I have seen this series recommended countless times to folks like me who are huge fans of Jim Butcher looking for something akin to his Dresden FilesI have seen this series recommended countless times to folks like me who are huge fans of Jim Butcher looking for something akin to his Dresden Files novels. However, the comparison is not a favorable one for Hearne's book.
There is one really obvious problem: the Iron Druid is way, way too powerful. You see, in Storm Front, Harry Dresden is a down-on-his-luck PI who is behind on his rent and desperate for clients. He does some contracting work for the Chicago PD, but most of them don't take him seriously and the one who does doesn't trust him. When he visits his first murder scene, he doesn't react like a calm, cool, collected detective. He barely manages to keep a lid on his gibbering fear at the horrible sight of the murder victims, and loses his lunch as well. Far from being the most powerful wizard, he's a fairly young wizard that the White Council views with suspicion and is a hair's breadth from executing. When he interacts with the fae, he's one more in way, way over his head. His god-mother's power is immense compared to his tiny skill, and then she is a weakling herself compared to the Queen Mab, who outclasses Harry Dresden like a whale outclasses a minnow. All of this makes Dresden relatable and easy to sympathize with.
Now, what's-his-face from the Iron Druid chronicles, is basically the exact opposite. In the very first book he casually dispatches one demigod by shoving him in the chest while his dog is invisibly crouched behind him. The demigod trips, and Captain Awesome Druid lops his head off like he's pruning the shrub. And yet, we're supposed to have some kind of tension that there's some other demigod coming to kill him? Why? Where's the suspense in that? Some old lady witnesses the Iron Druid kill the demigod, and she freaks out, but within the space of one conversation he has her back on his side and offering to let him bury the body in her backyard, without magical compulsion. Contrast that with Dresden: where the trust issues between him and Karrin Murphy are a major theme of the first three novels and--even 14 books later--continue to strain their relationship. Or there's money. As mentioned, Dresden is behind on his rent, which is for a tiny, barely-habitable sub-basement apartment. Captain Awesome Druid apparently has no money problems at all, casually dropping $30,000 at one point without batting an eye. Or then there's luck with the ladies. Harry Dresden meets lots and lots of incredibly lovely ladies (or, magical creatures that look like ladies) but nothing goes easy for him. He has only a couple of relationships over the course of the novels, and none of them are easy, and most of the time when someone wants to seduce him it's so that they can eat his face or possess his soul. Captain Awesome Druid, on the other hand, has sex with at least 2 different demigoddesses in the first couple of chapters, mentions off-hand another sex-buddy he's got, and then effortlessly picks up another beautiful woman because why not? Oh, and Captain Awesome Druid is also 2,100 years old and the most powerful druid in the history of everything ever. Don't get me wrong, he's also the only druid currently alive, but it's pretty clear this is a survival of the fittest thing, and he's fittest.
In another kind of book--probably a humorous one--this could all work. But the plot structure is all wrong here. The central plot arc is that some demigod is out to kill Captain Awesome Druid, but it's literally unimaginable that he won't win the fight.
Let me put it to you this way: Harry Dresden is almost always the weakest person in the fight. He's a perpetual underdog, just barely surviving in going up against terrible odds. Captain Awesome Druid is always the strongest person in the fight. He always has more power, more knowledge, more friends, and basically more everything than anyone he fights.
On top of that, he's kind of a jerk. If there's one thing that defines Dresden, it's that he's willing to throw down against horrific, nightmare creatures with orders of magnitude more power than he has to protect innocent people in his home town. Several innocent people are murdered by demigods more or less in front of Captain Awesome Druid, and he essentially doesn't care. For example, some demigoddes visits him in his high-end bookstore boutique completely nude. (Because why not?) A couple of customers come in, see the beautiful naked lady, and are insufficiently respectful to the goddess of the hunt (or death, or whichever it was). So she's like, "I'm'll kill them tonight." And he's like, "Maybe don't?" And she's like, "Nope, totally gonna hunt them down and slaughter them." And so he's like, "OK. :shrug:"
Like, WTF? Why do I even care if this guy lives or dies?
Later on, however, he gets really pissed when one of the demigods he's fighting draws too much power from the earth, and "kills" a region about a mile in diameter. So, you know, murdering innocent people is a minor inconvenience, but if you "kill" a few football fields worth of desert, then SH-T JUST GOT REAL.
It's like a parody of the worst of environmentalism, and if I didn't already kind of want him to die before that point, I certainly did after. But of course he didn't. Because he's CAPTAIN AWESOME DRUID who literally knows more magic than the demigods of the forge (yeah, that's in there, too) and the whole books is just about how amazingly awesome his awesomeness is.
I'm going to go write some anti-fan fiction about him getting hit by a bus and dying on the asphalt because he's unable to drag his mangled body a few more feet to the grass of the median to access it's healing power.
Oh, one last thing: that cover. Really? Are you trying to trick people into thinking it's a romance novel? I showed it to my wife, and she burst out laughing....more
I read this book mostly on the recommendation of a friend who wrote that "he takes commerce seriously as an interesting moral and social force to explI read this book mostly on the recommendation of a friend who wrote that "he takes commerce seriously as an interesting moral and social force to explore." (Review) So far, so good. There seems to be a kind of proud ignorance on the part of a lot of writers (and humanities folks in general) towards business, commerce, and finance which are often treated as either irrelevant or solely the domain of evil, greedy people. (For an easily accessible example: look at Gringots in Harry Potter; it's not even a real bank by medieval standards, let alone modern ones.) It's refreshing to have someone writing who takes these topics seriously, knows a little bit about them, and uses them to deepen the plot and bring some vitality to their setting.
On the other hand, most of the rest of the setting seems a little generic to me. From what I can tell, we're writing in the far-future-post-apocalyptic-fantasy genre, which seems to be all the rage these days. (Son of the Black Sword, The Aeronaut's Windlass, The Fifth Season, etc.) I mean, not that this is a new idea anything, (hello, The Sword Of Shanara) but it seems to be trending right now. And that's great, but what I like most about those series' is the kind of "What happened...?" question that they pose. It's an awesome question to pose. It's much trickier to answer satisfactorily, and so far none of them have done it. On the other hand, none of them have really tried. The books I listed are all #1 in their respective series. Will they succeed or fail? I have no idea. But until that time: they're kind of generic.
I also had issues finding a character to root for. I'm a little simple-minded in this regard. I like good guys. They can be flawed, sure. Thomas Covenant rapes a young girl in one of his first scenes, but he's still an effective, relatable character. (Lord Foul's Bane) So it's much less about the characters always making good choices. It's much more about them reacting to their choices in ways that I can sympathize with, and being placed in a moral matrix that I can relate to.
This book seems intent on frustrating both of those desires. Who do I root for? The nobleman who loves his wife and kids, but earnestly believes all commoners are dogs to be kept without rights or dignity? He's a great antagonist, but he seems to be filling more of a protagonist role. The nerdy, book-loving young knight who is bullied and used by those around him and who--when he realizes it--takes out his frustration by burning to death an entire city full of 10,000 men, women, and children? He seems modeled more as a protagonist, but he's filling more of an antagonist role. (He seems to be set up to be the bad guy, but he started out so relatable that he's not much fun to root against.) Or is it the plucky young banker lass? My problem with her is that it's just so overdone to have the hyper-competent savant who needs a protector. She's also so stupid at several point that I want her to die. (This is a common problem for me.) The only one I like is the Marcus guy, but--once again--is there anything more cliched than the grizzled war hero who lost his entire family in a tragic injustice and is now bitter and cynical about the world, but secretly he has a loving heart and so takes our uber-talented but clueless protagonist under his wing? I mean, come one. I've seen this movie before. It's like, all the movies. Still, at least he's not an idiot and is easy to root for. He and his lieutenant were the only characters I'd care to see survive or win in this book.
Also, the mysterious guy in the prologue? Not so mysterious. His identity was obvious about 1/2 way through the book (without even trying to look for it), and so the reveal in the epilogue felt kind of silly.
There's a lot to like here. The writing is solid. The plot is intricate and (as far as I can tell), seamless. I really, really liked some of the supporting characters who (I hope) might come into their own later on.
But I just couldn't get a handle on what I'm supposed to care about or find much of anyone to root for. I do like Marcus, but he's a totally reactive character who exists solely to keep our idiot-savant hero from dying.
I need to go find out from people if this series gets any better before I continue on with it....more
Note to self: do not ever trust Barnes and Noble recommendations again. Ninefox Gambit also recommended this book (Every Heart a Doorway) and so far wNote to self: do not ever trust Barnes and Noble recommendations again. Ninefox Gambit also recommended this book (Every Heart a Doorway) and so far we're 0 for 2.
So, here's how the book is described:
In McGuire’s bewitching new novella, all of the fantasy worlds you’ve ever dreamed of are real, and children really have traveled to them through hidden doorways, magical paintings, enchanted wardrobes, and the dew on spiders’ webs. But what happens to those children once they slip back into our world?
So, I'm thinking that the characters are children. And for basically the entirety of the first chapter, that impression is maintained. The protagonist has arrived at "Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children" with a suitcase that her parents packed for her, and it turns out that they packed the colorful clothes that she had loved before her kidnapping, along with a poignant note apologizing for packing that instead of her usual goth-fare. She starts crying. So far, I'd have estimated her age at about 8, based on the description from B&N, her own dialogue and behavior, and the actions of the people around her. Then there's a roommate, another girl that we first meet hanging upside down from a treebranch and who is clearly modeled after Alice in Wonderland.
So, imagine my surprise when--after meeting another another character--the Alice-based character asks the sad Goth character, "So, do you want to f--k him?"
Yeah... this is not what I have in mind as a "touching story of loss and longing." The sad Goth's response, by the way, is to reply with two mini-lectures so dense in pontification and political jargon that they sound like formal press releases rather than genuine human communication. First, sad-Goth lectures the Alice-based character on her insensitivity with regards to transgender individuals. Second, sad-Goth lectures the Alice-based character on the hardships confronted by asexuals (such as herself).
It seems like a simple, "no" would have sufficed.
In any case, I bailed out. Call me old-fashioned, but I like a little less sex in stories involving children. I thought The Magicians was cynical, but wow: Lev Grossman has nothing on Seanan McGuire when it comes to burning down Narnia.
Thankfully, Audible has a great return policy, and so I picked up a pre-order of Babylon's Ashes instead. Just three days to go!...more
This has definitely been my favorite Fred, the Vampire Accountant yet, and I really hope Drew Hayes keeps writing them. In a way, the series has supplThis has definitely been my favorite Fred, the Vampire Accountant yet, and I really hope Drew Hayes keeps writing them. In a way, the series has supplanted the Dresden Files in my heart (words I never thought I'd speak!) The two series are similar in that their first-person narratives with a mixture of action and humor where the main character assembles an unlikely crew of supernatural allies to defend their hometown from threats (Chicgao for Dresden, the fictional Winslow, Colorado for Fred).
The main difference is that Fred, the Vampire Accountant is a lot lighter. There's a lot less violence (and it's generally a lot lighter) and Jim Butcher's obsession with sex (which was always the most awkward part of the Dresden Files for me) is also absent.
Now, ordinarily I like my fiction rather gritty, but maybe I'm getting too old for that. Over the years, the best part of the Dresden Files was the warmth and camaraderie between Dresden and his crew. Well, that warmth--while always a key point of the Dresden Files--is even more front and center for these books by Drew Hayes. They are really and truly about friendship.
I think for a lot of people the idea of reviewing this book in contrast with the Dresden Files might be weird or even off-putting. (The Dresden Files has a very, very committed and huge fan base.) I get that, and by all means: you can enjoy both!
But I couldn't avoid the comparison arising in my own mind as I sped through this third book. So much of what I, personally, liked the most about the Dresden Files has seemed to become more and more overshadowed by the larger plot machinations. The intimacy of the relationships has gotten more strained and less central to the stories, as the plots have doubled down again and again on the isolation and growing darkness within Harry Dresden. This has been going on ever since Changes, and it's gotten progressively worse as some of my favorite characters have been all but retired (e.g. Michael Carpenter) while others have had serious emotional/plot issues driving a wedge between them and Harry Dresden (e.g. Molly Carpenter and Karrin Murphy). There's too much realpolitik and not enough friendship. Of course: that's intentional, and so some people will prefer the Dresden Files for that reason, but as for me: I see enough of the cold and dark in my fiction. (See The Fifth Season, to see just how depraved that can get.) What I really love to see is the warmth and the light that refuses to give in to that cold and dark. I don't mean a sugary-sweet story where nothing bad happens, because (1) that's boring and (2) that's not Fred. I just mean an ordinary person who refuses to let go of their fundamental decency and empathy, no matter what happens.
And that's Fred.
If that sounds good to you: read these books. You won't regret it....more
The premise of these books is very simple: what if a nerdy, introverted accountant got (semi-accidentally) turned into a vampire? The good ole revenge-of-the-nerds style plot is tried but--in this case, at least--also true. What sells the books are two things. First, Hayes's commitment to follow-through on the basic premise. We don't just get a vampire accountant, we get a vampire accountant who takes pains to get certified as a CPPA (certified paranormal public accountant) and plots that revolve around legal technicalities when it comes to disposition of sentient real-estate. Now that's follow-through, and it takes the premise from being kind of a cheesy joke to an actually interesting, fleshed-out urban fantasy landscape. Second, the solid characterization and relationships. One of my favorite things, for example, is that the villain from the first book (a precocious necromancer who brought back his dead best friend as an unusually articulate zombie) is one of the inner circle of protagonists in the second book. Turning enemies into friends (after you defeat them) is both funny and warm.
The books are written in an extremely episodic style, as a series of interlocking stories that basically have self-contained plots but also advance larger plot arcs. The larger plots stories don't always work continuously, however. For example, in one of the stories in this book someone (I won't say who) is chosen by the Sword of the Unlikely Champion and we got a whole plotline about testing that individual out to see if they can wield the sort without massive collateral damage. Turns out, they can! So there's definitely going to be some kind of major plot point where they wield that sword against bad guys, right? Well, probably, but the story after that made no mention of it whatosever, and in fact at the end of the book we still have no idea where that particular plotline is going to go.
I suppose that might bug some people. It definitely doesn't read as a single, cohesive novel, but for me it works just fine. It's a lot like binge-watching your favorite show on Netflix. Each episode has to stand alone, but you still get the payoff from multi-episode and even multi-season story lines. There were several hints about those in this book (not just the sword, other stuff too) and it's easily enough to keep me interested and reading.
As a final note, I checked out Drew Hayes' site and there's almost no reference whatsoever to this series. You can find the first two of the books for sale, but the third isn't even listed there. (It's on Amazon and Goodreads, however.) Instead, everything is geared towards what I guess is his main series (Super Powereds) and then random other stuff (like "Authors and Dragons" which is a "A Podcast Where A Party Of Fantasy Authors Try To Make It Through A Game Of Pathfinder Without Dying"). It just reminds me again of how sometimes the things that an author likes / wants to write / believes are going to be great and the things that an audience actually wants to read are totally different. Reminds me of Jim Butcher and his Codex Alera books (like Furies of Calderon.) I have basically zero interest in typical high fantasy (knights, horses, elves, and basically everything else you'd expect from D&D and every other wannabe since Tolkien) so for years and years I ignored the little author's notes he placed in the Dresden File books until--finally--I hopped over and read the entire Codex Alera series. And... didn't really like it at all. There were massive editing problems (e.g. repeated paragraphs and obvious typos you wouldn't expect from a traditionally published book) and--while the spark of Butcher genius was there--I just couldn't get into them. Contrast that with how Butcher talks about the Dresden Files. Storm Front, the way he tells the story, was basically written to try and prove to a writing teacher that following all the formulas was dumb. Instead, Butcher ended up with a beloved fantasy series on his hands that--as the gaps between installments gets larger and larger--his audience can't help but suspect he wishes he had never started. Or, if that's overstating it, at least secretly resents for being more successful than his actual first love.
Who knows? But Butcher is basically stuck with Harry Dresden now, because millions of fans have embraced it in a way that they never did with the Codex Alera books. (His most recent escape attempt, The Aeronaut's Windlass, is much more promising for all concerned.)
I wonder if something similar is going on with Drew Hayes. I have zero interest in super hero stories. I've tried Brandon Sanderson's Reckoners series (starting with Steelheart) and I read one or two of Peter Clines's Ex-Heroes (and one of the sequels, I think) and even a story or two from the George R. R. Martin-edited Wild Cards and the feeling I have with all of them is exactly the same: it's like eating off-brand versions of your favorite cereal. You can see what they're going for, but it's really just like a bad imitation of something good. I think the primary problem is that all the good abilities are taken by iconic characters. When Marvel or DC have to start going down-list to find superheroes, things go downhill really, really fast. When you're going even further off-brand than that, it's almost invariably kind of sad and pathetic. On top of that, all the really major superhero plotlines (e.g. "with great power comes great responsibility" or "weaknesses/imperfections are what make us human") have been done to death already. So, if the comparison isn't off-brand cereal, I guess it would instead have to be those direct-to-DVD movies that imitate the titles and cover art of real hits and do nothing at all except muck up your Netflix search results when you're trying to find a legitimate book.
On the other hand: what do I know? Maybe Drew Hayes's "Super Powereds" series is selling like hotcakes. (I hope it is, because I wish success and fulfillment for all authors.) All I know is that it's odd, having so much interest in one thing an artist has done and so little interest in something else they've done, and yet feeling that their priorities are exactly the opposite of my tastes.
Oh well. All I can do is try to get more people to read about Fred the Vampire Accountant and hope that the sales #s are good enough that Hayes decides to give us all a few more. You can do your bit to help! Buy one today and give it a read! ...more
I read this one way back in May and I'm reviewing it in October. On the upside, that means the review will probably be short.
In terms of writing, theI read this one way back in May and I'm reviewing it in October. On the upside, that means the review will probably be short.
In terms of writing, the book is B-grade young adult. And I've read a lot of C-, D-, and F-grade young adult, so I mean that as a compliment. The writing is OK, the plotting is OK. The dialogue irked me a bit. Throwing in a few "mayhap"s and some "well and so"s didn't work for me, in terms of making it sound like an authentically 15th century narrative. It just made it sound forced, like someone speaking in an obviously fake British accent. On the other hand, I did find the world-building and backstory quite interesting.
The most interesting aspect of the backstory is that the main character is an abortion survivor. As in, her mother tried to abort her but--because the character is the daughter of Death--it only scarred her instead of killing her. Having a character frankly talk about surviving her own mother's attempt to abort her is definitely interesting, and reveals (I think) the Christian upbringing of the author. Here's an example of what I mean. The first words in the book are:
I bear a deep red stain that runs from my left shoulder down to my right hip, a trail left by the herbwitch's poison that my mother used to try and expel me from her womb. That I survived, according to the herbwitch, is no miracle but a sign I have been sired by the god of death himself.
In chapter 2, when she enters a convent to train nun-assassins (yeah, kind of weird), she repeats the story to the abbess:
"So tell me," she says, drawing a quill and ink pot close. "Do you know the circumstances of your birth?"
I risk a glance at her face, but she is focused on what she is writing on her parchment. "Only that my mother did not wish to bear me. She went to an herbwitch for poison, hoping to purge me from her womb."
"And yet you lived." She looks up. The words are quiet by hold the power of a shout in the stillness of this room.
I meet the abbess's steady gaze. "And yet I lived."
Later on, the poor girl even has to go talk to the herbwitch who had tried to help her mother kill her. Kind of traumatic, if you ask me.
The second thing that I found interesting was the discussion of religion in the book. Christianity exists, but it is really just a thin veneer over the older gods. That's not new for fantasy set in the middle ages, but I did find the actual meeting with Death quite interesting:
With my heart thudding painfully in my chest, I rise to my feet, my gaze never wavering, as I walk towards Death.
"Daughter." His voice is like the rustle of autumn leaves as they fall from dying trees.
"Father," I whisper, then fall on my knees and bow my head, every particle of my being trembling. I'm afraid to look upon his face, fearing his wrath, his retribution for all the wrongs I've committed, from loving Duval to disobeying the convent, to releasing these fallen men's souls. And yet, in this copse of trees, with the shadow of Death so close, I feel neither wrath nor retribution. I feel grace. Warm and flowing like a river it pours over me. I am awash in grace and cannot help but raise my face to it as I would to the sun. I want to laugh as it rains down on me, ripples through my limbs, cleanses them of fatigue and self-loathing. I am reborn in this grace, and suddenly, I can do anything.
I feel Him kiss my brow, a child weight on my forehead. In this kiss is absolution, yes, but understanding as well. Understanding that it is He that I serve, not the convent. His divine spark lives within me, a presence that will never leave. And I am but one of many tools He has at His disposal. If I cannot act--if I refuse to act--that is a choice I am allowed to make. He has given me life, and all I must do to serve Him is live. Fully and with my whole heart. With this knowledge comes a true understanding of all the gifts He has given me.
The thing that's interesting is that--although the book ostensibly rejects the Christian pantheon for a pagan one--the modern, American version of Christianity is so pervasive in this passage that it's practically thumping you on the head. The discussion of "grace" in particular is a dead give away: nobody talks about grace like that except evangelical protestants. Culturally, this is as Christian as it's possible to get short of actually entering a mega-church and singing along.
Of course, theologically it's dreck. Moralistic therapeutic deism is the name that researchers have given to the religion most common among young Americans today. The basic idea is that God is basically a heavenly therapist. He doesn't really ask anything of anybody. You don't have to obey anything. You don't have to sacrifice anything. You just have to kind-of/sort-of live your life in a generically nice way, avoiding any really major harm to other people when its convenient. (I.e. "...all I must do to serve him is live.") However, when you really need God, he'll show up and help you out emotionally or what-not because God exists to help you out.
Now, you can't really call LeFevers account deism in the sense that, you know Death is right there and personified and everything, but that's mostly an inconsequential detail. The reality is that Death, as a god, is defined primarily by his absence in this book. When He does show up, it's just to give out free treats and help the main character feel better about herself (and figure out how to save her love interest). In return for this freely-dispensed grace, he asks nothing whatsoever in return.
So, if you take Christianity and hollow out all the complex, hard, and interesting parts--from commands to obey and sacrifice down to the fact that Christ has grace to give only because He suffered and died for us--you get MTD. And if you take MTD and re-theme it for a middle ages fantasy, you get LaFevers. It's interesting, but also depressingly vapid.
And that's why it's B-grade young adult. Because the A-grade YA doesn't candy coat its subject matter or patronize its audience....more
The last book I read for the Hugo season was Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. I read several of Novik’s Temeraire novels, and they were quite good but I ran inThe last book I read for the Hugo season was Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. I read several of Novik’s Temeraire novels, and they were quite good but I ran into that problem where I lost track of the series in between book releases. So I was initially interested in her new book, but unfortunately her Big Idea spot at Scalzi’s Whatever sort of backfired on me. In it, she closed her pitch writing:
Uprooted takes place in a Poland that exists only in my own mind. It grew out of the fairy tales my mother read to me in Polish when I was a child, not older than my own daughter, before I was too old to really believe in forest fairies and mountains of glass. After I was five we stopped speaking the language at home, and I didn’t learn to read it until I was much older. Even now I’m not fluent enough to read the stories by myself without help, but when I plug uncertain words into translation sites, the meanings that come out aren’t the ones I am looking for. The word olbrzymi means enormous, but not to me; in my head it means monstrously overgrown, tangled, terrifying. It was a well written description of a book that sounded so personal to Novik that I wasn’t sure what I could possibly get out of it.
Then, when Uprooted got nominated, I somehow managed to mistake it in my head for Updraft, which I’d already read. It wasn’t until just a couple of weeks before votes were due that I finally realized that I hadn’t read one of the novel contenders. So I grabbed the audiobook and gave it a listen.
And that was a wise decision!
Although I read the book before the Hugo votes were due, I’m writing this review after the votes have been announced. So I can say: I was really disappointed that Uprooted did not win. It was not my favorite all-around for the Hugo (you can see my list if you’re curious), but for me it was the clear stand-out among the nominees.
Three things stood out to me. First, the characters were incredibly vivid. One of the things that, to my mind, really sets a work of fiction apart on a different plane is having antagonists who are every bit as fully realized and relatable as the protagonists. And I don’t mean in having tormented anti-anti-hero villains (although that can be fun, too). I mean a novel that really echoes the human reality in which everyone has a similar pool of motivations, dreams, desires, hopes, and fears and it’s only the small details of character and circumstance that separate our paths. In particular, I really, really liked the character of the prince who was consumed with a desire to rescue his mother from the clutches of the enchanted forest. There’s no question from the very outset that he’s a bad guy, and in some ways irredeemably so. But despite his unforgivable sins, Novik continues to flesh him out and add relatable aspects to his character: genuine bravery, genuine loyalty, and a son’s pitiful longing to bring his mother home. Everyone in the book is drawn this way: no one is simple. No one is two dimensional. No one is a supporting character. You get the sense that every single character in the book is the main character in another story, one that you’re just not reading at present. And that’s a really, really rare gift.
Second, I loved the writing. The magic, the history, the politics, the intrigue: all of it was remarkably well done and surprising. Nothing felt forced. There was never the slightest indication of a character doing something just to move the plot along, And yet at the same time, the story was full of twists and turns I didn’t expect. That’s something that’s really rare for me, and it’s a sign of a singular story. Sure, every story we tell is in a way an echo of an earlier story, but some echoes are rebirths and this story felt like that. I think that’s especially important for inclusion in a Hugo, by the way.
Third, and most importantly, I just loved the story. It was a really satisfying tale to me. I also liked that it was a stand-alone. There was no setup for a sequel, no hint that it was part of a larger series. It was just a story, expertly told and peopled with living and breathing characters.
This is the kind of book that makes me like fantasy again (albeit briefly), and that I would recommend to absolutely anyone as a great read. It’s a real shame that it didn’t win the Hugo, but it did in my heart....more
I grabbed this book for just a couple of dollars on Audible and it reminded me why virtually any fantasy with, about, or in any way involving dragonsI grabbed this book for just a couple of dollars on Audible and it reminded me why virtually any fantasy with, about, or in any way involving dragons is a bad idea. On the one hand, you want to make an exception for J. R. R. Tolkien, but on the other hand there's something important in the simple observation that The Hobbit has a dragon in it and The Lord of the Rings doesn't.
Don't get me wrong. The problem is not that dragons aren't cool in theory. The problem is that dragons are just a little too cool. They're over-the-top. Dragons are the wolf t-shirts of fantasy. (Which, if we're being earnest, is already the wolf t-shirt of fiction.) And don't take that the wrong way: I owned many a wolf t-shirt as a lad.
Are there actually any dragons in Dragonvein? I have no idea. I think I was about 15% of the way through when I gave up. I didn't throw the book down (metaphorically speaking, it's a file on my iPhone). I just sort of stopped listening, thinking I'd come back to it, and then a month or more later realized that I never had and probably never would.
For me, the problem was primarily that the characters were way too stereotypical. You had the manic pixie dream girl who was (1) very young (2) very pretty (3) mentally a bit unstable (4) had a dark, mysterious past, and (5) manages to be more competent and useful than all the men. Not that I mind that last one! It's just kind of tiresome when it's the competent manic pixie dream girl as opposed to the competent believable female character. The omnicompetence is always played for a laugh. "Who would have thought she would save everyone?" That's not really impressive, interesting, or egalitarian. It's just tiresome. We've all read Lloyd Alexander. We get it. The other characters were equally tropish. Young, headstrong guy who gets into trouble for having inflexible idealism + immaturity. Older, grizzled veteran who seems gruff and cynical but really has a heart of gold. Kill me now.
I also just don't like fantasy that goes for pseudo-realism. Give me fantasy like J. R. R. Tolkien's, or Ursula K. Le Guin's or, heck, why not Ishiguro? These guys write fantasy as myth, which makes sense. Or you can go for historically-inflected fantasy, where you try to borrow from what we know of history to pay attention to logistic, tactical, or other considerations in a way that is legitimately shooting for something like realism: internal consistency.
But when a fantasy writer with no training in history starts making lots of offhand comments about what characters can determine about their fictional setting based on how people react to the coins they are carrying, I start to roll my eyes. Fantasy, if it isn't going the mythic route, should make some basic decisions about what the level of technology is (bronze age? iron age? early renaissance) and then stick to them. Or, if you really want to make something totally different up, fine, but do your homework. Make it historically, economically, and socio-culturally plausible. Don't just set me, your reader, down in what is so obviously a generic Tolkien knock-off. To use a visual analogy, it's the equivalent of a TV show that uses extras in terrible rubber masks as the "monsters". You can get away with that in a show like Buffy--where the monsters are not to be taken seriously and the emphasis is on character development and metaphor and self-awareness--but you can't get away with it if you're playing straight action. If you want straight action, use real prop guns. Not Nerf guns. That's how I feel about generic fantasy knockoffs with a modernistic approach to realism (as opposed to an overtly mythic approach) where no thought is given to the economics or the politics of the world.
OK, rant over. This book is just another reminder of why my engagement with fantasy has to be really, really selective. The good stuff is really, really good. But most of the stuff isn't good....more
I gave an absolutely rave review to Half-Resurrection Blues, and the only reasons I waited this long to read Midnight Taxi Tango were (1) to get throuI gave an absolutely rave review to Half-Resurrection Blues, and the only reasons I waited this long to read Midnight Taxi Tango were (1) to get through some 2015 books before the Hugo nominations closed and (2) 'cause sometimes I like to save a special treat.
Unfortunately, the second book did not work the same magic on me.
For starters, I'm becoming increasingly convinced that including song / rap lyrics in your work is a bad, bad idea. I can't think of a single book that had frequent lyrics where I didn't end up finding it annoying and even a little alienating. I guess if people are really into the same music as you, then great, but in reality either (1) you pick popular music, in which case the effect is lost because everyone knows it or (2) you pick obscure music, in which case it just sounds like you're forcing someone to listen to you recite inside jokes that they are not a part of. So, I have no idea who Daniel José Older was quoting and, what's more, the lyrics often have tenuous relevance at best to the story. (In fact, the character who's thinking about the lyrics sometimes says, basically, "I have no idea what these mean.") So: stop it.
(If you're curious, the other series that does this a lot--and where it fails just as much--is the Black Tide Rising series by John Ringo that starts with Under a Graveyard Sky. In Older's case, it's rap. In Ringo's case, it's death metal. In both cases, it's an annoying distraction.)
Another problem for me was that Older broke from having a single, first-person narrator to having multiple (three, I believe) first-person narrators. I thought the characters were interesting (one is new, one is from the previous book), but a lot of what I liked about the first book was the pounding momentum of seeing everything from one, singular viewpoint. The result of multiple characters is, for me, to diffuse the narrative. It's also a bit odd to have multiple first person narrators, and the effect didn't work for me. Worst of all, I listened to Older's Audible narration (again) and when you're going to have first-person narration it helps to have multiple narrators to keep them apart. This is especially true when the characters have very distinct voices: a 16-year old girl, a 30-something guy, and a 50-something woman (who in particular is described as having a really unique voice) all being read by the same guy doesn't work very well. (Side note: I had to slow down from 2.5x to 1.0x a couple of times to catch the rap lyrics, and when I did I noticed the Older reads slow. Narrators always feel slow when you go from 2.5x to 1.0x, but the effect was really pronounced. Not sure what's up with that. I had to list at 1.5x just to feel like it was a normal, conversational speed.)
Other than that, the story was pretty good. It was just a lot more conventional than the first one. The bad guys there where these malicious spirits that show up on exercise bikes (yes, stationary bikes) and that's just such a deliciously weird image. In this case, the bad guys are just roaches that coalesce to animate human skeletons. Killing bad guys composed of swarms of insects is emphatically not an urban fantasy innovation. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who has written more than 1 or 2 books in the genre without falling back on that bad guy a couple of times. It's bad because it's not as archetypal as something like a vampire, zombie, or werewolf (which are used so frequently everyone gets to make their own) but it's also not unique. It's the uncanny valley of generic monsters. The wider plot also follows the same kind of formulism. Most of what is most interesting to me gets very little pagetime, and instead we get a very, very conventional "save the children" / revenge narrative. Which, OK: it works. Thus: three-stars. But it's not what I came here for. For me, an urban fantasy novel has got to do something different because the genre is otherwise so saturated with similar books that you might forget which series you're reading half-way through one of them.
On a side-note: the politics were a lot more in-your-face this time around. Reading about political and cultural contexts that are orthogonal to my own is great. That's part of what I've loved so much about The Three-Body Problem and The Dark Forest. Reading about political views counter to my own can also be great. (Thus: Ursula K. Le Guin. among others.) But feeling preached at takes away from the story, and this book started to feel preach and antagonistic in ways that the first one--although still explicitly preoccupied with race--did not.
All in all, a let-down, and the series has been downgraded from "must read" to "will read if I get around to it, maybe."...more
The Grace of Kings is an epic fantasy novel with strong historical and cultural influences from the East. It is absolutely teeming with interesting chThe Grace of Kings is an epic fantasy novel with strong historical and cultural influences from the East. It is absolutely teeming with interesting characters, each of whom have their own backgrounds, strengths, weaknesses, alliances, and agendas. It tells the story of a massive civil war following the death of the first emperor to unit 7 fractious states. There are a dizzying number of factions and the plot is deliciously tangled and unpredictable. Best of all, there is also a cast of gods—each one the patron of one of the competing states—who have sworn not to intervene directly but who do their best to help or hinder the mortals in order to further their own feuds, squabbles, and rivalries.
Two things kept the story from achieving true greatness for me, however. First: it was far too diffuse. The blurb I read suggested that it was the story of an epic friendship, but in fact there are several pairs of friends throughout the story and it took me a very long time to figure out which one the blurb was referring to. The two friends who start a peasant rebellion by forging a divine prophecy and are then split when the one becomes a king and the other does not? The two brothers who end up on either side of one the book’s countless feuds? The two conspirators who usurp the throne by forging an order from the dead emperor requiring his oldest, most competent son to commit suicide so that they can install an easily controlled puppet instead? The two friends—who call each other brother—who end up leading the largest rebellious faction against the imperial forces? There’s a lot going on.
In fact, the character perspectives switch so often that for long periods of time I wasn’t sure who the book was about. Even characters who might survive for a chapter or less were given painstaking backstories. You’d think that would be a good thing, but to me it just highlighted the difference between the idea of a story and the idea of a history. In many ways, this book read more like the latter: a long series of assassinations, battles, schemes, sieges, coronations, invasions, and so forth that you might be expected to take a test on at the end.
In particular, the lead female character gets a prophecy about who she should marry, noting that he will cause her great heartache, and so you’re expecting some kind of epic love story between the two. And, given the facts of their relationship, it’s possible to see how it could have been written that way. But it wasn’t. It was much too dispassionate and cold. You are told an endless series of facts about their relationship, but by and large there’s almost no emotional stakes and instead of high romance you just end up with a complicated, ambiguous, open relationship that reminded me a lot more of a sociological case study than a love story.
The second issue I had—besides the story being drowned out by diffusion of details across a cumbersome cast of characters—was that a lot of the key stories were ripped a little too directly from history and legend. Want to show someone is brilliant? Describe how they use a square, a circle, and some randomly thrown rocks to calculate pi. That’s OK, I guess. What irked me more was the calling a deer a horse story. It’s a great story. So great that it has its own Wikipedia entry. Several of the books key poems were also modified version of real poems, although in that case there was attribution at the end. On their own, that would have been fine, but the cumulative effect of so much bald reuse was off-putting. Everyone steals, but you’ve got to make it your own.
For all that, the ending of the story was appropriately legendary: well-conceived and well-told. It was unforgettable. And so don’t get me wrong, this is a great book. It just happens to be a great book encased in a thick cocoon of fluff....more
I'm writing this review from memory nearly a year after I initially read the book. I'm very, very surprised that I didn't write a review at the time.I'm writing this review from memory nearly a year after I initially read the book. I'm very, very surprised that I didn't write a review at the time. I distinctly remember writing one but, eh, such is life.
The first thing to note is that, more than a year after I read the book, I still vividly remember quite a lot of it. And that says a good deal about it. I remember the first scene, I remember several of the key scenes afterwards, and I remember the ending (which I did not like at all).
The second thing to note is that I greatly enjoyed most of the book. It has an incredible eerie feel to it, a pervasive atmosphere that is impossible to put into words (other than the words of Ishiguro, obviously). The entire novel takes place in a mythical Britain not long after King Arthur's reign, and the key focus of the novel is the conflict between justice and peace as two people attempt to live side-by-side after a brutal war full of atrocities. If the truth is revealed, then the war will surely resume and blood will flow once again. But is it just to conceal what has happened to preserve the peace? In the midst of this conflict wander an old man and his wife, who want nothing more than to simply visit the son they dimly remember having had at one point, but who--they think--left for another village.
Given the literary emphasis and Ishiguro's bona fides as a "literary author," there's a surprising amount of legitimate action which is part of a genuine respect for the fantasy genre. There was controversy before the book was released when Ishiguro (in an interview) said “Will readers follow me into this? Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?” Ursula K. Le Guin took issue with this statement as a perceived slight on fantasy, which makes sense. Le Guin has come from the opposite direction, writing first firmly within the sci-fi and fantasy genres before later coming to be accepted as a "serious author," and it warms my heart to see her sticking up for the genre she came from.
However, Ishiguro replied that “[Le Guin]’s entitled to like my book or not like my book, but as far as I am concerned, she’s got the wrong person. I am on the side of the pixies and the dragons.” I'm willing to take him at his word, especially after reading the book for myself and seeing that he is entirely earnest in his handling of knights and heroes and dragons and monsters and magic.
I was, however, extremely disappointed by the ending. To me, it felt mean-spirited, for lack of a better word. Initially, it irritated me so much that I docked the book down to 2 or 3 starts, but--more than a year later--I'm inclined to let that pass. Why? Because, as I said, the book has stayed with me with incredible clarity and vividness after a full year's time. I read well over 100 books in 2015. Very few of them stick with me the way The Buried Giant has, and that says quite a lot. ...more
Updraft is the only YA book I read as part of my Hugo prep this year, but when I saw it on the shortlist for the Nebula I had to pick it up. One of thUpdraft is the only YA book I read as part of my Hugo prep this year, but when I saw it on the shortlist for the Nebula I had to pick it up. One of the coolest things about the book is the setting. Humanity lives among a series of living spires that rise up from a permanent cloud level and thus have no experience with the ground. Some of the spires are connected by living bridges, but for the most part trade, commerce, hunting, and basically everything that involves traveling happens by flying around in sophisticated hang-gliders. A book full of people flying around is just plain cool, and I really enjoyed that aspect of it a lot.
Along with the fact that everybody gets to fly all the time, the book also has a pretty well-drawn culture to go with it. I felt kind of short-changed on the big picture backstory. There’s talk of a time before “the Rising” which I guess means before the living towers were grown up past the cloud level, but never a hint of what happened to get people to take up residence in living spires in the first place. Then again: the fact that I was frustrated by not knowing more is a pretty good sign. I wanted to know more about how things had gotten to where they were in the story, and I wished the story had revealed a little bit more about that.
Instead, the plot of the book was much more short-term. The big mystery that is the centerpiece of the story only goes back a single generation: the protagonist learns what happened between her mother and her father. Her best friend learns the secrets of his parents. And then in the end a mystery is exposed and resolved, but—because it only addresses short-run problems—it’s kind of unsatisfying for me. There are much deeper problems with the society that is pictured—including exploitation and human sacrifice!—and I expected / wanted the book to interact more with those injustices. There are also some hints, although not enough to be really sure, that the story may be set on far-future Earth. So both of these things—the social injustices and the hints of a lost legacy that corresponds with the world the audience recognizes—call for some forward momentum in the story. And there wasn’t much.
But the biggest problem for me was the definitive problem of all YA: teenagers. I’ve been listening to Jim Dale’s performance of Harry Potter again over the last couple of months. I’ve read / listened to all the books countless times, but it’s been a few years since my last passthrough. When I got to The Order of the Phoenix, I was struck as never before by how whiney and irrational Harry is at 15 years old. You find yourself just wanting to punch him on a fairly regularly basis for all his angry outbursts at Ron an Hermione and all his pointless, self-destructive moping. Maybe I’m just happening to pay attention to it for the first time, because it never bothered me as much before, or maybe I’m just getting too old.
I don’t know, but my point is that if Harry Potter—which I love—can bother me with it’s annoying adolescence than there’s really no surprise that other YA protagonists tend to get under my skin as well. The action for this book kicks off when the protagonist carelessly flouts a serious rule, endangers her whole tower in general and her friends and family in particular, and brings down serious punishments on herself and the people closest to her all for a pretty inane reason. There are several other key points where the plot moves forward in direct proportion to the stupidity of her decisions, and at least one big reveal that flops because what is coming is so incredibly obvious that you can’t help but be annoyed that she walks right into it.
Still, the problem of authors reaching their hands into the clockwork of their books to move a stuck piece so that the wheels and cogs of the plot can keep on spinning is hardly unique to YA and, if anything, teenager characters get more of a pass for being thoughtless, irrational, melodramatic, or clueless because, well: teenagers.
And the world really is quite interesting, with all kinds of intricate cultures and places to visit. The characters were also quite interesting with their own motivations and perspectives, and some genuinely touching relationships. There’s a lot to like in Updraft, even if there are also some rough edges. The character’s main strength, it turns out, is screaming very loudly at things. (Literally: there are monsters she can control by screaming at the top of her lungs). So we’ve got this cool, headstrong, determined young woman who braves all kinds of dangers—not to mention soars around on literal wings! —uncovering the mysteries of this strange new civilization… and then she screams at things. Lots to like, in other words, but it didn’t quite some together for me....more
This is my first novel by N. K. Jemisin. I found her writing and characterization excellent and her world-building second to none, but the book is jusThis is my first novel by N. K. Jemisin. I found her writing and characterization excellent and her world-building second to none, but the book is just too darkly misanthropic for me. This is a book, after all, that opens up with a scene of a woman kneeling distraught by the corpse of her toddler son who has been beaten to death by his father, and it goes downhill from there. Far, far downhill.
There is one scene, roughly half-way through the book, that really conveys the essence of what it feels like to read The Fifth Season. The protagonist for this section (there are actually three, although they end up being the same person, which is far too obvious far too early on to count as any kind of spoiler) is a young girl at a militaristic school for magic kids. She is by far the most talented of her gifted classmates, and this talent has brought jealous tormentors. The stakes are high, because any lapse of self-control on the part of the students is ground for harsh retribution. But the main character knows she will only survive the coming years if she is able to identify the ringleader of the group that is sabotaging her. So she reaches out to one of the other misfits, a girl with vast talent but who is on the ragged edge of losing control due to her temperament and her own bullies, and together they team up and hatch a clever scheme to unveil their common persecutors.
This setup lulls you into cheerful complacency. It’s a textbook YA setup and—for a moment—you might forget that this is not a YA novel. More than that, it’s so similar to Ender’s Game that you’re sure that the hero’s scheme—though it might have some unexpected repercussions—is basically going to work.
And, at first, it does. Together with her new friend, they successfully force the bullies’ hands, revealing both the ring-leader and the specific bully who (in this case) stole the main character’s shoes while she was bathing to cause her to fail an inspection.
And then it all goes to Hell. The kid who took the shoes starts arguing with the ringleader—right there in the room in front of all the other kids and the adult supervisors—and the next thing you know the ringleader is describing how the kid had to allow an adult to molest her as part of the plan to sabotage the main character. The child who was molested is sobbing and saying, “You promised not to tell,” while the ringleader accuses her of enjoying the molestation, imitating the sounds that she made as an adult sexually abused her. As if that wasn’t bad enough—and it’s pretty bad—the next revelation is that the main character’s new friend ends up being implicated as the one who had brought the idea to the ringleader in the first place. So much for a couple of loners finding out that they can rely upon each other, this misfit friend shows not a hint of remorse as she tells the main character that she did exactly what she had to do: find someone else for the bullies to torment so that they would take the pressure off of her.
That, in a nutshell, is how reading this entire book feels. (It might feel like I’ve given you a lot of detail, but—as I said—none of it is plot relevant. This kind of emotional carnage is just scenery in The Fifth Season.) All the ingredients are there for an exciting story, but then it all gets twisted in the darkest and evilest ways possible. There are no true friends. There is not true love. Everyone is betrayed. Everyone lies. The main character, of course, is no exception. But luckily by the time she gets around to drowning her own child (not the one that gets beaten to death later) the routine has become so predictable that you’re not surprised or horrified, just detached. (And by the way, these are far, far, far from the worst fates that are graphically depicted as falling upon the children of the characters in this book.)
Is a book bad if it’s unrelentingly grim? I’m not sure. I am not the kind of person who necessarily needs a happy ending. The Road and The Handmaid’s tale and 1984 and Brave New World and Never Let Me Go are all sci-fi books with grim worlds and ambiguous or outright tragic endings, and I love them all. But I would say that at a certain point it is possible for depiction of evil to cross a line into a kind of, if not commission, at least an enabling via desensitization. Barring that, it’s also certainly true that any literary device—pressed to the extreme—become a kind of self-parody. By the end of this novel I had far, far passed the point of caring and had arrived at the point where I found each successive revelation of horror veering closer and closer into humor. Honestly, this book is only one or two tragedies short of becoming A Series of Unfortunate Events.
I am very, very glad that I read it because—if nothing else—N. K. Jemisin is an important writer for understanding so much of the political feuding that is happening in the science fiction community, and I wanted to get my own assessment of her skills as a writer. The accusation is that her writing is the beneficiary of some kind of informal affirmative action. My assessment is that this is not the case. N. K. Jemisin, as far as I’m concerned, can write. And I don’t mean “is literate” I mean “is a very skilled author.” I hope to be able to write that well myself. That being said, however, she doesn’t write the kind of book that I want to read. The monotonicity of The Fifth Season’s downward spiral blunts and then degrades its impact on this particular reader. ...more
I was just thinking to myself: I haven't given out a 5-star in quite some time. Then I saw that Brandon Sanderson's most recent Mistborn novel was outI was just thinking to myself: I haven't given out a 5-star in quite some time. Then I saw that Brandon Sanderson's most recent Mistborn novel was out and I snapped it up in a heartbeat! It is his best yet, and that's saying something.
So, the first Mistborn trilogy had some amazing highs and some miserable lows. At times the romance pushed from corny, straight past melodramatic, and ended up somewhere in the vicinity of train wreck. The story also kept jumping genres (heist, political drama, war action, etc.) in ways that felt schizophrenic. And the lectures about the magic system...
OK, it might seem like I'm piling on a bit, but my point is that I was plenty aware of the flaws and I loved it anyway. The ending, in particular, was epic. Never has an author managed to pull of an epic finale of that grand scope without totally flubbing it.
The second Mistborn series (the third book doesn't end a trilogy) is all that was good about the first trilogy, but better. And within that second series, this third book is the best so far.
First of all, the engineer's approach to magic that Sanderson takes feels much more at home in a technological world than a classical fantasy world. In this book, the world is shifting from steam age to fossil fuels (roughly equivalent to 1890s - 1920s Europe / America) and so we have this perfect conflux of magical gadgetry. Sanderson places a lot of emphasis on the technicalities of his own magical system, but it just feels way less thematically jarring in this world. It fits.
Second, the characters are meshing incredibly. Sanderson took some really big risks by taking the main romantic love triangle and totally reversing expectations (more on that in a moment) and for a while it was tough to see how that was going to work out with the secondary characters. Anything would have been better than the insipid nonsense of the first trilogy, but Sanderson seemed intent on not just avoiding sentimentalism, but doing something really, truly different. And that put a lot of the side-relationships in jeopardy. Well, in this book it all comes together. The side-characters each come into their own, and the result is some of the funniest banter I've ever seen. Witty one liners and goofy behavior is either obnoxious or delightful depending entirely on how well it meshes into the existing character relationships. And everything is set up here to get an ensemble cast that most closely reminds me of Firefly (one of the great ensembles of all time), albeit with a little less angst and a little more love. It's amazing. I didn't record all the great lines in the book as I usually do, but only because I'm confident I'm going to reread this one soon.
Now, finally, about that love story: I'm not going to do any spoilers. I'm just going to say that I'm incredibly grateful for Sanderson's unique take on love, romance, friendship, duty, and relationships. I also think it's distinctively Mormon, but that won't bother the vast majority of his readers who--never having gone to BYU or grown up in Mormonism's marriage-centric culture--won't pick up as readily as his Mormon readers on where so much of his relationship philosophy is coming for.
The simplest thing I can say is that where most love stories seem geared basically for 14 year olds, this is one that I can appreciate and admire in my 30s and after 10 years of marriage. I'm not saying the relationship is like mine (it's not), but the set of problems and tensions is just so different from what boring old "we love each other but external forces keep us apart" that you usually get. You know, boy and girl can't stand each other initially, but the chemistry is unavoidable, and pretty soon it's just a struggle to avoid confusions or outward interferrence so that--like codependent mutual drug-addicts--they can become each others respective highs. Yeah, there's none of that. Instead the tensions are all internal to the relationship: based on self-image, past pain, and two people with a genuine sense of duty and integrity instead of your usual "all that matters is love" stereotypes. It is, in short, my favorite love story in all of popular fiction. By far.
Oh yeah, and there are also awesome fight scenes, epic betrayals, voyages to strange new lands, and--once again--Sanderson manages to stick a thorny version of the problem of evil in the middle of the book and actually handle it with aplomb. I mean, wow.
Please keep doing what you're doing, Mr. Sanderson....more
What can I say? If you like the series thus far, you're going to keep liking it. There's a bit more lore, there's a new bad guy, there's an old bad guy, there's lots of action, and it's great. For me, though, my favorite part is the relationship between Steris and Wax which continues to be just about the greatest--or at least the most unique--love story in any modern fantasy series. ...more
This book hit me like a bolt out of the blue. It was one of the most electric reading experiences I can remember in my life. I listened to the audioboThis book hit me like a bolt out of the blue. It was one of the most electric reading experiences I can remember in my life. I listened to the audiobook version, which is narrated by the author, and it shows: I don't think anyone else could have captured the rhythms as perfectly as he did. Many sections of the book read like fast-pace, relentless poetry. I liked the book so much that I am going to buy the print version as well, just to study it. There's no doubt I'm going to read anything else Older writes.
A couple of caveats are in order. First, this book is absolutely chock full of profanity. (Some of my friends care about that. So do I, actually, although in this case the profanity was so constant it kind of faded out of view.) Second, the plot wasn't all I could have asked for, with a couple of elements being too formulaic (especially for this genre!).
But back to what worked: the main character is a truly great fit for this urban fantasy / noir mashup. The setting was absolutely fantastic, with New York City as I very rarely read it.
Also, the book was extremely race/class conscious, but never in ways that I felt distracted. I think (not quite sure) that there was not a single major character in the book who was white. (Now that I think about it, a couple of important secondary characters probably were.) Instead, however, the viewpoint character does comment on the whiteness / wealth of people (like hipsters and college students) that he tends to view as a "them" rather than part of an "us." For me, that really made the book even more interesting.
I have a feeling I could go Google around and see what has been said about the book from a political viewpoint because of this, but for me it was just part of the charm.
Seriously, this was a book I stopped listening to several times just to savor the prose. It was that good. Ending disappointed a bit, but still: amazing read....more
So yeah, three stars is an unusually high rating for a book I refused to finish. But I didn't really dislike these stories. I just felt like they wereSo yeah, three stars is an unusually high rating for a book I refused to finish. But I didn't really dislike these stories. I just felt like they were benignly boring.
Don't get me wrong, the first one: Call of Cthulhu, is a real classic. It's such a hugely influential story that of course I had to read it. I think part of what really impresses about that story is its conspiratorial background. It sounds a lot like a proto-X-Files. What it does that I find really interesting is unify this background of ancient, mystic powers with a fairly plausible account of why we might not know anything about them. That's always one of the big problems for any kind of contemporary fantasy, right? If vampires are real (for example), why don't people know about it?
Pretty much every urban fantasy story has to address that to some degree or other by inventing some reason why people would keep it secret. In a way, this means that all urban fantasy stories are, to a greater or lesser degree, stories about alienation from the world. About why the world as we know it might actually be just a fragile eggshell of order.
Well, no story really conveys that as powerfully or as thoroughly as Call of Cthulhu, which opens with this line:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little, but someday the piecing together of disassociate knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
Right? That's the thesis of all urban fantasy right there, distilled down to its purest essence. It's the ultimate modern terror: that our increasing knowledge may rip us from the safe, womb-like ignorance of the superstitious past into a foreign, incomprehensible objective reality for which we are totally unprepared. We might be absolute strangers and aliens in our own worlds, but that's not so bad until you one day you are forced to face it.
So it's easy to see why this story, which continues to brilliantly develop that thesis, is so powerful. I'm heartily glad I read it.
But after that, things get boring.
The other stories have two major flaws.
First, they are almost always recounting of events that either have no protagonist at all, or have a protagonist who is totally unsympathetic. They are mostly lists of things that happened. Not stories of people trying to accomplish things. They lack the power to make you afraid or excited or to feel much of anything at all.
Second, the constant drumbeat of racism makes your ears start to hurt. It's not racism as we're used to it in the 21st century, although there's that too, but just this incredibly noxious attitude that the world is created of classes of humanity with some irretrievably inferior to others. Yes, blacks are among the inferior classes, but so are (for example) backwoods, inbred New England villages. In either cases, the obsessive attention to the bad guys always being physical and mentally deficient--often with direct reference to race although sometimes it's just deficient white folk--is downright depressing.
It's not that I'm morally outraged. H. P. Lovecraft is long dead and from what I can tell his contemporary fans totally ignore this aspect of his writings because no one accepts it. So there's no basis for outrage. It just gets very, very tiresome to hear one paranoid man's delusions about a world in which his inferiors are at risk of swamping him and the rest of his "right" kind of humanity with their sheer numbers and devious cunning.
So yeah, I got most of the way through the collection (I was near the end of the third story, I think there was 1 or 2 more) and gave up. Glad I read as much as I did, he's really quite important, but no, thanks. Do not count me fan....more
So this review has basically two parts. Part 1: Why Son of the Black Sword is Amazingly Awesome. Part 2: Why Son of the Black Sword is Astonishingly MSo this review has basically two parts. Part 1: Why Son of the Black Sword is Amazingly Awesome. Part 2: Why Son of the Black Sword is Astonishingly Mormon. I'll put Part 1 first, since it should interest more people.
Larry Correia is first and foremost famous for his Monster Hunter International series, starting with the eponymous Monster Hunter International. I thought the book was OK, but I wasn't the biggest fan. It was a little too obsessed with the specifics of gun-fighting and (to me at least) read like the first novel it was. I couldn't get into the sequel. (I also really don't like the narrator for those two books on Audible. He sounds like he's trying out for a testosterone supplement infomercial.)
Luckily, my first intro to Correia was with his other series, starting with Hard Magic. Alt-history urban-fantasy? Yes, please. One of my all-time favorite fight scenes from any book was in the story, and the entire trilogy was amazing. The multiple perspectives and alt-history world-building really showed Correia's potential in much more impressive ways (to my mind) than the MHI series.
Still, fantasy is not my thing so I wasn't necessarily going to jump all over Son of the Black Sword when it came out, until I heard it got a starred review at Locus and started hearing some really good buzz. Then I was intrigued. So I picked up, and from that point on could not put it down.
It's just good. A lot of the plot isn't really novel, but that's OK for me. I will always pick elegant execution over rank novelty any time. So we've got the kind of fairly post-apocalyptic science-so-advanced-it's-magic setting going on here, something that Correia doesn't try to hide, but does reveal with relaxes pacing as you go through the book. (Looks like the "magic" is based on forgotten nano-technology.) The world building is very fresh, however, with an interesting caste system that ties into some really great historical back-story. It's also thematically mature (meaning: interesting and complex, not meaning full of sex and gore) with an interesting blend of villains, heroes, and folks who fall realistically and intriguingly in between. The plot is fairly straightforward, as far as the main action goes, but Correia does an unusually deft job of weaving the big picture plot in with the story of his front-and-center characters. This is just one of those work-a-day tasks that writers aren't always really proficient at: can you move the big plot (empire in danger, awakening ancient evil, etc.) without jerking your characters around like marionettes? When it's done well, you don't even really notice it unless you're looking for it, and Correia does it very, very well.
But first and foremost the book was just FUN. Great characters, good dialogue, fast pacing, great action (maybe just a bit too much hack-and-slash at times, but only a bit), and all while you feel like there are things going on that are worth caring about.
The book doesn't end with a cliff hanger, but it does end with a great, great set up for the next one. I can't wait. Definitely will read that as soon as it comes out.
In the meantime, I'm going to put this one in the running for my own personal consideration for 2015 Hugo. (Won't happen cause of politics, but based strictly on quality, the book is that good.)
Now, part 2.
Correia is Mormon. And I don't know what it is about Mormons and fantasy, but it seems to be our literary home. Just ask Brandon Sanderson. And when we're not writing fantasy, we're doing sci-fi. Just ask Orson Scott Card or Brad Torgersen. (And there are lots more.)
What's really fun, as a fellow Mormon, is to see how much Mormonism (either our actual doctrine or just our culture and folklore) influence their worldbuilding. There are folklorish elements of pansychism in Mormon folklore, for example, that showed up quite a lot in Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game series. (Of course, he also retold the Book of Mormon in the Ships of Earth, the origin of Joseph Smith in Alvin Maker, more Mormon theology in the Worthing Saga, and then just wrote explicitly about Mormons in The Folk of the Fringe as well. OSC is all about Mormonism.)
Sanderson's influences aren't as obvious, but they're definitely there. Culturally, his treatment of love and romance is saturated with the marriage-centric and family-centric culture of Mormon Utah in general and BYU in particular. You can tell in several of his books that talking about relationships--especially with an investment / assumption that you should make them work even when compatibility might seem to fade--is in his background. There's this odd simultaneously romantic and pragmatic view of the whole thing that is distinctly Mormon, and he's definitely got it.
There are also echoes and reflections of contemporary discussion of faith as well. Mormons are unusually sensitive to the interface of religious culture and secular society, since we have always tended to stick out as very religious but are also encouraged to be proactively engaged in the world. We have no tradition of monasticism or ascetism. And so, even though this is common to all faith traditions in our secular age, Mormons are thinking a lot about faith and doubt these days, and that came through particularly clearly in Sanderson's Mistborn series. (That, and Alloy of Law, are also where a lot of his relationship stuff comes through.)
OK, back to Son of the Black Sword: Larry Correia's Mormon influences are more pervasive and specific than any other since OSC. [MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD!!!]
In Correia's world, water is impure and specifically salt water. It's not 100% sure why this is, but one thing is certain: no one is safe near the ocean. Only the lowest caste eat fish or live near the shore, any vessel that tries to sail over the seas is attacked and destroyed by demons, and every now and then demons come up out of the water and go on a murderous rampage. You might be thinking Godzilla, but here's a few verses from the Doctrine and Covenants to show how this resonates with Mormons:
D&C 61:13-15 13 And now, behold, for your good I gave unto you a commandment concerning these things; and I, the Lord, will reason with you as with men in days of old. 14 Behold, I, the Lord, in the beginning blessed the waters; but in the last days, by the mouth of my servant John, I cursed the waters. 15 Wherefore, the days will come that no flesh shall be safe upon the waters.
This might sound weird out of context, and I don't want to misrepresent my own faith. If you're curious what Mormons actually believe about this, read here. The point is that there is a folklore about Satan having power over oceans in Mormonism. It is actually wrong (see the link I posted), but it's basically the equivalent of an urban legend: and here we have a world where no one can go in the ocean because it is infested with man-eating demons. Hmm...
Correia's main theme for the book is also one of justice / law, and it closely parallels the way Mormons talk about the Atonement of Jesus Christ. There are too many verses to note here, but the Book of Mormon in particular is full of this idea that you've got a central conflict between the law--which is pitiless and condemns us all--and mercy. How can mercy overcome justice without creating a world of chaos and unfairness? That seems like the central question in the book so far. And no, of course that's not uniquely Mormon. All Christians have theology along these lines, but Correia's take on it seems particularly influenced by the penal substitution variant of the theology that is prevalent in contemporary Mormon teaching about this issue.
And finally, there a few little phrases that have really specific context for Mormons. It's always interesting to hear Mormons use them in unusual ways and settings, and it seems as though convert Mormons are more prone to do it. (Might be my imagination.) One that comes to mind is Glenn Beck, who converted to Mormonism and occasionally uses Mormon phrases on his radio show in ways that I think might confuse his non-Mormon audience a bit. Correia is also a convert to his faith, and he uses the phrase "fulfilled the measure of its creation" which is a very Mormon phrase. (Just Google it and see how many references point back speeches or articles hosted at BYU.edu or LDS.org domains.)
None of this makes the book better or worse. I don't think it's really intentional. It has nothing to do with trying to preach Mormonism or anything like that. It's just an interesting example of how a writer's background shapes their creative process....more
Here are the problems I had with this book. Some will apply to pretty much everybody, others are particular to what I look for iDo not read this book.
Here are the problems I had with this book. Some will apply to pretty much everybody, others are particular to what I look for in books.
First, the protagonist is really unlikable, primarily for being an utter idiot. This will bother most readers, but it also seems to be essentially a requirement for YA romance. It's much, much harder to get reasonable, mature, insightful, clever people into bad situations than it is to get impetuous, immature, shallow, vapid people into bad situations. And, since being in bad situations is what drives the drama, you get a heavy bias towards idiots.
Second, the writing is very so-so. This is kind of odd, because there are distinct moments where Maas's prose really shines. There were a handful of metaphors, a couple of turns of phrase where I thought: "Wow, that was really quite good." But one of the reasons they stick out so much is that all the rest of the writing is decidedly mediocre.
Third, the plot got way formulaic, especially at the end. You might be confused as you near the half-way point and there's no obligatory love-triangle. Don't worry: there will be. No matter how contrived or forced, it will be there. It's always there.
Fourth, the book is ridiculously sexually explicit. (This one might not bother everyone, but you should know.)
Fifth, the book has some pretty messed up sexual politics. (This one will probably bother the fewest people, but in the long run it bothered me the most.) For starters, there's the kind of twisted rape-fantasy vibe that's prevalent especially in the middle of the book. The protagonist is just way too ambivalent about potentially being raped by her love interest when he is under the influence of magic that apparently erases his inhibitions and heightens his sex drive. It's pretty messed up.
Then there's the fact that--in an effort to make the sexual experience seem more equal--the protagonist has a completely emotionless sexual-only relationship with some dude in her home village. It's just to blow off steam, they are friends but have no romantic interest in each other whatsoever. It's pretty obvious that the reason for this backstory is almost entirely so that when she meets her fairy prince and finds out that (in his centuries-long lifespan) he's had plenty of lovers she won't find herself somehow unequal.
The problem that Maas is addressing is a real one: the double-standard in our society that expects men to be sexually promiscuous as part of their manliness and women to be sexually chaste as part of their womanliness is obviously unfair. There are too approaches to this. One is to stipulate that men should not be sluts, and should be bound by honor and decency to be just as chaste as what they would like from women. So: no one should be sexually promiscuous. THe other is to go the opposite direction and say that everyone should be sexually promiscuous.
Both of these approaches seem--superficially--to get at equality. But they do not. The reality is that sex is more meaningful for women than men. This is not just an artificially constructed cultural gender role, it's our biological heritage as mammals. Sex is much more expensive to women, evolutionarily, because in the human species they bear the child (if there is a child). You can certainly say that contraception renders this point moot, but you don't erase hundreds f millions of years of sexually dimorphic evolution overnight. Which means that, right now, to treat sex as having the potential to be equally meanigless and casual for both men and women is not actually neutral. It's intrinsically misogynistic.
So the scene when the protagonist returns home and sees her erstwhile booty call out and about town with his lovely, blushing new bride is particularly gratuitous. The new bride is hopelessly ignorant that her new husband used to like to get into a little old-fashioned S&M with the protagonist and is obviously in love with him. He is clearly apprehensive that the protagonist is going to say something to clue in his new wife, or in some way show that she has some unresolved issues from their sexual escapades: does she still expect something out of him? Is she mad at him for moving on? Is there any emotional baggage from their sexual past?
No, there is not. The protagonist smiles her sunny, warm smile and then all is well: all that sex meant nothing. They are just friends. No hang-ups. No loose-ends. Absolutely no negative ramifications whatsoever. This is an overtly political scene--there's really no other way to read it--and it's pretty insidious in that it contradicts the actual science of sex and relationships and does so in a way that is engineered to favor a male-centric view of human sexuality at the direct expense of a female-centric view of human sexuality.
So much for equality.
You might ask: why did you read such an awful book? And why are you giving it 2 stars? This is a good question. If this was a book I had picked myself, there's no way I would have finished it. But someone else asked me to read it, told me the beginning was bad, but that I should hang in there for the last third.
And there's some validity to that.
This is, in a way, a really cool story that got buried beneath a couple of dump-truck loads of crap. The world-building is pretty great. You've got a fairy world--divided into 7 courts (spring, summer, fall, winter, day, night, and sunrise) across the wall from a human country. I like the unique (to me) take on the fairy courts. (In The Dresden Files, for example, you just have Summer and Winter.) There's also some pretty awesome history: there was a war long ago where the humans fought for freedom from fairy masters, but the truths of that war have been basically lost to history and are more complex than the stories that remain. All of this is really great back story, but you don't get any of it until you're about 1/2 way in, and when you do get the back story it's primary dropped on you in 2-3 infodumps that sparkle like diamonds peering out from an ash heap.
There's also a pretty cool rebellion going no right now, as all 7 of the fairy courts are being dominated by an invader. So you get some pretty cool intrigue. But again: basically none of this is evident until the very last 1/3rd. And even then the protagonist is too stupid (or besotted with love) to notice it. Which is doubly irritating: first, it reduces the coolest stuff to the sidelines and second, it gives you another reason to really just wish the protagonist would die so that somebody with a personality and a brain could show up.
There is some really cool material here. The world is great. The backstory is great. The overarching plot is is great. Some of the characters are interesting (especially the ones farthest from the protagonist) and there are even some truly cool actions scenes and unexpected plot twists (again: always with minor characters at the periphery). But dominating it all is this obnoxiously dumb character and the main plot hinges entirely on her remaining dumb and oblivious. So she really doesn't do much at all. Stuff just happens to her, for the most part.
Last thing: the whole story starts because she's starving and has to go hunting in the forest. Her family is destitute. But somehow she has scraped enough money together for a single ash-arrow. And she uses that to kill a fairy (ash-arrows prevent them from using their healing magic.)
Then, 1/2 way through the book, she goes back to the forest. This time she is unimaginably wealthy (for one thing) and she knows for sure that ash works against fairies (before she wasn't sure). And yet this time, with the time, money, and the knowledge to arm herself adequately, she goes back without a single ash weapon of any kind.
On the one hand, it's a detail.
On the other hand, it tells you everything you need to know about this book....more
I love the Dresden Files, but I have been less a fan of Jim Butcher's extracurricular activities. I finally had pity on his pleas for folks to read hiI love the Dresden Files, but I have been less a fan of Jim Butcher's extracurricular activities. I finally had pity on his pleas for folks to read his sword-and-horses fantasy series and read the Codex Alera. It was pretty good, but (aside from being the worst-edited mass-market series I've ever read in my entire life) it just didn't have the magic of the Dresden Files.
So, when this new series was announced, I wanted to give Butcher the benefit of the doubt (and, frankly, thought that maybe he needed a break from Harry Dresden to keep from falling into a rut), but the big question on every fan's mind was: is this new series going to be worth the extra time it will cost all of us waiting for the next Dresden Files?
And the answer to this all-important question is: yes. Yes, it will be. I might even go so far as to say that this series could, could end up better than the Dresden Files. It's heresy, but it's also possible.
Now, let's get something out of the way: the title is terrible. It was terrible the first time I heard it, it was terrible as I read through the book with that in the back of my mind (is this title ever going to make sense?) and it is still terrible now that I have finished the book. A windlass is a real thing, it's a winch. In the context of this book, it actually refers to the ship that's at the center of the plot. Early on, the ship (a fantasy / steam-punk airship) loses it's central power core and therefore can no longer move... except up and down. So the ship itself is good for nothing but transporting freight vertically. It is a windlass.
But that's never really the point of the story (at all), and so it just doesn't work. Even when you figure it out. (In fact, I kept waiting for the title to mean something else because it was such a weak explanation for the title.)
Enough of that bad. How about the good?
Well, Butcher has never been afraid to hide his influences. Codex Alera was, if I recall, basically a blend of the "bending" from Avatar plus the fantasy creature companions from Pokemon. And he said as much. Just as the entire point of the Dresden Files is to retrofit a noir private-eye character into an urban fantasy setting (although it has drifted far, far from those roots).
To my mind, Butcher's influences are just as clear in this book, but they are clicking together far better than they did in Codex Alera. The biggest influence is Firefly. You won't see it right away, but it's there, and towards the end it's increasingly obvious. (I'll leave out the details because spoilers are no fun.) Luckily, but that time you're so engrossed with the characters that you don't care, even when you realize how directly some of the elements are transplanted from Whedon's series into this book.
And that's really the best part of this story: the characters. Butcher has always been great at assembling a team, but this gets dampened in the Dresden Files by the first-person narrative. In this new series, Butcher switches to the more conventional close third-person, where the narrative is told in third-person, but each section relies on a single viewpoint character at a time. This lets us get the internal monologues of the entire cast of character rather than just a single protagonist.
When your characters are kind of formulaic (a huge problem with sci-fi and fantasy) this is really just an exercise in conveying information to the reader: authors send one interchangeable character after another to this or that random location strictly to have an excuse to relate whatever the characters see / think to the reader. This is very annoying.
But when your characters actually have very different personalities, backgrounds, motivations, and information this style really shines. So not only does Butcher have the technical elements down (cleverly switching from one viewpoint to another in mid-action), but there's actually a good reason for it: we see the world (and the characters) through different eyes. It's great.
Also--quick aside--a talking cat really shouldn't work. But it does.
As for the rest: the action is very well told. The dialects are great, just a hint of old-school British for tone, but not enough to make the differences from conventional American distracting.
And the setting! This is, in some ways, a case of best-for-last. Butcher has clearly done a lot of work on backstory. Very, very little of it is revealed directly in the narrative, but that's fine. For someone like me, it's even better. There are enough hints there to make it really intriguing, and I'm definitely looking forward to seeing the big "How did the Earth get this way?" question slowly unraveled over the next 2 books. Or 5 books. I don't know how many there will be, but I hope it's not like... 20. One never-ending series is enough. :-)
Conclusion: this was worth the wait. It was worth a delay in the Dresden Files. And I'm super-psyched for the next one.
Great, now I'll be waiting on Butcher for two books at a time... ;-)...more
You'd think that urban fantasy would have sort of collapsed under its own weight by now, but apparently not. On the other hand, when it comes to serioYou'd think that urban fantasy would have sort of collapsed under its own weight by now, but apparently not. On the other hand, when it comes to serious urban fantasy, I'm basically exhausted. I'll keep reading Jim Butcher's Dresden Files out of love, but I have to admit that his post-apocalyptic / steam punk / something else new series (starting with The Aeronaut's Windlass) was a breath of fresh air for even a devoted fan like me.
So maybe serious urban fantasy is wearing thin--for me and I suspect for the audience at large--but we're starting to reach a point where the tropes are so ingrained that you can write humorous urban fantasy that is mostly based on the stack of canonical works that went before.
I'd say the Susie Stackhouse novels may have started that trend (I was not a fan), but I'm seeing more of them recently, like Hard Day's Knight and now, of course, the subject of this review: Fred, the Vampire Accountant. So, now I've put it in context for you.
But is it any good?
Yes, yes it was actually quite good. I was really surprised at how effortlessly the basic ingredients of a Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer-style urban fantasy setting were repurposed. It was all just, much more seamless and organic than I would have thought. The secretive government agency, the hapless hero slowly amassing a circle of friends through his hapless adventures (his, in this case, obviously hers in Buffy's case), and of course the hapless hero himself: demonstrating bravery despite a life of avoiding conflict by temperament, a temperament left unchanged by becoming one of the living dead.
The book wasn't laugh-out-loud funny in most places (like Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett), but it actually did have a few lines that made me stop until I could regain my composure. Other than that, the light, breezy tone combined with the fun, fast-moving action combined to make it a delightful read.
I will definitely be picking up the sequel. ...more
Trying to form an opinion on Brandon Sanderson's works often gives me a headache.
On the one hand, the books tend to be kind of fluffy. The charactersTrying to form an opinion on Brandon Sanderson's works often gives me a headache.
On the one hand, the books tend to be kind of fluffy. The characters are often melodramtic or cliched and a lot of the writing borders on the silly. On the other hand, Sanderson is clearly a guy who thinks a lot and that thinking results in him making some really interesting, counter-intuitive decisions that surprise and impress me. So, while an awful lot of this book was kind of formulaic, the resolution of the romantic plot line was profoundly cool (in that it totally eschewed stereotype while staying true to the characters and feeling entirely natural) and the twist reveal was one of those rare moments where I didn't see it coming, but then really felt like I should have. A lot of things that had seemed sort of clumsy up to that point were revealed to have been deliberate, canny plotting.
Not all of them, though. The wisecracks between the two characters never got above sophomoric and the comedic relief sidekick never escaped a kind of quasi-Cockney, Marry-Poppins-esque feel.
And yet, and yet...
If anything, Sanderson seems to me to be a testament to the idea that--with enough effort and work and sincerity--basically anything can become cool. I don't know how else to explain the fact that, while often leaving me rolling my eyes from one page to another, the cumulative effect can still somehow manage to be so powerful.
His Mistborn series is, so far, my favorite and the conclusion of that trilogy (book:The Hero of Ages|2767793]) remains the best resolution to an epic fantasy that I have ever read. Except maybe Tolkien, of course. And his re-use of characters from one series to another--characters who have transcended humanity and become a kind of meta-series pantheon--is unprecedented and astonishingly cool.
I guess, more than anything else, Sanderon's approach to world-building and to writing in general is akin to an avalanche: he just adds more and more and more until quantity itself becomes a kind of overwhelming quality. And I think, in his case at least, that's even a good thing.
I'm definitely going to keep reading, in any case. Even if he occasionally whiffs completely (I'm looking at you, Steelheart and Elantris) the good stuff both outnumbers and overshadows the bad and, whatever else you might say, he's definitely the most interesting writer in fantasy since Tolkien. Everyone else is writing books. Sanderson is pulling an entire literary ecosystem into being by sheer force of will. Even when it falls short of elegance, it's incredible to watch....more
It is impossible to read this book and not compare it to Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, and the comparison is not always flattering. But then again, thaIt is impossible to read this book and not compare it to Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, and the comparison is not always flattering. But then again, that's not necessarily a far comparison. The first book in the Dresden Files (Storm Front) was not that good, either. They only got better later. Still, the extent of borrowing seemed excessive at times: main character is a down-on-his-luck private eye who makes pop culture references, he has a tense relationship with a tough female cop, his friend is a goody-goody Catholic priest, there's a religious angle (although the protagonist is not religious), and then there's the standard fare of vampires, witches, zombies, demons, and angels.
Other than that: the best part was the humor. It wasn't consistent, but there were some genuine laugh-inducing lines.
The weak part was that it felt kind of formulaic. Here are the characters you expect, doing the things you expect them to do. Very little was surprising or original. ...more
This book took longer than (in my opinion) it should have to get started. That seems to be a trend with, for lack of a better word, period piece / sffThis book took longer than (in my opinion) it should have to get started. That seems to be a trend with, for lack of a better word, period piece / sff mashups. (I'm thinking in particular of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which is interminably dull.) I'm not sure what the deal is, but I'm guessing that it has to do with grounding the story firmly enough in the time period (alternate history 1860s London in this case) so that people who are really excited by the setting can be suitably impressed.
Alas, I'm not really a steam-punk junkie. Nothing against it, mind you, but it's not really my literary heartland, you know? Space Opera is where I'm at, and so I'm probably a little overly tolerant of some extra scene-setting in a space opera, but alternate history Victorian England isn't going to appeal to me as much.
So moving on...
An awful lot of the story revolves around the world-building, and if brains-in-jars (literally) or steam-powered ornithopter-armchair hybrids or secret societies of orphan chimney sweeps or strange versions of Victorian era characters like Florence Nightengale and Charles Darwin are your cup of team: then by all means, get this book.
For me, however, the time-traveling plot was a little too obvious and a lot too much ripped off from Heinlein's famous short story All You Zombies.
So, for me at least, the book was fun. The protagonist and sidekick were interesting enough that I want to check out the sequel, but the world and the story definitely didn't quite do it for me....more
In a funny way, this book had me worried at first because of how good it is. I am a huge, huge fan of Jim Butcher's Dresden Files and Midnight Riot waIn a funny way, this book had me worried at first because of how good it is. I am a huge, huge fan of Jim Butcher's Dresden Files and Midnight Riot was both similar and incredible good, threatening my sentimental loyalties.
What is similar: urban fantasy + murder mystery set in a very, very distinctive city that is almost a character in and of itself. (The Dresden Files take place in and around Chicago, while Midnight Riot takes place in and around London.)
What is different: the Dresden Files is action / comedy with definite emphasis on the action. There's a really, really long plot arc. Midnight Riot, by contrast is more comedic (the first chapter had me laughing out loud multiple times) and more of a mystery / procedural. It also ends up (as far as I can tell) being far more episodic.
I was all set to give the book 5 stars based on the hilarious opening chapters, but the book trailed off a bit for me. Still 4 stars, so strong showing, but as the murders got gruesome and the jokes sparser it didn't hang together as well for me.
In the end I liked it enough that I will definitely keep an eye out for a sequel, but not enough that I feel any compulsion to run out and grab one right away. ...more
I've got a soft-spot for fantasy YA, so I picked this one up when Audible had it for sale as a Daily Deal. And it was pretty good!
In its favor: the reI've got a soft-spot for fantasy YA, so I picked this one up when Audible had it for sale as a Daily Deal. And it was pretty good!
In its favor: the really melodramatic and very stupid "heroine misinterprets what her love interest is doing" was kept to a minimum for most of the novel. On the other hand, when that particular card is played, it is played hard. An overheard conversation leads to a really, really bizarre conclusion on the heroine's part that not only doesn't really make sense, but also doesn't seem to be at all believed by her, either. I mean, she acts on the belief and her internal monologue suggests she believes it, but she never reacts emotionally as though she actually believed it. (Spoilerish: she thinks her special manly man is going to murder an innocent person that she loves in cold blood, and while she does "rescue" this person from the obviously non-existent threat, she never really reacts the way you would expect someone to react if their love interest turned out to be trying to murder someone they loved.)
Also in its favor: good setting with an interesting twist on suicide, life-after-death, and God.
In its detriment: you pretty much know the ending of this book from the first chapter. All the work setting up the fact that the character has been accepted into college means you know that when she dies in like chapter 4, she's going to end the novel resurrected so that she can go to college in book 2. And yeah: that's exactly what happens. Moreover, you know as soon as she meets the main love interest that he'll have to be sent to school with her and, yup, that's exactly how it ends. I sort of hoped for some sort of surprise there at the end, but not really.
So it was a fun, quick read (listen, in this case), and it wasn't as egregiously bad as other YA novels I've picked up on a lark recently (:cough: looking at you, Tabula Rasa), but it didn't pull me in enough that I would go out of my way to track down the sequel. (As opposed to Red Rising, which is still rattling around in my brain and will prompt me to eventually give the sequel Golden Son a read.)...more
I think at this point, we've gotten about all we can hope to get from Aang and company, and that's OK.
(Note: I actually read this back in December 2014 when I got the three individual volumes for Christmas, but I waited to get the one-volume library edition for my birthday this month to make my review.)...more
I spent most of the time reading this book thinkin that it had some of the greatest and warmest characters in any book I'd ever read, but also that itI spent most of the time reading this book thinkin that it had some of the greatest and warmest characters in any book I'd ever read, but also that it was sadly bereft of a plot. It's as though someone had a beautiful setting, compelling characters, but nothing much for them to do.
I changed my opinion in the last few chapters, however, and upped my rating from a 3 to a 4 as a result. The disparate plot threads, which had seemed so diffuse throughout the body of the work, are brought together thematically at the end in a way that is satisfying (but not trite).
What is most remarkable about this book, however, is it's ability to depict a good guy. Good guys--characters who are essentially guided by a desire to do the right thing and be kind and fair--are very rare these days. Our heroes tend to be dark, morally ambiguous, and often violent and harsh. Maia (the main character) is nothing like that. And yet he doesn't come across as sacchrine or shallow. Just warm, believable, and utterly relatable.
I can't remember where I heard about this book originally, but it was in my Audible wish list and then it went on sale for $7 so--even though I couldnI can't remember where I heard about this book originally, but it was in my Audible wish list and then it went on sale for $7 so--even though I couldn't remember a thing about it--I snagged it. This turned out to be a great decision. (Thank you, past version of me.)
14 starts out with a thriller / mystery vibe: Nate Tucker is working a dead-end temp position in LA and unsure of what to do with his life when he finds out about an unbelievably great deal on a studio apartment when he needs to move. Not long after moving in, however, he starts to realize there is something weird about his new home. Some of his fellow tenants are interested in solving the mystery, too. Others don't want to rock the boat, afraid that they'll lose their cheap rent.
I don't really want to give anything away, but I'll just say that before the book is over we've got Nikola Tesla, H. P. Lovecraft, and steampunk all happening in the same building. It's a great ride, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I've already added another Peter Clines book to my wishlist....more
All I can say is: I'm glad I read those books first. Because if I'd started with Elantris, I would have walked away with my negative opinion of high fantasy solidified and no inclination whatosever to read anything else by Mr. Sanderson. Thankfully, however, I've already read nearly a dozen of his other novels and novellas, so my opinion of him will survive this book.
As I was reading Elantris, I kept thinking again and again that this had to be the first of his books. I checked it out Wikipedia, and yup, it is: It was first published in April 2005 by Tor Books and is significant as Sanderson's first widely released book.
Elantris is definitely a Sanderson book. His style is very easy to spot. But this is Sanderson's style before he really got the kinks worked out. Sometimes he makes his characters temporarily stupid in order to move the plot along, either because they can't figure out obvious plot elements or arbitrarily decide to hide information from each other just to generate more tension. In an otherwise marvelous work, this is a forgivable flaw. Sometimes it even works! But in Elantris he relies on this kind of trick again and again and again and again. You come away with the impression that the "smart" characters only seem smart because everyone else in the novel has an IQ of 70 or 80. There are also some really melodramatic spots that just don't really work, like one scene where the main character literally stands up from the dinner table to deliver a trite monologue. In short: it's got all his weaknesses, but magnified.
It has his strength too, but vastly reduced. Sanderson's biggest defining characteristic is his love of creating new magical systems. That's basically how a Sanderson book works:
1. Plucky, outsider hero is desperate to learn the secrets of some esoteric magical system in a setting where something has gone horribly wrong and there is lost information and a past disaster of some kind. 2. Grizzled veteran shows up to show the hero the ropes, and the hero (and the audience) learn what everyone knows about the magical system. 3. The hero surpasses the teacher and pushes the boundaries of the magical system, learning secrets that no one else knows and eventually figuring out the secret of the lost information / horrible disaster.
It's a really, really great plot structure, that combines a kind of sci-fi approach to learning about new cultures / systems with a mystery approach to solving the riddle of the world. Well, Elantris has a lot of the ingredients of this plot structure, but they never come together. There's a central mystery (why did Elantris fall?) but--even though the characters restore Elantris--they never figure out why it fell in the first place. They actually sort of forget to even wonder about that. At the very end, Sanderson also unveils the fact that there are several additional magical systems in the world, but it's much too late in the book for us to learn anything about them and so they seem kind of hastily bolted on.
If Sanderson writes a sequel, I will read it. Because I've seen how he's gotten much better in his other works. But this one... I would skip it.
One more thing: Sanderon's Mormon background shows up in his writing a lot, and it's fun to guess at his private religious feelings from his writing. (I feel like they are pretty easy to spot.) But in many ways, this was his most transparently religious book and also his most cynical. The main bad guys are a religion that is pretty clearly based on a slightly jaded view of the modern Mormon religion: rigidly hierarchical with an emphasis on obedience, ladder-climbing, and ambition. I don't think that Sanderson intended this is an attack on Mormonism, but I do like the fact that he was willing to be so free with his religious / cultural inspiration. ...more