Thursday, July 29, 2010

There's A Sorrow in Catching Up (Malazan)

A few days ago, Steven Erikson announced the completion of the Malazan series:

GASP! That would be me, coming up for air. How long was I down there? About twenty years, from conception to completion. The Malazan Book of the Fallen is done. Sure, editing and all that crap to follow. But ... done. I don't know who I am. Who am I again? What planet is this? Three months of butterflies ... maybe this double whiskey will fix that. Hmm. No. Delayed reaction going on here.

It was an announcement that acquired both celebration and scorn, but my perceptions of the event were dulled by an 816 page (trade paperback) barrier. Now, however, I’m finally starting Dust of Dreams, nine months after reading Gardens of the Moon. It’s an odd time for melancholy, but I find that my desire to dive as deeply, and as quickly, into the book as possible is tempered by hesitation.

Once I finish Dust of Dreams, I’ll have read all of the published Malazan novels and will have finally caught up to Erikson. I won’t have to feel somewhat inferior whenever I talk about the books with someone who’s finished the series, always having that little but what if the next one’s shit, and they’re right voice.

Still, it marks a shift in how I perceive the books. Up until now, Malazan’s felt endless, the series seeming as vast as the world it portrayed. After this, though, I’m only going to be able to experience it a hit at a time, each new experience altered by the fact that I’m going to have to wait afterwards. What was once depthless, there to be experienced whenever I dared immerse myself in it will have a multi-month wait to mark its artificiality, and, during those months, the thrills of experience will turn to anticipation and prediction.

It’s not a huge change, probably not even a significant one, and undoubtedly an inevitable one, but it’s something that struck me as I turn the pages and revisit familiar characters and greet new ones.

Ah well, time to get on with the reading.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Adam LG Nevill - Banquet for the Damned

Terror comes in two flavors in Adam LG Nevill’s Banquet for the Damned: the one off and the build up. Nevill’s use of the former, a tactic that (when you remember that these are just words on a page, and we only care because of our empathy for the characters) really should not work, is done through night terrors. Throughout the first quarter of the narrative, we find ourselves inside character after character’s heads. They are not in their beds. They do not know how they got where they are. They have been suffering increasingly disturbing nightmares for days on end. Within a few pages, they will be dead. The inevitability of these sections is horrifying, and I found myself reading as fast as I could, sometimes having to force myself to not skip whole paragraphs, because growing acquainted with these pre-damned characters, understanding their thoughts and what makes them tick, was simply too painful. And, since this is horror, I mean that in the best possible way.

Bed wetting dream sequences are nice – very nice, even – but they alone cannot sustain a novel. In order for an atmosphere to permeate every page, for the suspense to forbid us from even glancing over the top of the book, we need to be grounded in the setting and characters; we need for their every threat to be a mortal one for us as well. In this, Nevill succeeds admirably.

The novel takes place in the college town of St. Andrews. The setting is perfectly realized in the story, both in its grandeur and in the new darkness that begins to creep within it:

This is a home for learning built from old stones, with an elegance to its arches and courts, and a mystery endowed by its shadows and legends. But the aesthetics have shifted: he can feel it. Something has arrived to disturb the calm, to wind back time and reinstall a grimmer place where thinkers burned for heresy and darkness brought dread to small grey towns. (p.66)

Coming to the town from outside are the key characters of the novel. The first of these is Dante, a washed up heavy metal musician coming to St. Andrews for his last chance at a big break and a chance to meet his idol. Now, it could be argued that, in a St. Andrews housing laptop computers and cell phones, a leather clad rock musician would be more bizarre anachronism than daring rebel, but such a thought doesn’t enter your head until long after you’ve turned the last page.

The reader sees the majority of the story through Dante’s eyes, and his emotions and reactions to events often determine our own. When the story starts, Dante is arriving in the town. It’s a moment of hope for him, and, though our expectations are obviously colored by the knowledge that we’re reading a horror novel, the reader sees St. Andrews as a new beginning, a place where anything can happen, compared to the routines of Birmingham and our own lives. Even then, though, there is a hint of uneasiness to the whole experience, conveyed by the police investigation underway on the beaches as we arrive.

Hope changes to despair, the change marked by Dante’s meeting with Elliot. The lead up to and execution of these first interactions between the two are, quite possibly, the heaviest hitting parts of the book. The depths of Dante’s admiration for his mentor, coupled with the disillusioning reality of the man, are agonizing to read about. After that, though nothing truly malignant has occurred to our lead, the town takes on a disorienting, unfamiliar feel that it maintains, to great effect, throughout the rest of the narrative.

An excellent result of our reliance on Dante’s narration comes about when Dante is, essentially, hypnotized. The scene is like suddenly having the color on your TV cut out, leaving you with half the picture. We can still see Dante’s actions, still understand the world around him, but, without warning, we can no longer make any sense of his thoughts. While an effect like this could easily become nothing but baffling, or perhaps just a cause of apathy, it’s unsettling and dream like, here.

Our closeness to Dante, however, does bring with it the occasional problem. While our view of Elliot is tempered through the viewpoints of the school’s administration, our grasp of Tom, Dante’s friend and band mate, is left entirely to Dante’s eyes. As a result, while we come to understand and rely on the intricacies of the two musicians’ relationship, we never come to care for Tom as a character, rendering any threat to him unmoving to us beyond what effect it has on Dante.

One of my main problems with Nevill’s Apartment 16 was that the source of the horror, when it was finally revealed, proved to be unequal to the buildup. While I won’t go so far as to say that the source of Banquet’s terror is as frightening as our corner-of-the-eye glimpses of it, it doesn’t disappoint.

A large part of that is the second of Nevill’s two major viewpoint characters, Hart Miller. Hart is a researcher who studies the kind of night terror epidemics that have gripped St. Andrews. His carefully documented, scientific means of looking into what’s going on in the early chapters of the book give the town’s collective nightmares far more believable weight than they otherwise would have had. Later in the novel, Hart’s research into the occult, browsing through a collection of real and invented sources, fleshes out the novel’s menace without defanging it.

To refer back (or forward?) to Apartment 16 again, the secondary point of view in that novel, Apryl, felt like she had no existence outside of the strict confines of the plot. In some ways, Hart is the same thing, but here that very one dimensionality becomes the springboard for the character’s growth. Up until this point, Hart’s life has been wholly focused on night terrors and, at first, the events at St. Andrews seem as much an opportunity as a threat. As the book progresses, however, and as the danger grows more and more personal, Hart tries to take a step back – and realizes that, not only can he not flee the darkness in the town, he has nothing to flee to. Though not uplifting reading, the character’s questioning of both his efficacy and purpose are powerful moments.

A large part of Banquet for the Damned’s atmosphere comes from Nevill’s prose. The writing here is never flowery – think a gateway rather than a stained glass window – but its simplicity belies the clarity, precision, and feeling that comes through every word. Take the opening paragraphs of the novel, for instance:

It’s a night empty of cloud and as still as space.

Alone, a young man walks across a deserted beach. His eyes are vacant, and his mouth is loose. The steps of his unlaced boots in the sand are slow, as if they are being taken under duress, or as if he is being led.

Guided away from the jagged skyline of St. Andrews town, he moves west towards the Eden Estuary and the Tentsumir forest beyond, until the distant streetlights become nothing more than specks winking at his back. As if beckoned, he then moves to the base of the dunes, where the shadows are long, and the sands cold.
(p. 1)

It consists of short sentences and basic vocabulary, yes, but the amount of information (the man is orienting himself by the landmarks of the town, for instance, so it’s clearly the focal point of his life, here) and, more importantly, mood, that comes through is tremendous.

Banquet for the Damned succeeds in almost every way that counts. The novel’s atmosphere – a chilling, claustrophobic darkness that leaves you trying to stay awake with cup after cup of coffee in the hope that you won’t find yourself, in the dead of night, on some forsaken forest pathway – is rammed home by precise prose and well drawn characters. If you’re a reader of horror, Banquet for the Damned deserves a spot on your shelf – perhaps between Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and The Shining. Though, of course, that’d mess up the filing system something mighty…


Nevill talks about Banquet at some length in this interview, which is certainly worth reading if you've read the book or are curious about it.

I interview Nevill here.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Cold Commands [Cover Art]

It's not horrible, and that's really about all I can praise it for. As anyone who's been reading this blog for a while knows, I started out in love with the Original US cover for The Dark Cold Commands. Then, when I saw the final product, I was a bit less enthused, to put it mildly. Someone had, it seemed, sprayed strobe-lighted mist all over my precious atmosphere. I was told in the comments of that very post, by James, that the UK cover art would not be an improvement. All the same, I had this tiny hope that I couldn't quite extinguish. Now that's quite crushed. I wonder what's the better buy: the failed or the generic?

Ah well, at least we get the better title back.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Neil Gaiman - Anansi Boys

It began, as most things begin, with a song. [p. 1]

Most Neil Gaiman novels are bizarre explosions of creativity and off the wall plots. While I would have to be insane to say that Anansi Boys is anything but bizarre, it’s bizarre in a calculated way that sets it apart from many of Gaiman’s other works. Anansi Boys is, above all, a story of deceiving simplicity, from characters, to plots, to themes.

Characterization is, at first, broad. Our first glimpses of Spider, Fat Charlie’s divine brother, for instance, show him as glamorous and heartless, the kind of man that’ll drag his brother to a bar and then promptly forget his charge to begin a night of wild partying. Over the course of he narrative, however, Spider grows into a fully developed character with such subtlety that the reader misses all the usual road signs of I’m a well rounded person, now. Gaiman’s characterizes by showing, not telling, and moments of epiphany aren’t the beginning of sudden change, but rather the recognition of a gradual transformation that’s well under way by the time it’s remarked upon. Gaiman’s characterization shows a deep understanding of how people think of themselves and the world around them:

Each person who ever was or is or will be has a song. It isn’t a song that anybody else wrote. It has its own melody, it has its own words. Very few people get to sing their own song. Most of us fear that we cannot do it justice with our voices, or that our words are too foolish or too honest, or too odd. So people live their songs instead. [p. 189]

And yet, as anyone who’s read anything that the man’s written can tell you, Gaiman is anything but pretentious. His writing is, at all times, light hearted, and he imparts truths and tragedies with an understanding wink and a friendly tip of his hat:

Take daisy, for example. Her song, which has been somewhere in the back of her head for most of her life, had a reassuring, marching sort of beat, and words that were about protecting the weak, and it had a chorus that began “Evildoers beware!” and was thus much too silly ever to be sung out loud. She would hum it to herself sometimes though, in the shower, during the soapy bits. [p. 189]

Gaiman’s game is not one of sudden reversals. At the beginning of the book, we learn Fat Charlie’s situation and watch as events in it play out as expected – or, at least, close to it. Soon after, Fat Charlie leans of his father’s death, and we see the consequences of that. When Spider comes into the picture, it still isn’t a dramatic call to adventure, followed by the two gallivanting around the globe. Instead, the relationship between the two develops naturally as their various personalities affect the course of the other’s life. This is a story that is, above all, organic in its growth, introducing a new element and exploring all of its possibilities before moving on.

That is not, however, to suggest that Anansi Boys’s plot is predictable or uneventful. Over the book’s course, Gaiman explores the full range of emotions and events, from the comic, to the heart warming, to the terrifying, each reached with a naturalness that keeps the tale from ever growing outlandish or unbelievable. As each new piece is added to the puzzle, the amount of delightful bizarreness skyrockets, but there are no extraneous elements here; every element proves vital to the tale’s survival and continuation:

Stories are webs, interconnected strand to strand, and you follow each story to the center, because the center is the end. Each person is a strand of the story. [p. 302]

Every one of the aforementioned pitches is well done, but the books true highs occur when Gaiman balances them at once. Towards the end of the book, scenes of outright terror and suspense are wedded to moments of outlandish comedy, each set up so well that the combination doesn’t feel contrived, but rather inevitable.

Thematically, Anansi Boys treads little new ground. This is a story of familes and relationships, of people, and of decisions, and of the consequence of those decisions. You’ve probably read a story with similar themes before. In fact, I’m sure of it. Odds are, you’ve read a whole boat load of them. This one’s different, though. How so, you ask? Well, it’s because nothing that Gaiman does is quite like anything you’ve ever read before. Oh, I’m sure that you’ve heard that statement about a whole encyclopedia’s worth of authors, but all I can say is that, this time, it’s true. Gaiman illustrates rash actions with flocks of homicidal birds and depicts a father son dynamic with a heartfelt talk, both scenes feeling as fresh and poignant as anything I’ve read.

Anansi Boys’s isn’t perfect. The lackadaisical pace of the first few chapters meant that the book didn’t suck me in until page eighty or so (and then what a blissful, airborne ride the rest of the book was), and I initially thought that Grahame Coats’s law firm might actually manufacture coats or something similar…but, judging by how absurdly stupid that last one was, I think it’s pretty clear that Anansi Boys’s is pretty damn close to perfect, and I think it’s worth you getting up out of your seat, driving to the nearest booksellers, and forking over your hard earned cash.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

China Miéville Interviewed (Elsewhere)

While I know that I've already done an "Interviewed (Elsewhere)" for Miéville, I found the new interview too interesting to not bring up. Throughout it, we learn quite a bit about Kraken, and, while the whole thing is a must read if you enjoyed or are curious about that novel, the first question was probably the most interesting part for me:

The A.V. Club: The City & The City came across as a careful, tightly controlled book. Kraken, on the other hand, feels much more like an eruption.

China Miéville: [Laughs.] I was wondering how you might gloss that over. Kraken is a very undisciplined book. That’s a gamble. If it doesn’t come off, it’s disastrous. But there are pleasures, I think, to a meandering lack of discipline that you can’t get the other way, and vice versa. You gain something and you lose something. My second book, Perdido Street Station, was the one that a lot of people really, really liked, and it was tremendously sort of rumbustious and ill-disciplined. I feel like I’ve been getting increasingly disciplined since then, and some readers seem to miss that kind of amiable chaos. What I wanted to do with Kraken is tap into what you’ve kindly called an eruption. I wanted to indulge that. It does have a very different feel than The City & The City. It obviously won’t work for everyone, but I always think about books like—and I don’t mean this hubristically—Gravity’s Rainbow. If Gravity’s Rainbow is anything, it’s kind of this dreamlike meander. The idea of saying to Pynchon, “You know, you need to tighten this up,” it would destroy it. Kraken was an effort to tap into that same kind of pleasurable ramble. In some ways, Kraken is more like Perdido, whereas The City & The City was a departure. It’s the kind of thing I’d like to do a lot more of. In some ways, this was getting back to what I was better known for.

That description vocalized a lot of what I feel about Kraken. Like with every novel the man's written, the book impressed me, in this case by not having a few interesting elements and building a story around them, but rather flooding the reader with a never-ending deluge of the weird and bizarre that threatened to drown (me, at the least) under its weight. I also found the comparison with Gravity's Rainbow very interesting, not just because I happen to be wrapping up that very text, but because both are novels of excess that are still, somehow, controlled, and both have to be viewed, at least to some degree, by scaling back the chaos in your mind and sorting out the elements one by one.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Peter F. Hamilton - Night's Dawn [Trilogy Review]

Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn books immediately set themselves apart on any bookshelf. How, you ask? Simple. It’s by being twice the size of anything else on the shelf. That size is what dictates pretty much element of the trilogy, from plot, to characters, to structure, to the writing itself. These books are not gigantic by accident. Rather, their space is used deliberately to create an effect that would be impossible in a more focused volume. In an article on the writing of The Night’s Dawn trilogy, Hamilton says:

The example I always give is The Battle Of Britain. A conflict which saw the warrior heroes of both countries battling it out for supremacy in the most sophisticated technology of the era. Theirs is a fantastic story, full of heroism and struggle and sacrifice. All very well, but there were hundreds of thousands of people who lived underneath the dogfights in the sky, whose lives were going to undergo monumental change because of the conflict (whoever won). Ultimately what happens to them i.e. society as a whole, is more interesting.

Nominally, the Night’s Dawn trilogy is about a mysterious disaster originating on Lalaonde and threatening the entire Confederation. In reality, though, Hamilton’s goal is to create a believable society and then show every effect of that disaster, both physical and moral, on his creation. As a result, this is a very decentralized story, where the number of point of views spreads throughout the entire Confederation, staying just half a step ahead of the waves of change and destruction. The best way to understand these books is to imagine a massive glass creation, gigantic but every inch carefully devised and filled with details, and then to imagine the inexorable destruction of the sculpture, inch by inch, the cracks spreading so slowly as to be visual but so quickly as to be unstoppable. It’s an effect that would only be meaningful if the reader first understands every intricacy of Hamilton’s creation, and so Hamilton shows us exactly that.

Imagine, for a second, that there are three layers to every story. The first layer is the present time, the plot, if you will. Just about every author will explicitly show this, because it is, presumably, why we’ve come. The second layer is the backstory, how the characters got where they are, who the characters are, etc. This is generally implied, though the degree to which it is shown depends on the author. Finally, we’ve got the layer behind even the backstory, what’s simply the background. This is stuff like the minutia of the justice system, or how planet X was settled, why coalition Y makes this product, etc. it’s the kind of thing that’s important for an author know, but it’s rare for the readers to ever learn – or care – about much of it.

Hamilton doesn’t follow that template. Instead, he shows you the first and second layers in their entirety. We are not dropped into a fully functional colony on Lalonde. Instead, we build the colony with our own two hands and watch every single event that occurs upon its path. The third layer, too, makes its way into the books, primarily the first, in the form of expository infodumps. These can get a tad excessive at times, but are usually interesting enough to make up for that.

The trilogy opens with The Reality Dysfunction. This volume bears the brunt of the exposition that’s so central to the tale, and, as a result, the beginning is very hard to get into. Right off the bat, we’re introduced to three point of views, and we alternate between them for the first third or so of the novel. At first, this structure is a bit self defeating. None of the three plot lines are boring, but none of them are right off the bat spellbinding, either, and the vast number of intervening pages (Hamilton writes huge chapters) between one appearance and the next seem geared to kill all momentum.

The interesting thing about these early threads is that they’re as close to slice of life as you can get in a space opera. That’s not to imply that they’re pedestrian or mundane, but rather to say that, no matter how interesting the events that take place are, they’re generally par for the course for the world. The result of this is that, when things finally do go out of hand, the reader can feel how wrong it is without being told. Joshua’s attempts to circumvent standard business practices and make huge amounts of cash, but, crucially, still playing within the system (just in a new and inventive way), serve to indoctrinate us into Hamilton’s Confederation. By the time the ground rules start to change, we’re at least as capable of pointing out the changes as any of Hamilton’s characters, having received lessons in every aspect of the worldbuilding from Joshua, Syrinx, and the various Lalonde pilgrims.

Hamilton’s characterization is always adequate, but only occasionally notable. In a cast of this size, it’s absolutely vital for each character to be distinctive enough for the reader to be able to recognize them when they pop up, and know who they are, and at this Hamilton has no problems. With main characters, appearing again and again over a span of pages this massive, however, the reader expects to see some growth. In this regard, Joshua is by far the best character of the series. Though his is not the kind of evolution you’re going to be analyzing in essays, his arc is believable and consistent throughout. Syrinx, too, is passable, though – and especially in this novel – she can occasionally be too idealistic at times.

Oddly enough, though, it’s when discussing groups that Hamilton’s skills with people come to the fore. Though there were few individual characters in the trilogy that I would’ve been devastated to lose, there were several locations that I developed a strong bond with. In this, I think it’s Hamilton’s sense of scale, and ability to convincing juggle night on countless viewpoints, that carries the day. Though there’s no one colonist on Lalonde that you particularly care about, the colony itself feels like something you built with your own sweat and blood, a place where you are on congenial terms with all of your neighbors and nod happily to everyone, and the threat of its destruction evokes an emotional response that’s far greater than the collective death of its citizens can account for. Easily eclipsing Lalonde in this regard, Tranquility, especially in the later books, becomes a symbol of hope, a message that the spreading disaster makes a happy life difficult but by no means impossible, and that message effects the reader to the same degree that it effects the characters.

Something that has to be mentioned when discussing The Reality Dysfunction, especially Joshua’s storyline, is the sheer amount of sex in it. Now, I’m not arguing that something like this can never be appropriate, but Hamilton exceeds any sane measure of excess. Any meaningful relationship is all but drowned out in a sea of orgasmic white noise. Furthermore, the sex scenes never come across to the reader as anything but a chore to get through. The characters, in their absurd over-enjoyment of every act, create an impenetrable barrier of quadruple orgasms that the reader has no hope of penetrating, in the manner of an actor overacting to a degree that we just see the performance, not the material, leaving us feeling more like an uncomfortable voyeur than a participator. Thankfully, Hamilton seems to have been aware of the problem, because the number of sex scenes drops off faster than you would believe in book two.

The sex isn’t the only unpolished aspect of book one. Though Hamilton’s writing throughout the series is never exemplary, it’s never trying to be. It gets the job done fine, paints a clear picture, and brings you to a swift understanding of the incredibly complex world that Hamilton’s created. In the first book, however, comma splices appear in what feels like every other sentence. Let’s turn to a random page, 126. Most of the way down, we get: The food they had been served was strange, the aboriginal fruit was all odd shapes with a mildly spicy flavoring but at least there wasn’t any vat meat like they had at the arcology. Now, I’ll admit it’s an incredibly small complaint in the grand scheme of things, but the mistake’s endless appearances become more than a tad annoying as the book goes on.

As I’ve said, The Reality Dysfunction’s pacing is iffy at best for the first third of the book. At that point, however, Hamilton kicks things into high gear. Things begin to come together, both large and small, and various plot threads slowly begin to coalesce, while Hamilton throws more and more into the already overflowing pot. The book becomes something akin to a runaway truck. At some point, any sane person would think, something has to give. But it doesn’t. Impossibly, the pace picks up and up until it’s hard to stop reading for long enough to turn the page, until the urgency is almost painful.

That’s not to say that the book becomes mindless action, however. Far from it. Though Hamilton is excellent at military skirmishes and combat in general, it is the weight of the world building and the density of the atmosphere that makes the book so incredible. The disaster on Lalonde isn’t revealed in one go, nothing even remotely like that, and the initial encounters are absolutely terrifying in a way that even dedicated horror fiction seldom manages.

This works precisely because of the lengthy build up. That sense of wonder that we all love so much is actually layered. There is the initial shock of immersing oneself in another world, but by the time you get up to the actual disaster, you’re thinking like an inhabitant. That, however, is just in time to be absolutely blindsided, alongside every character, by what’s suddenly emerging. The double effect is, needless to say, incredibly powerful.

[The exact nature of the disaster, revealed partway through the Reality Dysfunction, is a key component of the series. Since I don’t wish to spoil it for anyone, but cannot proceed without revealing it, be warned that the rest of this review has SPOILERS for book one. Then again, most reviews I’ve read spoil it anyway, so…]

The central conceit of the Night’s Dawn Trilogy is the dead returning as possessors. It would have been incredibly easy for the idea of possession to devolve into silliness, especially once famous people begin to start popping up, but, barring a few mishaps, Hamilton treats his ideas seriously enough to not rob them of their power. Crucial to this is his decision to not rob them of their humanity:

“Do you think [Hitler] changed after he died, Mr. Halahan? Do you think he lost his conviction or his righteousness? Do you think death causes you to look back on life and make you realize what an ass you’ve been? Oh no, not that, Mr. Halahan. You’re too buys screaming, you’re too buys cursing, you’re too busy coveting your neighbor’s memory for the bitter dregs of taste and colour it gives you. Death does not bestow window, Mr. Halahan. It does not make you humble before the Lord. More’s the pity."

As the series progresses, and as more and more possessed get their own viewpoints, the conflict turns from one of horror to one of military action and moral consequences. Hamilton brings back Al Capone to lead the possessed Organization, and his conflicts – both with other possessed and with the government at large – are well done and gripping, featuring several very clever ideas.

The main theme of the series is that, helpful as it is, technology doesn’t hold all the answers. As a result, the people of Hamilton’s future are very much the people of our present. There is no easy solution here, whether it is to be found by magic or brute force. In order to progress, society is going to actually have to face – and fix – its problems. The implementation of these themes is somewhat mixed. Hamilton has no problem with weaving these ideas into the story. The ground war begun in book three, for instance, does an excellent job of showing the impossibility of any kind of military solution.

What isn’t so interwoven is the Neutronium Alchemist sub plot. Now, by itself, this would be okay. Even effective. What isn’t so okay is that this sub plot takes up an incredible amount of space. Someone would be forgiven for thinking that something that comes up in the second chapter and easily has several hundred pages (a decent novel’s space, mind you) devoted to it would turn out to matter for more than reproving an already understood point.

Equally disparate from the rest of the narrative, but far more effective, are the sub plots – beginning in The Neutronium Alchemist but coming into their fore in the final volume – that show the possessed’s attempts at creating a utopian society. As it turns out, magic’s no more helpful than nanotechnology when it comes to correcting basic human flaws, and the possessed, who are, first and foremost, people, and their attempts to deal with reality once again formed some of my favorite parts of the whole trilogy.

Despite all these issues, The Neutronium Alchemist is the best paced book in the trilogy. Though the number of threads is even larger than in The Reality Dysfunction, Hamilton focuses on one thread at a time – though not to the total exclusion of the others – until it reaches a climax of sorts. As a result, though there is a truly incredible amount of ground covered in this volume, it never feels scattershot, and we’re able to get closely involved in each struggle as it comes up.

The Naked God, by contrast, returns to an exacerbated version of the flaws that were so prevalent in the first book’s structure. Once again, we’re seeing events through several hard to connect plot threads, and since the number only swells as the series progressed, the amount of different side stories is truly unwieldy by this point.

That’s not to imply that the book doesn’t work, however. The various sub plots are some of the strongest of the series, even if they rarely gel all that well (and occasionally get lost in the shuffle).The most out there plot is definitely the battle for Earth’s arcologies. The concept is interesting, and the deliberations and actions of B-7 formed some of my favorite parts of the series, but none of the events here felt like part of the main story. Part of the problem is Louise, because the pacing grinds to a dead stop every time she walked on stage. Worse, however, is Quinn, who is the only character that manages to get shallower with each book that passes and is, by this point, a painful caricature of his early self. Which, mind you, wasn’t exactly a paragon of in-depth characterization.

After over a million words, you’re expecting some serious payoff. Something that will BLOW YOUR MIND as far as endings go. For books one and two, after all, Hamilton certainly showed himself to be no slouch with endings. The Reality Dysfunction ends with a huge battle, some character development, and a relatively decent amount of closure (or, at least, a you-can-take-a-breather-here moment). The Neutronium Alchemist does nothing of the sort, ending on a cliffhanger, but it’s a well done cliffhanger that I can’t really blame him for, despite how much I may have ranted about it in the past.

The ending of The Naked God, however, is absolutely unforgivable. Now, Wert’s argued ad nauseam about why it’s not a deus ex machina, and I’ll give it to him. That doesn’t mean it isn’t one of the most anticlimactic endings I’ve ever read, however. Imagine, for a second, that Robert Jordan went so far as to have titled the final book in The Wheel of Time: The Dark One Kills Himself. Would that have made his purposeless suicide any more entertaining to read about? If not, you’re probably going to hate this ending. Essentially, had all but one character in The Naked God sat around twiddling their thumbs, humanity would’ve still come out just fine.

The Night’s Dawn trilogy has quite a few problems, not the least of which is the sheer number of sub plots, many of which are either extraneous or just plain not as good, that clog it up. None of that changes what it is at its core, however, and that is one of the most explosive and wide screen science fiction stories ever conceived of. Hamilton’s creation is both majestic and impossible to put down. If you’re a fan of the genre, you need to pick this up without question.


Wert’s reviews of the trilogy (Reality Dysfunction, Neutronium Alchemist, Naked God) should give you a good grip of what the trilogies all about. Peter F. Hamilton’s website also has an extensive question and answer that’s extremely interesting, though also as spoiler filled as it’s possible to get.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Up and Coming (and Essential?) in July

I know almost nothing about this besides the fact that it’s another VanderMeer collection, but seeing as everything I read by the guy has been brilliant, I’m just a wee bit excited. If VanderMeer’s prior works are anything to go by, this will be – both by turns and all at once – weird, funny, scary, touching, disturbing, beautiful, and jaw-droppingly good. Well, I’m looking forward to it.

Kearney’s Monarchies of God series is often regarded as one of the greatest works of epic fantasy, and the new omnibuses seem like the perfect way to finally experience them. Ten dollars on amazon for two seminal fantasy works? Alright, I’m interested.

Though I’ve never read McDonald, The Dervish House has been getting buzz too good to ignore, and the concept seems interesting, to say the least. Wert’s review highlights several of the interesting aspects, and then there’s that gorgeous cover.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Reading in June

I was really looking forward to Donaldson’s Gap series, which seemed poised to deliver everything I was thirsting after in a space opera. The opening volume of the series, The Real Story, was something that I’d heard described as an exercise in slowly shifting the reader’s perceptions of the characters from villain to hero and vice versa. From that angle, it was a huge success. From a general reading angle, however, I had quite a few problems with the story. More information in the upcoming review.

There are times when I regret putting up every book I read. Those times are not when I read something really stupid, such as Pog Decides to Climb Mount Everest, because those are fun in a look-what-an-idiot-I-am way. Something like Crime and Punishment (or, later in this very article, Hamlet), however, is a far more awkward proposition. What the hell am I going to say about a novel that has been often proclaimed the best novel of all time? In this case, I suppose I could say that, though I don’t know if I can name it the single greatest, it’s certainly up there, but I’m not exactly being original there, am I? I suppose I could mumble briefly about the horrible believability of Raskalnikov’s decline, the heart wrenching character of Sonya, and all of that, but, really, this is something that you probably don’t need my recommendation for.

Somehow Form a Family is a collection of personal essays from the author of Here We Are In Paradise, Jim the Boy, etc. while I wasn’t as engrossed as I was while reading Earley’s fiction, I still enjoyed his writing throughout the volume.

I’ve always been having a bit of trouble spotting the decline that’s supposedly been upon Malazan for quite some time. Now, having read the supposed nadir of the series, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m just an atypical Malazan fan, because Toll the Hounds blew me away. From a plot standpoint, it’s hard to argue that it’s a particularly good novel, being primarily concerned with fragmentary tangents and only coalescing after quite a bit of pages have passed, but the excellent prose and – yes, I’m going to say it – wisdom of Erikson’s words (I have a full three thousand words of quotes from the novel, which is, needless to say, slightly above the average) make up for that and then some.

Anansi Boys was a lightning fast read that made the tiring business of air travel go by in a flash. Like Neverwhere, the easiness of the read belies the power of its themes and the depths of the characterization found here. I’ve got to admit it: Gaiman is just as good as everyone says he is, and I can’t wait to get into more of his work.

Though undeniably the most bloated of the trilogy, The Naked God had me enthralled right up until the end. Which was even worse than I’d expected. All of which will be, of course, elaborated on in my review on Tuesday.

Hutton has a great sense of the rhythms and flow of speech, but I ran into problems with the play when, after the first act, I wanted to slap both of the characters, one for being pedantic and arrogant, the other for being…well, just arrogant. That combined with the hard to understand, and harder to forgive, colossal mishearing in the final act caused Last Train to Nibroc to not work for me, though it would, I don’t doubt, be different when performed.

I had high expectations for Banquet for the Damned after reading Apartment 16, and I’m glad to say that it lived up to them. Nevill’s debut is a balanced blend of classic and modern horror, with the strengths of both well intact. My review of the novel is forthcoming.

As I said when discussing Crime and Punishment, I just don’t think there’s much I can add here in the way of insight that hasn’t been said before, so I’m not really going to try. On a personal level, this was a bit of a revelation, as I can finally see why Shakespeare is so revered. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed both Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet, but Hamlet feels like it’s on another level entirely from both of those.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Plane Landing in 6...5...4...(This Afternoon)

Well, I’m back. I know, I know, it’s an exciting moment. Seeing as this is a book blog, I won’t bore you with the minutia of my travels, save for the literary portion of them. Of the books I brought with me (Susana Clarke’s Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norell, Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, Peter F. Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes From the Underground, and Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Real Story) I got through far fewer than expected, because, it seems, Tennessee has some bookstores, including a nice used one where I got The Once and Future King, The Name of the Rose, and The King of Elfhand’s Daughter for only eighty cents.

On a subject even MORE fascinating than what happened to be in my suitcase, travelling both there and back, I’m pleased to announce that there will be quite a few posts in the next few days, as we seem to have missed the end/beginning of the month stuff. So, expect Reading in June tomorrow, Up and Coming (and Essential?) in July on Monday, and a review of Peter F. Hamilton’s Ngiht’s Dawn trilogy on Tuesday, after which we should be good to go on a normal schedule again.

While I was away, of course, the world wasn’t standing still. I’ll try to not to turn into an oracle of rehashed news, but I think it’s worth bringing up that Seamus Cooper’s having some better luck with Night Shade, which is certainly good news.