The OF Blog: July 2007

Monday, July 30, 2007

Tobias Buckell, Crystal Rain

Crystal Rain by Tobias Buckell

    Crystal Rain is the debut novel of Tobias Buckell. The books tells an interesting scifi story, and it does it that all too unusual way... in under 400 pages. All in all, this is a very strong debut and a fun read.

    At first, it's difficult to say just where this story might be taking place, or even when. It's a testament to Buckell's skill as a writer that he manages to instantly invoke a sense of place and history. What might have been a nearly contemporary Caribbean setting, turns out to be a far future Caribbean settlement on another world, long cut off from the rest of the universe, and even from any real technology. This sense of place and culture is deepened by Buckell's skilled use of character accent and jargon.

    The story follows a few PoVs as they navigate a land that is caught up in a war. There is little excess in the storytelling. The plot moves quickly, and the story builds on itself very efficiently. John deBrun is a fisherman in a small isolated village. When an army of Azteca cross the mountains, his village is subjugated. John himself is being sought out for secrets he supposedly knows, and an Azteca spy is chasing after those secrets. A strange man named Pepper is also looking for John, but his reasons are a whole lot different. War has come. John sets out to save his family, and things very quickly start to happen.

    At the heart of the narrative tension is the relative difference between the PoV characters understanding of what is going on. There are traitors. There is deeper history. Not everyone is what they seem to be. The war itself only a small part of a much larger history.

    While I feel that the book could have used another 15 or 20 strategically placed pages, room for a bit deeper characterization, or the space for some little further development, I think that Crystal Rain is one of the stronger debut novels that I've read in quite a while. The novel is a quick and satisfying read that I happily recommend to anyone who likes scifi or fantasy.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Tobias Buckell Interview

A few weeks ago, Pat of Pat's Fantasy Hotlist asked me to participate in an interview he was doing with Tobias Buckell, author of Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin. Pat just posted the interview and rather than just copy/pasting the entire thing here, I'll just post a link here. It was really good to read some of Buckell's thoughtful responses to the questions we asked and hopefully there'll be more people who'll be curious enough to go out and buy his books and see for themselves if it's the sort of story they want to read. All I can say is that I'm eagerly awaiting the release of Sly Mongoose!

Review of Andrzej Sapkowski's The Last Wish

For over four years, Andrzej Sapkowski has been one of those authors that has been dangled in front of me, mentioned in passing by Polish readers here and elsewhere, along with an occasional mention on a couple of non-English-language sites that I frequent on occasion. Maciek (Vanin) in particular has been one who has been singing his praises to me, even going so far as to post a link to a fan-translated story (one that was done with Sapkowski's blessing, I later learned). What I read was intriguing enough for me to want more. I looked into buying the Spanish-language editions, but the shipping costs (close to $25 per book) were too prohibitive for me to import from Spain and I never could find any available in American online stores. So I waited. And waited some more, fearing that Sapkowski might never be published in English translation. Until last year, when I heard that Gollancz, perhaps influenced by the upcoming The Witcher game (which stars the main character, Geralt, of most of Sapkowski's stories), agreed to publish some of Sapkowski's work in English translation for the UK market. The Last Wish is the first of those works to be published in English.

The Last Wish is a slender, 280 page collection of six loosely-connected stories and intervals starring Geralt. Originally released in 1993 in Poland as Ostatnie Zyczenie, The Last Wish contains some of the oldest of the Geralt tales, although it was not the first Geralt book released in Poland. It is, however, an excellent introduction to the character and to the type of story that Sapkowski apparently wants to tell.

Geralt is a Witcher, an altered human being who has enhanced eyesight, a quicker healing/recovery mechanism for his body, and supposedly immune to most of the normal human emotions (although some of his interactions with various characters belies this to some extent). As a Witcher, Geralt's task is to roam the countyside and towns, looking for and destroying true monsters. While this might sound like a perfect D&D-style adventure series, Sapkowski quickly shows a combination of a sly wit and a tendency to not just subvert these adventure tropes, but to twist them and spin them upon their head until they collapse, too dizzy to assert themselves in the story themes.

Although Geralt is trained as a killer and does have some impressive skills as a fighter, violence is not a staple of these stories. Rather, it appears to be that there are two overarching themes to these tales: overcoming first impressions and the notion that the truest monsters might have a comely appearance and be fair of speech. Geralt elaborates on this in one scene:
"People," Geralt turned his head, "like to invent monsters and monstrosities. Then they seem less monstrous themselves. When they get blind-drunk, cheat, steal, beat their wives, starve an old woman, when they kill a trapped fox with an axe or riddle the last existing unicorn with arrows, they like to think that the Bane entering cottages at daybreak is more monstrous than they are. They feel better then. They find it easier to live."

Each of these stories have moments like this, moments where Geralt shows that his greatest strength is not in how fast he can decapitate a monster (although he does this on occasion) or how quickly he can evade an attack (these, too, occur on occasion), but rather in how he is able to take a keener look than his companions at what is truly at stake. There are moments of humor here, as when a monster, Nivellen, discovers that by being generous with his gold, he can get quite a few merchant's daughters for a bit more than the usual roll in the hay. How Geralt deals with Nivellen is one of the more humane and understanding stories that I've read in this genre of work, but I'll leave that story's conclusion to the gentle reader.

There are many elements of Slavic mythology, from various creatures that do not have exact analogues in Western mythologies to codes of behavior, that make this collection a bit more mysterious to me. I suspect there are a few elements that would be funny to a Polish or other Eastern European-reading audience but which might be taken more literally by the likes of me, born and raised on Western European and Southern mythologies. Perhaps this is the main reason why, despite selling over two million copies of his works in certain European countries, Sapkowski had to wait almost twenty years for the first English-language publication of his work. It is a shame that it has been this long, as I believe that there are enough elements in common that most fantasy readers in the English-speaking world can relate to and enjoy them to much the same degree as German and Spanish-speaking readers have enjoyed Sapkowski for years.

Summary: The Last Wish is a series of connected short stories that recount the adventures of a Witcher named Geralt. Told in third-person omniscient PoV, these tales take traditional fantasy adventure motifs and play with them in a parodical fashion on occasion. Highly recommended for those who like a mixture of humor and depth to their stories, especially to those who like Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett.

Release Date: June 2007 (UK), Hardcover, Tradeback

Publisher: Gollancz, no known US release planned

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Review of Emma Bull's Territory

I do not like Westerns, at least the ones I was forced to endure growing up. All my dad would do on lazy weekend afternoons was to turn to a UHF channel (before the days of satellite TV, as cable lines didn't extend into our neighborhood back in the 1980s) and watch some shoot 'em up Cowboys and Indians flick. Often a John Wayne flick, but not necessarily, all I could tell from watching all of those movie studio-blue backdrops is that one man wore a white hat and was good, while the ones wearing the black hats were often called "varmints" and were shot after a chase up a steep hillside, or perhaps there'd be some nameless "Indians" that would attack for whatever reason. So macho, so black-and-white, so...boring in its repetitive detail.

So it was with some trepidation that I requested a review copy of Emma Bull's recently-released Territory, especially when I learned that the action takes place in Tombstone, Arizona just prior to the infamous Shootout at the OK Corral. But after some consideration and looking into Emma Bull's background, I requested and received a copy. I am very glad that I overcame my initial reluctance to read anything related at all to the Old West.

Emma Bull has earned a reputation in spec fic circles for her writing, especially for War for the Oaks and the novel she co-wrote with Steven Brust, Freedom & Necessity. In Territory, she does something that is incredibly ballsy: she reinterprets the entire setting of Tombstone to make room for some of the historical people that would have made that town run. Women of all sorts, the Chinese - these often "invisible" or stereotyped peoples in traditional Westerns now take on a much larger role in her tale set in the Old West of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the Clantons. Oh, and there is magic present, making for a list of ingredients that can either lead to a very satisfying read or a horrid mess of a novel.

Thankfully, Bull manages to pull this off with one of the better-written tales that I've read in recent months. Her mixture of the historical (Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday) with the imagined (Jesse Fox, Mildred Benjamin, Chow Lung, Chu) and the barely-chronicled (the Earp women, China Mary) is one of those rare examples of how well-known historical figures can be given fictional roles, be fleshed out from the myths that surround them, and yet still feel "real" and not stilted in manner or action compared to the fictional characters. This is not an easy thing to do, especially since we have our own preconceptions about the events (and their meanings) that occurred in the Old West. That Emma Bull was able to create a story that in turns surprised and delighted me was a remarkable achievement.

Without revealing too much of the storyline, Territory revolves around power relations. From how women and the Chinese were treated (and how they in turn subverted societal expectations of the time) to how there was magic (of a Chinese sort - think feng shui and ley lines), there are all sorts of struggles among the people of Tombstone to understand, grasp, and control those various forms of power that ran through the town like the silver lodes nearby. The dispossessed and the newly-reinvented, such as Jesse and Mildred, find themselves struggling to comprehend what is happening. But by the end of this novel (there will be a second released in the next year or so that will cover the actual Shootout), one is left feeling that whatever one had conceived the Old West as being before, that those preconceptions had been tossed out the window.

However, this novel is not without its flaws. For those who prefer fast-moving action-oriented plots, Territory moves at a more deliberate pace. Things happen, mysteries appear and are later revealed in part, but it is more within internal character conflicts and interactions than due to external plot events. But for those of you who enjoy character-driven tales and who want to read a tale that subverts traditional views of the mythic Old West, Territory is an excellent candidate for that sort of read.

Summary: Territory is the first of a rumored two-part story told in third-person PoV that introduces elements of Chinese magic and gender relations to the semi-mythical events of 1881-1882 Tombstone, Arizona. Well-written, with a focus on character dynamics than on external plot events, Territory ought to appeal to those who prefer reimagined takes on the Western genre.

Release Date: July 3, 2007 (US), Hardcover

Publisher: Tor (318 pages)

Reflections upon Harry Potter

By the time I had begun writing this sentence just after midnight CDT on July 25, 2007 CE, there had been literally tens of thousands of comments and reviews that had already appeared in newspapers, magazines, and on numerous online websites and blogs. Millions would have already finished reading this and over 10 million copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows would have been sold. Never before in fiction has one book sold so much, been read by so many, been discussed to quite the degree within the first week of release as this book, the seventh and final volume in the Harry Potter series, which stretched over 7 fictional years and almost 10 actual years.

Sure, there were moments such as tens of thousands of Londoners (and weeks later, New Yorkers) weeping over the death of Little Nell, the brave little girl in Charles Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop. Yes, there were "Frodo Lives!" stickers and associated graffiti in New York subway stations in the 1950s. Yes, we have had our "flash mobs" and "it" moments (from the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK to the Challenger blowing up 1:18 into its launch on January 26, 1986 to even the death of Princess Diana of the United Kingdom), but never before have we seen such a widespread frenzy over a work of fiction.

Massive security precautions to prevent "leaks" (which incidentally failed). Thousands of people camping out for days to be the first in line at 12:01 AM local time on 7/21/2007 to buy their copy of the hallowed Deathly Hallows. Thousands more dressing up as characters from the previous six books, ready to attend midnight "release parties" at local stores. This is the sort of treatment one might expect for a major music or movie release (or for the even more longly-awaited release of G'n'R's Chinese Democracy, a promise that is 12 years old and still aging with no definite end in sight), not something that typically is reserved for a book.

But yet so much has been written about this book. There were adulatory praises about how American reading scores, which had plummeted since the 1980s, actually showed a tapering off in the middle school population, possibly due in part to pre-teens and 13-15 year-olds reading Harry Potter novels. Others have been more critical of the series and the author. One recent Washington Post article has actually claimed that bestsellers such as Harry Potter might actually have weakened the fiction-reading audience even further by somehow "forcing" book readers to become "consumers" who read only to keep up with their friends and associates. Still others have accused author J.K. Rowling of being variously anti-feminist, too feminist, conservative in regards to family values, too radical in her approach to gender relations, too religious, or anti-Christian. There have been book burnings that have taken place at some church centers in the United States, something that might be too closely akin to the Nazi-like Ministry of Magic under Lord Voldemort's influence in this final novel. Regardless of the veracity of any of these positive or negative reactions to the series, there has to be something that has made Harry Potter's story something else other than just another fictional tale.

Before I go into a brief commentary upon the seventh volume itself, I want to share a quote from G.K. Chesterton that Neil Gaiman used as the epigraph for Coraline:

Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.

There is something of a fairy tale about Harry Potter's fictional life. Parents dead due to a mysterious reason, we find young one year-old Harry deposited at his maternal aunt's house one Halloween night (that itself a symbol for the eve of All Saint's Day and the following All Soul's Day, perhaps). Like many a fairy tale character, he is mistreated and feared by his adoptive relatives, who spurn him in favor of their own, rather spoiled child. This poor, neglected child, who has grown to mistrust adults and to shut himself away from the immediate pains of his situation, learns on his eleventh birthday that he is more than just a typical neglected orphan.

And from this rather stock beginning, readers who may identify with Harry's frustrations with adults who either do not listen to him or who neglect him for another, these readers have begun to forge a connection with this Everyman, this basically good-natured child who is lost in an often cruel and unforgiving world. So far, so good, but so what? What could this possibly have to do with millions wanting to read this cute but hardly original variation on a universal theme?

Those who might argue that then, I would argue, be missing the point. This is not a settled society in which we live, whether one be from the decaying inner cities of the United States or the UK or from the former farmlands that are becoming high-priced suburbs and "bedroom communities," or if one is from places where civil wars are occurring and old animosities are rising to the top. There is a lot of uncertainty in this world and millions, children and adults alike, want something that's not just comforting (mere comfort can be patronizing, if not does not relate to the person being comforted) but also told in their voice and frame of reference. To a large extent, each of the Harry Potter novels has done this.

In Deathly Hallows, we learn that Voldemort's Death Eaters have infiltrated so many facets of wizard society. We quickly learn that prior enchantments against attack on Harry are failing as he reaches the age of 17, the age of adulthood in the wizard world. We witness many attacks on Harry and his closest friends and we see beloved characters die in order to save Harry. We are exposed to many subtle and insidious evils besides that of Voldemort, as former friends appear blind to what is happening around them, so eager are they to gain status or to avoid further trouble with the new wizard order. The classic Quest motif is stronger here than in prior novels, as Harry, Ron, Hermione and their friends and family members assist the three on their most dangerous task yet: the destruction of the remaining Horcruxes that contain elements of Voldemort's divided soul.

When I read Deathly Hallows over a three-day period, I focused much more on the character relationships and themes than I did on the plot or even the writing. While I did find the plot to be just enough to sustain interest in what is developing and that the writing was, with a few memorable scenes (including one burial scene) to be just only adequate on the syntactical level, the way things were constructed made the whole much more than the sum of its parts.

This was a moving, emotional novel. Very dark, although none of the others were ever truly "light-hearted" stories. We are exposed to a world that is really much like our own, where evil does not have to have scarlet eyes or serpentine features to exist and to be a danger to children or adults. Rowling pulls no punches in this novel. Harry and his friends are facing terrible predicaments.

As a novel, Deathly Hallows serves not just as a culmination of the previous six, but as a fulfiller of the hints and promises contained in each of them. We see how prior events, minor at the time (such as kindness to the downtrodden), end up having such a dramatic impact on the story's resolution. These are things that go beyond plot mechanics, however. Readers end up noticing certain recurring themes, such as the power of Love in its many forms, the ways in which true bravery cannot be discerned by a simple Sorting Hat but by the resolve (as witnessed by the character development of Neville Longbottom) that can be built up even through the worst of humiliations, among many others. But there is one thing in particular about this series that stuck out to me and I'll quote from an earlier writing of mine:

One of the things that struck me (out of many) about the series and even more so in DH, is how much the stories and the events within them read like a symbolic ritual of passage. From the first tests of dealing with the unknown, to the learning and mastery of tasks, to the recognition that past viewpoints are not always the correct one (witness the Dudley/Harry scene in DH with the tea cup), to how Harry has to struggle with his past of abuse to come to learn how to trust his friends and even adults like Dumbledore - all of this has been leading us to the point of seeing a former child facing down his fears and mistrust and learning how to accept the world as what it is, while never giving up the need to fight to change it in order for it to become closer to what it ought to be.

Friendships lessen (Hagrid) in frequency, if not in intensity. While certain patterns appear to be repeating, there are subtle changes with each passing year, as Harry, Ron, Hermione, and others build upon what they have learned and have grown during the process. All things pass, but yet we witness them being able to grieve when grief is called for (Cedric, Sirius, Dobby, etc.) and the ways that they respond to that grief are illustrated and sometimes shown to be but intermediate steps along a journey of understanding that will take a lifetime to complete.

The HP of the first book is 11 years old, with the world-view of an 11 year-old boy. He cannot readily see the goodness that lurks within the tortured frame of a Snape or within the spoiled shaping of a Draco Malfoy. They are enemies to overcome - perhaps not capital E Evil like Voldemort, but still just that, "evil." But as the series progresses and we witness things through Harry's PoV, things subtly change, until we too are forced to change our preconceptions of a Snape or a Draco to see that they are not static characters, but that they too are as dynamic as Harry or any of his friends. We end up seeing Harry's world through the eyes of one who is ready to leave his childhood shell to become an adult who will be wise enough to remember the lessons learned during that childhood apprenticeship stage.

Harry at the end of DH has faced down his childhood fears, as embodied by Voldemort. His readers, some of whom may have grown up living in other, perhaps more symbolic but still terrifying stairway closets, are often able to relate to this story so much because it reminds them of what they've been through or what they've witnessed those close to them go through. Hope, fear, neglect, companionship - these and many others that comprise the gauntlet of life, these are what makes Harry's journey so wonderful to behold and so sad for us as well.

As Chesterton said, readers of fairy tales have learned that dragons, in any shape or form, can be beaten. The true power of Harry Potter is that in a day and age in which such tales are not often told, we have once again become grounded, if only for a short span, with those truly magical stories that make dragon tamers of us all. That is what I believe lies at the heart of Harry Potter's appeal to so many. Only time will tell if it's true.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Review of Daniel Wallace's Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician

Magic, as performed by trained magicians, is such a simple thing. Wave one's hand and voilà!, something happens. A rabbit out of a hat, a levitating body, saws pass through an assistant locked in a box without any damage done. Marvels that astound us and make us want to see more, while all the while, there are but series of meticulously crafted illusions designed to make us look the other way, to be distracted from considering what really is taking place.

Daniel Wallace, author of Mr. Sebastian and the Magic Magician, for the most part pulls off a literary sleight of hand in his fourth novel. This story of a fading magician, Henry Walker, who was rumored to have inherited his gifts from the Devil himself might at first or even third glance read like an updated Southern version of a Faustian bargain, with freak shows and carny barkers standing in for princes and alchemists. But this tale is much more than just a simple tragedy.

As the story opens, it is 1954 and poor Henry Walker, this "Negro magician," is too all appearances, completely and utterly inept. Cards fall from his sleeves at the wrong time, rabbits and birds die in their concealed compartments, and his female assistant almost dies as the saws do start cutting into her. But he is there in the rural South, a Negro claiming he can do magic, and the white Southerners are enjoying every last failure he can conjure up for them. But for some, this is not enough.
But tonight there were other forces at work. Usually his audiences were composed of simple people who came to be entertained, and at this moment, at night in a small tent at a sideshow fair filled with freaks and weirdos and the concatenation of life's refuse, who didn't love the unmagical Negro? Most did. They loved him the way you love a three-legged dog, even though they were in northern Alabama now, not far from the spot where some genius got the idea for the Ku Klux Klan. People down here had a different way of looking at things. No, he wouldn't be welcome in my home, and if he looks at my daughter I'm going to have to kill him. But, sure, he can show me a magic trick. I reckon that'll be all right. Tonight, though, Henry felt the tent choking with real hatred and a malevolent kind of hunger that could not be quelled by anything except its own satisfaction.

This poor figure of an inept Negro parading around as a magician is just too tempting for a band of racists who want to humiliate him further. One of them, Tarp, interrupts Henry's act and seizes a fallen card, only to have it backfire on him due to a simple failure to realize that a deck of magician's cards are by design different than regular decks of cards. This only serves to enrage Tarp and his buddies and they ambush Henry later, before being stopped by the so-called World's Strongest Man, Rudy. He prevents them for a time from attacking Henry and proceeds to tell them a story about how Henry was once much greater than what he now appears to be. Rudy speaks of a rumor of Henry being gifted by the Devil himself with real magic, with the power to cause objects to transform and even the power to bring the dead back to life. It is from here that Rudy's tale will dovetail into recollections from other sideshow performers.

In each of these tales, certain elements reappear in their narratives of Henry's life (as he told it to them over a period of four years in drunken rambling stories that may or may not be true at heart) from the Depression up to 1954: a lonely childhood; with only a single sister, Hannah, to love and to support; a deal with the Devil, whom Henry claims appeared to him as a truly white-faced man calling himself Mr. Sebastian; and Hannah's tragic disappearance soon afterwards.

As these tales are told, more layers are revealed about Henry's life. We learn how his past and his present are not exactly what they seem. We see how he relates with his co-workers and with others. We sense the marks of loss and of suffering behind each display of magic. And all of these wonderful feats of magic only serve as yet another concealing mirror.

I will not reveal the trick, but instead will just say that I was left marveling about how Wallace manages to make these "freaks" appear to be so humane and sympathetic, not to mention about how what Henry actually experiences is much, much more than just a Faustian deal gone sour.

Some people might find the narrative tricks employed to be a bit thin and wearisome at the end, but I ended up appreciating the effort put into making the trick into magic. Even a simulacrum of life serves to bring to memory life as one believes it to be, and through all the pain and misery and tragedy that underlies Henry's magical career, there is still a light that shines through. The best magic shown to us reveals not the workings of a life, but the image of life that we want to see. Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician displays this in all its heartbreaking beauty.

Summary: Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician is a tale about an apparent failed Negro magician and the tragedies of his life after an apparent deal with the Devil, who appears to him in the guise of a white-faced man named Mr. Sebastian. Told by his sideshow co-workers, the story utilizes several PoVs to illustrate a composite portrait of Henry Walker that is as much of an illusion as the tricks he aims to perform for his audience at the beginning of the novel. Mixed in with a tragic tale of loss and of not finding what one has bargained to gain from life, Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician puts a softer, more sympathetic spin on the Faustian bargain, neither taking Marlowe's or Goethe's approach to this ancient legend of a diabolical deal gone bad. The writing is done well, with enough false climaxes and surprising plot developments to enchant most readers. Recommended for those who enjoy a tale that is not as simple as it appears.

Release Date: July 3, 2007 (US) Hardcover

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Why reading Harry Potter spoilers would be a good thing for me

Lately, the Chicken Littles of the online world have been running around as if their heads had been chopped off, proclaiming that the sky would be falling if plot details from the last Harry Potter novel were to be released now before the July 21st publication date (by the way, sorry for "spoiling" the message and "plot" of the Chicken Little tale. Doubtless that was the main, if not only, point of said tale, to have the plot about a chicken screaming that the sky is falling).

To that, I have to say no. It would not be a tragedy. In fact, for some of us, it would be a blessing to know these major events just before the release date. And before any worry, I'm not on crack (just amphetamines) and my mental health is actually quite good (said pills are for narcolepsy and other side effects of sleep apnea).

The reason why I would argue that in my case (and undoubtedly in the case of many) is that knowing the main structure beforehand allows me to read the story the first time for depth of characterization, to judge how themes that have developed over 6 books will be concluded (and to what degree of artistry Rowling does this), and it would allow some such as me to pay much closer attention to the construction of the story once the pesky plot worries have been removed. It would be as if I were re-reading a book that I know is good, only to be able to discover that there are extra layers of goodness that had been overlooked in the haste to "find out what happens."

Forgive me if you take offense at this, but I think it is quite shallow to read a writing only in order to "find out what happens." I am not dismissing it as a valuable object, but the enormous value that apparently so many are putting on this single book I fear is going to distort their perceptions of the book and of the series as a whole.

I have come to see this series as being more than just mere "fluff." There are many subtle character development issues, a very well-done transition of writing style to reflect what the characters are facing, and for the most part there are excellent conflicts and dynamic tensions in these books. In addition, each succeeding volume builds upon not just what had happened, but upon our own understandings of what is now transpiring. These twists and furtherings of character and of themes such as overcoming Loss and Child Abuse or Trust and Friendship are what, I believe, ultimately appears to readers who do more than just race through the books to "find out what happens next."

I am sure many will argue that the "specialness" of revelations and so forth will be "lost" when things are revealed to them. Perhaps that is a valid point, but I believe it has been distorted as well. I knew well in advance (okay, 3 days of me actually sitting down to read it) that Dumbledore dies in HBP. But nothing of any of the summaries/"reviews" posted here and elsewhere at the time could summarize just how well Rowling sets up that scene and how over the course of the novel Dumbledore and Harry had begun a new phase of their relationship that made that scene and the resultant funeral all the more poignant. Knowing that Dumbledore was to die in this allowed me to read those passages more carefully, looking for foreshadowing (and finding it), making for a much more enjoyable reading experience.

Perhaps not all readers (okay, perhaps very few readers) are going to approach matters from this vantage point. I understand. But in a time in which people are so paranoid-sounding about all this, I find myself feeling the need to post this, to present another take on this.

If the story is good, knowing what happens will lead to a greater understanding of the story down the road. Spoilers are just overrated - they cannot reveal the meanings hidden in the text, they can only reveal the barest framework of a story, the plot. So be of good cheer. And I will be reading any spoilers I come across before I start reading the book sometime Saturday or Sunday.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Review of Richard Parks' Worshipping Small Gods

Reviews of short story collections are among the hardest to write for me. From trying to sort out which stories are my favorites and why to exploring the themes that are prevalent (or not) between the tales to the stark realization that despite my personal love for the short fiction over the long form that is so dominant in fictional writing these days that not so many readers will share my love for this art form, I am almost always left believing that my story collection reviews fall well short of explaining just why it is so important for readers to consider this still vital literary form.

Although most might not realize it from all the multi-volume novels being generated and promoted these days, speculative fiction short fiction has long played a major role in shaping our perceptions. From the early pulp fiction days of Cordwainer Smith, H.P. Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard, these short fictions have created enduring images of futuristic civilizations in decline, ancient horrors lying at the bottom of the sea, or of noble savages wearing loincloths and wielding huge broadswords. In recent years, stories by J.G. Ballard and Gene Wolfe, to name just a couple of many talented storytellers that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, have used the spec fic short form to explore issues in concentrated, experimental pieces that are just as original, just as thought-provoking, just as much fun as they were when they were first published. They have stood the test of time and now serve as exemplary models for why speculative fiction in all its forms is a vital and essential part of Western (and increasingly, non-Western) modern literature.

This tradition has continued down to the early 21st century. From the weird, offbeat novellas and novelettes of a Kelly Link or Jeffrey Ford to the lyrical pieces of a Catherynne M. Valente, the short form has continued to demonstrate a vitality that belies its relative obscurity in spec fic talk. There is a new name for me to add to my personal pantheon of great spec fic (hell, just great in general) short fiction writers. That name is Richard Parks.

Worshipping Small Gods is his second collection after The Ogre's Wife: Fairy Tales for Grownups. I was made aware of this 2007 collection when I read Jeffrey Ford's blog and saw a very favorable commentary upon it. I was curious and placed an order a couple of weeks ago and bought this collection. I was not disappointed at all.

Like the authors that I mentioned above, Parks uses a lot of different techniques and styles to write his stories. They are not traditional plot-heavy tellings for the most part, but instead exploration of all-too-human characters placed in some very odd and often turbulent surroundings. One of my personal favorites from this collection, the opening "Kallisti," is a retelling of the ancient Greek story of the Trojan shepherd Paris and the goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite who have sought to bribe him so that he can (as appointed by Zeus) present one of them with the golden apple that the goddess of discord, Eris, had tossed at a wedding banquet of the gods. Instead of concentrating on the three goddess vying for a title that the three admit is empty outside of personal vanity, Parks concentrates on a conflict of desires and impulses that both Paris and Eris herself share. Parks turns old conventions of fate and destiny on their heads in framing this interaction between the confused Paris and the equally conflicted Eris. There is a sort of beauty that is shown as these two struggle for the little bit of wiggle room in a preordained war of death and destruction. Eris is not just a castaway starter of an oracle's proclamation of war between the Greek cities and Troy, but is as much a victim and manipulator of events as is Paris. But at the risk of not "spoiling" the story as much as "revealing" why it is a representative sample of Parks' work, I quote from near the end of "Kallisti":
"Gods and mortals alike make mistakes, Eris. I should have given the apple to you."

Eris just stared for several moments. "But why?" she finally asked. "Because I made it?"

Paris smiled at her. "Most artisans do not own what they make. No, Eris. Because you never meant to harm me, and never played me false. There's beauty in that, and more than I had sense to realize. I should have given you the apple because it belongs to you by right. Kallisti. The Fairest."

For a moment Eris simply looked at him. "You would give the apple to me, the one responsible for all your misery?"

"Yes," Paris said. "I would."

"Mortals are such fools," she said, but it didn't sound like an insult this time...

This scene summarizes so much human emotion in just a few words that I believe it epitomizes the rest of Parks' stories. Over a week later, I still am pondering some of the messages contained in an eleven page story. Thankfully, the other stories live up to the promise of "Kallisti" and even further its exploration of human conflict, desire, and our tendencies to find ourselves worshipping the small, most picayune of objects at the price of our connections with our own selves and with each other. There was not a single story that did not resonate with me, each illustrating various principles of humanity and our dependencies as to make the collection itself feel like they were all cut from one empathetic cloth.

Summary: Richard Parks' Worshipping Small Gods is a collection of 14 stories, most of which have been released in various genre magazines, with three new stories included. Each of these tales touches upon our desires, fears, and hatreds in a way that makes each story stand out as its own creation but yet with some common threads that connect it to each other. This collection is very highly recommended, especially for those who enjoy the short fictions of a Jeffrey Ford, Catherynne M. Valente, or a Tim Pratt.

Release Date: May 1, 2007 (US), Paperback.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Why I write reviews

Lately, there have been some comments posted in the Blogosphere about comments made at last week's ReaderCon 18. Neth posted a bit about it and at my urging, crossposted it at wotmania. As I was writing my belated response to it, I thought it would be a good idea to post it here as well. Below is Neth's question and my response to it:

What is the review you want to read? Do you like or dislike 'amateur' type of reviews (such as what I write)?

What do you like and dislike about them?


I believe that a lot of times, people want to read the types of reviews that would interest them the most. For me, I would want reviews that do much more than just address broad "flavor" or plot pros and cons, followed by the reviewer's opinion. I want (and often write, when I am motivated enough to attempt a "proper" review) to read reviews that also concentrate on themes, where the novel can be placed in context to the author's other body of work or other similar bodies of work, and what relevance it ought (or ought not) to have with me, the potential reader.

I think that too often these days, readers in spec fic get so damn hung up on the issue of "spoilers" that it's become almost like a group neurosis. While I try to be respectful to the potential audience, I have found that my best reviews have always taken direct references to the books themselves and have elaborated on them, twisted and prodded them a bit, kicked their tires - all to see if the whole body of writing works as a story.

I had two years' worth of grad school critiques that I had to write, at least 4-5 dozen short examinations of the 500-1500 word variety. A professor of mine gave me invaluable advice when it comes to reviewing, whether it be for non-fictional academic monographs or for fictional stories: Read the introduction closely, examine it for style (or for non-fiction, the approach the writer aims to take in exploring the subject being written about), then go to the last chapter and read that. See what has transpired. Then go to the introduction and read it again, followed by the main body of work. It saves time for the reviewer, as it allows him/her to already have questions to ask of the work - how is this scene working? What is the author trying to accomplish here? Does he/she succeed at his/her goals? Take notes if possible (I mostly do this for non-fiction, as my burden of critique is much, much greater than as a fiction reviewer) and then reflect upon it for a bit.

The review ought to reflect the reviewer wrestling with the Text. It shouldn't be a surface-level skimming of likes/dislikes or a plot summary. A good reviewer will dig deeper, challenging him/herself to view this from many different sources. Sometimes, that is going to mean exploring the themes of a work. I am currently contemplating how I'm going to write a review of Richard Parks' recently-released story collection[NB: Hopefully tomorrow or Monday at the latest], worshipping small gods. I enjoyed the stories, but I want to explore the themes I detected within some of them in particular, themes that moved me. To do so, I'm going to have to cite passages and explore connotations. Sadly, some are going to think of this as "spoilers." I disagree.

If one is reviewing a story, the review has to reflect as many of the elements contained within the story as is possible while keeping a unified structure to the review. It is not a "spoiler" to discuss character interactions or the basic themes of a story - those are the sorts of things that many readers (especially those outside of the spec fic circles) want to read. What is the story about? Why should I give a damn about what happens here? Can you tell me something...hell, anything that'll make me want to read this book (or conversely, drop it like a hot potato)? Too many times, I have to read very carefully between the lines to tell if the book being reviewed is written in this fashion or that, if there are any interesting themes to it, or if there are any dynamic tensions, either between a protagonist and an antagonist, or if internal conflict plays a crucial role. Revealing that such-and-such a story deals with issues of Loss and Anger is not a spoiler. Instead, it is a revealer, it gives us some insight into the novel and its themes. It makes many more likely to want to read a book.

So as to the original question, I like a mixture of reviews. Although I'm not paid for my reviews, I do not consider myself to be an "amateur" reviewer, since that phrase seems to refer to those who are self-taught in how to write a review. I have academic training, and my longer reviews reflect this. I believe I serve a purpose, just as others serve a purpose with their reviews. I'll just write about what interests me and if that appeals to others, then great. If not, no skin off my nose, as I was true to my own self and did what I could to relate what a book meant to me in a fashion that others could consider or disregard it as they desire. To be anything else is to be insecure and I'm all about self-confidence It is an attitude that many of us online reviewers ought to adopt, in addition to a deeper commitment to skewering everything that we read and displaying its bloody guts for all to peruse as they might desire. After all, aren't we dissectors of stories, slayers of unwanted hype, the teeming unwashed hordes of uncouth barbarians that put all presumptions and hype to the sword?

Monday, July 09, 2007

Should authors post/publish reviews?

Here is something to consider: should authors publish reviews of other writers' books/novels/etc.?

I happen to have met a writer, who while writing her own books, at the same time publishes reviews in an online ezine. She claims and really abides by the rules she set for herself, that she never reviews works of fellow Polish writers and as such concentrates only on foreign translations. To me, that sounds like she does have a feeling that this situation is controversial and tries to build some sort of Chinese Walls that would prevent her from various accusations of being unfair (I've seen a few).

This (author as a reviewer) seems to be a fairly popular practice, especially online, but is it really good for writers? Is it good for the market, readers, objectivity?

Brandon Sanderson, Mistborn: The Well of Ascension

Brandon Sanderson was nice enough to request from TOR that I get a copy of his upcoming 2nd Mistborn novel, Mistborn: The Well of Ascension. Thank you to Brandon and to TOR for the opportunity to get an early look at this story. For those of you who have yet to read the first novel, Mistborn: The Final Empire, and who would like to find out about the story, click this link for my review: Mistborn: The Final Empire

Mistborn: The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson

    While it is impossible to give a plot introduction without spoiling some aspects of the first novel, it’s important to set the stage for this story, so I will do my best. For those who want no hints of spoiler at all, read my review that I linked above and leave it at that... just know that after the second novel, I still stand on my recommendation that Mistborn is a must read for any fantasy fan.

    The Well of Ascension opens a year after the events of the first novel, Mistborn: The Final Empire. The Final Empire has been overthrown and the lands have descended into civil war and uncertainty. Luthadel, former capital and city of the Lord Ruler, is an isolated and idealistic small kingdom ruled by the young king, Elend Venture, supported by Vin and the remains of Kelsior’s thieving crew, and a newly created representative council. With the famed wealth of the Lord Ruler still missing, Luthadel is unstable at best. To make matters worse, the self-made kings of the surrounding lands are coming to take Luthadel and that rumored fortune. An army lead by Elend’s father, Straff Venture, has just arrived and set a siege on the already tense city. With Kelsior gone, how will Vin, Elend and crew save their fragile new freedom? Has the Deepness returned? If so, who is going to save the world?

    Sanderson has caste a compelling vision over his take on a fantasy story, world, and some of the conventions that go into creating both. As I said in review of the first Mistborn novel, the ‘magic’ system Sanderson has created in truly unique, and probably the single most interesting ‘magic’ that I’ve encountered in a novel, perhaps ever. The basic premise is that certain people can enhance their natural capabilities by burning special metals. This process is called ‘Allomancy’. Most allomancers can burn one type of allomantic metal, giving them one specific power, increased strength/endurance, the ability to push metal, the ability to pull metal, increased senses, etc. Some rare allomancers can burn all the metals, and are known as Mistborn. Kelsior was a Mistborn, his pupil Vin is one as well. The growth of this system, as well as the character psychology around the use and nature of these powers is a true strength in this novel.

    In addition to the ‘magic’ system, the very world, the building of which is one of the trademarks of fantasy series, is one both familiar and unfamiliar to the fantasy fan. This is a world where the prophesied hero of the ages was found, accepted his duty, conquered nations, forged armies, and set forth to face the evil threatening all the land. He failed, and the person who took his place, broke the land, enslaved the people, and hid all of this from history. This twist adds a unique feel to an already creative and interesting story.

    The writing is solid and well supports the author’s ambitions in world building, character development, and setting forth an exciting, touching, and interesting story. The action sequences are crisp and thrilling. The intrigue, mystery, and sense of overriding danger are threaded through the novel in artful and creative ways so that while it is always present, it doesn’t overwhelm all aspects of the novel. The characters are flawed. None of them are truly heroes; most are simply trying to live up to the legacy of a dead man. They make mistakes. They’re ill suited for what they’re trying to do. Yet, all this allows the reader more access to this novel, a closer tie to the characters and the real sense of urgency they all feel.

    I feel that this second Mistborn novel is both a little less and a lot more than the first novel. Overall, the book is more consistent, more immediate, and the story moves along in a clear and compelling way. The characterization, though still somewhat limited to a few characters, is deeper this time around. I felt more involved in this book, and I certainly couldn’t put it down. However, The Well of Ascension has a shadow cast over it, both intentionally and unintentionally. No single character, or even a group of characters, comes alive quite like Kelsior did in the first novel. No sequence was quite as ‘edge of the seat, white knuckle awesome’ as some of Kelsior’s scenes in The Final Empire. Sanderson puts this shadow to good use in his narrative and his character building, and it is not really a weakness. How does one replace a dynamic character like Kelsior? One can’t, neither within the context of the story, or as an author trying to write a story. As in the first novel, there are still those moments of dues ex machina and the use of fantasy conventions that stand out from the flow of the novel. Of course, those really only stand out if you’re looking for them.

    For fans of Fantasy, those looking for a different take on the typical fantasy world, a truly unique and imagination capturing magic system, I certainly recommend the Mistborn series. This is a story of action, mystery, politics, misdirection, friendships, betrayals, and people trying their best to be more than they are, for better and for worse. As much as a person can criticize or comment on what they hoped a novel or character might have been, sometimes a story comes along that simply grabs hold of the reader, makes them clutch at the book, and truly creates a memorable and exciting reading experience. I think Mistborn is just that type of story.

Mistborn: The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson
TOR Books
Available: August 21, 2007

Brandon Sanderson, Mistborn: The Final Empire

Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

    Mistborn is the second full-length novel by Brandon Sanderson, [Elantris]. The novel serves as the opening book in a Mistborn trilogy. One of the primary things that is similar between Sanderson's first and second novels, is his interest in exploring new or at least rather different aspects of epic fantasy.

    The setting of the novel is that of a Deistic/Theocratic Empire, ruled by God, or an aspect of God, and his priesthood, in a desolate, destroyed world. 1,000 years prior, a prophesized hero rose up to battle a chaotic evil, known only as the Deepness, to save the world. In a mysterious and cataclysmic encounter, the hero unlocked extreme power, defeated the Deepness, saved the world, seized all power for himself, broke the world, and enslaved all but a small fraction of the population, his companions and their descendants which became plantation-style nobility. In those 1,000 years, insurrection, rebellion, war, pograms, purges, have resulted in a total and comfortable existence for the Lord Ruler, a true a terrible God, and his chosen nobility... life for everyone else, called simply "skaa", is misery, pain, loss, and abject, hopeless slavery.

    Those few skaa that rebel against the Lord Ruler and his Final Empire live a life nearly as terrible as that of the plantation or factory workers. They live as thieves, and the life is not good. However, there are some skaa who have special talents, legacies of a mixture of noble and skaa blood... these skaa can tap certain specific powers through a mysto-chemical (my own description of the process) process known as Allomancy. Special thieving crews made up of these skaas, known as "mistings", tend to be more daring, and live lives of somewhat more comfort. One such crew, lead by the charismatic crewleader, Kelsior, is extremely daring, and have set on a job, the job of jobs, with the Lord Ruler as the target. The goal isn't to save the world, it isn't to fulfill prophesy, the goal is to be defiant, to have a flash of hope... to maybe get a little revenge.

    The setting and buildup of the novel is different than you typically see in an epic fantasy story. That's not to say that Mistborn is a completely new set of ideas and plot elements. It isn't. However, the story has a different feel, and a different perspective than the more typcial idea of Hero, and exactly what is heroic action. The main characters, Kelsior, and a young street thief, Vin, are both interesting characters, that provide entertaining PoVs, throughout the novel. Neither are all knowing, and neither over explain aspects of their lives that they fully know.

    For me, one of the true highlights of the novel is Sanderson's "magic" system, Allomancy. Allomancy is something like a mixture between Jedi powers and a more traditional magic system that requires physical elements to perform "magical" activities. The practioners have limited powers, in duration and possibility, they're often bound by laws of the physical world, even while they're finding ways around those laws. Sanderson's use of Allomancy throughout the novel, especially in the action sequences is quite thrilling and it certainly captured my imagination. While, Sanderson needs his characters to explain Allomancy so that the readers call follow what's happening, he does this in a way that makes sense to the story... that's to say that while we get some details, the reader certainly doesn't know all there probably is to know. That's a good thing.

    Another aspect of the novel that I enjoyed, is the thieving crew concept, and the big, impossible job. Think of the recent Ocean's 11 movie. A crew of highly specialized individuals, working with bravado, style, and attitude, to pull off an impossible score. There are secrets, there are personality conflicts, there is history, and there is a very interesting mixture of characters and ideas. I found this to be a very captivating hook into the plot... I cared for what was going on. That buy-in, made reading the novel more rewarding because it added more weight the the characterizations and to the intensity of the last third of the novel.

    There are some parts of the novel that aren't perfect, of course. The writing overall is okay, certainly up to standard for the genre, however it is a little uneven... great, and even deep, at points during the story, and then in others is a bit sloppier and abrupt. Still, like I said, overall it is a decently-written novel. A part of the somtimes unevenness of the writing, is the fact that I think a few of the ideas, themes, and conflicts of the novel stay a little undeveloped, even while playing very important roles in the setup of the climax. Sanderson has created a very rich environment, peopled with interesting and complex characters and institutions. There was certainly opportunity for more dynamic intereaction between all these aspects of the novel. Still, there is a great deal of interest that Sanderson does integrate into the novel, and there is conflict, tension, and depth behind a lot of the story. I'll just leave it that there was the potential in this story to be even better than it ended up being.

    Now, while this novel is the first book of a trilogy, it works as a complete story, with a solid beginning, middle, and conclusion. At the end of this story, not everything is completed, but for the characters a lot seems finished. I like that in a trilogy. The issue that I have with Mistborn's ending is that it just wasn't as good as it should have been. The final climatic scene, and the underlying truths of one of the "enemies", seemed just a bit simplistic in relation to the rest of the novel. It left me thinking... "that's it? That's all they needed to do? That's the secret?" Don't get me wrong, the ending of the novel, the final climax and the ending scenes, are rewarding and fit the story. I certainly had a content feel when I flipped the last page and shut the book. Ultimately, that's what counts. It's just that there was a bit more fizzle at the end than sizzle.

    I am looking forward to the next installment of the series, and I think most readers will enjoy the book, and certainly feel entertained by the experience of reading it. Mistborn is not a Gene Wolfe novel or a George R.R. Martin novel, but it's not trying to be either. Mistborn is a fun, entertaining read, that has some great thrills, new ideas and new takes on old ideas, and good characters. If any of this review sounded interesting to you, then I have no problems recommending the book. I think many of you will truly enjoy the read.

    Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
    Book 1: The Final Empire
    Published by TOR: 2006

For anyone who is interested, Brandon has sample chapters from Mistborn up at his website. They include the full prologue and the complete chapters 1-3. Click this Mistborn Sample Link.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Review of John Twelve Hawks' The Dark River

Middle volumes of trilogies, particularly trilogies that are not complete, are tricky things to do. One has to weigh not just the expectations brought over from the first volume, but also the realization that in most cases, such volumes begin and end without clear resolutions in sight. It would as if one wanted to judge Shakespeare by Acts II and III of his plays, experiencing only the buildup and the climax of the first half, without seeing any resolution. Middle volumes can be quite frustrating for readers, especially if they end on such infamous cliffhangers as Frodo's apparent "death" in The Two Towers. In some ways, this describes what the reader will experience in reading John Twelve Hawks' second volume in his The Fourth Realm trilogy, The Dark River.

In the first volume, The Traveler (which I reviewed here), we were introduced to a world in which privacy is being sacrificed in the name of security. It was a world in which those who dared to go beyond the confines of this realm, called Travelers, to discover elements of truth about ourselves and our possibilities, were being hunted down mercilessly by a shadow organization called the Tabula (or Brethren, as they referred to themselves). A world in which there were secret fighters, called Harlequins, established to protect these Travelers and to help them with their task of spreading hope of breaking the chains of bondage that were slowly enveloping individuals, tying them closer and closer to the Vast Machine.

In this first volume, the pace was very rapid, as the Harlequin Maya meets up with members of a religious society associated with a previous Traveler in order to protect a newly-discovered Traveler (and son of a Traveler), named Gabriel Corrigan. However, Gabriel's brother, Michael, has been taken in by the Tabula, who have their own nefarious plans involving him, plans which Maya thrawts near the end of The Traveller. The pace there was very rapid, as befitting of a thriller, and revelation after revelation leads to violent deaths, near-fatal mistakes, and breathtaking escapes, all hallmarks of an exciting thriller. So how does the middle volume, The Dark River, hold up in comparison?

Instead of following one standard rule for sequels (longer, bloodier, more action-packed than the first), The Dark River instead chooses to develop some of its characters. There is more behind the sexual tension between Maya and Gabriel that was revealed in The Traveler, and Michael's interactions with the Brethren gets quite a bit more intriguing, in a way that is true to the character sketch that was drawn in The Traveler. There are many consequences shown for the actions taken both in the previous volume and within this one. For as Gabriel and Michael's father, Matthew Corrigan, is revealed to be alive still, people are going to suffer as the Tabula and the Harlequins race to discover his location, a race that will take them across the globe, from New York to London to places more ancient than either, a race that will send one truly into "the dark river" in a chilling conclusion that will leave the reader wanting to know how that person can survive to meet another day and fight.

When reading The Dark River, I took pains to consider it within the larger confines of the story being presented and not just as a volume on its own. There are no dramatic rescues at the end, there are no movements to make one cheery about having read it. No, this is more like Tolkien's The Two Towers in mood. The dark, oppressive forces are on the move, and the heroes can barely escape their brutal march. Many beloved characters meet their ends in this tale, and one is left wondering how one is going to escape.

Such tales do not lend themselves for the best of reviews. Many readers want a happy, or at least hopeful ending, but there is scant evidence of this here. It is truly an Empire Strikes Back feel to this volume. The characters have more depth, but also more sorrows and conflicts. It is not just a tale about fighting against the Panopticon, but also one about our own conflicts and desires. As such, it makes the re-reading of The Traveler a deeper one, as one begins to see more clearly the paths the characters shall choose to follow, paths that might lead them into a vision of Hell.

As far as writing goes, the slower pace is a boon, as to try to meet or to exceed the rapid, helter-skelter pace of the first volume would only lead to burnout for readers reading both. And although the characters have more depth in The Dark River, it bears reminding that this is more of a thriller-type of story than anything else (although there are certainly other elements at play here), so certain situations might seem to be a bit too "pat" for many who are used to other genres of literature. But taking it as what it aims to be, a thrilling cautionary tale about ourselves and our own futures, The Dark River expands the game and ought to serve as a nice bridge between The Traveler and the upcoming final volume in The Fourth Realm trilogy.

Summary: The Dark River is the second volume in The Fourth Realm trilogy (first volume, The Traveler, was released in 2005) that goes deeper into the story of the fight between the Harlequins and their wards, the Travelers, against the Tabula, who are bent on insuring that all humans are under the watchful eye of the Panopticon. Told in third-person PoV, this tale is not as fast-paced as the first, but has enough character and plot developments to warrant a read. It serves as a good bridge into the upcoming final volume in the trilogy. Recommended for those who enjoy thriller-type tales.

Release Date: July 10, 2007 (US) Hardcover, July 16, 2007 (UK) Hardcover, Tradeback

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Review of Sarah Monette's The Virtu

After reading and enjoying Sarah Monette's first novel, Mélusine, in March 2006 (review here), I wanted to read her second of four novels set in this universe, The Virtu, when it came out, but due to some personal life issues, that had to await until this summer before I was able to purchase a copy.

Despite the wait, I found that the book more than lived up to the high expectations that I had for it. Continuing the dual first-person perspectives of Felix Harrowgate, ex-hocus (wizard) of the Mirador and his half brother, Mildmay the Fox, The Virtu broadens the story and scope of Mélusine without losing any of the richness of language or the vividness of characterization that made that first novel enjoyable for me.

The story revolves around Felix's search for how to patch up the damage wrought through him by the cruel and domineering Malkar. However, there are hints and signs throughout this story that Malkar's influence on Felix has been more subtle than what we saw in Mélusine. Indeed, there is one scene that affects Felix and Mildmay for the remaining part of the novel to such an extent that I cannot help but question if this might in turn be a recurring point in the upcoming third volume, The Mirador. The way both characters portray this "heretical" event is very true to their quite diverse characters and may foretell quite a few hidden tensions that were slowly working their way to the surface in The Virtu.

The writing here is better than in Mélusine, as there wasn't that sense of too much being described and not enough occurring. The pacing was nicer, and the two main leads' interactions with other characters was more crisp in execution. Events and characters introduced in the first volume come to have a greater significance towards the end of The Virtu, as both Felix and Mildmay have grown so much in the intervening months as to make their former relationships with others appear in a new light.

At the end, I was left curious as to how events will develop from here. There were no cliffhangers, however, just merely the knowledge that there is more to be done in order to bring the Mirador and its inhabitants into a better sort of balance.

Summary: The Virtu is the second of four planned volumes that rotate around the characters of the half-brothers Felix Harrowgate and Mildmay the Fox. Told in dual first-person narratives that alternate within chapters, The Virtu is an improvement upon the solid foundation of Mélusine. A character-driven novel, this novel (and series) will appeal to readers who prefer to see more of the conflict within people rather than conflict between peoples. Highly recommended.

Release Date: June 27, 2006 (Hardcover), July 31, 2007 (Paperback)
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