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....more
So, this was an interesting and uneven novel. I've written a lot of reviews, but this is by far the most difficult because I didn't like or dislike thSo, this was an interesting and uneven novel. I've written a lot of reviews, but this is by far the most difficult because I didn't like or dislike the novel. I almost considered not writing a review at all because I was just so ambivalent. Matthews Hughes' The Damned Busters is a wholly original novel from Angry Robot Books. It is not however the novel I wanted to read. Let me explain.
Filled with fun cartoony characters, Hughes pits Chesney Arnstruther, an actuary of no particular distinction, who accidentally summons a demon, against the hordes of the underworld. Oops. Everyone gets dropped into a bit of a pickle when he refuses to sell his soul thus sending Hell into labor negotiations from... Hell. Shenanigans ensue as the denizens of Hell go on strike. As part of the bargain that puts Hell back to work, Chesney gets the use of his own personal demon who he uses to become a crime fighter.
For the first third of the book the shenanigans are a rousing success. Satan, a few angels, a televangelist, and Chesney all find themselves locked in a room hassling over a contract for Satan's overworked minions. It's so absurd it's brilliant. There is loads of snappy dialog and hilarious situations that could only come from unionized labor. Hughes does well in the space creating a series of encounters that are often laugh out loud funny.
The unfortunate part is the brilliance only lasts for the first third of the book. Once Chesney strikes his deal with Hell the book descends into a pretty boring crime fighter yarn. There are awkward stereotypical encounters with women. He is taken advantage of by a few not-so benevolent powerful people. Not only was the novel less interesting by this point - a lot of Hughes wit seems to fall away as well. What was a light witty novel that read more like a situational comedy, de/evolved into a metaphysical discussion about the meaning of existence.
By the end of The Damned Busters I was completely caught off guard by what was a very esoteric conclusion that left me unsatisfied. Like the second half of the book, this ending wasn't what I wanted to read. I felt betrayed by the promise Hughes made in the opening chapters when he failed to deliver the same level of wit and charm throughout.
I would almost recommend Hughes' novel based solely on the opening. The idea is incredibly clever and he writes it with rare aplomb. I can't help but wonder if The Damned Busters would have been better suited as a novella that ended when Hell went back to work. If that were the case I'd be giving it my highest recommendation. As it stands, I'm not sure it's a great investment of time....more
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....more
Banks has been discussed as one of the better science fiction writers in the business - not to mention a very successful mainstream author as well. I had high expectations going into the novel, and to be honest I came away disappointed. Phlebas read like a collection of short stories that were turned into a novel.
Many of the other reviews out there (and there are many given Consider Phlebas was published over 20 years ago) react negatively to parts of the novel that are gratuitous. Case in point, the opening scene consists of the main character chained to a wall in a room being filled with sewage. The novel has cannibalism, senseless murder, and not one likable character. However, none of these issues are problematic for me. Having read some of the more edgy or nihilistic entrants into the scifi/fantasy genre in recent years I've become accustomed to not being able to like the main character. I've become accustomed to being offended or disturbed by what I'm reading. What I have not become accustomed to is poor storytelling and that is where Consider Phlebas falls short.
The plot is a simple one. A war rages between the Idrians, a tripedal alien race intent on spreading their religious doctrine throughout the galaxym, and the Culture, a human/machine coalition. Horza, our shapeshifting humanoid main character, is an agent of espionage for the Idrians. When a Culture Mind (think a sentient spaceship) goes missing after a space battle, Horza is sent to find it and plumb its secrets for the Idrian war effort.
From the opening scene to the last scene there is very little that holds the various adventures of Horza together. A series of random events take place to bring Horza to where he wants to go. The reader is told what that goal is in the opening chapters, but then for the next 250 pages Horza makes no progress toward that goal. Characters die (that the reader is given no reason to be attached to), Horza gets himself into tough situations, he gets out - but the plot doesn't progress at anything resembling a compelling pace.
It's not all bad. The worldbuilding is tremendous. There are times when scenes hit just the right note. In fact, despite how much I struggled through Consider Phlebas, I will read future Culture novels. I think there's a lot of potential in the world he's created and for all the problems with the storytelling, Banks is a good wordsmith. I would not recommend the novel to others, and especially not to new readers in the genre, but it hasn't turned me off to Banks either....more
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....more