Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

December 27, 2011

Laini Taylor – Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 5:04 pm

This is only going to be a very short one, because I’m too annoyed to do more.

It’s good, but don’t buy it unless you have a high tolerance for unfinished stories, because (without any indication whatsoever on the cover, blurb, or title page) it’s the first book of a series. It’s not even self-contained; the story set up in the early pages mutates to a larger one, and the only resolution we get is to a story arc introduced over halfway through. By two-thirds of the way through, I could tell it wasn’t going to finish, and the last three words of the book are “to be continued”.

This kind of behaviour by a publisher is Distinctly Unimpressive.

December 15, 2011

Seanan McGuire – Rosemary and Rue

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 11:35 am

Let’s get this out of the way first: it’s a fairies-in-America book, the first of the October Daye (Fairy PI) series. It involves the usual pointless feudalism and Native American erasure—the only non-Celtic creatures in the list at the front are djinn, lamia, and peri—but the racial politics are rather more crosslinked and nuanced than in most such.

The list at the front, unfortunately, set my expectations very low for the rest of the book; it’s a pronunciation guide, and it’s wrong. “Coblynau” (Welsh for “Goblins”) is plural, not singular, and it’s “cob-luh’nigh” not “cob-lee-now”; similarly, “Tylwyth Teg” (literally, “fair folk”) is “tuhl’with tair’g” (more or less) not “tillwith teeg”. As for “Tuatha de Danann”, that would have been even easier to research than the modern Welsh names are. As is traditional, they’re all presented as different species or clans, with distinct phenotypes; unusually, none of the traditional names are cultural analogues of one another.

Happily, I can report that the book improved. It’s a good, uncomplicated read, and the worse characteristics of fairies (imperiousness, secrecy, and drama queening, for instance) are presented as annoyances rather than good things. Toby herself is competent and proactive (rather too much so for her own good, at times) and McGuire’s both good at introducing interesting supporting characters and unafraid to kill them off when we’re getting fond of them.

April 14, 2011

Dan Abnett – Prospero Burns

Filed under: review — Tags: , , — Sam @ 10:23 am

This is part of the Warhammer 40k franchise’s Horus Heresy line; whilst I’ve not read any of these before, I’m familiar with the general outline through picking up a few Black Library books here and there over the years. This one is billed as what happens when one entire army of super-soldiers turns to the dark side, and another is sent to destroy them. It’s actually deceptive, since that plotline is only introduced properly two-thirds of the way in; it’s possible to interpret the early part of the book as building up to the Space Wolves’ destruction of the planet Prospero, but since we hear almost nothing from the first army (the Thousand Sons) before then it’s very hard to feel invested in this plotline. Also, “Prospero Burns” sounds like a Victorian theatrical impresario.

Fortunately, the main story the book tells is much more interesting. Scholar Kasper Hawser decides to abandon his comfortable life on Earth to live amongst the Viking-themed Space Wolves, taking the name Ahmad ibn Rustah in a nod to history, and record their unique warrior culture. He is accepted, for reasons that seem arbitrary, as their skjald. His developing relationships with the warriors and his increasing awareness of his own role are absorbing, and deftly done, bringing an interesting dimensionality to what would otherwise have been an absurd cliché of a culture. Like all franchise writers, Abnett has to work with what he’s given, but he does a good job of it.

Speaking of what the franchise requires: the denouement is unsatisfactory in itself, being an utter diabolus ex machina, and it would have been nice to have encountered said diabolus before. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense (and is entirely necessary) when viewed as part of the overall arc plot, and these books aren’t really intended to be read on their own. It does give a good sense of the nihilism and meaningless inherent in the 40k universe, and the mind-twisting gulf of scale between the successes and failures of a human life and the long sweep of time on a galactic scale.

April 13, 2011

David Anthony Durham – The Other Lands

Filed under: sf — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 5:40 pm

This is book 2 of his Acacia trilogy—you can read my review of the first book here. It has several good points, so I’ll save those for last.

What I didn’t like—at all—is Durham’s writing style. It reads as though he’s attempting some nihilist theory of anti-narrative, deliberately flattening the emotional peaks and lending spurious bathos to the troughs. He consistently has his characters reveal important, plot-wrecking events in the past tense (“Last week I carried out my master plan, and now you’re not in the plotline you thought you were”) and doesn’t let us feel main characters’ reactions, instead telling us about their facial expressions.

His word choice is odd enough (there is no real reason to use the word “protuberance” unless you’re writing comedy pornography) but he seems to feel an over-eager need to tell us everything.

She made each assignment sound both simple and laced with threat. She was good at that. He would have to keep his wits about him, make journal notes regularly, and find a way to quell the nausea that roiled in him each time he thought of those ocean waves.

The end result somehow manages to be simultaneously lumpy and soggy, like a feather quilt caught in a thunderstorm.

I did say that it had good points, and they’re very good. As in the first book, there’s plenty of racial and cultural diversity, and (as far as I can tell) basically no white people. Given the wholesale erasure and exoticization of nonwhite people in nearly all fantasy, that’s a really good thing. There are women in positions of power, and he’s rowing back on the royal Mary Sue factor that the first book suffered from—one is clearly suffering the corruption of power, and another demonstrating that she’s a warrior not a general. All of the character-development arcs here are extremely dark and nihilistic; the only way to avoid corruption and loss of idealism, it seems, is to die young.

Another good point is that Durham understands and uses rural ecological economics—

Gone were the tiny kive fish, such an important source of protein fried or dried or ground into paste. Gone were the waterfowl that hunted them. Fading was the Halaly vigour—which had been so based on their reliable food sources—and dwindling were the tribute and trade that had made them the beating heart of the continent. If all that wasn’t bad enough, the air swarmed with the mosquitos and biting flies that now gestated in the lake untroubled by the kive fish that had once thrived on their eggs;one of these spread disease, while the other left welts on the skin that easily grew infected.

Strange and offputting were the backwards High Fantasy sentences, however. Needed was a better editor, and no less so for a particularly comedic homonym: when talking about royalty, “secession” really doesn’t mean the same thing as “succession”.

To be fair, Durham does well with descriptive passages where he isn’t required to choose a focus or write dialogue;the landscape porn in the first book was quite spectacular, and there are some passages here—including a literally epic sea crossing—that match it nicely.

Overall, I’d recommend it only to serious series-fantasy fans, and then only if you read & enjoyed Book 1, and only if you have a high tolerance for bad writing.

December 10, 2010

Jordan & Sanderson – Towers of Midnight

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 1:42 am

I read this yesterday evening, after finding it unexpectedly in the library, and it’s let me crystallize something about the change between authors that was nagging at me. (No spoilers.)

Sanderson actually wants to finish.

I’m not saying Jordan was consciously spinning things further and further out, but I was getting the distinct feeling that he didn’t know where he was going overall. He obviously had the plot mapped out and knew what had to happen where in the story, but I can’t get any clear sense of overarching themes to it all and he kept dragging in new characters and plotlines. To me, that reads like an author trying hard to refine and direct his vision of what the series is for, especially after the explicit bait-and-switch from Book 1; everything I’ve heard on that topic is about a move away from portal-quest fantasy, but not any kind of towards.

Sanderson, on the other hand, is nothing if not workmanlike and direct, and it shows. In the two Wheel of Time books he’s written, the plot strands have been coming together at warp speed, and we get much less time-wasting. Mind you, there are still a couple of new developments that are less deus ex machina than

I’m starting to wonder if the Wheel of Time series, taken as a whole, is more of a response to Eddings than to Tolkien. It’s exploring some interesting variations on the One Ninja theory of history, given the contributions of everyone involved (though the side of the Shadow is still as hopelessly blundering as always). It could have something to say about free will, determinism, and redemption, but I honestly don’t know what.

There is always the big theme of gender relations, but Jordan & Sanderson’s treatment of identity politics is so hopelessly reductionist and naive that trying to say anything in that format is like playing patience with no hearts or diamonds and expecting it to come out.

November 18, 2010

Alan Campbell – God of Clocks

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , — Sam @ 2:36 pm

This is Part 3 of the Deepgate Codex series; I realised after it got to me that I hadn’t actually read part 2 (Iron Angel) after all, but I picked up on what was happening quickly enough.

From my several-years-old recollections of Scar Night I’d expected something fairly intense, with text as gothically baroque as the architecture, but my memories must have been in error because the style here is straightforward and relatively transparent.

What did stick in my mind was the imagery, and it’s amazingly inventive. The god of brine and fog sails a decaying wooden ship across the sky, with an army of deathless corpses hanging from the gallows below, and an immortal man dragging it behind him across the world. The god of knives and flowers rules a kingdom, and commands a legion of soldiers. And the god of clocks lives in a vast castle which exists, in strange and complex ways, across all of time.

Time travel is handled interestingly here—we see the classic looping effect, but without being shown all the branching points for the duplicated character. Mind you, it uses the Very Slow Time Machine method (ie. living through the intervening time, 1:1) for part of the trip, so that was probably a practical decision as much as anything.
It’s introduced very late in the book, though, and doesn’t really relate to—or interact with—anything that happened before it, so its potential feels rather wasted. That’s symptomatic of the whole book, really; vast numbers of cool things happen, but not in any real detail, and without emotional intensity.

I found the characterization a bit lacking, but that can often happen when you (effectively) start with Part 3. Some are excellently done (John Anchor, for instance), but others seem to be coasting rather on their initial introductions. I think part of it is the classic adventuring party problem; with a lot of characters together, it’s rare for an author to find things to do with all of them, and Campbell is noticeably better with two- or three-person scenes.

Overall, it’s a fun and easy read; I’d recommend the series to a mid- to late-teenager looking to move on from Garth Nix, or anyone who’s looking for an uncomplicated thrill to spark their imagination.

November 8, 2010

Lisa Mantchev – Eyes Like Stars

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 1:53 pm

Beatrice Shakespeare Smith (Bertie) lives in the Théâtre Illuminata, where every play in the English language is performed, and the characters themselves tread the boards. Her bedroom is a stage set, and the characters & Théâtre staff are the only family she’s ever known.

Bertie makes rather a good YA heroine—she’s seventeen, impulsive but committed, possessed of brightly coloured hair, and extremely believable as a teenage girl. She has (as is of course obligatory) Relationship Problems, with two men competing for her affections. The Good Boy is called Nate; he’s a pirate, muscular and plainspoken, with a bit part in The Little Mermaid. Ariel (from Shakespeare’s Tempest) is the sly, deceitful, and intoxicatingly sexy Bad Boy, who is using Bertie in some plot of his own, but nevertheless seems to love her.

Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, are Bertie’s unruly and chaotic sidekicks. They work very well indeed as backup, comic relief, and a good reason for Bertie to talk about the plot without talking to herself, but they’re also well-sketched characters in their own right; there’s a strong family dynamic going on, with Bertie cast as their amused and harassed older sister. Their first entrance, in Chapter One (“The fairies flew suspended on wires despite their tendency to get tangled together.”) is delightful, and shows the same quirky, subversively faux-Edwardian charm as the rest of the book.

The Théâtre is a peculiar one in many ways—with actors who will always play the same part forever, and who only return to existence when called, a lot of the usual theatre politics are abstracted away. We hear quite a lot about an ongoing feud between Set and Props, but there are no technical staff at all, and everything Just Works—I’m starting to suspect that Lisa Mantchev is a director herself! I’d have liked to see more of the Théâtre’s internal life & social structure, but then I’m a techie myself, and it’s not a long book. Mrs Edith, the Wardrobe Mistress (and the person responsible for bringing Bertie up, insofar as any bringing up happened at all) is rather a stock character, stern and obsessed with Bertie’s appearance but always loving and supportive. Then again, the rest of the Théâtre staff are largely stock characters too; I suspect that’s rather the idea, since all the world’s a stage.

As the back cover tells us, the Théâtre is under threat, and only Bertie can save it. With that, her romantic troubles, and the mystery of who her family really is, there’s plenty of plot to go around. It’s well-paced, too, with intriguing hints of metatextuality in the worldbuilding and in Bertie’s gift of magic with words. The writing style is lively, vivacious, and at times rather beautiful & magical; it fits the Théâtre well.

November 1, 2010

Lois McMaster Bujold – Cryoburn

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 1:16 am

This is a new Miles Vorkosigan book, and it’s a big departure from the previous ones—unsurprisingly so, given the trajectory of the series so far. I don’t think I can review it without spoilers for the first half of the book, so let me say now that it’s good but takes work to read.

It’s set seven years after Diplomatic Immunity, and opens in media very much res, with Miles stumbling barefoot and hallucinating through a vast underground catacomb of cryogenic notquitecorpses. We learn quite soon that he’s on a mission to investigate a potentially dodgy commercial transaction, and that brings up a lot of thinly disguised metaphors. Kibou-daini is a world where nobody is willing to die; they expect to go into cryogenic storage instead, and await a cure for whatever ails them. Since they are not dead, they can still vote; the cryogenics corporations hold their proxy votes, leveraging them into huge amounts of political power. (There’s a reason so much of the architecture of Kibou-daini is Egyptianate…)

Economics comes in too, and there’s a lot of financial trading between companies. The frozen citizens, in fact, have become commoditized much like mortgages. It’s revealed, halfway through, that many of the people in cryogenic storage will not be revivable; much like the subprime bubble, what was thought to be a fungible commodity—and thus a good one on which to base financial trading—becomes abruptly non-fungible. I’d have liked to have seen a more detailed look at how this abrupt shift affected the world, though.

The other thing I’d have liked to see more of (well, any of) is the Vorkosigan home life. We hear second-hand from Armsman Roic about how Miles and Ekaterin, and their four-by-now children, are adjusting, but his recollections have the affectionately-stereotyped quality of a family reminiscence, and it doesn’t give either her or the children screen time. And I would have loved to see what Aral is like with his grandchildren, but instead we have another book of Miles regretting being away from his home & family.

What we do get is a pre-teen zoologist Urchin, his little sister, and their cryogenically sequestered mother. Which is as much as to say, a woman in a refrigerator. Whom Miles rescues. Well, she’s a woman; of course he has to rescue her. It’s what he does. It would have been very good to read some narrative from her, but instead we get some Miles, some of Jin (the aforementioned zoological urchin), and some Roic. It feels rather as though Bujold’s setting Roic up to be Miles’s Sergeant Lewis, and to get his own series now Miles has ascended to nigh-unchallengeable levels. None of the antagonists in this book seems to be in Miles’s weight class, which is sad; he’s always done by far his best work against the odds. As a result, he’s quite a bit less, er, engaged with the mission environment than in previous books.

Overall: recommended, but don’t expect the same as before.

October 11, 2010

Fiona McIntosh – Royal Exile

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , , — Sam @ 11:05 pm

Book 1 of the Valisar Trilogy. Voyager, 2008, 450ish pp paperback.

This is one of the most compelling pieces of extruded fantasy fluff I’ve read for a long time. I kept snatching moments for a few pages through the day, and then finished it on a long bus ride home. But that said, it’s still extruded fantasy fluff. It’s about royalty, it has a set of bog-standard fantasy kingdoms, it has barbarian invaders (complete with a warlord who’s smarter than he seems), it has legendary magic, it has swords with names, and it has Lost Heirs.

On the other hand, it also reads like a Greek tragedy, rather than the feudal-fetish wankery so many fantasy novelists succumb to. The royalty are uniformly barking mad: King Brennus is as arrogant and as self-important as Denethor, and with very similar consequences. Prince Leonel is clearly going the same way, and the family charisma (which may well be the mysterious genetic magic) draws otherwise sensible people into taking them seriously and going along with their stupid plans.

It’s clearly set in the far future (eight generations or so down the line) of a foreign despot’s conquest, and here comes another one with his horde of tattooed barbarian tribesmen. In the meantime, though, there are rivers of blood, and the number of dead bodies is destroying the economy and the farmland… not that that’s given more than a passing mention in the text, of course.

McIntosh can write teenage boys pretty well, but that’s more or less where “good writing” stops in this book. It’s full of people telling each other things they already know, in unnecessarily formal ways, and quaffy upon quaffy for pointless fantasy flavour. “Anni” means a year, and “tatua” are tattoos, according to the glossary at the back.

Unfortunately, the book also fails the Bechdel test – and not just that, but only one sympathetic female character survives the book. She’s only introduced very late on, at that. The others all meet some grisly and avoidable death at a man’s hands, for the sake of a man.

It’s extremely grisly throughout, in fact, and most of the characters are rather ruthless… in that they’re always eager to sacrifice others, whether a newborn baby or a half-dozen countries. We never see anyone sacrificing themselves.

Part of the reason it was compelling, I think, was that I wanted to keep reading and see if the plot points turned out as I expected. I had to keep waiting and waiting for some of them, but they were all there, and all just as expected. One thing did surprise me, but only because I’d forgotten that in extruded fantasy product women are disposable.

May 25, 2010

Mark Charan Newton – City of Ruin

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , , — Sam @ 11:31 am

This is the direct sequel to his earlier Nights of Villjamur, and it’s even better. He still has the same taste for overexplanation, and there are a few instances of characters telling each other things they already know, but this one is definitely a complete story within the larger plot arc, and it’s not necessary to read the first before this.

The world is clearly the deep future of our own, enough millennia into the future that the sun has cooled and dimmed to red, in the tradition of Vance’s Dying Earth or Farmer’s Dark is the Sun. Oddly, the connection doesn’t annoy me nearly as much as it usually does in fantasy. I think that’s partly because it is deep time rather than post-apocalyptic, and doesn’t have any of the “clever” little references that set my teeth on edge.

“Ah, yes, you were admiring my antique soup jug, I think?” The slender man’s eyes darkened with pleasure as he traced a finger along its curving flank, following the strange words somehow inked into the ivory-yellow surface: “Russell Hobbs”.

He doesn’t hesitate to kill characters off, in grotesque and meaningless ways, and generally at a viewpoint distance. On the other hand, he also doesn’t hesitate to show complex, interesting plans (for, eg., killing characters off) crashing and burning abruptly. There’s a very strong arbitrary-and-meaningless vibe going on throughout, which might make this sound somewhat Moorcockian (and the sheer prevalence of fantastic and in fact downright bloody weird imagery—I particularly liked the flying monkeys—could reinforce this impression) but he does manage to pull off the feat of having an albino protagonist who is nothing whatsoever like Elric.

One very good thing this book features is a competent, sensible, interesting older woman. You’d think there was some Fantasy Bylaw against those, most of the time… and, speaking of Fantasy Bylaws, this one does indeed have a map in the front. I suspect that after Nights of Villjamur came out, the Fantasy Establishment went around to the offices of Tor UK and started making comments about what a nice place they had here. Not sure what the point is, but if it keeps the traditionalists happy, there’s no harm in it.

Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress