Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Mini-Review: Nihal of the Land of the Wind by Licia Triosi

Nihal of the Land of the Wind by Licia Triosi (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) was originally written in Italian and this is its first translation into English. I picked it up to read because I was hoping to find something different and exciting. Unfortunately, that was not the case – the book I read was derivative, the writing never quite feels right, and it was mostly quite boring.

Nihal of the Land of the Wind is a classic coming of age story, of a girl in a man’s world striving to succeed where only men succeed. It’s a world of sorcery, war, magical races, and dragon-riding knights. It’s YA in all the ways that people point to when they want to say something is ‘kids stuff’.

This is rather unfortunate, because the best of YA can handle all of this in a way to be equally engaging to adults and YA. With Nihal of the Land of the Wind, it doesn’t – the story feels like something I’ve read many times before and shows no subtly or grace in pounding it’s message into the reader. I can’t say if something got lost in translation or not, but writing style never clicked with me as it stumbled around. I can see this book being good for pre-teen to early-teen girls – the message isn’t all bad by any means, and they are unlikely to consider it such a derivative story. But it’s not written in a way that will appeal to an audience far beyond that rather specific demographic. In all honesty, I’m rather surprised I finished the book at all.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Review: Willful Child by Steven Erikson

As I begin this review, it’s clear that I need to establish some context – specifically about humor, and more specifically, about my sense of humor. In short, my sense of humor can be terribly inappropriate and offensive. It’s something that I’m constantly aware of, so many may not realize this, but it’s true. Yes I’m a product of the society I come from, but I’m also a product of my own love ‘Meta’. Which basically means that my humor often follows this process: 1) wow, that’s offensive and/or wrong, 2) I am aware that it’s offensive, 3) I’ll amp that up an order of magnitude or three, 4) now it’s funny.

I admit the above not because I’m looking for a discussion about the (de)merits of my sense of humor, but because I need to establish what I can find funny and my love of Meta. This leads me to Willful Child by Steven Erikson (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon), which reeks of inappropriate humor and Meta exploration of society. As a result, I’m essentially predisposed to liking this book, while I can see why a good number of people will not only not like the book, but loathe the approach taken (and with good reason).

Willful Child is branded as a Star Trek parody, which is absolutely correct, while missing the point entirely. Willful Child is absolutely a blatant parody of Star Trek, with a focus on the infamous Captain Kirk. The humor (or offense depending on your point of view) develops through Erikson’s decision of how to define his parody – essentially through the sexist (even misogynistic?), anti-authority, racial/species insensitivity (OK, this is being kind), aspects of Kirk. He does this through Captain Adrian Alan Sawback of the Engage-class starship Willful Child. While the parallels to Captain Kirk are there, the vision I (and likely those younger than me) kept coming up with is that of Captain Mal from Firefly, only in the persona of Captain Hammer from Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, but I may be unduly influenced by the cover art in this instance.

Let’s just say that Erikson lays it on thick. So thick that it really does become tiresome at times and it’s hard, even for someone with my sense of humor, to not feel disgusted by the choices made. Of course, that’s the point of Erikson’s humor in this book – forgetting for a moment whether or not that is a wise choice to make – we really should look at what Erikson is doing. And Erikson is essentially condemning pretty much the entire American-dominated, patriarchal, Western culture of the past 50+ years. Have I mentioned yet that it would seem that Erikson is one bitterly cynical person with a rather low opinion of humanity?**

Erikson uses his intentionally inappropriate humor in this book to focus on the absurd, horrific consequences of Western Culture. Being a SFF writer, he uses the underlying privilege of classic science fiction and its embodiment in Star Trek, as the vehicle for his condemnation. And the result really is a brilliant piece of work. The humor is over-the-top offensive, which I find funny*, and it is seamlessly woven into a completely paradoxical narrative – one that clearly loves classic science fiction and one that believes that the messages of classic science fiction embody the absolute worst of modern civilization. All the while, he makes the reader actually cheer for Captain Sawback (as they choke back vomit), in spite of him being a complete asshole, sexist pig. That’s a damn fine-line to manage.

And I can’t forget to mention the names – no author does names better. Essays could be written about the symbolic meaning names in this book, even those that aren’t blatantly offensive (I’m looking in your general direction, Security Officer Nipplebaum*).

One could (and probably should) argue that there are other, less offensive, ways to make the points that Erikson makes in this book. Erikson certainly isn’t inventing something new in his condemnation of the privilege of classic science fiction and poison that it injects into civilization. Though I have to admire the balls* that it takes to do it in this way, because the point is a rusty nail punched into the gut by a nihilistic deadpan philosopher** (now I’m laying it on thick), and it’s a point that’s not likely to win many friends.

Wrapping it up, I think that Willful Child won’t truly be a divisive book, since I think that the overwhelming majority of those who read (or begin to read) it won’t like it – whether they bounce off it being a humorous parody, or if they just find the humor disgusting – I simply think that not many will like this book. But I could be wrong, maybe my sense of humor isn’t as rare as it feels, and others will see this book as the brilliantly offensive manifesto (laying it on thick again) that I see it as. I guess I’m just a sucker of for cynicism wrapped in inappropriate humor, and I’m probably the only one hoping for a sequel***.

But I’m aware, so it’s all good.****

*See the first paragraph of this review

**Though, perhaps the in writing this Erikson is just trying spur thought and change?

***Seriously, I would love to see sequels to this, and I'm not-so-secretly hoping this book does find an audience. Does this review help or hurt those chances?

****I added a few minor edits post-publishing.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Mini-Review: A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

In order to add context to this review, I feel I must begin by explaining that I am a trained scientist, a lover of the outdoors, and rather fond of traveling. I often look back to a world where large parts truly were ‘undiscovered’ and the adventures of discovery was ever present, and wish that I were there.* Surprising for one with my background, I don’t read much nonfiction, but when I do, it’s often of the scientific discovery sort of variety, and they are often biographies of prominent scientists of the 19th Century. So, given all this, I can say that it’s really no surprise at all that I really, really enjoyed A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon).

The story is narrated by an aged woman of some notoriety and fame (Lady Trent) – fame for being a scientist no less, and a women scientist at that. She is looking back to the time of her youth and coming of age, when she went on her first big adventure. A time before the world had moved on to a more developed, smaller world – a world where adventures and discoveries were out there to be had and a society where women did not take part in such disgraceful activities.

It is a secondary world, though it absolutely invokes Victorian England and the aristocracy exploring colonial, ‘lesser’ lands. It’s also told in the journalistic style of the times (or at least how we like to think of the times). We could easily be reading about a trek into Africa, or perhaps the far reaches of Central Asia, but in this book there be dragons.

All I can really add is that this story was a pure joy to read. Yes, at times it gets self-indulgent and the pace slows to a crawl, but what journal doesn’t do this? However bad at times things get during the expedition, I can’t help but want to be there myself. To have been one of these early scientists making such groundbreaking discoveries – did I mention there are dragons. That just makes it all so much cooler, because it would be a childhood dream come true to search out and study dragons.

A Natural History of Dragons has been out for a while, and so has its sequel (The Tropic of Serpents) and Voyage of the Basilisk is forthcoming in 2015. It managed to get itself nominated for the World Fantasy Award (not a winner though), and all I can say is that I should have read it sooner. And I can’t read the sequel soon enough.

A Natural History of Dragons (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)
The Tropic of Serpents (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)
Voyage of the Basilisk (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)

*I’m aware that this is a horribly privileged, Western perspective, but I am a product of my society.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Mini-Review: City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

“In what can only be described as a horrific perversion of a vaginal birth, there is a spurt of viscera, a flood of putrid entrails, and then the fat- and blood-drenched form of Sigrud slips out of the gash in the dying monster to lie on the ground and stare up at the sky, before rolling over, getting onto his hands and knees, and vomiting prolifically.”

In all honesty, I really would love it if my review of City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) could only be the quote above. I think it captures his writing very well – exquisite prose, metaphorical or even allegorical at times, overprinted with a slightly off sense of humor, and a bit run-on-ish. Which is to say that I love it.

Of course the quote doesn't stand in well for the book however much I love it and however great of an example of Bennett’s writing it is. One would probably not, from this quote alone, consider that Sigrud is the only traditionally ‘white’ character in the book and the one of few that would fit into a ‘traditional’ fantasy role – the barbarian from the north. One would probably not consider that this book is not set in a ‘traditional’ pseudo-European analog or that the main protagonist is a woman. One would also probably not consider that the technology in this secondary world spans that point in time between pre-industrial and industrial, though forcing this book into such a place may not be a worthwhile exercise. So, as much as I love that quote and want it to stand in for a full review of the book, it simply isn't appropriate.

Somewhere near enough to this point seems to be where my review should dive into how where to place City of Stairs in the great pantheon of genre, because there seems to be some great debate about that. I suppose for those that must have a defined genre or sub-genre to place a book into in order to properly assess it against established bookmarks, City of Stairs provides a challenge. Thankfully, I did not have this trouble and I found great enjoyment in the book on its own terms. City of Stairs is set in a secondary world, there is ‘magic’ of sorts, certainly very real gods, and its story is told in more of a ‘thriller’ format. I’m good with that as fantasy, or simply, speculative fiction (a term that I don’t see much anymore, but I think is still quite appropriate).

City of Stairs was a fun, easy read for me. Though that’s not to call it shallow in any sense – there is plenty of depth in the way it deals with such issues as colonialism and free will (at a personal, political, and religious level). There’s more than that, but it doesn't need to be gotten into here, as by now I hope that you've figured out that I found this to be a rather extraordinary book that I think fans of speculative fiction should read. Of course, that’s pretty much what every other review of this book says in one way or another, leaving the question was I destined to make this choice, or did I come to my beliefs through a truly independent course of action? Perhaps it was horrific perversion of what can only be described as …


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