2000s

Elantris

ElantrisI am finding this novel a very difficult novel to review.  I managed to type the title on this entry and then a lot of time passed; the fan clicking overhead, the birds outside chirping, and me:  utterly lost in my own head trying to sort out some thoughts that maybe are not specifically about Elantris, but Elantris was the catalyst.  Elantris by Brandon Sanderson was published in 2005.  It is Sanderson’s first published novel and I distinctly remember reading somewhere that he finished the first draft, at least, prior to 2000.

[Seriously, I cannot emphasize enough how many times the screen-saver on this laptop has auto-popped while I have sat here after typing a sentence on this post.]

At those times when a situation seems perplexing, I can rely on my Aristotelian traditions and look at things per se; cutting out the inessential appearances for just the actual reality.  Did I like this novel – yes or no? Yes. My answer comes without hesitation because it would be untrue to say that I did not like it.  All right, what is the thing that I liked best about the novel? I liked that its a “soap opera.”  What did I dislike the most about the novel? Pacing.  Who was my favorite character?  Probably Roial.  Would I recommend this novel to others?  Yes, its a long novel so I would not recommend it to folks that I know who…….. do not have the attention span that would be needed.

The novel is a glorified soap opera.  I think most of the novels in the fantasy genre are this way.  And I recognize I have introduced the term “soap opera” as if the meaning is utterly clear. Well, when I say that term I refer to melodramatic scenes and characters within the sweeping “operatic” manner in which the timeline unfolds.  Take any fantasy novel and write the main events as non-adjectival, no qualifier points. Tell the “story” of the novel as if you are an historian writing as impartially as you can a hundred years after the fact.  In this story, we could perhaps bullet point:

  • marriage between prince and foreign princess
  • religious leader arrives for mission in city
  • unexpected medical event occurs

Far less of us readers would read that novel – because then, it is not entertaining at all. Its research, knowledge, etc.  If readers are interested in history, they want history – and usually with a depth of research and analysis folded into excellent presentation.  Readers drawn to fantasy recognize the soap opera styling and want to read about hugely melodramatic magical events and characters.

However:  and this is a stern statement to my fellow readers – do not pick up this fantasy [soap opera] and complain about it being a fantasy [soap opera].

The skeleton of this novel is that it is a zombie story placed in the context of typical nation-state wrangling for control.  Drive a thick beam of religion through the whole thing and that’s Elantris.  So, at its very base, this is a rather simple novel.  We should expect, and we do indeed get, a lot of political machinations, religious fervor and positioning, and a generally “mysterious” situation that is both key and not at all vital to the story.

One of my good friends wrote a blog review (from 2017) wherein they describe the novel as underwhelming.  They felt the author took no risks and the book ended up rather monotonous and mediocre. They gave it a 5 of 10 marks.  That’s not a spectacular rating, indeed.   However, I do have one very picky point to make:  my friend did not actually read the novel… it was an audiobook.  I strongly assert that entirely changes the novel. Nevertheless, I am going to say that some of the criticisms are valid.

Because the whole book is based on the political maneuvering of the city-states, there is a lot of potential for the author to really grab these concepts and wrangle them into exciting, intricate, and maybe even controversial postures. Instead, there seems to be a lot of hand-waving at political problems, making it read less like Plato/Socrates and more like Cratylus.  Our one political expert in the novel, Sarene, does have brief moments of fiery political opinion – but its incredibly short lived and rather more emotional than substantive. Like my friend said, no risks were taken.  So tell us, Sanderson, which political schema is the strongest, which is the best, which do you prefer, which are we going to experiment with in this book, which one of these is any different from the others?   Instead, we are somewhat led to believe the state Fjordell is run by brutal leaders, but that may or may not be truly bad. We never learn much detail about that place, anyway.

Similarly with the religious aspects – and there is a heavy amount of those in this book.  Now, Sanderson admits that his personal religious lifestyle does allow him to consider working various religious situations into his fiction.  I do not think he said anywhere that he is peppering his novels with his own religious viewpoints – you know, such as I call agenda fiction.  However, I do think that if an author is going to heavily rely on religion as a storytelling prop – and make it such a large portion of a novel – then they also need to make the religions come alive, be vibrant, be distinctive.  Frankly, as with the politics, he took no risks. More or less, the three religions in the novel are all the same, maybe differing in practice just enough to provide one with more motive than the others for being a “bad guy.”  But even that is not convincing, its just plausible. Sanderson wrote a couple of places online, at least, wherein he lets readers have a little insight into his religious storyline:

(https://www.librarything.com/topic/10977#117424)

(https://www.librarything.com/topic/11200#126503)

However, if you are going to run into this sort of territory and you want to really make your characters’ thoughts and actions meaningful, get into the religion and hammer it out, drive it home, color it up. Taking no risks with it causes the whole novel to feel a lot less impactful than its potential obviously showed.

Do not get me wrong – I absolutely do not want chapters and chapters of info-dumping and vague pontificating on the topics of religion and politics. Yuck.

None of this is bad writing, though.  It just is not very lively writing. It tends to be somewhat dull and measured. And being very measured makes the pacing seem very, very, very (600 pages very) slow. That being said, I am comfortable with the fantasy qua soap opera scenario and so I was quite content, though not enthralled, to follow the three main characters.  The novel is told in chapter points-of-view of Raoden, Hrathen, and Sarene.  I discovered (according to the All Wise Internet) that most readers disliked Sarene. She was my second favorite character.  A lot of readers just did not like this or that about her.  I liked her because she is too good to be true.  She’s really impressive – and she always, really, lands on her feet – like a cat!  Readers found her ridiculous because she seems to have endless amounts of willing helpers for no real reason. I liked this character, though, and while she is not entirely excusable, she is likeable.

Raoden is the character I liked least. I mean, maybe even more than the bad guy.  I found Raoden quite toxic and annoying and tedious.  Of the three chapters, I dreaded reading his the most.

Hrathen is actually the character that seems the most legit.  He is at once arrogant and yet insecure. He struggles with obedience and faith and job duties. He has failures in his past as-well-as successes that now he feels are failures.  He is a dynamic character and how he ends and whom he falls in love with – yes, other readers found this eye-rolling and obnoxious, but I really enjoyed it.  Again, its a soap opera, and I loved this element. It made me a happy reader. Go away you bitter, sour reader-grouches; y’all know this was utterly suitable for soaps!

Now, chapter 38 came out of nowhere for me. I was thoroughly surprised. I did not see that coming. So, when I got to chapter 38, I put the book down and commented on how surprised I was. I suspect it is because Sanderson’s measured writing in this one lulled me a bit and then surprise! I guess other readers might have suspected. But you know, and then this whole thing went sideways – yet again, so it really seemed inauthentic of Sanderson to have done that to me. But of course, it is TOTALLY what I would expect in a soap opera.

Poor author.  His first published book sold well, got a massive amount of readers, but it also opened him to a wealth of criticism.  Its over 600 pages so it gives critical readers lots of fodder for their expert (and non-expert) complaints.  At the end of the day, its easy to pull out the rapier and critique like we are all writing for The New Yorker.  We are not. We are just readers that lounge in our chairs and kibitz about books. And that is precisely what the writers and publishers want. Its an industry, is it not?

Elantris is not, absolutely not, a bad read. If you want a bad read, I am sure I can provide some awful stinkers for you to give yourself papercuts over.  Is it a great book? No. For the most part it is above-average, never taking risks, and very measured. I mean, but for a first published novel an author could do worse than be told his writing is “too measured.”  There is lots of potential here where it could have been beyond great, even.  The readers see that potential, though, and maybe that is why Sanderson has such a fanclub.  There seem to be some high expectations put on this author for some reason.  Hrathen could have been one of the greatest ever:  whispered in the list of Raistlin, Drizzt, and Allanon. I am glad I met him and hung out with him every few chapters for awhile, but I feel we were robbed of a very epic character.

I recommend it to all fantasy readers. Its an above-average novel with plenty of soap opera moments and the pacing is slow enough to make you regret your choice in books by page 250.  However, in for a penny-in for a pound, there are rewards to be had here and most soaps feel interminable, right?!

3 stars

Terminal Freeze

Terminal FreezeRecently, I finished Terminal Freeze by Lincoln Child. It was published in 2009 and I think has been on the to-be-read shelves forever. Among the slight changes in my reading habits this year (reading (reading crime, reading small publishers, reading things other than science fiction) is the effort to clear the shelves! Be advised, I say that is a goal every year. I read Deep Storm by Lincoln Child in 2017 and I did not give it high marks. Terminal Freeze seemed both better and worse than that previous read.

As I started reading this, I was sure it was going to be a quick, but annoying read. For the first quarter of the book I was so unenthused and unimpressed. Everything seemed so utterly obvious, heavy-handed, and predictable. Not to mention, there was not anything about the plot that seemed even a bit engaging. All of the characters were vexing, the setting was annoying, the plot seemed very predictable. Halfway through the novel, I admit I was more engaged in the story and I was turning pages without annoyance. So its not high-brow literature, but what happens next? Maybe I’m a bit of a sucker because I just like being entertained by a story?

Since this is pulp-adventure, I do not want to ruin the thing by handing over the plot to those who may wish to read it. Suffice to say, it takes place in an old (Cold War era) US Army ice station in Alaska. There are a team of scientists there who are funded, through a number of channels, by Hollywood.  The scientists discover something, a random native shaman shows up, and then the base is overrun by the production company. The scientists are chafed because the production company takes charge and the “relationship” of the scientists and the movie-makers is clarified.  All hell breaks loose when the discovery, which is the focal point for the documentary, goes missing. Action ensues.

I have a lot of interests, but TV and movies, film and cinematography are not them. I am even confronted on occasion by film theory and I still struggle to participate.  I watch very little TV and film. And all the “classic” and “important” film? Yeah, I probably have not seen it – and you would not really want me to because it would be lost on me. I know everyone thinks I’m kidding when I say I lose track of where the TVs are in my home. I have known some film theory “fans/experts” and when they talk about these things they are very animated and it seems so intense for them. I appreciate that there are people out there with this interest.

I mention this to say that I have a natural (strong?) dislike toward film production. That it plays such a central component to this novel was a surprise for me and an immediate turn off.  There is a particular character who takes his film theory, film production immensely seriously – more important than life itself. (By the way, this is how ALL film theory/producers and directors seem TO ME. They all seem obsessed and eccentric and intense; is this image one that they self-cultivate?) This character is really well written because he does fit a lot of the stereotypes and he provides another challenge point for the storyline. Yes, he can be horribly obsessed and unbelieveable. He’s not a villain, per se, but he plays a character archetype – the weirdly obsessed/driven. Readers immediately will dislike him and as the story progresses, even his most devoted and loyal “co-workers” begin to be disgusted and disillusioned with him. However he is one of the reasons I am giving this novel another star:  thinking about the things he is saying about the filming, the film industry…. he is entirely correct, regardless of the morality of the situation. It is this intense “sacrifice everything for the product” mentality that is both abhorent and yet vitally truthful; unexpected in a pulp adventure novel.

I really enjoyed how no matter the setbacks or failures that occur, this character was pushing the boundaries and re-imagining his film creation. He even was willing, at the last, to do the grunt work himself. Morally misguided, perhaps, but utterly dedicated to his idea of what his work is.

He waved at two bookcases full of DVDs that framed the screen. “You see those? That is my reference library. The greatest films ever made: the most beautiful, the most groundbreaking, the most though provoking.  The Battleship Potemkin, Intolerance, Rashomon, Double Indemnity, L’Avventura, The Seventh Seal – they are all here. I never travel anywhere without them. Yet they are not just my solace, Dr. Marshall – they are my oracle, my Delphic temple. Some turn to the Bible, for guidance; others, the I Ching, I have these. And they never fail me.” – Conti, pg. 153 (chapter 18)

I admit throughout the book I was expecting a certain nefariousness from a character. I did keep waiting for Gonzalez (one of the soldiers) to show “true colors” and be at the heart of the drama. This never happened. But it frequently happens that I will not get the storyline guessed out. Instead, Gonzalez ended up being quite wysiwyg.  The character Logan, though, is utterly pointless. I don’t know what he does except to make it seem like he is a storyline guide, really. I have not read a lot of books where I felt like there was a character inserted in a plot that was a guide for the other characters to stay on plot. Its strange.

Frankly, the native shaman character was also a bit superfluous. I mean, he adds a bit of local interest and supernatural/unnatural flavor to the book. He is there to add a wee bit of Other to the novel, balancing out the science and military. But is he really necessary? Nope, honestly I kept waiting for him to “do something” other than just be native and mysterious. I guess he is the main character’s therapist or doppleganger or something.

Finally, the best parts of the action, I think, were the segments dealing with the ice road trucker. That was some edge-of-my-seat reading. If this is a thriller, it wasn’t because of the kaiju-monster-survival stuff, it was, for me, the nervous-wreck reaction to ice road driving. Maybe because I have had plenty of driving in blizzards and ice storms and I could access those feelings.

Not great literature and superficial and full of obvious plot points. The characters are very wysiwyg. The plot is survival within a difficult setting against a scary supernatural/unnatural monster. I am glad I finally read it and can recommend it as a good, lightweight adventure story to readers who need basic entertainment. Read it for the film aspects and less for the native Alaskan elements.

3 stars

The Atrocity Archives

The Atrocity ArchivesThe Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross was published in 2004. It is the first in the Laundry Series of novels. I think I acquired my copy (Ace 2009) of the novel in 2016. This is the first Stross novel I’ve read although the stacks have a few of his other works.

Stross seems to have a following of die-hard fans much like Neil Gaiman has.  I can see why; Stross’ work is rather original and it is clear that Stross is an intelligent person. I had high hopes for this novel, and I felt odd after reading it because so many readers have given this one such high marks – did I miss something? Thinking about this for awhile, it seems readers are reviewing the book they think that they read – or wanted to read, and maybe not actually the book that they really read. It happens more than one wants to realize….. My review is utterly honest, so if anyone disagrees with me, they can at least be satisfied I am not being disingenuous.

I read a lot of reviews saying this book is funny/comedic. Readers really seem to warm to the obnoxiousness of the bureaucratic silliness. Being bluntly honest: I don’t see it. There is some snark, which maybe is a little smirk-level amusing. There are some eye-rolling scenes wherein the “paper-clip-counters” are shuffling paperwork. But there’s nothing hysterical or laugh aloud here; a little sarcasm isn’t going to make me laugh my head off. Another novel that I read that has this issue is Midnight Riot / Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovich. (See my review.)

Stross is an ideas man – he’s very smart and he has some interesting concepts. As far as a writer? Well, honestly, this isn’t an example of great writing. The worst of it is dialogue; most of the characters seem written very stilted. They are archetypes, at best, not characters. In other words, they act/sound just like you think they should. Stilted writing. And wow, Dominique “Mo” is written awfully. Every dialogue or conversation is cringe-worthy. Its like…. if you took all the ill-conceived and incorrect stereotypes about autism and then made them even uglier. If the other characters are stilted, Mo is like a bad stereotyped autist developed by a computer that is beleaguered with viruses. Ugh.

The book rambles around and takes some time to find its feet. Seriously, the first third is perhaps introducing us to characters, but the storyline just sputters and spins. Now, once the story gets moving, it does turn into an action-thriller sort of business. Techno-fantasy-alternate history plot.

Stross has some great ideas that were fun to explore. I liked a lot of the concepts in the story. But they are not all written smoothly and seamlessly. A spy agency (the Laundry) that is full of techno-mages is super cool. But, for what its worth, I found the entire Nazi/Reich stuff to be off-putting. Its…. just too much… It made the novel feel a lot heavier and darker than it should have been. Its hard to laugh when Nazis are summoning demons.

At times I was wondering if the real flaw of the novel is that there is just too much stuff stuffed in it. Nazis, Old Ones, computer-jargon, physics, the Laundry, Middle Eastern terrorists, museums, summoning spirits, PDA-style tools, bureaucratic satire, references to a whole pile of what used to be consider geek/nerd material, etc. I do not doubt Stross knows about these things, but jammed on top of one another, all of it is cumbersome and tedious.

Overall, I liked many of the ideas, I liked the action scenes – I liked the Robert Howard homage, the Wolfenstein castle imagery, the pseudo-science mixed with real physics/math. I appreciated Stross mentioning Martin Heidegger (he doesn’t really feature in novels much, but I often feel like he would be awesome in science fiction stuff). But I did not find this very amusing and as a whole it seems like the author was trying too hard. It seems forced everywhere. Now, I have book two, so I think I will give Stross and The Laundry another shot.

2 stars