Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Review: The Goblin Emperor by Kathrine Addison

The Goblin Emperor by Kathrine Addison (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) is looking to be one of the most praised books of 2014 (at least from the bloggers/critics I follow), and I can see why, though part of me thinks this high praise is a much a reaction against the grimdark trend as for the book itself.

It seems to me that a lot of people out there are simply tired of grimdark. Really… the world right now kind of sucks for a lot of people, and for the vast majority of us, life is hard and stressful a lot of the time. So, do we really want to read about worlds that lack and hope and/or redemption? I suppose some people probably find some form of solace in reading about worlds that suck worse than ours, and others consider it a form of ‘realism’ that they can get behind. Me…well, I've not jumped on the grimdark wagon because when I escape to the worlds I’m reading about, I do want some hope, I want redemption, I want positive, progressive change. I want to leave my world behind.

Yes, this is about me and what I’m looking for. 2014 has turned out to be a particularly hard and stressful year for me, maybe the most stressful ever – even more than the harsh medical struggles of my daughter’s first year of life. That sucked bad – but I had no control over it, I could only go along with hope and prayers. The difference with now is that it’s much of my own doing, I often have direct control over how a thing will play out. That’s a whole new kind of stress for me, and way more pressure than I want to deal with. So, the urge to just walk away and escape it all is stronger than ever.

For me that, I think that’s why The Goblin Emperor worked so well. I got a journey into a world that was both an escape and something I could really relate to. Much of that that stress I mention above is due to me ascending to a position of leadership – one I accepted/volunteered for, but also one that is turning out way different than I had thought/hoped for. It actually sucks most of the time and I don’t have the time and energy that I need to devote to it. But, I’m the one in charge, so I've got to move forward anyway, because it really does all come down to me.

As a result, I could strongly relate to Maia and his ascending to the role of emperor. Now, my own situation is not one of life or death, there’s a big difference in the scope of leadership addressed, and my own situation doesn't come with racial baggage (though perhaps a little bit of the family baggage). But it was still a position I could relate to – feeling completely out of my league, no comfort zone in site, helplessness in reliance on others, those moments of losing every bit of confidence in one’s decision making abilities, and yet an overriding duty to live up to the opportunity and make things better.

Because that’s what it’s all really about, isn't it? Striving to make the world a better place regardless of what gets thrown at you. Whether that world is the small world of your own family, your place of work, or the actual, literal world around us all. It really is a fundamental part of human nature to be optimistic in the face all the contravening information, and to really want to make the world better.

Grimdark refuses to admit that about human nature, and that refusal often does nothing more than highlight just how strong a part of human nature hope really is. It deals with the exception to the rule of hope, and that’s why I don’t think it will last. That’s also why much of what gets called grimdark is anything but (however, that’s another discussion entirely). So, it’s no surprise that a book like The Goblin Emperor is receiving so much praise. And it really is a great big breath of fresh air among the stench of grimdark.

I still have another admission to make – when I was reading The Goblin Emperor, none of this was evident to me, or at least not at the level I’m exploring here. I was just enjoying a good book. A fantasy book that largely lacks violence, and is the better for it. A fantasy book that embraces the idea of hope, change, and progress. A fantasy book that has one of the best, most uplifting endings that I've read in years. But after sitting down to write this review, having no idea that it would end up being what it’s become, I realize that The Goblin Emperor affected me at a much deeper level than I imagined. Only a truly great novel can do that and I now realize that The Goblin Emperor is a truly great novel.

For the record, I've also realized that for some reason I can never spell the word emperor correctly – my hands are incapable of it. Perhaps I should unpack that one in my next post?

Monday, December 29, 2014

Herein I Do That Whole Year-In-Review Thing

Having used the word herein in the title of a blogpost, I can just about say all my goals have been met with this blog. Of course that would imply this blog has ever had goals, which it may have at one time (or several), but those goals have long since passed into irrelevancy (or perhaps) apathy.

What a brilliant way to cheerfully begin the blog post that’s supposed to celebrate 2014. Did I mention that I never bothered to do one for 2013? I think that was the first time in the 8+ year history of this blog. Oh well.

The truth is that anyone still bothering to read this blog well knows that I don’t have the time I used to. I only posted 16 reviews in 2014, and a good number of those were books I read in 2013 because it takes me a while to write a review these days. And most were shorter reviews. So we’ll just stick with posts that were actually posted in 2014 for simplicity’s sake. Of those 16, 7 were written by women (~44%), which is easily the highest annual percentage for this blog. While that’s certainly a big step forward for me, I should also point out that 0 of those 16 books was authored by someone who would be classified as a minority with typical definitions. And only 1 of those books was authored by someone whose primary language is something other than English. So, there’s still a lot of room for improvement.

But the truth is that I don’t see this as the year for improvement. Life is overwhelming for me as I've become way overcommitted. One result of that is that when I read, I’m finding I mostly want relatively light reading that’s not out to challenge me. This is leading mostly to what would often be considered rather escapist reading that is much more about entertainment than anything else. Though something particularly absurd and/or overflowing in biting satire would also work well. Anyway…it’ll be interesting to see where these attitudes lead me for reading choices this year.

I do expect things to lighten up again after September, so hopefully that will bring back to the blog and my @nethspace Twitter account more regularly. That’s certainly the plan.

As mentioned above, I reviewed 16 books in 2014. I suppose I should highlight 5 of those reads that appealed to me most at the time.

  • Caine’s Law by Matthew Woodring Stover (review)
  • Half a King by Joe Abercrombie (review)
  • Breach Zone by Myke Cole (review)
  • City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett (review)
  • A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan (review)

So…44% books written by women. I list five favorites, of which only one (20%) was written by a woman. And did I mention that my thoughts about what was one of the most talked about books of the past few years were contrary to most? That in combination with my thoughts on this book perhaps raise an eyebrow or two. Yeah, well…interesting.

Anyway…2014 for me in blogging terms has been something along the lines of not dying. 2015 will probably be more of the same. After that I’m hopeful for more time. Of course who knows what the state of things will be by then – how much of a dinosaur will I be clinging to a blog? Just maybe I’ll find time to attend a convention or two – but likely not until 2016 or 2017.

For what it’s worth – I've read and not yet reviewed 5 books. 4 of those actually have drafts in progress. Since I've tended toward posting in bursts, it wouldn't be surprising for a few more posts to come online in the next week or so, probably at least one before that rather arbitrary division in time known as the New Year. This should be a cause of mass celebration with parties everywhere on Dec. 31st. At which time everyone should resolve to make changes to become better people. Yes people, it’s always been about me.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Mini-Review: Nihal of the Land of the Wind by Licia Triosi

Nihal of the Land of the Wind by Licia Triosi (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) was originally written in Italian and this is its first translation into English. I picked it up to read because I was hoping to find something different and exciting. Unfortunately, that was not the case – the book I read was derivative, the writing never quite feels right, and it was mostly quite boring.

Nihal of the Land of the Wind is a classic coming of age story, of a girl in a man’s world striving to succeed where only men succeed. It’s a world of sorcery, war, magical races, and dragon-riding knights. It’s YA in all the ways that people point to when they want to say something is ‘kids stuff’.

This is rather unfortunate, because the best of YA can handle all of this in a way to be equally engaging to adults and YA. With Nihal of the Land of the Wind, it doesn’t – the story feels like something I’ve read many times before and shows no subtly or grace in pounding it’s message into the reader. I can’t say if something got lost in translation or not, but writing style never clicked with me as it stumbled around. I can see this book being good for pre-teen to early-teen girls – the message isn’t all bad by any means, and they are unlikely to consider it such a derivative story. But it’s not written in a way that will appeal to an audience far beyond that rather specific demographic. In all honesty, I’m rather surprised I finished the book at all.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Review: Willful Child by Steven Erikson

As I begin this review, it’s clear that I need to establish some context – specifically about humor, and more specifically, about my sense of humor. In short, my sense of humor can be terribly inappropriate and offensive. It’s something that I’m constantly aware of, so many may not realize this, but it’s true. Yes I’m a product of the society I come from, but I’m also a product of my own love ‘Meta’. Which basically means that my humor often follows this process: 1) wow, that’s offensive and/or wrong, 2) I am aware that it’s offensive, 3) I’ll amp that up an order of magnitude or three, 4) now it’s funny.

I admit the above not because I’m looking for a discussion about the (de)merits of my sense of humor, but because I need to establish what I can find funny and my love of Meta. This leads me to Willful Child by Steven Erikson (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon), which reeks of inappropriate humor and Meta exploration of society. As a result, I’m essentially predisposed to liking this book, while I can see why a good number of people will not only not like the book, but loathe the approach taken (and with good reason).

Willful Child is branded as a Star Trek parody, which is absolutely correct, while missing the point entirely. Willful Child is absolutely a blatant parody of Star Trek, with a focus on the infamous Captain Kirk. The humor (or offense depending on your point of view) develops through Erikson’s decision of how to define his parody – essentially through the sexist (even misogynistic?), anti-authority, racial/species insensitivity (OK, this is being kind), aspects of Kirk. He does this through Captain Adrian Alan Sawback of the Engage-class starship Willful Child. While the parallels to Captain Kirk are there, the vision I (and likely those younger than me) kept coming up with is that of Captain Mal from Firefly, only in the persona of Captain Hammer from Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, but I may be unduly influenced by the cover art in this instance.

Let’s just say that Erikson lays it on thick. So thick that it really does become tiresome at times and it’s hard, even for someone with my sense of humor, to not feel disgusted by the choices made. Of course, that’s the point of Erikson’s humor in this book – forgetting for a moment whether or not that is a wise choice to make – we really should look at what Erikson is doing. And Erikson is essentially condemning pretty much the entire American-dominated, patriarchal, Western culture of the past 50+ years. Have I mentioned yet that it would seem that Erikson is one bitterly cynical person with a rather low opinion of humanity?**

Erikson uses his intentionally inappropriate humor in this book to focus on the absurd, horrific consequences of Western Culture. Being a SFF writer, he uses the underlying privilege of classic science fiction and its embodiment in Star Trek, as the vehicle for his condemnation. And the result really is a brilliant piece of work. The humor is over-the-top offensive, which I find funny*, and it is seamlessly woven into a completely paradoxical narrative – one that clearly loves classic science fiction and one that believes that the messages of classic science fiction embody the absolute worst of modern civilization. All the while, he makes the reader actually cheer for Captain Sawback (as they choke back vomit), in spite of him being a complete asshole, sexist pig. That’s a damn fine-line to manage.

And I can’t forget to mention the names – no author does names better. Essays could be written about the symbolic meaning names in this book, even those that aren’t blatantly offensive (I’m looking in your general direction, Security Officer Nipplebaum*).

One could (and probably should) argue that there are other, less offensive, ways to make the points that Erikson makes in this book. Erikson certainly isn’t inventing something new in his condemnation of the privilege of classic science fiction and poison that it injects into civilization. Though I have to admire the balls* that it takes to do it in this way, because the point is a rusty nail punched into the gut by a nihilistic deadpan philosopher** (now I’m laying it on thick), and it’s a point that’s not likely to win many friends.

Wrapping it up, I think that Willful Child won’t truly be a divisive book, since I think that the overwhelming majority of those who read (or begin to read) it won’t like it – whether they bounce off it being a humorous parody, or if they just find the humor disgusting – I simply think that not many will like this book. But I could be wrong, maybe my sense of humor isn’t as rare as it feels, and others will see this book as the brilliantly offensive manifesto (laying it on thick again) that I see it as. I guess I’m just a sucker of for cynicism wrapped in inappropriate humor, and I’m probably the only one hoping for a sequel***.

But I’m aware, so it’s all good.****

*See the first paragraph of this review

**Though, perhaps the in writing this Erikson is just trying spur thought and change?

***Seriously, I would love to see sequels to this, and I'm not-so-secretly hoping this book does find an audience. Does this review help or hurt those chances?

****I added a few minor edits post-publishing.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Mini-Review: A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

In order to add context to this review, I feel I must begin by explaining that I am a trained scientist, a lover of the outdoors, and rather fond of traveling. I often look back to a world where large parts truly were ‘undiscovered’ and the adventures of discovery was ever present, and wish that I were there.* Surprising for one with my background, I don’t read much nonfiction, but when I do, it’s often of the scientific discovery sort of variety, and they are often biographies of prominent scientists of the 19th Century. So, given all this, I can say that it’s really no surprise at all that I really, really enjoyed A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon).

The story is narrated by an aged woman of some notoriety and fame (Lady Trent) – fame for being a scientist no less, and a women scientist at that. She is looking back to the time of her youth and coming of age, when she went on her first big adventure. A time before the world had moved on to a more developed, smaller world – a world where adventures and discoveries were out there to be had and a society where women did not take part in such disgraceful activities.

It is a secondary world, though it absolutely invokes Victorian England and the aristocracy exploring colonial, ‘lesser’ lands. It’s also told in the journalistic style of the times (or at least how we like to think of the times). We could easily be reading about a trek into Africa, or perhaps the far reaches of Central Asia, but in this book there be dragons.

All I can really add is that this story was a pure joy to read. Yes, at times it gets self-indulgent and the pace slows to a crawl, but what journal doesn’t do this? However bad at times things get during the expedition, I can’t help but want to be there myself. To have been one of these early scientists making such groundbreaking discoveries – did I mention there are dragons. That just makes it all so much cooler, because it would be a childhood dream come true to search out and study dragons.

A Natural History of Dragons has been out for a while, and so has its sequel (The Tropic of Serpents) and Voyage of the Basilisk is forthcoming in 2015. It managed to get itself nominated for the World Fantasy Award (not a winner though), and all I can say is that I should have read it sooner. And I can’t read the sequel soon enough.

A Natural History of Dragons (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)
The Tropic of Serpents (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)
Voyage of the Basilisk (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)

*I’m aware that this is a horribly privileged, Western perspective, but I am a product of my society.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Mini-Review: City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

“In what can only be described as a horrific perversion of a vaginal birth, there is a spurt of viscera, a flood of putrid entrails, and then the fat- and blood-drenched form of Sigrud slips out of the gash in the dying monster to lie on the ground and stare up at the sky, before rolling over, getting onto his hands and knees, and vomiting prolifically.”

In all honesty, I really would love it if my review of City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) could only be the quote above. I think it captures his writing very well – exquisite prose, metaphorical or even allegorical at times, overprinted with a slightly off sense of humor, and a bit run-on-ish. Which is to say that I love it.

Of course the quote doesn't stand in well for the book however much I love it and however great of an example of Bennett’s writing it is. One would probably not, from this quote alone, consider that Sigrud is the only traditionally ‘white’ character in the book and the one of few that would fit into a ‘traditional’ fantasy role – the barbarian from the north. One would probably not consider that this book is not set in a ‘traditional’ pseudo-European analog or that the main protagonist is a woman. One would also probably not consider that the technology in this secondary world spans that point in time between pre-industrial and industrial, though forcing this book into such a place may not be a worthwhile exercise. So, as much as I love that quote and want it to stand in for a full review of the book, it simply isn't appropriate.

Somewhere near enough to this point seems to be where my review should dive into how where to place City of Stairs in the great pantheon of genre, because there seems to be some great debate about that. I suppose for those that must have a defined genre or sub-genre to place a book into in order to properly assess it against established bookmarks, City of Stairs provides a challenge. Thankfully, I did not have this trouble and I found great enjoyment in the book on its own terms. City of Stairs is set in a secondary world, there is ‘magic’ of sorts, certainly very real gods, and its story is told in more of a ‘thriller’ format. I’m good with that as fantasy, or simply, speculative fiction (a term that I don’t see much anymore, but I think is still quite appropriate).

City of Stairs was a fun, easy read for me. Though that’s not to call it shallow in any sense – there is plenty of depth in the way it deals with such issues as colonialism and free will (at a personal, political, and religious level). There’s more than that, but it doesn't need to be gotten into here, as by now I hope that you've figured out that I found this to be a rather extraordinary book that I think fans of speculative fiction should read. Of course, that’s pretty much what every other review of this book says in one way or another, leaving the question was I destined to make this choice, or did I come to my beliefs through a truly independent course of action? Perhaps it was horrific perversion of what can only be described as …

Sunday, October 12, 2014

I'm Not Dead Yet

So, as I periodically do around here, I feel the need to check in, say I'm not dead and apologize (for what it isn't worth) for the lack of content. It's the same old story - life is just crazy. Work is a bit more stressful than usual, I've just become the President of a major professional society, I have a wife with a busy (and getting busier) career, 2 small kids, and September-November is always insanely busy (I'm out of town for ~4 weeks during that period, my son, daughter and wife all have birthdays, there's my anniversary, fall soccer season, ballet, Halloween, Thanksgiving, a few other Federal holidays, and yet I still think that I should be able to sleep at some point.

As you've all figured out, that means there's very little time for things like blogging. Throw in that bit where I'm now President of a major professional society, and one of my goals as President is to increase the Association's footprint in social media (so, I'm tweeting and blogging elsewhere), I have even less time. The simple truth is that I expect it to be this way for the next year. I will still review (I have several partially written) and I'll still be somewhat active on Twitter, but both will be a bit less over the coming months.

And of course there's all the travel. Last month I was in Italy for 8 days, then the next week was another conference (in Arizona) for 8 days. This week I leave for a 10-day trip where I hit California (Oakland, San Francisco, and Sacramento) and Vancouver, BC. Fun, but my schedule is packed.

So...Ciao for now. I'm sure that genre won't go and do anything silly while I'm not paying attention.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Review: The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

Fantasy is the genre where anything is possible and that is one of the biggest reasons why so many of us read it. Yet fantasy, and Iet’s focus on epic fantasy for this discussion, tends to shackle itself with rules. Most mimic in one way or another what has come before. Most take inspiration from historic cultures of our own world (particularly Western societies) and build that inspiration into a set of rules to adhere to. Often those rules are not based on any factual part of history, but perceived aspects of history that never actually existed.

Why do fantasy peoples form the frozen north have to be Vikings? Why do those frozen lands have to be north? Why do people from the south/desert always have to be Muslim/Jewish analogs? Why are temperate climates European analogs? Why is a tropical environment populated by African or Mayan analogs? Why in a fantasy world do people ride horses into battle? Why not bears…with forked tongues? Why can’t trees chase you down and eat you? Etc.

For all the freedom that the genre offers, the vast majority of it shackles itself in rules. The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) chooses differently. This fantasy world feels alien – there are sentient plants who will eat you, people do indeed ride bears with forked tongues, the traditional ‘castle’ just may be a sentient organic construct, etc. The cultures of the world do not (at least at first glance) bear any resemblance to historic cultures of our own world*. The societies are different, the people bear little resemblance (in race, ethnicity, and cultural construction) to the past or present of the real world. Hurley builds a world that is a true fantasy – a brilliant fantasy that actually embraces the possibilities it presents rather than limits itself by so-called rules of the past.

To continue with the rhetorical questions I mentioned above, why do the gender politics of our current society have to be present? Fantasy can have dragons bonding magically with riders who battle trolls and elves and whatever else – but women have to be in their place because that’s the way it’s always been. Men rape women because that’s the way it was in history. Women don’t fight and are often little more than the property of men because that what history (supposedly) tells us. This books calls all that out for the bullshit it is.

Hurley creates a variety of nations and societies that are often matriarchic. Or consent. Or some other organizational structure that simply doesn’t fit in with what our society tells us is the way things are. She rams this rail spike of point home – repeatedly. In one society, men are weak, they are property – it is the mirrored reflection of those ‘traditional’ societies of our own world. Gender roles are reversed and sometimes completely deconstructed. Gender isn’t binary and not even a 5 gendered society makes everyone feel welcome. Does it feel wrong? Does it make you uncomfortable? Do you question? Should you take a long hard look in the mirror? Yes! That’s the point. It’s driven in hard, it’s overdone. It comes complete with the gratuitous rape of man by women – the same sort that is so often unnecessarily present in other fantasy books and is (thankfully) being called out more often for the bullshit it is. Of course, is it bullshit in this book when used in the same? Is it hypocritical? Yes, but unfortunately it’s a point that still needs to be made.

With The Mirror Empire, Hurley celebrates the open canvas that is fantasy. There are no rules except the ones imposed on it by us and this book tosses those away. Yes, there is an agenda, a fuck you to the imposed ‘fantasy norms’ and the oppressing culture of our own (in my original notes for this review, I coined a new term for this – epic rantasy – originally a typo, but a movement I’m sure will catch on). But it’s also a celebration. A textbook on what can be done if you free yourself of the imposed limits.

The Mirror Empire is bold, courageous, unapologetic, and at times, angry. In short, it’s damn near unpublishable – kudos to Angry Robot for taking a chance on this one. While I don’t think this will ever be a book that is considered a great success, I do think it’s a book that should be read, particularly as an example how to remove the box of epic fantasy. I can also imagine that there will be a temptation to limit this book – to catalog it as feminist, or queer, or some other specialized form of epic fantasy that are ultimately attempts to silence it as something different and segregate from the ‘usual’ epic fantasy. I really hope that readers, booksellers, and fans refuse to let that happen. This is epic fantasy, just epic fantasy that has removed traditional boundaries.

In The Mirror Empire, two ‘mirror’ worlds begin to collide, and my reaction to this book is the same – two mirrored visions (unhappily) collide. There is the beautiful image of Hurley’s creation that I describe above, and its reflection that I describe below, a reflection from a carnival mirror complete with confounding distortions.

For all the bold, brilliant creativity that goes into the world, as a story, the story of The Mirror Empire suffers. This is a dense book with a slow start. Very slow. I felt very little about the characters – essentially no investment. That makes it a challenge to want to read the book – a challenge to enjoy anything about the book. In all honesty, if had been another author, I suspect I wouldn’t have finished the book – but there was all that I rave about above, so I had to see it through.

The names are confusing (which I suspect is more of a product of the absolute mess that is the first act of this book and not the names themselves). There are too many point of view characters** – the book losses focus as it tries to introduce and bring to some form of conclusion a few too many threads. Places are confusing and the geography confounds (note: I read an early copy of this book without the benefit of the map and glossary of the final so hopefully others will not find this the challenge that I did – though I stand by my belief that a map and/or glossary should never be necessary for the success of a book).

Simply put, the story failed to provide the motivation for me to keep reading to see what would happen next.

I keep seeing the word ‘challenging’ used to describe The Mirror Empire. Sure, I see that, there is a lot of challenge in this book. But that should not be confused with the mess that is its story. It’s a challenge to calculate all of the optical physics that describe the reflection of a curved mirror, it’s a (bloody) mess to try and re-construct a shattered mirror (that’s missing a few pieces).

So, The Mirror Empire is a mixed bag. Two images – one the idealized intent, the other the reflected reality. It’s a brilliant exploration of what fantasy can truly be when boundaries are not slammed in place. It’s also wreck of a story that never really pulls itself together. Did I like it? Did I enjoy it? Yes and No. Will I read the second book in the series? Maybe – I haven’t decided yet. The first book never quite sold me, but I so want this to succeed (in large part due to all that I began this review with). We’ll see – I may just have to look into my mirror and begin with those classic words…

Note on this review: Notice how I didn’t really discuss the plot or the characters or anything that actually happens in this book? Use the back cover or another review for that if that’s what you’re after, but I simply found no need to discuss these. Make of that what you will.

*However, I suspect that inspiration for the clan-based structure of the Dhai was in part from clan/tribal organizations of southern Africa, but that is really an aside.

**I find it quite amusing that this book, this book that has so much to say about epic fantasy, falls right into the same trap that so many do – too many point of view characters.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Mini-Review: Breach Zone by Myke Cole

Breach Zone by Myke Cole is the third and final book in the Shadow Ops Trilogy (though thankfully, not the final book set in that world) where magic invades the modern life and Cole explores the militarization, secrecy, and resulting political shitstorm of it all. Let me simply say it – I love this series and feel that it is a great addition to the fantasy world. These books are action-packed, fun reads that will please many. But they also feature deep thoughts and important ethical ramifications that echo much of what we see in the world today – the US battling terrorism, the militarization of more and more conflict, government secrecy, cover-up, and spying. And much more.

Breach Zone is the best yet in the series. It focuses on two characters who have been more tangential in the previous books – Harlequin and Scylla. Their history goes back far more than readily apparent in the first two books and a huge confrontation come about as Scylla invades New York City with an army of goblins and other magical creatures. Oscar Britton and Bookbinder both have their roles in the confrontation as well, less so for Britton than Bookbinder.

As I indicated above, I love the moral complexity of these books. Things are not sugarcoated or boiled down sound bites and unfortunate mission accomplished banners. Real people have real personal conflict. And the result makes Cole’s novels stand out way beyond most other military fantasy and science fiction stories. This trilogy is good, very good, and now all I can say is More Please!

Shadow Ops: Control Point (My Review, Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)
Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier (My Review, Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)
Shadow Ops: Breach Zone (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Mini-Reviews: The Neon Court and The Minority Council by Kate Griffin

I like to write reviews for the books I read in a timely manner. The life I live these days often does not allow it – at least without me losing a lot of sleep, something that I really cannot afford to do. So, it comes to me writing up ‘mini-reviews’ for two books by Kate Griffin I read a number of months ago. Why did they get put off so long when I read and reviewed others since? Not because they are bad, or that I didn’t enjoy them. Both are good books that I enjoyed quite a bit. Mostly because they are books from an established series and I don’t really have that much to add to what I’ve already said before about A Madness of Angels and The Midnight Mayor (really, read those reviews, because what I write below is terribly brief and general).

Both The Neon Court and The Minority Council continue the story of Matthew Swift, urban sorcerer and the Midnight Mayor of London. Matthew is an eccentric, half-crazy character (in every sense of the word) who always surprises with his creative problem solving capabilities (think understatement here). In combination with the unique flavor of urban magic that Griffin has created, London transforms from the mundane into a magical wonderland where a pile of garbage just might come alive and try to kill you.

These books feature typical urban issues such as gang turf wars, religious zealotry, drug addiction, business and political conflict, and alderman wrapped in Griffin’s truly modern magical realization. This is a reflection (in part) of Griffin’s continued maturing as a writer, though for me, the biggest draw to these books and the London of Griffin’s vision is simply it being a whole lot of fun to read about.

As I’ve mentioned above, I enjoy Griffin’s version of a magically-infused London and look forward to reading more. While The Minority Council is (seemingly) the last book about Matthew Swift, her world lives on through a new protagonist in a new series – Magicals Anonymous (Book 1 – Stray Souls, Book 2 – The Glass God), and I believe that Matthew makes an appearance or two in them as well.

And I simply must say, Kelly, the Personal Assistant to The Midnight Mayor, is one of my favorite characters in genre. Her role is relatively minor, often comic relief, and perfect.

Matthew Swift Series
A Madness of Angels (my review, Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)
The Midnight Mayor (my review, Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)
The Neon Court (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)
The Minority Council (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)

Magicals Anonymous Series
The Glass God (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Review: Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

What is YA fiction?

I ask because Half a King is Joe Abercrombie’s first foray into YA fiction (and the first book in the Shattered Sea series). Fans, or at least those familiar with Abercrombie’s fiction, may have a reaction along the lines of ‘what!?, ‘Really?!’, ‘No Fucking Way!’

Abercrombie has a bit of a reputation in the SFF world. His fiction is … messy. It certainly falls into the relatively newly coined term grimdark (which, for the record, I dislike as a sub-genre describer but I’m afraid it’s here to stay). Some would throw about the term ‘realistic’ to describe what Abercrombie does with fantasy, regardless of how silly the term realistic can be when describing fiction, and fantasy in particular, but I digress. What Abercrombie does do is explore the fantasy genre by destroying some of its core concepts – The First Law Trilogy turns epic fantasy on its head, stretches it out on the rack and slowly eviscerates it. Best Served Cold, The Heroes, and Red Country all similarly subvert the revenge, war/hero, and western narratives, respectively. And they are messy. The single unifying concept (beyond grunting dialog) is that nothing is romanticized.  War is hell, killing is necessary, and blood gets everywhere. People are flawed, scarred, and any ideals they hold to are crushed in creative forms of torture. Redemption is not something that is oft found in the Abercrombie tale.

So, I come back to my opening question, what is YA? Does YA feature a simple narrative, clean reality full of romanticized characters and beautiful ideals? Are triumph, redemption and similar ‘good’ outcomes needed? If you tend to jump to a ‘yes’ answer for any of the above questions, I’d suggest that you haven’t read much YA fiction, or at least much good YA fiction.

So, I ask, is it really a surprise that Joe Abercrombie, LordGrimdark himself, is writing YA fiction?

Just what does YA Abercrombie-style look like? Is there a boy? Yes. Is there a girl? A couple actually. Is there a classic mentor figure? Yes, maybe more than one depending on how one looks at it. Is there a struggle and ‘heroes’ journey to become oneself and achieve their goals? Yes. Do the good guys win? … Does the boy get the girl? … Is there a cute and tidy moralistic message to be learned? Umm… Abercrombie wrote this, OK? Is there a death that is important to the protagonists development? See previous answer. Is mommy proud of her crippled son? … Just what is being subverted here? …

Half a King is a wonderful example of good YA fiction – note, that it’s not ‘children’s fiction’ as some people tend to falsely equate with YA. In many ways, this book is just as dark (err…grimdark?) anything else that Abercrombie has written. Blood is splattered all over the place. Betrayal occurs…repeat. The person that our ‘hero’ grows into … well, I’ll let you decide.

To answer the question I began with, YA fiction (at least as I choose to define it) simply features a protagonist who falls into the YA age category. It may be shorter than other novels and a bit easier to read (both are true in the case of Half a King), though those aren’t necessary. It’s a book that is probably marketed to the YA audience, which may be the only real definition for YA that matters. But who looks back on their ‘YA’ years and thinks those were the best times of my life? Teenagers are brutal. They are impulsive, short-sighted, vain and cruel. Sure, there are more than a few positive attributes as well, but don’t forget that the ‘YA years’ are not the easy sailing, Disney years that so many wish them to be. Abercrombie (and grimdark) fit right in … or maybe not, because who actually fits in during those years?

So, yes, Half a King is awesome. It is YA and it will equally appeal to those beyond their YA years. This is probably Abercrombie’s best book to-date (I waffle because I’ve not yet read Red Country), and shows that he’s writing with a golden finger (of death).

And nothing is better than naming a character Nothing. Nothing.

Abercrombie wrote Half a King, and this is a whole review that talked for a bit about Nothing.*

The First Law Trilogy (my review, Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)

*This line doesn’t really make much sense in the context of this review, but after reading the book I had to write it. Once you read the book you will understand. Or not … my sense of humor is odd.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Mini-Review: Shattered by Kevin Hearne

Good, fun, pulpy comfort reading.

That about sums my feelings of the Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne, including the latest, Shattered. As I’ve said in previous reviews, these books are not deep, and one must not think too hard on things. But they are perfect for an escape into a funny, action-packed world of nerdy wish fulfillment.

Shattered features more points of view from Granuaile, which I’ve been critical of in the past. They are better in this book – they don’t feel quite as much as a 14-year old boy’s imagining how a beautiful 18-year old girl thinks … in the form of an essay. But there is still a lot of improving to be had. Shattered also features a point of view from a new character – Atticus’ archdruid. This serves to ‘freshen’ things up a bit and is quite welcome, if a bit overdone.

Shattered feels a bit less pulpy than the other books in this series, it actually feels like a complete novel rather than a serial adventure. Perhaps this is because it’s the first book in the series to see a hardback release. Or maybe Hearne has just improved his writing such that it feels more rounded with the added points of view. Or perhaps I’m imagining things. But I don’t think any of that matters – Shattered is the 7th book in this series, and if you’re still reading, this book is going to offer more of the same that has kept you reading this long.

So, it’s more of the same. And yes, I can’t wait for the next one, though it sounds like it may be a while since Hearne has a lot going on right now.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Did Not Finish: The Moon King by Neil Williamson

Sometimes a book just doesn't work well enough to be finished. Most often when this happens the reasons are obvious – the book is just poorly written, offensive, or just bad. But sometimes the reasons are harder to quantify.

The Moon King by Neil Williamson (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) is one such book. I simply got to the point where I didn't care to read it anymore. It was a gradual thing that I still can’t understand. Because I still think this is a book I should like. It’s an interesting exploration of the relationship of humankind and nature as well as the psyche of humankind itself. It focuses on characters who can’t quite conform. And one of those is an engineer – given my day job, I love to see such a character in a SFF book.

BUT I called the exploration interesting. Only for some reason it was not for me. The characters didn’t hold my interest. Even though the writing is quite well done, it couldn’t hold my interest either. The setting of a city dominated by the moon and its mysterious king who dominates all of culture just refused to work for me. And I don’t know why. 

That quality break-up line seems to fit best – ‘it’s not you, it’s me.’ Work and home life are crazy busy and more than a bit stressful. I have less and less time to relax and what time I do have is often spent in an exhausted daze. I suspect that what I’m looking for is just not the deep, subtle exploration of humanity through SFF, but something more shallow and entertaining. I suspect that if I return to The Moon King in the future when I’m in a different place, I will react differently. But I don’t know for sure. I do know that I decided not to finish the book, and once that decision was made reading became much more enjoyable for me.

Really, it’s not you, it’s me.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Review: Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson has become the obvious heir to epic fantasy of this generation. Sure, there are plenty of great authors writing in the epic genre, and many more picking at or blending the edges, but when it comes to pure epic fantasy, Brandon Sanderson is King and in no danger of being usurped anytime soon. The focus of this effort is The Stormlight Archive, a projected 10-book series. Words of Radiance is the second book in this series, following The Way of Kings.
Above I called Brandon Sanderson the King of epic fantasy, I very much believe he deserves the honor and has earned it through work and dedication to the craft and just a bit of luck and goodwill along the way. King Sanderson* has benefited greatly from the unique opportunity to complete The Wheel of Time after Robert Jordan’s tragic and untimely death. His efforts to complete the final 3 books in the series based off writing fragments in various states of completeness, rough outlines, dictated scenes, thousands of pages of notes, and his own interpretation to bridge the gaps provided him with a view into a nearly completed work of the immense scale common to multi-book series of epic fantasy and the challenge of finishing the series in a satisfying way. As a result, he gained a great understanding of the consequences of choices made earlier in the series that become amplified in later volumes. This in turn provided King Sanderson the chance to set his own massive series up in a way to avoid such consequences (in theory), or to put in a few other terms, avoid jumping the shark or becoming tangled in a Meereenese Knot. Of course, it’s far too early to judge the ultimate success of this when King Sanderson is only 2 books into his projected 10-book series, but initially I think the signs are there showing that he could pull it off – particularly with the way that Sanderson has chosen to juggle character points of view, keeping it to a relatively bare few (just 2 or 3 per book), with brief interludes where others can be thrown in to expand the breadth of the story at hand.
Above I’ve liberally used the term epic fantasy and I will continue to do so throughout this review. This is because of the importance of acknowledging what this book (and series) is, and therefore, what it is not. The Way of Kings is 1008 pages long in hardback (US). Words of Radiance is 1087 pages (US hardback). These books are back-breakingly big and capable of propping open a ten-ton vault, let alone stopping your door. In other words, they are big and they are bloated. The pacing reflects this – not everything included is strictly necessary (though this opinion of mine could vary greatly by one’s own point of view) – with events playing slowly and deliberately. The primary characters are explored in great depth, dwelled on in ways that are often mind-numbingly blunt and repetitive. Brevity is not the soul of Wit in these books (though Wit is the most interesting character, of which we see relatively little, though I digress). These books are for people who want to dive in, staying immersed for hours on end, and experience all possible aspects of the story. The eloquence of word count plays out in the epic way of King Sanderson and fans will flock to rule. (OK, I’ll stop now with my attempts at radiant word play).
So, that 200+ word paragraph above basically boils down to knowing what you’re reading. If you don’t like big, bloated epic fantasy of the likes of Steven Erikson, Robert Jordan and George RR Martin, then don’t read these books. They are long and could be edited down to a fraction of their end size, but that’s not the point of epic fantasy – at least not this epic fantasy. Enjoy it for what it is, or move on. Because complaining about the word count of book 2 in a proposed 10-book series in a genre notorious for large page counts is just silly. (But friendly mocking of that word count is encouraged, at least by me)
If you are beginning to wonder about where I intend to talk about the plot or specific characters, let me spell it out that I have no intention of doing so. There are plenty of other places that do a wonderful job of that, and I have plenty to talk about in my thoughts on this book without ever going there. Basically, with Words of Radiance being a book within a series that isn’t the first book, I think that those discussions are largely pointless in a review like this – or at least I have no interest in them. I prefer to talk in bigger picture terms on whether or not I think it works or not.
Above I mentioned three other epic fantasy authors: Steven Erikson, Robert Jordan, and George RR Martin. These three were chosen with intent as I think that there are similarities to be had with each. Robert Jordan is obvious and clear in his in influence and Sanderson has talked in detail about it in many places as he completed Jordan’s series. George RR Martin may seem like me just pulling out a popular name with little more than surficial similarity for extra SEO. However, I do see some similarities and influence through how points of view are utilized and how, ‘petty’ human struggles dominate early in the series, with the ‘true evil’ or ‘big bad’ only becoming a bigger focus as things progress.
The comparison to Steven Erikson is a bit more nuanced, and perhaps, more worthy of discussion. In my opinion, Erikson is the first author to truly pull off what could be considered a post-modern epic fantasy (in many ways the term ‘post-modern epic fantasy’ is a complete oxymoron). In the past Sanderson has been lambasted for calling his Mistborn series post-modern. And while he did backtrack a bit on that, I still think that King Sanderson really believes in the idea of him being a post-modern epic fantasy author. Honestly, I can see where that comes from – King Sanderson’s epic fantasy is an answer to what has come before, and there is a bit of commentary built into it. In The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance, look no further than Wit (or Hoid of you prefer). Now do I think that The Stormlight Archive will ever rival Malazan in a postmodern view of fantasy – NO. But I do think it’s an interesting perspective to view this series through.
The Way of Kings was released in 2010 and with 4 years between releases, people may be struggling with the idea of whether or not they should re-read the 1000+ page first book in the series before moving on to the even bigger second book. I did not re-read and I did not look up any of the many summaries available online. I wanted to see how Words of Radiance held up given the time gap (plus I don’t have that sort of time these days). In general, I don’t feel that I was held back by my choice not to re-read, however there are of course caveats to this. I’ll start with the good – with The Way of Kings being a standard intro book and Words of Radiance being something of continuation and transitional book, it’s pretty easy to catch up on what’s important to know. But, one of the most popular aspects of this series does make it difficult to not be up-to-date with a full understanding of people and events – this series is huge and is meant to be huge. It is meant to be full of mysterious details and open-ended ideas that encourage ‘theory-craft’ to develop. King Sanderson absolutely wants his fans pouring over minute details to see what they may say about events to come and events that have already happened. And this does put the casual fan at a disadvantage. So far, King Sanderson balances things well enough to satisfy both, but he runs the risk of tipping one way or another as the series continues, and I doubt that potential tipping will favor the more casual fan.
This brings me to The Cosmere. King Sanderson is nothing if not ambitious, and from the start of his professional career he has developed an epic within the epics where most of the books he writes all take place in the same universe and all relate to each other in one way or another and an ultimate confrontation that is occurring. A single character known most often as Hoid (Wit in The Stormlight Archives) is present to one extent or another in each of these books. Up until now, this epic within the epics has been subtle and in the background, with only dedicated fans having much of a clue of what was going on. In Words of Radiance, it becomes clear that this series will become a central component of The Cosmere, and that the whole concept will grow and become much more important. This is another blow to the casual fan as only dedicated fans who read and digest all of books in The Cosmere will be able to fully enjoy and appreciate King Sanderson’s edicts. Or, from another point of view, this is a huge boon to King Sanderson’s fans as they get enjoy the epic within the epics as he brings something truly new to the genre. I suppose it’s time to throw Michael Moorcock into the mixing bowl of what has come before.
So, all you dedicated readers who have made it this far into the review may be wondering whether or not I liked the book and what I actually thought of – this is a very valid point to make considering I’ve rambled on for over 1600 words at this point and still haven’t really discussed this yet.
Yes, I liked the book – quite a bit actually. King Sanderson continues to improve as an author and I think this is one of his strongest efforts yet. Even though the book is so long, the pacing is remarkably consistent throughout and the writing is engaging enough to keep the reader (at least this reader) interested and entertained even while events progress at a measured pace. I believe that The Stormlight Archive is on pace to become the defining epic fantasy series of a generation and I will be along for the ride. Fans of epic fantasy and King Sanderson are getting more of what they crave with Words of Radiance – and likewise, those who aren’t fans of epic fantasy and/or King Sanderson should probably pass this one by.
So, all hail King Sanderson, overlord and archivist of The Cosmere…he’s earned it. But…
Wit, thy soul has brevity not.
And that works just fine for King Sanderson.
*I refer to Brandon Sanderson as King Sanderson throughout the review. I do not do this to mock Brandon, as I have the upmost respect for what he does and my personal interactions with him have always been wonderful. I do so partially to reinforce my point of him being at the top of epic fantasy at the moment, to help keep my rambling review somewhat cohesive, and because it amuses me.
Books of The Cosmere:
The Emperor’s Soul: Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon
The Well of Ascension: My Review, Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon
Full Trilogy Boxed Set at Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon
The Stormlight Archive
Words of Radiance: Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon


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