This is the second book in a series, and I suppose this review is, in a way, a review of the series so far, but I read the first book back in the summ...moreThis is the second book in a series, and I suppose this review is, in a way, a review of the series so far, but I read the first book back in the summer, so it's not as fresh in my mind.
The basics: epic fantasy, filled with political and personal scheming. Russell weaves a world rich in history, thick with mysterious magic, and peopled with wonderful characters. The plot, briefly, starts off apparently centered around two rival families who each wish to reunite and rule an ancient, shattered kingdom. Each family, though, is shattered by division. The Renne are divided by a plot against the family head, who some believe is not ruthless enough to lead the family. The rival Wills are split between the rightful head of the family, a blind man who gave leadership of the family to his brother, and the brother himself, who has allied the family with a power, malevolent sorceror. All this, however, is only the surface level of the story.
Magic in this world tends to be subtle, yet mythic in its proportions. It is largely mysterious, and not that often seen, and yet it pervades the fabric of the world. Throughout these two books we are shuttled back and forth between the lords of the realm, some of the common folk who have become embroiled in the struggles washing over the land, and larger-than-life characters out of this world's legends who return to shape this world's destiny. Like most "epic" fantasy, this wealth of characters is its strength and a danger. On the one hand, it allows the reader to view events that no one person sees, and also keeps the characters in perspective--they're not some sorts of demigods who are doing everything important, they're people struggling in the ways that people do. And Russell does a fantastic job with the characters. They are varied and detailed. There was a point in this book where I was reading a scene between two of the characters and I just said yes! this writer has it. It was just that the characters were so real, they were each unique and working to understand one another and achieve their own purposes and they just felt not only real, but as though the characters were driving the plot and not the other way around.
At the same time, the epic scope of the novels demands that you be willing to leave some characters for great lengths of time before you come back to them, and this raises some difficulties at times. Primarily, it was going from book to book, and I'll acknowledge that it probably had a lot to do with the time lapse in my reading, but with some many characters, it can become difficult to remember precisely who did what and who felt how and what sort of person so-and-so was the last time we saw him or her. I suppose this is really, though, just an argument not to wait to read the next book! And here's another fortunate circumstance: unlike some epic fantasists who have made their stories so large in scope that the tales range over book after book and you have to wait and wait and wait for the next one to come out and, as they often weigh in at 500+ pages each, it can be damned hard to follow what's going on and equally difficult to re-read; as I was saying, unlike such series, The Swan's War series is completed. It is a nice trilogy (Tolkien really set the gold standard, didn't he?), and it's done, finito, complete. In just under 4 years, too, which isn't bad for around 1500 of epic series. And it's been a good ride so far--now I'm off to start reading the final installment.(less)
History as it's told in our high school history textbooks is history that focuses on American leaders, whether political, military, or business. Zinn...moreHistory as it's told in our high school history textbooks is history that focuses on American leaders, whether political, military, or business. Zinn argues convincingly that we need also to see history as it happened to "the people," and that this perspective is by no means synonymous with that of America's elites. In fact, the official line in America's history and politics has been that America is basically one big middle class. Certainly, America long had a larger middle class than most of the rest of the world, but as Zinn points out, we are "a middle class society governed for the most part by its upper classes." And what we see time after time (as in the present day) is that those who govern us have worked consistently for their own class first and for the country-as-a-whole second.
Zinn takes a hard look at the slaughter of the native Americans, at the exploitation of blacks and poor whites, at the alliance between government and business interests, at the struggles for the abolition of slavery, for labor rights, for civil rights, for women's rights... and over and over we see politicians taking action, passing and enforcing legislation only when popular movements force them to do so. Not simply when the electorate that voted them into office wants it, but when the people demand it in ways that cannot be easily ignored (as the polls more or less can when both parties are so similar on many basic issues). Voting, in fact, can be seen as consitently as a device for making people feel empowered while changing little.
I'll let Zinn speak for himself a bit.
“My viewpoint, in telling the story of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.”
Zinn puts himself consistently on the side of "the people," inasmuch as there can be said to be such a group--certainly it's not a unified group, and Zinn recognizes this. Still, Zinn would argue, the diversity represented by "the people" have more in common with one another (as much as they have been prevented from seeing it) than they do with the elites who run the country.
Fair warning: it's a long read, and pretty dense. Definitely not what we used to call "drunk-on-the-beach reading." In fact, if you want to read a book that shares some insights with this book without the exhaustive focus, you might start with James Loewen's _Lies My Teacher Told Me_. Really, these are two books that should be read by anyone who wants to understand our country and its history. If it's true that "those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it," then I think a necessary corollary is that "those who don't know the truth about history are doomed to repeat it."(less)
Nothing except moving and getting married in the same week could have stopped me from reading this book when it came out July 8. As it happened, I onl...moreNothing except moving and getting married in the same week could have stopped me from reading this book when it came out July 8. As it happened, I only got my grubby paws on it a couple days ago and tore right through it.
First, some background. This is the 11th book in the adventures of Vlad Taltos. The story started with a book called Jhereg, originally published in 1983 and now reprinted in a collection with the next two books in the series. Here, we were introduced to Vlad Taltos, an "Easterner" (human) living in the Dragaeran Empire (humans call them "elfs," they call themselves "human"). Vlad works as an assassin and minor crime boss when we first meet him. He's intelligent and witty, brash and wise-cracking. He hates Dragaerans, who have always looked down on him for being an Easterner, though he has a number of close friendships with individual Dragaerans. He takes pride in his Eastern heritage, to the extent that he practices Eastern-style swordplay and witchcraft, but other than his grandfather and his wife, doesn't associate with or have sympathy for his own people.
Over the course of the early novels, Vlad had all sorts of capers, often solving some mystery and getting out of some jam, with the help of his friends. One of the charming things about Vlad, I think, was the way that he did have to rely on friends to get anything done: his relationships with others were essential for the stories and for the success of his plots. Over the course of the first five novels, we see Vlad become gradually estranged from his wife, who starts to develop a sense of class consciousness and works to help better the plight of Easterners and other oppressed elements of the empire. This puts her at odds with the criminal organization that Vlad works for (and which she used to work for as well), ultimately leading Vlad to betray the organization in an attempt to save her, even though they are estranged. The sixth, seventh, ninth, and tenth novels have carried the story forward from there, showing Vlad on the run from assassins. In these novels, we see him as quite a different character than he was at the beginning of the series, matured in several ways.
As he has done several times before with new novels in the Taltos series, Brust dips into Vlad's past, this time to fill the gap between the fifth book and the sixth (though there could very well be more space). Brust does an excellent job bridging that gap not so much with plot as with character development. Sure, there's a whodunit sort of flavor to the novel, but the primary interest comes from Vlad's development. He's dealing with the dissolution of his marriage, he's working to come to terms with his Eastern heritage, and he's getting by without his criminal network or his good friends. What's particularly masterful about Jhegaala is the way Brust manages to get back into Vlad's character as he was six books ago and reconcile him to the character we've seen in later books, paving the way for the further changes we see in those volumes.
I can't say that Jhegaala is anywhere near my favorite in this series, but it certainly stands as a worthy addition.(less)
This book was so fascinating to me because it helped explain the social world around me as it examined the history of our public discourse and theoriz...moreThis book was so fascinating to me because it helped explain the social world around me as it examined the history of our public discourse and theorized about the effect that the form of discourse had on its content, and in turn the effect that both had on us as people. In short, it got me thinking and got me reading non-fiction.(less)
At its heart, the book is arguing against Faith. His starting point is Islamic terrorism, which he argues can only be understood in the context of fai...moreAt its heart, the book is arguing against Faith. His starting point is Islamic terrorism, which he argues can only be understood in the context of faith--without the religious beliefs underpinning these people's lives, without the certainty they have in both the righteousness of their cause and the eternal reward they will earn, recruiting for suicide bombing missions would be awfully hard.
Part of his argument, though, is that contrary to what we typically say, the problem isn't just a few extremists. This plays out in two ways. In the first place, he looks squarely at Islam. While it may be true that it's not every Muslim who is lining up for suicide bombing missions, it's also true that there are a lot of passages in the Koran which enjoin hatred or at least disdain for the infidel and a lot of other passages that glorify armed conflict against said infidels. To provide weight to this argument, he not only quotes extensively from the Koran, but he also cites a worldwide poll of Muslims that seems to find is an awful lot of tacit support for the suicide bombers.
Harris does not only blame Islam, though. He also targets, in the West, the way that we treat religion in public discourse: that is, with kid gloves. If someone speaks of their religious faith in public, then that's it, end of discussion. There is not allowed to be any questioning or criticism of that faith. This kind of "respect" for faith gives cover to the extremists. Also, in a democracy, such "respect" has real, dangerous consequences. Look, for instance, at the results we've gotten with the Bush administration: policies and political appointments based on religion. Harris examines a number of ways that this has played out in the U.S. At its heart, religion is making claims about the world--about how it is and how it should be. These claims should be open to scrutiny and debate the same way that scientific claims are. If "God" may not be as easy to "prove" or "disprove" as many ideas of science, there is still evidence to be marshaled on either side, particularly when a particular faith is on the line. A claim for the existence of God is difficult to disprove, but a claim for a divine, inerrant Bible, for instance, is not.
Harris is not, in the end, dismissive of spirituality as such. He is quite respectful of the idea that there is something that is probably best called a "spiritual" side to life, even in the absence of God. Not only is there room for such a thing, Harris finds spiritual experiences and spiritual inquiry quite valuable.
Harris's discussion can get quite detailed, and he shunts at least some of the discussion of philosophy, neuroscience, and other deeper discussions into the endnotes. At times, these end notes can be quite lengthy, and this was probably a good choice--go deeper if you want (there's also a bibliography) or stick with the main points of the discussion.
There are certainly points that readers will find questionable or even objectionable, but this is an interesting, thought-provoking, well-argued book.(less)
Under the name Megan Lindholm, Robin Hobb was already a successful author before the first book under her name, Assassin's Apprentice (1996) and the s...moreUnder the name Megan Lindholm, Robin Hobb was already a successful author before the first book under her name, Assassin's Apprentice (1996) and the series it began, The Farseer Trilogy. The change of name indicated a different style and subject, namely epic fantasy, and I have little doubt that Hobb is one of the best names in epic fantasy today. The Farseer Trilogy was really excellent, and after reading Fool's Errand, the first book of the Tawny Man trilogy, I have high hopes for this series as well. In this series, we return to the main characters from the Farseer Trilogy (Hobb wrote a trilogy focussing on completely separate characters in the meantime, which I haven't read yet), and it's good to have them back.
Hobb takes her time in her epic fantasy, and at times--particularly early--the action can seem a bit slow and the stakes not all that high. That, however, is simply Hobb building up an intricate network of characters and relationships, which makes the later rush of action and its consequences for the characters all the more real and meaningful.
We're 15 years after the end of the last series, and Fitzchivalry Farseer, royal bastard, former assassin and world-saving hero, has settled into an anonymous, quiet life with his wolf companion, caring for a foundling boy. At times, Fitz got on my nerves in this book, both because of his reluctance to be drawn back into the more adventurous life and sometimes for the particular moral stands he makes, but ultimately he's the same character I came to love and respect in the other trilogy, and the main likable core is still there. The fact is that he and the others in this novel are complex characters--whereas with more "flat" characters we might "fill in the gaps" in such a way to make the characters more like ourselves and thus more likable, Hobb has drawn such detailed characters that there aren't a lot of gaps to fill in, forcing us to know these characters as they are instead of how we might like them to be sometimes.
And that's fine. We come to understand these characters (particularly those we've followed since the first series) so well that it's difficult not to like or at least respect them. It's one of the strengths of a good novel, giving you a deeper understanding of the "people" involved than we ever get in our daily lives.
Anyway, Fitz refuses several invitations to be drawn back into the intrigues and life at the court, despite sometimes being drawn to that life. As I said, the action doesn't get moving right away. Instead it builds up gradually until it is thundering along at quite a pace. This works out fine: we need the time not only to build up the characters, but to set up the social order of this world and these times and to set up the mystery that is to follow: namely, the 14-year-old heir to the throne has disappeared! Whether he's run off from his upcoming betrothal or been kidnapped is unclear, but obviously he needs to be found! Hobb is good at the mystery-aspect of the tale and even better at the political intrigues. We have warring factions of nobles (at least a little), oppressed minorities, and international intrigue, not to mention high adventure and magic. We continue to get more hints about the ultimate nature of this world, it's history and how its magic works. And in the process we get a good story exploring loyalty, duty, friendship, and love. Although this novel is a bit more straight-foward than the Farseer trilogy generally was, there are still plenty of twists and turns and it seems likely that she's already set up more in this novel for the two volumes that follow. I'll be reading those soon, so I can let you know for sure when I do.
In the meantime, I'd recommend going back to the original series before venturing into this one. Yes, there's enough background given that you could probably make the leap, but the experience of this book will be far more rich and meaningful if you read that first series first. Anyway, it's really good stuff and well worth reading! Here, go buy the first volume now!(less)
It's been a while since I've read this, but I just saw a Goodreads friend add it to his to-read shelf and realized I'd never placed it on my own shelv...moreIt's been a while since I've read this, but I just saw a Goodreads friend add it to his to-read shelf and realized I'd never placed it on my own shelves here. I remember finding Tainter's argument compelling, though the prose is sometimes dry (at least, that's how I remember it--I read it in 2003.(less)