Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Daniel Abraham - Leviathan Wept

Black folks in America, even ones like the Swede, they got a particular kind of wound. Indians like that Sahkyo girl? They got one too. Hell, maybe we all do, but not like them. and they can’t heal it anymore than we can. All anyone can do is change what the wound means…They can change what stories mean. That’s why they’ve got power. (p. 275, The Curandero and the Swede)

Daniel Abraham first made a name for himself in Epic Fantasy circles with the Long Price Quartet and his partnership with Martin and Dozois, Hunter’s Run. Evidently not one to lie back and reminisce about what he’s already accomplished, Abraham’s got plans to follow the Long Price up with a more traditional Epic Fantasy series (The Dagger and Coin) and a collaborative science fiction novel (James S. A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes), not to mention his burgeoning Urban Fantasy series (MLN Hannover’s Black Sun’s Daughter). Amidst the barrage of quality novels, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Abraham’s got his plate full. Nope. In addition to all of those, Daniel Abraham’s an award winning author of short stories and one of the members of the mosaic Wild Cards series. Leviathan Wept is a limited edition short story collection from Subterranean Press and my first experience with Abraham’s short work.

The Long Price shed light on its characters by evolving them over a vast stretch of years. Short stories, however, don’t allow for that kind of timeline, but Abraham proves just as adept at developing personality through other means. Every story here has the emotional impact of a powerful novel; Abraham drives through so much personality and emotion with each line that, by the end of each twenty or thirty page story, you feel like you’ve known the characters half your life.

Support Technician Tango is the best example of this. The story begins with a viewpoint or two in a legal office and then branches out with insane rapidity, soon encompassing just about everyone present in its web. The tale is, above everything else, organic; events and twists come about in unexpected and often absurd ways, but they’re never nonsensical or damaging to the structure that Abraham builds up. The really surprising thing, however, is that the story never spirals out of control. Strands that seem to be speeding towards various dead ends about face, graceful just before the crash, and the whole mess turns out to have just been illusion, a structure so precise that it could afford to appear unwieldy without sacrificing any of its cohesion. When everything falls into place, the office is in a totally different configuration, one impossible to foresee from the opening and yet as logical as can be.

In fact, the discipline with which Abraham constructed these stories is one of the dominant aspects of the collection. Each of these stories has something to say, but they, generally stay well away from the didactic. The way that Abraham weaves plot, character, and theme together is dazzling. Many stories are constructed almost like puzzles, with the events and their meaning feeling occluded and impossible to conclude until the last piece is dropped in and everything is clear as day.

Mind you, there is the occasional exception. Every once in a while Abraham’s ideas shove past story and character and leave you with an experience more interesting than it is visceral. Exclusion is the poster child for this. The idea is great – imagine the ability to simply ignore someone you dislike, going so far as to be unaware if they were in the same room as you and vice versa, at whim – but the story never progresses beyond the simple moral that it’s better to solve problems than it is to run from them.

Still, Abraham’s allowed a few that fall a tad short considering the power and variety of the rest of what’s here. The Long Price was, though very original, still Epic Fantasy through and through, so I was expecting something similar in Leviathan Wept. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. The stories here range from the whimsical fairy tale of The Cambist and Lord Iron, to the emotional horror of Flat Diane, the Epic Fantasy-esque quest of The Hunter in Arin-Quin, the near future science fiction of Exclusion, the Shakespearean As Sweet, etc. Every story is different from every other, and each of them is unique.

Of course, it’s easy to write in nine styles if all of them are rubbish, but that’s most certainly not the case here. The basics of Abraham’s style stay the same throughout the collection – his precise yet evocative prose, his rapid donning of different characters – but the rest of each story could be the product of a master in its respective field. Abraham breathes life into whatever idea he chooses to explore. Some of the ideas in this collection are impishly silly, some dangerously serious, but all are rendered with the same level of care. Though you may be in a different world and genre when you turn the page, it’s safe to assume that the quality of the storytelling will remain consistent. Abraham’s prose is clear throughout, always providing just the right amount of detail to immerse the reader without ever drowning or boring them with minutia.

Within horror fiction, it’s become standard practice to provide a few rays of sunshine so that the darkness around them appears darker. Abraham’s fiction is odd, because the moments of light actually have the opposite effect:

Lord Iron stood in the hall. He looked powerfully out of place. His fine jacket and cravat, the polished boots, the well groomed beard and moustache all belonged in a palace or club. And yet rather than making the boarding house hall seem shabby and below him, the hallway made Lord Iron, monster of the city, seem false as a boy playing dress-up. (p. 30, The Cambist and Lord Iron))

In the same manner, moments of optimism in Abraham’s fiction have a habit of appearing gaudy and naïve, ridiculous compared to the weight of what’s around them, like the banner happily proclaiming We Aim For Excellence! We Expect The Best Of You! (p. 48, Flat Diane) hanging in the principal’s office that looks down at them while Flat Diane is going astray.

Unfortunately, while the content and style of the stories varies wildly, their structures can repeat themselves. Well, no, that’s not wholly fair. Only two stories in the collection – Leviathan Wept and The Hunter in Arin-Quin – utilize a frame story that’s gradually built up in flashbacks, but the two are, for some reason, back to back. A minor complaint in the grand scheme of things, yes, but still one that grates and makes going straight from one to the other feel far more repetitive than it should.

Leviathan Wept is a diverse and powerful collection that shows Abraham to be every bit the professional that he seemed in the Long Price Quartet. Coming from Subterranean, this can be a bit pricey, but the quality displayed in this relatively slim volume makes it well worth the price.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Frank Miller - Batman: Year One

So far in comics, I’ve loved Watchmen and V for Vendetta, have been entertained by Y and Hush, thought the Killing Joke was very good, and have pretty much stuck with established opinion for all the Graphic Novels I’ve read. For Batman: Year One, however, it’s time to break out the dissenting opinions. Batman: Year One isn’t a bad story, but it’s not the titan that I’ve heard it was.

Though this story is supposedly the ultimate Batman origin story, the actual Batman origins portion of Year One is fairly weak. We begin as Wayne is returning from his training afar, when he’s on the point of beginning to clean up Gotham. But there’s no motivation. We don’t see Wayne’s parents killed, and we don’t see the resentment he’s built up over the years. Now, everyone obviously knows the basics and details of the origin story, but, without it being featured here, there’s no emotional core to the book. Batman’s here, and he’s pissed. There you go, that’s your character. Take it or leave it.

As for Batman’s martial skills, Miller creates a bizarre contrast between the realistic and the ridiculous. In the opening scenes, Batman kicks down trees. Later, he smashes a stone column. And yet, in his fight scenes, Batman is often in over his head and gets the shit beaten out of him at times. It’s totally fine to have an ungodlike Batman, and it’s (I guess) fine to have a stone smashing one, but, when they’re the same person, it’s just bewildering.

Unfortunately, Batman is a paragon of characterization when compared to Selina, catwoman. Selina is a whore who decides to leave her occupation and become Catwoman. Right there, you have the whole arc. There is simply no depth or motivation to the character at all. Worse, there’s no closure and no point to her existence. Alright, this is an origin story, so I suppose I should have expected some set up and all, but she quite literally affects the main plot in no way.

The best developed character – and, thankfully, the one Miller spends the most time on – is Jim Gordon. Gordon is the one straight cop in a city of criminals and crooked cop, and, to make matters worse, he’s held down by his wife’s pregnancy and his slowly developing affair with another officer. Gordon’s moral dilemma, and the odds stacked against him, draw the reader in more than Wayne’s bound-to-succeed struggles.

Still, there are some weaknesses here, too. The affair felt like it was taking us into interesting places, but when Gordon confesses the whole thing to his wife, we’re not even shown the following conversation. The overall plot, too, is both familiar and predictable, remarkable only for it’s over the top nature. Finally, Gordon is a martial arts master that makes Wayne look like a fool in tights. Not that this is necessarily a problem, but it’s just odd that the policeman is always much more confident in his fights than the super hero (not to mention that, as far as I’m aware, Gordon’s kung fu skills never come up again in the mythos).

Despite difficulties with character, Miller can get your blood pounding. The first portions of the book are more concerned with set up and detached stories than a building arc, but, later, things do kick into gear. When Miller brings his threads together, playing Batman off against the police, we are treated to some incredibly tense sequences. The ending, unfortunately, goes back to the model of the early stories, and, while it’s no doubt very traumatic for Gordon, it’s hard to even consider the possibility of a negative result.

A very large part of the story comes through thought. There’s generally nothing wrong with that, though it’s odd when the characters are narrating something incredibly obvious, such as when Gordon informs us he spilled his coffee a panel after he does so. The real annoyance with the style, however, comes when we’re hearing Wayne’s thoughts, which are, for some reason, written in a hard to decipher script.

The artwork has a rough feel that sacrifices detail for mood, or at least tries to. Ironically for something that, in its introduction, claims to be a far darker Batman, the artwork feels cheesy and cartoonish throughout:

This was a pretty negative review, I realize, and I should point out that Batman: Year One isn’t bad. It’s just that I was led to expect Watchmen, or at least The Killing Joke, and I got a basic origins story instead. Perhaps a large part of the appeal to hardcore comics fans is the difference in tone from other Batman works (which I’m just assuming there is from what I’ve heard, because compared to some of the other comics I’ve read – V for Vendetta, say – this was a walk through a sunny meadow). Billed as incredible, this isn’t so much bad as eh.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

National Novel Writing Month, Week Four

Victory – or, at least, official victory – has been achieved. I’m currently at 54,155 words at the moment, though that’s before writing today. My overall NaNo goal is 60k, which looks extremely manageable from here. I think I might’ve had more this week if I hadn’t gone insane and decided to write a short story, too, but whatever. Only a few days left, now.

I spent the last hour or two hammering this into something resembling chapters and chronology, so I think it's time I added some new words.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Doubles for 2010

We're almost in the last month of the year, and, as I'm sure you've noticed, I have a little pile of reviews waiting. Actually, a rather huge pile. I wrote a review of Batman: Year One this morning and realized it wouldn't go up until February. That's just a tad ridiculous. In addition, there are all the 2010 reviews I've got waiting, which I want to get out before the end of the year post, but I don't want to neglect, say, the Breaking New Ground reviews. So, the only way to solve this without closing my eyes and picking half of them for spontaneous deletion (or, I suppose, learning patience), seems to be going back to subjecting you folks to two reviews a week for a time. My apologies for all the awesome books you'll read about.

I'll probably keep this up until the number gets more manageable or I've run out of 2010 books and the deadline that goes with them.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Iain M. Banks - Surface Detail

The war was amongst the Heavens, between the Afterlives, if you wanted to be pedantic about it. And it was over the Hells. (p. 117)

Like a lot of Iain M. Banks’s works, the greater part of Surface Detail is spent on the journey. The core of Surface Detail is the gathering in Sichultian space and the real world climax of the hells, but the majority of the pages are spent wheeling the various players into place, only actually addressing the physical result of the hells after a huge number of pages has passed. Unlike Matter, however, the characters are interacting almost right from the starts, the various factions and groups of characters almost immediately established. As a result, the characters grow, jostle, and play off of one another throughout the book, leaving the actual arrival at Sichultia to be almost as much capstone as climax, the events already predetermined and obvious as a result of everything that came before.

There’s a lot of meandering and slowly building tension here, and it’s there that Banks excels. The hells are the core of the book. Does a culture have the right to maintain order through the threat of post-death punishment? And, more importantly, do those who find the custom barbaric have the right to stop those who find it necessary? Banks approaches the topic from several different perspectives.

The two sides – galactic do gooders and cybernetic demon-supporters – are both too civilized to outright blow each other up in the Real, at least not while things are going their way. To settle the issue, the two factions have been waging a virtual war for decades, millions of soldiers on both sides killing and dying dozens of times in a simulated war.

Vateuil is one of these soldiers. We first meet him in a pseudo-medieval theater of the war, where he’s a sub-grunt soldier expected to help tunnel into the enemy’s castle. Everything here, looking back, fits perfectly into the idea of a simulation. The little details that one uses as a grounding in reality are all there – the multitude of complaining workers, the superior officers, the grit of the subterranean air in one’s throat – but there’s a sense of wrongness running through it all, not the least of which is the contrast between the last chapter’s behemoth space ships and this one’s stone-throwing war machines.

When we next meet Vateuil, and in all of our subsequent meetings, he’s moved up in rank and, soon, Vateuil has proven himself sufficiently to join his side’s virtual war council. So which side’s that? Good question. With each reincarnation – or, at least, with the first few – Vateuil finds himself sans memories, only aware of the direct battle in front of him. As a result, exactly which side of the whole thing he’s on is a bit of a mystery for most of the text. As things start to go badly for…whatever side he’s on…Vateuil is placed on the forefront of the mission to circumvent the hells by whatever means necessary. Hacking the simulation, if they can manage it. Or, if it comes down to it, taking the war directly to the Real.

It’s not enough, however, to see the hells from a distance, a moral wrong that’s most certainly something worth fighting against. No, Banks introduces us to the hells firsthand, subjecting us to torments unimaginable through the eyes of two Pavuleans, Prin and Chay. The two snuck into hell to try and prove what’s there, but Chay was left behind and is now subject to the continual, everlasting tortures of a place designed to do nothing but extract pain for as long as inhumanly possible.

Chay, however, proves to not be such an easy victim, not due to a rather fighting spirit but rather because of a defeatist attitude that leaves her utterly hopeless, numb to the pain. Though the opening chapters of the subplot are predictable – and, from a pacing/chronological perspective are introduced long after they should have been – the storyline soon manages to put the reader in the same state of mind as Chay, knowing that the upturns in fortune are not real but still praying that they are. Though the hells are vibrant, this section is a great deal more somber than the more colorful sections set in the Culture and elsewhere. For the most part, the change in tone further accentuates the content, but rapid switches between the two styles do jar in places.

The hells are the thematic core of the book, but the emotional center lies with Lededge. Killed in the opening chapter by the rich and influential Veppers, her quest for revenge is larger than life every step of the way, from the operatic backdrop of her murder to the warship that she rides back to her home planet. Using an abominator class warship to get to where you intend to get revenge on one guy is, apparently, the rough equivalent of taking an aircraft carrier to the other side of New York City where you plan to shout at someone for a bit, and the reader can’t help but wonder what the ship’s real purpose is – or if it’s just that the ship’s as insane as it looks. That abominator class warship, Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints, is one of the hands down best parts of the book, a mixture of earnest and sadistic that’s electrifying on the page – but the true marvel of the sequence is that, almost absurdly overblown circumstances packed into every pore, Ledege’s quest is still a human one, her emotions still real and vulnerable to the reader.

The characters and their interactions with the Culture are a joy to read. There are a decent number of Culture books by now (this is, by my count, the ninth), and the setting has become beautifully rich. And yet, despite the amount of background material available, Banks continues to play a light dance around the things we’ve come to expect. Endlessly packing your own setting with element after element, many of them seeming contradictions, is a dangerous game, but when your writing’s got as much charisma as Banks’s has, you’re free to do what you want.

Enter Yime. She’s a Culture secret agent of sorts, but not a member of Special Circumstances. Her hopes and successes were and are, instead, focused on Quietus, the more dignified step-brother of those SC cowboys. Quietus focuses on the relationship between the living and those in the various afterlives.

Unfortunately, with Yime comes the fairly obvious downside of meandering to and fro. It’s not that the stuff that we see with Yime is uninteresting; like just about everything in the novel, it’s fascinating and well written. Almost none of it, however, comes to really affect the plot. Take the bulbitian, for instance. The time spent aboard it is mysterious, well described, and filled with the same epic grandeur that infuses so much of Banks’s writing. What our time with it never does, however, is do anything but take a miniscule step towards ruling out a possibility that wasn’t introduced until the section started.

Still, it’s hard to get mad at Banks for his digressions, because, regardless of how direct your route is, his imagination is a great place to spend some time. Banks has the kind of far flung ideas that most science fiction writers would kill for, and he has the ability to write clearly and powerfully enough to bring those images from his imagination to yours, unsullied – or even aided – by the translation:

Intagliates looked like ordinary people only in silhouette, or in lighting conditions so poor you could hardly see them at all. Turn on a lamp, come out into the daylight, and they were revealed as the fabulous creatures that they were. An intagliate was covered, head to foot, in what was called a congenitally administered tattoo. Lededge had been born tattooed, emerging form the womb with the most fabulously intricate patterns indelibly encoded at a cellular level onto her skin and throughout her body.

Cut [an Intagliate] open and you would find similar designs on the surfaces of their internal organs, their designated motif carried into their heart and guts. Bleach their bones; the design would be stamped on the pale surface of their very skeleton; suck out their marrow and break their bones open, the ornamentation continued. At every possible level of their being they bore the mark that distinguished them from the blank sheets there other people, as well as from those who had merely chosen to have themselves in some way marked.
(p. 69)

So, after all that build up, when the plot threads finally coalesce, what do we get? The ending seems simple until one gets to the epilogue, where pieces fall into place and new layers seem to come into focus and an alternative interpretation of events opens up, a twist that Banks actually entrusts with the main thematic thrust of his novel.

And yet, even with the cool twist, there’s something about the ending that is, if not quite unsatisfying, at the least very expected. There are a hundred shifts in motivation and cause in this book, but none of them even go so far as to put the ultimate outcome in doubt. Yes, exactly how they got there is interesting, but when you’re going to a place that was marked out on the first page of the book, and your arrival has never once been really questioned, it’s hard to slacken a bit of a well, duh feeling to the climax itself.

Surface Detail is an Iain M. Banks novel with everything that implies. The author’s strengths are generally here, and there aren’t any really debilitating weaknesses, but the book does lack the wow factor of Use of Weapons, making it a good – very good, even – Culture novel, but not a great one.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Metal in Fiction (Heart-Shaped Box)

The overlap between horror and metal is fairly easy to spot, and perhaps that’s why a fair few horror authors have written something that, in some way, touches on the genre. Unfortunately, a decent amount of them don’t know enough about it to fill a guitar case. Like with any other subject, writing about a genre and having your description riddled with errors is liable to turn those who know off. Very, very far off. The offender here is Joe Hill’s Heart Shaped Box. I’m not saying that the metal inaccuracies ruined the book – this isn’t Dean Koontz’s Midnight – but they did grate at times.

See, “Death Metal Rocker” Jude Coyne has, at best, a very passing resemblance to a death metal musician. The timeline is the problem. We learn that Coyne was “just beginning his career when Sabbath hit it big.” (p. 46) Excuse me, a death metal musician starting up at the same time that the band that started metal was starting up? Years before anything even remotely resembling death metal would be heard?

Furthermore, we know that he toured with Led Zeppelin in 1975. The odds of a death metal musician touring with Zeppelin in ’75 were…well, zero, because death metal simply didn’t exist yet. There’s little agreement as to what was the first death metal album, but some of the main contenders are Possessed’s Seven Churches (1985) and Death’s Scream Bloody Gore (1987). The other two quintessential old school death metal bands, Morbid Angel and Obituary, did not make their debut albums until 1989. Even if we extend the question to demos and take Mantas’s earliest (1984), we are still nowhere near ’75. Hell, in 1975 Iron Maiden hadn’t even released their first demo (1979), and Judas Priest had only released Rocka Rolla (1974), an album that was as far from death metal as it was from being an automobile. The band most credited as an influence on death metal, Slayer, did not release their debut, Show No Mercy, until 1983, and that’s not even the album that’s viewed as an influence.

Finally, there’s the question of fame. Jude Coyne is famous. Recognized-by-children-while-parking-a-car famous. Simply put, death metal musicians don’t get famous like that. It’s debatable whether any metal musician does, though I suppose that Metallica could expect to be recognized with some regularity. But, if we look to death metal, how many of you think you could spot the highest selling death metal artists of today? Karl Sanders? Alex Webster? Adam Darski? Even if we go to the “father” of the genre, Chuck Schuldiner, I don’t think we’re going to get recognized by many people on sidewalks. In fact, I’m betting that any member of Black Sabbath besides Ozzy would be relatively unknown to the average American in a social setting.

No, it’s not an issue that killed the book for me, and I’ll admit that Hill captured the personality of a general metal musician quite well (and, occasionally – as with the grotesque collection – managed to nail his target), but I can’t say that it’s something that ever stopped bugging me while reading.

So, authors, next time you do a genre of music, may I suggest that some research may be in order? It's certainly not as objective a field as, say, researching criminal law, but there are still things that you can get quite, quite wrong.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

National Novel Writing Month, Week Three

So now we’re at the point when this has gotten a bit…difficult. Not that I’m falling behind, mind you. The target for the day seems to be 33,334 words, while I’m comfortably sitting at 42,513. That being said, I’m now in the midst of that fun part where all the elements that seemed so intuitive before have stopped making any kind of sense. I’ve realized, for instance, that one of my main characters now has nothing to do between now and the climax of the book. Hmm. Whoops. Still, 50k’s not far away, and the ending of the book is only another few tens of thousands of words away, or something like that. Practically there already.

And now I’m going to go back to killing minor characters like there’s a price on their head, if you fellows don’t mind. I’ll turn up again tomorrow, though, to give you all a rather less narcissistic post.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Book Meme

I saw this meme over at Bookworm Blues.

What's the most books you've ever read over a vacation?

Seems I’ve got a tie. Last February, I had a bit under two weeks of downtime, the result of an illness just before vacation. During this time, I read Steven Erikson’s The Bonehunters, ST Joshi’s HP Lovecraft: A Life, five hundred pages of various Lovecraft stories (reread), R. Scott Bakker’s The Darkness That Comes Before (reread), Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Stephen King’s Carrie, and China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun. As you’ve no doubt realized, I did nothing else during this break. Nothing. Well, to be fair, I think I saw a movie, one day, though I can’t remember what it was…

If we’re talking about on an actual vacation – IE, not me sitting in my room and tearing through book after book – I got to seven books when I was in Hawaii for two weeks in August. That time I did more than simply read, but two unseemly long plane rides helped my page count just a tad. The books were: Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things, Steven Erikson’s Dust of Dreams, Kate Griffin’s A Madness of Angels, Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box, Elizabeth Moon’s Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, and Dan Simmon’s The Terror.

What's the best book you've ever read on vacation? What made it great?

Hmm, I don’t think I ever have really had the book I’ve been reading and the place I was at blend together. As to simply my favorite book that I read away from home, I’d probably chose China Miéville’s The Scar.

Do you consider reading at the dinner table to be rude and exclusive, or a nice way to dip in and out of the conversation?

I don’t read at the dinner table out of a mortal fear of getting something on a book. I just eat really quickly and then leave so I can go back to reading. As a result of me not being able to read, however, I find it highly rude when other people to do so – think of the books, for god’s sake! They never asked to be touched with your sticky fingers!

Do you prefer music on when you read, or other background noise, or a profound silence?

I can block pretty much anything out when I read, but I vastly prefer silence. There seems little point in putting on music when I’m about to block it out. This preference has only been broken once, and that was when I first heard Electric Wizard’s Dopethrone album, which is a slab of incredibly immersive, Lovecraft-inspired distortion and doom metal. I don’t think I could’ve prevented myself from reading The Colour out of Space as I listened if I’d tried.

Do you have a book-related pet peeve?

If you damage my book, I would like to never speak to you again. Unfortunately, as all the people who’ve done this were for the most part blood relatives, I don’t have much choice and will have to rely on loud, exasperated sighs whenever I, the book, and the offending individual are all in the room with one another.

What do you do with books you've purchased/were given but didn't enjoy?

I collect books, so, unless the book was bad to the point of actually painful, I’ll just keep it anyway.

Name three authors that have influenced or changed your reading selections.

Robert Jordan: I can’t say that Robert Jordan made me love reading, because he came too late in my reading career for that. I can say, though, that The Wheel of Time focused me as a reader and gave me my love of fantasy. Before the Wheel of Time, I don’t think I really had any defined tastes of my own and, as a result of never growing familiar enough with any one style, I don’t think I was a particularly discerning reader either.

H.P. Lovecraft (and Thomas Ligotti): Lovecraft fiction was a revelation to me, both on an aesthetic and a personal level. Reading the works of Lovecraft and, later, Thomas Ligotti is an almost religious experience because both of those authors have taken thoughts that I’ve had and articulated them so well that I could do nothing but nod and say yes, that’s exactly what I was thinking. To be totally honest, the degree that I identify with a man who died broke and, by all objective measures, a failure is sort of worrysome.

(I want to point out that I do not agree with all, or even a majority of, Lovecraft’s views. His ideas of cosmicism is, in my opinion, brilliant in both its content and in the way that he expresses that view in his stories. Other aspects, like his racism, are things that I in no way condone or empathize with.)

George RR Martin: If I was to point at one book and say that is why I love reading, it would be George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Ever since reading it, the ultimate goal of my own writing has changed. If I can make a single person feel as I do every time I read those books, I’ll call my life a success even if I die in a gutter somewhere.

(If there was space here for a fourth…or, er, fifth…I’d go with Jeff VanderMeer)

All your books disappear mysteriously overnight, but insurance pays up for them - with which authors/particular books do you begin replacing them? Are there any that you would like to exempt from this hypothetical example as the copy itself is too precious to lose?

I'd replace my Martin, VanderMeer, Lovecraft, Ligotti, and Reynolds first. In part because those are some of the few books that manage to fit on my one bookcase, so I could at least pretend I have something, with those there. Though I'd miss the hundred or two books on my couch and floor.

My Brandon Sanderson books are all signed, and I’d prefer to not lose them. My A Song of Ice and Fire novels are beaten to hell and back (I’ve read them twice, my sister’s working on them as well) and, though I do plan to someday acquire a hardcover set, I would like to keep these volumes as a memento long after they’re wholly trashed. My volume of Lovecraft’s fiction, with little marks in the table of contents for each time I read a story (I’ve done The Colour out of Space and The Outsider a half dozen times each in the two years that I’ve had the volume) is something worth far more to me than the dollar ammount. Finally, my collection of Ligotti’s work – burgeoning as it is – is precious to me. Ligotti’s work is
rare and, though I suppose this fictional insurance company would provide me with equally nice copies, the satisfaction of slowly building up a set is a satisfaction all its own.

Is there an author whose book recommendations, even short blurb-acclaim on the cover, will persuade you to read it?

I can think of authors whose recommendation would certainly intrigue me, but I can’t think of a single author for whom I’d read any book, no matter how unappealing it looked to me. I’ll give anything with a recommendation from Martin, Gaiman, Rothfuss, or VanderMeer a closer look, though, and it’s not even a slight exaggeration to say that my classic horror reading is derived entirely from Lovecraft’s Supernatural in Literature.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Edinburgh Dead [Cover Art]

One of the few recent covers I've seen where a realistic looking character front and center actually looks awesome...though the lack of a cowl might play into that. The text, though nothing earth shattering, is still sufficiently cool to pique my interest.

I still haven't read Ruckley's epic fantasy trilogy Godless World; I got distracted about forty pages into the first book and, though I meant to pick it up again in a few days, I never went back to it. Perhaps I should get to it sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Felix Gilman - The Halfmade World

The world blurred, and a sudden and surprising mood of exhilaration seized her. Koenigswald and the Academy and her old life were ten thousand miles behind her, and the world was a blur, the world was a dream, the world was unamde. Anything was possible. Wasn’t this what she’d come here for? She could hardly wait to step out into the world again and begin to remake it.

She noticed a shanty town out on the salt-flats. Little black dots of shacks – were those laborers bent double in salt-traps? – rushed up close and vanished at once behind. Perhaps the Engine had obliterated it with the boom of its passing, Liv thought. She let the blind fall again; the flare hurt her eyes. She blinked in the dark oc the cabin, but the bright crude shapes of the world outside were burned into her vision.

Within the hour they’d left the salt-flats far behind.
(p. 129)

The Halfmade World is a conflict between the Gun and the Line, between the past and the future. John Creedmore, Agent of the Gun, is driven by bloodlust and haunted by conscience. He stalks across the west and battles for independence with every step, and he seeks a brief escape from his life in the romance novels that he devours. Lowry, Subaltern of the Line, is a cog in the machine, going over his reports again and again until he has eliminated every trace of pride. Indoctrinated by motion pictures and pushed to fanaticism by the roar of the engines, his life begins and ends with the inexorable advance of the Line.

The conflict takes place in the west, a world where the age of the soil under your feet is measurable in decades and where, over just a few horizons, you get to where things aren’t yet finalized, not quite stabilized. Through it all, the Line pushes relentlessly west, and the Gun falls back again and again amidst the havoc and destruction that it’s caused.

There’s a single glimmer of hope in this barren land: the Red Valley Republic, trying to fight for a mankind governed by other men. The Republic’s a tenuous ally of a select few Hillfolk, and one of those strange creatures has given the Republic’s General Enver the key to winning the war. There’s just one problem – that hope is annihilated in the prologue, the Republic’s armies shattered, the General driven insane, the secret trapped in his shattered mind, his mad body lost on the battlefield.

Or, as it turns out, not lost. General Enver’s in a bizarre hospital, guarded by a powerful spirit, on the edge of the west. It is to there that our main character, Liv, is called, and it is there that the Gun and the Line both race, determined to get the old, broken man’s knowledge at all costs.

The Halfmade World is a novel of different perspectives, with one man’s heroics looking downright ludicrous in another, one nation’s way of life a bizarre abomination in the eyes of their fellow viewpoint characters. The Republic’s last stand is heroic to those in it, but foolish and suicidal to those watching. Creedmore’s protests of redemption are convincing to those following him, but are rejected as nothing but talk, as they well might be, to those later listening.

Gilman does not just create one setting. When the novel proper begins, we are not in the West, but rather in the civilized East, with Liv as she contemplates her trip. The East is an almost dreamlike place of muted emotions, by far the closest thing to ourselves in Gilman’s world, yet alien due to their almost quaint apprehensions and foibles in a world that the reader knows contains so much more. Those easterners, Liv amongst them, dull their feelings with a nerve tonic, refusing to face the world on its own terms.

Later, we journey to the still in construction far west, and everything shifts again as the two titanic powers – Gun and Line – are pushed increasingly out of their element, the affiliations of the various characters gradually coming to mean less and less as they leave their world behind.

Gilman uses the variety of his settings to circle back on events and characters and change their meaning. In the civilized East, Liv’s simple minded but towering assistant, Maggfrid, is considered almost normal, is banished to the sidelines where he acts as a janitor, out of sight and mind. In the west, Maggfrid is an often remarked upon curiosity and a disturbingly effective fighter, saving the entire caravan on occasion and earning the respect of all those around him. At the end, though, we’re shown that lasting changes can’t come from within, because, when he returns to the east, he is back to his unspectacular role of janitor, more noticeable now due to his temporary absence but still ultimately ill-fitting and unremarkable.

The same kind of environmentally triggered change can be seen in Creedmore. Creedmore is always uncooperative with the demonic presence in his mind, but his muttered dissent has never translated into action. Now, running further and further into unmade lands, Creedmore’s given the chance he’s always implied that he wanted, to break free from his masters and their perpetual atrocities. As he tells this to Liv while escorting her through the west, he being her only chance of survival, the reader is shown a prior episode in Creedmore’s life, where he thought much the same thoughts of salvation, of saving others, of finally going his own way – and failed to save anyone but himself. His circumstances are different, now, but the man is still the same.

The only character that proves immune to circumstance is Lowry. The members of the Line that pursue Creedmore into the wilderness refuse to change or adapt to their environment in any way, and, as a result, they die like flies for most of the book. Still, when they eventually reach their destination, the reader realizes that it’s not the individual Linesemen that matters, not even the squads that managed to survive. The Line is unmalleable and always spreading, and it might be that very refusal to shift that’s allowed it to spread so universally.

Gilman’s prose forces the West down the reader’s throat, making it impossible to ignore and coloring every scene of the novel with its atmosphere. Though there is the occasional anachronistic phrase (This land was broken badly, like a china plate hurled by a very angry woman.[p. 140]), Gilman’s writing is usually highly evocative and descriptive. Some of his prevalent rhythms from Thunderer and City of Gears can still be found in the way that he breaks up descriptions with punctuation and bursts of emotion, but The Halfmade World is very much its own beast. Gilman infuses Creedmore’s chapters with a frantic urgency and even managing to breathe an oppressive magic into the mechanical Line:

The noise! Inside the station there a constant din of machinery. The roar of vast furnaces, the clatter of intricate clockwork. No wonder the Linesmen looked so pale and haunted! No wonder their eyes were so dull!

Everything smelled of coal and oil and smoke. There was nothing natural in the Station, except the occasional rat. It was an ecology of machines. Somewhere at the heart of the structure, the Gloriana Engine lived, and its mechanical dreams shaped the world around it.
(p. 108-109)

The Halfmade World is Gilman striking off into new territory and bringing all the experience he’s gotten from his two prior books with him, the beautiful writing of City of Gears welded to a gripping plot. Comparing it and any Thunderer is like comparing night and day -- and that’s coming from someone who really liked Thunderer.

Monday, November 15, 2010

National Novel Writing Month, Week Two

Here we are, halfway through NaNo. The suggested word count at this point is 25k...which means that, at 33,393 words, I'm way ahead. Still going well on the general writing front, though a tad more erratic than the first week, with some days being 5k marathons and others struggling for a thousand words. The story's coming together fairly nicely, though I think I'm closer to a quarter of the way through than half. Ah well, what's an epic fantasy (especially an amateur one) without absurd amounts of bloat, eh?

I think I'll go try and hit 35k tonight. After finishing up your review for tomorrow, of course.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Cook's Source Apology

It seems that Cook's Source has finally realized they just might have erred. Their apology, here, is, however, not quite as satisfying as one might wish.

Last month an article, “American as Apple Pie -- Isn’t,” was placed in error in Cooks Source, without the approval of the writer, Monica Gaudio. We sincerely wish to apologize to her for this error, it was an oversight of a small, overworked staff. We have made a donation at her request, to her chosen institution, the Columbia School of Journalism. In addition, a donation to the Western New England Food Bank, is being made in her name. It should be noted that Monica was given a clear credit for using her article within the publication, and has been paid in the way that she has requested to be paid.

Well it's all well and good that Ms. Gaudio's payment was donated, but I'm not quite buying the "error...oversight...overworked staff..." etc bullshit. An overworked staff might have put the recipe in the magazine, yes. An overworked staff, however, did not accidentally send an email so arrogant as to claim that the internet was public domain and that Ms. Gaudio was lucky to not be charged for having her work stolen.

Besides which, I'm finding their appeals to Intellectual Property Infringement with regards to the facebook vitriol being hurled at them HILARIOUS.

The entire statement is written with a we're all victims sentiment, but that's not true at all. Cook's Source is not a victim, and if they were slammed for their actions it's no more than they deserved. The absurdity of their pity-pleading mindset is driven home by the conclusion of their statement, which begins with two paragraphs of how Cook's Source will reform itself:

-we now request that all the articles and informational pieces will have been made with written consent of the writers, the book publishers and/or their agents or distributors, chefs and business owners.

-Therefore, we will no longer accept unrequested articles, nor will we work with writers or illustrators unless they can prove they are reputable people, provide their sources, and who, in our estimation, we feel our readers and advertisers can trust and rely on for accuracy and originality.

-All sources will be listed with the articles, along with the permission, where necessary.

and so forth. But, uh, wait a minute. Aren't those all the bare minimum of the expectations here? There's nothing incredible in that list, just the steps that any magazine could have been expected to be performing from the word go. Yet Ms. Griggs doesn't see it that way, it seems: To say this has hurt our business is an understatement. Yeah, not stealing people's work for your own benefit is a bitch. Forgive me if I don't cry with you, though.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Brandon Sanderson in New York City

Monday night, I went into New York City to go to Brandon Sanderson’s book signing. A combination of more people than last time and a smaller venue led to a more cramped feel with ghastly waits, but I’m still happy I went. Now, I think signed books are decently snazzy and all, but the main reason these events are cool for me is to put a face to a name and, especially, to hear the talk/Q&A. I’m not doing a word for word recreation here (my memory’s not that good, I didn’t take notes, and, besides, that’d be totally unnecessary), but I’ll try and get the gist of all of it.

The questions got off to a spoilery start, as the first half dozen were all RAFO’d, as Sanderson put it. Those included: Do we see Verin in Towers of Midnight? Do we see a 13 channeler conversion in Towers of Midnight? Who are the Red Veil dudes at the end? Etc, etc, etc.

After that, we get into some questions with actual answers, though the first proved obnoxious as hell. A man asked why the old tongue sounds more formal when Mat speaks it in the early books than when he does in the later. Sanderson said that the difference was caused by Mat’s familiarity with the tongue. But no, that’s not good enough, because the asker doesn’t buy that. Uh…what? It’s the guy writing it with the series’ creators notes. He knows the Objective Truth here, and, if you don’t like it, that’s just unfortunate, because it’s Correct.

Anyway, the asker’s reasoning was that the earlier segment was Germanic in its structure, the later French. Sanderson then spoke of all fantasy novels inherently being in translation and the difference in formality and base being the way to obtain the effect that the original had, whether the original was actually changing from German to French or not. He then went off on the subject of fantasy puns, which he said require some fancy meta footwork, because, really, if it’s a pun in our language it’s pretty unlikely in theirs as well. At this point, Alan (one of Jordan’s assistants and, evidently, the resident Old Tongue expert) then picked apart and stomped on the asker’s arguments using his far superior knowledge of said Old tongue. In short, it’s a fluid language that has depths we haven’t seen yet, which will be revealed in the house-sized Wheel of Time encyclopedia coming after A Memory of Light.

The most interesting question of the evening was how Sanderson finds it to work from the outline of another. As anyone who reads Sanderson’s blog or listens to Writing Excuses knows, he’s an outliner. Those outlines are, it seems, organized, not in a strict chronological progression, but rather as a succession of major events, with the connective tissue added later. In many cases, this was the form that Jordan’s notes took, with the central scenes often written or at least alluded to and with the gaps between them left dark. There were a select few Jordan planned events that Sanderson altered – mostly things that were set down indefinitely: “maybe I’ll do this. Or this. Or neither,” as Sanderson paraphrased – but he stuck to the outline the vast majority of the time.

For the scenes that were not in any way planned, Sanderson brainstormed a large number of possibilities, ranging from the obvious to the out there, and then took the one that he thought best – often in the form of an already written scene – to “Team Jordan” to get there opinion. Occasionally, he had to axe the idea, though he managed to sway them a majority of the time. There were two main “eyebrow raises” in his planning for the first two books of his series-capping trilogy, one of which made it into the books and worked, the other of which was dumped. As to what any of the eyebrow raisers – major or minor – were, Sanderson declined to reveal, due to not wanting us to pick apart the books by author, though he did say that he’d speak more freely after A Memory of Light.

There was a question about whether it’s possible for there to be female ta’veren and, if so, whether Egewene was one. The answer to the first is yes, but, as to the second, there are no female ta’veren in the main storyline, so Egwene’s out as a candidate.

Finally (though I’m totally improving the order, here) there was a very sensible question about the total lack of communication in the series: Why do the three men always banish the visions immediately upon their appearance rather than, you know, using them as the incredibly useful tool that they are? Sanderson said that the three are all a bit shell shocked about where they are and that all of them – even Mat, though to a lesser degree for him – still wish they were back in the Two Rivers, so they rid themselves of the reminders of their importance (the visions) as fast as they can without really thinking about the consequences. To me, that answer sort of reeks of plot convenience (Rand got over his wah, wah, wish I was a farmboy thing six thousand pages ago), but ah well.

When I was getting my book signed, I asked the only non-Wheel of Time question I heard that evening: “What’s the connection between the three planned Mistborn trilogies and the short novel in that world? Is there going to be some kind of overarching plot?” He said that there would be a large scale plot that unified the series, but that it’s not going to be something initially obvious, and that, though we’ve seen elements of it, it’s unlikely we could ever really guess what it is.

So, all in all, it was a good evening, even if I had to wait an inordinately long time, and fail an inordinately large amount of trivia, before I could have my forty-five seconds with Sanderson. Oh, and I’ve now got signed copies of Mistborn, Way of Kings, and Towers of Midnight, to go along with my Gathering Storm, Elantris, and Warbreaker from the last signing he did here.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Brandon Sanderson - The Way of Kings

The gates shook. Something pounded on them from the other side.

"The storm has come," Wit said, standing up.

The guards scrambled for spears left leaning beside the wall. They had a guardhouse, but it was empty; they preferred the night air.

The gate shook again, as if something enormous was outside. The guards yelled, calling to the men atop the wall. All was chaos and confusion as the gates thumped yet a third time, powerful, shaking, vibrating as if hit with a boulder.

And hen a bright, silvery blade rammed between the massive doors, slicing upward, cutting the bar that held them closed. A shardblade.
(p. 1,000)

The Way of Kings is both the introduction to a new world, the world of the series that Tor is doing everything they can to push forward as the next epic fantasy flagship, and the story of several men who are at the center of the rising storm. At the first of those, The Way of Kings succeeds admirably. What it fails to do, however, is to also excel in the tale that it tells; everything about The Way of Kings is a prologue, and that feeling is hard to ever lose.

Mind you, The Way of Kings does display quite a few of Sanderson’s great strengths. Though I would not yet place Sanderson with masters like VanderMeer or Martin when it comes to either the feel or detail of his world, Sanderson’s skills as a world builder are exemplary. Roshar, like his other creations, is not your generic medieval world, and what is so enjoyable about Sanderson’s settings is that he actually tries to think through the implications of his decisions and then implements the results into every aspect of the book, from plot twists to diction.

At times, this can lead to a slight awkwardness – such as the curse Storm you! that is used a thousand times in the text and, while making perfect sense for the world, feels simply odd to read – the vast majority of Sanderson’s decisions in the area are a great success. His ability to draw you into the world and then twist you about once you are there leads to several of his greatest moments, twists that are (in his own words, from Writing Excuses) surprising yet inevitable within the framework that he has constructed.

To give a small example, a king is killed in the prologue, and the assassin who kills him hears his dying words. The assassin regrets the killing and wants to pass the words on, so he writes them down next to the king’s corpse. This makes perfect sense to both to the reader and the assassin, coming from outside the Alethi culture that the king is a member of. Alethi men, however, are not meant to be able to read, a fact that is brought up in separate circumstances several times. Later, a character brings up the puzzle of how and why the king learned to read.

So Sanderson’s world building is great, and it’s very enjoyable when he shows it off, especially in the one off interlude viewpoints that are scattered around the map. Unfortunately, the world building’s integration into the main storyline is far from flawless. There are several info dumps within the narrative, and, though they are rarely long enough to be a problem on their own, they occasionally clutter action scenes or hinder the pacing as a whole:

[Szeth] hit the ground in the midst of the soldiers. Completely surrounded, but holding a Shardblade.

According to legend, the Shardblades were first carried by the Knights Radiant uncounted ages ago. Gifts of their god, granted to allow them to fight horrors of rock and flame, dozens of feet tall, foes whose eyes burned with hatred. The voidbringers. When your foe had skin as hard as stone itself, steel was useless. Something supernatural was required.

Szeth rose from his crouch, loose white clothes rippling, jaw clenched against his sins…
(p. 28)

Sanderson is known for his magic systems and, in that respect, The Way of Kings does not disappoint. Though the magic is not as front and center as it is in, say, Mistborn, its impact is felt throughout the world and throughout the story. The quest for shards and plates – both of which, at first, appeared to me as something like Masterchief’s armor and a Covenant Energy Sword, but I got over that impression soon enough – is both convincing and interesting, and Sanderson ingrains us with enough of the culture’s morals and desires that when the relics come into question towards the end of the book the reader can feel the weight of the decision alongside the characters.

Sanderson’s prose in The Way of Kings is nothing exemplary, but it’s not trying to be, the ultimate goal more in line with a camera lense than a stained glass window. The action scenes are clear, flowing, and cinematic, and the atmosphere comes through strong at several moments, many of them when the highstorms are at their height and dust is swirling just past the windows. At the same time, Sanderson will occasionally repeat himself, leading to certain worldbuilding aspects (spren come to mind, in particular) being reiterated in almost the same words time and time again.

Of the three characters, Kaladin is the one with the most screen time. His story is well told and enjoyable, but it’s crippled by the simple fact that every single beat of it is obvious from before the word go. Kaladin is the reluctant hero to the last detail, the man with newfound powers who’s afraid of the responsibility they bring, the just and good leader faced with the deaths of his men. It’s all well written, and the bridge scenes that pepper his narrative are excellent, but it’s hard to get too wrapped up in the tale when every obstacle is so obviously only the most minor of setbacks.

Sanderson has said that each book in The Stormlight Archives will have one “main” character who will have flashbacks to their past throughout the book, and Kaladin’s the man with the past here. The flashbacks are, like much of Way of Kings, interesting but ultimately inconsequential. There are a few very good scenes in his childhood, don’t get me wrong, but none of it is unexpected, certainly not the kind of thing that you’d be lost around if you hadn’t been given a blow by blow tour beforehand. So, in the end, it’s something that’s not unenjoyable but also not necessary – fine on its own, but, when placed in a book so filled with excess, one of the traits that conspire to slow the glorious march of Sanderson’s world to a more stately crawl.

Dalinar is, like Kaladin, a familiar character. He is the noble lord, the man who will do what is right even if it kills him. What sets Dalinar apart from his fellow Noble Lords is the visions that take him with every highstorm, throwing him into a past place and time and instructing him of what to do in the present. Dalinar acts on what they tell him, but can never get over the fear that he is mad for doing so. Compounding the problem is his son, Alodin, who is convinced that their father is running their house into the ground. The tension between the two is the highlight of the arc, though some of the drama is dampened by the sheer amount of time spent on it. The dilemma is interesting, but Dalinar spends what feels like entire novels worth of text debating his sanity, flip flopping back and forth and announcing grand decisions only to renege on them, then perhaps renege on the reneging, then perhaps… well, you get the idea. Furthermore, the visions are never really resolved, they simply grow in scale, leaving us to try and guess their meaning and importance until the next thousand page opus.

The final main character is Shallan, and her chapters hold some of my favorite and least favorite aspects of The Way of Kings as a whole. Shallan is attempting to become the ward of world renowned scholar Jasnah, the king’s sister, and, as such, her chapters involve more studying and contemplation than slashing power swords through breastplates. The change of pace helps the story keep from growing stale, and Shallan’s character comes through perhaps the best of the three. Her storyline lacks the major upheavals of, say, Dalinar’s, but the information uncovered is interesting and the relationships that develop feel natural and conflicted. Best of all are Sanderson’s descriptions of her art, which colors her chapters beautifully and makes her immensely likeable, at least from my perspective.

Of course, it’s also interesting to see that the person facing the far, far more minor decisions than our beloved Noble Lord also makes her decision in a bare fraction of the page’s that he does – perhaps a novella rather than his seven volume saga. Still, a novella’s worth of buildup is hardly rapid, and how much you enjoy Shallan’s plotline will, in large part, depend on how much you are willing to tolerate character’s debating over imaginary topics. Those sections are broken up by Shallan’s wit, which is, to put it lightly, a mixed bag. Most of what she says is decently clever, but it’s the kind of clever where you smirk for about a second, not the kind where everyone in the room starts guffawing – which, of course, everyone does. Every time. That’s not to imply that there’s nothing of real interest going on, though; Shallan’s plotline has one of the novel’s absolute coolest scenes about halfway through it, and the slow build leads to an excellent climax.

The final recurring viewpoint character appears only in interludes and shadows, which is a shame because it’s in Szeth’s storyline that Sanderson really plays to his strengths. Szeth’s is a fast moving tale filled with obscured meanings and motivations, all made great by clever action and an ability to think through consequences in a way both understandable and unpredictable:

Szeth-son-son-Vallano, Truthless of Shinovar, wore white on the day he was to kill a king. The white clothing was a Parshendi tradition, foreign to him. but he did as his masters required and did not ask for an explanation. (p. 21)

Shallan’s climax isn’t the only great one. It’s only at the end of the book that Sanderson really steps it up, but, when he does, it’s impossible to miss the fireworks. The Way of Kings ends with a barrage of confrontations and twists that propelled everything that came before to new heights, validated some of the long waits, didn’t quite validate some others, and was generally a more subdued version of the explosion of twists at the end of Mistborn, with the difference here being that the foundation Sanderson was building off of was even greater.

It’s probably telling, though, that I said, for all three major plotlines, that the buildup was too long. It is, for each and every one of them. There are no truly wasted scenes in The Way of Kings, no six chapter sub plot that feels like a pure digression upon completion, but there is still far, far, far too much stuff hanging out in that gray area where, yes, it does give us a bit more insight to the character, but it takes up twenty pages, and when you do it again and again for this guy, and again and again for that guy, you’ve got a book that doesn’t so much strut as stagger. The set pieces are all good – great, even – and the characters are generally good, the atmosphere’s engrossing, all of that’s where it should be, but there’s simply too much book here. The world building was needed to establish the epic feel that Sanderson was going for, and it’s the best part of the book, but it’s hard to deny that the world building got tired, sat down, and smothered the main plot under its many, many, gratuitous layers of fat.

In short, I’m not saying that Way of Kings is a bad book. It’s not. I’m not saying that Way of Kings is the best series opener since A Game of Thrones, because it’s not. What it is, is a good, enjoyable book that’s got some flaws, but also has plenty to love for fans of Epic Fantasy. Will Sanderson make The Stormlight Archive more than that? I suppose we’ll have to wait and see.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

National Novel Writing Month, Week One

We’re six days into National Novel Writing Month right now, and I’ve got 16,217 words down, about six thousand ahead of the curve. Not too shabby, and I get to seem cool and competent (or at the least nerdy and obsessive) rather than pathetic. The actual book’s coming along decently, though, in typical Epic Fantasy fashion, it sprouted a few extra limbs and unwieldy new point of views.

Off to go write, now…

[I know I said I was doing this on Saturday, but I’m still sort of working out what day it fits best at.]

Friday, November 5, 2010

Black Halo and Fuzzy Nation [Cover Art]

The cover for the sequel to Tome of the Undergates is a tad over the top. Still, it's, as far as I'm concerned, the way an overly epic cover should be done. If you're going to go over the top, you might as well go absurdly, stupidly, awesomely so. My only real objection is the glow around the figure, as it seems a tad too pronounced for me.

The new cover art for Scalzi's re-imagining of Piper's Little Fuzzy is very different from the original cover art for the project. Overall, I think I liked the first version more, but I don't dislike this one, and I'm intrigued enough by the idea of the project to read both the original and it when it comes out.

Stealing's Okay if You're Online

It seems that, as long as you're publishing online, everything you do is perfectly liable to be used, improved, and abused by anyone who feels like it, at least according to editor Judith Griggs (Cook's Source magazine). After pilfering an electronically posted recipe, Griggs has the gall to go so far as to say the author's lucky to not be charged for the improvements made to her piece. Would it be ungracious to retort with something along the lines of: "I won't charge you for the paper my lawyer uses to print your court summons on?" Either way, the story's been taken up by Nick Mamatas, facebook at large, Dazed Rambling, Smart Bitches Trashy Books, Neil Gaiman, John Scalzi, and the Guardian, a host of other newspapers, and others.

Griggs did respond, saying:

Hi Folks!

Well, here I am with egg on my face! I did apologise to Monica via email, but aparently it wasnt enough for her. To all of you, thank you for your interest in Cooks Source and Again, to Monica, I am sorry — my bad!
You did find a way to get your "pound of flesh..." we used to have 110 "friends," we now have 1,870... wow!

...Best to all, Judith

Well, okay then, you said you were sorry. No harm done, right? Besides being condescending, rude, and outright thieving - from Monica and others - but whatever.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Up and Coming (and Essential?) in November

Everyone has, of course, heard of The Wheel of Time and its penultimate volume, Towers of Midnight. Whether you’re a long term fan or you first heard about the series with the recent embargo shitstorm (in which case you’ve probably never heard of Lord of the Rings either, but nevermind) you’re probably well aware of the back story: the deaths, the splits, the outlines, the Brandon Sandersons, etc. All very exciting stuff, a massive hype storm that every once in a while turns malevolent, all with a book at the center. And early opinions of the book are generally quite positive, as Aidan nicely sums up with his review round up.

Half of me wants to grab this book right now and tear through it. I can still vividly remember the time when King was my favorite author. I’ve still probably read more books by King than anyone else, though he no longer occupies that favorite spot. And the reason why is why the other half of me is begging that overexcited bit to calm the hell down and look the other way. As followers of this blog now, my reactions to later King have not been positive. In fact, I went so far as to, in the comments of my The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon review, say that I wasn’t buying any new King. Will I be able to stick with that in the face of a new collection? Not sure…

Anyway, for those of you who aren't quite as conflicted, Full Dark no Stars is a collection of four novellas, ala Different Seasons and Four Past Midnight, and comes out on the ninth.

R. Scott Bakker’s second thriller’s due in a little bit if you live in the US, some time ago if you’re elsewhere. Neuropath was a mixture of brilliant and disappointing, but Bakker’s other books and blog posts (generally) fall within the first category, so I have high hopes yet. Early word on Disciple is generally good, with perhaps the most in-depth review that I’ve come across being here, though the same blogger’s list of quotes from the opening pages of the novel is probably more promotional in nature and less likely to color your expectations for those still undecided (leaving the juicy review for when you’re trying to sort out your own interpretations).

I’m a Malazan fan. A rather large (and moderately obsessive) one, actually. Ever since I finished Dust of Dreams, I’ve been going through a bit of withdrawal, and that was only a few months back. And yet, I’ve had my problems with Esslemont. I’m looking forward to Stonewielder, yeah, but, an unfortunate little part of me is more hoping that Esslemont doesn’t ruin any of Erikson’s nicely established characters than that Esslemont does a good job, having already given up on the latter. Unfair? Hell yes. That’s why I’m trying to hit that part with a shovel. In the meantime, you can check out Pat’s glowing review.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

National Novel Writing Month

It’s November, and, for those of you who don’t know, that means it’s time for National Novel Writing Month, where the moderately insane try and write fifty thousand words or more in thirty days or less. I participated last year and won, though it was more of a word count win than I completed novel win, and I’m at it again.

I don’t want this blog to be self promotional in nature, so I’m not going to be posting huge writing samples or anything like that. The one thing that I will do is, every Saturday, make a NaNo post, not because I think people are particularly interested in my success, but rather because the thought of publicly announcing my failure – which, if I must, I shall do – is liable to keep me on track. This post will not count for either the week’s review or its other content, whatever that may be, and you’re free to ignore it if you couldn’t care less. If you’re participating, though, feel free to check up with your own word counts and perhaps embarrass yourself to new heights.

But how does this affect you, readers of this (mighty fine) blog for the rest of the week? Well, I’m hoping that it doesn’t, at least not significantly. Blogging is, unsurprisingly, a rather large time investment, and writing a minimum of 1667 words a day is the same. I have November’s content all mapped out – the standard reviews as well as an article or two that I think will be of interest – and don’t anticipate a problem there, but the percentage of books read this month that I review will probably be lower than average, as will my total books read.

Anyway, the standard Up and Coming post will be up tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Cormac McCarthy - No Country for Old Men

Not everyone is suited to this line of work. The prospect of outsized profit leads people to exaggerate their own capabilities. In their minds. They pretend to themselves that they are in control of events where perhaps they are not. And it is always one’s stance upon uncertain ground that invites the attentions of one’s enemies. Or discourages it. (p. 253)

Llewellyn Moss is hunting deer when he stumbles across a drug deal gone horribly wrong: three shot up vehicles. Six dead or dying men. 2.4 million dollars in large bills. Moss is a hard man, a Vietnam veteran, but he’s tried to stay within the boundaries of the law since. He takes the money, and, just like that, he’s catapulted into the world that lurks just beneath the surface of every small town, roadway, and crowded jail in McCarthy’s (our?) Texas.

No Country for Old Men is a tour of violent set pieces, coming one after the other, barely punctuated by briefs lulls that seem more shocking than what precedes and follows them. Trucks in the desert, motel after motel, Texas, Mexico. It’s impossible to escape. Old friends, enemies, people you’ve never met. It’s impossible to predict. At the end of every scene, the shell-shocked survivors stagger to and can think of nothing beyond what is to come, but they do not truly matter: I walked over that ground and there was very little sign that anything had ever took place there. I picked up a shellcasin or two. That was about it. (p. 284) There it is, the true worth of life and measure of events in No Country for Old Men, in which nothing seems to matter beyond the calibers used.

Walking through this conflict, nigh on unassailable, is Chigurh. He has no real desires outside of violence. He is associated with no one. He leaves no one alive. And, needless to say, he feels no remorse. For most of the story, Chigurh is Death, striding amongst humans and executing them with the same cattlegun that’s used in slaughterhouses. As the narrative continues, however, McCarthy provides an alternate idea. What if Chigurh is not something infinitely beyond us, but rather what we will all become, as our sense of justice erodes further and further, the end wholly validates the means, and our culture continues to fall? It is not, after all, a question of capabilities, merely outlook:

You think you’re outside of everything, Wells said. But you’re not.

Not everything. No.

You’re not outside of death.

It doesn’t mean to me what it does to you.
(p. 177)

The endless deluge of violence is only stopped at the end of the narrative, where the last surviving character takes a step back and, admitting their failure, flees the world that the rest of the narrative has taken place in. At that point, all we are left with the aftermath, in which none of the pieces will assemble to form the whole picture, and in which there is nothing to be done but mourn (or forget) the dead and move on.

Characterization in No Country for Old Men is, like plot, somewhere between nonexistent and excellent. There is very little character development in the novel, and what little there is is confined to Sheriff Bell, more a spectator than a participant in most of the key events. Yet you can sense the character’s trying to change, struggling for it. You see Moss struggling to keep his principles, then, after realizing that that roads leads to nothing but death, trying to harden himself to a point where he will be immune. Both fail. Everyone is locked into their roads, stuck on their tracks, and every road ends in death:

Every moment in your life is a turning and every one a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. The accounting is scrupulous. The shape is drawn. No line can be erased. I had no belief in your ability to move a coin to your bidding. How could you? A person’s path through the world seldom changes and even more seldom will it change abruptly. And the shape of your path was visible from the beginning. (p. 259)

Like all of McCarthy’s works, No Country for Old Men is written in a minimalist style, bereft of punctuation beyond periods and the occasional comma to signal dialogue. Despite the inherent difficulty of the style, this is by far the most accessible and easiest of McCarthy’s work. Where Blood Meridian was a desolate, eternal, bloody meandering in the west, almost wholly devoid of character or anything else that the reader could grab onto, No Country for Old men reaches the same effect by the opposite devices. This narrative is catchy and impossible to put down, the style easy enough to facilitate quick reading, and the whole thing is streamlined just enough to make sure that it can ram its core down any reader’s throat, no matter how determined to not get involved they are.

No Country for Old Men is a masterpiece that, if it’s not superior to, matches the man’s other great works. The (excellent) movie has probably made sure that everyone reading this is familiar with the subject matter, but, if you’re one of the few who hasn’t seen it, or just wants to experience the same thing again via a different medium, this is a mandatory read.