In recent weeks there have been no end of blog posts about George R.R. Martin's iconic A Song of Ice and Fire (which by the way, I've called the Song of Fire and Ice in my head for the last 15 years) - none better than the brilliant duology posted by Adam over the at the Wertzone. With A Dance with Dragons due out in three weeks I knew I had to join the club and starting rereading the series. God damn I forgot how good it was.
Seriously, I forgot. Most of the fantasy I read from the ages of 15-20 that I've subsequently picked up in my late 20's and now early 30's have left me disappointed. My memory of the novels have outstripped how good they aren't. The incredible work being done today by authors like Joe Abercrombie, Steven Erikson, N.K. Jemisin, and a host of others have far exceeded their predecessors (not in all cases, but still). So I picked up A Game of Thrones again with some trepidation - would it be as good as I remember? It was, and more.
Just in case anyone reading this has *not* read Game of Thrones or has not seen the HBO series, let me give a brief synopsis... yeah right. Go read it. Stop now. Go to Amazon or your local library or local bookseller and get it done. Then come back and read my ramblings. Back now? Great.
#1) Bro. There is some serious foreshadowing in this bitch. I've read a lot of epic series in my day - name it and I've probably read it. No one has more command of his world and story arc than Martin does. I have no doubt that Martin has plotted every nook and cranny of his story and his world from the moment he put pen to paper on a Game of Thrones 20 years ago.
#2) Tyrion Lannister is the most iconic character in fantasy. Gandalf? Please. Drizzt? Pfft. Pug? Elric? Belgarath? Thomas? No. No. No. Tyrion is the cats pajamas, ok? He's tortured, and callous, but also tries to do the right thing. Or does he? Is he only doing what he does to pay back his shitty father? I have no idea! That's what makes him so amazing. That and he's a killer limbo player.
#3) Is Ned an anti-villain? So we hear all kinds of talk about anti-heroes, right? A protagonist whose character is at least in some regards conspicuously contrary to that of the archetypal hero, and is in some instances its antithesis. Tyrion is clearly an anti-hero, for example. An anti-villain would be someone who acts contrary to good, but does so with heroic intentions.
Sure Ned was acting with honor - Stannis is the heir - yet if he had bent either in support of Joffrey or placed himself and/or Renly on the throne he could have stabilized the realm and kept his family alive. He wouldn't do it and thus brought the evils of war to every doorstep in the realm. Yes, Ned fits all the heroic stereotypes, but he's not a hero - just as Stannis isn't a hero in the later books. Martin hammers the notion that honor and justice are not in themselves "good". And boy does he do it well.
Anyway, these are just some thoughts I had after my reread of the first book. I've already started A Clash of Kings. More thoughts in the days ahead leading up the release of A Dance with Dragons.(less)
My A Song of Ice and Fire reread continues and let me say - A Clash of Kings is bloody depressing. I mean really, does anything good happen in this book? Theon's a self-entitled jerk. Tyrion is a good dude (generally) who gets constantly dumped on because he's dumpy. Catelyn and Robb watch their family get annihilated. Melisandre squeezes out shadow babies. Joffrey is a real asshole. And Tywin needs to get laid - badly. The funniest part is - I know A Storm of Swords is going to be even worse!
Since all of these books have been reviewed endlessly I'm just going to offer a few thoughts here and there about what I read:
A. I never quite understood why Quoran Halfhand takes Jon Snow on his trek and why the Old Bear would let him go. It doesn't really make sense.
B. This book is filled with chapters that I just didn't want to read. Sansa. Catelyn. Theon. Bran. Yet wouldn't you know, by the end of each of those chapters I was totally sucked into the story lines. It's a real testament to Martin as a writer I think.
C. I'm continually intrigued by Martin's choice to not use Robb as a POV character. I'm now halfway through A Storm of Swords and it continues to perplex me. So many items like Whispering Wood and Jeyne Westerling are pivotal to the plot, but we only see them through his mother's eyes. I'd love to ask Martin why he did that someday.
D. The battle at King's Landing is pretty bad ass. Tyrion riding out, Pod Payne doing his thing, and the look ins on Cersei and Sansa are so tense. Brilliant battle.
I'm already about 60% through A Storm of Swords. Looks like I'll finish my re-read well before A Dance with Dragons hits the shelves (for real).(less)
This is one of the best books I've ever read and I think it's by far the pinnacle of A Song of Ice and Fire (thus far). I read somewhere recently that the first three books in the series are really one long book - I totally agree. What Martin sets up in the first three novels largely comes to conclusion in A Storm of Swords. If I never read another page about Jaime Lannister, the Hound (could be I have), Cersei, or Tyrion, I would be satisfied. Of course, I've read A Feast for Crows and there's a lot more to come from most of that list.
I think part of the frustration many readers had with Feast stemmed from the brilliance of its predecessor. If I'm judging a novel by how many times it gives me the chills or ties my stomach in knots, then Storm would quickly be ranked as the best novel I've ever read. The Red Wedding, Joffrey's wedding, Tyrion's escape, Littlefinger and Lysa, and all the rest just gave Martin's readers satisfaction. Feast begins again a lot of the building of anticipation that's more associated with the first two books in the series.
Anyway, on to some quick thoughts on the novel:
#1 Red Wedding. Red Wedding. Red Wedding. What an incredible scene. My stomach was tied in knots from the first sentence of Cat's chapter because I knew what was coming. At the turn of each page I glanced at the bottom to see if it was going to happen on THIS page and breathed a sigh of relief every time it didn't. And then it did. Man.
#2) When Jaime frees Tyrion and they talk about Tysha, how can someone not get a little emotional? For the 2000 pages of the series before this scene Martin has exposed Tyrion time and again to abuse. And then Jaime tells him that he had something real - or close enough - and it was snatched away by his father. After Shae's betrayal (so appropriately good), Tyrion's emotions were so raw and Martin brought it home perfectly.
#3) Varys, Varys, Varys. Obviously this guy is the key figure in what's been going in King's Landing. How much of what's taken place has been at his behest? The juxtaposition of him and Petyr is very compelling. I never quite realized that Martin was setting them up as opposing forces until I watched the HBO adaptation. So much of the body language in their scenes together made a light bulb go on in my head. For whatever reason I just never focused on them the first few times through. I'm sure it has something to do with Martin keeping me so engrossed in the POV characters.
I'm going to try to read a few things between Storm and Feast. If I'm lucky I'll time finishing Feast with the release of A Dance with Dragons. It is an exciting time!(less)
My re-read is complete as of Saturday afternoon - three days ahead of the release for A Dance with Dragons. I immediately logged on to Amazon and pre-ordered Dance on my Kindle. It will be delivered at 12:01 AM on Tuesday (I hope). I may power through 100 pages or so before going to bed. Showing up to work with dark circles under my eyes is always a win.
A Feast for Crows was better than I remembered in some ways, and worse in others. The narrative is paced so slowly and jumps into so many different points of view that it never gets great pace. Some suggestions about reading each POV in order makes some sense. Reading Arya or Brienne chapters all in a row would probably alleviate some of the difficulties with the books structure. In any case, I read it as it was intended.
As I've completed my re-read of each of Martin's books I've posted a few major thoughts from each about what I found interesting. What follows is full of spoilers, obviously.
#1) Let's say A Song of Ice and Fire is an allegory for all of fiction. A Game of Thrones might be the Epic of Gilgamesh and A Storm of Swords might be Crime and Punishment. In this scenario there's no doubt in my mind that A Feast for Crows is the Tales of Canterbury. Stick with me here.
Feast is a novel for the smallfolk as Martin calls them. Like Chaucer's classic was a peak into the life of the common man at a time when novels were written solely from and for the noble perspective, Feast is the window into the heart of Westeros people. Up until this point Martin hasn't shown much of anything when it comes to the vast majority of the population. I think it provided him with the opportunity to wax rhapsodic about injustice and natural rights. Reading Feast from that point of view, it's a wholly different book for me and something I can enjoy as I didn't the first few times through.
#2) Lady Genna, Tywin's sister, is a great addition to the Lannister clan. When she says:
"Jaime," she said, tugging on his ear, "sweetling, I have known you since you were a babe at Joanna's breast. You smile like Gerion and fight like Tyr, and there's some of Kevan in you, else you would not wear that cloak... but Tyrion is Tywin's son, not you."
Oh baby, it doesn't get more awesome than that.
#3) I think the reason Martin's fans were so down on Feast when it first came out is that the novel is too disjointed with POVs. Seeing the Kingsmoot from three different POVs really chops it up and sucks out a lot of the energy. That's also true of Dorne where we see Hotah in the early going, Arys in the middle, and Arianne toward the end. I'm not entirely sure what Martin was trying to accomplish by doing this except maybe to set things up POVs for future books. Personally, I think it would have worked better if he'd only had one POV from both of those settings.
#4) Jaime is almost as cool of a character as Tyrion. Man I love these two. Cersei is just a caricature and I can't get behind her as a character. She doesn't seem authentic to me.
I should have a Dance review up by the end of the week.(less)
Rothfuss can write. Straight up. Despite the fact that Kvothe is borderline dues ex machina, I find him vulnerable and interesting. That can only be e...moreRothfuss can write. Straight up. Despite the fact that Kvothe is borderline dues ex machina, I find him vulnerable and interesting. That can only be explained by the fact that Rothfuss can really spin a tale.
with that said, I think WMF really loses track at various points in the novel. The book reads more like a travelogue than a novel. Kvothe goes from place to place, has adventures, makes love to a new girl, and then ends up basically where he started.
At several points in the book Rothfuss skims over details of Kvothe's travels because they're "not that interesting" or not part of what "makes him who he is". But frankly, I feel like half of the book could have been handled in a similar manner.
Putting Kvothe in an inn listening to songs about himself, and showing us the songs could have almost been a substitute for 200 pages of the adventure itself (namely the Ferulian and Adem chapters).
With all that said, I still tore through the novel. It was compelling, if a bit monotonous at times, and I can't wait for the third book.(less)
Ok, I finished it. My rating is contingent upon my completion of Crippled God as I recognize it's really one book split into two.
However, I struggle w...moreOk, I finished it. My rating is contingent upon my completion of Crippled God as I recognize it's really one book split into two.
However, I struggle with Erikson. I find it incredibly difficult to figure out what's important and what isn't. I recognize this is my failure, not the authors, because frankly I don't think Erikson cares a wit that I'm confused. He's doing it on purpose.
This is the first time in my years of reading fantasy that I realize I have to reread this entire series KNOWING the ending to really appreciate what he's done.(less)
The Dragon's Path marks the sixth book I've read from Daniel Abraham and the first time I've reviewed an author twice. Abraham has been a favorite of mine ever since his Long Price Quartet. His more recent science fiction debut, Leviathan Wakes, under the pseudonym James S.A. Corey was also impressive. Although Abraham's first series never garnered wide spread popularity, I never doubted he would one day put himself among the bestselling authors in the speculative genres. The Dragon's Path, Abraham's first installment in The Dagger and Coin Quintet, is the first step on the road that will lead him there.
Unlike the Long Price Quartet, which eschewed a lot of genre tropes that permeate fantasy, Abraham embraced many of them in The Dragon's Path. The setting is decidedly European medieval. It has dragons, magic (albeit minimal thus far), swordplay, and religion. While the setting is... expected... how Abraham tells his story is anything but.
Abraham ignores the genre tendency to use the heroes journey (monomyth) as the primary narrative force. Instead, he takes his artful, yet familiar world, and uses it to tell personal stories. The plot is built around four point-of-view characters - Cithrin, Marcus, Dawson, and Geder. It all begins when the free city Vanai comes under attack sending Cithrin on a mad dash to escape the city with the riches of the Medean Bank (think Goldman Sachts) in tow. With Marcus and his crew as her only protectors the pair represent Abraham's coin.
In contrast, Dawson and Geder - noblemen of great and no repute respectively - are the dagger. Interestingly, this side of the story has almost no connection to the other, sharing at most 25 pages of "screen time". Dawson, the King's childhood friend, is at the head of a coalition that would reject social reforms (think Magna Carta) and maintain the status quo of a class based society. Caught in the middle of the political wrangling, Geder must overcome his reputation as a laughing stock scholar before he gets trampled by those jockeying for position.
One of the reasons the novel has been met with such mixed reviews is that not one of these characters is terribly likable. They all exhibit admirable traits at times, but not one escapes Abraham's unique ability to color his characters with shades of gray. Even Cithrin and Marcus who are most definitely trending (to steal a twitter term) hero have character flaws that are difficult to see past. For me, this made it too easy to put the book down in between chapters.
Similarly problematic is that the story itself underwhelms with very little action. I don't mean in a swashbuckling sort of way (there isn't that either) but there's just not a ton that happens over the course of 550 pages. Nothing that resembles an "epic" arc gets going until the conclusion and it's quite clear that The Dragon's Path is all about moving Abraham's pieces into place. Unfortunately, for a first book in a series that's a difficult place to start. Abraham is asking his readers to invest considerable time into a story that hasn't even really begun.
However, it's easy to make the mistake of disliking a book because it isn't what it "should" be. Like Pulp Fiction or Get Shorty, The Dragon's Path is a character study more than epic fantasy. While I am certain future novels in The Dagger and Coin series will have a more epic scope, this is a novel about real people in an unreal world. Each of Abraham's primary characters have their own story that could have been self contained novellas. He stitches them together in a coherent way and drops hints about how they'll come together in the future.
As a character study, I think The Dragon's Path is incredible. Geder and Cithrin are extremely compelling and I fully expect one or both to become iconic characters in the fantasy pantheon by the series conclusion. For a reader who's looking for a traditional epic fantasy adventure, this may not be the best choice right now. Moving forward, I have faith that Abraham will produce a series that exceeds his brilliant Long Price Quartet and sells a few more copies too.
The second book in the series, titled The King's Blood, is due out next spring. I'm literally counting the days.(less)
I'm a little late to the Peter Brett party. I remember when The Warded Man first hit the shelves a few years ago. I had just finished Brent Weeks's Night Angel Trilogy and I was hunting for something new. I wasn't a savvy blogger type then or even someone who read reviews on-line -- just a guy who liked to read. I'm sad to say, I made a conscious decision not to start it. I wanted to make sure it had legs before I invested my time and money. It turns out my $7.99 investment is going to cost me five times that by the time Brett's Demon Cycle is done. In fact, I should probably just send Del Rey the check right now. I wonder if they take trade-ins (Omen Machine? Anyone?).
Warded Man can come off a bit like paint-by-number-epic-fantasy at first. The narrative voice is third person limited, using three distinct points of view. It begins in a small community on the outskirts of a society built on fear of demons, who come to feed when the sun sets. Arlen is the stereotypical farm boy who dreams of life beyond the agrarian lifestyle chosen for him. With a natural talent for painting wards, the only barrier between humanity and the insatiable demons, Arlen isn't satisfied with the status quo. When his mother is attacked one night, he leaves home, determined to find freedom from fear.
The other two points of view are Rojer, an orphaned jongleur (think gleeman or bard), and Leesha, a stunningly beautiful herb gatherer (think wisdom or hedge witch). For much of the novel the three story lines are independent from one another, brought together only when each has reached a conclusion that the world they inhabit cannot continue. While Arlen is the novel's center, all three of them are given about equal time.
Some of the other paint-by-number devices include a combat dedicated desert people who wield spears, battles for survival against impossible odds, villains who engender no sympathy, and coming of age plots. There's even a prophesy. All that might be read as a criticism of the novel and Brett as an author. It's not. Warded Man may be wrapped in familiar paper, but under the hood is a unique smorgasbord of fantasy delights that becomes more apparent with each page (mixed metaphor, much?).
Of course, there are certain tropes that by their very definition designate something as epic fantasy (prophesy, end of the world stakes, good vs. evil, etc.). There are also certain tropes that come up again, and again, for a very good reason. The best example being the small town, farm boy starting point. When building a second world from the ground up, including a magic system, political structures, and establishing character baselines, there's almost no better way to ease a reader in that the aforementioned trope. Authors who eschew it are often criticized for throwing too much at their readers, Steven Erikson being perhaps the best example. Are there other ways to go about it? Sure, but it's overused for a reason and Brett executes it flawlessly.
And execution is mostly what makes Warded Man such a rousing success. Brett's prose flows naturally and his action scenes seem effortless. His world and magic system are cleverly crafted, playing off each other in perfect harmony. Characters are well drawn, making the reader want to strangle them one moment and cheer for them the next. To condense things down to a sentence, Brett is beginning something that will be a tighter, and more grim, Wheel of Time.
My one complaint about the novel is that it ends up reading something like a long form prologue. Brett divides everything up into four parts, starting his characters as children, then young adults, then adults, before bringing the novel to its for-now conclusion. Covering fifteen years of time, with each section covering a year at most, a great deal of time passes that's a mystery to the reader. Additionally, until those final pages, Brett's three characters are searching for direction, as opposed to driving towards a goal. Some might find that a bit off-putting; it just made me angry I didn't have a copy of the sequel, Desert Spear, sitting on my nightstand. And that's about the best endorsement I can give an author.
By the time Brett pens the final volume, the Demon Cycle is going to be one of the best selling series in recent years. I know I have readers of this blog who will find aspects of Warded Man irredeemable. It could be the familiar trappings, or a particular set of scenes near the end that may not sit well with some female (mostly) readers. But, even critics will recognize that Peter Brett has a tremendous talent for story telling. It's been a long time since I stayed up to 2 AM to finish a novel (on a work night, no less!), and even longer since I had no idea how much time had passed.
Desert Spear, the second installment in the Demon Cycle is available now. Daylight War, the third installment, is scheduled for release in early 2013. You can follow Peter Brett on Twitter or on his website.(less)
In an effort to be totally upfront about what Kushiel's Dart is and isn't, let me get this out of way - there's a lot of sex. Some of it's pretty graphic. There's rape and torture and the main character enjoys both on some level. Too many reviews out there emphasize this. Yes there's sex and yes it's graphic, but for anyone with access to the internet you can find far worse in about 10 minutes of browsing around. Don't overlook Jacqueline Carey's novel simply because of some prudish sense of propriety. Now on to my review...
Last week over at westeros.org there was an interesting thread discussing bloat in fantasy novels. It was particularly appropriate as I was reading Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey - all 1000 pages of it. To say Carey's first novel is bloated would be a gross understatement. It begins with an incredibly tiresome first 400 pages or so, followed by a well done (mostly) 500, and then concluded with a morbidly boring last 100 of wrap up and setup for the next installment.
In the thread, I argued pretty vehemently that bloat is somewhat part and parcel to fantasy as a genre. To create a world from scratch, imbue it with life, and populate it with vibrant characters is not something easily accomplished without some weight of words. In the discussion I was using to bloat to mean length, but in truth bloat happens when something becomes long for reason beyond the necessity of story telling. Self-indulgence? Maybe. Longer books sell better? Maybe. Bad editing? Maybe. I'm not sure why Kushiel's Dart is bloated. It could all of those things. Without a doubt Carey's first 400 and last 100 pages could have been cut in half without a great deal of heartburn to the books conclusion.
Carey's protagonist is Phedre, a courtesan trained for sex in a culture where the motto is Love As Thou Wilt. Phedre as it turns out is also the first anguisette (read likes to get beat up) in three generations to be available for pay to play. She's bought by a disgraced nobleman named Delaunay who trains her to be a bedroom spy in his game of thrones (pardon the euphemism GRRM). Long (very) story short, Phedre finds herself in way over her head ending up at the heart of a conspiracy to overthrow the kingdom and plunge the entire civilized world into war. To stay spoiler free, I'm afraid to go into any more detail because none of the "in over her head" stuff starts until nearly halfway through the book when the plot actually starts going somewhere.
In fact, if this "in over her head" moment had occurred in the first 50 pages I'm almost sure the book would have retained its audience and likely attracted a whole lot more. The first 400 pages are self-indulgent. They are filled with narrowly focused world building, political machinations that only have tangential bearing on the overall plot, and copious amounts of sex. The only reason I made it to the good part of the book? The sex. It was well written and actually had compelling undertones about the nature of sexuality. I can't tell if the first four hundred pages were an excuse for Carey to be provocative with her sex scenes or whether she felt it was all actually necessary. In either case, by the time I got to the actual action (loose term) I was completely incapable of making a rational decision about whether or not it was any good. By comparison to Carey's first half, it was a tour de force and moved at a great clip until the closing chapters where things bogged down a bit.
It should be noted that Kushiel's Dart is told from Phedre's point of view in what feels like first person objective (shouldn't be possible?). Normally, I wouldn't mind (see my review of Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin), but Carey litters the story with dozens of "if I'd only know then what I know now!" It felt contrived like when watching a slasher flick and someone asks, "why didn't the girl just call the cops?" Because there wouldn't be a movie, stupid! Kushiel's Dart carries some of that same frustration.
As an aside, I think part of the difficulty in reading such a lengthy novel is that for 1000 pages I saw only through Phedre's eyes. Most novels in the genre of this length are constantly moving in and out of different points of view. It gives readers a break from certain story lines and keeps things moving when one line stalls out. In Carey's novel that just isn't possible because of the first person choice. I'm not saying it was the wrong choice, but it may have had an impact as to why I felt finishing the book was such a chore.
I've been pretty negative up to this point and in some ways that's unfair. Kushiel's Dart isn't a bad book. In fact, Carey manages to make every sentence sound good and her dialog is natural. There is intricate plot with all kinds of political twists and turns that in many ways justify a long novel. Not 1000 pages mind you, but long. Her world is vibrant and lush and she does romance very well. The novel is positively brimming with romance - unrequited, too-requited, thrice-requited. You name a romance of choice and Kushiel's Dart is likely to deliver it to one degree or another and do it beautifully.
I'd be lying if I said this is my kind of novel. It's not. I don't think there's any doubt that the vast majority of Carey's readers are women and last my wife checked I'm a dude. That said, I enjoyed the romance and reading this novel has encouraged me to give others like it a try in the future. It has not however necessarily encouraged me to read more Jacqueline Carey who I fear wrote Kushiel's Dart as much for length as for impact.(less)
Trudi Canavan's world is one filled with magicians and black magicians. Where traditional magicians draw power only from themselves, black magicians can steal the magic from others to use for themselves. In some places black magic is a lost art. In others it is a natural part of life. Kyralia and Sachaka, the two most powerful nations, exist under a tenuous truce. Kyralia, a place where black magic is feared and taught only to a select few, views the unchecked power of the Sachakan black magicians with distrust.
The novel begins in Kyralia with Lord Lorkin, the privileged son of Black Mage Sonea, deciding to do something with his life. He volunteers to travel as part of an embassy to Sachaka, a nation who had only recently been at war with his own. Meanwhile, at home his mother Sonea and her old friend Cery the Thief (read - crime lord) find themselves hunting a rogue magician who may be responsible for a series of murders the city.
The Ambassador's Mission is set after the events of Canavan's Black Magician Trilogy (and subsequent stand alone novel, The Magician's Apprentice). Fortunately, she offers enough information to fill in what happened in the previous trilogy making it optional though still suggested. Despite having never read any of her previous work, Mission is familiar. For a lover of the fantasy genre it's like putting on an old t-shirt that jogs memories of the good old days. Her story is well paced and clearly written, with characters you can love even if they aren't total believable.
The novel's weakest point is character development. While the characters are well written and interesting, they just aren't very deep. I believe it was Anton Chekhov who said, "Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." Canavan falls into the trap of telling how characters feel without showing it. Lorkin and Cery in particular are given a lot of page time without the opportunity to expound on their motivations. They both end up taking rash actions based on emotions explained only in a few paragraphs and not very well.
Compared to so much of the fantasy that's coming out today, Mission is very young adult. There's no strong language and only one very vague sex scene. Moreover the novel is not densely plotted. Things happen in a pretty straight forward manner and the foreshadowing is not convoluted. This shouldn't be read as a criticism, just a point of fact. I found myself comparing Canavan's style quite favorably to James Barclay's Chronicles of the Raven. Although Barclay writes a slightly more adult (bloody) novel, the pacing and character development are quite similar.
This first book in the trilogy is in many ways a long form prologue. Little action graces the pages. Most of the story centers around the politics in both nations setting the stage for what promises to be a far more eventful second and third installment. There is nothing new or unexpected here yet Canavan does the expected expertly. The Ambassador's Mission is perfect for a plane ride, a beach, or in between difficult reads. I would not recommend it before bed as the clock is likely to speed by as quickly as the pages.(less)
The Rogue, the second book in Trudi Canavan's Traitor Spy Trilogy, picks up right where The Ambassador's Mission left off. Unfortunately four hundred plus pages later Canavan has not moved a lot closer to resolving the conflicts introduced in what was a promising first book. Finishing the second installment left me underwhelmed.
Since anyone thinking about reading The Rogue has surely read the preceding book, I'm not going to delve into the plot much. Suffice to say, all the old cast of characters are back and Canavan introduces one new face, Lilia - a budding magician trying to fit in. I would be remiss however if I didn't mention the fact that at least one of the primary story lines that absorbs half of The Ambassador's Mission and The Rogue makes no progress to speak of.
To make matters worse the book ends with two cliff hangers neither of which seem strongly influenced by the book's events. Rather than making me want to read the next installment, I just felt frustrated. I understand that today's fantasy marketplace demands multi book arcs. That's no excuse to not self contain each novel to some degree. Canavan's epilogue is more about advertising the third book than it is about completing the second.
In the first book, my main complaint was the lack of character development. While the problem remains, Canavan shows some improvement. Dannyl, a gay historian and ambassador, is a superb character. Throughout the book he struggles with his feelings between two men, his loyalty to his country, and his advancing years. Unlike so many gay characters in fiction, Dannyl's sexuality is part of who he is - not a casualty of a socially progressive checklist.
For that reason, I was disappointed that Lilia, a young woman coming into her own sexuality, felt exactly like a victim of "equal time". It's as though Canavan got a call from the GLBT community to not give short shrift to lesbians. I applaud the desire to put homosexual characters in the spotlight. That said, I think it does a disservice when they feel like token offerings to god of inclusiveness. Beyond that, Lelia's actions and motivations just never felt believable. This ultimately turns her into 100 pages worth of plot device I don't particularly care about.
Still, the story has pace that kept me reading. Aided by frequent point of view shifts, I continued to chase the carrot, so to speak. While reading I couldn't help keep thinking how much more I'd have enjoyed the book ten years ago when mainstream fantasy only required good plots and creative settings. Now days I just expect more depth. The frequent shift in POV never provided enough detail on any one character or setting to truly feel immersed.
With all that said, Canavan has a good story to tell. I can't recommend The Rogue on its on own merits, but I'm interested in what happens next. The Traitor Spy Trilogy will find a lot of fans amongst young adult readers and those new to genre fiction.(less)
Written in the first person, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is Yeine Darre's recounting of her life. She is both a participant and an observer in her story which leads to a unique narrative structure where she both describes what's going on, but often takes an aside to put it into context as an omniscient storyteller. Using this methodology, Jemisin presents a style that is uniquely intimate. I often felt like a voyeur lurking on the outskirts of something I shouldn't be seeing. It is beautifully written and brims with emotion.
Throughout the story, Yeine finds herself pitted against two of her cousins in a contest for the Arameri throne. The Arameri, by divine right, hold the leash of Nightlord Nahadoth (god of darkness, chaos, etc.) and his three children who have been imprisoned in human form by the Brightlord Itempas (god of order, light, etc.). So powerful are these captive gods that the Arameri rule the hundred thousand kingdoms without opposition. Yeine, rebels against this world where gods are at her beck and call. She expresses disenfranchisement with the excess and corruption of the Arameri who use Itempas' judgement to extend their dominion.
Jemisin writes a story that is fundamentally ambivalent. There is no morality in her story other than what her character, Yeine, perceives as right. The gods, even the Nightlord (a moniker traditionally reserved for the darkest fiend), exhibit qualities that make them representative of both good and evil. She supports the notion that order does not always mean right and chaos is not always evil instead perspective is the ultimate arbiter of judgement.
She takes it further by taking her gods off the pedestal and imbuing them with humanity. One of the tenets of romanticist fantasy is the unknowing forces of nature (read gods). In Kingdoms the forces of nature are not only knowable, they have faces, and weaknesses of character that are authentic not just constructs of veracity. Yeine interacts with and confronts these forces trying to recognize not only her place in the world, but the justification for their place as well.
Ultimately, I think Jemisin ask her readers to consider their relationship to spirituality and morality. Is our existence significant? Is what we do and how we do it important? Religious or not (I'm not), these questions are the reason people are attracted to the fantasy genre. I've most often heard escapism as the primary driver of fantasy readers - not me. For me, it's because I ask these questions of myself. For someone who doesn't necessarily believe in God, great fantasy makes me try to rationalize my place in things in a way no other genre does. It frees me to come to grips with my own relationship to the fantastic.
Oh, and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is really good.(less)
I first read A Game of Thrones when I was a 16 year old high school student. My mother had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer and who couldn't use a little escapism at a time like that? A Clash of Kings was already on the shelves by then and I blew through them both. My mom recovered and I fell in love with a genre that would become a huge part of my life.
I remember my second year in college waiting eagerly for A Storm of Swords. Like any college kid I was still finding my way. I hated where I was living and was searching for some direction. I bought the hardcover on release day at the Barnes and Noble down the street. To this day, hundreds of book later - I have yet to be more blown away.
By the time A Feast for Crows was released I was an adult working in Washington DC. Better read and more mature, I reread all the first three books before starting the fourth. It was better than I'd remembered. By now Martin's world was as familiar to me as our own. It was alive in a way few authors could ever hope to create. And I was better for having read it.
I only tell this story because I think it's important for anyone reading this review to know how long A Song of Ice and Fire as been with me. If Harry Potter is the story of today's youth, and Middle Earth was the majesty that was my parent's, then Westeros is mine. It's the world I have escaped to more than any other in my life and I want nothing more that to love each book Martin gives us.
So this past week, when A Dance with Dragons was released, I found myself a husband and a father. Successful (or close enough) and happy, I waited up on July 11 refreshing my Kindle every minute until it arrived. I read the prologue that night and two more chapters over breakfast. I read at work and at the gym. I read while watching Dora the Explorer and while lounging on every piece of furniture in my house. This morning, as I turned the final page to the heraldry of the Boy King, I put down my Kindle and said out loud - seriously?
Strangely enough I was reminded of Tiger Woods. One night he got in a car accident. He came up with a story, but couldn't get himself out. He was in so far that the only way out was to tell the whole story no matter how long and sordid. He ended up on national television doing a tell all press conference. Dance is Martin's press conference.
The reckoning of Dance is the response to what he calls the "Mereenese Knot." This knot was tied when Dany decided to stay in Mereen and rule instead of continuing her march to the Seven Kingdoms. As the rest of Westeros became aware of Dany and her dragons, many different factions began to coalesce around her. How, why, and most importantly when all these factions arrive in Mereen is the knot Martin struggled to untie. Instead of choosing to cut the knot like Gordian and thus impeaching Dany's character, he actually untied it. Well, tried to untie it.
This untying is why as a novel(as fifth installment in a series, its success remains to be seen), Dance is a failure. The book's pace is abysmal with over half the chapters existing as travelogs. Tyrion on the ocean, Tyrion on a river barge, Tyrion on a horse! Several POVs are far longer than necessary and some exist for seemingly no reason. The timeline is convoluted with the first half of novel coinciding chronologically with the events in Feast. This leads to scenes being rewritten, word for word in some cases, in an alternate POV. All that aside, the most unfortunate part of the novel is that 1100 pages later Martin still has yet to bring all the disparate pieces together that compose his "Mereenese Knot." For all the talk about the second half of Dance advancing the story beyond Feast, the plot only advances a few days with none of the promised conflicts among the King's Landing crew coming to fruition.
Additionally, some of his tricks are getting a little tired. The imminent death fade to black has been used about ten times too many with survival being the end result nearly every time. There also seem to be some reoccurring themes that successful governing is irreconcilable with honor and duty. Or perhaps that honor and duty preclude the ability to compromise. This is of note most significantly in the Jon and Dany chapters where neither seem capable of or willing to listen to those around them. Given their ages, this is probably an accurate characterization. Nevertheless, I find it a bit dogmatic.
Despite its shortcomings in storytelling, Dance is beautifully written, as always. Martin litters his pages with suburb foreshadowing and Easter eggs. Nothing I've read urges a reader to comb through paragraphs for hints like A Song of Ice and Fire and nothing here changes that legacy. Some of the POVs are stunningly good - especially Reek/Theon and Victarion. There are exciting seminal moments for the series (dragons!) and in true Martin style he's not shy about putting his most cherished characters to the sword.
Like Tiger, I think Martin made the decision to tell the ENTIRE story instead of creating a compelling narrative. The difference being Martin has the ability to change his story at will. If this was the only way through the knot for my favorite author, so be it; but I can't help but be disappointed after seven years of anticipation. Does my disappointment reek of reader entitlement? Maybe, except the fact remains this just isn't a very fun book to read. I don't mind Martin's lack of progress with the plot so much as I lament the excruciating detail with which he wrote what is still the "first half" of a novel. My complaints have nothing to with what happened, only about how they happened. Had Martin written this same book with two thirds the word count minus a POV or two, I would surely be trumpeting the novel as the next great installment in the most brilliant series fantasy has ever seen (like nearly every other blogger is).
Instead I'm here saying to anyone who hasn't started A Song of Ice and Fire, wait until the it's done. A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, while being eminently better written, are the functional equivalent of the Wheel of Time post Crown of Swords and pre-Sanderson takeover. Martin has thrown so many balls into the air that to keep any from dropping he's got to painstakingly orchestrate all his chess (cynasse) pieces before he can go on the attack. If I were a new reader, I'd want to make sure the pieces start moving before I invest in 5,000 pages of reading.
On the other hand, to current fans of the series, I'll be hitting refresh on my Kindle at 12:01 the day The Winds of Winter is released. What can I say? I'm pot committed. (less)
I started writing this review last week, but it just wasn't coming together like I'd hoped. With over 2,000 words written, I was approaching critical mass. You see, K.J. Parker's The Folding Knife is not an easy book to review. There's a lot going on and it's rather non-traditional for a fantasy novel in a lot of ways and then entirely traditional in others. It wasn't until I ran across Lev Grossman's article in the Wall Street Journal Monday morning that I knew how I was going to attack this post.
"Fantasy does tend to be heavily plot-driven. But plot has gotten a bad rap for the past century, ever since the Modernists (who I revere, don’t get me wrong) took apart the Victorian novel and left it lying in pieces on an old bedsheet on the garage floor. Books like “Ulysses” and “The Sound and the Fury” and “Mrs. Dalloway” shifted the emphasis away from plot onto other things: psychology; dense, layered writing; a fidelity to moment-to-moment lived experience. Plot fell into disrepute.
But that was modernism. That was the 1920s and 1930s. It was a movement – a great movement, but like all movements, a thing of its time. Plot is due for a comeback. We’re remembering that it means something too."
Yup, that sounds quite a bit like what's going on in Folding Knife and to everyone's benefit it allowed me to cut about a thousand words.
In the Vesani Republic, the First Citizen's word is nearly law. Elected by the people, he administers the largest economic power outside the somewhat fractured Eastern Empire. Today, the First Citizen is Bassianus Severus (Basso). Deaf in one ear and brilliant in business, he killed his own wife and brother-in-law after finding them in bed together. Alienated by his surviving family, he uses his influence to become the most powerful man in Vesani. Now what?
The first two sentence of that last paragraph, forget them... entirely. Anyone who has read this blog before knows I believe that world-building is a vital part of what imparts fantasy. I've always said great prose, great characters, and all the rest will only get someone so far in the speculative fiction genre. Parker has proven me wrong... mostly.
Folding Knife takes place in an invented setting. Want to know a secret? I don't care. I have no idea where Vesani is in relation to the Eastern Empire. I don't care. The moniker of Eastern Empire is so nebulous that I realized Parker doesn't want me to care. Parker's intent, I believe, is to cut away all the extraneous items that distract from the plot. Into that pit go world building, flowery prose, and unnecessary description. Parker even seems to do away with foreshadowing instead opting to tell the reader what happens before going into the details after.
What Parker has accomplished is like taking a car from Pimp My Ride and restoring its far more useful and effective former self. Parker picks out the important bits, remove the extraneous fluff, but keeps the meaning the same. This is accomplished to a degree that the novel possesses a style almost reminiscent of a news article (albeit the most impressive news article anyone might read). Even the opening chapter hits the reader with the WHO, WHAT, WHERE, and WHEN as Basso leaves the Republic in poverty on the top of a wagon. What it holds back is the why. Parker relishes filling in that blank with a brilliant tragedy in the tradition of Shakespeare and Euripides (ok, that might be hyperbole - but not absurdly so).
So that's what Folding Knife is. As for what it's about, the closest I can come is finance, loneliness, and in true Shakespearean form hubris. Finance is the device that Parker uses to move the plot from Basso's role as head of the Charity and Social Justice Bank. As someone who makes a living in the American political system I couldn't help observing a parallel between the Vesani (read: Basso) economy and America's. Leveraged, always betting on future profits, never cutting back - all of these are part of why Congress is having a lengthy argument about how best to restructure the federal budget. In that way it can certainly be read as a criticism of U.S. economic policy.
As for the other two items (loneliness and hubris), they are the impetus behind Basso's machinations both economic and political. Basso is emotionally challenged and acts out like a robber-baron to preserve not only his place in society, but to boost his perceived infallibility. While this doesn't make him particularly likable, it does make him extremely compelling. Beginning with Basso's murder of his wife and brother-in-law, Parker sets up scenes of loss and heartbreak that resonate time after time.
After writing this glowing review, I started wondering why Parker isn't ubiquitously mentioned as one of the foremost authors in the genre? If I had to answer I'd give a two-fold answer. First, Parker is an anonymous writer with no social media presence. Second, Parker writes literary fantasy. Last time I checked Martin Amis and Don DeLillo weren't exactly making the New York Times Bestseller List. If we can all agree that less people read fantasy than "real" fiction, the market Parker is ultimately writing to is even smaller than her mainstream contemporaries. Most the novels that are placed above Parker's are more traditional epic fantasy - A Song of Ice and Fire, The Black Company, The Kingkiller Chronicle, Lord of the Rings, etc.
Interestingly, for all that, Folding Knife is an epic fantasy - just not traditionally so. It follows a man through thirty years of his life describing his rise and fall from power through war and peace in 400 some odd pages. Unfortunately, this straddling the line of epic and literary fantasy limits Folding Knife's exposure somewhat preventing Parker from being appropriately recognized. I might be wrong. But if I am, why is there any list of the best fantasy novels out there without The Folding Knife right near the top? I can't explain it any other way.(less)
My wife and daughter were out of town this past week so I took the opportunity to really plow through some of my to read pile backlog. K.V. Johansen’s Blackdog coming out this September is hard to justify as "backlog", but it's a title that’s called to me from the first time I laid eyes on it. The cover is another one from Raymond Swanland who has done such good work for James Barclay, Glen Cook, and others. His covers always contain such tangible motion and barely contained violence, which appropriately describes K.V. Johansen's novel.
At first glance Blackdogis a traditional epic fantasy. It has scope, powerful magic, gods, and demons. There is a central villain and an obvious and vulnerable yet strong willed heroine surrounded by her stalwart cadre of allies. Soon though, as the pages go by, things become more robust. Johansen's world expands and what appears to be another hero's journey is instead a journey to humanity, an evaluation of the bonds of family, and an examination of divinity.
Blackdog's world is lush, in a cognitive sense, barren and arid in truth. Shown only a fraction of the larger spectrum, the novel focuses on a caravan route through the desert to the mountain steppes. Each city, or culture, is founded around a god of the earth who appears in both human and incorporeal forms. Similar to novels like The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Jemisin) or Malazan Book of the Fallen (Erikson), gods are very much active in the world, interacting with their followers and enemies alike.
Where Erikson is overly esoteric at times, Johansen has a knack for not getting off kilter. Opportunities arise to wax on a philosophical leaning or delve unnecessarily into a facet of her world not relevant to her story and each time she resists the urge to be diverted. In doing she captures some of the scope and majesty that Erikson so often does, but manages to avoid the trap of self indulgence. While Blackdog lacks the genre commentary and philosophical meandering that Malazan excels at, I can't help be feel some kinship between the two works.
My only real complaint stems from complex naming conventions that often led to a sensation of reading one of the Russian greats. Everyone has at least two names, and the devil/wizards have a minimum of three. Cities tend to be 10-12 letters or more, and many of them have similar sounds. Main characters even have names that run together with each other at times. Given Johansen's education background (MA in Medieval Studies), I'm confident that phonetically and historically speaking all the naming conventions make sense. For example, a woman raised in Attalissa's lands is likely to have a similar sounding name to honor her goddess. However, for readability, I found it all a bit distracting; often pulling me out of the story to reevaluate who the hell she was talking about.
If I was pulled out of things occasionally by confusing names, I was more often sucked in completely (I finished the novel at 2 AM). Blackdog possesses a dreamlike quality that lends itself to distorting time. Divination and soothsaying, inherently intangible pursuits, are prevalent themes in the novel. Magic in general is abstract with little no explanation as to why or how it works (Malazan again, anyone?) relying on deep concentration and meticulous preparation. Combined with the notion of body sharing demons, this all leads to long periods of time where Johansen finds herself describing non-visual events like meditation and internal battling. This would normally lead to periods of boredom, but instead she rescues the slower pace with often lyrical prose that shows and directs, but never tells.
Early on I felt myself digesting Blackdog in small chunks. A chapter here, a chapter there, I wrapped my mind around Johansen's complex world building. Like a runner in a 5K, I found my pace, easing into a rhythm before unleashing my Usain Bolt like speed in the stretch run. By the novels end I was breathless, winding down from a tremendous dénouement, and a heartfelt ending.
It's unclear whether or not Johansen has a sequel in store, if so, there's no indication on the copy I received to review. The final pages complete the story, but leave enough hanging to warrant future installments. The world building alone surely invites future exploration. In either case, I should think lovers of epic fantasy, particularly Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen, will devour Blackdog with vigor. I definitely did.(less)
Who is Sam Sykes? Parts of Tome of the Undergates would suggest he might be to fantasy what Douglas Adams is to science fiction or what Christopher Moore is to whatever the hell genre Christopher Moore writes. Other parts make me think he's a glorified AD&D Dungeon Master who decided to write down his most recent campaign in painstaking detail. And still others make me think he might be the next great voice in epic fantasy. So I guess my answer to my opening question is - I don't have a freaking clue, but I really want to find out.
Tome tells the story of a band of six adventurers (pejoratively) none of whom particularly like one another or themselves. Led by Lenk, a charismatic warrior with some sanity issues, the group is hired by Lord Emissary Miron Evenhands to recover a stolen tome that has the power to return the demon goddess Mother Deep from the depths of hell (or its reasonable approximation). To accomplish their goal all they have to do is kill a few fish-men, a couple demons, and some purple longfaces, while not killing each other in a fit of pique.
Now does that sound like a AD&D campaign or what? Making up Sykes' party of adventures are the aforementioned Lenk, Kataria the shict (elfish) archer, Gariath the dragonman barbarian, Daenos the craven rogue, Dreadaelion the powerful yet sleepy wizard, and Asper the whiny cleric. I do believe that's the perfect mix. Healer? Check! Tank? Double check! Backstab and traps? Check! Ranged Damage? Check! I'm not being remotely critical either because I actually think AD&D shenanigans is what Sykes was trying to do. Tomes is a caricature of a pen and paper role playing game with six players, a deranged DM, and maybe a few bong hits in between battles for comedic purposes. I mean, look at the map Sykes gave to his German publisher and tell me I'm wrong.
It's in this activity where Sykes frequently calls to mind Douglas Adams or Christopher Moore. His dialogue is snappy and clever. He makes fun of the misuse of the term irony, and then displays lots of proper irony. Embracing the unexpected, Sykes' barbarians have a gentleman's courtesy and a professorial vernacular. Half of his main characters hear voices, hinting at best mild schizophrenia and at worst full blown demonic possession, while the other half are chicken shit or oblivious. Even his most hard-boiled killer at one point dances a jig while teasing someone about being a pansy. The whole thing reeks of satire and frequently induces belly jiggling laughter.
While the satire works (for the most part) that doesn't mean there aren't significant flaws in the narrative. Most noticeable are the first 160 pages of the novel which consist almost exclusively of an extended fight scene that left me cold and more than a little bored. Excising, shortening, or perhaps relocating the entire section would have done a great deal for the novel's first impression on this reader. Beyond the early struggles Sykes also frequently falls into the trap of allowing his band of adventures to break character for humorous asides. Sure the humor nearly always hits the mark (Sykes is a funny dude), but I found that oftentimes it took me out of the story and reminded me I was sitting in my living room reading a book. All in all the novel's missteps felt like a debut author finding his way into his characters and the story he wanted to tell.
And then... the strangest thing happens. Sykes puts the laugh track away and closes out the novel with 100 pages I'll hold up against anybody in the genre. Wouldn't you know it, Sam Sykes has heart. I won't go into detail here about these pages because they are frankly a gem that should be enjoyed without any expectation placed on them. I will say though that one chapter in particular featuring Gariath could be an award winning short story. In addition to these later pages, Sykes divides the novel into three acts beginning each of them with an entry into Lenk's journal. Similar in style to his concluding pages these entries set down the opportunity to explore more serious themes should he choose in future novels.
Tome of the Undergates is a difficult book to rank. I purposefully don't give ratings as a reviewer (on the blog anyway) because I think they're misleading and any star rating on this novel wouldn't do it justice. Strictly as a narrative, I didn't particularly enjoy it. For it's comedy and irreverence toward the AD&D paradigm, Tome is a breath of fresh air. In terms of being able to watch a potentially brilliant, and wholly unique voice in the fantasy genre come of age? It's priceless. And I mean that in the least lame way possible.
I look forward to reading Sykes' sequel Black Halo soon. To anyone reading this, who is not following Sykes on twitter @SamSykesSwears stop right now, open up another window, and follow him. He's better than Shark Week (not really).(less)
One of the most important decisions an author has to make is how much to tell, how much to imply, and how much to show. In fantasy this even more true in creating a secondary/alternate world. For a debut fantasy author it's triply difficult, because no one (editor or consumer) is going to buy an 800 page book from a total unknown. An author, looking through the world he's created and the plot he's weaving, has to start bailing water to offer a manuscript that's tight enough to sell and verbose enough to be clear - no mean feat.
I bring this up because I think Mazarkis Williams had more water to bail than the average fantasy debut. Not a criticism, I say that because The Emperor's Knife is incredibly ambitious. Heavily flavored with Persian, Arabic, and Asian influence, it is a riff on epic fantasy with a deep magic system, complex political intrigue, and a complete story arc all contained in well under 400 pages.
There is a cancer at the heart of the mighty Cerani Empire. Geometric patterns spread across the skin causing those who bear them to become Carriers - mindless servants of the Pattern Master. Anyone showing the marks is put to death by Emperor Beyon's law. Now the pattern is running over the Emperor's own arms. His body servants have been executed and he ignores his wives - soon the pattern will reach his face. While Beyon's agents scour the land for a cure, Sarmin, the Emperor's only surviving brother, awaits his bride, Mesema, a windreader from the northern plains. Unused to being at court Mesema has no one to turn to but an ageing imperial assassin, the Emperor's Knife. As long-planned conspiracies boil over into open violence, the Pattern Master appears. The only people standing in his way are a lost prince, a world-weary killer, and a young girl from the steppes.
That's a complete and utter hatchet job on the plot in an effort to briefly summarize the general direction of Emperor's Knife. I went over to read the blurb on Goodreads and it was six paragraphs long. Is it becoming clear why I said Williams' had a tough road ahead of him? Somehow, the novel comes together in in 346 pages - a commendable accomplishment. Unfortunately, on my second point - making sure everything was adequately explained - I'm not sure it was as successful. Having finished the novel I still don't fully understand the motivations and actions of the novel's primary instigator - the Emperor's vizier Tuvaini. Very little time is spent on the primary system of magic whereby a mage is a vessel for an elemental living side them, and while more time is spent on manipulating "patterns" the why or how of it isn't addressed at all. So the question becomes, is that a problem?
The truth is... not really. At the end of the day, Emperor's Knife is a big success, largely on the back of interesting characters and a compelling plot. Williams engages his readers in the early moments posing mysteries that demand to be uncovered like a carrot dangling in front of a donkey compels him to walk. The plot is brisk to start before leveling off where we're given an opportunity to come to care about each of Williams' pieces before he brings them back together in devastating fashion.
As I mentioned before the tone of the world is very Middle Eastern in a time period reminiscent of the Crusade Era. Through Masema, Williams also brings in a steppes culture that would fit well in a Henry Sienkiewicz novel and hints at far more beyond the borders of his map. Naturally, when an author walks into a culture grounded in male chauvinism he runs the risk of being labeled as such himself. Character's opinions are often attributed to the author, almost always unfairly. Williams manages to avoid this, crafting three very enjoyable female characters only one of which comes off shallow and reliant on the support of men around her. Masema, the central female character, comes off far stronger though some of her romantic entanglements felt rushed - something I again attribute to a need to keep things tight in a novel whose scope would seem to predicate otherwise.
Reading through the novel and being an active tweeter lead to a conversation with Williams and fellow 2011 debut author Mark Lawrence (Prince of Thorns) about Robin Hobb's Farseer Trilogy. Williams admitted it was one of his favorites so I hope he takes it as a compliment that I saw elements in Emperor's Knife that reflected Hobb's influence. Sarmin (the closest thing to a protagonist) is a character of some similarity to Hobb's FitzChivalery. He disbelieves in himself and struggles with understanding his place in the events that rage around him. Farseer fans will also notice that the Pattern Master's Carriers call to mind Prince Verity riding along through others' eyes to interact with and bear witness to events far from him. If it is an homage, it is well done, although I suspect mere coincidence is more likely. Had I not had the conversation prior to reading the novel, I doubt very much I would have made the connection.
Despite some unevenness that manifests in the form of esoteric scenes and absent or unclear foreshadowing, Emperor's Knife is a well imagined, well plotted, and [mostly] well executed addition to the epic fantasy codex. While it's satisfying as a standalone work, the fact is well advertised on the book's cover that The Emperor's Knife the first installment in The Tower and Knife Trilogy. If Sarmin returns he has an opportunity become an iconic character and I hope he gets that chance. More emphatically, I hope that Williams will continue to explore some of the details that were left out in his debut; the lack of which will hold me back from putting this near the top of my best of 2011 list.
I said it at the beginning, and I'll say it again, this is an ambitious debut novel. Thankfully, it's also a novel that demonstrates great deal of promise in its author. I for one very much look forward to the sequel and Mazarkis Williams' continued growth as a writer.
The Emperor's Knife will be published in the UK on October 27 by Jo Fletcher Books and in the US on December 6 by Night Shade Books.
Sometimes a book's title says it all. Spellwright. Spell means to write in order the letters constituting a word. It also means a verbal formula considered as having magical force. Spell in these two cases is considered a homonym because they share the same spelling and the same pronunciation but have different meanings. Wright or write or right or rite all mean something different but sound the same. They're called homophones. A wright is a person that constructs or repairs something. Write means to form (letters, words, or symbols) on a surface. Right means to be correct. And a rite is a religious ceremony. What am I driving at? I'll come back to that.
Blake Charlton's novel is about a young man named Nicodemus. He's an apprentice to the Grand Wizard Agwu Shannon, an aged and blind, but still powerful member of Starhaven's faculty. At this out of the way haven young men and women are tutored in the language of magic. They learn how to compose elegant prose and cast it into the world to effect change. Unfortunately, Nicodemus is a cacographer - any magical prose he touches immediately misspells. There was a time when Shannon, and others, thought Nicodemus was to be the halycon - the savior of magic - who was prophesied to defeat the Pandemonium. But such a powerful being could not be cacographic for the prophecy also speaks of another who will bring chaos and destroy the halycon.
So back to my opening paragraph, what was that all about? I'm sure it's obvious that cacogaphy in Charlton's world is a parallel to what we call dyslexia. To a dyslexic Charlton's title is something of a mean joke. What the hell does he mean? One who creates spells? One who spells correctly? One who writes down spells? Or is it about spelling as a rite which I think adequately describes the burden the written language can be to someone suffering from dyslexia. In this regard the novel's title is nothing short of genius. To a fantasy fan reading through the shelves the first definition is perfect. Oh, this book is about someone who puts spells together (read: Wizard). Cool. It is, but not really. It's about a lot more than that and after reading the book I realized the title says it all.
See, Nicodemus speaks every magical language he's ever been taught fluently. He should be, for all intents and purposes, one of the most powerful wizards in Starhaven except for the little fact that he has a hard time spelling things correctly. He's ridiculed by his peers and looked on as someone who should never be allowed near magic. Were it not for Shannon and his desire to help cacographers, Nicodemus and his fellow misspellers would have magical language censored from their minds and be sent on their way. In the eyes of the wizarding community at large, they are defective and beyond recovery. To a more radical sect, they are a threat to stability and shouldn't even be allowed to live.
Is it a perfect novel? No, although it is very good. There are some first time author hiccups here and there. The magic system is a bit esoteric and the ending is both overly simplified and a bit confusing. Still, reading Spellwright, I couldn't help but be touched. My wife is dyslexic. She was diagnosed when she was 13. This is late in life so far as these things go. When she was in 8th grade she told her teacher that she wanted to attend Ursuline Academy for high school, one of the more prestigious private schools in Dallas, Texas. Her teacher told her, "you'll never get in there, and even if you did, you'd never be able to keep up."
She got in and worked her ass off. She did well and went to college where she listened to text books on tape, following along with the written words (to give you an idea how much dedication that takes a 350 page novel takes around 12 hours to listen to). It was never easy. She graduated on time with a degree in International Relations. My wife is very smart, but reading and writing will always be, to some degree, difficult for her. She's very aware of the fact and a little bit self conscious about it. I find it all rather inspiring and it makes me proud to be her husband.
Not surprisingly, given the treatment he gives it, Spellwright's author Blake Charlton is also dyslexic. His bio on his website reads:
"I was saved from a severe disability by two things: an early clinical diagnosis of dyslexia, and fantasy and science fiction novels. It took most of my twenties to discover it, but my life’s goal is to give back to the two art forms that saved me."
My wife didn't have that same luck. She still made it. A lot of kids don't. Dyslexia, as a disability isn't something we can cure. There's no pill that makes the connection between eye and brain work better. But, by identifying it early and providing specialized education to young people we can make sure that kids don't have to suffer thinking they're stupid.
George R. R. Martin wrote in his most recent novel A Dance with Dragons:
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies," said Jojen. "The man who never reads lives only one.”
Reading is the greatest gift I've ever been given. I believe that Charlton's novel is helping spread that gift. From me, from my wife, from my daughter, and from every child and parent out there struggling to make sense of dyslexia - thank you Blake. You should be proud to have written Spellwright. I know I was proud to read it.
The sequel to Spellwright was released two weeks ago from Tor Books. Titled Spellbound, it continues the story of Nicodemus as he comes to grips with his disability and how it will or will not define him. I look forward to reading and reviewing it soon.
Sidenote: I would strongly suggest that anyone who has read this review or Charlton's novels visit http://www.learningally.org/. Formerly Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, Learning Ally serves more than 300,000 learners – all of whom cannot read standard print due to visual impairment, dyslexia, or other learning disabilities. More than 6,000 volunteers across the U.S. help to record and process the 65,000 digitally recorded textbooks and literature titles in their collection. I can't thank them enough for the work they do. (less)
I've read some crazy good debuts over the last twelve months, including two of the best novels I read last year. It's not the norm, however, for a debut author to spring forth like Athena, fully grown and ready to kick some ass. And Elspeth Cooper's (can we agree that Elspeth is a cool name?) Songs of the Earth is more the norm, a well conceived and well written novel that suffers from debut hiccups.
Cooper's protagonist is Gair, a holy-knight-in-training who's been exiled and branded by the Church for witchcraft. Starved and battered, he finds help from a mysterious man who can teach him to control the magical song in his mind. The man, Alderan, is a member of an ancient order of Guardians, charged with protecting the barrier between the world and something akin to Hell. What follows is the 'magical school' plot device that's so widely applied across the genre, and for the most part it's well done, although the focus remains more on Gair's romance with an older woman than education.
While Gair's journey is the primary story line, other plots are afoot, including Church politicking as Preceptor Ansel prepares for a coming conflict. Coming conflict I say? Can I provide more details? Well, not really, which caused some consternation. Maybe Cooper is being too subtle, or maybe I'm dense, but Ansel spends a great deal of time researching, plotting, and executing (maybe?) something. 460 pages later, it's not clear at all what that is. I might have a guess about the ultimate goal, but the methods he's laying out to accomplish them? I've got nothing.
For me, Ansel's sequences were far more compelling than Gair's. Populated by interesting characters with blurred morality, it's unfortunate they function more like an extended epilogue, as none of it felt relevant to the main arc. Of course, it whet my appetite for the next book, the obvious intent, but interspersing it throughout the novel slows the narrative, leading to a novel with inconsistent pace.
There is one other niggle that bears mentioning. A moment occurs about halfway through the novel where Gair demonstrates a capability with no groundwork to support it. It seemingly comes out of nowhere and somewhat impeaches what is in my mind a tremendous first half of a novel. In fact, had I written this review based solely on the preceding pages, I would be stringing together a series of superlatives. All of which goes to say, Cooper absolutely has the talent to succeed.
Despite some bumps in the road, I found Songs an enjoyable read. The characters are well drawn, some exceptionally so (Alden), and Cooper demonstrates a knack for believable dialogue. Her descriptive prose flows well especially in action sequences where her familiarity with swordplay is apparent. Also, some of the novel's most impressive moments come in the aforementioned romance. What could have come off awkward and stilted, always felt sweet and natural.
Given what I know about Cooper, and what she's shown in Songs of the Earth, I have a strong feeling the Wild Hunt series will be more well regarded as a whole, than the first installment on its own. Numerous fantasy series have started slow before catching fire. With a little more polish and experience, I can see Elspeth Cooper doing just that.(less)