Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Reading in March

Even doing a review a week, there's no way I can get through all the books I want to get through. There is, of course, no obvious NEED to review everything I've read, but I feel like I should at least mention most of it. I'm not doing this (purely) in a masturbatory, look-what-I've-read fashion, but hopefully also giving you a rough idea about the books I don't have time to talk about in a more developed fashion. I'll also link any reviews I've done for the books, as well as any outside reviews that I found particularly worth reading. So, without further ado, what I read in March:

The Handmaid’s Tale is a disturbing, intriguing novel. It’s very much a novel of excellent prose and slight shifts rather than big explosions, and you need to be digging into every word as you read, but the experience is well worth it. My only qualm is the needlessly ambiguous ending, especially since any actual doubts are resolved in the epilogue.

The first Black Company novel in the omnibus was interesting due to the writing’s simplicity and the world’s refreshing amorality, but I wasn’t totally sold on the series. I can’t say that I’m a total convert yet, but Shadows Linger went a long way toward winning me over. My main gripe with the first volume, the highly episodic nature of the plotting, is absent here, and the character of Shed gives the story some variety. I have no idea how Cook’s going to bring this to a close in just two hundred or so pages, but I guess I’ll find out when I read White Rose next month. Look for a review then.

I’ve heard again and again that Malazan gets worse as it goes along, and I know two or three people who dropped the series at Reaper’s Gale, and yet it’s having the opposite effect on me. I didn’t fall in love until House of Chains, and each successive volume seems to just drag me deeper. This volume wasn’t perfect, of course (none of the Malazan books are even close to that), but like with all the other volumes, there are enough jaw dropping positives to overpower the occasional cringe worthy negative. I’m going to try and wrap up the Malazan series in a grand series of reviews once I get caught up.

Mad Ship is even better than Ship of Magic, and Ship of Magic in turn was even better than Farseer. At this rate, Liveships is going to quite possibly become my favorite trilogy. The characterization is just as good here, the world is broad and interesting, and the plot will occasionally surprise the hell out of you…though it probably wouldn’t have helped if the back cover didn’t reveal the first few hundred pages of the book quite so glibly. Look for my review once I finish the trilogy.

I’ve said it before (to myself, if that counts) that Stephen King is the best modern horror author there is (though I haven’t read nearly enough to properly make that statement), and that The Shining is his best novel (there I think I can qualify, having read over twenty of ‘em). I’ve been truly terrified by three stories – and I mean terrified, not kinda uncomfortable or whatever the hell most horror movies are shooting at – and the Shining has one of those three scenes. The horror, however, is far from the main part. Jack’s struggle with himself is torturous to watch, yet some of the best writing I’ve ever read. The ending is awful, but compared to some of King’s others it’s only kinda-awful, so I guess we’re lucky there. If you haven’t read the Shining yet, you’re missing out.

I have no idea why I picked Stephen King’s latest short story collection, when his earliest was stocked right next to it, no less, but I did, and I really wish I hadn’t. Everything’s Eventual is the first time that I’ve been truly disappointed by King, but damn did it hurt. My complete review is here.

The City and the City is a bit of an outlier for Mieville, but it succeeds at what it set out to do with ease. The book’s cornerstone, the two overlapping cities and their mutual ignoring campaign, is thought provoking and well handled, and the cinematic prose style (as in a lack of interior thoughts, not a lot of explosions) conveyed the atmosphere quite well. Unfortunately, both of those are interesting techniques that don’t make for easy reads. In addition, the ending, while technically filling all of the holes, was more than a bit disappointing. Though I don't necessarily agree with his conclusions, James has a good review of this up that should let you get a decent idea of the contents.

You know when you’ve built your expectations about something to the point where you know it’s going to disappoint you? And then it surpasses even those? Yeah, that’s what happened with Terminal World. It’s not a perfect novel, but it’s impossible to predict and written with a ridiculous amount of panache. If I were to compare it to something, I’d say that it’d be an odd mixture of Century Rain, Mieville’s bibliography. If you like Reynolds, you need to read this. If I succeed in composing my thoughts, I’ll write a review of this in a week or two. Until then, I'll contrast the Wert review I posted earlier with the Walker of Worlds one that I just read. Though some of the things he disliked were precisely why I loved the book, the review's quite informative and should give you a good idea of what you're getting into. UPDATE, I've now reviewed this here.

Old Man’s War was a fun, easy ride that had some intriguing ideas under its hood. The whole experience was slightly marred, however, by occasional clichés (which aren’t helped by Scalzi’s pointing them out) and a few scenes that are just too over the top to be effective. If you’ve read the book, you know what I mean. Hint: it involves Lilliputians. Still, I’ll be reading more of Scalzi’s work without a doubt. If you want a more comprehensive look at the novel, check out Aidan’s review. For a glimpse of some more of the novel's faults, go here.

This was absolutely delightful. The play is laugh out loud funny at several points, and the underlying ideas are brilliant. I only have two regrets: 1. That I couldn’t see it performed, and 2. That I didn’t get a chance to write down some of the passages before having to return my copy.

Not every story in this collection works, but every story tries something new and imaginative. There are three main story cycles here, as well as a few miscellaneous pieces, and all three are quite varied. The collection contains little in the way of new Ambergris material, though that’s not to say none, but the Incan stories are completely new and quite intriguing. Though I’d already read the majority of the Veniss stories in Veniss Underground, I was far more impressed the second time around, and I think my older treatment of them was more than a tad superficial. VanderMeer has yet to disappoint me, and he certainly didn’t do it here.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Stephen King - Everything's Eventual

I’ve never told anyone this story, and never thought I would – not because I was afraid of being disbelieved, exactly, but because I was ashamed…and it was mine. I’ve always felt that telling it would cheapen both me and the story itself, make it smaller and more mundane, no more than a camp counselor’s ghost story told before light’s out. I was also afraid that if I told it, heard it with my own ears, I might start to disbelieve it. But since my mother’s died, I haven’t been able to sleep very well. I doze off and snap back again, wide awake and shivering. Leaving the bedside lamp on helps, but not as much as you’d think. There are so many more shadows at night, have you ever noticed that? Even with a light on there are so many shadows. The long ones could be the shadows of anything at all, you think.

Anything at all.

Stephen King’s maligned a lot, both by elitists and people who I doubt have read a book in the past three years. He’s got (occasionally mortal) flaws in his writing, and anyone who says that he hasn’t declined post accident is deluding themself. That being said, you can always tell which of the haters have actually read and dismissed Stephen King and which of them have skipped the first step and just dismissed him. Those detractors say that he doesn’t care about characters, that his books are just fast paced noise with no higher goal than shock factor and body count. While I won’t deny King’s occasional love of shock horror, the other parts of the typical King criticism are as close as you can come to being objectively wrong while making a subjective statement.

King’s character development and prose are what keep me coming back to him. He has the ability to step into someone’s head and write in style that is distinctly human from the first paragraph of any character’s point of view. Unfortunately, due to his meander-happy style of no-outline writing, his later books just wallow around for a few hundred pages before coming to a closing so unsatisfying that it boggles the mind. Everything’s Eventual, despite consisting of short stories, none of which clock in at over ninety pages (and that’s the highest by a significant margin), is the most blatant example of this that I’ve yet seen.

[Two notes on the coming review:
1. I did not read the story The Little Sisters of Eluria. It’s a Dark Tower story and, seeing as I’m planning to read the Dark Tower this year, I’d rather appreciate it in its proper context.
2. This review will contain SPOILERS for several stories in the collection; The Man in the Black Suit, Lunch at the Gotham Café, and Autopsy Room Four, to be specific.]

King hasn’t lost his gift for characterization. Almost every voice in the collection is perfectly captured. The gullible, overwhelmed thoughts of Dink (Everything’s Eventual) are as vivid as the despondent world weariness of Alfie (Everything That You Love Will Be Carried Away). King also hasn’t lost his obsession with character created euphemisms. For the most part, these are well done and endearing, though the endless parade of eventuals in the title story, standing in for awesome, gets horribly old.

Unfortunately, the prose can only enchant you for a few pages. After that, you start looking for content, and that’s where the collection disappoints again and again. The failures can basically be broken into two categories.

The first of these categories is the nonstarter. These stories read like the opening chapters of a novel, where the main event is still a good hundred pages away at the least by the time you’ve turned the last page. The best example of these is The Devil in the Black Suit. The story depicts a young boy going fishing a short distance from his house. While fishing, the boy encounters the devil. Now, in the notes section, King says that a friend’s grandfather insists that, one day, he met the devil and had to not let the devil know that he’d caught onto the deception. This reminds me of a section in the excellent How Not to Write a Novel entitled Why Your Job Is Harder Than God’s. See, in real life, meeting The Man in the Black Suit could be the defining event of your lifetime. In a Stephen King short story, on the other hand, the reader’s reaction is more like: and then?

And it’s that and then? that’s really missing here. The kid talks with the Devil, tries to hide that he knows it’s the Devil. The Devil says that the kid’s mom died. The kid starts running away. Alright, the reader thinks, we’re getting somewhere. Not really, because he gets away without all that much trouble. He goes home, and his mother is…still alive? Okay, wait, his father doesn’t believe him and the two are going to head down to spot and see what happened, so I guess there’s still space for something to happen, right? Wrong. They get there; it smells faintly of sulfur. The end. Let me see if I can sum up the major events of the story: kid has a dream. Oh, and the place smells of sulfur. Forgive me if I’m not shaking in my boots yet. Now, the story’s not a total wash. The voice is perfectly captured and a joy to read. There’s one genuinely disturbing image. And…well, no, that’s it. I’m sorry, Mr. King, but a good prose style and one paragraph aren’t enough to salvage thirty pages of nothing.

The majority of the stories, however, fall under the second, even more disappointing, category, the one where you get what seems like an interesting set up before everything nose dives so badly it’s sometimes hard to watch (as King said in Riding the Bullet: Well begun, too soon done). The best example of this is Lunch at the Gotham Cafe. The story opens with a man being left by his wife. We get ten pages of good characterization, inhabiting the more-than-slightly shell-shocked shoes of Steven Davis. At the eleven page mark, Steven and his wife, and his wife’s lawyer, sit down at the café for lunch. Without warning, the maitre d starts screaming about some invisible dog and draws a knife.

Let’s pause for a second, as the set up’s now over. Writing Excuses often talks about how the beginning of a story is a promise to the reader. So, looking back over what’s happened so far, let’s pick out those promises. First of all, the divorce. We need some form of resolution there in order to make the first ten pages not feel like a total waste of time, be the resolution painful acceptance or happy reunion or something in between. Second, and more immediate, we need to figure out what the hell’s wrong with the maitre d. There’re some secondary threads hanging around – such as Steven’s attempt to quit smoking – but those two are absolutely essential, and I can’t imagine a good ending without those being resolved.

And, just so you know, neither can Stephen King. The maitre d’s insanity, and the following fight, are, at first, surprising and odd enough to be unsettling, but the bastard’s built like some form of table waiting super-zombie, and he just does not die. After what feels like a lifetime of reading about this guy getting mutilated again and again, the maitre d finally manages to die (in a manner less climactic than several already attempted non-deaths) and the story just fizzles out from there. The reason for the guy’s insanity? Unless screaming Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee counts as a rational motive, the guy resembles a windup toy with a knife more than an actual character. The divorce? The main character really might as well have been in there alone.

You know the joke that, if you can’t figure out how to move the plot forward, you just throw in a man with a gun, hoping that you can shift things around while the audience’s captivated by all the bright lights and loud noises? Well, that kind of feels like what happened here. The people sit down, but King doesn’t know where to go, so he introduces a nice distraction to jump start the plot. Problem being, he still doesn’t know where this thing’s heading, and after wasting as much time as he could (seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fight scene that can best be summed up as “meandering” before), he just realizes that he better just slap a nice THE END on. Oh, and I’m somewhat perplexed that the cop’s don’t feel any need to speak with the primary target, not to mention the killer’s killer, after the whole scene, but whatever.

After seeing an endless stream of novels and short stories from the man, many people are understandably curious as to whether he’s actually got anything fresh left in him. Unfortunately, Everything’s Eventual is no more satisfying in originality than it is in consistency. I’m fine with an author putting his own spin on a tired cliché, but the number of stories whose notes have a variation of this is my attempt at a [insert horror cliché here] story is just ridiculous. These are, for the most part, predictable from the first (stale) note to the final (disappointing) let ring.

Let’s look at Autopsy Room Four. This is King’s take on the standard buried alive drill; the protagonist wakes up on the autopsy table. You can see the tension gathering with every step the doctor’s take as they prepare to cut into him, but seeing isn’t feeling, and the knowledge that this’s supposed to be a nail biting moment doesn’t quite make it one. You know the guy’s going to get out okay from the get go, and that just makes you want the doctor’s to hurry it up and discover him already. In the notes, King says that he wanted a more “modern” take on the whole thing, with the doctor’s discovering the patient’s living status by his erection. You know what? That might’ve been just amusing enough to save the story. But saying that’s what happens is a bald faced lie. The erection isn’t discovered until afterwards, what saves the patient is another doctor jumping onto the stage and giving a painfully implausible info dump right before the scissors start cutting. It’s something that would be unbearably convenient in some amateur’s first stab at writing, and King’s treatment is no better.

The connection isn’t a total wash, mind you. There is one decent horror story, The Road Virus Heads North. It’s another of those aforementioned my take on stories, with the victim this time being your standard moving picture tale. Still, despite all the warning signs to the contrary, the story manages to hit some scary, though predictable, notes. Standing above that is Riding the Bullet, the collection’s one story that’s actually, genuinely, good. The story’s horror aspect is actually somewhat reminiscent of The Man in the Black Suit, but the chills are the least important thing here. Riding the Bullet is a portrayal of sorrow and guilt that manages to be almost touching enough to make up for the rest of the collection.

Almost, but not quite. This collection has fourteen stories, out of which I’ve read thirteen. Out of those, one was good, one was decent, and eleven ranged from lackluster to cringe worthy. I’ve read a lot of newer Stephen King – hell, my first book by him was Cell – and this is the first time King book that I can truly classify as bad. Get Riding the Bullet and ignore the rest.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Felix Gilman - Thunderer

In his mind he was composing a letter to his mothers and fathers: here we begin at last. The city is a puzzle box to be cracked open. Let me describe it for you…But he wasn’t sure how, yet.

Felix Gilman’s Thunderer begins as the Bird, god of flight and freedom, returns to fly over the city of Ararat. Ships collide in the harbor as the crews stare at the sky, people across the city pick this moment to escape both prison and circumstance, and the faithful leap from the roofs on multicolored wings, eager to fly in the wake of their god. Ararat seems immeasurably vast, incomprehensibly wonderful, and impossibly strange in these opening moments, and the reader no doubt assumes that the book’s power will come from ever-increasing knowledge of the city, like a child given a marvelous, complex present and slowly figuring out how to make it work. This is not the case.

In an interview, Gilman said:

There are different kinds of world building. There's the kind that focuses on making the physical details real, and the texture of the culture the characters inhabit. That's something I want to do, and I think it's really interesting trying to create textured worlds in that sense -- which is very different from the huge architectural level of deciding, 'This goes here and this goes here; this is the continent with the elves, and this is what dragons do.

The quote goes a long way to summing up Thunderer’s world building. The world feels vibrant and alive; you can imagine the people milling around you, and you can hear the recitations of the poets and smell the dark waters of the river as you walk along behind Arjun or Jack. That being said, you never really get an idea for what Ararat is. It’s a bit like trying some new delicacy. You savor the taste while eating it, but, if asked afterwards, to describe it, all you can say are meaningless words like textured, interesting, etc.

Early on, the reader learns that the city is so vast that, after showing an appreciable portion of whatever area they live in, mapmakers just draw a question mark to show that they don’t know what lies beyond the city (or if it even ends at all). Gilman’s city is unknowable in more ways than just the geographic. Despite its immersive nature, Gilman’s city is difficult to ever really comprehend. As we follow the characters, we experience it as if we were there. Take even a step off the road, though, and everything replaced by that massive question mark. It’s the difference between admiring a work of art and understanding it; the reader is only allowed through the gate when they’re shown by the hand.

This style of world building is obviously, both in its advantages and its flaws, a conscious choice by Gilman. In an earlier quote from the interview, Gilman says:

The things that interest me in world building are the entertainment or culture of the world, or the academy, or the newspapers: what are they like? Or the politics in the sense of the day-to-day ideas and ideologies and unexamined notions and slogans people carry around in their heads. And to develop these things through contrasts, through things knocking and rubbing against each other. The denser and more knotted the more interesting.

The unknowable nature of the city is itself a major part of the novel and ties into one of its most interesting elements: Atlas, a group of mapmakers and encyclopedia-ists that seek to document all of Ararat. Their attempts, and the city as a whole, are not the plot focus of Thunderer, but the two influence almost everything that transpires.

The reader is grounded in Ararat through the characters. Of the three leads, all are well drawn but only one manages to fully live up to his potential. Arjun, arguably the main protagonist, is obsessed with searching for the Voice, a deity that shows itself through audio perfection. A calm, melodic symphony of wind and earth heard from atop an isolated tower. Arjun goes to Ararat to try and find his god, but it’s never totally clear if his real goal is to search for the Voice or to escape its absence. Once in the city, he discovers that the Voice – if it is even there – is lost amidst literally hundreds of other gods, and his personal quest is drowned out and steered by the demands of the city and the people within it. He can be quite self centered, he’s prone to fixations and obsessions, he’s a bit naïve, maybe just a tad cowardly, and somewhere in the midst of all that Arjun comes alive on the page.

Jack is only one of many to gain their freedom on the day of the Bird’s return, but he becomes unique when the Bird’s gift and drive do not depart. He turns a group of outcasts into his own freedom fighters and plans to bring liberty to everyone in Ararat. For a time, his arc is the most fascinating part of the book. Jack’s righteous drive clashes with the practical survivor-mentality of Fiss, and Jack’s most ardent devotee, Namdi, seems headed for disaster. As Fiss and Aiden, the original leaders of the group, point out: Jack’s plan simply cannot work. Unfortunately, this arc is weakened when, at the last moment, Gilman pulls back and denies the characters the climax that their actions necessitated.

Arlandes woke from a dream of Lucia, dancing. In all of his dreams she was either dancing or falling, or sometimes both.

Arlandes steals the spotlight for the first third or so of Thunderer. Arjun’s characterization is excellent, but he is more of a cumulative experience than one defining moment, and Jack doesn’t come into his own for some time, leaving the initial promise of Arlandes’s storyline to reign unchallenged. He is the captain of the countess’s new super weapon: the floating warship, Thunderer. As the ship was raised, Lucia, Arlandes’s love, was killed. Throughout the countess’s domain, Arlandes becomes a tragic hero. He is the star of countless plays and poems, standing in black and tormented by loss. Arlandes himself scoffs at all of these cheap imitations. His life is composed of misery, and his only solace comes when firing the Thunderer’s mighty guns at some helpless, grounded target. Sounds like the start of a fascinating narrative, no? Unfortunately, a start is all it is. After the groundwork is set, Arlandes merely regresses to a state of depressed near-incompetence. Yeah, I suppose that’s a bit more realistic than, say, homicidal rage, but it’s a bit of an anticlimax to have the most intriguing character fade into a mopey absence after the first bit.

The plotting is fairly uneven. At its best, it’s character driven and surprising. At its worst, it’s meandering and a bit bewildering. Despite that, things come together very well for the ending, and Gilman finishes the book by pushing the Weird Level up to about a hundred and five, leaving the reader with a nice mixture of amazement and satisfaction.

Throughout the novel, Gilman’s prose is excellent:

Some days he felt like he was beginning again; that, after many mistakes and wrong turns, he had found himself back at the start of thing, unencumbered, full of promise. Some days he felt that he was at the end of things; past the end, that all the orchestra’s lively and noisy themes were finished, for better or worse, and the he was a mere coda, a single note repeating quietly, in measured isolation, soon to be stilled.

I expected the book’s style to be divisive, of course. It’s filled with oddities and is very much Gilman’s own. All the same, I’ll admit I was a bit shocked when I discovered that Rob (of sffworld) not only disliked the prose, but considered it a deal breaker…and then quoted a passage that I had thought excellent to prove his point:

Sometimes Arjun went down to the waterways. He never had to walk too far in any direction before coming to a canal, a reservoir, one of the ornamental lakes of Faugére, or on of the shallow marshy ponds that formed on condemned ground north of Fourth Ward — and the River itself, had he ever been brave enough to face it, would have been only a few hours’ walk to the east.

Rob goes on to say in his review: There was no real cadence to the narrative because it seemed every statement was interrupted by a comma or a hyphen, changing the flow of the sentence with varying degrees of bluntness. It’s odd, because I can’t really disagree with the statement. In fact, it’s a pretty good description of why I found Gilman’s prose interesting. Picture a river, flowing, serene. Then, imagine that it changes course, flowing down an unexpected channel, but doesn’t lose any of its natural grace. That’s something like how Gilman seems to construct his passages, sliding into and then back out of our expectations. I think that the reader’s enjoyment will really come down to whether they consider these course changes intrusive or not.

Brandon Sanderson summed up Thunderer best, I think: Recommended for any who want to sit back for a spell and just dream. Thunderer is a novel with flaws, yes, but one that I feel more than makes up for them. I can’t guarantee you’ll love Thunderer, or even tolerate it, but I think it’s something you need to try for yourself anyway.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Dark Commands [Cover Art]

I’m generally staying away from cover art on here. It’s an interesting subject – at times – of course, but there seems to be little point when all I’d be doing for the most part is regurgitating what I learn at A Dribble of Ink. This is going to have to be a bit of an exception, though, because it’s just that foreboding. The Steel Remains had a great cover (or, at least, the UK/Subterranean editions did), but this one blows even that out of the water.

Or, on second thought, perhaps not. The cover’s as amazing as it was when I first saw it, but now there’s reasons to doubt its continued survival. On Westeros, Pat said: Got word from the folks at Del Rey not to pay attention to the Morgan cover, as it's only an early sketch. Now I’m torn between awe at the thought of that thing getting even better and terror at it being ruined. I suppose only time will tell…


New, ruined, cover art can be found here.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Alastair Reynolds Interviewed (Elsewhere)

I got home today having spent every waking moment anticipating diving into Alastair Reynolds’s newest. At times, it felt a bit like I was stuck in the Coming Attractions portion of the show, with standout scenes from his earlier novels replaying themselves in my head and a huge banner saying TERMINAL WORLD – COMING SOON popping up every few minutes. So, when I threw open the door to the mailbox, I’m sure you can imagine my disappointment when I was left bookless. Seeking to dull the edge of the craving, no matter how short lived the relief might be, I went onto the internet and found this interview.

First of all, Alec’s one lucky son of a bitch. On a more important note, Reynolds definitely has some interesting stuff to say. The misunderstandings about Terminal World are interesting, and they probably tie back to the Book of the New Sun inspiration. Something to keep in mind for my eventual review for sure. Of more interest still are the mentions of Reynolds new work. The trilogy looks to be both larger in scale than almost anything Reynolds has done (the mere thought of which boggles the mind) and also, at least at first, far closer to our present day.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Ian C. Esslemont - Night of Knives

“If you’d been born here, you’d stay put tonight, believe me. You’d know. The riots an’ killin’ and such this year prophesized it. Maybe even summoned it. A Shadow Moon. The souls of the dead come out under a shadow Moon. Them and worse.”

From the start, the thought of Esslemont cowriting Malazan made me nervous. Writing thousand page epics is a dangerous game. There’ve been some splendid successes in recent years, but it’s a form where a mediocre novel inevitably wears out whatever welcome it might once have had and simply becomes unbearable as it goes on and on and on (and on). How could a wholly untested author expect to jump into the middle of the largest giant in a field characterized by behemoths? Thankfully, I needn’t have worried. The helm is passed from one hand to another, but the ride proceeds smoothly.

A large part of that easy transition is that Esslemont didn’t just jump in and hope for the best. Night of Knives is far more streamlined than any of the preceding Malazan novels; though we’re seeing a key piece of the world’s history, the novel’s roughly a third of the length of Erikson’s slimmest contribution, and we’re doing it from two new, easily accessible view points.

Temper is a character type familiar to all Malazan fans: the grizzled veteran. Esslemont doesn’t do anything particularly new with him, but it’s not really needed. He’s a good way for the reader to acquaint themselves with the word, he’s a badass, and the flashback to just why he’s standing guard in some backwater shithole under an assumed name is the highlight of the book.

Kiska is, at first, another perfect archetype. We have the local girl, master of stealth and assassination, and we have the short sighted officials who just won’t see her skill for what it is. As the book progresses, however, Esslemont brings an enjoyable amount of depth to his up and coming rogue. Her endless early arrogance is hard to reconcile with her less than stellar performance, and we learn that, if she’d only been a bit more patient, she could’ve become a full blown mage. It’s worth noting, however, that this added layer is more of a bonus than anything else. This isn’t Abercrombie; Kiska is, primarily, what she looks like, just with a bit of spice added to the mix.

Night of Knives looks a bit odd sitting on a shelf with the rest of the series, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that Esslemont has managed to condense one of Erikson’s epic arcs into a bite sized format. No, not quite. Night of Knives feels like the first fifty pages of Memories of Ice (all set up), then the last two hundred pages (all climax). The fast pace is handled quite well for the most part, and character development progresses consistently throughout. That being said, an unavoidable result of playing on ten all the time is that whole sections get lost in the din. An entire seemingly apocalyptic plotline is built up, only to fizzle out off screen.

The combat is generally quite well written, which is good considering how much of it there is. I suppose that a convergence featuring assassins, demons, sorcerers, hounds, etc, would not be a peaceful affair, but some fights seem to exist for no purpose save to add to the already ludicrous body count. In addition, Esslemont’s ability to make battle feel, well, dangerous, is somewhat negated in the first half of the novel by needless dues ex machine, providing us with filler fights resolved in unbelievable ways.

In the end, Night of Knives’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. The novel showcases the events surrounding Kellanved and Dancer, something that every fan’s no doubt been dying to see. The problem is that the big twist is given away in Deadhouse Gates, and the rest of the events are sprinkled throughout the following books. Though the anticipated event in and of itself is decently satisfying, there’s nothing at all unexpected about it. As a result, you’re far better off viewing this as Temper and Kiska’s story, rather than that of Kellanved’s, so that you get a well told tale with a cinematic background, rather than an already revealed twist with a bunch of filler stuffed in.

Night of Knives isn’t an amazing book, but it lays all of my fears to rest. Esslemont is worthy to write Malazan, though I hope he picks a less foreshadowed aspect of it to write in for his future works.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Up and Coming (and Essential?) in March

To be fair, this is out already, but I didn’t think to start this feature until now, and the book was released in March, so I’m doing it anyway. Spellwright is a high magic debut that seems like a much lighter, easier read than a lot of the other books coming out this month. That being said, it seems to set itself apart with its focus on disabilities (written by an author with firsthand experience). For a better idea of the work as a whole, I’ll refer you over to Aidan’s review.

The description sounds interesting, but what’s really got me excited about this (besides the Reynolds tag) is Wert’s review. Reynolds doing New Weird? Hell yes. Ever since the conclusion of the Revelation trilogy (and barring the Prefect), Reynolds writing and world building seem to have gotten steadily less oppressive, and this seems like the culmination of that shift. I’ve also always thought that Reynolds was often great with character, so it’s going to be good to read a book in which he capitalizes on that. As for when it comes out, try tomorrow (the 15th). Yes, that’s right. If you haven’t ordered this yet, and if you like Science Fiction, I don’t know what the hell you’re waiting for.

Billed as a cross genre anthology and focusing on fightin’ men, Warriors features more than enough huge names to get almost any genre fan salivating. Stories from Hobb, Beagle, Williams, and a lot more. Oh, and some Martin fellow has his third Dunk and Egg story in there. Though I don’t think that there’re any reviews out there yet, you can get a pretty good idea of what’s inside over at Westeros and Wert’s done a piece on the Martin story. The whole thing’s coming out on Tuesday (the 16th). UPDATE: Wert's posted a full, and glowing, review of the collection here.

Anyone who listens to Writing Excuses should have a pretty good idea of who Dan Wells is. I Am Not A Serial Killer’s been out for a while in Britain, but it’s first coming out in America on the 30th. Don’t let yourself be put off by the YA tag, this book is precisely written and has some great atmosphere. And that’s not mentioning the superb characterization of serial killer-obsessed lead John Wayne Cleaver. I’m not crazy about the direction the book starts to go in at around the halfway point, but I think that’s mostly a case of me and Wells wanting different things out of the story. If you want to head over to the Horror side of Speculative Fiction, this is something you should definitely check out.


I should point out something about the above list (and the feature in general): It's quite personalized. So, basically, I'm not claiming to represent every book coming out this month. The ignored ones almost all fall into the following category: Books that, for some reason or other, I have no interest in. I could, of course, throw up some cover art and paraphrase the amazon blurb, but what's the point? If you know of the book, and if I have nothing new to contribute to it, I'm sure I'm just saving both of us time.

Those that do not are ones that I have some ulterior motive for ignoring. And, by ulterior, I mean marginally paranoid. I wouldn't feel safe posting about Hobb's Dragon Haven, for instance...what if it contained some insidious spoiler about what awaits me in Ship of Destiny?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Brandon Sanderson - Way of Kings [Cover Art]

My first thought upon seeing the cover was that it was pretty uninteresting. I don’t mean bad, of course. It’s fine cover; it’s just not exciting. The BRANDON SANDERSON is huge, which is, I suppose, a necessary step to try and convince fans that they’re getting stuff of the same quality. The problem comes from it being so big that it dominates the whole cover and prevents any thought from entering my head besides BRANDON SANDERSON. Which is quite possibly what the publishers want, I’ll admit.

The art itself doesn’t really do all that much for me either. I’ve seen it compared to Dune in both positive and negative ways, but my issue doesn’t really come from any one comparison. It’s just that everything on the cover seems so familiar. We’ve got a guy with a really, really big sword. Standing far away is another guy with (presumably) another big sword. Are they talking in some form of weapon-based sign language? Are they preparing to fight at an immense distance, using the extreme length of their blades to their best advantage? Whatever it is, it doesn’t exactly make me want to go running to find out.

And then I saw this:

God damn. Suddenly it all fits into place. That thing is beautiful. That gigantic storm is terrifying, and the two guys standing up to it no longer look pedestrian but rather defiant and downright awesome. I suppose that they’d have to spoil it by adding at least some text, so I guess I should just be happy that I have the liberty of spreading flat my dust jacket, when it comes, and admiring the picture as a whole.

Of course, neither cover can really capture the intrigue displayed by the original:

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Alastair Reynolds - Thousandth Night/Minla's Flowers

They called them Minla’s Flowers.

Thousandth Night/Minla’s Flowers is a gorgeous book. The artwork (for both stories) is excellent, and the text is nicely spaced out. Of course, simply being pretty is rarely good enough to necessitate a purchase. In that department, my mild obsession with everything Alastair Reynolds no doubt helped a bit. There’s plenty to like in his writing. He can write strong characters, both in very dramatic (Chasm City) and very realistic (Pushing Ice) ways; he is one of the absolute best world builders I’ve ever read; his explanations of mind boggling physics are enough to make me forget how incompetent I am at basic science; and his plotting is fast and filled with twists.

Despite all this, I’m always apprehensive when I pick up Reynolds, and Minla’s Flowers is a perfect example of why. It’s not that the ideas are inferior – I’m unsure whether Reynolds has ever thought of a concept that’s less than brilliant – but, sometimes, the execution leaves them floundering. See, Reynolds is always an intellectual pleasure. If you think about almost any of his stories or concepts, you’re amazed. Unfortunately, he doesn’t always succeed in crossing the gap and being a visceral pleasure as well.

The novella is primarily about viewing a person’s life through snapshots. Well, alright, there’s some other stuff. A ship crash lands, an inevitable doom is slowly coming, a people have to go through hundreds and hundreds of years of scientific progress in a century, etc. Really, though, this is the story of Minla. Merlin wakes from his cryogenic sleep once every decade or so, and each time he meets a changed Minla, as she does what she believes is necessary to save her people.

The concept is interesting, and some of the questions raised quite though provoking, but the snapshots are too rare for us to ever really get to know Minla. We can appreciate the changes, yes, but there’s no gut reaction when we go from seeing her as a girl to as an elderly woman, kept standing by a mixture of a cane and her own determination. In the same vein, we’re never invited into the society of the Skylanders, and we never grow to really sympathize with any of the characters outside of Minla and Merlin.

Thousandth Night, on the other hand, is certainly not a disappointment. House of Suns was one of my favorite science fiction novels, but it has the same problem that all tales of lost glamour have: sometimes you want to see the grandeur, not the ashes. Thousandth Night fulfills that desire perfectly, taking place thousands of years earlier than House of Suns and featuring the Gentian Line in its prime.

We get to attend a reunion, in which each member of the Strand contributes their memories to the collective pool, recounting their experience of the last two hundred thousand years. Of course, the problem with perfection is a marked lack of strife, and so some things pretty quickly begin to go awry. Over the course of the story, we get to solve a mystery, see a space battle, and witness Campion and Purslane embark on the character arks that wouldn’t reach their conclusion until House of Suns.

The problem with a novella that fills in so much background, however, is that I’m unsure anyone who isn’t familiar with the other text would get nearly as much enjoyment from it as I did. With no prior knowledge, the Gentian Strand might seem a bit too powerful, and the characters – though not flat here by any means – don’t truly become worthwhile without the bigger picture.

Thousandth Night/Minla’s Flowers is a collector’s item through and through. If you want to read everything that Reynolds has written, or if you were as intrigued by House of Suns as I was, this collection is well worth picking up. If, on the other hand, you’re just getting started on Reynolds, wait until you’ve read (and loved) his other stuff before looking into this one.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Richard K. Morgan - Market Forces

Conflict investment is the way forward…

Richard K. Morgan came to fame with his Takeshi Kovacs novels, gritty noir science fiction stories narrated by the titular antihero, featuring mind blowing action and an acute social conscience. Market Forces, the author’s first foray away from Kovacs, is at once Morgan’s best novel and his worst. His abilities to paint tragic, flawed characters are at their all time height, and yet other elements – world building, themes, etc – are occasionally so over the top that they shatter all immersion.

Market Forces takes us to the near future, where juggernaut corporations make their money by funding wars and dictatorships. It’s a brutal place, and Morgan doesn’t hesitate to make his views on capitalism clear, but believable (or, at least, this part is). The questions of ethnicity brought up aren’t quite as black and white as you might think, and Morgan makes us carefully consider just what our duty to our fellow man is.

Morgan’s novels have always been character driven, but in the past the hardboiled protagonist’s past and inner depth would only be revealed only as it interacted with the fast paced plot. Not so here. This is wholly Chris Faulkner’s story. The plot is loose as can be, essentially detailing Chris’s internal struggle as he tries to combine working for Shorn with maintaining some shred of human decency. Surprisingly enough, the few twists that the plot develops are mostly slight, unwelcome distractions from the crushing inevitability of the main storyline.

Chris Faulkner is not, and never was, a truly good man, and perhaps that’s what makes it so easy to sympathize with him. Some comparisons to John Grisham’s The Firm could undoubtedly be made, but Faulkner shows a degree of humanity a cut above the bestselling Mitch McDeere. Perhaps a part of that is, as I’ve said, his guilt. He is not, as Mitch was, almost blameless, but tempted to betray what he stands for. No. He’s an amateur suddenly thrust into the big leagues and horrified by the brutality of what he now sees, and yet his protests are never wholly stated. It’s occasionally hard to tell if what he despises is the practice, or the efficiency with which it’s carried out. Spending our time in Chris’s head, living through his interactions with those around him – from wife to competitor – it’s impossible to not be moved. The ending is, perhaps, predictable from the first few chapters, but that only adds to the poignancy of the journey.

Morgan’s writing has always been so gritty and raw that you can’t possibly disbelieve a word of it, and it’s just so here. The novel’s hardest hitting moments all come when Morgan shows us the cruel reality of his – and our – world and doesn’t let us look away. This isn’t nice and pretty, and there are no easy solutions. One of the best scenes of the novel occurs in a slum. The Do Gooders (Vasvik, Erik) are speaking to the Corporate Tyrant (Chris), while, next door, a man beats his wife, and a child cries. The solution seems so obvious, when analyzing it like this, doesn’t it? But no, this isn’t an empty morality play. This is real. People do horrible things to each other in Morgan’s world, and the punishment is worse than the crime. The good can’t act, and those that can don’t care to.

Vasvik stared into the middle distance with no emotion than a cat.

Another shriek. A meaty thump. Chris stared around and coughed out a laugh.

“You guys are fucking hysterical, you know that. Erik, with your fucking writing, and the fucking ombudsman here. All you going to change the fucking world for the better.” Suddenly he was yelling himself. “Look at yourselves. You’re fucking paralyzed, all of you.”

Something hit the wall, big enough to be a body. Blows followed, regular, spaced. Chanting.

you cunt, like that? your cunt like that? you fucking like that cunt?

He was in motion, and it was like the Saab ride home all over again. Embodied purpose, unstoppable. He went out, along the tiny entry hall, out the front door, left along to the next door. He kicked it in. Cheap wood splintered in the frame, the door flew back. Slammed into the wall, rebounded. He kicked again and erupted into the space beyond, through the hall and into the living room.


Unfortunately, it’s the incredible strength of Morgan’s realism that makes it such a pity when his brilliance is mixed with lukewarm satire. While on one hand we have a world falling apart, on the other we have corporate executives battling each other to death on the freeways. Yes, you read that right. The same corporate people that sponsor wars and control nations pretend they’re in Mad Max. On one hand, I understand what Morgan was trying to do here. If capitalism leaves all but the elite behind, crushing the dreams and life out of everyone else, what better personification of no-safety-net, ruthless, merciless capitalism could there be than a literal duel to the death? Unfortunately, it doesn’t come off this way as one reads. When Mike Bryant rams some hopeful newcomer off the road and into oblivion, I’m not thinking about the cruelties of an amoral capitalist society. I’m thinking about Burnout Paradise, and nothing better combats gritty, horrifying realism than the mental image of a slowly spinning crashed car, played out in slow motion before the respawn.

Furthermore, the class system in Morgan’s London surpasses believability. Yes, I understand that we’re supposed to believe that the gap between poor and rich has widened, that more and more of the world’s wealth is going into fewer hands, etc. Fine. But when you’ve got 97% of your population living in The Zones (think turbo slums, complete with near-total lawlessness and an unemployment rate to shame the Great Depression), I’m no longer so sure I can agree:

It was an abrupt transition. In the financial district, street lighting was a flood of halogen, chasing out shadows from every corner. Here the street lamps were isolated sentinels spilling a scant pool of radiance at their feet every twenty meters of darkened street. In some places, they were out, lamps either fused or smashed. Elsewhere they had been destroyed more unambiguously, rendered down to jagged concrete stumps still attached to their trunks by a riot of cables and metal bands.

Poverty’s one thing, but it becomes hard to believe when the divide essentially amounts to either being a corporate demigod with personal access to the rough worth of New Zealand, or living in a closet and making six cents a decade.

Market Forces is far from a flawless novel. In terms of world building and immersion, it often falls well behind his other works. And yet, I’m unsure that I’ve ever been as emotionally affected by a novel as I was by this one. Over the course of Market Forces, I felt Chris Faulkner’s elation, and I felt his devastation. By the ending, I was shaking with emotion. Yes, the large themes occasionally fall down the stairs – but they don’t matter. Everything they could ever have done and more is conveyed through the plight of a human being as sympathetic as any you’re likely to encounter. Recommended if you want to ruin your day in the best possible way.