I read the first book of Naomi Novik's Temeraire series last spring, and as I noted in my very brief review it was a lot of fun. As regular readers of this site will know, I have soft spots for both fantasy and Napoleonic-era British historical fiction, so the combination of the two would be right up my alley--indeed, I can only think of one other book that falls into both categories, and I gave it a positive review, too. In any event, I'd been meaning to return to Novik's series, so after Christmas when I had some spare cash, I picked up the second and third books. I liked those so much that I went ahead and bought the remaining four, and tore through all six in just over three weeks.
The series imagines an alternate version of the Napoleonic Wars in which dragons are real, and the major world powers all have aerial corps made up of dragons and their aviator crews. It is, I suppose, sort of a silly concept, but it's an extraordinarily entertaining one, too. Over the course of the seven books, we follow the adventures of Captain William Laurence and his dragon companion, Temeraire, through war, diplomacy, intrigue, and exploration across five continents and even more cultures. There's action, of course, and the old-fashioned style was spot-on for me. But more than that, I found myself quite drawn in by the ways in which Novik explored the different facets of how life and history would be different if there were a second sentient species, and I found her alternate universe to be interesting and well-realized.
It's not serious or weighty "literature," but I found the Temeraire series thoroughly enjoyable, and if a light, fantastic adventure is your idea of a good time, I recommend it.
If I were, I suppose, a less realistic fellow, I would probably make a New Year's Resolution about staying on top of my reviews, instead of letting five months go by before getting down to it. But, to borrow from the inestimable William Goldman: "We are men of action; lies do not become us."
Let's get down to it then, shall we?
Little, Big, by John Crowley: As regular readers may know, one of my favorite authors in any genre is Gene Wolfe. So when I heard that John Crowley, and particularly his book Little, Big, were important to understanding Wolfe, I immediately put it on my list. Having finished it, I can see a lot of similarities to Wolfe; there are also echoes of Steinbeck and Gabriel García Márquez. It took me a long time to read it, it was difficult and took work to understand, and even having finished it and having had several months to think about it, I'm sure that there's a lot I missed. Yet just like a Wolfe novel, the prose was beautiful, the story was layered and profound, and the experience, though challenging, was deeply rewarding.
Little, Big is the story of Smoky Barnable, who at the beginning of the book meets the beautiful and enigmatic Daily Alice Drinkwater, and goes on a journey to fulfill a prophecy and marry her. It's also the story of the complicated history of the Drinkwater family, their roots and their destiny. It's also the story of the strange house that the Drinkwaters live in, which sits on the edge of two worlds. And most of all it's a fairy tale, but the older, darker, twistier sort of fairy tale. It's a beautiful though often puzzling story, and filled with little pearls, some of which have stuck in my brain. This one, for example:
"Cloud had said: it only seems as though the world is getting old and worn out, just as you are yourself. Its life is far too long for you to feel it age during your own. What you learn as you get older is that the world is old, and has been old for a long time."
I am certain that I'm going to revisit this book some day, and I'm equally certain that when I do, I'll discover all sorts of nuggets I didn't notice the first time. It'll be a while before I'm ready to put in the time again, but when I do, it'll be worth it. (Read 4/11/2012 - 7/9/2012.)
The Sharing Knife, by Lois McMaster Bujold: It seems to be a bit of a pattern for me that what I like most about Bujold's books is the setting. This series, comprising four novels (Beguilement, Legacy, Passage, and Horizon), follows an unlikely couple on a series of adventures exploring their world and its magic. Fawn is a young woman who leaves her farm to make her own way in a nearby town after her boyfriend gets her pregnant and then leaves her. Dag is a Lakewalker, a member of a roving patrol dedicated to keeping the land safe from malices--ravening monsters who feed on life energy.
I've heard that this series was intended as Bujold's experiment with blending the romance and fantasy genres. For me, the strength of the series is as usual for her writing: an intriguing and well-imagined world with a rich (if sometimes frustratingly unexplored) backstory; a novel system of magic, the consequences and details of which are well explored; and a (mostly) interesting cast of characters. Where I personally felt it lacked compared to Bujold's other work was in the more romance-y parts--Dag is a little too competent, Fawn is a little too much of a diamond in the rough, and much of the character tension felt a bit melodramatic. Still, I read the entire series in just a few days, so you can tell I was entertained. (Read 7/13/2012 - 7/18/2012.)
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender: What if you could taste the emotions of whoever made the food you were eating? What insights would it give you into the people around you, and would you be able to bear it? In Aimee Bender's book, this is exactly what happens to the protagonist, Rose Edelstein, on her ninth birthday. We follow Rose through her childhood and early adulthood, as she learns to cope with this affliction, as well as to deal with what she inadvertently learns about the people around her. It's a beautiful book, lyrical at times, and with a haunting ending. Fantastic stories give us the opportunity to explore the familiar experiences of life in new ways, and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake does it better than most any story I've read in a long time, fantasy or otherwise. Highly recommended. (Read 10/12/2012 - 10/16/2012.)
Summerland, by Michael Chabon: I think Michael Chabon may just be the perfect writer for me. Perhaps not, but in any case he clearly thinks about and loves many of the same things I do. In The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay he showed his interest in the 1940's and the golden age of comics. In Manhood for Amateurs, his anecdotes about being a father, a son, a husband, and an American felt so familiar that it almost felt like he could have been talking about me. And now with Summerland he shows that he loves a fable, a fantasy, and a coming-of-age story just as much as I do. Summerland is a fairy tale drawn from the legends of many cultures--including Norse, Irish, and Native American myths and folklore--but told in a deeply American way. It's a YA novel, but like the best YA it holds up just as well for more mature readers. I absolutely adored this book, and I can't wait for my kids to be old enough for it. (Read 10/31/2012 - 11/6/2012.)
The New American Economy, by Bruce Bartlett: This book is somewhat inflammatorily subtitled "The Failure of Reaganomics and a New Way Forward." So I was a bit surprised at how much of it the author dedicates to defending the basic principles of supply-side economics. On the other hand, he also spends a good deal of time explaining and defending the roots of Keynesian economics, as well, so it does seem fairly even-handed, at least from a historical perspective. To sum up the general thesis of the book, Bartlett argues that both Keynesian and supply-side economics were developed to respond to very specific economic problems, and while each was very good at dealing with those specific problems, both encountered difficulties when they were expanded beyong their initial intentions. In the last chapter, Bartlett goes on to explain why he feels that spending cuts alone will be insufficient to solve our nation's fiscal issues, and why he believes that consumption-based taxes--and particularly a VAT--is the best way to raise new revenues. I'm not sure that I buy every aspect of Bartlett's argument, but if nothing else I found this book to be clearly written, easy to understand, and it gave me an interest in doing further research of my own. (Read 11/8/2012 - 12/19/2012.)
The Odd Life of Timothy Green: Back in August, Juliette and I had a rare date night and decided to go out for dinner and a movie. Unfortunately, the movie we planned to see--I can't remember which it was--was sold out, so we ended up seeing Timothy Green instead. There's not a whole lot I feel I need to say about it. The writing was mediocre and the acting wasn't much better, but even so, it was fine. Not particularly good, but not terrible, either. (Viewed 8/17/2012.)
The Campaign: This may sound like thin praise, but this was probably one of the better Will Ferrell movies I can recall. Of course, that was largely due to the presence of Zach Galifianakis, who imbued his performance with an earnestness that was quite surprising. I know that that may sound a bit hyperbolic--after all, the movie overall is a pretty broad and crass comedy. Still, there was something kind of touching about Galifianakis' Marty Huggins, without which I don't think the movie would have worked nearly as well without it. (Viewed 9/1/2012.)
Argo: I'm sure that by now everyone has heard all about how amazing this movie is, how skillfully the tension was built, how masterful the performances were. Certainly I heard all of that before we went to see it. I kind of wish I hadn't, because I'm pretty sure that there's no way that any movie could have lived up to the hype showered on this one. Mind you, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I certainly thought it was well done. But to hear some people talk about it, Argo was a tour-de-force, a masterpiece, and while I liked it quite a bit, I don't see myself coming back to it in the same way that I regularly revisit, say, Casablanca, or even The Big Lebowski. (Viewed 10/19/2012.)
Wreck-It Ralph: Given the importance of video games in my childhood--especially the games of the Atari and 8-bit eras--you'd think that Wreck-It Ralph would have my name written all over it. It didn't quite push all the right buttons--though not for lack of trying--but I did enjoy it pretty well. Moreover, I got to see it with Jason, and getting to share a movie experience with my son always improves it for me. The nerdy/retro game references were fun for the most part, even if they felt a bit shoehorned in at times, but what really worked for me were the scenes between Ralph and Venelope--there was an honest cuteness and nice chemistry between the two characters and their voice actors, which I quite liked. In any case, I'm sure that we'll be buying this one when it comes out on disc, since Jason loved it so much. I won't mind when we do. (Viewed 11/17/2012.)
Silver Linings Playbook: The last movie I saw this year turned out to be the best. David O. Russell's mixture of mental illness and rom-com tropes was one of the most refreshing and interesting takes on the romantic comedy genre I've ever seen. It was funny without being forced or clichèd, the humor stemming from genuine interaction and fully realized characters. It was also emotionally rich--heartbreaking at times, joyous at others. The performances were outstanding, including, of course, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as the leads, but Robert DeNiro very nearly stole the show with his portrayal of the protagonist's obsessive-compulsive father. I'm so glad to have ended the year on this movie, because it was just about perfect at what it did. (Viewed 12/22/2012.)
Catching Up: Books
I always have the best of intentions to remain current with my reviews, and yet half a year has gone by again with nary a one. So it goes. Let's see what we can do to catch up, shall we?
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz: The friend who gave me my copy of Manhood for Amateurs also gave me this one. Oscar de Leon is an overweight, painfully nerdy Dominican-American boy, and, as you might guess from the title, this is his story. But it's also the story of his sister, his mother, and his grandparents--the Cabral family, suffering under the weight of a generations-long fukú--a Dominican word for "curse." It's also the story of the Dominican Republic, itself, with long asides and footnotes about the country and life under Trujillo regime. It's also the story of the Dominican immigrant experience in New York. It's a lot of things. Though I think the style--making heavy use of footnotes, as I mentioned--and the interjection of Dominican slang, and the density of science fiction and fantasy references (some of which even I had to look up) might serve to alienate some readers, it's nonetheless a powerful and moving story. (Read 8/22/11 - 10/26/11.)
The Chalion Series, by Lois McMaster Bujold: From reading her Vorkosigan novels, I already knew that Bujold was adept at creating both interesting, well-rounded characters and intriguing worlds, but I wasn't sure how it would translate to a fantasy setting. As it turned out, not unlike a few of her Vorkosigan stories (Cetaganda and Falling Free come to mind), the setting is what I found most captivating about this series. The three loosely connected novels (The Curse of Chalion, The Paladin of Souls, and The Hallowed Hunt) explore different facets of what I found to be a unique cosmology, wherein gods are real but can only act through humans who willingly consent. Bujold won the Hugo for the second one, while I personally enjoyed the first the most, but all three are well worth the read. (Read 10/27/11 -12/25/11.)
The Desert Spear, by Peter V. Brett: I read the first book in this series back in 2010 and immediately groaned at the prospect of having to wait. Of course, in the meantime I found ways to occupy myself, but I was pretty happy when the same coworker who loaned me his copy of The Warded Man dropped the sequel on my desk. Where the first book spread its focus between three main characters--Arlen, Leesha, and Rojer--this one spends much of the first half developing the backstory of a fourth: Jardir, the desert leader we met in the first book. Jardir's sections were reminded me a bit of Dune and the Aiel portions of The Wheel of Time. In fact, thinking back over the series so far I would say that Robert Jordan seems to be a pretty apt comparison, though without the endless branching and subplot after subplot after subplot. Indeed, everything I loved about The Wheel of Time when I started that series (as a teenager, mind you) seems to be present here, and reading this series kind of makes me feel like a kid again. I'm very much looking forward to the third book.
The Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher: I've now finished the first six of these books and I think I can fairly say that I'm going to get to all of them eventually. The four that I read since I last reviewed the series (Grave Peril, Summer Knight, Death Masks, and Blood Rites) follow the same formula as the first two, and it's predictable enough that perhaps reading a bunch back to back isn't the best way to go, but I found that even after six of essentially the same book, I care about the characters and am interested to go back for more. (Read 1/15/12 - 2/8/12.)
Codex Alera, by Jim Butcher: Despite what I said about reading a bunch of Jim Butcher's books in succession, I actually went and read ten of them in under a month. The same coworker who loaned me the first two Dresden books also let me read his copy of The Furies of Calderon, after which I went out and bought Kindle copies of the rest of the series (Academ's Fury, Cursor's Fury, Captain's Fury, Princeps' Fury, and First Lord's Fury). The way the series follows the life and career of the protagonist reminded me a bit of Forester's Hornblower novels, though of course the setting is completely different. I will say that Butcher has a few writing tics that become apparent after reading a bunch of his books--he loves to end chapters in cliffhangers, for examples, or with people passing out--but he also plots tightly and writes memorable characters. The fact that I blazed through this entire series in just over two weeks ought to say something about how much I enjoyed it.
The First Law, by Joe Abercrombie: Just before I started reading this series, I solicited opinions about it on Google+, and this is one of the responses I got: "I think Abercrombie is a very good writer -- from a style perspective -- and very enjoyable, but he's gratuitously cruel to both his characters and audience expectations." Having finished it now, I completely agree. In my opinion, Abercrombie is a very skilled writer, and it's clear that with this series he was trying to subvert the tropes of the high fantasy genre and play off the audience's expectations in order to do something novel. And he succeeds in doing that, but at the end of it all I sort of felt like I'd been toyed with. In this way he reminded me a bit of China Miéville, though the series as a whole felt less like a raised middle finger than Perdido Street Station did, at least to me. I found the world-building to be first-rate--what backstory we did get on the history of the world was, for me, the most interesting part of the series, and I found myself wishing I could have read that story instead. Intellectually I appreciated what he did here, but I don't see myself returning to this series. (Comprises The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and The Last Argument of Kings. Read 2/9/2012 - 2/22/2012.)
The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara: This one has been on my list for a long time, and I'm happy I finally took the time to read it. I suspect that an interest in the Civil War may be a prerequisite for enjoying this story, but I found Michael Shaara's account of the Battle of Gettysburg to be gripping, and all the more so for how human he made it. Unlike the historical fiction I often read, this story is based on real events and, as much as possible, on the writings of the men who were actually there. Thus, there isn't much larger narrative to the story--that has to come from the knowledge the reader brings with him. Given that the book chronicles only the battle itself and the events immediately preceding and following it, I think a lot of people wouldn't find it to their liking. I, on the other hand, was riveted. Not only did Shaara bring the events of the battle to life, but in presenting it from the point of view of the men who took part in it, he painted an amazing picture of the end of the war. (Read 2/27/12 - 3/1/12.)
Fall Review Roundup
Here's a brief, non-inclusive list of things that have happened since I wrote my last review: I had a birthday, Jason had a birthday, the seasons changed, I shot my first wedding, and my daughter was born. I also read five books and saw three movies. Here are some quick takes, just to help me get caught up:
The Wise Man's Fear: After such a strong debut and after waiting impatiently for as long as I did, I was a little worried that the second installment of Patrick Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicle wouldn't live up to my hopes. I needn't have worried, though--this second chapter may be even better. I'm not sure how Rothfuss will be able to wrap up this series in just one more book--there seems to be so much story still untold--and I'm sure that it will be years yet before I get to find out, but, man, I'm hooked. (Read 6/26/11 - 6/30/11.)
Manhood for Amateurs: I received this as a birthday present from a friend of mine who has very good taste in books, and who paid me the incredible compliment of telling me that she chose this for me because it reminded her of my writing. Having read it, I can kind of see what she means, in that the essays in this collection are about the same sorts of things that I tend to think and write about: fatherhood, American culture, pivotal moments of his youth and young adulthood. The difference is in the quality of writing--it almost seems impossible but his prose is both unmistakeably in his voice, so particular to himself, but at the same time so resonant and familiar that it felt like he was reading my mind. Suffice it to say, if you enjoy the stuff I write here, you will love this book. (Read 7/6/11 - 8/15/11.)
Cars 2: It seems thin praise, but mostly what I can think to say about this movie is that it's not as bad as everybody said it was. Sure, there wasn't much to it, a lot of the milieu didn't make sense, and the first movie was better. But it was a fun little diversion, and Jason liked it enough that he's still talking about some of the characters three months later. (Viewed 7/9/11.)
Winnie the Pooh: I wish I could tell you more about this movie, but I fell asleep about 20 minutes in, and didn't wake up until the credits rolled. What I do remember seemed a little smug in its postmodernity--the movie is presented as a book being read, and it breaks the fourth wall several times by having the characters interact with the printed text of the book--but the characters were mostly as I remembered them and Jason liked it. ("Viewed" 7/17/11.)
Storm Front and Fool Moon: One of my co-workers loaned me the first two books in Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series, and I tore through both of them in three days. They were, as he presented them, quite fluffy but very fun reads. Urban fantasy isn't typically one of my favorite genres, but I enjoyed the characters and the fast-paced, action-mystery plots, and I'm looking forward to picking up the rest of the series one of these days. (Read 8/16/11 - 8/18/11.)
The Lion King: Ever since we got that CD of Disney songs for Jason, I've been excited for him to see The Lion King, and he's been excited as well. When it came to theaters in advance of the Blu-Ray release (I could go on and on about how much I hate the whole concept of the Disney Vault, but that didn't stop me from snapping up the Diamond Edition as soon as it became available) we headed over to our local cineplex, where we found that the only showing at a good time for us was in the 3D theater. Which is unfortunate, because this movie was really not well-served by being re-done in 3D. Let's leave aside the argument that 3D is gimmicky and distracting and potentially migraine-inducing--the bigger problem is that the 3D version is way too dark. This is a movie that is all about bright, beautiful, cinematic scenes, and to have it all smothered and dulled by light-eating 3D glasses is just shameful. It looks better on my TV at home, and that's just not right. (Viewed 9/17/11.)
I do have one more book left to review, but since I just finished it a couple of days ago I'm going to let it marinate a bit more and give it its own post, hopefully next week. Until then, have a happy Halloween!
Just a little administrative note: I'm no longer part of Amazon's affiliate program, so I no longer receive a commission for sales through links on this site. The links are there now only as a convenience to you.
By Lois McMaster Bujold
It's been nearly a year since I finished the last of the Vorkosigan novels, in which time Bujold has managed to add yet another to the already impressively lengthy series. As regular readers of this blog will know, this series has managed to become one of my all-time favorites in the field of soft science fiction--i read the bulk of it in one go that took just over a month. So how does this latest offering stack up? Well, it was certainly enjoyable, but even so I'd unfortunately have to put it at or near the bottom of the series.
Cryoburn sees Miles Vorkosigan come to the planet Kibou-daini in order to investigate one of the cryogenics corporations that dominates the society there--a corporation that is attempting to expand into the Barrayaran Empire. In the course of his investigation, Miles--as usual--uncovers a couple of hidden cryo-corp schemes and rescues some children, but the real meat of the novel is in its exploration of the Kibou culture. On Kibou-daini, you see, death is no longer a normal part of the life cycle--instead, people have their bodies frozen, to be revived at a later date, and Bujold uses her protagonist to help imagine what such a world would be like.
Now, a number of other Vorkosigan novels have a similar arc. Falling Free and Ethan of Athos, for example, or Cetaganda. I enjoyed all of those three, and the latter was one of my favorites. So why didn't I appreciate this one as much?
What I keep coming back to is that up until the very end, I didn't feel like this really needed to be a Vorkosigan story. So much of the story works like a more fleshed-out thought experiment--as a lot of science fiction does--that having Miles in there almost felt like an afterthought.
Of course, the same is true of Falling Free and Ethan of Athos, and I enjoyed those. The difference, I think, is that while those two stories are set in the same universe, Miles doesn't actually appear in either. The latter works at a level removed by only involving secondary characters from the main series. The former, on the other hand, is set hundreds of years before Miles' birth, which actually sets up some very satisfying callbacks in 2002's Diplomatic Immunity. In both cases, the inclusion in the Vorkosigan canon works to add a bit of extra flavor to the story, rather than it feeling shoehorned in like Cryoburn did.
On top of that, while the characters in Cryoburn are certainly well-realized, none of their relationships really drive the narrative. In Falling, we get to see the Quaddies through Leo Graf's inexperienced eyes, while in Ethan of Athos, the title character's naivete in the greater galactic environment not only gives us the chance to explore his society, but also give a fun outsider's look at the world we've already grown to know. There's a bit of that operating in Cryoburn in the chapters where Jin, a young Kibou-daini resident, is the POV character, but because we spend so much time with Miles, it doesn't come off as well. And ultimately, not much that happens in Cryoburn really has to matter to any great degree, not until the very end.
Though, to give credit where credit is due, the "Aftermaths" coda is just about perfectly handled. Bujold manages to sum up a whole lot of emotional content in just a few surprisingly short vignettes.
Longtime fans will most likely find this an enjoyable but not outstanding new entry. For the rest, while this episode is, like the rest, self-contained enough to be pretty friendly to newcomers, there are other places to start that are even better. (I recommend starting at the beginning, as I did.)
Started: 6/10/2011 | Finished: 6/13/2011
Six Months, Six Words
You know, I keep meaning to write new reviews, but with one thing or another, it keeps falling by the wayside. Seems like I set out almost every day to catch up on my reviews, but by the time I've got the dishes done and the laundry put away and my son bathed and I've finished the day's work for my new photography business, all I want to do is collapse on the couch and watch re-runs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. On the plus side, that means I've been ending a lot of evenings lately doing what I want--Juliette and I started season five of Buffy this week--but, of course, it means I've slipped a lot on some of my other responsibilities.
But you didn't come here to hear me whine. You came here for book reviews. So, in an effort to finally get back on track, I decided to do one huge omnibus review of everything I've read in the past six months. The twist? Each review gets six words.
The Hunger Games Trilogy: If you haven't already, read it.
The Illuminatus! Trilogy: Conspiracy theories make my head hurt.
Leviathan Wakes: The best new sci-fi in years.
Treason's Shore: A weaker series than I remembered.
His Majesty's Dragon: Like Hornblower, but with dragons. Fun.
Lolita: Beautiful prose, utterly uncomfortable reading experience.
And there we are. Hopefully it won't be another six months before I can get my act together. ;)
The Hunger Games
Started: 12/7/2010 | Finished: 12/8/2010
Started: 1/24/2011 | Finished: 1/25/2011
Started: 1/26/2011 | Finished: 1/26/2011
The Illuminatus! Trilogy
Started: 1/4/2011 | Finished: 1/21/2011
Started: 1/31/2011 | Finished: 2/8/2011
Started: 3/11/2011 | Finished: 3/16/2011
His Majesty's Dragon
Started: 3/17/2011 | Finished: 3/19/2011
Started: 3/21/2011 | Finished: 4/6/2011
By Brandon Sanderson
I probably wouldn't have picked up another Sanderson novel so soon after finishing the Mistborn trilogy, but a coworker loaned me this one thinking that it was the third book in that series so I had it on-hand. Still, it made for an interesting comparison, since Elantris was Sanderson's first published novel, and Mistborn followed soon after.
Elantris is the name of a huge, once powerful and beautiful city. For hundreds of years, the city was populated by a race of benevolent demigods, each of whom was at one time human but was transformed into an Elantrian through a mysterious process called the Shaod. But ten years prior to the beginning of the story, the Elantrians' magic failed, causing their city to crumble. More than that, though the Shaod still takes people, instead of becoming powerful, near-immortal magic wielders, they turn into shambling wrecks, unable to die or even heal--any wounds suffered by a new Elantrian remain painful forever.
The story opens with Raoden--a prince of Arelon, the country formerly ruled by Elantris--waking to discover that he has been taken by the Shaod, on the morning he is to be wed to Sarene, a princess from across the sea. Like all those transformed since the fall of Elantris, he is banished into the rotting city, and the rest of the world is told that he has died suddenly. Sarene is left to find her way in Arelon on her own, while Raoden discovers the depths to which life--if it can be called that--in Elantris has sunk in the past ten years. Into this scene comes a third character, Hrathen, a warrior-priest intent on subjugating Arelon for his dark masters, and Raoden and Sarene must work to discover the secret of Elantris' downfall before Hrathen achieves his goal.
All in all, the book was decent, but in comparison with Mistborn, it was easy to see that this was the earlier work. Like a lot of speculative fiction, Elantris is built around one central idea. In this case, it's the mystery of the Elantrians' downfall. The problem is, that idea was a little too central for my taste, leaving me feeling in the end that the book was just too long for what it was. Which is not to say that the book is boring--Sanderson does a fairly good job of keeping things going from scene to scene--it's just that much of what happens, especially in the first half, ends up feeling digressive by the end.
Still, I do have to give Sanderson credit for coming up with an interesting concept. The characters were fairly well-crafted, too, even if the world they inhabited felt a little simplistic to me. What worked the best for me was actually not so much the plot but rather the time spent with Raoden, exploring the ruins of Elantris. Both the descriptions of the city, itself, as well as the survival-of-the-fittest culture that arose there were quite evocative. (As a side note, it made me wonder how much influence was drawn from Mervyn Peake's Ghormengast novels--I haven't read those yet, but reading this made me bump them ahead in my queue a few places.)
I don't know if Elantris is quite worth the praise it's gotten from critics and readers, but it was nevertheless a pretty entertaining read. It's out in paperback at this point, so you should be able to pick it up fairly cheaply in your local bookstore.
Started: 12/9/2010 | Finished: 12/16/2010
The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith
By Peter Carey
I wasn't sure, when I finished this novel, whether or not I liked it. Having had seven weeks to mull it over, I'm still not sure. That doesn't happen that often for me, but it appears to be where I am with The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith.
A big part of my ambivalence stems from my difficulty in figuring out just what the book is about. It is, as the title suggests, a personal story. Tristan Smith is born with grotesque deformities that isolate him for the rest of his life--he can barely speak, only walks with difficulty, vomits when upset, and is so hideous that most people can't stand to look at him. So, on one level, it is a character study of a deeply marginalized and alienated person--we see the roiling internal life of a central figure who is effectively cut off from the world around him.
But then, it's also clearly meant as a political allegory. Tristan is born and grows up in the country of Efica, a fictional island nation whose beginnings as a penal colony recall author Carey's native Australia, but whose language and culture rather bring to mind South Africa. (Or, at least, the loosely formed image of South Africa that I have.) Tristan's mother is an emigrant from Voorstand, another fictional country whose cultural hegemony and cloak-and-dagger espionage agents are an obvious reference to the United States--though Voorstand's Dutch-influenced dialect is also reminiscent of the Boers.
The interplay between Efica and Voorstand colors every aspect of the novel. Tristan's mother is the founder of an agitprop theater company, and much of the first half of the novel is spent in the company of that theater group as they work and tour and speak against Voorstandish influence in Efica. Tristan grows up both despising Voorstand and entranced by its flashy culture. (The lie is later put to that flashy impression when Tristan visits Voorstand and sees, instead, a landscape of inanity and social decay.) Seeing Tristan's world as we do, through his eyes, we're given a glimpse at the other side of first-world relations with the third world.
The political aspect might seem overbearing if it were completely earnest--and I'm not sure it's not overbearing anyway--but there's also a fair amount of satire. Of the world superpowers, of course--Voorstand's feared intelligence agencies are depicted as almost farcical, and the country's society is based on what amounts to a literal worship of Disney characters. Conversely, Efica--especially the artists surrounding Tristan and his mother--are portrayed with such self-importance that it's hard to imagine that Carey isn't making fun of them, as well.
On top of all of that, the form of the book leaves me wondering how much, if any, can even be trusted. The story is told in Tristan's own voice, complete with footnotes on fictional history and cultural explanations, presented as a memoir or confessional. Throughout the book, Tristan addresses the reader directly, imagining us to be Voorstandish citizens who see him as a terrorist, and imploring us to understand his perspective. It's reminiscent of Humbert Humbert's repeated asides to the "ladies and gentlemen of the jury." Between that allusion and the fact that so much detail is included in scenes where Tristan was either not present or was too young to remember or understand, it seems at times that the reader is invited to wonder just how much is being made up or covered over to further some other agenda.
There's a lot going on in this book, and it's clearly a skillful work. But despite the fact that I can appreciate, even marvel at the craftsmanship, there was still something holding me back from really connecting with it. Maybe I'm simply too American or too bourgeois. I don't know. I'd love to get another take on it, though, so if any of you out there do read it, let me know what you thought.
Started: 11/23/2010 | Finished: 12/7/2010
The Mistborn Trilogy
The problem with genre fiction is how, well, generic so much of it is. You know what I'm talking about. The SF/fantasy section at your typical bookstore is jam-packed with J. R. R. Tolkien and H. P. Lovecraft and Stephenie Meyer rip-offs. (And, let's be fair, even Stephenie Meyer is kind of an Anne Rice rip-off.) Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with being derivative--not only is there plenty of entertainment to be found by adhering to genre tropes, but playing on and with those tropes can and has produced some very thoughtful work over the years.
Still, it's nice when an author comes along with a fresh take on an old genre. Daniel Abraham's magic poetry in his Long Price Quartet, for example, or Glen Cook's dark spin on epic fantasy conventions in his Black Company novels. I'm not quite sure I'd put Brandon Sanderson and his Mistborn series on quite the same level as those two, but I do have to give him credit for coming up with a pretty novel system of magic for his books.
Instead of waving wands, chanting incantations, or carving mystic symbols, magic users in Sanderson's world draw power from various metals, which they ingest and then "burn." (He calls this system of magic "allomancy," aptly enough.) Different metals give different powers--pewter, for example, makes you strong, while zinc and brass allow you to manipulate emotions. Some people, called "Mistings," can only use one metal, while others can use all of them. These latter are known as "Mistborn," from which the series draws its name.
The series opens on Vin, a street girl who has begun to make a name for herself as a member of a small-time criminal organization. What no one knows--not even Vin, herself--is that her successes in her gang are because she is a natural Allomancer. She's soon discovered by Kelsier, a rebel who stands against the evil (and immortal) Lord Protector and the empire over which he rules.
The trilogy is structured much like a standard three-act story. In fact, the story arc reminded me a bit of Star Wars. In the first installment we're introduced to the major characters and shown the rules of the world; things end with a big triumph for the good guys. In the second episode we're given some big revelations and the characters are hit with a huge setback. The third and final episode finally answers all of the questions and resolves everything in one epic climax.
All in all, I'd say Sanderson delivered a thoroughly entertaining read. Nevertheless, I couldn't help feeling like I wanted more from him. I often felt that the series was reaching really hard for "epic," but despite the fact that world-changing events keep happening, I still came away feeling that the story was kind of small.
Part of this may have to do with the fact that I've read some really good fantasy over the last few years. I mentioned Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet already, and the comparison there may be apt. Both series are notable for being built around a novel magic system, but Abraham's world was much more deeply imagined, leaving you with the sense of having visited a place both truly exotic but still familiar. Too, Abraham worked with bigger themes, or perhaps just realized them more skillfully--either way, his characters had much more emotional resonance with me.
Lest you think I'm being too harsh, I'd like to repeat that I certainly found Mistborn entertaining. It's just that I felt that the series aspired to more, and I found myself wishing it had gotten there. But it's worth pointing out that I read the entire trilogy--over 2,000 pages--in just two weeks, so there was clearly enough there to grab me and keep me interested.
Started: 11/3/2010 | Finished: 11/5/2010
The Well of Ascension
Started: 11/6/2010 | Finished: 11/10/2010
The Hero of Ages
Started: 11/12/2010 | Finished: 11/17/2010
The Liveship Traders
If you're anything like me, you have at least a few books lying around the house that you bought a long time ago but never got around to actually reading. For me, up until last month, that book was Robin Hobb's Ship of Magic.
I picked it up when it first came out in paperback on the strength of Hobb's earlier series, The Farseer Trilogy, which I had liked quite a bit even though the ending had left me a bit cold. Nevertheless, my aversion to starting an unfinished series was strong enough that I ended up sticking Ship of Magic on the shelf and ignoring it for almost eleven years. Last month, I finally got to the point where I'd read every piece of fiction left in the house, and decided to finally give it a go.
Before I did that, though, I went back and re-read The Farseer Trilogy, figuring that since this new series was a follow-on set in the same world, I should re-familiarize myself with the background. In some ways, that turned out to be a help, because I would otherwise have missed a number of references in the new series to events in the old one, references that weren't exactly necessary to understand the new series, but which added significant depth to the world and some of the characters.
On the other hand, plowing through all six books in rapid succession, it was impossible not to compare the two series, and I found The Liveship Traders somewhat lacking in comparison to its predecessor.
As I mentioned, The Liveship Traders is set in the same world as The Farseer Trilogy, starting ten years or so after the events of the first series. Rather than continuing the story of the original characters, though, the new series moves to a different part of the world and tells a story that is only tangentially related to the first.
As the series opens, we are introduced to the Vestrits, a trading family from the port city of Bingtown. The Vestrits are the owners of a liveship--a ship carved from magic wood that imbues the vessel with a life of its own, most noticeable in the ship's animate figurehead. The protagonist, Althea Vestrit, returns home from a voyage on her family ship, only to have her father die and her inheritance--ownership and captaincy of the ship--taken from her. Althea leaves, determined to regain her ship and make a name for herself. From there, we're brought along on a tale of full of nautical adventure, pirate battles, and even war, beneath the surface of which lurk secrets from ages past.
Now, you'd think this sort of thing would be right up my alley, and in a lot of ways you'd be right. I'm a huge sucker for Age of Sail maritime adventures, as evidenced by my love of C. S. Forester and Patrick O'Brian. Combine that with the fantastic setting, epic plot, and excellent action scenes, and it should be perfect for me.
The problem was that too much of the characterization felt forced or flat to me. Part of that came from the more distributed focus--unlike The Farseer Trilogy, which featured only one point-of-view character--The Liveship Traders bounces back and forth between half a dozen or more perspectives, including all of the main antagonists. There's a lot of potential with a structure like that because it gives us a chance to sympathize or at least understand everyone, even the "bad guys." Unfortunately, nearly all of the antagonists seemed almost cartoonishly unreasonable, making it next to impossible for me to connect with them.
Things did eventually turn around with most of the important characters, but it took so long for that to happen--well into the second book--that I would never have gotten to it if not for my inability to walk away from a story I haven't finished.
Still, I don't want to sound too down on the series, because as difficult as I found the first volume, so much is paid off--both plot-wise and character-wise--by the end, that it was ultimately a very satisfying experience. It's of particular note how skillfully Hobb works the plot, starting with a relatively small-scale story of family drama and nautical adventure and building it into an epic, world-changing saga. As long as you're the kind of person who can commit to a series for the long haul, who doesn't need resolutions early and often, I'd say this one is definitely worth your time.
Ship of Magic
Started: 10/6/2010 | Finished: 10/13/2010
Started: 10/19/2010 | Finished: 10/26/2010
Ship of Destiny
Started: 10/27/2010 | Finished: 11/1/2010