This is an entertaining if slightly formulaic fantasy. It has a slow beginning, which is typical of stories narrated by a (presumably) elderly personThis is an entertaining if slightly formulaic fantasy. It has a slow beginning, which is typical of stories narrated by a (presumably) elderly person recalling incidents of a long-ago youth. The present day is indicated by the italicized paragraphs in the beginning of the chapters, before jumping to the past as narrator FitzChivalry Farseer recalls his childhood and early youth. Of course these parts drag a bit because the narrator is only six years old when his story begins. He is the illegitimate son of the crown prince Chivalry Farseer of the Six Duchies, thus given the name "Fitz" which is commonly (and mistakenly) believed to be an appellation for bastards but in fact simply means "son." He is brought to the castle gates by his grandfather who insists that the royal family raise him up since their prince sired him, and over the weeping objections of his mother, is left in their care.
Prince Chivalry is so humiliated by the discovery that he sired a bastard long before he was married that he abdicates the throne in favor of his brother Verity. This seems a trifle odd, in a high fantasy world in which women fight in the royal guard and inherit crowns if first-born, and magic exists in the form of mind-reading and mind-control of both people and animals. The land of the Six Duchies vaguely resembles Merry Old England, as do so many fantasy worlds (people live in castles, wear cloaks and swords, ride horses and eat stew, etc.) but with a strong Puritanical bent that is more typical of 19th-century England, except both men and women who are unchaste are harshly judged as unfit, especially if they are aristocrats, and their offspring are derided if born out of wedlock.
Nevertheless, the novel picks up the pace about a third of the way through as Fitz begins his training at the royal castle of Buckkeep, the capital of the Six Duchies. He is accepted by King Shrewd and despite his young age, pledges his loyalty as "King's Man." He is raised by the stable master Burrich, formerly Prince Chivalry's most loyal guardsmen. He learns to care for horses and dogs and is content, but one day his quarters are moved from Burrich's humble loft to a room inside the castle, and from there he is expected to act as one of the lower aristocrats, to wear fine clothes, dine at table with the royal family, learn to wield a sword, and take on very secret training from Chade, the king's assassin.
Fitz's loyalty does him credit. He never questions that his allegiance is to his father's people who fed, clothed, and educated him. He participates in the desperate resistance to armed invaders who arrive by sea, who are vaguely reminiscent of Vikings, but with the dreadful ability to conquer by "Forging" or enchanting their victims to become mindlessly violent zombie-like creatures who pillage their own towns and villages. On top of that, Fitz has to deal with palace intrigue, with the jealousy of the youngest prince towards his elder brother, the King-in-Waiting Verity, with his proficiency with the Wit, a form of magic telepathy with animals that is decried as dreadful "Beast Magic," and with his training to learn to use the Skill, a the magic psychic mind-reading and control which can be used against the invaders before their ships reach the shore.
The novel culminates in a long journey to collect the Mountain Princess from a far-off cold region and bring her back to Buckkeep to be Queen-in-Waiting to Prince Verity. Complex assassination attempts and bids for ruling power ensue, and the combat is magical as well as physical.
It ends on an cliff-hanger which makes it obvious this was always intended to be a trilogy. And perhaps that is why some reviewers find it a bit formulaic. Sure, it's a lot like many other fantasy books, but there's a reason that formula of pre-industrial cloak-wearing magic users is so widespread in the genre. It is entertaining and still works as an appealing framework on which to hang engaging characters and good plot development. After slogging through the first third of the novel, I began to turn the pages more eagerly, and it ended up being rather a pot-boiler for me. I only knocked off a star because the italicized chapter headings and "then and now" timeline seems unnecessary, as if the author was trying to meet a word count or something. It would have been better if those chapter headings were an epilogue or coda to the series rather than a distraction to each chapter. But I look forward to reading the rest of the trilogy. ...more
I pine for the days when Short Story Was King, when magazines in every genre published short stories, when any novelist of note cut his teeth on shortI pine for the days when Short Story Was King, when magazines in every genre published short stories, when any novelist of note cut his teeth on short stories. The format just isn't as popular as it used to be, perhaps shoved aside by the series, because a short story collection can't really have a lucrative sequel.
I figured this book would be right up my alley, being a small, attractive hardcover, easy to hold in one hand, with a gorgeous Sloan painting on the cover, and even a built-in bookmark like you'd expect from a very fine anthology. Not to mention being about NYC, city of my soul, where I've lived for 25+ years. But an anthology is only as good as its editor, and we do not share the same tastes.
Sure, there are some gems, like Edith Wharton and Jack Kerouac and Edwidge Danticat, but there are also some real duds, stories that are nothing more than a long-winded description of "my time living in New York City!" or "a day in the life of a New Yorker" or "sad things happen in cities - here's a sad thing."
The collection just doesn't capture the spirit of New York City, which is not just diverse and wondrous, but also tough and gritty. Plus, many of the stories are just plain boring. Perhaps better representation of the pre-modern writers would have appeased me. More likely I just have different tastes than this anthology's editor. It's very hard to rate a collection of stories by different authors - there were a few five-stars in here, but mostly one- and two-stars. ...more
This follows a similar format to her previous novel, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, in that the narrator is recollecting incidents that happenThis follows a similar format to her previous novel, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, in that the narrator is recollecting incidents that happened some years ago. The recollected tale ends when she is 25 years old. It is the story of the lifelong friendship between two wealthy Texas girls, both named Joan, both from the same wealthy neighborhood. Cecelia goes by her middle name out of deference to her more glamourous friend Joan Fortier, who seems to have it all: loving, indulgent parents, good looks, fabulous wealth, any boy she fancies, and a steadfast, loyal best friend in CeCe.
Joan doesn't seem to have much in the way of charm or charisma. It is understood that in 1950s Texas, wealthy, beautiful girls will always make the newspapers, but it's not entirely clear why CeCe dotes on Joan. Perhaps its because of Joan's kindness when CeCe's mother dies and her father abandons her. CeCe moves in with the Fortiers and shares a bed with Joan for several years, eventually recovering from her grief at the loss of her mother, of whom she wasn't especially fond but given her father's cold distance, her mother was the only parent she really had.
As the girls grow into teenagers, Joan starts running wild, sneaking out at night, having sex with boys, and experimenting with drugs. The Fortiers rely on CeCe to keep Joan in line, but Joan does exactly what she wants. And instead of moving into the Fortiers luxurious Houston townhouse after graduation, Joan dissappears for a year, leaving CeCe oddly stranded in a house not her own, hoping Joan will return. The Fortiers finally push her out and into the Houston apartment, with the expectation that Joan will return any moment.
And she does return, with some vaguely-suspicious story of trying to make it in Hollywood, but seemingly, even more miserable than before. This is the big mystery that the narrator unfolds as she recounts the events. There's where the novel loses me. Why is Joan so freakin' miserable? She has everything any girl could want, and could have her pick of Houston's most eligible bachelors, but she seems hopelessly drawn towards creepy old men and various perverts.
When CeCe meets the love of her life and decides to marry him, you would think her obsession with Joan would cool off a bit, but it doesn't. Joan barely seems to return her affections, and doesn't seem to have much use for friends. Yet CeCe is even more obsessed with Joan, to the point at which her own husband suspects her of lesbianism (she isn't gay, just weirdly obsessed). And finally even he has to give her an ultimatum, because CeCe's obssession with Joan is ruining their marriage.
The mystery isn't quite as mysterious as the author may have hoped. As with her first novel, you sort of figure out what happened many pages before it is revealed, given that only a handful of scandals could make a wealthy woman like Joan behave so irrationally. But although Joan's tragedy is eventually revealed, the author never does explain the original source of Joan's utter misery. She seems incapable of being happy, and such a character demands a more multi-dimensional approach than mere descriptions of her gowns or what cocktails she drank.
The author is not so great with character development. As with her first novel, the main characters range from insufferable to merely unlikable. The secondary characters are given more depth, albeit many less pages. Yet there is something well-plotted about this book. It does keep you turning the pages, wondering what will happen next, even though you kind of know in advance, but you're still wondering how it will be revealed.
Joan and CeCe never do come alive, and their friendship seems implausible, because Joan seems too selfish and CeCe too fawning to have a real relationship. But the Houston of the late 1950s does emerge vividly from the novel. It is an engaging if somewhat shallow read. ...more
Well, I tried. The first story was just the usual misery. Breaking up is hard to do, sure, but what's apparently even harder is refraining from writinWell, I tried. The first story was just the usual misery. Breaking up is hard to do, sure, but what's apparently even harder is refraining from writing navel-gazing short stories about it. I got halfway through another one about a couple of miserable adulterers who re-enact Custer's Last Stand and even though they love each other, went ahead and married other people. Are they still adulterers? I think so. Why the hell didn't they marry each other, I don't know.
When I saw one story was about killing and apparently torturing cats, I figured that's enough for me.
Too many writers buy into the nonsense that all happy people are a like, but miserable people are unique and different, therefore, misery is the only real plot available for fiction. They all have a case of the Dreary Ds: death, divorce, drug addiction, despair.
Happiness is rare enough that it makes for a good short story. Misery is tiresomely commonplace. It doesn't shock us any more; most readers know miserable people.
Honestly I think this writer is simply lazy. It takes work to write a sentence that provokes an emotional reaction. But it doesn't take a lot of work to provoke a "gee that's a shame" reaction.
Needless to say, I don't recommend this book. ...more
Novik is a great storyteller. She is skilled at advancing the plot, which is a big chunk of what makes an excellent writer of fiction. She is sadly deNovik is a great storyteller. She is skilled at advancing the plot, which is a big chunk of what makes an excellent writer of fiction. She is sadly deficient in developing the characters, which is perhaps the main reason for so many bad reviews posted below. Certainly the narrator Agnieszka has a fair amount of "Mary Sue" going on - a fan fiction writer's term for the protoganist being a thinly-disguised, idealized version of the writer herself. And there's also the Special Snowflake thing. Agnieszka is a tomboy, presumably a ugly duckling (her physical appearance is never described - we only know she's 17 years old), dirty, slovenly, unfeminine, nothing special about Agnieszka. Except when it turns out that she's super special, the most special girl in all the land.
Sound familiar? Well, it is a fantasy trope, so I can't fault the author for using the ol' "chosen one" theme.
The rest of the characters don't fare much better. We barely know her mother, even though she's supposed to be great. I don't think Novik even bothers to tell us her name. Likewise for her father and four brothers. The story takes place in a magical land loosely based on feudal Europe. But Agnieszka is so special that she's allowed to run around in the woods all day since doing housework or cooking is too girly for her, I guess? So her aging mother gets to cook for a family of seven all by herself because Agnieszka is so good at foraging in the woods? I mean, I don't expect complete realism in a fantasy novel, no one wants to read about privies or the drudgery of laundering clothing for a huge family, but given that one of the themes is the charm of small-village life, you would think we'd meet the rest of her family.
Nevertheless, I am only impatient with the poor characterization because the plot development is so good. It really did keep me turning the pages, wondering if the evil of the Wood would overtake the entire land, or would the handful of magicians and ethical aristocrats manage to prevail over the living trees and and foliage that spread corruption to any who enter the Wood or encounter one of its corrupted beings?
The actions scenes are excellent. There is a lot of fighting, a lot of death, and the magic blends fairly well into the physical battles. But the magic itself doesn't have much coherence. For those born with the gift, it takes seven years to master magic, but Agnieszka masters it well enough in just a few months to become the most powerful magician in the land?
Every 10 years, the powerful magician-lord known as the Dragon abducts a 17-year-old girl to serve him in his tower. Agnieszka's best friend Kaisa is expected to be the one taken as she is lovely and talented and everyone considers her the best of the 17-year-olds. But of course, it turns out to be Agnieszka.
Why does the Dragon take any girl? That's never made clear. It would make sense if he took the magically gifted ones, because he is compelled by law to teach them magic, but in that case, he should take boys and girls. Although we get to know the Dragon and he is perhaps not such a bad sort, his preference for nubile 17-year-olds is a bit questionable, given that most of them aren't magicians, they just cook his meals and then are given a big purse of money for their dowry when their ten years are up.
Most of the action involves trying to free Kaisa and then the Queen of the land from the evil Wood, and then trying to defeat the Wood. These scenes are well-written, though Novik doesn't have the style to write truly beautiful prose. It's not like you ever want to re-read a paragraph. It's workmanlike, though, so I can't be too hard on her for not having literary style. It is modelled on European fairy tales so perhaps the one-dimensional characters are an intentional choice?
The Dragon is of course Agnieszka's love interest but it's hard to see why, he's apparently good-looking (the author spends way more time describing his clothing than his physical appearance), but he's not particularly nice, he's irritated all the time, and shouts at Agnieszka constantly, and is bizarrely sarcastic, which seems very jarring for a story set in a pre-industrial feudal society. Also the sex scene was kind of stupid. "breathless and happy and full of uncomplicated innocent terror"? Granted, Agnieszka's mother told her only that sex was horribly painful, but at the age of 17, and having kissed the Dragon once before, you would think that she could let go of the whole notion that sex is dirty and Agnieszka is just too nice of a girl to have ever thought about such a dirty thing, so she's terrified, which is of course, adorable. It kind of reads like some weird fetish about being a virgin.
The attempted rape scene, in which Agnieszka's magic is first revealed to her, also reads strangely. She does not resist, then she resists, then she doesn't resist, then finally she decides to resist and nearly kills the guy. I wonder why the author chose to weaken her character by making her weirdly complacent about a physical attack. I expect a bit more from a heroine.
Also the emotional connection between Agnieszka and the Dragon is tenous at best. He's the one who revealed to her that she herself has magical talent, but surely there's more to his personality that magic? Surely there's more to their connection than that they feel sexy when casting spells together because magic is sexy? After all, she has hated the Dragon her entire life because she was convinced he'd take her best friend away from her. Can that hatred really fade into love in just a few months, during which she waits on him hand and foot while he shouts at her?
I think the author over-uses the spell that allows Agnieszka to dress herself in finery. I mean, yeah, we get that Agnieszka is a slob and doesn't care about looking nice, because she's more conmfortable in torn breeches and broadcloth, but then we also get that she learns this spell and then uses it to drape herself in finery, including corsets or stays, which she then complains about because they are so uncomfortable, and then later replaces them with her preferred broadcloth.
If you can do magic, why not magic up yourself some kind of comfortable garment without the stays?
The ending feels a bit rushed, like the author got a bit weary of writing this story and then just decided to make Agnieszka so powerful that she saves the day and everybody lives. It doesn't do justice to the previous 75% of the story which has a nice, suspenseful pacing.
I gave it 4 out of 5 stars, and it did keep me turning the pages, so I might be inclined to check out some of Novik's other books, but if these shallow characters are her writing style, I do feel it's a shame. Plot development is tricky, and Novik has a knack for it. Perhaps writing in the third person would be more successful for her....more
This is a sequel to "History of a Pleasure Seeker," which introduced the character of Piet Barol. Handsome, eloquent, and charming, Piet learned aboutThis is a sequel to "History of a Pleasure Seeker," which introduced the character of Piet Barol. Handsome, eloquent, and charming, Piet learned about the finer things in life from his French mother. His father was not wealthy, but despite his humble roots, Piet managed to advance his position to being a tutor for a small boy in the finest home in Belle Epoque Amsterdam, and somehow, through various adventures, always lands on his feet. Though this book can be enjoyed without reading the previous one, if you've never read either, I'd recommend reading them in order.
This early 20th-century historical novel finds Piet, his young son, and his American wife Stacey in colonial South Africa. Piet has been successful with his furniture business, using his artistic talents to create sketches, and hiring local carvers to create his ideas and mind the shop. He and Stacey both have the same passion for luxurious high living beyond their means, and soon their financial situation is dire. The only solution is to take advantage of an odious prior acquaintance, the wealthy Percy Shabrill, who has just built a huge new house. Together Piet and Stacy convince the Shabrills that the furniture they already ordered, as well as all the draperies (in the highly fashionable mauve color), are completely unsuitable, so they con them into a vast down payment for an entirely new set of furniture. The adventure lies in Piet's obtaining the wood for free from the remote Gwadana forest , which is only possible with the cooperation of his two native friends, the tribal Ntsina and Western-educated Luvo.
One of Mason's unique qualities as a writer is the use of third-person omniscient, which he even extends to plants and animals, as well as minor characters. Few authors can manage this perspective well. Readers complain endlessly about "head hopping" and overall, most readers seem to prefer first-person narrative. But it is a great way to tell a complex story, if the author's prose is good enough to make every character's perspective interesting, which Mason's certainly is. His descriptions have a beautiful lyrical quality which fits in nicely with the early 20th-century time in which his novels are set.
Mason also has the unique ability to construct and engaging plot. His prose advances the plot and develops the characters - what more could you ask? But with third-person omniscient, you get to know some characters with moral flaws. I suppose Stacey, Piet's wife, is one of those. She loves him, sure, but she also loves money. And she hates the native South Africans, though her racism is fairly standard for the era. But most despicably, she fetishizes Piet's gift of conning anyone out of anything. Even more so than does Piet himself, who sees it more as a necessity for survival. The scenes in which both of them feel a sexual thrill from conning the Shabrills are among the most disturbing in the book - and it does get pretty dark towards the end.
As in the previous novel featuring Piet, sex plays a big role, though the book is not sexually explicit, but Mason delves deeply into the emotions surrounding sex. It's interesting for me, as a female reader, to get some insight into how men view sex, because I don't feel that female authors capture that well. Conversely, Mason's descriptions of the sexuality of his female characters sometimes feels a bit off. Sure, women like sex, but perhaps it doesn't motivate our actions quite as much as Mason has inferred. As in the previous novel, there is a conflicted homosexual character, but Piet's bisexuality is not directly addressed.
The big adventure is whether or not Piet will get the wood out of the forest and the furniture carved in time to meet Shabrill's demands so he can receive the other 50% of the payment. I can't write much more without revealing spoilers, but suffice to say, this is the grand denouement of the novel. Mason's love of South Africa shines through the marvelous descriptions of the forest, the tribal people and the animals and plants who live there, and the terribly unfair and cruel laws that created the system of apartheid that has only recently been eradicated.
The only reason I gave it four stars instead of five is that I'm a sentimentalist and I'd like to see Piet land on his feet, as he did in the first novel, but here, he does not. Things get dark, very dark indeed, but still illuminated by Mason's lovely prose and a tight, well-constructed plot that makes the reader anxious to learn the outcome of the adventure.
Disclaimer: I received a reviewer's copy of this book, but my opinions are my own. ...more
What can you say about an author who defined an entire genre? He wasn't the first to write hard-boiled mysteries, but I would argue he remains the besWhat can you say about an author who defined an entire genre? He wasn't the first to write hard-boiled mysteries, but I would argue he remains the best nearly 60 years after his death. No one does it better than Chandler, simply because he is an excellent writer. Had he turned his hand to any other genre, he'd have been the best at that, but fortunately for us, he chose to write pulps. He's renowned for the novels, but wrote quite a few long short stories/novellas which are equally enjoyable, although I think Marlowe is the best of all his detectives. There are only 25 stories in this very fat volume, which is an indication of how long they are. (I wish they had broken into two volumes, as it's tough to read the beginning and end without dropping the book - at least it has a built-in bookmark)
The fast and tough pace of his writing belies the careful structure and planning he put into all his stories. Every single word advances the plot or develops the characters. And he captured the slang of the era so marvelously. Who but Chandler could write "She had a face that would make bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window"? You can almost identify the author by the turn of phrase.
It's no surprise that his books were so frequently adapted into films, because his cinematic style brings the California of the mid-century so marvelously to life. You can just picture the dives, the gin joints, the cheap hotels, and the strange airy glamour of the canyons before the housing boom, the ranch houses and bungalows, the rain-slicked streets of the cities.
Sensitive readers may be alarmed at the racial epithets throughout the book, certainly they were more socially acceptable in mid-century California than they are today, but let's keep in mind that this is fiction, the characters are fictional, and if one refers to black men as "dinges," we can't assume that Chandler also did so.
The big news with this volume is the inclusion of "The Pencil," the last Marlowe story, and "English Summer," a strange somewhat Gothic romance. Neither is quite up to Chandler's usual standards. "The Pencil" has all of Marlowe's trademarks but somehow the era itself is wrong. It's just too late for the private dick; somehow the reader is glad that Marlowe didn't persist throughout the turbulent 1960s. "English Summer" doesn't have that page-turning, pot-boiling suspense that Chandler did so well. There is a bad woman, of course, and a man who loves her, but not much else going on.
But the bona fide detective stories in this book are not to be missed. If you are a fan of the genre and like the novella format, this is a perfect read. ...more