December 31, 2013

Review: The Blade Itself By Joe Abercrombie

This review will have some mild spoilers. I will try not to give any major or specific plot points away, and will speak more generally about the world, the characters, and plot concepts.

From the comic adaptation of Joe Abercrombie's The First Law. This panel depicts Inquisitor Glotka's grim humour.

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie is the first book in his First Law Trilogy. If you want to get an idea of the tone the novels use, the above picture should give you a good idea. These books are grim. There are few rays of light in the world. There are few heroes and people with a noble and honourable bearing, but such people seem to suffer for it constantly. The world is designed to eat up people who do not look to their own survival first and foremost.

The Catch: The Tortured Now Wields The Knife

This book has probably my favourite character in any book I've read, and he goes by the name of Inquisitor Glotka. His back story is that of a dashing nobleman with the highest of bloodlines and incredible skill as a swordsman. When war breaks out with a neighbouring empire, it seems the sky is the limit for him. Promotions will rain upon him, enough to begin his entry into politics where he would undoubtedly reach the highest echelons of power possible to him. 

That is, until Glotka is captured by the enemy and tortured in a dungeon for two years. When the war is over, and he is returned to his people, he is a crippled mess. No longer handsome, physically impaired to the point that even the most menial of tasks are a painful struggle, his bright future is broken and ruined. He's missing toes, his back is twisted, half of his teeth are gone... it's not a pretty picture. The people who loved and respected him and his potential are now ashamed for him, and of him. So what does he do?

Why, he becomes an Inquisitor of course, where he oversees and enacts the torture of people in the name of his kingdom. What should be said of Glotka, however, is that he is not vindictive. He does not take pleasure from torturing people, though neither is he repulsed by it. Instead, he simply accepts it as a reality unto itself. That's not to say that he is not bitter about his fate, or capable of cruelty to people. He isn't really a good guy in these books, but he is probably one of the better souls the series reveals.

Glotka's back story is interesting enough to make me like him, but what sells me is the grim humour with which he views the world and his situation in it. Take the following passage, which comes on the first page of Glotka's first POV chapter. It comes in the form of a dialogue he has with himself about climbing stairs, which is an agonizing chore for him due to his physical deformities:
If Glotka had been given the opportunity to torture any one man, any one at all, he would surely have chosen the inventor of steps. When he was young and widely admired, before his misfortunes, he had never really noticed them. He had sprung down them two at a time and gone blithely on his way. No more. They're everywhere. You really can't change the floors without them. And down is worse than up, that's the thing that people never realize. Going up, you usually don't fall that far.
He holds the same mentality with the prisoners he is tasked to torture when they try and bravely defy him ("Look at me, this is what I will do to you unless you confess"), or whenever someone threatens to kill or torture him ("Look at me, death would be mercy. Living is torture, and you can't break what's been broken"), or whenever he holds an internal monologue with himself about all the things in life that cause him problems.

The Plot: Everything, Everyone, Everywhere Is Screwed.

Logen Ninefingers
The barbarian horde in the north is threatening to invade the Midderlands kingdom, as is the aforementioned empire led by a cabal of cannibalistic mages at the same time. Rather than make things easier on themselves by staying united, the Midderlands are in a state of high dysfunctional. The king is a mere figurehead, and the real power lies with a council of noblemen that constantly snap at each other, trying to wrest as much power and wealth from their peers as they can.

Arriving to the kingdom is the famous wizard, Bayaz, who has overseen and protected the Midderlands since its inception centuries ago. He gathers together a group to help save the kingdom: Jezal, a young nobleman who wins the dueling championship (not unlike Glotka in his day); Logen Ninefingers, an aging barbarian with a strong sense of honour that is ruined by his absolutely psychotic and bloodthirsty state of berserker rage he enters in battle; and good old Inquisitor Glotka. 

Throughout this book, everyone suffers. Bayaz is slowing losing his powers, Glotka's every living moment is agony, Ninefingers struggles to control the raging psychopath within him, and Jezal finds himself being dragged into a series of messes that he wants nothing to do with.

In truth, the plot isn't that special. What makes this book is the characters. None of them fall into cliché, and all of them have unique mannerisms and mindsets and behaviours, rather than being cookie-cutter in their repetitiveness (see: Jordan, Robert).

Conclusion: Not For The Faint Of Heart

This is not the most profound book you will read, but neither is it a 'fluff' or easy read. It lies somewhere in the middle. If you're the kind of person that loves to read interesting characters and see them developed in a compelling manner, this is a book for you. I honestly recommend this book to people just because of Glotka, who as I mentioned is my favourite character in any book that I've read.

I'd give this book an 8 out of 10, even though part of me really wants to give it 8. 

December 30, 2013

Review: Gods Of Gotham By Lindsay Faye

This review will have some mild spoilers. I will try not to give any major or specific plot points away, and will speak more generally about the world, the characters, and plot concepts.

Gods of Gotham by Lindsay Faye is a historical mystery novel about the formation of New York's first regular police force in the 1840s. More specifically, it is about Timothy Wilde who is among those who find themselves recruited.

The Detective: A Soul On Fire

Timothy Wilde is a young man living in New York City as a bartender. His parents were killed in a fire, and his only family is his older brother, Valentine, a politician in the Democrat Party who are responsible for the newly created New York Police Department. Timothy happens to have a love-hate relationship with his drug addicted, smarmy politician of a brother.

But he's happy, mostly. As a bartender he learns how to talk to people, how to understand them, and most importantly of all how to read them. So when he finds himself, somewhat unwillingly it should be said, enrolled by his brother in the new police force he finds he has all the tools needed to be more than just a footman with a club. 

He is able to mix with just about every level of society, even if he doesn't want to. He can speak the slang dialect popular among the slums in the city, he knows at least a bit about what goes on in the different sections of the neighbourhoods: all the different cultures, religions, political camps, social groups. More importantly, he is able to navigate all of the tensions that are rising in the city. Which is a good thing, for him, because...

The Setting: A City On Fire

The setting is very charming and well crafted. Lindsay Faye does a great job setting the scene of New York during the historical period in which the book takes place. In the background of events, rumours reach the city of the Irish Potato Famine that will cause even more Irish to migrate to the United States and Faye helps illuminate the tensions between more established Protestant Americans and the Irish Catholic immigrants that arrive in increasing numbers. The immigrants from Ireland are poor and take all of the menial, poorly paid jobs if they get any jobs at all. Added to the mix are the African Americans living in the city, who are also poor, struggle to get the same crappy jobs as the Irish, and are also viewed with suspicion and derision by the non-poor, W.A.S.P. Americans. On top of which, there is the seedy, dark underworld of the city, where the child-sex trade is rampant and tolerated, even if it is illegal.

So there are many sources of problems and tensions for the new police force to contend with: Fights between the various groups, riots and protests by the WASPs against the Irish and the blacks, rampant prostitution, drugs and criminal activities, and the politics that could have them shut down before they even get their feet under them. 

The Mystery: Children On Fire

In the midst these situations, a nightmarish crime reveals itself in the form of a small girl found wandering the street and covered with blood. She is a kinchin-mab – a child prostitute, from the house of a woman who just so happens to be a prominent and large contributor to the Democratic party that created the police force. Timothy Wilde is the one to discover her, and slowly but surely finds out what she was running from.

What the girl tells him could cause widespread chaos and fear throughout the whole city, because it touches on all of the tensions that I touched on above. On top of which, it very quickly becomes entangled with Timothy's personal life, both with his brother and the woman he has longed to court. On a couple of occasions he almost gives up on the case and being a policeman entirely, on a few more he is almost killed, and it is only some unlikely sources of support that helps him stay on alive and on track.

The Conclusion: This Book's On Rapid Oxidation Of A Material In The Rapid Oxidation Of A Material In The Exothermic Chermical Process Of Combustion

If you didn't like the heading title above, you're not going to like many of my other attempts at humour.

This book is good mostly because of the setting that is skillfully put together. The characters are mostly interesting, with some very good ones. Unfortunately the main character is not among the best. The girl who is the heart of the book's mystery and Tim's brother Valentine steal the show for me, and even the Police Captain was more compelling a character for me. The mystery at the heart of the plot is a strong one, as it did a good job revealing all of the key characters (and the lesser ones) who could conceivably be suspects, while giving reasons for suspicion of each of them. I was kept guessing until the very end, and yet Faye gave enough clues that you don't feel cheated by something that came from left field and makes no sense. 

I would give this book an 8 out of 10, and I'd recommend this book to anyone who likes mysteries and/or historical fictions. 

December 28, 2013

Review: Name Of The Wind By Patrick Rothfuss

This review will have some mild spoilers. I will try not to give any major or specific plot points away, and will speak more generally about the world, the characters, and plot concepts..

The Plot: Kvothe The Kingkiller

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss begins in a third-person narrative, telling how a famous scribe called The Chronicler comes to find the famous and infamous Kvothe, known as the Kingkiller, the Bloodless, and the Arcane. Except Kvothe is still a twenty-something year old man, living in a small town away from everything, running a tavern as a no-name, no-fame bartender. How did someone who is still so young become a living legend? Well, that's exactly what The Chronicler came to find out.

My favourite cover art version
The rest of the book is Kvothe telling his life's story – the real story behind the legends that already surround his name. So most of the book is written in a first-person narrative and is not just a simple recounting of events: Kvothe adds in his musings, philosophies and opinions on matters and events as he tells of them. The series, called the Kingkiller Chronicles, is a trilogy where each book covers one day in which Kvothe recites to the Chronicler his life. 

It starts with Kvothe as a young boy, living among a group of travelling minstrels. He travels the lands with them until he finds himself having to live on his own before he is even a teenager. He lives in a large city for a few years as a penniless beggar and pickpocket, then finds his way to the University to learn two things above all else: first, how to use magic, specifically to learn the name of the wind; second, he seeks knowledge of a particular sort (what the knowledge might be is kind of a big spoiler, so you'll just have to read to find out). Obtaining that knowledge is what largely drives Kvothe's life and how he manages it. It might take a back seat to lesser and more immediate issues at times, but he is always moving towards that ultimate goal.

The good thing is that this quest for knowledge leads him to investigate seemingly related matters whenever and wherever he comes across them, and this has him on several adventures that helps to grow his legend.

The Characters: Kvothe The Bloodless

With most of the book being narrated by Kvothe, he's obviously the most important character, and he is quite the character. To me he is at the same time a hero and an anti-hero, and for both he is not conventional. As a hero he is not a warrior or courageous in that sense (he has his own courage). He starts his life as a musician and an actor, learning how to be a minstrel. Along the way he meets an Arcanist who begins to teach him about herbs and science and magic. While at the University he is certainly brilliant, but also gets into trouble constantly. And I don't even necessarily mean "trouble" in the same way Harry Potter got into trouble while saving the school, I mean he is expelled once, nearly expelled a couple of other times, punished by whipping, and arrested by the judicial powers in a nearby town... all for various misdeeds and breaking important rules. He also does some pretty horrific things, even if his motives or the outcomes were for the best – he faces some of those "impossible choices" a few times – and this is where the anti-hero part enters the equation.

My least favourite cover.
Kvothe isn't one of those characters where trouble finds him. Kvothe seeks trouble, and half the time seems to deserve what he gets.

But that is also a defining characteristic of his: his life is hard. Legitimately hard. He suffers through a lot of incredibly difficult experiences, but forges through it all with a firm determination. That knowledge I said he seeks drives him in all that he does, oftentimes desperately and savagely. As the trilogy is a retelling of his life, there is some meandering in the book and doesn't always stay on one direct path to finding that goal, as parts are thrown in to continually develop him as a character.

And in that, Rothfuss does a fantastic job. There is real growth and development in Kvothe, in ways that you don't see as much or to such an extent in other books. It helps that the book is entirely dedicated to him and his development, but where other characters don't so much change as develop new abilities and powers, you can see Kvothe being affected by his experiences. His core personality might largely stay the same, but when Kvothe gets burned you can see him be wary around fire rather than just learning some magic to make himself immune to the flames.

While Kvothe does perform heroic acts in this book, and the series, and is by and large a good person, he is not perfect. He is flawed. He is cocky and arrogant, conceited and insecure, stubborn as a mule and reckless beyond reason at times. And all of these traits are exacerbated by the fact that he's very young, inexperienced in a lot of things, and lacking in wisdom. But for all of that he is undeniably brilliant, a voracious learner,  witty and sly, brave in his own way, and a kind soul to the few friends and loved ones he manages to make.

The Magic: Kvothe The Arcane

Speaking of magic, this series has a fantastic magic system and it comes in two parts. 

A nice middle ground cover
First, there is Sympathy. It involves a lot of calculations that sounds a lot like science and math at times, training your brain and your willpower, and exerting your mental capacity upon people and things. The more difficult the task you seek to achieve, the more willpower is required (unless you can craft Sympathy-imbued objects that can help ease the burden) and the more likely you are to kill yourself. You can use your own body heat to start a fire, but you directly reduce your own body temperature and if you go too far you will kill yourself. You can create or use objects much like voodoo dolls to inflict pain and sensations upon another person, or create a chain reaction that results in causing lightning to strike (under the right conditions). 

Second, there is Naming. Everything in the natural world, including people and creatures, has names. To know a name, you must know and understand everything about the thing or living being. Once you know the name of a thing or a living being, you can manipulate if not directly control it. The Name of the Wind is the first young Kvothe is exposed to this magic, and it leaves a big impression on him. When he arrives at the University, it is not just to seek that important knowledge that largely drives his life's purpose, but to learn the name of the wind, such as he saw as a child. 

The Writing: Rothfuss the Bardic Gnome

I call him a gnome only because of the picture below. I call him a bard because this series is all about story telling. It reads very much like a tale being told by a story teller, and not just because that's exactly what Kvothe is doing. Rothfuss' prose, the way he constructs dialogue, narrative, and descriptions just reads and feels like you're sitting by a fire while a bard recites an epic ballad. 

Patrick Rothfuss: living gnome
This book is also full of just great scenes and phrases. Some are absolutely hilarious, some are tear-jerkers, and some induce rage or pity or despair. Through clever word play, and masterful use of sentence construction, he is very adept at evoking strong emotions of all kinds in the reader (or at least in me). 

I said about Brandon Sanderson's Way Of Kings that it was as close to perfect as I think a book could be, at least for my taste, and Name Of The Wind matches that success. I don't mean to say that it is perfect and without its flaws. None of the other characters have enough depth to them, and I don't mean compared to Kvothe who is the obvious focus of the series. Kvothe's love interest just seems so... flighty. In many ways, that seems to be how Rothfuss wanted her to be, but at times I think it was overdone and she becomes annoying. Too often Kvothe's interactions with her don't seem to really develop anything, and things just repeat rather than develop. The tension of "when/will they get together?" is obviously being drawn out, but I'd like some more development in their relationship. 

However, since I can't reasonably expect perfection, I give this book a 10 out of 10 as a fantasy book. Like Way Of Kings this is a must-read for anyone who even mildly likes fantasy literature.

December 24, 2013

The Night Before Christmas: A Story Of Two Books

I love books. The fact that I write my own blog solely about books should make that fairly obvious. I'm the kind of person that wonders how I came to love books so much, which touches on the nature vs nurture debate: was I born someone who was always going to love reading, or was it something that I picked up as I grew? Honestly, I'm inclined to say it was a bit of both.

But this post is a story of nurturing, in every sense of the word.

A Christmas Eve Tradition

When my sister and I were children, for as long as I can remember our family's routine on Christmas Eve was always the same.

First, we'd travel into Toronto to our grandparents' house, where we'd gather with our relatives from my mother's side of the family and do our Secret Santa stocking exchange. Everyone would get two presents for one other person in the family, and write poems describing what each gift was. We'd have some appetizers and munchies, with my favourite being grandma's egg salad sandwiches. After the presents were opened, we'd either go to a Swiss Chalet or order it in to their home. Then we would go to their local church for a quick sermon. I'm not religious, but I still love going to them. Partly because the people who have run those sermons always preach simple things that can be admired regardless of religious affiliation (peace and love, giving and joy, etc), and partly because of the sense of tradition and the spirit of Christmas. In fact, the more I worked in retail the more I came to appreciate that sense, rather than the commercialization that saps my ability to enjoy the spirit of the holiday. 

Once all of that was over we would head home for our final two traditions. First, my mother would hand out a new set of pajamas, and then we'd sit around the Christmas tree and read two books, aloud and together.

A Wish For Wings That Work

The book we always read first is called A Wish For Wings That Work by Berkeley Breathed. It's about a penguin who always wished he could fly and writes a letter to Santa for a new pair of wings that will enable him to fly. Of course, in the end, he winds up having to help Santa by doing what penguins do best, and he truly "flies" with the wings he already had.

Basically, we'd take turns reading a page or two, show everyone the pictures, then pass it on to the next person. In truth, we loved the pictures as much if not more than the writing. There was one of Opus, the penguin, sitting on one shoulder of a cast-metal statue, offering a pickle to some pigeons who bristled away from him; there was another of Opus "flying" through the water, trying to save Santa and his sleigh from sinking, with a sheet of spray trailing behind him, and frogs and catfish leaping out of his path; the last one we always loved was of Opus shaking hands with Santa at the end, clutching his soggy red bow tie as he dripped from the water, looking tired but proud. Whoever the artist was, and I can't find it mentioned on Goodreads, deserves an award.

That's not to say the writing wasn't good, because it had some memorable phrases and rhythmic sentences that proved very catchy and giggle-worthy to us as kids. "Catastrophe! Calamity! A considerable setback!" is the one we all still smile and laugh at.

The Night Before Christmas

Because that wasn't obvious, eh?

Yup, the book we'd finish off with was the classic: The Night Before Christmas by... someone. We would do the same thing as with the previous book, reading a couple of paragraphs and passing it to the next person. A shorter book, with art that didn't appeal to us nearly as much as adorable and silly penguins and snow ducks, it was a quicker read than A Wish For Wings That Work. The artwork was much more "classic children's picture book" in its style, which was certainly well done but didn't have the same charm. What it did have is the rhythm of the poem's verse, and the wording that was always difficult to remember but was so beautifully written it was always a pleasant surprise to hear.

Can I say for certain that this Christmas tradition that I had with my family helped create a foundation of my future love of books? I cannot, but it certainly didn't hurt. 

Merry Christmas everybody!

December 23, 2013

Review: The Way Of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

This review will have some mild spoilers. I will try not to give any major or specific plot points away, and will speak more generally about the world, the characters, and plot concepts.

When I first read The Way Of Kings, I had only recently discovered Brandon Sanderson as an author. I was a fan of the Wheel of Time series, and after Robert Jordan passed away before its completion Mr Sanderson was announced as the author who would finish it. Soon after, I was due to attend Comic Con in San Diego, and saw that Brandon Sanderson would be on a panel and book signing. I bought Mistborn: The Final Empire to read over the weekend. I finished reading it by the time my flight landed in San Diego and I reached to the hotel we were staying at, and that night ordered all three Mistborn books in hardcover.

A couple of months later, The Way Of Kings came out. A friend at work, who worked in the back receiving merchandise and knew I was really looking forward to Sanderson's new book, let me know the minute we received it. We got them two weeks before the official release date, and since it wasn't a strict on sale book I could buy it right away. I wound up reading it twice before other friends in different parts of the world even had a chance to buy it.

Along with Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller Chronicles, Stormlight Archive (of which The Way Of Kings is the first book) is my favourite fantasy series.

And here's why.

The Catch: Kaladin Stormblessed And A Whole New World

I recently wrote an article on what I called "The Catch", which is a name I give to the element(s) in a book that make me hooked into reading it through entirely.

One of the first things you notice when reading this book is that Brandon Sanderson crafted a refreshingly original fantasy world. It has newly conceived animals, humanoid races, landscapes, plants, supernatural weather patterns, currency/money, religions, cultures, kingdoms/nations, magic, technology, and world history/mythology. It would take a very lengthy post in and of itself just to try and describe all the ways that the world in The Way Of Kings is different and unique. You can tell that Sanderson put a lot of time, work and thought into creating it, because there's so much depth and content to it. Not only that, but the characters and the plot are obviously affected by the world.

Mr Sanderson himself
The other thing that I noticed very quickly is that I loved the characters. Specifically, I knew I would love Kaladin Stormblessed before he had his own POV chapter. I love heroic characters, and Kaladin very quickly established that he doesn't fit into the traps and tropes a lot of heroes do. He is not perfect or infallible, and has his flaws, the hallmark features of great characters with lots of depth to them. He seems to suffer from depression, and is constantly at war with himself. Rough experiences in his life has made him cynical, to the point where he constantly asks himself "what's the point?". There are times he gives up trying to help anyone, and in the end the primary reason why he comes out of those dark moods is that he comes to hate himself for not caring.

But when he commits to being heroic and principled, the man is an absolute, unstoppable tank. I absolutely love heroes who manage to win people over to their side, even those who hitherto expressed dislike for the hero. I love it even more when they do so with simple yet powerful gestures and deeds, done out of the goodness of their heart rather than anything manipulative. By the end of the book, Kaladin has a small band of ultra-loyal followers whose hearts he won over using hearty stew, first-aid, and putting himself in harms way so they don't have to. What further makes Kaladin amazing as a character is the absolutely hellish journey he takes through the book. In the prologue, he's a warband leader and a warrior. In his first chapter, he's a slave. After a few chapters, he's worse than a slave... he's a bridgeman. You'll have to read the book to find out what that means, but I can tell you that it's both horrific and awesome.

I will say quickly that Kaladin is only 1/4 of the main POV characters in this book. The others are no slouches either. Dalinar and his son Adolin are Shardbearers (more on them below) and nobles in the most powerful kingdom in the world. They are noble in more than just title, but struggle with the intrigue and opulent behaviour of their peers while they wage a war against the "barbaric" humanoid people that assassinated their king. Finally, there's Shallan. A young and obscure noblewoman from a different kingdom, trying to save her family by becoming a student-ward of a brilliant and controversial scholar. She's a self-conscious, shy bookworm, so I adored her for obvious self-reflective reasons.

Now, the webcomic Penny Arcade recently drew up a comic that pokes fun at Sanderson fans and their penchant to praise his magic systems and world building. I got a really good laugh at it, because it's true. But... it's still true, because those are Sanderson's two of his greatest strengths as a fantasy author.

It's funny, because it's true.

Speaking Of The Magic...

This is what a Shardbearer looks like
Seriously, I was really impressed with the magic system. There weren't old wizards throwing fireballs and conjuring demonic monsters. Instead, there are supernatural storms containing and compelled by some magical force, which can be infused within special gemstones. The energy they contain is called Stormlight, and the gemstones are used both as currency and to power the ultra powerful Shardblades and Shardplates. The Shardblades are the weapons that are summoned from thin air by its wielder, and can cut through anything like a hot knife through butter. Shardplate is near impenetrable armor that even a Shardblade can't break through without a flurry of solid blows. Even if the armor is broken into a million pieces, it can be completely regrown using enough Stormlight gems. Those wielding both a Shardblade and Shardplate can almost single handedly wipe out an opposing army. The history behind these Shards is only touched on and hinted at in the first book, but is obviously of great importance.

Oh right, and some special people can breathe in the Stormlight and become as powerful as someone who wields both a Shardblade and Shardplate. They become stronger, faster, and more skilled at everything they do. They can walk on walls and rooftops, they can pull objects towards a spot that they infuse with Stormlight, and bind things together through a similar process. It turns Kaladin, a formidable warrior in his own right, into a one man army on par with a Shardbearer. In fact, he kills one Shardbearer and seriously wounds another using nothing but Stormlight and his own skill.

He Did WHAT??

One other thing Sanderson has established is really good plots. The reason for that, at least in my mind, is that his magic, characters, world and plots are all intertwined. They all feed off and tie in to each other in a manner that always seems logical because of the rules and mannerisms that he establishes for each aspect. 

In this world, humanity faces a cataclysmic war of extinction called Desolations every few thousand years. Semi-divine figures called the Heralds arrive to lead humanity against the Voidbringers. At the start of the book, you don't know who or what the Voidbringers are or what their motivations or goals are, despite what the predominant religion in the world proclaims. By the end of the book we are told what they are... but I have my doubts that it will turn out to be true. It seems too convenient. And that's what Sanderson does so well with his plot: with the plot intertwined with the history and lore of the world he feeds throughout the book, every bit of worldbuilding he throws at us isn't just cool... it's important!


He is also very good at dropping subtle hints and foreshadowing that seem innocuous at the time, but wind up being very significant for his plot twists. He established that in all of hisbooks that preceded The Way of Kings, and as a result when I read (and re-read, and re-read again) through this book I paid extra attention to any word or phrasing that seemed out of place, or oddly significant. It's like a puzzle, trying to fit together the pieces I gathered, sifting through what I think will wind up being important and what won't be, trying to guess at what bombshells he'll drop on us in the future. I am rather proud of myself in that I think I picked out a couple of nuggets and can guess at their significance, which of course means I'll be completely wrong.

In Conclusion

This book is fantastic. Seriously, inarguably fantastic as far as I'm concerned. I give it a 10/10. I don't mean that it's flawless or perfect, because there's no such thing. But since there's no such thing, I give it a perfect score because to me it's as good a book as is possible to craft. There is so much about this book that I didn't even mention, or just barely touched on, but this review is already getting long. You'll just have to find out about it all yourself.

If you like fantasy, even just a little bit, this book is a must-read.

December 18, 2013

The Catch: When And How Does A Book Grab You?

This is something that I've thought about before, and discussed with people when the topic of books comes up.

When you're reading a book that you like (and I won't flatter anyone here and say that we've never liked a book that we knew wasn't good), there comes a point when the book has either grabbed you to the point that you know you want to read on and finish it, or has failed to grab you and you give up on it. I've read in various places that some people will select an arbitrary threshold in terms of page numbers—usually somewhere in the range of the first 50 to 70 pages. If the book hasn't grabbed them by then, they'll give it up.

I've never set such a limit. In fact, very rarely in my life have I ever started a novel and not finished it (aside: I've started plenty of non-fiction books and not finished them, but I consider them differently at a fundamental level). Almost invariably, there is something about the book that I will encounter very quickly, within the first chapter or two, that will make me finish the book. I've come to call it "The Catch".

It can be any number of things, but for me the Catch is usually one of three things: a clever or witty line, an intriguing mystery, or just plain good writing. 

Wit Beyond Measure Is Man's Greatest Treasure

The first time I ever really gave some thought to the idea of the Catch and the role it plays in books that I read was after reading the first chapter of Brent Weeks' The Black Prism:
Another wolf answered, farther out. A haunting sound, the very voice of the wilderness. You couldn't help but freeze when you heard it. It was the kind of beauty that made you shit your pants.

Alright, this isn't exactly the pinnacle of wit and cleverness that you'll come across. In fact it's quite crude, but poop humour has it own kind of wit to it.

This quote came up on just the second page of the book, but I found it so unexpectedly humorous that I laughed out loud. Even then, even consciously, I acknowledged that this one small paragraph was enough that I knew I would read the whole book. Part of it was an assumption, that because the author managed to produce a quick turn of phrase that amused me so greatly I trusted that he would have a similar ability to craft a whole book that I would enjoy. As it turns out, that assumption proved correct. I ranked Brent Weeks' Lightbringer books #15 in my list of favourite fantasy series (It might not seem like that high, but I included 33 different series in the list and have read several more that I didn't like enough to even include them).

There are other books that have had a similar Catch to them. Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself has one of my favourite characters in any book, Inquisitor Glotka. The second chapter in the book is Glotka's first POV chapter, and contained enough clever writing and internal dialogue that I made the same assumption.

And again, that assumption proved correct. The first time I read one of Terry Pratchett's books, it only took a few pages before I found a big grin etched into my face that didn't fade until several hours after I finished reading the final page. Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips, which I reviewed in my previous post, achieved the same feat in its first chapter.

It Is Only Through Mystery And Madness That The Soul Itself Is Revealed

The second type of Catch that regularly succeeds with me is some element of mystery. Who is that shadowy character? What's his/her story? Will the guy get the girl? What's going to happen? And so on.

You can probably sense a pattern with those types of questions, they're all character and/or plot based. If an author does their job well, either in introducing a well-crafted character or foreshadowing an interesting plot development, I'll want to keep reading to find out more about either, or both.

One example of this is Brandon Sanderson's Way of Kings. In fact, it succeeded in both ways... multiple times. 

First and foremost is Kaladin, one of the main POV characters that the book follows. A brilliant young soldier, leader and hero, turn dejected and vilified slave. The little that is immediately revealed about him is full of mystery: how did such a young man come to be such a well-regarded warrior, especially given the derision heaped on those from his class in the society Sanderson introduced? What happened to him between then, and when he is considered a dangerous slave? What will happen to him as a slave? Will he ever again show the same kind of heroism and importance that he did in that one chapter?

Each of the main POV characters achieved something similar, though not as powerfully for me as with Kaladin. Adolin, Dalinar, Shallan, and Szeth all had their own pasts and mysteries and intriguing futures. 

But Sanderson also presented various plot arcs for the book, and a main plotline for the series, that were just as captivating. The cataclysmic Desolations that happen every few thousand years, the Knights Radiant and their Shardblades and Shardplates, the war with the Parshendi on the Shattered Plains, Shallan's quest to save her family, and more. All were introduced as at least mildly interesting concepts, written into the book with well-crafted prose, and with enough mysteries foreshadowed and hinted at that I wanted to find out what would happen. 

Patrick Rothfuss' Name of the Wind, Django Wexler's The Thousand Names, and George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones provide other examples. The first using a seemingly ordinary man with a very intriguing backstory hinted at; the second with a military challenge—that would an undermanned army already beaten in battle having to defeat a much more numerous enemy in hostile territory; and the latter with the White Walkers, the mysterious murder of one of the main character's friends, and the looming civil war hinted at almost in the beginning. 

All Good Writing Is Swimming Under Water And Holding Your Breath

The final category for me is just plain good writing. Technically, the two above examples would also be considered "good writing". However, what I mean by good writing in this instance is when I'm reading a book that doesn't have a single identifiable catch. There isn't some clever phrase or dialogue, there isn't some kind of character or plot development that makes me want to find out what will happen, I just find it so well written that I want to keep reading for the sake of reading what's on the pages. There are a few examples I can throw out there off the top of my head.

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay is just an all-round superb book. It does have an interesting setting, and a good main character: Shen Tai. However, the book takes its time to get into the main plot or show any kind of character development. And Shen Tai, while he was good character, didn't really grab me. What grabbed me was the writing itself. 

Here is a bit from the synopsis on Goodreads that describes the beginning: 
It begins simply. Shen Tai, son of an illustrious general serving the Emperor of Kitai, has spent two years honoring the memory of his late father by burying the bones of the dead from both armies at the site of one of his father's last great battles. In recognition of his labors and his filial piety, an unlikely source has sent him a dangerous gift: 250 Sardian horses.
The setting for the first portion of the book has Shen Tai in a small cabin in the midst of the battlefield mentioned above. The prose used to describe the battlefield is simply fantastic: the landscape itself, scarred from the battle and strewn with a seemingly endless number of bones; the ghosts of the fallen (that are real, in the book) that come out at night to wail their pain and sorrow, yet who accept Shen Tai for his efforts on their part; the painstaking labour that Shen Tai goes through, gathering up the bones, digging enormous mass graves for them, and filling them in; and how the soldiers in the opposing forts nearby the battlefield are inspired to bring increasingly grand gifts in thanks for giving their comrades peace.

It is only after a fairly lengthy period in the book that Shen Tai is visited by another human being, and the main plot involving the Sardian horses and their impact on his life is introduced. Even before that happened, I was hooked into the book almost as much as any other book has managed to hook me. 

There are other examples: Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear. It is two books into the trilogy and yet I still read on for the writing more than the plot or the characters. Coincidentally, the setting is also inspired from historical Asia and the story also begins in the aftermath of a battle. Bear simply does an incredible job bringing her world to life by painting simple yet elegant scenes of the landscape.

Another is Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It is not a fantasy book, like the others, but a historical fiction taking place in Barcelona, Spain in the 1940s and 50s. It follows the life of Daniel, from when he is a young boy, as he tries to find out what happened to the author of his favourite book. Like Elizabeth Bear above, Carlos Ruiz Zafon is amazing at establishing and describing his setting. His descriptions are quick but vibrant, and manages to bring to life the city of Barcelona and its people. Even something as simple as describing the awe one of the supporting characters feels as he sees a movie in a theatre for the first time is made to seem like an event of profound and beautiful significance.

All of these examples give descriptions that aren't too long and dry (see: Rings, Lord of the) yet are full enough that my imagination was able to see the settings as if I were there in person. On top of which, the settings that they used were beautiful to begin with. 

If One Thinks, One Must Reach Conclusions

My conclusion is simple. In fact I've already said what my conclusion is: witty phrasings and dialogue, good characters and plot with some aspect of foreshadowing or mystery, and plain and simple good writing acts for me as a Catch. When I encounter them, even within the first few pages of a book, the author has won my trust over completely and I'm in for the entire journey.

Not that I never wind up being mistaken in my assumptions. Sometime this year I read a book called Beyond the Storm.By the end of the first chapter its Catch was, I felt, the writing. The first chapter described the tragic death of a young woman as she awaited her lover to return from a sea voyage (actually, it was a lake voyage, but "lake voyage" sounds stupid). The rest of the book, which I didn't read until after I bought it, was about a man and a woman with troubled pasts meeting on their way to their high school reunion. They had two previous amorous encounters, once in high school and once years later during a chance encounter in New York. In this final meeting, they come to realize they're perfect for each other. There are many... intimate moments, and much waxing poetic about coincidence and fate.

Honestly, after the first chapter the good writing I thought I read disappeared completely. There was no subtlety, no good characters or plot developments. I kept reading to find out what the hell the point of the first chapter was, which had no obvious bearing on the rest of the book. Only near the end was it revealed that the two of them were some kind of reincarnated souls of the tragically killed woman and her heartbroken lover, only for it to be revealed that the two of the main characters were actually dead from a car crash and their spirits were what had met... or something. 

So, in conclusion, I've found that the Catch is a very useful tool. But like all tools it isn't perfect. 

December 17, 2013

Review: Gods Behaving Badly By Marie Phillips

Warning: This review will contain mild spoilers. I will strive to avoid giving anything major away, while trying to give someone who hasn't read the book the best impression I can.

Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips will be the first non-fantasy book I've reviewed. It is categorized as a general fiction book, though it still has elements of the fantastic in it.

From Goodreads:
Gods of Olympus are alive, but crammed into a crumbling London townhouse, and, powers waning, unhappily employed. Artemis is a dog-walker, Apollo a TV psychic, Aphrodite a phone sex operator, and Dionysus a DJ. Aphrodite's quarrel with lover and nephew Apollo escalates into the end of the world. Humans Alice and Neil are caught in the crossfire.

Artemis, goddess of hunting
"Ancient Greek Gods living in modern London?" I says to myself. "Sounds too good to be true, Brain must have gotten us drunk again."

"Twaddle-poop" my Brain shouts. "Hands, flip to page one and we'll see who's drunk!" After reading the first chapter, I'm glad I listened to Brain. The opening scene, with Artemis speaking with a tree that was actually a woman who spurned the sexual advances of Apollo, was the type of British humour that I love: utterly bizarre situations where everyone speaks properly and as if everything is normal.

It's not just that there are ancient gods living in the modern world, which itself has much promise either for awesomeness or hilarity. It's that the modern world is still entirely dependent on the efforts of those gods to fulfill their responsibilities. At the same time, their interactions with us mortal humans rather brilliantly reveals the alien and sometimes terrifyingly different mind set of the Greek Pantheon.

Gods Gone Wild

Basically, the Gods are real and they're actually in charge/control everything they are said to. Ares

causes/orchestrates all of the wars, Apollo ensures the sun rises and sets, Artemis can speak with animals and plants. But, as the synopsis says, their powers are not infinite. In fact, they're running out and so they're supposed to be conserving whatever they have left for their respective responsibilities. 

Apollo, god of Sun and prophecy
Problem is, they have very human personality flaws, but since they're Gods those flaws are amplified. As a household, living in a London flat, they're all incredibly dysfunctional. Apollo, god of (among other things) the Sun and prophecy, is a sex-crazed megalomaniac who earns his living as a TV psychic. Aphrodite, goddess of love, beauty and procreation, is extremely shallow and petty and her job is on a sex-talk phone service. Artemis, goddess of hunting, animals and chastity, is very proper and stubborn and works as a dog walker. 

These three Gods are the main actors from the Gods' side of the story: Aphrodite gets angry at Apollo for "being mean to her" and not using his power to warm up the water basin for her shower. The prank she devises is to make him fall in love with a mortal woman, but make it so she will hate and spurn him rather than return his desperate advances. The spiteful scheme inadvertently winds up threatening the end of the world, and all the while Artemis scrambles to keep the world in order. 

Oh, The Humanity!

Aphrodite, goddess of beauty
Enter Alice and Neil. They're two mere mortals, both in love with each other in that incredibly awkward way where neither believes the other is at all interested that is just so adorable (as long as you're not one of them). Unfortunately for the two, they're the ones who get caught up in Aphrodite's scheming. Alice, mainly, is the one dragged into their world, with Neil doing his best to drag her back out of it. It winds up testing their budding relationship. Thankfully, Neil proves that he's willing to go to Hell itself to save Alice! And that's rather convenient, because the depth of their love could very well decide the fate of the world. Dun dun dunnnn...

I did say this book shares some elements of fantasy, and I wasn't just talking about the fact that Greek Gods are real in this tale. I'm willing to admit it if others won't: fantasy as a genre is pretty much the male equivalent of the romance genre. What guy wouldn't want to save his lady love from the underworld and save the world at the same time, to prove his love for her?

No one else? Just me? Thanks guys, way to make this awkward.

Very Much Of This World

This book has an intriguing concept, great comedy throughout the whole thing, and the charming romance between Alice and Neil, but doesn't really have anything else going for it. The book itself is pretty short, which is probably for the best. The main plot arc about the world possibly ending seems somewhat contrived, the ending worthy of a slight grin but not especially clever.

In the end, this book stuck to its strengths. It is brilliantly charming and amusing, and definitely worth the read. But it is very much something of a fluff novel. I really, really liked it. But I didn't love it, since it just didn't have the power or the depth to completely win me over. 

If I were to give it a grade, I'd say it earned a 7.5 out of 10.

December 16, 2013

The One List To Rule Them All

What? Who said I was whoring myself out for page hits by creating a list of my favourite fantasy series? Lies and slander, I say!

Now excuse me while I whore myself out for page hits by creating a list of my favourite fantasy series.

Lord of the Rings by God

Lord of the Rings will not be included in this list, because it's not fair. I don't even mean that in the sense that "Well it was the very first modern fantasy book, it established the genre". I mean, specifically for me, Lord of the Rings might as well be the Bible.

First, as you may have noticed by now I love books. Like... I really, REALLY like books. Especially fantasy books. And as I already mentioned Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit are kind of Genesis.

Second, I also happen to love Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and Norse history, culture, mythology and folklore. I majored in Celtic Studies in university, and applied to grad schools for it as well. The only reason why I didn't major in Anglo-Saxon and/or Norse studies is my university didn't have majors for them. I loved those studies almost as much as I loved fantasy books, which only makes sense since Tolkien drew a lot of inspiration from those historical cultures and mythologies. Speaking of which, guess who was actually a fairly prominent scholar in Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and Norse linguistics, folklore, and mythology? Yeah, that Tolkien guy. I actually read some of his scholarly work for some of my essays.

So when I list above that Lord of the Rings is by "God", I'm mostly being tongue-in-cheek. But not entirely. And quite frankly, the mere mortals below on this list cannot hope to compete with God. It just wouldn't be fair.

#1 Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss

In truth I'd say this series is tied with the Stormlight Archive, below. Love the prose, love the protagonist, love the magic and the adventures and the shenanigans.

#2 Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson

I think the only reason why I would say it's not tied with Rothfuss' series, is that there's only been one book so far. We'll see if I change my mind after reading Words of Radiance. Kaladin and the Bridgemen is one of the most unique and incredible plot arcs I've ever read in any book, ever.

#3 The Shadow Campaigns by Django Wexler

I loved the characters, I loved the setting, I loved the plot, and I loved the battles. I can't really find any fault with it, except to say I didn't like it as much as the above too... but not by much.

#4 The Moontide Quartet by David Hair

Honestly, the second book might  have forced me to put it in with a tie with the above. It's massive but focused, every character POV is interesting and none of them seem cliché, the magic and world is great.

#5 Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

Loved the magic, loved the world, loved the characters, loved the plot twists, and loved the ending of the series. The second and most of the third book didn't have the same magic as The Final Empire did, which keeps it from being up top with Sanderson's other series.

#6 The Demon Cycle by Peter V. Brett

Characters are good, world is great, plot is somewhere between good and great, the cliffhanger (literally) at the end of Daylight War made me extremely angry... which I can appreciate is a sign that it did its job well.

#7 The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie

Has probably my favourite character in any book I've read: Inquisitor Glotka. Twisted in body and mind, the internal monologues he has with himself are grim and hilarious.

#8 The Broken Empire by Mark Lawrence

Has one of my other favourite characters, this one is the main (indeed only) protagonist. It can be seriously twisted, but almost always mixes those moments with humour as if to dare you to find it funny. I always did... probably doesn't speak well for me.

#9 Farseer Trilogy and Tawny Man Trilogy by Robin Hobb

The internal struggles the protagonist in these trilogies has (it's the same character, which is why I grouped them together), hit me really close to home. I don't know if Mrs Hobb meant for Fitz to come off as suffering depression, but it certainly resonated with that part of myself. 

#10 Eternal Sky by Elizabeth Bear

One of the most beautifully written books I've read, as far as both the prose itself and the world it manages to paint. It helps overcome a just "okay" caste of characters, in my books at least.

#11 The Gentleman Bastard by Scott Lynch

Great dialogues between the main characters, great plots and capers, mostly great characters. I have yet to read the third book, which I've read and been told is a bit disappointing. I almost expect that, having heard that, my bar will be set lower and I'll wind up enjoying it more than I would have otherwise.

#12 A Raven's Shadow by Anthony Ryan

Just a well written, well executed book. Love the main character and his journey in life, love the direction it took. Its biggest weakness is that it seemed to take a while to get there, even though I understand that I could only really appreciate it as much as I did because Ryan spent so much time setting the stage for it.

#13 Malazan Book of the Fallen by Stephen Erikson

Massive series, incredibly massive world(s). This series defines the word "epic". There is more mythology and world building in this series than every other series on this list combined (excluding Lord of the Rings, because God).

#14 The Traitor Son Cycle by Miles Cameron

Love the siege warfare, love the dialogue between characters, love most of the characters themselves. The constant jumping of POVs was a bit irksome at a few points, and the magic system doesn't seem to have the depth of others. 

#15 Lightbringer by Brent Weeks

Love the magic, the world, the characters, and the plot twists. The first book spent far too much time constantly explaining how the magic system worked, but the second made up for it by dropping those explanations entirely and concentrating on the amazingly surprising plot twists.

#16 The Dagger and the Coin by Daniel Abraham

Well written, has the most sympathetic and psychopathic, genocidal villain in any books I've read. Some things seem too superficial at times, or just a bit plain/uninteresting. But that seems to have changed by the end of book three.

#17 Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan

One of the first landmark fantasy series after Lord of the Rings. The first 5-6 books were really good, the next 2-3 were good to okay, books 8-11 were bloated and awful, and Sanderson's writing of the final three books recaptured the magic from the first half of the series. The characters were repetitive and incredibly annoying at times, while a select few were fantastic. The magic was cool, the world and the battles were too. It all balances out as a good series overall.

#18 Codex Alera by Jim Butcher

Love the magic, love the world, love the characters and their development. Some parts of the plot were either a bit obvious or kinda silly.

#19 The Riyria Revelations by Michael J. Sullivan

The first book (which is only half of the first omnibus in the picture above) was very cliché fantasy, but the dialogue between the two protagonists made me keep going. I'm glad I did, as each book improved upon the last. The ending gave me goosebumps, and my jaw literally dropped. It is without a doubt the best ending to a series I've ever read.

#20 Sword of Truth by Terry Goodkind

This series is very divisive to me. Books 1, 2, 6, 9 and 11 were all great. Books 7 and 8 seemed utterly pointless to the rest of the series, and seemed to only serve the purpose that Goodkind could pontificate on his philosophies. Goodkind himself really soured his reputation, at least for me, by seemingly deriding fantasy fans in general and snubbing his own fans at times. However, his official forum was where I became an admin, and I became so close with some of them that we all went to Comic Con together one year. These were the people I met, and these were the books I read and loved, during the worst year in my life as far as personal loss and depression goes. For these reasons they still hold a place in my heart.

#21 The Long Price Quartet by Daniel Abraham

Very unique magic system, and unusual (in a good way) plot arc over the whole series. Not much real drama though, when it seems there could and maybe even should have been.

#22 The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman

I wrote a review about this series in my previous post, which neatly outlined in more detail why I both love and hate this series.

#23 A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin

The blog entry before THAT was a review of THIS series, which again outlined what I loved and hated about this series.

#24 Low Town by Daniel Polansky

It's a mystery, which I also like as a genre, mixed with fantasy. What's not to like about it? Nothing, even if there also really isn't anything to love about it.

#25 The Lotus War by Jay Kristoff

Gorgeous covers, interesting blend of fantasy, Japanese mythology/history, and steampunk.

#26 Steelhaven by Richard Ford

An overall good series. That is both the best and most damning thing I can say about series.

#27 The Grim Company by Luke Scull

What I said about the above series is equally true about this one.

#28 The Crescent Moon Kingdoms by Saladin Ahmed

Unique and original magic and world, some incredibly annoying characters at times.

#29 Gallow by Nathan Hawke

Kind of a fluff fantasy read. Viking culture, battles and duels, basically a book equivalent of History Channel's Vikings show.

#30 The Belgariad by David Eddings

Another classic fantasy series, more appropriate for young adults than adults. Unfortunately, I read it as an adult and so I couldn't really form that emotional attachment to it than if I had read it as a young teenager.

#31 Spellwright by Blake Charlton

Pretty unique magic system, good plot, decent characters. Kind of superficial, in that there didn't seem to be much depth. I'm not sure if this series will ever actually continue, as the author seems to have fallen off the map.

#32 The Wild Hunt by Elspeth Cooper

Lots of clichés and not much depth. Well written, though not fantastic. Still enjoyed it, but not one I'm sure I'd recommend to others unless I knew them well enough to know it was up their alley.