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)
Abercrombie's best work so far. Tight prose, excellent narrative, and I felt "satisfied". That's something very difficult to accomplish in the fantasy...moreAbercrombie's best work so far. Tight prose, excellent narrative, and I felt "satisfied". That's something very difficult to accomplish in the fantasy genre with a stand alone novel.(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)
Wonderfully conceptualized book. I really enjoyed the setting, but the character were fairly one dimensional and the narrative was uneven. I'll probab...moreWonderfully conceptualized book. I really enjoyed the setting, but the character were fairly one dimensional and the narrative was uneven. I'll probably check out the sequel because I enjoyed the setting so much. Despite the unevenness, when he got it right the writing was compelling.(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 shouldn't like this book as much as I do. I should be writing about how many fantasy cliches it has and how unimaginative the narrative is, but I'm not. Instead I'm going to write a review about how damn fun Jon Sprunk's Shadow's Son was to read.
Caim is a knife for hire and he's got the reputation as one of the best. Orphaned at a young age his only companion is a woman named Kit. Unfortunately, he's the only one who can see her. As an assassin, there's few who can match his skill. Along with Kit's extra set of eyes and a strange ability to cloak himself in shadows he has never failed an assignment.
Caim lives in Othir, the heart of what was once known as the Nimean Empire. Twenty years previously (or so) the Church ousted the empire and waged a pogrom against the nobility. When a rush job comes to Caim's attention he is plunged into a conspiracy that will shake the prelacy to its core.
Shadow's Son moves at a breakneck pace. Sprunk tells a straight forward story in less than 300 pages making it a very tight novel. The entire narrative takes place entirely within the span a few days save for a few brief flashbacks from Caim. Succinctness, an underused style in the fantasy genre, affords little time for waxing poetic or excessive world building. Still Sprunk finds plenty of time to hit just the right note in a series of action sequences that include superlative swordplay and Prince of Persia like break ins. These moments are written beautifully reminiscent of James Barclay - another member of Pyr's excellent stable of writers.
When I say the novel lacks excessive world building, I don't mean there isn't any. Quite the opposite. Avoiding information dumps Shadow's Son brings the reader along throughout the story dropping tidbits about the world Caim inhabits when the time is right. By the novels conclusion Sprunk's world building leaves quite bit still in the shadows (pardon the pun). Had an additional hundred pages of character development and setting made its way into the book it would have better for it. Characters died without the emotion that should have been present and the scope of the setting seemed smaller in my mind than Sprunk intended, I'm sure.
Furthermore, Caim as a protagonist felt very static. I imagine that he was intended to become less hard and more do-gooder as the novel wore on, but to me felt that way from the get go. Caim convinced himself that all his victims were bad men who deserved it. He never sees himself as a bad guy, nor does anyone else really. Hello?!?! He's an assassin! I think Sprunk has/had the makings of a much deeper character that he gave up on by making him sympathetic from the first minutes.
All told Shadow's Son is an excellent debut novel that avoids many of the debut pitfalls. It is not ambitious by any means, instead providing a great base for Sprunk to grow. I hope other first time authors can look to this as an example in not only how to get published, but how to ensure it happens again.
Jon Sprunks second novel, Shadow's Lure, is due out Tuesday, June 7. (less)
Is steampunk the new vampire urban fantasy? I feel like there's been a huge outbreak of steampunk this year. I guess it makes sense as a natural out growth of the huge boom in urban fantasy. For the most part steampunk tends to be more familiar to people than second world fantasy or space opera with no connection to the "real world". It is traditionally set in a Victorian or Old West environment with historical elements that make sense to mainstream readers and doesn't require vast amounts of information to understand. I would point out that Roil by Trent Jamieson isn't that kind of steampunk.
One of the real up and coming publishers Angry Robot Books, has definitely seen an uptick in steampunk novels. Unfortunately, I hadn't found a title of their's that really called to me until I saw Roil. Billed as steampunk in a second world fantasy setting, it reminded me of The Last Page, Anthony Huso's debut steampunk novel from Tor. Ever since I read Huso's debut, I have been looking for something similar that captured his talent for world building but exceeded his uneven storystelling. Roil did just that.
In Shale, the Roil is spreading. A black cloud of heat and madness has crept through the land, absorbing city after city. Where the Roil goes, life ends. Once there were 12 metropolises, now only 4 remain. Only the cold can stop the Roil and it's getting hotter. A young drug addict, an orphaned girl seeking vengeance, and an Old Man are all that stand between total darkness and the annihilation of humanity. Armed with cold suits, ice rifles, and the mysticism of Old Men the three begin a journey north to the Engine of the World - the only force capable of beating back the inexhaustible Roil.
If it seems curious that I capitalized Old Men thus far, it should. In Jamieson's world the Old Men are something akin to the Apostles of Christ if the Apostles had an insatiable hunger (use your imagination) and the ability to conjure ice at will. In this bad analogy the Engine of the World would be Christ. Throughout the novel who, and why, the Old Men are is of utmost interest. It is clear from early on that the Old Men are a bastion against the Roil. Where the Roil is hot as the sun, the Old Men are cold as hell.
One of the most frustrating things with steampunk for me is the lack of fantasy. Not in a genre sense, but in the sense of imagination. I always find myself asking the question, if I wanted to read about Victorian England why am I reading a steampunk re-imagining of it? Jamieson has totally sloughed off this genre standard in creating an entire second world fantasy. The Roil, the four metropolises, ice cannons, Engines of the World, and other epic sounding steampunk elements compose a beautifully dark, wholly imagined world that bears no resemblance to our own.
Jamieson populates his worlds as much with "villains" as with heroes. I put quotes around villains because to be frank, I'm not sure Roil has a villain. It's clear Jamieson wants his reader to hate Stade, the leader of the city of Mirrlees. He begins the novel by murdering his rivals in the street and doesn't get much friendlier from there. The truth is, he's trying to do right by his people. He sees the Roil as an inevitability and he wants to protect as many of his citizens as he can (everyone else can kiss his ass). Even the Roil itself, which is about as evil as it gets on the surface, is more a force of nature than a malevolent force.
Of course given that, it should be no surprise that Jamieson's heroes aren't particularly heroic. David, a young man of privilege is addicted to a drug called Carnival (heroinesque). He is often more concerned about scoring than he is about staying alive. His companion, an Old Man named John Cadell, isn't all roses either. In fact, he killed David's uncle a few years back. He's feels bad about it though. The list goes on and on. If a novel's strength is judged on its characters, then Roil is She-Hulk. Not the Incredible Hulk mind you (there isn't an iconic character in the bunch), but Jamieson has created a smorgasbord of captivating characters that bring everything to life.
That said, Roil is not without some fault. For all his exceptional world building and lush characterizations, Jamieson's narrative is decidedly standard to anyone who's read a surfeit of fantasy novels. Yet so are many of the paragons of the genre. Moreso than any genre, speculative fiction excels foremost through characters and setting. A strong, original narrative is all well and good, but without fantasy a novel will fall flat. On the strength of his setting and characters alone, I believe Jamieson has begun something that has the potential to be a standard bearer for Angry Robot and the steampunk subgenre.
And don't forget, Roil is the first in The Nightbound Land series - I'm sure Jamieson has a few twists and turns in store. So get back to work Trent, I'm ready for the sequel.
Sidenote: It's a real pain to write a review where one of the characters (Roil) is the same as the title of the novel (Roil). Just saying...
Release Information: Roil is due for a U.S. release on August 30, 2011 in Mass Market Paperback and Kindle.(less)
Prince of Thorns, by debut author Mark Lawrence, has been within the "buzzosphere", as Carles at Hipster Runoff might say, for the last eight months. Of course, hype doesn't always make right and recent hype-machine bull riders such as Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman and The Unremembered by Peter Orullian have met with reviews that trend negative. In Lawrence's place I may have been a bit nervous given how long the reviewing community has had their hands on the novel. As it turns out, Me-Mark would have been wrong. Prince of Thorns has been almost universally praised as one of the best debuts of the year and I don't disagree.
When Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath was nine, he watched his mother and brother killed before him. Three short years later he was the leader of a band of bloodthirsty thugs on the run from his responsibilities as heir to the throne. Since the day he was hung on the thorns of a briar patch and forced to watch Count Renar's men slaughter his family, Jorg has done little but vent his rage. Under the tutelage of his Brother's, he's become a psychotic killer with little regard of anyone or anything. Now the time has come to return home and face his demons, but treachery and dark magic await him in his father's castle.
My first reaction while reading Prince of Thorns was how much it reminded me of Fallout. Remember Fallout? It was a computer role playing game from the late-90's on the PC. Set in a post-apocalyptic world it allowed for a lot open ended decision making by the player. The first time I played through it, I was a hero, making all the good guy choices and enjoying the plot Interplay put together. Great game. Where things started to remind me of Lawrence's novel was on my second play through. I decided, fuck it, and I just killed everything that got in my way. Talk my way out of a situation? Nope - minigun! In Prince of Thorns, the answer is always - minigun!
There are other similarities to the game, most notably that the setting is not second world fantasy and is instead post-apocalypse Earth. This is hinted at in the early going as Jorg refers to philosophers like Nietzsche and Plato and places like Roma and Normardy (sic). Still, most of the novel reads like a second world fantasy with knights, horses, and some as yet unexplained magic. Technology does rear its head a few times, and I can only suspect that will continue in future installments in the planned trilogy. For this reader, it worked well. While things occasionally get close to the shark's event horizon (one scene in particular) they never clear it and with a modicum of suspension of disbelief everything makes sense.
As the short summary indicates the plot itself is rather humdrum - if not overtly simple. As a result the novel succeeds (or fails) on the back of Lawrence's protagonist Jorg, a fourteen year old would-be-king of a fractured Empire. Telling the entire story from inside the head of a deranged individual leads to some difficult moments. There seems to be a trend in Science Fiction/Fantasy right now to produce first person narratives. If I'm right and there is a trend, I think it stems from a movement to have more character driven stories. The trend would fit right in Prince of Thorn's pocket. Among the few bad reviews out there, most of them seem to center on the fact that they just couldn't read about an extremely troubled teenage killing machine who objectifies women, glorifies nihilism, and is willing to sacrifice anything or anyone to accomplish his goals.
None of that was particular problematic for me, but had Jorg been even an iota less compelling the book might have fallen flat on its face. As it stands, Jorg is incredibly compelling and thus so is the novel. Those who read the novel and paint Jorg as a sociopath or insane might be missing the mark. Lawrence layers the narrative very well telling back story intermixed with current events. As the layers peal away on the back story so to do the layers to Jorg's psychosis. By the novel's conclusion there's a great deal of question about how many of his actions were his own. On his twitter feed Lawrence mentioned that the novel was originally a stand alone before becoming a trilogy. The questions left on the table about Jorg are very open to interpretation and as someone who loves to mull a book over after I finish it I almost wish this was the end of the story.
It seems to me that Mark Lawrence has accomplished something pretty extraordinary for a debut author. His novel is functionally a psychological thriller of a young man walking a tight rope between insanity and genius. None of this would have been possible without an incredible grasp of the language, how to use it to communicate complex imagery, and how to keep it all moving. Lawrence has this is spades. Many metaphors stick in my mind, most notably one discussing a swords sharpness as making the wind bleed (awesome, right?). Additionally, the whole thing has a tremendous pace that had me finishing the novel in two relatively short sittings.
In an interesting a fit of parallel, I think Lawrence was walking a tight rope very similar to Jorg's. Where Jorg's was a tight rope of sanity, Lawrence was walking one between authenticity and repulsiveness. When someone gets that kind of finesse right, the end result is something spectacular and Prince of Thorns is that. In a year of tremendous debuts, Lawrence deserves his place at the table. I highly recommend anyone with a strong stomach read this immediately and I look forward to his sequel next year. (less)
I always hear the phrase, "write what you know." My reaction has typically been who the hell would want to read a fantasy novel about bodybuilding, basketball, or energy policy? Of course the answer is - my mom. Thankfully for me, and everyone else who will have the pleasure of reading The Whitefire Crossing, Courtney Schafer's knowledge of mountaineering has a much broader appeal.
When I received my advanced copy of Whitefire, I took a minute to read about the author's background. As it turns out she's an avid rock climber with years of experience. She even has a picture of herself inverted on her "About" page on her website. I always find it difficult to walk the line between writing what I know and committing mental masturbation. Look how much I know about this! In a surprising development (notice the sarcasm here) Schafer is a better writer than I am. While she may have shared my same concerns, she shouldn't have.
Every second spent on rock climbing or related activities in Whitefire is a breath of fresh air. Her enthusiasm bleeds through the page infusing her main character Dev with vigor and life that couldn't have been accomplished any other way. It's clear that when Schafer put fingers to keys she was excited to write this story. This passion sustains the novel in its early stages and provides the momentum that carries it to a great conclusion.
Schafer's main character Dev is an outrider for a merchant caravan with a penchant for scaling difficult mountain sides. He's also a part time smuggler who gets talked into bringing the mage Kiran across the border that divides two nations with diametrically opposed viewpoints on the legality of magic. Kiran ends up posing as Dev's apprentice which provides Schafer adequate opportunities to wax about talus, pinions, scree, and a host of other climbing nuances.
Once Dev and Kiran get out of the mountains, the story is only half done. Schafer proves that she's not a one trick pony immediately delving into a far more gritty and urban setting. While some of the urban world felt flat in comparison to the lushness of the mountains, by the novels conclusion it starts to reveal itself in more depth opening up a host of avenues for future installments in the series.
I always find that when reading a review, one of the things I want to know about is point of view and how the novel handles it. In this case, Whitefire is written with two different narrative perspectives. Dev is given the first person treatment where Kiran's point of view is from the third person. If I’m being honest, I really struggled at times from the switching points of view. When I read my eyes train themselves on where to focus in sentences for pertinent information and when the switch occurs in point of view from first to third these information cues switch too. Ultimately, it was a small annoyance (and possibly exclusive only to me and the way I read) and given the inherent bias in a first person narrative getting an additional point of view was refreshing.
Equally refreshing was Schafer's decision to write two male protagonists. Every female fantasy reader is now saying - ugh, all fantasy books have male protagonists! And they'd be right. But not all male protagonists are written by women - in fact, very few are. The only thing rarer is male writers writing female protagonists. I can only hope that more male authors look to Schafer's cross gender example and attempt to write stronger women. There's no doubt a few male fantasy authors could use to imagine being in woman's shoes a little more and in their undergarments a little less.
Whitefire is one of the best novels I've read in 2011 (out of 38 so far, but who's counting?). What starts off as an adventure novel of rock climbing and trekking quickly turns into a full blown fantasy romp full of magic, ne'er-do-wells, and flawed heroes. I'm always nervous when I recommend a book this highly, especially when it doesn't do something that's going to change the genre. But what can I say? Schafer's debut novel totally charmed me and I can't wait to read her sequel, The Tainted City, due out late next year.
The Whitefire Crossing will be available in stores on August 16.(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)
I am never excited to write a negative review. Last month I reviewed the first book in the Ancient Blades Trilogy titled Den of Thieves. David Chandler's first foray into high fantasy had its problems. I regret to report problems have continued into A Thief in the Night albeit not always the same ones. After finishing the novel I wondered why I didn't like it? Harper Voyager liked it enough to purchase the entire trilogy and release them over three months. Is it possible there's something fundamentally flawed in the way I read the novel? Are my expectations out of whack?
I'm 30 years old and I've read a lot of fantasy over the last twenty years. My first fantasy novel was in the 7th grade - Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain. I moved on to The Sword of Shannara, The Lord of the Rings, The Belgariad, The Dragonlance Chronicles, and every other book I could lay my hands on that was available at the Vista Campana Middle School library in Apple Valley, California. I wanted sweeping epic fantasy with dwarves, elves, and all kinds of other fantastic constructions conveyed in straight forward no nonsense prose. The farm boy prophesied to save the world was the end all be all for young Justin.
Somewhere along the road to adulthood I decided I wanted a little more from my fantasy and modern fantasy has delivered. Of course, fantasy has always had ambition - Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood, John Crowley's Little, Big, Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn, to name a few. But, for the most part, the development of more ambitious epic/high fantasy is recent. Authors like George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Daniel Abraham, and Steven Erikson have brought a great deal more depth to the sub-genre. Elves and dwarves are largely gone and the farm boy is more likely to get a sword through the stomach before he gets far enough into the game to impact anything. Abraham has even gone so far as to turn the farm boy paradigm into a female alcoholic banker. These authors led me full circle back to Holdstock, Crowley, and Beagle who have in turn led me to Gene Wolfe, Carthrynne Valente, and China Miéville.
And yet, I very much enjoyed James Barclay's The Raven Chronicles and Michael J. Sullivan's Riyria Revelations both of whom in terms of world construction and character archetypes bear close resemblance to Chandler's Ancient Blades Trilogy. I guess what I'm saying is that while I may have developed tastes that take me beyond elves, dwarves, and straight forward narratives, it doesn't mean that I'm not up for a simple adventure romp from time to time. If that's true, and my expectations aren't broken, then why didn't I enjoy the first two installments in Chandler's series?
I'm so glad I asked - because they just aren't as good. The prose is fine and even quite good in places if a bit overwritten. The stories themselves aren't terribly contrived, at least no more so than "comparable" novels like the aforementioned Barclay and Sullivan. But, and it's a big one, I cannot ignore a novel whose plot and characers just aren't interesting. It's unfortunate that Chandler has fallen into this category because I actually think there's a lot of potential in the world he's created - which isinteresting.
Based on a serf/lord model of medieval Europe, it's a world where most folk are oppressed. In the free-city of Ness, where Den takes place entirely and Thief begins, everyone is free to choose their own destiny - albeit options are rather limited. Magic is based on the summoning and harnessing of demonic energy. To combat this threat to the fabric of reality seven blades were created and seven warriors were chosen to wield them. But demons have almost been exterminated and the ancient blades aren't quite sure to do with themselves. Cool premise, no? Once things move beyond world building though, the whole thing falls flat.
The two points of view Chandler writes from - Malden and Croy - undergo a shift in Thief where they betray the mores built up throughout the series. To me, it all felt very forced as though the characters changed because the author needed them to. Brent Weeks, author of the Night Angel Trilogy and the bestseller The Black Prism wrote:
"My characters are mine. They must do what I have decided they will do. If you get to a point in the story where you realize your characters will not do that thing and remain true to themselves, you have a couple of options: you can just make them do it for the sake of the story, and your story will suck. Or you can sit there and wrestle with it. "
For me, Chandler swung and missed at this. I understand where he wanted to take his protagonists. I just didn't buy it.
I also struggled with Chandler's use of magic throughout the novel. Cythera - Malden and Croy's mutual love interest - has an ability to absorb curses. This absorption manifests itself as tattoos on her body. In the first novel Cythera cannot be touched lest this magical energy be unleashed. Lo and behold, come Thief she can release such energy at anyone/thing she likes. Brandon Sanderson in his treatise on magic (which I highly recommend) said:
"If we simply let ourselves develop new rules every time our characters are in danger, we will end up creating fiction that is not only unfulfilling and unexciting, but just plain bad."
For example, Thief takes the merry band of adventures to an ancient city that's been entombed beneath a mountain. The entrance is chained shut with magical chains that (it seems) will strike anyone dead who touches them. Cythera, being magically cursed, touches them, absorbs their power, and channels it to burn a hole in the door. Snazzy, right? Of course, she couldn't do this in Den and I didn't see any explanation about this new found ability. I suspect this scene was included to setup how a much more pivotal conflict is resolved in the novel's conclusion (actually, in EXACTLY the same way). Instead, a few sentences about how Cythera has been learning to control her ability and using a well established capability of another party member to open the door (say... I don't know the master engineer of a dwarf maybe?) would have been more interesting and set up the later scene just as well.
Ok, so I think it's fairly obvious that I really didn't like A Thief in the Night (or Den of Thieves for that matter) and I don't want to further belabor the point. The truth is, they're not bad books. I read them both quickly and never cast them aside. However, as a reviewer advising my readers about what is worth their time, or not, I believe there are far better options available.(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)