Monday, November 29, 2010

Review: Book of Tongues, by Gemma Files

"A Pinkerton detective infiltrates a Wild West gang led by a spell-casting preacher in this boundary-busting horror–fantasy debut."

I follow and read a lot of book review blogs. Like, a lot. Sometimes I feel like I read more book reviews then, you know, actual books. Some people question the worth of reading reviews, because after all books are highly subjective and what one person likes you might not and so on. But I think you have to approach reading reviews in the right way. I mean, if there’s a reviewer whose tastes always line up with yours then you might avoid a book just because they didn’t like it, but I think any good reviewer provides enough information that even if they didn’t like the book, you can take their review and make up your own mind.

Which brings me to Gemma Files’ “Book of Tongues.” A book I had never heard of until Calico Reaction posted a review of it. Now, Calico was not a fan of this book, indeed she didn’t even finish it. But she neatly outlines the things that didn’t work for her personally, and they kinda sounded like things that would work for me. So I tracked the book down, and I’m very glad I did.

I honestly don’t understand why this book is not getting more mentions across the reviewing corner of the blogosphere. Not because it’s necessarily fantastically awesome, (although I rather think it is), but because it’s hugely ambitious. I think it’s the kinda book that you have to feel strongly about, either love it or hate it, and it’s these kind of books I’m used to seeing discussions of.

It’s set right after the American civil war in an America where some people are “hex’s.” That is, men or women with some pretty trippy magical powers that manifest on the onset of menstruation (if you’re a women) or upon suffering serious bodly harm (if you’re a man). A really cool twist on the idea is that to hex’s can not spend any long length of time together as they will involuntarily suck the power out of each other until one is dead. When being hung for a crime he didn’t commit Reverend Asher Rook learns he has some serious power going on, and he turns outlaw along with the rest of his army regiment. (Regement? Unit? I don’t know, I’m not down with military lingo…)

This regiment includes one Chess Pargeter, also known as the reason I loved this book so very much. He’s a whore turned Reverend Rook’s fiercely loyal lover, he’s an indiscriminate murderer, he’s more than a little bit crazy and he definitely makes the book for me. The best character I can think of to compare Chess to is George R. R. Martin’s Jamie Lannister. You start out completely disgusted by him, and by the end he’s your absolute favourite (at least if you’re me). Not that I’m equating being gay with having an incestuous relationship with your sister! It’s more the way that Chess kills so freely and so gleefully, he seems wholly without empathy and it’s easy to dislike him. But by the time the novel ended my heart had broken for him ten times over, and I was cheering for him to come out on top. The transition is completely natural, I couldn’t even tell you the moment Chess went from zero to hero for me, and without changing the core of his character either.

It took George Martin four massive tomes to pull that off with Jamie, and Gemma Files does it in just a couple of hundred of too short pages. Impressive? Very. The other characters were just as skilfully crafted. The character arc of Reverend Rook was just as dramatic as Chess’s, and the skill it took to pull it off even more impressive. There is an almost complete lack of women, but given the setting and nature of the book I’m willing to forgive that. (And while the female hex Songbird felt a little flat to me, I loved Chess’s mother, so I’m confident in Files’ ability to write a female characer). The only character I was a little disappointed with is Ed Morrow, our main POV character. He spends most of his time observing and commenting upon Rook and Chess, so we don’t really get to see much of who he himself is. Files does hint at greater depths inside of him, so hopefully the honourable Mr. Morrow will grow a bit in the next books.

The writing style and structure is what I think will divide the people who read this book into those who like and those who don’t. It’s told in an odd mix of flash backs and present day scenes. I say odd because it feels uneven, like there will be three flashbacks and then a present scene and then a flash back and then five present scenes… Like when your iPod shuffle randomly throws up five songs out of ten by the same band? The flashbacks and present day scenes are not quite randomly placed, but not quite structured either, and it sticks out. The writing itself is highly stylised. I think Files definitely captured the voice of the setting. Think the southern twang that leaps of every page of a Sookie Stackhouse novel, or the British manners of Naomi’s Novik’s Temeraire books. If by the end of a novel I’m reading it in my head with an accent, then the author has been effective.

I will say that some of it got a little confusing for me. All of the Aztec names started to run together, but that’s probably because I am entirely unfamiliar with Aztec legends beyond what I’ve learnt from Mountain Goats albums. And there is a lot of religion. Like, A LOT. Rook’s powers come from the bible, like he reads a phrase and havoc is wrought. (Think turned people into pillars of salt, plagues of locusts, ect). Actually, and this coming from a die hard atheist, I found it be pretty unique and interesting. Normally I can’t stop yawning when reading about characters struggling with their religion and god and what have you, but Files definitely handled it pretty well. And she couldn’t very well have avoided it, with Rook being a once pious Reverend now killing people left and right and enthusiastically sodomising his boyfriend every chance he gets.

It is the first part in a trilogy, and the ending is definitely a first part of a trilogy kind of ending. So if you have the patience you might want to wait until they’re all out, but if you’re anything like me you’ll be snapping the next one up as soon is you can!

How did I get this book?
Bought it

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Review: Day By Day Armagedon: Beyond Exile, by J.L. Bourne

Hmmmmm. Did I enjoy this book as much as it’s predecessor, Day By Day Armageddon? Short answer: No. Long answer: also no. Shall I elaborate?

From a technical standpoint you have to concede that Beyond Exile is Day By Day’s superior. Technically. A lot of the “flaws” of the first book are absent here. The problem is, as you may have guessed by my quote marks. Is that I never thought of Day By Day’s flaws as, well, flaws. Did the plot tend to meander, which sudden narrative events coming out of nowhere? Yep. Was the majority of the action described to the reader after it had already happened? Yep again. But as I said in my review of that book, these things gave the novel a uniquely authentic feel. The plot and structure did not adhere to what one would expect from a novel, and as such the book felt like a genuine diary, instead of a book in diary form. This, for me anyway, lent to the book a level of suspense that it might otherwise have lacked.

Beyond Exile, however, reads like somebody took Bourne aside and explained that if he was going to be writing books then he’d best start learning the rules. The result feels very forced. Day by Day meandered, yes, but it felt natural, things happened randomly just like they do in real life. But Beyond Exile has a rather more structured plot, and when reading the book you can feel the author pushing his characters here and there. This neatly robs the book of the genuine diary charm, and without that the story definitely suffers.

And despite all this talk of structured plotting, I actually doubt that Bourne sat down beforehand and plotted this book out. Obviously I don’t know how it went down, but I’d bet money that both books were written in one go with no structured plan, but with Day by Day he was maybe ignorant of the “rules,” and with his sophomore effort a little bit too aware of them.

For example, early in the book a metric crap tonne of new characters (metric crap tonne being the academic term) are introduced and through a few highly coincidental plot twists our still unnamed narrator is put in charge of all of them. But you can practically hear the cogs turning in Bourne’s mind, realising that a man in command of many lives, who orders others to go do dangerous things instead of doing them himself, maybe isn’t the best POV character. But instead of rewriting the plot, he just twists it around until the problem is solved. As I’ve said already, it feels very forced.

But the book is not wholly flawed. A new character is introduced who I found very interesting, an Arab man who teams up with our Hero. Bourne skilfully toys with the reader, making us wonder “is he a terrorist? Isn’t he?” Which, I know, sounds like is could be awful and more than a little offensive, but works really well. I also like how the Hero’s relationship with a character from the first book develops into more, but almost entirely off screen. It gives the impression that there’s a lot more going on in his life than what he puts down on paper.

The ending? Pretty much as non existent as the first, neatly setting up the third book. Will I be reading that book? Yes. But I hope that Bourne develops a little confidence in his writing to write what he wants, and all “rules” be dammed.

How did I get this book? Bought it

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Review: The Castle Omnibus, by Steph Swainston

Ah, the omnibus. Many trilogies I would never had read if they'd not been released in omnibus form. It's three books for the price of one and a bit! Frankly, you'd be losing money if you didn't buy it! (Or so I tell I tell my boyfriend when yet another parcel of books appears on the doorstep...) If I'd had to have purchased the three books in the Castle trilogy, The Year of Our War, No Present Like Time and The Modern World, I know I never would have.

I mean, the plot sounded intriguing enough. An emperor dude has the power to make people immortal, but he grants the gift only to the man or woman that proves themselves to be the indisputable best at something. But you can't, like, be the best at ribbon curling, your skill has to be relevant to the centuries long war the emporer's been waging against an invading swarm of bugs. Jant is the best messenger at the world, because he's pretty good at learning new languages and diplomacy, but mostly its because he can fly and no one else can. Which seems a bit like an unfair advantage to me but there you go.

Sounds pretty cool, yes? But there were several things that turned me off. Firstly, Jant is a drug addict, hooked on a hallucinogenic called Cat. Man, I hate reading about drug addiction. Partly because I find books (and movies too) that deal with addiction tend to be too dark for my liking but mostly, having never been a drug addicit myself and therefor having no understanding of what it feels like, I get really frustrated. 'Hey, character x, have you tried just, you know, not taking drugs?' Also, the trilogy has garnered some pretty average reviews, the most troubling being that the characters are shallow and boring.

But, omnibus! So I bought, I read and, friends, I loved it. Loved it like my niece loves pink. (And believe me, the kid loves pink). Are the secondary characters somewhat 2d? Well, yes, but, but, I think that's the point. Because Jant, our erstwhile first POV narrator, is just a wee bit self centered. If the people around him seem to lack depth its because he's too busy checking out his reflection in the mirror to notice their depths. It obvious that Swainston is capable of writing fleshed out and complex character because that's exactly what Jant is.

There are three races in the book, humans and "Awains" (who are pretty much people with wings (who can't fly)) are the two who co-exsist quite happily and who we see the most of. But then there are the Rhydainne, (I may be getting the spelling wrong here, my book is out of arms reach), an odd race who live way up in the snowy mountains. They are extemely fast and insanely self serving. Their language doesn't actually have a word for "we," but it does have over fifty for drunk. (Jant says this is because it gets too cold they need to drink to stop their blood from freezing, but Jant says a lot of things...) Humans and Awains are very distrustful of Rhydainne, and so Jant often gets treated with suspicion or fear, on account of he's half Rhydainne half Awain. (This is how he can fly, super light Rhydainne bones combined with Awain wings).

Jant is a fascinating mix of both cultures. He craves acceptance and love, but at the same time his solitary Rhydainne nature shines through. He has a wife, for instance, but the only time he seems to think about her when she's not with him is when she's having an affair. And then it's only about how Jant feels, and not at all about her. He constantly twists situations around to serve himself, and has a constant stream of excuses ready to explain why he's never wrong, especially when he's taking drugs, and he's kinda always taking drugs. Dugs which, I haven't yet mentiond, teleport him to another world which reads like something China Mieville wrote and then decided was too weierd. The drug taking didn't bore as much as I expected it too, or even at all. I think Jants wicked sense of humour played a huge part in it, he kept taking drugs and screwng up and I just kept on forgiving him. Plus, Swainstone's descriptions of flying make it sound like just the coolest thing ever. There's something vicariously enjoyable about the constant envy Jant receives because he can fly.

The plot? Hmmm,well, ok. A lot seems to happen, but then you stop and think and realise that actually, nothing has happned. It also gets a little confusing at times, and story elements are set up to be important and then kind of go no where. But I can gaurantee that it will be different from any fantasy you've read before. And honestly, he plot could have been Jant goes to the market to by fruit but buys socks instead and I'd read it, solely because of Jant's voice. He made the whole trilogy for me, and is the reason I can't wait to get my hands of the prequel and I'm hoping like crazy that Swainston writes a sequel.

This book, I got it how? I bought it! (Long live the omnibus!)