Here be Dragons

Archive for January, 2013

Fantasy Review: ‘The Black Prism’ by Brent Weeks

This is one of those authors I’ve been meaning to catch up with for ages, and this finally got to the top of my to-read pile. The opening is snappy – short chapters, lots of action, plenty of background detail that just about stops short of info-dump and a magic system that has me hooked right from the start, even if I don’t quite ‘get’ it yet.

But only a few chapters in, and already there are irritants. One of them is Kip. On the one hand, hurray for a main character who’s not super-handsome, super-intelligent, super-powerful, that’s fine. But he really is stupid, sometimes. And all the oh-no-he’s-going-to-die drama – no, actually, he’s not, he’s a main character, he’s going to escape by the skin of teeth. Again. And yet again… this is tiresome. Then there’s Gavin. He’s so powerful he can do a dozen impossible things before breakfast, and that’s just not interesting. And there’s the author’s habit of switching tense for a sentence or two. It’s intended (I think) to indicate internal thought, but with no other marker to differentiate it, it’s just confusing.

But the pace is fast, there’s lots of things going on and the magic system, with its use of colour to create physical artifacts, is unusual and interesting. There was a sticky patch of super-implausibility (Gavin, his long-lost son and the rebel king all meet at the same hick town at the same time, purely by happenstance? Really?) that almost had me abandoning the book altogether. And then there’s a Shocking Twist which even I, who gets surprised when farmboys turn out to be the heir to the kingdom, saw coming. And later there’s another Shocking Twist which is only marginally more unexpected.

The book could have done with another thorough edit. It’s not full of typos, but it feels quite rough in places and there are some big ‘what?’ moments. An example: Gavin learns that he has a son called Kip in a very early chapter, and he even muses a little on Kip. But when he actually meets him and hears that his name is Kip, it doesn’t register. Only when Kip’s mother is mentioned does he have his can-this-be-my-son moment. This sort of thing is just untidy, and it’s far from the only example. On pacing, the author has clearly read The Rules of Fantasy, especially the parts that say Thou Shalt have a Fight in every Chapter, and Thou Shalt end every Chapter on a Cliffhanger, but not, apparently, the one that goes Thou Shalt not take too much notice of these Rules, lest Thou seriously annoy Thy Readers, for Verily such tricks soon grow Tedious and make Thy Readers roll their eyes.

Kip the ‘natural’ son remained an irritant, and Karris wasn’t much better. Honestly, authors, can we please retire this tired old cliche of bastard children causing huge angsting and grief? This is fantasy, there are worse things around than the odd child conceived out of wedlock (like global wars, and out-of-control mages). And Karris… yes, let’s talk about Karris. Authors, a strong female character is not simply one who is physically strong, has extraordinary abilities, is the only woman in a man’s job. It means a character who is not defined by her gender OR by her relationship with a man. Karris may be the first woman in the Blackguard, may be the fastest drafter (colour-magic user) in the universe, but what drove her to that? She was betrayed and abandoned by a man. She goes to pieces around her man. She learns about the bastard child, conceived while they were betrothed, and she falls apart. Please. This doesn’t make her interesting, it makes her tedious.

Fortunately, things do eventually settle down into a more readable and less irritating story. The whole magic setup is nicely worked out to the last detail, and if it makes drafters incredibly powerful, there are subtleties in there which are quite brilliant. For instance, drafters use light in one of the colours to create physical artefacts, but what they can create and how the object can be used is entirely a matter for the individual, defined not just by their degree of ability but also by their imagination and intelligence. A smart drafter, even one of below average capability, can use their power in inventive and original ways, a great asset in war. There are also some nice details in other aspects of the author’s world. For example, it’s not polite to address a slave by name unless the slave has previously revealed it to you.

There’s a really interesting backstory lurking behind all the dramatic action and not-quite-believable characters, the story of the war between the two brothers, their family and the relationship with Karris’s family, and when the author focuses more on that and less on the Prism showing off his superpowers, the book actually rolls along very well. In time, I even became interested, up to a point, in Kip and, to a somewhat lower point, in Liv, the disgraced general’s daughter. The prisoner in the dungeon is also a great story, and I wish he’s been a bigger part of things (although to be fair there isn’t a lot to say about a man permanently locked away from the world).

But then, just when I was getting interested and the story was starting to fly, Kip goes off and does something totally stupid. Again. Now, I’ve given this book a good go, I’ve got two thirds of the way through and there’s stuff in here I really enjoy – the magic system is awesome, and the family history is intriguing. But… I really have very little tolerance for a book which substitutes relentless action and carefully contrived plot twists for character depth, believable motivation and emotional engagement. Lots of people love this book, so I accept that I’m in a small minority here, but I’m giving up on it. One star for a DNF.

Fantasy Review: ‘Gardens of the Moon’ by Steven Erikson

What is wrong with me?  I have a to-read pile a mile high, am engaged in a project of reading a series with 40 books, and I read the first book in one of the thickest epic fantasy series around.  And I liked it?  So that big to-read pile now has some major door stoppers on it as well.

For those unaware, the ‘Malazan Book of the Fallen’ is known as one of the most EPIC of the epic fantasies out there. Larger than life heroes, earth shaking magic, big-bad villains, and god’s right in the middle of everything is the name of the game.  The opening book, ‘Gardens of the Moon,’ is also known as a troublesome book for first timers to get into.  And to be fair, I failed to get through it once myself several years ago, though I had put it aside for something I was more excited about at the time.

With that in mind I prepared myself to either be blown away or completely disappointed.  When all said and done, I found myself enjoying every page of this book.  It has some flaws, it isn’t subtle, but if one buys into what it’s doing, it lives up to its reputation of epicness (shut up it IS too a word).


Dropping you right into the middle of the story, there is not easing in period.  I couldn’t even begin to give the story a recap, even from the start.  The Malazan Empire is expanding, the Gods are making a play, and something sinister is rising.  This is a book of war and magic, and both are shown in large abundance.

One thing that surprised me; despite a high body count the book wasn’t a typical GRIMDARK affair.  No flying body parts, spurting blood, or sexual attacks.  Don’t get me wrong, the world is dark, things are going wrong all over, and people do die.  But by toning down some of the brutality I spent a lot of time wowed by what was happening, rather than cringing.  Well done indeed.

Characters are hit and miss.  Some are genuinely human at times.  Some are nothing more than avenues to show off major power.  The interference of some of the gods spice things up, giving some characters multiple angles.  The Bridgeburners were out of favor soldiers, and were fun to follow.  It was sad to watch Lorn lose what humanity she had left as she followed her Empress’ orders.  Kruppe’s aura of being simple left the reader knowing he was hiding something, but not how much.

Not everything worked for me.  Despite not being as inaccessible as I feared, even as a careful reader a few things went over my head.  I never figured out why the Bridgeburners worked to save a certain sorcerer, who went on a nice evil rampage through a good portion of the book.  I never figured out just what Crokus was looking for from the noble girl.  And the build up for the release of a major power ended up being slightly disappointing in how quickly it was resolved (though I am sure future books will make me rethink what has been resolved and what hasn’t).
   
I often mock bad fantasy as being something from a video game, but this book shows how that style could be done right.  It won’t be for everyone (there is no subtle ANYTHING), but if you are looking for fights between gods, armies, and insanely powerful magics, it may be time to finally try this series.  
 
4 Stars

Paranormal Review: ‘2012: Midnight At Spanish Garden’ by Alma Alexander

One of the pleasures of reviewing books on a blog is that from time to time an author will suggest you read their book, and as a result a little gem drops into your lap completely out of the blue, something that you would never, ever have found by yourself. This is one such book. It’s rather a shame, actually, that the paranormal aspect will cause it to fall into a genre black hole, because it truly deserves a wider audience. Yes, it’s paranormal fantasy, and perhaps it’s technically urban, too, but it’s not a romance, and there are no vampires or werewolves. It’s about people, and the choices they make, and it’s much closer to literary fiction than fantasy.

The premise is a simple one. Five friends from university days hold a reunion twenty years later on the eve of the predicted Mayan calendar apocalypse. During the evening, all five of them are mysteriously shown an alternate life and get to choose which one to stay in: the current life or the alternate. The five alternate histories are, in certain ways, like short stories, but they are all compelling and they fit perfectly into the overall story arc without feeling forced. There are some odd pacing choices – the earlier episodes are noticeably longer than the later ones, which puts them right on the edge of starting to drag. Quincey’s alternate history in particular was both slow and overly schmaltzy, and I really wanted to hurry things along to find out how she would choose. Fortunately, the author’s elegant writing style stops things from tipping over into overt sentimentality.

As the five step into their alternate existences, and decide which of the two lives they will choose, we learn a great deal about each of them, their personalities, the influences for good or bad on them, and their relationships. The choices are never easy, and in at least one case heart-wrenchingly difficult, but there are no right or wrong answers here, and this is not about correcting past mistakes. Rather, it’s about who you want to be, who you are and about being true to yourself, even if that means giving up something else along the way. These are profound questions, and I’m sure everyone who reads this will find themselves in contemplative mood afterwards.

The ending is deeply poignant, and yet perfectly fitting. This is a beautiful book, elegantly written, with wonderful and memorable characters, and a thought-provoking subtext. It is barely-there fantasy, and would fit comfortably into mainstream literature. If the author hadn’t suggested I try it, I would probably have passed over it as being ‘not my thing’, and I would have missed a treat. The only minor criticism is that some of the alternate lives are slightly idealised, but I enjoyed it so much I can overlook that. Five stars.

YA Horror Fantasy Review: ‘The Monstrumologist’ (#01) by Richard Yancey

Synopsis:


An elderly resident of an old people’s home called William James Henry, dies in his sleep. He claimed he was born in 1876 which would make him a 131-year old man in the moment of his death but nobody believes him. His notebooks are lent to the narrator/the author.

That’s how, after a short intro, we are plunged into a story within a story, featuring a first person narration of younger Will Henry who describes one event that shaped his entire life. Will was an orphan, taken in by Pellinore Warthrop (guess why Warthrop was given such a strange first name and you will find out a lot about him), a man of wealth, a scientist, a doctor and the titular Monstrumologist. He felt responsible for the boy as he used to employ Will’s father and they were friends. Will works for the doctor in a capacity of a personal assistant and a servant.


One day a grave robber visits doctor Warthrop, showing him his unusual find – two bodies, one of a young girl and the second not quite human, intertwined in a kind of embrace. Doctor is known for a particular interest in different oddities and he usually pays for such curio well. It turns out the grave robber happened to dig out a predator called anthropophagus and his unlucky victim. The dissection of both bodies leads to very alarming conclusions – in short it seems that there are more Anthropophagi around and the whole population of New Jerusalem is being endangered. How have such monsters wandered to the USA, though, as they can’t either swim or fly and their original habitat is situated in hot, faraway places like Africa or New Zealand?

Doctor Warthrop and his young assistant will have to solve that mystery really post haste – soon enough a pastor and almost his whole family are slaughtered by the hungry monsters. The local authorities are anxious to stop anthropophagi at all cost but will they manage to do it on their own? What will be discovered in the process?

What I liked:

Despite all these monsters, blood, slaughter and intestines flying around it is not a scenario for any Hollywood B movie (well, perhaps after dumbing it down a lot…). It is a slightly philosophical story, best summarized by these two Nietzsche quotes:

“Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

In other words leave the monsters alone and…let them kill you and yours as they please?

“All things are subject to interpretation; whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.”
Hmmm…no politician would be ashamed of such a statement…

Anthropophagi, as presented here, originated in works of Herodotus and Pliny the Elder. I always appreciate when the author bases his story on ancient texts and does it in an intelligent manner – the effects are more often than not interesting, at least to me. Let me also assure you that the anthropophagi (literally man eaters) are hardly the biggest monsters around. The worst baddies, as usual, are humans, particularly one man. A very handsome and intelligent man to boot, called dr. Jack Kearns or Richard Cory (among other names he uses and not without a very good reason). Let me present him in more detail – the quote below is his description from the novel:

“He was quite tall, well over six feet, the man standing on the doctor’s doorstep, athletic of build and handsome in a boyish way, with rather fine features and stylishly long flaxen hair. His eyes were an odd shade of gray; in the glittering lamplight they appeared nearly black, but later, when I saw them in daylight, his eyes took on a softer shade, the ashy gray of charcoal dust or the hue of an ironclad warship. He wore a traveling cloak and gloves, riding boots and a homburg hat set at a rakish angle. His mustache was small and neatly trimmed, golden like his mane of hair, so diaphanous it appeared to float above his full and sensuous lips.”
If his physique made you think he must still be somehow a positive character, you are in for a very big surprise. The man is deeply immoral, maybe even a psychopath. He is also nice to look at (even according to other men), very fit, undoubtedly well-muscled, intelligent, cynical, witty, and cunning. If only he cares he can daze you with his pearl-white smile, straight from a toothpaste ad, and entertain you with his educated banter. Yes, he can quote the Bible and Shakespeare from memory, he knows Nietzsche personally and he claims he’s influenced some of his theories. You definitely shouldn’t judge him by appearances, though, and only at the very end you find out enough facts about him to form a viable and definitely negative opinion. Without spoiling you the pleasure of such discovery let me just say I wouldn’t leave my dog in the tender care of such an individual – not even for a minute or two. The construction of such a character is not easy and this one was extremely well done, I really haven’t met a more enticing and more dangerous baddie for a long time, especially in a YA book. Lonely and obsessed dr. Warthrop and poor, young and equally lonely Will pale in comparison but of course they would be a far safer and nicer company.

What’s more? The book was highly readable, the narration flowing smoothly, its pace lively and well-planned. All mysteries were solved and nicely tucked away at the end but still I think there is a sequel and of course I would like to read it even without any ugly cliffhanger.

What I didn’t like:

Just one complaint – the book didn’t feature one single female character worth mentioning. Women are positioned only in the background as decorations or props. I know that we speak here about a backwater society from 19th century but still…I wish there was one strong woman presented among all these men.

Final verdict:
Despite the fact that Mr. Yancey didn’t hesitate to make this story gruesome and in places downright stomach-churning I enjoyed it very much indeed. I loved the characters, I loved the writing and the philosophical undercurrent of the novel; it was really surprising it was published as a YA horror story. I would like to read the rest of the series now!

Books in Series

The Monstrumologist
The Curse of the Wendigo 
Isle of Blood

Fantasy Review: ‘Guards! Guards!’ by Terry Pratchett

Part Eight of the Complete Discworld Reread
 
A drunken guard captain as the protagonist. A secret society that barely functions. An overweight, middle aged love interest. The long lost heir to the throne… who just isn’t interested. Dragons! What about this book don’t I like?

Thus starts the adventures of Samuel Vimes in Ankh-Morpork, which will continue on for many more books. And what a long ways our courageous watchman has come. Something of a disgrace, leading the night watch in a town where criminal guilds are the real law, Vimes spends most of his time in a bottle. But there is still a bit of civic pride in the man, and no one can tell him that the dragon he saw is really a large bird. So it is up to him and his motley crew to save the city, beat the dragon, and save/get saved by the maiden fair!


While my favorite plot lines these days involve the Witches of Lancre, when I first started reading Discworld it was the Night Watch books that stood as my favorite. Vimes is an amazing character, especially in the early going when he has just enough pride to get himself into trouble. He just feels real, something fairly unique in fantasy at times. He is not the smartest or bravest, often times has to be prodded in the right direction by his crew, has a very real problem with alcohol, and knows his limitations while pushing them with all he is worth. Even this early in the series you can feel the city slowly bending around to his ways. He is such an overpowering presence in this book that it speaks to the quality of writing that any other characters are memorable at all. But Corporal Carrot could carry a book all by himself (and I seriously hope that someday he gets that chance). Nobby and Colon are comic relief, but they carry the role very well. And Lady Ramkin will shine more later in the series, but even in this book is resourceful and strong.

The story itself is well worth reading, giving the lowliest guards a chance to not die in the first few pages, but rather to do the things usually reserved for farm boys with hidden strengths (i.e. save the day). Meddle not in the affairs with dragons would be the basic moral of the story, with a few special twists.

Humor wise this is where I like Pratchett best. Less obvious pop culture references, more subtle mocking fantasy and real life. Calculating out million to one chances were a highlight, as was the importance of knowing what all the words in a secret oath mean. I will always enjoy Carrot’s letters home, and Vimes’ interactions with owner of a greasy spoon will carry over to other books as well.

Some areas didn’t hold up as well on reread, notably that timeline editing seems to start getting lazy starting around this point. It is something that I have noticed in several of the Watch books particularly; Vimes gets the important information a few pages before completely dismissing a theory that the info relates to, only to remember the important piece of information at a later time in the story. I don’t know how it happens, but it feels like the time lines were moved around and certain lines were forgotten. Also, Carrot seems a bit too one-dimensional knowing what is to come with him, with none of the ‘simple doesn’t mean stupid’ that we see in later books. This may be something that only matters on reread though, and wouldn’t affect the enjoyment of a first reading.

4 1/2 stars

Fantasy Review: ‘Between Two Thorns’ by Emma Newman

Ok, so there is the real world, known as Mundanus to those who know of the other worlds.  There is Exilium, home of the Fae, and a very dangerous place for mortals.  But in between, there is the Nether, with is neither here nor there.  In this land live the Great Families, mortal, but fae touched and magical.  While in the Nether they do not age, and life seems to be a nothing but a string of social climbing and political posturing between the great families. 

Our heroine Catherine, Cathy for short, has managed to hid from her family and patron in Mundanus, living a typical college student life.  But as the story begins the Fae known as Lord Poppy finds her, strips off the protection that hid her, and gives her three wishes ( and anyone used to ‘fairy tales’ knows this is more curse than gift).  Forced home Cathy is quickly woven into the petty (but perhaps deadly) politics that make up life in the Nether.  Something sinister is happening in the Nether though, as the Master of Ceremonies is missing.  A gate keeper of sorts, his disappearance is noticed in Mundanus as well.  Enter Max, an Arbiter (which appears to be some kind of border patrol between the magical and non).  Originally searching for corruption within his ranks, he gets dragged into the disappearance by a sorcerer.  Lastly there is one witness to whatever happened, a mundane named Sam.  Unfortunately, Sam was drunk when he saw.. something.. and may have a magical charm blocking the memory as well.


Confused?  Don’t worry, the author does a decent job of easing a reader into the new world as the characters travel between the different realms. Most of the story follows Cathy, who is entertaining to read about.  Considered ‘plain’ by Nether standards, she fell in love with the Mundane world, even going so far as having a boyfriend.  Going back to being a ‘puppet’ of the Fae in the Nether grinds on her horribly.  While she never stops fighting for her own personal freedom, for most the story she has little control over her own life; where she lives, where she goes, even a promised marriage are all out of her control.  Max is an interesting character as well.  As an Arbiter his soul is literal taken from his body.  What this does is make him almost emotionless, unless he is near the chain that holds his soul.  It was a strange but interesting plot device, and at times it worked well, though it was a bit clunky in the execution.

I enjoyed the unique take on fairy realms, by adding the Nether there was one more level between the Fae and humanity.  Some neat ideas were present, such the Great Families needed to own the property on both sides for it to be binding.  And when it came to the story itself, I found myself staying up late to finish after a fairly slow start.
  
So there are a lot of interesting ideas, and the plot was enjoyable enough for me to stay up late to finish.  That was good.  But I have to admit, there was too much about this world that I just didn’t believe in, which is a problem for a fantasy book.  I can’t figure out what the Arbiter’s really are policing, nor where they get their authority.  There are vague references to a treaty, but no explanation as to why the Fae should fear them at all.  The Great Families have a thriving economy, but no indication of what it is based on.  No one in the Nether seems to work (outside of servants), but they are not true Fae, so they are not just living on magic.  There are hints that the Great Families trade in things other than money (wishes, dreams, etc), but they also had a heavy hand in the economy of Mundanus, with no real indication of how. It got frustrating.  Other little things; why would a family distrustful of technology use a car because they are afraid of trains?  How could a sorcery be in contract with agents in Mundanus like Max but be so unaware of what technology is useful for, even if he refuses to use it?  Why did they seem to move with humanity right up to Victorian times, they decide to stop? 

And while this was certainly the first in a series, and therefore allowed to have some loose threads, this book left some loose threads completely ignored.  Why was Sam protected by Lord Iron, when no one seems to know who that is?  Why was Max concerned about Titanium used to mend his broken bones?  I have lots of questions, and I am not sure many of them are set to be answered.

It was a good book, and a real page turner.  I will probably be reading the next in the series, because I enjoyed most of it, and love fairy tales of all kinds.  But I sure wish I believed in the world the author built a bit more.

3 Stars

Advanced reading copy provided by publisher.

Fantasy Review: ‘The Five Elements’ by Scott Marlowe

I’m not at all sure how to categorise this. There are elements of steampunk, there’s alchemy, there’s a fairly standard form of elemental magic and there’s a fair dose of science in the mix as well. I don’t know whether it’s intended as YA, but the protagonists are fifteen and there’s nothing that would trouble a reader of that age, although some of the ‘experiments’ are a little gruesome. There’s an interesting premise – one of the main characters, Aaron, is a sorcerer’s apprentice, but unlike the usual such character, he’s a scientist, using logic and scientific knowledge to investigate effects related to his master’s work. Less radically, the second main character, Shanna, is apprenticed to a soap-maker, but on the side is also a thief and scavenger. Then there is the intriguing idea of the fifth element, in addition to the usual earth, air, fire and water.


The opening is a little wobbly. We see the two main characters in their environment, and they’re both very likeable, but some of the events seem a little forced. Would the ogre really toss the head sorcerer’s apprentice over the cliff-edge? Is there no justice system which would step in, this being (apparently) a well-ordered city? Would Shanna really be able to push the ogre over so easily? But even so, I liked the relationship between Shanna and Aaron.

Shortly after this, all hell breaks loose, and suddenly we’re hurled into a breathless rush of dramatic, page-turning action. Many books don’t reach this level of intensity before the finale, but here it works perfectly to rip the main characters out of their setting in the most natural way possible, while raising any number of questions about what is going on. Neatly sidestepping the conventional gang-on-a-quest setup, the two main characters are separated and have to make their own way through their post-apocalypse world, and end up on different sides, which is an interesting twist on things. And although there is a quest, Aaron and Shanna are simply sucked into someone else’s plans. This part of the book, the events at Norwynne, is terrific.

From then onwards, the pace is rapid and there’s a dizzying array of twists and turns, to the point that I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen next, or who was a good guy and who was a villain, almost to the end. Virtually all the characters have depth and behave believably. Aaron in particular is a terrific character, both immature yet intelligent and enterprising, perfectly aligned with his age. I absolutely loved his ability to approach any problem in a logical, scientific way, and find a rational solution. This is so refreshing in fantasy, which all too often turns to magic at such moments. Shanna I found less interesting, a bit too sulky and short on initiative, and not always terribly bright. Amongst the other characters, the dwarf and the savant both stood out. The mysterious Ensel Rhe worked less well, I feel. His backstory seemed a little contrived to get the reader’s sympathy, and he had an all too convenient knack of turning up in the nick of time to effect a rescue (not always successfully, it has to be said). The magic system is fairly simplistic, but the rest of the world-building is fascinating, with an array of (I suppose) steampunk additives for flavour. I loved all the various machines, even if the descriptions sounded a bit hokum.

The book could do with a final polishing edit, with a few mistakes and clunky moments, but otherwise the writing is excellent, perfectly judged to carry the plot without being intrusive. I particularly liked the author’s economical descriptions, which convey a great deal of evocative information in the minimum number of words. There were a couple of places where a character jumped to the right answer rather easily, which felt a little convenient, but there was enough foreshadowing to get away with it. The ending is appropriately grandiose and with unexpectedly thoughtful undertones. The author is to be commended for not taking the easy way out at this point. Overall, I totally enjoyed this, and tore through it at high speed – that just-one-more-chapter syndrome. It’s an unusual, pacy story, with an unexpected plot-twist in almost every chapter, and great fun to read. Four stars.

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