The Dragonbone Chair is the first book in Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series and one of the better traditional epic fantasies that’s out thThe Dragonbone Chair is the first book in Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series and one of the better traditional epic fantasies that’s out there. The novel follows the young castle scamp Simon an apparently unassuming and unimportant young man who gets drawn into a dire events far beyond his meager station. Apprenticed to the castle doctor Simon spends most of his days dreaming of being a hero but the machinations of an ancient evil soon creep into his own and Simon soon finds himself on the road and on a desperate to uncover the truth behind whats going on. On the way Simon meets a troll (in Williams’ world of Osten Ard and hearty though diminutive folk) who rides a wolf, rescues an elf-like Sithi, a kindly witch, and even manages to fall for a princess. If you’re a fan of epic fantasy and haven’t experienced The Dragonbone Chair it is a wholly familiar affair thought not without its own merits.
The first thing a reader will note about The Dragonbone Chair is its frightfully slow beginnings. The beginning chapters focus very strongly on Simon as he goes about his life at the castle. I imagine the intent here was to get to know both our hero Simon and the major players in the story at large but I’m not certain that Williams entirely succeeds in this. While you certainly get the impression that Rachel (Simon’s mother figure, the castle’s head maid) and Doctor Morgenes care for Simon on some level I never quite felt that the emotional links between Simon and his surrogate parents were quite complete. In today’s day and age I suspect that Simon might have been diagnosed with ADD and his constant distraction and frequent wholesale fall into daydream is actually quite endearing. It takes an awful long time for anything to happen though Williams’ does do well at hinting at both the past and future. Though some of that hinting is left unexplained and unexplored.
Of course inevitable events force Simon to abandon his home. In fact I think that the best part of the novel occurs right after that happens. The Hayholt, the castle where Simon lived, is built on top of and alongside ancient ruins both human and Sithi. As Simon escapes through the underground ruins of castles and natural caverns he experiences visions and more. It comes off as a sort of descent to the underworld and is reminiscent of both Rand’s journey to Emond’s Field with the fevered Tam (The Eye of the World) and Aragorn and Company’s descent through the Path’s of the Dead and I certainly thought it was some of the novel’s strongest writing particularly the strange ceremony Simon stumbles on during the tail end of this journey. The whole section has a darker tone more reminiscent of a horror or suspense movie then an epic fantasy and it was markedly welcome change of pace and the culmination of a growing tension that had infused the chapters leading in Simon’s horrific night.
Williams’ also has an unfortunate tendency towards song and poetry. It isn’t nearly as bad as anything from the Lord of the Rings but I groaned at every snippet of offset text. It wasn’t bad in any sense of the word but as a reader I much prefer my poetry, when it must butt against my prose, neatly contained in epigraphs. I even struggled with the verse segments from the latest Malazan novel and I love that series. In The Dragonbone Chair I found myself more frustrated when it was a song rather then a poem. Music is a composite greater then the some of its parts and excerpting it as lyrics alone deprives it of much of its impact.
The thing that I love most about The Dragonbone Chair is the troll Binabik. There is something undeniably charming about the troll Simon meets in his journeys. Maybe it is a simple as the accent you can almost hear thanks to his somewhat stilted dialogue. Or maybe it is the friendship he develops with Simon over the course of the novel. Whatever it is the scenes with Binabik and Simon really shine and are certainly a joy to read. Though somehwhat of a more cliched nature I also found Simon’s interactions with Miri to be nicely done. It is easy to forget later in the novel how young Simon really is and it nice to have his awkward interactions with a young woman to remind us.
The Dragonbone Chair published in 1988 was released at the height of the epic fantasy craze so the novel can perhaps be forgiven its McGuffins and nebulous big bad evil. The three book structure and familiar tropes are staples of genre and while fantasy has evolved to a certain degree they will remain tropes of the fantasy genre as long as people keep reading. I sometime wonder if the fantasy genre’s focus on world-building is a coping mechanism in order to find a niche within a market filled with similar plots; but I digress. The Dragonbone Chair is still an excellent, albeit initially slow, read that is one of the less talked about series from the heyday of epic fantasy. If you’ve yet to experience Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn for yourself the series as a whole is worth taking a look at though I suspect for the veteran fan it will hold very few surprises....more
Believe it or not my mother is the chief impetus for my decision to finally read Stephen King’s The Shining; it also doesn’t hurt that the sequel, DocBelieve it or not my mother is the chief impetus for my decision to finally read Stephen King’s The Shining; it also doesn’t hurt that the sequel, Doctor Sleep, also just recently released. My mother has told me, repeatedly, that the book is much better than the Kubrick film so I figured now would be the time put that claim to the test. Over the years my stance on “the book is always better” has softened and all but melted away. Truth be told I’m more inclined to say (in 99.9% of all cases, I’m looking at you World War Z) simply that “the movie is different from the book.”
Film, as a primarily visual medium, has an entirely different set of requirements than prose fiction and concessions must be made to reflect that difference. While my friend might complain about the “atrocious” differences between Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy and Tolkein’s masterpiece I am hard-pressed to fault Jackson for his decisions and I will argue, until the end of my days, that a direct translation of Tolkein’s work into film would not necessarily make the most compelling of films (I shudder at the montages of singing hobbits that would plague the film long before we’ve even left the Shire).
Stanley Kubrick is a seminal director whose touch and vision have influenced the world of film for generations to come. As such, his vision of The Shining is deeply meshed with the world of pop culture and the film’s visual style ring’s true to this day. I say this because that fact makes coming to The Shining as a novel after having experience the film a bit strange. In, On Writing, Stephen King equates writing to telepathy. The author sets an image or thought down on the page and you the reader read it and, depending on the author’s skill, receive and envision that very same thought or image. With The Shining the Kubrick film is interference with that communication. Given my experience with the film, and its prominence as a cultural icon, it difficult to divorce King’s words from Kubrick’s imagery.
Reading The Shining now my brain has two competing visions with the images from Kubrick’s film often superseding the words of King’s fiction. That being said their are considerable difference between the movie and the book. King’s book leans far more heavily on the supernatural and the presence of the Overlook looms far greater than in the film. King conveys a sense of malicious intelligence to the old hotel and the presence insinuates its way into all of the character’s in the story. The Overlook is a character in and of itself and King easily and masterfully conveys the sense of the hotel as a living, breathing, entity.
The glimpse inside the internal live’s of Jack and Wendy, thanks in part to the narrative structure as well as Danny’s own childish interpretation of his parent’s thoughts and emotions, offers greater insight into the personal demons that they are both struggling through. The novel examines Jack’s corruption by the hotel as a much more gradual process than in the film. While Jack is certainly troubled when he arrives at the Overlook there isn’t quite as much tension from the start as there is in the film. The novel portray’s both Jack’s and Wendy’s outlook for the future as hopeful. Jack’s interactions with the ongoing party at the Overlook definitely take on a more fevered tone in the novel and take a decidedly more supernatural air than in the film.
The titular shining is also of greater importance over the course of the novel. Danny’s gift feels like a bit of a throwaway in the film but in the novel it is Danny’s connection to those around him that helps hold the novel together. King even manages to create and interesting parallel between Jack’s need for alcohol and the Overlook’s need for Danny’s powers; both represent ultimately destructive desire which leads to their downfall. King stays remarkably focused on the character internal and external struggle to the point where the science fiction and fantasy fan in me was a bit frustrated by the lack of explanation behind Danny’s abilities and the Overlook’s malicious power. There were some other irregularities that bugged me: the lone bike that Jack and his friend ran over at night but with no child’s body, and the lingering questions regarding Jack’s beating of his student (there seemed to be some implied mystery there that I was missing) or maybe I was just infected by Jack’s own confusion towards the novel’s end.
There are differences between the Kubrick’s adaptation and King’s novel. At first glance these differences are superficial but the cumulative result of these changes is that The Shining as a book and film are work with vastly different tone. If you’ve not seen Kubrick’s The Shining I honestly recommend you read King’s novel The Shining first. The film’s distinct visual styling and well-known actors have left an indelible mark in popular culture; to such a degree that its influence is hard to ignore while reading the novel. While I have no doubt that individuals will have a unique, and likely visceral, reaction to The Shining as both a book and a film I would argue that both versions of The Shining, King’s original novel and Kubrick’s adaptation, stand well on their own....more
When trying to fill out my detective fiction reading with a broad spectrum spread across more than two decades I stumbled across the names Russ MacdonWhen trying to fill out my detective fiction reading with a broad spectrum spread across more than two decades I stumbled across the names Russ Macdonald and Lew Archer. While The Underground Man seems to be most frequently cited as Macdonald’s best work to feature PI Lew Archer (along with The Chill) I was unable to acquire a copy and instead “settled” for the Edgar Award Winning The Zebra Striped Hearse. While it lacks the incisive social commentary frequently attributed to The Underground Man it is still a taught, thrilling, mystery that keeps you guessing until the end; and then some.
The Zebra Striped Hearse, in true detective story and noirish fashion, opens with a damsel in distress. An impassioned plea from an attractive woman lands Lew Archer at something of an impasse potentially working towards a woman’s desire to see her step-daughter happy and working towards a father’s desire to protect his daughter from harm. Lew Archer is a PI cut from the same vein as Marlowe. Though where Marlowe’s knight-errant nature tends to shine through his cynical approach to life Archer never let’s his own emotions get in the way of his case. That isn’t to say that Archer doesn’t discuss or acknowledge his own reactions to the people and situations he finds himself in only that his empathy and sympathetic nature is put to the side if favor of getting the job done. Archer is dogged in his determination to get the job done to the point of sacrificing even potential emotional entanglements. It doesn’t really win him any friends. Here it means often straining his relationship with his employer to the breaking point.
Written in the sixties The Zebra Striped Hearse walks a fine line between the wanton violence of I, the Jury and the more directed approach of Raymond Chandler. While the reader gets glimpses of several corpses and sees a fair amount of gore towards the end of the novel it lacks the chaotic feel of Spillane’s work even though it might exceed the bounds of what Chandler deemed necessary. Perhaps more fascinating is novel’s juxtaposition of Lew’s lack of sexual entanglement with the depravity of the villain that is revealed late in the novel. Macdonald manages to deftly skate around tackling the topic head on while putting forth a rather poignant and tragic portrayal of the consequences. These narrative acrobatics manage to detract nothing from the horror that these revelations engender while at the same time avoiding any potential fallout a more explicit discussion might result in.
What I find fascinating here as well, and not evident in the works from Spillane and Chandler, is the amount of actual detecting that Archer does. Where Mike Hammer seemed to barrel his way through problems, and Marlowe seemed to effortlessly gravitate towards the right people, neither seemed to put in the legwork. Archer on the other hand bounces around from a variety of locations along the California coast, Nevada, and Mexico ask actual questions from people who don’t always turn out to be involved, at least directly, with the case he is working. While each manages to help piece together a complete picture the effect is gradual and can be followed by the reader with little, if any, need for large intuitive leaps. There is more reliance on the hermeneutic code in Lew’s actions and in Macdonald’s prose a fact that lends a certain participatory air to act of reading the novel that contrasts the almost fly on the wall experience I had while reading both The Long Goodbye and I, the Jury.
As stated above The Zebra Striped Hearse is an entertaining mystery that keeps the reader, along with Archer, guessing right up until the end. While it lacks the broad scope of Marlowe’s commentary in The Long Goodbye, or the moral ambiguity of Mike Hammer it manages to produce a rather deft and delicate look at the consequence of actions that wouldn’t be misplace on an episode of Law and Order: SVU. Which is perhaps a depressing fact for a novel written almost a half a century ago. If you are a mystery fan and have yet to give Russ Macdonald and Lew Archer a try The Zebra Striped Hearse is a good place to start....more
Hal Duncan’s Vellum is a challenging and thought provoking piece of fiction that bounces back and forth between familiarity and originality never settHal Duncan’s Vellum is a challenging and thought provoking piece of fiction that bounces back and forth between familiarity and originality never settling on one side of the fence for too long. By the time its sequel Ink came along I was too busy and bit too far removed from my reading of Vellum to finish out the series. Thus when Monkey Brain Books published his novella Escape from Hell! back in December (oddly enough, two months prior to Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Escape from Hell) I was excited to give Duncan another try. While it has taken me a while to finally get around to reading the novella I am most definitely glad I did.
Despite the praised heaped upon Little Brother upon its initial release I let it slip under my radar and off of my “to be read” stack. Which, as it tuDespite the praised heaped upon Little Brother upon its initial release I let it slip under my radar and off of my “to be read” stack. Which, as it turns out, deprived me of one seriously entertaining and thought-provoking read. In an Orwellian and disturbingly familiar future Marcus, also known as w1n5t0n, is a techno-geek who uses his skills to side-step school rules and surveillance that infringes on his privacy. When a terrorist attack destroys an important bridge in San Francisco Marcus is caught and held for suspicion of terrorist activities. Upon his release he finds a changed world (or at least changed San Francisco) where the DHS has begun to use scare tactics, witch hunts, and various methods of technological surveillance (particularly using RFIDs) to monitor and “police” the city’s population in order to, supposedly, protect them from terrorist threats. In order to combat these offenses against personal privacy and the Bill of Rights rebels and vows to bring down the people responsible for his wrongful imprisonment.
“A while ago somewhere I don’t know when I was watching a movie with a friend. I fell in love with the actress. She was playing a part that I could u “A while ago somewhere I don’t know when I was watching a movie with a friend. I fell in love with the actress. She was playing a part that I could understand.”
-Neil Young, “A Man Needs a Maid”
It took a chapter or two, after we’re finally introduced to Jean Shaw and what she means to secret service agent come photographer Joe LaBrava, that Neil Young’s song “A Man Needs a Maid” came to mind. I’m sure we all have that actress, or actor, who we’ve seen and who in our youth we maybe fell a little bit in love with. There might have come a point when that actress and the parts she plays have become nigh inseparable in our hearts and minds. Of course, given today’s fascination with celebrity and the constant vulture like circling of paparazzi the illusion that films provided is somewhat lost. The mystery and magic of actors and actresses is shattered by the flash of the camera and the thunder of gossip across television screens and computer monitors. A belief that is at least somewhat thematically related to LaBrava which, while being a crime thriller, is as much about the reality of of modern times shattering the illusions of the past as it about crime.
As a historical side note Labrava, published in 1983, was written just 4 years after the area was officially added to the National Register of Historic Places (1979) and only 3 years after the Miami race riots and after some 25 years of population increases resulting from Castro’s takeover in Cuba in 1959 . To say it was an area in both deep economic and demographic flux is perhaps putting it mildly but I think it is worth noting. It is perhaps interesting to note as well that two years later, in 1985, Miami Vice would take home four Emmies and would remain an example and monument to eighties New Wave culture for years to come. The bright colors of Miami Vice stand in stark contrasted to faded glories described in Labrava.
The above is important since Joe LaBrava lives in a hotel in Miami Beach owned by a former bookie named Maurice. The vocal and somewhat cantankerous Maurice, like his hotel, is a product of “better” time; the reader’s link to Miami Beach’s more glamorous past. Like Jean Shaw, the tired movie star of LaBrava’s adolescent dreams, Maurice links into idea of romanticizing the past. It is a theme directly contrasted by LaBrava’s profession of photographer, as a man whose bread and butter has become immortalizing the present and who excels at capturing people in their truest state. Indeed, we are even introduced a painter whose is attempting to painted the decaying architectural wonders of Miami Beach’s architecture but who, after encountering LaBrava and his work, suddenly starts painting people. Leonard pulls off the connection more subtly then I describe there, but it remains that Leonard seems to be drawing a clear link to the importance of the here and now and the people rather then the places that they live in.
Indeed LaBrava is consistently drawn as a keen observer of people and situations. Formerly an IRS Agent he is keen observer of people and behavior. Skills he later honed as a Secret Service Agent where he gained the ability to read a room and observe without being observed. Yet, his infatuation with Jean Shaw and the roles she played in the films he loved end up blinding him to the present. His link to the past effectively clouds his judgment and compromises his ability to observe and process the details around him. It is elegantly done and, while the reader eventually sees what’s happening, never manages to feel contrived.
His keen observation skills and love of Jean Shaws old movies aside LaBrava remains an surprisingly unobtrusive character. While some might complain that this is a detriment to a hard-boiled thriller I would argue that it is intentional on Leonard’s part. As LaBrava frequently states, or others mention about LaBrava, he doesn’t pose the subjects of his work. In his role as photographer LaBrava fades to the background letting the subjects choose the pose or, quite simply, catching them candidly. LaBrava’s role in the story is thus similar to his job as photographer. While he remains the reader’s primary means of observation he also serves as a facilitator in introducing the more brightly colored and interesting characters he interacts with. The go-go dancing, car stealing Cundo Rey, the brutish Richard Nobles, the fast-talking Maurice, and many others are all side-characters more vividly drawn then LaBrava himself. It was an effect I quite liked though one that the seasoned crime reader might not appreciate.
In the end I found LaBrava an enjoyable read if not as immediately engaging as some of my previous experiences so far. The dialogue is interesting though bounces back from somewhat mundane to showing a true creative flair. Where the story shines is in the cast of oddball characters that seem to hover around the plot itself (Cundo Rey would later appear in Leonard’s 2009 novel Road Dogs). While I can’t say how LaBrava stacks up against Leonard’s other fiction I can say that it is worth a look for anyone interested in a fascinating story filled with colorful characters; even if that plot is occasionally predictable....more