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Archive for July, 2013

Fantasy Review: ‘Men at Arms’ by Terry Pratchett

 Part 15 of The Complete Discworld Reread

“An appointment is an engagement to see someone, while a Morningstar is a large lump of metal used for viciously crushing skulls.  It is important not to confuse the two.”  — Carrot Ironfoundersson

The following is less of a review and more of a string of musings.
Easily the most quotable Discworld book so far.  Almost every page had something to make me laugh; humorous dialog, subtle references, wacky hijinks are all here.  I could easily have skipped a review and just posted my favorite scenes and quotes.  Peeking ahead at what I have written it may have been a better idea. 

These early night watch books were a real treat, for a long time I would have considered the Vimes based books my favorite of the series because of the humor.  Conversations between Nobby and Colon are almost always a delight.  There is always a little bit of slapstick humor involved with investigations, this time around I really enjoyed the different styles of reports Vimes reads from his watchmen (particularly when Colon gets a hold of a thesaurus to write his).

But they also hold up so well because before the watch got a bloated cast that cut everyone’s screen time (page time?) Pratchett was really building the personalities of each character in interesting ways.   Vimes is incredibly important to the Patricians plans, but never realizes how he is being played by the man. Detritus gains a friend, and shows some intelligence when the conditions are right.  Angua is introduced, and any fan of the series knows that is nothing but a good thing.  Later on in the series the cast will grow so large that some watch members are nothing but an easy joke, but here and now each is an important piece to the story.

The true hero of the story is not really Vimes though, it is young Carrot.  Carrot is much less naïve this time around and the way the city bends around him naturally is starting to show.  The theme of him being simple, but not stupid shows up to great effect.  My favorite is the way Carrot DOESN’T threaten people, but his words make people feel there is a chance he is.  A lot of books play with reluctant heroes, and usually they either turn whiney in a hurry or lose their reluctance and just become heroes.  Carrot has no reluctance to being a hero or being admired, but he does have a problem with people following him solely because he is easy to follow.  It is refreshing to see, he is fully aware of his power and uses it the right way.

The story itself is serviceable, but not spectacular.  A single firearm is in the hands of a killer in a city that has no idea what it is facing.  The watch pieces together the puzzle to figure out how the deaths are related and who to stop.  A nice little side story involves our old friend Gaspode the talking dog and a guild full of nasty dogs led by an unexpected canine.

“Men at Arms” also has one of the worst examples I can recall of bad editing in a good book, follow along with me! (MINOR SPOILER).  We learned about swamp dragons in Guards! Guards!  They are small dragons prone to exploding when excited.  Now to the editing hiccup that has driven me nuts for years.  1.  Something blew up, what could it be? 2. Vimes says, I smell dragons and there is glass (like from a mirror?) all around. 3. New recruit speaks up; she thinks someone blew up a dragon on purpose.  4. (And this is seconds after Vimes SAYS he smells dragons remember). Vimes gives a patronizing “I suppose” and basically ignores the suggestion.  A couple of pages later he finds more evidence and acts shocked shocked SHOCKED that the new recruit was right, they did blow a dragon.  A line of thought that he himself started a few pages back!

Oh, I can’t leave it on a negative.  More awesome stuff!  Rephrenology (look it up Joe!) should totally be a thing.  Lots of foreshadowing in the early going (you’d have to be a fool).  Reflecting the cities’ Ethnic Make-up is important (a dwarf, a troll, and a w—).  A very touching clown funeral. And of course, Gaspode gets a new home.

4 stars.  No five, no four. Ya, four.

4 stars

Fantasy Review: ‘Seven Forges’ by James A. Moore

Hmm.  Promising for sure.  Some potential and may prove to be an entertaining series.  One large Empire that holds power over most of the known world meets unknown peoples from a land suspected to be inhabitable due to an unknown cataclysm in years past.  Even more surprising is the new people claim their gods told them where to meet the party that was trying to explore their homeland.  From there the book acts as a set up book for the series to come; the two groups visit each other’s homes and feel each other out with the reader knowing something is going on in the background, but not what.

The book was a bit too heavy on convenience for me, perhaps the result of its short length, but a whole lot happened without real explanation.  Some guards go way too far and seriously hurt a secondary character.  Why? Not sure, but his injury was needed for a future plot line so it happened.  And the unexplored waste land was a bit too close to the empire for it to be so damn unknown.  And really?  The mage’s three beautiful assistants are a redhead, blonde, and a brunette?  

Some good interactions between the two cultures though.  The barbarian type working hard to stick to their warlike principles, but still trying to stay diplomatic.  The all-powerful empire realizing they are facing a possible threat and actually taking it serious rather than bumbling around in arrogance.  It may not be groundbreaking but it was better played than some.  I also enjoyed the use of seven mountains as gods that may be more real than some characters know.

Definitely a first book in the series, nothing is really resolved and everything actually escalates in the end.  Entertaining enough in its way, but it wasn’t really all the memorable.  In fact, writing the review two days after finishing it apathy has already kicked in.  But it was certainly good enough that I will pick up the second in the series when it comes.

3 stars.

Review copy provided by publisher.

Fantasy Novellas Review: ‘The Dark Elf of Syron’ by Laura Lond

This is a set of three novellas which combine to form one longer story. The first part, ‘The Prisoner’, is beautifully done, with a wonderfully mysterious and quite spine-chilling atmosphere. The second part, ‘The Knight’, is still very readable but loses a little of the atmosphere. The third part, ‘The King’, gets a bit bogged down in politics and loses traction a little, but ends on a fine note.

The three stories together form a complete whole, or perhaps I should say a potentially complete whole. The story arc is resolved with a satisfactory flourish (although with plenty of room for possible future development), but many elements seem quite skeletal. The characters, in particular, are not quite fully fleshed out. The world-building is very solid and well thought out, but the little glimpses we catch here and there of how things work are tantalising; more detail would have been welcome. I would have liked to know more about the religious system, for instance, and how the power of the light works in this world. I’m a big fan of not info-dumping the background, but this was a little too minimalist for my taste.

The main character, the elf, is quite compelling, although we weren’t given much detail about him but the gradual reveal of who he is and his powers was masterfully done. However, although some development is expected, even in a piece as short as this, and it was always clear why he changed, I still didn’t find his transformation entirely credible. Again, a little more time spent on fleshing out the character would have been good. Of the other characters, the good ones seem a little too good, sometimes, especially Lenora and Fredric. The king’s mixed motives seemed believably human, although he was rather too stupid at the end. The prison warden, Captain Torren, I liked very much. This was an excellent portrayal of an honourable man caught in an extremely difficult situation, and trying to do the best he could.

It may be that the author intends to pad this out to novel length at some point, in which case undoubtedly the rather unfinished nature of this material will be irrelevant. Even if not, a final editing polish wouldn’t go amiss; I didn’t spot any errors, but there were a few slightly clunky lines which a little rewording would deal with. I cringed, for instance, when the elf said he would ‘holler’. This may seem like a long list of criticisms, but it’s more a matter of frustration that the book was so short – I would have liked much more. Despite my grumbles, none of them affected my enjoyment of the book, which I found very readable. Four stars.

Dark Fantasy Review: Overwinter: A Werewolf Tale by David Wellington

Synopsis:

Powell and Cheyenne, a pair of werewolves from the first novel in this series, Frostbite, are trying to spend safely their first arctic winter still looking for a cure for their state. It happens somebody else is looking for them and that particular somebody means trouble big time. Her name is Lucie. She is a sadistic French werewolf girl who had bitten Powell some hundred years ago and now treats him as her husband. Having made a total mess of her latest Siberia hideout, she decided the ground under her dainty feet was too hot – she left for Cananda to find some backup. She joins her former lover and creation asking for Powell’s protection. And killing a bar full of innocent people on her way just because she felt like it. As you can imagine Chey and Powell are less than thrilled – the attention of the local authorities and law enforcement is the last thing they want. Especially that Chey starts having some very worrying symptoms – apparently her wolf is becoming stronger than her human nature but if she allows the wolf prevail she will end up insane. The time for finding a cure is becoming short indeed.

Lucie is closely followed by Varkanin, an elderly but still hale and hearty Russian hunter who had shot her back in Siberia and whose family she destroyed – in retalliation she murdered all of his three adult daughters. Varkanin is very motivated to find Lucie and make her pay for her sadism. He is also a formidable opponent, with his specnaz training and a lot of colloidal silver inside his body. Additionally he is given substantial support from the side of Preston Holness, a shadowy figure working for the Canadian government. Holness specializes in unsavoury deals the government needs but officially would abhor like using prohibited land mines, depleted uranium bullets or killing off a bunch of werewolves just because they operate in an area rich in oil a big oil company is interested in.

Will Powell find a cure? Will Lucie let him stay with Chey? Will Varkanin get his revenge and the oil company – its drilling towers? As usual there will be no easy solutions and no easy answers.

What I liked:

It was a gutsy story – as beautiful but also as cruel as the Arctic itself. There are a lot of deaths at the end, some of them very painful although still logical. I truly couldn’t have thought of a better end; I also couldn’t have written anything more depressing. If Powell and Chey were handed a HEA (happily ever after), so a little prairie house and one evening at the bowling alley a week as they planned at one point, I would threw this book away; on the other hand the way the book (and the series) ends, made me rather sad. Love does conquer all, even lycanthropy, but sometimes the price is high indeed, so high that you wonder whether it was worth it…ok, before I get maudlin let me progress with the rest of likes.

I liked the mythological spirit of muskrat (Dzo), accompanied by that of a polar bear and a dire wolf better this time. Their role in the book was more precisely outlined, more important and far more understandable than in the first installment. I also liked how the character of Varkanin was presented – a former specnaz soldier, a cruel hunter but also a deeply-wounded individual who lived just for his revenge. Creepy but so very true. Similar things can be said about Lucie – she is very pretty, very sweet sadist who also, once upon a time, was hurt and wasn’t given any choice but to follow her fate. You feel sorry for her for 1/3 of the story and you hate her for the rest.

What I didn’t like:

It is not really a flaw because this book was very good; However, it made me very sad. I think you should be warned – don’t read it when you have a spell of autumn blues (or any other kind of blues). The ending will hardly put you in a better mood. Of course it was all good, logical and understandable but still…prepare a lot of chocolate and maybe even a highball.

Final verdict:

A very good, intelligent but definitely a very adult fantasy series with some violence and no easy issues. I recommend it but I am also aware that it might be not a pair of novels for everyone. If you crave for something to cheer you up and make you all warm and happy you might actually want to steer clear of it.

Fantasy Review: ‘The Republic of Thieves’ by Scott Lynch

Spoilers from the first two books guaranteed.  

Prologue

The young man has found a rekindled interest in the fantasy genre.  Joe Abercrombie pulled him back in with The First Law.  George RR Martin tried to break him.  Eagerly the man searches forums for something new, something great, a series to follow for years to come.  Making his choice he grabs one of the shelf, thinking “damn that is a long, awkward title.”

1

The man, slightly older, fires up his Kindle.  It is finally here!  Eagerly he starts reading, looking for answers to old questions.  Was Locke really poisoned, if so how will he pull through?  Is there any possible way Sabetha will live up to the hype?  Can Lynch’s unique writing style stay fresh, particularly the flashbacks?  Will the man be just as excited for the fourth book of the series as he was for the third?
The early going proves promising.  Quickly the man is ensnared in a flashback, complete with an early Sabetha sighting.  The author still has the touch; the flashbacks are not intrusive despite the impatience to get to the main story.  The flashbacks are a bit different this time around, no longer dealing with major time jumps.  Instead, after the prologue dealing with early life, they focus on the full complement of the Gentleman Bastards dealing with one assignment (reviving a theatre in some disrepair).  Very much focused on the relationship between Locke and Sabetha, there were plenty of shenanigans to keep readers entertained

The flashbacks may be a bit dry for some readers, despite plenty of the usually scheming large sections were still spent dealing with the workings of the theatre and the play being performed.   No doubt the play, entitled ‘Republic of Thieves,’ will be devoured by some readers looking for clues hidden within for future story lines.  Though the man isn’t one of those, he did enjoy the wit and glimpses of larger story that he saw from the imaginary work.

Interlude

Oh my god was that book awesome.  Instantly the young man grabs the sequel.  Peaking at the cover synopsis he wrinkles his brow.  A Pirate story?  How the hell is that going to work?

2

The man, finished all too soon, sits back to gather his thoughts.  A rare book that he would have been happy to have another hundred pages of.  The flashback storyline was wonderful, felt complete, and was a fun addition to the backstory.  But what of the “present day” storyline?  Was it everything the man was hoping for?  In some ways it was, though he can’t help but thinking it needed…something more in order to feel complete.

The main storyline was certainly entertaining.  Politics as spectator sport!  With Gentleman Bastards playing the game there is no way it couldn’t be fun.  But the political game perhaps is best not looked at too deeply; it wasn’t the most convincing set up.  And while a deeper look at the vote chasing Locke and Jean must go through may have led to a more bloated book, it might have been a good thing.  A lot of double crossing and fun shenanigans for sure, but not much showed how votes were turned or lost in this all important election.  For those used to getting the full details of the Bastards complicated plans handed down piece by piece it was a tad disappointing, though by no means a complete let down.  Perhaps just a case of unusually high expectations.

Learning a bit more about the bondmages is welcome as well.  Their participation in the game of politics is perhaps not something to look at too closely, but in most other ways they were fleshed out strong.  Why they serve for money, why they don’t run everything with their magics; perhaps not all is explained but details are becoming clearer.  It all makes the land Locke lives in a bit more alive; not a place one would want to live in but enthralling to read about.

Interlude


The dinner was good and the evening enjoyable.  The man’s little boy is tired, thus the bedtime rituals begin.  Teeth are brushed, jammies put on, and hugs are given.  One for Mom, one for Dad, and one for the visiting Aunt; the man’s younger sister.  Little boy in bed the Aunt realizes she has a long drive ahead and starts to say goodnight.  Can she look through the man’s library and borrow a few?  What would he recommend?  Sounds interesting, I’ll try it.  Damn is that a long, awkward title.

3

The man’s thoughts turn to Sabetha.  Rarely is there such build up for the unknown, such an important character in the protagonists life yet not seen for two full books.  It was asking for a letdown, there was no way she could live up to the hype and expectations readers were building.

But she did.

She matched Locke hit for hit, mental blow by mental blow, scheme for scheme.  She knew when he was going left, knew that he knew that she knew, and caught him the act of faking right and going left anyway.  It is perfectly clear why Locke has pined for this woman for five years, their battles of schemes and wits rarely tip to far in one or the others favor, and Sabetha seems to be the only one who gets the better of Locke time and again.

As a competitor Sabetha was everything hoped for.  As the love of Locke’s life, maybe a little less.  She is hard to pin down.  One true love, foretold by destiny?  Lynch plays with the trope a bit, specifically showing Sabetha’s reluctance to let it decide for her.  Almost opposite of a pixie dream girl, she isn’t there to give Locke everything he wants, but often will give him just what he needs.  It is easy to foresee a portion of the fandom turning on her; calls of whiney and bitch will be common for her sometimes treatment of Locke.  Admittedly at times her extreme mood changes into anger seemed directed at the wrong source.  But be clear, it is just one more way she is the perfect counterpart to Locke, no stranger to sudden mood shifts, brooding, and anger himself.

Yes, Sabetha will be a nice addition to future books, as long as the formulaic nature of their interactions is changed up a bit next time around.  Locke already had a perfect friend in Jean, now he has a perfect foil in Sabetha.  She was fun, witty, and razor sharp.

4

Fans of Lynch shouldn’t be disappointed.  Closer in style to Lies of Locke Lamora than its sequel, the book moved at the same brisk speed, wove the story between two timelines beautifully, and provided plenty of excitement.  Ending on less of a cliff hanger was a plus, though of course there are plenty of open questions to provide fodder for the rest of the series.  The flashbacks are interesting, and provide a chance to bring back old friends to the story.  The main storyline was fun and exciting, though a bit shallower.  Sabetha was worth the wait and Locke and Jean are still an awesome pair. 

4 stars.  Some areas may not pass the logic test, but it is too entertaining to rate lower and was well worth the wait.

Epilog

“Ya, hello.”
“Hey Sis, what you doing? Nothing, just driving home”
“Oh, you finished it?  What did you think?”
“What the hell do you mean you didn’t like it?  It’s one of my favorites!”

Review copy acquired from NetGalley.

Fantasy Review: ‘The Scars of Ambition’ by Jason Letts

I really have no idea what to make of this. I don’t even know what genre it is. It comes complete with maps of an imaginary world, with two continents with places like the Cetaline Mountains, the Seasand Desert and the Boiling Sea. There’s magic and sword-waving tribes and dragons, of a sort. So it must be epic fantasy, right? But then it has electricity, planes and trains and mobile phones (cellphones), and some kind of internet. The early chapters are focused on a boardroom squabble between two energy companies, one based on gas power, the other on solar. So it’s a corporate thriller? Energy-punk? Cyber-punk? Search me.

The story focuses around the Bracken family – Lowell, the head of the gas energy company, his ex-wife Tris, and his three children, Sierra, being groomed to take over the company, Randall, a politician, and Taylor, just off to university. They are wealthy and respected, so life seems set fair, but of course there are storms brewing. No surprise there. I found it rather pleasant to see a family as the hub of a fantasy novel. Usually the protagonist is an orphan, or at the very least scarred by his or her dark past. But these seem like normal folks with normal problems – Sierra struggling to make her mark at work and dealing with an obnoxious co-worker, and Taylor showing off to his college pals and trying to get laid.

I confess to having some difficulty with the juxtaposition of seemingly modern people and situations, yet with traditional fantasy elements in the mix as well. Much of the story concerns office politics (and some actual politics, as well), which feels just like a contemporary work, but sometimes the transition to an outbreak of magic or some difference between the created world and the real world was too jarring for my taste. It’s very difficult to invent a world which has many aspects of modern life yet still feels believably ‘other’, and for me it didn’t quite work.

A couple of problems. One is credibility. The CEO of one power company makes an arrangement to visit the CEO of his opposite number, something that’s never happened before. That would be a huge deal, with all the senior executives present, and a metric ton of minders on all the doors, just in case of trouble. But no, he walks into the boardroom unannounced and overhears a secret conversation. No, I don’t think so. Let’s not even mention the daughter who decides on a whim to take a bag lady home to live with her, just because said bag lady has a cute little dragon. Or the son who finds himself in the midst of a cult that wants to drink his blood: ‘Oh, all right then…’. Who signs a blood pact without even asking any questions, like – will I survive? And will there be hideous long-term consequences?

Then there’s one power company boss’s brilliant idea to send someone overseas to buy up essential components needed by the other power company. It has to be someone who can’t possibly be traced back to the company. I know, let’s send the boss’s ex-wife, Tris. You know, the one who’s never been abroad and who’s only skill is in growing and arranging flowers. Just the ticket for a critical and highly secret corporate mission, and no one will ever connect her to the company… so that’s really going to work well. Not.

The other problem is the, at times, heavy-handed writing style.

‘But Lux produced a much more intriguing weapon from the back of his pants: a gun with the hammer positioned to come down on a pale green stone, which was lodged against a small three-pronged rack feeding little metal pebbles into the back of the tube.
“Oh my, that’s Florjium. You can only find it in Didjubus and it’s acidic,” [Tris] said. The man glanced at her, not comprehending. “When you hit that stone to shoot the metal bullets, the toxins from the stone also hurt you!” ‘

Florjium – oh my! From Didjubus, even. A couple of questions arise from that: how would Tris know so much about it? A flower or a strange plant she might recognise, but a rare mineral? And, even if she’s somehow an expert, all that explanation would be much better as exposition rather than clunky dialogue. Throughout the book, the writing style seems rather flat, and loses much of the tension from the action sequences.

None of this would matter if the plot worked, but for me it just didn’t hang together. A lot of things happen to the various characters, but it all seems fairly random and none of it makes much sense. Everything that happens to Tris, for instance – why? Why do the people she interacts with treat her that way? Why is Taylor (the teenage son) of any interest to the blood-drinking cult? It makes no sense. I need to understand people’s motivations to really get swept up in the story, but here I was constantly saying: huh? Why would he/she do that?

The main characters all seem rather passive, too, simply going along with whatever is happening around them, and surrendering far too easily in the early parts of the book. Some of it was just plain dull to me – the corporate skullduggery, the teenage boy at college, the political machinations… I don’t read fantasy for that stuff. Now, there are moments where things get interesting, with hints of magic or the little dragon, the hooded man and the weird cult, and a cool sword fight in the boardroom (yay for swordfights! if there has to be a boardroom then let’s have swordfights in there) – intriguing things that kept me reading to find out more about them. Frankly, I could have done with a lot more of that. And there was plenty of action going on, with suitably villainous villains doing villainous things to our heroes. If the villainous villains seemed a bit on the moustache-twirling end of the spectrum for my taste, there are plenty of readers who like their fantasy black and white, with no messy grey ambiguity to muddy the waters.

As the story plays out, several of the characters change from passivity to taking charge of their lives, and this is absolutely fine. It’s just a pity that in most cases the means for them to do this is simply dropped into their laps. Taylor and Tris simply reversed into their situations, without a single coherent thought, it seems to me, and even Sierra’s moment of decision happens by chance. Only Lowell decides to take measures to make his own good fortune.

On the plus side, this is a highly original blend of traditional fantasy with modern technology, and I applaud the author for the attempt. I like the idea of basing a story around a family, and the fundamental message is a good one, if portrayed a little heavy-handedly. There are some imaginative touches which work well, and if it wasn’t really my cup of tea, there are many readers who enjoy this kind of straightforward tale of basically good people trying to make the world a better place (and get rich or laid at the same time). Two stars, and a small cheer for the swordfights; all corporate mergers and takeovers should be decided by the CEOs personally using swords, in my opinion.

Fantasy Short Story Review: ‘The Bone Knife’ by Intisar Khanani

I’m a huge fan of the author, having given five stars to both ‘Thorn’ and ‘Sunbolt’, so this was a must-have for me. It’s a charming little short story, a prequel to a future novel, with all the author’s trademarks: great characters, a well-defined setting and an intriguing plot, beautifully written, creating an altogether beguiling experience.

Rae is the eldest of three sisters, who live with their parents. No, the main character isn’t an orphan, isn’t mistreated and actually has a great relationship with her siblings and parents, a refreshing change from so much fantasy. But Niya, the middle sister, has a secret: a talent for magic, which she uses in delightfully domestic ways, enhancing the bread or the stitches in the curtains. But in this world, magic-users are obliged to be trained as mages and serve the king, so Niya has to keep her ability hidden. Into this placid setting comes potential trouble, a man wanting to buy horses. He just happens to be a faerie…

It’s difficult in a short story to create characters who have any real depth, but the author carries this off with aplomb. Rae, the girl with a clubfoot, sneered at and ignored by the villagers, is also intelligent and resourceful. The rest of the family have their own distinctive personalities. But the star of the show is the faerie, a creature both frightening and eerily compelling at the same time, and very much ‘other’, something not human. He steals every scene he’s in, frankly, and I hope we see more of him in the full-length novel.

My only quibble with the story is that the villagers seem to be rather different from Rae and her family. In short, they are somewhat lacking in common sense, and I’m not sure why they are so overtly hostile towards the faerie, when Rae’s father is quite happy to do business with him. It may be that there’s some reason behind that, which isn’t being made clear, but it struck me as odd. It’s a very small point, however.

I really enjoyed this, but be warned: it is very short, and stopped at 47% on my Kindle, the rest being taken up with samples of the author’s other works. A good four stars.

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