Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Review: The Birthing House, by Christopher Ransom

A lot of horror, not that I'm any kind of expert in the genre, but it seems to me that a lot of horror is concerned with taking something familiar and twisting it. Making unsafe what was safe, making awful what was loved. Think clowns, or sweet little girls possessed by demons, or the quiet man next door turned into a zombie. And, of course, that old horror stalwart; the haunted house.

Because where are you supposed to be safer than within the walls of your own home? There's something uniquely unsettling about your own four walls turning on you, and nothing gets under my skin like a good old house haunting. Which is why, when I found myself in a department store faced with a truly depressing department store book display (Twilight! Books just like Twilight! Don't like Twilight? Then Jodi Picoult!) I pounced on Christopher Ransom's 'The Birthing House,' even though I'd never heard of it.

It turned out to be one of those books that presents itself in simply, but when you stop and think about you realised there was quiet a lot more going on then you first thought. Our hero, Connor, comes into some money and decides impulsively that a fresh start is just the ticket. So he leaves L.A. and buys a house in the country and tells his wife to join him, or not, whatever. (Not as harsh as it seems, his wife, Josephine, is not a very good wife, and possibly a cheater).

So far it's text book horror. Fresh start, countryside, new house. It's like he wanted to be haunted, right? Sure enough, it's not long before creepy happenings get to happening. Ransom haunts with an odd mix of subtle and ridiculously over the top. For example, Connor is in bed one night and he hears some odd scratching noises on the floor boards. Ransom expertly ratchets up the creepy factor with an agonizing slowness, and then the source of the noise is revealed to be a creepy ass little doll made of sticks. Still creepy, but it's also kind of like, 'wait? what?' It was a really unexpected juxtaposition of "modern" all show no tell horror and old school in your face horror.

Ransom builds the atmosphere expertly, with things growing steadily worse. Connor becomes more an more isolated from his wife, and this is mirrored by the growing feeling of wrongness in the house. Not surprisingly, what with the book's title, a lot of the books is concerned with sex and pregnancy. Not that there's an abundance of sex scenes, (I can remember two, maybe?). Ransom is much more subtle for that. (Mostly).

Which isn't exactly groundbreaking. House starts out great, house slowly turns out to be a seething pit of horror. Like I said at the start of this review, horror likes to make you think something is good and the reveal to be not so. And this is where Ransom impressed me. When the book opens you're really onside with Connor. He's a nice guy, and his wife seems like a bit of a jerk. And then, as the book goes on, you start to realise that just as Connor was wrong about his new house, it turns out that you the reader were kinda wrong about Connor.

I can't overstate how well Ransom pulled off Connor's character, and for me it totally makes the book. Again its that mix of subtle and not subtle that characterises the whole book. I don't want to say more on account of spoilers, so just trust me.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. It's a quick and easy read without being too simple to hold interest. I will say that for me the ending fell apart in a major way, but I'm notoriously hard to please with horror endings. And in any case, I enjoyed what came before enough to forgive it, for the most part.

How did I get this book? Bought it.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Review: The Conqueror's Shadow, by Ari Marmell

Note: In case it's not clear in the body of the review, I did not finish this book. It has been suggested (via anonymous comment, don't you love the internet?) that one should not share their thoughts on an unfinished book. Fair enough opinion. But for me, personally, reading why someone didn't like or finish a book is just as informative as reading why someone loved a book. I rarely finish books I am not enjoying, and if I didn't comment on them for that reason this blog would be severely unbalanced. So the post is staying. Advance apologies for anyone who gets upset. End note

So like many, many others I read Mieville's Kraken. I don't have any thoughts on that one that others (many, many others) have not posted, so I don't think I'll add another review to the teeming pile. Let's just say that overall I enjoyed it but upon completion my brain felt like it had run a marathon. I decided to read something light and easy to recover.

And The Conqueror's Shadow seemed like it would fit that bill. Except that I barely made it a quarter of the way in before I gave up and found something else to read.

What happened? My suspension of belief is what happened. You know, that ability to believe what ever outlandishness the author is selling you in order to enjoy the story. I've been reading pretty much exclusive sci-fi and fantasy since I was nine years old. I thought my suspension of disbelief was made out of the same stuff as Wolverine's bones. Unbreakable.

Talking dragons? Sure. Secret world of magic? Ok. Zombie plague? Why the hell not? I mean come on, I just read a book about a god-Kraken and my biggest issue was an excess of wordplay, not the idea of a missing squid heralding the end of the world.
But I just couldn't get my head to accept the premise of The Conqueror's Shadow long enough to enjoy it.

You see, there's this evil dark lord character, Corvus. The Scourge of the East or some such. He wants to rule the kingdom and devoted a great deal of effort to the cause, recruiting an army of orcs and goblins to do his bidding. Cities fall, countless innocent people are murdered, you know the drill.
Then something goes wrong, he nabs a young, pretty hostage and abandons his army. Fast forward a whole bunch of years and he's living the quite life on a little farm with the hostage, who's now his loving wife.

Corvus is now a loving father and doting husband and all round nice guy. And here's where the book lost me. I just couldn't buy it. This guy caused countless people untold suffering, and all in all he seems pretty ok with it.

The premise of this book really intrigued me. A now retired dark lord has to return to his old ways to save the land from a new rising evil. I was expecting a kick ass anti hero. Not necessarily haunted by his past, but at least affected by it. Something akin to Lucifer from Gaiman's Sandman series. But honestly, Corvus does not read like an anti-hero. He reads like a hero-hero, and if you didn't already know about the things he'd done you wouldn't suspect it for a second. I'm sorry, but if you were responsible for the fall of a whole bunch of cities and the deaths of thousands of people, you don't get to be a hero-hero. It's a deal breaker.

It's as though the author was worried the reader wouldn't be able to sympathise with an evil mass murderer, so he goes too far in the other direction to make us like him. Oh, he didn't want to kill all those people, it was a necessary evil and so on. Honestly, it made me lose respect for Corvus. If he had have stood behind the things he'd done it would have made for an interesting and unique perspective. The fact that he was such a nice guy made me dislike more, and above all I just couldn't believe it.

So, I stopped reading. Which means that as the book progresses Corvus might have dropped the nice guy facade, I don't know. If he does, feel free to tell me in the comments and I might give the book enough shot. Because it was written well enough, with a whole bunch of genuinely funny one-liners. And if your suspension of disbelief can handle it you may well get more out of this one than I did.

I bought this book.

Review: Let The Right One In, by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Mainstream literature. Am I right?

You see, I read speculative fiction. When I’m not reading speculative fiction I’m reading Young Adult. That’s it. I make no apologies, I read what I like and magic and teenagers just happens to be what I like. I think mostly it’s because I like crazy, larger than life, fantastic and awesome characters.

You know what kind of characters you tend to find in mainstream fiction? Realistic characters. People just like people you know. People you don’t doubt for even a second could really exist. It’s impressive. Like one of those painting that you almost can’t tell apart from a photo. Impressive. But how many crazy, larger than life, fantastic and awesome people do you actually know?

Exactly. So I tend to stick to my fantasy and my sci fi and my young adult. So imagine my surprise when I found myself reading a mainstream novel, quite by accident. I was tricked by promises of vampires and young adults, and instead found myself reading about Swedish alcoholics and dead beat Swedish dads. Plus, it’s set in the 80s. Everything is more depressing in the 80s.

Much of this book I spent not caring about how tight money was in 1980s Sweden, and not caring what happened to the tight knit group of depressing middle aged drinking buddies and definitely not caring about super religious and repressed rage having police officers. But! It wasn’t all too realistic depressingness, because the blurb on the back of the book wasn’t lying. Vampires and young adults! Also known as, what kept me reading.

I loved Eli and Oskar, and I loved every part of the book they were in. Like two damaged but hopeful helium balloons they lifted the whole book out of the realm of too-depressing-to-enjoy. Their relationship was sweet and delisghfully creepy. Also realistic. (It’s ok when young adults are realistic, because young adults are inherently optimistic. Even when Osker is being horrifically bullied there was still hope that things would get better).

I had thought, when I read that the book featured a 200 year old vampire in a 12 year old body that it would be a bit like Anne Rice’s bat shit crazy, old woman in a kids body, vampire Claudia. But not so. It’s not just physically that Eli does not age, emotionally there is an eternal air of “twelveness” about her. The mix of innocence and wisdom was fascinating.

I also liked the book leads you to subtly question the nature of violence. When and why is violence ok? It never comes right out and asks it, but by the end of the book I found that these were questions I was pondering.

I just wish there had of been a whole lot more Oskar and Eli and a whole lot less everyone else.

I bought this book

Friday, April 22, 2011

Review: The Long Price Quartet, by Danial Abraham

There was this fantasy series I loved like a mad thing when I was about fourteen or so, but I won’t say which one as I don’t want to spoil anyone. There was one character in particular I was very fond of, a dashing young prince. The trilogy, among other things, followed Prince Dashing on various adventures until he saves the land and his lady love and lives happily every after.

But the author did not stop with just this trilogy, he went on to write many (many, many) more set in the same universe, one of which was set seventy or so years after the original trilogy. This new trilogy opens with a courier announcing to a country town that the Prince from the first trilogy had died. At 80. By falling off his horse. Over ten years later and I still remember the specific details.

When you think about it, dying of natural-ish causes at 80 is pretty much the most anyone can ask for. And yet, I was gutted. It took me a long time to bring myself to return to the new trilogy, and I never was able to enjoy it fully. It was just too sad, seeing the characters I had loved so much become old and weak. In my mind Price Dashing had exsisted in his prime, but now that memory was replaced by 80 year old dead Prince Dashing. I just couldn’t shake the feeling of melancholy.

Which brings me to Daniel Abraham’s Long Price quartet. I've seen a lot of words getting used to describe these books: Underrated, amazing, masterpiece. And I’m not suggesting that those words aren’t apt, because they are, but for me only one descriptor truly applies; melancholy. Because like mystery author of my youth, Danial Abraham also employs the big jump forward. An average of fifteen years passes between each of the Long Price’s four volumes, so the characters we are introduced to as teenagers in volume one are nearing the ends of their lives by the last.

I mean, yes, these books are amazing. The world building is nothing short of stunning, and the prose is just beautiful. More than once I was stopped in my tracks by the sheer elegance of a metaphor or line of description. But it’s just so sad, watching the characters grow old.

Watching how time ravages not only their bodies but also their relationships with each other. Sad, but also pretty damn impressive. I myself have little experience with growing old, but it feels like Abraham nailed it perfectly. Writing from the point of view of a much older character isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it carries more gravitas in the Long Price. The older character watching the younger character making the same mistakes they did carries more weight somehow when you were in that characters head while the made the mistakes. I don't think I really understood the folly of youth v. the wisdom of age before.

It might be easy to think, with all this talk of aging, that the books lack excitement, (which is exactly what I would have thought, if I’d known about the time jumps before hand). But it’s not the case! Set aside the fact that Abraham's skill grows viably with each book, and so to does our bond with the characters strengthen, the plot of each book just gets more and more thrilling. The stakes are upped in each volume, so where the first books deals primarily with the relationships between the characters, by the fourth volume empires are crumbling. The third volume, An Autumn War, was my personal favourite of the bunch and an excellent example of how to build suspense, and how to build it damn well.

Overall, these books are bittersweet. It’s a unique experience to stick with characters well into old age, (at least in this genre), and watching them age is very sad. But then we also see the birth of new characters, and new hope, which balances out that sadness out. Kind of like real life, I guess.

So, is the Long Prince quartet an easy read? Not even a little bit. But you’d be mad to pass over it.

These books: I purchased

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Review: The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan

An alternate title for this book would be: Back Story: How to do it right! Somewhat less catchy than The Steel Remains, to be sure. But very, very true. I can’t think of any other books that fills in the back story of it’s characters as seamlessly as this one does. And guys, there’s a lot of back story.

The book is set a decade or so after a huge war, in which previously antagonistic nations had to band together to best an external threat. The narrative follows three hero’s of this war, Ringil, Archeth, and Egar as they each undergo their own little narrative quests which eventually merge into one big one. Ringil must return home, where he is a barely tolerated disgrace (because he’s a *gasp* homosexual!) and try to track down a cousin sold into slavery. Arceth is trying to learn how to work with a new emperor, and is trying to understand her own past. And Egar is struggling to feel content in his role as clan chief, while meanwhile his own brother’s plot to overthrow him.

It’s the kind of book where the back story is integral, where what happened before the story commences is just as important as what’s happening now. Think the first rise of Voldemort in the Harry Potter books, or the overthrow of House Targaryen in A Song of Ice and Fire. However, unlike those two examples, The Steel Remains is a relatively slim book. (Especially when you consider that it’s the first part of a fantasy trilogy… )And yet I have no trouble envisioning the war we never actually see, as though Morgan had spent chapters and chapters re-telling it, (which he does not).

The key, I think, is that Morgan assumes his reader possesses an ounce of intelligence. Such a simple thing, and yet so few authors really get it. You don’t have to spell things out. I know you want to make doubly sure that the reader understands this crucial bit of information, but guys, guys, seriously, you have to trust us! We’ll get it, and we’ll even thank you for making us figure it out ourselves. Isn’t it better to assume that smart people would want to read your book, instead of ones that need their hands held every step of the way?

Consider the three main characters of The Steel Remains, who I have already briefly mentioned. At no point does Morgan come out and say that they’re friends, or that they even know each other, and for much of the book none of their scenes overlap. But we slowly come to realise that all three fought in the war. Egar might briefly recall something that Ringil once said, or Ringil might have cause to think of Archeth, and their thoughts have such a perfect mix of affection and affectionate insult that only true friends can understand, that the reader knows these guys were close. It’s perfectly done, truly perfect.

When you finish this book it feels like you’ve been reading about these characters for twelve epic volumes, so well do you feel you know them. (I wish I could read about them for twelve epic volumes, because they’re a fascinating and entertaining bunch.) When the three are finally reunited it's as emotionally satisfying as if you'd been waiting for that moment to happen for years, instead of just a few hundred pages.

The minor characters are also excellently done. I want to draw particular attention to the Emperor. When first he is introduced I pretty much wrote him off. He's the spoiled son new to the throne, which had been held for many years by his wise father. He's selfish and mean and a terrible, terrible, ruler. Except, uh, maybe he's not? Rarely am I as surprised by a character as I was by this guy. Props to Morgan, for realz.

Morgan’s writing is an excellent mix of humour and darkness. But I don’t want to draw Abercrombie comparisons because it seems like every time a darker fantasy comes along now his name gets dropped. And anyway, I find Morgan’s characters to be real in a way that Abercrombie’s are not, less bleak for bleaks sake perhaps.

It will, I suspect, be a long wait for October and the continuation to this awesome trilogy.

This book: I bought