Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Review: Soulless by Gail Carriger

Victorian high-society full of vampires, werewolves, dirigibles, and tea-drinking. A description much like the one above intrigued me – just a bit tongue-in-cheek, but also self-aware enough to earn a smile. Soulless by Gail Carriger (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) does indeed meet that description…and more (there is even…wait for it…romance).

Alexia Tarabotti is an aging spinster in the high-society of Victorian London. She has a sharp tongue, independent mind, and is cursed with the Italian blood, complexion and name of her long-dead father. She spends her days tolerating family and chaperoning her younger half-sisters, who have real potential in the game of society, to one social event or another. Miss Tarabotti is also registered with the estimable Bureau of Unnatural Registry (BUR), a division of Her Majesty’s Civil Service, as a preternatural, the yin to the yang of supernatural creatures like vampires, werewolves, and ghosts. An assault by a horribly rude and mannerless vampire sets the stage for the adventures to come.

Soulless is a fun mix of Victorian romance, steampunk, alternative history, and urban fantasy. While there is a more than adequate plot to add mystery and suspense, Soulless is a romance at its heart. Lord Maccon is the Scottish fourth Earl of Woolsey, head of the BUR and the Alpha male of the Woolsey Werewolf Pack. Miss Tarabotti and Lord Maccon engage in the standard dance of antagonizing love-hate banter, beginning with the latter and ending with the former.

Carriger utilizes an almost flippant humor throughout Soulless. Soulless is snarky – well, it’s at least witty, but the self-awareness of the wit leads me to call it snark. And it’s the self-aware aspect to the humor that works – like it works for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. While the dialogue is often too witty, it obviously isn’t taking itself overly seriously either, making the comedy of romance much more enjoyable. Carriger also peppers dialogue and thoughts with language that feels much more modern than Victorian English – I took this yet another sign of the self-aware, tongue-in-cheek quality underlying much of Soulless.

On a related note, Carriger seems to have a strong understanding of the underlying sexual metaphor behind supernatural creatures such as vampires and werewolves – she embraces the metaphor in not a wholly proper way and then embellishes. Vampires are all style and effeminate beauty (even gay) as well as the inspiration for Victorian social structure. Werewolves are all testosterone, barely-controlled animal virility, and the brains behind the military might of the British Empire. The underlying sexual tension of Victorian prudishness is brilliantly balanced against the metaphor, and Miss Tarabotti’s innocence, curiosity, and sharp tongue lead to some rather humorous moments, even if a bit overboard.

Unfortunately, Carriger’s style of writing also suffers from one of my biggest pet peeves – unclear breaks in point of view. The point of view often jumps from character to character, regardless of them being major or minor characters, without warning or break. This is often confusing, always annoying, and slows down pace of the narrative.

Carriger combines a sense of the modern world with Sense and Sensibility in Victorian England with a dash of steampunk and a healthy dose of the supernatural. The aware, confident whit and self-deferential humor help make Soulless a fun and quick read with a rather clever premise. And the adventures of Miss Tarabotti continue in The Parasol Protectorate series with Changeless (
Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) and forthcoming Blameless (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound). 7.5/10


Monday, March 29, 2010

Review: The Midnight Mayor by Kate Griffin

Magic. When you hear the word what image is invoked? Druids in the twilight mist of an ancient henge? An aged (white) wizard, with beard and staff incanting some unintelligible spell? A meditating monk worshiping at the top of a mountain? A witch invoking a cryptic rhyme as she peers into a bubbling cauldron? Angels? Vampires? Faeries?

Did you think a pile of garbage? The last subway? The disclaimer written on a transit card? The discarded phonebook on top of the canopy at the bus stop? The heavy beat of the latest hot nightclub?

Kate Griffin imagines a world of magic unlike any other – magic that has evolved from those tales of legend we all see so often into real urban magic. Magic is life. Life is magic. And life in the city of London has a magic all its own. Griffin introduced the urban sorcerer Matthew Swift in A Madness of Angels (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) and The Midnight Mayor (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) follows with Swift’s ascension to a responsibility that he doesn’t want or need.

The subtitle of The Midnight Mayor: Or, The Inauguration of Matthew Swift says it all. The old Midnight Mayor is killed and the title passed Swift, who didn’t actually believe in the Midnight Mayor in the first place. The city is under attack – the ancient guardians fall under the onslaught of a mysterious entity known only as the Death of Cities. Fighting for his life, Swift must come to terms with his new responsibility and save London.

The Midnight Mayor begins much in the same way as A Madness of Angels – confusion, danger, frantic flight and clever resolution. In fact, the whole of The Midnight Mayor follows much the same formula as A Madness of Angels – this is truly an example of, if liked x than you’ll love y.
I really enjoyed A Madness of Angels, but the overt similarity brings down The Midnight Mayor – it felt like the same outline with only a few different players – it felt like Griffin may have used up all her best tricks in A Madness of Angels and could do nothing but cut and paste.

Thankfully Griffin makes up for the repetition with her vision of London. Only a person prone to long walks and a deep love of the city could write this novel. Griffin takes the moods of the city and its people and turns them into magic, a magic that is wonderfully clever and almost cynically insightful. A cigarette in a beer bottle becomes a powerful weapon. Reciting the arcane legalize of criminal code becomes a ward against supernatural malcontents. A can of spray paint is as powerful as any traditional wizard’s wand.

Griffin’s biggest improvement with The Midnight Mayor is in her characterization – Swift truly comes alive instead of simply being the vehicle for her view of London. Swift grows. And through his new role as the Midnight Mayor and his internal struggles of humanity versus possession by the blue electric angels, he becomes real. Griffin balances Swift against the non-magical, evangelically righteous Oda and rounds things out with smaller players like the Alderman, an abused traffic cop, and a worrying mother. She also resists the need for neat, happy resolutions to all and even plays a bit with idea of redemption.

In spite of Griffin’s tendency to rely too heavily on description, The Midnight Mayor is a tighter, better book than A Madness of Angels. And that tells the tale – The Midnight Mayor is more of the same, yet an improvement to A Madness of Angels. London comes magically alive though the unique urban fantasy of Griffin – urban fantasy that I enthusiastically recommend. And the adventures of the urban sorcerer Matthew Swift will continue in Spring, 2011 with The Neon Court: Or, The Betrayal of Matthew Swift (
Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound). 7.5-8/10


Related Posts:
Review of A Madness of Angels; Kate Griffin Answers Questions Five

Friday, March 26, 2010

An American Blogger in Canada

So my trip to British Columbia for work is done and now I’m happily back at home. Ironically, it was snowing here in Arizona this morning and officially colder here than it was in British Columbia (though the actual mine site may have been slightly colder). I really don’t have that much to say about it all since work dominated my time.

Kamloops was fairly unimpressive. The town itself was just a bit boring. It sounds like there are great things to do around the town, but I didn’t have the time to visit them and it was really the wrong season to enjoy them. Vancouver is a great city, and I wish had longer to explore both the city and the surrounding environments. It’s definitely a place I hope to visit again. I didn’t do much – hit the Canada Line from near my hotel and the airport and took it to the Waterfront. I walked around the city center a bit – Canada Place, Gaslights District, etc. The weather was perfect: clear and warm, the cherry blossoms were just past peak. Then I had a nice sushi dinner (it was odd to find Bible verses on the chop sticks wrapping) and a beer or two in the Gaslight District. Steamworks Brewery was fairly unimpressive – next time I will have to make it to Granville Island, whose beers I was far more impressed with when I was laid over at the airport.

Did a bit of reading – I finished up The Midnight Mayor by
Kate Griffin (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) just before leaving and read Soulless by Gail Carriger (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) while on the trip. Now I’m reading King Maker by Maurice Broaddus (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound). Expect the reviews to start arriving early next week.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Something Completely Different

I know it's been quite around here this week, and it'll probaby be quite for a bit longer. I'm slammed at work and in my personal life. That means less free time and less reading time. And it also tends to keep me focused enough that I don't have as much to say around here. Next week I have business trip that will take me to Kamloops, British Columbia for a couple days. I'll also get one night in Vancouver. I've never been to British Columbia and the last time I was in Canada was about 30 years ago, so I'm looking forward to the trip. I may do a travel-related post during or just after the trip, but content will be lacking for a bit longer. The good news is that travel plus layovers usually makes for reading time.


Anyway, on to something completely different....


Glaciers in Greenland from 35,000 feet.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Blake Charlton Answers Questions Five

Blake Charlton is another one of those debut authors getting a bit of buzz this year. His first book, Spellwright (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) has just been released by Tor to a fair amount of positive acclaim, including a bit of my own. He’s been beating the ground over on Twitter to get his name out and has an amusing (and informative) blog. Blake also has an interesting background for newbie epic fantasy writer – he went to college at Yale, worked a few odd jobs and is now in medical school at Stanford, where he also teaches creative writing to a bunch of would-be doctors. And he’s done all this while being dyslexic, which is a big inspiration for Spellwright.

Thanks again to Blake for taking the time to amuse himself with
Questions Five.


Blake, after reading many of the interviews and other posts on
your blog, I’m lead to the conclusion that you must speak with yourself quite often. How has the tendency of talking with yourself (or possibly imaginary friends) influenced your life and fiction?

BC: You know, it’s funny you mention that. The self dialogue has been popular on my blog. But I hardly ever talk to myself anymore. I mean, like, there was that one stretch of time, all those years ago, when I found the One Ring at the bottom of a river…and it poisoned my mind over five hundred years before I lost it to a cheerfully fellow found of riddles who—judging by his stature and the hair on his feet and similar findings I later discovered on his young cousin—was probably coping with a rare familial endocrine condition. But after the so called “Crack of Doom” incident on the great volcano of Orodruin, I don’t talk to myself hardly at all. Well, ‘hardly’ means I do, but just a little. Which is to say, no I don’t, but maybe yes I do. Because really your question presupposes a definitive modality of the verb “speak.’ Which only encourages a dizzying intellect. And commits one of the classic blunders typified in getting involved in a land war in Asia. But also includes trusting a Sicilian when death is on the line. So, clearly, the answer to your question is no but also yes.

What’s your favorite hair style (note: should actually contain hair)?

BC: David Bowie. You might think that’d be a person, not a particular hairstyle, but you’d be WRONG: he’s a hair philosophy. Hair is generally frightening stuff, unbecoming of an adult male, and collecting Lovecraftian nests of bits of soap and belly button lint in bathtub drains across the world. However, if you must exude the strange flouncy, proteinaceous stuff from your head, you should try to be David Bowie and go for flair. Let’s all take a moment to remember him in Labyrinth and his album Ziggy Stardust and suddenly you see the light.

If Spellwright were a fortune cookie, what would its fortune be?

BC: If Spellwright were a fortune cookie, once you broke it open, small firecrackers would go off, a gargoyle made out of silvery sentence with antlers would dance around you, and the incandescent words of the fortune would float up out of said cookie and it would read:

Into all occasions, put much thought and consideration, but when the time is right, party!
And then the exclamation point would shoot away to strike a tiny gong to let you know a small piece of wisdom just came to you in cookie form.

How would you interpret this fortune if it were your own?

BC: I’d take it to mean that intellectual pursuits are well and good, deep heavy emotional consideration is well and good, but some of the best parts of life happen when you don’t take yourself or anything too serious and you go out and have fun.

Why should Spellwright be the next thing that everyone reads?

BC: Let’s go back and smell the rose that is “when the time is right, party!”

Spellwright is different from a lot that’s out there now in that its primary goal is to have a lot of butt-kicking classic fantasy fun. A lot of people think that can’t be done well anymore, or has been done to death. I’m looking to prove otherwise. So, the book’s not a doorstop of an epic that’s about amoral characters spilling physiologically dubious amounts of blood out of the sympathetic characters. (Although, I do love reading a quality little-magic-lots-of-bloodshed fantasy.) Rather, Spellwright is reviving the classic fantasy model with sympathetic protagonists struggling with disability, a fast-paced quest, a murder mystery, and a crowd-pleasing mega-watt magic system.



Bonus question for inclusion in The SFF Literary Pub Crawl:

Please recommend a favorite pub or similar establishment – it doesn’t have to be local to you, but that is encouraged and if you can’t limit to just one, recommend more, but try to keep it to 3 or less. And don’t forget to say why it’s so great.

BC:
Antonio’s Nut House in Palo Alto: closest thing you’re going to get to a dive bar anywhere near Stanford University. So…not very divvy, but still it makes a respectable attempt. The place is covered with pool tables, stools, knick-knacks, neon signs, and strange Americana. The jukebox alternately rocks out Jonny Cash and Dr. Dre. A Mexican restaurant shares one side of the bar and you can get good enchiladas until around 11pm. The floor’s covered with peanut shells because they’re free on the house. You just have to fish them out of a barrel that’s in a cage with a giant gorilla suite. The gorilla used to be automated to move when someone came near, but too many of the non-regulars would freak out and jump away from the gorilla and into a pool game. Best part is the crowd, which is about one third town locals, one third Stanford grad students, and one third bar hopping types (some bikers) from up and down the peninsula. Sometimes a glut of undergrads will take it over, and that’s kind of a drag (unless you are one, I suppose.) But normally conversation topics range from quantum physics to football to Desperate Housewives to beer. Actually, everyone’s always talking about beer. I like the high geek ratio and that everyone in the place is pretty different and that they mix with each other, especially around the pool tables and dart boards.



Review: Spellwright by Blake Charlton

What happens when you cross dyslexia, molecular biology, stuffy elitist universities, magic, demons, deities, grammar and an undeniable love of epic fantasy? You get Spellwright by Blake Charlton (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) – a classic-feeling epic fantasy with an imaginative magic system and intelligent writing.

Nicodemus Weal was once believed to be the prophesied savoir, but hopes and dreams were crushed when it was discovered that he suffers from cacography – the inability to spell correctly in magical languages. Now in his mid-twenties he languishes as an apprentice with little real hope of becoming even a low-level wizard in spite of his impressive fluency in magical languages. The murder of a wizard from a misspelled spell lands Nicodemus and his master as prime suspects as they struggle to clear their names and discover what evil is loose. And Nicodemus may be the prophesied savior after all… or the prophesied destroyer.

The magic system Charlton develops for Spellwright is simply wonderful, though it does take a bit of patience to fully understand and appreciate. Words are literally magic – they can peal off books, skin or whatever medium appropriate for the language and literally become spells – the words themselves are the magic. Those born with the ability to wield magical languages are known as spellwrights. Spelling, prose, grammar, and linguistic knowledge all take on new meaning and importance in this world. And it presents the opportunity for Charlton to be very creative with his own writing – intelligent, witty, and thankfully not too full of pun and wordplay as to become tiresome. This added flexibility of Charlton’s prose and how it interplays with his magic system was immediately apparent, and full of potential. At times it is uneven and uninspired and sometimes just a bit too clever, but overall Charlton does well, making for a fun and intelligent read.

It’s this magic system that allows for Charlton’s true inspiration to shine through. In a world where spelling is vitally important and misspelling can alter a spell enough to invoke deadly consequence, what are the implications of a dyslexic spellwright (known as a cacographer)?

Charlton himself is dyslexic and he overcame his ability by reading science fiction and fantasy, eventually landing at an Ivy League university and Stanford Medical School. Nicolas is very much a combination of Charlton’s own struggles with dyslexia and sort of a childhood wish-fulfillment of being a hero in a fantasy story. For the most part it works well and is a heart-felt representation of the struggle with disability, knowing one’s self, and the prejudice of others. However at times the wish-fulfillment comes across too much, crossing the line of clever homage, and simply annoys. Thankfully, the academic setting of the novel does not invoke the elitism of the Ivy League or feel derivative of Hogwarts, the new standard in wizardly education.

Charlton’s version of epic fantasy channels what feels now like an older breed – the epic fantasy of the ‘80s and ‘90s when the good were good and the evil, evil. Demons seek to take over the world and recreate humanity and are aided by human demon-worshipers. The good include the general wizardly community who vow to prevent demons from taking over and a more clandestine alliance of deities who seek to breed a savoir from the blood of an ancient imperial family – just as the demons seek to breed a destroyer from those same bloodlines. The world is full of magic and magical constructs, beasts, wizards, gods and demons (and presumably ordinary people, but we don’t see many of those). There are rival political factions and other complications, but at its heart, Spellwright is a story of good vs. evil with both a prophesied savior and destroyer.

In this Charlton readily embraces many of the common tropes of epic fantasy with only a small shift here and there for variety. Fans and critics are often too quick to praise subversion and condemn use of these tropes. In reality cliché and trope alike exist because they speak to the hopes and desires of people – and while epic fantasy purely derivative of these tropes is simply bad, quality epic fantasy that embraces trope and tells its story well can be great. Spellwright may not be great, but it’s far from bad – and it’s clear that Charlton is a true fan of epic fantasy.

Spellwright is the first book in the Spellwright Trilogy and does not stand on its own. The story arc does come to a resolution of sorts, but it’s not a complete resolution and much more remains to be told. The good news is that Spellwright is full of potential for the remaining books and much is hinted at that could make for an interesting future. However the end of Spellwright drags on much too long. The additional ~15 pages after the main climax reads as part epilogue and part bridge to the next book, but overall feels like a let-down. Spellbound is the next entry in the trilogy, expected in Fall 2010, and the tentatively titled Disjunction should close out the trilogy sometime in 2011 – but I think that we can anticipate much more from the Spellwright world, which has a rich, intriguing history (and presumably future) to be explored.

Spellwright is another 2010 debut that has been getting a fair amount of buzz. Its greatest strength is in the creative magic system that Charlton crafts and homage to a more traditional-feeling epic fantasy. There are a few bumps along the road and larger annoyances, but the overall result is positive and full of potential. 7/10


Related Posts: Blake Charlton Answers Questions Five

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Pyr Celebrates 5th Anniversary With Essay Contest

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
March 9, 2010

Pyr Celebrates 5th Anniversary With Essay Contest
Grand Prize Winner Embarks on a ‘Pyr and Dragons Adventure’

Amherst, NY --
To celebrate their 5th anniversary, Pyr, the science fiction and fantasy imprint of Prometheus Books, will sponsor a contest that incorporates things they hold dear: creative and powerful writing, a passion for reading genre fiction, and this year’s special number, five.

For their Pyr and Dragons Adventure 5th Anniversary Contest, Pyr invites readers and fans to submit a short essay on the theme: Five reasons why science fiction and fantasy is important to you.

Eligibility requirements follow*.
Any essay submissions that do not meet these guidelines will be disqualified:
  • Essays must be no longer than 1500 words.
  • Essays must be emailed to publicity@prometheusbooks.com as a Word document attachment, with the subject line “Pyr and Dragons Adventure Essay Submission.”
  • The body of the submission email must clearly identify the entrant’s full name, address (within the Continental United States), phone number and email address.
  • All submissions must be received between April 1, 2010 and June 1, 2010.
*For complete list of rules and regulations see
http://www.pyrsf.com.

All eligible essays will be read and reviewed by publishing staff at Prometheus Books. Not all of these preliminary readers will be science fiction and fantasy fans, so outstanding essays will likely be those that pique their interest in the genre and make them want to read it too. The top twenty-five essays as determined by these industry professionals will be read by Pyr Editorial Director Lou Anders, who will select the top three.

The writer of the Third Place essay will win a commemorative Pyr 5th anniversary keepsake and five complimentary books of their choice from the Pyr catalog.

The writer of the Second Place essay will win a complete set of Pyr books as published by the contest end date of June 1, 2010 (one copy of each title, without duplicating those that appear in more than one binding) and a commemorative Pyr 5th anniversary keepsake.

The Grand Prize Winner will embark on a “Pyr and Dragons Adventure” that includes*:
  • A round-trip flight to Atlanta, GA during Dragon*Con, one of the largest multi-media, popular culture convention focusing on science fiction and fantasy, gaming, comics, literature, art, music, and film in the US. Dragon*Con 2010 will be held September 3 - 6, 2010 (Labor Day weekend).
  • Two nights hotel accommodation in Atlanta, GA, Sept. 3 and 4, 2010.
  • Dragon*Con membership/entry badge.
  • Dinner with Special Pyr Author Guests and Pyr Editorial Director Lou Anders—details to be announced!
The grand prize winning essay will be posted at the Pyr-o-mania blog, and may be promoted by the publisher by other means, including but not limited to their other blogs, websites, e-newsletters and social networking pages.

Prometheus Books—a provocative, progressive and independent publisher of nonfiction since 1969—launched Pyr in March 2005 to complement its strength in popular science. The imprint rather quickly earned acclaim, awards, and loyal fans, including Pulitzer Prize–winning author Junot Díaz, who called Pyr “the imprint to beat in the science fiction and fantasy fields.”

With an emphasis on quality, Pyr helped to introduce readers to some authors then little-known in the U.S., such as John Meaney, Ian McDonald, Joel Shepherd, Justina Robson, and Joe Abercrombie. Pyr has also published such established authors as Mike Resnick, Robert Silverberg and Michael Moorcock. Pyr Editorial Director Lou Anders has been nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Editor Long Form for three consecutive years. In 2009, Prometheus Books and Pyr launched a major e-book initiative, with titles available on Kindle and programs with many different e-reader platforms in the works. In 2010, in addition to celebrating its five-year anniversary, Pyr will publish its 100th title.

# # #



For a complete list of contest rules and regulations see
http://www.pyrsf.com

Friday, March 05, 2010

Something Completely Different

Ponderosa skeleton, Chuska Mountains, New Mexico

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Lord of Chaos E-Book Cover Art


I love what Tor is doing by having different artist do new and original covers for each Wheel of Time novel for the e-book release (links to all here). So far the art has been great and I’ve really enjoyed the commentary about each release. But with the Lord of Chaos cover by Greg Manchess Tor stepped out and went beyond. They embraced technology and created something new with the cover art. And it’s awesome. Way to go Tor. Way to go Irene. And make sure you watch the video – it’s overlaid with music and audio from the audio book.

Now if I can only figure out a way to post the animated cover art here. (edit: thanks Kevin)





Ari Marmell Answers Questions Five

Ari Marmell is best known the world of Dungeons & Dragons where he is a freelance writer and has published several tie-in novels. The Conqueror’s Shadow (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) is his first non-tie-in novel and was released to the world last month (I enjoyed it quite a bit). He lives in Austin, TX and has several more non-tie-in novels are in the works. After reading his snarky style in The Conqueror’s Shadow I knew he’d make a good fit for a Questions Five interview.

Thanks again to Ari and enjoy…


Ari, as a Texan (well someone who lives in a Texas anyway – it’s hard to imagine someone with the name of Ari actually being Texan), I can only assume that along side your expertise in cowboy boots, horseback riding and BBQ, that you can let the world know the proper way to prepare armadillo. How do you prefer your armadillo?

AM: It’s a very specific process. You have to start with the “flat” variety—the one you find alongside every highway in Texas. (Armadillos are actually born that way in parts of the state.) The tire tread marks are really good for catching spices and flavoring. But first you have to take the flat armadillo, hang it, and beat it like a piñata, so as to shake out all the bits of broken shell, gravel, burnt rubber, and bugs. Then it’s just a question of tossing it on the grill and rubbing in whatever spices and sauces you prefer. Me, I tend to go with a mixture of jalapeno and honey mustard dressing if it was hit by a Ford or Chevy, or teriyaki if it was hit by a Honda or Toyota.

D&D had a huge impact on your childhood and you found a way to make it pay the bills in adulthood. Has your love of D&D ever spilled out into real life in a way that is less than flattering? Do tell…

AM: Well, I could mention that I proposed to my wife at a D&D game… But then, since she was already a gamer, and we surrounded by gamers, that hardly qualifies as “real life,” does it?

I got some weird looks from teachers in middle school when I chose certain project topics based on my love of D&D. I did a presentation on demons in various religions that made use of pictures copied from the first edition Monster Manual (including a rather under-dressed succubus) that got some raised eyebrows. And my father and I built an entire suit of plate armor out of poster board for a history project. (And yes, I wore it during the presentation.) But again, while perhaps geeky in the extreme, those were deliberate.

It’s actually difficult to find places where D&D “spilled out” into real life, because D&D has always been a larger part of my life than was probably good for me. An enormous number of characters and adventure ideas found their genesis during the hours, and using the brainpower, that should have been devoted to homework. It’s hard for anything to spill into areas where I’d already deliberately and liberally poured it.

If The Conqueror’s Shadow were a fortune cookie, what would its fortune be?

AM: “You will soon discover an old suit still fits better than you expected.” (Trust me, if you read the book, this actually makes a whole lot of sense.)

How would you interpret this fortune if it were your own?

AM: Well, I would hope it would mean that I’m finally going to succeed in losing some damn weight, but then I’d have to ask how likely that is considering that I’d just eaten a fortune cookie.

Why should The Conqueror’s Shadow be the next thing that everyone reads?

AM: Assuming you want an answer with a little more broad-based appeal than “So I can eat something other than Ramen for the next eight months”…

The Conqueror’s Shadow is a perfect example of what I try to do with a great deal of my fiction writing. First, I enjoy starting with some of the traditional fantasy tropes, so that people have an easy and comfortable gateway into the book and are almost certain to find stuff they enjoy—but then taking at least a few of those tropes and turning them around, or taking a sharp left turn. Basically, playing with them in ways that are far less common than the tropes themselves. I think it’s something that most fantasy fans can enjoy.

And that leads quite nicely into my other point, which is that The Conqueror’s Shadow is a fun read. It’s fast-paced, it’s very funny in some scenes while very dark in others—all of which, I certainly hope, makes it an exciting story. Different fantasy novels are written with different goals in mind; the most important, to me, is to create an overall enjoyable experience. Obviously, I’d like to make the reader think about certain concepts, or feel certain things at certain points—but at the end of the day, if the reader doesn’t want to put the book down until s/he’s read “Just one more chapter”… If the reader had a lot of fun getting to the end… That’s when I feel I’ve successfully done my job. And while I’m hardly an unbiased source, I feel like The Conqueror’s Shadow provides exactly that.

Bonus question for inclusion in The SFF Literary Pub Crawl:

Please recommend a favorite pub or similar establishment – it doesn’t have to be local to you, but that is encouraged and if you can’t limit to just one, recommend more, but try to keep it to 3 or less. And don’t forget to say why it’s so great.

AM: This is a surprisingly tricky question for me, because I’m actually not a drinker. I’ve been to a few clubs in Austin for various shows, but never actually for the sake of just hanging around and having a few drinks. (I’m more of a coffee shop guy for that sort of thing.)

So as far as a pub/club, I’d say Prague is the coolest one I’ve been to in Austin, if only because of the ambiance; it’s got a really nifty feel and aesthetic to the place.

And if I may stretch the definition to include the aforementioned coffee shop, I’ve never found any better than
It’s a Grind. It’s local to Austin, and it’s absolutely fantastic. Wonderful ambiance and people, and their blended mochas are what the gods drink when they want a special treat in place of their usual ambrosia.

Monday, March 01, 2010

My Wheel of Time Re-Read (err…Listen): The Eye of the World

Long-time readers of this blog are probably aware of my love for The Wheel of Time and exactly what it means to me and how it really is ultimately responsible for me starting this blog – I’ve talked about it before, so I won’t repeat here. So, when The Gathering Storm (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) was released last year it rekindled that love and got me excited about the series again (review). I wanted to read more. With this blog and all the great books out there to be read I just couldn’t bring myself to do a re-read – which would take many months. So I decided I would listen to the books – which I’ve not done before.

After I finish each book in the series, I’ll post my thoughts here. These won’t be reviews and they’ll no-doubt contain spoilers for later books (but I’ll refrain from anything major). It’ll be more of a reflection of these books that I love so much – what I think of them now when I haven’t read or re-read them in years, a bit of remembering what I’ve thought in the past, and a few thoughts on what that may mean for the remaining books. It won’t be anywhere near the level of the
Tor Wheel of Time re-read, or what you’ll find at The Thirteenth Depository. I’m also posting a few thoughts over on The Thirteenth Depository’s forum – that post is getting lengthy, discussion goes on wild tangents and it is spoiler-laden. But it’s a fun read as well.

Anyway, on to The Eye of the World (
Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound)….


I suppose I’ll start with the difference of listening versus reading. Audio books are absolutely dependent on the reader’s performance – and for the Wheel of Time books there is a bit of a unique direction taken – a guy (Michael Kramer) reads the points of view of the guys and a woman (Kate Reading) reads the points of view of women. I really like the approach, though for The Eye of the World there aren’t that many points of view from women – something that changes as the books the progress. Of course it is odd – voices are different than they were in my head, though I adjusted. And everyone foreign to the Two Rivers seems to have a bit of an Irish accent (accepting Illianers who sound like pirates) – at least those points of view from the men. The adjustment took a while – longer than usual with audio books, but then I have more invested in these books than any others, so I wasn’t surprised.

I first read The Eye of the World when I was a freshman in college back in the mid-1990s and it really resonated with me. This partly because the main characters in the book were my age and partly because in many ways it was my first exposure to fantasy (I had read and enjoyed some before but never really explored it much). It was easy to relate to Rand and Perrin – not so much Mat since we didn’t have a point of view from him and the taint of the Shadar Logoth dagger really makes him a jerk for the first couple of books. I remember being particularly amused by how Rand and Perrin keep thinking thoughts about how the other is so much better with girls – as a relatively shy and unconfident young man myself, I could easily relate.

Of course now I’m in my mid-30s and I found myself much more on the side of Nynaeve. Yes she’s a bully and stubborn to a fault (but all the Two Rivers kids are), but it was much easier to relate to someone who is a bit older and looking out for the interests of others than a bunch of headstrong youths. I was also struck by just how flawed Moiraine seems to be. For all her knowledge and wisdom as one of the most powerful Aes Sedai from a noble home in Cairhen, she really turns out to be an idiot much of the time. With a sheltered upbringing and then jumping into the ‘girls club’ of Tar Valon, Moiraine has absolutely no clue how to handle adolescent young men. She’s completely unprepared for people who don’t take her word as law and she is really quite stupid in her refusal to share vital information with her ignorant charges. Funny how in the past all I saw was person of authority.

I had forgotten just how wonderfully subtle Robert Jordan is in his writing. And for all the criticism (that can be rather valid) about his long wind and great detail, Jordan’s writing is remarkably applicable to the story. Tons, and I means tons, of very subtle foreshadowing is present. Darkfriends are almost always hinted at with dark descriptions of one kind or another – or with comparison to ravens or rats. Events that don’t occur for 10 books or more are foreshadowed right at the start. And again, is it any surprise that descriptions of cloth, clothing and weaving are common when the world itself is created by the Wheel of Time that weaves threads in the great pattern/web of life?

I’m also fascinated by some of what I know now in terms of the origins and inspirations of the book. The nice audio interview with Jordan at the end of the stories was simple pleasure to read. It was great to hear him discuss how he wanted challenge the notion that some all-knowing wizard type can show up in a small town, tell someone that the world’s future depended on them and that person would willingly and unquestioningly follow along. He also wanted explore just how communication alters events in direct proportion to its distance from where the events occurred – in this case distance is either actual distance or time. How the myths and legends of the Wheel of Time folks occurred in our own world and how our myths and legends are from them. And of course how due to the timing of the writing and publishing of The Eye of the World, very intentional parallels and similarities to The Lord of the Rings were included in the beginning and how the story slowly and surely diverges as it goes on.

Another aspect that I remember liking when I first read the series is the way Robert Jordan portrays women. I think he’s both rightly and wrongly criticized for his female characterization, but overall I think it’s a really interesting thing and says quite a bit about who he was and what his experience and ideals regarding women were. Jordan was from the American South and was of the baby-boomer generation. Women in the South of his generation and older are traditionally extraordinarily kind on the surface and rather subservient to men. They adhere to the society role very closely. But behind doors they are strong, forceful and live a world of societal politicking that most men never see or understand. This is what he knows –in many ways he sort of reverses this role for the Wheel of Time and then replaces the part where women say only kind things (whether they mean them or not) and has the women say what they think regardless of how kind it is or isn't. It seems an odd sort of view that he wished he could see and he was greatly influenced by the women in his life. I think the result is very often misunderstood (not surprisingly most loudly by males between say 16 and 25 years old). It has its own sort of flaws, but I find it a fascinating view into both Jordan and the traditional role of women in the South.

All in all, I’m still in love with the characters and the world that Jordan created. The end of The Eye of the World is a bit confusing and has some issues that I’ve never seen satisfactory explanations for. Some of these may still be resolved in the final books of the series and some are what I’ve come to call EotW-isms – things in The Eye of the World (and to a lesser extent, The Great Hunt) that were either forgotten or retconned changed in later volumes of The Wheel of Time. It’s really been great listening to The Eye of the World – it’s fast become one of my favorite parts of the week – a 3-hour one-way drive (6-hour roundtrip) drive spent with friends who happen to be characters in a book.

Onwards…

Review: The Conqueror’s Shadow by Ari Marmell

A few weeks ago I was thinking about some on-line discussion or another and wondering just what sword and sorcery really means and if any of the books I tend to read really fit that definition. Now I’ve come to realize that like porn, I’ll know sword and sorcery when I see it. It was The Conqueror’s Shadow by Ari Marmell (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) that showed me just what sword and sorcery is – vast armies and battles, witches, warlocks, ogres, gnomes, magical weapons, enchanted armor, and some object of great magical power that opposing forces want really badly. Perhaps it’s not the perfect definition for sword and sorcery and maybe there is often much more (or much less) to it, but it’s just possible that with The Conqueror’s Shadow, Marmell shows us what sword and sorcery should be.

What happens when the evil dark lord who marches seemingly unopposed across the land, reeking havoc and terrorizing the populace, reaches his goal and fails? He doesn’t fail due to the kingdom rallying a great defensive host and it’s not because of some destined hero’s intervention. The failure is just one small oversight. One evil dark lord, Corvis Rebaine, the Terror of the East, takes a hostage and disappears – abandoning his army of man and beast and allowing the kingdom to repair and believe that they actually met and beat the threat. Corvis eventually marries his hostage, settles in an out-of-the-way village, and enjoys being a father to his two children. What threat could possibly bring this past his prime, evil dark lord (who may not be so evil after all) out of retirement?

In many ways the plot of The Conqueror’s Shadow is utterly predictable right from the start. At first it was no bother – the compelling way the story unravels was more than enough to entertain and hold my interest – then things began to be a bit annoying, but I could still shrug it off, and just when I reached the ‘oh please’ moment some nagging doubts appeared. Then the story twists – now I have to say that I still found it fairly predictable, however the twist was enough to satisfy and the overall plot serves its role well.

The Conqueror’s Shadow isn’t a particularly deep book, and it’s not meant to be. The strength of it is in the snarky, harsh, action-packed plot and its colorful characters. However, that isn’t to say that The Conqueror’s Shadow isn’t without depth – it’s just not fully realized. Corvis, the Terror of the East is actually a disenchanted former soldier, a man who saw corruption in government, its inability to actually lead, and that the real power lies in bickering corporations guilds. This bitter young man decides that he could lead much better than those currently in charge – and he is probably right. Unfortunately the only way to achieve this sort of power is to become an evil lord wielding a magical weapon, wearing intimidating armor made of ancient bones, extracting power from an enslaved demon who feeds on the souls of humanity, partnering with a cannibalistic witch, and heading an army full of horrific beasts full of bloodlust. Now take this evil lord, add a loving wife, two children who mean the world to him, a couple of decades to mature and reflect, and then put him back in that place but facing an new evil lord, in so many ways the shadow of himself. Regret and remorse abound, atonement is sought, but he’s still that same man capable of evil, no matter how good his intentions. Just what means are worth the ends? How much sacrifice can actually achieve a greater good? Is the path to hell paved with good intentions? All this is in the background, a stage wonderfully set, but unfortunately never fully utilized. Maybe it’s appropriate because there are no real answers. Maybe asking the questions is enough, but I couldn’t help but want more.

A major short coming of sword and sorcery is the great talent of its protagonists with the sword and sorcery. He (and it’s almost always a he) is too good to be beat, his special weapon unsurpassed, his magic stronger than everyone else’s – and this magic all too often becomes a very convenient crutch to lean on when story needs a way out. The Conqueror’s Shadow walks this fine line and succeeds where so many fail. Corvis is vulnerable, emotionally and physically. Corvis is long past his prime, not particularly skilled in magic (though some of his friends are) and he faces a younger evil lord that is at least his equal. It’s refreshing and works fairly well – but this is still sword and sorcery and Corvis is still that stereotypical badass who may be captured, beaten and tortured, but cannot be defeated.

It’s often wondered just what the implications of our on-line world will be. One such path those sorts of discussions often wanders down is snark. Sarcasm isn’t enough in an on-line world – you must be so blatantly obvious that subtly isn’t acceptable. Thus sarcasm becomes snark. The Conqueror’s Shadow is snarky – nearly every single exchange of dialogue is snarky – heck, the interior dialogue of characters is snarky. Often this sort of humor sours a book, growing old and tedious. The Conqueror’s Shadow manages to maintain some weird not-balance where the relentless snark doesn’t grow old, it stays fresh and fun, adding to the characters in an odd sort of not-gallows humor of hard men (and women) in hard situations. This isn’t the first example of snark infusing fiction and it won’t be the last, but is it a new trend spawned by the denizens of the intranets? Thankfully, that is a question for somewhere other than this review, but I will say again, the snark works for The Conqueror’s Shadow.

The Conqueror’s Shadow by Ari Marmell is fast and furious and full of snark – sword and sorcery at its best. Marmell cut his teeth in tie-in fiction – an oft maligned branch of the genre world. Authors of tie-in fiction are often accused of only being in it only for the money, or only looking for a way into ‘real’ fiction, but Marmell shows that he was in it simply because it’s what he loves. The Conqueror’s Shadow is welcome step from the tie-in world, bringing snarky excitement and a new voice that I’m anxious to hear more from. And while The Conqueror's Shadow stands fine on its own, there is more to come in the forthcoming sequel, The Warlord's Legacy. 7.5-8/10

Winner: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

With the help of Random.org, a winner has been chosen for The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound). The winner is…

Laura from Vero Beach, Florida

Congrats to all the winners!

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