Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A Tale of Two Covers

An earlier post about some of the cover art that I like and dislike generated some interesting discussion, leading to this post. I may make this a regular ‘series’ where I compare cover art that I like with what I dislike. Now, I’m even less valid as an art critic than a written word critic, so keep in mind that this is just my opinion. I’ve had no relevant training, so actual artistic technique and form won’t be a big influence on me. This is all what I think about the cover art – how I react and any emotional response that it evokes. It's about how this particular cover art works as art for the book it's attached to.

For my first go at this I’m going to compare the cover art of two books by the same artist – Michael Whelan. Both of these are what I would consider to be a traditional (epic) fantasy cover art, which I generally dislike. One works for me, one, doesn’t.

Starting out with the bad – the first offense and most noticeable aspect of this cover are the two characters to the left. Both are looking whimsically off into the distance, with the woman almost (but not quite) pining for the man. It would be much worse if the woman were actually in some sort of worship of the man, but it is still implied. Ugh! This is about the worst offense fantasy cover art makes – it’s belittling to women and insulting to the tastes of readers. Does the woman really have to be seen in such a subservient, worshipful way? It really does make me nauseous. At least she is fully clothed, though it’s only a small victory.

The rest of the cover is a bit to ‘pastel’ for my taste – I prefer dark, earthy colors when it comes to landscapes rather than pastels.

As for how matches the mood of the book itself – I’d call this rather pedestrian in that respect. It doesn’t directly contradict anything, though it hardly represents a scene from the book and doesn’t capture the mood – by this time in the story, things were dark and cold with little hope. A cover showing two people essentially basking in glory is just inappropriate, regardless of how the story actually finishes. Finally, these two people don't even come remotely close to my mental image for Simon and Miriamele.

This is an example of traditional fantasy cover that works. The central character is in a dark shadow, with his head slightly bowed. His stance indicates both a tense readiness and a heavy load – something along the lines of the weight of the world and his shoulders. The dress is perfect for this post-apocalyptic western feel and the dark, earthy colors reinforce it nicely. This is certainly the Roland we know – and I can here his perfect theme song in the background, Hurt as sung by Johnny Cash. The raven perched on skeletal remains and distant Dark Tower complete the cover. The mood is set and the cover even evokes an emotion actually related to the story – very well done.

So, what are your thoughts? It’s all subjective – some of you are bound to agree, while some will surely feel I’ve committed the gravest of insults with my opinions. Should I continue with the ‘series’?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

Let’s get strait to the point – The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss may be the best debut of high/epic fantasy I have ever read. Daw Books is marketing this novel pretty heavily by providing ARCs to many bloggers/reviewers – instead of the normal cover art is a letter from the president Daw essentially stating that this is the best first fantasy novel she has read in 30 years of working as an editor. I can see why she would say this.

Kvothe (pronounced ‘quothe’) is the great hero of the land, a man of legend who is equally admired and scorned as tales of his life have grown into life of their own. We are introduced to this larger than life hero as a humble inn keeper, living under an assumed name far removed from the lands of his past. He has moved on and only looks forward to a boring life and his eventual death.

A man known simply as The Chronicler tracks Kvothe to his hideaway and encourages him to tell his life’s story – the real story, unstained by the embellishment of fame and oral tradition. Kvothe reluctantly agrees and starts at the beginning – his travels as a boy in a clan of nomadic troupers.

The Name of the Wind is the first installment of the already completed (but not yet published) trilogy – The Kingkiller Chronicles. The tale Kvothe tells us is of childhood and adolescence, ranging from happy memories of family and mentor to fighting for survival as an orphaned urchin, and ends with his time at the University and hints of exciting and tragic events to come.

I realize that the above description doesn’t capture the implied excellence of my opening, however, the story is wonderfully told. The prose is not the love of language you get from some writers, but neither is it hindrance to the story – in fact, I have to say it’s utterly forgettable in an almost perfectly simple way. The writing invites complete immersion in the world Rothfuss has created – the story flows, and I can’t easily recall a book that was harder to put down.

As excellent of a job that Rothfuss does with the telling of the story, he may actually exceed it with his characterization. Good characterization is essential to good writing, and great characterization makes for phenomenal reading. I’ve only rarely encountered writing where characterization is almost totally achieved by showing it. Rothfuss does not ‘tell’ us about his characters, he shows them to us – we learn all we need and more about them from their actions, manner, and even dress. It’s because it’s so rare that it stands out so brightly in the book.

In spite of the glowing review I’ve given so far, the book has it’s downsides as well – though they are thankfully easy to overlook. This is yet another epic fantasy saga set in a medieval world that his heavily influenced by Northern European myth and folklore, particularly Celtic – I daresay the genre has plenty. Our hero is just another greater-than-life orphan from obscure roots – thankfully Rothfuss takes what at least feels like a fresh approach. What is probably the greatest offense of this book is the lack of a true ending. It doesn’t end at cliff-hanger or anything, but there is no resolution beyond a rather arbitrary halting of a story that wasn’t intended to broken into three pieces.

I know that I don’t need yet another series to read, and that many of you feel the same way. This book will start to generate some hype over the next few months and there are grounds to debunk the hype; however, for fans of epic fantasy, this is a must-read. I’d not compare it to Martin, Jordan, Bakker, or Erikson – Tad Williams is probably the best fit, though it already exceeds anything I’ve read by him. Were you a fan of much hyped The Lies of Locke Lamora last year (I am) – this is a better written and equally engaging story, if in a bit of a different vein. The Name of the Wind rates an 8 out of 10, even with the sub-par ending – I strongly recommended it.

Related Posts: Review of The Wise Man's Fear

Monday, February 19, 2007

Harry Potter and the Independent Bookseller

Are you one of the literal millions of people who is anxiously awaiting the final installment of the Harry Potter series? Are you going to line up for release party, pre-order on-line or otherwise by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows? If you are, I appeal to you to consider buying this book from your local independent bookseller.

If you live in any mid-size or larger city, you’ve probably got an independent bookstore in your area. In all likelihood, that independent store is not doing so well. The big chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders will push out many of these little guys, but the endless sources of books on the internet, led by, are the real killers.

You will almost certainly pay more for HP at an independent store – maybe even the full list price of $34.99. If you go to Amazon, you’ll find it for much cheaper – as of writing this, the pre-order is heavily discounted to $18.89. This is a heck of bargain that can’t be ignored – especially since just one other book should earn you free shipping.

But let’s face it – Amazon won’t be hurt if you don’t buy from them. Your local independent store is likely putting a lot of hope (and investment) into taking advantage of HP phenomenon. Help them out.

A local store here in Arizona has an interesting idea to help draw in the buyers – yes, they are charging the full list price, but for each pre-purchased book they are donating $7 to one of four local charities. This has a ring to it that makes me feel good inside and I will almost certainly buy my copy there. Of course they are also having the obligatory midnight release part – this seems a bit strange, but let’s face it – it’s a party for the release of a book and how great is that.

Join me in helping out the underdog – the independent seller during all the hype and hoopla surrounding Harry Potter. The big guys won’t miss the business, and the little ones just might kiss you in gratitude.

Disclaimer: If you’re curious, I don’t work for a book seller or anything – I just feel strongly about support for independents in a world of corporate domination. I don’t have anything against Amazon – in fact, I’ve linked it liberally in this blog as part of the associates program (someday I hope to get enough referrals to earn myself enough for a book or two, which means that it’s not as if it’s a lucrative program for me and so far I haven’t seen a so much as a dime).

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Cover Art – Does it Actually Matter?

After posting this yesterday about cover art (with several links to other discussions), I thought some more about it. As I’ve said before, I often take issue with the cover art, but does it actually matter to me anymore? Really, I know cover art can be terrible, I know that the cover art rarely reflects the quality of a book – so does it actually ever change my buying habits?

Since I’ve become more involved in the internet, message boards, blogs, etc., I generally know what books I want. I’ve read reviews or seen recommendations – in other words I’ve already judged the book in some limited way on something other than its cover. I’ve never picked up a book that I wanted to get and put it back because of the cover art – that wouldn’t make much sense to me.

I don’t browse at bookstores as much as I did in the past – though I do still buy books that aren’t on my ‘Waiting List’ when I find something that piques my curiosity. But it’s the title of a book that’s much more likely to catch my eye. The way books are shelved, you can’t see cover art – it’s the title that makes me pick up a book. Then I immediately read the synopsis and see who blurbed what. I may flip through the first chapter – notice I haven’t mentioned the cover art. It simply doesn’t matter to me.

While I still dislike cover art and can’t help feel a bit of shame when I’m reading a book in public with some cheesy, fantasy cover showing some amazon in armor with flowing hair. Or dragons – ugh dragons on a cover almost never work. Anyway, I digress – the point is that cover art does not matter to me in anyway when it comes to choosing a book. I know marketers will tell you different, as will many people, but for me it is not a factor.

So the take home message for me is that the title is the important factor in selection. I know authors don’t have near as much control over this as they’d like – so authors, publishers take my advice (like you need it) – pick good titles. Not some terribly cliché fantasy/sci-fi title The Heart of the Serpent or the like – something good, unique, catchy. City of Saints and Madmen or The Land of Laughs – these work, I’m already curious; I’m beginning to get sucked in and I haven’t even opened the book. And give me some credit – Temeraire is much more appealing than His Majesty’s Dragon – it’s insulting that a change was made because of perceived limitations in the American audience (it’s even more insulting because it’s probably true).

I’ll probably still rant from time to time, and I’ll appreciate cover art that I like, but the realization that it just doesn’t matter to me one way or another is comforting.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Wheel of Time Art Contest

As many of you know, Robert Jordan is battling a nasty blood disease – amyloidosis – that has the potential to cut his life short. His recovery is going rather well at the moment, and his experience has made him a bit of a champion to the cause – so he worked out a nice little contest. From his blog:
Hi, guys. Sorry this isn’t the usual health update, but I’ll get to that in another post shortly. A few days, but no more, I promise. This is about something else completely. In fact, it was inspired by a comment someone posted on the blog. I liked the idea and took it to my agent and my publisher. They like it, too.

We are going to run a contest to find the 15 best pieces of fan artwork out there. I know there is some really professional quality work because I have seen it. Submit your work to Jason Denzel ( those who read a version of this announcement on a few other sites will see somebody else to submit to; dinna fash yourself. That means don’t worry about it.). Jason and a few other webmasters will act are first judges as to
which pieces to send on to me for final judging. The winning pieces will be gathered into a calendar, and here comes the important part. The normal royalties this calendar will earn, along part of the profits, will be donated to Amyloidosis Research at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. They are really home base for that in this country, quite aside from keeping me alive this far. Now that means that by submitting and having a piece chosen to send on to me, you will be signing away future publication rights for that piece. Winners will get a copy of the calendar, of course, with my autograph and a note of acknowledgement on the page containing your artwork. For monetary rewards, you’ll have to hope that some publisher sees and likes your work well enough to offer you a commission. Publishers are always on the lookout for new artists. Otherwise you must settle for the glory, such as it is, of being published in the calendar. Style doesn’t matter in this. Manga, hyper-realism, current cover-art. Whatever. Anything and everything is acceptable as a possibility. It will be the quality that counts, not the style. If you want to try it the way you think Rembrandt would have done it, go for it. Though I have a hard time picturing that. Rand as a member of “The Night Watch?” Well, maybe. Try whatever you like. I hope to keep this contest running year after year for a number of years. Possibly, in a few years, there will be enough winners to collect as an art book, perhaps fleshed out with a few artists who didn’t quite make the cut in their particular year. So go for it, guys. Let the farce be with you. Oh. Sorry. That’s another series, isn’t it?

Take care, everybody.

Back to you, soon.
Cover Art – Are Publishers Finally Getting It?

I’ve ranted about it before, most message boards have discussed, and people like Lou Anders have posted about it often – cover art. I read this great essay on cover art (via Tobias Buckell, but have seen it mentioned a couple of times elsewhere). In general, it seems that the publishers of SFF have finally realized that we aren’t all teenagers or 45-year old males living in a basement and playing with action figures. Just as many SFF readers appear ‘normal’ as ‘geeky’ and our aesthetic tastes range widely. I like the direction most cover art is going right now, but there is still progress to be made.

I’ll just give a bit of insight into my tastes before signing off.

The Good

The Bad

And The Ugly
(Not really different from the bad, but it felt incomplete without the ugly.)

Monday, February 12, 2007

The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

My review of The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi is over at FBS here. I’ve previously posted reviews of Old Man’s War and The Android’s Dream there as well. This book is pretty much exactly what I have come to expect from Scalzi – a good, fun, quick read. 7/10

I’ve got an ARC of The Lost Colony waiting to be read for them as well – I’ll get to it soon.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Neil Gaiman and His Amazing Oracular Journal

Go, visit it now - seriously. All of my life's problems may have been solved by this display of wisdom to my queries.

Edit - So, I thought I'd share some of the wisdom I received today.
First I asked it what I should have for lunch:

I'm in Hollywood with daughter Holly.
I Didn't know how to interpet that one - I went with drunken noodels.
Later I asked - It's Friday, should I leave work early?

But it's very out of print
I suspect that it will take a few drinks at happy hour prices to puzzle out the meaning of this, I should leave soon.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

John Scalzi's The Sagan Diary on Audio

John Scalzi has made his novella, The Sagan Diary, available for audio download at his website - for free! This story covers the period of time between The Ghost Brigades and The Last Colony. You can get the print version from Subterranean and Amazon.

Each chapter is read by a different author-friend of Scalzi's. Readers are
Elizabeth Bear, Mary Robinette Kowal, Ellen Kushner, Karen Meisner, Cherie Priest and Helen Smith. Take advantage of this deal if you are interested in Scalzi's writing at all - as a fan or potential fan.
In Defense of Escapism

Ahh…here is another one of those great internet discussions, spilling over from message boards to blogs about an issue that’s been discussed to death. This time it seems to have started with M. John Harrison posting this about the sin of worldbuilding, it was followed up with some message board discussion at wotmania and ASOIF. Then Larry/Dylanfanatic/Freebird posted this blog, Pat at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist followed up with this entry with Gabe Chouinard responding here. And several others have weighed in as well.

Fine, I’ve said what I have to say about worldbuilding elsewhere, so this is not really a direct response to any of that above, just an extension of my reaction to that discussion.

For whatever reason, admitting that you read for any sort of escapism is akin to admitting you like country music, Nascar, Natural Lite beer, live in a trailer, etc. You are immediately regulated to being less intelligent of a reader and just not getting it. Suddenly, you are less than respectful.

Well, I read for escapism – it may be the biggest reason why I enjoy reading as much as I do. It’s almost certainly the biggest reason why such a large proportion of my reading is in speculative fiction.

Let’s face it – reality sucks a lot of the time. I spend 9, 10, sometimes 12+ hours, 5 days a week working. I like my job, but I won’t pretend that I’d keep working if I won the lottery. Beyond that, it’s hard not to take a cynical view of the world today – there’s terrorism, unnecessary war, an idiot running the most powerful country in the world, religious extremism, global warming, etc. If I allow it to sink in it’s hard to not get angry, depressed, and unhopeful. Then, when I get home it’s time to various chores and projects, and of course there are family relationships to deal with.

So when I get some free time I absolutely want to escape this reality and fully immerse myself in some alternate world. I don’t need much; I just crave something that is different from my perspective, something that might require a suspension of belief. Speculative fiction of all sorts is where I most often turn to for this. This is what I enjoy; this is my hobby.

Am I looking for cliché, epic fantasy that is pure escapism – usually not, but sometimes I am. I do enjoy books that contain depth – that are thematic, metaphorical, political, great statements on the human condition, etc. I also enjoy books that are just plain fun, while not being particularly deep. And yes, in almost all cases, escapism is still the biggest driving force behind my enjoyment of reading. Loosing myself in the story, the world, or the language – yes this is an escape.

For whatever reason, it’s assumed that if you read for escapism, you must be reading some 10-book series of epic fantasy, something that is poorly written, easy for others to dismiss. I don’t get this – I can escape just as easily into something by Jeff VanderMeer, Haruki Murakami, Graham Joyce, or Hal Duncan. Escapism equating to bad writing is fallacy.

Perhaps the issue starts in the way people define escapism differently from one another. Maybe people deny things in themselves and others. Maybe people are just different.

People read for lots of reasons. Denying that escapism is one of the biggest is a mistake – it should be embraced. Looking down on anyone for their own reasons for reading is horribly short-sighted. Look, if escapism is an evil word to you – fine, just don’t tell me how wrong I am for embracing it. I can accept that you read for reasons different than my own; can you do the same?

Edit: Gabe adds another post and Tobias Buckell jumps in (thanks for the link).

Edit 2: Dylanfantic/Larry/Freebird reflects some more - some interesting ideas to think on, but ultimately I'm not sure he 'gets' it.

Edit 3: I think I'll stop adding edits after this, but there is some great discussion on this happening at The Lotus Lyceum. Deep Genre offers something tangental to the issue, and The Lotus Lyceum discusses that also.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Scent of Shadows by Vicki Pettersson

I’ll be honest – I didn’t have very high expectations when I started this novel. This book fits squarely into that sub-genre residing between horror and fantasy, with a touch of erotica, starring vampires, werewolves, and other baddies with an ass-kicking femme fatale with a dark past and problems in her love life getting thrown into a truly shocking and horrifying situation. These books just aren’t my thing – often too cliché, predictable, and gratuitous for my taste. So, it was very pleasant surprise that I enjoyed this book.

The Scent of Shadows is not a vampire book or a book about any monster we’ve read about before. Pettersson takes her time to introduce something new – basically a supernatural race of good guys and bad guys fighting it out behind the scenes of us mere mortals. We don’t have pantheon of gods and monsters – just a bunch of super-humans battling in the age old good versus evil struggle, and what better place for this battle than Las Vegas. Fans of Vegas will enjoy this new side of Sin City from an insider’s point of view.

Joanna Archer is the definition of a disturbed, independent woman with a number of issues to work out. Subconsciously searching for the man that raped and left her for dead when she was a child, Joanna has become removed from family and friends, having only her camera and martial arts as support. Let’s cut to it – bad things happen and in the process she learns that she is more than human – she is a born superhero that has been long hidden from both the good guys and the bad guys. The good guys are in danger of loosing it all and Joanna is the key to their survival or elimination.

In a bit of strange effort, Pettersson has attempted to combine this good versus evil struggle with comics. The activities of the Zodiac Troup 175 (yes, that really is what they are called) are mirrored in comic books – two sets, one for the shadow and one for the light (and you can’t read the opposing team’s comics). This sets up one of the more amusing and scenes in the book where our beautiful femme fatale squares off against a bunch of comic store geeks. The problem is that this aspect of the story was half developed at best – it needed to be fully fleshed out or left out altogether. As written it amounts to basically nothing but filler.

Yes, this book is as clichéd as it sounds. It’s predictable too. The writing is inconsistent – the first sentence of the book alone was almost enough to make me stop reading. The thing is that in spite of all that, I couldn’t put the book down. Pettersson sets the mood and grips you, not letting go. I wanted to know what happened next – I needed to know. Joanna turns out to be a fascinating character, and even with what little we see of others, they have a bit of depth as well.

The Scent of Shadows is a book that can’t be put down, and I really enjoyed reading it. However, with the shortcomings mentioned above, and a few not mentioned, it only partially succeeds. Fans of Kim Harrison and Laurell K. Hamilton will likely not only not notice, but absolutely love this book. For me, it gets 6.5 out of 10. I really wanted to rate it much lower, but I can’t deny that I enjoyed it and literally couldn’t put it down. As I said initially, it was a pleasant surprise.

Of course a book like this is literally made for sequels. While it stands well on its own, much is left unresolved for future adventures. The Taste of Night will be this continuation, being released shortly after The Scent of Shadows.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...