurity, building fantastic clocks under the watchful stink-eye of an artisan of mediocre skill and character. She itches only for a chance to prove herself and be admited to the College of Mages, where she feels that she can learn and be just as good as any mage of rank. Silly Barl doesn’t understand that the world is ranged against her because she lacks both money and family and hence lacks power. It doesn’t matter how much she whines or stamps her feet; she is doomed to a mundane life of work until she dies.
Setting plot aside for a moment, I just have to remark on how much I enjoyed Miller’s depiction of a mage-dominated society plagued with the same problems of class and power relations that our non-mage–dominated societies here on Earth have. (At least, I think our societies aren’t dominated by mages. Huh. That might explain things.) At the pinnacle are the First Families, the ones lucky enough to be born into old money and power. Below them are the majority of Dorana’s population: unranked mages of various levels of skill. Miller weaves magic throughout all of Doranen society, as demonstrated in detail at the beginning when we get to watch Barl make clocks. At the very bottom of the social hierarchy are the unlucky numpties like Rumm who don’t have much magical affinity at all. These muggles get to spend their lives as servants to the mages. And Barl, though she’s nice enough to them, reveals her own position of privilege through her relative insensitivity towards their inequity.
I don’t like Barl that much. Fortunately this appears to be intentional on Miller’s part, for she writes Barl as a very unlikable person: arrogant with a capital “A”, Barl wastes no time informing everyone in earshot that she is Awesome and Amazing and is totally better than Artisan Arndel, who is—I have it on good authority from her—a poopyface. She single-handedly delivers the bestest, most amazingest clock for Lady Grue (who does not live in caves, despite what her name might suggest). She single-handedly saves the artisanry from nigh-certain disaster at the hands of an incompetent fellow mage, though of course with no evidence of the impending disaster remaining, we just have to take her word for it. Barl has all the makings of a Mary Sue … except that, in the grand scheme, she is actually really bad at anything not directly related to mageworking.
Seriously, Barl is a trainwreck through this entire book. From the first page to the last, she pisses off, to various degrees, every single person she meets. Fortunately, Remmie is related to her, so he forgives her (repeatedly). And Morgan … well, he’s Morgan. He saves Barl only to succumb to the siren song that is their mageworking combined. And so they proceed down the direst road of good intentions that I have seen in a long time.
Morgan’s character development as a tragic hero is delicious. At the start of the book, he is little more than your generic rich heir. He courts a lady mage of rank with all the enthusiasm one would expect from a man being pushed into marriage by an ailing, misogynistic crust of father. (Morgan’s daddy issues are later cited by a few other characters as contributing factors to his skewed view of the world, and I’m inclined to agree.) As the story continues, and particularly once Morgan meets Barl and they start cooking with azafris, he grows more of a spine. But that’s not a good thing.
Miller manages to pull of a twist of situational irony that is so clichéd and predictable it should fall flat—but it works. And it works, at least for me, because of the thick and reassuring waves of schadenfreude that wash over me as I watch Dorana crumble. The reactions of the other mages to the nascent catastrophe are reminiscient of global warming deniers. (As much as I like Morgan’s character development, plenty of the secondary characters, particularly antagonists like Sallis and Morgan’s father, are stubbornly one-dimensional in their moustache-twisting commitment to being Bad People.)
So Dorana falls apart, and it’s actually all Morgan and Barl’s fault, even though they were trying to prevent this very thing from happening. Surprise! Except it’s not a surprise to the reader, because we’ve seen this before. Miller knows this, so rather than standing awkwardly around and trying to extract further plaudits, she swiftly moves the book on to the most satisfying part: an extended epilogue that sets the stage for the main part of this series, which had already been published.
After Morgan descends into madness, Barl and the surviving Doranen mages become refugees. They flee to Lur, which by all accounts is a pretty desolate place. Mountains won’t stand in Morgan’s way, though, so Barl has to work one last feat of magic to cut Lur off from the rest of the world and isolate the Doranens and Olken for as long as possible.
On a thematic level, it’s very interesting how Miller has Barl repeat her earlier mistakes rather than learn from them. Once again, Barl shoulders all the responsibility—that arrogance making it impossible for her to admit that someone else could do it—for “saving” people. She has a cross to bear, and she’s none too reluctant to make sure everyon knows she is bearing it for them. I suppose I’ll have to wait until I read the next book to find out what comes of the walled-up refugees. For now, though, I just enjoyed watching the disasters come one after the other, escalating until, finally, all of society crumbles.
Well, Barl gets her wish after all. All of Dorana’s mages are equally screwed. (Or dead.)
A Blight of Mages makes me think back to the good ol’ days of my youth when I was curled up with the larger instalments of Modesitt’s Recluce saga. This book has the same feel of scope and intricate attention to the harmony between magic and the world around us. I suspect that, had I read it back then, I would have found it just as influential as I did Modesitt. As it is, like with Modesitt’s work now, I can see the cracks in the brickwork. It’s not a perfect book—it’s a little long, a little repetitive at times in its insistence on characters endlessly dancing around issues instead of doing things about them. But, as my flippant commentary above hopefully communicates, the book remains extremely entertaining. Despite its length, there was never a point where I found myself putting it down and wanting to walk away: I just wanted to see what fool thing Barl or Morgan might do next.
So far, this world is far cooler than the Godspeaker trilogy, and I look forward to reading the rest of the Kingmaker, Kingbreaker books.
Throughout Scar Night, Alan Campbell occasionally manages to create pockets of drama and suspense, but he fails to sustain this atmosphere for the dur...moreThroughout Scar Night, Alan Campbell occasionally manages to create pockets of drama and suspense, but he fails to sustain this atmosphere for the duration of the book.
The city of Deepgate, suspended above an abyss by chains, is an interesting concept in and of itself. To go along with this temporal construction, Campbell has created an interesting ecclesiastical mythology centred around the abyss and what haunts its depths. The people of Deepgate believe that one's soul resides in one's blood, and they throw their dead into the abyss to send their souls to "Ulcis, god of chains", who was kicked out of heaven (which doesn't seem to trouble them).
Unfortunately, the descriptions of Deepgate fail to do justice to its concept. We learn that it's suspended by numerous chains and (somehow), ropes. There's a League of Ropes and a Temple of Ulcis somewhere near the middle, as well as a sagging bit called the Depression. However, the geography of the city is vague. Maps and minutiae may not be required, but Campbell never seems to capture the grandeur of the scenery by expanding his narrative scope. This same problem plagues his characterization.
My second issue with Scar Night centres around its characters. To Campbell's credit, most of the characters are three-dimensional, with understandable motives. Yet his narrative scope is so narrow that I often felt like I was missing pieces of information that would make me better appreciate the characters, particularly Carnival. What was with the prologue? I get what happened, but why?
Similarly, while we get a little bit of exposition toward the end about Rachel's past and her reasons for joining the Spine, she seems like a rather neglected sidekick, burdened with the unfortunate Power of Heart. It's admirable that Campbell decided not to turn her into a kickass Action Girl, but it would be nice if she were good at something. Because, of course, Dill is rather useless, which is why during the climax, the psychotic Carnival is the one who does most of the fighting. At one point I thought Dill was finally going to step up and take charge, seize upon his full potential. Much like Rachel, unfortunately, Campbell has severely limited Dill's competence.
Devon the Poisoner, arguably the main antagonist of Scar Night, has exciting motivations. Unfortunately, his villainy falls victim to pacing issues. Toward the end of the book, he has to single-handedly convince the barbarian nomads--who hate him with a passion--to align themselves with him and march on Deepgate. His success is hasty and suspect; it feels like the nomads were convinced more because "it was necessary for the plot to advance" than because Devon is particularly persuasive.
As I mentioned above, there were moments of clarity where it felt like Campbell had hit the perfect note. This usually happened whenever Presbyter Sypes was on stage. He was probably my favourite character, a pragmatist with impeccable integrity. Sypes also serves as the vehicle and mouthpiece for most of Campbell's shocking revelations (which I won't spoil) about the truth surrounding Deepgate's religion and the god of chains.
Scar Night piqued my interest and held it until the climax, exactly what a good novel should do. A great novel goes one step further, sustaining interest until the very end and leaving one hungry for more. While I think I'll probably seek out the sequel, I'm not exactly ravenous for more Alan Campbell.
The back cover of this mass market paperback edition is fully laden with blurbs from authors, many of whom I recognize: Sharon Shinn, Sarah Ash, Scott Lynch, and Hal Duncan. On the front cover, a blurb from the Publishers Weekly says: "Campbell has Neil Gaiman's gift for lushly dark stories and compelling antiheroes." I can see the "dark stories" part, but "compelling antiheroes"? Do they mean Carnival, or did I miss something? And I disagree with the comparison with Neil Gaiman.
The plethora of praise should raise a flag among canny readers. Scar Night is certainly a good read, but not as good as the hype would have you believe.(less)
So you wrote a highly-successful trilogy. Congratulations! What now? Well, you could write a sequel trilogy: new narrator, same old world and intrigue...moreSo you wrote a highly-successful trilogy. Congratulations! What now? Well, you could write a sequel trilogy: new narrator, same old world and intrigue. Some writers want to milk the cash cow for all it's worth. Other writers, like Jacqueline Carey, create worlds compelling enough to justify returning to them time and again. Sinking into Kushiel's Scion is like having an old friend come to visit: all the things that you remember are there, but time has passed, and with it has come change. So you get to know each other again, laugh over old jokes, and share new ones.
Imriel is really the only logical choice for narrator of this trilogy. He belongs to the next generation, and although he is third-in-line to the throne of Terre d'Ange, he is first-in-line to inherit the political turmoil set in motion by his exiled mother, Melisande. It's fitting from a dramatic perspective as well, for Imriel is Phèdre's adopted son, a successor of sorts for her. The son of the antagonist of the previous trilogy is the protagonist of the new trilogy, and his first order of business is related to exactly that issue: who the hell is Imriel de la Courcel, and is he good?
I kept on waiting for something to happen in this book. At each turn I expected someone—Imriel—to get kidnapped or beaten or framed for a crime. That last one sort of happens, and it is a minor if important event. I was looking for something big, something that would incite action and drive the rest of the plot, much like Imriel's kidnapping drives the plot of Kushiel's Avatar. That kind of plot bomb is absent from Kushiel's Scion. Most of the book covers the span of years prior to Imriel's coming-of-age, at which point he leaves for the university at Tiberium. Then, in the second movement, if you will, we get some action that influences Imriel's outlook, prompting him to return to the City of Elua for the book's recapitulation.
Now I realize I was doing what many other reviewers have done, which is compare Kushiel's Scion to Kushiel's Avatar. I think it's natural to want to compare two consecutive books in a series, and from the perspective of writing quality it's a valid comparison to make. Nevertheless, Kushiel's Avatar is the concluding volume in a trilogy, and as such its plot is constructed differently from Kushiel's Scion, which is the beginning of a trilogy. It's far more apt to compare this book with that other beginning, Kushiel's Dart. Indeed, then we see the similarities emerge.
As Kushiel's Dart does with Phèdre, this book quickly covers a number of years during Imriel's youth. Imriel is of noble birth, but both our narrators are outsiders to nobility, for he was raised as an orphan and a goatherd. Moreover, both of them have psychic burdens they will bear for the rest of their lives: Phèdre, of course, is Kushiel's chosen; Imriel has Daršanga, as well as the shadow of his mother's betrayal hanging over his deeds. Kushiel's Dart is Phèdre's coming-of-age novel, the story of how she comes to terms with who she is and ends up embracing a life into which she has been manipulated by Anafiel and Melisande. Likewise, Kushiel's Scion is Imriel's story of growing up. He is part of the Courcel family yet not a part, part of the Shahrizai family yet not a part. Restless from this sense of not belonging, he eventually strikes off beyond Terre d'Ange to seek some sense of direction. It's not adversity that Imriel needs; it's reassurance that he can be good, that he is not a slave to fate.
As far as the change in narrators goes, I think they're really interchangeable. Phèdre was a great narrator, and so is Imriel, because they're both Carey narrating with a single voice, one which uses a somewhat archaic, stilted vocabulary and syntax. I don't mean to say that they are the same person, and if you replaced Imriel with Phèdre, you'd definitely have a very different story. Yet the style of narration remains the same, which is both reassuring and a little disappointing.
Also much the same are the politics. I love the politics in this series. Carey achieves the proper balance between national interests, like the Alban succession issue, and the conspiracies among families and houses, like Bernadette de Trevalion's plot to murder Imriel. One of the reasons I find historical fiction so fascinating is its ability to portray that dynamic between the massive national conflicts and the smaller, personal conflicts that drive individuals. Epic fantasy can accomplish the same thing, and Carey is an excellent example of this. Ysandre may trust Imriel, love Imriel as her cousing; but as the queen, she has certain obligations. Obtaining justice is not as simple as accusing the guilty party and presenting evidence, not when such accusations might breed more distrust and discontent. As he matures, Imriel recognizes that this is part of being nobility. Instead of choosing to reveal Bernadette's plot, he blackmails her into secrecy in an attempt to prevent future blood feuds.
If anything, I wish there had been more politics. Most of the intrigue centres around the Unseen Guild, a secret society that manipulates events in Europa for its own purposes. This is the society that taught Anafiel Delaunay the ways of espionage. Imriel encounters the Guild in Tiberium, personified as Claudia Fulvia, wife of a Roman senator. They are just as interested in him as he is in them: having a Crown Prince of Terre d'Ange, someone who is third-in-line to the throne, in their organization would be incredibly beneficial. Imriel stumbles upon the Unseen Guild while trying to discover who taught Anafiel. Soon, however, he becomes obsessed with learning more about the Guild and their relationship to his exiled mother.
Honestly, the problem with having the Guild as adversaries (I'm deliberately avoiding the less neutral term of "antagonist") is that they're so damn shadowy. Aside from Claudia, and perhaps Canis, we don't knowingly meet any other Guild members. As a rule, I am suspicious about enemies who operate behind the scenes—they smack of plot device. To Carey's credit, the Guild is not the one that rides to Imriel's rescue when Lucca comes under siege. Still, they are far from a compelling addition to the canon.
As the first book in a trilogy, Kushiel's Scion captures the introductory flavour of Kushiel's Dart. Unfortunately, it lacks a big central conflict. Even the latter book has one in the form of the Skaldian invasion. The siege of Lucca is a major turning point in Imriel's life, but it lacks the gravity of previous events in the Kushiel series, where every book, including the first one, left Europa altered in some fundamental way. So in that sense, Carey did not meet the standards she set in her previous trilogy. But I'm not saying it's bad, and I'd venture that it's something more than good. In terms of characterization, which is a parameter I rank highly (often even higher than plot), this is a great book. For those who have read the first trilogy and are aching to return to Terre d'Ange, I don't think you'll be disappointed. I know, I miss Phèdre too. But every generation must eventually cede new adventures to the next one, and it's Imriel's time now.
For most of the past week, I ploughed through a W. Somerset Maugham collection with that signature pleasure one has in reading one short story after a...moreFor most of the past week, I ploughed through a W. Somerset Maugham collection with that signature pleasure one has in reading one short story after another. Maugham’s stories can wear thin after a while, however, owing to their formulaic structure. So I took a break for something completely different: The Ice House is a crime novel, but Minette Walters plays with a lot of crime conventions. It’s not entirely clear if a crime has been committed or who the victim is, let alone who the murderer might be.
I only had a vague conception of what an “ice house” actually is. Being Canadian, the first thing that comes to mind are those hut-like structures one erects atop a frozen lake when ice-fishing. That’s not what this is. It’s actually this, which makes much more sense. Not only are such buildings good for keeping ice cold, but they are also nice places to store bodies. The only thing that surprises me is that this doesn’t happen more often!
Walters creates and sustains interest beyond the initial, intriguing selection of the setting. Firstly, there is the question of whether Phoebe actually killed her husband, David, all those years ago. Secondly, there is the related question about the identity of the discovered body and whether its death was accidental or intentional. Finally, the relationships between Phoebe and her friends and the village around Streech Grange result in a tense atmosphere not at all aided by the dynamic among the women of Streech Grange and the police officers assigned to the case.
For most of the novel, Walters very carefully avoids providing any hard evidence either way regarding whether Phoebe killed David. She dances deftly around the issue, dangling tantalizing scenes before the reader that seem to imply Phoebe’s guilt, then in the next chapter revealing evidence that seems to preclude her involvement at all. As the situation surrounding David’s disappearance becomes clearer, so too does our understanding of Phoebe’s character and whether she had the motive, opportunity, and willingness to kill her husband. Watching this develop proves a very interesting experience.
Similarly, Walters keeps the identity of the body a mystery for as long as possible. It is too recent to be David—unless he disappeared, only to resurface and die in the ice house for some reason. Indeed, I wasn’t that impressed by the resolution to this mystery. It makes a neat sort of sense—the kind of neatness that only really shows up in the twee world of the crime novel, where coincidence is the only thing more common than murder. Regardless, this mystery is even more important because of what it means for the police who are involved. DCI Walsh is in charge of the case, as he was in charge of the first investigation at Streech Grange. His experience ten years ago now colours his expectations of these events, and it soon becomes clear that he is emotionally invested in showing that the body is David’s.
The other half of the “dynamic duo” is Sergeant Andy McLoughlin. At the beginning of the book, Walsh is the reasonable, understanding “good cop” and McLoughlin is the rough, straight-to-the-point “bad cop”. Walsh displays a tolerant attitude towards the apparent lesbian relationship among Phoebe, Diana, and Anne; McLoughlin wastes no opportunity to single it out as strange. Gradually, the roles of these two policemen in the eyes of the reader reverse. McLoughlin seems to mellow (though there remains a staunch misogynistic streak in keeping with his overall character) as his attraction to Anne grows and he becomes more committed to finding the truth. Meanwhile, Walsh seems to become more and more obsessed with proving Phoebe guilty of murder, to the point where he almost crosses the line of tampering with the investigation. These two men start as colleagues but soon stop seeing eye-to-eye as each one’s biases take their focuses on the investigation in different directions.
For such a slim volume, then, The Ice House has a lot going on. There is far more beneath the surface here than might seem at first glance, and that is the true talent that Walters displays. I don’t often read straight-up crime novels (if they have a supernatural or science-fiction element, then I’m there). That’s just a matter of preference on my part, rather than an issue with the genre as a whole. So as a relative outsider to the genre, take my enthusiasm with a grain of salt—but also take it as a recommendation that this is a story even a dilettante can enjoy.
The Ice House was published in 1992. It’s practically pre-Web, pre–mobile phone. We’ve moved on from then; missing persons cases (and murder investigations) have changed. So in this way, the book is a relic of a now-lost time, just like all contemporary crime thrillers through the ages. If it were published today, it would be in a different climate, one influenced by the nascent surveillance society wracked with scandals and the discontent of a generation that cannot go quietly into the good night. For all its differences from the present atmosphere, though, it holds up remarkably well. With tragedy and romance as well as crime, its strength of characters and simple set of interconnected mysteries make The Ice House an enduring novel with more complexity than meets the eye.