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

Friday, March 14, 2014

Review: Caine’s Law by Matthew Stover

I have raved in the past about the Acts of Caine series by Matthew Stover, so if you have a moment, take the time to read those other reviews.
Heroes Die (Act of Violence)
Blade of Tyshalle (Act of War)
Caine Black Knife (Act of Atonement, Book 1)
If you’re not familiar with Matthew Stover and the Acts of Caine series, please at least go back and read the review for Heroes Die. It’s a great start to get a feel for things, though the series really gets going in Blade of Tyshalle (in my opinion anwyway). Because, if you are a fan of epic fantasy, you are doing yourself a huge disservice by not reading these books. Do you like dark fantasy (or gritty/grimdark as it’s being called these days)? This series pre-dates and out does anything you’ll find in grimdark today. Seriously, this series is criminally under-read and I cannot state strongly enough that fans should read it.
Caine’s Law (Act of Atonement, Book 2) completes the series in what is the best conclusion to any series I’ve read. Let me say that again…this series has the best ending of any series I’ve read to date. The pure satisfaction of this ending is second-to-none. To give just the slightest hint at this, I will quote the last line of the book/series (now, this is slightly complicated due to non-linear storytelling, but this is essentially the last line).
Any fucking questions?
Caine is the antihero of antiheroes. He is not nice, he is selfish, he is ambitious, he will sacrifice whatever he needs to, and he will torture and kill without a second thought. But, he’s also the good guy. He is the ultimate take no prisoners, bad ass motherfucker. Caine is someone that you don’t want to mess with – it will end badly, and it will probably end just as badly for everyone you know.
And for all that Caine is fiercely protective of his own. Heroes Die is essentially about him saving his wife. Blade of Tyshalle is about him saving his daughter. Caine Black Knife is about Caine coming to terms (of sort) with his past and the wrongs that he has done (and about him saving his brother). Caine’s Law is about him saving everyone else. And it’s way, way more complicated than that.
Structurally, Caine’s Knife is a wonderful mess. As I indicated above, it’s nonlinear, but that doesn’t go far enough. It’s metaphysical – similar to what was seen in parts of Blade of Tyshalle, but much, much more. The best way to express this is to quote author’s note.
Several parts of this story take place before the events depicted in Act of Atonement Book 1: Caine Black Knife.
Other parts of this story take place after. Still others take place before and after both. Some parts may be imaginary, and some were real only temporarily, as they have subsequently unhappened.
This book begins with the end and ends with the beginning – framing it as a journey. Perhaps the hero’s journey…only not, because Caine is no hero…except when he is. This only adds another layer to the long list of what this book and series is about. Which is yet another reason to read these books – depth, depth unlike 99% of what’s out there. These books will make you think, they will entertain you, they will make you think about why they entertain you, they will make you lose sleep, and they just might make your language a bit more colorful.  
This book, and the series as a whole, are more than just the best, most badass character in fantasy. It’s a book about being human and what it means to be human. It’s a series the darkness of humanity and it’s a series about conquering the darkness. It’s a series about redemption and progress. It’s a series about the horror of oppression – both from government and gods. It’s a series about overcoming that oppression. It’s about love, sacrifice, family, and fatherhood. In short, it’s about progress, it’s about becoming better, and the inner strength of humanity to make it happen – in the face of all the pure evil that’s present as well. And along the way there is both romance, and lots and lots of graphic violence with equally graphic language.
It’s really ineloquent and ironic to continually gush my love for this book and series, so I think I’ll pause and to illustrate much of what goes on and what I was attempting to say above, below are a few of the chapter titles for Caine’s Law, in no particular order.

Beloved of God
Scars and Scars
What Dreams May Come
Times that Bind
Assbitch of the Gods
Enter Hero
Meat Puppets
Love Absolute
Consider Insanity
Truth to Power
Father Issues
The Art of Unhappening
Fuck God
To the Masters of the Earth
Assbitch of the Gods – is there a better chapter title ever? And as I said, it’s only better.
Go, read, now. That is all.
Any fucking questions?

Blade of Tyshalle: Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon

Caine Black Knife: Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon


Thursday, March 13, 2014

Review: Fortune’s Pawn by Rachel Bach

Science Fiction can at times be a tricky genre, especially for those who haven’t read a whole lot of it. It can be very dense as it relies on words and concepts that it assumes a reader is familiar with. So, it’s often the case that someone relatively new to science fiction is not and thus they dislike what they read. In response, there is often discussion on entry-level science fiction, which, as it sounds, is science fiction that provides a good entry into the genre for the uninitiated.
Another common issue in science fiction is the general lack of diversity of those writing it (or at least a perceived lack of diversity depending on the view point) – there is often a lack of women/minorities/etc. writing and/or as the intended audience. Sure, there are notable exceptions, and this is a generality, but it’s certainly the case, particularly with the most prominent and heavily marketed science fiction in the market.
Fortune’s Pawn by Rachel Bach (aka Rachel Aaron) can be considered an answer to both of those issues.
It is an entry-level science fiction novel that really does nothing new, but is a whole of fun to read. We’re talking space marines, mechanized armor, abandoned alien ships, alien parasites, inter-stellar travel, space hippies, and tasty human flesh. It’s all the fun of a good military science fiction adventure and it has the beginning of an interesting space opera. And the way it’s written makes it a very accessible book.
Rachel Bach is indeed a woman writing a science fiction novel and the main protagonist of Fortune’s Pawn also happens to be a woman (named Devi). The best way I can think of to further illustrate this aspect of the book is that several reviewers (and even the author herself) have compared Fortune’s Pawn to urban fantasy. Now, my initial reaction to this (before reading the book) was to laugh – it’s set on a spaceship, calling it urban fantasy is absurd. However, I do see the point now as a shorthand for one of the ways the story sets itself up with (though the method certainly isn’t only used in urban fantasy). A strong woman with agency who is not looking for a love interest meets the tall, dark mysterious man who is hiding a big secret. They hit it off and fall in love, though there are many complications (in this case evisceration is but one). Of course this is a classic romantic plot line and one that is often disparaged by science fiction fans (yes folks, there is even sex in this book). For me it adds to the book and makes it better and the characters more interesting. Of course I don’t see how gratuitous violence is often accepted without question in SFF yet romance (or even sex) is often held at arm’s length like a nasty set of dirty underwear. So let’s remember that romance in our fiction is a good thing and in Fortune’s Pawn it works quite well.
While I’ve brought up romance, let’s not forget that Fortune’s Pawn is one hell of an adventure. You could also call it an analog to Firefly with a motley crew of characters on a spaceship having crazy adventures through the galaxy. Personally, I wouldn’t – the character development is almost completely focused on a relative few, the mystery is bigger, the consequences seem bigger, and the galaxy (and number of species) certainly is. But I bring up the point because it illustrates that this book has a lot going for it where most commentary I’ve seen ends up pigeonholing it in one way or another.
Fortune’s Pawn is simply fun. It is a well executed space adventure that should have wide appeal and is particularly accessible for relative newcomers to science fiction.  This is just the sort of book that science fiction needs more of right now and it’s great to see an author like Rachel Bach deliver in this respect. Fortune’s Pawn is the first book in the Paradox trilogy – book 2, Honors Knight is available now and Heaven’s Queen will be shortly. So, there are no excuses for waiting.
Fortune’s Pawn (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)
Honor’s Knight (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)
Heaven’s Queen (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)
*Note: My one quibble about this book is the Force. OK, Fortune’s Pawn doesn’t have the actual Force in it, but there is a mystical energy that space hippies seem to be able to tap into that sounds suspiciously like the force. In Fortune’s Pawn it plays no big role(well possibly excepting ___ at the end), but I suspect it’s something of a Chekov’s Gun. For now I’m merely annoyed by it, hopefully it works better as things move forward.


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