Friday, March 31, 2006

Please Don’t Judge My Book by Its Cover

How many times have you seen the cover art for an anticipated book and wanted to scream? How many books have you passed over because of that terrible cover, only to find out later that it actually is a quality read? This is the long way of saying that I generally loathe cover art for SF books. It really makes me want to hurl, preferably all over those Harlequin romance wanna-be covers.

Yes, I often choose not read books in public because of the silly cover art; or I’ll choose a book with relatively benign cover art to avoid those accusing glances from the guy sitting next to me on the plane; sometimes I just leave the jacket at home.

Why is the cover art so bad? Is it because publishers think their audience demands these types of covers? Do people actually want them – am I alone in my cover-art despair? Look at the European versions – while they are often bad, they are almost universally better than we get here in the US. Is there a conspiracy among the literary elite, the proverbial ‘Ivory Tower’, to keep SF from gaining any respect by dressing it in ridiculous clothing? Am I just searching for excuses for my insecurities?

Now, I know that while I rant on this, things are actually getting better. There are actually ‘epic fantasy’ series out there without dragons and maidens and other clichés on the cover. You can pick up a ‘space opera’ that doesn’t have some strange looking planet with a spaceship gracing its cover. Some of the latest ‘urban fantasy’ and ‘magical realism’ have truly great art on the covers, often creepy at that. Are publishers and cover artists finally getting it? I really hope so.

I’ll restrain my desire to douse the SF section in my local bookstore with gasoline, light it, and cackle maniacally in the flickering light from my soapbox, for now anyway. But, please, any of you who can actually have a say in this matter, stop insulting my intelligence with such truly terrible and juvenile cover art.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Politics in Fantasy: When Diplomacy Fails Will No-God or Evil Monkey Prevail?

Fight! Come quick, we’ve got a real-life rumble going on! Quick!
SLAM! Oooo…that’s going to leave a mark. SMACK! He didn’t just do that! SCHZAAM! What? Holy literary elitist, blogger!

Anyway, it’s fun to follow. First, author Jeff VanderMeer wrote this essay on politics in fantasy. Then author R Scott Bakker wrote this essay in response. Now the comments have moved to VanderMeer’s blog and the back-and-forth really takes off.

I haven't yet read any of VanderMeer's novels, but from reading his blog, and what little I know of Bakker, these seem like two guys who'd get along quite nicely. At some point in the exchange, it has become less about critical response on their opinions and degenerated into personal attacks (if still intellectual in nature). In short, it's a pissing contest, and while both seem to know that they should call it off, I get the sense that they are preparing for the next round on off screen.

So, being the peacemaking kind of guy I am (and since I reside in Arizona), I have the perfect solution as a self-declared moderator (not to be confused with moderation). Tequila! Yes, tequila will solve this issue once and for all. Either they will become best friends, kill each other, forget everything about this, have a fun story that begins “When I woke up in the Mexican jail…”, or just miss the toilet.

I suppose that however it turns out, it’s been an entertaining read.
The Warrior Prophet by R. Scott Bakker

The Warrior Prophet is the second book in Bakker’s landmark trilogy, the Prince of Nothing. As I wrote in my recent review of book one, The Darkness That Comes Before, this series has received much hype and critical acclaim. It deserves every bit of this, and more.

Bakker picks up the story where The Darkness That Comes Before leaves off; the Holy War is beginning its long march to liberate the holy city of Shimeh. Kellhus continues to learn from those around him and gains the trust of Mandate Schoolman Drusas Achamian and Conriyian Prince Proyas. Cnaiür’s prowess in war and knowledge of Kianese tactics proves valuable to both Kellhus and the Holy War itself, in spite of long held prejudices.

Great, tragic, and lucky battles ensue. The revelation of the skin spies remains largely in secret, but forces the hands of the Scarlett Spires into action. Kellhus’s influence continues to grow as he becomes a threat to the Great and the Holy War itself.

The brilliance of Bakker’s writing reveals itself in the simplicity of its presentation. By no means does this imply these books are simple. Logic and philosophy are the tools of Kellhus and a means with which Bakker creates immense depth and humanity to his characters and world. Religious parallels infuse the story and raise important questions about good, evil, damnation, redemption, and the origins of it all. However, Bakker is not heavy handed in his presentation of such important and often controversial issues. The story and its characters pull us in, and hold on with a tenacious grip.

Yes, I’m on the Bakker bandwagon, and loving it. He has lived up to and surpassed the hype, marking his place with the likes of the new generation of epic fantasy and fantastic literature. Bakker simply must be read. However, there is one important warning: the world Bakker has created is decidedly male. The books are in no way anti-woman, but the cultures of Bakker’s world are, and this can be difficult to stomach at times – of course that’s probably the point.

On my 10-point rating scale where 5 is a take-it or leave-it novel that is not recommended, and 10 is unsurpassed, The Warrior Prophet rates an 8.5. Recommendations from me don’t come much higher than that.

Related reviews: The Darkness That Comes Before, The Thousandfold Thought, and The Prince of Nothing Trilogy. Interview.

Friday, March 24, 2006

God’s Speed Robert Jordan

James Oliver Rigney, known to countless fans as Robert Jordan, has sent Locus a tragic letter regarding his health and he confirms it at his blog. Rumors have abounded for years that RJ has cancer and will be unable to finish his goliath series, The Wheel of Time. It appears that there is some truth to those rumors, though it was unknown until now. RJ has a rare blood disease that will require chemotherapy and bone marrow work. Long-term survival prospects are possible, but he has to beat the odds.

Of course my thoughts and prayers go out to RJ and his family, and I hope for a speedy and full recovery. As many others are saying, it seems that he's got the right attitude for recovery.

Interesting how a medical tragedy for a man I’ve never met helps put things in perspective. What’s the origin of my sadness for RJ – is it my selfish desire for him to finish his series, or genuine care for his well being? I hope it’s the latter, but I’d be lying if I denied the former. Health first, writing later. Good luck Mr. Jordan, and know that the thoughts and prayers of many people world wide are with you.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Satellite Television: an Allegory?

I received a notice from my home owners association not long ago, and for once, it wasn’t a bad notice. A local satellite distributor was offering a discount rate on digital satellite TV good until 2008, with no installation or equipment fees, and no penalties for leaving after 1 year. Now, I’m a basic cable kind of guy. I need basic cable, but not much more. However, this offer represents a saving versus the basic cable I have, plus much more product. This was an offer I wasn’t going to let pass me by.

So, the installation comes and goes, and I’m happy to have the new system (it takes much better advantage of the sound system I already have in place). Part of this offer is the usual hook to get addicted to more products – all the Stars channels for free for 3 months. And of course, a free preview of the HBO and Cinemax programs for an undetermined amount of time.

So, my Saturday afternoon and evening becomes ‘stare at the boob tube’ time (my wife was away at a conference all day and into the evening, after which she went strait to bed). I watch various movies and such on the ‘free’ previews – National Treasure, Catwoman, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Sin City, Harry Potter and Prisoner of Azkaban, Spider Man 2, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, some of those Cinemax ‘after dark’ programs, etc.

I couldn’t help but notice a bit of a parallel between some of the reading I’ve done, discussed, and the content of various genre message boards. National Treasure = The DaVinci Code (or any formulaic, surficially entertaining but shallower than the average puddle, book), Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is self representative, Catwoman and Sin City = comic books, Harry Potter and LotR as themselves, and Skinemax = vampire erotica?

I further think on things, and begin to appreciate more why I generally prefer reading to watching TV. You see, even with all the new channels and options, some time soon, it will feel like there is nothing interesting on TV (I need not discuss TV’s destruction of imagination). This is not a problem I have with books. There is always another book I want to read.
I did not watch TV on Sunday.
The Darkness That Comes Before by R Scott Bakker

Not since my introduction to A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin or The Malazan Tale of the Fallen by Steven Erikson has a new ‘epic fantasy’ series been recommended so highly. So, does Bakker live up to the hype? Yes. The first installment in the Prince of Nothing trilogy, The Darkness That Comes Before, earns Bakker the right to be named with the likes of Martin and Erikson, in the new breed of ‘epic fantasy’. I can only hope that the remaining installments, The Warrior Prophetand The Thousandfold Thought, continue the trend – and the hype indicates this is so.

Bakker takes the traditional ‘epic fantasy’ model and molds into something familiar, yet strikingly new. There is a young man of noble lineage from a far corner of the world seeking his destiny, sort of. There is a dark lord that threatens a new apocalypse, maybe. A seasoned warrior of unquestionable loyalty faithfully follows our prince, kind of but not really. A wise sorcerer guides our prince to his destiny, umm…not quite. Beautiful maidens are rescued and complete the characters, or not. All the usual players are present, but roles differ.

The Mandate School of Sorcery protects ancient, coveted secrets and guards against the return of the Consult – nonman followers of No-God who destroyed ancient civilization. However, the Consult has remained silent for centuries and only the Mandate even believe in its existence. Now a holy war is brewing and Mandate Schoolman Drusas Achamian must negotiate a fine line to stay alive and answer the most important question: Is the Consult involved.

Dûnyain monk Anasûrimbor Kellhus journeys south at a mysterious summons from his long absent father. His training of the mind allows manipulation of common men with little effort, and his training of the sword allows removal of obstacles with ease. Warrior-chief of a warrior society of the steppe, Cnaiür survives treachery in a great battle. Cnaiür discovers Kellhus at a scene of carnage and a connection is realized, Cnaiür knows Kellhus’s father. He joins Kellhus in his quest into uncertainty.

Bakker’s characters are flawed and simple determination of good guys versus bad guys remains illusive. Philosophy abounds with central characters of a monk and a sorcerer of schooling and the back-drop of holy war and Bakker achieves surprising depth in a story that is relatively easy to read.

What makes The Darkness That Comes Before difficult to rate is its clear place in a larger work – but a single part of a whole. So…on my 10-point scale, where 5 is a take-it or leave-novel that is generally not recommended and 10 is an unsurpassed novel, The Darkness That Comes Before rates 7.5 to 8. This is a must read for any fan of the genre, and a read that can capture fans traditionally opposed to ‘epic fantasy’.

The Darkness That Comes Before is part one of the Prince of Nothing trilogy – a very important distinction. While the end is not a cliff-hanger, it is in many ways an arbitrary ending without any resolution. This book is a beginning, but the good news is that this is a completed trilogy, not another unfinished series, and I look forward to its resolution.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Bonehunters by Steven Erikson

The Bonehunters is the sixth and latest volume of Erikson’s anticipated 10-volume series: The Malazan Book of the Fallen. For those not familiar with Erikson’s series, my advice is become familiar with it – in my opinion, it is the best ‘fantasy’ series out there. The books have everything: action, epic battles, gods, magic, demons, beasts, humor, truth, lies, death, destruction, despair, hope… And through it all, Erikson anchors the story in superb characterization of both the powerful and the men and women in the trenches, the expendable.

The story picks up where House of Chainsleaves off after Shiak’s rebellion. Pursuing Leoman of the Flails and the remnant of the rebellion, the 14th Army is in bad shape. Can the Bonehunters survive and grow into their name as a showdown typical of Erikson awaits at Y’Ghatan, a place famous for feeding on Malazan blood? Are the handful of veterans and old guard enough, will they survive?

Other threads are in action and approach yet another convergence. Mappo and Icarium suffer a major blow – will Icarium’s wrath be unleashed once more? Apsalar continues in service to the House of Shadow with the skills of a god and a broken heart. Who are her targets, and what role do her new companions have to play? Cutter and company journey to Otataral Island and into ambush. The Master of the Deck reveals his power; the Edur Empire becomes known to the Malazan Empire; Karsa is Karsa.

For me, The Bonehunters began at a crawl as I struggled to recall all the players – a reread of the other books is recommended, as Erikson brings many arcs towards another convergence. There is no repetitive back-story here, however, momentum continues to build and the book became almost impossible to put down.

New revelations occur as our understanding of the world, the rules, and the ‘real fight’ grows. Questions above are answered and left unanswered, new questions, old questions, new and old players in the game, confused, conflicting, hidden motivations abound – Erikson weaves an intricate, yet raw masterpiece.

As I’ve come to expect from Erikson, commentary relative to our own world abounds. Real and perceived inequities, religious and other fanaticism, torture, war and peace – Erikson paints a truly cynical view. Yet, his characters are not without hope; they continue in spite of the apparent pointlessness to it all…I’m more curious than ever to see how Erikson will conclude this epic, tragic tale.

Ultimately, I am still undecided on where The Bonehunters fits in with the rest of the series. Part of me believes it may be the weakest book of the series so far – which still leaves it superior to most SF out there. The humor seems forced at times, especially in the beginning, and not the effortless banter of some of the other books. Another part of me believes that rating these books against one another is an exercise in futility, missing the point.

My fully admitted bias in favor of Erikson makes this book difficult to rate; on my 10-point scale, where 5 is a take-it or leave-it book, and 10 is unsurpassed, I rate The Bonehunters at 7.5-8. Other efforts in the series rate as high as 8.5 or 9, and none below 7.5. While the story somewhat stands alone, The Bonehunters is an installment in a greater work, and it should be treated as such.

So, after my thrillingly exhaustive read of The Bonehunters, I’ll end with but one of my many questions: Steven Erikson, who is your Gumble?

Thursday, March 09, 2006

A Review of the Reviews

Audio Books


Kids Reviews

  • HiLo by Judd Winick

* Originally reviewed at BookSpotCentral.
** Did not finish
****Originally reviewed at SF and Fantasy Masterworks Reading Project

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

On My Reviews

As the description below Neth Space states, I’m not a professional reviewer of any sort. In fact, aside from a technical writing course for scientists and engineers I had in college, I haven’t had an English/Literature course since high school – which was more than a few years ago. I say this to emphasize that the reviews I write represent my own opinions and not any true criticism. These reviews are intended to be relatively brief, spoiler-free and not detailed critique. In some respects, I like to think that the reviews I write are for the ‘ordinary’ reader, not for those with a master’s degree (or higher) in literary deconstruction or the like.

I will say what I think and feel – I will not write marketing propaganda. If I dislike a book, I will let you know and I will tell what I didn’t like about it. The same can be said for my liking something – I want you to get an idea of what I liked about it. I typically read books of my own choosing and books that are recommended to me by people I trust to do so. This will skew my reviews; it looks like I like everything I read. I also receive (Advance) Review Copies (ARC) from several publishers - I certainly appreciate these, but my review will be based on how I feel about the book, and to the best of my ability, won't be influenced by the fact that the book was provided by a publisher rather than purchased by me. At this point it's safe to assume that any book I discuss on this site was provided by a publisher - this isn't exactly true (many are books I've paid for on my own), but it's a good assumption to make since it covers the majority.
I know many people really dislike ‘scoring’ or ‘rating’ a book; and equally as many people prefer it. I have chosen to rate books on a 10-point scale. A score of 5 is what I refer to as a take-it or leave-it book, which basically means that it is equally bad and good. This is the line I will typically draw between considering a book worth recommending and worthless. Since I generally choose my books and I know what I like, I’ve only scored a few books 5 or below. A score of 10 is what I consider unsurpassed – this is essentially the perfect book in every way. I am terrible at dealing with absolutes, which means I will probably never score anything a 10. Even a score of 9.5 would be considered astronomically high. With this style of scoring, anything scoring 7.5 and above is an excellent book receiving a very high recommendation from me. Scores between 5 and 7.5 are still recommended, but there is probably something about the book that I didn’t like, even though the book as a whole is still ‘good’. However, after saying that, anything around 6 or lower is a pretty low rating for me. I rate books by how much I enjoyed them (for whatever reasons). So books of wide-ranging 'quality' might score the same, of course this is like comparing apples and oranges and is a failing of ranking system like I use. Hopefully my reviews will provide enough for you to be able to judge my tastes versus your own, because in the end, it matters what your thoughts are, not mine.
As I mentioned above, I primarily read and review books provided by publishers. I discuss what sort of books I'm looking for here. To contact me, follow a link in the Contact Me section on the right. Happy Reading!

Monday, March 06, 2006

Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton

Vampires! I’ll admit, like many people out there, I do enjoy a good vampire book from time to time. Guilty Pleasures is Hamilton’s first installment in a series of books starring Anita Blake, Vampire Slayer. The books are decently popular, so I decided to give it a read.

Imagine the world we exist in, however, vampires, lycanthropes (from werewolves to wererats), zombies, ghouls, etc. are very real creatures. Vampires in the US have a bad rap, but they are gaining some civil rights – it’s now illegal to ‘murder’ a vampire. The city of St. Louis has uneasily embraced its undead inhabitants, making them a major tourist attraction – visit a vampire strip club or the circus of the damned or join the vampire church – no abstract concepts of immortality here, join and you can ‘live’ forever.

Anita Blake is an animator – someone who has the power to raise the dead. She is also a vampire hunter, contracted by the police to kill ‘problem’ vampires. In an ironic twist, Anita, the ‘executioner’, has been hired by both the police and the city's most powerful master vampire to find who has been killing some of the city’s most powerful vampires.

Anita is both strong and vulnerable, and one hell of a cynic. Vampires are soulless, powerful creatures, and Anita would love to see the world free of them. Not only is she working for vampires under the threat of the death and dismemberment of a friend (and herself), but someone is trying to kill her; things have been better. She is uneasy, scared, and angry. And when she’s angry, even a thousand-year old master vampire should take notice.

Guilty Pleasures is a quick, fun read. While it is certainly an ‘R-rated’ book, it is not the sex-filled book many seem to imply about Hamilton’s books (of course, I haven’t read any of her others). The atmosphere is dark, dirty, and a bit perverted, but Hamilton balances this well Blake’s cold wit and sarcasm, though it can be forced at times. The writing suffers from the typical awkwardness of a first book, but not so much that it can’t be overlooked.

On my 10-point rating scale, where 5 is a take-it or leave-it book, and 10 is unsurpassed, Guilty Pleasures rates a 6 to 6.5. I enjoyed this book, and will read the next installment of Anita Blake, Vampire Slayer: The Laughing Corpse. Guilty Pleasures is not a book of great depth, just a fun, quick, horrific romp through a world of monsters helmed by the darkly funny Anita Blake.


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