Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Review: Wolfsangel, by M.D. Lachlan

I back and forthed about buying this book for the longest time. When it was only newly released I dismissed it mostly because of its cover. But then I read some good reviews of it. But then I read some bad reviews. But then I read a really good review that made it sound right up my alley, and I came really close to buying it then. But then the author came over all passive aggressive on twitter over a mildly poor review of his book, and it turned me right off. Finally my finance got sick of me picking it up and putting it back whenever we were in a bookshop and bought it for me.

And my yes/no relationship with the book was destined to continue, as for the whole time I was reading it I kept changing my mind over whether or not I liked it.

The concept was a tick in the like box, definitely. A Norse king with no sons follows a prophesy to a village where he plans to pillage himself an heir. Problem is, the prophecy promised one baby boy, and he finds two...

However I found it really hard to get into Lachlan's writing style. It was too detached for me, and too often leaned on telling rather than showing. At times it was more like reading a newspaper article than a novel. It was like a man with no personal involvement was detailing something that had happened a long time ago, and the lack of warmth and immediacy really stopped me from becoming invested in the book.

And it really stopped me from caring about the characters, which as you know, is where a book lives or dies for me. It was frustrating, because while in the narrative the characters were treated almost clinically, in the dialogue they shone. Lachlan's dialogue was pretty brilliant, infused with genuine wit and life. Which only made all those stuff outside the quote marks seem all the less so. The MC Vali, for example, had some really funny one liners in his dialogue, yet in the narrative there was hint of him being witty, or being anything at all really.

It didn't matter so much during scenes of high action, and really these were then scenes I enjoyed most throughout the book. Lachlan has the knack of taking complicated battles and making them easy to follow, and exciting to boot. But in the quieter moments where you might expect to see some character development the book was sorely lacking, and action will only take you so far.

By the end I found I was skimming over the text in the barest way possible. I wanted to see how the book ended, but I didn't really care how it ended, if that makes sense.

The unanimous opinoion seems to be that the book's sequel, Fenrir, improves massively upon Wolfsangel. So I may continue on this series, but then again I may not.

This book: was bought for me

Friday, September 16, 2011

Review: Under The Poppy, by Kathe Koja

Love: it’s a triangle. War: is coming. Betrayal: is inevitable. Sex: watch out for the naughty puppets. product description

How did I even end up with this book? Do you know what it’s about? Puppets. Puppets! Fucking puppets man. I hate puppets. The creep me the hell out. And ‘Under the Poppy’ is just crammed full of them. In the literal sense, in that there is traveling genius puppeteer Istvan who has created and stolen a whole troupe of puppets with which he performs well received (and oft times risqué) shows all across 1800s Europe. But also in the metaphorical sense, in that Koja spends a lot of time examining who controls a mans strings, and what lengths one must go to cut them.

And it’s not just the puppets. This book? Is literary fiction. Do you see me reading literary fiction? No. I read about space ships and swords and post apocalyptic landscapes. And this book? Has none of those things. There’s nothing speculative at all, it’s not like, say, ‘The Book Thief’ where on the one hand it’s all literary but on the other hand it’s narrated by death, no, everything in ‘Under the Poppy’ is as it seems. (Except for Istvan’s creepy ass fucking puppets).

Again I ask, how did I end up with this puppet filled tome of magic-less literature? Actually, no, that’s not the right question. The right question how, given the abundance of puppets and lack of dragons, did I come to love this book so much? Because guys, seriously, I loved this book.

It barely even has a plot for crying out loud! Well, no, actually I think it does have a plot, I think it’s just that I wasn’t quite smart enough to follow it. Or maybe I was too distracted by the decadent prose to keep track of it? Ok, so, we’re in a brothel in the year eighteen something or other, somewhere in Europe, and there’s some sort of war going on. Rupert and Decca are the powners of said brothel, and it’s all business as usual until Decca’s brother Istvan (and his puppets) show up out of the blue. It turns out Dia is in love with Rupert, but Rupert loves Istvan, and Istvan loves Rupert too except that they’ve been parted for reasons most mysterious… Also they need to figure out a way to keep the brothel safe from the encroaching war.

At any given point in this book I was never entirely sure what was going in. There were a great many political machinations, and there a were a bunch of flashbacks to Rupert, Decca and Istvan’s childhoods as Oliver Twist-esque street urchins and then, just when I thought maybe I was getting the hang of it, the first half ends and the second half is basically a sequel set years in the future. Actually this second half was a lot easier for me to follow, and I don’t know if was written to be so, or if I was just settling into the unique grove of Koja’s prose.

In any case, it never really mattered to me that I was always a little lost. This book reminded me of a modernist painting, wherein the artist suggests what the subject is without ever actually coming out and painting. Koja hands nothing to the reader. She revels in the details, the smells and sounds of her European setting, and it’s from this that our understanding of what’s going on is formed. Each sentence is like a rich desert, layered and beautiful, and I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a book so much on a purely mechanical level.

The theme of masters and puppets is always at play in the book, although never obtrusively. I found that I didn’t notice it so much as I was reading, but after I was done I find myself thinking about what Koja was saying a lot. Who is the master of who, indeed.

Really there is nothing I didn’t love about this book. The ending was perfect and bittersweet, the characters to a one were exquisitely crafted, and the dialogue was a delight to read. It had that witty nature to it that only books set in bygone centuries seem to be able to get away with, like a well crafted dance that we’ve forgotten the steps to. Plus, Istvan and Rupert! Talk about your epic romance. Seriously.

What else can I say, but don’t let the disturbing puppets keep you from this truly amazing book.

This book: I bought

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Review: The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

Generally speaking I tend not to review books that have received crap loads of coverage on other blogs. It’s not that I don’t have opinions about them, but really what can I say about ‘Wise Man’s Fear’ or ‘Dances with Dragons’ that hasn’t been said ten different ways already? My way of thinking is that it's better to focus on books which maybe aren’t as well known, instead of books which any reader who stumbles across my blog will have heard of.

And then sometimes I’ll read a well known and oft reviewed book, in this case Lev Grossman’s debut ‘The Magicians’ and find I have some things I want to say about it.

If you’ve somehow never heard of this book I shall briefly describe it to you. And you if have heard of it, then you already know that I’m about to compare it to Harry Potter and Narnia. Because every single review of this book mentions both Harry Potter and Narnia. Quentin Coldwater gets accepted to a hidden school of magic where he learns that even when your life is literally magical that doesn’t mean it’s not going to also be boring and kinda aimless. Also he goes to Narnia. Fillory.

So I get why reviews most always mention Narnia, because the book is highly concerned with the place, or at least with Grossman’s version of it. But the Harry Potter comparisons (usually some form of ‘it’s Harry Potter for adults,’ or ‘it’s Harry Potter in collage!’) really bug me. Because, yes, ok, there’s a hidden magical school- but that’s literally the only similarity between the two books.

The mention of Narnia makes a lot more sense. Fillory pretty much is Narnia, just with two rams in place of Aslan and the Chatwin siblings in place of the Pevensies. And a lot more blood and sex. Calling the book grown up Harry Potter is annoying, calling it grown up Narnia kinda fits. But I don’t think it’s right to compare the two works. Grossman hasn’t written a Narnia knock off in the way that some might say The Wheel of Time is a Tokien knock off. He hasn’t tried to copy Narnia, rather the book is preoccupied with Narnia. Does that make sense? Grossman explores how we relate and escape into fiction. By taking a setting that a lot of people associate with magic and goodness, ie. Narnia, and twisting it into something wholly more dark and adult Grossman raises some interesting and confronting questions. Plus it’s just really cool.

The last thing I wanted to mention is the characters themselves. I held off on reading this book for ages because everyone was saying how unlikable Quentin and his friends are. So imagine my surprise when I finally read it (and I’m not going to lie, the reason I gave it a chance in the end is because I really love it’s cover…) and found that I didn’t find the characters to be unlikeable at all! I’ll admit I appear to be in the extreme minority here, because the unanimous decision seems to be that Quentin and co. are teenage dirt bags to a one. And it might just be that all the reviews had me expecting the worst, so that when I finally met them they turned out to not be as bad as I thought they’d be.

But whatever the reason I thought Quentin was a self absorbed twit who wanted to do the right thing, he was just never sure of what it was. Alice was (ha, I can’t believe after all my griping about it I’m going to say this…) a lot like Hermione Granger to me, annoying in an endearing way. Janet was abrasive, yes, but also fiercely loyal, and Josh was likeable to me as well. And Eliot… Well, Eliot in on the list of my all time favourite characters, easy. He wears his sarcasm and snobbery like protective armor, but it’s obvious that’s he’s damaged and hiding a lot of hurt inside. He’s the one I most want to see more of.

And soon enough I will, because the book’s sequel, ‘The Magician King’ is out now and won’t be languishing long in my to be read pile, let me tell you.

This book: I bought

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Review: Yarn, by Jon Armstrong

Normally when I’m about to review a book I’ll stare at the screen for a moment and reflect on the plot and characters, and what worked for me and what didn’t. Yeah, that’s pretty much impossible with Yarn. Whenever I think about this book my brain gets bombarded with neon colours and techno music. So I guess you could say that the book made a strong impression, but it’s all rather bewildering.

Bewildering is a good word to describe Yarn. Armstrong doesn’t give the reader even a second to get acclimatized to his setting, it’s BAM! GO from page one. The book is set on what I’m pretty sure is Earth, but way way way in the future. Fashion has become the driving force of everything, and huge cities have been built in the pursuit of it. Top fashion designers are rule like monarchs, and followers of differing styles happily murder each other in the streets. Written out like that it sounds a little ridiculous, but Armstrong flings it all at you with in such a frantic, adrenaline fueled way that you find your self just going with it. There’s no time to stop and think, and it results in an impressively immersive reading experience.

Armstrong labels it fashionpunk, and as much as it bugs me to see the suffix ‘punk’ tacked on to everything, it fits. Fashion is as integral to this world as steam engines are to steam punk, or computers to cyberpunk. Actually, I would say that Armstrong embraces it more fully than many authors do in their respective ‘punk’ genres. It’s most obvious in the book’s slang, which is extensive and fashion related. (Fashioning in place of fucking is one that tickled me for some reason). Armstrong offers no help in deciphering what the hell everyone is saying, and it’s not until quite a ways in that you start getting the hang of the vernacular.

The only thing that stops it from being just too much to deal with is the fact that the main character, Tane Ceder, is as much of an outside as we are. He's just as dumbstuck as the reader, so you feel as though you are least not alone in your confusion. It's an effective technique that stopped me from giving up in the book's early chapters. The book jumps between two time periods, the present in which Tane has become a major designer, and the past wherein Tane, who grew up tending corn, comes to the city for the first time.

The plot is interesting, and manages to not get overwhelmed by the frenetic setting. Actually, the plot is pretty complicated as well. I’ve sitting here for a while trying to sum it up and I just can’t. There are all these seemingly disparate threads (ha, threads, see what I did there?) that come together neatly (and awesomely) at the end. There’s the murder Tane witnesses. There’s conspiracy theories and assassination attempts. There’s the mysterious death of Tane’s father, and what the faceless corporation that owns the sinister cornfields he grew up in has to do with it. There’s the hunt for a banned type of wool which works as a powerful drug. There are gang wars between rival fashion houses. And there’s a love interest, of course, and an adventure in an air balloon made of some fantastic material.

Really, there’s a whole lot of everything. Reading this book was like chugging three cans of red bull and going white water rafting while looking through a kaleidoscope.

Truly insane. And also pretty damn brilliant.

This book: I won from The Ranting Dragon

Monday, September 12, 2011

Review: The Rai Kirah Trilogy, by Carol Berg

Alright, let's get this out the way straight up. That first cover is ridiculous. And not in a good way. I mean, who looked at that image of a scantily glad gentlemen with enormous green wings on a cliff top and thought, "yup, perfect." I mean, the covers for "Revelation" and "Restoration" aren't exactly awesome either, but compared to 'Transformation...' Yikes.

Which sucks. Because I suspect that that cover is bad enough to stop people from reading this book. Lord knows it came within an inch of stopping me. Which would have been my loss, because crap-tastic packaging aside, these books are surprisingly good.

Aleksander is the heir to an aggressive, conquering empire. Seyonne is a once proud warrior turned slave. Together, they fight crime! Ha, not really. Well, actually...

Ok, so Seyonne's people were this tiny, insular culture who have spent centuries waging a secret war against demon kind. They were the one thing holding back the hoard until, whoops, Aleksander's people come along to butcher and enslave them all. Good going guys.

Berg is skilled at presenting complicated things simply. She doesn't borrow any established mythology for her demons and demon hunters, everything is original to the books. And yet I never had any trouble following it or keeping things straight in my head. Plus, it was very cool, which always helps. I also felt that the various races in the books didn't model "real" cultures too heavily, which was a refreshing change from most fantasy novels I read.

The premise is what grabbed me first though. As a slave Seyonne, who used to be the best demon killer, focuses solely on the present as a way of surviving his slavery. Then he ends up being purchased by Aleksander and noticing, against his better judgement, that Aleksander has some seriously bad ass demon out to get him.

Does Seyonne remain true to the precepts he grew up following, or will his hate get in the way?

The main thing that kept striking me over and over as I read these books is how well done the friendship between Aleksander and Seyonne is. All too often in books if a relationship between two characters is focused on it will inevitably become romantic in nature. True friendship is a rarer best, and I think one harder to pull off. But Carol Berg does it in this trilogy and I was mightily impressed.

Both characters change considerably over the course of three books, and for the most part Berg does not take any easy routes. It's not until we reach the very end of the trilogy that I felt things got a little too neat and rainbows, but I probably only noticed it because she'd been so unflinchingly realistic up until then. I mean, odds are a man enslaved for sixteen years is not going to able to fit neatly back into his old home. Odds are childhood sweethearts are not going to live happily ever after. There are certain things we're used to seeing in fantasy novels, certain ways that things tend to play out, but Berg rarely follows convention. Although please note that while she didn't pull any punches, these books by no means fall into the category of dark fantasy. I don't know how she pulled it off, but all those "dark because dark equals reality yo" authors might benefit from checking these books out.

And there's one last things I want to give Berg props for. You might think as I've only mentioned Seyonne and Aleksander that these are dude heavy books. Not so! The supporting cast is large and populated with fleshed out three dimensional people (and demons) and her female characters in particular were very well done.

Now all props aside I will say that as enjoyable as I found this trilogy, I felt there was a lot of potential that wasn't realised as well. By the end I felt there were just too many things going on at once, and some story lines were seriously neglected or too hastily wrapped up.

But despite that, as embarrassing as it might be to be seen reading a book with such an awful cover, I really think you should give this trilogy a try.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Review: A Rope Of Thorns, by Gemma Files

One of the most unique reading experiences for me in a long time was Gemma Files' "Book of Tongues." (I recommend reading that one before reading this review.) The book was not without its flaws, but I'd take flawed and interesting over perfect and safe any day of the week, believe me.

Not surprising then that I dived straight into its sequel, and book two of Hexslinger trilogy, "Rope of Thorns" as soon as it arrived at my doorstep. As always with a sequel I began with a small amount of trepidition. Would this book be as good as the first one? All too often it seems that the answer to that question turns out to be no. But not this time my friends. Not this time!

I loved "Rope of Thorns." It was everything "Book of Tongues" didn't quite manage to be, and all of the faults (all of them!) that I found with the Hexslinger Trilogy's first book had been addressed.

Despite having a lot less narrator time this go around, the character of Ed Morrow finally became real to me. There's a genuine goodness in Ed that's lacking from the other men in these books, but for all that he's just as capable as Chess or Rook as committing acts of great violence. It was a contrast I found fascinating.

Instead of Ed most of this book was told from the point of view of Mister Chess Partager himself. I didn't reread "Book of Tongues" before starting this one (way too eager!) but I'm fairly sure there wasn't any Chess point of views in it. He's an enigmatic figure in many ways, and when I realised I was seeing things through his eyes I was concerned that it would "ruin" the mystery of him. Not so! If anything the greater insight into the workings of Chess's, uh, shall we say unique? mind only made him more interesting to me. And more sympathetic, by a mile!

Ah, poor Chess. Rook's monstrous betrayal has changed him, that's for sure. And you have to feel for the guy. There's one scene where he has to stay in disguise while a song is sung about how every bad thing Rook ever did is pretty much all Chess' fault, and I don't remember the last time I felt so keenly for a character. I kept oscilating between wanting Chess and Rook to somehow work things out, and and wanting Chess to just blow Rook's smug head clean off. Or maybe some combination of both?

We have some new characters this time around, the most noteworthy of this being Experiance "Yancy" Kloves, who neatly takes care of complaints that these books lack women. Yancy is a capable, practical young woman, but she manages to be so while staying true to the time period, in my opinion. There was a dry humour to her point of view that really appealed to me, and I enjoyed watching Chess try and figure out exactly what to do with her.

Personally my biggest issue with "Book of Tongues" was that the plot tended to jump around a bit haphazardly. But in "Rope of Thorns" things are pretty much linear. There's an interlude set in Rook's newly founded Hex city (very interesting. It was satisfying watching him realise the enormity of his mistakes, and I'll be very interested to see how things in Hex City play out in the next book) but other than that we stick with Chess and his entourage, without even any flashbacks.

Really "Rope of Thorns" is everything you hope for in a sequel, but so rarely get. The plot is advanced, a greater understanding of characters is granted, new and interesting characters are introduced. Files' prose remains a delight to read, the cadence of her sentences captures the wild west setting perfectly, and the images she paints are a fascinating mix of frontier practicality and magic bred surrealism.

Role on "Tree of Bones."

This book: I purchased

Review: The Wraeththu Omnibus, by Storm Constantine

So whenever I think about how "good" a book is there always appears in my mind a spectrum. On one end we have PLOT and on the other end there is CHARACTER. I feel like the books that could most objectively be called "the best" fall right smack in the middle of these two things, a perfect mix of plot and characters. But to be honest the books I love best tend to be way unbalanced, in favour of the character side of things. Objectively I can admit that these books might not be the most expertly crafted, but I care not at all. It's characters or GTFO for me folks, all the way.

Storm Constantine's Wreaththu trilogy (read by me in a convenient omnibus version) was the perfect example of this. Most of the reviews I see of these three books (that aren't dealing with the role playing game that has apparently been developed around them) complain that the plot is a bit lacking. And they're right. I can see that they're right. Do I care? Not really. Because dude, I dug these books.

The premise that at some point in the future humanity has began to evolve intoa higher form called wraeththu. Wraththu are beautiful and awesome and just, like, so totally superior to mankind in every single way. Or so they like to think of themselves. Really the wraeththu are just as flawed as man is, just in slightly different ways. The blurb of the omnibus edition made out like these books would deal with mankind's struggle not to be replaced. Which was crazy misleading, because there is no struggle. Mankind has lost. It is the final twilight of man. Really the books deal with the the establishment of wraththu society, and how the new race struggles to find it's own identity without falling into the same behaviors that ruined mankind.

The three books span a decent amount of time, and when we start out the wraeththu are little more than separate waring tribes, and by the end we see that civilizations start to form. This isn't the point to the books and mostly happens in the background, but it's pretty cool to see the subtle evolution.

I will say that the fact they were written in the 80s shows like crazy. The apololyptic wasteland of the first book just screams early nineties, mad max/tank girl, and the extended ruminations of gender read as dated to me. But still interesting. The wraeththu are both male and female, and they either start of as male humans and are "turned" to wreaththu, or, later in the series, pure wraththu babies start being born. The contrast in how turned and born wraththu dealt with gender was fascinating.

You'll note I still really haven't talked about plot. It's not fair to say that there is no plot, because there is! Book 1 deals with turned wraeththu Pelaz, who is being groomed by a higher being to be the supreme emporer of the world. The only problem is Pelaz' unforturnate choice of lover, Cal. Of the three books this was my least favourite, as Pelaz is a fairy cold and removed protagonist. It's not terrible though, but the final two volumes are worlds better.

Book two, and my favorite, revolves around born wraeththu Swift. It's basically a coming of age tale, and I'm a sucker for the coming of age tale. And it's a really good one. Swift's father is just a little bit evil (but still painfully sympathetic to the reader), and his hostling (mother, basically) is just a little bit batshit insane, and poor Swift is one of the first pure wraeththu babies to be born, so it's not like he has anyone to tell him what to expect as he grows up.

The last book focus' on Cal, who continues to be the spanner in the works of many a well laid plan, as he fights against his ineviable destiny. Cal is. Well. Cal is Cal. Beautiful and sharp and funny and more than a little bit broken. This is the only book he narrates, but he appears across all three and it was a delight to watch how our understanding of him grows as we see him from first Pelaz's point of view, and then Swift's, and then finally his own.

Really, if you're going to read these books, you're going to do it for the characters. They're beautifully written, sympathetic and consistent. The plot? I mean, yeah, it's there. But the endings get wrapped up way too easily (more often than not by using the power of magical wreaththu sex. No really), but the flaws in plotting do not at all detract from these books. Assuming you love characters as much as I do, that is.

I bought this omnibus