When I re-read a book I've already reviewed, I tend to write a new review to reflect how my opinion of the booSecond review, read from June 7-8, 2010.
When I re-read a book I've already reviewed, I tend to write a new review to reflect how my opinion of the book has changed with a second reading. In this case, my opinion hasn't changed much. If anything, my admiration of Small Favor has increased. I stand by my original review, and I recommend you read that for my full thoughts on this book.
Some addenda though.
Reading the series in near succession like this gives me a new appreciation of how Small Favor brings back some of the light-hearted "fun" Harry Dresden. We haven't seen much of him since Proven Guilty. It seems like Harry has more wisecracks this time around, more insolence—although that may be, as Nicodemus observes, merely a function of the insanity of the situations Harry has to face in this book.
Seriously, though. Asking a gruff for a doughnut? Wow.
It occurs to me that my original review did not have a spoiler alert attached. This hasn't happened since Summer Knight, but I suppose I won't break with tradition now. The specific plot of Small Favor is of little importance. What matters is its sheer awesomeness.
Jim Butcher combines so many elements of the Dresdenverse—the Denarians, the Archive, Marcone, Murphy, Thomas, the Wardens, the Knights of the Cross, Summer and Winter courts—and yet the story is still simple and focused. There's plenty of snappy dialogue, wonderful descriptions of battle scenes and magic-working, and new dimensions on old relationships.
On top of that, the Black Council story arc continues. Someone has been manipulating the Denarians, and one of them was involved in the attack on Arctis Tor—the one that left the gates wide open for Harry's little incursion. It looks like the Black Council set up Arctis Tor, and contributed to the developments in this book as well.
I loved Harry's encounter with Uriel and the corresponding development with his powers. Butcher excels at improving Harry as a character and as a wizard without turning him into a Marty Stu. Sure, Harry gets a power boost in this book—but as Bob says, "And [Uriel:] did you a favor. . . . You just know that can't be good!" Nothing comes without a price, and it seems like the more Harry gets involved in these matters, the worse his situation gets.
I love the Dresden Files, and Small Favor is an example of why.
First review, finished on June 22, 2008.
This may be the best Dresden Files book yet.
At this point in the series, there is so much backstory and established "facts" that it can feel confusing to navigate it all, yet somehow Jim Butcher makes it feel easy. The pacing of the narrative, the division of characters' actions and duties, all of it comes together to make the book readable and enjoyable. Butcher has an excellent handle on how to set up a scene, create tension, and leave you in suspense at just the right moment.
It's a shame that Sci-Fi chose to create an "alternate" Dresden Files universe when they adapted these books. Had they stuck with the original storyline, they would have enough material for several seasons, and the show might actually have not sucked. But that's neither here nor there. The book.
I had trouble putting Small Favor down. As I said before, the pacing just makes it so exciting that I needed to know what happened next. The conflicts in this story are also heartbreaking (with what happens to the Archive and, later, to Michael) and compelling--how is Harry going to get out of this one.
Some people may find Harry's wisecracking attitude camp or annoying, but I love it. Okay, "Hell's bells" annoys me a bit. However, I've figured out why I like it so much--it reminds me of John Crichton from Farscape. Anyone who has seen that series knows that Crichton is the only human being in that section of the galaxy. Whenever he is in imminent peril, he makes a cultural allusion (be it pop culture, literature, or just some proverb) that no one--particularly the arrogant, gloating enemy--understands. This forms a bond between him and us, the audience. Butcher does the same thing with Harry, and the first person perspective only amplifies this feeling.
The plot was rich and interesting. After ten books, one may worry that an author is running out of ideas, but Butcher still looks like he has plenty left. He has managed to hew enough detail out of this universe that there are plenty of antagonists to square off against Harry and the good guys--but the moral ambiguity (gotta love moral ambiguity) means that these antagonists almost always try to foil each others' plans.
The blending of mystery with urban fantasy is tangible and potent. Few can do it so well. This novel is great in that respect, because urban fantasy lovers can read it and get exposed to a little mystery they might otherwise ignore; mystery lovers likewise get some urban fantasy. Yet Butcher remembers the golden rule of genre writing: the genre is a setting, not a story. This book is not about faeries, or wizards, or magic, or solving a crime. It is an action adventure with motifs of temptation, redemption, suffering, and all that makes us human. It's a story, set in a world of faerie, magic, and crime. What's not to like?
It's always delightful discovering another author in one's favourite genre whose entire oeuvre you want to read after finishing just one book.
Blood anIt's always delightful discovering another author in one's favourite genre whose entire oeuvre you want to read after finishing just one book.
Blood and Iron begins in media res, with an agent of Faerie--the Seeker of the Daoine Sidhe--and an agent of humanity--the Promethean Club's Matthew Szczegielniak--chasing the same quarry: a faerie changeling. After introducing us to these two main characters, the book pulls back in scope and reveals the centuries-old conflict between Faerie and the Promethean Club over the fate of the mortal world.
I say "main characters" because it's hard to tell who the "good guys" are in this book. There are times when I hated Matthew and times when I hated the Seeker. I praise Elizabeth Bear for her ability to establish such moral ambiguity. Although she addresses rather tired motifs for fantasy, such as the decline of "old gods" and their replacement with a "new era" (i.e., the death of Faerie and the rise of the mortal world), Bear employs the motif effectively and turns it into a compelling theme.
In addition to her ability to create complex characters, Bear's got a nice ear for dialogue. None of it feels stilted, even the formal tones of the faeries. Unfortunately, much of the dialogue feels like filler, and there are times when I don't entirely understand what's going on. And that brings me to...
...the mythology of Blood and Iron. Bear draws from a global coffer of sources, notably Arthurian legend and faerie tales. She integrates them well, for the most part, but it can become a cacophony of mythology at times. It isn't the synthesis of these myths that irks me so much as how Bear uses it, however.
Just when I thought I had the rules of Blood and Iron figured out, Bear would introduce another element that caused my understanding to vanish. This was not a pleasant feeling. For example, take the antagonist, the Dragon. The Dragon is shrouded in mysticism, and the main characters bow to a complex set of rules and requirements involving her. Any time a character speaks about these rules, the reasoning is cryptic and never straightforward. Even with some human (or at least part human) characters sharing their thoughts with me, I never achieved the same level of comfort I felt with, say, the rules of the Faerie Court in Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files series.
The ending of the story was anticlimactic. I won't reveal too much, other than that the climax occurs during an epic battle, but this doesn't affect the main characters all that much. The Merlin, who is an important figure in the middle third of the book, is marginalized and shunted off to the side.
While I'm very critical of the book in this review, I did enjoy its premise, if not the execution. That's why I'll read more of Bear's work, particularly this series. Bear's a talented writer with extremely creative ideas--I'm intrigued by what I've read about subsequent books in this series (such as Ink and Steel), but I want to read them in order. Hopefully her use of mythology (or at least my comprehension of that use) will improve, allowing me fully immerse myself in the world of her Promethean Age rather than simply being a spectator....more
Significantly better than the first book in this series, Whiskey and Water picks up the loose ends from Blood and Iron and sustains them through halfSignificantly better than the first book in this series, Whiskey and Water picks up the loose ends from Blood and Iron and sustains them through half the book, building to a much more satisfying climax consisting of multiple battles and tense magical standoffs. My gripe: why did I have to wait for book 2 for all that heavy worldbuilding to pay off?!
As with its predecessor, Whiskey and Water suffers from a surfeit of mythology and mythological characters, particularly when it comes to Devils. The complex, and apparently ineffable, rules of magic and Fae once again serve as the cornerstone for the major plots. This time around, I simply gave up trying to make sense of the magical guidelines and tried to enjoy the story. It worked. Sort of.
Several familiar characters return in this sequel, including Matthew Szczegielniak, Jane Andraste, Carel the Merlin, Morgan le Fey, Elaine (now Queen of the Daoine Sidhe), and the eponymous Kelpie, Whiskey. Joining them are some new faces: Kit Marlowe (the one and only); Devils Lucifer, Satan, and Christian (an unconvincing antagonist at best); archangel Michael; and several mortals who may or may not die over the course of the book. And again, it's difficult to tell who the "good guys" are.
Nominally, Matthew and his cohorts are supposed to be the protagonists. Jane Andraste serves as an antagonist, for her attempts to rebuild the Promethean Club may result in another war with Faerie. Meanwhile, Lucifer has his own agenda, as does the charming Christian, who poses as an apprentice to Jane. I found this aspect of the plot entirely unfulfiling. I never understood Christian's motivations--sheer malevolence, or was he working toward a greater plan?
There were few characters I could just sit back and enjoy. Donall Smith was one, because he seemed like a genuinely honest and good person. Like the other mortal characters, he suddenly becomes involved in an epic, centuries-old conflict. Unlike the other mortals, however, Donall actually has the guts to stand and fight. Aside from him, the best parts of Whiskey and Water happened around the climax of the book, when every petty conflict comes to a head simultaneously.
The rules that govern the Promethean Age seem too mutable. I'll again compare this series to the Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher. The Dresdenverse has a complex set of rules, but I seldom feel burdened or confused by them. However, that may be due to the excellent writing and characterization in the Dresden Files books. The Promethean Age series' complex ruleset may be its single worst feature, but it's the characters and conflicts upon which the success of these books rests. And for me at least, there's just too much magic, too many beings who are, at least from a human's very limited perspective, apparently omnipotent.
The preponderance of powerful beings presents a problem: when unstoppable force meets immovable object, something's got to give. When Dragon faces off against Prometheans, when Hell and Heaven duel, and when one Fae queen plots against the other, the battlefield quickly gets complicated, and the plot can become hard to follow. Unfortunately, Elizabeth Bear's problem is that she tries to do too much and is forced to try to balance too many characters and too many conflicts. As a result, while I enjoyed the book--particularly the ending--I'm still somewhat confused, and not entirely certain of exactly who won or even for whom I should have cheered. While I'm all for moral ambiguity, I like to at least have a hero....more
Returning to the first book in Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series is like returning to a favourite vacation spot—one of those cozy ones that are well-Returning to the first book in Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series is like returning to a favourite vacation spot—one of those cozy ones that are well-known and well-regarded but never very busy for reasons you can't quite figure out. The temperature is just right, the weather is just like you remembered, and you have all the time in the world . . . to watch Harry get his ass kicked.
Harry Dresden. Those are the only two words you need to know. He is one of the best protagonists I've ever encountered. A combination of private investigator, wizard, and thick-headed gallant man, Harry is often clever but always getting into some sort of trouble. He has a powerful instinct to do what's right, but it doesn't always fire at the most appropriate times. When in doubt Harry follows a simple set of steps: make a wisecrack, think on his feet, and duck (not always in that order).
I haven't read Storm Front in years, and reading it again was such a pleasure. And the series improves so much with subsequent books: as good as Storm Front is, it cannot match the quality that comes with a more developed, more mature Dresdenverse. In this book, we have Harry and the mystery; as the series develops, we get Harry, the mystery, and the world itself, with all of its various characters. Storm Front is the genesis of this powerful series, introducing us to Karrin Murphy, Johnnie Marcone, Morgan and the White Council, etc. But standing alone, just how good is this book?
Well, it was good enough to get me to order the rest of the series as it existed at the time.
Whether you're a fan of urban fantasy, of mystery, or of both, Storm Front is the perfect storm of magic and mystery. The way Butcher describes magic is captivating and representative of his overall ability at writing action scenes. He feeds us exposition at appropriate times, never breaking up the unity of the scene but always augmenting it with pertinent information. In this way, we learn about wizards, the magical world, and Harry's own past. Meanwhile, Harry becomes involved in a case that soon has very personal stakes for him.
Butcher packs in enough characters and plot twists that it almost feels like too much. For a small book, Storm Front is remarkably full. It works, however, because Harry Dresden is a great narrator. Butcher gives him a clear voice, and through him we experience the entire story. We feel his elation when things go right (not often enough) and the pain and frustration when everything goes pear-shaped (business as usual). Because of the quality of its narration and storytelling, Storm Front is more than a simple pulp mystery: it's a great ride.
**spoiler alert** Time for another confession: I am unfairly prejudiced against werewolves. Maybe it's because I have an irrational fear of dogs, or m**spoiler alert** Time for another confession: I am unfairly prejudiced against werewolves. Maybe it's because I have an irrational fear of dogs, or maybe it's just the whole icky shapeshifting aspect, but I've never liked werewolf-oriented fantasy. When my favourite supernatural series has a book or episode featuring werewolves, I just don't enjoy it as much. For that reason alone, while my re-reading of Storm Frontpersuaded me to give it a fourth star, I was biased against Fool Moon from the start. If, on the other hand, you like werewolves, you might be predisposed the other way.
But my disclaimer digresses! Werewolf plot elements aside, Fool Moon seems to have less magic and exposition about the magical world of the Dresdenverse that I find so appealing. Aside from a couple of potions, a demon summoning, and a whole lot of combat evocation, Harry doesn't perform much magic, and we don't learn anything more about the White Council, the Nevernever, etc. While this book introduces the Alphas and changes the dynamic between Harry and Murphy (again), it's one of the most stand-alone novels in the Dresden Files. Hence why one's enjoyment rests so much on one's disposition toward werewolves.
When I first read the series, I didn't pay much attention to Harry and Susan's relationship, mostly because I was strictly a Team Murphy kind of guy. Yet the entire reason I'm re-reading the Dresden Files series is in preparation for reading Changes, in which Harry and Susan's relationship plays a major role. Furthermore, by neglecting this part of Harry's life, I've neglected a major part of his character.
Harry's reliance on Susan testifies to the veracity of their bond and his feelings for her. Harry allows himself to be vulnerable around Susan. This runs counter to his code of chauvinistic chivalry, and it may be a byproduct of necessity rather than design—but we all need to be vulnerable at times; we all need someone on whom we can rely.
This theme echoes throughout the book. Carmichael, Murphy's partner, dies while defending Murphy from the loup-garou loose in the precinct. Of course, Carmichael is the resident Dresden-doubter at SI, so we're not supposed to like him, no matter how much Harry goes on about him being a "decent guy." It's clear from Murphy's reaction, however, that she was close to Carmichael—professionally—and his loss is all the more significant for that reason. The Alphas rely first on Tera and then on Harry; MacFinn also relies on Tera. In this light, Harry's lack of trust in Murphy at the end of the book seems particularly unfortunate, especially after the events in Storm Front damaged their friendship. Harry feels responsible for Kim Delaney's death, because he denied her knowledge that might have saved her life, believing it was protecting her from retribution from the White Council. Now Kim is dead, forcing Harry to reexamine how much he withholds from Murphy. Often it takes tragedy to force us to confront our convictions.
Regardless of whether werewolves whet one's fiction palate, the plot of Fool Moon takes a backseat to its characterization. This isn't epic fantasy, where an orphan farm boy discovers he's the Chosen One and saves the kingdom (that would be Butcher's Codex Alera series). Fool Moon embodies the dark and gritty nature of the mystery and urban fantasy genres, which dictate that magic is serious business and somebody always gets hurt. Usually Harry. Because he always tries to do the right thing, and bad guys, for some reason, don't like that.
**spoiler alert** So I don't like werewolves but do like vampires. Some of you will never forgive me, I know. Others will be happy I've taken a side.**spoiler alert** So I don't like werewolves but do like vampires. Some of you will never forgive me, I know. Others will be happy I've taken a side. But if you hold up Fool Moon against Grave Peril, there's no contest. Dresden Files #3 is where it the magic happens. (You may groan.)
With another in media res opening, Jim Butcher plunges us back into the Dresdenverse while simultaneously expanding it even further: Knights of the Cross, ghosts and more spirits, and a look at the fabled Nevernever, complete with a faerie godmother. It sounds like too much, but Butcher makes it work.
There's a trademark cadence to every Dresden Files book that becomes clear if you read enough of them (especially in quick succession). The story takes place over a few days (although the plot extends backward several months to a demon-summoning sorcerer). Harry starts off stressed, gets more so, gets beaten down by every bad guy in sight, then figures out a way to save the day. While the pacing is predictable, the books are far from formulaic, because of the characters. With each new character, Butcher introduces an unknown element, something that changes the way Harry reacts and alters the playing field.
Murphy's role in Grave Peril is as an offscreen damsel in distress. This is one of my complaints about the book, because Murphy is one of my favourite characters, and there is zero Murphy-Dresden banter here. It irks me. Instead, Harry's stand-in sidekick is Michael Carpenter, Knight of the Cross and wielder of Amoracchius, a kick-ass holy sword. I have nothing against Michael; he's a nice guy. But he's not Murphy.
Nevertheless, Michael and his family complicate things for Harry just as Murphy's distress complicates things. Grave Peril is a perfect example of why superheroes don't reveal their secret identities to their loved ones: good villains punch the heroes in the loved ones. Harry lacks a secret identity, so the first dominoes to fall will always be his friends. But because Harry has a darker side to his powers, he can't just isolate himself from friends and family, for that way lies madness. Plus, there's another obstacle: he can't stop caring. When you get down to it, Harry will always do the right thing, even if it's not the smart thing.
Bianca, Red Court vampire with a grudge against Harry the size of a small state, makes this very clear in her gift to Harry at her ball. Oh yes, there's a vampire ball. A masquerade, even. And a dragon shows up. It's pretty awesome, it contains some of the pivotal events in the book. Most importantly, Butcher weaves character conflict and plot conflict together in the form of Harry's faerie godmother, Lea. Not only does Lea take Susan's memories of Harry from her, but the faerie also gives Michael's sword to the vampires for unmaking. The first is a tragedy that seems like a permanent, lasting one (this is not to be, but Butcher doesn't let us down on that count). The second prompts Harry to Do the Right Thing, even when it looks like it will get him and his friends killed.
Even though we know Harry will succeed (this is the Dresden Files after all), we never know the cost of each victory. In the case of Grave Peril, it is surprisingly high. Not only does This Mean War, on a personal level Harry and Susan's relationship has changed forever. I'm not talking about Susan's memory loss; no, just when you think you've figured out the tragedy Butcher plans to exact, he introduces a twist that turns the knife and makes it even more painful.
Harry emerges from this book physically whole but psychically battered. He can no longer be with the woman he loves. He's precipitated a war between the White Council and the Red Court vampires. And all because he dared to take out one sorcerer and do the right thing. Being a hero is tough. Not quitting is even tougher. Since I've read this series before, I know it's only going to get worse. And that just makes the books better and better.
Faeries are even better than vampires. Firstly, you can actually make a deal with faeries and compel them to honour the deal. Secondly, that makes theFaeries are even better than vampires. Firstly, you can actually make a deal with faeries and compel them to honour the deal. Secondly, that makes them even more deadly, because they're usually clever enough to twist the deal so it ends up harming you anyway. Just as Jim Butcher can't claim credit for vampires, he can't claim credit for faeries, but he sure can claim credit for the characters he creates to personify each species.
I hadn't noticed it before, but the antagonists from both the vampires and the faeries are female. Bianca and Mavra; Titania, Aurora; Mab, Maeve. On one hand, the overabundance of femmes fatales might be worrying. Then again, for the forces of good we have Karrin Murphy. While she's not as powerful as a vampire and certainly can't take on a faerie queen, she still kicks chlorofiend ass. Harry's lucky to have the help he does.
Summer Knight is the debut of another major theme in the Dresden Files. Harry isolates himself from his friends in an attempt to find a cure for Susan's condition. It's obvious that he can't continue in such a state for much longer; withdrawing from society is seldom a solution (unless you're Salinger). Indeed, Butcher ramps up the conflict in this book to remind us just how much Harry needs friends and allies. In Grave Peril, Harry shoulders a lot of the legwork, and the climax is his alone. The conflict in Summer Knight is on another level altogether: this time, instead of war between the Red Court and the White Council, we're talking a war between seasons, between the Faerie Courts. No matter who wins, humanity loses. Harry can't stop that alone.
Although he seems to dodge a bullet here, this isn't the end of Harry's journey. That's most evident in Harry's conversations with the faerie queens: both Mab and Aurora judge Harry by the scars they perceive on his psyche; the two Mothers were equally creepy in their evaluation. The burden of power—and the accompanying responsibility—will continue to weigh heavily upon Harry.
Are mortals meant ever to confront such power? The fates of both the Summer and the Winter Knights seem to suggest not. Easily overlooked are the changelings, the human-fae hybrids who must choose to become one or the other. Meryl chooses to troll up, preferring to sacrifice her humanity and her life to aid the cause. Lily and Fix take a different path.
I know that Harry gets more powerful as the series goes on. His encounters with various non-mortal agencies leave lasting marks on him, and he receives many mantles or grants of magic that prove a serious temptation. I don't think Harry could ever be a Lloyd Slate no matter how much power he has. Yet his weakness is his protective streak, especially for women. As we saw in Grave Peril, there is nothing Harry will not do to try to save someone for whom he cares, right up to instigating bloody war.
Butcher combines faeries with a murder mystery and Harry's own increasing desperation and destitution. It has some of my favourite parts of the Dresdenverse in it: more mythology on the faeries, a very close look at the power structure of the White Council, and great scenes between Harry and Murphy. Summer Knight does what's very difficult, and manages to keep lots of material balanced and use it to deliver lots of story. That makes it exemplary, both as a stand alone novel and as a part of the overall arc of the series.
**spoiler alert** I'm discovering that it's almost impossible to review a Dresden Files book without resorting to spoilers. So many awesome things hap**spoiler alert** I'm discovering that it's almost impossible to review a Dresden Files book without resorting to spoilers. So many awesome things happen that trying to discuss the book without mentioning them would be a severe handicap to any review. Death Masks is no different in that respect. After Summer Knightput the fate of the world on Harry's shoulders, Death Masks returns to the personal conflicts that embodied the first three books of the series. Once again, Harry's life is on the line—as are the lives of his loved ones—and he's forced to make many choices that he might even live to regret.
Right, so enough with the generalities. Here come the spoilers.
Susan's back! Even as Harry prepares to face off in a duel against Duke Paolo Ortega, a Red Court vampire, Susan waltzes into town ostensibly to "gather her things" before disappearing back to South America forever. Her appearance mitigates the dearth of Murphy in this book. She makes a couple of appearances, but they're far from the chlorofiend-chainsawing Valkyrie we saw in Summer Knight. I have a soft spot for Murphy that Susan can't quite fill, but Susan does make an able female sidekick for Harry (in more ways than one!).
Also making a reappearance after a lengthy absence is Gentleman Johnnie Marcone. We learn what his big secret is—after he helps Harry take on a Fallen Denarian, of course—in a twist that, as Harry puts it, means we can no longer hate him. Which is important, because even though he's a crook, Marcone is still human. He isn't a monster, and although he's not an upstanding citizen, he's an example of what makes humans different from monsters. Monsters do bad things because that's what they do; it's their nature, and they can't help but be monstrous. Humans, on the other hand, choose to do bad things. They usually have reasons for those choices—and like Marcone, they can often be very precious reasons.
Harry knows all about making choices. In Storm Front, he chooses to take the high road even when it alienates him from Murphy and casts suspicion on him in the eyes of the Warden Morgan. In Fool Moon, the lure of the hexenwulf talisman is almost too much for him to bear. In Grave Peril, of course, he chooses to save Susan at the cost of war between the White Council and the Red Court. And in Summer Knight, Harry refuses the mantle of the Winter Knight.
But now Harry is faced with the temptation of the Denarians. In return for picking up a coin and letting a Fallen angel in, the human host gets near-immortality and immense power. As many characters observe throughout Death Masks, Harry casts himself as the hero because he doesn't trust himself to stay away from black magic. By putting himself in danger and forcing himself to do the "right thing," Harry ensures he stays on the straight and narrow. So while the Harry we know wouldn't be tempted by a Blackened Denarius, there is a Harry who would. Alas, because Jim Butcher loves to make life complicated for Harry Dresden, a throwaway scene at the end of the book makes it clear that Harry will have Denarian problems for a long time to come.
The Denarians are, of course, an interesting paradox. Are they monsters or are they humans? The Knights of the Cross exist to offer them salvation, even those who collaborate willingly with their Fallen angel pals. Harry doesn't think collaborators deserve salvation, much less survival. The former see the Denarian hosts as victims, sinners led astray; Harry sees them both the Fallen angel and the human host as a monster.
Therein lies the question: what does it mean to be human? Everyone has a different answer. In a world seemingly non-supernatural, we can't even decide who qualifies as human (much to my chagrin), so imagine the quandaries in fantasy worlds like the Dresdenverse.
Take the Archive, for instance. On one hand, she is the embodiment of all human knowledge. Demonstrating that knowledge is power, the Archive takes out several vampires in record time. Oh, did I mention she's a seven-year-old girl? That's the other hand: for all her knowledge and the responsibilities that accompany it, the Archive occasionally acts the age of the body she inhabits. She exhibits a fondness for Harry's cat, Mister. She likes cookies and believes children should have a strict bedtime.
And then Harry goes and gives her a name. It seems like a typical, offhand Dresden whim. But to me, it's the most important scene in the book. With a single action, Harry humanizes the Archive into Ivy. I'm not suggesting this was an intentional act either. Rather, it's just second nature for Harry to treat humans like humans, regardless of how much magic they're packing. As long as Harry retains this innate respect for life, he won't be like Ortega, and he will be a good guy, and he will be our hero.
**spoiler alert** Vampires on the set of a porno! Vampires who feed through sex rather than blood, no less! And one of them is Harry's half-brother.
Ye**spoiler alert** Vampires on the set of a porno! Vampires who feed through sex rather than blood, no less! And one of them is Harry's half-brother.
Yeah, that's right. I dropped a major S-bomb in the third sentence of the review. You see that spoiler alert? I don't fool around with those things. Deal with it.
Speaking of dropping bombs, Jim Butcher does that a lot in Blood Rites. As with Death Masks, the story concerns Harry's personal life rather than a world-threatening conflict surrounding Harry. It's an intensely personal story, and one where Harry learns a lot of secrets. He learns he has family, meets his mother (after a fashion), and loses trust in his mentor, Ebenezar McCoy. In Blood Rites, Butcher turns Harry's world upside down. More than ever before, we know that the Dresden Files will never be the same again.
I love the mystery in this one. The mystery is, in most ways, deliciously disconnected from the supernatural world. Yes, the White Court soon proves integral to the plot. Yes, the murders happen through ritual magic. But the target of this malevolence isn't a supernatural being; he's just a porn star producer with a heart of gold. Those practising the ritual magic, while backed by the White King, are the producer's ex-wives. Their motives are revenge, a delightfully human concept.
Oh, but you know what's even better about Blood Rites? Yes, that's right: Murphy's back. And how! After a disappointingly dull role in Death Masks, Murphy has returned to help Harry kick monster ass. Not only that, but we get some serious characterization, learning about Murphy's relationships with her family and one of her ex-husbands, who is now engaged to her younger sister. Butcher juxtaposes Harry and Murphy's interaction with Murphy's family reunion. It says a lot about Murphy's feelings for her family that she prefers Harry's company. Oh, and she helps him take on some Black Court vampires and then go after the king of the White Court. 'Cause she's awesome like that.
This whole book is pretty much one awesome scene after another. There's a surprising amount of exposition, as Butcher manages to reveal all those surprising twists for the Dresden mythology. But it's sandwiched by a dizzying array of action sequences. First Harry rescues puppies, then he tussles with Black Court vampires (or "blampires" as he calls them), and before we know it, he gets in the middle of a dispute between Lara and Thomas Raith. Harry likes to find trouble.
And we like it when Harry finds trouble. Butcher has a way with fight scenes, managing to make them miraculous without resorting to too many deus ex machina moments. Case in point, as Lara prepares to shoot Thomas and Harry, Harry goes for the gun stuck in Thomas' jeans . . . and it doesn't quite work out as planned:
Thomas's damned jeans were so tight that the gun didn't come loose. I leaned too far in the effort and wound up sprawling on my side. All I got for my oh-so-clever maneuver was scraped fingertips and a good luck at Lara Raith in gunfighting mode.
I love watching Harry screw up. He's a powerful wizard and a good human being, but he's also fallible. (The falling frozen turkey that kills a blampire a few pages later is a totally deserved deus ex machina. Totally.) Once in a while, once in a very long while, Harry is able to draw upon his inner strength and "cut loose," as Kincaid so admiringly puts it. But only when it's to defend those he loves. So sometimes Harry can play action hero, but mostly he's the guy with the crazy plans, the plans that are probably suicidal, the plans that never quite work out right—but in the end, they do work out. Mostly.
And so, I've decided that Blood Rites is the first Dresden Files book that deserves a vaunted five-star rating. The plot is perfect, the story is scintillating, and Butcher's writing is at its best. Though this is not the best place to start reading the Dresden Files, mind you. Rather, this is the payoff. The first five books are great, but Blood Rites is nearly perfect. And from the loose ends that Butcher carefully plants at the beginning, end, and throughout this book, Harry's troubles are only set to get bigger.
**spoiler alert** Let us take a moment to look back at how far Harry Dresden has come from busting a sorcerer in Storm Front. Since then, he has start**spoiler alert** Let us take a moment to look back at how far Harry Dresden has come from busting a sorcerer in Storm Front. Since then, he has started a war between the wizards and Red Court vampires; he has killed a faerie queen and prevented a war between the Summer and Winter courts; he has been offered the mantle of Winter Knight and picked up the Blackened Denarius of Fallen Angel Lasciel. Last time we saw him, Harry was taking down a scourge of uppity Black Court vampires along with not-so-human mercenary Kincaid and all-too-human Chicago police officer Karrin Murphy. Harry's gone from "Chicago's only professional wizard" to "vampire-bane, faerie-killing wizard." As if losing the woman he loved wasn't bad enough, now Harry has to contend with the shadow of a fallen angel yammering at him to accept her coin so he can gain power.
Indeed, Harry and The Dresden Files have come a long way since book one. I'm reviewing this with you because long-running series can make it difficult to see this transformation take place (unless you read the books nearly back-to-back, as I've been doing). Dead Beat has a very high quotient of grey-area morality. Taken in context, it's clear that this is a result of all that's happened to Harry in the five years since the events of Storm Front. And on this second read-through, I admit that Harry seems a little less likable than I remember. I have to wonder how much of that is wishful thinking on my part and how much might be contrived drama on Jim Butcher's part.
Take Lasciel, for instance. Harry's excuse for picking up the coin—instead of the baby who was about to touch the coin—is that some part of him must have wanted the coin and the power implicit in possessing it. Later we meet his darker subconscious, who confesses to being the id to Harry's superego. OK, I can respect that. It is harder to believe, however, that Harry chose to bury the coin rather than turn it over to Michael or Father Forthill. I don't buy Harry's fear that Michael wouldn't look at him the same way, or worse, that Michael would somehow have to come after Harry and hunt him down. Harry has seen how the Knights of the Cross operate. They exist to save members of the Order of the Blackened Denarius; they would save Harry too. Maybe this is the work of Harry's subconscious again, but it all feels a little too contrived.
Likewise, I'm not so happy with the abruptness with which Harry hands over the Word of Kemmler to Mavra at the end of the book. I don't normally complain about loose ends, since I appreciate the series' ongoing arc. It feels out of character for Harry to cooperate with a blackmailer, especially one who is a Black Court vampire.
Although I don't think the writing here is perfect, I'm not going to blame all of Harry's characterization on bad writing. Dead Beat is about Harry as a person and how much he has changed in five years. Numerous characters, particularly Billy, express their discomfort with Harry's new attitude. Even though he's still a wisecracking badass, his development of that brand of weariness particular to heroes is far ahead of schedule. So I see how Harry's out-of-character behaviour is intentional on Butcher's part; I just wish it were handled more neatly and with more of Butcher's usual skill.
And no matter how awesome certain moments in Dead Beat are, they don't make up for the absence of Murphy. But you all know I'm on Team Murphy, so I won't belabour the point.
Similarly, I wasn't impressed by the small role for Gentleman Johnnie Marcone. He has some serious Magnificent Bastardcrowning moments of awesome in later books, I know, which is why I wish that he didn't show up unless he had a significant role to play. In Dead Beat, I almost feel like he existed only as a deus ex machina to get Harry from point A to point B. (Incidentally, I hope there isn't a Team Marcone, but if there is, I am definitely not on it.)
Maybe I'm being harsh, but that's only because I love the Dresden Files so very much. Thus, in order to keep myself honest, I have to err on the side of criticism. I have to generate seven paragraphs of disclaimers before I can get to the good stuff. See, Butcher has discovered the secret to writing a good series novel. It is this:
I don't care about any of the stuff above if the main character goes into battle on a necromantically-reanimated Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton. Bonus points if the drum beat (required to keep the zombie under control) is provided by a polka-playing medical examiner.
So, yeah. Dead Beat is awesome if only for that reason. There are more, of course. Harry's moral dilemmas, although sometimes contrived, are very intense. Now that he's a Warden, Harry is in the interesting position of serving for the "Man" he's been thumbing since day one of being a White Council wizard. It doesn't help that the acting captain of the Wardens is none other than Morgan, who has single-handedly been persecuting Harry ever since Storm Front. Deals with Lasciel aside, Harry's induction into the Wardens is probably one of the most significant events in the book, since it's a big change in his lifestyle, pay grade, and responsibilities.
I can't be quite as enthusiastic about Dead Beat a I was about Blood Rites. Yet you can't go wrong with a reanimated T-Rex—well, not if you're reading a Dresden Files novel. So this is a solid instalment in the series, introducing interesting changes into the Dresdenverse even if the events of this book themselves weren't as compelling as previous ones.
**spoiler alert** Proven Guilty is probably my favourite Dresden Files novel my second-favourite Dresden Files novel, after Small Favor. It has almo**spoiler alert** Proven Guilty is probably my favourite Dresden Files novel my second-favourite Dresden Files novel, after Small Favor. It has almost all of my favourite parts of the Dresdenverse in it: Murphy, the Carpenters, Faerie, and sticking it to the White Council. Jim Butcher manipulates the relationships he's developed over the past seven books to play on motifs of love, family, and temptation. If Dead Beatshowed us how much Harry has changed, Proven Guilty offers us hope, in more ways than one. Butcher reaffirms Harry as a hero even as he reminds us of Harry's fallibility. Magic and shadow of a fallen angel aside, Harry Dresden is, like the rest of us, only human.
Can I let you in on a secret, though? Parts of this book frustrated me.
I know, right? This is the best Dresden Files book thus far, and still I'm complaining. What's the deal? I just have such high standards when it comes to what I really love—and in case you can't tell, much love for the Dresden Files.
When reading this book, it seems to lack the structure that Butcher's formulaic mystery style lends to the previous novels. Although still in Butcher's style, Proven Guilty is slightly more haphazard with its scenes and events, to the point where, near the middle of the book, I had to remind myself what the hell was going on. The mystery is more nebulous—vampires and necromancers the antagonists are not—and the good guys are, at least at first, more disorganized. In summary, something about Proven Guilty felt off. It irked me.
See, I have one weakness (well, two if you count kryptonite, but don't tell anyone that, 'kay?): too often I seize upon a vision of what a book should be, and then I pan it for being something else, even it's still acceptable. Wait . . . now that I think about it, that's not necessarily a bad thing. I guess I only have one weakness—er, I mean, no weaknesses.
But I digress.
As with most brilliant books, Proven Guilty's weakness is actually its strength. We're talking the kind of strength that creeps up on you with ninja-like stealth only to pounce at the last moment with hawk-like precision and rhinoceros-like force. While I was being all shallow and conservative and yearning for "yet another Dresden mystery," Butcher was getting creative on us and writing something innovative.
Proven Guilty is the most character-driven Dresden Files novel yet. Although the lives of the characters have always been important, and Harry in particular tends to drive the plot whichever way he damn well pleases, the effect is amplified here. Rather than a concrete, moustache-twirling villain like we saw in Death Masks, it turns out the original mystery was caused by Molly Carpenter.
I love Molly. A minor character seen on the fringes of Harry's life, Michael's oldest daughter spontaneously becomes a profound person. She offers us a look at Harry when he as a teenager: inexperienced, hormonal, and bursting with magical ability. Harry no doubt sees the resemblance, hence his offer to vouch for Molly. Even as Butcher promotes another character to the main cast, he promises us a relationship that will reveal more about what makes Harry tick—and plague Harry with an annoying teenage student in a quid pro quo to all these years of being a wiseass.
If you want to get metaphorical—and I do—Molly's tribulations represent the struggle of adolescence: defining one's identity, dealing with interpersonal relationships and hardships, gaining independence from one's parents, etc. Similarly, Harry has to struggle with what his magic means for his relationship with Murphy. They both acknowledge a mutual attraction (go Team Murphy!), but there are so many ancillary concerns that they elect not to get involved.
This is the triumph of fantasy. By juxtaposing them with supernatural counterparts, Butcher emphasizes the humanity of his protagonists. Once-human, now-faerie Lily has changed, become bound to Titania despite a desire to help Harry. Thomas, even more amiable to Harry, confesses his weakness that led to joining the Wild Hunt. In contrast, Harry is tainted by the shadow of Lasciel, yet he still tries to do the right thing. Even with all his power—and the accompanying responsibility—he is still only human; if ever that's in doubt, the repeated references to his lack of a sex life remind us of that.
Harry has been a hero, a leader, and a brother. Now he has to be a role model. That's right: it's time for Harry Dresden to grow up. Be afraid! Be very afraid!
And as for the real antagonist, the one behind Molly's role in the mystery, Mab's apparent madness (Mabness?), and the Big Bad who orchestrated everything from the beginning . . . he or she remains in the shadows. Although it's been hinted at in the past, Proven Guilty makes the threat explicit. In a way, this book feels like a culmination of the entire series thus far, a sign that Butcher has an over-arching plan even as each book remains a self-contained adventure. Therefore, while it is not an endpoint, Proven Guilty is an important milestone in the Dresden Files. It's the culmination of seven volumes, and the vibrant promise of much more to come.
**spoiler alert** When I began re-reading White Night, I wondered why I had previously given it five stars. The plot didn't sound very interesting fro**spoiler alert** When I began re-reading White Night, I wondered why I had previously given it five stars. The plot didn't sound very interesting from the description on the dust jacket; it certainly didn't compare to Proven Guilty, which is now my gold standard of Dresden. Had I slipped into an alternate universe where I mistakenly gave out five star ratings to four star books?
Turns out, no, I was still in my universe (as much as one can say this is one's universe, after all). About halfway through the book, I began to remember why it was good enough to earn all five of those stars. Three quarters through, I was convinced: White Night is great Dresden Files material.
The first part of the book seems underwhelming because it lulls you into a false sense of normalcy. It seems more like a typical Dresden Files mystery, more reminiscent of Fool Moon than the more arc-oriented later instalments. That's not a bad thing in and of itself, but it did feel like a step backward. While I had faith that Jim Butcher was just waiting to drop the plot bomb on me, that wasn't enough to keep me satisfied.
As the mystery deepens, Madrigal Raith's involvement becomes apparent, and the plot goes from finding a serial killer to defusing a coup in the White Court. That's more like it! Butcher reaches even further back to bring us Helen Beckitt (and I have to admit, I barely remembered who she was, even though I re-read Storm Front a little over a month ago). Like Proven Guilty, White Night reminds us how much Harry has changed. He's made a lot of enemies, and eventually some of them will come back for more.
Still, the plot of White Night doesn't have the same gravity as Proven Guilty or even Dead Beat. Harry does precious little investigation—as the series grows longer, it appears that the length of time between any two consecutive attempts on Harry's life approaches zero. The characters in the Ordo Lebes never felt like more than background noise, fixtures that can serve as victims or obstacles as the plot requires.
White Night also has a lot less fancy magic in it. Aside from some use of Little Chicago—a scene which, I admit, is quite cool—Harry mostly practises evocation. Or, as it becomes in Harry's hands, messy gouts of fire. I love my messy gouts of fire, but the intricate and intense nature of performing thaumaturgy is one of my favourite parts of the Dresdenverse. That being said, we do see some more of Molly's talent, particularly her propensity for veils. Molly's role in White Night way below sidekick, barely even apprentice. While she does appear in few scenes, however, each of them carries with it a deep importance to Harry's character. The lessons he teaches her are the lessons he has learned—or, thanks to Murphy, is re-learning—himself.
If Proven Guilty gave us a glimpse of Harry in the past, White Night shows us Harry struggling with the present. In particular, Jim Butcher makes rare use of a flashback to the previous summer, where Harry is in New Mexico training new Wardens. He tangles with ghouls, who capture and then kill two of the young trainees. Then he loses it, executes one of the ghouls the Wardens had captured, and lets the other one go with a warning: "Never again." That, combined with his sudden ability to speak ghoul (thanks to the shadow of Lasciel), makes Ramirez a little afraid of Harry.
There's a scene even earlier in the book, where Mac asks Harry if he's the one committing the murders. Now, Butcher was stretching a bit here to demonstrate how much Harry has changed in the eyes of the magical community. I'm not sure I believe Harry has gone dark enough to warrant that kind of suspicion. Nevertheless, it's still a tense and very solemn moment.
Even as Harry looks at how much darker he's become, someone else close to him is moving toward the light. She really steals the show in the last part of the book, and I had totally forgotten about it. She is also one of the reasons I decided White Night was worth five stars.
I'm talking, of course, about the Heel Face Turn of Lash (as Harry nicknames the shadow of Lasciel living in his head). Ever since he picked her up in Death Masks, I've been wondering how he gets rid of her, because I knew she wasn't present in the most recent books. Lash's sacrifice and demise is the best thing about White Night, because it says so much about Harry and demonstrates Butcher's ability to write tragic figures.
I don't see Lash's change of heart as unrealistic, despite the fact that she's the shadow of a millennia-old fallen angel who is unspeakably evil. Emphasis belongs on the word "shadow." Lash is not Lasciel but a photocopy, as Harry puts it, and one that will be destroyed if he ever does pick up the blackened denarius that holds Lasciel's consciousness. And if Lash is just a pale reflection of the true fallen angel, stuck in Harry's poor, old, feeble mortal brain, Harry might be capable of changing her just as she is capable of changing him. Watching Lash gradually accept the idea of having an independent existence is a very heartwarming experience. It demonstrates why Harry is the hero: he's trying to save a copy of a fallen angel, which might be as far from humanity as one can get. Sure, he's doing it to save his own skin too, but I have no doubt that he is sincere in the effort.
And then Lash goes and sacrifices herself so that Harry can survive the climactic battle (which otherwise sucks). This was a rather sudden turn of events; I kind of wish Lash had stuck around for another book and continued to ride shotgun in Harry's head. Regardless, this was a great way to remove Lash from the equation but keep Harry's mind (and spirit) somewhat intact.
Harry stumbles on to the mystery in White Night because Madrigal Raith couldn't resist dragging him into it. In doing so, Raith dooms the enterprise and sets back the Black Council's plans (whatever those may be). It is becoming clear that Harry is more of a liability for the bad guys than they could ever have imagined way back in Storm Front. I doubt things will get any easier for Harry—and I wouldn't have it any other way.
I was a bad boy and only recently purchased Republic of Thieves. Instead of starting it immediately, I decided to delayThird review: February 28, 2015
I was a bad boy and only recently purchased Republic of Thieves. Instead of starting it immediately, I decided to delay the pleasure. It feels strange to think that the last time I read The Lies of Locke Lamora was five years ago. As I suspected, I had forgotten almost all of the actual plot details. I’m glad I decided to re-read this, and to read Red Seas Under Red Skies again, before I start the third book. Why read one great book when you can read three?
My appreciation for this novel has only ever increased. You can read my first two reviews below. I don’t have a lot to add to those. The book itself hasn’t changed, but I have. I’ve graduated from university, spent two years teaching in England, and now I’m back here, kinda-sorta teaching. I’ve grown up, might be a little more cynical and definitely more sarcastic than I used to be—so I thought I wouldn’t necessarily like this as much as I used to. I was wrong. The Lies of Locke Lamora took me back to the basics; Scott Lynch reminds me of how much I love stories about con artists and heists. Yet beneath that decoration, it’s more accurate to say that this is a book about friendship and loyalty.
Every major character, no matter where they lie along the spectrum of protagonist or antagonist, in this book acts how they do out of loyalty. The Grey King’s entire modus operandi is to avenge the deaths of his family. Doña Vorchenza is the Duke’s most loyal servant. The Salvaras have a touching marital loyalty going on. And then you’ve got the Gentlemen Bastards. It’s no accident, how all those flashbacks Lynch includes are object lessons in loyalty, perseverance, and trust. I know that in my first review I thought the flashbacks were more of a nuisance than not, but I enjoyed them a lot more this time. They’re an efficient way of building Locke’s character without constraining the story to a boring, linear trajectory.
As for Locke and Jean’s friendship … well, I want to keep this review spoiler-free, so I’ll only say this: “I don't have to beat you. I just have to keep you here ... until Jean comes.”
I mean, damn.
(Plus, if you’ve read Red Seas Under Red Skies, you know what happens. You know what I’m talking about.)
In this reading I was also struck by Lynch’s amazing ability with worldbuilding. He makes the world seem much bigger than what we actually see on the page. Some authors don’t have a very clear conception of what their world is like—there are a lot of blank spaces on their maps. Others have detailed biographies of every minor character—but the trouble is that they feel the need to share all those details with the reader! Lynch is among the elite rank of authors who’ve done the research, done the creation, but don’t drown the reader in extraneous exposition. He has invented months and a way of naming the years after the gods and whatnot, but he doesn’t include appendices explaining these systems, and he certainly doesn’t shoehorn such explanations into the text. We just roll with it. It sounds just familiar enough that it becomes part of the flavour of the novel, just alien enough that it helps build up some character for the setting.
It’s also worth noting that this is a dense novel. The paperback edition I have has normal-sized print, but it has slim margins and eschews any headers or footers besides modest page numbers at the bottom. It’s a long book too. That’s because Lynch packs a lot in it—plots within plots within plots within cons and schemes. And it’s awesome.
Other than that, I think my second review covers most of the bases. The Lies of Locke Lamora is, simply put, delightful. It’s a fantasy book I would recommend to anyone thinking, “I don’t read a lot of fantasy, so where can I start?” Magic exists, but it isn’t too in-your-face. And Lynch manages the whole gamut of emotion, from humour through farce and dialogue to the gutwrenching, stomach-punching tragedy of losing the ones we love.
It’s like a movie that you really like: even when you remember the details and the characters (which I didn’t this time around), you take such pleasure from hanging around them and watching them in their element. (I think this would make a great TV series and could work well as an adaptation—but that’s neither here nor there.) After reading The Lies of Locke Lamora three times, I’m starting to see why I keep re-reading it. And I’ve no doubt I will read it again, and again.
Second review: October 9, 2009. Rating: 5 stars
In case the following new review doesn't make it absolutely clear, on a second reading, my admiration of The Lies of Locke Lamora has only increased. Even though I knew what would happen and anticipated every twist, I still enjoyed the book. While I don't think "re-readability" is a requirement for a great book, it certainly helps.
I quite enjoyed the story. It starts out as a con game and quickly becomes about intra-city politics, class warfare, and revenge. No one is whom they seem to be. There's just something so satisfying about watching Locke Lamora and his gang of Gentlemen Bastards execute a confidence game. Maybe I'm a sociopath; certainly it's a valid criticism that the protagonist of the book is a thief. As thieves and rogues go, however, Locke and his bunch aren't bad—they're certainly better than the cutthroat brigands who form one of the two antagonist groups. And the other antagonist group, the largely clueless nobility led by the slightly-less-clueless Dona Vorchenza, isn't much better—there's a reason we switched to democracy, right?
Locke Lamora is everything you expect from the brains behind a con game: sneaky, devious, and a smart-ass. He'll talk back to anyone—even the most scary character in the book, the Karthani Bondsmage known only as "the Falconer." When he's not patronizing you, you should be worried, because that means he's playing you, like he plays Capa Barsavi, once the most important criminal in Camorr, and Dona Vorchenza, Duke Nicovante's secret spymaster.
I suppose I should also telegraph my love for Jean Tannen, Locke's sidekick and muscle. Lynch has a nice way of introducing Jean: he beats up young Locke. Yay, I like when the main character gets taken down a notch! Jean's got brains too—he reads books—but prefers to let Locke build the schemes even as he cuts down anyone in the way. Their symbiotic relationship is perfectly summed up in one flashback scene, which is actually foreshadowing for the climax: "I don't have to beat you. I just have to keep you here ... until Jean comes." Awesome.
Camorr comes alive through Lynch's description of the way the city and its inhabitants operate. There's a great deal of exposition in this book, but it seldom interrupts the unity of the story. As a result, we learn all about the culture of Camorr, how other peoples view the Camorri, and what it's like to be a thief in the city. In a way, the city itself is a character.
And it fits perfectly into this novel's tone of badass underdogs versus ruthless villains. Both groups are equally matched when it comes to wits too; Lynch expertly balances the schemes of both the protagonists and antagonists to create a nice element of risk toward the climax. The first time I read this, I certainly didn't know exactly what the Grey King had up his sleeve; every time he stood up and pontificated his "actual" plan, we'd quickly learn it was just the uppermost layer of a Xanatos Gambit! And he's not the only one with a plan. Of course Locke is going to win in the end—at a terrible price—but along the way he suffers many setbacks. He's awesome, but he's flawed and far from invincible, which makes him a believable character.
Instead of learning about the Grey King's actual totally ultimate evil plan from his own mouth, we refreshingly hear it from the mouth of a tortured henchman whom Locke and Jean capture. In fact, although this book has a lot of exposition and flashbacks, it makes up for this by defying expectations when it comes to direct confrontations between two major characters. I cheered aloud when Dona Vorchenza jabbed Locke in the neck with a poisoned knitting needle, proceeded to tell him how he would now surrender, and he punched her in the face and stole the antidote before running away. Finally, a hero who does logical things when at the mercy of an antagonist! My relief is palpable.
Have I extolled The Lies of Locke Lamora enough? Are you crying out, "Enough, already! We get it, Ben; you liked the book!" Hopefully I've given you an idea regarding whether you'd enjoy reading it. This book is fun, while at the same time maintaining suspense and a sense of danger. If so inclined, you can grow attached to some of the characters. That's often difficult with even the best of books, but Lynch's style and way with dialogue make it easy here.
Of course I have some criticism to offer. It's much the same as what I said in my first review, however, so I won't repeat it here. I've included my first (and less well-written) review below.
First review: September 10, 2008. Rating: 4 stars
The Lies of Locke Lamora offers entertaining characters who all seem to have schemes of their own, exciting action scenes, and equally excellent exposition. Scott Lynch has created a refreshing fantasy story that revolves not around "the chosen one" but around a thief. While this may not be original, Lynch's Locke Lamora is a charming thief with whom I bonded as he becomes the underdog through successive struggles in the story.
Alliteration aside, I enjoyed this book in a way I haven't for a while (mostly because I spent the summer reading The Sword of Truth series). When I reached the climax, I couldn't wait to turn the next page--unfortunately, I had to go to class. Lynch is a good storyteller; he keeps the reader interested while still managing to convey enough details to create a rich setting. Camorr is Venice, with a pinch of magic sprinkled among pseudo-science. I appreciate how Lynch seamlessly integrates magic into his setting: no endless speeches explaining the rules of the author's pet system of magic. I hate that!
Locke Lamora is an orphan who rises to become the leader of a gang of thieves for whom misdirection is everything. They regularly breach Capa Barsavi's Secret Peace--that the thieves of Camorr, or "Right People" as they call themselves, will steal only from commoners and merchants, not from nobles or the "yellowjacket" city watch. Yet to everyone outside their group, the Gentlemen Bastards seem to be nothing more than mediocre thieves. Unfortunately, Lamora's penchant for disguise catches up to him when he becomes a reluctant pawn in a power struggle for control of Camorr's thieves.
While Lynch does a good job weaving backstory into the book using flashback, some of the backstory seems superfluous, and that broke the unity of the story. I would pause and think, "Oh, that's nice. Can I get back to the plot now?" Some of the scenes could have been cut to tighten up the writing, and I would not have missed them.
The book was rushed toward the end--climaxes tend to lead to an increased pace, of course, but in this case I felt that the need for the climax drove the story toward an artificial resolution rather than the other way around. I can forgive Lynch for this simply because I derived great enjoyment from his characterization of Lamora toward the ending.
This edition includes a sneak peek at the second book in the series, and I must say that I can't wait to read it!
Although vampires play an important role in this book, vampirism is not the central subject. Rather, Hubbard uses vampirism as the method to explore aAlthough vampires play an important role in this book, vampirism is not the central subject. Rather, Hubbard uses vampirism as the method to explore a girl coming to maturity amid a broken family unit. Hubbard addresses questions of ethics and coming-of-age. Unfortunately, the story is mediocre.
My main problem is a lack of conflict. Each time the story approaches something that resembles a high-stake scenario, it shies away at the last moment. For instance, after the murder of Ariella's friend, an FBI agent begins to sniff around the house. Yet nothing substantial comes of this. Never does the agent arrest anyone. He reappears at the end of the novel and contributes even less than he did in his first appearance.
At no point in the story did I feel that Ariella was ever in danger--not in mortal danger, and not in danger of failing to achieve her goals. She found her mother. She found her father after he faked his death. Events that should have been emotionally-charged moments fell flat because there wa sno element of risk associated with achieving them.
The Society of S strikes me as a wholly plot-driven novel that attempts to be character-driven. There's nothing wrong with the plot driving the story; however, it needs to be honest. In the last part of the novel, there's a fire that injures Ariella and her father. It doesn't really appear to have a reason. There are no consequences; Ariella and her father survive, as does the antagonist. Thus the book ends on an ambiguous note....more
So Locke Lamora won the day at the end of his first book, but at a terrible price. He and Jean are the last surviSecond Review (Read on March 4, 2015)
So Locke Lamora won the day at the end of his first book, but at a terrible price. He and Jean are the last surviving Gentlemen Bastards (unless you count the estranged Sabetha, whose existence Scott Lynch dangles beneath our noses with all the glee of a writer of a trilogy). With nothing left for them in Camorr, they wind up in Tal Verarr, pulling a heist against Requin of the Sinspire, the best and most cheat-proof casino there is. But the Archon of Tal Verarr—who would be played by Jeremy Irons in the movie, I hope—has other plans for them. Soon Locke and Jean find themselves setting out to sea, to begin a life of … piracy?
Coming off the immediate high of The Lies of Locke Lamora and all its dark and bittersweet comedy, I wondered why I only gave Red Seas Under Red Skies 3 stars. But I can see why now. I love heist plots: heists are even better than con games. So the fact that Lynch promises me a heist plot in this book gets me so unbelievably excited; you have no idea.
And then he yanks the carpet out from my metaphorical feet and announces we’re doing a pirate theme instead.
I don’t have a problem with pirates. If you like pirates, you’ll have a good time here. But don’t bait-and-switch me. Keep your pirates out of my heist plot!
Other than the above disappointment, there’s a lot to like about Red Seas Under Red Skies. With the other Gentlemen Bastards out of the picture, this is very much a “Locke and Jean against the world” scenario, so Lynch focuses on their friendship more closely than he could in the first book. Their very identity and purpose as thieves is in question here: with the ire of the Bondsmagi hanging over their heads, they wonder how they should spend the rest of their lives. They question how long they can carry on as professional con artists.
Although Locke might question his ability to carry on as a con artist for many more years, Lynch makes it clear that Locke is happiest and at the top of his game when he is cheating or swindling someone. Somehow, it seems that no matter how dire the stakes or how injured or affronted Locke is, if he is in a position to deceive someone, he comes into his own and shines. His enjoyment at playing the character of Orrin Ravelle is palpable, even when that means hauling rope and swabbing the deck and doing any number of other, unpleasant menial tasks while posing as a failed would-be pirate captain. Locke loves inhabiting a role, and his exuberance gets the better of him, even when he claims to be taking things seriously.
Another thing I loved about the book on this reading was the passionate relationship between Jean and Ezri. Lynch is not exactly subtle—but that’s part of what makes it so fun. Jean received some good characterization in the first book, with his sharp intellect and mathematical mind belying his “bruiser” appearance that earned him the role of bodyguard for Locke. Yet he definitely plays an even more prominent role as protagonist here: The Lies of Locke Lamora was unquestionably a book about Locke Lamora; Red Seas Under Red Skies is definitely Locke & Jean.
I also want to take a moment just to point out the excellent portrayal of women in Lynch’s books. It was solid in the first book and is even better here. There are plenty of women characters, both bit characters as well as more exciting minions, like Selendri and Merrain. And of course, Zamira Drakasha takes the cake: super-capable pirate badass who also happens to be a caring, responsible mother. Talk about work–life balance. I love that, in this world Lynch has created, women totally make up 50% of the cast—and they can be just as capable at fighting, thieving, and plotting as men. This is not a new or revolutionary idea in the twenty-first century, people—yet the fact I have to highlight it here suggests we have some catching up to do.
It would be a mistake to pan this book just because it doesn’t inspire the same wide-eyed adoration that I felt about The Lies of Locke Lamora. After all, that was a debut novel, the first in a new series with new characters—and I fell, hard. As a sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies had a lot to live up to, so I shouldn’t be surprised it doesn’t blow me away. If we set aside such impossible standards, then, what we have left is a solid sequel: Lynch has written yet another good fantasy novel with dynamic, flawed characters who continue to pull cons, plot capers, and cheat at cards.
It’s pretty great.
And now, finally, I get to read Republic of Thieves! About time.
First Review (Read in October 11, 2009)
(Since this book features pirates, I'm using that as flimsy excuse to present my review entirely in "piratical" dialect, courtesy of this handy translator. Apologies to those who were expecting a sobre critique of literature in grammatical, precise English. Ye scallywag.)
Goin' into this sequel, I be excited. I anticipated another brilliant adventure o' Locke Lamora an' Jean Tannen—an' that`s what I got. Exactly what I got. Therein lies th' problem: th' best parts o' th' book be similar t' th' best parts in th' first book. Once again, Locke relies on a Xanatos Roulette t' extricate hisself from a very messy situation, an' e'en by th' end o' th' book, they aren`t safe yet. As other reviewers be havin' lamented, however, th' worst offence be that o' shoehornin' one plot into th' other . . . after interestin' me in a very Ocean`s Eleven-esque casino heist plot, Lynch suddenly injects a gentleman o' fortune plot into th' story, which smartly takes o'er as th' "main" course o' th' book.
Now we reach th' point 'ere yer mileage may vary. Fans o' nautical adventures will probably enjoy this here log more than swabbies like myself who, while fans o' gentleman o' fortunes, aren`t fans o' havin' marine terminology bandied about while Jean an' Locke cool the'r heels on th' Sea o' Brass. Parts o' this here log bored me, which nerehappened in Th' Lies o' Locke Lamora. An' 'tis nay jus' th' fact that 't takes place at sea among gentleman o' fortunes; 'tis th' failed synthesis o' two disparate plots that irks me so much. By th' end o' th' book, Lynch attempts t' tie all th' plots together fer a grand climax . . . an' 'tis almost thar, but nay quite.
`Tis odd t' say this about a fantasy book, perhaps, but th' realism be sorely lackin'. In a sense, th' lies o' Locke Lamora be too extraordinary an' insouciant, whereas in th' first book, they be jus' th' starboard amount o' extraordinary an' insouciant. Savvy? By th' time we reached th' climax, I had trouble believin' Locke could truly get th' lad's an' Jean ou' o' this mess alive, an' triumphant—speakin' o' which, I did enjoy th' twist at th' very end regardin' the'r spoils o' victory.
Th' first wee chapters o' th' book be th' best. We get t' be seein' Locke at his nadir, resigned t' drink an' mope in a room in an inn while Jean goes ou' an' tries t' build a gang in th' wee, dumpy city t' which they's fled. Locke, whom we`ve grown t' love as a smartass an' badass, be reduced t' a self-pityin' shadow o' his former self. 't takes some tough love from Jean t' set th' lad's straight, after which th' two begin plottin' t' rob th' most heavily-guarded casino eremade by man: th' Sinspire.
I`d like t' continue sayin' good things starboard now, but th' subject o' th' Sinspire forces me t' criticize another unrealistic aspect o' Lynch`s story: everything be hyperinflated in its status. Th' Sinspire be th' ultimate casino, 'ere nay one, nay one single swabbie ever gets away wi' cheatin'. Th' Archon`s One good eye be th' elite swabbieal guard who would never betray th' lad's. An' so on. Th' superlatives begin t' get annoyin' . . . well, superlative. Once an' a while 't would be nice t' come across an average sort o' swabbie who t'ain't either a complete idiot or a Chessmaster. I reckon, however, what wi' Locke Lamora bein' so brilliant an' all, 'tis difficult t' challenge th' lad's wi' ere less than a genius.
Speakin' o' which, I miss th' Dona Vorchenza! She be an antagonist, sure, but I liked th' lass'. She be fun. Neither Requin nor th' Archon, Stragos, be particularly likable; in th' first book, while I cheered fer Locke, I sympathized wi' th' Dona`s loss. Here, I couldna care less about what happened t' Requin or his position o' power afterward. Stragos, on th' other hand . . . well, as I be readin' th' book, I wondered why a troper on th' Gentleman Sons of a biscuit eater page o' TV Tropes labelled Stragos an anti-villain. I dasn't agree wi' th' label, but I agree that Stragos didna deserve his fate, an' I be nay sure Locke an' Jean would be havin' had 't in them. Then again, I didna understand how Locke an' Jean let they's self get into th' situation o' bein' poisoned anyway. Last time someone poisoned Locke coercively, he punched them in th' face an' stole th' antidote.
Without th' poison, o' course, thar`s very wee impetus fer Locke an' Jean t' go nautical—or refuse t' swashbuckle o'er th' one extant keg o' antidote at th' end. (Oh, come on, dasn't tell me that`s a spoiler. I won`t tell ye who drank 't, `kay?) We get a much stronger idee o' th' bond between Locke an' Jean in this here log. Again, Lynch likes his superlative expressions o' affection, so I started t' skim them scenes after these two reconciled wi' each other fer th' nth time. 't be nice t' be seein' occasional tension, tho. An' 't be good t' be seein' Jean get some action (ye know th' sort o' action I mean).
Red Seas Under Red Skies preserves th' strong, witty characterization that made Th' Lies o' Locke Lamora amazin' in th' best sense o' th' word. Unfortunately, 't lacks a strong story t' go wi' its characters. This series still has great potential; I canna wait t' be seein' who makes th' next move in th' ongoin' struggle between Locke an' Jean an' th' Karthani bondsmages. E'en tho me interest in th' series remains intact, however, Lynch`s writin' an' plottin' needs t' improve t' restore me faith in th' quality o' th' series.
There are so many ways to describe Ekaterina Sedia's The Alchemy of Stone. It's a sombre symphony of motifs, ranging from women's independence and sexThere are so many ways to describe Ekaterina Sedia's The Alchemy of Stone. It's a sombre symphony of motifs, ranging from women's independence and sexuality to the ramifications of rapid industrialization. And deceptively so—despite the intriguing back cover copy and the seductive tagline, "a novel of automated anarchy & clockwork lust," I wasn't quite convinced of The Alchemy of Stone's brilliance until the denouement, when everything suddenly came together in a wonderful, cathartic moment.
In the city of Ayona, hewed from stone by the ever-watchful gargoyles, the Mechanics and the Alchemists duel for political control of the city while the peasants labour in the mines and on the farms. Mattie is an emancipated, clockwork automaton who has chosen to become an alchemist (and she's competent at it too). Though she is legally a free woman, she can't break her bond to her Mechanic creator, Loharri. He retains the key that will wind her clockwork heart and exerts an insidious influence on Mattie throughout the book.
The Mechanics have recently achieved a majority in Parliament, but when someone destroys the Duke's palace, the city gradually slides into chaos. Mattie is politically apathetic (and she can't vote anyway), but she is close to people on both sides of the conflict and inexorably becomes involved. Still, her outsider's perspective provides us with valuable insight into the tensions and fears that motivate both those in power and the masses who are unhappy with them. It's clear that the Mechanic-controlled Parliament has an agenda, and we get a glimpse of a counter-agenda from Sebastian, Iolanda, and the revolutionaries. However, there are very few specifics in both cases. Sedia focuses less on the political aspirations of either side than the power conflict itself, mostly because it parallels the power conflict between Loharri and Mattie.
The revolution's root cause is the rapid industrialization driven by the Mechanics. Machines are the answer to everything: transportation, manufacturing, even food production, thanks to mindless automaton labourers. Despite the improvements these machines often make, there's disadvantages too, both aesthetic and practical. The factories in the city are eyesores, polluting the river and belching smoke into the sky. The peasants who still have jobs tilling the soil receive little pay and little gratitude; still, they are luckier than the orphans raised in inhumane conditions to live out their lives as miners, striving to satisfy Ayona's insatiable appetite for coal. The result: the riots of the Industrial Revolution, accelerated just as the steampunk technological innovations accelerate in the book. We go from initial attack to the end of the revolution quite quickly, or at least it seems that way. Likewise, the revolution spurs unintuitive improvements in technology: the Mechanics construct a "Calculator" that will analyze the situation and provide them with the best possible course of action; Loharri manages to perfect audio/video recording in a very short time and use Mattie as an unwitting spy. The pace of this progress isn't very believable, but as a storytelling device, I suppose it works well.
The revolution is but a backdrop to the personal journey of discovery of Mattie herself. Initially, she seems to pursue her goals with a single-mindedness only a clockwork person can possess. Yet as the story progressed, I realized that one could also interpret that pursuit as a form of selfishness—such a human attribute, or an attribute of the flesh, as the gargoyles would no doubt describe it. Mattie, though made of gears and springs, whalebone and ceramic, feels pain—and pleasure—and her emotions run the gamut from lust to passion to anger. She is a person, in all sense of the word. And she is a woman.
The personhood of robots is a Big Question; entire books, science fiction or otherwise, devote themselves to unravelling that mystery. Sedia, in a sense, has bypassed this issue, taking Mattie's sentience as a given so that she can explore more pertinent problems. This is what Mattie has to say about her gender (to the female character Iolanda):
". . . why do you consider yourself a woman? Because you were created as one?"
"Yes," Mattie replied, although she grew increasingly uncomfortable with the conversation. "And because of the clothes I wear."
"So if you changed your clothes . . ."
"But I can't," Mattie said. "The shape of them is built into me—I know you have to wear corsets and hoops and stays to give your clothes a proper shape. But I was created with all of those already in place, they are as much a part of me as my eyes. So I ask you, what else would you consider me? . . . I assure you that my femaleness is as ingrained as your own."
Mattie identifies herself with The Alchemy of Stone's female characters, like Iolanda and Niobe, who themselves are struggling for some power over their own destinies. She expresses horror that the city's mindless automatons were never aware enough to know their own lack of freedom; hence, she cherishes what little freedom she has. Yet there's something much more sinister about Mattie's creation: Loharri built her in a form designed for servitude. She repeatedly experiences a desire to help or please Loharri even as she resents his reticence to surrender her key. Though emancipated, she often accompanies Loharri places in the role of "his" automaton, possession rather than person, somehow less "real." The combination of Mattie's femaleness and her illusory freedom is a potent reminder of women's struggle to emancipate themselves from the role of devoted housewife. Sedia manages to make Mattie's plight resonate even for me, a young male who lacks much experience when dealing with gender discrimination. And the culmination of this aspect of Mattie's journey is, for me, the most fulfilling part of the book.
It's worth mentioning Mattie's faces. Most of Mattie is fairly durable, but her faces are made of porcelain and prone to cracking or even shattering completely. When this happens, she must go to Loharri for a replacement—a shameful, degrading circumstance, at least from her perspective. Think about how much importance we humans put on one's face: it's an outward representation of our personality; we associate faces with specific individuals. The facts that Mattie's face is artificially, so easily breakable and mutable, that her expression and appearance are controlled by her creator all contribute to this tragic sense of not being "real" despite her obvious sentience.
Sedia, for the most part, executes these themes with skill and confidence. Occasionally, however, she does falter, and that inconsistency is why I demure from five stars. To be honest, getting through the first two thirds of the book was more chore than diversion. I can understand why some people would probably put it down after the first few chapters. Yet my opinion of the book experienced a reversal in the last act; the final third is captivating in its tragedy and beauty. Without spoiling it too much, Mattie is definitely a tragic heroine, her downfall ultimately residing within Loharri's spiteful betrayal of her.
Loharri is a fully realized character. He's passionate but phlegmatic, prone to fits of enthusiasm and malaise. Mattie's complex feelings about her creator alone justify calling three dimensional. He was kind enough to create her with an independent mind in the first place; he allowed her to learn alchemy and emancipated her on request. Yet he refuses to hand over her key, which would truly grant her freedom. And he uses her, both indirectly, by compelling her to see him at regular intervals, or directly, by using her as an unwitting spy. This duality is mirrored in his role as a Mechanic politico. He seems more open and accepting than most Mechanics, yet when Mattie attempts to question the wisdom of a party policy, Loharri becomes defensive. He displays the same general xenophobia the other Mechanics have, blaming the revolutionary atmosphere on the increasing population of "Easterners" in Ayona. Clearly, Loharri is not a very nice man. Yet he created Mattie, who is equally clearly a nice woman, determined to care for those society has left by the wayside, such as Ilmarekh the Soul-Smoker and the gargoyles.
So when Loharri betrays Mattie one final, irrevocable time, it's the most poignant turning point in the novel. Suddenly he has crossed the line from passive antagonist to active villain. When Sedia made me hate him for his actions rather than for how Mattie saw his actions, that's when The Alchemy of Stone captured me. It's unfortunate that it took almost the entire book to reach that point; certainly other books have captivated me from the first page until the last. However, when it did happen, it was as swift and irrevocable as Loharri's betrayal.
Sedia's prose is lyrical and haunting; she never wastes words or wants for imagery. That's why I label The Alchemy of Stone a symphony. The entire book feels like a score—set in a minor key, of course—that could easily be put to a ballet or some sort of opera. I've criticized the plot, and some of the character development, but the atmosphere of this book is potent and unforgettable—maybe even unforgivable....more
Oh, let me count and enumerate the many and various ways I love Neil Gaiman and, in particular, American GoSecond Review (Finished December 10, 2010.)
Oh, let me count and enumerate the many and various ways I love Neil Gaiman and, in particular, American Gods. I love it because I am insecure and, at times, unsure of my love for it. I love it because it isn't perfect, yet it's still wonderful. I love it because it promises gods and gives us people, and somewhere along the way, somehow, Gaiman manages to make me cry about the death of a goddess who eats people with her vagina.
American Gods holds a special place in my heart, because it is, for me, a problematic work. I cannot remember if this is the first or second book I read by Gaiman, but it has the quixotic and peculiar quality in that I forget how much I like it after I've read it. I'll gush, like I'm doing in this review, but then a year will elapse, and I'll start thinking, "Was American Gods really as good as I thought?" And it isn't just the gushing review that triggers this—there's something dubious about the premise of the book, and the way Gaiman builds up to it, that prevents my mind from fully accepting my unconditional praise and enthusiasm for the story. American Gods is also problematic because I have read it three times now, and I am still not sure I get what it is about.
The book begins with Shadow being released from prison and subsequently being hunted down by the Call and agreeing to work for Mr. Wednesday. While Gaiman's allusions to mythology and literature are obvious, they are also a smoke-screen for the book's underlying subtlety. On the surface, American Gods is about the war between the old gods and the new. The former came to America with immigrants; the latter have arisen as society collectively starts to worship new technologies and sentiments. Now the new gods are poised to annihilate the old ones, who have been growing weaker and fading away any way. Our first indication that the story goes deeper than a mere war among gods lies with Shadow and how he reacts to his role.
Shadow is very difficult to like as a protagonist. He never quite freaks out like many of us would expect. Gods are real, OK. His dead wife is walking around because he tossed a gold coin on her grave, OK. He's made a pact with the Slavic deity Czernobog which, among other things, lets Czernobog take a hammer to his head when all is said and done. All of these incredible events are happening around him, and it rolls off him with so much water. He never quite gets to the point where showing emotion is required. For that reason, I always picture him as a big, glum sort of fellow. Then again, this should not surprise us. His name is Shadow after all, intended to be ironic because of his physically-imposing stature, but remarkably apt for his personality as well.
As a result of this emotional calmness, Shadow often seems passive, even when he is not. He seems to be going along with what the gods have in mind for him, regardless of whether it is in his best interests. Yet Shadow is actually quite assertive, and he shows a great deal of initiative. He sets his wages when considering Mr. Wednesday's offer of employment. He recruits Czernobog with his fatal checkers game, saving Mr. Wednesday a good deal of time. He uncovers the true identity of Hinzelmann in his spare time.
Shadow's apparent inaction is a symptom of a larger stillness to American Gods. There is this war going on, but for most of the book it's a cold war. Mr. Wednesday and Shadow travel across America to recruit other gods in Wednesday's battle plan, and when Shadow isn't acting as bodyguard and driver, he's hanging out in a suspiciously nice-looking village. Despite Wednesday's assurances that "a storm is coming," chapters pass in which nothing urgent seems to be happening. Shadow has ominous encounters with spooks, but it is not immediately clear how these further the plot.
It turns out, no big surprise, that this book is not really about the war between gods at all. I don't really want to include spoilers (although I don't think it's hard to figure this out, and it's rather enjoyable piecing it together), but let's just say that Wednesday's fascination with con games is very relevant. American Gods is Shadow's journey from mediocrity to an awareness of a grander mythology. His evolving role from spectator to minor player to major intervenor allows Gaiman to sink us gradually into his exploration of the interaction between immigrants, the gods and stories they bring with them, and the New World itself. Above all, he emphasizes that there is something about America that makes it inimical to gods. The buffalo man tells Shadow that "this is not a land for gods," and later on Whiskey Jack reiterates that:
"Look," said Whiskey Jack. "This is not a good country for gods. My people figured that out early on. There are creator spirits who found the earth or made it or shit it out, but you think about it: who's going to worship Coyote? He made love to Porcupine Woman and got his dick shot through with more needles than a pincushion. He'd argue with rocks and the rocks would win.
"So, yeah, my people figured out that maybe there's something at the back of it all, a creator, a great spirit, and so we say thank you to it, because it's always good to say thank you. But we never built churches. We didn't need to. The land was the church. The land was the religion. The land was older and wiser than the people who walked on it. It gave us salmon and corn and buffalo and passenger pigeons. It gave us wild rice and walleye It gave us melon and squash and turkey. And we were the children of the land, just like the porcupine and the skunk and the blue jay. . . .
"This is wild rice country. Moose country. What I'm trying to say is that America is like that. It's not good growing country for gods. They don't grow well here. They're like avocados trying to grow in wild rice country."
So beyond the eternal march of progress, and with it the rise of new paradigms and new gods who challenge the old ones, lies this sentiment that America is just not good land for gods. Thus, the title becomes a paradox: what is an "American" god? These imported deities? The new gods of technology and media? Or the land that provides?
Because they don't have the power to decide this. They don't really make the rules, though they have all become adept at manipulating them, Mr. Wednesday most of all. Humans have the power; humans create gods through their stories, their beliefs, their rituals, and their ideas. We create dark and horrible gods by killing children and worshipping their bones; we create gods of great power and great beauty. And when we stop believing in these gods, cast them aside, they lose power and begin to fade away.
I guess I don't really understand why I love American Gods so much. It's a striking journey across a landscape of beliefs and ideas. Gaiman doesn't stop very long in any one place, choosing instead to forge ahead and let us fill in the rest. It's more than a story about "old gods versus new gods." But I feel utterly unable to communicate why I love this book, why it has carved out a permanent place in my thoughts. There's just something significant to it, to the way Gaiman personifies and then nullifies gods, managing to make them both more and less than myth and legend. The result is something that is not quite a fairy tale yet is more than a thriller or a simple mystery. And it kind of haunts me.
It's just interesting, OK? Plus, the paperback edition I own is just the perfect size.
Neil Gaiman is one of my favourite authors, and this is one of my favourite Neil Gaiman books. American Gods explores some of the same tired mythologies from a refreshing perspective, transplanting them into modern America and setting them in the middle of a vast confidence game.
This book showcases Gaiman's ability to create memorable, complex characters. The protagonist, Shadow, has just been released from prison and faces the daunting task of starting a new life. Yet almost before it begins, this life is over. He falls in with Mr. Wednesday, a Norse god (unknown to Shadow) posing as a con artist. Wednesday, for that matter, is a memorable character himself, if less given to change. That's one of the themes Gaiman covers in the story, however--the inflexibility of the "old gods" and their conflict with the up-and-coming gods of technology and the information age. Caught in the middle is a human being, an average guy, just trying to make sense of it all.
A page-turner, American Gods has excellent pace, with exciting action scenes and great dialogue. I can't recall any moment when I was wishing I was doing something else or just waiting for the scene to end. There's a couple of times when I wondered what relevance a scene had to the plot, but ultimately everything fit together well.
I often recommend this book to friends who haven't read anything by Neil Gaiman before, as I believe it showcases his best abilities as a writer.
I have never read anything else by Peter S. Beagle.
Just want to make that clear, since I know that in some corners of the fantasyscape, he is a Big DeI have never read anything else by Peter S. Beagle.
Just want to make that clear, since I know that in some corners of the fantasyscape, he is a Big Deal. He’s Known. Renowned, even. So this little collection of short stories of his was probably met with squeals of glee from fans the world over when it was published (back in 2009, because I am 6 years behind on my to-read list these days). I was not one of those people.
But I might be, some day.
We Never Talk About My Brother starts off on a very good note: it has a foreword by Charles de Lint. He talks about how Beagle is one of the first writers he, as a reader, was aware of who wrote fantasy set in our world. Of course, that is now one of de Lint’s major claims to fame, so he knows what he’s talking about. And he was totally right. I might even go so far as to say that, clause for clause, Beagle is actually more of a wordsmith than de Lint.
I don’t really want to wade into the false dichotomy of literary versus genre fiction. But Beagle verily shatters the notion of such a dichotomy; he is a literary fantasy writer, and if your brain explodes at such a notion, then read not this book. Each story is crafted with the skill of Margaret Atwood or Alice Munro. Beagle writes about people like us, or like people we might know, who happen to have experiences a little out of the ordinary. (Another loaded term I could throw out there, if I cared to, might be magical realism—but I don’t care to do that. No, sir, I do not.)
I have, in the past, done that thing where one goes through each story in the anthology and reviews it separately. It is a sensible though naive approach to reviewing anthologies, and it would certainly be easy to accomplish for one with nine stories in it. Yet this approach ignores the fact that some stories are disproportionately better than others—and I mean that from an entirely subjective sense; a story might speak to me here even if another thinks it is awful.
So let me highlight the ones I really, really liked.
The titular “We Never Talk About My Brother,” which is the second tale, is fantastic. Beagle takes a brilliant central idea and unspools it layer by layer until he reaches the core nugget that makes it not just fantasy but somewhat unsettling, verging upon but not quite breaching that tenuous veil between fantasy and horror. This is a story of psychological warfare on a Biblical level.
Likewise, “The Stickball Witch,” has a similar first-person perspective with a moral at the end that left me both entertained and thoughtful. It reminded me quite a bit of an episode of Recess—I don’t think this was intentional on Beagle’s part, but sometimes the best associations aren’t.
I was actually surprised by how much I liked “By Moonlight,” even though it hews closer to many of the standard tropes about faeries. This is probably thanks to Beagle’s great style; he’s a consummate teller of stories by storytellers.
I think all the stories here are good in one way or another, though I didn’t particularly like “The Last and Only, or, Mr. Moscowitz Becomes French,” and because poetry is not my thing, “The Unicorn Tapestries” left me pretty numb. I suspect there are plenty who will call these their favourites, though.
I’m at a loss to draw deeper comparisons between the stories or talk subtext here. I would like to read more of Beagle’s work before I try that. That’s probably the main takeaway from this review: enjoyed the book, will read more. Hopefully it won’t take me six years this time.
Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett are kickass, A-list, all-star authors in their own right. Both have an enormous command over their craft: they write wNeil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett are kickass, A-list, all-star authors in their own right. Both have an enormous command over their craft: they write with purpose. Gaiman creates so many fantastic worlds filled with a diverse range of characters, from the all-too-human to the incredibly bizarre. Pratchett, most famous for Discworld, is great at playing with (and playing off of) the most beloved tropes of fantasy. Both of them have a grasp of that circuitous, somewhat too-clever style of British wit reminiscient of Douglas Adams. Put them together, and you get Good Omens, quite possibly one of my favourite books of all time.
The premise of Good Omens is simple: the Antichrist is an eleven-year-old boy who doesn’t particularly want Armageddon to happen. An angel and a demon, each softened from millennia of living among humans, are of similar minds and also working to avert the End. Caught in the vortex of these supernatural beings are human characters are all types, including a descendent of seventeenth century witch Agnes Nutter, whose nice and accurate prophecies are coming in handy.
If you like Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett, if you like Douglas Adams or absurd British humour, you will like this book. You’ll think it’s offbeat and clever and even laugh-out-loud funny at points, and you’ll see the rich humanistic subtext exposed for what it is and appreciate that this book is more than just entertainment. If you don’t like these things, then you won’t like this book. You’ll think it’s too corny or too quirky or tries too hard, and you won’t appreciate its sense of humour at all. (And that’s fine.) But it’s that simple.
Still not convinced? Here’s some examples taken, I have it on good authority, from Good Omens:
Aziraphale collected books. If he were totally honest with himself he would have to have admitted that his bookshop was simply somewhere to store them. He was not unusual in this. In order to maintain his cover as a typical second-hand book seller, he used every means short of actual physical violence to prevent customers from making a purchase. Unpleasant damp smells, glowering looks, erratic opening hours—he was incredibly good at it.
All tapes left in a car for more than about a fortnight metamorphose into Best of Queen albums.
Along with the standard computer warranty agreement which said that if the machine 1) didn't work, 2) didn't do what the expensive advertisements said, 3) electrocuted the immediate neighborhood, 4) and in fact failed entirely to be inside the expensive box when you opened it, this was expressly, absolutely, implicitly and in no event the fault or responsibility of the manufacturer, that the purchaser should consider himself lucky to be allowed to give his money to the manufacturer, and that any attempt to treat what had just been paid for as the purchaser's own property would result in the attentions of serious men with menacing briefcases and very thin watches. Crowley had been extremely impressed with the warranties offered by the computer industry, and had in fact sent a bundle Below to the department that drew up the Immortal Soul agreements, with a yellow memo form attached just saying: ‘Learn, guys...’
I try not to lob a large chunk of quotations into my reviews too often. In this case, however, I feel that it’s the most appropriate way to give you a sense of the novel’s warm, almost cozy voice and tone. Good Omens doesn’t so much present the apocalypse as mull over the apocalypse and its attendant phenomena (including Atlantis, UFOs bearing messages of peace and cosmic harmony, and confused Tibetan monks tunneling into Lower Tadfield).
If I were to stop my praise at “it’s funny”, though, I would be doing this book a disservice. Many books are funny—it’s not particularly difficult. What makes Good Omens so great, what earns it a place among my favourites, is what Gaiman and Pratchett do with regards to Armageddon. Re-envisioning Armageddon is certainly not an original concept in literature. Rather than treating Armageddon as Judgement Day, as the punctuation-full-stop at the end of humanity’s worldly existence, Gaiman and Pratchett take a moment to pause and consider what Armageddon really is, in the context of this whole Heaven-and-Hell thing. And where humans fit into the mix.
The whole plot of Good Omens is possible because Crowley screws up. He doesn’t supervise the switching of the baby Antichrist with another, innocent baby. As a result, the Antichrist grows up in the wrong household, completely free of angelic or demonic influence and intervention. Adam Young grows up, as Crowley later notes, human. So when the clouds gather and the storm comes, Adam has to make a decision about the fate of the world, and he does so as a human boy with human experiences rather than some kind of supernatural entity.
The theme here is that humans aren’t good, and we aren’t evil either. We’re a mixed bag—good and evil, often in surprising and bewildering combinations. We are the ineffable part of God’s ineffable plan, because of that whole free will thing. Angels will act as Heaven’s agents, demons as Hell’s. Neither considers whether Armageddon is actually a good idea; they just act. But as Adam points out, the entire notion of some kind of apocalyptic battle in which millions (if not billions) die is wasteful and stupid. Armageddon as written definitely makes for a dramatic climax to the Bible, but it’s far from a good end-of-life plan for humanity.
The battle between fate and free will is a potent motif in Good Omens. Crowley constantly says he doesn’t have free will, yet he manages to subvert the will of his hellish superiors quite effortlessly. (He later jokes that this is because he learned free will, which I think is so cool.) Humans, on the other hand, supposedly have free will—but Anathema and Newton are trapped in the mousewheel of referring to Agnes’ prophecies, which are as nice and accurate as she promises. And, to be fair, they actually come in handy. Without spoiling the ending, however, I think Gaiman and Pratchett come down in favour of free will, at least in the case of those two.
And Adam Young? He is, to paraphrase a psychologist in a book far, far away, just this boy, you know? A boy and his dog. Because it always comes back to that, doesn’t it: a boy and his dog, standing against injustice. And it doesn’t have to be a boy and his dog; these are merely symbols. It’s that unity of childhood innocence and empathy for life. By innocence, I don’t mean that children are ignorant of ills—Adam and his friends know all about nuclear disasters and whale hunting, even if they aren’t clear on the Spanish Inquisition. Rather, I mean that they haven’t yet grown into that practised cynicism of adulthood, that apathetic, “that’s the way there is” about the world. They haven’t learned to say, “it can’t be done” yet. That innocence, and that empathy, make great things possible.
Good Omens is one of the most optimistic, upbeat books I’ve ever read. It’s hilarious, in my opinion, and it’s also about the end of the world. I don’t know how else to commend or recommend it.
As with my review of Small Favor, I will refer you to my first review for this book. I'm not even going toSecond review, read from June 10-11, 2010.
As with my review of Small Favor, I will refer you to my first review for this book. I'm not even going to add many notes, because I like my original review that much, and I doubt I could improve upon it significantly.
The only thing I have to say is that re-reading the series in quick succession has given me a better context in which to appreciate Turn Coat. Even though I only gave it four stars, it's still better than some five star books I've read, and it's an excellent instalment in the series.
Having just finished reading Turn Coat for a second time, I am more moved by a book than I have been in a long time . . . I don't think even Proven Guilty affected me in this way. Butcher alters irrevocably so many of Harry's relationships in this book. There is a death that is unexpectedly tragic and all the more potent. And there are so many more questions coming up from the past about the island, Harry's mother, the Gatekeeper, etc. Anyone who accuses this book of lacking complexity, of being just another volume in a mystery series, needs to take a second look.
First review, finished on August 31, 2009.
Following the disappointment that was The King's Grace, I needed a book that I knew I'd love. So naturally, I turned to the latest Dresden Files novel sitting on my shelf. After eleven books, only two types of people will be left reading a series: those who love it and those who hate it. The former will read it because they are addicted to the endorphins the books release and drool with eager anticipation prior to each new iteration. The latter will read it because they are addicted to the endorphins released when they write snarky reviews. Don't get me wrong: I love writing snarky reviews—that being said, you'll notice I'm firmly on "Team Dresden."
Jim Butcher has managed to create a sustainable fantasy environment and avoided jumping the shark. He's got a solid cast of supporting characters who keep the plot moving, and his system of magic is well thought-out but not so complicated as to make my head hurt. Finally, Butcher's writing has a rhythm that, while obviously formulaic, always feels fresh and exciting. Every Dresden Files book summons forth laughter as well as tears, making me cheer for Harry's wisecracks and cry for the price he—or more often, those around him—pay for his half-baked schemes to save the day.
At this point, I'm about to do something that may earn me the enmity of certain people, as I shall assume a level of presumption the likes of which we have not seen since the Dyson corporation decided Skynet was a good idea. Yes, that's right: I'm going to compare Harry Dresden to the Doctor (of Doctor Who fame).
Now, these two heroes obviously aren't synonymous; I see Dresden as more of a glimpse at who the Doctor might have been when he was younger and far more inexperienced. One striking parallel, however, is that both Dresden and the Doctor use people as weapons. The Doctor has his companions; Dresden has Murphy, Michael and Molly Carpenter, his werewolf buddies, his Pizza Guard of Little Folk, etc. Although Dresden is almost always the mastermind behind incredibly complex and improbable attempts to foil the current villain, his plans usually carry considerable risk for his comrades. To be fair, Dresden also sustains injuries in the line of duty; his badly burned hand is just one example. But it's this knowledge that people get hurt because he's doing the right thing that weighs most heavily on Dresden.
Dresden is not the single-handed bastion of awesomeness that the Doctor is. His companions all contribute their own form of awesome to the mix. I can't help but enjoy the plucky Molly Carpenter, who's just beginning to come to grips with her abilities (both magical and mundane) as she struggles with the consequences of her past and normal, human growing pains. In Turn Coat, not only does she perform ably as an apprentice, but I loved how she uses her sex appeal to charm a Private Investigator into giving up the name of his employer. Because, honestly, I have zero interest in seeing that particular duty fall to Dresden.... Likewise, we get glimpses of Karrin Murphy as both a tough, kick-ass cop and a friend of Dresden who genuinely cares about his wellbeing, even though he's generally a pain. Even as he narrates the book from the first person view of a witty wizard, Butcher manages to assemble an ensemble cast that's the core of everything good about Turn Coat and its fellow Dresden Files novels.
Having spent so much time establishing Dresden as an underdog, Butcher takes the Dresdenverse and turns it on its head: the eponymous turncoat is none other than Warden Donald Morgan. Arguably the most loyal wizard of the White Council, Morgan has spent the past 10 books looking for any reason to turn Dresden in on charges of violating the Laws of Magic. He's sure he's been framed for the murder of a member of the Senior Council, and he's come to Dresden for help. As much as Dresden is loath to help his former enemy, he knows that Morgan's innocent; moreover, he suspects this is the latest move by a traitor in the White Council. What starts as an internal matter threatens to weaken the White Council in the eyes of its powerful enemies, and Dresden, as usual, is in the thick of it.
For the most part, I'll confess that I found the political intrigue less satisfactory than in previous Dresden books. There's a big deal about the fact that someone's a traitor, leaking information to the White Council's enemies and influencing the decisions of the Senior Council. Yet when the big reveal comes, it's disappointing. Likewise, not much else seems altered in the political status quo—"Gentleman" Johnny Marcone doesn't appear in Turn Coat at all. Butcher puts out some strong foreshadowing that the next book will be a gamechanger, but I would have liked to see something more substantial in this book.
The unintriguing intrigue relegated Dresden's family matters to a back-burner, but they're more shattering than the politics. Thomas, Dresden's White Court vampire half-brother, has been making his living (literally for him) by nibbling on the life energies of his hairdressing clients. In Turn Coat, a malevolent skinwalker, of Navajo mythology, kidnaps Thomas because it wants to trade him for Morgan. The skinwalker tortures Thomas while he's in its clutches, and the consequences of the torture drastically alter Thomas and Dresden's relationship, as well as Thomas' lifestyle. I'm looking forward to seeing how this plays out in future books.
In addition to Marcone, Molly is the only Carpenter who appears in Turn Coat. I see the wisdom of eschewing Michael and Charity, since we've been Carpenter-heavy for the past several books, and Butcher has written a short story about Michael. It would have been nice for Harry to pop by and say, "Hi, your daughter and I might be executed for aiding a fugitive from the White Council. Have a good week!" Wait, OK, I can see how that would not go well....
As usual, Dresden is at his best when he's at the end of his rope and has about three hours left to live. His enemies consistently overestimate Dresden's reliance on magic to get the job done: almost all of Dresden's Turn Coat triumphs are a result of using technology (by proxy) or non-magical means of foiling the enemy. Magic serves a direct combat and defencive role; beyond that, Dresden thinks outside the box. And that's why I love this series: Butcher's protagonist is a problem solver who actually creates plans to beat the bad guys beyond "fight until they're all down for the count" (although I admit that might enter into the plan under 'Plan B' at some point...).
Turn Coat's another fine addition to the Dresden Files series, and any fan should be pleased. I have some qualms about it, mostly owing to the understandably increasing complexity of the Dresdenverse and Butcher's ability to balance a compelling narrative with his bevy of characters and continuity. The book lives up to a label like "action-packed thrill ride", but after the heavy-hitting consequences of White Knight and Small Favor, I expected more than Turn Coat delivered.
Pay close attention, however, when you read the book. Butcher continues to scatter subtle clues as to the texture of an overarching narrative that spans the series and extends into Dresden's past: the mysterious Gatekeeper continues to be a fickle friend, and Ebenezar McCoy's journals reveal that Dresden's mother had something to do with the powerful island featured in the climax. Clearly, Butcher's playing a long game. These hints at a grander scope to which we're not yet privy will always keep me reading, because they promise us that no matter how much trouble Dresden finds ... it's eventually going to get much, much worse. And I can't wait.
What's an urban fantasy book without magic and wizards? What do you get when you take vampires and add to them dragons, djinns, selkies, and gargoylesWhat's an urban fantasy book without magic and wizards? What do you get when you take vampires and add to them dragons, djinns, selkies, and gargoyles? Heart of Stone, while not exactly original, is different. That works in its favour.
As I began my post legentem dissection, I discovered that there's a lot about Heart of Stone that, taken alone, doesn't work. For example, the dialogue is lacklustre and occasionally even groan-worthy. In most books, this isn't a plus, but it's particularly problematic here, because the protagonist is a lawyer (hence "Negotiator Trilogy"). Her weapons are words, not swords or magic. And I like that. So even as cool as Margrit is as she makes deals with dragons, sometimes I couldn't enjoy her wordplay as much as I should.
Likewise, the relationships in this book don't plumb the depths. I found Margrit's hesitant relationship with cop Tony the most interesting, perhaps because it's so flawed. They're on again, they're off again . . . they want to try to make it work, but suddenly she's involved in his murder case and hanging out with the number one suspect. The tension between Margrit and Tony as a result of their opposite views on the justice system is also both topical and germane to their characters. It's difficult to both make characters seem like they have a relationship yet work their relationship into the main conflict as well, so C.E. Murphy deserves praise for that.
Creepy stalker points abound for Alban Korund though. To Murphy's credit, Margrit doesn't swoon and suddenly declare herself unreservedly trusting of Alban's attitude. In fact, she's downright hostile toward him during their first few encounters. Nevertheless, there's a certain sense of . . . knowing, a reservation in the way she deals with Tony, that I don't quite follow. Margrit may be sceptical, but she's also very irrational (considering the mantra Murphy repeats throughout the book, however, this is probably intentional).
Mmm . . . dialogue, characters . . . oh yeah, plot. Also not very impressive by itself. Murder, serial killer, a case of mistaken identity, little bit of revenge and psychopathy going on. . . . Margrit doesn't "detect" so much as run around sticking her nose into the business of the Old Races until she's practically a walking target for anyone involved in the game. There's also a couple of side plots that, while they get members of the other Races involved, don't get developed as much as I would have liked.
Evidence that books are not merely the sum of their parts, Heart of Stone is still a good read despite its mediocre medley. Margrit is an interesting protagonist. She makes mistakes. Sometimes they aren't the most convincing mistakes (i.e., it seems like she's making a mistake as a result of plot-induced stupidity), but most of the time they're human mistakes. Margrit's normality (if you can call her normal), combined with her unusual occupation for an urban fantasy heroine, makes her memorable (good for sales!). Ironically, she protests against such treatment in the book when her boss puts her on a case because of her high-profile status and, he admits, the fact that she is black. Promotional tactics aside, however, Margrit's still the reason to read this book.
I'm trying to make this review more positive than negative, because I did like the book. Yet I can't help expressing some disappointment. The name of the series, and the tagline "five powerful races—one mortal go-between" gave me a different impression than the one I received while reading. I was expecting Margrit, you know, to negotiate among the various members of the Old Races. She negotiates with some of them, for her own life, but she isn't very submerged in their politics and internal affairs. Heart of Stone is clearly fantasy, but I wonder if it's fantastic enough.
In closing: should you read this book? Sure. Am I enthusiastic about it? Not so much. I can see this appealing to an audience, as my concerns are very much a matter of "your mileage may vary" (offer not valid in Quebec). While it did entertain me, Heart of Stone did not grip me. And so I bid it adieu, not with the long, heavy sigh of a profound experience, but with a smile and a shrug as I pick up the next book in the stack....more
I don’t read nearly enough urban fantasy. I’m a little prejudiced against it, since so much of it seems to tend towards paranormal romance. That, andI don’t read nearly enough urban fantasy. I’m a little prejudiced against it, since so much of it seems to tend towards paranormal romance. That, and I’m getting mighty tired of every urban fantasy book also having to be a mystery as well. When authors really break the mould of urban fantasy—either by doing something different in our universe, or creating an entirely different universe that happens to be urban—I get excited. While Kim Harrison doesn’t quite break the mould with Dead Witch Walking, she gives it a good crack. In an alternative universe, an intense plague wiped out a significant portion of humanity. Its aftermath revealed that humans have been living alongside “Inderlanders”, Harrison’s inexplicable name for supernatural beings. Now, in the present day, Inderlanders and humans live cheek-and-jowl—not that everyone likes it.
Rachel Morgan is a bounty hunter. A runner for Inderlander Security, or IS, she decides to quit her job, because her boss is out to get her. This puts a price on her head, and she has to rely on her wits and the help from a “living vampire” (aka a vampire with a soul) and a pixie assistant in order to stay alive long enough to get IS off her back. It sounds like an intense adventure that promises thrill after high-stakes thrill, and Harrison succeeds in some respects. Yet I have a few reservations right out of the gate.
Rachel spends the first chapter denying that IS will put a hit on her if she quits. Ivy tells her. Jenks tells her. The leprechaun she catches and then decides to let go if it gives her three wishes, to help her in this escape plan, tells her. Everyone except Rachel believes her life is forfeit if she goes through with this. I just find it hard to believe that a hardened hunter like Rachel would be so naive as to believe that she could escape the IS so easily. This credulousness on her part made me more sceptical as a reader, which is never good.
Fortunately, Harrison manages to win me back. She keeps the plot going at an acceptable pace, and she manages to immerse me in the world of the Hollows without bludgeoning me with too much exposition. Gradually, I learn about the difference between a warlock and a witch (degree, not gender), a “living vampire” and a “dead vampire” (souls and sunlight), and a pixie and a fairy (well, kind of). Rachel is rather proactive—if a little foolhardy—in her plan to get the IS death threat lifted. Harrison also cooks up some pretty impressive consequences related to this death threat, which forces Rachel to use some ingenuity now that she can no longer just buy the charms and amulets that she needs.
The magic in Dead Witch Watching is rather low-key, but it suffuses the entire novel. In the wider world, but especially in the Hollows, magic is simply another part of life. It’s possible to bespell objects so that they will react violently to a certain person. Vampires, werewolves, pixies, etc., are all creatures with some kind of natural command of various magicks—while witches and warlocks appear human, but are able to create powerful charms and perform spells using ingredients one might find in a garden (or blood, or ley lines, or … well, Rachel explains it all). Harrison clearly has her magical world thought out; I appreciate that she doesn’t shove it down my throat all at once.
Dead Witch Walking also doesn’t suffer too much from the “smartass wizard” syndrome that creeps into most urban fantasy. Unfortunately, this affects even my beloved Dresden Files books. As with the mystery element I complained about earlier, there seems to be a contractual obligation to make one’s urban fantasy protagonist sassy. Not that I have anything against sass, mind you. I just want some variety in my protagonists. True, Rachel has a sharp tongue—but she gets as good as she gives from others, like Jenks.
I remain ambivalent only because, for all the action that Harrison packs into this relatively slim volume, the depth of the plot remains pretty shallow. I’ve read other books that have done much more with their characters in a first novel in the series. Rachel spends this entire novel spying on and trying to catch Trent Kalamack. I just find myself wishing Harrison had managed to accomplish more in the same number of pages.
The way Harrison ends the story leaves me wanting more, for sure. But it also doesn’t leave me wanting to rush out and buy the sequel, like some first books do. That pretty well describes my feelings about Dead Witch Walking: it’s fun, entertaining, and definitely not forgettable—but it didn’t quite excite or dazzle. (No jazz hands to be hand while reading here.)...more
**spoiler alert** I don't judge books by their covers, but sometimes covers do say a lot about the book they contain. The cover of my edition of The C**spoiler alert** I don't judge books by their covers, but sometimes covers do say a lot about the book they contain. The cover of my edition of The City & The City is in washed out blue, with a stylized title and the skylines of two different Eastern European cityscapes—presumably, the modernized Ul Qoma, and its neighbour, Besźel. It's a very nice cover. Alone, it is aesthetically pleasing. Yet it also captures the atmosphere of the story with pinpoint accuracy. There's a washed out quality to The City & The City, a sense of drab stoicism imparted by centuries of maintaining Besźel and Ul Qoma's unique relationship. This makes it a perfect setting for a hardboiled crime novel, as well as another Miévillian story in which the city (two cities, here) are almost characters unto themselves.
(I'm going to reveal the exact nature of that "unique relationship" two paragraphs below, hence the spoiler warning on this review. I feel that this is essential in order to discuss properly the book, and I don't think that knowing the "secret" spoils the plot or even the enjoyment of the book.)
This only my second novel by China Miéville, and my second in two weeks (the first being Perdido Street Station). Already I'm gaining a great respect for his worldbuilding abilities. In particular, Miéville has a talent for understatement. In The City & The City, the reader teases out the nature of Besźel and Ul Qoma after a few chapters. We get hints from mentions of "unseeing," "unhearing," and, of course, "Breach." This was obviously intentional; otherwise, Miéville could have begun with, "Once upon a time, there were two cities. . . ." Instead, he forces us to acclimatize and orientate ourselves, much like a tourist to Besźel or Ul Qoma. We're forced to pay attention. And because this is a mystery, that is a good thing!
As its title implies, however, this book is more about the two cities and their relationship (both political and physical) than the murder that forms its central plot. Besźel and Ul Qoma, taken separately, seem like typical Eastern European cities, one stagnating and the other in a state of renewal. Taken together, these cities are anything but typical. In places where the cities overlap (or "crosshatch"), inhabitants of Besźel must "unsee" people in Ul Qoma, and vice versa; they learn to do this by paying attention to how people walk, hold themselves, the style of clothing they wear, etc. All of these elaborate cultural conventions have evolved to maintain the homeostasis of the two cities. Puncturing this equilibrium, we learn, is the worst possible crime in both cities: it is breach. And the people who deal with it have no identity, no concrete existence other than their purpose; they are Breach.
What I found more interesting than the existence of uniquely Besź or Ul Qoman modes of dress and walking were the implications surrounding these customs. In a crosshatched area, you can just "decide" to be in one city or the other. Change the way you walk, change the city you're in—of course, then you are also in breach, but that isn't the point here. It's the fragility of this system. Why would people ever choose to live this way?
This seems like a natural question for us to ask. Let me rephrase it. Why would people ever choose to live in a city constantly in danger of flooding during a hurricane? Why would people ever choose to live in a city where they have to spend four hours a day stuck in a car going from home to work and back? To an outsider, those situations may seem just as bizarre as the superposition of Besźel and Ul Qoma does to us, yet people inhabit such cities. Why? Simple: it's home.
Miéville reinforces this point by contrasting the two cities. Borlú is Besź, so when he travels to Ul Qoma, he is out of his element. The cities share the same space, but they are very different from one another in character and composition—for Borlú, Besźel is most definitely "home" while Ul Qoma is not. It's precisely this sentiment, amplified a hundredfold and augmented with a sense of superiority, that gives hardcore nationalists like the Besź True Citizens and Qoma First their motivation. And on the other side, you have the unificationists of either city trying to merge the two together (which honestly seems like a bad idea to me, just from a physical infrastructure perspective).
Despite being so different, Besźel and Ul Qoma are both defined by their unique situation and by their oversight by the Breach. No other cities on Earth have an "alien power" watching over them, "protecting" them. Citizens learn as children to avoid breaching; as we soon discover, the murders of Mahalia Geary go to great lengths to avoid breaching while committing their crime. Breach is omnipresent, a constant undercurrent in thoughts and actions—it's amazing that most Besź and Ul Qomans don't have a siege mentality.
Borlú's a very interesting character and a good narrator. I am not so convinced he is a very good detective, but he gets the job done, and what he lacks in foresight he makes up for in guts. What begins as an admittedly vexing murder investigation quickly becomes an investigation into the structure of the cities themselves, into the nature of Breach and the possibility of a "third city," Orciny, existing "between" the other two. Borlú's not an action hero, but he's still tough and does what's necessary to deliver justice.
Can you read The City & The City as a straight crime novel, ignoring all this namby-pamby fantasy junk? Of course not. I focus so much on the relationship between these cities because it's integral to the story, and to the mystery—there would be very little mystery were it not for the fact that an Ul Qoman inhabitant winds up dead on Besź soil. Yet the mystery is just as integral to the book. It is the plot, the glue that creates the conflict and drives the story forward even as we learn about the two cities. Genre-wise, there is enough of a "crime novel" here that people who regard fantasy with a sceptical or hesitant eye need not fear being swallowed by a crowd of hungry LARPers.
The City & The City is—and I mean this without any denigration toward other types of fantasy novels—a very mature work of fantasy. It's probably more proper to label it "speculative fiction," if we're going to get into a label debate—I'm just calling it "fantasy" because we never do get a full explanation for why the cities are superimposed on each other. Should we get an explanation? You're certainly entitled to want one, but as it is, this book feels complete. It is a mystery set in a mysterious city and a mysterious city, but that mystery is not about the origins of the city and the city. The origins are extraneous, and attempting to add them would ruin the story's harmony. For The City & The City works precisely because it is balanced, because Miéville carefully controls the juxtaposition of the foreign and the familiar. The result is a murder wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a city and a city....more
Mélusine suffers from two narrators: Felix Harrowgate and Mildmay the Fox. I say “suffers” because Monette switches between the two perspectives moreMélusine suffers from two narrators: Felix Harrowgate and Mildmay the Fox. I say “suffers” because Monette switches between the two perspectives more frequently than Bill Nye drops mad science truth. Each chapter is about thirty or fifty pages in this paperback edition, but perspective can happen as often as once every page. Sometimes the characters barely get a few paragraphs in before Monette switches to the other narrator. Consequently, instead of feeling like I’m watching two separate stories develop and wondering how they will come together, I feel like I’m watching really badly edited shaky-cam footage from two separate camera crews.
Neither of these narrators particularly captured my interest or sympathies. Felix is a wizard. Wizards are cool, right? Except that, by about page 3, Felix was in major depression mode. Instead of talking to his lover about it, he flees to the sanctuary of the wizard who once abused him and raped him. The wizard abuses him and rapes him again, and Felix goes back for more, claiming that he simply “can’t help it”.
I’m given to understand that this is a realistic pattern of actions for an abuse victim to take: leave, temporarily, and then surrender to what they perceive is an inevitability. So I’m not trying to demean or diminish the horror of the abuse victim’s experience here. Rather, I take issue with the fact that, by beginning the story here, Monette makes it really difficult for me to understand and sympathize with Felix. We don’t have his backstory and his full relationship with Malkar; we don’t understand what brought him to this point. All we can do is snap hungrily at the litle crumbs Monette throws at us and hope that it’s enough to see us through until the end of the book, when she makes that part clear.
Generally, it’s a good idea to begin at the beginning of the story, which often means skipping over the boring parts in a character’s early life. Sometimes, though, a little context is necessary to keep the reader on side. I mean, Monette bothered to include a prologue that—as far as I can tell—has nothing to do with the plot in particular. That seems like pages well spent!
Oh, and Mildmay? At first his jargon annoyed me, and I suppose you should take that as a compliment for Monette’s ability to capture distinct voices for these two narrators. Gradually, his story did come to interest me, and his voice became less annoying. I suspect this happened at the same time Felix started going mad and his sections became sparser and less interesting. (Madness from a first-person perspective is hard to do effectively.) Mildmay’s sanity, in contrast, seemed to at least offer the prospect of moving this story forward.
Mélusine is named after the city in which the first half of the book takes place. The book isn’t really about the city, though. Monette has clearly created an interesting world populated by a vast and diverse cast of cultures, not to mention a number of competing schools of magic that all view each other with suspicion of the taint of heresy. She doesn’t spend much time explaining these various schools, though, and while I appreciate the dedication to keeping exposition to a minimum, there’s something to be said for fleshing out a world beyond dropping an unfamiliar name here and there. There is a fine line between exposition and description, where dropping too much of the one leads to forgetting too much of the other.
Maybe it’s too much for me to expect a book titled after a city to be about that city. Mélusine is more about how Felix and Mildmay meet, the secret they discover that brings them together, and then the journey they take to uncover Felix’s past. Unfortunately, that journey is boring. There are no monsters to slay, no detours, no quests. They stumble across another empire, book passage on a ship, get shipwrecked, and wind up … exactly where they wanted to be!
This entire book feels like filler, like the setup for the real story. In the first act, Felix’s master uses Felix’s bound power to break the Virtu, a magical MacGuffin that allows the wizards of Mélusine to focus their spells more effectively. This is obviously a Big Deal, a kind of magical terrorist act. The fallout from this act, however, remains unclear and unresolved. We don’t know if Felix is supposed to play a role in repairing the Virtu. We don’t know if Felix will ever confront his former master and exact revenge. All we know is that Felix and Mildmay are together, and Felix isn’t exactly mad any more (maybe).
A lot of stuff seems like it happens in this book, but make no mistake: nothing happens. This is a book whose plot consists of dragging two characters across a world that is poorly-described while switching viewpoints faster than a cat can regret jumping into a bathtub.
There is a good story lurking somewhere in here, with characters who can do it justice. But it needs more exposition, more patience with characterization, and less patience with plotting. Mélusine really just needs to breathe. It doesn’t do that, and that makes it very difficult for me to praise.
I won't lie: I plucked this book from the library shelf because it had a blurb from Jim Butcher on the cover. I was not disappointed.
Simon R. Green'sI won't lie: I plucked this book from the library shelf because it had a blurb from Jim Butcher on the cover. I was not disappointed.
Simon R. Green's created a wonderful milieu in the Nightside, a shady alterna-London where it's eternal night and its supernatural inhabitants fit the mood. His protagonist, John Taylor, is the perfect mix of capable and scary-dangerous. He's not quite as fun as Harry Dresden, but he's got a good sense of humour. In some ways, he also reminds me of the Doctor (but again, not quite).
This book embodies the term "page-turner." I started it this afternoon and finished it tonight. It's true that it's short, but it also packs a punch. Green starts off with a nice piece of action, segues into some exposition and character development, then plunges us into a non-stop mystery adventure that occurs in a single night.
At first I was worried the climax was going to let me down, but that only turned out to be the precursor to the climax. In the end, the mystery component of The Unnatural Inquirer was satisfactory. Not excellent, but good. My least favourite part of the book (and what I suspect I'll dislike about this series in general) is the overabundance of heavy magical types and their impressive array of paranoid powers. It seems like everywhere you turn (i.e., every second page) there's a new flavour of Power hanging around, and Taylor just waves his hand and beats them some way. I realize that's the point of the Nightside, but Green overemphasizes it so it borders on camp.
I'm sure I would have appreciated this book more if I read its seven predecessors. However, don't let that stop you from delving into The Unnatural Inquirer like I almost did--you'll be missing out. Now, however, I'm going back to the beginning so I can get a better sense of John Taylor's history.
Definitely recommend for any fans of urban fantasy private investigator mysteries....more
What began as a fairly bland, contrived plot soon became an entertaining adventure. Living with the Dead was a pleasant surprise.
I can't say many goodWhat began as a fairly bland, contrived plot soon became an entertaining adventure. Living with the Dead was a pleasant surprise.
I can't say many good things about the book's main character, Robyn Peltier. Kelley Armstrong has her flee the scene of a murder not once, but twice, purely because the plot requires Robyn to be a murder suspect. From that point onward, I expected the book to be fairly clunky. Instead, it rapidly improved as the both the pace and the amount of action increased.
There's not a whole lot of supernatural action in this book, and I'm not sure if that's good or bad. Several of the main characters are supernatural creatures, and that affects the story. Most of the supernatural special effects only happen behind the scenes; the most magic we get comes from Detective Findlay and his ability to converse with ghosts.
While I didn't much like Robyn, I really liked Hope. Perhaps it's just because she was more acclimated to the supernatural otherworld, and thus more useful, but Hope always seemed to be exploring several different avenues in her investigation. As a result, there's a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation in Living with the Dead: Hope thinks Detective Findlay's working with an otherworld Cabal, but Findlay's completely ignorant of the otherworld. The confusion is realistic and entertaining.
Finally, Living with the Dead has a deliciously manipulative villain, Adele Morrissey. She's only in it for herself, which is her ultimate undoing, and will stop at nothing to achieve her goals. She murders and seduces as necessary, and her mercenary ruthlessness is excellent.
This is my first Women of the Otherworld book. Had I read the previous books, perhaps I'd like this one better simply because I'd be more familiar with it. However, I don't think you need to start with the first book before reading Living with the Dead. It's no Dresden Files (my gold standard for urban fantasy), but it comes close. I'll be reading more of this series....more
In one sentence: my review of [[book:The Man With the Golden Torc|155459] stands double. In fact, I'm beginning to feel almost as repetitive as SimonIn one sentence: my review of [[book:The Man With the Golden Torc|155459] stands double. In fact, I'm beginning to feel almost as repetitive as Simon R. Green, just by reiterating this! However, there are things I missed in my previous, somewhat-hastily-written review, so I shall address those now.
Firstly, Green has too many characters and doesn't know what to do with them. I wonder if he just can't control his urge to explore every cool concept that wanders across that fantastic imagination of his. For it's clear that most of his characters are intriguing--if not always original--creations; there's just too many of them. Eventually their personalities begin to clash and Green has trouble incorporating them into the plot. This overabundance of characters leads to the second and third problems: lack of character development and horrible pacing, respectively.
The characters in Daemons are Forever don't lack character development so much as consistent development. Much like their magical abilities, which Green amends and ameliorates to suit whatever situation he's dreamt up now, the characters' personalities seem far too mutable for my liking. As a result, most end up as two-dimensional canvases on which a conflict or witty remark can be painted--or rather, painfully grafted.
Daemons are Forever also lacks anything resembling an interesting story. Halfway through the book, my only thought was, "This is so ... dull." The majority of the book is devoted to exposition, either through dialogue or the internal narration of our protagonist, Eddie Drood. It's mostly, "Hmm, invaders from another dimension want to come over here and gobble us up--ideas, anyone?" Occasionally, the plot seems to sense that something is amiss and makes its own halfhearted attempt to rise up and progress in some way, but Green quickly puts a stop to that. He tosses in token action scenes--with those slippery mutable powers that every character has--to satisfy those readers who are easily bribed by such shiny baubles.
The contradictory nature of the magic underpinning Green's Secret Histories series is what irks me the most. For example, at one point Eddie clearly establishes that Merlin's Glass can't teleport him into the Sanctity (a particular room in his home base) itself. Then, only about twenty pages later, he does just that. Fantasy is supposed to be about "anything is possible," but a fantasy story without any magical ground rules, where any magic goes, eliminates the element of risk and completely destroys the enjoyment found in the element of surprise. The best moments of any book come when a character reaches down inside himself or herself to summon up that last bit of determination and come up with a plan, a smart plan, to save the day. It's not simply a matter of one of the supporting characters saying, "Oh, by the way, I can make this problem go away with a wave of my hand."
Daemons are Forever could have benefited from a better editor, one not afraid to mark up the manuscript with massive red pen marks. There's too much fluff, not enough substance....more