The OF Blog: June 2007

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Review of Tobias Buckell's Ragamuffin

Crystal Rain, Tobias Buckell's first book, was one of my favorite debut novels of 2006. It was a compact (around 350 pages), fast-paced novel set in a far future terraformed world settled by descendants of Caribbean islanders. For hundreds of years, Nanagada had been cut off from the rest of the galaxy (alluded to in cryptic terms through the novel), but was in Crystal Rain the source of a renewed effort of the Azteca (Nahuatl-speaking humans under the influence of "gods" called Teotl) to capture the lands of Nanagada that were on the other side of the aptly-named Wicked High Mountains.

Crystal Rain introduced three important characters: John deBrun, his former comrade-in-arms Pepper, and John's son, Jerome, who symbolized the refugee, those who were cut off from the causes of a conflict but were instead most effected and changed by it. It was these characterizations set in an adventure-based setting that made Crystal Rain such an enjoyable read for me last autumn.

Ragamuffin is not a typical sequel. For starters, the playing field is much larger than a single planet. Things hinted at in Crystal Rain are explored here in much more detail. This is a galaxy-wide story, and the cast of characters by necessity had to be broadened.

In the first part, we are introduced to Nashara, a cloned biomechanical human who has been equipped with technologies that enable her to wreak havoc in the galaxy. Crystal Rain's Human/Teotl/Loa conflict has given way to a world in which a single species, the Benevolent Satrapy, has come to dominate the entire galaxy. Humans had managed to win a semblance of freedom only by fleeing to the corners or by forcing the Satrapy to shut down the wormhole system that connected to human-dominated planets such as Earth and New Anegada. But many humans had chosen to become little more than chattel on worlds controlled by races more amenable to the Satrapy, such as the Gahe, while others had been co-opted and had become the human arm of the Satrapy.

Nashara had been hired by the outlawed League of Human Affairs to assassinate a high-ranking Gahe breeder, as the League continues its low-intensity war against the Satrapy. As she carries this out, events start to emerge that link her, the quasi-piratical Ragamuffins, and Crystal Rain's trio into a cross-galactic adventure that is in turns fast-paced and quick-penetrating in its presentation of certain topics very relevant to our world today.

Ragamuffin has more of the trappings of a space opera than does Crystal Rain, in that most of the action for the first half of the novel takes place outside of Nanagada between some of the 48 worlds connected by wormholes. There are space battles, more technological razzle-dazzle (the lamina is a particularly intriguing one), and other elements that one would associate with such a sub-genre. But Ragamuffin is much more than that. It is, in many key ways, as much of a spiritual sequel to Crystal Rain as a chronological one.

War is nasty stuff. People suffer, die, and often live in almost-perpetual fear when under such traumatic conditions. What does this do to the mentalities of people? Can they trust others that are not akin to them in appearance or speech? Can they separate acts of necessity from acts of desire? Is betrayal something of the heart or of the mind (as I'm thinking of one particular episode in Ragamuffin)? And what happens when someone who has been traumatized over the years is forced into a corner and comes to think of a friend as being the worst sort of betrayer?

Buckell presents all of the above in only 316 pages. He does not dwell on these matters (even if many readers might find themselves wishing that he would), but instead drops it like a rock into the pond and lets us ride the ripples. I found myself going from being frustrated about this narrative technique to becoming more aware of possible subtextual interpretations, as I would find myself thinking pages later, "Wait a minute..." as prior events connected into the larger narrative of Ragamuffin. Some might find this apparent lack of explication to be a negative; I found it to be grounds for fertile speculation and consideration of possible future implications. It is nice, sometimes, when an author does not beat the reader over the head with the overarching plotline, leaving she or he to instead read on as he or she might desire, stopping to consider as all the events come crashing together in the mind.

That being said, there are some weaknesses, of course. With such a fast pace (over 70 chapters in these 316 pages), many readers are going to feel as though the action is little more than an outline of what could have been a 600-700 page novel. While I disagree with that notion, it is something that has to be considered when deciding if this is a book worth reading. The characterizations develop swiftly, perhaps too swiftly in places (the apparent mutual admiration/budding courtship between two characters comes to mind in just how rapidly it came together). And for some, Ragamuffin is going to leave them wondering just where the real story is heading.

These are valid concerns that I expect some readers to have. While I personally had little problem (after I adapted, as I mentioned above, to the narrative style) with the pacing or with the writing, I did find the characterizations could have been even better if Buckell had devoted just a teeny-tiny more time to exploring the characters' thoughts. But this is more of a nitpicky thing than of any serious flaw in what I consider to be an improvement over the already very good-to-excellent Crystal Rain.

Summary: Ragamuffin is the second book set in the same universe as Crystal Rain, but with a much larger scope and cast of characters. Fast-paced, this story is broken into three parts, with only the third to unite the plotlines of the previous two. Told in third-person PoV, there is a lot of action mixed in with introspective moments that are the consequences of said action. It is a strong sequel that takes the adventure style of its predecessor and builds upon it. Highly recommended for those who enjoy well-written stories that combine a fast pace with touching moments.

Release Date: June 12 (US), with Amazon UK carrying the American edition (no known UK edition)

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Interview with David Anthony Durham

Pat of Pat's Fantasy Hotlist recently asked Rob Bedford, Neth, and I to collaborate on an interview with David Anthony Durham, author of Acacia: The War with the Mein. The results of this collaboration can be seen here at Pat's blog. Very nice interview that addresses quite a few points of interests, so I highly recommend that people check it out.

Review of Richard Morgan's Thirteen

Society is, always has been and always will be a structure for the exploitation and oppression of the majority through systems of political force dictated by an élite, enforced by thugs, uniformed or not, and upheld by a willful ignorance and stupidity on the part of the very majority whom the system oppresses.

This quote from an earlier interview of Morgan by SaxonBullock in regards to his first novel, Altered Carbon, is a quite fitting means of introducing the theme of his latest noir/SF novel, Thirteen (Black Man in the UK). Fans of Morgan's earlier work will detect hints and signs of this being related in spirit, if not also in "universe," with his Takeshi Kovacs novels or with Market Forces. But instead of Thirteen being a mere rehash of the themes explored there, it takes on a life of its own, underscoring and pushing further down the rabbit hole towards some rather unsettling truths about ourselves and our societies.

Set in the early 22nd century, Thirteen is an extrapolation of today's trends and fears. Carl Marsalis is a Thirteen, a genetically-engineered human being who has the Area 13 of the brain retro-engineered to be a throwback to the hunter-gatherers of 20,000 years ago. Designed to be instinctive killer soldiers in a world where the fighting is more hand-to-hand than army-to-army (think the current Iraq/Afghanistan situations and multiply them tenfold), Operation Lawmen in the US and the Osprey project in Great Britain had to be shut down prematurely due to the Thirteens being resistant to control and guidance. Spurred on by fear of these ultra-Alpha Males, Thirteens are branded as lurking monsters and public opinion "forces" the governments to confine Thirteens to reservations on Earth or to ship them out to Mars.

The world of this time is still plagued with many of the troubles of our times. It is rather fitting that this novel reflects upon our worries and fears, as often the best SF holds a mirror to our faces to show us images of our societies that we might not be brave enough to confront. Ugly things such as racism, the view that genetically-modified humans are "others" and not really humans, all of this plays an important role in the development of Thirteen. For Carl Marsalis is about to find himself confronted with all sorts of mistaken assumptions about Thirteens, as he gets sucked into hunting down an escaped Thirteen who seems to be engaged in a frightening "random pattern" of murders in the remnants of the United States, now divided into three parts.

Thirteen is in equal measures a noir-style murder mystery akin to Altered Carbon, a philosophical look at what makes humans often be so irrational and fear-ridden, and a cry-to-arms attack on a host of related beliefs and trends of today that have made his fictional 22nd century world seem so frightening and yet familiar to us. It is not a novel of naive hope, but instead a story where a lot of good people suffer due to the machinations of people who know how to herd the cattle well.

Morgan does an excellent job in portraying Marsalis and NYPD detective Sevgi Ertekin, whose been assigned to assist Marsalis in his manhunt. Their interactions for the most part felt logical and there was quite a bit of underlying tension between belief and actuality that is seen in their scenes together. Other characters, from Sevgi's boss, Tom Norton, to others in the chain of command, are presented well, albeit not as well-detailed as Carl or Sevgi. The fears of a Thirteen are played out in many different ways as the murder mystery plot unfolds, with some surprising twists and a false ending about two-thirds of the way into the story.

The story held my interest and indeed forced me to read it in incremental sections so that I would have more time to process all the possibilities presented within. The quote I cite above summarizes succinctly the overall effect of Thirteen. There are no winners, just various victims and losers in this world.

Summary: Thirteen is a fast-faced noir mystery/near-future SF dealing with genetic manipulation, human fears and grouping patterns, and the question of what does it mean to be "human." Told in third-person PoV, Thirteen is 543 pages long with the feel of a novel half its size. Highly recommended for fans of Morgan's previous works and likely will be considered the best of his five novels. Possibly a candidate for many Best of 2007 Awards.

Release Date: July 3 (US), available now (UK, as Black Man).

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Review of Ian Cameron Esslemont's Night of Knives (2007 revised edition)

Shared-world fantasies often do not have the best of reputations. Either one creator-author dictates all of the rules, leaving little in the way of exploration and/or character development for other authors writing in that created universe, or too much is left unsaid, as each author is afraid of trampling upon others' "turf." As a result, these shared-world fantasies often end up feeling rather flat and uninspired. So it was with a mixture of great curiosity and trepidation that I ordered in 2005 from PS Publishing Ian Cameron Esslemont's Night of Knives, his first of a planned five novels set in the same Malazan universe of his friend and collaborator, Steven Erikson. Now, two years later, Transworld/Bantam Press has released a revised, wide-release version of this novel.

Night of Knives takes place over a single night about 9 years before the events of Gardens of the Moon. Malaz Island, the storm-ridden island off the Quon Tali continent that gave the Malazan Empire its name, has returned once more to being a backwater port of ill-repute. Riddled with ruins and dark mysteries, Malaz City is about to experience a long-expected and long-dreaded convergence. It is Shadow Night, a time where the Shadow and Mortal realms occupy the same place. It is also rumored that on this night, Emperor Kellanved and his partner in crime, Dancer, will return to the island from whence they launched their century-old conquest of the lands about. It is a night where spectres, both literal and metaphorical, will emerge to haunt the living and the dead.

The story itself is told via two main points of view, that of Temper, a former soldier in Dassem Ultor's elite Sword, and Kiska, a girl with a latent Talent who has an interest in the Claw, Imperial Regent Surly's favored assassin cadre. As events transpire, these two find their paths pointing towards the Deadhouse, a mysterious ruin in Malaz City that seems to hold the key to understanding why so many forces have converged this Shadow Moon night.

Esslemont's approach towards telling this story is similar in many ways to Erikson's, but yet there are some key differences. Since the action takes place during one night, the PoVs are limited. The dialogue is generally shorter and there is little in the way of humorous situation. Esslemont has aimed for a dark, spooky, almost frightful situation and to a degree, he succeeds. There are ghouls that attack Kiska and Temper on their tracks through the city, as well as other entities met, both already introduced in the main sequence Malazan novels (such as Edgewalker) and those who were only mentioned in passing there, such as Lieutenant Ash of the Brigeburners.

One thing that I noticed about this novel were the infodumps. Too often, a character would appear just only to mention such-and-such locale and what's developing there, without it feeling like it was an organic part of the story. Temper's extended flashback in the middle of the story, while it reveals quite intriguing information about what really happened in Y'Ghatan and to Dassem Ultor, felt rather forced and disruptive to the general flow of the story to that point. A certain conversation between two key Imperial players also felt more like it was trying too hard to connect with Erikson's novels than it was towards creating a plausible sense of tension.

When I first read Night of Knives two years ago, I remember thinking that this story was informative, but yet lacking. There were some quite annoying typographical and stylistic errors that made it feel more like a first draft than a finished story. In this revised edition, there are some minor edits (mostly in the form of additional clauses and some cleaning up of the typographical errors) made to clarify what is occurring, but the book still has some awkward transitions and there are still glaring errors such as the misspelling of Edgewalker's name in the Epilogue and the new one of having two Chapter 5 headings.

These are its weaknesses, many of which are common to first novels and some of which cannot be directly attributed to Esslemont himself. There are quite a few strengths. As I mentioned above, the atmosphere is outstanding. While the dialogue still needs work, it is mostly in tune with the action that is occurring. Characters such as Kiska and Temper are intriguing enough and actually stand out more than many of Erikson's Malazan cast of thousands do. It is quite obvious to me that these authors did more than just collaborate on creating an elaborate setting - they appear to have conversed quite often about characters and how and when they should appear. While Erikson rightfully is going to be viewed as the main voice to date, Esslemont has the potential to develop and to reshape the understanding of the ten-volume Malazan Book of the Fallen novels with his stories. While Night of Knives is too closely related to events in the first, fourth, and sixth novels to be considered for a first read for a curious spectator to the Malazan world, it does enrich and complement quite well comments made in passing in those novels. As such, Night of Knives, warts and all, has accomplished its main purpose. It is a very good complement to the other novels set in the Malazan universe and as such, it shall be judged more by that than by its own merits.

Summary: Night of Knives is a 284 page novel set in the same universe as Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen. Intended as a complement to the series, the novel introduces several new characters and bits of information that are important to Erikson's series. Two main PoVs, told in third-person limited. Excellent atmosphere, well-drawn characters balance out uneven writing and a tendency to indodump too much. Recommended for fans of Erikson's main Malazan series, not recommended as a first read for those curious about that shared universe.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Upcoming reviews

Occasionally, I'm going to be posting a list of planned reviews and whether or not these are review copies sent to me by publishers. The purpose behind this is disclosure (so readers can know which books I've bought and which ones I've received as either Advance Review Copies or finished review copies direct from the publishers) as well as giving hints of the various types of literature that I'm reading.

Upcoming ARC/Review Copy Reviews:

Richard Morgan, Thirteen

Ian Cameron Esslemont, Night of Knives (revised edition)

Tobias Buckell, Ragamuffin

John Twelve Hawks, The Traveler; The Dark River (ARC)

Alison Goodman, Killing the Rabbit (ARC)

Books I Bought Recently:

Luis Leante, Mira si yo te querré (2007 Premio Alfaguara, revista será en español)

Sarah Monette, The Virtu

Daniel Abraham, A Shadow in Summer

With these and a few others doubtless to arrive or to be chosen by whim, this should cover reviews here through the end of the month. Now back to reading...

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Review of Alan Campbell's Scar Night

Crossposted at OF's new Reviews section:

Alan Campbell is a newcomer to book writing, but no stranger to story crafting. Before turning to the world of Deepgate, Campbell spent years working as a game designer and programmer for Rockstar, working on games such as the Grand Theft Auto series before deciding that he would rather be an author than a games designer. Scar Night is his first novel, the first in a series called The Deepgate Codex.

Deepgate is a dark and brooding place, suspended by many huge chains above a gaping abyss. The people of Deepgate worship a fallen angel named Ulcis, who according to their religion was expelled from Heaven for seeking to overthrow his mother, Ayan, who had barred humans from entering Heaven. Ulcis and his angelic archons tried and failed to force their way into Heaven and they now lurk in the Abyss, depending upon bodies dropped from the temple at the center of Deepgate to replenish their ranks until they are ready to renew the assault.

Inside the city, one last living descendant of these fallen angels lives. A gawky, adolescent boy, Dill is a showpiece for the cult of Ulcis, standing as a living symbol of the archons and hope for people who want to experience an afterlife of paradise. He is belatedly assigned a tutor, an Spine assassin named Rachel, who is bearing her own mixture of mystery and hurt. She has been hunting this mysterious vampiric entity named Carnival, who feeds during the dark moon period called Scar Night. Three very different people, three threads naturally bound to be united in a harrowing adventure.

Scar Night is more of an atmospheric piece that has some strong influences from Gormenghast and a much lesser extent to the dark urban fantasies of a China Miéville or Ian MacLeod. The pace is a quick one, with plot developments moving at a very rapid pace with the acute sensation that the sense of dark, dank menace that pervades Deepgate is about to get even nastier. The plot develops in quick, staccato-like bursts, as Campbell reveals the setting in bite-size chunks that do not impede the flow of the narrative.

The tale is told via third-person limited, with occasional switches to character PoV thoughts within the chapters. The apparent main character, Dill, is rather too bland at times and ends up taking a backseat to the conflicts and tensions between Carnival and Rachel. It is their interplay and their forced interactions that drives much of the second half of the novel and keeps it from becoming dull and shallow.

Characterization is rather spotty, as Campbell devotes more time to creating the mood than he does to character development. Perhaps he is aiming to reveal more in latter volumes, but for now, what you see is apparently mostly what you are going to get from the characters. But yet it appears that Campbell was not aiming for writing an introspective novel but instead to create a vivid setting with characters just interesting enough to keep the reader's attention as the rather linear plotline progresses. There are some very important developments towards the end, namely just what Ulcis has been up to, and for the most part Campbell handles these progressions quite adroitly, minus a few cases of stilted dialogue towards the end.

As a first novel, Scar Night ranges from adequate to quite good. There are the expected issues with characterization and dialogue, but for the most part, this was an entertaining dark urban fantasy. It just is not (yet, at least) going to offer many extra layers for consideration, but that does not seem to be the author's intent, so based on what I can perceive, Scar Night is a very worthwhile read, particularly for those who enjoy atmospheric novels with a fast-moving plot and mysterious characters.

Summary: Scar Night is an atmospheric, dark urban fantasy involving fallen angels and three mysterious main characters, each of whom has his/her own motivations for staying with the others. Told in third-person limited PoV, Scar Night has a fast-paced plot with some good dialogue, albeit uneven at times, particularly towards the end. Characterization is not fully developed, but with the hope that future volumes will delve into the main characters more. Recommended for those who like "mood pieces" such as Gormenghast or any of China Miéville's work. A good to very good debut that could have been potentially great if a few minor issues mentioned above could have been addressed.

Release Date: December 2006 (US), Summer 2006 (UK)

Book reviewing and discourses

Recently, I read the online version of Adam Kirsch's "The Scorn of the Literary Blog." There were some points with which I agreed (namely the short-sightedness of a corporate approach by newspaper to cultural institutions such as book reviewing) and many with which I disagreed (particularly on the attitudes and styles of blogging, among other matters). Needless to say, his column has sparked a rather predictable outrage in parts of the blogosphere, but there is an element that for the most part has been largely ignored or papered over, that of the art or science of book reviewing itself.

For some people, book reviewing seems to be viewed as an objective breakdown of what works and what doesn't work. If there's too much of A and too little of B, then X and Y will end up being blah and so the book doesn't work as a whole. That sort of approach, looking at things in a mechanistic, vaguely "scientific" (in the sense of testing structures to see how they work, not in the other associated meanings of the word) way is what many readers today seem to prefer reading. Spell out what works, what doesn't work, slap on a star/grade to it and it's good to go.

While there is something to that approach which is appealing and is helpful in many situation, it is not something that I can endorse or follow in my own reviews. For me, a good review is going to look past the mechanics of the book (while never neglecting to note the positive and negative mechanical points) towards authorial intention and how the communication develops between author and reader via the ever mutable textual understanding. Such an approach will focus more on themes and applicability to the reader's own personal point of view. Is this something that we ought to be considering when the book is closed, or is it easily dismissed from the mind? Those are the sorts of questions that I like to consider when reading the book and writing a review.

But a review can go even further. While Kirsch is to a degree correct in noting that online reviews for the most part fail to go further, sadly the same thing can be said for the majority of print reviews that I've read today. Sometimes, I like to see reviews that make the process of reviewing into a literary object worth considering on its own merits. When I see a review by a Nick Gevers or a John Clute, for example, I can see elements of their personalities and takes on the world at large, because such things are a continuous subthread in their reviews. There is a certain style and substance to their reviews which make them more than just a passing commentary on a book. Those reviews end up being statements, ones that reveal more about their understandings of the world than simple thumbs-up, thumbs-in-the-middle, thumbs-down approaches do.

It is rather fitting that when this article was posted, I had just begun reading Jorge Luis Borges's Discusión. In a series of literary reviews/criticisms that he wrote in the early 1930s (and expanded in the 1957 edition), Borges addresses not just the works as a piece of writing, but also as a piece of communication across linguistic, physical, and temporal divides. In discussing translations of Homer's works, for example, he notes how language and translation can have an affect on how we come to view a work. The pieces in Discusión are not so much an exploration of a book's innermost workings or even its thematic elements, but are instead elegantly-written discourses on what such writings convey to us and how we interpret them over the years and socio-historical changes.

Maybe this form of literary discourse has been dying a rather quieter and longer death than of the reviews of which Kirsch speaks. Maybe in a day and age of rather instant and short communication, things have become a bit too homogenized and "bite-size" for in-depth discourse. It takes two people speaking the same language for a flowing discussion to take place. Perhaps it's as simple as the language of discourse is being spoken by fewer and fewer individuals, readers and reviewers alike, print and online journals alike.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

wotmania doing promotional contest for Acacia

I think it's safe to blog now - all these zombies were scaring me, so I just laid low and waited until they found the white lightnin' and got plastered...

Anyways, for those of you who are occasional visitors to wotmania, there is a new promotional contest. Thanks to Colleen Lindsay, there are three signed copies of David Anthony Durham's just-released Acacia: The War with the Mein up for grabs. This contest is open to all who register a screen name at wotmania and who send a personal message (or Noteboards, as they are called there) to OF Promotions. Deadline is 5 P.M. CDT Wednesday June 20th. No emails, please. More details inside the link above.

In related news, Pat of Pat's Fantasy Hotlist, Neth of Nethspace, and myself are collaborating on an interview with David Anthony Durham. Pat is handling the communication of questions to Mr. Durham and hopefully sometime in the near future, the completed interview will appear on our blogs. Just a little extra something to look forward to, no?

Look for a review of Alan Campbell's Scar Night to be posted sometime this weekend. I know I am a bit late in getting my hands on it, but better late than never, right?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Interview with Patrick Rothfuss, Part II

Part I is here. Now for the fun stuff. Enjoy!

Which authors would you hold up for readers to consider reading?

Whoo boy. I could talk about this all day. You care to put a some sort of limiting factor on my answer?

How about me giving you only 4,000 words with which to reply, or only two hours of write time for this? Would this be enough of a limiting factor? I am quite curious to see which authors you'd hold up, whether it be for personal influences on your writing or just because they are kickass entertainment or a mindfuck of an experience.

Oh yeah. You can't tell that you've been around academics for a while when you think that a 4000 word cap is a way to nip things in the bud. Try again.

Fair enough. So let me slip back into middle school teaching mode here: How about, without cheating or looking at another author's list, you tell me between 1-5 authors that you admired growing up, 1-5 authors that are criminally neglected these days, and 1-5 newish (within past 5 years) authors that you think might be interesting. And an extra credit question, worth an extra 10%: Which author/s do you think have the coolest manes of hair?

Oooh. Now this I can work with.

Five authors I admired growing up:


C.S Lewis

Anne McCaffrey

Piers Anthony

Terry Brooks

Five authors that are criminally neglected.

NB: I'm adding hyperlinks to these authors' websites as Pat requested me to do. Please check into them. Some really good authors here. - Larry

Tim Powers. People who take their fantasy seriously know who he is. But when I walk into a bookstore and they don have a single one of his books on the shelf, I pissed. He doesn't get the attention he deserves.

Peter S. Beagle. I know he gets good attention, and he just won the Hugo. But The Innkeeper Song is out of print right now. That criminal.

Aaron Williams. He does comics and doesn't get nearly the attention he deserves. Especially considering that he does his own writing AND the art. My current favorite is his PS 238 comic. I remember another comic artist saying something along the lines of it being, "The comic idea so brilliant that Hollywood has stolen it... twice."

Tony Ballantyne. He's written a brilliant trilogy of clever, unique, science fiction. Recursion, Capacity, and Divergence are the names of the three books.

Joan D. Vinge. I loved Psion when I first read it in the sixth grade. I still love it now. But a lot of new readers haven't experienced her stuff. They're really missing out.

Five new-ish authors that deserve attention.

David Keck. I really liked his first book, In the Eye of Heaven. Gritty, mythic dark ages fantasy.

Cecil Castellucci. She wrote a great comic called "The Plain Janes." It's not superheroish or anything. Just a great piece of graphic storytelling.

Derek Kirk Kim. He tells a brilliant, touching story.

Tarol Hunt. He's a webcartoonist telling a really interesting story about goblins who get tired of constantly getting the short end of the stick, so they decide to take matters into their own hands and go out and seek adventure themselves. It's got a fair amount of humor and more than a few gaming references, but there's some really incredible storytelling there as well. Some very touching stuff.

Umm..... I can't think of a fifth off the top of my head. Me, I suppose. I'm new and I deserve some attention. NB: Deserved attention given

Best Hair:

Alan Moore.

Samuel Delany.

Tad Williams.

There has been quite a few comments about the "barechested male" cover. Ignoring the more obvious responses, I am curious about something else related to that - to what extent are our preconceptions of "manliness" and "beauty" shaping how we imagine fantasy characters? Is the notion that fantasy world main characters are chock-full of buxom lasses and hardy, brooding, ruggedly handsome lads something that just goes with the territory or a sign of something else?

We read books to escape our own lives, even if only for a little while. We read for other reasons too, of course, but entertainment and escapism are a big piece of it.

That said, it only makes sense that we would want our vacation from reality to be.... well.... sexy.

But there's no reason we have to be stereotypical about it. What's wrong with a rugged lass? Or a buxom lad? By the way, most people assume "buxom" means "with impressive boobs," but it doesn't. It means, "lively and frolicsome."

....Wait. I just looked it up to make sure. Turns out it can mean both, or either. Huh. Good word. There's a lesson to all you kids out there. Make sure you check your facts, or you'll be wrong and look like a dumbass.

So maybe what we see so much is not merely the fetishization (I think that's a word and if not, I'm claiming it!) of certain physical traits, but perhaps also an idealization of how we'd like our summer vacation babes/dudes to look at while we're sprawled out there on the beach?

Fetishization is a word. It generally refers to a pathological erotic attraction to something that's not ordinarily sexual. Like feet, or Tupperware. The more common use is Fetishism.

So would it be safe to say that those who prefer “big tits and thighs, the kind of girl that would knock out most guys” have a fetish that is a bit more commonly accepted than Tupperware or Velveeta, but that it might not be quite as harmless as the others mentioned above?

The key here is pathological. Guys who like boobs are just normal. Boobs are cool. But if you're obsessed with them, that's different. There's a difference between someone who tells a little fib once and a while, and a person who is a pathological liar.

So a little liking of boobs/package/etc. is okay, but all in moderation? to clear my thoughts, as it seems we’ve wandered from Denna to talking about “assets” here - is this a common thing in fantasy convention panel discussions?

Hmmm... at the conventions I've attended, there's been very little boob talk on the panels. In the lounge of the hotel, sure, but not much in the panels themselves.

One of the things about The Name of the Wind that I and other reviewers have commented upon is how while the world might feel familiar at first, the characters often don't behave in a Society for Creative Anachronism type of way.

First, I have to say that I have nothing against people in the SCA. They have a lot going for them, and have really, really cool parties. I have a lot of friends in the SCA.

That said, they are, in some respects, total wankers. The way they talk and act isn't realistic. It total nonsense for the most part, actually. If you traveled back in time 400 years you wouldn't be poncing around in brocade speaking in a bad British accent. You'd be digging ditches or dying of black lung in a mine somewhere. Odds are, you'd be a peasant.

But that's why they call it CREATIVE anachronism. If it was the society for faithful historical reenactment, then I'd have a beef with them. But they're just having a good time, no harm in that.

How do I know so much about them? Because I've hung out with them in the past. Not just once or twice, either. As I've said, they know how to party.

The problem is, a lot of authors don't put much more thought into the worlds they create than the SCA people do into their reenactment. They think that if they want their setting to be old-timey and fantastic all they have to do is use different words. That's why so many fantasy novels read like bad fanfic, the authors are trying to take a shortcut to avoid the work of worldbuilding.

For example, instead of a tired farmer ordering a mug of beer, they'll have him order a flaggon of ale. When he talks with his friends, he doesn't worry about the lack of rain and taxes. He worries about the Carethnaxian blood-blight spoiling his crops.

Yes. We get it. You're writing fantasy. Please stop beating us over the head with it.

I wanted my book to be more subtle, and more realistic. In my world, things are very real. Farmers worry about drought and taxes. They drink beer and bitch about the government. Does it sound ordinary? Of course. It should sound ordinary. They're ordinary people. I'm going to save the remarkable stuff for later in the book.

How much, if any, were your non-SCA style characterizations a deliberate amount to break with these stereotypes and how much was it just a natural outgrowth of the story?

A lot was a deliberate attempt to break stereotypes. Let say 85 %.

Let’s say you’re in your favorite local bookstore and you happen to be walking past the SF section when you overhear a debate among two people about which would be a better buy: Your book, or Season Four of Buffy. What would be your reaction in such a situation?

Wow. That's a great question. That's a really... wow.

Have they already watched the first three seasons of Buffy?

Let's say they have. What do you do next?

Okay. Then they have to keep buying Buffy. I can’t stand in the way of that. You can’t stop the signal.

If you were to own several monkeys, how many would you own, what would you have them do, and what names would you give them?

I sense that this question is asked in order to throw me off my stride. It an attempt to catch me off-guard by making me respond to a subject far outside my ordinary realm of consideration.

If that's the case, I'm afraid you've strayed from the path. Just two days I was talking to my girlfriend about this very thing.

If I were given the opportunity to own as many monkeys as I wanted, here's how it would go down:

Monkey one. He would be a dexterous chimp that would live in my backyard. He wouldn't be a pet in the conventional sense. He would be more of a friend. He would have free reign of my yard and house, so long as he didn't fling his poop. We would communicate with sign language and have wonderful adventures together. And play Xbox.

Monkey two would be a baboon that I would use as an accessory whenever I needed to attend a formal dinner party. I would wear my tuxedo with my collapsible silk top hat, walking stick, and my trained baboon on golden chain. He would also have a little tuxedo, but only the top half, as putting a monkey in pants isn't really cool.

The baboon would be trained to respond to respond to subtle non-verbal cues. That way, when someone I was talking to expressed opinions I found distasteful, he would viciously attack them, maiming and traumatizing as only an enraged baboon can. This would save me the trouble of getting into irritating political discussions with dullards and fuckwits, and, now that I think of it, would probably guarantee that only good things were said about my book....

We would also, on request, act out scenes from William Burrows' Naked Lunch.

Thirdly and lastly I'd get an entire colony of Bonobo chimps. Those are the ones that use sex to resolve most social conflicts. I think it would be awesome to have a bunch of monkeys endlessly having sex in my backyard.

Sure it would piss of the neighbors, but it would be worth it just for the headline in the paper: "Local Author Instigates Monkey Orgy."

You can't buy that sort of publicity.

*chokes* Burrows and baboons? I think you just made me speechless there for a moment, Pat! Now if Ginsberg was involved, reciting a primate version of "Howl," I think the world would come to an end or we'd all be having a Coke and a smile and...well, don't know about the STFUing happening, but it'd be seriously trippy! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview with us. It's been a blast

I’ve had fun too. Thanks much for having me.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Review of David Anthony Durham's Acacia

David Anthony Durham is an accomplished writer. He has earned much praise for historical novels such as Gabriel's Story, Walk Through Darkness, and most recently for Pride of Carthage. He has won quite a few awards for those novels, including the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Fiction Award and the Legacy Award. So it was with great curiosity that I read Acacia: The War with the Mein, as this is Durham's first foray into fantasy writing.

On the surface, Acacia appears to be set in a rather familiar world: ancient empire ruled by a kindhearted king, dark and mysterious forces gathering in the northern regions, mystical magi once powerful but now exiled from the realm. Sounds like a ready-made world ripe for exploration of the coming of age experience and how good will try to resist evil. Or perhaps it will resemble George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire in its protagonist center of a beleaguered father and four children (two boys, two girls) who are fated to come to grips with a world that is not that of fairy tales, to whom separation will lurk around the corner, ever followed by betrayal and the risk of capture by enemies.

However, appearances can be quite deceiving and in Durham's case, quite rewarding when one delves below the surface features of the story. The Acacian realm, ruled by the Akaran royal family, might appear to be prosperous and sedate on the outside, but there are troubling references to things such as the Quota, Mist, and the looming Lothan Aklun peppered throughout the first section and explored in more detail in the latter two sections of the book. The national myth about how Acacia was founded by a glorious ancestor named Tinhadin, who established the major traditions of the Akaran kingdom, is challenged by revelations from the purportedly "evil" Hanish Mein and the banished Santoth wizards. Things never are quite what they seem and it is with this backdrop that Durham's story really begins to unfold.

Durham writes from a limited third-person point of view perspective. His characters express their thoughts in sentences that brim with description but which manage to avoid going into excess. Sometimes, a lot is said in just a few words, as evidenced below when Corinn reflects on her mother's illness early into the novel:

As painful as this was, it was compounded by the fact that she saw herself in each portion of her mother's dying body. Her mother had given her the shape of her face, the character of her lips, the pattern of lines across her forehead. They had the same hands: the same rate of taper and length, the same character to the knuckles, the same thin fingernails, the same off-kilter slant to the small finger. The girl of ten had held between her palms an aged, decaying, fading grip on herself, like some strange conflation of the past with the present or the present with the future.

Though she often schemed the days away with youthful optimism, part of her was nagged by the fear that she would not live out the year. Or if she did it would be only so that she would first gain everything, then lose it all, then die. She had felt this way when she was ten, and then eleven and twelve and so on, but still the feeling was as strong as ever. The fact that she balanced these morbid thoughts with an otherwise effervescent nature was as confusing to her as it would have been to those who viewed her from the outside. She hid her darker musings as best she could, both alarmed by and ashamed of them. She often reminded herself that every living being faced death; few of them were offered a life of such rich potential as she. And perhaps she was wrong. Maybe she would live a long and joyful existence; maybe she would even find a way to live forever, ageless and untouched by illness. - Acacia, p. 52-53

Some might find that to be a bit too impersonal or "overwritten"; I did not. Instead, what I noticed is that little scenes such as that in the early section serve to foreshadow later personality developments. The Corinn of the later chapters is reflected well in that little passage. Each important character receives similar treatment. Although some fantasy readers may long for a character-centered point of view á la Martin, for example, Durham's approach allows for a more condensed approach towards exploring the world of Acacia and it's background. Durham writes well and he writes with a purpose. He easily could have had this opening book to a trilogy become a two or three book introduction, but his combination of spare description and excellent use of limited third-person point of view enable him to tell a sweeping story of character development and revelation of the world about in a single 576 page novel that concludes satisfactorily while still leaving enough issues unsettled as to leave space for the planned second and third volumes.

This is not to say that all readers will have an easy time getting into the novel. Sometimes the hardest part of the novel to write is the beginning and for those who are more used to action-oriented scenes, the focus on character development and the introductions of many PoV characters might make for rather slow reading at first. However, the rewards to be garnered by a close reading of this section are immense, as doing so will allow for a deeper understanding of the mechanics of Acacian society and how those mechanics often will have a ghastly effect on how the protagonists and antagonists alike are going to view the world around them. This is especially seen towards the end when one main character appears to succumb to the expediencies of control without understanding fully the implications behind ruling wisely. This world has many enemies. The most insidious do not (yet) have a human face, but they certainly are all the more disturbing for how easily they can corrupt well-intentioned people into giving into what is more easily done.

And this touches upon one of the layered themes of Acacia - alienation from intended purpose. From the creation "myth" of Acacia to the present situation, good intentions have gone horribly astray. From what has happened to the Santoth to the sources of the Hanish Mein attack, so much revolves around the forgetting of the ties that unite us in place of forging ties that bind people in often absently cruel fashions. One cannot read Acacia without seeing copious examples of our inhumanity to each other being reflected in the choices and actions of the characters. It is a fantasy in setting, but one which mirrors our own "real world" in many thought-provoking ways. There are levels here, levels with chains attached.

Summary: Acacia is a rewarding, reflective first novel in a planned trilogy that evokes much of our world and its history in its telling. Characters are written from a limited third-person PoV, with a focus more on character development than on action scenes. Very well-written, with descriptions revealed in small segments rather than in pages-long infodumps. Highly recommended for readers who enjoy historical fantasies and those who have read Durham's earlier work. One of the better epic fantasy openers that I've read in recent years.

Interview with Patrick Rothfuss, Part I

I'm crossposting this over at wotmania:

Patrick Rothfuss is the author of The Name of the Wind, the first of a trilogy called The Kingkiller Chronicle detailing in (mostly) first-person narrative form the adventures and experiences of Kvothe - musician, magician, thief, assassin, and apparently an all-around legend-in-his-own-time badass. This novel, Rothfuss's first, is drawing quite a bit of acclaim from many parts of the blogosphere and spec fic websites. Pat was kind enough to agree to do a two-part interview with me (trust me, for full effect, two parts are needed for all of this). In the first part, we discuss briefly his background, reading fantasy while writing, how the story "reads," "worldbuilding," and tropes and sexism. But without further ado, since it's past 4 AM and I'm rambling, Part I:

Sometimes in order to understand a book, one has to know something about the author who wrote the book. What can you tell us about yourself, your background, and how it might relate to the creation of The Kingkiller Chronicle?

I don't think people need to know much about me to understand the book, or to enjoy it. The book stands by itself. Over the last several years, my life has been all about writing these books, but the books aren't about my life.

In the last couple of months people have come up to me, asking questions along the lines of, "Did you model the Masters at the University after your college professors?" I hate to tell them, "No" because it seems they really have their hearts set on it. I think they want the book to be based on something real because it feels real to them.

That said, I suppose it does help to know one piece of my background. I've been reading fantasy my whole life. That relates to the creation of the book. Because when I sat down to write it, I decided I wanted to do something a little different. The only ways you can avoid being cliché is by knowing your genre really well.

Fair enough, but you said something at the end that strikes me: knowing the genre. When you are writing, do you ever take a reading break and read within the genre, or are you much more likely to avoid reading genre fiction, as is the case of many other authors who have claimed a fear of having whatever they read then contaminate their works-in-progress?

While I understand the fear of contamination, as fears go I think it's a little silly. Do chefs not eat while they're creating new dishes? Of course not. Similarly I don't stop reading when I write. I'm a narratavore. If I don't get stories into me, I start to starve.

That said, I did read the complete works of sir Arthur Conan Doyle over the course of a week back in '96, and Kvothe turned into Sherlock Holmes for a chapter. It does happen. But it should be easy for a writer to spot and correct when it happens. That's no reason to stop reading....

Then again, I read really, really fast. I'll read a book under 400 pages in a day, provided it's interesting. So it's not like I'm immersing myself in someone else's text for weeks and weeks. The only reason I had that problem with Holmes was because I read ALL of Doyle at once. If I'd spaced him out with something else I probably would have been fine.

So, there really isn't anything lost-lasting to that adage that Borges adapted that said that when someone was quoting Shakespeare, he/she became Shakespeare? I thinking of 10,000 enraged monkeys right now typing away furiously to me, trying to refute me with a soliloquy.

You lost me.

I think it’s one of those metaphysical things best left to the imagination and out of an interview, le sigh. So moving on...

When I finished reading The Name of the Wind, I remarked that one of the strengths of the story to me was that it sounded more like someone telling a story rather than writing out a story. In writing the book, did you ever read parts of it aloud to get the pitch and tone 'just so,' or was there another technique that you used to craft the passages to be more "oral" in feel?

Reading aloud sounds like a good idea, but honestly, it doesn't work very well. Good dialogue in a book doesn't actually bear much resemblance to real-life dialogue. For example, if you've ever seen a word-for-word transcript of people talking, it doesn't read off the page very well. The trick is to make it *seem* like it's being spoken, not to make it speakable.

That said, there were some tricks (or you could call them techniques, I suppose) I used to make the story sound more spoken than written. Sentence fragments, for example. I used a lot of them because that's how people really think and talk. I used more casual language too, partly for the spoken effect, and partly because I didn't want the book to come off as dry and stiff.

One of the terms that I've heard bandied about, not just for The Name of the Wind but for a great many "secondary world" novels, is "worldbuilding." How would you define such a concept and how important of a role does it play in your stories?

Worldbuilding is key in good fantasy. Or at least it's the key to the sort of fantasy I enjoy reading. I want the world the book is set in to feel real. More than that, it should make sense. It should be internally consistent.

What do I mean by this? Well... if everyone in your world is riding a dragon, and dragons are carnivorous, then you better realize that that's going to have a huge effect on the industry and economy of your world. A horse can graze, a carnivorous animal can't. Similarly, if you've got a bronze age society, and you have a city with a million people in it. Well.... shit. You better have a really good explanation for me as to how they all find enough to eat every day.

It's like someone trying to build a house and never using a T-square. It'll keep the rain off, sure. But it's going to be ugly, and anyone who ever actually seen a nice house is going to know the difference.

Now for the second part. The key to good worldbuilding is leaving out most of what you create. You, as the author, had damn well better know the where all that dragon food comes from, but that doesn't mean that I, as a reader, want to read a five thousand word essay about you explaining it to me. I don't need to see the math, but I can tell by the details you provide whether or not you've thought these things through to their logical conclusions.

While I agree with what you said there, part of me, that smartass know-it-all grad student type, that part is puzzled by one thing related to this: Is worldbuilding fundamentally anything different from a super setting or local color, besides the author obviously having to have a world that isn't ours necessarily? Also, in your opinion, is it much easier or much harder to engage in a blank-slate sort of worldbuilding as opposed to having to work within the confines of established notions that in England, people speak English with different accents than those of Americans and that the food is reputed to be worse there?

Hold on, grad student?

*Pat goes to ask Uncle Internet a question or two*

Shit. I should have guessed. Academia has crudulated your God-given simplicity of expression, boy. Look at the size of that question. It's a hundred words long, and there are only two sentences. Sweet baby Jesus. You know what I could do with a hundred words?

What? Besides construct a world out of it? Then again, would epic academia be a fun, exciting, adventure-filled cathartic read, or would there something a bit too much on the human condition in it? Would there be an academic, if he or she were being interviewed about pedantic wordbuilding, who would dare quote the great Jack Nicholson and say, “you can’t handle the truth!" when it comes to epic clauses?

What? Epic clauses? Are we talking about Santa here? I dare you to either diagram that last sentence or re-write it using sentences with no more twenty words and one comma. I double dare you.

You’re on. As soon as I can figure out how to do that drawing/line symbol thingy here. My 5th grade teacher would be so proud of me! But I do know that “would there be an academic” is the beginning of a conditional if-(minus) then clause that contains multiple conditions in there, thus opening up the possibility for lots of epic clausal sequels. Or have I just been bullshitting too much here with too little rum to make it work?

Wow. Okay. You're taking the hard way out. I guess you're more attached to your commas than I thought.

In brief, worldbuilding is different than setting in my opinion. Setting is a room. A backdrop. It's scenery. But without good worldbuilding, you can't have realistic feeling scenery. You can't have cool, unique backdrops for your story.

Also, worldbuilding touches all aspects of your story. It touches plot and character as well. If you don't know the culture your character comes from, how can you know what he's really like? What god does he worship? How does he feel about other countries, races? How does that culture treat women? Do they have a strong ruling class? How does he feel about the government? Does he see a guinea pig as a pet, or as a food animal?

If you've build a good, solid world, you should know the answers to most of those questions. That means you know your characters on a much deeper level than you would if you just shrugged your way into a cookie cutter fantasy world.

Also, any realistically complicated world has problems. That means that you don't have to go scraping around for plot ideas. If your world is rich and complex, your story will complicate itself.

I never seem to take the easy way out But in all seriousness, this is a good answer. Moving on...

Looking at fiction writing of the past generation or so, what trends have you seen that may have influenced your writing? Besides the positive, what were some of the more negative trends or tropes that you wanted to avoid?

Unfortunately, a lot of fantasy is chock full of sexism and racism. A lot of authors don't even realize they're doing it, and a lot of readers don't know they're reading it. That's what makes it so scary in some cases. I've read some books where I find myself thinking, "When was this written? 1954?"

Over the last couple months I've received a lot of compliments about my female characters. Most of these are from women. When women say that they like your realistic, portrayal of women, that means something. That makes me proud.

I agree that there seems to be this underlying bent towards sexism and racism, mostly in ways to which the authors themselves appear to be blind, but it is curious to see a very real divide among male and female readers as to the likeability of characters such as Denna, for example. What do you think might be some of the characteristics of a Denna that might be unsettling to many (mostly male) readers?

Well, for one I think she's dangerously close to a real person. She's smart, speaks her mind, lives her own life, and doesn't take shit off anyone. That sort of woman terrifies a lot of men.

I half joking, but seriously, I haven't noticed a gender difference in who likes Denna and who doesn't. I know guys who love her, and women who find her off-putting. One guy wrote me to tell me that he had a bit of a crush on her. More than a bit, actually.

It used to bother me that not everyone felt the same way about Denna. Then I had an moment of clarity. I thought to myself. f I took a regular person and introduced her to a dozen different people, I get a dozen different reactions. The fact that people view Denna differently doesn't mean she's a bad character, it means she's a complex, real character.

Once I realized that, I stopped worrying.


Part II, to be posted a few days later, will get into favorite authors, fetishes and conventions, a certain tough hypothetical situation for the author, and monkey business. You will not want to miss this!

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Upcoming changes

This is a relatively short post, but one that shall serve as an upcoming events type. In the next few weeks, there will be quite a bit of renewed activity, both here and at Other Fantasy. Plans are underway to create a special Reviews section for in-depth reviews of the latest in speculative fiction, as well as a few other wrinkles that ought to please many who visit regularly. We have begun a renewed commitment to bringing to our readers a greater awareness of what looks to be a fine bumper crop of young (or new, if you prefer to think of those over your age as "old", typed with a wry grin) talent.

Here, there will be many more reviews posted, as well as commentary on issues pertaining to the genres of the speculative and their fans. Expect to see in the next week or so an interview with Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind, a review of David Anthony Durham's upcoming Acacia: The War with the Mein, some reflections on the types of writings and stories that I enjoy most, and perhaps even Hobbit frolicking. There may also be a few surprises in store, depending on what can be arranged in the coming weeks. So do keep checking this site for more, as there shall be a lot more exclusive material here than ever before.
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