Monday, May 28, 2007

Acacia by David Anthony Durham

Acacia begins a new epic fantasy trilogy by David Anthony Durham, acclaimed author of historical fiction such as Pride of Carthage and Gabriel’s Story. While it may represent a big change in venue for Durham, after a bit of a rough start he pulls together a notable entrance to SFF and story I enthusiastically await the continuation of.

Acacia, Book One: The War With the Mein begins in an unfortunate and underwhelming way. The reader is introduced to an assassin of the Mein journeying from the inhospitable, frozen north to kill the distant ruler of the Known World. From here we meet the King, his two sons, two daughters, and a small host of other important players. Combined with an invasion of a militarily superior yet barbaric race out of the ice fields allied with the Mein, the kingdom is thrown into chaos and the royal family sent far from home among distant cultures as the revolution settles with a new leader atop the Known World.

The first third of Acacia seems to serve only the purpose of introducing the world and those of importance as the story progresses – this in and of itself would be fine, if not for a couple of equally grievous issues. First, the writing is just plain dull – I’ve said before that the best writers rarely tell the reader anything, instead they show it. Durham fails by telling the reader a lot while showing very little. The second issue of concern is the striking similarity to the much praised series by George R.R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire. The Akaran royal family is at times so similar to Martin’s Starks that I wanted exchange the names – we have the noble patriarch, haughty heir, a princess’s princess, and ‘Arya’ and ‘Bran’ along for the ride. Throw in the seemingly unbeatable menace from the far north and story feels all too familiar.

Acacia is divided into three ‘books’ with a short epilogue where a period of several years passes between book one and book two. I felt as if I were reading a whole new story (a much better one) when I started book 2. Durham’s writing improves markedly as he begins to show me the story rather than telling it. The similarities with Martin almost completely vanish as Acacia comes into its own as a unique epic saga following the four displaced Akaran children (now adults) as they struggle to regain themselves, the kingdom they lost, and vengeance of past wrongs. Thankfully, it appears that the writing of book 2 is the norm as Durham serves up one of the more engaging novels I’ve read in a while.

Along with an ultimately gripping plot, Durham addresses the corruption of power in some interesting ways as he portrays the leaders of the kingdom as little more than slaves to a system that insures great wealth for the aristocracy while relying on slavery and drug addiction to quell the masses. Equally interesting, but not as fully developed as it could have been, is the depiction of a racially diverse world and the divisions that arise. To some degree, each of the Akaran children must face and overcome their feelings of racial superiority as they seek to reunite a kingdom that was far from pleasant under the rule of their ancestors.

Characterization is a bit of mixed bag with plot generally taking precedence. Some of the characters achieve a fullness that seems appropriate and believable, while others never quite do. This is do in-part to Durham’s mixing of an almost first person narration style with a third person-limited style that can either allow or disallow a full view of a character. In the end, the characterization is strong enough to drive a powerful plot forward and to justify actions taken.

While Acacia has a few downsides, I cannot deny that it is a powerful story and one that I enjoyed immensely. The latter two-thirds completely engaged me leaving me craving for the next installment of the trilogy. This first installment is one complete arc as the stage is set for a great expansion of the Known World. The first third of the novel is unfortunate, yet I still enthusiastically recommend Acacia – 7/10.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Sad News It would Seem

Well there is no official announcement, but it the rumor mill is reporting that the Science Fiction Book Club is being disbanded and their two, long-time editors are now out of a job. While I'm not a member, even I can recognize a blow to the SFF publishing world. Best of luck to all those adversely affected.

And to give a short update on goings-on around here - well, I'm just insanely busy with real life. Work is averaging 12-hour days right now and thing at home are hectic as my wife and I prepare for our first new addition to the family later this year. So, reading time is being impacted a bit. Anyway, expect my review for Brasyl sometime soon over at Scalpel and I'm about 200 pages into Acacia at the moment. I plan to read Red Seas Under Red Skies next (it's been taunting me for far too long now).

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Scalpel Magazine Goes Live

Well, I’m going to try my hardest to avoid cutting related puns that really want to be written every time I mention Scalpel Magazine…Anyway, Scalpel is live with it’s first ‘issue’, though the editors assure us that more content is to come in the near future (including a review from myself). Included are reviews of Gradsil by Adam Roberts, Ink by Hal Duncan, and The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang along with an interview with Charlie Stross and editorials by Pat Cardigan and Mr. Scalpel, Adam Roberts.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Showing My Stack (Again)

Last year I revealed The Stack and it was quite popular. Well lately it’s become fashionable to show your stack as I’ve seen at BoingBoing, SF Signal, and a few others who are pointing to the Flickr: Reading Stack pool. Since I’ve played at this before, I’ll play again. These images are from a few months ago when I had to re-shelve and box up some books (the pain of running out of room). Since these images were taken I’ve added another 20 or so – and yes, pretty much every book visible in the photos is to-be read.

In Stack form


Shelved




Reaper’s Gale by Steven Erikson

Had [the Elder God] told him then … all might well have turned out differently. [He] would look back on this one moment, over all others, during his extended time of retrospection that followed. Had he spoken true
The above quote aptly captures the feeling carried throughout Reaper’s Gale and its many story arcs, sufficiently tantalizing anxious readers. What would have turned out differently? Was it bad? Is this referring to events in Reaper’s Gale or later books? Does someone die? Who was involved? Answers to these and other questions range from yes to no, with the ‘maybe’, ‘I don’t know’ and ‘read and find out’ all found in there someplace.

Malazan Tales of the Fallen is the ambitiously epic fantasy series by Steven Erikson and Reaper’s Gale is the seventh installment of ten. The series is dark, daunting, and highly addictive – the reader is thrown to the wolves at the start, kept guessing in complex world of differing species, magical aspects, gods and empires, and follows numerous characters through the intricate tapestry of Erikson’s maddening world. Admittedly I am a biased fan, but the series is a brilliant example of what fantasy can achieve.

Reaper’s Gale brings more of the same to the continuing series as Erikson further explores the Malazan world, corruption of power and nations, struggles of the everyman soldier, and a war between gods affecting every corner of land and sea where pawns and kings mix and interchange in a most deadly game. Story lines from the previous six books converge in greater numbers than anywhere before, mingling with newcomers, in a clear improvement over The Bonehunters. While there is still much more to be told, numerous unanswered and yet unasked questions, Reaper’s Gale provides a satisfying conclusion as we wait for book eight, Toll of the Hounds.

This installment offers much to chew on for devoted and casual fans alike, and overall, I loved it despite it falling short in a few areas. The primary shortfall is with the great convergence of power at the end of the book. This is a 900 page book, and with all the set-up from The Bonehunters, this convergence has been much anticipated. The ultimate result falls a bit flat – the most powerful scenes in Reaper’s Gale occur earlier in the book, and some of the moments at the end just didn’t hit me as hard as they should have. With all that set-up the let-down was inevitable. As for other strengths and weaknesses, Erikson writes as he has in the past with no surprises here – he ranges from brilliant to dull as he continues his utterly addictive series.

Reaper’s Gale feeds the beast driving fans of Malazan as the series rushes towards finality. It may not be the strongest installment in the series, but it’s far from the weakest. For those who aren’t reading it yet, I highly recommend Malazan Tales of the Fallen; for fans already engaged, Reaper’s Gale is most satisfying – 7.5/10.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Orbit Books in the US

Orbit Books will be launching their US imprint later this year and right now they are running a great contest where you could win their entire first year's lineup. Authors include Brian Ruckley, Ian M. Banks, K.J. Parker, Kevin J. Anderson, and number of new authors. The contest is here, and the rules here – basically US residents 18 and older.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007


Heliotrope 2


Well my friends over at FBS at have published the second issue of their speculative fiction e-zine, Heliotrope. I haven’t had the chance to read the submissions, but I’m sure they’re top-notch like the Heliotrope 1 – and the art work is very nice. Check it out – because I told you to.

Monday, May 07, 2007


Near Incoherent Ramblings about Steven Erikson and the Malazan Book of the Fallen


I’m currently about half way through Reaper’s Gale, the latest offering in this monster of a series (which is a monster all its own at 900+ pages) and I just feel the urge to be a rambling fan-boy pimp for what is perhaps the best epic fantasy being written at the moment. No, I won’t be spoiling Reaper’s Gale or any other specific moment from earlier books, but I touch on broad plot progression, so consider yourself warned if you’re overly concerned about spoilers (and really, there aren’t any).

To introduce the series, Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen is a planned 10-book series, and Reaper’s Gale is the 7th installment – he has released the books close to annually, so it won’t be a long wait to its conclusion. In a further interesting and complicating twist, the co-creator of the world is Ian Cameron Esslemont, who is planning to write 5 supporting/related novels set in the world – the first of these, Night of Knives, will have a wide release this summer, with the second, Return of the Crimson Guard, set for release sometime next year. Additionally, Erikson has written three novellas set in the world, otherwise unrelated to the main plot(s) of the series.

The series begins with Gardens of the Moon which is a very polarizing novel. Erikson forgoes the typical set-up of epic fantasy where you are conveniently introduced to the main characters in a safe setting that explains much of the world to you before things get interesting. Erikson instead drops you directly into the aftermath of horrific battle with thousands of casualties – we get almost no character introduction or explanation of the world. Confusing bits of terrifying sorcery and deep history abound. Many, many people complain of difficulty getting into the book and understanding what is going on – a significant number settle down and start enjoying the book a lot past about page 200, an equally significant number never get into the book or Erikson’s tales at all – to each their own, but for me, this is one of the best out there and I never had trouble getting hooked. From here, it only gets better – Gardens of the Moon is probably the weakest book in the series, and it’s still a good bit above most of the epic fantasy out there.

To steal a bit from something from MattD and Jay Tomio said over at FBS – one of the greatest aspects of Erikson and his series is the balls it takes to do what he’s doing. Sure it’s vulgar, and believe me, even Stephen Colbert would take notice, but it’s the correct way to say it (and ever appropriate with world created). The shear scope and ambition of what he’s trying to catalog with this series is mind boggling – interestingly enough, it’s often clear that it boggles Erikson’s mind as much as the reader – you get the feeling that the Malazan beast has wrestled some control from him and is heading in its own direction (this is not necessarily a bad thing).

One of the most common complaints about the series is the number of uber-powerful characters – we have gods, ascendants, and normal characters of a multitude of species with huge amounts of magical and physical power. Gods and the other uber-powerful walk the world, live among the characters, they kill and are killed in turn. Each book seems to introduce another one (or more) and keeping track of all of them and who is more powerful is a fruitless exercise. For me, I love it. Erikson doesn’t shy away from what is an almost inevitable problem in epic fantasy – he revels in it, throws it smack in your face. The books are full of total bad-asses and each one ends with a grand convergence – in each book, bad-asses kill other bad-asses. It’s great.

Balancing the uber-powerful are these ‘normal’ soldiers, assassins, and others who have to maneuver around, beneath and through the world. They are typified by a stoic, smart-ass, even existential, attitude that is in the least entertaining. Sure some of them develop or have certain attributes that help them along, but most seem to get by with a combination of whit and shit in a world that is most assuredly out to kill them.

Sure, there are weaknesses, but they tend to be minor in my opinion. Erikson tries to be funny, and he very often is, however when he tries too hard it can be just plain painful. Often the reader is left thinking that nobody actually thinks or talks that way. The shear number of different players from all the cultures and continents of his vast world gets very chaotic – which I don’t think is too far from the goal. Sometimes his politics become a bit too in your face – subtly is the norm, but some things slip through. His writing lacks the consistency of the best, but I’ll take it anytime.

So, what is the story of these 10(+) books? To keep it simple – the pantheon of gods is going to war and all the mortal (and immortal) societies and empires become tools and casualties of the gods and uber-powerful. But it’s never that simple – in the best way possible, I still don’t know where it’s all going to go.

So, is there a point to all this rambling – I suppose it’s a cathartic admission that I’m just another fan-boy geek for this epic series. Obviously I recommend it – I highly recommend it. I anticipate these books like none other at the moment, and that is saying a lot.

Oh, and for those of us at the mercy of the U.S. publisher, Tor, please ignore the generally disgraceful cover art. I don’t know why it seems they are out to sabotage any chance of success, but the best we can do is read the book anyway and continue to complain loudly.


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