A fresh-feeling bit of urban fantasy, not because of the way the fantasy is presented (parallel/mirror world, split magicks, mysterious government-likA fresh-feeling bit of urban fantasy, not because of the way the fantasy is presented (parallel/mirror world, split magicks, mysterious government-like agency, etc) but rather because of the way the urban element is depicted. Ms Baker's cast of characters are all energetically flawed, diverse, and most notably very human, showcasing a big cross-section of typically underrepresented characteristics. Even the book's protagonist, Millie, is a bisexual amputee with borderline personality disorder. But this diversity doesn't feel like a gimmick, as even minor characters are satisfactorily developed beyond tokenism.
I will say that despite this character development, for a fairly short book there are maybe a few too many. Some of this may be due to the sort of noirish mystery element to the book and an effort to avoid the economy of characters principle, but a lot of the intrigue works without it. After a while some of the less frequently appearing names start to get a bit confusing.
Actually, while the plot is engaging, I never really felt that invested in it. Instead I found the most compelling aspect of the book to be Millie's unique voice and the well-crafted unfolding of her backstory. The parallel journeys of Millie-the-recovering-patient and Millie-the-new-Arcadia-Project-recruit wind around and through each other, elevating each. It would have been possible for the novel to feature one or the other, but that it features both is what makes this such an engaging read.
I will say that sometimes for the sake of moving the plot forward some of the world-building aspects happen in little infodumpy sections or certain characters at times act as plot devices. But there are some clever bits of misdirection along the way, some really breathtaking turns of phrase, and an expertly delivered emotional arc. The ending, while breakneck and satisfying, is kind of a glorious mess that relies a bit too much on casual tragedy to be truly resonant. Still, the set-up for a sequel is deftly handled and there's nothing I could find to prevent this from being a strong recommendation to anyone who enjoys urban fantasy.
If you're thinking about reading this book, the first thing I recommend is that you check out either this Spotify playlist (created by your humble revIf you're thinking about reading this book, the first thing I recommend is that you check out either this Spotify playlist (created by your humble reviewer), and/or this YouTube one and familiarize yourself with some of the songs featured in the novel. In fact, you should probably do that even if you're not going to read the book because it's a very good soundtrack.
Anyway, the reason for the homework is that Ms Moreno-Garcia's coming of age fantasy novel is set in part against the mixtape-and-vinyl music scene in the 80s. The book doesn't require a comprehensive knowledge of the songs mentioned within (and you can tell from the length of the playlists that there is a lot of music featured), but certain scenes will make more sense if you're familiar with key tracks. Being familiar with "En Algun Lugar" by Duncan Dhu, for example, will give a better insight into protagonist Meche's state of mind during the 80s flashback sequences that take up half the novel. Knowing the melody and lyrics of Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale" will speak volumes about the relationship between Meche's parents and crystalize a particular scene late in the novel. That sort of thing.
Because music in the book isn't just a bunch of pop cultural references tossed in to give Meche a memorable quirk, it informs the book's magical element. Once Meche learns she can use records and dance and music to cast spells, she draws her two outcast friends Daniela and Sebastian into a growing obsession with overcoming their teenage difficulties. This arc is the basis for the 80s sequences, all of which inform and tie into the present (or recent past I suppose, as it's set in 2009) where Meche finally returns to Mexico City after a long absence to attend to her father's funeral. It's worth noting that neither the 1988-89 nor the 2009 segments are necessarily stronger than the other. Sometimes in split timeline novels one or the other will be more interesting which gives the other a filler quality where the reader is impatiently waiting to get back to "the good part." Not so with Signal to Noise.
The interesting thing Ms Moreno-Garcia does is to not twin the two timelines too closely. They play off each other, wrap around each other and give teasers about events yet to come in each without being sort of annoyingly obvious parallels. They're like notes in a pleasant chord in that way, complimenting each other without simply increasing the noise.
What I particularly admired about this book is how unafraid the author is to make her characters feel real, flawed, frustratingly human. Meche is a difficult protagonist, and that's okay. She's kind of mean, lacks a certain self-awareness, but is also not so much a fool that she blithely dips into cruelty nor is stupidly blind to her own personality. It's a complex take on not just a teenager but—with shades of nuance—an adult who is still haunted by her adolescence as well. It rings really true and it's the kind of characterization that takes a whole novel to play out. It doesn't mean at times it's not cringe-inducing to see Meche's darker side manifest or her struggle to connect in ways that might seem obvious to readers. But it ends up feeling exceptionally genuine: the package is dressed so precisely with her family life, upbringing, experiences, raw personality, and a wonderful progression from the beginning of the novel to the end—as well as from the chronological beginning to the end. It's a character you don't have to fall in love with to be fascinated with, that doesn't need to inspire you in order to charm you.
Most of the secondary characters are also craftily-drawn. Sebastian in particular is perhaps more relatable than Meche, but it's a cleverly handled mild subversion of some common tropes to see the role he ends up playing in the story. Even Daniela who serves a particular plot purpose also manages to be a fully-formed character by the time the novel draws to a close.
A handful of minor characters might have benefitted from a touch more development: Dolores, Meche's grandmother, is maybe a little unclear in her motive for how much or how little guidance she offers on the subject of magic (view spoiler)[at least until very late in the novel (hide spoiler)]; Isadora—Sebastian's teenage crush—is a little lacking in dimension; Natalia, Meche's mom, doesn't quite make the full transition from flashback to 2009 timeline versions. But overall there is very little to complain about here.
The book is sad and delightful and original and familiar and painful and wonderful all at once. Like any good mixtape it has rises and falls and packs a lifetime's worth of emotion into a relatively small package. I really loved this book, fell hard for the pitch-perfect ending, and was captivated by the often gorgeous prose throughout. I highly recommend this book even to non-music-lovers. And if you were a part of the mixtape-making 80s and early 90s, or ever had a special relationship with just a few friends, this is really going to be your jam. Do yourself a favor and put this on top of your to-read list.
Just make sure to have a set of headphones handy.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
The book is about Kvothe, a kind of effortless badass who both stars in and narrates the story of himself. If that sounds like a weird way of puttingThe book is about Kvothe, a kind of effortless badass who both stars in and narrates the story of himself. If that sounds like a weird way of putting it, the book itself is framed oddly so that it's both third person and first person and it all orbits around Kvothe. It layers stories, sometimes being about stories even as much as it is about its characters.
There is a framing story, a broader world story, a backstory, and then there is the central story which Kvothe recounts to a scribe. The central story—told in first person—is Kvothe's origin tale. Well, half of it anyway, since it becomes clear two thirds of the way through the book that there isn't near enough time to get to anything of an ending even by the time you get through six or seven hundred pages. Surprisingly, the conclusion is reasonably satisfying even given this inevitability. Still, there's a lot of layers happening, especially when you consider how many other stories get draped over the narratives as they unfold.
Kvothe's unrelenting awesomeness is just on the good side of irritating, largely because he's got rotten luck and his near-perfection makes him enough enemies that circumstances press against his inherent competence. Which, if you're going to make a character like this, is a good way to bring forth plenty of tension in your story.
At the risk of falling prey in reviewing a meandering novel to meandering myself, I'll jump to the point: this book is fun. It's escapist, it's tricky, it's clever, it's really a lot like Kvothe. It gobbles you up so that even when Mr Rothfuss is kind of getting on your nerves with the "if you've never xxxx, then there's no way to describe …" schtick; even when yet another rare woman character shows up and is—gasp!—beautiful and white and half in love with Kvothe; even when Kvothe goes off on yet another obvious side quest to level up instead of advancing the plot… it's hard to care.
I truly enjoyed this book, which is maybe something I haven't said about an epic fantasy in awhile. I mean, I admire George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, but I don't always feel like reading them is a joy, you know? This book reminds me more of Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy in that sense. In particular the intriguing, plausible magic system.
Mr Rothfuss also writes elegantly and beautifully about music, which might sound like it's out of place here but is actually a main theme and central aspect of Kvothe's character and an important part of the world being created. My only regret is that I wish someone could create the songs referenced and occasionally conveyed in partial lyrics to the same effect described in the prose. The narration brings them to life as much as is possible in the medium, but while it can capture the essence of the thing (remarkably so!), only music can truly be, well, music.
In any case, I'll be back for more in this series, eager to see where some of the many, many loose ends tie up....more
I'm a bit conflicted about this one because it really pulled me through—a very hard book to put down. The pacing is crisp, there are several moments oI'm a bit conflicted about this one because it really pulled me through—a very hard book to put down. The pacing is crisp, there are several moments of breathtaking prose, the characters (particularly the Peculiars) are mostly wonderful, and there are just the right amounts of mystery, horror, time-travel speculative fiction, and fantasy to appeal to my tastes.
But, honestly, I didn't care for the found-photographs indulgence. And yes, I understand this is where the ideas for the story came from and yadda yadda but lots of stories have interesting origins that don't get so baldly integrated into the final product. It really feels each time Mr Riggs starts describing yet another unusual photograph that book slows and the editor's hand disappears. The photographs could exist in the narrative in a much more natural (and less frequent or annoying) manner without their actual inclusion alongside the text. And moreover, the story in here is quirky and weird and inventive and fun enough to not need it.
It also takes forever to get around to the real meat of the story—Jacob's introduction to and initial interactions with Miss Peregrine and her Peculiars. Which might not be a bad thing (it's not like the first half of the book is dull) except a lot of important characterization feels very, very rushed through the second act because there's not as much time devoted to getting to know the larger cast before the race to the climax begins.
I will say the climactic sequence is quite a ride and features one of the best, most effectively set-up plot twists in recent memory. I read the last quarter of the book in a single, can't-tear-me-away binge.
I'm on the hook for book two, I think that's undeniable. I'm sure I'm in for more eye-rolling as the photograph routine gets dragged on, but I guess it's part of the price of admission at this point. Hopefully now that the establishment of the narrator's normal is over with the pacing will improve in future volumes. I do recommend this book because I'm sure the photograph thing is a personal grievance and not one likely to bother too many others and it's possible by the end of a trilogy I'll think of the first hundred pages as a drop in the bucket compared to how much time is spent over a series getting to know the principal group. So suffice to say I enjoyed my time reading this book and am looking forward to more, hoping for the best....more
It felt like Star Wars. It did feel a bit overambitious and there were times when, even as a big fan of Star Wars but one who only casually dipped intIt felt like Star Wars. It did feel a bit overambitious and there were times when, even as a big fan of Star Wars but one who only casually dipped into the Expanded Universe the newly rebooted unified continuity whisked aside, I was sort of lost in the minutia. I'm not conversant in the names of the planets and alien races of the SW universe so sometimes I had to shrug and roll with the action. But it takes me a lot of effort to unpack the world-building nuances in the movies, too, and there's something to be said for a piece of entertainment that can just carry you along.
Part of the reason why I'm never confused as a super-fan of any particular property is that my enthusiasm for any one thing is never so much that I allow myself to forget to have fun with my fictional endeavors. So, for someone who can't fathom taking any of this so seriously that I could nitpick the tiny details, it was fun. Not as fun as the best Star Wars stuff I've ever experienced, but worth the time I spent with it. I might not recommend it heartily to just anyone, but I wouldn't try to dissuade anyone from it either. I'll be back for book two....more
When books get beefy—600+ pages in hardcover, for example—there is the tendency for them to become somewhat unnecessary. The extra bloat of pages doesWhen books get beefy—600+ pages in hardcover, for example—there is the tendency for them to become somewhat unnecessary. The extra bloat of pages doesn't always translate into an increase in scope or a requisite complexity to tell the story at hand. Sometimes the length of a hefty book works against it, if the story inside is interesting but the writer spends too much time faffing around on asides or subplots or secondary characters. Or maybe an editor somewhere just didn't exert the sorcery of his or her healing red pen. Then, there are times when overstuffed novels are welcome, when the book is just so good and the characters so enchanting that you don't mind indulging the authorial extravagance.
NOS4A2 falls into this last category. It tells the tale of Victoria "Vic" McQueen, aka "The Brat", following her from young girl with a knack for finding lost things, all the way into adulthood where her ability and the curious mechanics of it have left a deep scar on her life. The book winds its way up to the central plot via a protracted prologue that takes up the first third of the book. A lot of time is spent establishing the relationship between Vic and her father, Chris, which is cleverly/symbolically dropped after Chris abandons Vic and her mother. And while there are relatively few characters in a book this size, each gets plenty of attention and development such that, by the end, even though this is Vic's story, it feels important to know what becomes of Lou and Wayne and Tabitha and Bing and the others.
It deserves to be said, in case anyone felt like dancing around it, that Joe Hill harkens his dad, Stephen King. I mean that in a good way. NOS4A2 feels like a book written not by someone trying to ape King, but by a gifted writer who happens to be a superfan of the horror mega-star. By someone who has taken a scholarly approach to the library produced by a writer who happens to be this guy's dad. King's books haven't always been raw horror, and this book sits nicely alongside those parts of the King canon, The Stand, The Gunslinger, The Eye Of The Dragon. There are frightening elements to NOS4A2, but the book is not splattered with gore. Most of the torment comes from inside Vic's head.
I couldn't call NOS4A2 a perfect book. There are parts of the story that feel a little ordinary; particularly the law enforcement angle that shows up later in the book. Some of this is only in contrast to the bulk of the book which is unpredictable and exciting, so when formulas and tropes appear, they come dressed for Carnivale. The climax was also a touch disappointing because—as with several other periods of time that make up Vic's life, such as her stint in Hollywood that gets a paragraph at most—the emotional punch is delivered in a kind of off-screen/between-chapters fashion that I personally didn't care for.
But sometimes imperfect books tell the best stories, though, so even though it has a couple of warts, I loved NOS4A2. I grew up on Stephen King's brand of grim adventure stories and this felt like a half-homage, half-revisit to those reading days of my young life and I appreciated it's ability to filter that sense into a new, exciting tale....more
Let me bluntly say up front that I'm glad I investigated Robert Aickman's work. As an occasional short fiction writer, it's instructive to see what AiLet me bluntly say up front that I'm glad I investigated Robert Aickman's work. As an occasional short fiction writer, it's instructive to see what Aickman accomplishes in these eight stories largely via creation of atmosphere and quirky, often unsettling secondary characters. There is a particular time-and-place aspect to the writings (even the historically set pieces) which I think speaks to the background of the author, but he deftly creates worlds that are sort of reminiscent of David Lynch in which things are realistic enough to be recognizable with sufficient surreality to be disorienting. This hint of disquiet allows Aickman to then inject his shivery plots and characters to create moods that remind me of those bad dreams in which nothing actually terrifying happens but are just off enough bring to the forefront of a waking mind how staggeringly much we take for granted on a daily basis.
I will say that most of Aickman's protagonists are not particularly compelling in and of themselves with perhaps the exception of "Pages from a Young Girl's Journal" and "Niemandswasser" (the latter only by contrast, perhaps). Most are vague men, flawed in some core moral fashion that is treated as trifling by the prose, useful only in their blandness against the tapestry of incrementally bizarre people, places, and events swirling around them.
And even more to the point of how I felt about the collection as a whole, the stories often feel like protracted (and compelling!) set-ups leading to dry anticlimaxes and endings that are either blunt and unsatisfying or awkwardly tidy. This worked for me with "The Swords" primarily because I assumed it was a one-time trick, but by "The Clock Watcher" I was definitely hoping for more from the stories. The exceptions are maybe "Pages" which is precise and beautiful and easily the anthology's best overall piece; and "The Same Dog" which at least has the courtesy of bookending the story with something that feels like a horror-story flourish. This is opposed to what starts to feel like a recurring standard Aickman finale: "So yeah, weird, right? But whaddya gonna do? The end."
Still, if for no other reason than to get a sense of what people mean when they use the word "atmospheric" this is an interesting read. I'd be interested in checking out more of Aickman's work, looking for a few more of the examples I'm sure must exist of where he was really able to pull it all together....more
As far as superheroes go, Thor has never really even caught a whiff of my favorites list. Even in the recent slate of largely successful Marvel movieAs far as superheroes go, Thor has never really even caught a whiff of my favorites list. Even in the recent slate of largely successful Marvel movie adaptations, I thought Thor was among the weakest of the bunch. But I kept hearing about Thor: God Of Thunder and how good it was. And by "kept hearing" I mean incessant and repeated praise-singing.
So, lest if be said that I was mired in my preconceptions, I broke down and picked up the first five issue collection from the newish Marvel Now! line. I'm really glad I did. Up front, it needs to be said that Esad Ribic's art is really wonderful in this book. Even the little choices like not digitally inking all the blacks (you can see the color-in sectioning which gives heavy shadows a particular textured look) and the subtle design differences, especially between the three incarnations of the title character, are wonderful.
And then there's Jason Aaron's story. The idea of a serial killer who targets gods is creepy and gives Aaron a lot of room to have some sadistic fun with what is usually a sort of one-note character. Thor isn't Batman, so he's not really into the whole detective thing, but Aaron does a good job of not making this feel like Thor is shoehorned into someone else's story. The overall arc is appropriately cosmic, the antagonist (Gorr) is terrific, the sweep of drama is exhilarating.
I can probably find a few small quibbles such as the fact that this is printed as a full arc but it doesn't have much in the way of a satisfying conclusion. It also includes a bunch of fights with Gorr's minions that are kind of unnecessary (though I understand that mainstream comics often feel like they have to meet some "action quota"). Still, this trade ranks up there with Saga, Volume 1 for collections that inspire me to transition to the monthly book because there's no way I'm going to be able to wait to find out what happens....more
Having (finally) finished the Sandman series earlier in the year, the last remaining unread graphic novel on my shelf by Neil Gaiman was this slim 90-Having (finally) finished the Sandman series earlier in the year, the last remaining unread graphic novel on my shelf by Neil Gaiman was this slim 90-page volume featuring everyone's favorite cheerful harbinger of change, Death.
I can't say I'm any more immune to the appeal of Gaiman's version of the not-so-grim reaper as a button-cute goth girl with an irrepressibly sunny disposition (though it should be said that she is not a one-note character). I loved her occasional appearances in Sandman and was excited to see her given center stage.
The thing is, I liked The High Cost Of Living mostly just because it was more of Death, but sadly not so much because of what it was. The story follows a young, despondent boy named Sexton who happens across the path of Death, who is going by Didi on her once-per-century turn as a mortal. The set-up is fairly predictable: suicidal boy meets the incarnation of Death who shows him the way to a new respect for life.
The main problem is that Sexton is not as good a foil for Death/Didi as Dream was. In fact, Sexton is kind of a wank and I found myself largely apathetic to his arc. There are some delightful subplot elements and a revisit from Mad Hattie that fans of Sandman will recognize, plus a few other cameos and references that were nice touches. But then there's a whole digression where a guy called The Eremite shows up and wants Didi's ankh and he kidnaps Sexton and Didi and… whatever. It felt forced to give some plot gravity to an otherwise character-driven story and I didn't care for it.
It's hard to be too critical, here. Chris Bachalo and Mark Buckingham deliver one of my favorite renditions of the character and the rest of the art throughout is beautiful, though the layouts get a little bland. Gaiman's dialogue and characterizations are rock-solid as always, in spite of me not being crazy about the plotting. And in the end it's a perfectly fun diversion, a graphic novel that is inviting and charming and probably a great introduction to the Sandman series as a whole. Still, having read the Sandman and seen the heights of storytelling Gaiman can climb to, this felt a little bit of a letdown by comparison....more
Sometimes I pick up a book or graphic novel for reasons I can't really explain. Maybe later I'll try to retroactively ascribe meaning to it: "Oh, I heSometimes I pick up a book or graphic novel for reasons I can't really explain. Maybe later I'll try to retroactively ascribe meaning to it: "Oh, I heard the writer's name in passing" or "The [cover|title] really grabbed me" or "It was a staff recommendation and I just went with it." Whether those things really had an impact on my decision to try the book in question or not is probably immaterial. Occasionally I'll just give something a random chance, just to see.
I did that with Fatale. I knew nothing about it, or its creative team of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Maybe I should have known Brubaker since he's done a lot of comics work that I might have heard of, but I've only gotten back into comics again (after a decade-and-a-half hiatus) in the past year or so. Anyway, I didn't know really what to expect going in.
What I got was a gripping, classic hard-boiled noir story with a heavy coat of Lovecraftian weirdness. That alone probably would have hooked me, even if the execution was hackneyed, but fortunately Brubaker belts it out of the park here. Phillips's art is tonally appropriate, skirting the line between modern and classic pulp expertly, and what really struck me is how cohesive the whole thing feels. These two have worked together in the past and it's pretty impressive to see a professional relationship gel into something tangible in a final work. This is the kind of thing that was most hit-and-miss with, say, Neil Gaiman's Sandman run: as good as it is, that show belongs to the writer. The artists just try to keep up. Here it feels like a collaboration, and that elevates the work overall.
I will admit I had some trouble keeping track of the characters sometimes. Phillips's character designs aren't quite sharp enough to make every one (except for sort-of title character Jo, and then only because she's lamentably the only real female character) easily distinguishable, but it made me read a little more closely which was to my benefit anyway since this is a complex story that gets even tricker very fast.
My biggest complaint is in the area of Brubaker's portrayal of women. He succumbs to the women in refrigerators syndrome and even Jo is, in spite of her intentionally archetypal trappings, kind of one-note through the five issues collected here. I get that with the time period and types of characters the story needed to focus on it makes a sort of sense to be a little dude-heavy, but I mean, c'mon, can't even a few of the evil cultists be women?
Still, there are two more collected volumes and the story is still ongoing in monthlies so I'll spare the heavy judgment until there's at least two arc's worth of stories under my belt. And that should be taken as a given that I'm going to continue to read this series....more
Here's my core problem with The Wake: the collection starts with the three-issue arc that gives the volume it's name. Parts one, two, and three of TheHere's my core problem with The Wake: the collection starts with the three-issue arc that gives the volume it's name. Parts one, two, and three of The Wake stand abreast with any of the highlights of the series to date. Michael Zulli's art is sublime and appropriately rich with gorgeous detail while Neil Gaiman gathers the many, many threads of the previous 69 issues in a poignant, rewarding fashion. The final scene—in fact the final panel—of part three is such a wonderful close to a brilliant series.
But then Gaiman overstays his welcome. Not a lot, just a little bit. It's not that Sunday Mourning, Exiles, or The Tempest are bad. In fact I rather liked Sunday and Tempest (Exiles is interesting, but takes too long to get to the point only made on the last page). It's just that coming as they do after the pitch-perfect conclusion, they don't feel like epilogues but like contractual obligations.
And look, would that all contracted works achieve this level of mercenary achievement. And I don't even know if these were done simply to round the issue count to 75 or not. Perhaps Mr. Gaiman felt he absolutely had to tell these stories. But in terms of ending on a high note, I felt that they effectively undercut the spot-on conclusion The Wake had provided.
I should note here, at the conclusion of the Sandman series, that I have reviewed and rated each volume individually, mostly on their own merits as graphic novels. But it's worth noting that as a whole work—that is, Neil Gaiman's The Sandman as a series—you can discard all the sub-ratings and be assured that I give the whole of it an unqualified five-star, highest possible recommendation rating. There is a reason these books, these characters, this series is so frequently cited as pinnacles of graphic storytelling: that's exactly what they are. Top notch, in the literal sense of the term. As far as I'm concerned, there is no valid reason for anyone not to read these books....more
Sometimes it takes me a while to finish a book because I'm not that interested in it, or perhaps I'm interested but just not that concerned with gettiSometimes it takes me a while to finish a book because I'm not that interested in it, or perhaps I'm interested but just not that concerned with getting to the end. This may be the first time I can really remember being deliberate because I didn't want it to be over. It's strange that I went from not being able to finish my Sandman collection because I got hung up around book four and now not wanting to finish it because it's just that good.
Here's the secret weapon of The Kindly Ones, even versus something I gush about like The Doll's House: I finally love the art in a Sandman book. The flat-colored, heavily stylized look of most of the art in these thirteen chapters feels very much like what I wanted (but wasn't even aware was missing) from earlier books. Granted, it's not very gothic or macabre in the way that might suit darker (or more darkly human) stories that appeared early in the series' run, so maybe the shifting artistic tone throughout the whole collection is necessary. But there's something about the sharp, angular styles here that works as the book descends into some crazy imaginative depths.
Now, I'll admit something here: sometimes Neil Gaiman loses me, especially in his climactic moments. I experienced this reading the novelization of Neverwhere and again reading American Gods. My theory is that Gaiman's imagination even outpaces his own considerable writing talent such that his efforts to explain exactly what's happening in the movie theater of his mind falls short. Somewhere that mental telepathy Stephen King talks about in his On Writing breaks down between Gaiman and myself and I sort of plough through, shrugging, getting sort of the gist but feeling like I'm missing the bigger picture. Maybe Mr. Gaiman is just too smart for me, who knows. He is aided in this volume by the visual aid of the graphic medium, but I still felt at times in the closing chapters that I didn't really know what was going on. And in a way that kind of bummed me out because I felt some of the emotional resonance that was inherent there was lost as I got pulled away, distracted by asking the questions, "What?" "Who?" and "Why?"
I can't really say it ruined any of my enjoyment overall, it was just that I kind of thought after finding myself strangely affectionate toward the curious protagonist of these books, I would have been more invested in the end of his journey, especially as all the various threads Gaiman had sown through previous stories began to draw into a remarkable, bewildering weave.
With only one more volume left on my shelf (I also have Death The High Cost Of Living which I'm looking forward to and I may pick up Endless Nights, sometimes called Volume 11), I'm so glad that I finally made the effort to read these, but it is bittersweet to know that it's rapidly coming to an end....more
Unlike previous Sandman volumes that featured side-stories, Worlds' End is the first that I didn't find to be, at least comparatively, just a little lUnlike previous Sandman volumes that featured side-stories, Worlds' End is the first that I didn't find to be, at least comparatively, just a little lacking. Fables & Reflections has been (by a small margin) my least favorite volume so far; Dream Country was 75% fantastic with one story that wasn't quite as amazing as the others. But in Worlds' End, Neil Gaiman manages to weave tales that flirt with the Endless, particularly Dream, without necessarily featuring him and still feels cohesive and unified. The stories that are told are within a larger pseudo-narrative, and sometimes those stories have stories within themselves. It is less confusing to read than it sounds here, but Gaiman returns to a device he's used before of characters sitting around entertaining each other with tales to marvelous effect.
What I think really sets this book apart from the others is the sudden elevation of the art. Most of the tales are illustrated by a specific artist in a distinctive style, and this, I think, is perhaps the only thing that has sometimes been missing from earlier Sandman works. Plenty of the artists who contributed to Sandman prior to this point were (and are) excellent, but I think what feels right for this book—which is really about stories and stories being told (perhaps part of why Worlds' End is so dang good, as it crystalizes everything that The Sandman By Neil Gaiman represents)—is the variance of styles. Sandman's own nebulous appearance, the shifting nature of The Dreaming, the fantastic concepts that are presented, sort of demand several different interpretations.
It is perhaps also the fact that, unlike Fables & Reflections and/or Dream Country, Worlds' End eventually intertwines directly with the main story arc, and in a wonderful, impressive fashion. While Dream Country was more of an interlude and Fables was kind of a cobbled-together volume happening outside of the chronological continuity, Worlds' End feels deliberate. Interestingly, I suspect this sort of side-step, this manner of examining the significance of events from Brief Lives through eyes far removed from the central cast, and with heavy digression, is not going to appeal to all readers. But for me, it worked brilliantly....more
Like Dream Country, this volume of The Sandman is a collection of one-shot stories that don't always feature Dream very much. Which is okay, since NeiLike Dream Country, this volume of The Sandman is a collection of one-shot stories that don't always feature Dream very much. Which is okay, since Neil Gaiman is a terrific storyteller, but is also kind of a letdown considering first of all how good the slimmer volume of shorts was, especially compared to this. It's noteworthy perhaps that even in these "side-stories" there are hints and allusions or outright references to other bits of the story already told or (most likely) that will come to pass. So it's not like you are advised to skip this volume. And the writing in these stories is just as strong as in the primary Sandman arcs.
I suppose it's just a matter of personal preference then that a lot of these digressions aren't quite as fascinating to me as the "main" story. It could be that in this case I found the collection of them—which are not in strict issue release order the way the volumes had been up until this point (I guess you could argue that it started in A Game Of You since some of these stories bookend that storyline)—simply too much and would have preferred a more linear presentation (such as issue order) that broke these up. In any case, let it be known that some of my criticism of the overall volume is more my impatience to get back to the tales of the Endless and less that it doesn't quite live up to the others.
I'll run down each story quickly for completeness:
Fear of Falling — A brief story from a preview issue, I actually liked this one very much.
Three Septembers and a January — This one reminded me a bit of A Dream Of A Thousand Cats in that it was unusually lighthearted for a Sandman story. The tie-ins with the Endless and the mystery of Destruction's departure make it especially tantalizing.
Thermidor — A political tale centered around Lady Johanna Constantine post-French Revolution, it introduces Orpheus who will show up more later in the book, but overall I found it wordy and the cursive lettering of Johanna's narrative was, to me, difficult to read. Not one of my favorites.
The Hunt — This story of a grandfather recounting one of his people's legacies to his bored granddaughter was marvelous, probably my favorite of the bunch by a small margin.
August — Set during the reign of Augustus Caesar and featuring the emperor himself, this is a dark and unpleasant story that is perhaps more interesting to those with a particular interest in Roman history. Not that I don't have an interest in it, but something in this execution feels off, including the forced inclusion of Dream and the talky dialogue that features a lot of the same art panels of open-mouthed heads.
Soft Places — In a way I liked this story quite a bit although I found the pacing a bit sluggish in the beginning. It's nice to see Gilbert/Fiddler's Green return (hoom) and the interactions between Marco Polo and Rustichello over which is dreaming and which is real are amusing. I did find the timeline of this one to be a bit confusing as it seems to take place during Preludes & Nocturnes but it confused me that Dream would meet Fiddler's Green in the soft place and not remember seeing him later during The Doll's House. At any rate, it's a flawed but mostly enjoyable aside.
The Song Of Orpheus — The re-telling of the Orpheus/Eurydice tale in the context of Orpheus being the son of Dream and Calliope ties back to Thermidor and features a lot of interactions with the other Endless. Based on the very little I know of the remaining Sandman volumes this is among the more significant tales to the central story and it highlights some things known from the story Calliope in Dream Country. I liked this story a lot due to its mythology connections but as in the original myth the final loss of Eurydice is frustrating and kind of makes me hate Orpheus for being either forgetful or, in Gaiman's take, untrusting.
Parliament Of Rooks — Cain, Abel, Eve, Matthew and Daniel Hall end up at Cain and Abel's house to exchange stories. This is another parable about the power of tales and I liked it quite a bit. I wasn't surprised to learn later on that the lil' Dream and lil' Death panels were a hit when the book was first published:
Ramadan — Part of me loved this story about how dreams can keep legends alive, but there are few examples of Gaiman's sometimes over-reliance on narration in his scripts than this. I do hope Gaiman returns to the black Phoenix egg at some point in the future, though, as that was the best part of the whole issue....more
In my review for The Doll's House, I noted how much I love when authors pick threads or tiny details from previous storylines or one-shots or even othIn my review for The Doll's House, I noted how much I love when authors pick threads or tiny details from previous storylines or one-shots or even other works and expand upon them later. The gratification received as a reader when you see this happening is heavy, and it feels like a reward for paying close attention. The A Game Of You storyline then is entirely this kind of deal. A small portion of The Doll's House (Rose Walker's roommates' individual dreamscapes, and specifically Barbie's) fills in this arc as she revises her role as Princess of a strange realm, and we revisit Martin Tenbones, Wilkinson, Luz and the other companions on their quest to defeat the Cuckoo.
Some of the set-up is even reminiscent of The Doll's House, including the assorted cast of characters as tenants in the same building, and as events from The Dreaming filter into their real world, they are drawn against their will into the conflict that eventually overtakes Barbie. We see more connections, including references back to "24 Hours" from Preludes & Nocturnes, Nuala makes an appearance from Season Of Mists, and so on. It is in this volume that the real continuity and inter-connections Neil Gaiman is fabricating emerge and it works wonderfully.
It should be noted that it's hard to really describe the outcome of Princess Barbie's quest without dipping into heavy spoiler territory. Suffice to say that the confrontation with The Cuckoo is, as I should just assume by now in Gaiman's writing, unexpected but marvelous. There are so many elements to the end of this tale that work for me, including the fact that the "antagonist" is perhaps not so at all, the "savior" role is perhaps the one who causes the most damage in the end, and throughout it all Dream acts, as he does most of the time when in direct contact with humans, sage and all-knowing even though we know by now that he isn't.
Having admitted that I usually stop after the good but dense and far-out Season Of Mists in my read-through of The Sandman, I'm delighted to find that the very next volume rewarded me with a book that is on par with The Doll's House and now I can't wait to forge ahead all the way to the end....more
The thing that is most interesting to me about Neil Gaiman's The Sandman is how Dream himself is frequently not the center of the action. The SandmanThe thing that is most interesting to me about Neil Gaiman's The Sandman is how Dream himself is frequently not the center of the action. The Sandman book is his story, certainly, but the narrative weaves around him like a planetary orbit. In winter, the distance can be stretched far afield indeed. This volume is more of a summer arc, with the narrative pulling in close to Morpheus as we follow him as he accompanies his sister Delirium on a quest to track down their missing brother Destruction.
It's also worth noting that even with Dream front and center, the star of this tale is Delirium. Like Death, she is a delightful character (there is some intentional irony in that statement), perhaps far more relatable than Dream will ever be. As usual, threads from earlier in the series return with much more gravity than may have seemed at first glance. Morpheus and Calliope's son Orpheus, now a mystically living severed head (seen in Fables & Reflections), plays a central role to the story. Since the purpose of the mission is to find Destruction, he arrives and worms his way quickly into the reader's heart.
I very much loved Brief Lives, perhaps not quite as much as A Game Of You or The Doll's House, but very nearly so. In particular I appreciate how Gaiman is unafraid to have his conclusions tie up into neat little bows. I don't think it is a spoiler to say that Dream and Delirium are not successful in their endeavor, at least in so much as they do not convince Destruction to resume his post. There is resolution to the end, it's just not the sort of obvious summation one might expect.
It feels at this stage in Sandman's run that Gaiman is working at full tilt, at the so-called top of his game. This is a layered, complex, richly rewarding book to read, one I can't really imagine was easy to wait for in monthly installments. Note that my individual critiques of each volume are, in aggregate, small and relative, practically petty. Seven volumes in and I can't think of a single reason for anyone not to read these books. They are genuinely great. Occasionally you'll hear about something and it comes with a lot of high praise and you have to wonder if it could ever live up to all the hype. In the case of Sandman, the question is really more a matter of, "is there such a thing as too much praise?"...more
When I re-read Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time a couple of years ago I decided that the story at the heart of the novel was compelling and veryWhen I re-read Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time a couple of years ago I decided that the story at the heart of the novel was compelling and very well-realized but lacked a little something due to its abstract nature and the limitations of L'Engle's descriptive prose.
When I heard that Hope Larson was creating a graphic novel adaptation of the book, then, I was very excited. Done right, this could be a remarkably accessible interpretation of the classic children's story.
I'm here to tell you that Larson has done it right.
The illustration work on display here is pitch-perfect: Larson's whimsical style roots the whole thing in a youthful mindset, even when the story turns dark and edgy. Her depictions of difficult-to-reconcile elements from L'Engle's original (Mrs. Whatsit's centaur/pegasus form, Aunt Beast, IT, etc) are superb and even her characterizations of the principles is pretty great (the lone exception being Calvin, whom I pictured as being more athletic and handsome than gangly, but it's a very minor critique).
Even Larson's adaptation is precisely executed, never deviating from the source material but manipulating it subtly to take full advantage of the graphic novel format. It's impressive, honest and shows a true connection between Larson and the material. Perhaps the most significant aspect on display in this version is how much Larson feels this story and these characters. It comes through in nearly every panel.
I liked the original novel, but I loved this version of it. It's so good in fact that I think this may end up being the first edition I give to my daughter to read when she gets old enough. Not just a faultless execution on converting a beloved story to a new medium, this project manages the remarkable feat of actually improving upon the original....more
During the course of a discussion with a friend who recommended this book to me, I confessed that while I love fiction and settings that harken to H.PDuring the course of a discussion with a friend who recommended this book to me, I confessed that while I love fiction and settings that harken to H.P. Lovecraft's body of work, especially the Cthulhu Mythos, I haven't read very much of Lovecraft's work itself, due in large part to the fact that every time I try the style glares at me from the page. Thus, in a way, Cthulhu 2000 might have been exactly up my alley, as it ostensibly contains an assortment of stories told more or less within the Mythos by some solid modern writers. What could go wrong?
In some cases, the answer is: nothing. Granted, it's difficult to effectively review an anthology of short stories by various authors because some are liable to be very good and others less so, possibly even bad which means recommending the book as a whole is sort of impossible and it becomes some kind of oddly calculated scoresheet. In the case of Cthulhu 2000, I think the score falls mostly on the side of worthy reading.
It should be noted perhaps that the title of this collection is somewhat misleading, as these are (for the most part) not modern retellings of Lovecraft classics nor are they the sort of "expected" Mythos tales. As editor Jim Turner says in his introduction, the keys of Lovecraft's Mythos in his eyes are less about specific Elder Gods and creepy cults (though both make a number of appearances throughout the volume) and more about the existence of a sort of indifferent, reality-spanning life or intelligence that, by it's mere fact, renders humanity to a much more insignificant role in the cosmos than we are accustomed to presiding.
Another recurring theme here that is less forgivable is the presence and repeated reference to Lovecraft and his works, even as he appears as a character in several of the tales. For some reason this didn't sit well with me and I found myself missing the sense of discovery and exploration present in other more straightforward tellings of Lovecraft-style stories. Too often here it is accepted as canon that Lovecraft and his work exist within these story settings and, frequently, his work is less fiction than scholarly or occult research. The end result is a sort of posthumous association with academics for Lovecraft that I guess is supposed to lend a certain credence to the more fantastic elements, but I can't fathom why this role couldn't have been played by a fresh take on the beloved scribe character without blaring aloud: "This is a Lovecraftian story!"
My final overall note is that there isn't much in the way of genuine thrills or chills present here. Much like the few actual Lovecraft stories I've read, the subject matter is more gloomy and sinister than creepy and terrifying, perhaps due to the subject matter being so abstract. Often the stories are slow-moving or atmospheric as opposed to gripping, so while there are plenty of good stories here, this isn't what I'd call a compulsively readable book.
To better give a sense of the book, here are micro-reviews for each story contained within.
The Barrens by F. Paul Wilson - One of the few in the traditional Mythos vein, features an increasingly obsessed man on the verge of a new sort of enlightenment, set in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey and handily incorporating the Jersey Devil and pine lights into the canon.
Pickman's Modem by Lawrence Watt-Evans - A sort of obvious (and now very outdated) haunted object story.
Shaft Number 247 by Basil Copper - Interesting sort of story about a civilization that lives underground. Lovecraftian in the depiction of creeping madness and obsession with the unknown, but otherwise sort of a tangental inclusion.
His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood by Poppy Z. Brite - A bland, brief, uninspired voodoo story.
The Adder by Fred Chappell - Despite being one of the premier offenders of the "let's make Lovecraft a scholar instead of a fiction writer," this is a very cool and clever story that mostly focuses on the Necronomicon.
Fat Face by Michael Shea - One of the few stories here that can easily be counted as horror in the non-Lovecraftian sense, it's a well told tale of an unlucky LA hooker and the enigmatic neighbor she feels sorry for.
The Big Fish by Kim Newman - Another of the very few classic Lovecraftish stories, this follows a California Private Investigator looking for a shady Hollywood fixture shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Great setting, great pacing, fun characters and conclusion. One of my favorites.
"I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket...But by God, Eliot, IT WAS A PHOTOGRAPH FROM LIFE!" by Joanna Russ - A quirky little tale (with an incredibly awkward title) about an unlikable man who finally meets a girl who is not at all what she appears to be.
H.P.L. by Gahan Wilson - Possibly the only truly forgivable example of the egregious insertion of Lovecraft as a character, describes a meeting between a Lovecraft-inspired writer with his literary hero.
The Unthinkable by Bruce Sterling - A forgettable, vague wisp of a story.
Black Man with a Horn by T. E. D. Klein - Another fun one, which does a good job of playing with and analyzing the nature of storytelling in order to describe a recurring sighting of a mythic bad omen which seems to leave mystery and destruction in its wake.
Love's Eldritch Ichor by Esther M. Friesner - One of my favorites in the collection, a funny, scary send-up of both publishing, genre mash-ups and the next in line of Lovecraft's writing progenies.
The Last Feast of Harlequin by Thomas Ligotti - Sort of overwrought and altogether too long, but still intriguing story about the fictional town of Micaw and its curious winter solstice celebration. Features one of the best creepy endings in the collection.
The Shadow on the Doorstep by James P. Blaylock - Good at evoking mood and tone, but lacks sufficient plotting to be a really effective story.
Lord of the Land by Gene Wolf - Kind of half-forgettable but does a nice job weaving folklore into a tale that is only lightly seasoned with anything that might be considered Lovecraftian.
The Faces at Pine Dunes by Ramsey Campbell - There's something funky happening at the beginning of this story wherein I wasn't able to get a good handle on the events or characters, even protagonist Michael, until about page three. Even then, my mental picture of him revised several times throughout the course of reading. Not a bad story overall, once you shake off the baffling first few pages.
On the Slab by Harlan Ellison - Breezy, well-told story of a giant creature whose body is found in an apple orchard and the unexpected truth behind its origin.
24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai by Roger Zelanzny - The story that incited the recommendation, and my absolute favorite of them all. It has little to do with Lovecraft or Cthulhu or anything Mythos-related (other than a dream sequence and a few offhanded references), but it's a great story that follows a widow who is searching for her husband, who has found a way to exist inside an Internet-like network and has become malevolent....more
The third of the initial trilogy in what I understand is to be a time- and genre-spanning series is one of those strange books in which I'm oddly tornThe third of the initial trilogy in what I understand is to be a time- and genre-spanning series is one of those strange books in which I'm oddly torn about my final opinion. Which maybe suggests I kind of liked it and kind of didn't, but that's not the case at all. It's a more nuanced indecision, sort of like asking "Did I really, really, really like this book or did I love this book?"
The short version is that it doesn't matter, of course. Everything that was awesome about Mistborn is present here, except maybe the heist aspect but honestly once done it didn't need rehashing (perhaps that's why all the Ocean's Eleven sequels have been awful). The trilogy's second book, The Well Of Ascension, was what it needed to be and it succeeded though couldn't really live up to the first. And I'd even add the postscript qualifier to that assessment that Ascension is a better book once you read Hero Of Ages.
So why am I waffling on a minor bit of pointless distinction between four stars and five stars?
Here's the thing: Mistborn is a 647 page book that feels like a short story with how quickly it races by. Well of Ascension is a 763 page book that has to bridge the gap between the dynamic ending of the first and the incredibly ambitious plot of the third. It's a little slower, but it's never, ever bloated. Hero Of Ages is the only one that felt a little excessive at times.
As I said, it has a plot that is downright brazen and mercifully Brandon Sanderson's exquisite plotting and planning means that he's one of the best finishers in fantasy—if not in all of the fiction—I've read. The ending of this book is so good, not just on a single book level but in its ability to tie together promises made very early on in Mistborn. Put it this way, the series started off with the heroes facing down a god, and Sanderson doesn't scale back from there, he scales up.
What I think threatens to hold me back from giving this an unqualified recommendation amounts to nitpicks. Occasionally the dialogue feels a bit too modern American. If the prophecies and identities of certain characters were supposed to be hidden and secret, they weren't hidden all that well. Certain inter-character relationships stagnated a little. Sazed's crisis of faith felt a little over-explained. Spook had too many chapters considering his contribution to the ending was significant but not, to my mind, in proper balance to its importance. Some of the new allomantic metals introduced late in The Well Of Ascension went largely unexplored.
None of this is important. None of this makes Hero Of Ages a bad book or even much of a worse book than its already high bar.
But this is where I see-saw on how to cement this book in whatever weird mind-canon my reviews represent: is this simply the great book that it is, deserving of top praise, or is it a well-received book that I think could have been just a little bit better?
I realize the answer lies inside The Hero Of Ages itself. Sazed struggles to find a perfect religion, something bulletproof to hang his confidence upon. What he must discover is that it is not infalibility in the eyes of the beholder that makes a thing successful, it is achievement of intent. I think Mr Sanderson intended to write a truly awesome and original fantasy series, with a really great final chapter. And he did. So go read it....more
When I first finished Mistborn, I thought that I would rush straight into the second book in Brandon Sanderson's series. I even went pretty far out ofWhen I first finished Mistborn, I thought that I would rush straight into the second book in Brandon Sanderson's series. I even went pretty far out of my way to secure a copy of The Well of Ascension. But then, I hesitated. I read a couple of other books instead. At first I wasn't even sure why I seemed reluctant to dive in, but upon further reflection I realized that the problem was that I had loved Mistborn so very much that I was afraid a sequel might not live up to the expectations set by the first.
There is precedence for this, in fact. I read and loved Anne Rice's The Witching Hour years ago, then started book two, Lasher, only to literally throw the book across the room within the first few chapters, disgusted by what unfolded there. I never finished it and my opinion of the first was sullied. I don't even remember now what I liked about the first Mayfair Witches volume. Stephen King nearly lost me as well in the opening pages of The Drawing of the Three which followed the remarkable The Gunslinger with a seemingly devastating character event. I stuck with King through a couple more books, but the extended break I had to give myself before I could face Roland again put distance between me and the series, one I've never been able to recover.
I was afraid, in fact, that Mistborn, despite being an imperfect novel (no one is likely to mistake Sanderson for a literary genius), was so fun and so exciting and so right up my alley with even a completely satisfying conclusion that made the book wholly standalone, a sequel had the chance to undo that. I subconsciously wanted to give myself some time to just bask in the giddiness of having read a really good book. However, after a couple of weeks, I had to finally admit I had no choice. Knowing there were more adventures out there to be experienced with Vin and Sazed and Breeze and the crew, I needed to know what else Sanderson could come up with.
I'll say this right off the bat: The Well of Ascension is not as good as Mistborn. In a way, I'm not sure it could be. Mistborn is a novel of discovery, of revealing, while The Well of Ascension is a novel where much of that exploration has already occurred. By this point we're familiar with Allomancy, we understand what Mistings and Mistborn can do, we know some of the nature of Obligators and Steel Inquisitors, and the Final Empire is a place we've been before. So instead, The Well of Ascension has to be about happenings, about events that take place within that framework set up so well by the first novel.
And in part, that's the core flaw in Well, because the events that Sanderson chooses for this book are grand in scope and impact but limited in intrigue. The book chronicles the aftermath of Mistborn, where the survivors are now tasked with keeping the central setting of Luthadel secure now that everything has changed. Doing so is not going to be easy, of course. The power vacuum has made Luthadel and its fledgling government a target, and one by one three distinct armies lay siege to the city. The new government struggles to determine how to deal with the impending invasion(s) while working through the growing pains of any new leadership. Meanwhile, a more ominous and less tangible threat begins to take form, and the walls start to close in on the cast of still-wonderful characters.
Part of what I loved about Mistborn is that it was so gripping: full of tension, unpredictable and full of a kinetic energy that kept the pages always turning. The Well of Ascension is successful in its way because it maintains the tense atmosphere (I'm inclined to say it is even more taut, with the stakes raising from grim to hopeless to utterly bleak by about the halfway point) and remains just as unexpected as the first. Where it falls short of Mistborn is that, without that sense of newness that made the first volume so exciting, Well grinds down at times, especially in the first third, to something that isn't ever close to boring, but is—to butcher a phrase—put-downable.
This is something that eventually goes away, and the final quarter of the book is ridiculous almost in how breakneck fast it moves. I mean, you know it's got a no-brakes ending when the "epic journey foretold in legend" doesn't even begin until there are less than 150 pages left in a 700+ page novel. The early parts of the book have their moments of triumph, but one does have to acknowledge that by comparison the book can feel very weighted in terms of significant events toward the back. This was true in Mistborn as well, but it felt less like a flaw because the slow burn to that point was full of so much wonder. Here, that wonder is replaced by some compelling character arcs, including several fascinating new additions (and subtractions) to the core cast, but developing characters just isn't quite as much fun in a fantasy setting as developing the world, so the odds were kind of stacked against this book. I think, perhaps, this is what I feared all along during those weeks where I saw the book sitting on my shelf, but I was reluctant to open it.
But, I can admit when I'm wrong. Despite The Well of Ascension being not quite as amazing as its predecessor, it's inferior only by comparison to a book I adored. Which is to say, taken by its own merits, Well is a triumph in its own rights. The most impressive part about it, perhaps, is that it manages to be satisfying in spite of being an Act Two book. It's obvious by the end that we're going to need at least one more sequel to finish the tale (I happen to know now that there is a fourth book as well) Mistborn began, but where other series or trilogies might simply drop a cliffhanger on the reader, content to know that two books in most readers will be committed to at least a third, but The Well of Ascension actually has a real ending. It's not The End, true, but it doesn't leave you feeling like you're dangling, rather it neatly ties up the central conflicts it presented and then paves the way for the much greater conflict to come. Lots of people could learn from Sanderson about how to finish series books.
My final recommendation is that, if you read Mistborn, don't hesitate to start The Well of Ascension. It's a bigger book, in scale and size, and it's not quite as taut as a result, but you'll welcome the chance to catch up with these characters and a new excuse to revisit this world....more
I've been listening to the Writing Excuses podcast for close to a year now, hearing Brandon Sanderson talk about his writing process and taking adviceI've been listening to the Writing Excuses podcast for close to a year now, hearing Brandon Sanderson talk about his writing process and taking advice from him. What I haven't done is read anything he's written. I suppose Sanderson is most well known for being the writer tapped to take over the Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan passed away. I tried WoT and it nearly broke me—after five and a half books—of ever wanting to read epic fantasy again. (Well, that and the initially good but increasingly awful Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind)
But last year I picked up A Game of Thrones and good ol' George R. R. Martin restored my faith in fantasy a bit, enough for me to suck in my gut and give Mistborn (and Mr. Sanderson) a try.
Boy, am I ever glad that I did.
It's going to be hard to talk about this book without gushing like a The Hunger Games fangirl, because I loved it so very much. The set up, while perhaps a bit overstated in the book jacket copy and some synopses I found online, is pretty refreshing in itself: A thousand years ago a hero of prophecy went on a quest to drive a dark force from the land. But instead of heralding an age of freedom and hope, that hero became a tyrannical oppressor, immortally ruling with an iron fist, segregating the populace into pampered nobility and downtrodden, broken peasant class.
In a way, then, this book isn't your typical epic fantasy. There isn't a lengthy, continent-spanning voyage. There are no prophecies to fulfill. There is no mysterious, plot-busting macguffin. That stuff has already happened by the time the book begins. Instead, this is more of a heist novel, full of political intrigue, elaborate schemes, subterfuge and grifts on top of grifts. But the setting is shifted to this semi-familiar fantasy realm and instead of your usual "it does whatever the author wants" magic to provide convenient escapes as needed, Sanderson has created Allomancy, a ridiculously well-crafted system of metallurgic-oriented superhumanity that, in practice, facilitates a very Matrix-like vibe to the action, of which there is plenty.
The struggle of the principal cast to execute their plan to overthrow the evil Lord Ruler combined with this clever magical construct might, perhaps, have been enough to create a gripping tale by themselves. But Sanderson isn't content with that. He also creates a rich and detailed world, revealed only in part through the central location of Luthadel, and then populates it with at least a dozen memorable characters, plus plenty of compelling backstory for each. I absolutely love it when it seems like authors dumped every good idea they ever had into a single work and it brims over with fresh concepts, new twists on old ideas and fun little details.
On top of this, Sanderson writes with an assured voice, capturing the distinct personalities of his two main characters (the lovable, mistrusting protagonist, Vin, and the master to Vin's apprentice, the flawed but inspiring Kelsier) in their respective point of view chapters. Even more impressive is that he is able to inject life and vitality into secondary characters, both with and without direct POVs, such as Sazed, Vin's wise and surprisingly capable steward, and Elend, Vin's nobleborn object of affection. Most impressively in the writing is Sanderson's ability to block out and describe action sequences in a clear, exhilarating fashion. Many writers struggle to get the pacing and detail just right to convey combat (especially supernatural combat) in a way that doesn't leave the reader confused and Sanderson comes as close as you could ask to creating a high-octane special effects sequence from a movie in your head. It's really a treat to read, especially since he applies this same cinematic flourish to every corner of the book, from stuffy noble balls with their political subterfuge to training sessions to exposition about the history of the empire.
There are maybe a few extremely minor quibbles (Sanderson seems overly fond of the word "maladroit," for example) but they don't matter. The only thing better than reading this book is knowing that there are two sequels waiting for me. I adored this book and I'd recommend it to anyone who likes gripping, exciting, character-driven stories with strong writing. I have book two on my To-Read list already and it's going to a challenge for me to select anything else to read next....more
I noticed something interesting in reading Neil Gaiman's 2001 short story collection: I read these kinds of collections a lot more slowly than I mightI noticed something interesting in reading Neil Gaiman's 2001 short story collection: I read these kinds of collections a lot more slowly than I might a similar length novel. I suspect it has something to do with the regular clear stopping points which resist the "okay just one more chapter tonight…" phenomenon, because despite it taking me nearly a month to get through, I really enjoyed this collection. In fact, if I had one main complaint with it, it would be the way he handles the little tidbits of behind-the-scenes info for each story. They are included in the introduction which struck me as odd because I read them all before beginning the stories but they really need to be read after finishing them. I think it would have been better to include them at the end. I wound up bookmarking the intro page and flipping back to each blurb after I finished the associated story but it was, I thought, an unnecessarily clunky way to handle it.
There are quite a lot of stories within so I won't bother mentioning each one, but instead I'll highlight a few of my favorites and mention a couple that don't really work.
The Price - A fascinating depiction which, if the intro blurb is to be believed, is more fact than fiction making it all the more intriguing. As a premise, this one is simply top notch and Gaiman executes to perfection.
Changes - This is a gripping true-Science Fiction study of gender that makes me wish Gaiman would write more full-on SF.
Tastings - An erotic tale with a dark supernatural edge, which is something that felt fairly unexplored to me. Quite good, if you aren't prone to blushing while you read.
Murder Mysteries - In a way, I kind of wish the story-within-a-story depicted here were fleshed into a fuller standalone story, but on the other hand I love the framing device. Creepy, powerful, richly imagined, I think it's probably the best of the whole lot.
Snow, Glass, Apples - I admit it took me a while to catch the original source of this retelling and when I did it was kind of a sucker punch. But even on its own merit this is a fantastic short story.
The few that stand out as not as great are Babycakes which is the kind of over-exaggerated fable that makes me roll my eyes for its intellectual contrivances; Virus both because it feels dated and because I didn't quite get the juxtaposition Gaiman was aiming for until I read the background (which shouldn't be necessary); and Desert Wind, which isn't bad just bland and forgettable.
I should also mention that there are a number of narrative poems which it took me until about the third one to realize are lacking in rhyme and structure but not necessarily meter and rhythm, of which they each have their own. They are subtly different from straight prose and it's an interesting device that I'd be interested to see other examples from or find out where it originated....more
Half a year ago, I read Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and the poetry of it convinced me to take up my writing again in earnest. Irony, alive and well, demHalf a year ago, I read Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and the poetry of it convinced me to take up my writing again in earnest. Irony, alive and well, demands then that Glen Duncan's superb literary take on well-tread genre fiction, owing a great deal to Nabokov's unreliably narrated account of a monster of a different sort, nearly has me throwing my aspirations aside in disgust. The writing in The Last Werewolf is so strong, so lyrical in its profanity and nihilism, the notion of my own meager output being on the same shelf or in the same shop as something like this feels comedic, absurd; the height of folly.
Ducan's tale chronicles three months in the life of Jacob Marlowe, a two hundred year-old werewolf, the last of his kind. Hunted for centuries by a well-funded group of covert protectorates, werewolves are on the verge of extinction and their last representative is sick of running, sick of waiting, sick of living. His plan is to return to the woods where he was first turned to a werewolf and let the hunters kill him; victim-precipitated homicide. Of course it gets more complicated. The hunters aren't happy with his compliance, feeling the poetry of assisted suicide is lacking for the culmination of a lengthy project. Plus, the world's cabal of vampires who want nothing more than to find a cure for their imposed nocturnality have discovered that werewolves are pivotal to promising research that may hold a cure for their sunlight allergy. The forces plot to alternately capture Jacob or inspire him to fight back, none of which is truly successful until unexpectedly something arrives on the scene that changes the whole nature of Jacob's outlook.
It's hard to describe the plot in any detail because there is a strong desire to keep the book's secrets well-hidden until they can be experienced organically. But consider that this is a highly literary account of a character concept that is not at all original but is so dramatically and compellingly realized that it elevates itself beyond genre and into a fascinating character study and a world study as viewed by a partial outsider with a particularly long view. This is probably the appeal of the oft-revisited mythic archetypes: The sub- or super-human nature of vampires and werewolves and so on provide a convenient parallelizing hook to examine the natures of things like death, progress, barbarism, redemption, animalism, sex, love and the cost of it all in extremes that highlight the elements enough that they can be excised from the messy grey mush that it looks like from the mundane human perspective. And Duncan is masterful at dissecting these topics through his first-person mouthpiece. There are so many astounding turns of phrase and blistering insights on display here, it kind of hurts to see how effortless it also is at maintaining pace and even such banal qualities as thrills and titillation. In other words, it's a very smart book that reads as smoothly as a very dumb book.
The aspiring writer in me wishes I could dissect this formula enough to shamelessly crib it for my own work, but the magic happening within is that through some sort of alchemy Duncan takes a very tired formula, wakes it up with a thundering framework and then decorates it with so much humanity and character that it becomes a kind of sick gem. This isn't a book you want to hug or lock in a box to protect; Marlowe and Duncan know too much and are far too weary for that kind of sentimentality. Instead, The Last Werewolf makes you want to live, to devour as much of what matters as you can while you can. Forsaking feel-good for feel-empowered, this is ultimately why The Last Werewolf hasn't completely derailed my dreams. Reading this book I understand that I have a long way to go to reach this kind of mastery where a book can be made exciting, insightful, thoughtful, twisted, funny, sexy, grotesque, beautiful and cerebral all at once by the sheer strength of the author's skill, but at least I have my high-water mark, my target now set on even scraping this lofty ceiling. And in the meantime, I still have The Last Werewolf to show the way.
(view spoiler)[I suppose I could find a tiny bit of fault with what is either an open-ended series of questions making the ending a touch incomplete or else wide open for a sequel, as certain things like Quinn's Journal, the vampires and Jake's mercenary army are completely unresolved. Still, even if a sequel is not intended or never materializes this is still a remarkable book that should be read by anyone who loves good writing, exciting stories or paranormal novels. (hide spoiler)] ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
It feels, three books and 2,700+ pages in, like my relationship with A Song Of Ice And Fire is as complicated as the tangled web of plots within. I doIt feels, three books and 2,700+ pages in, like my relationship with A Song Of Ice And Fire is as complicated as the tangled web of plots within. I do appreciate the richness and vibrancy of George R. R. Martin's world. He doesn't shy away from the scope of his story, he doesn't treat the reader with kid gloves, and most importantly he doesn't succumb to the temptations to be precious with his characters. The place he's writing about is dark and dangerous and his characters are major players in that scene with rumors and reputations and enemies. This is the kind of story that other writers might temper with super-heroic protagonists and badder-than-bad villains but Martin has the restraint necessary to shade his characters with the messy highlights of their uncertain lives and partially informed decisions.
I actually love this about the series, how visceral and real it feels. The subversion of the trope-heavy sword-and-sorcery genre on display here is refreshing, almost delirious in its efforts to shed what you expect to happen or, at the very least, when. If each novel were crafted, then, as expertly as it is imagined and realized, I'd sing it the highest praise. The niggling bit that grates; the kernel between the teeth you must endure to enjoy the popcorn is Martin's mechanics. I've lamented his pet phrases in each previous review and it only worsens here as Martin clings to certain descriptors like lifelines in his sticky prose. It got to the point by the end of the book where I had to suppress a scream each time I read the phrase, "half a hundred."
The true crime though is Martin's aimless plotting. There are spans in the book where the action and developments are breathtaking in their breakneck pace. In between there are grueling patches of what I think is supposed to be so-called "falling action" but Martin lets it fall so far it takes a nap and so do I. Which is not to say the text ever becomes unreadable, and I recognize that there is a delicate balance to maintain. We can't, for example, appreciate the tragedy in Jon's decision about where to let his loyalties fall without seeing his life both as a member of the Night's Watch and as a hanger-on with Mance Ryder's wildlings. The triumphant rise of Tyrion the master Gamesman in A Clash Of Kings provides the bitter juxtaposition that illuminates Tyrion as the paranoid pawn in this book. Martin's patience allows for this kind of exhilarating drama. However, with as many POV characters, non-POV primary actors, secondary and tertiary characters and supporting roles plus the myriad overlapping plots and knotted subplots, there is no excuse for hundreds of pages passing with scarcely any significant event, revelation, or change.
What ends up happening is you can feel the storm brewing. Each time the book starts to drag, it drags some more, it shifts perspective a few times and drags a bit longer and just as I start to wonder if it's worth it I push through a chapter or two and the fireworks ignite. And this is where the complexity in my feelings for the books originate, because on one hand it is incredibly rewarding to watch this happen but on the other hand it makes already long books feel even longer. I like these books, genuinely. I want to love them, but Martin seems reluctant to allow it.
(view spoiler)[Now we come to the spoiler bits, which despite this book being third in a series of five available and at least seven planned, is necessary because when Martin does finally get around to dropping the hammer on some goings-on, he does so as Robert Baratheon might: with a warhammer. I'll separate this into each principal POV character featured in A Storm Of Swords.
Arya: She remains my favorite character despite Martin's reluctance to allow her to become the unmitigated badass I hope and expect her to become. In a way, I'd almost rather she disappeared for a book and train in Braavos off-camera for a bit, returning in Dread Pirate Roberts fashion with a new identity and a lot of backstory to fill in. My reason for this is that for as much as I love her, Martin doesn't seem capable of letting her get anywhere. It seems she's been wandering in circles around central Westeros for two books now collecting more people to extract revenge on but never getting anywhere physically or emotionally.
Tyrion: My second favorite character had a rough go of things this book, though as I mentioned above it was remarkable to see this played against his triumphs from book two. His story here is practically a mirror of the tone from his time in King's Landing before his father arrived, which was fun to see. I did think the Shae subplot was a bit poorly handled and the final confrontation between the two of them felt very rushed, but overall these POV chapters were the ones I most looked forward to.
Jaime: I don't think any character so far in the series exemplifies Martin's ability to flip your preconceptions like Jaime Lannister. Shown at his most deplorable early in A Game Of Thrones, he slowly worms his way toward the reader's sympathy and even, perhaps, likability. The chemistry between Brienne and Jaime is fun to watch and the revelations about what really happened when he earned his nickname re-cast a lot about what was presumed from the previous era. Occasionally in this book Jaime appears to be a passenger in his own narrative, which can get a little annoying, but overall his arc is perhaps the most complete so far.
Jon: There were times in earlier books where I found Jon to be insufferable and laden with a glacially-moving storyline. He has the core of a fascinating character within him as the outsider and most mysterious-past'd of the honorable Starks, but The Wall as a setting and the satellite characters there never really intrigued me as much as some of the others. Jon's story did begin ramping up at the end of book two and I enjoyed nearly every one of Jon's chapters in this book. Ygritte owns part of that change of heart, as does the acceleration of the pace of Jon's development following his capture/defection in the previous book. However, I found myself disappointed when Jon ultimately chose to return to the Night's Watch and betray the wildlings. It isn't until the very last Jon POV chapter that we realize why Martin did this—from a story perspective it felt as if the NW had been tapped of its potential and little of the siege/Janos Slynt bit around the three-quarters mark was as interesting. But ultimately I felt like I finally saw what other fans of the series had been talking about with the character all along.
Davos: As a character, Davos is interesting enough, but until the tail end of this book I felt the entire Stannis/Davos focus was designed purely to feature the mysterious and alluring Melisandre. Except I think Melisandre is, by Martin's standards, a rather dull and one-dimensional character which means most of the Davos POV chapters are dull slogs and often accompany the slowest parts of the book. I have a hard time understanding why we have to hear about so much of Stannis's clenched jaw and Davos's worry over his elevated station when other characters like Littlefinger disappear and have interesting things happen to them entirely off-stage. I'm hard-pressed to tell what significant events even happen in the Davos chapters throughout this book. He is rescued after the Battle of Blackwater; he is elevated to the role of Hand to Stannis; he convinces Stannis to sail north and break Mance Ryder's siege of The Wall. None of that needed special POV chapters to convey, if any of it needed conveying at all (minus the last bit which happened from Jon's perspective anyway). This is one of two key chunks of the book that could easily have been lost under a capable editor's direction to the betterment of the book.
Daenerys: Dany's story has always struck me as a curious addition to the series. It took me a while to figure out that Martin doesn't intend for her to be a villain and even once that was established (somewhere in the middle of book two) it has always felt like a side story. The physical proximity of her immediate cast to the rest of the characters is a part of it, but aside from the murder plot way back in book one before Richard Baratheon died, it's also the mental distance between the kahleesi and the games and wars happening in far-off Westeros. She thinks about the seven kingdoms occasionally as part of her end goals, but the characters at the Wall, in King's Landing, Dragonstone, Riverrun, or anywhere else along the Kingsroad just don't seem to care about Dany. Eventually I hope she will join what feels like the main narrative and rise beyond her status as a fascinating character study set within the same world as the rest of the story. Toward the end of this book it appeared as if she were going to do exactly that and then her final chapter (100+ pages back from the epilogue) seemed to suggest otherwise. I like Dany as a character and her growth is remarkable both through the series and particularly in this book, but every time she shows up it feels like an aside.
Sansa: I think Sansa is an odd choice for a POV character because up until the very last few of her chapters in this book she is almost always surrounded by other POV characters which makes a lot of her story feel a bit repetitive. As a character she's not nearly as likable or root-worthy as Arya, she doesn't develop as much in this book as Dany or Jon, and most of what her chapters reveal could just as easily come from Tyrion chapters. I will say that Martin sets her up for some particularly interesting things by the end, though, and surprisingly it is her arc that I'm perhaps most excited about for book four.
Catelyn: I guess here we have to talk about the Red Wedding, an event I suppose ought to have been as intense and shocking as the death of Ned in book one. And I will say that Martin is masterful at drawing the atmosphere of relieved relaxation tinged with the nagging sense of unease that leads up to the bloodbath itself. But this is one of those instances where Martin's tension-by-tedium technique worked against him. Nothing of particular interest or import had happened prior to that scene for nearly 150 pages (the last key event being Jon fleeing from the wildlings) so by the time the wedding came it was hard not to fixate on the idea that something had to happen soon. However, I will say that I wasn't crazy about the related revelation that occurs at the tail end of the epilogue. I'm interested to see where Martin goes with that one, but it kind of struck me as watering down a remarkable scene.
Samwell: Like so many characters in A Song Of Ice And Fire, Sam has a lot of odds stacked up against him and he's fighting against core aspects of himself, unable or unwilling to see what it is that endears him to the audience. From that perspective, Sam is great. From a story and structural point of view, he's unnecessary and that's a problem in a 1,000+ page book with pacing issues. Most of Sam's chapters are variations on the following themes: "I'm cold. I'm too fat. I'm a coward. I'll never do anything." Sam's tale exists mostly to confirm the details of the Others and to establish the ghouls as frightening foes, but in chronicling Sam's self-beratement as he time and again stumbles forward in accidental success toward his goals, the audience isn't treated to anything that wasn't already established in book two. For the most part, all of Sam's chapters could have been safely cut with minimal rewrites to Jon's chapters and the same basic information would have been conveyed.
Bran: As far as characters go, Bran has the potential to be one of the most interesting in the series. But Martin really needed someone stern to sit him down with the manuscript for this and say, "George, buddy, you gotta lose Bran from this book." Bran's perspective was pivotal in A Clash Of Kings but he spends his (admittedly few) chapters in this book basically traveling with Hodor, Meera, and Jojen. I'm given to understand that in book four Martin steps away from the first trilogy's Stark-centered focus, but I think some of it needed to happen earlier. Here, for example. (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
There are some books that are good because they are so gripping you cannot wait to finish them to see how it all ties together, to find where the concThere are some books that are good because they are so gripping you cannot wait to finish them to see how it all ties together, to find where the conclusion leaves the characters or what impact the events will have on the place. There are some books that are good because the world they create is so alive, so wonderful, that you want to just live there forever. Books like this you want never to end. The Night Circus is such a book.
Before I dispense with the gushing, let me just say that The Night Circus has a pretty fatal weakness: There isn't really a whole ton of tension and drama inherent in the story. In fact, the fulcrum on which the scale rests is whether or not the reader can be enchanted by the idea of Le Cirque des Rêves to the point that threats to the circus itself will provide sufficient drama to propel one through the pages. For me, this absolutely worked. The turn of the twentieth century setting, the dazzling descriptions of marvelous, wonderful exhibitions, even the aura of mystery that surrounds the central cast and the circus itself was so charming that I had no problem just letting Erin Morgenstern carry me away through her dreamlike creation. When the antagonism finally reveals itself (as dimly as it does), it was enough for me. However, I can see where those who are not taken in by Morgenstern's construct, viewing it more as mere curiosity, would find the book to be plodding, possibly even dull.
Because here is the principal trap of the book that beckons you to just immerse yourself in its environment: Something has to happen there. The book does in fact have to end and usually the characters you're loving and the places you're delighted by must change or there is no story at all. This has undone many a promising novel either because the author her- or himself cannot bear to do what must be done and either the book stretches into an infinite number of sequels and re-visitations which dilute the initial appeal or they go nowhere. Occasionally a live-in book will go too far, over-explaining the marvels that elicited the initial attraction until they no longer have any draw.
Fortunately Morgenstern sidesteps this issue because while The Night Circus is ostensibly a book about magic, it is really a book about the magic of stories, the magic of dreaming and creating. Ms. Morgenstern understands stories and therefore she knows she can't just fabricate the world of Le Cirque des Rêves and then leave it sitting there on the table like some heavy for-show-only centerpiece that serves no function. Cleverly, she uses this knowledge to build the setting and then makes its existence the function, threatening it with destruction while exploring the nature of disagreement, of determination, of consequences both intended and unintended.
The tale woven around the circus itself (which is the main character, make no mistake) is of two young magicians—real magicians, not illusionists of the Harry Houdini variety—pitted against each other in a contest. This is a contest without clear rules, lacking discernible parameters and with an uncertain goal. But it is a contest the magicians are compelled to engage in and one which uses the circus as its playing field. Celia Bowen is one contestant, daughter of the once-famous and now semi-deceased Hector Bowen and her opponent is Marco Alisdair, protege of an enigmatic man known only as Alexander H., if he is known by anything at all. The characters are really just faces and voices for the circus. A minor but easy critique to make of The Night Circus is that Morgenstern doesn't realize her characters particularly well; everything has an aura of mystery which is somewhat necessary to maintain the mystique of the circus itself, but other than a few minor characters, we never feel like we know the principals any better by the end of the story than we do at the beginning.
It's okay, though, because they each represent a particular facet of the circus and through the majesty of Morgenstern's descriptions of the wonderful (and nonviolent) feints and parries Marco and Celia cast at one another we know enough to make the tale work. And it's not like the characters are so sketchy as to be unlikable or apart from sympathy and/or scorn. Rather, they are as tied to the circus itself as the whole of the novel.
In many ways, The Night Circus reminded me of an adult's version of the best children's books. It's not that The Night Circus is particularly lewd: There is very, very little objectionable material within, but that's not why it feels child-like. Instead it is the imaginative heat that radiates from the pages, the way Le Cirque des Rêves reminds one of wish-they-were-real locales like Hogwarts or Narnia or the way E. L. Konigsburg depicted the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art in From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. The best praise I can think to offer The Night Circus is that, in a book about magic that comes from dreams, magic that comes from tales and legends and love and mystery, Ms. Morgenstern demonstrates that this magic is, in fact, very real....more
George R. R. Martin gets some heat for his writing prowess, or perhaps, lack thereof. I think this is overstated not because Martin is terribly dynamiGeorge R. R. Martin gets some heat for his writing prowess, or perhaps, lack thereof. I think this is overstated not because Martin is terribly dynamic with his wordcraft (which he isn't) or because his narrative voice is particularly noteworthy (which it isn't), but because where Martin may occasionally struggle to embroider a tale, he excels at crafting one. His skill lies not with the embellishment or wordsmithing but with forging a macro-level tale that explores all the various motivations and mechanisms that lie behind the butterfly effects of both emotional response and the best-laid plans.
By this point (book two) in A Song Of Ice And Fire, most readers will probably have their favorite characters picked out. Fans of swordplay and valiant high fantasy-laced action will probably gravitate toward Jon Snow's exploits along the Wall. Travelogues will likely appreciate Daenerys Targaryen's wandering toward an unknown destiny. Those with a soft spot for the underdogs will lean perhaps toward poor broken Bran Stark or puppet of fate Theon Greyjoy. Personally though, I find the scrappy Arya Stark and the wily dwarf Tyrion Lannister to be the most enchanting characters in A Clash of Kings.
My affection for the two characters comes in part from the best of Martin's writing: His ability to foreshadow remarkable feats based on no other information than the fact that he chooses to dedicate pages to a specific character and his knack for weaving tension and outright excitement from political maneuverings. There is something remarkable about Arya because in spite of her not having much to do throughout book one (A Game of Thrones), and even with several check-ins early in A Clash of Kings, the sense that she is destined for something marvelous is tactile in her chapters. Meanwhile, though Martin includes plenty of military scenes and fights throughout, none are as frantic as the sizzling sequences where a politician-gamer like Tyrion plays at a different kind of swords, the swords of power. These fight scenes—including a particularly memorable one fairly early in the book where the Imp slowly reveals a treacherous decision to a placid captain of the royal guard—waged with tongues instead of blades are as thrilling and deadly as any of Martin's battle accounts.
Martin still relies far too heavily on certain pet phrases, introducing here "half a hundred" to the others he revisits from A Game of Thrones and too many interesting events in this volume happen off-page, only referenced by other characters as they hear of them (Robb, for instance, has scarcely any time devoted to him despite his war efforts having ripple effects on the POV characters). The bigger issue in A Clash of Kings is that the story begins to careen out of control in terms of scope and characters. Where A Game Of Thrones was sprawling and complex, for the most part it was navigable. Kings, on the other hand, drives forward into a morass of new and minor characters, introducing two additional principal POVs in Theon Greyjoy and Davos Seaworth, both distinct from the scattered points of action previously established. Where the first volume was admirably able to present spatial and human relationships in such a way that maps and character appendices weren't strictly necessary, Kings begins to read like epic Russian literature in which certain locations or individuals suddenly pop up as vital to the plot where previously they may have been assumed to be of little importance.
Martin challenges readers to keep up with him which I both admire and kind of resent. In a big way I don't know that the story would be as successful as it is if it were easier to keep up with, if it were smaller as it were. The fact that it is big and ugly and convoluted and no one (least of all the reader) can be entirely sure of what is really going on everywhere at once make the saga dance with a life that rings authentic. Real war and politics and strife is messy and hard to fathom, so why shouldn't this be as well? Still, it would be nice not to feel like I needed a detailed Wiki to make sense of the dozens of minor lords, hedge knights, lesser houses and geographic relationships just to understand the significance of certain military maneuvers.
I mentioned in my Game of Thrones review that it had restored my faith in the fantasy epic and while A Clash of Kings is a worthy successor, I started to see glimpses of issues I had with other series creep in: Prophecy and meaningful dreaming plays a much more significant role here than in book one, plus magic (deliciously rare in Thrones) plays a bigger part and is hinted at being elevated still. Additionally there are a number of much slower segments in this novel compared to the first. It never truly bogs down to the point where the book becomes tedious, but it does take a bit too long for each of the three major plot threads (Dany, Jon and the war around King's Landing) to set themselves up for their climactic scenes.
However, when A Clash of Kings is done carefully aligning the dominoes the toppling climax is dynamic and utterly gripping. The final quarter of the book is as intense and readable as any potboiler, in some cases made more so by the grand scale of the thing so meticulously orchestrated to that point. Additionally, I can't help but praise and admire Martin for his willingness to resist the temptation of many authors (especially fantasy authors) to create overly-convenient macguffins or descend into deus ex machina. It makes the conflict more visceral and the danger more vivid when there isn't a hope of some magical protector sweeping in at the last minute. In a welcome nod to realism, characters in A Song of Ice and Fire live and die by their resourcefulness and fortune alone.
I do wish this installment was of the same overall quality and relative brisk pacing as its predecessor, but I do grant middle entries in trilogies (though I know this series has expanded beyond the original three volume set) some leeway since they mostly serve to facilitate a drive toward a grand finale. Still, Martin is crafting a powerful tale and the strongest praise I can grant this book is that it has me earnestly looking forward to volume three....more
This review of the Scott Pilgrim series covers the entire sequence from Volume 1 through 6.
Scott Pilgrim's saga of love and conflict against his sweetThis review of the Scott Pilgrim series covers the entire sequence from Volume 1 through 6.
Scott Pilgrim's saga of love and conflict against his sweetheart Ramona Flowers' Seven Evil Exes is charming, funny, exhilarating, peculiar, meandering and indicative of the kind of unruly and inspirationally creative storytelling that comics or graphic novels can achieve. At the core Scott Pilgrim is about a regular, semi-jerky guy in his early twenties. He just wants to play video games, be in a band and enjoy his precious little life. Then he encounters Ramona, the dream girl with a mysteriously checkered past and enough baggage to fill six volumes as Scott finds himself needing to defeat her past flames in mortal combat. The good news is that Scott's pretty good at fighting. The bad news is that Ramona isn't very good at knowing what she wants leaving the audience to wonder if it's even worth Scott's time and effort to defeat all these evil exes.
O'Malley's script rambles over the course of about a year and a half, chronicling a dozen major characters and a bevy of minor ones. Scott Pilgrim's world is a fascinating swirl of Playstation science fiction lunacy with Street Fighter combat, robots, experience points and subspace handbags blended smoothly with a light slice-of-life realism in which young post-collegiate people mope, date, discuss each other and the rent, commiserate over beers and sleep in too late. There is a remarkable sense of normality to which all the characters view the supernatural happenings that go on around them, at one point casually carrying on a conversation on a balcony while Scott rumbles with a bloodthirsty robot inside the apartment while other party-goers look on. The result is that some of the obvious pseudo-metaphors that are poorly concealed within the surrealist sequences (such as Knives Chau's dad ninja-stalking Scott) work really well in conveying both the absurdity of human behavior as well as the exaggerated significance that all youth applies to even the most mundane events.
The best thing about Scott Pilgrim, both the series and the character, is the lack of simplicity in the characterization. Scott is both a colossal tool as well as a pretty decent guy; Ramona is simultaneously sincere, manipulative, loyal, flighty, confused, cocksure, despicable and lovable. Few characters are cardboard cutouts and most evolve over the course of the series. The books are themed on the concepts central to people of this age: Change, acceptance, maturation. Framed as they are in absurdist comedy that also happens to hit incredibly close to home, O'Malley has constructed an epic that parodies but also pays great tribute to the baffling period of early adulthood and manages to be relentlessly entertaining along the way.
Now, there are a few minor quibbles here and there. O'Malley's art is gorgeous but his style struggles to effectively differentiate several key characters making it somewhat frustrating (especially in the earlier volumes) to follow along with who is saying or doing what. This issue is exacerbated with a troublingly long list of B-grade characters who drift in and out of the story and the title placards inserted sporadically for comedic effect don't always do a sufficient job at clearing up the who's who of periphery cameos. It's rarely so confusing as to actually confound the reader and something as simple as colorizing the books would probably solve the problem quickly, but given the current format it does get annoying.
Additionally, several of the Evil Exes' individual arcs are somewhat convoluted and under-developed. Obviously these are not meant to be richly characterized additions to the already bloated cast but having some of the resolutions (which typically synchronize with the ends of the volumes) be a little more satisfying would help each book feel less like simply a chapter and more like a standalone work.
By itself, the collective that is Scott Pilgrim volumes one through six constitute a wonderful if mildly flawed series of graphic novels. With the release of the film based on these books, though, it's maybe worth noting there are some notable differences between the two and I presume there will be plenty of people who will see the movie on the strength of the series or (like me) seek out the series after enjoying the movie. Contrasting the two, I think the film is, overall, a bit stronger. Granted, the absurd nature of the story and the fantasy-laced fisticuffs feels more original in celluloid format than in a manga-style graphic novel since there is so little else to compare Scott Pilgrim (the film) to in the rest of Hollywood, where in comics there are at least a number of wild crossover worlds to cite as contemporaries. But far more significant than that I think many of the issues the graphic novels suffer from (excess of peripheral characters, unsatisfying Evil Exes flights, a couple of fairly drab sub-plots such as Steven Stills' obsession with recording a 17-minute demo for Sex Bob-Omb, and so on) are corrected in the screenplay.
Other, more sweeping changes are for the better as well: Knives Chau's role in the final battle against Gideon is much more satisfying than the conclusion of her arc in volume 6, the confrontation between Envy Adams, Todd and Scott is streamlined and much more effective in the film, and the reduced importance of subspace (especially in terms of Ramona's development) is for the better. That isn't to say the film is superior in all respects: The band fight that results in the defeat of the Twins is much weaker than the two-versus-one fight in volume five (aided by the fact that it sets up a lot of the development of Kim's character, which I loved) and the movie's glossed-over confrontation with Lucas Lee is much better explained in volume 2. Somewhere between the two there is a "definitive" Scott Pilgrim story, but I kind of like that experiencing both feels a bit like hearing two different accounts of the same tale from different people, each privy to more or less of the truth, such that there are enough common elements to get the gist but the differing details make you wonder just which version is more accurate.
One other trivial note: When I watched the movie I thought the casting of Michael Cera was a bit odd since he always plays "the Michael Cera character," and his Scott Pilgrim is no exception. After reading the graphic novels, I totally get it. O'Malley writes Pilgrim as if he were speaking Cera-ese. It's uncanny.
Overall, I highly recommend Scott Pilgrim. Anyone who has played a video game, been in love, found themselves feeling like the weight of someone else's problems rests on them, likes comic book action, enjoys snappy dialogue, wants a gentle introduction to manga or has been (or knows someone who is) in their early twenties ought to enjoy these stories....more