Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Elizabeth Moon - Sheepfarmer's Daughter

I started Sheepfarmer’s Daughter in the hope of getting an easy, enjoyable read. When I turned to the first page, I knew no more than what I’d gleaned from the cover. The book’s opening lived up to my expectations. The writing was simple, but conveyed the author’s point, and Paks’s escape from her father and entrance into the mercenary company was entertaining. Once in the company, Paks’s training felt realistic.

And, were I to list every positive about the novel, I don’t think I’d be able to think of another one.

To say that characterization in Sheepfarmer’s Daughter is one dimensional is to be far too kind. As the book opens, Paks has one goal in life: "'I don’t want to marry at all. I want to be a warrior like my cousin Jornoth.'" (p. 6) On the last page of the novel, Paks has one goal: "From a sheepfarmer’s daughter in Three Firs to a respected veteran in the Duke’s company, with friends who would die for her, or she would for them – that was enough….It was all she wanted, and all she ever would." (p. 506) And that’s Paks: she wants to be a soldier. It’s a goal that she accomplishes in the first ten pages, and her resolve never wavers. She is never faced with a difficult choice. In fact, her single minded determination is so extreme that we don’t even see her consider another choice. In the end, her one goal, the entirety of her character…never matters. She never has to overcome some part of herself, never to rise above a flaw, because she’s too shallow to even have a flaw. Like a mindless automaton, she just practices until she’s good at everything.

Compared to the secondary characters, Paks is a paragon of depth. Out of a desire to introduce us to every person who’s ever held a sword and called themselves a mercenary, this book has an enormous cast, but only three or four personalities to go around. You’ve got your tough but fair leaders: Stammel, Arcolin, the Duke, the Halverics, anyone above corporal. You’ve got your competent and friendly soldier: Saben, Canna, practically everyone in the book, etc. Next there’s the one category that could even conceivably inject something interesting to the plot: the arrogant misfit. This position is first filled by Korryn, a cocky recruit who acts better than the other recruits until he’s beaten up by the weapons trainer. A few hundred pages later Halek comes to fill the gap. He’s not quite as obnoxious as Korryn is, but from his first scoff at all the women soldiers, any reader will already be able to write for themselves the scenes where, a few pages later, Paks beats him up. The final category’s for the sadistic enemies, but we’ll be getting more into that later.

None of these characters interact with each other in any believable way. We are told that Paks has friends, but beyond the fact that we’re shown them laughing a lot more when around each other, the two don’t treat each other any differently than they do anyone else. When it comes to relationships, however, the book becomes truly awkward. No one falls in love, or even displays any romantic emotion. People simply “bed” (p. 34) one another, and I guess we are supposed to fill in the emotions for ourselves at that point. The best example of Sheepfarmer’s Daughter’s juvenile approach to sex is where the only made up word appears in the novel: "'Are you a sisli?...A woman who beds women. Are you?'" (p. 38)

Ironically, for a book filled with endless conflict, Sheepfarmer’s Daughter has no conflict. Or, to put it another way, no plot. After the soldiers are trained, they go off on campaign, on which they fight random enemies for causes that the reader doesn’t care about. Then they go off and do it again. And again. And again. And again. Like how the characterization ducks out after a dozen pages, the plot simply meanders, with quite literally no goal in sight, for hundreds of pages. I am not sure if I am supposed to be sympathetic towards Random City X’s trade routes or not, but it was certainly not enough to make me eager to hear about whether the Duke’s Company beat some random other company that never comes up again.

About halfway through the book, a clear antagonist finally arises, the sadistic Honeycat, who has thousands of soldiers and tortures his prisoners for laughs. The book does, to some degree, improve here, as the protagonists are at least marching towards some kind of objective, but there’s still no real sense of urgency or purpose. The book still takes the form of an endless series of unconnected skirmishes, the only difference being the similarity of the enemy’s colors.

Interestingly enough for a book where the only real events are battles, Sheepfarmer’s Daughter really doesn’t go into any detail at all about the actual fighting. Your average skirmish will be built up for pages on end, and then, when it arrives, you get a paragraph or two that’s basically a bland resuscitation of the events, no spark or drive at all:

Facing them were two lines of Rotengre guards in blue, and more ran from the direction of the gate tower. The Phelani advanced; the Rotengre lines retreated, even before making contact. When they pursued and engaged, the enemy still retreated, though their swordwork was excellent.

“Keep pressing ‘em!” yelled Vossik. “They’ll break. Keep at ‘em.” Even as he spoke, those on the inside of the wall tried to slip down a stair to the city below. Bowstrings twanged behind Paks; at least two fell from the stairs. Vossik told to a party to hold the stairs against an assault.

Now they were close to the gate tower; the rear ranks of defenders turned and raced for the tower doors as a heavy fire of arrows struck the Duke’s men from an upper level. Several fell. Paks and the others threw up their shields and charged, trying to make the tower door before it was slammed against them. The remaining defenders went down under the charge; Paks raced through a gap to hit the closing door with all her strength. Instantly several of her companions were there to help, and together they forced the door open, battling past the defenders. More of the duke’s men poured in the opening.
(p. 312-313)

That’s it, the much hyped battle, the culmination of several chapters’ siegework and anticipation. It’s a summary of what happened, more akin to reading a history of the events than living through them. Our avatar only did three specific things the whole time: have some arrows go over her head, raise a shield, and run through a gap. That’s it, the soul of the book, right there, so I hope you were unable to look away.

The discussion of combat brings us to the one thing that’s interesting in the book – or, more accurately, the one thing that’s interesting due to its absence. We’ve got an incredibly detailed and accurate portrayal of the minutia of military life, but absolutely nowhere in the narrative do we get a realistic feel of war itself. The majority of the character’s in Sheepfarmer’s Daughter view conflict as something akin to a game, and battles possess less horror than having to dig the latrine pit.

Yeah, the mercenaries can be hired by anyone, and yeah they fight for money, but they are, somehow, a completely honorable company. They treat prisoners well, avoid harming the populace, and are comprised one hundred percent of kind souls who would never stab someone in the face unless provoked. In fact, the mercenaries are so just that they can look down upon statements like: "'You think you’re so special, captain – just because you mercenaries fight for money instead of honor…'" (p. 432) Of course, barring the imbecilic first part, that’s completely true, but hey, we’re the Good Guys, man! Because!

Or, at least, this all holds true save for the one bizarre exception, where everyone decides to loot the city of Rotengre. Without warning, I found myself reading a totally different book. Characters are smashing desks to find the jewels hidden inside (why are jewels in a desk?), are ransacking dwellings, are running off with as much as they can carry, etc.

The really interesting part comes about during the house to house search. Paks comes across a servant holding a crying baby. She takes the baby from the woman and tries to lead them away, but is attacked by the family. Who she and her allies massacre. They cut down the father, the sons, the daughters, everyone. Afterwards, even the baby is dead, "having caught a stray backstroke." (p. 322) I don’t care that the father fired a crossbow at them, they were looting his house. I don’t care that he tried to kill them with poisoned blades (though I do wonder where he got them), as Paks was holding his infant in one hand and a sword in the other. I don’t care that he has a "dangerous" (p. 323) amulet from some god I’ve never heard of and wouldn’t care about if I did. The simple fact of the matter is that the main characters just killed a baby.

I’m not condemning them for the act. It’s a terrible thing, but these things happen in war, and from the time that the father fired at them, there was no other way that it could have ended. What I most certainly am condemning them for is the fact that none of them care. They never bring it up again, never agonize over what they had to do. It’s just forgotten. So the characters kill innocents, and children, and feel no remorse. If I wasn’t so apathetic about this book, I’d be hoping for their painful deaths right about now.

Then we get to the true hilarity. On the march to go fight the Honeycat, one of the Duke’s allies is caught looting, and the Duke’s soldiers have the rank hypocrisy to almost kill them for it:

"Concentrate on [killing the Honeycat], and not on making trouble. Plunder Siniava’s camp, not some poor peasents who hardly have a spare tunic." (p. 433)

Excuse me for a second, but didn’t you just sack a city a few pages back? Killing the innocent and taking their belongings? Yes? So please get the fuck off your high horse. Though, then again, this is a book where the final moral victory is achieved by deciding to not castrate the villain, so I guess is should stop expecting anything more complex than a Disney movie’s concept of morality.

Despite the last third of this review, I did not find Sheepfarmer’s Daughter to be offensive – merely offensively bland. There is nothing in this book that you haven’t seen before, and none of what you have seen is done well. There’s no reason to read this.

Friday, August 27, 2010

City of Ruin [Cover Art]

I'm...not a fan. The paperback cover of Nights of Villjamur, at least, still had dignity and, to some extent, grace. This, on the other hand, feels coarse and wholly lacking in subtlty or atmosphere. Thankfully, the hardback cover is far superior. And, speaking of Newton, I really do need to read some of his work...

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Inferior Fantasy: A Reply

[This was written as a response to The Speculative Scotsman's recent post on the worth of genre. I'm reposting it here in case anyone here is interested in reading it, not that I think any of my readers really believe that there's no worth in genre. I should point out that this is not a specific attack against Niall; his post was merely an excuse to let out some steam that has been building for a while.]

Genre is inherently inferior?

Bull. Shit.

First of all, this all depends on your definition of genre. Are we limiting ourselves to epic fantasy, second world fiction, or what? Hell, I've read quite a few things from the Literature section of my Barnes and Noble that were most certainly genre in all but public perception. How, exactly, was the talking cat with a gun in Master and Margarita a realistic concept? Or, for that matter, Satan's literal appearance in that very book? Why is one book about a psychic team in world war two considered the highest of Literature (Gravity's Rainbow), while you've got so many others clogging up that same tired vein that it's considered cliche when anyone else does it? Why, again, is it not fantasy when Gulliver meets an entire kingdom of miniature people?

Now, the answer to all of the above is obvious: quality. If a book meets a certain standard (especially if it has time on its side) it is not viewed as fantasy. To paraphrase Steven Erikson, fantasy books are never viewed as good by the mainstream, they are merely made "extraordinary" and removed from the genre entirely. So, if you are seeking to say that fantasy itself is inferior, I'd like to see a cadre of writers who can put Gravity's Rainbow to shame. While you're at it, please also discount The Road, Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrel, 1984, Brave New World, etc.

But we don't even need to leave the boundaries of traditionally accepted fantasy to find great works. No, I would not hold your average fantasy novel up as an excellent artistic work - but neither would I hold up your average nongenre work as such, either. You are, perhaps, right in saying that there are numerically more superlative literary works, but that's merely time at work, and to deny the existence of genre greats is ludicrous. You give me Crime and Punishment (a book whose brilliance I will most certainly not deny), and I will give you City of Saints and Madmen, The City and The City, and American Gods. Hyperion, Watchmen, and Titus Groan. The Book of the New Sun, A Shadow Out of Time, and The Masque of the Red Death. Dune, The Lord of the Rings, and The Dying Earth. Songs of a Dead Dreamer, Malazan, and A Song of Ice and Fire. Etc.

And no, that last title was not a mistake. I'm not saying that GRRM's work was as successful as, say, Tolstoy in the understanding of what drives man on both an individual and a societal scale. However, Martin, and countless other authors (genre and non genre) show individual lives with such finesse that I think we do learn something from seeing them, even if it's not a tangible something that we can ever put into words or properly sum up in a theme. Reading about real characters, reading the absolute masters of characterization, provides, I believe, its own lessons and insights, regardless of whether you are discussing a popularly acclaimed author or Robin Hobb. Just because a work is entertainment does not also mean that it is worthless.

[I cleaned up my language in a few places from the comments, but left the ideas unchanged.]

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Breaking New Ground: A Madness of Angels

[This is a Breaking New Ground post, and you should probably read the review first.]

A Madness of Angels, despite its flaws, was a really interesting book that had absolutely none of the flaws I was worried about Urban Fantasy having in spades. There was no (seriously worn) leather in it, there was no romance, and, while there was ass kicking, it certainly didn’t revolve around the werewolf/vampire/whatever dynamic that I was dreading that I would find. In fact, I found Kate Griffin’s London to be a wondrous and enchanting place, and I’m looking forward to getting back there as soon as I can in the already released sequel, The Midnight Mayor.

Oddly enough, though, I’m still as worried about Urban Fantasy as a whole as I was before I read the book. Yeah, it was good, but it wasn’t so much typical Urban Fantasy done well as atypical Urban Fantasy, at least if one defines Urban Fantasy as I (sort of) did for this challenge. Obviously this is far from the only atypical Urban Fantasy book out there, probably far from the most atypical one as well, but I’m still not reassured that I’ll be okay with most Urban Fantasy. Ah well, I guess I’ll have to overcome my fears and start the second book of the challenge.

If you’re on the fence about Urban Fantasy in general, I’d recommend giving A Madness of Angels a try anyway. Odds are, it will surprise you.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Kate Griffin - A Madness of Angels

"We be light, we be life, we be fire! We sing electric flame, we rumble underground wind, we dance heaven! Come be we and be free! We be blue electric angels!"

Fantasy’s a genre that yearns for the past, and your standard sources of magic include long forgotten ancient deities, long forgotten languages, and long lost artifacts, all generally found while escaping the dreary, wonderless, soul crushing nature of the modern world. A Madness of Angels doesn’t do any of that. The otherworldly setting in which we are immersed is nothing but everyday London, and sorcerers summon piping from the walls instead of chains of celestial energy. Kate Griffin doesn’t use reality as something to be escaped; she has, instead, found the wonder in every street corner of our everyday lives.

London is omnipresent in the narrative. We are told that the lifeblood of sorcery is the feeling and movement of the city itself, and the story pulsates with the rhythms of the city. The oddities and intricacies of urban life are perfectly rendered here, yet so bizarre as to be almost unrecognizable, while the magic flows from every pore of the landscape around it and feels like such a part of city life that you’ll probably find yourself looking for it next time you’re on the bus.

Griffin’s prose is well suited to the tale and to the city that surrounds it. This is a book of little things, and atmosphere is built with a menagerie of details:

The lift was clear glass, on the outer wall of the building, so I could see the city drop away beneath me. As on the London Eye that night, I was astounded by the beauty of its multicolored spectrum: not just the sodium orange of the suburban sprawl, but the white interiors of office blocks, green traffic lights, red aircraft beacons on the taller towers, purple floodlights washing over high walls, pooling beams of silver on enclosed courtyards, shimmering blues on fountains, or in the doors of clubs, the moving snakes of traffic, defined only by headlights, brakes, or indicators flashing on and off like an endless slithering column of eyes, and the reflected pinkish glare across the ceiling of the sky, except for where an aircraft’s guiding light sent out a cone of brightness, through the black scudding clouds heavy with rain as the wind carried them toward the sea. (p. 134)

The worldbuilding, and our grasp of it, is well balanced throughout the novel, something all the more remarkable because it’s the first in a longer series. This falls more to the wondrous side of the magical spectrum, rather than the heavily rule based, and the occasional explanation does take the form of: “Are you really going to ask such inane questions all the time? Mystic bloody forces, just accept them and cope!” (p. 283) All the same, magic is never used cheaply or incomprehensibly here, and, though we never know the true intricacies of the system, we soon know enough to understand the mechanics of the supernatural duels and confrontations and can even try to predict the character’s tricks, rather than just being along for a flashy but incomprehensible ride.

The opening scenes here are similar to your standard gosh, it’s a magic world! introduction…with the slight exception that the main character is not only aware of the world, not only knowledgeable about how it works, but just so happens to be ferociously competent in it. That character’s head – Mathew Swift’s, to be precise – is a very interesting place to be, in large part because it’s such a confused one. As the book begins, Swift is resurrected, after being deceased for two years. Swift isn’t the only thing that comes back, though. The electric blue angels of the telephone wires come too, and their myriad, flamboyant, and innocent consciousness is great when it is – quite literally – splitting headspace and narrative duties with Swift. The angel’s naivety, and their lack of knowledge as to what it means to be, well, human, leads to some of the novel’s best moments:

We were not exactly surprised; nevertheless I didn’t know what to do, what to say, how, exactly, I should behave. So we did nothing, waited to see if an emotion would strike, curious how we would respond to such news, whether we cry, or shouted or became angry or felt nothing at all. We hoped we would cry; it was the most human response. My eyes remained firmly dry, my mouth empty of any words. (p. 51)

Mathew Swift’s mind is a logical one, so his war against the Tower takes the form of individual acts of destabilization. Instead of going for the agency as a whole, he targets the Tower’s four lieutenants, planning to leave Bakker, the leader, defenseless and alone. Each of these mini quests is fully realized and engrossing. The lieutenants are menacing and interesting enough to function as great villains, and Griffin uses the one-thing-at-a-time nature of Swift’s plot to explore the world of her creation, from magical gladiators, to graffiti-guarded and bomb proof installations, and to phantom subway cars. The battles between Swift and his adversaries, particularly San Khay, were gripping and, most of all, ingenious in their use of the magic system.

And yet, the lieutenants alone never quite add up to a convincing Tower. When compared with the organizations that it’s trying to destroy, or the rest of the city, or even its own sub agencies, the Tower is woefully underdeveloped. Now, it could be argued that the entire novel is an exercise in using the parts to illustrate the whole (magical creatures are, after all, described by their ordinary building blocks), but the Tower fundamentally doesn’t fit into that system, because it’s standing in direct opposition to it. The Tower is all about centralizing magic, uniting all those disparate magicians and warlocks and sorcerers into one system, but the Tower itself feels as loose as anything it’s trying to destroy, just a collection of seemingly redundant agencies with an absolutely clueless figurehead on top.

The Tower’s leader, Bakker, is decently fleshed out as a character, but why he established the Tower, how he did it, why he believes it’s a force for good…none of these things are ever mentioned. The Tower is simply there, and it simply needs to be destroyed. Because. So, while the quest for that end is filled with interesting events, it’s hard to really throw yourself behind the journey without really caring a whit about the Tower itself and without ever seeing the characters really question the rightness of their actions.

Everything leaps into a sharper, more immediate focus when Hunger, a malevolent creature made of shadow that stalks Swift and is obsessed with experiencing life at all costs, comes on stage. The contrast between Hunger and the angels is a very interesting one. Hunger perpetually yearns for life and tries to learn and live by cataloging and consuming the blood and the chemistry of the living, attempting to build a whole out of the details of treasured possessions. The angels, on the other hand, live in a state of never ending joy, insatiable in their desire for media and new experiences, but strangely uninterested in the generalities of humanity or interaction, leading to a Swift that views all of his relationships with a degree of naïve perplexity. Unfortunately, Hunger’s strengths are dulled with repetition, and he’s lost some of his impact by the novel’s conclusion. The revelations about his identity and creation, slowly doled out throughout the climax, are also far easier to piece together dozens of pages before they’re given than they should be.

Getting into the home stretch of A Madness of Angels, I’ll admit that I was distinctly worried. As part one of a series, the book seemed poised to have the major villain dash off into the night so we could repeat the entire exercise again. I needn’t have worried. This is, as far as I’m concerned, exactly how book one of a series should end. The world is more than interesting enough that I want to go back to it, but there’s no missing crucial plot point that makes me think I’ve only gotten half the book.

The prose that is so good at describing the city at large occasionally runs into problems with action. The more supernatural confrontations flow very well, often, but when more traditional combat begins, wordiness can sap the urgency of the events:


I ducked. I can respect formidable magical talent when I see it, and Old Madam Dorie, the old lady who smelt of curry powder and car fumes, had it in spades. She exuded skillful manipulation of primal forces just like her bags gave off the smell of mold, and if she’d said hop, I would have hopped. She, like my gran, had the look of a woman who talked to pigeons; and in the city, no one sees more than the pigeons.

I ducked, which is why the bullet from the sniper rifle…
(p. 84-85)

It is, after all, hard to really get your blood up while you’re musing on exactly why you bothered to duck the sniper’s bullet.

A Madness of Angels’s flaws are all significant, and they prevent me from hailing the book itself as truly great. What was good about it, however, was more than enough to convince me that Kate Griffin was an absolute must read author. A Madness of Angels alternates between an engrossing gallop and a stuttering walk, but the book’s strengths carry it over the finish line with ease. I went into New York City a few days ago (London, sadly, was a bit too far) and walked around. As I did, I felt like I was viewing the same blocks through different eyes, the crushes of people and the roaring of the subways and the towering buildings infused with new life, all a change of perspective away. Are you interested in seeing the same sights, just with a tad more dazzle and quite a bit more jaw dropping magic coursing through them?


Breaking New Ground: A Madness of Angels

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Turned Brain and Fixing Tags

While you wait for my Graphic Novels post, or perhaps the first of the Urban Fantasy reviews, some normal reviews, or whatever else you happen to be here for, I advice you to head on over to The Turned Brain and get ready to add another blog to your list. Megan's reviews are concise and insightful, a combination that's only helped by the absurd rate at which she's reviewing. Ten books in July? Ten? I'm being put to shame, damn it!

And, in other news, I've decided to change my post tags to something that makes some degree of sense. I can no longer remember why I thought having Richard K. Morgan be three separate tags was a good idea (maybe so people can search by middle initial?), but I think it's time to fix that into something a bit less...cluttered.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Urban Fantasy

[This is a Breaking New Ground post]

As far as I can tell, Urban Fantasy has three definitions. The first is any work in which magic comes into the real world. It’s already well documented that I’m a fan, so I won’t be doing that kind of Urban Fantasy. The second definition is anything where the city is a main character. Again, it’s quite obvious that I’m onboard, so we won’t be heading there. The final definition is, to quote Ms. Saintcrow:

Chicks kicking ass. Well, leather-clad chicks kicking ass. Leather-clad chicks kicking ass in an urban environment where some form of "magic" is part of the world. There. That’s about it.

That is the definition that, for the next few weeks, I will be using here on the Rack. It is a definition that, needless to say, doesn’t fill me with confidence and a let’s go! attitude. But it’s the definition that we’re stuck with, and, after all, if it did fill me with those things, I wouldn’t be reading it right now.

From what I can tell (as an outsider, mind you), Urban Fantasy is generally a first person affair, usually (in the subset of it that I’ll be looking at) narrated from a female perspective, has some manner unclothed and tattooed female body part on the cover, features moral ambiguity to a greater or lesser extent, usually has some sort of romance, and often seems to be the standard magic-in-hiding scenario that almost always seems to use the same vampires/werewolves/wizards or what have you.

None of those aspects are particularly odious in and of themselves, but together they make a product that I’m somewhat wary of. And that last sentence was me lying through my teeth, because several of those do cause serious problems for me. The biggest of them (besides the cover art) is the romance element. Now, I’m not adverse to romance in my fiction. I love well drawn characters more than I love anything else, and I understand that people (and characters) fall in love, have relationships, etc. That’s fine, as long as it’s only a part of their personality and story. When the main thrust of the tale is True Love, or any variant of said Love, I start looking for the exits. I remain doubtful that there’re characters great enough to keep me engaged with stakes no higher than their imminent copulation. So the fact that this genre has ties, no matter how tenuous, to paranormal romance is freaking me out a bit.

Ignoring the romance, I’ve got a bit of a problem with the paranormal part, too. Though there are exceptions, werewolves, vampires, etc, are all creatures that, at this point, cause me to do more groaning than screaming when they appear. I’m sure that not all Urban Fantasy relies purely on those particular supernaturals, but it seems that a rather large percentage of it does, and I’m sick of it even before opening to the first page, which is, needless to say, not a good sign.

But I think it’s time to change tracks here, as I could go on forever on why I haven’t read the books, but it’s a bit pointless to do so when I’m about to actually go read them. This won’t be the absolute first time I’ve been in these waters. Going by (some variant of) Saintcrow’s definition, I’ve read: Jim Butcher. Yeah, that’s really it. I enjoyed the sarcastic narration, the character of Harry, and the feel of the whole affair, but the blatant idiocy of half the cast made me drop the series after the second book, and I remain doubtful that I’m going to pick it up again.

So, what am I planning to read?

Griffin’s concept of “Urban Magic” seems like exactly my thing. Even better, the book is almost entirely devoid of the things that I can’t help but look for. The cover, for instance, has a cheesy-but-sort-of-cool guy on it, which makes me feel sort of safe, at least in the sense that it will be, at worst, bad in a cheesy way that I already understand. Griffin is well liked on Westeros, which has rarely steered me wrong before, not to mention the myriad good reviews she’s received.

UPDATE: And the challenge has been met.

A tattooed back? An Amazon blurb that includes: Until one moment – and one man – changes everything? Uh oh. The reasons that The Iron Hunt survived, despite triggering every safeguard and warning, are twofold. The first is that, a few weeks ago, Marjorie M. Liu and Kelly Armstrong had a conversation on Scalzi’s Whatever. Over the course of the conversation, Armstrong said: One thing I admired about [your writing] is the depth and richness of your writing. Your prose is very lush, but you still keep up the pace and the action, which is a rare combination. Good prose is definitely one of the main things I look for in a novel, so this was very comforting. The second reason came from the first half of the amazon marketing blurb that I quoted just above, which reads: Demon hunter Maxine Kiss wears her armor as tattoos, which unwind from her body to take on forms of their own at night. So those aren’t just overrated decorations? Alright, this all seems to have been given some thought, so I suppose it deserves a chance. Besides which, Thea (of The Book Smugglers) gave it a very promising review that reaffirms the excellent prose.

UPDATE: Challenge met.

The Mercy Thompson series features a shapeshifter as a protagonist, with the twist that the prime mythology that it draws from is Native American, rather than Twilight. I’ve also been told that Mercy is a realistic and well drawn character, and that romance (though present) is not the dominant aspect. On the subject of the series, Thea said: Seriously, this is one of the finest ongoing urban fantasy series’ around – Mercy is the ideal, genuine heroine, and Patricia Briggs’ gift for storytelling is damn near unparalleled, which sounds like damn fine praise to me.

Huston’s work is highly regarded on Westeros, coming up again and again in this thread. I’ve heard that his novels are gritty and fast paced, as well as possessing a fairly original take on the standard pantheon of supernaturals. On the review front, lovevampires.com (gulp) said: This book is the perfect antidote to the romanticised vampire.

Though not quite a fit for my definitions (being , from what I can tell, a near-future setting merged with magic, rather than a present day one) I’m counting Snake Agent here. The oriental basis for the magic sounded interesting, as did the overall concept of the book, and the positive reviews got me interested.

So, what does the whole list mean? Well, I’m determined to get through a minimum of five books from each new genre, and, while I reserve the right to replace one of them, those look like the likeliest candidates. I can’t promise a review of every book read for this, but I will, at the least, do a more informal post on them. So, without wasting any more time, I’m off to go kick read some demon ass fiction in my new leather pants.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Breaking New Ground

A few weeks ago, I had an experience that I’m sure every genre fan’s had more times than they can count. You mention that you read; they ask what; you say SFF. From there, whether they’re a reader or not, they’re likely to sneer. What I really hate, however, is those snap judgments that are dished out by people who have never read it. “It’s all just a Lord of the Rings rip off.” (I know, City of Saints and Madmen practically plagiarized the scene at Mt. Doom!) “Anything can happen, so it’s just stupid.” (Exactly, like that high-magic Song of Ice and Fire everyone’s talking about.) “It’s all just pointless violence, nothing but popcorn reads.” (Yeah, because Gene Wolfe’s known for his special effects.)

And yet, I do it too.

Romance? Boy loves girl; they fight about something; they make up. That’s it, same story every time, only differentiated by the amount of gratuitous sex. Paranormal romance? Cleaned up romance that’s meant for teen girls to swoon over, led by a book whose quality and popularity are so inverted I’m half convinced that the entire human race is just playing a joke on me by saying they like it. Urban Fantasy? Chicks in tight leather killing some stuff and fucking the rest, differentiated from Paranormal Romance only by the body count. Graphic Novels? Books for people who lack the imagination to make their own sound effects (pow!). Young Adult? I didn’t read it when I fell within the demographic, why would I start now when there are real books out there to read? Shared World? You just saw the movie/played the game and want to fit in with the grownups. Etc.

Now, I know that each and every one of those is just as stupid as hating fantasy because it’s all big manly barbarians saving wenches from dragons, but I have a hard time getting over my gut reaction to seeing bare tattooed backs on cover after cover. (Though I will point out that, before you all leave due to me insulting your favorite genre, the above examples were fairly sarcastic. Those’re all genres that I don’t understand, but it’s not to that pooh-flinging degree, okay?) So, what am I going to do about all of this? The same thing that I’d tell someone who won’t read epic fantasy due to the hooded figures on the covers: I’m going to get reading.

Now, I’m not doing Romance, whether Paranormal or vanilla. Sorry, I just can’t do it. Maybe another time. Nor am I doing Young Adult, or Shared World, simply because I’m not in the mood for those at the moment. What I am doing, however, is Urban Fantasy and Graphic Novels. So, in the next few days, get ready for more detailed posts on those genres, but I figured I’d announce the whole thing now.

I’m not going to turn the reviews themselves into pieces on what I think about the genre, because I’m a big believer that you should be able to read a review and have it make sense without needing every word I’ve ever written for context. Instead, I’m planning to write a short piece after each book to say, in a much less formal setting, what I thought of it and what I’m thinking of the genre as a whole at that moment.

This is, I should probably point out, not going to become the entirety of what I read. I’m planning on doing a minimum of five of each, without a set timeframe, and the mainstay of my reading is still going to be the same mixture of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, with a smattering of occasional literature, that it’s always been.

Just so I have a nice handy escape built in from the beginning, I’ll throw it out there that I have the ability to quit at any time. If the first twenty-two Urban Fantasies I read revolt me, there ain’t gonna to be no twenty-third, but at least I’ll have tried.

Anyway, I think it’s time to get this started. Which means I should probably open up that Graphic Novel on my desk…

Breaking New Ground: Urban Fantasy

Breaking New Ground: Graphic Novels

Breaking New Ground: Crime

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Terry Pratchett - Going Postal

“Delivering the mail is the only thing….History is not to be denied…I intend to deliver all the mail. If people have moved, we will try to find them. If they have died, we will deliver to their descendants. The post will be delivered. We are tasked to deliver it, and deliver it we will. What else should we do with it? Burn it? Throw it in the river? Open it to decide if it’s important? No, the letters were entrusted to our care. Delivery is the only way.” (p. 170)

Going Postal opens with the condemned man, Moist Von Lipwig, tunneling for freedom with a spoon on the day of his execution. As he works, the prison guards come in and congratulate him on his attempt. They, it seems, always give the prisoner a tool for hope, for the prospect of freedom (p. 6). The prospect of freedom, however, doesn’t mean that they provide said freedom, so Moist is taken from his cell and executed…

…or so it appears. In reality, his most recent alias having fallen victim to the hangman’s noose, Moist is placed in charge of the city’s Post Office by Ankh-Morpork’s tyrannical dictator, Vetinari. Prevented from escaping by an indefatigable golem who forgoes sleep entirely, Moist is left with only one way out, doing his job and doing it well.

Moist is plagued by more than just the pathetic state of the Post Office and the reality-distorting effect of so many letters in one place. In direct competition with those archaic deliverers of letters are the Clacks, a system that, to the modern reader, is impossible to not think of as email, though the actual process is a bit closer to the telegraph. The book’s main conflict is between the efficient and the personal:

I daresay the Clack is wonderful if you want to know the prawn market figures in Genua. But can you write S.W.A.L.K. on a clacks? Can you seal it with a loving kiss? Can you cry your tears onto a clacks, can you smell it, can you enclose a pressed flower? A letter is more than just a message. And a clacks is so expensive in any case that the average man in the street can just about afford in time of crisis: GRANDADS DEAD FUNERAL TUES. A day’s wages to send a message as warm and as human as a throwing knife? But a letter is real. (p. 171)

The Clacks were once a labor of love, but now they are run by greedy businessmen who cut corners and endanger their workers’ lives. The Post Office, by comparison, is a place of traditions, and grand schemes, and charm. And yet, how can mail delivered by a horse possibly hope to compete with the fast-as-the-signal speed of the Clacks? It’s a variant of the question that I don’t doubt we’ve all tried to grapple with at one point or the other, whether we were arguing against e-books or for vinyl (or whatever your own personally preferred throwback is), and Pratchett does not give us an easy answer. While it may feel right at the time, and may even have short term benefits, Moist soon realizes that he cannot in good conscience stay in the direct path of progress:

But Moist kept thinking of all the bad things that could happen without the semaphore. Oh, they used to happen before the semaphore, of course, but that wasn’t the same thing at all. (p. 324)

Of course, no matter his eventual plans for the technology, Moist needs a way to compete, and he needs it fast. The answer lies, unsurprisingly, in his shady past. Having spent years as a conman, Moist is an expert at manipulation, and he sets out to do what he must for the Post Office – put on a good show: Run before you walk! Fly before you crawl! Keep moving forward! (p. 158) He always raises the bar higher, promising more and more and somehow finding ways to deliver.

Therein lies my problem with Going Postal. See, Moist makes people believe in his own bullshit. After completing one stunt after another, he always promises bigger, and people are soon convinced that he can do anything. And, after the first few stunning successes, the reader, too, knows that he can do anything, and, at that point, all tension flies out of the ride. Moist Von Lipwig cannot afford to fail; Moist says that he will succeed; Terry Pratchett needs Moist to succeed; hence, Moist succeeds. Always. One this realization is reached, that any plan, no matter how impossible, will be brought about, even if it’s by mere chance or happenstance, any setback goes from threatening to time wasting. When, at the end of the book, Moist complains that he doesn’t have a plan, it’s hard to think anything but: that’s nice; now, get on with it, will you? The novel changes from a story to a collection of set pieces, each amusing in their own right, but with little to make the reader fear for the characters and little that dissuades the reader, end of the current escapade reached, from taking a lengthy hiatus from the text.

[This paragraph has SPOILERS, skip it if you haven’t read the text yet] There are other instances in the novel where going after the knockout blow deprives the book of some of its best bits. The Post Office is filled with undelivered mail at the start of the novel, and the sheer weight of the written word within the building has began to twist the world around it. The idea that people’s thoughts and feelings – souls, even? – written out, can so affect their surroundings is awesome and antithetical to the clipped, pay-by-the-word style of the Clacks. So, the Clacks lash out, and, in their determination for profit at all costs, destroy the letters. Okay, I understand what Pratchett is saying here – it would be hard for the potentially soul-destroying nature of the Clacks to be spilled out any clearer than that – but, at the same time, he takes one of the most interesting storylines from the book at the halfway point, and there’s nothing nearly as quirky and interesting as it was to take its place.

Complain as I might about its dominance, but the humor in Going Postal is absolutely excellent. It comes through in the way that Pratchett constructs his scenes and from his storylines, and, most of all, it comes through his hilarious prose:

It is wrong to judge by appearances. Despite his expression, which was of a piglet having a bright idea, and his mode of speech, which might put you in mind of a small, breathless, neurotic, but ridiculously expensive dog, Mr. Horsefry might well have been a kind, generous, and pious man. In the same way, the man climbing out of your window in a stripy jumper, a mask, and a great hurry might merely be lsot on his way to a fancy-dress party and the man in the wig and robes at the focus of the courtroom might only a transvestite who wandered in out of the rain. Snap judgments can be so unfair. (p. 70)

My bitching and moaning aside, Going Postal is an enjoyable novel, even though it didn’t wow me like I’d been hoping. I’m still waiting for the Pratchett book that really sells me on the man, but, as I continue searching, I’ll recommend Going Postal while I go by, if you’re in the mood for some well written and socially conscious satire.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Iron Maiden's Final Frontier

Today’s the day that Iron Maiden releases their fifteenth studio album, The Final Frontier. To say that I’m waiting with baited breath is to say that the Night’s Dawn Trilogy is moderately lengthy. Iron Maiden’s the band that got me into metal (still the my genre of choice), and they’re a huge inspiration on the music that I write to this day.

Which is not to say that I’m only interested in Maiden out of nostalgia. That couldn’t be further from the truth, right about now. I’m a relatively new Maiden fan, at least in terms of their overall discography, and the only one of their albums I’ve ever had to wait for until now was A Matter of Life and Death. When I got it, I thought it was one of the best things ever made, for a few weeks. After that, though I wouldn’t let myself admit it wasn’t as awesome as I thought it’d be, I didn’t listen to it all that much. I only gave it another spin recently…and it floored me. Back then, I was hoping for another Number of the Beast, something fun and catchy. A Matter of Life and Death was anything but fun and catchy. It is dark and brooding, epic and progressive, an album that threatens to drown you in its expansive soundscape. Though it’s nothing like Piece of Mind, Powerslave, Killers, etc, A Matter of Life and Death was a great album and better off for breaking new ground (the culmination of the sound that Maiden had done good work with on Brave New World and A Dance of Death and begun on The X Factor).

So, The Final Frontier’s got a bit of living up to do. There’s my childish glee whenever I get anything with Maiden’s name on it, augmented with the fact that my musical expectations are somewhere between Jaw-on-Floor and Greatest-Thing-Since-Sliced-Bread. It’s probably a bad thing to go into any album with expectations like that, but if any band can pull it off, it’s probably Maiden. So, if you’re a fan, you’ve already got the album on the way, and if not…you probably don’t care. All the same, I had to come out with this. Now I'm off to go check my mailbox...

Friday, August 13, 2010

American Gods, as read by George Guidall

Way back in the nether regions of last year, I read American Gods. I found it interesting, but difficult. While I didn’t regret reading it, I doubted I would continue with Gaiman. Somehow, however, the story just didn’t leave my head. I kept picking at it, often almost ignoring whatever I was currently reading to puzzle out various aspects of it. Finally, I decided to give Gaiman another try. And discovered that he’s, if not the best thing since sliced bread, certainly among the best three or four. Though I haven’t managed to finish Gaiman’s bibliography yet, not even close, I decided to revisit American Gods.

Seeing as I was on the road at the time, I decided to do this in audiobook form. Now, barring the assorted young adult reads that my mother used to play in the car during long drives, this is my first real experience with audiobooks. For the most part, I found the voice acting far more engrossing than I thought that I would. The constraints of the format occasionally nagged me – such as being unable to go back if you missed a line, or being unable to mark a particularly excellent passage – but it was something that, once I managed to just sit back and concentrate on the story, succeeded in drawing me in quite a bit.

Though I don’t have much to compare it to, I thought that several individual characters were quite well voiced – Shadow, Wednesday, and Czernobog, in particular. My only gripe is that, while any two conversing characters would be distinctive enough to remove any problems, the number of different personalities given to them was finite. This led to them being reused quite often (which, I suppose, would’ve been impossible to avoid) and, more annoyingly, character voices changing between one appearance and the next, though never to a huge degree.

Though I finished the roadtrip about halfway through the book, and then reverted to the paper copy, I still hear the prose as read by Guidall. If you’re interested in the audiobook version of American Gods, I’d recommend it without hesitation. I’ll be writing more on American Gods, and, who knows, I might even touch upon some of the novel’s content, then. Time will tell, I guess.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Joe Hill - 20th Century Ghosts

Best New Horror opens with jaded horror editor Eddie Carroll reading a story from an unknown author so good that he can’t think of anything else. He hunts the author’s address down, goes for a visit, and discovers that the story’s incredible darkness is reflected in its sadistic creator…Wait, wait, I’ve read this one, haven’t I? I mean, it’s not exactly a new story, now is it? Oh, the details have changed, but the cruel artist, the disfigured bodies of his family, the isolated house in the woods, the frantic flight in the night, who isn’t familiar with these? But wait. Caroll’s read that one, too, and his is a bit different, because, after reading all the schlock, Carroll knows the tricks of survival:

He knew this forest, this darkness, this night. He knew his chances: not good. He knew that was after him. It had been after him all his life. He knew where he was – in a story about to unfold an ending. He knew better than anyone how these stories went, and if anybody could find their way out of these woods, it was him. [p. 23]

Best New Horror is, it turns out, a piece far more concerned with the horror genre as a whole than it is with telling a specific horror story. Tired and trite as it may be, even obsessed with its own capacity for cruelty, Hill nonetheless doesn’t condemn the genre, merely the uninspired and sadistic aspects of it. As to its peaks, however, Eddie Carroll doesn’t hesitate to speak:

[He] said that every fictional world was a work of fantasy, and whenever writers introduce a threat or conflict into their story, they create the possibility of horror. He had been drawn to horror fiction, he said, because it took the most basic elements of literature and pushed them to their extremes. All fiction was make-believe, which made fantasy more valid (and honest) than realism. [p. 14]

Hill is not a god sitting on his mountain and judging horror. He is, armed with his vision of everything that horror can accomplish, down in the trenches. Best New Horror is a meta statement about all horror, yes, but I was lying earlier when I implied that it wasn’t also a story. It’s Hill’s mastery of the form, his ability to hit all the right notes and make the reader sit bolt upright as they read the wholly expected encounter between fictional author and jaded, reader-surrogate editor. The story shown within the story as the canonical example of revolutionary, but morally bankrupt, horror is not a strawman, not a meritless sadist’s torture fantasy. The story-within-a-story of Buttonboy is its own tale, and, though we may be alienated by its perversity, we are at the same time drawn into its darkness, as only the best horror can manage.

20th Century Ghosts is not a polemic thinly veiled as a shot story collection, and, after Best New Horror, we turn away from the metafictional and toward the simple reality of an excellent horror story well told. At all moments, however, Hill remains fully conscious of our expectations and stubbornly refuses to fall into cliché. This behind the scenes bond between author and reader – this, we’ve both been here before, haven’t we? – leads to some of the collection’s biggest successes, both large and small.

Promising to be yet another self aware analysis of our entertainment, Pop Art’s title turns out to be a clever pun. Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead gives us the promised zombie apocalypse – it just happens to be costumed zombies on the set of a George Romero picture, and the return from the dead happens to be an emotional, rather than a physical, one. In the same vein, stories, such as The Widow’s Breakfast, take our expectations of darkness and use them to surprise us with moments of beautiful kindness.

Which isn’t to imply that all of Hill’s tools are ironic tricks to distance himself from the genre. Abraham’s Boys is the opposite, beginning with the rather unusual set up of Van Helsing’s children waiting for their father to return, before moving toward what seems like the expected scene of enlightenment, reunion, etc. But no, that is not to be. Instead, the story’s ending plunges us further into darkness, forcing us to reanalyze every event within it.

The supernatural is the catalyst for many of the events in 20th Century Ghosts, but it is never the core of the story. Character drives almost every one of these pieces, from the optimistic to the crushing, and it is from the human element that the mainstay of the collection’s darkness originates. The Cape, for instance, focuses on a man whose apathy and depression are broken by the discovery of a magical cape that allows him to fly. Where the story becomes remarkable, however, is where the man’s insecurities poison the ability he’s received, and where the horribly human center of the tale turns from man to monster. The Black Phone is similar in many ways, portraying the supernatural as the only means of escape from the horrible realities of the world. In the Rundown, on the other hand, is perhaps the most unsettling story of the collection, despite its complete lack of otherworldly elements.

Everything is not rosy (or should that be polluted?) in 20th Century Ghosts. The story You Will Hear the Locusts Sing, for instance, fails to maintain its momentum for its whole length. The story opens with:

Francis Key woke from dreams that were not uneasy, but exultant, and found himself an insect. He was not surprised, had thought this might happen. Or not thought: hoped, fantasized, and if not for this precise thing, then something like it. [p. 69]

The opening portions of the tale are excellent in a bizarre way, as Francis experiments with and learns to control his new body. As the tale progresses, and Francis moves from a conviction of his own alienation to a need for revenge, however, the urgent drive that sent us tearing through the early pages lets up a bit, just as the opposite should be happening. There’s no weak part of the story, and nothing in there that’s blatantly nonessential, but the tale feels overlong nonetheless. Along the same lines, Better than Home is a great character sketch that never seems to go anywhere and, as a result, never really justifies its length.

Pop Art is the opposite. This story is so good that, were everything else in the collection overwritten rubbish, I would still say that this was a mandatory purchase. Pop Art is the tale of two boys’ friendship. It is also a tale of vulnerability, and love, and escape, and loss, and if there is one false note in the story, I haven’t found it. This is a story that sounds weird and faintly ridiculous, and yet it is a story that, I am fairly confident, will break your heart. If you are going to read one short story in your life, give some serious thought to this one.

It should have been easy for Joe Hill. He is, after all, Stephen King’s son. Should he have wanted to, there couldn’t have been much in between him and a long string of lucrative, insipid novels under the name Joe King, packed right next to his father’s own lackluster later works. Instead, we’ve gotten a short story collection that questions the worth of its genre and seems to come from a total unknown. If Hill wasn’t so talented, I’d say that wasn’t the best of business plans. Hill is that good, however, and I think his work should go right next to King’s golden era. Not because they’re family, but because Hill is just that good.

Standouts: Pop Art, Best New Horror, In the Rundown, My Father's Mask, Abraham's Boys

Sunday, August 8, 2010

On Stagnated Timelines (Malazan)

There was a rather large discussion on Westeros a few weeks ago, focused on the improbability of Malazan’s timescale. While I don’t think it’s truly possible to say that it’s not slightly…inflated…to say the least, I think the following quote goes a ways towards explaining one of the biggest problems with the numbers, namely that it’s ludicrous for technology to have remained stagnant for so long:

“Without the gods, we’re on our own. And with us on our own- Abyss fend! – what mischief we might do! what grotesque inventions to plague the world!” (p. 165)

So, though whether it’s believable to you or not, I guess it’s clear that Erikson was using the hard-to-develop-while-being-magically-nuked style of technological advancement.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Village in the Middle of Nowhere (Malazan)

I finished Dust of Dreams a day or two back, and I spent some time this afternoon going through the pages I marked as particularly interesting and either writing stuff down in my Quotes file, keeping it marked if it was a potential review quote, or removing the mark if I was no longer quite as enamored with it as I’d been. Partway through the process, I came across this:

Thirty leagues north of Li Heng on the Quon Talian mainland was the village of Gethran, an unremarkable little clump of middling drystone houses , workshops, a dilapidated church devoted to a handful of local spirits, a bar and a gaol blockhouse where the tax-collector lived in one of the cells and was in the habit of arresting himself when he got too drunk, which was just about every night.(p. 281)

It’s a totally new setting, complete with hierarchies and clashes, etc, a total change in perspective like Erikson unleashes…every few pages. The difference is, however, that it’s a random village in the middle of nowhere:

A village no different from countless others scattered throughout the Malazan Empire. Entire lives spent in isolation from the affairs of imperial ambition, from the marching armies of conquet and magic-ravaged battles. Lives crowded with local dramas and every face a familiar one, every life known from blood-slick birth to blood-drenched death. (p. 282)

Most fantasies stick with the heroes of the land, the nobility, the adventurers. Malazan has a plethora of ground based point of views, but, even so, almost all of them are involved, in one way or another, with world changing events. The everyman’s point of view – in which characters strive for something basic, simple, something within the confines of your average man’s life, as opposed to, say, ascending to godhood – is almost completely absent from Malazan. Oh, you’ve got a handful of examples (Crokus in Gardens of the Moon, for isntance), but it’s still rare enough that it’s almost more shocking to get one than it is to see an undead dragon, or what have you.

This isn’t a flaw of Malazan, mind you, just a style. Malazan is not about the common man; it is about those who have been swept up by a mythic tide, and it is about the kind of events that shape history for a millennia. And yet, every once in a while, you get something like the aforementioned passages that put it all in perspective.

Of course, the quote isn’t totally out of the blue. Deadsmell, a squad mage in the Bonehunters, has been a minor character for a while now, but it’s only now that we get his past:

Hounded by four older sisters, the grubby half-wild boy who would one day be named Deadsmell was in the habit of hiding out with Old Scez, who might have been an uncle or maybe just one of his mother’s lovers before his father came back from the war. (p. 282)

Over the following few pages, I felt like I’d lived for years in this town, sitting on the outskirts and untouched by the colossal events that we’ve spent so much time reading about, and I felt like I’d lived through Deadsmell’s life. This isn’t an essential scene, admittedly. The story could’ve easily gone on without it, and Deadsmell doesn't spring to the fore of the narration afterwards. All the same, I think the entire Malazan world is richer for its inclusion, and it was one of my favorite parts of Dust of Dreams.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Stephen R. Donaldson - The Real Story

Most of the crowd at Mallorys Bar & Sleep over in Delta Sector had no idea what was really going on. As far as they were concerned, it was just another example of animal passion, men and women driven together by lust – the kind of thing everybody understood, or at least dreamed about. The only uncommon feature was that in this case the passion included some common sense. Only a few people knew there was more to it.

That, of course, was not the real story
. (p. 1-6)

The Real Story opens by giving us the general view of what happened between two space pirates over a woman. What we see is bland and predictable. It is not, of course, what really happened. Next we’re shown the experts’ point of view those same events, probing deeper beneath the surface. That is not the whole picture either, however. Finally, we’re shown the real story, played out scene by agonizing and unilluminated scene, and we come to understand the intricacies of Donaldson’s creation.

Donaldson’s central conceit is to begin with a classic Antagonist-Victim-Rescuer triangle and turn it on his head, with Donaldson saying as much in the afterword:

My original intentions were explicitly archetypical. What I had in mind was an aesthetically perfect variation on the basic three-sided story: the story in which a victim (Morn), a Villain (Angus), and a Rescuer (Nick) all change roles…Victimized by Angus, Morn is recued by Nick – but that, of course, is not the real story. The real story has to do with the way in which Nick becomes Angus’s victimizer and Morn becomes Angus’s rescuer. (p. 224-225)

In this, Donaldson moves with power and subtlety. From the opening, Angus Thermopyle seems a standard villain, vain, greedy, run down, powerful, and all but cackling. As the narrative progresses, however, we come to truly understand (though still revile) him. Morn Hyland’s character, on the other hand, doesn’t become deeper, but rather shallower, in devastating, heart wrenching, and drawn out torments. The final member of our subverted triangle, Nick, is viewed only on the periphery, for most of the story, but he is handled as well as the other two.

There are two main problems with The Real Story, however. The first of them is the sheer grimness of Donaldson’s vision. Now, I like dark fiction. I think that, imply what it may about my psyche, the most interesting stories are the ones that hurt the most, that make us reel back and try to shy away. In The Real Story, Donaldson has plenty of that. What he has absolutely none of, however, is contrast. There are no, and I mean that quite literally, uplifting moments in The Real Story. None.

This isn’t a black and white drama, but I’m not sure if it’s necessarily more complex. We aren’t talking about that new fad of gray versus black. This isn’t even gray versus gray. The Real Story is full on black versus black, pitch battling midnight, with an is-that-black-or-just-a-really-really-dark-gray watching from the sidelines. If black and white morality can be criticized for taking the human element out and exculpating the characters from all meaningful moral choices, this is the same. By painting everyone in an equally despicable light, Donaldson shirks away from any real moral dilemmas to the same degree, no longer a battle between Rand and the Dark One, it’s just the Dark One squaring off with Sauron, innocent slaughtering, sadistic, misogynistic pirate versus innocent slaughtering, sadistic, misogynistic pirate.

The other major problem with The Real Story results from the interesting opening and increasingly deep conceptions of just what happened. Now, I think that the structure of the book was extremely well done, and I was curious as to just how certain events played out when everything began, but the real story turns out to be far too similar to the experts’ conception of it. Yes, over the two hundred pages of narrative we get more motivations, some events that those experts didn’t imagine, etc, but on the whole, our initial grasp of what happened is pretty much sufficient to extract all suspense from the story, turning nail biting fight scenes into yeah, I know how this ends. Can we speed things up a tad?

The Real Story set out with a very specific concept in mind and succeeded perfectly in its aim. Unfortunately, its narrow focus led to a whole host of other problems, and I’m unsure if that one success really justifies the flaws of the story. I suppose that this volume’s worthiness will really depend on the strengths of its sequels. On its own, however, I’d only advise checking out The Real Story if the concept is something you feel you need to read.

Up and Coming (and Essential) in August

Here’s what I know about Mary Robinette Kowal: The Four Principles of Puppetry, Writing Process Q&A at Worldcon, Character & World Building Q&A at Worldcon. While I suppose that having original and insightful things to say about writing and actually being good at writing don’t have to go hand in hand all the time, I still think it’s a good bet that they go together more often than not. If you're interested, you should definitely check out Kowal's The Big Idea post on Whatever.

It’s Brandon Sanderson, beginning a new epic fantasy series. Of course I’m interested. Moving beyond just the name, however, there’s the fact that Way of Kings looks like a very interesting book, and not just because it has new and inventive magic systems springing out of every pore. Brandon Sanderson’s Suvudu interview sheds quite a bit of light on the book, and, for those of you not averse to free samples, you can get a nicely sized chunk of the book’s opening on Tor's website to further whet your appetite.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Reading in July

When it comes to quantity, July was a disappointing month. Hopefully, though, the quality and complexity of some of the reads that were done will excuse that. I think more of the problem, though, is that I rediscovered the idea of reading more than one book at once – and then remembered why I stopped doing it. Starting seven books means finishing none, which is why, though I’ve read more than a hundred pages of Jonathan strange and Mr Norrell, Fragile Things, The Space Opera Renaissance, The Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, The Third Bear, The Inferno, and Dust of Dreams, I can’t say that I’ve finished any of them. Ah well, I suppose that I’ll have to focus a bit more next month.

Rereading the first Gaiman novel that I ever read – about which I was ambivalent about at the time – has led to a similar analysis of it, just with the positives massively magnified and the negatives rendered almost insignificant. I’ll be talking about this book at length in the future, so I’ll leave the rest until then.

After the Night’s Dawn trilogy, I was expecting incredible things from the rest of Hamilton’s bibliography. Pandora’s Star had parts that lived up to my expectations – Paula Myo and her battle against the Guardians, the aliens themselves, the novel’s conclusion – but there were just as many parts that dragged horribly, and the pacing seemed determined to let the latter category ruin the former. Were you enjoying that nail biting space battle? I hope not, because we’re now going to make a boat for the next fifty pages.

Though I’m still unsure as to whether Blood Meridian was horribly, brilliantly, depressingly brutal, or just horribly, brilliantly, brutally depressing, I am pretty sure that this is a book that deserves the accolades that it receives. That being said, the pointless, repetitive nature of the violence that was the book’s greatest strength was also its flaw, as the opening third-or-so felt aimless and failed to captivate me. Only when the Kid properly joins Glanton, and the Judge comes to the fore, did the story come alive in my eyes.

It says something about a book, though I’m not sure if that something’s good or bad, when, two weeks after finishing it, you’re still not sure if you enjoyed it. Parts of Gravity’s Rainbow were nothing short of revelatory, while others were exercises in willpower to slug through and felt like a mountain of bloated excess. Still, in the end, I’m glad that I tackled this one, even if my perceptions still need a bit more sorting out.