For being a genre-fusing deconstruction of the fantasy novel, this sure had me on the edge on my seat.
It all started with teenage Quentin Coldwater at...moreFor being a genre-fusing deconstruction of the fantasy novel, this sure had me on the edge on my seat.
It all started with teenage Quentin Coldwater attending a magical school, finding out the fantasy land from his favorite novels was real and then journeying there. Following various quests and a whole lotta heartbreak, Quentin is back in the real world and gives himself a very personal mission to complete even while his friends back in Fillory learn that the end of that world is very nigh.
Quentin has been a Rorschach test of a character since the beginning. Is he a spoiled ass who can never be happy or appreciate the amazing opportunity he has? Or maybe he’s a dreamer so sensitive to all the ways that the world and people in it fail us that he can’t help but constantly look for someplace better? Or is he a potential hero tripped up by the expectations that his fantasy nerdom have instilled him with?
There’s some truth in all of those and no shortage of readers who couldn’t stand Quentin or his friends. I had problems with him, too, particularly in the first half of the second book where it seemed that Quentin had regressed, and I would dearly have loved to give him a slap to the back of the head.
However, I always had the feeling that Lev Grossman was taking us somewhere with Quentin, and that I couldn’t really know the guy until I knew how he turned out in the end. Here’s where that belief paid off for me with Quentin, now 30 years old, finally acting like an adult, and there’s some genuine sadness in the idea that Quentin may have finally outgrown his childish things.
While he’s more mature, he’s still a magician and one thing Quentin hasn’t lost is the wonder and possibilities of the fantastic. Now it’s just tempered with the realism of a guy who is a crusty veteran of many battles and seasoned interdimensional traveler. Grossman also shifts perspective to several other supporting characters in a variety of circumstances from an attempt to steal a magically protected object to witnessing a final apocalyptic battle in a world tearing itself apart.
The other characters have gone through similar arcs so that they seem less like hipsters tossing around ironic comments about being in a fantasy story and more like magicians fighting for things they care about who are still capable of throwing out some one-liners about being in a fantasy story.
This final book in the trilogy pays off on a lot of levels and manages to wrap up most of the loose ends without seeming so tidy that it came in box with a bow on it. All of it feels rich and detailed, and best of all, it feels like it mattered.
I would like to have been in the room when Guy Gavriel Kay pitched this story to his publishers:
“It’s a historical fantasy novel based on the Byzanti...moreI would like to have been in the room when Guy Gavriel Kay pitched this story to his publishers:
“It’s a historical fantasy novel based on the Byzantine Empire and the works of W.B. Yeats. The main character is an artist caught up in political schemes during a tumultuous time.”
“Uh….The Byzantine Empire and poems? And the hero isn’t any kind of an archer or a sorcerer? Some kind of bad ass like we usually see in these books?”
“No, he’s just a mosaicist. That’s a guy who glues bits of colored glass or tiles to walls or ceiling to create images.”
“Uh….that’s great, Guy. Why don’t you go write that up and maybe we’ll take a look at it right after we get through this pile of manuscripts featuring groups of swordsman, thieves, elves and magicians on heroic quests as they battle orcs and goblins.”
Set in the same world as The Lions of Al Rassan but several centuries earlier, Caius Crispus a/k/a Crispin is a talented mosaicist with a fiery temper who is still mourning the family he lost to plague. An Imperial Courier arrives bearing a summons from the emperor for his partner Martinian to come to the capital, Sarantium. Martinian claims that he’s too old to travel and insists that Crispin take his place instead. Crispin is reluctantly pushed into making the hazardous road journey, and soon finds himself being used as a pawn by powerful people.
Wait a second. If he travels by land rather than sea than why is the book called Sailing to Sarantium? Kay explains it like this:
"To say of a man that he was sailing to Sarantium was to say that his life was on the cusp of change: poised for emergent greatness, brilliance, fortune--or else at the very precipice of a final and absolute fall as he met something too vast for his capacity."
Ah, so that explains it…
This is the first book of Kay’s two-part Sarantine Mosaic, and as with the other one I recently read by him, The Lions of Al Rassan, he does a masterful job of building an intricate world full of political and religious conflicts as well as enough day-in-the-life details to make it all feel authentic and realistic. Having his lead character be a smart artist with a tendency of speaking his mind and putting him into the middle of a palace intrigue plot when he’s in over his head made for some interesting scenes that are different that the usual kind of hack-n-slash stuff you’d expect to be driving a story like this. There is just enough action and violence to make it feel dangerous and not just a bunch of people standing around talking, and Crispin’s journey as a way to get over his grief is a nice personal hook.
A couple of points kept this from getting to four stars. One of the things that set The Lions of Al Rassan apart from other fantasies was its lack of any kind of magic or supernatural elements other than one supporting character having some very limited telepathy and precognition. Here there is a full-blown alchemist who has created something that he gives to Crispin as a gift, and then there’s an encounter with a pagan entity. I was far more interested in Crispin navigating the political and religious mine fields of dealing with the Emperor’s court than any of these elements. (Obviously this was a personal preference, and I’m sure some readers will feel the exact opposite.)
Also, there are several strong female characters in positions of power here, and that’s to the book’s credit. However, after the third or four time that Crispin finds himself in the presence of one of these women and finds himself flabbergasted by their intellect and beauty, the conversations took on a rinse-and-repeat flavor. Essentially they have so much in common that they start feeling like the same character and that’s too bad because the first couple of interactions really worked well.
All in all I liked this but didn’t love it. I’d read it before but remembered little of the plot, and I can’t remember how it ends in the next book either so it obviously didn’t blow my mind. I’ll probably move on to Lord of Emperors again at some point, but I’m not in any great hurry.(less)
1) Star crossed lovers who were soldiers in opposing armies of an intersteller war who have a baby and are being hunted b...moreSome of the elements in Saga:
1) Star crossed lovers who were soldiers in opposing armies of an intersteller war who have a baby and are being hunted by both sides. 2) A royal family comprised of humanistic robots with TVs for heads. 3) Magic 4) Ghosts. 5) A bounty hunter with a giant cat that acts as a lie detector. 6) A forest that grows wooden rocketships
And that’s just the start.
I’m a huge fan of Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina so no surprise that I loved this. What is surprising is just how bat shit crazy he made this story. Yes, Y:TLM was about the sudden deaths of almost every male on earth, and Ex Machina used the idea of a super hero as the mayor of New York right after 9/11, but both of those started with the real world as the baseline and then explored what happened if you introduced a fantastic element to it.
Saga has no similar foundation in a recognizable reality, yet once again Vaughan creates familiar and likeable characters that you can’t help but root for. Alana and Marko’s quest to find a safe place to raise their baby is something that anyone can relate to. When they bicker, it reads like real people squabbling. So even though he has horns like a ram and she looks like Rosario Dawson with wings, they could be any young couple trying to protect themselves and their child in desperate circumstances. That the circumstances are like a dream that Neil Gaiman would have while running a high fever and taking too much cold medicine is just the window dressing that make the story so much fun.
It’s like a sci-fi fairy tale with a layer of gritty realism to it. It’s also one of the best comics I’ve read recently, and I can’t wait to see how this story plays out.(less)
King put me through years of mental torture with The Dark Tower series, but I was able to forgive once...moreShenanigans! I cry shenanigans on Stephen King!
King put me through years of mental torture with The Dark Tower series, but I was able to forgive once he finally delivered a fitting ending to that saga. So I had a lot of concerns about him returning to the story of Roland. I worried that King had come down with a vicious case of Lucasitis that was going to have him tinkering with this story repeatedly.
However, King’s public statements indicated that it would not change the core Dark Tower story and that it would just explore the long interlude between the fourth and fifth books. I’ve always had a big question regarding that since the end of Wizard & Glass had young Jake still being a new arrival to Mid-World and completely untrained as a gunslinger while Eddie and Susannah still had a lot to learn about carrying the heavy iron. When Wolves of the Calla picked up, all of them were stone cold bad asses after being on the path of the Beam for a good long while. It seemed like King was going to fill in that gap, and that was a story that I would have been interested in reading.
I have to note here that Wizard & Glass is my least favorite of the Dark Tower books. This was mainly for three reasons:
1) After years of waiting, it didn’t advance the core story at all and instead focused on a flashback to young Roland.
2) It involved a long tale with a character who really didn’t have anything to do with DT after that book.
3) It was filled with fucking Wizard of Oz references.
So what do we get in The Wind Through the Keyhole?
1) A flashback story to young Roland.
2) A flashback inside another flashback that tells a long tale about a character that has nothing to do with the rest of the DT story.
3) A couple of Wizard of Oz references.
Adding insult to injury, the main reason I read this wasn't addressed. Even though it’s supposed to be shortly after the ending of the fourth book, Jake is suddenly carrying a gun and going off ahead of the others and no one is worried because “He can take care of himself.” WHEN?? WHEN THE FUCK DID THAT HAPPEN? BECAUSE AS FAR AS I KNOW HE’S STILL THE KID WHO GOT KIDNAPPED AND NEARLY KILLED IN LUD, YET A WEEK OR TWO LATER HE’S JUST A GODDAMN GUNSLINGER WITH ABSOLUTELY NO TRAINING!!
So instead of getting the one damn question I wanted answered in this, the gunslingers are used as a framing device for Roland to tell them a story about his past that turns into him telling some little bastard a tale about another little bastard wandering off into the woods.
Seriously, this could have been a fun offshoot short story or stories in larger collections someday, but putting them in a hardback and calling them Dark Tower just seems like the worst kind of bait and switch.
I’m going to sell this one to a used book store and pretend it doesn’t exist. (less)
“Good evening and welcome to ESPN’s coverage of the 1st World Championship of Assumption Poker Tournament at the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino in La...more“Good evening and welcome to ESPN’s coverage of the 1st World Championship of Assumption Poker Tournament at the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. I’m your host Mike Honcho and with me is three time poker champion Billy “Busted Flush” Stark. Billy, you can certainly feel the excitement and tension in this room tonight.”
“Mike, you got that right. We all used to think that poker tournaments for money were a big deal, but ever since the recent revelations that magic is real and that much of that power can be harnassed by the use of plain old playing cards, the entire gaming world has been turned upside down."
“Tonight, we’ve got the ultimate in magic poker challenges, a game of high stakes Assumption where the winner will not only be able to claim the very bodies and souls of the other players to become virtually immortal, he will also become the new magical King of Las Vegas while the ladies will be competing to become the Queen. This opportunity only comes around about every twenty years. And if the game didn’t have enough drama, Billy, I understand that several of the players have some history and bad blood between them.”
“Bad blood and spilled blood in some cases, Mike. First, let’s check out Georges Leon, the current king. Georges overthrew the last king of Vegas, legendary gangster Bugsy Siegel, and then extended his own life by essentially killing one of his own sons. Georges has launched the current Assumption craze by using the card game to get people to unwittingly sign over their bodies for his future use.”
“Certainly a player to be respected and feared, Billy. But tonight he’ll be facing another son of his, Scott Crane.”
“That’s right, Mike. Georges actually attempted to take Scott’s life force when he was just a kid, but the boy was saved by his mother even though he lost an eye in the process. And since he’s one of the mystical Jacks who can assume the kingship, you know what that makes him? A one-eyed Jack.”
“Can Scott hope to contend against his father, Billy?”
“Well, Scott was a professional poker player, and he’s a blood heir to the throne. However, the recent unexpected death of his wife, and subsequent alcoholism has left him vulnerable to his father and other threats from Dionysus. And those aren’t even his biggest problems, Mike. You see, Scott has actually already lost his claim on his body in a game of Assumption he played twenty years ago with his father when neither knew who the other one was.”
“That certainly makes it long odds against Scott Crane. But what about his foster father, Ozzie Crane?”
“Now, Ozzie is one crafty old card player, and he knows all the ins and outs of the magic business. But he’s stayed away from the magic end of thing for years so we’re not sure what he’ll bring to the table.”
“Adding to the family drama, we’ve also got Diana, a daughter of the goddess Isis that Ozzie saved and raised. This young woman will be playing to save the lives of her own sons and take on the role of Queen.”
“Exactly, Mike. We’ve also got several other wild cards in the mix like Arky Mavranos, a friend of Scott’s who is dying of cancer and came along to try and tap into some Vegas magic and find a cure.”
“You’ve got to respect a man who rejects traditional medicine and pins all his hopes on finding a miracle in a casino, Billy.”
“There’s also a variety of other Jacks who want to take the throne and see Scott and Diana as the leading candidates to take out. It has been one wild week here in Vegas with gun fights, magic, kidnapping, murder and beheadings. And that’s before the card game has even started!”
“These players certainly better hope that it’s true that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas or the survivors will be looking at some long jail time, Billy.”
“Whatever happens, you can be sure that it should be a thrilling game, Mike. I just hope we all live to see who wins.”
“We’ll be back in a moment to kick off this game of Assumption right after a word from our sponsor, Budweiser.”(less)
If Quentin Coldwater stumbled on a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, he’d constantly complain about how heavy it was and how the coins didn’t fit i...moreIf Quentin Coldwater stumbled on a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, he’d constantly complain about how heavy it was and how the coins didn’t fit in any vending machines and why couldn't they have just put the money into a nice cashier's check that he could have fit neatly in his wallet and then deposited in the bank?
In the first book, Quentin was a brilliant but disillusioned teenager who found life a boring slog and desperately wished that things were more like his favorite fantasy series set in a magical land called Fillory. (Think Narnia.) Quentin seemingly hit the fantasy geek jackpot when he learned that magic was real, and he was admitted to an exclusive school called Brakebills that trained magicians. Yet he constantly found himself disappointed that he never achieved his idea of true happiness even after graduating. When a classmate discovered that Fillory was real and a path to it, Quentin seized on the notion that going to Fillory was the only way he’d ever finally be complete. Unfortunately, Quentin learned the hard way that there‘s a big difference between reading about adventures and actually finding yourself in magical battle where various beasties are trying to kill you.
The Magician King picks up several years after that. Quentin is now one of the kings of Fillory and lives a life of ease and luxury with his friends. Of course, Quentin is never satisfied with a bird in the hand even when he’s relatively content, and he volunteers to go on a diplomatic mission to an island so he can seek the two birds he just knows are out there in the bush. His desire for a ’real’ adventure leads to him returning to Earth and finding that his wish for a high stakes quest have just come true. It’s much more than he bargained for and the consequences are enormous.
I loved The Magicians with it’s unique twist of what it’d be like if there were magic in the real world, but it seemed like a love-it or hate-it book with my friends here on Goodreads. And I totally understood why some readers could not stand Quentin at all. Here’s a guy who catches the biggest break in nerd history and yet he’s never satisfied and grateful for the opportunity he has.
In all honesty, I was starting to hate him pretty good through the first half of this book myself. It seemed like Quentin had forgotten everything he’d suffered and learned in the first book, and he was once again an obsessed nerd who is convinced that he’d be happy if he could live like he’s in a fantasy novel. However, that changes about halfway through with several big plot developments that I won’t spoil, but by the end of this one, I completely dropped my earlier reservations.
It also helped that Grossman is obviously writing Quentin to be an obsessed pain in the ass early on, and that he has several characters call him out on it. There’s a particularly nice bit where Quentin has traveled to Europe on Earth, and he has a moment of clarity where he realizes that he wrote off the real world when he’d seen almost none of it.
One of the things I also loved about this one in is the backstory of Julia, a former high school classmate’s of Quentin’s who had failed the Brakebills entrance exam, but went on to find another way to learn magic. If they were musicians, it’d be like Quentin went to study at Juilliard, but Julia learned in garage bands and punk clubs.
I can’t mention the stuff that occurs towards the end that made this book so cool to me and left me stunned by it’s conclusion. If you didn’t like The Magicians, this probably won’t change your mind. However, if you did like the first one, you’ll probably enjoy this book, especially it’s moving and incredibly dark third act.
So this is one of those books that I really wanted to love but to my great disappointment ended up being just OK. It’s got Albert Einstein, Charlie Ch...moreSo this is one of those books that I really wanted to love but to my great disappointment ended up being just OK. It’s got Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, time travel, ghosts, psychic links, astral projection, Israeli spies and a secret evil organization. So what’s not to love?
In its defense I’ll admit that I probably wasn’t in a good frame of mind for something like this. I’ve been distracted by a couple of things, and it’s that glorious time of year where for 10 days in the spring and fall I can go outside without either freezing to death or collapsing from heat exhaustion.
All of which is just to say that I had a really hard time sitting down and focusing on this and this is the kind of story that demands and rewards focus. Maybe if it’d been a bit more engaging I would have found the groove and got into it more, or maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood. Probably a bit of both.
Anyhow, I did enjoy the whole idea of Albert Einstein’s secret discoveries being hunted by opposing sides that use a mix of the occult and weird science, but I would have liked more of that and less of the story of Frank Marrity and his daughter getting caught in the crossfire.
Unique with a lot of nifty ideas, but it just didn’t knock my socks off. (less)
Anyone who has not read the entire Preacher series but thinks that they might someday should heed this warning: Do NOT read this or any other review a...moreAnyone who has not read the entire Preacher series but thinks that they might someday should heed this warning: Do NOT read this or any other review and/or summary for any of the volumes after War in the Sun. Even the best attempts to prevent spoilers will give away too much just by telling you the set up and this is one of those things that the less you know the better.
All I can safely say is that that this volume briefly turned me into a vegetarian after reading.
For those of you who have read it or just don’t care: (view spoiler)[Even though this is story about a quest to find God that contains a vast international religious conspiracy as well as vampires, at its heart Preacher really is a western. Only a cowboy would have the sheer redneck gumption to set out for a reckoning with the Almighty.
So it makes perfect sense that when Jesse is reeling after losing an eye and seemingly betrayed by the two people he cares for most that his idea of a break would be taking on the job of a sheriff in a small Texas town being oppressed by a rich man. And since this is a Garth Ennis story there’s also Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and a guy having sex with a pile of meat...
I especially love the ultimate reveal of what happened to Jesse after he fell out of the plane at Monument Valley. God shows himself again and tries to play the kindly creator, but Jesse is having none of it and literally spits in his face. It costs him an eye, but damn is it a ballsy move.
My only complaint is that I never really bought the idea that he found his presumed dead mother. It was nice seeing Jesse recover a bit of happiness from his supremely messed up childhood, but it felt a little too coincidental and neat. (hide spoiler)] ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
If I scored my nerd tendencies I’d fall much closer on the scale to comic books and Star Trek than to Lord of the Rings and other swords-n-sorcery kin...moreIf I scored my nerd tendencies I’d fall much closer on the scale to comic books and Star Trek than to Lord of the Rings and other swords-n-sorcery kind of fantasy which is weird because I do enjoy the kind of world building and political intrigue that is often a big part of the genre.
My hesitation about reading more of this kind of stuff is due in no small part to how it seems like common practice for fantasy authors of turning those stories into multi-book epics, but then stalling out in the middle of a series and leaving fans hanging for years while they work on other projects. That’s why I watch Game of Thrones but will not read GRRM’s books until he finishes what he started. Years of frustration waiting during Stephen King’s glacial pace on Dark Tower left me a broken and bitter shell of a man who refuses to put up with that nonsense ever again.*
*Any rabid fan boy comments trying to shout me down for daring to offer a criticism that could be applied to their particular lord and master will be deleted. Life’s too short.
I haven’t read all of Guy Gavriel Kay’s work, but not only does he do the kind of intrigue I enjoy, one of the big selling points to me is that the guy finishes a story. He says he’s writing a fantasy trilogy? BOOM! There’s The Fionavar Tapestry. All three books were published from 1984 to 1986. He’s doing a two-parter called The Sarantine Mosaic? BAM! Started in 1998 and finished in 2000. Sorry that the second one wasn’t out in ’99. He’s creating a historical fantasy based on Moorish Spain that requires elaborate world building involving political and religious intrigue? Easy. The Lions of Al-Rassan. One and done. You’re welcome.
This fictional land has three religions with a bloody history, but an era of uneasy peace is in place among various factions split among them. The Asharites worship the stars and their prophet Ashar while their northern neighbors the Jaddites believe in a sun god. The Kindath worship the two moons, but they have no land or power of their own and exist in both territories as second class citizens who are routinely discriminated against. Prominent people in both the Asharite and Jaddite religions often find it a convenient distraction to blame the Kindath for any problems going on and let their citizens take out their frustrations on them rather than the actual leaders.
A female Kindath physician named Jehane bet Ishak has a very long and eventful day in which she meets two legendary men. Ammar ibn Khairan is an Asharite warrior and poet who is famous for having murdered the last caliph which turned formerly united Al-Rassan into independent city states. Rodrigo Belmonte is a Jaddite who leads a lethal company of horseman charged with keeping the peace and protecting the border cities who pay protection to his king.
A series of events begin to change the political landscape of Al-Rassan and ambitious leaders begin plotting while the dour clerics of Jad try to promote a holy war and some of the fanatical desert Asharites see opportunities to sweep away the decadence they believe has infiltrated their society. Rodrigo, Ammar and Jehane wind up in the same city and forge a bond despite their differences, but they soon find that it’s hard to be loyal to your friends when duty comes calling.
Kay does a superior job of laying out all the complex political and religious alliances so that you have a clear understanding but aren’t overwhelmed by it. His religions are obviously based on the Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths, and he mines the history of them to make a lot of points about bigotry, hypocrisy and the use of faith to manipulate people. It’s also an exciting tale featuring all kinds of hacking and slashing in tense action scenes. I also liked that this has a lot of the trappings of a fantasy novel and a fictional world, but there’s no magical or supernatural elements other than one character having some very limited telepathic and precognitive abilities.
The best thing is the relationship between the three main characters. Rodrigo and Ammar are done as the kind of bigger-than-life people that emerge during times of great historical conflict whose actions have huge consequences, but he never makes them seem outrageously heroic or unrealistic. Jehane is as strong and independent female character as you can reasonably have in a story set in a society where guys with swords are still in charge. Her being one of the Kindath could have made her seem like a likely candidate to be victimized, but instead, Kay uses her as the voice of sanity caught in the middle of events completely outside of her control.
It’s not perfect though. Kay gets a little too cute sometimes in drawing out suspense like withholding the names of characters who have been killed and trying to fake the reader out. Also, while I’ve praised this as being a single self-contained story, most of the book is spent setting up a conflict that plays out in an incredibly rushed final act in which we see almost none of the action and learn about the deaths of important supporting characters as single lines reporting larger events. I suspect that Kay wanted to keep his focus on his three main players and that the point of the book was the impact on them, not so much a blow-by-blow account of it happening. However, he went to a lot of effort to suck a reader into this world so it seems odd that he was in such a hurry to finish it up.
Still, it’s a highly entertaining and engrossing read that combines the best of fantasy world building with historical fiction.(less)