Michael Chabon owns his writing style in a way that few authors have the guts to do. His style breathes life into his characters and their surrounding...moreMichael Chabon owns his writing style in a way that few authors have the guts to do. His style breathes life into his characters and their surroundings. When reading a Michael Chabon book, you don't just feel like you're there with the characters; you feel like you're experiencing it as the characters. In an era when the novel is being dominated by straightforward, cinematic narratives, Chabon's excelling at creating chilling and compelling tales.
The book is steeped in Judaism (what did you expect?), and as a non-Jew, I'm extremely glad that it provided a glossary. For the uninitiated, I imagine it's a different type of book than those who are more familiar with the Jewish faith.
Religion aside (I realize those are two big words in this case), the main character is one with whom any reader, Jew or not, can identify. Landsman is an alcoholic detective, divorced, somewhat down on his luck. About to lose his job. And dead set on solving a murder that just gets weirder and weirder. Oh, and there's chess involved.
Parts of the plot--the mystery parts, not the religious parts--are rather predictable. But the religious part adds flavour and keeps you guessing. Landsman can seem like a bit of an unpredictable loose cannon, and the ending may seem anticlimactic. But that's the thing. It never was about the mystery. It's about Landsman, his friends and family, and the fate of the Jews of the Sitka District, who are once again finding themselves exiled from yet another promised land. Chabon builds an alternate universe, stocks it with an entire world of round characters, and then proceeds to lead us through a theological exploration of a man's soul.(less)
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)
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)
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)
In the fifth book of the Sword of Truth series, Goodkind introduces another magical threat from the underworld ready to tear the veil and end life as...moreIn the fifth book of the Sword of Truth series, Goodkind introduces another magical threat from the underworld ready to tear the veil and end life as we know it: the chimes. Of course, only Richard has the brains and the guts to stop them. The catch: he doesn't have the Sword of Truth, nor does he have the time to retrieve it from Aydindril. With half his magic virtually useless, without the sword, he travels to the country of Anderith in hopes of finding answers.
The subplot involving Fitch, one of the oppressed majority Hakens in Anderith, is actually rather neat. I felt very sorry for him as Dalton led Fitch astray and used Fitch for his own purposes. Dalton's actions at the end, however, show that he realizes how blind he was all along.
This may be my favourite book of the series so far. My only complaint is that Richard is largely useless. He spends the first third of the book debating whether or not he should go to Aydindril or Anderith. In the second third, he tries to find a way to stop the chimes in Anderith. In the last portion of the book, he concocts a "creative" magical solution. Without his potent Sword of Truth, Richard does not get to do much killing in this book, or much of anything. The most interesting parts are the scenes with Dalton and Fitch. Ann's experience in the camp of the Imperial Order comes in second. While I do not like how she and Zedd, in a moment of plot-induced stupidity, kept the truth from Richard, I sympathize with the predicament she encounters when trying to free her fellow Sisters of the Light.
Unlike the last book, where some of the antagonists were just annoying, the Ander antagonists in this novel were fun. I loved Bertrand Chanboor and his wife. Dalton is a sympathetic antagonist who realizes how much of a mistake he has made. Jajang and the Imperial Order are still present, they are a major concern, but the plot is not necessarily about them. This is a sensible move on Goodkind's part, since it avoids forcing an inevitable (and thus final) confrontation between Richard and Jajang.
Aside from Richard's ambivalent travel plans, Soul of Fire proceeds at a quicker pace than the other books, skipping time quite readily in order to advance the plot. I approve.(less)
Perhaps the best book in the series so far. Once again, Goodkind deprives Richard of the Sword of Truth so that he can take him on a philosophical jou...morePerhaps the best book in the series so far. Once again, Goodkind deprives Richard of the Sword of Truth so that he can take him on a philosophical journey that avoids bloodshed and uber-powerful moments of rage. In fact, Richard is rather laid back in this entire book. This is justified by what he experienced in the last book and his disillusionment with his own methods of trying to beat the Imperial Order.
Faith of the Fallen takes a sharp left turn (no pun intended) at communism and doesn't look back. While the Order has obviously been a symbol for communism from the beginning, Goodkind intends to browbeat you with it if you hadn't already realized or if you had, until this point, thought he was just joking. He throws Richard into the heart of the Imperial Order in order to show us how incredibly absurd the Order's society is. For instance, Richard gets in trouble because he was working too hard, thus taking work from other people. Very selfish of him. I must say that after reading this book, I almost, almost wanted to become a capitalist. The only thing that saved me is remembering that I already knew communism is flawed when put into practice.
As a villain, Nicci is delicious, for she is truly insane. She has spent her entire life growing into a warped, twisted person whose moral compass is so far off the beaten path that you need GPS to locate it. I can't say that I agree with everything that she does, but I certainly empathize with what she is trying to do. Her fate at the end of the book is justified, especially by her reaction to what Richard does.
The elapsed time in Faith of the Fallen is greater than many of the other books. If you are not a fan of politics or military tactics, you may find it slow, because Goodkind devotes most of it to demonstrating the absurdity of the Order and spends the rest of the book showing Kahlan's military prowess (which is fine). I found the ending rather rushed. Once again, travel to the Old World seems to happen at the Speed of the Plot. Kahlan manages to get to the Old World--to the heart of the Imperial Order, in fact--rather quickly: just in time for the climax.
This book rewards you for actually reading the first five. I would have been content if this had been the second book in a series of maybe four.(less)
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)
Goodkind continues the extended adventure begun in Chainfire as Richard struggles to reunite with Kahlan in the face of the approaching Imperial Orde...moreGoodkind continues the extended adventure begun in Chainfire as Richard struggles to reunite with Kahlan in the face of the approaching Imperial Order. I enjoyed Phantom, because it finally has Richard acting on a scale grand enough to affect the plot in a way I haven't seen since Blood of the Fold. In the intervening novels, Richard usually gets drawn off on a tangential adventure that then loops back into the plot. In this trilogy, Richard's actions directly affect the main myth arc, which is a refreshing change, considering he is the main character.
Here we get a sense of how truly clever Jagang is. Pillars of Creation gave us a better measure of his character, but we spend even more time with him now and watch him through the filter of Kahlan. Even without her memories, she is still tenacious--Jagang likes this. And we begin to see the seeds of his ultimate downfall--naturally, it's pride. He forbears raping Kahlan because he wants her to remember her identity before he rapes her. That's a mistake: delays only cost the bad guy his life. She also notes that his position as an emperor is paradoxical in a society that values egalitarianism and a lack of individual distinction, thus foreshadowing the Imperial Order's eventual demise: it is a paradox, a contradiction, and thus a violation of the Wizard's Ninth Rule.
The first two thirds of the book were somewhat boring and expository (think Stone of Tears). However, the ending made up for that with Richard's decisive actions. The fact that Richard can pass as a nobody among the Imperial Order is one of his biggest strengths. I can't wait for the look on Jagang's face when he sees that the point guard of the Ja'La team playing his team is in fact Richard Rahl. But that's for the next book. Which I have sitting next to me.
This was like a breath of fresh air after reading the previous eight books. Finally, something new! And the glimpse of the ending! Perhaps it's just b...moreThis was like a breath of fresh air after reading the previous eight books. Finally, something new! And the glimpse of the ending! Perhaps it's just because I've been reading the entire series back to back, but it seems that it's long and plodding in some parts, then bizarrely exciting in others.
The premise of the book, that a spell has caused memory of Kahlan disappear from everyone's minds except Richard's, is new for Goodkind. It derives from the damage to magic that has been done in previous books and continues that plot. For some reason, Goodkind finds it necessary to draw forward plot elements from the very first book in an attempt to tie it together. I can't decide if this is clever or just reaching.
I found Shota's attitude toward Richard annoying and undeserved. Of course, what do you expect? All in all, I wish that the main characters had been more supportive of Richard and believe in him--didn't he save the world eight times before?
I like fantasy books where magic evolves into a system of science. Goodkind's treatment of it is a little over the top--he sprinkles in more terminology than I'd like. The idea of magic destroying memory, however, and also the idea of contaminating magic, those are very exciting possibilities. They require Richard to use his wits and reason to develop a plan that does not rely on emotion, instinct, and gut-triggered magic (even though I know that at the climactic moment, it will).
If it weren't for the fact that you would lose all reference to previous events in the series, including the reason that Kahlan is so important, this trilogy would be worth reading alone.(less)
**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)
**spoiler alert** The Pillars of the Earth is packed with dynamic characters who evolve over the course of fifty years during the civil war between Ki...more**spoiler alert** The Pillars of the Earth is packed with dynamic characters who evolve over the course of fifty years during the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda (Maud). Follett expertly weaves the historical facts into the narrative of the story, often including his characters in pivotal moments--such as Philip's role in the aftermath of the assassination of Thomas Becket.
This story is one of raw determination. All of the characters' motivations become apparent as the story progresses, and we see that they are utterly determined to achieve their goals. The protagonists succeed largely through wit and the innate distrust that the antagonists have for each other (the problem with being a traitor once is that you'll always be suspected of betrayal ever after). The shifting allegiances and characters' opinions of each other are quite realistic; the lifetime that the book covers allows Follett considerable character development. Not all of the protagonists like each other throughout the course of the story; their feelings change as the situation develops.
It really gets good after Part Two (these are long chapters and even longer parts--not that I'm complaining). With Bishop Waleran and William of Hamleigh set up as the main antagonists, it becomes a tug o' war game between the two sides, each wanting a cathedral and the prestige that comes with it. Follett portrays the antagonists as terrible men, with Waleran a self-serving servant of God and William an irredeemable sociopath. In contrast, the myriad protagonists are more dynamic in their actions. Everyone, from Prior Philip to Jack to Aliena, has flaws and makes mistakes that allow the antagonists temporary victories.
I found the rhythm of the book somewhat predictable; the pacing is probably the most ordinary thing about this story. Every so often, the antagonists would implement a scheme that causes a setback for the protagonists, who would have to find a clever way to succeed in the face of adversity. Rinse and repeat. This doesn't change, so I just ignored it and instead focused on the characters and relationships.
The relationship between Jack and Aliena annoys me, mostly because of Follett's portrayal. Their love develops very well, but then toward the end of the book, Aliena temporarily considers leaving Jack, because they are forced to live apart until the Church annuls her marriage to Alfred. At this point, I found Aliena's behaviour unrealistic. However, that may just be because I didn't live through the last fifteen years like she did. One of the disadvantages of the scope of the story is that the time jumps cause a bit of disorientation for the reader: the characters will have developed, sometimes in unanticipated ways, and we'll have to adjust before we feel comfortable again.
I could have done with a little less description of architecture, but I gather that this was one of Follett's primary motivations for writing the book. In that case, I suppose it was a good thing. The Pillars of the Earth is a worthy book to read with exactly the elements required for a great story. At times it can be slow or predictable, but in general I would recommend it to anyone with interest in historical fiction.(less)
**spoiler alert** This is the first book in the series since Kushiel's Dart that I would really classify as romance. There have been romantic subplots...more**spoiler alert** This is the first book in the series since Kushiel's Dart that I would really classify as romance. There have been romantic subplots in the interim, but nothing like the romance between Phèdre and Joscelin from the first book. Jacqueline Carey is trying to rebottle that lightning in Kushiel's Justice. It doesn't quite work, but there are some good secondary effects that, in the end, make this book better than Kushiel's Scion.
It's your classic love triangle: Imriel loves Sidonie, who loves him back. But Imriel is the son of a traitor, so it would not do for their affair to become public. Also, Imriel has bartered himself away to marry a Cruithne woman, Dorelei, and beget heirs to the Alban throne. Got that? Good.
The dilemma, then, is whether Imriel remains in Alba with Dorelei or leaves—with or without impregnating her—and tries to make things work with Sidonie in Terre d'Ange. To further complicate matters, an ancient Alban tribe has placed a curse on Imriel, because they have visions that predict his son by Dorelei will bring a D'Angeline army to Alba and conquer. That doesn't put Imriel in a good mood.
The outcome isn't (or shouldn't be) surprising. After all, it's Sidonie on the cover, not Dorelei, so true love has to win in the end. I have to admit, I did not foresee Dorelei's death—which goes to show how little romance I read—but it's certainly an expedient way of reducing the love triangle to a love line. With Dorelei dead, Imriel is a widower, and he can absolve himself of any guilt over the matter by avenging her death. He cashes in on this future absolution a bit early when he reunites with Sidonie: at every meeting, they tend to have intense and passionate sex. This does put Imriel in a good mood.
Let's review: after his pregnant wife is killed, one of the first things on his list, above even "getting better" from his own wounds, is to have sex with the woman he was thinking about ever since he got married. Excuses and rationalizations abound: he just can't help himself, they fit so well together, Dorelei would have wanted him to be happy . . . but it just feels cold. I was really invested in the emotional significance of Dorelei and Imriel's relationship: she was a good woman, and he was beginning to envision a life for himself that, if not passionate, was at least contenting. By resuming his affair with Sidonie so quickly, Imriel does nothing but remind me that Dorelei's only purpose was to be an obstacle between him and his princess. It cheapens, for me, Dorelei as a person, and does nothing to further my enjoyment of Imriel and Sidonie's happiness (which I did enjoy).
I'm being glib here, and to be fair, Imriel does spend a large proportion of this book moping about one thing or another. Before Dorelei's death, he moped about Sidonie and the Alban curse subplot. After Dorelei's death, he moped about Sidonie and how he failed Dorelei. And the rest of the book following his brief reunion with Sidonie is devoted to his quest for revenge. So don't get the impression that his marriage to Dorelei is a brief episode that then gets shunted aside. (Dorelei suffers from this fate.)
I could almost overlook these flaws, because Kushiel's Justice finally sees a return to Alba. Of all the alterna-Europe countries in Carey's world, Alba is the most fascinating. Thanks to the Master of the Straits, it remains isolated after the fall of the Roman—sorry, Tiberian—Empire. So no Angles, Saxons, or Jutes get to invade. It's a very different Alba from the invasion-prone British Isles we grow up learning about.
But Carey squanders this opportunity with the curse. The Maghuin Dhonn are the worst antagonists we've yet to encounter in this series. They are worse, by far, than the Unseen Guild, although the two groups share a predilection for shadowy manipulation. And do not get me started about Morwen. She and Berlik partake of the most tired and clichéd excuses for their actions: they had no choice, they saw what they saw, they would do it differently if they had seen another way. I hate fatalistic villains who believe they're carrying some sort of burden placed upon them by the future. They're so smug in a self-righteous way, their voices tinged with a haughty sort of sadness over the protagonist's inability to see their side of the story. All too often, as is the case here, such fatalism is just a smokescreen to disguise a lack of deeper characterization. The Maghuin Dhonn are a pitiful excuse for a plot device to set up Dorelei's death, which itself is a plot device to reunite Sidonie and Imriel and let him get his vengeance on.
Judging from all this vitriol, it seems unlikely that I could prefer Kushiel's Justice to Imriel's first adventure. Yet, perhaps paradoxically, this still emerges the better book. Its pacing is much better, and even if the plot is a tangled, mangled mess of illogical intrigue, it still has better characterization. Prior to her death, Dorelei went from unknown princess bride to a sweet, caring wife determined to make the best of her political marriage. Imriel doesn't deserve her. And if Carey surprised me with anything in this book, she did so with Maslin de Lombelon. I was really expecting Maslin to be an irrational foe of Imriel's long after he and Sidonie get together. Sure enough, he vehemently objects to Imriel's association with her at every turn—then he shows up and helps Imriel effect an escape from Vralia! Carey keeps it realistic, and Maslin honestly tells Imriel that he will always hate Imriel a bit—but they aren't enemies any more. That was a very interesting and unexpected development; I wonder of the extent to which Maslin will be an ally when Imriel and Sidonie resolve the political ramifications of their relationship in the next book.
I am looking forward to finishing this trilogy. If you desire a blanket statement, then look to those people who pronounce the first trilogy superior to this one. They are correct. There are plenty of things to enjoy about Imriel's trilogy, especially in Kushiel's Justice. But the plot is just so heavy-handed, forcing the characters, particularly the antagonists, to act out of expediency instead of natural motivations. This is a book that talks the talk but doesn't walk the walk, at least not when it comes to conflict. The romantic subplot, if that's more your area of interest, is slightly better, although it doesn't capitalize on the depth Carey is perfectly capable of putting into her characters. Kushiel's Justice is OK, maybe even good, but it seems blatantly obvious that it could have been so much better.
**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.
Screw magic. Give me some political fantasy any day, and I'm a happy reader.
I liked Kushiel's Dart. I'm not sure if there's a definite quality improve...moreScrew magic. Give me some political fantasy any day, and I'm a happy reader.
I liked Kushiel's Dart. I'm not sure if there's a definite quality improvement or if I'm going too easy on this one, but I loved Kushiel's Chosen.
The Kushiel's Legacy series takes place in a sort of Fantasy Counterpart Culture world where it's Europe, only not. From this starting point, Jacqueline Carey creates a world that, while somewhat similar to our own, nevertheless has unique societies and politics. As she crisscrosses Europe—sorry, Europa—in search of the escaped traitor, Melisande Shahirizai, Phèdre tours many of these societies and inevitably gets involved in her politics. The combination of her stunning beauty, sexual promiscuity, and savvy spy skills can be very persuasive.
Indeed, it's quite possible to label Phèdre a Mary Sue and call it day. That doesn't do justice to Carey's intricate plotting though. Rather, I love Kushiel's Chosen because it teeters on the brink of being contrived; Phèdre balances just on the precipice of Mary Sue-dom. All these people Phèdre encounter tend to help her, for one or more of the three aforementioned character traits she possesses. To put it in perspective: upon escaping from an inescapable island prison (and nearly drowning), Phèdre soon rebuilds her power base, befriending in the process not one but two other nations, and returns to Venice—sorry, La Serenissima—to stop the assassination of her Queen.
What saves the book, and Phèdre, is the difficulty level at which Carey has set her game. Despite her ever-ready allies, despite her shrewdness and knowledge of political intrigue, Phèdre spends most of the book suffering failure after failure. It's like Carey has constructed a giant locked room mystery (where the room is the size of a continent), and Phèdre has interrogated all of the witnesses and suspects, but she still guesses wrongly. Meanwhile, I guessed where Melisande was hiding long before the big reveal (and I never solve those mysteries). But does this make the book bad? On the contrary, it's very smart. By choosing it to do this way, Carey divides the book into two parts that are almost self-contained narratives in themselves, with introduction, rising action, climax, and denouement.
In the first half of Kushiel's Chosen, we're re-introduced to Phèdre, Terre d'Ange, and being a Servant of Namaah. The main focus is on discovering how Melisande escaped custody at the end of Kushiel's Dart (and hence, where she has gone to ground). To this end, we're immersed in the court life in the City of Elua, with Phèdre unsure of who is trustworthy, since someone supposedly beyond reproach had to help Melisande escape. After staging a falling out with Queen Ysandre and relocating to La Serenissima, Phèdre soon discovers where Melisande is hiding. But it's too late, and she's imprisoned in an inescapable fortress on an island.
The second half features Phèdre's lucky escape, several brushes with death, and the befriending and bedding of a pirate. The mystery is over, and now it's all about rebuilding her power base so Phèdre can return to La Serenissima in time to prevent Ysandre's assassination. It's pretty obvious that Phèdre will succeed at this one task, even if she has failed at everything else, so the source of the drama comes from everyone around Phèdre. Who lives and who dies? What's Melisande's fate? More importantly, how do the machinations of a D'Angeline traitor affect Serenissiman politics? Carey constantly impresses me with her ability to effortless manage so many characters. The universe of Kushiel's Legacy is very heavily populated, but not so much so that it's Name Soup.
Kushiel's Chosen is sort of a political/spy thriller set in a fantasy world, albeit only in the sense that slow-moving historical fiction can be a thriller (as the events take place over the course of a year). It's weakest in its characterization, especially with Phèdre and Joscelin's relationship, which is far too prolonged. (Also, of all the exposition that Carey skips in the second book, she doesn't re-explain the nature of the Cassilines, something I had forgotten in the year that managed to elapse between books.)
By far, the most intriguing relationship is the one between Phèdre and Melisande. They are each other's nemesis on both an intellectual and visceral level. Phèdre and I both admire Melisande's aptitude at the game of thrones. She is a delightfully crafty enemy and well a match for Phèdre—in more ways than one, as Phèdre considers Melisande delicious as well as delightful. If her existence as the world's only anguissette isn't conflicting enough, her attraction to Melisande is inconvenient and almost deadly. At first, I didn't entirely understand this aspect of their relationship—it's obvious, after all, that Phèdre would never betray Ysandre and join the dark side.
But it's more than just mere attraction. Phèdre is a lonely heroine, and has been from the start of the series. After the deaths of Alcuin and Anafiel and the loss of Hyacinthe in Kushiel's Dart, Phèdre is more alone than ever. This situation only escalates throughout Kushiel's Chosen as Phèdre alienates Joscelin and loses some of her companions. Moreover, wherever she goes and whatever she accomplishes, she is always still "the anguissette," identified sometimes more by myth than her own personality. (The fact that she saves the kingdom and is commended by Ysandre for this at the end of the book doesn't exactly help.)
As her nemesis, Melisande is a part of Phèdre's identity. She beat Phèdre in the first halves of both books. Although Phèdre was ultimately victorious (twice), Melisande promises that it's not game over. Similarly, Melisande is the only patron of Phèdre's who ever extracted the safe word—sorry, signale—during a sexual exploit. I would go so far as to say that Melisande is the single person who best understands Phèdre, both as an anguissette and as spy—she certainly understands Phèdre better than Phèdre's love, Joscelin. At the best of times he's clueless about the complications of Phèdre's commitments to Namaah's service; at the worst of times he's openly disdainful.
And so, Kushiel's Chosen takes the best aspects of Kushiel's Dart and amplifies them, grafting on a better plot with more sinister intrigue and a stellar cast of supporting characters. More than just court drama (although Phèdre never hesitates to give us a play-by-play of what she's wearing), Kushiel's Chosen is the intimate dance between two like minds conducted with an entire continent as their battlefield. Phèdre and Melisande face off in a conflict that is both deeply political and deeply personal. In so doing, Carey captures the breadth of human expression writ large and writ small.
Returning to Terre D'Ange and Phèdre's Europe—sorry, Europa—was truly a pleasure. I recommended Kushiel's Dart to fans of epic fantasy; now I'll go one step further and say that even straight up historical fiction fans can find enjoyment here. Carey's skill as a writer is something that transcends genre, and while Kushiel's Chosen is fantasy in name, it is fantastic by nature.
We begin "ten years later…" with a recap of the previous two books, reminding us who this Phèdre chick is and why we care. Specifically, we recall the contribution of Hyacinthe, a Romani—sorry, Tsingano—prince and lifelong friend of Phèdre. Way back in Kushiel's Dart (remember that? remember?), Hyacinthe saved Phèdre from having to take the place of the cursed Master of the Straits. Ever since then, Phèdre has been scouring all the Yeshuite lore she can lay hands on for a way of breaking the curse. That is, when she isn't busy traipsing around the continent making alliances, smoking out traitors, and—let us not forget—serving Namaah. This woman gets things done.
Phèdre gets a dubious break in her search when she's contacted by aforementioned smoked-out traitor, Melisande Shahrizai. Melisande's son, Imriel, who is third-in-line for the throne of Terre D'Ange, has gone missing. Phèdre, who has serious issues with Melisande, ends up promising to find Imriel. The fact that she's been searching for him for ten years with no success doesn't really recommend her for this job. But apparently, Melisande thinks that if anyone can find Imriel when she can't, it's the one woman whom she's outsmarted for ten years by hiding her son. This bizarre, D'Angeline logic doesn't appeal to me, but it certainly drives the plot forward.
So Phèdre and Joscelin get involved in all sorts of African adventures, and along the way, Phèdre picks up a handy Name of God that frees Hyacinthe. And in the ten years since the last book, everyone's "beauty has deepened" (Carey uses that exact phrase to describe the ageing of both Phèdre and Melisande). Oh, and there's lots of violent sex. And Imriel is awesome. I think that about covers it.
From the somewhat flippant tone of this review, you might get the impression that I didn't find much to like about this book. Nothing could be further from the truth. I could spend 1200 words gushing about Carey's writing and worldbuilding, but I've already done that. So rather than repeat that performance, I'll just refer you to the prior review and save the space here for my criticism.
While Kushiel's Avatar contains all the ingredients I know and like about this series, the proportions are a bit off. What I loved about Kushiel's Chosen (and, to some extent, Kushiel's Dart) was the political intrigue. That sort of intrigue is almost non-existent here. Sure, Phèdre befriends a couple of countries on behalf of Terre d'Ange and overthrows another one, but that's, like, a normal afternoon for her. There's no challenge to it. The worst thing that happens is she sells herself into sexual slavery—and I'm not trying to belittle the emotional and psychological trauma of that experience, but on the political level, there's nothing going on here. I know a lot of people praise Kushiel's Avatar as the best book of the series (they may be correct) and as a fine book in its own right, but it's not exactly what I was hoping it would be.
Kushiel's Avatar is more successful on the personal level. Even then, however, a lot of Phèdre's struggle doesn't have the same gravity as it did in the first two books (which is odd, considering she's going after the Name of God here, which is the most "high stakes" you can get). Carey achieves a nice sense of dramatic symmetry by having Phèdre intentionally sell herself into slavery, recalling the time Melisande did it for her. But I never really feel like she's risking anything. She complains a lot about how hard it is to be an anguissette, the pain-bearer, Kushiel's Chosen . . . but her pain is transitory. In the previous book, Phèdre gambled big and lost big, her mistake costing her the lives of Fortun and Remy. Where are the mistakes Phèdre makes here?
Is it the "kidnapping" of Imriel and forcing his subsequent adoption, losing Ysandre's friendship in the process? Hardly. It's not like that particular rift will last long: we know they'll make up. So what about Joscelin? Does their time in Drujan drive them apart? Again, not by much and not for long. OK, but what about Hyacinthe? Surely with him free, there's a love triangle in the making, yes? Except that he has a girl waiting for him, and they're going off to Alba so he can continue being Master of the Straits, minus the curse. It's happily-ever-after all around.
Which is fine: happy endings have their place, and far be it from me to insist on tragedy. Nevertheless, Kushiel's Avatar lacks that fragile fallibility that made Phèdre so appealing in the first two books. The only event that seems to cost Phèdre anything is the death of the Mahrkagir (and the lives of the guards and women of the zenana who aided in the coup). She rightly resolves to remember that incident, not only for the allies who gave their lives for her, but for her own kill as well. Phèdre pitied the Mahrkagir as much as he loved her, and in her grief we see the nature of her heroism.
Phèdre, more than anyone, sees people for everything they are, not just the most obvious things. It's why she loves Melisande, much to everyone else's concern, and why she insists that Imriel be left free to choose whether to continue a relationship with his mother. Phèdre insists on both sides of a story, not just the convenient side. It's that determination to do what's right, not merely convenient or comfortable, that makes her such a forceful character.
Oh look, I'm gushing. What can I say? Although I feel like Kushiel's Avatar doesn't replicate the high stakes—political and personal—of Kushiel's Chosen, it's still a good read.
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.
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)
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)
Anthologies are always a mixed bag. Often their individual stories will be compelling but not harmonious, making the entire book difficult to read as...moreAnthologies are always a mixed bag. Often their individual stories will be compelling but not harmonious, making the entire book difficult to read as a whole. Other times, the stories will be harmonious but mediocre. The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007 avoids both these pitfalls with a strong selection of stories that work well together. It was a pleasure to read.
- "Best American Names of Television Programs Taken to Their Logical Conclusions" by Joe O'Neill - "Rock the Junta" by Scott Carrier - "What Is Your Dangerous Idea?" by the Edge Foundation - "Selling the General" by Jennifer Egan - "How to Tell Stories to Children" by Miranda July - "All Aboard the Bloated Boat: Arguments in Favor of Barry Bonds" by Lee Klein - Excerpts from Darfur Diaries (so interesting I've marked that book as to-read) - "The Big Suck: Notes from the Jarhead Underground" by David J. Morris
The size of the above list should give you an idea of how good this book is; that's a significant percentage of all the stories in the book. And your mileage may vary. But for something that's only 350 pages, this is a very economical investment (in terms of both time and money) and utterly enjoyable.(less)
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.
**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)
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.