Month: December 2012

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

H. P. Lovecraft – Part Two

HPLThis entry contains my comments on H. P. Lovecraft’s stories The Lurking Fear and The Rats in the Walls. The former was written in 1922 and serialized in early 1923. I actually think that The Lurking Fear is a better story than The Rats in the Walls, but I can understand other readers enjoying the latter more.

This story is divided into four smaller chapters, each having their own title:

I. The Shadow on the Chimney

II. A Passer in the Storm

III. What the Red Glare Meant

IV. The Horror in the Eyes

The story takes place in the Catskills in New York. Specifically, the novel takes place on Tempest Mountain. There is a Tempest Mountain in Montana. Also, I found reference to the words “tempest” and “mountain” in the New Testament – I used the KJV, which HPL would have been familiar with. “For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire, nor unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest….” (Hebrews 12:18) I do not believe there is such a mountain so named in the Catskills. However, and this has always amused me, parts of the Catskills were known as the Borscht Belt due to the heavy immigration and presence of Russian Jews. (‘Borscht’ to signify their cultural connection to Russia and the Ukraine.) Anyway, the parts HPL references seem to have a large Dutch population.

Some of this setting-building is important, because it makes the story have a realistic feel to it. For example, the narrator stays at Lefferts Corners, mentions two other mountaintops: Cone Mountain and Maple Hill, and references the city of Albany. One feels that maybe this narrator (or HPL himself) really went to such an area – because maybe it could have really existed.

The main character is again a narrator who is writing a memoir of his experience. The story begins: “There was thunder in the air on the night I went to the deserted mansion atop Tempest Mountain . . . . “ Now, if you are like me, you just speed-read that line. So, go back now and actually read the phrase with the purpose of using it to draw you into a story. I like it as an opening line. I like that there’s thunder, tempest, night, and deserted all in the first line. It is written so fluidly and immediately places the reader in a dark and stormy night on a mountaintop.

Like so many other narrators in HPL, this one is unnamed, but has an interest (obsession) with scary, creepy, unnatural things. Of course, all these narrators have this interest, but then they always experience a horrific and terrifying event which is life-altering and then they are psychological disasters afterwards. HPL can almost be read as a warning: if you go looking into the abyss, when it looks into you – expect to be damaged and messed up! The thing is, of course in the second paragraph the narrator is telling us that he bore the secret of what he experienced for a long time and he’s been brooding about it. He’s the only one that knows the real story of what happened and he’s regretting he has concealed it so long. Well, not to put too fine a point on it: what did you expect when you sought out the bizarre, unnatural, and terrifying?

On Tempest Mountain is the Martense mansion, which was built in 1670 by Gerrit Martense who was a New Amsterdam merchant. He left Britain and began to cultivate a strong dislike toward anything British-culture. He, and derivatively, his family, shun English culture, colonists, etc. So, he and his family become veritable recluses up on their mountaintop, basically surviving from their land.

I do not want to write anything more, lest I spoil this great short story for anyone. What I’ve said so far is really just setting and background. Needless to say, the narrator decides to research and investigate the happenings on Tempest Mountain. Chapters III and IV are really great in terms of the really-scary-stuff we expect and demand of HPL. Seriously, I was impressed. I mean, this story is dated (1922) and from what I’ve read of HPL, a lot of his stories seem to be wordsmithing and presenting the “unknown” as scary. But this story really is scary. Genuine creepy!

I love that the story is not too long, but yet is longer (and therefore more developed) than some of HPL’s early pieces. I find the narrator a bit ridiculous, but the setting and background that HPL puts the narrator in are so creepy and vivid and realistic that it becomes moot to complain about the narrator. Don’t worry, our good friend HPL does use the word Cyclopean in this story!

The Rats in the Walls was written in mid to late 1923. It’s similar, in places, to The Lurking Fear. Both stories are going to talk about the legendary of their settings. Both involve the history of old (ancient?) mansions. Both involve a narrator that is off his little rocker. Both stories use the word Druidic.

The Rats in the Walls has two other characters that are important, though, through the whole story. I feel that The Lurking Fear only barely utilizes another character – mainly as a prop. One of the main characters in The Rats in the Walls is a cat. Now, look here…. I am not going to speculate on whether or not HPL was racist, nor just how racist he may have been. Simply put: the cat’s name is Nigger-Man. I didn’t name the cat, so don’t take it up with me. I suspect that the cat was black. HPL was fond of cats and therefore so are all of his characters. This cat (let’s call him NM), has a major role in the story. In fact, I might actually call him the real star of the show.

HPL was a cat lover – not that I know much about HPL, but it shows through in his writing. He understands cats. I live in a household with four black cats and one tan mix cat. My neighbors have 12 cats. The neighbors on the other side have two. Needless to say, I am also very familiar with cats. And they are definitely as [insert your choice of adjective] as people say they are. They can be so loving and cute. They can also be ruthless and savage. They can also be creepy and eerie and supernatural. I mention all of this to say that NM has got to take his place in the Famous Literary Cats list and that HPL knows how to write the character.

Anyway, I think readers should also read Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher alongside this HPL story. There are loose connections between the two. And maybe even slightly with The Lurking Fear. There are hints of Gaelic and Latin in the story. I am not familiar whatsoever with Gaelic or Celtic anything, so I cannot comment much on that except to say I think it provides a variety of connectivity within the story. Also, it adds to the sense of ancient things being at work still. HPL copied the terms from writer William Sharp’s (aka Fiona MacLeod) The Sin Eater. Don’t forget that there’s no way HPL was not influenced by W. B. Yeats – and he was heavy into Irish Mythology. Lord Dunsany of the Celtic Revival also is a major influence on HPL. The point is, this story strongly develops the setting and background in order to develop the horror of the story. HPL is not just writing horrific slash and gore, he loves to pull from mythology and history and give us a backstory.

Personally, I really liked The Lurking Fear more than The Rats in the Walls. I think readers should decide for themselves and read both – because both are rewarding HPL reads. Both, though, are heavier on the creepy scale than the not-so-scary, so reader be warned. I’d give five stars to the first and four to the latter, but only on personal preference. Overall, both are likely five star short stories from HPL.

5 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