Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Review: The Last Page by Anthony Huso

The Last Page by Anthony Huso (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) is turning out to be one of the more interesting SFF debuts of 2010. While it hasn’t garnered the marketing push of some of the more memorable debuts of the past few years, The Last Page has been released to quite a bit of praise from reviewers with wide-ranging comparisons from Harry Potter to China Mièville to Brent Weeks and Daniel Abraham and such varied terms as Epic Fantasy, Steampunk, Urban Fantasy, Lovecraftian Horror, New Weird and Military Fantasy. The jacket description may hint at some of this and actually does a pretty decent job of describing the book, but it can’t capture the undeniable mood and raw talent that Huso invokes through The Last Page. I won’t claim it’s the perfect debut, but it’s one that stands out.

Set in a magically-powered industrial world of factories, military-industrial complex, zeppelins, and international commerce and rivalry The Last Page opens in sort of preparatory academy combined with university where we meet Caliph Howl, the reluctant heir to the throne of The Duchy of Stonehold. We are introduced to Caliph as an intelligent, crafty, vengeful, yet somewhat mediocre student, yet more importantly, we see him meet his mysterious lover, Sena. The remainder and larger part of the story is told primarily through these two points of view as Caliph inherits his crown, inciting a civil war and Sena seeks a book of great power as she at once rapidly ascends within and seeks her independence from the shadowy Witchocracy that she is a key member of.

Huso writes with a relatively dense prose – perhaps most analogous to China Mièville, but certainly independent enough to feel fresh. With this prose comes vivid description, and like early Mièville, the tendency to over-indulge a bit too often. Another suffering of this writing style is the occasional use of large, obscure words when simpler words that don’t require a visit to the dictionary would suffice. Though the positives outweigh the negatives by a fair margin – this style also provides a rich, layered read with visceral descriptions that perfectly set the mood.

As a result of Huso’s use of this style one cannot deny the incredible realization of the world. This isn’t traditional epic fantasy worldbuilding – the world is not fully described, only the details relevant at the moment. It paints a wonderful mood and leaves the mind craving for more. The dark, dirty setting of an industrial world powered by what can only described as magical power is adeptly shown. The inclusion of zeppelins invokes a Steampunk spirit without actually using a Steampunk setting. Politics, economics, international relations all come into play in a world that feels real rather than ideal. Huso doesn’t water-down the details – they are fully present and often confusing, but manage to further build the dark mood of the novel.

Huso creates a complex plot that never completely gels. On one hand I love the approach because it made me work for every bit of understanding and it reflects the lack of complete understanding of actual reality. On the other hand it was downright confusing at times which caused a fair amount of frustration. The biggest fault in this is a failure with his characterization – motives are either never understood or never revealed. Perhaps this reflects complexity of character that mirrors actual people, but it too often felt like Huso played his cards too close to his chest with confusion the result. This becomes a real issue with the conclusion of the novel – it isn’t developed fully, which increases the uncertainty too much and lessens the impact.

Much of The Last Page is a love story between Caliph and Sena, though I’d hardly call it a romance. It’s more of a revelation of two people attempting to discover what love is, two people who have commitments in their lives that at least seem more important than their love lives. In this Huso portrays a relationship between real people with actual lives which stands apart from much of what is seen in the fantasy genre. This love story takes place along side of the rest of the book – I suppose the question remains, was the love story the central part of the book or was just another complication in their lives? I suspect that Huso would be pleased with that sort of questioning, though the end of the book provides answer enough.

Along the way Huso seems to enjoy throwing out a few moral dilemmas of personal and political nature that are relevant to present time, though most boil down to the question of ‘is a little evil OK for the greater good’? He never gives a real answer, but asks the question in several ways to get the reader thinking. He also touches on economics and government intervention a bit, but only just. Nothing is remotely didactic, just questioning, because there aren’t tidy, sound bite answers to these sorts of questions.

One of the aspects that I enjoyed most about The Last Page is that Huso seemed to know just what I would anticipate. I suppose that it could be called subversion of genre tropes or reader expectations, but it felt much more natural. Particularly in the first half of the book, I would think something like ‘that guy will turn out to be the spymaster’ or ‘Caliph will do __’ or ‘___ will become ___’s closest ally’, etc. It seemed that each time Huso would set it up and shoot it down, subtly letting me know what I thought I’d figured out. This was a fun, pleasant surprise as I read and another example of Huso’s solid writing, particularly for a debut.

Though my thoughts on The Last Page by Anthony Huso are ultimately mixed with a healthy lean toward positive, I won’t hesitate to call it one of the most promising debuts I’ve read in the last few years. It invokes what I love best in fantasy – a wonderfully imaginative world, strange creatures, darkness, complexity, political and economic intrigue, real-world analogues, and characters I can root for. The Last Page largely stands on its own, but for me the ending left me confused and wanting and I’m pleased to know that it is merely the first entry in a duology, with The Black Bottle scheduled for release next year. I can’t wait. 7.5/10

Monday, November 29, 2010

Do a Good Deed and Win Books

I’ll freely admit that I’m a rather privileged individual who lives a pretty good life. Perhaps it’s that old WASP upbringing, but I try to share out some of my good luck by donating time and money to organizations that mean something to me. Recent challenges in my personal life have only reinforced this belief and have encouraged me to try and do more (at least once I get my feet back under me). So, I strongly encourage anyone out there with the means to donate to the Ronald McDonald House – they helped me and my family out when we needed it and its donations that make it possible. In the very least, the next time you are at McDonald’s the fast food chain, drop your spare change (or even a few bucks) into the donation jar next to the register – I can assure you it goes to a good cause.

Now since this is primarily a SFF blog about SFF books and such, I suppose it’s a good idea to point to a charitable donation that you can make that will probably win you free SFF books or other sweet swag. Every year author Patrick Rothfuss organizes a fund drive for Heifer International and he uses his influence as a bestselling author to get publishers, authors, editors, and all sorts of other people to donate books and other swag to give away as prizes. He and a few others also match 50% of each donation made. Every $10 donated gives you 1 entry for the thousands (yes, thousands) of prizes up for grabs. I’ve given the last 2 years and won some pretty great books for it. So, if giving to a good cause isn’t enough, know that you’ll probably win some cool stuff.

So, what are you waiting for…

And while you’re at it…

Monday, November 22, 2010

A Quick Update

Hello all, still alive here. It's been a rough go due to some medical complications with my daughter. All is looking good, but I've been living out of a Ronald McDonald House for the past 10 days, so my attention has been elsewhere. The family should be home tomorrow, which will be great. But, regular posting will not happen around here until well after the Thanksgiving holiday break. However, I have had some good reading time, so I'll eventually have some good content.

Oh, and a side-note: Donate to the Ronald McDonald House if you have the means. Trust me, those who need it REALLY need it and it is a great service.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Interrupation in Service

Things have been quite around here and will probably remain quite for a bit of time. You see, my newborn daughter has stollen away all of my attention.

Don't burn down the internet while I'm away :)

Monday, November 01, 2010

Review: Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

First, if you are looking for an objective review about Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound), stop now. I don’t believe that objectivity in reviews truly exists or that seeking it is particularly wise, but that is aside the point – the point is that I have been (arguably) a rabid fan of the Wheel of Time since the early 1990s (as I describe in detail elsewhere) and I won’t even pretend that I can approach a Wheel of Time book from any other perspective. But I will give my honest (if excited) thoughts on Towers of Midnight. Since this is the 13th book of the series, spoilers for the previous 12 books are implied in this review and by discussing this book at all, some of what I say will be considered spoilers for fans. I do not reveal any major plot spoilers for the book; however I do discuss the direction of characters and even a few of the long-standing mysteries of the Wheel of Time series – though I do not reveal how those mysteries turn out. You have been warned.

My initial reaction to reading Towers of Midnight involved many incomprehensible noisy antics that roughly translate into an expression of awesomeness. Now keep in mind that I stayed up well past my bed time in the 3, sleep deprived days it took me to finish (I couldn’t completely abandon the responsibilities of real life) and during those late nights I consumed far more scotch than my typical nightcap. Wheel of Time fans are familiar with the significance of laughter and tears to the series and my prediction is that Wheel of Time fans will experience laughter and tears of their own while reading this. My own whiskey-lubricated tears came as Randzen (yes, I call him Randzen now, you will see why) reunites with his surrogate father after the harsh events near the close of The Gathering Storm (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound, my review). It should be no surprise that laughter came from the direction of Mat, who really missed his calling as a scribe.

Many fans have noticed shifts in style with Brandon Sanderson writing The Gathering Storm and this becomes even more evident in Towers of Midnight. Sanderson simply isn’t as subtle of a writer as Jordan and Towers of Midnight is not a book that lends itself to subtly. Sanderson just doesn’t have the time or space here to write as Jordan would have. I’m not saying that Sanderson is writing in his own style – he is still attempting to be true to Jordan’s writing style, but it feels less true here than it did in The Gathering Storm. I think it’s probably best approached that these last three books penned by Brandon Sanderson really should be read as single volume within this series. The Gathering Storm was the first third – Sanderson established his version of Jordan’s style in this first third, for the second third he doesn’t try so hard at it, mostly he’s down to business and getting it done – and for the most part, he’s getting it done very well.

Jordan was the dealer, but it’s now Sanderson’s job to play out the hand. Sanderson plays a bit of a different game than Jordan probably would have, but the cards are same. Some will use Towers of Midnight to say that Sanderson plays the game much better than Jordan ever did, others will say that Jordan would have played superior to Sanderson. How the two games may have related really doesn’t matter anymore – focus on the game at hand. And Sanderson plays admirably with the cards he’s dealt and in my opinion comes out way ahead at the end.

The Last Battle is coming and it’s time for Sanderson to get the cards in alignment. This means a lot needs to be crammed into the book. At times things feel rushed – sometimes very rushed. Some scenes that have been building for several books, have a payoff that is a bit of a let-down. I get the sense that Sanderson really had to slash many of the plotlines he wanted to address, ultimately giving us only the minimum.  It’s a shame, if understandable – the only thing worse would have been this book dragging out.

One way Sanderson attempts to mollify this is through the use of multiple points of view in each chapter. This technique is not new to Wheel of Time books, but is much more prevalent in Towers of Midnight than in previous books. In the past the use of multiple points of view has been mostly limited to people within the same plot line, in Towers of Midnight Sanderson often uses another point of view within a chapter to shift to another plot-line that is more thematically related rather than plot-related. In the end I felt this technique was only partially successful.

Many fans have debated just how ‘right’ Sanderson gets the voices of the characters of the Wheel of Time. For The Gathering Storm, many Mat felt a bit off – even me. In Towers of Midnight Sanderson seemingly deals with many more characters and early discussions often hint at more off-ness in Sanderson’s characterizations. In retrospect and considering my recent re-read of the series, I feel that Sanderson actually did quite well with Mat. Mat’s character has been growing in this direction for a while now and I think Sanderson is taking a bit too much blame for shifts in Mat’s character that Jordan planned and began to execute. This is only enhanced by the mind-view fans often hold of Mat as the best Wheel of Time character, where they selectively remember aspects of Mat’s character. Anyway, I think readers will be much happier with Mat in Towers of Midnight. Other characters may be a bit more debatable – Morgase, Aviendha, Elayne, etc. I’ll argue that people hated those points of view when Jordan wrote them and in that respect nothing has changed. Not every character can be a favorite, nor should they be.

The Gathering Storm was undeniably Rand and Egwene’s book, with only token appearances (if any) from other characters. Towers of Midnight belongs to Perrin and Mat, and in my opinion more to Perrin. Yes, we see a fair amount from Rand and Egwene and we get caught up with Elayne and some of the minor characters. Many long anticipated scenes happen, and quite a few don’t. And just to make the fans cringe a bit – Towers of Midnight has a lot in common with Crossroads of Twilight – much of the book is spent catching up events that occurred at the end of the previous book.

As I said before, no real spoilers will be revealed, but for the next couple of paragraphs I go into a bit more detail and you may want to skip to the last paragraph.

As I said above, this book largely belongs to Perrin. Yes Mat plays a big role as cover flap reveals, but in many ways it’s a predictable role. Now Perrin has been a stagnant and rather annoying character for quite some time now (sure this is debatable, but also true for many Wheel of Time fans). So I must say, thank you Brandon Sanderson for making Perrin interesting again. For the first parts of Towers of Midnight Perrin remains much the same, but he finally grows. Of the three ta’veren, Perrin has often seemed to lesser in spite of many remarkable accomplishments and his ability to commune with wolves. That feeling of lesser ends, fans rejoice.

Another interesting shift is that we get signs of Aviendha actually having significance. Min started showing sings in The Gathering Storm that she has a role to play beyond her visions. Elayne has always had a clear role as an Aes Sedai and the now Queen of Andor. But at least in my opinion, Aviendha hasn’t done much in a long while. In many ways what she does in Towers of Midnight is small, in other ways it may be the most significant thing that happens in this book. Her scenes were among the most well-written and touching in the entire book, they also felt out of place and pace with the rest of the book and were among the scenes I enjoyed the least.

What we do see of Rand and Egwene is good, but in some ways a bit of let down. After Rand’s epiphany at the close of The Gathering Storm he is changed, he is now Randzen – I add the zen to the end of his name because is distinctly Zen-like, a Buddha, a Jesus, a true Savior to be. He doesn’t feel like the Rand we’ve known – I really came to dislike reading about Rand because of how dark he became, and now that he has at least seemingly gotten past that, it’s a big shift. I’m honestly still a bit undecided on how I feel about it. Randzen may be just a bit too perfect, a bit of a ‘Gary Stu’.

Which brings me to Egwene – Egwene’s plotline in The Gathering Storm was the one I enjoyed most. And in my recent re-read of the series I’ve found myself really enjoying her maneuverings since becoming Amyrlin. In Towers of Midnight, a confrontation that many have been anticipating does occur. Egwene predictably come out ahead, and I think many will say that she is a bit too much of a Mary Sue in it (and they may be right). Egwene’s plotline may have been damaged most by the hectic pace of this book – that and the presence of Gawyn. Thankfully, Gawyn too seems to improve, but I could still do with less of him.

A few other things occur that I just have to mention. The real hard core fans all know that who killed Asmodean has been a mystery obsessed over since the 1990s. Countless theories have been written (including a few by me) and questioners have long tried to pry the information out Robert Jordan while he was still with us and now Brandon Sanderson and other Team Jordan members. Well, the reveal occurs in this book – we now know who killed Asmodean, though the exact circumstances were not described in detail. I enjoyed the reveal – it was subtle and left plenty of wiggle room, but the glossary in no uncertain terms spells out who killed Asmodean, or did it? I think the most stubborn of fans may continue to debate (but I’m looking forward to saying ‘I told you so’ to a few individuals out there).

One of the more amusing aspects of Jordan’s writings over the years has been his inclusion of apparent euphemisms in the Wheel of Time world, often as the name of inns. They sound suggestive and there have been plenty of instances of them being discussed in detail. In Towers of Midnight the readers actually get to see one of these euphemisms in action – easing the badger. Who does such a thing? Is it literal or figurative? What is the story? I’ll let you all find out for yourselves. For me, I laughed and rolled my eyes at the same time.

In summary, I really enjoyed Towers of Midnight as I imagine most fans will. A lot happens, many theories die an agonizing death and many play out pretty well as anticipated. What may be a bit more unexpected are the new things we see – the end is nigh, but there is a lot left to happen. Some characters people want to see aren’t to be found, some resolutions we are begging for still remain, but this is a book of action. There are issues, and it certainly isn’t the thematically coherent volume that The Gathering Storm was. However, it is a book to bring laughter and tears to legions of fans. The biggest tears of all because of the ending – no, not that, but because this book basically ends grasping to the edge of a cliff. The resolutions we get are great, but I can’t help but beg to know what’s going to happen next – bring on A Memory of Light. 8/10


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