Thursday, February 28, 2008

Larry's Fun Little Game

I’m not a big fan of ‘memes’, but I saw this over at the OF Blog (I know it’s not really a meme, but it’s close). Anyway, I found it caught my eye, so I’ll jump in.

Five Recent Reads:

The Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick (currently reading)

Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie (review)

The Inferior by Peadar Ó Guilín (review)

Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson (review)

The Traitor by Michael Cisco (review)

Seeing all these together makes things seem rather more eclectic than I had realized.

One I Am About To Start Reading:

The Martian General’s Daughter by Theodore Judson (this upcoming release by Pyr looks very good)

Monday, February 25, 2008

But Where Are They?

While I was looking over other blogger reviews of Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie in preparation for writing my review I noticed that several that literally plead (if not threaten) for maps. Then this discussion pops up over at Westeros and there is this blog post where Joe Abercrombie discusses his feelings on maps.

There is a long tradition of accompaniment maps in fantasy novels, and as a whole, I have to admit to a love of those maps. Now, I’m a geologist by trade and a very visual-spatial person, so this is no surprise. Before I could even read words, a book of maps could keep me occupied for hours and little has changed in the decades since. So, while I love maps, I feel that no fantasy book needs them – and if one does, that book is fundamentally flawed.

I’ll happily admit to flipping often to maps of continents, countries, and cities when reading the likes of Tolkien, Jordan, Martin and Erikson. I’ll also admit to craving a map when reading someone like Pratchett (whose take on maps I fully support) and to finding maps both useless and pointless (see Scott Lynch’s books). But, I have to say, particularly in the case of Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy, readers who are demanding a map, seem to be missing the point.

As Joe indicates in his discussion of maps, they can be distracting and take away from the direction the reader should be looking in. It doesn’t matter where they are – Logen Ninefingers doesn’t have map – the point is who they are and what they are doing. Abercrombie’s efforts are to focus on the characters – not the big picture. Rather than taking the larger, world-view, he is intent on showing a few people caught up in it all. To be worrying about where the characters are physically located in relation to each other and the rest of the world is really missing the point.

I’ll continue to love maps and I’ll continue to love books with and without maps. I’ll loathe the first book I read that depends on its map and I’d happily enjoy an Abercrombie book with a map. But let’s not loose the focus – a map is just an extra that may actually be a hindrance – it’s the words that matter.

Now, what are your thoughts on maps?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

There was once a book called Escapement

Jay Lake has announced a little contest over on his livejournal for an ARC of his upcoming book, Escapement, which is a sequel of sorts to Mainspring (which I rather liked). Here are the rules:

In either a limerick or a haiku, tell me in comments why you should receive an ARC of Escapement. Props for being mad funny or over the top.
This is the sort of thing that I can’t resist – especially since it’s a book I want to read. I was forced to enter…

Call me a reviewer who likes Mainspring
What does a review by me bring
Another place for a link
But in the end I think
It’s just more excrement to fling

Review: Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie

Building on his acclaimed debut, Joe Abercrombie’s sophomore effort, Before They Are Hanged, continues The First Law trilogy. Abercrombie utilizes the same tricks of The Blade Itself (review) by dancing a fine line between sticking to genre conventions and sticking it to genre clichés.

Before They Are Hanged follows the three primary story arcs that emerge from The Blade Itself. Inquisitor Glokta manages the siege of Dagoska and beyond through his sardonic internal dialogue. Colonel West and a small band of Northman struggle to survive the escalating war in the north. First Magi Bayaz leads his motley crew to the end of the world in search of a power to repel the rising menace of his age-old rival and the eaters of flesh that follow him.

As I indicated above, Abercrombie gives us more of the same with Before They Are Hanged – if you enjoyed The Blade Itself, then chances are high that you’ll enjoy Before They Are Hanged, if you didn’t enjoy The Blade Itself…well, you get the picture. I loved The Blade Itself and the often subtle (and often not) ways that Abercrombie plays with common fantasy tropes (all-knowing wizard, barbarian from the north, stuck-up nobleman, etc.) – he uses many of them, yet does so with a biting, satirical edge and seems to revel in taking the story in unexpected directions. Before They Are Hanged does all this (and more), but since this is the second book of the trilogy, the novelty of the approach has worn off. With the novelty gone, things almost become tiresome in places.

Characterization is where Abercrombie gets the loudest praise and deservedly so. We follow each of the story arcs through multiple points of view that give real insight into characters who feel authentic. Logen Ninefingers, the infamous barbarian from the north, expresses a soft side at odds with his appearance. Then in the next scene we see him in an insane, berserker rage, overtopping even the most stereotypical of northern barbarians. Glokta, the crippled torturer with internal dialogue to challenge Tyrion’s gold-standard of fantasy characters, actually grows a small heart that shows character growth both fitting and unexpected. These are but two of the best examples of Abercrombie’s gift with characters. Of course he can’t get it right all the time – Colonel West still seems unrealized and unconvincing in spite of Abercrombie’s effort to the contrary and I really hope that he has kept Ardee around for some reason, because I’m not buying it so far.

Plot is where Abercrombie usually earns his dings, and I have to agree again. We have a siege, a war in the north, and quest across a decayed empire. These plots are about as plain as I’ve described them (though events in the quest almost make up for the shortcomings). Without Abercrombie’s superior characterization and sardonic wit the plot would drag these books into obscurity instead of serving an adequate vehicle for what he’s really about.

The First Law trilogy is a single story told in three parts. Therefore it’s a bit unfair to attempt to judge Before They Are Hanged as a single book, rather than the middle section of a single story. I haven’t read Last Argument of Kings yet, but my impression at the moment is that Before They Are Hanged suffers a bit from the middle book syndrome. Still, the book is enjoyable and Abercrombie makes another assertion that he is an author to take notice of with Last Argument of Kings topping my list of anticipated reads. 7-7.5/10

Related Posts: The Blade Itself review, Review of Last Argument of Kings, Joe Abercrombie Answers Questions Five, Review of The First Law Trilogy, Review of Best Served Cold

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

My Name in Actual Print (sort of)

So, apparently a comment I made in a book discussion over at the SFX Magazine Forums made into an article that Joe Abercrombie wrote about George RR Martin’s A Game of Thrones for SFX Magazine. Of course it’s my SN that gets the credit – kcf – so my name isn’t actually in print (I guess I’m not legit yet). Since it’s an actual print magazine and I don’t subscribe, I have to trust others that I said:
"Wolves, kids, incest, politics, secrets, midgets, betrayal, kings and queens, stark landscapes, past wrongs, feudal misgivings, secret keeper, rotten heirs, cold, noble knight, naive hand, vague threats from the north, dragon mother, bastard child...oh, did he just die?"
Of course I made this comment very specifically in the hopes that it would make it into the print version (shameless, I know). Anyway, I thought it was pretty sweet.
Peadar Ó Guilín Answers Questions Five

Peadar Ó Guilín is a new author hailing from Ireland. His debut book, The Inferior, has garnered critical acclaim as both a YA and science fiction novel and it kicks of the Bone World trilogy (my review). Currently available in the UK, it will be released in the US in June 2008, and will be translated to several other languages in the future. Peadar has traveled the world, learned other languages, currently lives in Dublin, and can be found immersed in discussions on an almost daily basis over at westeros.

I’m very happy that Peadar has taken the time to answer Questions Five.

If I were going on holiday to Dublin and I can only visit one pub, which pub do you recommend and why?

POG: Most of them are ridiculously bad: giant sports games on every wall and pop music loud enough to murder the conversation we used to be famous for. Our ancestors even had a god of eloquence, once upon a time, did you know that? I miss him.

So, for the real experience, you need to find what we call an “old man's” pub. If you walk through the door and half the stools aren't occupied by lads with pitted red noses and beer mustaches, then you should take your custom elsewhere.

Do you consider yourself a carnivore, herbivore, or omnivore and how does this influence your writing?

POG: Flesh, and whether or not we have a right to eat it, is something I take very seriously. Many of the stories I write are little more than laboratories where I try to work this out. The Inferior fits the bill nicely. Sure, it's all great fun, with characters running around hunting anything that can hunt them. But underneath that is a series of situations designed to explore every possible degree of carnivorousness. Is it right to eat meat? What if the creature is as intelligent as you are? What if the survival of the human race depended on you doing so? And so on. I want the readers, be they vegetarians or omnivores, to choose sides and make the hard, honest decisions for themselves.

My personal belief is that future generations will regard meat-eaters like myself as barbarians, in the same way that we now (rightfully) scorn the once respectable slavers and slave-owners in our past. But scorn is so easy from a distance and sometimes it's a writer’s job to strip that away.

How hard was it to write The Inferior without ever saying: “___ tastes like chicken”?

POG: I've been trained from an early age to overcome such challenges. Your language has no word for it, but let's just say I'm a ninja at not saying that things taste like chicken. I'm so good, I don't even think it.

Discuss one reason why The Inferior may inspire a reader to strip naked and run screaming into the forest?

Up to now, your questions have been insightful and even a little daring. But this one is pure nonsense, and worse, dangerous. Naked readers should stalk very very quietly into the forest. They should save their screaming for when something catches them.

Why should The Inferior be the next book that everyone reads?

POG: Why should 'everyone' be allowed to read such a red hot piece of excitement? Most of them couldn't handle it, and those that could, probably don't deserve it. Let them stay at home, I say, and weep, weep for the gray tedium of lives that even a glimpse of The Inferior would fill with wonder.

'Everyone' should ignore the reviews and the fact that editors from France to Japan have paid real money for the right to translate it. So what if it has great characters and world building? No, it would be best for society as a whole if 'everyone' just picked up the latest cookie-cutter SF/Fantasy/Horror and didn't become cannibals after all.

Monday, February 11, 2008

High Sierra

Jeff VanderMeer has a great contest about the relation of a 'New-Weird' moment that's happened in your life. While, I don't know how 'new' or 'weird' my story is, I can say that it was more than a bit surreal. My entry is below.

An American, an Australian, and a Mexican climb into the cab of a pick-up truck for the long drive into the high Sierra Madre.

I always thought that sounded like the beginning of a bad joke, but it was more than just a bit surreal feeling on a cool February morning in Chihuahua. The drive itself was just over 12-hours long, with the first 4 or 5 on paved roads and the remaining on dirt roads winding through the mountains. Surprised to see snow drifts under pine trees, ice-covered puddles in the road, and a paper town, I kept couldn’t help but think of a John Wayne movie that I’ve never actually seen. After the jarring, ass-numbing ride in a single-bench, standard transmission truck with cranky, jet-lagged Aussie and a young Mexican who didn’t speak a word or English, I arrived to the remote camp just in time to start a 12-hour night shift with a drill-crew of French Canadians who only spoke French and Spanish – it was a long night of wishing I’d remembered to pack my thermos for coffee.
The bad joke never really had a punch-line…but I’ll leave you with another set-up. A Mexican Archaeologist and an American Geologist sit in the bar car of Mexico’s Copper Railroad after a tough 10-day tour. The language barrier was eased with alcohol as I related the time I was mistaken for a terrorist at Hoover Dam.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Review: The Inferior by Peadar Ó Guilín

Marketed in places as YA and others as science fiction, Peadar Ó Guilín’s debut novel, The Inferior, defies easy categorization. By the end of the novel we can firmly place it in the realm of science fiction, but elements early on lend an equally ‘fantastic’ feel. Plot-wise and thematically, The Inferior reads like a YA that crosses over well into an adult audience – though I’d suggest is should be a mature YA audience with things like cannibalism and rape occurring.

Stopmouth exists in the shadow of his older brother – a brilliant hunter and strategist with ambitions of one day becoming chief. Handicapped by a stutter and the resulting lack of confidence, Stopmouth simply strives to stay alive and useful to his tribe in the bitter world they live in – a post-apocalyptic shell of a world with only poisonous plants forces sentient species to hunt each other’s flesh for food. Times grow harder when two rival species inexplicably learn how to communicate with each other, coordinating their efforts to gain flesh. At the same time one of the mysterious ‘orbs’ from the roof (sky) crashes, and with it a human like none of the tribe has ever seen.

This is a coming-of-age story – our young hero overcomes personal limitations and excels. In this respect the story does little that surprises, though the character growth of Stopmouth satisfies with in the context of the story.

Thematic elements challenge the idea of inferiority (as the title itself implies) throughout the book. Stopmouth continually faces those that feel he is inferior, while harboring his thoughts of superiority over others. Nearly every interaction between humans (and the other sentient species) comes back to this concept. This YA thematic approach is neither too simplistic nor obvious to alienate the more mature reader.

Ó Guilín excels with the presentation of his world – a Darwinian nightmare where a variety of sentient species battle for survival and dinner. The horrors of this harsh world truly come alive his utilization of third-person perspective from the point of view of Stopmouth. Ó Guilín must have had a load of fun dreaming up different species, their characteristics and various ways to eat each other.

The biggest failing of The Inferior is the lack of a coherent direction. There is no single antagonist spanning the novel and only a vague goal that abruptly changes focus. This might have been an attempt at some amount of ‘realism’ or a product of this being the introductory book of a trilogy, but at times the plot seems to just ramble on.

The Inferior kicks off The Bone World trilogy – annoyingly, there is no mention anywhere on the book itself that I could find that indicates this book is the first of a trilogy. That being said, I think that this could be read as a satisfying stand-alone if you can accept open-ended endings. A lot of questions remain, but in terms of character development, the end is well placed (of course I do look forward to seeing what happens later).

The Inferior is a solid debut that should appeal to both a mature YA and an adult audience. I look forward to seeing where Ó Guilín takes us with The Deserter later this year. 7/10


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