Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Fake Reviews - They're Everywhere

So, most of us have always suspected that many of the reviews in places like Amazon are fake, but now it's finally making the headlines. The NY Times showcases a fake review factory and how reviews are bought and paid for. And now Forbes discusses just how prevelent they are at Amazon and how much harm they do.
This is why I don't read Amazon reviews. It's one of the reasons why I don't post my reviews on Amazon. My advice - find a few good reviewers you trust and stick with them.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Review: Forge of Darkness by Steven Erikson

Steven Erikson made his mark on the fantasy genre with his 10-book Malazan Book of the Fallen series (review) and now he returns with Forge of Darkness (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon), the first in a trilogy that can be equally regarded as a prequel to the Malazan series and as a good place to start if you’ve been too intimidated to jump into a 10-book series.
Anyone who has read this blog for long enough (or simply read the review I linked above to the Malazan series) knows that I’m a big fan of Erikson. I think Malazan (even with all its faults) is one of the best and most significant fantasy series ever written and it’s no surprise that I feel that Forge of Darkness continues that tradition of excellence. So, you now know at the start of this review that I am a fan and I’m inherently biased toward really liking pretty much anything that Erikson writes. And for those who are concerned with such – there are no spoilers in this review for either the Malazan series or Forge of Darkness.
Forge of Darkness begins The Kharkanas Trilogy, taking places at least several hundred-thousand years prior to the events of the main series. It’ set in a world that is best characterized as the original realm/dimension of the world that Erikson later explores in the Malazan series. It centers on the Tiste people prior to their eventual division into Tiste Andii, Tiste Edur and Tiste Liosan in a time of impending civil war. Other races/beings (and even characters) are seen to varying degrees that readers of Malazan will recognize. However, the focus on this novel is really the self-destruction of a society and the advent of inescapable change in the reality of their world.
I imagine that most readers of this review want to know one of two things, both of which really boil down to ‘should I read this book’. Those initial two items are 1) ‘I’ve not read Erikson before, can I start with Forge of Darkness’ and 2) ‘I’ve read Malazan (or at least some of it) and how does this relate and is it worth it for me to read Forge of Darkness’. For the first, I do believe that those who haven’t read Erikson could start with Forge of Darkness. All of the characters (even those that play supporting and even starring roles in the Malazan series) are introduced as if the reader knows nothing of them (and indeed, this is actually a very neat issue that I will tackle later in this review). The setting is introduced as if the reader knows nothing. It is new (or so old so that it is new for those who have read Malazan), and more importantly, it shows Erikson’s writing style, what he values in his writing and even what he hopes readers will focus on. The narrative organization is a bit more traditional than Erikson uses for Malazan with a clear introduction to the series in Forge of Darkness and linear progression through the narrative. But the writing style is entirely consistent with what I recognize as Erikson’s style, all the way down to the deliciously meta dialogue, dark, brooding philosophical musings and the use of too many points of view.
For fans of Malazan, many of the characters of Forge of Darkness are well known from their roles in the Malazan series. Foremost of course is Anomander and his two brothers, but there are many other of the Tiste that we’ve only seen hints of before, many of the elder gods (though before they are recognized as elder or even gods), a few Jaghut and there is mention of such races/species as the Thel Akai, Forkrulkan, Jheck and Jhelarkan, the Shake, and the dog runners (Imass). I predict that really hardcore fans will be both ecstatic and a bit enraged by Erikson’s handling of characters long known and loved (to varying degrees). The characters that we see here are different – first and foremost, they hundreds of thousands of years younger, and quite often, very literally young. They are in development, they haven’t yet seen the millennia of hardship and pain to come, the power of magic has not yet come into the world, the gods are relatively unknown, and the realities of mortality and immortality are not comprehended. Memories from the original series are likely not as factual as fans would like, perspective is always key and Erikson immediately plays a ‘get out of jail free’ card at the start with a Prelude that explains that this text is a story told by a poet who happily admits to presenting it the way prefers to so that the thematic goals are properly achieved. Oh how this enrages fans and brings me joy (but much more on this here).
But, to bring the circle back around, I believe that this is a must read for fans of the Malazan world. I imagine that most fans are like myself and have forgotten many of the details of the massive, million-work plus series. The generally small supporting roles played by and often vague references to the Tiste we see in Forge of Darkness are equally, forgotten, misremembered and remembered in the fog of the aftermath of the Malazan series. And that’s fine – we get to meet them all again for the first time and in addition, we get to see the shattering of the ancient world and the birth of the one the series takes place in. And it’s all told though Erikson’s brilliant writing.
In Forge of Darkness Erikson shows a deeply moving and tragic beginning of the end of a civilization. In many ways this story belongs in the Dying Earth sub-genre. Not only is the Tiste civilization moving toward a civil war, but the entire world is in the beginning stages of being remade. And the forces behind this inevitable decent equate those of the human condition that Erikson writes to in everything he does. The Tiste civilization is destroying itself through all of the realities of human motivation – power, segregation of society, religious fervor, neglect, ambition, etc. The land has been destroyed, used up. The spoils of a great victory in war prove to be poison. And as always, the best of intentions have tragic consequences.
The most evident of the frameworks that Erikson chooses to explore the death of a people and world is through family. Almost every relationship shown in the book boils down to that of family – parenthood, mothers, fathers, kids, bastards, father and mother figures, absence, brother, sister, grandmother, etc. This exploration of family is powerful and not easily pinned down, but everything comes down to it. From the over-arching rise of the religious figureheads (and gods) of Mother Dark and Father Light, to the evil daughters of Draconus, to the his troubled bastard son, the Purake brothers and their devotion to each other, the unhealthy love of a painter for his sister, and so on. Civilization and indeed the entire world is presented as an extended family, though not necessarily a traditional one. All of the pain, love and dysfunction coalesce into something tragic, though, if I know Erikson as I think I do, ultimately hopeful.
Through this Erikson explores some of the concepts that human nature (and the fantasy genre) tends to hold in high regard – justice, grief, vengeance, right vs. wrong, aristocracy, sexuality, sacrifice and others. These explorations often come from the minds and conversations of people that many would not associate with such deep explorations – the young, the soldiers and even the servants.
But, no worries for those craving action, there is plenty of action, though it flows at metered pace. There are quests across alien, desolate lands. Creatures emerge from the Vitr. Battles are fought, slaughter rendered. Death comes, magic descends and a proud son greets the Lord of Hate, who writes an unending suicide note.
One of the aspects I found most interesting in Forge of Darkness is just how Erikson deals with his characters – particularly with characters who many of his readers feel that they know from the Malazan series. In this, Erikson introduces us to them as if the reader knows nothing about them. And for the fans who feel that they do know something about these characters – well, in many ways Erikson shows them that they actually don’t know anything about them, at least at the time when this series is occurring. The time difference between the two series in not a few years, but a few hundred-thousand years. All too often, we think that we know someone, and we never expect them to change. Especially our favorite characters from books. In this case Erikson is dealing with characters who have unending life-spans, though they are mortal. However, the intellects of his characters essentially human. In hundreds of thousands of years, things change, people change, details forgotten or misremembered, perspectives alter and what was once important is not so anymore and vice versa. Erikson plays with the perception, anticipation and assumption of his readers. Some will cry foul, but I am enjoying the contrast and relish my musing their journeys between events of the series..
Erikson has often been charged with composing long beginnings that ever so slowly build to an unrelenting and action-packed convergence of events. Forge of Darkness is the long, slow build up for The Kharkanas Trilogy. Resolutions are not provided, nor is the triumphant ending of most opening books of trilogies. It informs, it reveals the tragedy and sets the stage for what is to come. In many ways, it is Erikson writing at his best, and only slightly less confusing. It is the writing I crave to read, a writing in which I find equal parts joy, melancholy, and sadness that are (thankfully) shaped by a wit that makes me laugh. I am satisfied, yet I crave more.

Author Intent versus Fan Desires

Or why fans hate Steven Erikson’s inconsistencies and Erikson doesn’t care
This is a rant that has been building in me for years now. And it is a rant that I think many readers of this blog will disagree with, perhaps quite vehemently, as I unapologetically scream that fantasy fans are way too often rigid, short-sighted idiots who willingly choose to ignore the point of the books they read.
Throughout the Malazan series there are inconsistencies, particularly in regards to the timeline. Characters appear who are much older than they should be, timings within the books don’t line up, characters will think of events that haven’t happened yet, etc. Whether such things began as intentional or not, they have persisted, and many of the Malazan fans have gritted their teeth, pulled their hair out and screamed aloud of the problems of these issues. Some have even stopped reading Erikson altogether due to these inconsistencies (and Erikson’s reactions to them). Along with these inconsistencies comes further complaint about a lot the more philosophical aspects of Erikson’s writing. Especially, the long, rambling and sometimes evangelical way they can be presented in.  
Erikson is often asked about these and his response has remained consistent, though the tone and personal wear of his response has varied. He is not bothered by them, and in some cases things were deliberately chosen in spite of the inconstancies with the story that has come before. There are good reasons for why he’s not bothered, though many fans choose to ignore them do their own perspectives. First, Erikson is an archeologist and therefore a student of history, long history. He knows that facts are in the eye of the beholder, perspective rules and that no history, however complete, is perfectly consistent. Nor is the world he creates.
Furthermore, Erikson is not after a consistent world creation or perfectly derived lists of characters and events. He is all about exploration of the human condition, as well as exploitation and exposition of the fantasy genre. He is intentionally subversive in his writing and often flat-out derisive. He will spit in the face of the reader to make his point, and that is often his point. And the reader’s journey is more complete for it.
But this is lost. His continued answers in interviews are lost. Eventually, he began inserting meta commentary of this in his writing (see my reviews of Toll the Hounds and Crack’d Pot Trail).  He seems haunted by the issue, though unmoved in his position. And he continues in Forge of Darkness (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon), even doubling down. Below are a series of quotes – one from an interview and the others from the book.  
“Histories hide behind other histories, and this Kharkanas trilogy is a layer pulled back, but even there it’s not structured as ‘this is precisely what happened back then.’ Rather, it is a tale deliberately reshaped by the narrator, for motives entirely his own. This detail allowed me to stay fresh in creating the tale, without being too tightly bound to any kind of objective reality.”
Let me ask you this, then. Does one find memory in invention? Or will you find invention in memory? Which bows in servitude before the other? Will the measure of greatness be weighted solely in the details? Perhaps so, if the details make up the full weft of the world, if themes are nothing more than the composite of lists perfectly ordered and unerringly rendered; and if I should kneel before invention, as if it were made perfect.
Do I look like a man who would kneel?
Is my laughter cynical? Derisive? Do I sigh and remind myself yet again that truths are like seeds hidden in the ground, and should you tend them who may say what wild life will spring into view?
Should you err, the list-makers will eat you alive.
“I am satisfied to think of writing as a desire worth having, whereas its practical exercise is a turgid ordeal I leave to lesser folk, since I have better things to do with the sentient fragments of my brain.”
“Thus the argument of a thousand useless geniuses, each one quick to venture an opinion, particularly a negative one, since by their own negativity they can justify doing nothing but complain.”
 Varandas and Haut, p. 496-497
As a reader, do the quotes above enrage you or make you laugh? I think it’s a critical question for those who read Erikson’s writing. Erikson writes with a purpose, a purpose often in contrast to reader’s expectations. He’s unapologetic about his purpose. Readers react, some leave, yet many still read. Many will call me an apologist (or worst) in my siding with Erikson on this. Because the inconsistencies don’t matter. They aren’t the point. Look deeper. Read deeper. Forget the lists. Look for the point of it all.
And if you find it, let me know. Because I’ll freely admit that I’m still looking – I’ve found much, but the joy is that there is always more to find. And that is the point.
And now that it’s time to wind down my rant as become a bit milder it’s time to quote Erikson yet again from an essay recently posted at Tor.com.
To be honest, a part of me wants to reach through the inter-ether, close hands on neck, and shout TRUST ME!
And while that may seem a bit conciliatory, he can’t help but follow up with
While another part of me, railing even louder in my mind, wants to add a brain-rattling shake and say IT’S NOT AS IMPORTANT AS YOU THINK!
But, read the essay, it’s not as bad as it seems with those out-of-context quotes.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Books Received + Update

The new reality of me being crazy busy continues, so don't expect me to be posting regulalry as I have in the (now distant) past. The current pace that you see here is going to continue for the forseeable future - rarely more than 1 post a week, often even less, with about 1-2 review a month. I had hoped to finish Forge of Darkness by Steven Erikson (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) by now and get a review up before I leave for a week at the beach, but that's not going to happen. So, I expect it'll be at least 2 weeks before that review is posted (I have another work trip immediately after my return from the beach). And I still need to write a review for Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon).

In other news you probably don't care about, I've finally reached the realization that my current book situation is totally unsustainable - my book cases are literally overflowing and I have dozens of stacks of books (each with at least a dozen books) piling up around the office. Next month I'm planning a major purge and at some point in the near-ish future I plan to get an e-reader of some sort (I'm still uncertain what type - but I hate DRM and don't want to be married to one brand of book seller). That way I should be able to better manage the books I receive and I may even discover the floor of my office again.

And one final thing before I get to the usual filler picture of books I've received. Everyone one of us SFF fans should be loudly trumpeting the landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars. Actually, pretty much every person. It is an awesome achievement and I have big hopes that it can inspire a new generation of the value and excitement of science and scientific discovery. It's much more than just a robot on another planet and I really wish the media were competent enough to do it justice. Also, did you realize that this is the first time we've actually gotten a true color picture on Mars - in the past they've all been false-color approximations based on assumed physics.


Books Received: July 18 - August 9, 2012


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