The Curse of the Blue Figurine

The Curse of the Blue Figurine – John Bellairs

The Curse of the Blue Figurine by John Bellairs is the first in the Johnny Dixon series.  I have never read it before – but finally, in 2013, now that I am old and haggard, I finally got a copy.  I actually am working my way through as many John Bellairs novels as I can.  Overall, these are excellent.  I recently re-read The Mummy, The Will, and The Crypt, which was as awesome as I remember it being when I was a small person.

But this novel is even better.  I was thoroughly impressed. I thought for sure that I was going to be somewhat disappointed – how could Bellairs do better than the other book I read?  And yet! And YET! This one is excellent.

As I mentioned, this is the first book in the Johnny Dixon series.  So here, I finally got a lot more background on Johnny’s grandparents and Professor Childermass. I learned more about how Johnny came to live in this town and about the school he attends. And the church that he attends.

First of all:  yeah, parents in 2013 who are all stuffy and politically-correct and shelter their munchkins are never going to let them read these books.  These books are all kinds of “inappropriate” – but not because of the usual reasons you might think.  There’s alcohol and Church and the adults are realistic.  Nothing sanitized, really, in here.  But it isn’t bawdy, rowdy, or uncouth, don’t get me wrong. Secondly:  Johnny is so full of guilt and low self-esteem that he probably isn’t the type of character one finds in current-day novels.  But he’s really a great kid! In fact, he’s the best! I love Johnny!

I love all of the characters.   And this story is creepy and eerie and has a lot of supernatural elements in it. And the supernatural elements are kept real and true – no one attempts to erase, explain, or devolve them. Awesome! I love the language and constructions that Bellairs uses.  He’s really a charming author and he writes with such a fun style.  I am subtly pressurizing my entire household to read this novel.

5 stars

Wolfhound Century

Wolfhound Century – Peter Higgins; Orbit, 2013

I am blessed to know some really cool people.  One of them is Little Red Reviewer – who loaned me an Advance Reading Copy of Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins.  The novel was published in hardback in March of 2013.  I had my eye on it from the time I read snippets about it on some “upcoming novels” site.  I really enjoyed this book and I think I will probably eventually purchase a copy.  I am also given to understand that this is the opening book in a trilogy.  I think the next installment is due out in early 2014 (which seem really far away right now).

This book is not for every reader – this is not the sort of mass market paperback novel one picks up at the airport that contains one of the standard plotlines and uses stock characters.  Some people have compared this novel to China Miéville’s writings. I am not comfortable with that comparison, but I can see how some readers might feel there is a likeness.  Miéville is a unique and intelligent author, but I do not think that anything that is unique and intelligent therefore must take after him. The main element that sets this book apart is that the writing style is so unusual.

I really loved the writing style in this novel. I like the way that Higgins developed the setting of the novel; the setting is big, dark, real, and potent.  All of the descriptions used in the novel portray a great intensity.  Some readers have referred to this as “world-building,” again I differ because I feel world building is something less esoteric and more infrastructure related.  World building is making the map of the setting and making sure the physics is “sensible.”  What Higgins does in this novel, however, is poetry.  At no point did I feel that the writing was pretentious or bombastic, but each chapter was very well-written.  This is Higgins’ debut novel, though, and there were a few minor items where the writing is not perfect.  But the drop off is not steep. Overall, Higgins is an excellent writer.

The novel is set in an exceedingly interesting location, a sort of alternative Stalinist-Russia.  The country is surrounded by an immense forest and the terrain and the geography play a role in this novel.  Not merely in a way that maps out places, but in a way that actually infuses the plot itself and affects the characters significantly.   The pseudo-Stalinist Russia of the novel contains the dystopian elements of unending war, a police state, and a huge governmental edifice of buildings and departmental offices.  The weather is cold and rainy and dark.  And the landscape is full of bridges, streets, stonework, and iron.

The Vlast is the regime.  And in chapter 22, Higgins treats us to a scene reminiscent of 1984‘s “two minutes hate.”  In chapter 22, we are told that the main character:

….had looked up synonyms of Vlast once.  They filled almost half a column. Ascendancy.  Domination. Rule. Lordship. Mastery. Grasp. Rod. Control. Command. Power. Authority. Governance. Arm. Hand. Grip. Hold. Government. Sway. Reign. Dominance. Office. Nation.

But the novel is also fantasy. Here is a novel that is really difficult to jam into a genre. It’s fantasy – because it takes place in an alternative historical location, but also because it involves fantastic creatures like giants, golems, and “angels.”  I put quotes around angels because in this novel these creatures are nothing like any typical conception of angels.  Golems, giants, angels, magical properties, dryads – but all of these elements are written seamlessly into the novel so that it seems commonplace and normal and unremarkable that giants are puttering around a pseudo-St Petersburg.  The characters in the novel must deal with the Vlast as well as the supernatural.  This makes for a fascinating read.

Higgins is also, obviously, a very intelligent writer.  He has either done an extreme amount of research or he’s well-educated to begin with (perhaps both).  And it shows through this novel on every page.  There’s a great deal of conceptual apparatus here to play with – but it is all very subtle and seamless.  At no point does Higgins bash the reader over the head with any of these items.  And maybe things will be lost on some readers, or not resonate with others, but there are plenty of concepts that flesh out this novel so that it’s a full piece of literature and not simply a crime novel.  For example, the entire part of the storyline involving the artist Lakoba Petrov is representative of Higgins playing with aesthetics and politics and propaganda.  Awesome stuff.

Overall, this is definitely a five star novel.  It isn’t for children or the average reader – but it is a beautiful selection for those who like word craftsmanship, esoteric and dark settings, and intense storylines.  It really is not often one finds writing on this level – and it’s just super cool that the novel feels like Russia and has some fantasy elements.

5 stars

The Magicians

The Magicians - L. Grossman; Viking

The Magicians – Lev Grossman; Viking; 2009

The Magicians by Lev Grossman was released in 2009.  I finally got it in 2013 at a used book library sale.  For a dollar. I had seen it a couple of times for $3 for a new tradeback copy at Books-a-Million, but I passed it over and it was all sold out eventually.  Color me pleased when I found it in January for $1 for the hardback.  By that time, I had read a number of reviews on Amazon.com and Goodreads.com.   Reviewers keep reiterating that it is like an “adult Harry Potter” novel.  Well, no, I do not think it is.  Not that I have read the Harry Potter books, but I feel if you go into the novel thinking that you are setting incorrect expectations. Bottom line here:  Not an adult Harry Potter. Don’t believe the hype, folks.

The storyline itself is actually well-written.  Scenes move reasonably into other scenes, characters develop at a good pace, clues and hints throughout the story come back and play roles, and the balance between description and action is decent.  The conversation dialogue is actually fairly accurate for the characters.  It does include “adult language.” (It’s not adult – it’s called “cussin,’ folks.)  There is not an overabundance of hefty vocabulary (Cp. China Mieville) to bludgeon the reader with the author’s intelligence.  Some of the more causal speak actually seems forced – as if the author is more comfortable writing formally than colloquially.  For example, the phrase: “But still.”  What the heck does that mean? Nothing. It’s just a spoken phrase that has worked its way into everyday parlance. Things that like that pepper the novel; perhaps to give the reader the sense of reading about teenagers and college students.

And this is why I insist that the book is more like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History than the Harry Potter novels. The book is about smart, rich, entitled kids who are magicians.  They go to a secret University in order to formally train in magic.  Magic is not a thing of wonder and surprise. In this novel, magic is much more like a martial art, a skilled trade, or a scientific field.  The University is not a fun and mystical place.  So, if you expect the Escher-like corridors of Hogwart’s or the silliness of Wonderland – forget it.  That’s not what this novel is doing and complaining about this novel because it actually isn’t those novels is faulty.

The characters are easily dislikeable.  Really. I mean, who does not dislike young adults who are practically hedonistic and whine about how they are misunderstood and their lives are boring?  And this is not entirely unheard of.  I am sure Grossman has run across plenty of college students who have this air about them.  In fact, having spent some time in universities, I can vouch for the fact that some students even put on this sort of act because they feel this is how students are “supposed” to be.   If the average reader finds this all very abhorrent and toxic, well, they are probably overreacting.  It’s easy to hate characters for not being how we think they should be or because we are jealous of them, or because they are so very different from us.  But a good reader can move past that feeling and realize they are not the author and it’s not their story.

The main character is Quentin Coldwater.  He’s not a bad character, all things considered.  He is a bit tentative and cowardly, but very few young adults are actually authentically confident and secure.  He makes mistakes – not really bad ones, but things have a tendency to snowball on him.  And while it is good that he finds people at the University that he can belong among, they are also not the greatest influences he could find, either.  But that is exactly how real life is.  Perfection is somewhat rare in the real world.  I like Quentin well enough and I do feel bad for him at times. Some times I wish he would pull his head out of his butt and think.  Sometimes I understand him completely:

It was a glorious relief.  The numbness of it was just magnificent.  At the moment when it had been at its most intolerably painful, the world, normally so unreliable and insensitive in these matters, had done him the favor of vanishing completely.  — pg. 252

The character Alice Quinn is pretty cool as well. I really enjoyed the foray into her parents’ home – that was creative and interesting writing.  In fact, just because Grossman’s concept of magic is not that of Tolkien’s or Rowling’s does not mean his is weak or stupid. In fact, of them – his is actually the most fleshed out and developed.  He shows us magic in a variety of settings and uses.  And he presents a somewhat darker image of it – not the starry-eyed kiddos’ of Hogwarts.  Anyway, Alice is probably the best magician and student of the bunch.  She’s interesting and she is a good character to match with Quentin.  Their story develops and as it continues, I think readers have a lot of respect for her for a number of reasons.  Her insightfulness, her bravery, and her dedication.

I found Eliot to be the most tedious of characters.  In a lot of ways, he’s the most stereotypical character – one wants to say “yeah, he’s in the story because every story has one of him.”  I disliked him and I suppose he has a role to play, but honestly, he is arrogant and crass and a lot less likeable than the others.  He does take that archetypal character in a University, though. The aloof loner who is uppity and yet slums with the losers on occasion.

The novel uses the tools that C. S. Lewis and J. K. Rowling created.  I do not think this is a bad thing. I think it’s fairly gutsy and interesting.  I think readers who focus on the similarities and spend time calling Grossman’s work derivative are missing the good of The Magicians.  Using the tools the other authors provide, Grossman is telling us a different story.  The thing that I do not really like about Grossman’s story is the existentialist feeling it has.  Existentialism (to me) always seems dreary and navel-gazing. So, it was this element that weighed the novel down – and yes, at places, this is a heavy dismal thing.  Nevertheless, the ending leads us right into the sequel.  Maybe by then readers will stop comparing the novel to what it isn’t and read it for what it is?  And what it is, is a question of how much hope and redemption Quentin Coldwater can find in any world – Earth or Fillory.

2 stars

Shadow Prowler

Shadow Prowler

Shadow Prowler – Alexey Pehov; TOR

Shadow Prowler is the first book in the Chronicles of Siala series by Russian author Alexey Pehov.  It was originally written, in Russian, in 2002, but published by TOR in 2010 under English translation by Andrew Bromfield.  I bought my copy new – paperback – with the cover art by Kekai Kotaki.  It was a random book purchase – I saw it on the shelf and since this is “read Russians” year for me (sort of), I took it to the checkout.

This novel is at once a very good novel and a very bad novel. At 557 pages, it definitely qualifies as a typical epic fantasy novel. Ultimately, this is what is both good and bad about the novel:  typical epic fantasy.  Pehov nails each and every trope, cliché, and imitation found in epic fantasy novels.  So, in some sense, the originality is lacking. Because if you have read the Dragonlance Chronicles series, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, Terry Brooks’ Shannara series, and anything by Tolkien, this will seem obvious and derivative. That’s bad, right? Or maybe not. But it could be.

The main character, Harold, is a master thief and is coerced through fate and scheming to embark on a quest that he’d rather not embark on. He’s presented as some sort of honorable thief. An anti-hero hero archetype.  The real reason he gets caught up in all of the trouble is based on some sort of honor code to the god of thieves regarding commissions. That’s a dubious reason to risk life and limb, right? Or is it? Not that this is new or original to any fantasy novel in history.  In fact, I can name at least two recent novels that share some of this archetype:  The Lies of Locke Lamora and Mistborn.   Thief, antihero. Been there, done that?

There are orcs and elves and demons.  And goblins. And dwarves. And gnomes. Yep – the whole gamut of races that one would find in World of Warcraft and EverQuest.  There are magicians and there are also shamen.  And priests.  So do you see how this book really takes the cake at stuffing the usual suspects into the “typical epic fantasy”?  This is a good thing. No, wait, it’s a bad thing. Or what is it?

Most of the characters act and speak precisely how one expects them to. The grizzled magician, the mentor of the main character, the band of rogues that join the quest, the elven royalty, the bad-guys, the tavern keeper:  they are stereotypical and obvious.  Only the main character has any depth, and honestly, he’s somewhat sarcastic and witty on a mild level. The only other character is a goblin who is the king’s jester and who is spunky and obnoxious.  Everyone else is carbon copy fantasy stock character. Which is a bad thing, right? No, no. It’s a good thing. Things do as they be.

The thing is – as derivative and obvious as this novel is (and it is, folks) – it’s also fun and interesting. As discerning, literary readers we can critique it to death regarding all of it’s obvious flaws. However, at the end of the day, I’d be lying to you if I said I did not enjoy it.  In fact, there are parts that were actually really (dare I say it?) gripping and interesting. Overall, this is a very fun novel. And I read novels to have fun and be entertained. For example, the part where the main character goes to the Forbidden Area of the city dabbles in ghostly Lovecraftian-scary stuff. (There are phantoms and zombies!!!!!)  And, honestly, this was a thrilling part of the novel – I could have read just a whole novel of the main character’s exploits in this scenario.  There are several “flashback”/hallucinations that take place that fill in background. And these were fun. I usually dread flashbacks because they tend to bore me. But, I cannot lie, these were actually kind of fun to read. And they did serve the purpose of filling in background. Late in the book, there is a death of a character and I have to admit, I was saddened by it. Silly ridiculous flat character died – but I sure did feel the tug on my Grinch-heart!

Another horrible thing (no! it’s not horrible at all. Yes it is. NO!) is that the storyline is spread out.  Some fantasy novels introduce characters, setup quest, go on quest. This one takes a multitude of “sections” that would be perfect for TV series.  We do not immediately jump out on the quest and head toward the main goal. Instead, the main character has a bunch of challenges and proximate goals to overcome before we even set out on the main storyline quest.  In fact, and here’s the kicker, by the end of the novel – our noble heroes haven’t even made it where they are going to accomplish the big goal! So if you really want to know – you gotta buy book two (and probably book three).  Not that the time in between was wasted or uninteresting, but it was surprising that the author did this. I mean, gutsy move, dude. And I am certain this turned off a lot of readers.

Speaking of which, Justin (on Goodreads and the blogger of Staffer’s Book Review) wrote this “Review” after giving this book one star. I agree with most of his complaints about the novel. Go ahead and read his commentary – because he’s correct and I think potential readers should read a variety of opinions.  But, and I daresay Justin might agree with me, it was a giggling-ly entertaining puff to read. And if I was so entertained, how can I give the novel one star?  I totally should not like this book as much as I did. And I should also not eat french fries, Taco Bell, or so much pizza………

So what should I rate this book? I am giving it four stars. It is stuffed with the obvious and is extremely derivative. But it’s still so much fun, I just kept turning the pages and I knew it was pulpy and stereotypical – but I was having fun reading it.  So, I totally agree with every one of the criticisms levied against this novel. But I still had a great time reading it. Shame on me: I enjoyed a silly “typical epic fantasy” novel.  And I went and bought book two. Russians gotta do what Russians gotta do….

4 stars

Renegade

Renegade - J. A. Souders; TOR

Renegade – J. A. Souders; TOR

I was sent an uncorrected advance reading copy by TOR of Renegade by J. (Jessica) A. Souders.  It’s to be published November/December 2012 in the USA.  It is a young adult science fiction/fantasy novel that is the debut of the author.

I do not know who the cover artist is.  The cover is not something that normally would have me pick up the book. Nevertheless, the back of the book blurb was interesting enough.  I do not read a whole lot of young adult fiction.  I don’t ever know how to rate young adult fiction. I suspect this one is pretty good. I do think there was a bit too much romance/sex. It’s kind of icky to read about teenagers and their hots for one another…. Overall, though, I think while not a completely original scenario, it’s solid and interesting for a young adult novel.  It was a one-night read that didn’t require too much effort from me.  Also, I believe this may be something of a series.  Ultimately, one is not overly compelled to read the next in the series.  Not because this novel was ungood (yeah, I went Orwell on you there), but because the story does not end on a cliffhanger. There are some relatively vague questions about the world, but I am fine with this as a standalone – or as expanded into a series.

The dystopia is a fairly standard theme here, nevertheless it is still interesting. It reminded me, in some of the setting, of Atlantis and Namor and Imperius Rex. Anything that does that is a good thing. I also thought the mind-conditioning, amnesia, and brainwashing were written really well. So, good setting and good plot device.

The bad:  there were some chapters toward the end of the novel that seemed a little circular. The characters are being hunted, they are lost, etc. I feel like they were really going in circles. Not terrible, but something else needed to happen there.

The villain, Mother, was sufficiently creepy and deranged. “My life is just about perfect.”  Again, while somewhat predictable, she was unrelenting throughout and was not wishy-washy. I really do not like villains who vacillate or who are weak.  If you’re gonna be a baddie, be bad to the bone!  Of course, though the villain was obvious, the reader understands the loyalty the main character, Evelyn Winters, still has toward her.  In fact, one can almost sympathize with the reasons, if not the method, for the pseudo-utopia underwater that Mother controls.

I appreciate the mix of tech and non-tech in this one. There is a really subtle balance between science and simplicity that I was surprised to find in a young adult novel.  I do not know how many young adults will actually pick up on this, but I found it to be a good thing. Overall, there was nothing surprising to the plot.  I think the author has some good ideas and is a decent writer.  I don’t think she’s ever shot a handgun or done any hand-to-hand combat, but I do not think this lack of realism in the novel damaged it in any way.  I admit that I am not a big young adult fiction reader so my rating is not expert-level, but I am giving it three stars – it probably deserves three and a half, to be honest.  Three stars is not a bad rating – it’s a solid novel and given that it’s the author’s first, I expect much more goodness from Souders.

3 stars

Prince of Thorns

Prince of Thorns

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence; ACE

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence was first published in 2011. It’s book one of The Broken Empire; I actually don’t know (yet) how long the series is. I would assume a trilogy, but then A Wheel of Time reminds me that some series can go on forever.  I feel like there has been a pile of new fantasy novels/series that have been released in the last two or three years. I have been in the middle of The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (2007) for about a year and a half. I’m also stalled out in Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson (2008).  However, I did finish Peter V. Brett’s The Warded Man (2009) and I absolutely loved that one.   The point is, I feel like I buy and am interested in reading a lot more fantasy novels than I actually sit down and read.

Part of the allure of this novel was that it was “short.” 319 pages is something a bit rare in the fantasy novel world. But look, it works; because I finished the thing in two weeks and am writing a review of it now!  The cover helped, too, because this piece by Jason Chan looks interesting. It’s not too busy and it works well for the story.

From the back cover:

When he was nine, he watched as his mother and brother were killed before him. At thirteen, he led a band of bloodthirsty thugs. By fifteen, he intends to be king…
It’s time for Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath to return to the castle he turned his back on, to take what’s rightfully his. Since the day he hung pinned on the thorns of a briar patch and watched Count Renar’s men slaughter his mother and young brother, Jorg has been driven to vent his rage. Life and death are no more than a game to him—and he has nothing left to lose. But treachery awaits him in his father’s castle. Treachery and dark magic.

The back cover blurb gives a sense of a young kid on a revenge mission. He seems ambitious and intense.  Also, there is not a heavy emphasis on magic or the traditional fantasy elements.  This sets the novel a bit apart from some of the more overtly magic-driven, demon-involved epic fantasy novels.

It’s told from the perspective of the main character, Jorg.  We meet him on the road with his band of brigands and rabble as they are burning a village. And right away the reader discovers that this kid is mean as spit.  I lost track of just how old he was, but from 12-15 years old, he really does wreck havoc on the land. Seems really unlikely, right? How does a young teenager garner the loyalty of thugs, soldiers, and criminals?  How does he have such great strategy, luck, and skill?  Well, he is definitely a unique character – even if these obvious questions run through the reader’s mind while going through the book.  And the author gives us hints and options for how Jorg operates and why throughout.  At the end the question is almost answered. It’s better to say that an answer is provided, but the answer is only a sufficient cause and not the sole cause.

The author writes very well.  This is not high literary stuff, though.  Direct sentences, never any purple prose, no overworking of anything.  The writing style suits the ruthless and direct manner of the main character perfectly. However, it can be a turn off for any readers who enjoy descriptive paragraphs, developed settings, and poetic renderings.  The writing style is crisp and clean and means business. There are plenty of killings and pillagings in the novel – and you read about them hard and fast just like they happen.  Because I think the best part of the author’s main concept for the novel is the de-pretty-ifying of epic fantasy and medieval combat. (Crossbows are cool!)  If you want to read about glorious battles and the conflicted hearts of heroes there are dozens of other novels that can provide that. Here, the author (by way of Jorg) keeps it real.  Jorg does not mince words, he doesn’t second guess, and he does not fall prey to all of those annoying flaws in characters like:  didn’t completely kill the bad guy or is indecisive and lost. Jorg handles his business – and it’s rarely pretty.

Although the impetus for the character is the deaths of his mother and brother followed by the cavalier attitude of his father (the king), the reader will not be swept up into any moping overemotive wallowing by Jorg.  There’s no demand placed on the reader for sympathy/empathy.  Simply, Jorg is a mean little snake and he is not asking for any pity or compassion – because he sure won’t show any, either. All of this is. . . .  “refreshing” . . . in a fantasy novel. I suppose refreshing is a bit of an odd word choice to describe this ruthless little kid, but this novel is refreshing because it never ever gets bogged down in emotive turmoil and meandering indecisive characters. Jorg, for better or worse, makes things happen. He will always think it’s better to act than to do nothing – even if the act is extreme.

There is some language in the novel that some sensitive readers may not approve of. Not cussing or gory graphic words, but the characters are somewhat sacrilegious and blasphemous. Readers who dislike this should take note before buying, because I can see where some people would not like this aspect.  But a cool thing about what the author is doing is that the world of Jorg is like ours – like an alternate reality. For example, there is The Church with a Pope (who is female). Jorg, as a youth, studied the philosophers (to include Plato, Plutarch, Russell, Nietzsche, etc.) And it’s really surprising and odd when you find that the author has worked in real elements of the real world into his fantasy novel.  Especially for me, a philosopher, to read about a character who references philosophers. It’s cool and I am actually surprised at how well it works and that it has not been done more in other books. Thumbs up, Mark Lawrence!  Overall, I can see this book being either two stars or four stars depending on your views toward the writing and the language. I am giving it four stars for uniqueness, surprising-ness, and brevity. Book two is available currently in hardback . . . .

4 stars

The Black Company

The Black Company

The Black Company by Glen Cook

Glen Cook’s The Black Company was first published in 1984.  It is the first in the series of books about the “Black Company.” The cover art was done by Keith Berdak and was taken from a description within the text.  The art is also some of the coolest, most gripping art of the 1980’s novels. Let’s face it; how do you see this cover in 1984 and pass it by?

The Black Company is a very odd and difficult read.  For the first 150 pages of the novel, I was generously going to give it no more than three-stars as a rating, and I spent the whole time marveling at the fact that so many readers have given it four or five-star ratings. This novel is the epitome of “character-driven” and “no detail.”  In fact, the plot itself is a bit challenging to discern until the reader is somewhere over page 220.

The difference, I think, between this character-driven novel and others, is that The Black Company is almost episodic in its structure and the characters do not really develop or change or move the storyline forward. Things happen to the characters.  The characters are perpetually caught in the current of the river that is the plot – but, that very same river is unnamed and unfamiliar to the reader, too.  The first 100 pages are easy to breeze through – except I found them aggravating and frustrating because I had no idea what was happening. Literally, no idea because it all seemed completely disconnected, random, and confused.

Yes, for the most part of this novel, the novel itself seems confused.  Not that it is confusing, but that it itself is confused. Disjointed and disconnected.  Okay, we all like mysterious plotlines once in awhile, but in the first 200 pages it definitely seems like there are some really basic, necessary points that the author has left out.  It’s like he is writing a story without writing a story at all. It does seem mad and confused.

Which is why if you are going to tackle reading this one – you have to force yourself to remain calm and keep reading.  At least until page 200.  Everything after page 200 (a mere 114 pages more) makes everything before it more sensible, reasonable, and palatable.  But can readers push themselves to read nearly 200 pages of randomized confused – HEY, I think the author LEFT SOME STUFF OUT – sort of reading?

This novel is told in the first person by the main character, Croaker.  He is a veteran medic and soldier in the mercenary troops of the Black Company.  Croaker also has the additional duty of being the Company’s Annalist.  This means he is their historian – so he is frequently called upon to witness and record events, battles, moments within the Company.  However, the novel itself is not the annals that Croaker writes.  It’s more like his in media res commentary of life within the Company – which is always punctuated by the antics of the other soldiers, the battles the Company is dispatched to fight, and the incidents that happen to the Company.

It needs to be mentioned, unlike most military/fantasy military novels, we are never ever given descriptions of anything.  I mean, you won’t learn what their uniforms look like or what gear they carry.  Readers do not discover what sorts of weapons are used or which character is most proficient in particular arms.  The end fifty pages of the novel actually depict a location under siege, which is done very well and the author deserves praise for this intense writing.  However, nowhere in the novel are there lines like: “… and then he punched him, while swooping his sword arm; but his opponent ducked and thrust his dagger forward. The clang of the dagger on his shield distracted him, so that he failed to counter with a blow from his war-anvil.”   This is decidedly not the standard “military-fantasy” that can be seen in sections of Brandon Sanderson or Steven Erikson novels.

And there are wizards and magic carpets and people get killed, brought back from the dead – trained as zombie-wizards and get to be patrons of battalions. Yes. Indeed.

So, I am giving this novel four stars because it started off as in media res randomized nothing and then got me addicted.  And it aggravated me and was confusing.  And then all of a sudden, I really was interested in what was happening and how the characters fared – although I really wasn’t entirely sure how the story had gotten to where it had. And after finishing it, I really miss the characters and the story and, though I have no solid idea about the setting whatsoever, I really want to read the next in the series. This writing style is very odd and unique.  The whole thing – whatever it may be – thoroughly grew on me, so to speak, by the end of the novel.  And now, I totally understand why so many readers rated it so highly.  Getting readers past those first 150 pages before they give up is gonna be tough!

4 stars

The Lure of the Basilisk

The Lure of the Basilisk

The Lure of the Basilisk by Lawrence Watt-Evans; Del Rey

The Lure of the Basilisk by Lawrence Watt-Evans is the first book in The Lords of Dûs series.  It was first published in 1980 – the copy I read is the 1987 edition.  The cover art was done by Darrell K. Sweet.

There is actually quite a lot that is enjoyable about this book.  There are a few minor issues, but it was really nice to read a decent fantasy novel that did not involve elves, was under 10,000,000 pages, and did not describe every blade of grass in the country.  There were a few typos in my edition, which honestly should have been corrected by this printing – nothing major, just “It” instead of “I” and “faithly” instead of “faintly.”

The story begins in a cave with a warrior type character speaking to creepy Wise Women.  The character is imploring the women for information on how to become famous – in essence, for his name to “live forever.”  I did not really take a good attitude toward this character at this point because it seems arrogant and obnoxious and I really felt this was going to demonstrate the standard story of how glory-seeking ruins a warrior. Honestly, his request seems rather absurd, but I decided that I did not have to agree with the desire of the character in order to read the book.

This character is Garth.  He’s an overman – a race of human-like creatures who live in Ordunin – a northern peninsula. The whole novel focuses on Garth and his quest.  We next meet him in Skelleth, a rundown barony where he meets the Forgotten King in a tavern/inn.  This is where the Wise Women told him to begin his quest – he should speak to the Forgotten King and obey him.  Garth is not exactly welcome in Skelleth.  Nevertheless, the Forgotten King is a mysterious old man who hangs out in the tavern.  The Forgotten King tells Garth that he will help Garth attain glorious fame, but first he has a “trial” quest for Garth.  Garth is to travel to Mormoreth and capture the basilisk that dwells in the crypts there.

The cover depicts the scene where Garth arrives outside of Mormoreth on his warbeast (Koros) and is demanding entrance from the ruler of Mormoreth:  Shang.  The warbeast is, like the overmen, a genetically bred animal that is like a panther.  It’s trained to follow basic commands, although it did not even have a name for half of the book.  The relationship between Garth and Koros is actually kind of unique – Garth views the animal in terms of utility and pragmatic ways.  I am used to reading books where there is this overbuilt bond between characters and their animals.

In fact, much of the goodness of the novel is because Garth is actually a fairly unique character.  He shrugs a bit too much.  But he’s nearly seven feet tall, strong as an ox, a skilled warrior, and very durable.  He also doesn’t make the trope-mistakes of most fantasy characters.  It was actually interesting and fun to follow Garth through the castles, crypts, and city streets on his quest. Also, though a fierce fighter, he usually chooses not to give in to bloodshed and he tends toward more honorable actions – even though he confesses many times that he doesn’t quite understand the traditional emotions, values, and actions of humans.

The ending ties a lot together, which makes the novel feel complete.  However, there are a few things that are left open-ended so that the series can continue to the next book.  I enjoyed this book, the writing style is so fluid and comfortable that I was able to read it in about a day and a half.  I admit that four stars is probably a bit of a gift, but I did really enjoy every chapter.

4 stars

The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman; Del Rey

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman was published in 1995.  In the UK the novel is titled Northern Lights, but The Golden Compass is the USA title. It is the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy.  In 2007, a major film was released starring Nicole Kidman, Dakota Blue Richards, Daniel Craig, et al.   The edition of the novel that I read is the Del Rey 1997 edition.

In my edition, the famous author Terry Brooks (Cp. The Shannara series) wrote a short one-page introduction.  I was rather unenthused about reading the novel, but after Brooks’ introduction, I was drawn into reading it.  I do not always read introductions, but I have to say that Brooks’ intro was so encouraging that I plowed right into the book.

I have said this so often during the past year that I am beginning to sound like the oft-mentioned broken record, but here it is again.  You are going to love The Golden Compass.  It is a claim you have heard about other books, and it hasn’t always turned out to be true.  So why should you believe it this time? What makes this such a great book? Let me give you some reasons.

The novel is divided into three main parts with a total of 23 chapters.  The parts are locations wherein the story mainly takes place.

  • Oxford
  • Bolvangar
  • Svalbard

The novel is written with a mellow tone and style that definitely makes it seem like it is fit for young adult audiences.  However, I really do not think this is a book for children or for young adults. I do feel it is a book for adults. My big worry that I was reading some lame children’s book was set aside.  However, the main character of the book is a young girl.  Lyra Belacqua is a twelve-year old orphan of sorts living at Jordan College as something of a ward, but more like a pest.  Her whole life changes because of her penchant for mischief and curiosity; she sneaks into the Retiring Room at the College wherein the masters and scholars are about to receive an important guest:  Lord Asriel.

The story takes place in a parallel universe to ours, in which exists the Magisterium, a body of the Church in that world which guards against heresy.  The neat gimmick of the novel is that human souls exist externally in the form of a “dæmon,” an animal which constantly accompanies his master.  Due to some of these considerations and some other elements, the Church and many Christian organizations decried this novel (and film) calling it atheistic or subversive.  For example, the name of Lord Asriel is probably a reference to Azrael, a name of the Angel of Death in mythology.  However Asriel is also an anagram for “Israel.”  In this manner one can interpret the novel as a criticism against the Church and/or the Magisterium.  After having read the novel, I feel to do this is a bit absurd.  This novel is pure fiction – a fantasy novel.  It does not purport to be anything else.  While some of the terminology or concepts might seem to be allusions to real world organizations and beliefs, ultimately, it is our own perspectives seeing tilting at windmills.  The associations between the items in the book and the supposedly connected items in the real are tenuous and vague.  I sincerely doubt this book was supposed to represent a great treatise against any religion and I doubt it will affect anyone’s faith in any way whatsoever.

I was really surprised to see many of the steampunk elements in the novel. At first, I expected some sort of Hogwarts/Roke Island sort of story.  And, of course, I expected the main character to be entirely too headstrong and foolish.  Also, I was unsure what to make of the dæmons.  In chapter 4, Lyra is enticed by Mrs. Coulter to go to London.  Mrs. Coulter is one of those immediately dislikeable characters that somehow we all know in real life.  She’s conniving and manipulative, but shines in her role as socialite and gadfly.  Of course, as a reader I was drawn into the story at this point, really not liking what Mrs. Coulter was trying to turn Lyra into.  After this section of the book, I realized that Lyra was not going to be the bratty, dim-witted child that I thought I would have to suffer.  Instead, Lyra develops into a really well-balanced, courageous, and reasonable creature.  And maybe that’s actually the biggest fantasy in the book – it is probably impossible for any twelve-year old to be so reasonable.

As the story progresses, more elements of steampunk occur.  There are a number of noble-souled individuals who help Lyra along, but she is often left to her own devices relying on her own wits to problem solve.  I really like the characters of the bears and the witches. (I did mention this is fantasy, right?)  Bears who talk, run kingdoms, build armor, and who have a deep code of honor are really neat things to read about.  And I admit, I got attached to the character Iorek Byrnison, an exiled bear.  I think the book had a great balance of steampunk, fantasy, realism, and science in it.  Around halfway, I was thinking I might be giving the book four stars.  However, after finishing it, I realize I would be withholding a star for no real good reason.  Compared to the other books I have read and rated, I think this deserves the five stars – even if it is not a story that would interest every reader.

5 stars

 

The Shadow of the Torturer

Shadow of the Torturer

The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe

The Shadow of the Torturer is the first book in the four volume Book of the New Sun series. The Shadow of the Torturer was first published in 1980 and was nominated for the Locus Award in that year. This is the first novel that I have read by Gene Wolfe.  The book is told as if it were the reminiscences of Severian, a member of the Torturer’s Guild in the City.

This is a very weird book.  If there is a category called books that are weird (Paul Auster and China Mieville come to mind as weird-book-authors), then this surely fits in that category.  The first scene in the novel, after a bit of meandering by the main character, takes place in a cemetery and involves the desecration of a corpse and a fight with a shovel/ax.  It also introduces us to the character Voldalus, who gives Severian a coin.  This scene seems to be really important, but it’s not easy to grasp what actually occurred there. Suffice to say, this event is a major event for Severian, who often remembers it as a pivotal point in his narrative.

Severian, being a member of a Guild of Torturers, meets one of their “clients.” Client is what the guild calls it’s inmates who are to be held and tortured and/or killed. Clients are sent to the guild by the authorities, presumably for crimes they have committed. The torturer’s guild consists of only two master torturers, many journeymen, and many apprentices. When the novel begins, Severian is only an apprentice. We follow some of the timeline until he is made journeyman.

One of my biggest complaints about the novel is that we are given so little regarding the guild of torturers itself. This is a neat creation, a unique twist on medieval-like fantasy, and yet, we are not provided much information.  The author just does not give us any real glimpses into what the training of torturers is like, what the actual tortures consist of, etc.  It’s not so much that I want to read graphic accounts of torture, but if one sets up such an entity as this guild, I feel it is natural to give us something more to work with.

Severian is sent away from the guild because he mishandles (let us say) one of the clients. He is assigned to a “village” far outside of the city to be their executioner. He does not make it out of the city, even by the end of the novel. Instead, the storyline gets really weird. There is a duel, there is a botanical garden that is a lot like Alice’s Wonderland, there is a deceitful brother and sister, there is a love interest (who is as batty as all the rest of the characters).  Frankly, the time Severian spends in the bizarre botanical garden takes up most of the book, and there are some really absurd sections in there that are just plain weird.  I actually began to despair – thinking the author had abandoned all of the plotlines he had originally set us upon and had permanently diverted to the world of the gardens. Luckily, we make it back out. For the duel. And then the spontaneous and utterly random theatre act that Severian gets involved in.

Amidst all the weird, there are some interesting ruminations that Severian engages in. One of these is in his position of the writer of his memories. Late in the book there is a really unique passage in which the author, through the pen of his character, compares writing literature to being a torturer/executioner. It’s worth my typing it out here, I think.

Many scores and sometimes many hundreds of persons come to watch an execution, and I have seen balconies torn from their walls by the weight of the watchers, killing more in their single crash that I in my career.  These scores and hundreds may be likened to the readers of a written account.

But there are others besides these spectators who must be satisfied:  the authority in whose name the carnifex acts; those who have given him money so that the condemned may have an easy (or a hard) death; and the carnifex himself.

The spectators will be content if there are no long delays, if the condemned is permitted to speak briefly and does it well, if the upraised blade gleams in the sun for a moment before it descends, thus giving them time to catch breath and nudge one another, and if the head falls with a satisfactory gout of blood.  Similarly you, who will some day delve in Master Ultan’s library, will require of me no long delays; personages who are permitted to speak only briefly yet do it well; certain dramatic pauses which shall signal to you that something of import is about to occur; excitement; and a sating quantity of blood.

The passage continues – and is worth reading. The comparisons are striking, and perhaps, give me pause in rating this novel. I suppose I wanted to give it two stars, but judging it by the very criteria of Severian in this passage, I was able to give it three.

3 stars

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