I put off reading Red Country for two years, with the grand plan of re-reading all of the books up to that point. It had been quite a few yRed Country
I put off reading Red Country for two years, with the grand plan of re-reading all of the books up to that point. It had been quite a few years since I first started The Blade Itself after all. But my reading list seems to have a mind of its own and I never seem to be able to predict which books I’ll be reading next. The re-reads never happened. One day, several weeks back, I walk into the bookstore and there sits Red Country on the shelf, the first book I actually happen to see. It was a sign. Then I see the cover art, and focus on the hand wielding the sword on the cover. It has only nine-fingers... This changes everything. So I bought it.
Joe Abercrombie never disappoints. His characters are flawed, mostly terrible people and just ridiculous enough that you can still empathize with them. You won’t find an antagonist or protagonist who wanders aimlessly with no goal in mind. Each character is driven by a clear and specific set of values that makes them hard to hate, even when they do the most atrocious things. Which is very often. His books always maintain an air of intensity as you can’t easily predict what’s going to happen and though the character’s motivations are clear, predicting their actions isn’t always easy.
Red Country takes us some ten years after the end of the First Law series and we find the world not much changed since our last foray during The Heroes. The Union is still looking for excuses to fight something (this time it’s traitors out in the Far Country), The Empire still dominates in the south, mercenaries are still taking contracts and people still kill each other for money. This stand-alone offering takes place among the ruins of the Old Empire where Bayaz and company searched for the Seed, out in the western part of the Circle of the World. The fact that it’s in the west and the story feels almost more like a western than it does a fantasy is probably not a coincidence. Many Western tropes like small ramshackle towns, prospectors, gold diggers, savage natives and wagon trains are all found in abundance. Replace pistols with swords and bows and you’ve got yourself a fantasy-western, partner! Except this time there’s no gunslinger journeying toward an ambiguous tower filled with disappointment. Instead we have a former outlaw woman, Shy South and her stepfather (maybe? this relationship is never made 100% clear) looking for her two kid siblings, recently kidnapped by bandits and taken west into the Far Country for reasons unknown. Shy’s stepfather’s name is Lamb, or so he tells her. As far as she’s concerned, he is a coward and would never raise a finger to hurt anyone. She will soon learn that this was only to fulfill a promise to her deceased mother. He also made a promise to keep her children safe. He has to break the first promise to fulfill the second. Lamb is great at killing. In fact, he admits it was the only thing he was ever good at. Did I mention he only has nine fingers?
As with all of Abercrombie’s books, the pages of this one are also populated with a cast of fully-fleshed, three-dimensional supporting characters. We have Temple, the cowardly yet lovable jack-of-all-trades; Dab Sweet, the legendary frontiersman whose legend may be a bit overblown; and Cosca, the legendary (so he says) mercenary famous for his victories all across the world whose legend is definitely overblown. We also have an out of work actor, a disgruntled Osrung veteran, an uncertain teenager, a horrified biographer, an ex-convict/mathematician and a one-eyed northman looking to settle a grudge, to name a few.
To keep with First Law/Joe Abercrombie tradition, this offering has no shortage of violence. I always find myself mentally exhausted by the time I finish one of his books, this one included. It follows one bloody conflict to the next as our main characters search for what they’re missing. Also keeping with tradition is the endlessly entertaining dialogue. There are tons of quotable bits and truly memorable passages, especially between Cosca and his Company of the Gracious Hand mercenaries.
So why only four stars? This was a difficult decision, as I enjoyed the book immensely. Unfortunately while looking online into any details relating to the next First Law trilogy, I read a snippet of interview with Abercrombie where he said he needed to take a break from this world for a little while due to straining himself for ideas on how to complete Red Country. So while the story has a clear beginning goal, a clear end and ties things up quite neatly, I couldn’t help but notice that the plot meandered a lot in places. Would I have caught this if I didn’t read that interview? Maybe. His last two stand-alone books were very focused. Best Served Cold was about revenge and the lengths one will go to obtain it. The Heroes was about one particular battle and the horror of war. Red Country is about... getting back missing children? Discovering one’s self? Money corrupts everything? Maybe a little bit of all of this. I couldn’t help but feel that Abercrombie only wrote this book because he was contracted to. Perhaps he had two or three different ideas and decided to run with all of them, and also change it up and make it feel like a Western for something different.
This shortcoming doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable and proves that a good author can produce great work even when they’re not necessarily inspired. Despicably lovable characters, brutal action and the return of some very missed faces (well maybe just one face) make this another fun and recommended romp into The Circle of The World. I eagerly await his next trilogy....more
As I had neglected to do a review for Way of Kings back when I’d read that, I may be sneaking in a few opinions about that book as well as this sophomAs I had neglected to do a review for Way of Kings back when I’d read that, I may be sneaking in a few opinions about that book as well as this sophomore follow up. Now, speaking of second books, when comparing to The Way of Kings, this one definitely doesn't fall into the sophomore slump. For anyone that loved the first book, there's plenty to love here and more. It’s perhaps the best Sanderson book I’ve read yet. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have my complaints. Though there are many things I love about Sanderson’s writing, I still have problems with him and this book still doesn’t fix them.
With a book this long, I can hardly think of it as a single entity. Rather, I remember it as several stories put together, because really that’s what it is. Those stories are told by the several main characters the story follows from start to close. If you’ve read the first book, you know these characters, and if you haven’t, then why are you reading this review? Stop looking for spoilers, for you shall find none here! (disclaimer: I cannot guarantee there won’t be any spoilers.) There are four characters that we could call main characters in Words of Radiance. While they are all unique in many ways, each follows a particular fantasy archetype. In fact, if you put them all together as a party in a game of Diablo, they’d make a pretty balanced group.
First we have Dalinar, the deceased King’s brother, and uncle to the current king. He’s basically king in everything but name. If he were a class in a fantasy video game, he’d be the knight/warrior. Dalinar is noble to a fault, not unlike Eddard in A Song of Ice in Fire. But Dalinar has the fortune of keeping his head by the end of the first book of his series, so I guess he’s played his Game a bit better. Having Shard Plate helps too. He is a very gifted fighter, and feared by the Parshendi, who his people have been fighting for half a decade. Dalinar is also blessed/cursed with visions from what he believes to be the Almighty, who is telling him to reform the Knights Radiant and stop the oncoming evil that will soon be upon them. Dalinar can be obnoxious in his desire to always do the right thing, (would you just bed Navani already? ARGH!) but he is still an interesting character to read, namely because of his visions.
Next we have Szeth, the Assassin in White, scourge of the land and fear of nobles in countries all over the continent. His class would be the assassin/monk. While Szeth doesn’t get as much page time in book two as he does in book one, he’s still a very integral part of the story. His actions are what drive many of the decisions and motivations in Words of Radiance. While most of these actions take place “off camera,” they’re shrouded in mystery and intrigue, much like his character. Szeth is definitely a runner-up for my favorite character in these books. His one fault: he is too damn powerful! I know that’s an important part of the story, so I can’t say that I wish it were otherwise, but it still lessens my enjoyment of a character when they are strong to the point of being a god, whether or not it’s justified by the laws of magic set in place by the story.
Kaladin: When it comes to assigning these characters a video game class, it’s no coincidence that Kaladin rhymes with paladin, because basically that’s what he is. He’s your typical fighter with magic capabilities. Okay, his abilities may not be typical per se, but he’s still the paladin in our Diablo group. While Kaladin is arguably one of the most pivotal characters in these stories, I’m sad to say that of these four he is my least favorite to read about. There just doesn’t really seem to be much that’s original or interesting about his character. Any fantasy story that follows the archetype of traditional high fantasy (which the Stormlight Archive, complicated though it is, definitely does in many ways) has to have the village-boy turned hero character. That’s Kaladin. If this were Wheel of Time, he would be Rand al Thor (okay even Kaladin is more likable a character than Rand.) Now, I realize that any similarities with Wheel of Time in these books isn’t necessarily a coincidence as Sanderson cited Robert Jordan as inspiration, and of course went on to finishing Jordan’s series. But that still doesn’t mean that Kaladin isn’t a bit boring for me to read. I barely made it through all of the Bridgeman sections in book one, which thankfully we don’t have much of in this book. He discovers his powers, he questions his morals, he turns from slave to leader, inspiring his people with motivational speeches. Yawn. The one thing I don’t find boring about him are his fight sequences, which are even more fun in this second book.
Shallan: The daughter of a failing house; the educated, the artist, the soul-caster. Shallan is my favorite character in these books. She would be the sorceress/mage of our party. Even though in book one, her segments were less action packed than most others, I found them the most fun to read. Her chapters were where we learned about most of the intrigue and magic and politics of this world. Her character is rich and complicated and believable. Shallan’s book smart, she has an ability to draw what she sees in a way that’s inhuman, she’s gifted with magics and she’s a clever liar. Her character made quite a change in book two, from reserved and cautious to bold and brash in a rather quick turn, but not in a way that was unbelieveable. A particular set of circumstances guided her hand and it’s interesting to see how the character handled them. So far, each book seems to pick one character as its primary focus for back story, cutting to chapters of interludes in that character’s past, explaining how they got to be who they are. In book one, that was Kaladin (yawn), but in book two, it’s Shallan. I eagerly awaited these segments, as her back-story is... well, kind of messed up. But in a way that’s fun to read, of course. Plus, she’s a pretty, freckled red-head that just so darn adorable. What’s not to like?
My main complaint with these books (and really any Sanderson book that’s part of his Cosmere universe) is the magic. Sanderson himself said that he prefers magic systems that have a clear set of laws in place, so as to avoid any deus ex machina type situations. That’s all well and good, but that type of system also sucks out one very important aspect about magic in fantasy books: mystery. When magic becomes math and science, with clear cut rules that seem to be taken right out of an instruction manual, doesn’t it become less fun to read? To me, yes. I don’t always want to know where the magic comes from and how it works. I’d like to know that the author is at least aware, so it doesn’t feel like it’s being made up on the spot. But at least keep some of that behind the veil. Examples of newer authors with magic systems that I would call vaguely mysterious would be Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch. In both of the series by those authors, magic is reserved for special occasions and when it’s revealed, it shocks and surprises. Nobody really explains exactly where it comes from in those stories, but we know who is able to use it with some understanding of some of the types of things it can be used for (never give a Bondsmage your name!). In the Stormlight Archive books, magic is thrown around like cheap candy. It’s not as overused as it was in the Wheel of Time books and definitely not as ridiculous as those Steven Erikson Malazan books (sorry, I know a lot of people like those but I’ve tried and tried and I just can’t get into those) but by the end of this book, it gets a little bit out of hand. The outcome of a battle seems cheapened when magic has to be used to obtain victory.
Another issue I have with Sanderson is the occasional inconsistency in tone. For all intents and purposes, this is a medieval inspired fantasy world, right? Perhaps European renaissance. It’s hard to pin an Earth-like time period on these books b/c the world is very different than most fantasy worlds, but you get the idea. But there are occasional bits of dialogue and character actions that will just suck me right out of the engrossment. Like one character -an interlude character thankfully- kept using the world “awesome”. And not awesome as if to describe something that inspires awe. Awesome like the way a Ninja Turtle would use awesome, with a slang intonation. This character was young and rebellious, like a kid who skips too much school, which is fine if that character weren’t pulled out of a 90s cartoon show into a high fantasy tome. As for Sanderson’s prose, it’s far from eloquent. I would call it highly functional. There are very few “inspired” passages, memorable quotes or hair-raising moments, but the moments where I cringe at some bad bit of dialogue or cheese plot device occur fairly infrequently.
Complaints aside, there is much good here. Sanderson’s scope is huge. And not just in these two books, but in all of his linked fantasy works. Mistborn, Elantris, Warbreaker, Stormlight and yet another upcoming series all take place on difference worlds in the same shared continuity called the Cosmere. If that’s not an ambitious fantasy universe, I don’t know what is. His Stormlight world alone is huge, fully realized and populated with tons of characters. There is action, politics, exploration, discovery, romance, magic... I suppose you could say it has a little of everything. Perhaps these books run a little long and some sections can get repetitive (run with the bridge, drop the bridge, get hit by arrows, drag your wounded away, repeat ad nauseum...) but if it wasn’t enjoyable I sure as hell wouldn’t have finished. I’ve got enough other books to read that I generally don’t read the door-stopper tomes anymore. But Sanderson is at least taking the genre of door-stopper, shelf-bending fantasy to a new level. He’s taken what Jordan made, tore it down and built it up better again.
So, if you’re in the market for another Wheel of Time-esque time-sucking journey, Stormlight Archive wouldn’t be a bad read for you. Sanderson is fairly young still and he writes damn fast, so the chances of this series being completed is actually pretty good. If you’re looking for something more snappy and one third the length, but with just as much action, try Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns....more
If one were to gauge what makes a perfect science-fiction story, what elements would have to be in place? You could start with a very open question. FIf one were to gauge what makes a perfect science-fiction story, what elements would have to be in place? You could start with a very open question. For example, who else is out there besides us? You could take realistic human beings, bound by the laws of science as we know it today, and throw them at that question. Throw in an epic journey through space, a nearly unstoppable adversary and a mind-warping ending that exceeds the wildest expectations. And to top it off, wild sex with beautiful alien women. 2001: A Space Odyssey has all of these elements but one. It is a nearly perfect sci-fi experience.
Now I’ll admit to one little bit of sci-fi fandom heresy. I’ve never seen the 2001 movie. I’ve seen countless other classic science fiction films, but for some reason just never watched it. I was just thinking recently that I should watch the film, but as I'm on a bit of a classic reading stint right now I decided to read Clarke's book first. Really I have no idea what took me this long. Aside from Michael Chrichton, Clarke was my introduction to science fiction. I read Rendesvous With Rama in middle school and absolutely loved it. Having returned to reading Clarke after so many years, I can say with a surety that he is one of my favorite science fiction authors.
If you asked who the book's main character was, I suppose I would have to say that it's David Bowman. But 2001 doesn't really follow a typical format where one character can be pinpointed as "it." The book has several acts, two just happen to be smaller than the last acts featuring Mr. Bowman. The book starts 3 million years ago, when humans handn't quite developed from man-ape... things. Our POV character here is Moon-Watcher, a man-ape that encounters a monolith, one such object that each "main" character will encounter in 2001. This monolith, obviously extra-terrestrial in origin, changes Moon-Watcher and sets in motion a change in the entire human race. Fast forward three million years, give-or-take some centuries or so. Our next POV character, Dr. Heywood Floyyd, a famous scientist, is called to the moon to view a new discovery. Yet another mysterious monolith has been revealed, hidden from the news-mongers on aearth under the pretext that it's a plague broken out on the lunar base. This brings us to David Bowman.
Fast forward nearly 20 years and Bowman and a few other crew members are hurtling through space in a new state of the art ship, on a mission whose purpose isn't revealed until the end of the story. Their constant, ever-awake companion is an on-board ship AI with an agenda of its own. ("What're you doing, Dave? I can't let you do that, Dave.") Though I haven't seen the movie, I've known about Hal since I was a child. Being surrounded by movie quoting nerds my whole life, it'd be impossible not to. Hal is an immediately recognizable sci-fi icon and it was entertaining to finally learn what it was all about, even if it wasn't the medium that most people first experienced "him" in.
I don't want it give anything else away for the few people like me who don't know the story. In summation, I will say that 2001 has everything I love and forgot I loved about science fiction. With a great mystery to look forward to, I was eager to know what was going to happen from the first few pages onward. Clarke's writing is fantastic. Not only was he a visionary (he wrote this book before the moon landing for frakk's sake!), his writing was incredibly detailed and gripping. I am absolutely never bored when I'm reading Arthur C. Clarke. He pulls beauty out of the plain and excitement out of the mundane. During Bowman's journey, you will have no trouble believing that this is exactly what mankind's first trip to the outer planets will really be like. I felt like I was really staring at Jupiter and Saturn and seeing it with amazement through Bowman's eyes. While the ending of the book is worth the wait (not that this is a particularly long book) and utterly mind-warping in scope, the true majesty of 2001 is realizing the wonder that already exists in our own non-fictional universe. Everyone who is even remotely interested in science fiction or who just loves a good story about human discovery should read 2001: A Space Odyssey...more
For an author, creating something that is frightening can be a challenging thing, given that the subject matter is neither seen, nor heard by the readFor an author, creating something that is frightening can be a challenging thing, given that the subject matter is neither seen, nor heard by the reader. Rather it takes place solely in the mind, leaving it up to the reader to decide if what they're experiencing is scary or horrifying. It's almost pretentious, when you think about it. Selling a story as a horror is telling the reader how they're going to feel while reading it. Of course, the same could be said for comedy and many other genres, but horror seems particularly subjective to me. H.P. Lovecraft is called the master of horror, the grandfather. I've been told for years that I need to read him, and for many years this book has gathered dust on my shelf. Well I decided to finally blow off that dust, wipe away the cobwebs and open the portal to the Elder Gods... I mean into a clever and demented mind. I'm glad that I did.
I don't read a lot of short story collections. I love the idea of short stories but when it comes to writing and reading them, I'm always thinking that I'd rather cut my teeth on something longer instead. I think I've ruined myself with door-stopper epic fantasy tomes. But Lovecraft only wrote in the short so alas, short stories it is. I wish I had read Lovecraft sooner. As I’m reading these stories I can see where Stephen King and various other horror writers have pulled influence from. I remember being a kid and reading IT (which was quite terrifying when I was in 7th grade, by the way) and reading about the Turtle, a strange god-like being outside of time, thinking “what a strange and interesting concept.” Well, I’m pretty sure if King hadn’t read about Lovecraft’s Elder Gods, he wouldn’t have had the idea. I’d give more examples, but honestly I’m not too well-read in the horror genre so I can’t think of any more at the moment.
As for the stories themselves, I won’t touch on all of them, but I will give my thoughts on a few; particularly my favorites of the bunch.
Rats in the Walls: This was a great way to begin my Lovecraft experience. What starts as a standard horror tale of a potentially haunted home becomes much, much more. You’ll learn just by reading this story that Lovecraft doesn’t deal in ghosts and spirits, but in things far more terrifying.
Pickman's Model: This one is about an artist of the macabre variety whose subjects may or may not be derived from his imagination. While this story was one of the shortest with the simplest of premises, it stuck with me as one of the more chilling tales in this collection. Pickman's Model is truly meant for the short story format. I couldn't see it being worked into a film and I can't see the premise working as a full length novel. It's an idea, and that idea is creepy as hell.
Call of Cthulu: I suppose I couldn't write a review of this book without touching on the great Cthulu. I won't spend too much time talking about the most famed Lovecraftian creation, but it's definitely a story that's worth a read. Whereas most of the stories in the collection focus on one subject finding themselves in an unspeakable situation of isolation or insanity, Call introduces horror on a grander, world threatening scale. Also tentacles (and not the kind that Krieger is into.)
The Colour Out of Space: This one is my favorite story in the collection. It's just disturbing in the best way. The sheer sense of helplessness and horror is in full swing here as an object falls from space and disturbs the fabric of reality itself, slowly decaying anything living into dust. And of course that includes humans. The visuals this story conjures are definitely enough to induce chills. I'd love to see this one in some sort of film capacity.
The Dunwich Horror: This is one of the least typical Lovecraft stories in the collection. A family makes a contract with an Elder God and creates a couple of Elder Godly horrific children that terrorize the podunk town of Dunwich. What makes it unique is that instead of humans being helpless against this threat, this story actually focuses on a various group of people attempting to solve the problem. Its definitely one I could see made into a modern movie, even one that's purposely campy like Slither or Tremors.
It's obviously not necessary for me to go into each and every story here as there are 20 or so, but this collection has definitely whet my tongue for more HP Lovecraft. He perhaps wasn't the best fiction writer as his characters don't have a lot of depth and he reuses a lot of the same descriptors. But every writer has their strengths and weaknesses and Lovecraft's strengths lie in digging into your imagination and conjuring images and fears you didn't even know you had. A lot of horror these days lacks subtlety and likes to take its subject and best you over the head with it. Lovecraft's work does not have that problem. Every writer, director or actor of the horror genre should be given this book to be reminded what horror really is....more