I first heard about this book from Greg Dean of "Real Life" fame. He sang its praises on his blog and I was intrigued. I bought a copy, along with a c...moreI first heard about this book from Greg Dean of "Real Life" fame. He sang its praises on his blog and I was intrigued. I bought a copy, along with a couple Terry Pratchett books I'd been waiting to read (since finishing High School, I have saved Terry Pratchett books for times when I am tremendously depressed or traveling). My engagement ended shortly thereafter, so i went to the Pratchett books first. As I slogged through my MA degree work -- commuting from beautiful Harlem down to the wretched East Village, teaching myself Attic Greek, writing a thesis on the impossibility of pinpointing whether the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs was written by Christians or Jews -- I decided to set this book aside and put it on a list of books with which i intended to reward myself upon receipt of my degree. Shortly before my thesis was completed, the economy tanked, I was laid off, I was only accepted to a PhD program in a state I hated, and my ex-fiancee attempted suicide (failing only because her roommate forgot something and returned to their apartment early). Once again it didn't seem like a good time to read this book. I read a few other books on my "after MA" list (including "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell" and "Let the Right One In"), but I decided to postpone reading this book until I had completed my qualifying exams, presented my dissertation proposal and been cleared as an ABD PhD student. I was supposed to complete my qualifying exams this past May. It was supposed to be the Summer of Ian! Instead, mere weeks before the exams were to be administered, every one of my professors announced that they were leaving early and would not be able to administer the exams until late September/early October. So here I am, listening to all my friends' glowing recommendations, being told time and time and time again to read the dang book I've had on my shelf since mid-2007. Provided I pass my exams, this will be the first book read by me as a free man! (less)
A roughly-written but engaging debut novel, an alternate history of the Napoleonic Wars in which dragons exist and enlist in the military of their hos...moreA roughly-written but engaging debut novel, an alternate history of the Napoleonic Wars in which dragons exist and enlist in the military of their host-nations. My copy has a quote on the back from a TIME magazine review likening the book to "Jane Austen playing D&D with Eragon's Christopher Paolini." Hardly. The prose is rough and the pacing is off at times, but they're far better and far more original than Paolini's; and whereas Jane Austen's tales focus on dinner parties and drawing rooms, dances and matchmaking, Novik's focus is on military life and on the inevitable exile from polite society following entry into the unnerving world of the fantastic which here exists alongside the mundane. It is far more like encountering the hybrid offspring of Bernard Cornwell and Anne McCaffrey, with all that that entails.
The book's strongest feature is the author's consistent attempt to present a more realistic presentation of the life of people in a world where dragons are real. Dragon's are not simply magical beings, un-beholden to any natural law; hints are given that there is some natural, evolutionary sense to their physiognomy and biology, and the different breeds of dragons are bred and cross-bred for various traits. British dragons, for instance, because they are native to a much smaller land-mass, tend to be much smaller than dragons from other regions; "Turkish" dragons have been bred specifically for their ability to breath fire, while "Oriental" dragons have been bred for intelligence and grace, and "French" dragons have been bred for size and power. A nation's ability to muster a successful contingent of dragons is entirely dependent on the abundance and character of its dragon-ready food-supply, resulting in even greater importance being placed on the rearing and breeding of livestock. Normal people fear dragons and shun their "handlers", and the fastidious Navy and Army both look upon the comparatively-anarchic "Aerial Corps" with undisguised contempt. Becoming a dragon's "handler" (not merely a rider or a pilot, but the creature's dearest friend and love-object, as domesticated dragons appear to be somewhat symbiotic) is not simple wish-fulfillment, but a life-long commitment which no-one WANTS unless they are a part of the Corps or have been raised to serve in it; dragon "handlers" find themselves necessarily excluded from proper and polite society, incapable of marriage or public office, and bound to spend most of their time in places where their giant companions can fit comfortably (ie: the wilderness. The first third of this book is dedicated to the protagonist's repeated disappointments as, one by one, his plans and ambitions are all annihilated by his sudden and unwelcome selection by a newly-hatched dragon. And though he comes eventually to love his new companion and value him above (nearly) all else, there is always a sense of lingering loss, of regret and loneliness as he is forced to leave behind the promising career and comraderie he found in the King's Navy and consort with the unrefined, undisciplined men (and women!) of His Majesty's Aerial Corps.
Indeed, this is one of Novik's strongest talents -- the ability to present a world in which nothing is quite as simple as fantasy novels are inclined to present them as being. Women are permitted in the Corps, but only reluctantly and because one breed of dragon will only accept female handlers. Dragon-riding is glorious, but requires forsaking all hopes and dreams of a "real" life. Dragons are powerful and variably intelligent, but their strong pair-bond with their handlers makes it all but impossible for them to understand things like patriotism or duty -- they serve only because their handlers serve, and without that bond they might easily become wild and unstoppable predators. Dragons can be charming and loveable, but they are also jealous and resent any attachment which in any way seems to threaten their relationship with their handlers. Surprises abounded within the book, and a final revelation (which at first seemed hokey and cliched) was turned around within the space of a few pages to connect with a plot-point I had previously disregarded and thereby make things more difficult and unpleasant for our protagonists.
A solid three-star book. I am looking forward to seeing how Novik develops as a writer in future volumes, as well as seeing how the characters develop within the world she has created.(less)
UPDATE 1: I'd been meaning to look into this for a while now, but my friend insisted that I read it as soon as I finished my qualifying exam gauntlet....moreUPDATE 1: I'd been meaning to look into this for a while now, but my friend insisted that I read it as soon as I finished my qualifying exam gauntlet. I have finally begun doing so! I'm about 100 pages in, and I have a number of thoughts on the book. First, the setting and the "magic" system are both fascinating! Second, the writing is...unremarkable. This isn't a bad thing, because it means I am focusing more on the plot and the characters, and it means Sanderson isn't resorting to elaborate language (which most writers cannot do without sounding overblown or clumsy). Sanderson is an author you aren't really aware of, because his actual writing isn't very memorable; I think that almost makes this book less "epic fantasy" and more "pulp". And i love me some good pulp! More thoughts to come...
UPDATE 2: I admire Sanderson's decision to have his characters speak in a modern American vernacular. He makes no attempt to have them speak in an "old-timey" dialect or throw in any unique curses (aside from the occasional "by the Lord Ruler"). It's a brave choice, perhaps because he knows he cannot pull it off consistently, but perhaps instead because he wants to maintain a sense of normalcy. It keeps the reader from feeling too distant from the characters and the world. The problem is, however, that it also keeps the world from feeling as alien as it truly should be to the reader -- though, again, that might be a conscious decision, grounded in a desire to have us feel about the world the way the characters do. Hmmm...
UPDATE 3: A lot of what Sanderson seems to be doing involves subverting common fantasy tropes. He doesn't subvert all of them, of course - the character Vin feels like she could be transplanted into just about any YA novel involving spunky girls who learn to love. But the ones he does subvert are delightful. The world is a post-apocalyptic wasteland precisely BECAUSE the prophesied hero of yore won; the organized rebellion is really just a way for the oppressed to vent their spleens, and is a horrible failure in which nobody really expects to win; the magic functions more or less the way Arthur C. Clarke described sufficiently-advanced technology; the stereotypical ballroom intrigue and snappy banter never reach our ears (eyes?) because the character listening to it doesn't care about it; and in a BOOK about a world in which loss of ancient knowledge is repeatedly eulogized and censorship abounds, the main POV character hates reading.
UPDATE 4: Finished the book! It's good, and the final 100 pages had some serious surprises (though i saw a few of them coming). I still dislike the character of Vin, and the shift of focus to all-Vin-all-the-time started wearing on me. I'll definitely read the next book in the series; I appreciate that Sanderson didn't tie up all the loose-ends and story threads, which he could easily have done through exposition...(less)
MIND. BLOWING. I cannot even do this work justice. I have read most of the ancient sources Thompson cites before, but until he laid them all out right...moreMIND. BLOWING. I cannot even do this work justice. I have read most of the ancient sources Thompson cites before, but until he laid them all out right next to each other I was completely oblivious to the picture they painted of ancient Roman society.
Seriously though. Just read this dang book. It's incredible.(less)
Why are these books out of print? What is wrong with our society? What madman (or madwoman!) decided contemporary readers would be disinterested in wh...moreWhy are these books out of print? What is wrong with our society? What madman (or madwoman!) decided contemporary readers would be disinterested in what is essentially a series of books about a young Johnny Cash fighting supernatural evil (often of the Lovecraftian persuasion) in mid-20th century Appalachia?!? This stuff is GOLD!
The protagonist-narrator is known only as John, but he is known by fans of the series as "John the Balladeer" and "Silver John". He is a wandering minstrel of sorts with a silver-stringed guitar and a cheerful disposition. He doesn't seem to have any special powers or knowledge, other than musical talent, some folklore, and an amazing knack for making friends -- he doesn't even know how to drive a car! But both his musical ability and his affability are key to his evil-fighting, because he is able to befriend and enlist to his cause people who ARE powerful and knowledgeable. Plot developments which might seem contrived or excessively convenient in another book make sense here because of who John is, what he does, and what he's like -- a nice guy who likes people and travels a lot.
The author also seems to love playing with mid-20th century American stereotypes. The farmers, through whom we are introduced to John, love their land but they also value higher education and spending time outside of their small communities. The Appalachian mountain man protagonist is repeatedly baffled by the erudition of the scholars he encounters, but responds with more of a "Huh-that's-over-my-head-but-it-sounds-interesting" attitude than any of the stereotypical responses one would expect ("I-don't-cotton-to-no-book-larnin'" and "Well-Golllleeeeee-you-sure-is-smarter-than-me-oh-mighty-city-person" being the two obvious examples). The female lead is brave, educated and competent, and remains calm even while the men around her are giving in to their emotions. The Cherokee chief is also a brilliant Dartmouth-educated scholar and contributor to academic journals who uses white folks' low expectations and racism to his advantage. The two Druids are bloodthirsty and evil, more akin in their praxis and credo to actual ancient druids than the New Age revisionist nonsense passed of as "ancient" paganism. There's even a scene in which some of the characters argue that even though they have to stop the old gods, you can't really blame a god who's been marginalized/supplanted/forgotten for turning evil.
Overall a fun, intelligent book by an author who gives his subjects (mountain men, Appalachian farmers, women, Native Americans, druidism, music, etc.) more credit than almost any other author I've ever before encountered.(less)
A wild, weird look into the history of the Marx Brothers (and more especially the making and impact of "Duck Soup" ((and even more especially into the...moreA wild, weird look into the history of the Marx Brothers (and more especially the making and impact of "Duck Soup" ((and even more especially into the thoughts and feelings of Roy Blount Jr. on the same)) ) written almost as a stream of consciousness exploration. Dangerous to start reading before bedtime, because now I don't want to stop!(less)