Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Cover Art Assumptions

I’ve been quite about the cover art for many months now, and this post isn’t going to end that quite (I’ve just been busy and uninspired). But, Jeff VanderMeer has an interesting post about cover art assumptions (perhaps exercise is a better word than post). It was fun and I look forward to seeing how things play out.

Monday, January 28, 2008

A Nice Reviews Index

Jeff over at the Fantasy Book News and Reviews blog has changed focus from the typical SFF-blog to more of a repository of information, specifically blog reviews. Apparently fatherhood has taken away most of his reading time (something I understand well with a 3½ month-old baby at home). So, he has a developed nice index that of authors and their books with links to reviews in the blogosphere. It’s still a work in progress, but it already looks good. The result will be something of a one-stop place to find out about a perspective book and author – hopefully he’ll be able to expand beyond fan-based blogs and build his index to include e-zines and other accessible places with SFF reviews.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Review: Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

I’ve had my eye on Brandon Sanderson for a while as an author that I want to read. When it was announced that he would complete Robert Jordan’s final Wheel of Time book, A Memory of Light, I finally got around to getting a hold of his Mistborn books. It remains to be seen how successful Sanderson will be with Jordan’s legacy, but Mistborn: The Final Empire is fantasy that gets it right.

Imagine a world where a prophesized hero rises from obscurity in opposition to a great destructive force. Now imagine said hero, victorious against the known threat, falls victim to a darkness, inviting 1000 years of brutal rule by an immortal dark lord. Imagine a world where the good guy lost.

Humanity subsists under the yoke of the Lord Ruler with a majority of the people forced into slavery. While numerically superior, these ‘skaa’ have been so long oppressed that hope itself is little more than a myth. Even the brutal nobility who lease the skaa from the Lord Ruler are subject to the Lord Ruler’s tyranny by enforcers of a dangerous bureaucracy under theocratic rule.

Vin, a talented skaa thief, barely survives a horrid existence in the slums of the empire’s central city. Kelsior, rumored Survivor of Hathsin, the inspirational leader of a successful team of high-society thieves and a powerful allomancer, has a new plan. His seemingly impossible plan is to rouse the skaa and overthrow the empire and its powerful, immortal Lord Ruler.

Sanderson really nails the characterization in this. Vin and Kelsior get the most screen time and development, yet even the minor characters are presented as whole. Even the cliché caricatures seem alive. Most authors can get one character right, a few can do more, but in fantasy its rare when the minor characters have soul.

The writing generally provides a fun, even quick feel about it that serves the story well. Descriptions are not overdone and info-dumps cleverly integrated. However the narrative flow stumbles at times. Third person perspective is the utilized point of view, and Sanderson concentrates on a few characters. Problems arise when he feels the need to show us more, introducing new and unexpected points of view very late into the story. A bit more seasoning will hopefully give him the tools to avoid such slips in the future.

One aspect of Sanderson’s world that appeals to me in particular is the magic system. Certain metals and their alloys have ‘magical’ powers when ‘burned’ by allomancers, also known as mistings. Most have the ability to burn just one metal, a rare few can use them all – the mistborn. As a geologist, any magic system with such a geologic foundation is going to get thumbs up from me.

Mistborn: The Final Empire is a story of hope in a hopeless world, the story of trust, of rising up, of sacrifice, and corruption. Its religious implications offer some of the most interesting thematic elements. A sage-like secondary character collects the memories of religions long lost to the Lord Ruler’s tyranny. Kelsior seeks inspiration from these extinct but not yet forgotten beliefs, Vin struggles with the point. While this might have been my favorite aspect of the book, it’s also the greatest unrealized potential. I wish there was more.

Mistborn: The Final Empire is the first book in Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, but can easily be read as a stand-alone book. There is a clear beginning, middle, and end – things are mostly tied up at the conclusion, but the characters and the world will move on and have possibly greater things to do in the future – a future I plan to follow in Mistborn: The Well of Ascension and forthcoming book 3, Mistborn: The Hero of Ages. I highly recommend this for fans and potential fans of epic fantasy. 7.5/10
Related Posts: Review of The Well of Ascension, Review of The Hero of Ages, Review of The Mistborn Trilogy

Monday, January 21, 2008

Reap the Boredom

Near complete boredom combined with an inability to become motivated to do the actual work I should be at the moment have lead me the writing of this post that does little on its own, instead pointing to interesting discussion elsewhere.

The discussion of interest is
this one over at Westeros where a question to simply rank 5 of the newer and more talked about (at least in certain circles) authors in epic fantasy. The authors under the gun are Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, Patrick Rothfuss, Daniel Abraham, and Brian Ruckley.

I find this fascinating both because I have read and enjoyed 4 of the 5 authors (and interviewed 3 of the 5) and by the omission of (insert the author you feel should have been included) along side the demographic similarity of the 5.

I’m usually pretty bad with ranking pretty much anything, but in this case, there is a natural rank as I’ve felt about the books I’ve read from these authors.

  1. Joe Abercrombie (my review)
  2. Patrick Rothfuss (my review)
  3. Scott Lynch (my review)
  4. Brian Ruckley (my review)

I haven’t read anything by Daniel Abraham yet, but I do have a book on The Stack that I hope to get to in the next couple of months.

In my boredom, I decided to graph the results of the discussion so far (yes, I’m that bored and that geeky). When an author got ranked #1, I gave him 5 pts, #2 got 4, #3 got 3, #4 got 2, and 5 got 1. If someone hadn’t read the author no points were awarded, but it is noted. There were roughly 43 votes as I’m writing this and curiously all had read Abercrombie and Lynch, about a quarter had not read Rothfuss or Ruckley, and about a third haven’t read Abraham. The graph is below.

To give some perspective, if all 16 people who haven’t yet read Abraham gave him a 5, his score would jump to 145 – which is still about 13 points less than Abercrombie (though there would be a corresponding drop of 1 point in Abercrombie’s score for this to be the case, so it would put Abraham on top by 3 points). I mention this to give a bit of an idea of just how far out front Abercrombie is in this little discussion.

Another interesting aspect is the count of #1 votes - Abercrombie received 29 votes for number 1, which blew away everyone else. Lynch received 10 and Abraham 5. Neither Rothfuss nor Ruckley had a single number 1 vote in this informal pole/discussion.

I can’t wait to see what this does to Joe’s ego :D.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Review: The Traitor by Michael Cisco

Several ‘best of 2007’ lists include The Traitor by Michael Cisco and Jeff VanderMeer has said that Cisco is criminally underrated. This (along with the relatively modest page count of 152) really captured my interest, so I eagerly read The Traitor soon after purchasing a copy.

With first person narration, The Traitor tells the story of rare-named Nophtha, a soul-eater and member of a despised religious sect who works for an oppressive Empire. Noptha gives us some relative background and then jumps to his following of the dangerously eccentric soul-burner, Wite, a hunted fugitive and murderer.

Cisco fully realizes Noptha through his stark, repetitive, and even dull narration that maintains a poetic rhythm. Nophtha dances a line from justifying his actions to near insults of the reader and their inability to understand. The narration slowly builds to the end, where it becomes almost a manifesto of Wite’s, as written by Nophtha.

Ok, so here’s the real deal – Cisco is impressive with what he does; this is damn good writing. BUT, I did not like this book at all. As skillfully as The Traitor is presented, I simply could not get into it – this book bored me to no end.

You see one of the big reasons that I read is for entertainment. This isn’t the only reason, nor does it preclude me from appreciating a book for aspects that aren’t entertaining. Nothing about The Traitor entertained me. With all the wonderful realization of Cisco’s prose, it was dense, dull, and utterly uninteresting to me. By the time I reached the end of the book, where the crescendo should have me eagerly anticipating the climax and the perfect last line of the book, I didn’t care at all. I was left with joy that I had finished – that I no longer had to read this book.

Cisco is a writer who admits to challenging his readers – you have to bring something (perhaps as much as he brought himself) with you when reading his work. Some people will respond to this style of writing, some will not. I don’t shy away from a challenge in my reading (it’s one of the reasons why I happily chose to read The Traitor in the first place), but in this instance I was rewarded with a book that I did not appreciate.

I expect that many of you will enjoy The Traitor, even though it did not work for me at all. If it were a longer book, I’m certain I would not have bothered to finish. I wanted to like this book, and it probably deserves a better explanation as to why I didn’t like it, but this will have to suffice – I just found the book dull and completely uninteresting. Approach this book with caution; it’s not an easy read. My choice to stick to my rating system often caused difficulty and this book is one where I wish I had at least a two-score system that could adequately reflect the skill and success that Cisco does achieve with The Traitor as well as my complete aversion to it. 5/10

Friday, January 04, 2008

Review: The Lees of Laughter’s End by Steven Erikson

(n) lees: the sediment (dregs) from fermentation of an alcoholic beverage; the solid element which precipitates at the end of the fermentation; cells of dead yeast, pulp of berries and, in red wines, pips and grape-skin.
The Lees of Laughter’s End is the third published novella (second chronologically) by Steven Erikson that follows the horrifically strange and powerful duo, Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, and their inept manservant, Emmacipor Reese (known to the sailors as Mancy the Luckless). These novels take Erikson’s typical dark, gallows humor and turn it more sardonic and even absurd as these two enigmatic mages (at least one of which is psychotic) attract powerfully strange events.

Laughter’s End is a swath of ocean within Erikson’s Malazan world where nightmares come to life – it’s the place the huge and monstrous dhenrabi go to mate, where sharks that would dwarf Jaws both feed and flee the spoils. It’s a place where spirits of the dead have the power to rise, to become solid elements – particularly spirits bound to the iron nails ships are constructed from.

The Suncurl is a ship traveling The Wastes on its way from Lamentable Moll to the southern coast of Genebakis. The captain knows nothing of sailing and is accompanied by three deserter soldiers and a drunken first mate (who actually knows a bit sailing) as they flee Stratum for unknown reasons. In Lamentable Moll they took on a new crew and three passengers – Bauchelain, Korbal Broach, and Mancy the Luckless.

The Lees of Laughter’s End begins as the Suncurl is about to enter Laughter’s End and the horrors it will awaken. A creature new to Erikson readers – a lich – is raised and terrorizes the crew while Korbal Broach goes fishing with some interesting bait and lets his ‘child’ out its cage to ‘play’ with the lich – things begin to get bloody. Who will be the lees of this fermented mess?

Erikson has gift with names that is unmatched in The Lees of Laughter’s End and adds to the perfectly dark and sardonic prose. Gust Hubb, Birds Mottle, and Heck Urse are deserter soldiers who along with the rest of crew are subjected to a horrific chain of events, made comic in its random, pointlessness absurdity. First mate Ably Druther does indeed ‘druther’ ably and eventually meets an appropriate end. Briv the Cook’s helper, Briv the Carpenter’s helper, and Briv the rope braider inspire a running ‘who’s on first’ routine culminating in a scene with all three in the same place, epitomizing the dark and absurd hilarity of the novella.

Erikson’s novellas are great examples of short fantasy that could be accessible to any audience, but will be most appreciated by those familiar with his Malazan series. The price and limited nature of their release makes them difficult to come-by for the average reader, but if you have means or opportunity, I recommend take it – Erikson’s writing is better in short form than long and the humor is perfect for a mind like mine. The Lees of Laughter’s End easily equals Blood Follows and The Healthy Dead. 8/10

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Review: Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

In Altered Carbon, the debut novel by Richard K. Morgan, cyberpunk grows up, has a seedy affair at a whorehouse in ‘licktown’ and hires a private investigator to investigate its own murder. After that, things get nasty.

Altered Carbon introduces us to Morgan’s recurring hero, Takeshi Kovacs, an ex-military Special Forces officer (known as Envoys) with specialized training and conditioning making him both more and less than human. Kovacs has become something of a private investigator with a dislike of authority and law and a complicated moral code – just like any other hard-boiled private dick you’ve read about. The difference is in the setting – humankind has spread throughout the galaxy and conquered death through the use of direct digital download of person’s consciousness into a cortical stack implanted at the base of the brain that can transferred to a new body as needed (if you can afford it).

In Altered Carbon Kovacs is hired by a rich, powerful and long-lived man on Old Earth to determine if his client was murdered or committed suicide (death and the like can get a bit complicated when a backup consciousness can be stored).The resulting chain of events is typical of hard-boiled, noir stories – there’s a love interest or two (with somewhat graphic description), ass-kicking, past catching up, trouble with cops, trouble with organized crime, visits to whorehouses, drugs, sex, guns, knives, lasers, etc. All is told in colorful language, vivid description and around a twenty-fifth century setting reflective of our world but sufficiently advanced to be fascinating.

In many ways this is a ‘man’s book’ – there are lots of witty dialogue, ass-kicking fights, some gratuitous sex, and women are generally objectified while being limited to overly sexualized characters (admittedly, some of them do kick ass) – of course the guys are rarely caste in a very positive light either. This is a book that won’t appeal to all, and will likely find its biggest audience bearing a Y chromosome.

Kovacs is well characterized in the gritty-gray zone one would expect. He is dark, dangerous and comes with a scarred past that hasn’t healed completely. With his slightly psychopathic tendencies (the slight part is debatable), death and destruction is never all that far away.

I found Altered Carbon to be an immensely enjoyable and fun book to read without the usual stumbles first-time authors usually make. It’s a dark and dangerous world – definitely not a place you want to talk to your mother about. I can’t wait to read the further adventures of Kovacs in Broken Angels and Woken Furies. 8/10

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

D.A. by Connie Willis

I just posted my review of Connie Willis’ short story D.A. over at Fantasybookspot. This was a quick fun read in the usual beautiful package from Subterranean Press.

Oh and Happy New Year! *grumbles about being another year older now*


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