Friday, November 18, 2011

Review: Deadhouse Gates, By Steven Erikson

I don’t think I’ve encountered a single Malazan fan who doesn’t think that the second book in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series, Deadhouse Gates, is better than the first. So I’m hardly being original when I say this, but it still has to be said. Deadhouse Gates is a much better book than Gardens of the Moon.

And it’s not like Gardens of the Moon was a bad book, because it really, really wasn’t. Honestly I’m having trouble even identifying what it is about Deadhouse Gates that makes it seem so improved. This is going to sound ridiculously corny, but the only way I can describe it is to say that Deadhouse Gates has heart. I read Gardens of the Moon with half of my mind enjoying the story, and the other half analyzing it and trying to figure out what everything meant. As I said in my review of the book, to me Gardens of the Moon felt like a challenge. An enjoyable one, yes, but I was too busy trying to keep up to really immerse myself in the story.

This was not even slightly the case with Deadhouse Gates. The book certainly no less challenging than Gardens of the Moon (sure, we know who a bunch of people and events are now, but Erikson goes ahead and dumps a crap tonne more on you, lest you start getting cocky). All I know if while I read Gardens with an analytical mind, I read Deadhouse Gates totally and completely involved in the story. I didn’t take nearly as close a note of all the comments and references, but weirdly I feel as though I followed this one better.

There’s a scene, no spoilers here I promise, following a large battle where Erikson had me almost in tears. He had me felling truly wretched. And then only pages later there’s a scene where Coltraine is talking to the Malazan sappers (I'm sure anyone who has read the book will know what I'm talking about) and there I was with the huge, goofy grin on my face. I’m rarely very expressive when I read, but I think it would have been comical to watch my face while I read this book. Constant frowns and gasps and laughter.

The characters, both those we’d already met and newly introduced ones, went from being interesting people to being people I desperately cared about. And I think I just hit on why I found this book to be so much better. The characters. (Of course. Isn’t it always the characters?) When, for example, what happened to Crokus’s uncle in Gardens of the Moon happened, I thought it was some pretty cool writing but I wasn’t really sad or anything. But when what happened to, well, I could name pretty much any character from Deadhouse Gates here, happened, I was a wreck. I was right there with them, cheering or sobbing. Mostly sobbing. (Damn you Erikson!)

When I finished it I felt like I had run a marathon. I felt like I’d crossed the desert in Coltaine’s Chain of Dogs. In part because I normally average two books a week, and this thing took me almost a solid month to get through. But also because Erikson does not spare the reader at all. What his characters go through, you go through. And believe me, Erikson is not nice to his characters.

While I think I need to break from the Malazan world to recover (and I mean that in the best possible way) I look forward to continuing on in this series. I especially can’t wait to see Erikson’s improved skills applied to some of my favourite characters from Gardens of the Moon, like Anomander Rake or Whiskyjack. Or Quick Ben. Or Palan. Or, oh, Kruppe! And we can’t forget Brood… And I wonder if we’re going to meet that Prince who’s heading the Crimson Guard? And what about Tattersail? And, and, and….

I bought this book

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Review: The Terror, by Dan Simmons

I am definitely a summer person. The cold and I do not get along. I spend all the winter months miserable and complaining, happy only when I'm sitting pretty much on top of a crackling fire with a book. I'm talking three blankets and a hot water bottle and I still can't feel my toes. (Meanwhile on the other side of the bed my fiance is happy with just a sheet. How is this fair?)

And yet, I don't think I know what cold really is. I mean come on, I've spent my whole life in Australia. I've never even seen snow. I think I'm a passing expert on heat, but cold? I'll defer to the crew of the ill-fated Terror on that one.

Spare a thought for these guys. They sailed off in an attempt to find the north west passage fully expecting, and this is the part that blows my mind, they fully expected to be stuck in ice for years of end. Stuck. In ice. For years. The ocean they were sailing through literally starts to freeze and instead of freaking out they're all, 'yup, that's about right.' It wasn't an unpleasant surprise, it was part of the game plan!

Are you kidding me? And that's not even fiction! Dan Simmons' 'The Terror' has its roots in true events. There have existed men who were willing to set out on an expedition fully knowing that they were going to BE TRAPPED IN ICE FOR YEARS AND YEARS WHAT IS THIS I DON'T EVEN?

To me, being ice bound for months with the same men for company and dwindling food supplies would supply enough horror for one book. And Simmons certainly goes to town with it. The pages of The Terror just reek of desperation and boredom and that brittleness that comes from constantly being on the edge of hysteria. And the cold... Reading this book will put a chill in your bones, Simmons captures the oppressive cold so well.

Second in charge Crozier is the man who has to keep the men from killing each other. He's also an alcoholic who has to keep from killing himself when the rum runs out. He also has to worry about the ship which is slowly being crushed by the ice and the food which is spoiling too fast and, there's something else he has to worry about, what was it...

Oh yes. The freaking ICE MONSTER! Not content with fully exploring the unique blend of claustrophobic horror that results from a whole bunch of men, some good men and some not so much, being forced into close and freezing confinement for years, Simmons also throws into the mix an ice monster to pick them off one by one. (I hope that the ice monster is where the true facts end and the fiction begins, but who can say?)

Can you just picture it? Standing on the deck of a ship trapped in ice, your viability is shot, everything is white and cold and you hear a rustle. The wind? Or the ice monster come to eat you? Having read The Terror I can picture this. I can picture it all too well, because Simmons captures the atmosphere of it all perfectly.

The ice monster terrified me. And all the more so because Simmons creates such engaging characters that I really didn't want to see them get eaten. (Well, most of them). Crozier in particular was fantastically done. A deeply flawed man who nevertheless has to hold everything together, even though he knows he's not really up to the job.

As anyone who's ever read a zombie book already knows, the real monster always turns out to be man. And as The Terror progresses and things go from worse to worser, this becomes all too clear. The ice monster is a thing to inspire terror, but it doesn't even come close to the evils men are capable of.

We may never know what happened to the crews of the real Terror and Erebus, but I hope for their sakes that is was a nicer fate than the one Simmons dreamed up for them.

This book: I bought

Friday, November 11, 2011

Review: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs

Now this is one stylish book. The pages are heavy and the font is beautiful. There’s some nice, brown decorative scrollwork on the page bottoms and ample photographs litter the pages. Plus the whole thing has this really delightful antique feel to it. It looks like the books my Nana’s bookshelf used to be filled with, like ‘What Katie Did’ and ‘The Secret Garden.’ Just lovely.

What a shame then that all of this thoughtful packaging houses a story that, while not terrible, is certainly nothing special. For all the book’s packaging screams ‘look, look! I’m old! And super creepy’ the story itself is standard young adult fare. It’s not even horror, which seems a crime given all the creepy photos throughout the book. It’s basically just a slightly more fantastical x-men.

But it started out so promisingly! Jacob grows up listening to his grandfather’s stories of monsters, which he eventually comes to dismiss as fairy tales. But then his grandfather is brutally killed by a creature that appears to one of the very monsters he used to talk about.

There’s this really wonderful tension throughout the book’s early chapters. And it’s not ‘will the monsters get Jacob?” It’s, ‘are the monsters real?’ Did Jacob catch a glimpse of a monster fleeing from his grandfather’s corpse, or is he just suffering from post traumatic stress? It’s genuinely unclear, and I thought the book was going in a really unique and dark direction.

But then all of this ambiguity is wiped away and in the space of a few pages the book goes from being something original and thought provoking to something we’ve seen many times before. I can’t talk too much about the latter part of the book on account of spoilers, but I will say there is nothing even vaguely creepy or scary about where the book ends up going. I don’t mean that it tries to be creepy and fails, I mean that it’s just not something the author even tries to do. And normally I wouldn’t even think to complain that a book isn’t creepy, except that the way this book is packaged promises an atmosphere of creepiness, so I went in expecting it. Who could look at those old photos and not expect to be creeped out?

Honestly, even without the false promise they offer, I could have done without those photos. It was obvious that they weren’t created specifically for the book, rather the author had dug them all up. Which is cool and all, but too often it felt like he was unnaturally twisting the plot just to fit the photos. There were just all of these long, complicated descriptions that were just there to justify the pictures inclusion in the book. It was like a game! This photo has a girl holding a chicken, how do we make that relate to the story? Plus, and this is probably more of a personal thing, but I found it jarring to form my own mental images and then be faced with photographs that looked completely different.

But despite all of these complaints the story itself is solid enough. The cliffhanger ending is more than a little annoying, but overall I enjoyed it. I just think, had the book been packaged more appropriately, I wouldn’t have been weighed down with pre-conceived notions and I would have been able to enjoy it a lot more. I am definitely all for beautiful books, but what’s the point if the story inside doesn’t match?

I bought this book

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Review: Gardens of the Moon, by Steven Erikson

Everywhere I looked there were people saying how complicated and hard Gardens of the Moon (and the Malazan series as whole) is to follow. Which is the best thing that could have happened, really. Because it meant that I went into this book with the right mindset. I was ready to put the effort in, to read every word instead of skimming and give deep thought to the most offhand of comments. Not just ready, I was looking forward to it.

And in the end, I didn’t find Gardens of the Moon to be nearly as complicated as I was expecting. Kinda like when a book is hyped everywhere and you find it to be not so great.
Not that I’m saying Gardens of the Moon is a light and easy read. If I hadn’t gone in well prepared I doubt I would have stuck with it. As it was it took me three times as long to read as a normal book. But if you give it your full attention and really concentrate on everything then you’ll be ok. Mostly.

Reading Gardens of the Moon… To me it was like picking up book four in a twelve book series and trying to keep up. A whole bunch of really important stuff has already happened and the characters all know each other and have complicated histories. And it’s not a book four written by one of those authors who recaps every little thing, no it assumes that you just finished reading the first three books or at the very least you looked up some recaps on the wikipedia, so you know what’s going on.

Except, you know, there are no previous three books. Gardens of the Moon is book one, and if ever the proverb sink or swim was appropriate it's here. You just have to go with it, keep reading even though you have no idea what’s going on and trust that it will become clear.
And the best part it that, slowly, it does. Or at least it starts to. And trust me, it’s worth it.

Gardens of the Moon revolves around the efforts of the Malazan Empire to add another continent to its growing list of conquered lands. The scope of this thing is breathtaking. The book pretty much opens with a battle so epic it feels like it should be the climax of the whole series, not just the opener. And things barely slow down after that.

How many of you have seen the Final Fantasy VII movie, Advent Children? My fiancĂ© is a fan of it, and I remember watching the special features once and the director said something along the lines of ‘every time we considered adding something, we asked our selves; does it look cool?’ Which shows in the film, because everything looks really cool. But underneath the coolness is, well, not much of anything.

Erikson may well have written this book with the same question in mind. Everything in the book is just really, really cool. The immortal Anomander Rake and his terrifying sword of doom? Cool. The magical warrens that mages tap for their powers? Cool. Elite military unit the Bridgeburners? Oh my god, so freaking cool. Except unlike with Advent Children, it’s not all show. This book has more depth than the ocean, and it’s twice as difficult to reach the bottom of.

Not that everything is all serious and thought consuming. There are moments of genuine humour scattered liberally about. I was actually really surprised with how funny the book was. Erikson has a good eye for when to break the darker moments with something lighter, which I as a reader appreciated.

At the end of the day you’ll only get out of Gardens of the Moon what you put in. It’s a love it or hate it kind of deal, I think. Personally, I can’t wait to read the other nine books in the series, and to see if things get any clearer or just a whole lot more complicated!

I bought this book