Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Review: Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

What is YA fiction?

I ask because Half a King is Joe Abercrombie’s first foray into YA fiction (and the first book in the Shattered Sea series). Fans, or at least those familiar with Abercrombie’s fiction, may have a reaction along the lines of ‘what!?, ‘Really?!’, ‘No Fucking Way!’

Abercrombie has a bit of a reputation in the SFF world. His fiction is … messy. It certainly falls into the relatively newly coined term grimdark (which, for the record, I dislike as a sub-genre describer but I’m afraid it’s here to stay). Some would throw about the term ‘realistic’ to describe what Abercrombie does with fantasy, regardless of how silly the term realistic can be when describing fiction, and fantasy in particular, but I digress. What Abercrombie does do is explore the fantasy genre by destroying some of its core concepts – The First Law Trilogy turns epic fantasy on its head, stretches it out on the rack and slowly eviscerates it. Best Served Cold, The Heroes, and Red Country all similarly subvert the revenge, war/hero, and western narratives, respectively. And they are messy. The single unifying concept (beyond grunting dialog) is that nothing is romanticized.  War is hell, killing is necessary, and blood gets everywhere. People are flawed, scarred, and any ideals they hold to are crushed in creative forms of torture. Redemption is not something that is oft found in the Abercrombie tale.

So, I come back to my opening question, what is YA? Does YA feature a simple narrative, clean reality full of romanticized characters and beautiful ideals? Are triumph, redemption and similar ‘good’ outcomes needed? If you tend to jump to a ‘yes’ answer for any of the above questions, I’d suggest that you haven’t read much YA fiction, or at least much good YA fiction.

So, I ask, is it really a surprise that Joe Abercrombie, LordGrimdark himself, is writing YA fiction?

Just what does YA Abercrombie-style look like? Is there a boy? Yes. Is there a girl? A couple actually. Is there a classic mentor figure? Yes, maybe more than one depending on how one looks at it. Is there a struggle and ‘heroes’ journey to become oneself and achieve their goals? Yes. Do the good guys win? … Does the boy get the girl? … Is there a cute and tidy moralistic message to be learned? Umm… Abercrombie wrote this, OK? Is there a death that is important to the protagonists development? See previous answer. Is mommy proud of her crippled son? … Just what is being subverted here? …

Half a King is a wonderful example of good YA fiction – note, that it’s not ‘children’s fiction’ as some people tend to falsely equate with YA. In many ways, this book is just as dark (err…grimdark?) anything else that Abercrombie has written. Blood is splattered all over the place. Betrayal occurs…repeat. The person that our ‘hero’ grows into … well, I’ll let you decide.

To answer the question I began with, YA fiction (at least as I choose to define it) simply features a protagonist who falls into the YA age category. It may be shorter than other novels and a bit easier to read (both are true in the case of Half a King), though those aren’t necessary. It’s a book that is probably marketed to the YA audience, which may be the only real definition for YA that matters. But who looks back on their ‘YA’ years and thinks those were the best times of my life? Teenagers are brutal. They are impulsive, short-sighted, vain and cruel. Sure, there are more than a few positive attributes as well, but don’t forget that the ‘YA years’ are not the easy sailing, Disney years that so many wish them to be. Abercrombie (and grimdark) fit right in … or maybe not, because who actually fits in during those years?

So, yes, Half a King is awesome. It is YA and it will equally appeal to those beyond their YA years. This is probably Abercrombie’s best book to-date (I waffle because I’ve not yet read Red Country), and shows that he’s writing with a golden finger (of death).

And nothing is better than naming a character Nothing. Nothing.

Abercrombie wrote Half a King, and this is a whole review that talked for a bit about Nothing.*

The First Law Trilogy (my review, Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)

*This line doesn’t really make much sense in the context of this review, but after reading the book I had to write it. Once you read the book you will understand. Or not … my sense of humor is odd.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Mini-Review: Shattered by Kevin Hearne

Good, fun, pulpy comfort reading.

That about sums my feelings of the Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne, including the latest, Shattered. As I’ve said in previous reviews, these books are not deep, and one must not think too hard on things. But they are perfect for an escape into a funny, action-packed world of nerdy wish fulfillment.

Shattered features more points of view from Granuaile, which I’ve been critical of in the past. They are better in this book – they don’t feel quite as much as a 14-year old boy’s imagining how a beautiful 18-year old girl thinks … in the form of an essay. But there is still a lot of improving to be had. Shattered also features a point of view from a new character – Atticus’ archdruid. This serves to ‘freshen’ things up a bit and is quite welcome, if a bit overdone.

Shattered feels a bit less pulpy than the other books in this series, it actually feels like a complete novel rather than a serial adventure. Perhaps this is because it’s the first book in the series to see a hardback release. Or maybe Hearne has just improved his writing such that it feels more rounded with the added points of view. Or perhaps I’m imagining things. But I don’t think any of that matters – Shattered is the 7th book in this series, and if you’re still reading, this book is going to offer more of the same that has kept you reading this long.

So, it’s more of the same. And yes, I can’t wait for the next one, though it sounds like it may be a while since Hearne has a lot going on right now.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Did Not Finish: The Moon King by Neil Williamson

Sometimes a book just doesn't work well enough to be finished. Most often when this happens the reasons are obvious – the book is just poorly written, offensive, or just bad. But sometimes the reasons are harder to quantify.

The Moon King by Neil Williamson (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) is one such book. I simply got to the point where I didn't care to read it anymore. It was a gradual thing that I still can’t understand. Because I still think this is a book I should like. It’s an interesting exploration of the relationship of humankind and nature as well as the psyche of humankind itself. It focuses on characters who can’t quite conform. And one of those is an engineer – given my day job, I love to see such a character in a SFF book.

BUT I called the exploration interesting. Only for some reason it was not for me. The characters didn’t hold my interest. Even though the writing is quite well done, it couldn’t hold my interest either. The setting of a city dominated by the moon and its mysterious king who dominates all of culture just refused to work for me. And I don’t know why. 

That quality break-up line seems to fit best – ‘it’s not you, it’s me.’ Work and home life are crazy busy and more than a bit stressful. I have less and less time to relax and what time I do have is often spent in an exhausted daze. I suspect that what I’m looking for is just not the deep, subtle exploration of humanity through SFF, but something more shallow and entertaining. I suspect that if I return to The Moon King in the future when I’m in a different place, I will react differently. But I don’t know for sure. I do know that I decided not to finish the book, and once that decision was made reading became much more enjoyable for me.

Really, it’s not you, it’s me.


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