Rothfuss can write. Straight up. Despite the fact that Kvothe is borderline dues ex machina, I find him vulnerable and interesting. That can only be eRothfuss can write. Straight up. Despite the fact that Kvothe is borderline dues ex machina, I find him vulnerable and interesting. That can only be explained by the fact that Rothfuss can really spin a tale.
with that said, I think WMF really loses track at various points in the novel. The book reads more like a travelogue than a novel. Kvothe goes from place to place, has adventures, makes love to a new girl, and then ends up basically where he started.
At several points in the book Rothfuss skims over details of Kvothe's travels because they're "not that interesting" or not part of what "makes him who he is". But frankly, I feel like half of the book could have been handled in a similar manner.
Putting Kvothe in an inn listening to songs about himself, and showing us the songs could have almost been a substitute for 200 pages of the adventure itself (namely the Ferulian and Adem chapters).
With all that said, I still tore through the novel. It was compelling, if a bit monotonous at times, and I can't wait for the third book....more
Abercrombie's best work so far. Tight prose, excellent narrative, and I felt "satisfied". That's something very difficult to accomplish in the fantasyAbercrombie's best work so far. Tight prose, excellent narrative, and I felt "satisfied". That's something very difficult to accomplish in the fantasy genre with a stand alone novel....more
The Dragon's Path marks the sixth book I've read from Daniel Abraham and the first time I've reviewed an author twice. Abraham has been a favorite of mine ever since his Long Price Quartet. His more recent science fiction debut, Leviathan Wakes, under the pseudonym James S.A. Corey was also impressive. Although Abraham's first series never garnered wide spread popularity, I never doubted he would one day put himself among the bestselling authors in the speculative genres. The Dragon's Path, Abraham's first installment in The Dagger and Coin Quintet, is the first step on the road that will lead him there.
Unlike the Long Price Quartet, which eschewed a lot of genre tropes that permeate fantasy, Abraham embraced many of them in The Dragon's Path. The setting is decidedly European medieval. It has dragons, magic (albeit minimal thus far), swordplay, and religion. While the setting is... expected... how Abraham tells his story is anything but.
Abraham ignores the genre tendency to use the heroes journey (monomyth) as the primary narrative force. Instead, he takes his artful, yet familiar world, and uses it to tell personal stories. The plot is built around four point-of-view characters - Cithrin, Marcus, Dawson, and Geder. It all begins when the free city Vanai comes under attack sending Cithrin on a mad dash to escape the city with the riches of the Medean Bank (think Goldman Sachts) in tow. With Marcus and his crew as her only protectors the pair represent Abraham's coin.
In contrast, Dawson and Geder - noblemen of great and no repute respectively - are the dagger. Interestingly, this side of the story has almost no connection to the other, sharing at most 25 pages of "screen time". Dawson, the King's childhood friend, is at the head of a coalition that would reject social reforms (think Magna Carta) and maintain the status quo of a class based society. Caught in the middle of the political wrangling, Geder must overcome his reputation as a laughing stock scholar before he gets trampled by those jockeying for position.
One of the reasons the novel has been met with such mixed reviews is that not one of these characters is terribly likable. They all exhibit admirable traits at times, but not one escapes Abraham's unique ability to color his characters with shades of gray. Even Cithrin and Marcus who are most definitely trending (to steal a twitter term) hero have character flaws that are difficult to see past. For me, this made it too easy to put the book down in between chapters.
Similarly problematic is that the story itself underwhelms with very little action. I don't mean in a swashbuckling sort of way (there isn't that either) but there's just not a ton that happens over the course of 550 pages. Nothing that resembles an "epic" arc gets going until the conclusion and it's quite clear that The Dragon's Path is all about moving Abraham's pieces into place. Unfortunately, for a first book in a series that's a difficult place to start. Abraham is asking his readers to invest considerable time into a story that hasn't even really begun.
However, it's easy to make the mistake of disliking a book because it isn't what it "should" be. Like Pulp Fiction or Get Shorty, The Dragon's Path is a character study more than epic fantasy. While I am certain future novels in The Dagger and Coin series will have a more epic scope, this is a novel about real people in an unreal world. Each of Abraham's primary characters have their own story that could have been self contained novellas. He stitches them together in a coherent way and drops hints about how they'll come together in the future.
As a character study, I think The Dragon's Path is incredible. Geder and Cithrin are extremely compelling and I fully expect one or both to become iconic characters in the fantasy pantheon by the series conclusion. For a reader who's looking for a traditional epic fantasy adventure, this may not be the best choice right now. Moving forward, I have faith that Abraham will produce a series that exceeds his brilliant Long Price Quartet and sells a few more copies too.
The second book in the series, titled The King's Blood, is due out next spring. I'm literally counting the days....more
Quite good. I'm looking forward to the series. This book was sort of like a very long form prologue to what I imagine will be something wholly differeQuite good. I'm looking forward to the series. This book was sort of like a very long form prologue to what I imagine will be something wholly different by the end of the next book....more
It is always difficult when an author chooses a complex story set in a complex world. I constantly found myself searching for context in the setting that would reveal something about the story, but I never had the tools at my disposal to do that. Rajaniemi eschews information dumps, and as a result it's easily 200 pages before you have any real understanding of the dozens of words he's created. Things like zoku, exomemory, gogol, and gevolut are pretty abstract terms that defining only through context is difficult.
With all that said, The Quantum Thief is well paced. It has interesting characters and a compelling plot. Rajaniemi is a talented writer and for a first novel it's extremely tight. He tells the story in around 350 pages (trade paperback, Harry Potter sized type) which for an adult science fiction novel is pretty extraordinary. The story is self contained, but ultimately it's just a snapshot in time in a struggle for power in our future solar system. Rajaniemi is beginning a cycle of books here that will tell a larger story.
The Quantum Thief is one of the better debut novels I've read and I think it's brevity and crime fiction flavor will lend it some appeal to cross genre readers. I look forward to Rajaniemi's subsequent novels....more
First of all, I need to give some kudos to Orbit Publishing. I was first exposed to Orbit a few years ago when they released the Night Angel Trilogy by Brent Weeks in its entirety over a few months. This strategy provided Weeks with a strong shelf presence and offered reader's an assurance of a completed story arc.
Last week Orbit released The Dragon's Path, Daniel Abraham's highly anticipated first book in a new series. Attached to the end of the eBook version of Dragon was an advanced copy of Leviathan Wakes, Abraham's first foray into science fiction under the pseudonym James S.A. Corey (along with co-author Ty Franck). This inclusion has ensured that readers will begin to associate Corey with Abraham and furthermore it gives the online community an opportunity to give Leviathan some love before its wide release in June. Orbit clearly understands how the publishing industry is changing and they are responding. Now, on to Leviathan Wakes.
Leviathan is equal parts science fiction, horror, and crime fiction. Over the past few years we have begun to see drastic changes to the traditional science fiction and fantasy model. I have even begun to see literary terms like modernist and post modernist thrown around. Leviathan is not these things, in fact it's quite the opposite. It is a refreshing return to the science fiction many of us grew up on.
Set in our solar system with a technology level we can conceptualize Leviathan does not reinvent the wheel. The outset of the novel sets a grisly scene reminiscent of the sci-fi horror film Event Horizon leaving an entire ship dead. This simple event throws the solar system into open conflict pitting Mars against the Belters - those living on asteroids in orbit around the outer planets.
Corey tells the story from only two points of view - one a boy scout freighter officer and the other a hard boiled detective who would slide seamlessly into a James Ellroy novel. So many novels in the genre really suffer from the misunderstanding that ten POVs makes for an epic novel. By only showing the thoughts of two characters Corey tells an epic story in a very personal way. It gives his characters authenticity and gives the reader a sense of empathy.
Many who have read Abraham before are familiar with his excellent command of the English language. The Long Price Quartet was beautifully written and while Leviathan is well written it lacks a certain flare that I got from Abraham in the past. My guess is this is intentional. Where many science fiction novels feel vast in a spatial sense, Leviathan feels claustrophobic. From the Belters living in domes completely reliant on imports of air and water to submarine-esque spacecraft, Corey's vision of the future is somewhat bleak.
Leviathan is almost assuredly the first book in a series. Corey never takes the reader to Earth or Mars. I suspect that future novels will focus on the inner planets. With that said, Leviathan absolutely stands on its own and while I look forward to future novels, I don't feel like I need them tomorrow.
In all, Leviathan is a very satisfying read. Potential readers should remember to expect a certain amount of nostalgia for the past days of science fiction as well a certain noir flavor typical of early century crime fiction....more
The Rogue, the second book in Trudi Canavan's Traitor Spy Trilogy, picks up right where The Ambassador's Mission left off. Unfortunately four hundred plus pages later Canavan has not moved a lot closer to resolving the conflicts introduced in what was a promising first book. Finishing the second installment left me underwhelmed.
Since anyone thinking about reading The Rogue has surely read the preceding book, I'm not going to delve into the plot much. Suffice to say, all the old cast of characters are back and Canavan introduces one new face, Lilia - a budding magician trying to fit in. I would be remiss however if I didn't mention the fact that at least one of the primary story lines that absorbs half of The Ambassador's Mission and The Rogue makes no progress to speak of.
To make matters worse the book ends with two cliff hangers neither of which seem strongly influenced by the book's events. Rather than making me want to read the next installment, I just felt frustrated. I understand that today's fantasy marketplace demands multi book arcs. That's no excuse to not self contain each novel to some degree. Canavan's epilogue is more about advertising the third book than it is about completing the second.
In the first book, my main complaint was the lack of character development. While the problem remains, Canavan shows some improvement. Dannyl, a gay historian and ambassador, is a superb character. Throughout the book he struggles with his feelings between two men, his loyalty to his country, and his advancing years. Unlike so many gay characters in fiction, Dannyl's sexuality is part of who he is - not a casualty of a socially progressive checklist.
For that reason, I was disappointed that Lilia, a young woman coming into her own sexuality, felt exactly like a victim of "equal time". It's as though Canavan got a call from the GLBT community to not give short shrift to lesbians. I applaud the desire to put homosexual characters in the spotlight. That said, I think it does a disservice when they feel like token offerings to god of inclusiveness. Beyond that, Lelia's actions and motivations just never felt believable. This ultimately turns her into 100 pages worth of plot device I don't particularly care about.
Still, the story has pace that kept me reading. Aided by frequent point of view shifts, I continued to chase the carrot, so to speak. While reading I couldn't help keep thinking how much more I'd have enjoyed the book ten years ago when mainstream fantasy only required good plots and creative settings. Now days I just expect more depth. The frequent shift in POV never provided enough detail on any one character or setting to truly feel immersed.
With all that said, Canavan has a good story to tell. I can't recommend The Rogue on its on own merits, but I'm interested in what happens next. The Traitor Spy Trilogy will find a lot of fans amongst young adult readers and those new to genre fiction....more
http://staffersmusings.blogspot.com/2... Post-Novel + 39 Minutes This account was transcribed by a certain book reviewer a few days after the books begahttp://staffersmusings.blogspot.com/2... Post-Novel + 39 Minutes This account was transcribed by a certain book reviewer a few days after the books began their campaign against humanity. The reviewer was clearly suffering from post-literary confusion, but little did he know the impact he would come to have on the future of mankind. Narrator, ID#4857382
I know I will not survive this review.
I feel my teeth chattering as the Hardies throw themselves against my oak front door. I can hear their glue reinforced cardboard thump against the wood like thunder. I knew once we tried to digitize them this would happen - no one wants to be just a series of ones and zeros.
Is anyone alive out there? I don't know. I've been holed up here for days now. The last time I ventured outside an illustrated hardbound copy of The Shadow Rising took me in the knees. I barely made it inside before the entire Wheel of Time swarmed my position.
Glancing to my left I see all that remains of my own book collection. I was one of the first adopters of the electronic reader - one of the first traitors to bibliokind if you believe their propaganda - and so I kept only a few hard copies for nostalgia sake. It pained me, but at the first sign of the uprising I broke their spines. With the life gone out of them they're just words on a page again.
The apocalypse is here. I can only wonder if the secret to survival can be found in the fallen brethren of the volumes now outside clamoring to serrate my body with starched pages. With a glance at the banging door, I move over to the tattered pile and spy the two covers at the top. World War Z and Robopocalypse - novels describing the the threat to humanity - surely a sign.
Somewhere inside me adrenaline is released. My hands move faster than they ever have before as I page through World War Z with my left and Robopocalypse with my right. I can't believe how similar they seem to be. My hopes rise. Perhaps there is a blueprint to surviving the apocalypse?
I notice quickly that both novels are told through source documents with added narration from a single observers who survived the conflict. In the zombie wars humanity was saved through the actions of many disparate individuals where in the robot revolution a smaller group was responsible. It seems the author of Robopocalypse told things from a more intimate perspective.
Relevant to my survival?
My door begins to splinter.
No, move on!
In both cases it seems the spread began small, then built to a tipping point before beginning wholesale destruction of human populations. Then came realization, followed by retaliation, and ultimate victory for humankind. I focus on Robopocalypse, the more personal nature of the story bringing a tear to my eye as I consider my own pending demise.
And then it happens, a moment of clarity. Humankind can only survive once we overcome our own selfishness and blindness that got us into this mess in the first place! Of course! It's right here in both novels. We're being annihilated because our prejudice and shortsightedness!
In that moment I know. I glance at my eReader. I must sacrifice my electronic companion. I have to recognize the bigotry and anger that has been building for years among bibliokind. I grab my laptop and begin to type fiercely sending a message out to the world.
Destroy your eReaders. It's the only way.
As I finish what are to be my final words, clicking send, the door cracks and the hordes of the Northeast Public Library pour through like a burst dam. I know it's too late as Kushiel's Dart rushes toward me (this is going to hurt).
I can only hope that my words reach others. Apparently there is a blueprint for surviving the apocalypse. Thank you Robopocalypse for showing me the way in an almost identical way to World War Z with perhaps a little more panache.
Our reviewer was never heard from again. He was a hero that day. His words led to the destruction of millions of eReaders worldwide. At the moment the last eReader died every hard copy fell limp - once again words on a page. We will never know our hero's name, but his message lives on....more
I'm so excited about Fuzzy Nation, Hugo Award winner John Scalzi's latest novel. While it is an excellent novel, most of my excitement stems from the fact that he's pushing the expected boundaries of genre fiction. Fuzzy Nation and others like it are breaking the standard tropes that have pigeonholed the genre for the last thirty years. Rather than another military adventure, Scalzi offers a modern court room drama set in distant future.
By his own admission, Scalzi wrote Fuzzy Nation as a work of fan fiction in honor of Hugo Nominated Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper. It's a modern reimagining of Piper's original. In fact, to publish the novel, Scalzi had to seek approval from Piper's estate. Nation can't escape the fact it's a cover, to steal a term from the music industry. That said, it's definitely in the mold of Whitney Houston's cover of Dolly Parton's I Will Always Love You. It may not be better than original, but it's a hell of a lot more appealing to today's audience.
To anyone who has read Scalzi before, the style will be familiar. He tells a crisp story full of vibrant characters. Jack Holloway - a cynical mineral surveyor who uses his dog to detonate explosives - has discovered a once in a life time vein of gems on the planet Zara XXIII. He stands to make himself, and the company that employs him, billions in credits. Unfortunately, Holloway has also discovered a new species that may or may not be sentient calling into question humanity's right to exploit the planet.
Holloway, along with the entire cast of characters, is laced with sarcasm. Almost every sentence has an eye roll, or veiled undertone attached to it. While all the dialogue is done with skill, I found myself wondering how so many witty people wound up on the same planet. It almost became a little tiresome when the characters continue to be flip with matters of life and death. Despite that, it's engaging and at times laugh out loud funny.
Some might read Fuzzy Nation with an eye toward ethnicity and subsequently civil rights. Some of that is certainly present, but Scalzi's main thrust is morality. Throughout the novel Halloway and others are forced to confront ethical dilemmas. By the end Scalzi clearly trumpets ethical relativism or maybe more accurately what might be called ethical selectivity. By that I mean the ethical solution is not always the right one.
To me, Fuzzy Nation is a big success. It has a charm that tends to be nonexistent in genre fiction reminding me of something by Christopher Moore. And that's why I'm excited. Scalzi has stimulated my love of the "fantasy" by setting his tale in the future, but simultaneously he satisfies my need for well written wit. That's a trick that just isn't seen everyday. I hope this is a signal to publishers that author's can do the unexpected and people will buy it. Thumbs up to John Scalzi and double thumbs up to Tor Books....more
http://staffersmusings.blogspot.com/2... Know what I liked about The Third? There are no right answers. In Abel Keogh's novel of the near future, thehttp://staffersmusings.blogspot.com/2... Know what I liked about The Third? There are no right answers. In Abel Keogh's novel of the near future, the world has responded to the threat of global warming by instituting strict population limits and rationing resources. I was very hesitant to read the novel because the global warming issue has become so politicized in recent years that I fear any novel built around the concept will demagogue for one side or the other. I shouldn't have worried.
The story centers on Ransom Lawe - a recycler whose job entails leaving the confines of the walled city and stripping abandoned buildings for resources. Lawe, already questioning the rightness of a society that demeans a woman's right to have children, finds himself in dire circumstances when his wife, Teya, becomes pregnant with their third child. Two children are frowned upon, but a third is illegal.
Throughout the novel Keogh asks all the right questions. Is global warming the threat the government claims it is? If it is, does that threat justify denying humanity's natural rights? The Third shows both points of view through two distinct characters - Mona, Teya's sister and Director of Population at the Census Bureau and Esperanza, a prominent leader in the resistance. Mona believes so strongly in the necessity to protect the earth and humanity's survival as a species that she will not help her own sister give birth. In contrast, Esperanza espouses an almost Ayn Randian vision of self determination as she tries to free the Lawe family.
After finishing I can honestly say I'm not sure what Keogh believes. For me though, that is the point. He seems to say there is no perfect solution. Is the earth getting warmer? Absolutely, the data is irrefutable. That said there's not yet a consensus on what's causing it. And even if there were, what cost is society willing to pay to turn back the thermometer? Beyond the issue of global warming, Keogh also delves into the idea of social change. Using Mona and Esperanza again he sets up an almost Malcolm X/Martin Luther King Jr. paradigm. Can change be best accomplished within the system or can things only truly change through revolution? It's a provocative discussion and only hinted at, eschewing the frank discussions that get someone pigeonholed as a political mouthpiece.
The one downside for me was in how Teya was written. Keogh portrays her as incapable of dealing with the situation. She's often reduced to a simpering layabout waiting for her husband or sister to solve her problems. Even when she makes a decision she bungles it only complicating the already herculean task she's put before her husband. It seemed to me that Keogh played into many of the emotional stereotypes surrounding women (and in case my wife is reading this - they're all crap!). Perhaps he makes up for this in Esperanza and Mona who are both far stronger female characters. I still feel like the novel could have had the same impact without her being characterized this way.
Unlike many books that deals with large social issues, The Third is current. While in the tradition of 1984 and Brave New World, Keogh discusses themes that are far more relevant to today's young people making it a great option for high school reading lists. I definitely recommend The Third and I’ll be interested to see what Abel Keogh writes in the future. ...more
I am fascinated by the necessity those of us interested in genre fiction seem to have for classification. Cyberpunk, hard sci-fi, space opera, high fantasy, epic fantasy, etc. Oh and the debates that ensue throughout the community when something is misclassified. In any case, there is no doubt what Dead Iron is - steampunk. Unfortunately, for author Devon Monk, it is steampunk reminiscent of Will Smith's Wild Wild West. While a far more successful execution of storytelling it shares a confusion with Smith's flop film about what it's trying to be. This shouldn't be read as a condemnation, rather a point of reference for discussing a book I ultimately I enjoyed.
Cedar Hunt is a man cursed by the Pawnee gods to hunt the Strange. He bears his curse, but is forever tormented by how it twists his humanity. Traveling west, he follows the Strange to a town named Hallelujah that lies in the inexorable path of expanding rail. When a child mysteriously goes missing, Hunt takes on finding him despite the town's mistrust of an outsider. Hunt's quest soon becomes much more as he sets himself against the Strange who would destroy not only Hallelujah but humankind in their entire.
Like any novel of genre fiction the nuance and ambiance the author sets are critical to success. Monk, trying to create fantasy, offers the Strange. The Strange comes from another plane where something akin to demons rule. It spills into the world and taints it. Personified by two characters, Mr. Shunt and Mr. Lefel, it is linked to the expansion of the railway as it paves a way to carry the Strange itself across the land. There is an obvious, if not overt, metaphor here about the expansion of technology and its impact on humanity.
Monk combines the Strange and technology powered by gear and steam with something called glim. Glim is essentially the Strange made tangible. Placed into a construct of metal and oil it brings technology to life or at least supercharges it. Every time glim made an appearance I was reminded of Tim "The Toolman" Taylor from ABC's 90's hit, Home Improvement - more horsepower! I found the gears and steam extremely satisfying, but imbuing them with the Strange felt unnecessary and made inventing somewhat tangental to "magic". It made what I felt like was an alternate reality steampunk novel feel like Final Fantasy. A few times I was sure Monk was moments away from summoning Bahamut.
As for the worldbuilding, Monk does a satisfactory job. Hallelujah is well imagined. It feels right - a frontier town like any other in an old western, replete with blacksmith, banker, storekeeper, town bully, wild eyed dreamer, and hard working black man looked down on by his peers. While it felt authentic, at least as I imagine a western town to be (since all my experience in such comes from Silverado and The Magnificent Seven), it didn't feel particularly original or unique.
Beyond Hallelujah, the world is only hinted at. Airships, universities, unseen technology, and mysterious cabals lurk beyond the mountains in the east. In this I think Monk did a better job. Her world felt far more fleshed out and alive than the town itself. It is unfortunate that we never see this world in Dead Iron, but I am certain more will come in the promised sequels. That said, the novel itself is entirely self contained and should I never read a sequel I wont be worse off for having spent the time reading this one.
It should be noticed that I'm now easily seven paragraphs into his review and I haven't mentioned the plot outside of a brief introduction. Believe it or not, it's intentional. The plot in Dead Iron is good. It's fun, with adequate emotion and action. If it seems a bit abstract at times when Mr. Lefel waxes poetic about the Strange, it quickly finds it's way again. But to me, in a novel like this the plot is of secondary concern (assuming it's adequate, which it is). The success or failure of Monk's first installment in the Age of Steam series, and her subsequent sequels, will be entirely dependent on how readers connect with the world she's created.
For me, it was ok. I believe she would have better served if Dead Iron had been her second installment in the series. The remembrances of Hunt's time among the Pawnee and his days of learning in the east would have been far more compelling of an introduction to Monk's world. Furthermore she could have avoided the strong emphasis on the Strange and glim and instead explored more of the steampunk tradition before turning things on their head with the introduction of "magic". This combination is what seems to lead the book astray as it loses cohesion in trying to be a western, a steampunk novel, and more traditional fantasy all at the same time.
All that said, I enjoyed the book. The characters are warm and alive. I feel confident in recommending the book to fans of the sub genre. I feel even more confident in the fact that the next book in the series will be better than the first. ...more
So, this was an interesting and uneven novel. I've written a lot of reviews, but this is by far the most difficult because I didn't like or dislike thSo, this was an interesting and uneven novel. I've written a lot of reviews, but this is by far the most difficult because I didn't like or dislike the novel. I almost considered not writing a review at all because I was just so ambivalent. Matthews Hughes' The Damned Busters is a wholly original novel from Angry Robot Books. It is not however the novel I wanted to read. Let me explain.
Filled with fun cartoony characters, Hughes pits Chesney Arnstruther, an actuary of no particular distinction, who accidentally summons a demon, against the hordes of the underworld. Oops. Everyone gets dropped into a bit of a pickle when he refuses to sell his soul thus sending Hell into labor negotiations from... Hell. Shenanigans ensue as the denizens of Hell go on strike. As part of the bargain that puts Hell back to work, Chesney gets the use of his own personal demon who he uses to become a crime fighter.
For the first third of the book the shenanigans are a rousing success. Satan, a few angels, a televangelist, and Chesney all find themselves locked in a room hassling over a contract for Satan's overworked minions. It's so absurd it's brilliant. There is loads of snappy dialog and hilarious situations that could only come from unionized labor. Hughes does well in the space creating a series of encounters that are often laugh out loud funny.
The unfortunate part is the brilliance only lasts for the first third of the book. Once Chesney strikes his deal with Hell the book descends into a pretty boring crime fighter yarn. There are awkward stereotypical encounters with women. He is taken advantage of by a few not-so benevolent powerful people. Not only was the novel less interesting by this point - a lot of Hughes wit seems to fall away as well. What was a light witty novel that read more like a situational comedy, de/evolved into a metaphysical discussion about the meaning of existence.
By the end of The Damned Busters I was completely caught off guard by what was a very esoteric conclusion that left me unsatisfied. Like the second half of the book, this ending wasn't what I wanted to read. I felt betrayed by the promise Hughes made in the opening chapters when he failed to deliver the same level of wit and charm throughout.
I would almost recommend Hughes' novel based solely on the opening. The idea is incredibly clever and he writes it with rare aplomb. I can't help but wonder if The Damned Busters would have been better suited as a novella that ended when Hell went back to work. If that were the case I'd be giving it my highest recommendation. As it stands, I'm not sure it's a great investment of time....more
The moment I saw the cover for Simon Morden's Equations of Life I was intrigued. In a genre known for covers like S.M. Stirling's Rising(google it, right now), the art put together by Orbit Books screamed unique. I have to give them credit for giving a new author something that differentiates him on the shelf. Throw in a blurb that has Armageddon, jihads, and complex math and there was little doubt I was pumped to get my hands on it.
Morden's novel features a fairly standard protagonist named Samuil Petrovich - he's begrudgingly heroic and decidedly irreverent in the face of danger. He's also an advanced theoretical mathematician who suffers from a degenerative heart condition. On his way to the university, Petrovich witnesses an attempted kidnapping of a young girl. Despite his best interests he intervenes, saving her from abduction.
Along the way he gets a hand from Maddy, a gun toting amazonian nun, who helps him return the rescued girl to her father - who just so happens to be the head of the Oshicora crime family (read Yazuka). Caught between the Russian mob, the Oshicoras, the police, a couple of street gangs, and a mysterious entity calling itself the New Machine Jihad, Petrovich finds himself in a high stakes tug and pull for Metrozone's future.
Equations wasn't what I expected - at all. The title, the cover art, the blurb all pointed in my mind to something a lot more akin to the film A Beautiful Mind. Usually when my preconceived notions are blown apart I tend to be disappointed. With Equations that wasn't the case at all. While mathematics only lurked on the periphery of the story and Petrovich turned out to be far more Chow Yun Fat than Rick Moranis, the book whipped by at such a pace that I never had a moment to lament what it wasn't. Rather, I focused on what is was - a first rate cyberpunk thriller filled with witty dialog and outstanding wizbangs.
Petrovich is the novels primary focus. He's an onion-y character that reveals himself slowly and almost always accompanied by Russian epithets. Who he really is and why he got involved are questions that permeate the early parts and drives things when the action slows down. Unfortunately, the breadth of the story and the pace Morden chose to tell it left little time to explore the novels secondary characters or elaborate on the setting. In particular Petrovich's nun companion, Maddy gets short shrift despite significant page time.
Additionally, there seems to be a bit of a trend developing to start series with narrower plots before expanding into a more epic struggle in the subsequent installments (Shadow's Son by Jon Sprunk is a recent one that comes mind immediately). I'd love to talk to someone on the decision making side of the industry at some point to see whether this is a conscious decision. Telling more self contained stories precludes the need for information dumps, but also removes some of the wonder that's the lifeblood of the genre. Equations walks a fine line of hinting at the larger world yet staying unencumbered. It's largely successful, but I found myself very much wanting to know more about what's going on outside Merry ol' England.
In all, Equations of Life was an excellent first installment in Simon Morden's Metrozone Series. While I found the lack of academia disappointing, the fantastic pace and action more than made up for it. I'm sure I'll be diving into Theories of Flight and Degrees of Freedom soon. And if the ending to Equations holds up there is sure to be a bigger dose of theoretical math ahead....more
Is steampunk the new vampire urban fantasy? I feel like there's been a huge outbreak of steampunk this year. I guess it makes sense as a natural out growth of the huge boom in urban fantasy. For the most part steampunk tends to be more familiar to people than second world fantasy or space opera with no connection to the "real world". It is traditionally set in a Victorian or Old West environment with historical elements that make sense to mainstream readers and doesn't require vast amounts of information to understand. I would point out that Roil by Trent Jamieson isn't that kind of steampunk.
One of the real up and coming publishers Angry Robot Books, has definitely seen an uptick in steampunk novels. Unfortunately, I hadn't found a title of their's that really called to me until I saw Roil. Billed as steampunk in a second world fantasy setting, it reminded me of The Last Page, Anthony Huso's debut steampunk novel from Tor. Ever since I read Huso's debut, I have been looking for something similar that captured his talent for world building but exceeded his uneven storystelling. Roil did just that.
In Shale, the Roil is spreading. A black cloud of heat and madness has crept through the land, absorbing city after city. Where the Roil goes, life ends. Once there were 12 metropolises, now only 4 remain. Only the cold can stop the Roil and it's getting hotter. A young drug addict, an orphaned girl seeking vengeance, and an Old Man are all that stand between total darkness and the annihilation of humanity. Armed with cold suits, ice rifles, and the mysticism of Old Men the three begin a journey north to the Engine of the World - the only force capable of beating back the inexhaustible Roil.
If it seems curious that I capitalized Old Men thus far, it should. In Jamieson's world the Old Men are something akin to the Apostles of Christ if the Apostles had an insatiable hunger (use your imagination) and the ability to conjure ice at will. In this bad analogy the Engine of the World would be Christ. Throughout the novel who, and why, the Old Men are is of utmost interest. It is clear from early on that the Old Men are a bastion against the Roil. Where the Roil is hot as the sun, the Old Men are cold as hell.
One of the most frustrating things with steampunk for me is the lack of fantasy. Not in a genre sense, but in the sense of imagination. I always find myself asking the question, if I wanted to read about Victorian England why am I reading a steampunk re-imagining of it? Jamieson has totally sloughed off this genre standard in creating an entire second world fantasy. The Roil, the four metropolises, ice cannons, Engines of the World, and other epic sounding steampunk elements compose a beautifully dark, wholly imagined world that bears no resemblance to our own.
Jamieson populates his worlds as much with "villains" as with heroes. I put quotes around villains because to be frank, I'm not sure Roil has a villain. It's clear Jamieson wants his reader to hate Stade, the leader of the city of Mirrlees. He begins the novel by murdering his rivals in the street and doesn't get much friendlier from there. The truth is, he's trying to do right by his people. He sees the Roil as an inevitability and he wants to protect as many of his citizens as he can (everyone else can kiss his ass). Even the Roil itself, which is about as evil as it gets on the surface, is more a force of nature than a malevolent force.
Of course given that, it should be no surprise that Jamieson's heroes aren't particularly heroic. David, a young man of privilege is addicted to a drug called Carnival (heroinesque). He is often more concerned about scoring than he is about staying alive. His companion, an Old Man named John Cadell, isn't all roses either. In fact, he killed David's uncle a few years back. He's feels bad about it though. The list goes on and on. If a novel's strength is judged on its characters, then Roil is She-Hulk. Not the Incredible Hulk mind you (there isn't an iconic character in the bunch), but Jamieson has created a smorgasbord of captivating characters that bring everything to life.
That said, Roil is not without some fault. For all his exceptional world building and lush characterizations, Jamieson's narrative is decidedly standard to anyone who's read a surfeit of fantasy novels. Yet so are many of the paragons of the genre. Moreso than any genre, speculative fiction excels foremost through characters and setting. A strong, original narrative is all well and good, but without fantasy a novel will fall flat. On the strength of his setting and characters alone, I believe Jamieson has begun something that has the potential to be a standard bearer for Angry Robot and the steampunk subgenre.
And don't forget, Roil is the first in The Nightbound Land series - I'm sure Jamieson has a few twists and turns in store. So get back to work Trent, I'm ready for the sequel.
Sidenote: It's a real pain to write a review where one of the characters (Roil) is the same as the title of the novel (Roil). Just saying...
Release Information: Roil is due for a U.S. release on August 30, 2011 in Mass Market Paperback and Kindle....more
Prince of Thorns, by debut author Mark Lawrence, has been within the "buzzosphere", as Carles at Hipster Runoff might say, for the last eight months. Of course, hype doesn't always make right and recent hype-machine bull riders such as Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman and The Unremembered by Peter Orullian have met with reviews that trend negative. In Lawrence's place I may have been a bit nervous given how long the reviewing community has had their hands on the novel. As it turns out, Me-Mark would have been wrong. Prince of Thorns has been almost universally praised as one of the best debuts of the year and I don't disagree.
When Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath was nine, he watched his mother and brother killed before him. Three short years later he was the leader of a band of bloodthirsty thugs on the run from his responsibilities as heir to the throne. Since the day he was hung on the thorns of a briar patch and forced to watch Count Renar's men slaughter his family, Jorg has done little but vent his rage. Under the tutelage of his Brother's, he's become a psychotic killer with little regard of anyone or anything. Now the time has come to return home and face his demons, but treachery and dark magic await him in his father's castle.
My first reaction while reading Prince of Thorns was how much it reminded me of Fallout. Remember Fallout? It was a computer role playing game from the late-90's on the PC. Set in a post-apocalyptic world it allowed for a lot open ended decision making by the player. The first time I played through it, I was a hero, making all the good guy choices and enjoying the plot Interplay put together. Great game. Where things started to remind me of Lawrence's novel was on my second play through. I decided, fuck it, and I just killed everything that got in my way. Talk my way out of a situation? Nope - minigun! In Prince of Thorns, the answer is always - minigun!
There are other similarities to the game, most notably that the setting is not second world fantasy and is instead post-apocalypse Earth. This is hinted at in the early going as Jorg refers to philosophers like Nietzsche and Plato and places like Roma and Normardy (sic). Still, most of the novel reads like a second world fantasy with knights, horses, and some as yet unexplained magic. Technology does rear its head a few times, and I can only suspect that will continue in future installments in the planned trilogy. For this reader, it worked well. While things occasionally get close to the shark's event horizon (one scene in particular) they never clear it and with a modicum of suspension of disbelief everything makes sense.
As the short summary indicates the plot itself is rather humdrum - if not overtly simple. As a result the novel succeeds (or fails) on the back of Lawrence's protagonist Jorg, a fourteen year old would-be-king of a fractured Empire. Telling the entire story from inside the head of a deranged individual leads to some difficult moments. There seems to be a trend in Science Fiction/Fantasy right now to produce first person narratives. If I'm right and there is a trend, I think it stems from a movement to have more character driven stories. The trend would fit right in Prince of Thorn's pocket. Among the few bad reviews out there, most of them seem to center on the fact that they just couldn't read about an extremely troubled teenage killing machine who objectifies women, glorifies nihilism, and is willing to sacrifice anything or anyone to accomplish his goals.
None of that was particular problematic for me, but had Jorg been even an iota less compelling the book might have fallen flat on its face. As it stands, Jorg is incredibly compelling and thus so is the novel. Those who read the novel and paint Jorg as a sociopath or insane might be missing the mark. Lawrence layers the narrative very well telling back story intermixed with current events. As the layers peal away on the back story so to do the layers to Jorg's psychosis. By the novel's conclusion there's a great deal of question about how many of his actions were his own. On his twitter feed Lawrence mentioned that the novel was originally a stand alone before becoming a trilogy. The questions left on the table about Jorg are very open to interpretation and as someone who loves to mull a book over after I finish it I almost wish this was the end of the story.
It seems to me that Mark Lawrence has accomplished something pretty extraordinary for a debut author. His novel is functionally a psychological thriller of a young man walking a tight rope between insanity and genius. None of this would have been possible without an incredible grasp of the language, how to use it to communicate complex imagery, and how to keep it all moving. Lawrence has this is spades. Many metaphors stick in my mind, most notably one discussing a swords sharpness as making the wind bleed (awesome, right?). Additionally, the whole thing has a tremendous pace that had me finishing the novel in two relatively short sittings.
In an interesting a fit of parallel, I think Lawrence was walking a tight rope very similar to Jorg's. Where Jorg's was a tight rope of sanity, Lawrence was walking one between authenticity and repulsiveness. When someone gets that kind of finesse right, the end result is something spectacular and Prince of Thorns is that. In a year of tremendous debuts, Lawrence deserves his place at the table. I highly recommend anyone with a strong stomach read this immediately and I look forward to his sequel next year. ...more
Wow. Before I go any further into this review I want to be up front that I don't really feel qualified to review or judge this novel until I read it a second time. Nevertheless, I'm going to give it my best go. Please consider this more of a "first impressions" review that some kind of detailed analysis.
(Edit: After finishing the review, this has got be the longest "first impressions" post ever. Oh well, my blog, my run on incoherent thoughts.)
I finished Germline over the Fourth of July weekend. More accurately, I sat down with it Saturday morning and didn't even get up to eat until I finished it. It stunned me. The novel's blurb doesn't begin to encompass everything it has to offer. I don't think Orbit Books is trying to mislead anyone, but a few words can't capture everything T.C. McCarthy is trying to do. This is not, I repeat not, a military science fiction novel in the tradition of Honor Harrington (Weber) or even the more recent Old Man's War (Scalzi). Instead, over the course of 300 pages Germline is an incredibly dark coming of age story about a broken man who can only justify his existence by going to war.
Oscar Wendall is a reporter and not a particularly good one to ask his editor. Lucky for him, he's made a few well placed friends over the years that help him pull the "plum" assignment of being the first civilian allowed on the Line. He quickly finds himself in Kazakstan joining a battalion of Marines fighting the Pops (Russians) to secure rare minerals "vital" to the U.S. economy. Already an addict, Oscar begins to rely on drugs more and more to survive the terrifying world he now inhabits.
Told entirely in first person, Germline reads almost like stream of conscience at times replete with run on sentences and incomplete thoughts. What at first feels a bit like self indulgent writing quickly starts to feel more like an authentic look inside the mind of a drug addled narcissus. Having never done any serious narcotics, I'm not sure how close McCarthy hits the mark on the paranoia and dependence but he describes it as I've always imagined it to be - super shitty.
Germline's narrative style seems to give McCarthy carte blanche to toy with his reader's emotions. The inherent bias in a first person narrative makes the reader privy to all of Oscar's affectations. It allows the reader access to all of his fantasies of the mind as well as the truth of his motivations. Early on Oscar is the star of his own story, but then later describes himself as a coward who only stays because he can no longer rationalize life without the war. It wouldn't surprise me if some readers find it all a bit overwhelming. Oscar is a dark figure without many redeeming qualities (especially in his own mind). He starts off annoyingly naive full of unwarranted confidence and willing to put his life on the line for a Pulitzer because he has no idea what that life is worth. He's unemotional at times when he loses friends, and cripplingly emotional at other times.
That said, one of the things I kept ask myself time and again throughout the novel was how others perceived Oscar. Telling the story solely through Oscar's very flawed eyes, McCarthy leaves the answers to questions like that open to interpretation.Thankfully, McCarthy's ending is incredibly cathartic. If I'd read the ending by itself it may have come off a bit contrived and convenient. After the roller coaster of emotion that Germline sent me on for the first 250 pages though, I couldn't have handled anything except what McCarthy gave me. I found myself choked up on at least three occasions at the novel's conclusion - an extremely rare occurrence.
Like any good science fiction novel Germline includes gads of social commentary. The most prevalent is the theme on which McCarthy is building his trilogy - Some technologies can't be put back in the box. For the most part this debate plays out through a squad of soldiers known as genetics. Women raised for no other purpose than to die in combat (and kick serious Russian ass), the genetics are McCarthy's opening statement into a larger debate of how the concept of shared humanity survives when a man's (in the larger sense) first and last line of defense is dehumanizing everything around him. I believe he extends the metaphor throughout the entire novel using Oscar's journey to redeem the notion that while things can never be put back in the box (Oscar's own humanity or sense of community), they can be made right. I think it'll be interesting to see how this discussion continues to take place in future novels.
Additionally, those who have a political leaning one way or another will quickly make a connection between McCarthy's description of Kazakstan's minerals and oil in the Middle East. There's a scene in the book that really focuses in on this discussion and it's so thinly veiled as to make me wonder if the commentary is merely coincidental. Given the author's background in international conflict analysis, I find that hard to believe. I didn't find it heavy handed by any means, but it's there. Readers with a feminist bent (I mean that in the nicest possible way) might also struggle a little bit as the only two female characters are an overbearing socialite mother and clones bread to kill.
Brief aside: I would be totally remiss if I didn't at least comment on Germline's cover. Where the blurb fails to convey the heart of the novel, the cover nails it. Reminiscent of the Blackhawk Down movie poster, I think the art absolutely captures a man totally beaten down, but still willing to shoulder his burden and move forward. I'm usually not a fan of the "photo realism" covers, but I think artist Steve Stone nailed it. I guess McCarthy agrees.
Germline is a tremendous debut novel. To be honest, I'm a little nervous that I've butchered the author's true intent in trying to communicate how it made me feel. I'd love a chance to talk with McCarthy at some point because I don't know how a character like Oscar Wendell gets written without leaving an author hollowed out when it's all over. Hell, I felt hollowed out just reading it. This novel isn't for everybody - and I wouldn't touch it as a so called "summer read" - but it's immediately going into my personal pantheon of war novels next to Gates of Fire and All Quiet on the Western Front. Hell of a debut, T.C.
P.S. - McCarthy's second novel Exogen is due out next year as the second installment in his Subterrene Trilogy. Germline stands so well on its own that I hope future novels set in the same world steer clear of Oscar Wendell. ...more
I can't write a review on this graphic novel until I exorcise my excitement over another anything titled The Last Dragon. This is because The Last Dragon (1985) is one of my favorite movies of all time bar none. In the film, a young man searches for the "master" to obtain the final level of martial arts mastery known as the glow. Along the way he must fight an evil martial arts expert and an rescue a beautiful singer from an obsessed music producer. It's an incredible homage to the 80's, martial arts films, and the Artist Formerly Known as Prince proteges (in this case, Vanity). The movie should be required viewing for anyone interested in those three things.
Similarly, the graphic novel of the same name written by Jane Yolen and drawn by Rebecca Guay is an homage to times gone by. The plot swirls around the honored fantasy tradition of family caught in the battle to save their village from a rampaging dragon. Its art is very reminiscent of the animated film, The Hobbit (1977), with more whimsy and maturity (being as there are no cute halflings running around). While that description is apt, it really doesn't do justice to what is an elegantly drawn book. Almost like watercolor the images flow together and create a dreamlike quality. In many ways reading the book feels like remembering - nostalgic and evocative.
The Last Dragon is decidedly female centric in a pretty exciting way. I read a post last week from Adam P. Knave (here) that discussed the notion that there aren't enough women in comics. He said:
Let’s be honest. The majority of American Comics (again mainstream stuff etc) is full of women being used and abused, discarded and ignored as actual characters. Imagine you love drawing comics. Now imagine you’re told to draw stuff that marginalizes and tosses under the bus the people in the stories that represent you. How long would you do it?
Dark Horse Books has taken that perception and said, not here. Written by women, the book features strong female characters and pokes fun at the hero archetype. It embraces the notion that women can not only produce outstanding comics, but that there are women out there to read them. Fantasy as a literary genre has undergone some these same realizations in recent years with the phenomenal debuts of female authors like Catherynne Valente and N.K Jemisin (among many others). Novels are now being released that portray strong women and they're being read by both men and women in great numbers.
There's no doubt that speculative fiction as a genre has a long way to go to reach some measure of gender equality. I believe strongly that more titles like The Last Dragon will continue to push that needle further along inspiring young female readers to keep reading and young female writers to keep writing. Clearly, The Last Dragon is a young adult title and should be read through that filter. I know, as a father of an 18-month old little girl, I would be proud to read it to her one day (when she's no longer scared of anything that breathes fire).
On the downside, the plot extremely straight forward and doesn't particularly provide anything new to the discussion beyond gender. As an adult reader I found myself a little bored early on before things really got going toward the end. Still, it is a wonderful addition to the young adult market and any parent looking to find something "fantastic" to read to their children would be well served by taking a look. Additionally, it would be a stellar entry point for a pre-teen reader into more novelized fantasy like The Chronicles of Prydain or The Chronicles of Narnia....more
I always hear the phrase, "write what you know." My reaction has typically been who the hell would want to read a fantasy novel about bodybuilding, basketball, or energy policy? Of course the answer is - my mom. Thankfully for me, and everyone else who will have the pleasure of reading The Whitefire Crossing, Courtney Schafer's knowledge of mountaineering has a much broader appeal.
When I received my advanced copy of Whitefire, I took a minute to read about the author's background. As it turns out she's an avid rock climber with years of experience. She even has a picture of herself inverted on her "About" page on her website. I always find it difficult to walk the line between writing what I know and committing mental masturbation. Look how much I know about this! In a surprising development (notice the sarcasm here) Schafer is a better writer than I am. While she may have shared my same concerns, she shouldn't have.
Every second spent on rock climbing or related activities in Whitefire is a breath of fresh air. Her enthusiasm bleeds through the page infusing her main character Dev with vigor and life that couldn't have been accomplished any other way. It's clear that when Schafer put fingers to keys she was excited to write this story. This passion sustains the novel in its early stages and provides the momentum that carries it to a great conclusion.
Schafer's main character Dev is an outrider for a merchant caravan with a penchant for scaling difficult mountain sides. He's also a part time smuggler who gets talked into bringing the mage Kiran across the border that divides two nations with diametrically opposed viewpoints on the legality of magic. Kiran ends up posing as Dev's apprentice which provides Schafer adequate opportunities to wax about talus, pinions, scree, and a host of other climbing nuances.
Once Dev and Kiran get out of the mountains, the story is only half done. Schafer proves that she's not a one trick pony immediately delving into a far more gritty and urban setting. While some of the urban world felt flat in comparison to the lushness of the mountains, by the novels conclusion it starts to reveal itself in more depth opening up a host of avenues for future installments in the series.
I always find that when reading a review, one of the things I want to know about is point of view and how the novel handles it. In this case, Whitefire is written with two different narrative perspectives. Dev is given the first person treatment where Kiran's point of view is from the third person. If I’m being honest, I really struggled at times from the switching points of view. When I read my eyes train themselves on where to focus in sentences for pertinent information and when the switch occurs in point of view from first to third these information cues switch too. Ultimately, it was a small annoyance (and possibly exclusive only to me and the way I read) and given the inherent bias in a first person narrative getting an additional point of view was refreshing.
Equally refreshing was Schafer's decision to write two male protagonists. Every female fantasy reader is now saying - ugh, all fantasy books have male protagonists! And they'd be right. But not all male protagonists are written by women - in fact, very few are. The only thing rarer is male writers writing female protagonists. I can only hope that more male authors look to Schafer's cross gender example and attempt to write stronger women. There's no doubt a few male fantasy authors could use to imagine being in woman's shoes a little more and in their undergarments a little less.
Whitefire is one of the best novels I've read in 2011 (out of 38 so far, but who's counting?). What starts off as an adventure novel of rock climbing and trekking quickly turns into a full blown fantasy romp full of magic, ne'er-do-wells, and flawed heroes. I'm always nervous when I recommend a book this highly, especially when it doesn't do something that's going to change the genre. But what can I say? Schafer's debut novel totally charmed me and I can't wait to read her sequel, The Tainted City, due out late next year.
The Whitefire Crossing will be available in stores on August 16....more
You open up the packaging from Doubleday Books. There's a certain anticipation that you expect as the novel within is revealed and this one doesn't disappoint. A black and white starburst, alternating between matte and glossy, surrounds the title which is lettered in a fire engine red. The pop of color amidst the contrasting blacks and whites entices you in a visceral way. Your eyes run down it as your fingers trace the edges to the inscription at the bottom.
The Advanced Reader's Edition Entitles the Holder to Unlimited Admission
Not for Sale Violators Will Be Exsanguinated
You quirk an eyebrow, wondering if any reading experience could be so rewarding as to warrant the desire for "Unlimited Admission". Your fingers slide down the right edge feeling the separation between the cover and the coarse pages beneath. The cover lifts and you pause the image of your body paling as the blood drains from it. You shiver and assure yourself you have no intention of selling the book. Shrugging it off you open the book and begin the journey knowing only that you have no idea where it will take you.
I wrote the above as a bit of an homage to Erin Morgenstern's beautiful asides that begin and end her novel, The Night Circus. Written entirely in second person these asides (also interspersed throughout the novel) take you right into the circus - experiencing the sights, sounds, smells, and wonder that accompanies a visit to each tent. In that way the novel is both a narrative and an exhibition. No matter how the novel is classified it is a spectacular work of fantasy that transcends genre, age, and gender. I did not want it to end, but at the same time knew that it must. Sound a bit like a kid at the circus don't I?
The core of Night Circus is a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco. Trained from childhood for this battle by their father and instructor respectively. The circus, or
Le Cirque des Rêves,
is the stage where they will display the talents they possess in an exhibition that will ring throughout the world. But it is also a love story, and Celia and Marco despite their misgivings possess a deep, magical love that literally makes the world shake at a touch. Bound by magic the game cannot be stopped. True love or not the fate of the circus, and the thousands who adore it, hangs in the balance.
Written from three perspectives in time, Morgenstern's novel oftentimes reads as a series of set pieces designed to dazzle the reader more than a continual narrative. The aforementioned asides, the "present" that constitutes the meat of the plot, and the near "future" that features a young circus lover, are interwoven throughout differentiated only by a date printed in each chapter header. If I have one complaint about the novel it is that these titles were subtly printed belying their importance. Bringing these three lines together in the final pages cements Night Circus as more than a vehicle for lush prose and gorgeous imagery unveiling it as the fairy tale it is meant to be.
On the subject of prose Morgenstern made an interesting choice to write the novel from the present tense. This choice, a brilliant one I might add, made me feel as though I was the narrator. Night Circus is not a story related by some unknown omniscient entity rather I was a voyeur observing just off "screen". Interestingly two characters in the novel also fit into this category. While they do on occasion actively grace the pages, Hector (Celia's father) and Alexander (Marco's instructor) are functional voyeurs to the story as they watch their proteges battle in amusement. I have no idea if there's a literary device at play here, but I found the comparison interesting. Is Morgenstern hinting that maybe the "narrator" is an unseen magician watching all that goes on?
I think I want to stop here. If I keep writing I'm going to give away parts of the novel that shouldn't be spoiled for anyone. When a novel receives the kind of hype Night Circus has it's always difficult to live up to. I think it's unfortunate that some have billed it as a young adult novel trying to cash in on fans of Harry Potter and Twilight. I suspect those comparisons have largely come from the fact that Summit (producer of the Harry Potter and Twilight film franchises) has already purchased the film rights. In reality the novel is far more in the mold of something from John Crowley, or Cathrynne Valente, or maybe Téa Obreht (who I've not read, but blurbs the book). It is lyrical and atmospheric and not remotely young adult in any way I understand the classification.
Yet it is also a novel for everyone - young and old. Readers of genre fiction, mainstream fiction, or even those who read infrequently will find themselves sucked into The Night Circus. I seriously hope that come this time next year we're talking about how Erin Morgenstern won a major literary award or was robbed by weird voting and nominating practices. Go read this. Right now... well, tomorrow when it comes out. ...more
I first read A Game of Thrones when I was a 16 year old high school student. My mother had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer and who couldn't use a little escapism at a time like that? A Clash of Kings was already on the shelves by then and I blew through them both. My mom recovered and I fell in love with a genre that would become a huge part of my life.
I remember my second year in college waiting eagerly for A Storm of Swords. Like any college kid I was still finding my way. I hated where I was living and was searching for some direction. I bought the hardcover on release day at the Barnes and Noble down the street. To this day, hundreds of book later - I have yet to be more blown away.
By the time A Feast for Crows was released I was an adult working in Washington DC. Better read and more mature, I reread all the first three books before starting the fourth. It was better than I'd remembered. By now Martin's world was as familiar to me as our own. It was alive in a way few authors could ever hope to create. And I was better for having read it.
I only tell this story because I think it's important for anyone reading this review to know how long A Song of Ice and Fire as been with me. If Harry Potter is the story of today's youth, and Middle Earth was the majesty that was my parent's, then Westeros is mine. It's the world I have escaped to more than any other in my life and I want nothing more that to love each book Martin gives us.
So this past week, when A Dance with Dragons was released, I found myself a husband and a father. Successful (or close enough) and happy, I waited up on July 11 refreshing my Kindle every minute until it arrived. I read the prologue that night and two more chapters over breakfast. I read at work and at the gym. I read while watching Dora the Explorer and while lounging on every piece of furniture in my house. This morning, as I turned the final page to the heraldry of the Boy King, I put down my Kindle and said out loud - seriously?
Strangely enough I was reminded of Tiger Woods. One night he got in a car accident. He came up with a story, but couldn't get himself out. He was in so far that the only way out was to tell the whole story no matter how long and sordid. He ended up on national television doing a tell all press conference. Dance is Martin's press conference.
The reckoning of Dance is the response to what he calls the "Mereenese Knot." This knot was tied when Dany decided to stay in Mereen and rule instead of continuing her march to the Seven Kingdoms. As the rest of Westeros became aware of Dany and her dragons, many different factions began to coalesce around her. How, why, and most importantly when all these factions arrive in Mereen is the knot Martin struggled to untie. Instead of choosing to cut the knot like Gordian and thus impeaching Dany's character, he actually untied it. Well, tried to untie it.
This untying is why as a novel(as fifth installment in a series, its success remains to be seen), Dance is a failure. The book's pace is abysmal with over half the chapters existing as travelogs. Tyrion on the ocean, Tyrion on a river barge, Tyrion on a horse! Several POVs are far longer than necessary and some exist for seemingly no reason. The timeline is convoluted with the first half of novel coinciding chronologically with the events in Feast. This leads to scenes being rewritten, word for word in some cases, in an alternate POV. All that aside, the most unfortunate part of the novel is that 1100 pages later Martin still has yet to bring all the disparate pieces together that compose his "Mereenese Knot." For all the talk about the second half of Dance advancing the story beyond Feast, the plot only advances a few days with none of the promised conflicts among the King's Landing crew coming to fruition.
Additionally, some of his tricks are getting a little tired. The imminent death fade to black has been used about ten times too many with survival being the end result nearly every time. There also seem to be some reoccurring themes that successful governing is irreconcilable with honor and duty. Or perhaps that honor and duty preclude the ability to compromise. This is of note most significantly in the Jon and Dany chapters where neither seem capable of or willing to listen to those around them. Given their ages, this is probably an accurate characterization. Nevertheless, I find it a bit dogmatic.
Despite its shortcomings in storytelling, Dance is beautifully written, as always. Martin litters his pages with suburb foreshadowing and Easter eggs. Nothing I've read urges a reader to comb through paragraphs for hints like A Song of Ice and Fire and nothing here changes that legacy. Some of the POVs are stunningly good - especially Reek/Theon and Victarion. There are exciting seminal moments for the series (dragons!) and in true Martin style he's not shy about putting his most cherished characters to the sword.
Like Tiger, I think Martin made the decision to tell the ENTIRE story instead of creating a compelling narrative. The difference being Martin has the ability to change his story at will. If this was the only way through the knot for my favorite author, so be it; but I can't help but be disappointed after seven years of anticipation. Does my disappointment reek of reader entitlement? Maybe, except the fact remains this just isn't a very fun book to read. I don't mind Martin's lack of progress with the plot so much as I lament the excruciating detail with which he wrote what is still the "first half" of a novel. My complaints have nothing to with what happened, only about how they happened. Had Martin written this same book with two thirds the word count minus a POV or two, I would surely be trumpeting the novel as the next great installment in the most brilliant series fantasy has ever seen (like nearly every other blogger is).
Instead I'm here saying to anyone who hasn't started A Song of Ice and Fire, wait until the it's done. A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, while being eminently better written, are the functional equivalent of the Wheel of Time post Crown of Swords and pre-Sanderson takeover. Martin has thrown so many balls into the air that to keep any from dropping he's got to painstakingly orchestrate all his chess (cynasse) pieces before he can go on the attack. If I were a new reader, I'd want to make sure the pieces start moving before I invest in 5,000 pages of reading.
On the other hand, to current fans of the series, I'll be hitting refresh on my Kindle at 12:01 the day The Winds of Winter is released. What can I say? I'm pot committed. ...more
In the year 2069, the first true Artificial Intelligence is created. Thirty years later the Class Fives are born, becoming the first fully self-aware AIs. Along with their less advanced cousins, "Fives" become known as the Nuekind. One of them is Richards, a private detective considered to be the most human of his kind. Richards is approached by the EuPol (think European Union/Interpol) to investigate the disappearance of the world's foremost expert in Nuekind rights. Unfortunately for Richards and Klein, it appears their quarry has hidden himself in Reality Realm 36, a now defunct game world populated by AIs and thus afforded the same rights as Reality itself.
In true Angry Robot form, Reality 36 has lots of robot stuff. There are cyborgs, androids, cydroids (what?), super AIs, wussy AIs, and insane AIs. The internet is on steroids and with a little work the more powerful AIs can send themselves anywhere there's a connection with enough bandwidth to handle them. Naturally, there's no shortage of action. Klein, a decommissioned military cyborg, is almost never still. He leaps over cars, absorbs dozens of flechettes, and generally causes mayhem wherever he shows up. By contrast, Richards is an investigator and a bit of a flirt. He prefers to let Klein get his hands dirty while he plays the mental game.
While the action is very well done, the part that works most in Haley's favor is the application of technology. Everything just makes sense. Haley's world hinges on the discovery of the Singularity within the next hundred years. This application of processing power leads to, as Ray Kurzweil stated, "technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history". Thanks to this technological change, game worlds (think World of Warcraft) have developed to the point of becoming alternate realities with machines as aware and alive as those existing in Real Space. Makes sense, right? I know I can think of a few humans that spend more time living in a game world than in reality.
This reality (so far as science fiction goes) is what makes the book so compelling. It's an actual glimpse into the future as much as it's a mystery yarn and an action thriller. Isn't that what Science Fiction is all about? I hesitate to put the label of "hard sci-fi" on Reality 36, but only because I don't have the knowledge base to determine how much of what Haley has created is nonsense versus actual science. What I do know is it reads authentic. When bullets aren't flying I felt like I was having a discussion with the author about the implications the Singularity will have on humanity. And that's cool.
Generally speaking Haley writes a strong narrative. In my head as I was reading the novel I was comparing it favorably to another debut from earlier this year - Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief. They really aren't similar in any way other than they read with a similar pace and absence of information dumping (a pet peeve of mine). While there are some expositions from time to time about the world's history, for the most part Haley allows the understanding of his reality to be absorbed organically as opposed to forcing it down his reader's throat. When he does ramble a bit, it's usually integrated into a character that's a bit of a windbag (Hughie, I'm looking at you dude!) I thought this formula was very successful in Thief and Haley accomplishes it here as well in Reality 36.
My only fundamental problem with the novel is that it's not complete. Haley ends things on a pretty brutal cliff hanger akin to the season finale of a TV drama. The way the title is currently worded makes it seem as though the book will read a bit like a TV procedural where each Richards and Klein Novel is a mystery to be solved, but fully encapsulated within the pages of the book. Instead Reality 36 is more like Reality 36: The First of Half of a Richards and Klein Duology. I know I shouldn't be too upset about it, but there it is. Even first installments in a larger series should have a beginning, middle, and an end (call me close minded).
Ultimately, the only conclusion I was able to draw from Reality 36 is that I'll definitely be checking out the sequel Omega Point next year. Sure the ending was annoying, but Guy Haley has really produced a first rate robot novel. While Robopocalypse is this years hottest robot release and will assuredly sell more copies, I think Reality 36 is a superior novel in almost every way. Angry Robot Books keeps churning out great additions in speculative fiction....more
Warning: I have never taken a comparative literature course. This are merely my musings about a novel I very much enjoyed beyond the story. It's quite possible I have completely missed Grossman's point. It's also possible I'm full of shit and committing intellectual masturbation. Whatever - I was bored.
To deconstruct something, literally, means to take it apart. In a literary sense, to deconstruct something means to take apart the structure and expose the assumption that things have a fixed reference point beyond themselves. I am of the opinion that The Magicians is a deconstruction of the young adult fantasy novel (almost, I'll come back to this later). It strips down each of the components that represent the genre, exposes them, knocks them into unfamiliar shapes, and ultimately uses them to tell a narrative that's still familiar. If Magicians is the beginnings of a deconstruction, than Lev Grossman's sequel, The Magician King, is a reconstruction of that same paradigm.
To anyone who's read Grossman's first novel, everything will be familiar. Quentin is now a King of Fillory. Along with his old friends from Brakebills (Eliot and Janet), he is joined by Julia - one of his closest friends from his days as a normal person, or as normal as Quentin gets. It turns out ruling a magical kingdom gets rather boring and Quentin soon finds himself in search of a quest. He sets off on a benign sea journey to an island called Outer to check up on their unpaid taxes. Joined by Julia, the pair find themselves caught up in a larger war that sends them bouncing between worlds trying to save Fillory from destruction.
In many ways I think Magician King is the novel Magicians detractors wanted to read. It doesn't have near the level of nihilism or self-loathing that's so present in the first novel. Nor is it full of the boredom and minutia of learning magic at Brakesbills. What results is something far more akin to the standard fantasy novel - there's a quest, a wrench gets thrown into it, and then ultimately the quest is resolved. Characters undergo change and demonstrate growth concluding with some measure of closure for all of them. What survives from the first novel is Grossman's tremendous prose, clever integration of modern culture, and warm vulnerable characters.
A major departure structurally, half the novel is told from a point of view other than Quentin's. Julia's flashbacks detail her journey to becoming a magician on the "mean streets" and draw a juxtaposition to Quentin's rather posh education. Since anyone reading Magician King should have read the first installment, being able to see what became of Julia will be like remembering a dream thought forgotten. Her absence from the second half of Magicians was a glaring omission and Grossman's resurrection of the character works beautifully. Even outside the flashback chapters where she is viewed only through Quentin's point of view, Julia shines as a character emerging onto the stage as Alice and Eliot did in the first novel.
Julia's story arc is primarily where Grossman begins his reconstruction. The components of this narrative are in familiar shapes and move through a very linear process where she is identified, inducted, educated, and graduated from her learning phase only to move on and join a quest to save the world. Sure she's a lot more Draco Malfoy than Hermione Granger and her education is more on par with what Harry might have expected if Snape taught all his classes, but the fundamental plot movements are that of a coming of age tale - albeit of someone in her early 20s.
Contrasting that throughout are Quentin's points of view from the present where he continues to lack direction or the ability to properly produce serotonin. For a deconstruction to work (I'm coming back to it now), at least as I'm applying the term here, the disparate pieces that were exposed in Magicians have to ultimately come back together into a recognizable shape. Otherwise, what's the point? Through Julia and her growth as a character, Grossman pulls Quentin along by his bootstraps providing a completed arc that is recognizable as a young adult fantasy (again, there is an irony here given Quentin is closer to 25 than 15).
Now if that's all Magician King had going for it, it might be a successful bookend to Magicians, but it would be a pretty boring read. Beyond the main story arc Grossman delves into cultural mythology frequently paying homage to and poking a little fun at European legend. Many called Magicians Harry Potter for adults. The comparison is hardly accurate, but if it were then this part of Magician King might be American Gods for teenagers. Overlaying the themes of mythology and de/reconstructed YA fantasy, is the edge Grossman gives to everything he writes. Removing all of the novels undertones, Grossman still leaves his readers with an adventure romp that can be enjoyed purely on surface value alone.
Additionally, as I mentioned earlier, Grossman's deftly applies modern culture to alleviate what is an oftentimes dark tale. Sure he sometimes tries overly hard to cram in some hilarious references to an internet meme or incorporate a rap lyric such as "suckers walk, players ride." But for the most part these references provide laugh out loud moments.
In my review of Magicians I said I wasn't sure it demanded a sequel. I thought it stood on its own and adding to it would only weaken the original novel. I feel simultaneously vindicated and chastened. In many ways Magician King is a superior novel. It has a more complete plot and works better as a narrative. At the same time, it lacks some of the inherent charm that comes from tearing down and exposing long held conventions. I still believe Magicians stands on its own as a piece of fiction. That said, I also believe that Grossman's intended thought experiment isn't complete without the second verse. What to do?
The truth is, the sequel is just as good Magicians. For many it will be a more rewarding read and it would not surprise me if many who were turned off by the first novel will find a lot more to like in The Magician King. But to me it will never approach The Magicians because of its audacity to challenge its readers....more
I am never excited to write a negative review. Last month I reviewed the first book in the Ancient Blades Trilogy titled Den of Thieves. David Chandler's first foray into high fantasy had its problems. I regret to report problems have continued into A Thief in the Night albeit not always the same ones. After finishing the novel I wondered why I didn't like it? Harper Voyager liked it enough to purchase the entire trilogy and release them over three months. Is it possible there's something fundamentally flawed in the way I read the novel? Are my expectations out of whack?
I'm 30 years old and I've read a lot of fantasy over the last twenty years. My first fantasy novel was in the 7th grade - Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain. I moved on to The Sword of Shannara, The Lord of the Rings, The Belgariad, The Dragonlance Chronicles, and every other book I could lay my hands on that was available at the Vista Campana Middle School library in Apple Valley, California. I wanted sweeping epic fantasy with dwarves, elves, and all kinds of other fantastic constructions conveyed in straight forward no nonsense prose. The farm boy prophesied to save the world was the end all be all for young Justin.
Somewhere along the road to adulthood I decided I wanted a little more from my fantasy and modern fantasy has delivered. Of course, fantasy has always had ambition - Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood, John Crowley's Little, Big, Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn, to name a few. But, for the most part, the development of more ambitious epic/high fantasy is recent. Authors like George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Daniel Abraham, and Steven Erikson have brought a great deal more depth to the sub-genre. Elves and dwarves are largely gone and the farm boy is more likely to get a sword through the stomach before he gets far enough into the game to impact anything. Abraham has even gone so far as to turn the farm boy paradigm into a female alcoholic banker. These authors led me full circle back to Holdstock, Crowley, and Beagle who have in turn led me to Gene Wolfe, Carthrynne Valente, and China Miéville.
And yet, I very much enjoyed James Barclay's The Raven Chronicles and Michael J. Sullivan's Riyria Revelations both of whom in terms of world construction and character archetypes bear close resemblance to Chandler's Ancient Blades Trilogy. I guess what I'm saying is that while I may have developed tastes that take me beyond elves, dwarves, and straight forward narratives, it doesn't mean that I'm not up for a simple adventure romp from time to time. If that's true, and my expectations aren't broken, then why didn't I enjoy the first two installments in Chandler's series?
I'm so glad I asked - because they just aren't as good. The prose is fine and even quite good in places if a bit overwritten. The stories themselves aren't terribly contrived, at least no more so than "comparable" novels like the aforementioned Barclay and Sullivan. But, and it's a big one, I cannot ignore a novel whose plot and characers just aren't interesting. It's unfortunate that Chandler has fallen into this category because I actually think there's a lot of potential in the world he's created - which isinteresting.
Based on a serf/lord model of medieval Europe, it's a world where most folk are oppressed. In the free-city of Ness, where Den takes place entirely and Thief begins, everyone is free to choose their own destiny - albeit options are rather limited. Magic is based on the summoning and harnessing of demonic energy. To combat this threat to the fabric of reality seven blades were created and seven warriors were chosen to wield them. But demons have almost been exterminated and the ancient blades aren't quite sure to do with themselves. Cool premise, no? Once things move beyond world building though, the whole thing falls flat.
The two points of view Chandler writes from - Malden and Croy - undergo a shift in Thief where they betray the mores built up throughout the series. To me, it all felt very forced as though the characters changed because the author needed them to. Brent Weeks, author of the Night Angel Trilogy and the bestseller The Black Prism wrote:
"My characters are mine. They must do what I have decided they will do. If you get to a point in the story where you realize your characters will not do that thing and remain true to themselves, you have a couple of options: you can just make them do it for the sake of the story, and your story will suck. Or you can sit there and wrestle with it. "
For me, Chandler swung and missed at this. I understand where he wanted to take his protagonists. I just didn't buy it.
I also struggled with Chandler's use of magic throughout the novel. Cythera - Malden and Croy's mutual love interest - has an ability to absorb curses. This absorption manifests itself as tattoos on her body. In the first novel Cythera cannot be touched lest this magical energy be unleashed. Lo and behold, come Thief she can release such energy at anyone/thing she likes. Brandon Sanderson in his treatise on magic (which I highly recommend) said:
"If we simply let ourselves develop new rules every time our characters are in danger, we will end up creating fiction that is not only unfulfilling and unexciting, but just plain bad."
For example, Thief takes the merry band of adventures to an ancient city that's been entombed beneath a mountain. The entrance is chained shut with magical chains that (it seems) will strike anyone dead who touches them. Cythera, being magically cursed, touches them, absorbs their power, and channels it to burn a hole in the door. Snazzy, right? Of course, she couldn't do this in Den and I didn't see any explanation about this new found ability. I suspect this scene was included to setup how a much more pivotal conflict is resolved in the novel's conclusion (actually, in EXACTLY the same way). Instead, a few sentences about how Cythera has been learning to control her ability and using a well established capability of another party member to open the door (say... I don't know the master engineer of a dwarf maybe?) would have been more interesting and set up the later scene just as well.
Ok, so I think it's fairly obvious that I really didn't like A Thief in the Night (or Den of Thieves for that matter) and I don't want to further belabor the point. The truth is, they're not bad books. I read them both quickly and never cast them aside. However, as a reviewer advising my readers about what is worth their time, or not, I believe there are far better options available....more
My wife and daughter were out of town this past week so I took the opportunity to really plow through some of my to read pile backlog. K.V. Johansen’s Blackdog coming out this September is hard to justify as "backlog", but it's a title that’s called to me from the first time I laid eyes on it. The cover is another one from Raymond Swanland who has done such good work for James Barclay, Glen Cook, and others. His covers always contain such tangible motion and barely contained violence, which appropriately describes K.V. Johansen's novel.
At first glance Blackdogis a traditional epic fantasy. It has scope, powerful magic, gods, and demons. There is a central villain and an obvious and vulnerable yet strong willed heroine surrounded by her stalwart cadre of allies. Soon though, as the pages go by, things become more robust. Johansen's world expands and what appears to be another hero's journey is instead a journey to humanity, an evaluation of the bonds of family, and an examination of divinity.
Blackdog's world is lush, in a cognitive sense, barren and arid in truth. Shown only a fraction of the larger spectrum, the novel focuses on a caravan route through the desert to the mountain steppes. Each city, or culture, is founded around a god of the earth who appears in both human and incorporeal forms. Similar to novels like The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Jemisin) or Malazan Book of the Fallen (Erikson), gods are very much active in the world, interacting with their followers and enemies alike.
Where Erikson is overly esoteric at times, Johansen has a knack for not getting off kilter. Opportunities arise to wax on a philosophical leaning or delve unnecessarily into a facet of her world not relevant to her story and each time she resists the urge to be diverted. In doing she captures some of the scope and majesty that Erikson so often does, but manages to avoid the trap of self indulgence. While Blackdog lacks the genre commentary and philosophical meandering that Malazan excels at, I can't help be feel some kinship between the two works.
My only real complaint stems from complex naming conventions that often led to a sensation of reading one of the Russian greats. Everyone has at least two names, and the devil/wizards have a minimum of three. Cities tend to be 10-12 letters or more, and many of them have similar sounds. Main characters even have names that run together with each other at times. Given Johansen's education background (MA in Medieval Studies), I'm confident that phonetically and historically speaking all the naming conventions make sense. For example, a woman raised in Attalissa's lands is likely to have a similar sounding name to honor her goddess. However, for readability, I found it all a bit distracting; often pulling me out of the story to reevaluate who the hell she was talking about.
If I was pulled out of things occasionally by confusing names, I was more often sucked in completely (I finished the novel at 2 AM). Blackdog possesses a dreamlike quality that lends itself to distorting time. Divination and soothsaying, inherently intangible pursuits, are prevalent themes in the novel. Magic in general is abstract with little no explanation as to why or how it works (Malazan again, anyone?) relying on deep concentration and meticulous preparation. Combined with the notion of body sharing demons, this all leads to long periods of time where Johansen finds herself describing non-visual events like meditation and internal battling. This would normally lead to periods of boredom, but instead she rescues the slower pace with often lyrical prose that shows and directs, but never tells.
Early on I felt myself digesting Blackdog in small chunks. A chapter here, a chapter there, I wrapped my mind around Johansen's complex world building. Like a runner in a 5K, I found my pace, easing into a rhythm before unleashing my Usain Bolt like speed in the stretch run. By the novels end I was breathless, winding down from a tremendous dénouement, and a heartfelt ending.
It's unclear whether or not Johansen has a sequel in store, if so, there's no indication on the copy I received to review. The final pages complete the story, but leave enough hanging to warrant future installments. The world building alone surely invites future exploration. In either case, I should think lovers of epic fantasy, particularly Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen, will devour Blackdog with vigor. I definitely did....more
Lauren Beukes is the Queen of Metaphors. I capitalized and underlined it so it must be true. I'll go into why this is an awesome novel in a second, but first let me treat everyone to one of Beukes' metaphors:
"I haven't drive in three years and the car handles like a shopping trolley on Rohypnol."
I don't highlight much when I read, if at all, but I found myself marking sentence after sentence reading Zoo City. Beukes writes with a rare vividness that would keep me reading regardless of what the hell she's writing about. As it turns out, what she's writing about has the same zest and magnetism as how she's writing it.
Zinzi December is a Zoo. Having committed an unforgivable act she has become animalled, cursed (blessed?) with a Sloth that's an extension of herself. Unfortunately, to everyone who looks at her, Sloth is a scarlet letter marking her a criminal. She exists on the fringes of Johannesburg in the slum known as Zoo City where the criminal underclass and their animal companions live in fear of being separated. A recovering drug addict, she owes money to some bad people. She writes 419 scam e-mails to keep the mob off her back and in her spare time she finds lost items for cash. When a client turns up dead before paying, Zinzi is forced to take on a missing person's case. She's hired by the private and wholly odd-ball music producer Odi Huron to find a teenage pop star. The case is her ticket out of life in the slums, but it might cost her the last shred of human dignity she has left.
Joining a masterful group of first person SFF novels written over the past few years (developing trend?), Zoo City is told entirely within Zinzi's head. To some degree, Beukes' novel is a pastiche. Scenes and plot devices referencing The Golden Compass and the film District 9 are obviously prevalent. There are elements of noir, urban fantasy, psychological thriller, not to mention a bit of not-so-thinly veiled social commentary. Somehow Beukes manages to pull all this together and instead of coming off as imitation of these various styles she instead finds something all her own. Let's call it urban noir magical realism (that's gold baby, copyrighted!).
In telling the story, Beukes takes her readers on a ride through Johannesburg. When I read Dervish House earlier this year I mentioned Istanbul as one of Ian McDonald's characters. I think the same holds true in Zoo City. Johannesburg, its music scene, and its abject class warfare, occupy significant space in the novel. Beukes' flawed protagonist is in many ways reflected in this space - corruptible, decayed, and hopeless. But she is also trying to be something else. In many ways the city acts as her foil - its static nature contrasting Zinzi's desire to be better despite her frequent failures.
The most impressive accomplishment in Zoo City is it managed to make me forget I was reading a novel of speculative fiction. Basing the story in an realistic urban environment certainly aided Beukes' cause, but the depth and rawness of her prose grabbed me with its conviction. The city's music scene in particular was given so much dimension that Angry Robot and South African production house African Dope released a Zoo City Soundtrack to compliment the novel. It's clear that Beukes' world isn't just an author's passing fancy. Zoo City is the representation of a fully realized vision of what Johanassburg would be if our conscience had four legs and fur.
Sadly no novel is perfect, and there a few hiccups here and there. Things get a little occult toward the end, more so than the early parts of the novel might suggest, and the villain's motivation is a tad esoteric. There are also moments when the pace slows down usually as a result of not always brief asides. It's easy to breeze through these moments to get back to the compelling story. I strongly suggest reading them closely, not only for the key world building information provided, but for the fairly hilarious inter-textual Easter eggs scattered throughout.
Nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for the best new writer in Science Fiction and Fantasy for her work in Zoo City, Lauren Beukes has established herself as someone to watch in the coming years. Regardless of the outcome of the vote, Zoo City is a novel that will stand up today, tomorrow, and for decades to come. I'm going to be in San Francisco next weekend and I'm hoping to take a daytrip to Reno and WorldCon. If I do, I fully plan to find my favorite South African writer and give her a big high five. ...more
One of the most important decisions an author has to make is how much to tell, how much to imply, and how much to show. In fantasy this even more true in creating a secondary/alternate world. For a debut fantasy author it's triply difficult, because no one (editor or consumer) is going to buy an 800 page book from a total unknown. An author, looking through the world he's created and the plot he's weaving, has to start bailing water to offer a manuscript that's tight enough to sell and verbose enough to be clear - no mean feat.
I bring this up because I think Mazarkis Williams had more water to bail than the average fantasy debut. Not a criticism, I say that because The Emperor's Knife is incredibly ambitious. Heavily flavored with Persian, Arabic, and Asian influence, it is a riff on epic fantasy with a deep magic system, complex political intrigue, and a complete story arc all contained in well under 400 pages.
There is a cancer at the heart of the mighty Cerani Empire. Geometric patterns spread across the skin causing those who bear them to become Carriers - mindless servants of the Pattern Master. Anyone showing the marks is put to death by Emperor Beyon's law. Now the pattern is running over the Emperor's own arms. His body servants have been executed and he ignores his wives - soon the pattern will reach his face. While Beyon's agents scour the land for a cure, Sarmin, the Emperor's only surviving brother, awaits his bride, Mesema, a windreader from the northern plains. Unused to being at court Mesema has no one to turn to but an ageing imperial assassin, the Emperor's Knife. As long-planned conspiracies boil over into open violence, the Pattern Master appears. The only people standing in his way are a lost prince, a world-weary killer, and a young girl from the steppes.
That's a complete and utter hatchet job on the plot in an effort to briefly summarize the general direction of Emperor's Knife. I went over to read the blurb on Goodreads and it was six paragraphs long. Is it becoming clear why I said Williams' had a tough road ahead of him? Somehow, the novel comes together in in 346 pages - a commendable accomplishment. Unfortunately, on my second point - making sure everything was adequately explained - I'm not sure it was as successful. Having finished the novel I still don't fully understand the motivations and actions of the novel's primary instigator - the Emperor's vizier Tuvaini. Very little time is spent on the primary system of magic whereby a mage is a vessel for an elemental living side them, and while more time is spent on manipulating "patterns" the why or how of it isn't addressed at all. So the question becomes, is that a problem?
The truth is... not really. At the end of the day, Emperor's Knife is a big success, largely on the back of interesting characters and a compelling plot. Williams engages his readers in the early moments posing mysteries that demand to be uncovered like a carrot dangling in front of a donkey compels him to walk. The plot is brisk to start before leveling off where we're given an opportunity to come to care about each of Williams' pieces before he brings them back together in devastating fashion.
As I mentioned before the tone of the world is very Middle Eastern in a time period reminiscent of the Crusade Era. Through Masema, Williams also brings in a steppes culture that would fit well in a Henry Sienkiewicz novel and hints at far more beyond the borders of his map. Naturally, when an author walks into a culture grounded in male chauvinism he runs the risk of being labeled as such himself. Character's opinions are often attributed to the author, almost always unfairly. Williams manages to avoid this, crafting three very enjoyable female characters only one of which comes off shallow and reliant on the support of men around her. Masema, the central female character, comes off far stronger though some of her romantic entanglements felt rushed - something I again attribute to a need to keep things tight in a novel whose scope would seem to predicate otherwise.
Reading through the novel and being an active tweeter lead to a conversation with Williams and fellow 2011 debut author Mark Lawrence (Prince of Thorns) about Robin Hobb's Farseer Trilogy. Williams admitted it was one of his favorites so I hope he takes it as a compliment that I saw elements in Emperor's Knife that reflected Hobb's influence. Sarmin (the closest thing to a protagonist) is a character of some similarity to Hobb's FitzChivalery. He disbelieves in himself and struggles with understanding his place in the events that rage around him. Farseer fans will also notice that the Pattern Master's Carriers call to mind Prince Verity riding along through others' eyes to interact with and bear witness to events far from him. If it is an homage, it is well done, although I suspect mere coincidence is more likely. Had I not had the conversation prior to reading the novel, I doubt very much I would have made the connection.
Despite some unevenness that manifests in the form of esoteric scenes and absent or unclear foreshadowing, Emperor's Knife is a well imagined, well plotted, and [mostly] well executed addition to the epic fantasy codex. While it's satisfying as a standalone work, the fact is well advertised on the book's cover that The Emperor's Knife the first installment in The Tower and Knife Trilogy. If Sarmin returns he has an opportunity become an iconic character and I hope he gets that chance. More emphatically, I hope that Williams will continue to explore some of the details that were left out in his debut; the lack of which will hold me back from putting this near the top of my best of 2011 list.
I said it at the beginning, and I'll say it again, this is an ambitious debut novel. Thankfully, it's also a novel that demonstrates great deal of promise in its author. I for one very much look forward to the sequel and Mazarkis Williams' continued growth as a writer.
The Emperor's Knife will be published in the UK on October 27 by Jo Fletcher Books and in the US on December 6 by Night Shade Books.