Ah well, so much for "The Prince of Nothing" trilogy. I loved the first book so much that I suffered through the vastly inferior second, then still fo...moreAh well, so much for "The Prince of Nothing" trilogy. I loved the first book so much that I suffered through the vastly inferior second, then still forged on with this one. It's not as frustrating as the previous book (for one, the rape has been toned down), but it perpetuates a lot of the same problems.
It's easy to capture all the trilogy's problems in one word, and that word is "Kellhus." This character is so bad, he sucks the fun out of the supporting cast. This was painfully true in Warrior Prophet, and it's unfortunately still the case here. Kellhus has this insane superpower where he can read everyone like an open book, and can then choose what to say very precisely and get them to do what he wants. In literary terms, he shits all over their character arcs. Characters with doubts, allegiances, loved ones, suddenly abandon everything to worship his greatness. He also has a high opinion of the gibberish he spews as philosophical revelation, but that's another problem altogether.
Now, I'm not saying such a character is impossible to write in a compelling manner. Manipulation of others can make for gripping fiction. But Kellhus's method is just too convenient, too absolute, and not believable. Apparently, all he has to do is speak the truth to others and they worship him like a god. Sorry, but if a stranger came up to me and spoke the unblemished truth of my soul, I'd punch him in the teeth, even if a part of me acknowledged what he said. Our self-truths are never absolute, and they are wrapped up in layers upon layers of deception and complications. Absolute truth doesn't beget love; on the contrary, it can provoke hatred because it threatens the very edifice of our personality.
For this reason, I spent most of the book cheering instead for Ikurei Conphas, who's something of a cross between King Joffrey and Julius Caesar. He's a self-absorbed prick, but damn if he's gonna let some messianic Mary Sue wield his almighty ego. You go, you magnificent asshole!
Still, for all its faults, there are glimpses of the greatness I anticipated after reading the first book. The final chapter is full of revelation and fury, and many characters regain part of their lost agency. Achamian, as always, was a pleasure to read, even if he had a tendency to wallow in self-pity a lot. The book feels more like a setup for the next trilogy, but at least the story of the Holy War came to a satisfying conclusion.
Oh, and by the way: Mr. Bakker, next time you write a book, search for the word "fairly" in your manuscript, and ditch every single one. There are twenty-seven instances of the word in the book--twenty seven!--and they were all jarring and perfectly useless and broke my immersion every single time. It's not a style, it's a tic.(less)
The sequel to The Darkness That Comes Before comes swinging out of the gate, but it spends its creative energies pretty fast. The novel does deliver o...moreThe sequel to The Darkness That Comes Before comes swinging out of the gate, but it spends its creative energies pretty fast. The novel does deliver on the promise of the first book: we get to see the Holy War well under way, and the result is pretty exciting. But most of the story is spent taking characters in unsatisfying directions. The writing is still pretty solid, although Bakker really needs to cut back on his usage of the adverb "fairly."
The biggest problem I had with the story here is Kellhus. There's no reason that he should be presented as a likable character. He's essentially a highly functioning sociopath with no emotion of his own. He has God-like charisma, and is so apt a fighter as to defeat a charging army with ease. He would make an interesting villain, but Bakker is determined to make him a sympathetic messianic figure in the tradition of Dune's Paul Atreides. Ultimately, though, all I could see in Kellhus was the dark fantasy answer to the Mary Sue: an all-powerful being that is irresistibly charming, unaffected by emotional turmoil, and who can read the author's script and use it to his advantage.
I got particularly upset at Kellhus when he started derailing others' character arcs. The case of Esmenet was just sad. (view spoiler)[She starts out as a strong, independent woman, and her relationship with Achamian was one of equals, filled with deep understanding and respect. Yet Kellhus waltzes into her life and obliterates her agency. He manipulates her to love him more than she loved Achamian, then gets her pregnant so she will bear his heir. Ugh. It's like Bakker created this charming woman, but then felt the need to break and possess her through Kellhus. (hide spoiler)]
The treatment of Esmenet was disappointing, but then there's Serwë. She deserves some sort of prize for being the most useless and pathetic female character in fantasy. Her only—only!—quality is being amazingly beautiful. Otherwise, she's an airhead. But still she gets POV chapters, and we spend an inordinate amount of time understanding her relationship to Kellhus. (view spoiler)[She gets raped a few times, but hey, apparently that's par for the course. After one particularly repulsive and graphic rape, Kellhus just wipes her mind clean and we never hear of it again. (hide spoiler)]
Speaking of violence to women, this book reaches a level of misogyny that borders on the epic. There's a lot of rape going on here. Just to tell you how rapey this book is, at one point the author describes a character's sword striking swiftly across the air as saying it "raped the air." Yeah, it's like that. I don't know if sexual violence is a cornerstone of dark fantasy, but it bothers the hell out of me. Game of Thrones had rape, but it also had resourceful and sympathetic women who expressed how scary they found sexual violence. Here, rape is just thrown around.
Ah, but beyond all that, there's still a lot to like, here. I really like Ikurei Conphas, the glorious bastard. Achamian is by far my favorite character of the lot; he's human, frail, full of doubts and pain, and yet when he gets pissed off, he kicks an obscene amount of ass. I used to really like Cnaiür, but he spends this book glaring and spitting. (Cnaiür spits more than forty times in the course of the book. I counted them.) (view spoiler)[He also sexually and physically abuses Serwë, and justifies himself by calling it love. (hide spoiler)]
The progress of the Holy War was interesting. The external battles with the Fanim are told in the dispassionate style of a historical chronicle, but it's the internal politics of the war that really makes the plot tick. It's great to see nobles and factions scheme against one another just as they march against a common enemy.
The creativity that was such a strong point in the previous book is still there, but it seems to run out of juice pretty fast. Whereas the first book was devilishly inventive, here the setting feels well-trodden, and it mostly relies on elements introduced in the previous book. It doesn't help that the Fanim are a clear Islam analogue after all; the book even employs the word 'Jihad' to describe their concept of a holy war. (view spoiler)[One example of how the creativity has run out is the Cishaurim. When we meet a Cishaurim in the first book, he is striking and incredibly original: a man with empty eye sockets, and two snakes wrapped around his neck, serving as his eyes. Yet when we meet the Cishaurim in greater numbers, they all have snakes for eyes. It's like Bakker was done with inventing new and exciting stuff. (hide spoiler)]
All in all, The Warrior Prophet was a disappointing follow-up to The Darkness That Comes Before, but I still care enough about the story that I'll read The Thousandfold Thought. I just hope Kellhus will be less an author vehicle in the sequel, and that all these characters he hoodwinked will wake up to who he really is. And while I'm listing my wishes for the sequel, here's hoping for a woman with more agency and less rape in her life, please.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I'm so conflicted about this book. I adored reading it, but whenever I think back on it, I can think of so many flaws that I find it difficult to gush...moreI'm so conflicted about this book. I adored reading it, but whenever I think back on it, I can think of so many flaws that I find it difficult to gush.
What my head is telling me is that structurally, the book is kind of a mess. The novel is two novels in one, with the first taking place back when the old gang was under the tutelage of Father Chains, and the other involving a rigged election on the Bondsmagi home turf. Now, as the synopsis makes clear, the big central element in this book is none other than Sabetha, Locke's paramour whose very name makes everyone's favorite knave tremble with desire and regret. It makes a certain kind of sense to show us how Locke and Sabetha's relationship grew, because previous books were careful to skirt around the character. I just wish the whole plot about the play took, I dunno, a quarter of what it did. Or even better, Lynch should have released the book as a prequel to this one, thus helping us wait by giving us Sabetha's backstory.
The problem is, the flashbacks take an awful lot of space. There's very little tension involved in the shenanigans the characters encounter, because we already know Locke and Sabetha end up an item, and the specifics don't matter. Plus, it always galls me to see the Sansa twins again, because if Scott Lynch wanted to write about them so much, (spoilers for "The Lies of Locke Lamora")(view spoiler)[he shouldn't have fucking kill them, for crying out loud. It's sad to see these characters grow and have fun, because we know what will end up happening anyway.(hide spoiler)]
The scenes in the present are fun. The idea of having Locke and Sabetha face off against each other in rigging an election is great, but ultimately it lacks a certain tension, and the stakes are mysterious at best. Ultimately, the election-rigging takes a backseat to the rekindling of Locke and Sabetha's romance, and to politics whose scope escapes Locke's notice.
Ah, but here's where my heart comes in. See, I really dug the romance aspect of the story. It's not anything like what you think, either. Locke starts out with a boyish obsession over a girl who has very little say in the matter of his infatuation; he has this idea of her, and he's not gonna let reality convince him otherwise. But then something wonderful happens: Sabetha turns out to be a living, lucid, breathing young woman with her own head and heart. She's complex, not always pleasant, and sometimes she's as irrational and infuriating as Locke. And to Locke's credit, he ends up treating her like a person instead of a convenient target for his obsessions. No kidding, I think Sabetha is my new favorite female fantasy character.
Really, I have to applaud Scott Lynch for writing Sabetha so well. She's the antidote to all the female characters who exist so that males can lust after them. Lynch's gender sensibilities are such a breath of fresh air in a genre that is so often eager to demean its women on the grounds of historical accuracy. (Meanwhile, you're all happy to write about dragons and sorcery, you dicks.) Lynch's universe is by no means an egalitarian utopia, but it's such a breath of fresh air to see a fantasy world where women hold some positions of power, where being dark-skinned doesn't make you a horse-eating barbarian, and where homosexuality is no big deal.
And so, this book delighted me despite splitting my attention between two disconnected timelines. Sabetha and Locke are just that great to watch, whether they're working together or against one another. But by the time the book was over, it was my brain who started to complain again. My biggest complain is (view spoiler)[the idea that Locke is the reincarnation of some evil Bondsmagi. It just pisses me off. What made Locke extraordinary is that he was more or less a regular orphan, whose wits and charm made him extraordinary. Now I have to accept he's the reincarnation of some super-powerful mage. It doesn't fit with the scrawny kid who learned his trade with the Thiefmaker. It doesn't fit with his happy-go-lucky personality. I hate it. (hide spoiler)] But then I remember how much fun it is to read about Jean and Locke's banter, and I'm right back where I started: unsure whether I loved this book more than I hated its flaws.
I'm still gonna pick up the next book in the series, though. And Sabetha better be in it.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
An all-time fantasy classic by Vance that spawned an entire sub-genre as well as D&D's magic system. How can I not like it?
Well, given that pedigr...moreAn all-time fantasy classic by Vance that spawned an entire sub-genre as well as D&D's magic system. How can I not like it?
Well, given that pedigree, this book was actually a disappointment. Oh, it's a beautifully-written book, with elegant and evocative prose. And true to Jack Vance's reputation, it's a breathtaking bit of world-building as well. Thing is, it's just not that engaging. The novel is composed of six loosely interconnected stories, with little or no dramatic arc building across them. The stories themselves are mythic and picaresque, which makes for sluggish reading over time.
That being said, it's no surprise that the book inspired fantasy giants from George R.R. Martin and Gary Gygax to Gene Wolfe himself. The idea of a fantasy setting taking place in the dying hours of the Earth is startling and engaging. Although it plays very little role in the stories themselves, it gives them a lyrical depth and texture that explains the book's status as a classic.
It was particularly interesting to read this knowing it was one of the early influences for Dungeons & Dragons; as a matter of fact, the D&D spell system, where mages memorize their spells then forget them as soon as they're cast, is taken straight from this book. Turns out that a few other elements of D&D are homages to The Dying Earth: spells such as Prismatic Spray refer to a spell in the book, and I only recently realized, in a great moment of facepalmery, that the name of one of my favorite D&D villains, the lich Vecna, is an anagram of Vance.
Beyond the story of T'sais, I had a hard time sticking to its uneven pacing and meandering plot. Still, it's a great piece of fantasy literature history, and one which has inspired many of the greats who follow in Jack Vance's giant footsteps.(less)
The writing and characterization are nice enough, but I guess the timing is not in this book's favor. I tried to get into it, but I couldn't force mys...moreThe writing and characterization are nice enough, but I guess the timing is not in this book's favor. I tried to get into it, but I couldn't force myself to care for the setting or the characters. I'm gonna just give it up now, instead of struggling with it.
I like that the author made the setting Muslim without turning it into an oriental fetish. Culturally, the setting is clearly Muslim, but also firmly its own thing. And the female character really kick a lot of ass. That's all good stuff, which I'm sure I would have enjoyed in different circumstances.(less)
Leviathan Wakes has some good, solid SF ideas, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. The canvas is grandiose enough, featuring Earth, Mars, an...moreLeviathan Wakes has some good, solid SF ideas, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. The canvas is grandiose enough, featuring Earth, Mars, and the Belt on the edge of war over a game-changing event. Unfortunately, shoddy characterization and sub-par plotting make it really hard to care.
The opening chapters were solid enough. We're introduced to alternating points of view that promise a broad perspective on a world where Humanity has escaped Earth but is still constrained to the Solar System. There's a difference in tone, as one POV is concerned with space battles, and the other with a cop looking for a rich girl who has disappeared. The Belter culture felt interesting and different at first, but it never got fleshed out more than it is in the first chapters.
Alas, the promise of the early chapters remains unfulfilled. The writing is largely to blame: there's just a lot of writing going on, detailing character inner states and hesitations. The action scenes and the larger events zip by pretty fast, leaving us with characters pondering what to do next, or dealing with their cookie-cutter personal issues. And yet, despite all this inner monologuing, the characters never truly gain depth and heft. They're crude archetypes at best, sometimes devolving into cliches.
The rest of the novel challenged my determination to see this book through. (view spoiler)[The concept of "vomit zombies" was contrived and uninteresting, even though it eventually led somewhere with the "protomolecule." There's even a sense of resolution when Miller finds "Julie" again, and the consequences of Miller's actions are intriguing. (hide spoiler)]
Leviathan Wakes felt at times like something Peter F. Hamilton would have cooked up, where the author takes a hammer to a finely-crafted SF universe. But the universe was not crafted with anywhere near the care that I expected. The politics between Earth, Mars, and the Belt were sketchy and simplistic, and none of the characters jumped off the page. And so, when the hammer fell, I just couldn't muster the will to care for any of the pieces.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
A really neat sequel to Novik's awesome His Majesty's Dragon. Laurence and his dragon Temeraire are back, and this time they're going on a trip to Chi...moreA really neat sequel to Novik's awesome His Majesty's Dragon. Laurence and his dragon Temeraire are back, and this time they're going on a trip to China, to the land whence Temeraire came.
I was concerned at first that Novik would somehow stereotype or fetishize the Chinese. For sure, the first encounters with Chinese characters involved the inscrutable cliché, but I was glad to see that Ms. Novik had other ideas in store. By the end of the novel, we're treated to a China that is complex, multilayered, filled with its own heroes and villains. Not only that, but when it comes to their treatment of dragons, the Chinese are clearly superior to the British, a fact even the nationalistic Laurence begrudgingly admits. The book is peppered with great little details about China, which added to its verisimilitude: Ms. Novik gets the food right, for instance, and the little Mandarin Chinese she throws in sounded correct to me.
Everything I liked about the first novel made a return here. The relationship between Laurence and Temeraire is explored further, and we learn a lot more about Temeraire's origins. There are exciting air battles and one pulse-pounding fight near the end. All that, plus we get to see a lot more naval action and ship life this time around.
This series is quickly turning into one of my not-so-guilty pleasures: smart, lighthearted, fun, fast-paced, and engaging. Looking forward to Black Powder War.(less)
What a perplexing book. On the one hand, I certainly have never read anything quite like it; but then there are tons of aspects of the book that are i...moreWhat a perplexing book. On the one hand, I certainly have never read anything quite like it; but then there are tons of aspects of the book that are irritating and unsatisfying, making the novel fall well short of brilliance.
The novel starts as an Adams-esque science fictional satire, complete with home appliances with snappy personalities. My suspension of disbelief wrestled with the setting for a while, until I accepted that it was satirical and surreal, and thus should not be expected to make much sense. I wouldn't have thought much of this book if that was all there was to it; but I stuck with it because some reviews mentioned that the story went somewhere unexpected. And boy, did it ever.
The second part of the novel starts to build a much-needed sense of gravitas, and takes a turn for the psychological. There are parts of it that qualify as horror, inasmuch as there is plenty of graphical descriptions of bodily fluids; but besides a frightening nightmare chase, not much of the horror elements resonated much with me.
The setting, though, became compelling and exciting. Smith captures the disjointed emotional landscape of dreams with brio. I tend to read in bed, and there were many moments where I had to perform a reality check to make sure the surreal, liquid prose wasn't the result of having fallen asleep and dreaming that I'm reading a book.
Ultimately, though, even the brilliance of this sequence isn't enough to rescue a scattered plot. The prose is sometimes flat, sometimes brilliant, but none of the characters really transcend hard-boiled stock. The novel feels as if Mr. Smith was carrying three book outlines down the stairs, tripped, and picked up the pages again. The story builds to an emotional catharsis near the end, but it does so by dumping background information on the reader in the last twenty-five pages of the novel.
All in all, a perplexing book. Quite unique, but not all for the right reasons.(less)
It took this complex, original fantasy epic to break me out of a long reading funk, but what a remedy it was. This is one of these...moreThat. Was. Awesome.
It took this complex, original fantasy epic to break me out of a long reading funk, but what a remedy it was. This is one of these ultra-rare fantasy novels that builds a completely original world; not a pseudo-Western, pseudo-Medieval fantasy, but something unique that makes you take notice. It took me a solid fifty pages to get my bearings; Bakker throws his readers smack into the thick of things, and the results are frequent paragraphs where it feels as if you're just reading a string of made-up names. But in time, things come into focus, and the heart of the story reveals itself.
The writing is superb, much better than a lot of books in the genre. It's intricate, complex, often surprising. You can't just skip through cliches: this writing commands your attention. It's pretty fantastic, especially in the service of a world that is so alien and different. When dark sorcery rears its head, the prose makes it nightmarish and unforgettable.
The customs of the people of the Three Seas are barely recognizable as analogs of our own. There are hints of the Crusades, sure, and even some philosophy that borders on Buddhism (with a clear reference to Vipassana meditation, cool!), but these are mere inspirations, not instructions. Jnan, for instance, is a concept of caste and proper behavior for which I can find no equivalent in our world; it reminds me of a few similar concepts in East Asia and India, but it's definitely its own thing.
There's an underlying philosophical framework in the novel, but I wouldn't go so far as other reviewers and say these are philosophical books. It's clear that Bakker is a student of philosophy and likes to infuse it in his works, but it never overshadows plot or characters. They're fun, but not so difficult to understand, and they give a heck of a heft to some characters. (For instance, I love what the title of the book refers to. I thought it was some evil being from the past, but it's way cooler than that.)
My only irritation with the book is its treatment of women. Two of the POV characters are women, and both are deluded, dependent on a man, and with greatly reduced agency. They're still great, complex characters who are resourceful in their own ways, but the trend is there. There is some dark sexual aggression going on here, and perhaps I'm giving it a pass because it's written with such an effective air of menace and mood in the service of a killer plot. If the prose came from someone less talented, it might beg the question of what issues Mr. Bakker is working through here.
A dark, complex, well-written fantasy epic filled with convoluted politics, complex and unpredictable characters, and original ideas and ambitions. It reminded me of Dune and Game of Thrones in all the right ways. What more could I ask for? I'm starting on the next in the series right away.(less)
One day a self-published book will come along and convince me that self-publication can produce works that are as good as traditional publishing. Unfo...moreOne day a self-published book will come along and convince me that self-publication can produce works that are as good as traditional publishing. Unfortunately, Wool is not that book.
The first part of the story, which was written as a standalone novella, showed some promise. It was a good, self-contained SF story with a certain golden age SF quality to it, a unique setting, and an intriguing mystery. As successful as this self-published story was, though, I'm not sure its setting warranted to be expanded into a series. The more we learn about Wool's world, the less it makes sense. The world loses its sense of depth, and the cracks in the logic start to appear. How does this society maintain taboos? Who are the priests who allegedly fabricate this fantasy? Why is there a need to lie about anything? Who are the other occupants of the silo besides IT and Mechanical? (view spoiler)[Wouldn't it be easier to just send people out to clean with functional suits, instead of building advanced VR goggles to convince convicts to go wash the damn lenses? (hide spoiler)] The more the story progresses, the greater the questions become.
The story itself rambled and flagged in parts. Large segments of the action seemed to happen to pad the story until the predetermined outcome took place. (view spoiler)[For instance, there was absolutely no need for Juliette to go down under the water in Silo 17, consider she ends up leaving the silo the way she came. (hide spoiler)] Scenes are drawn out in pointless details, such as characters trying to fix a piece of machinery or thinking back on events we have already witnessed.
The writing is workmanlike. It's not terrible, and it's certainly competent, but it never shows signs of texture, nuance, or subtext. Characters speak their mind; they never evade or lie. They speak like modern Americans despite having lived underground for centuries. The aspect that drove me nuts the most is the level of environmental detail in dialogues. If one character is eating during an exchange, we get to read about each bite, how he picked up a piece of this or that, how it was too hot or too cold. It made me dread eating dialogue sequences.
Maybe I'm being too cynical of self-publishing. I'm sure there must be great material out there that's self-published, and I don't mean to knock them all. That being said, I see the above problems as a consequence of the lack of a strong editorial role in self-publishing. Editors of self-published works are on the writer's payroll, and so ultimately defer to their judgment. But what's needed for a stellar novel is for an editor to be tough enough to rein in the writer, and force them to rework something they'd rather not touch. It's the same phenomenon in movies: Star Wars and The Matrix were produced with studios breathing down the directors' necks and forcing them to tweak and improve, whereas The Phantom Menace and the Matrix sequels had no one telling them what needed to be scrapped.
If Wool had fallen in the hands of a competent editor at a respectable publisher, it's possible Mr. Howey would have been told to start again and fix the dramatic structure of his novel. He might have been encouraged to tighten his prose and work on his dialogues. The novel that would have come out of this process would surely have featured the same strong characters and the intriguing post-apocalyptic setting, but it would surely be a leaner, more engaging novel.
I'm being harsh with this book because I really liked the beginning of it, and was sad to see it unravel (no pun intended) as pages went by. I liked Juliette a lot, for instance. She's a strong, capable woman, which is refreshing to see. I liked the mystery behind the cleanings. But I can't shake the feeling that Wool lies somewhere between first draft and finished novel.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
If I taught SF literature in high school, I'd make this book mandatory reading, knowing my students would hate me for it. it's not an easy book by any...moreIf I taught SF literature in high school, I'd make this book mandatory reading, knowing my students would hate me for it. it's not an easy book by any means; its structure is complex and obfuscated on purpose, and its subject matter is uncomfortable and necessary. But really, this is why SF exists in the first place.
The book has been heralded as the quintessential feminist SF, and it saddens me to know that this automatically reduces its reach. It's true that the book is singularly concerned with subjects articulated by feminism, but I think it should be required reading for everyone of either gender. I wish I could go back in time and force fifteen year-old me to read this. And boy, is there a lot of piss and vinegar in this book. Sometimes the anger just radiates off the page. It's a visceral book of raw nerves and flayed skin. It's amazing.
The SF elements are more than merely allegorical. Ms. Russ spent a lot of energy building her woman-only utopia of Whileaway. The result is fascinating in its own right, and not entirely as one-sided as a feminist polemic would imply. Likewise, Alice's dystopia is fascinating SF in its own right, even as it serves as allegory for our world.
The novel, albeit short, is a difficult read, but I don't mean this in a bad way. The author obviously meant to confuse the reader with her narrators, and I quickly learned not to worry too much about figuring out what was going on. The book often swerves into pure polemical flights of fancy, and these packed quite a rhetorical and philosophical punch. It's gut-wrenching stuff for me as a man: a woman speaking directly to me, with no filter on her anger, her hopes, her hatred.
Some reviewers accuse this book of no longer being relevant, to which I can only laugh. We live in an era where female pornstars are conceived by the mainstream as feminist icons, where CNN eulogizes the career of teenage star athletes condemned for rape, and where male lawmakers still try their best to legislate vaginas. There is one aspect where I feel the book is dated, and it has to do with the scope of its feminism; there is no room here for a larger discussion on privilege that encompasses race, for instance. Also, the aspects of the novel dealing with transgenders are downright offensive. But even these elements do not ultimately take away from a powerful, socially relevant book.(less)
The Drowning Girl is the story of Imp, a woman struggling with schizophrenia who tries to exorcise her encounter, or encounters, with a siren, a ghost...moreThe Drowning Girl is the story of Imp, a woman struggling with schizophrenia who tries to exorcise her encounter, or encounters, with a siren, a ghost, a werewolf, or perhaps none of these things.
This synopsis might sound confusing, but it barely scratches the surface of this beautiful confusion of a novel. At times a stream of consciousness narrative, at others a mythological exploration, it often ventures into poetic and mythological flights of fancy, a journey to the heart of a soul in distress.
Imp herself is a magnificent protagonist, at once intelligent and vulnerable, self-aware and trapped in her own mind. One cannot help but feel strongly for her as her life takes a turn for the darker. She is an unreliable narrator through and through, even to herself, and trying to piece together the truth (or should I say, the facts) from her narrative is at once challenging and satisfying. She moves through her ghost story not through links of causality, but through symbols and associations, in the manner of the purest of fairy tales. She skirts around the edges of her pain, sometimes speaking in metaphor, sometimes lying. When the horror creeps into the story, it is that genuine night terror, the feeling of the world dissolving under the power of primordial symbols moving against you in the darkness.
Imp's partner Abalyn shone whenever she was on the page. I cannot, for the life of me, remember reading another transgender character written with such realism and tact. Moreover, neither her gender nor her sexual orientation form the central aspects of her character; they are a complex facet, at the core of her being, but not exclusively so. Abalyn is a geek and a gamer, and it's delightful to read about Imp trying to make sense of her world through her non-geek eyes. Ultimately, Abalyn and Imp are amazing together on the pages for the way their relationship transcend their own pains and failures.
The best books always pull you into their world to the point that it bleeds into real life, coloring your day. The Drowning Girl is definitely one of these books. Hard to piece together and follow sometimes, but unforgettable in its magnetic power to infuse the texture of days with a fairy tale logic of symbols and forces beyond our ken.
Now that's what I call a fantasy adventure! The premise—Napoleonic Wars with dragons—is a bit over the top, but there is enough genuine emotion and ex...moreNow that's what I call a fantasy adventure! The premise—Napoleonic Wars with dragons—is a bit over the top, but there is enough genuine emotion and excitement on display to suspend disbelief without any second thought. I mean; who needs verisimilitude? There's dragons fighting over the Channel!
"It's just some light reading" is a phrase often heard when defending books that lack depth, tight plotting, or engaging characters. His Majesty's Dragon is the proof that a lighthearted tale is no excuse for shoddy writing. Yes, the story of Laurence and Temeraire is a light read: there is no philosophical treatise on the meaning of existence, no innovation in the turn of a phrase. But that doesn't make it "just" a popcorn book. The characters are engaging, and the story is written with enough tenderness and care that it is easy to fall in love with the characters.
What really anchors the story is the relationship between Captain Laurence and his companion of fortune, the dragon Temeraire. It's heartwarming to see them grow closer together, and their friendship is often touching and genuine. Let's call it what it is: an inter-species bromance. Laurence by himself is not that engaging a character; he's a bit stiff-lipped, and always offended by this or that breach of etiquette. But his genuine love for Temeraire, and the way this love ends up affecting other dragons, is really great to read. I couldn't help laughing at the gruff relationship between Maximus and Berkley, for instance, or shed a tear for poor Levitas.
I have a theory that male SF writers tend to focus on external conflicts, with interpersonal relationships playing a supporting role in the dramatic structure of a story, whereas the situation is reversed with women. His Majesty's Dragon supports this assertion: the book is much less about the war with Napoleon, and much more about relationships between the characters, and how the existence of dragons shapes their lives. The majority of the novel concerns itself with the growing relationship between Temeraire and Laurence, and their integration in the Corps. Oh, there is plenty of action, especially in the third act, and it was engaging and original, too. But it's clear that it's the relationships between captains and dragons that Mrs. Novik wanted to write about. It's a great thing, too, because it makes the story engaging in a way that would have been missing if it had only been about aerial combat between giant flying lizards.
All in all, a satisfying read with engaging characters and a unique, well-constructed setting. A lot of thought went into integrating dragons into the context of the Napoleonic Wars, and the result was satisfying. I'll definitely check out the sequel.(less)
Cyborg immortals! Time travel! A ruthless corporation that acquires goods lost to time in order to turn a profit! What exciting concepts to squander a...moreCyborg immortals! Time travel! A ruthless corporation that acquires goods lost to time in order to turn a profit! What exciting concepts to squander away on a boring Elizabethan love story. It's like your five year-old daughter breaking into your collection of Terminator action figures and sitting them down for tea and biscuits with Barbie.
The novel was off to a great start, with a Spanish girl being saved in extremis from the Spanish Inquisition, bent on torturing her for allegedly being a secret Jew. But somehow, over the course of the next chapters, the girl Mendoza went from a poor Spanish girl to a spoiled contemporary teenage brat with a distaste for humanity.
The events after that just bored me to tears. There's a love interest who walks in, and he is tall and speaks a few classical languages, and that's enough for Mendoza to fall in love with him. They speak in Latin and Greek to each other. All the while, the cyborgs act like rejects from a time travel reality show by doing stuff like dropping a glossy time traveler magazine in front of her mortal maid.
It's not that I mind romance per se when it's well-written; this one is just not very engaging. Mendoza is not a sympathetic figure, and her love interest is a stiff religious fanatic. When Mendoza falls in love at first sight, we're not even given a reason why she'd feel that way.
Overall, I felt like I was reading an alternate take on Connie Willis's delightful time-traveling historians, but with much less charm and literary merit. Guess the Company isn't for me.(less)
This book goes nowhere, and takes forever to get there. I quit reading this book when, having read 175 of its rambling storyline, I still had no idea...moreThis book goes nowhere, and takes forever to get there. I quit reading this book when, having read 175 of its rambling storyline, I still had no idea what the book was about. It might be SF, or perhaps it's just a satirical absurdist tale of two men growing up. There are ninjas, though I'm not quite sure. Some other reviews promised mimes later down the line.
Now, that all sounds clever, and you can definitely see that Mr. Harkaway believes in his own cleverness. I wish I did; instead, I found myself thinking that perhaps if he were not the son of a famous writer, some people along the path of his career would have instilled in him some humility. The writing is just so all over the place, and not in an interesting way; I frequently found myself zoning out, only to come back to the page wondering what the hell I was reading about. Segues go on for pages.
I think I wouldn't mind this so much if the characters rang true in any way. They don't. For all his unique, convoluted voice, the protagonist is a cipher, and so is his best friend. I have no clue what drives them forward, what motivates them. They have no personality, only an accumulation of quirky life experiences. For instance, the main character learns some mystical martial art, but there is no indication at all as to why he wanted to do it, and what impact it has on his personality.
I once tried a drink in a bar in Singapore called a Lamborghini. The bartender made it by throwing in a whole bunch of alcohols and mixing them all up. I think there was fire involved, too. The outcome was predictable: while each individual liquor had its own flavor and appeal on its own, thrown in together they just crowded each other into a chaotic, overpowering mess without any distinctive character. This is that drink in book form.(less)
I always feel guilty when I quit a book halfway through, and I don't think I've ever felt guiltier than with this novel. Everything about it sounds li...moreI always feel guilty when I quit a book halfway through, and I don't think I've ever felt guiltier than with this novel. Everything about it sounds like I would absolutely love it. But yet as I made my way through the pages, I found myself dreading my reading sessions more and more, until I just decided it was time to move on.
That's not to say I don't recognize the book's strengths, and there are many. The idea of a futuristic world where China has taken over the United States is brilliant, and it's executed with brio. Ms. McHugh clearly understands Chinese culture and grasps the flavors of language. I've lived for three years in China, and I was thrilled at these aspects.
Also very appealing was the protagonist, Zhang Zhong Shan. He's such a refreshing change from the usual SF tropes: he's of mixed ethnicity, gay, and an everyman in a genre that seems to prefer world-shaking Übermenschen.
So, where did China Mountain Zhang go wrong with me? Two major issues.
First, even though I liked the realistic, toned down nature of the characters, they just felt flat to me. They lack any ambition or spark, and feel colorless and depressing. Zhang himself was no exception. He has nothing to live for, no ambition that drives him. He's flotsam. That sounds like an interesting choice of character on paper, but it just drove me nuts reading it. I found myself growing increasingly annoyed at his flat delivery, his restraint, his lack of emotion.
Second, the plot doesn't go anywhere. It wanders slowly through a world which in its scope is promising, but in its details is dull and colorless. The kite races didn't inspire wonder; there was no adrenaline to them, only some sort of detached description of going through the motions.
All that being said, I can't shake the feeling that this book was great, but I was just not a great enough reader to appreciate it. China Mountain Zhang, it's not you, it's me. I hope you go on to better readers who will show you the love you deserve.(less)
I'm going to pass on this one. Made it to page 100, and still the book totally failed to hold my attention.
I did like the captain, though. Al Shei is...moreI'm going to pass on this one. Made it to page 100, and still the book totally failed to hold my attention.
I did like the captain, though. Al Shei is a practicing Muslim, and she even wears a niqab—and yet she's captain of a starship. How cool is that? The book kept hammering the point that she wore the hijab early on, but it eventually got over it. She's a wonderful character, a totally different captain from the usual slew of alpha males given to captaining starships in SF.
But, well, other than that, the book didn't work for me. I found the very idea of a ship's fool to be ridiculous, for instance, and even though everyone seems to find Dobbs hilarious, I found her jokes stupid and pointless. The other characters lacked the flair and appeal of Al Shei, for sure.
My usual rule with books: if they don't engage me by page 100, they're gone. I stuck with this book until page 160 on the strength of the reviews on G...moreMy usual rule with books: if they don't engage me by page 100, they're gone. I stuck with this book until page 160 on the strength of the reviews on Goodreads, but I shouldn't have bothered.
Oh, it's nice and prosey, but I have no interest in Kvothe, the Übermensch bartender who is so much more than meets the eye. He's supposed to be all mighty and powerful, but I have only been told about this by secondary characters fawning over him; nothing he has said or done has corroborated this. I know next to nothing about Kvothe.
Well; I know one thing: he's a crap storyteller. I'm 160 pages into his life story, and I still don't care. He just drones on and on. For instance, I got to know everything about his parents, even though it was painfully obvious they would (view spoiler)[meet a gruesome demise. (I mean; they're happy, wise, and have sex all the time.) (hide spoiler)] There's barely a notion of an antagonist, and no idea what drives Kvothe himself.
And so, I reached page 160 and it dawned on me that I had 500 more pages to go. And then, this book is but the first third of Kvothe's interminable life story. Ugh. No thanks.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Planesrunner was a light, entertaining read; which is to say, considering it was written by Ian McDonald, it was a bit of a disappointment. It was wel...morePlanesrunner was a light, entertaining read; which is to say, considering it was written by Ian McDonald, it was a bit of a disappointment. It was well-written, beautifully described, and fast-paced, but there was just something missing in the end.
The book started strong when it introduced its protagonist, Everett Singh. McDonald showed how deft he is with multicultural characters and settings when creating his main character: his mixed ethnicity makes him unique without making him exotic, and father's Punjabi background added color and interesting detail. Everett is smart, sensitive, and resourceful. He's a great character to watch, and I'm glad there is room for the likes of him in modern YA fiction.
Likewise, the main concept of the book seemed to promise the impossible: a young adult hard SF story. Ultimately, it's mostly window dressing, but it's fun and solid science fiction that doesn't talk down to kids. The beginning of the story reads almost like a hard SF thriller, and has some great verisimilitude and tension.
Unfortunately, as soon as Everett jumps to another dimension, things take a turn for the baroque. The world is nicely realized, and McDonald's imagination is in full display. I liked the descriptions of clothes, hats, and buildings in this alternate London. The characters, though, suffered greatly from the jump. Oh, they were fun in their way, but they were mostly cartoon characters. None of the secondary characters, from Sharkey the gun-totin', Bible-quotin' American, to brave, infallible Captain Anastasia felt fully realized. They were just cool sketches without a dramatic core.
Sen herself was quite problematic to me. She seems to exist mostly for Everett to pine after. She's visually striking, witty, resourceful, impossibly beautiful, quirky... But you get no sense of who she really is, deep down inside. She felt hollow somehow, with her silly Tarot cards and her Airish dialect. A cool character sketch without a dramatic core.
Ah, but then again, there's airships, and dimension-hopping politics, and treachery and dueling airships. Maybe I'm just too old to fully appreciate YA literature to its just measure. I hate to have to turn my brain off, especially for a book; and all that talk of Heisenberg Gates and parallel universe was firing up my neurons before I was asked to turn them down again. And that's too bad.(less)