Monday, December 24, 2007

Review: Firefly Rain by Richard Dansky

Firefly Rain by Richard Dansky launches the new Wizards of the Coast Discoveries imprint featuring original speculative fiction works that cover a wide range of subjects. I stepped outside of my typical reading habits for this one – Firefly Rain is more horror-suspense and southern-gothic (or snowbird gothic as Dansky himself describes it) than the typical SFF I read. In many ways this is an enjoyable step back in time for me since I read a lot more within the horror genre (mostly Stephen King and Dean Koontz) when I was younger.

Jacob Logan is returning home and the vacant house and empty land deep in the Carolina countryside are the last place he wants to be. His last visit was to bury his mother along side his father and he hopes this visit will be equally brief. Jacob immediately notices a few oddities as his luck turns even worse – things just don’t feel right. Encounters with Carl, the particularly surly groundskeeper and equally surly local cops only add to his worries has he struggles with the ghosts of his past.

Firefly Rain takes two of the more common horror tropes – estranged relations with family and the creepy small town – and writes a really decent story with them (well, there’s a third common trope but I’ll leave that out here). It reads fast and the descriptive prose captures the dark and threatening mood of the story well while interjecting just the right amount of humor at the right times. Dansky really shines in his portrayal of the small southern town with friendly hospitality laced with a distrust of outsiders and a sharp word for superior-minded city-folk.

Told in a first-person point of view, a lot of time is spent getting into the mind of Jacob. As a result, Jacob’s character is presented well, though it left me wanting more. The estranged relationship with his parents lies at the heart of things, but we are never given very convincing reasons why. I suppose it could be viewed positively that Dansky didn’t feel the need to go over the top and throw all sorts of horrifying abuses at Jacob’s childhood, but I did find myself questioning why things seemed so bad to Jacob.

With the concentration on Jacob, the supporting cast is regulated to little more than caricatures that manage to serve their roles well. In an all-too predictable way, every person we are introduced to has an eventual role to play. It could be considered efficiency, but it rubbed me a bit wrong in the ‘everybody really is out to get me’ kind of way.

The plot moves forward adequately, with the best parts of the book coming in the more descriptive aspects. At times you could feel the oppressive wet heat of the south and the lightening-quick change of weather that a storm can bring. It had me remembering the ominous feeling you can get when visiting that distant relative in the country and their creepy old house – where my city car gets stuck on the road or a flat tire in the mud.

Firefly Rain was a quick and refreshing change of pace from my usual fair. I enjoyed it quite a bit in spite a couple flaws and have no trouble recommending it to most any audience. It’s a decent debut for Wizards of the Coast Discoveries and I look forward to seeing what comes next. 7/10

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Review: Shadowbridge by Gregory Frost

As I struggled to figure out just where to start this review, I continually found myself thinking on how some other people have reacted to Shadowbridge by Gregory Frost. In this world of on-line reviews, Shadowbridge has so far provoked a wide-range of reactions. Patrick St.-Denis couldn’t even finish the book while Jay Tomio singles it out as one of the best of the year. I read the whole book, so I obviously thought more of it than Pat did, but I can’t claim to have enjoyed it enough to be throwing it on any best-of lists…yet.

Shadowbridge is a story about stories and a world’s greatest story-teller in particular. It’s a world made up of endless bridges, with each of the countless spans a magical world unto its own – related to and inspired by other spans, yet unique. A young woman, Leodora, is developing into the world’s greatest storyteller, surpassing even the father she never knew. She runs from the tyranny of her past, seeking to know and tell all the world’s myths through her shadow-puppetry while reconciling with a lack of knowledge of the past.

Literally and thematically, Shadowbridge is a world of bridges. Jay delves into this more eloquently and completely than I could hope to, so I won’t go into much detail. Suffice to say that this is a book of bridges – the characters are bridges, the world is made of bridges, the focus is on the bridge, the change, the journey, but and the beginning and end of these bridges may be as important as the bridges themselves.

The plot itself is a rather strait-forward example of a young orphaned woman escaping her past under the guidance of a paternal figure who knew her parents. There are the expected hints of mysterious and sinister events in her parents’ lives that appear to be catching up with Leodora and her companions. She is the abused orphan who finds greatness and appears to be the key to a much larger plot. While my description of the framing arc is less than flattering, it is both serviceable and interesting – told with skill allows for deeper revelations of our storyteller’s stories.

The prose is economically poetic in its frame of stories within stories. Just as The Old Man and the Sea is not just about a man fishing in a boat, the myths, legends, stories of Shadowbridge offer much more than initially meets the eye, often of a decidedly disturbing nature. It’s the thematic depth of these stories and their interlacing with the over-arcing plot that highlight the ambitions and strengths of Shadowbridge.

Frost approaches his worldbuilding from a different angle – through the myths of the people and Leodora’s stories while honoring the relative ignorance and mystery of his main characters. This approach contrasts with the typical epic fantasy with its pages of detail and various methods of infodumping. It is refreshing to see a well-written fantasy book at only 272 pages– of course this is a duology that easily could have been published as a single volume, which is annoying to a paying audience.

Surficially, Shadowbridge is seemingly strait-forward and even plain in its execution, though it’s told with skillful and poetic prose. It’s the depth beyond the surface that provides a hint of genius and a sense of powerful understanding. The problem is that Shadowbridge is not complete – for the time being, it’s a bridge to nowhere. The concluding sequel, Lord Tophet, will be published in summer ’08 and should bring a conclusion to a potentially great story. I won’t anoint Shadowbridge with either greatness or mediocrity until I can see how Frost brings it all together – however, the potential is vast. For that reason, this book is particularly tough to rate – it deserves a good rating with skill of its telling and wonderful set-up it provides, but it is incomplete without its second half. Therefore, it gets something of a cop-out at 7.5 – it could be over 8, but if the concluding volume doesn’t produce, Shadowbridge will suffer for it.

Related Posts: Review of Lord Tophet

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Year in Review – 2007

It’s been a great year of reading. I did not read as much as I’d have liked – I expect by year’s end I’ll number just short of 40 books read this year. Out of those 40 or so books, most have been books I’d happily recommend, but there’s always a desire to single out the year’s best. Below are my top 11 for 2007 – why 11, because I like it better than 10 (top 11 for 2006). These are presented in no particular order and I’ve starred 2007 releases – enjoy!

Neth Space’s Top 11 Reads for 2007

Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett (review). The second adventure of Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep of the Royal Thai Police provides a unique view on so many aspects of western culture from the east. I simply love these stories – I also really enjoyed *Bangkok Haunts (review).

Vellum by Hal Duncan (review). Started in 2006 and finished in 2007, this book is numerically speaking, the highest rated book I’ve read since starting this blog. The language is beautiful in ways that genre books rarely show and story can be powerfully evocative.

*Mainspring by Jay Lake (review). This book debuted with mixed reviews and widely different interpretations – some have seen religious allegory (both positive and negative) and others something else entirely. It is a unique vision of a steampunk earth with God’s creation obvious to all. I include this book because it made me think – possibly more so than any other book I read this year – and that is a powerful thing.

*The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie (review). I simply love this first book of The First Law trilogy. It is epic fantasy that does very little that is new or original – but, it’s all about the execution. Abercrombie laughs at maps and detailed world building while putting all his emphasis on the characters – and they are great characters. It’s written with more wit than most writers use in their entire career.

*The Metatemporal Detective by Michael Moorcock (review). These are the collected stories of Moorcock’s detective Seaton Bregg and his nemesis through the multiverse, Count Zenith. It’s an homage to pulp mysteries of the past, often presented with biting satire, and full of fun for those who have been following Moorcock’s multiverse (and perfectly safe for those who, like me, haven’t). Moorcock is a master writer that any lover of books should read.

*The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (review). This book debuted to huge amounts of buzz and tremendous support from its publisher – it deserves every bit of it in my opinion. It’s a wonderfully told story that engages the reader in a way that few books do.

*Feast of Souls by C.S. (Celia) Friedman (review). Another first book of a new trilogy (three of these recommendations are), and another great introduction. Friedman has been at this for a while and delivers a wonderful set-up with an intriguing magic system and a gritty take on gender relations (yes, I used the word gritty – just not where you typically see it these days).

*New Amsterdam by Elizabeth Bear (review). A wonderfully told mosaic novel set in an Elizabethan, steampunk world. Framed with Sherlockian mysteries, New Amsterdam is a character study of two courtesans and their master, an immortal and two mortals, two men and woman, two respected investigators and a youth – it all depends on the point of view.

*Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (review). A completed series is a wonderful thing – and this is probably the most anticipated series completion in human history. I was amazed to Rowling deal with this unprecedented level of pressure and deliver what I consider to be a great conclusion to her landmark a series.

*The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski (review). Polish master fantasist Sapkowski delivers a powerful mosaic introducing his protagonist of the Witcher Saga. Image fairy tales retold from the distinctive point of view of the Slavic world – you’re only part of the way there.

Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock (review). This World Fantasy Award-winning novel has justifiably become a classic of fantasy literature. Evoking a deep, primal reaction from within the reader, I cannot recommend this book enough.

* Released in 2007

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Mind Melded

The folks over at SF Signal have a long-running feature – The Mind Meld – where they pose a single question to a group of invited participants in the SFF world. Somehow I was chosen as one of the bloggers in a group including editors and authors. It was a lot of fun and I encourage you all to go read – some of the answers might just surprise you. Participants include David G. Hartwell, James Patrick Kelly, John Joseph Adams, Paul Raven, Alan Beatts, Niall Harrison, and Larry of the OF Blog of the Fallen.

The question posed was

From your point of view, how has the proliferation of online book reviews affected the publishing world?

Some of excerpts include

Online reviewing at this point is a hopeful mess…
-David Hartwell

Everyone wants something different from a book …and the anarchic economics of internet publishing mean that all those needs can be supplied in proportion to demand.
-Paul Raven

At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter what publishers, booksellers, authors or reviewers think of a book.
-Alan Beatts

…when was the last time you saw Gary Wolfe reviewing Steven Erikson or Kate Elliott?
-Niall Harrison

…it may mean a sort of Darwinian fight in the near future to see which blogs are best qualified…
-Larry of OF Blog of the Fallen

How about that for a self-serving, pretentious answer?
-Ken of Neth Space

Isn’t it great to see quotes taken out of context?

Monday, December 10, 2007

Brandon Sanderson to Finish Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time
Via SFScope

Tor has announced in Publisher’s Weekly that Brandon Sanderson will finish A Memory of Light, the final book in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.
Tor Books announced today that novelist Brandon Sanderson has been chosen to finish writing the final novel in Robert Jordan’s bestselling Wheel of Time fantasy series. Jordan—described by some as Tolkien’s heir—died Sept. 16 from a rare blood disease. The new novel, A Memory of Light, will be the 12th and final book in the fantasy series which has sold more than 14 million copies in North America and more than 30 million copies worldwide. The last four books in the series were all #1 New York Times bestsellers.
(full article)

Sanderson mentions it on his blog as well and points to discussion on his forum. He is also interviewed about it on Dragonmount. I imagine, it’ll see quite a bit of discussion soon enough. For me, it means the book wasn’t in as good of shape as I had hoped, but with Jordan’s fight with illness, it was colossal effort for him to do what he did manage. I figured if anybody other than Jordan’s wife (also his editor) or assistant got the job it would be Sanderson – mainly because he wanted the job (or seemed to anyway).

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Rating Trends

In all honesty, I’m not a big fan of giving numeric ratings in reviews even though I have chosen to do so. There are so many factors that go into what makes a book good, bad, week, strong…that it is really unfair to sum it all up in a single number between 0 and 10. Just look at the books I’ve reviewed and rated – two books that are vastly different will score the same.

All that complaining aside, ratings do provide some useful information for some people. And they allow for me to geek out and look at things through a statistical lens. The chart below shows the distribution of ratings for the 78 books and series I’ve reviewed since starting this blog. It’s interesting to see some of the trends that are evident.

As I’ve described elsewhere, I have some general guidelines as to what the ratings mean and I’ve included them on the above chart. Simply said, below 5 is bad, between 5 and 7.5 is good with some reservations, and above 7.5 is great. Since I ultimately choose the books I read, and I only rarely read a book that I’m not already pretty sure I’ll enjoy, the ratings are skewed significantly toward the good and great end of things. But looking at the data trends makes me think that a better division of the ratings might be what’s shown in the chart below. While I’ll still aim to rate as I always have, I think that I’ll have to keep this distribution in mind as it just might more accurately reflect my feelings.

Anyway, I hope that people out there might actually find all this interesting – I know I did.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Review: Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock

World Fantasy Award (1985) winning Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock represents a departure from the traditional epic fantasy of its day with elements of science fiction and historical fiction while imbuing an atmosphere all its own. Defying easy categorization, it explores the mythos of humanity in a setting eerily recognizable and reminiscent of something more primal in origin.

Steve Huxley returns from the Second World War to his home in rural England, located at the edge of an untouched, wild wood that has long fascinated his family. His father, a source of familial strife due to his obsession with the wood, has died while Steve was away at war. Christian, Steve’s older brother, has since explored his father’s research into the wood and become more like his father than Steve could have imagined.

The Rhyope Wood is the source of a mysterious energy that creates people and creatures out of the myths of humankind (called mythagos) – particularly myths of British soil like Robin Hood, King Arthur and others long lost from modern memory. Through the proximity of the family home to the Rhyope, the wood’s influence brings obsession, love, pain and death, and ultimately inspires a journey into its ancient, haunted heart where the mythagos have myths of their own.

From the start of Mythago Wood Holdstock reaches into the primal heart of the reader, drawing them into his imagined ghost wood filled with myths remembered and not. The wood itself becomes a dominating character bringing about the realization of just how powerful of a force primeval forests were in ancient times. As someone who traces the majority of their ancestry to that part of the world, there is a sense of this coming being of my past – these mythagos are my own.

Having inspired such a deep connection remarkably early in the book, Holdstock proceeds to tell an inspired tale – a modern myth all its own. Solitary Steve reflects often and subtly on the familial rivalry dominating his past and present while he is seemingly destined to love one of the forest’s mythagos, as did his father and brother before him. The resulting modern sibling rivalry follows the path of myth, as ancient as the myth they both pursue.

Much can be taken from the many of the aspects of Mythago Wood – in some ways it reads as a series of myths, tales, and parables framed by more myths, tales, and parables. Questions are presented, rather than asked and reflected upon more than answered. Contemplation is the result – hopefully lacking the compulsive quality of the book’s characters.

The haunting beauty of Mythago Wood is wonderfully realized as it penetrates to primeval heart of the Britain. The World Fantasy Award it won is well deserved and this timeless tale is as relevant today as it was 20 years ago. 8/10


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