Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Way of Shadows (Night Angel, #1)The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book was a reasonably entertaining read, but it assaults the reader's willing suspension of disbelief too often to be more than that. The setting is a small kingdom with a powerful criminal underworld. The technology is roughly analogous to Europe's high middle ages. There is a religion that appears to represent Christianity, which coexists with polytheism. There is a character who represents nihilism, two who represent chivalry, one who represents military honor, one who represents true love, and one who has been redeemed by the Christianity analog. The novel has magicians and a dark lord equivalent. In other words, it's made up of standard fantasy tropes.

Now, the criminal underworld is so powerful that it de facto has run the kingdom for at least decades. It has access to magically enhanced super assassins who are next to impossible to stop. Thus, the local mob kills the leaders who would get in its way and allows those who cooperate to assume power. This brings up one of the disbelief killers: How could the chivalry avatars survive in such an environment? They aren't mere knights; they are a duke and his son. Surely such powerful men would have long since either been co-opted by the underworld or destroyed. The author never explains how they survived. The reader is forced to conclude that they did so because the author wanted some chivalrous characters.

Another attack on the reader's disbelief is the redeemed-by-God character and his relationship to slavery. The reader learns that as a young man he was an up-and-comer with the local mob. He develops the idea of importing slavery into the kingdom. It turns out to be wildly profitable. He becomes a mob leader. Then his wife brings him to God and he somehow manages to end slavery again within a couple decades of its introduction, as one can estimated by the ages of his children. He becomes a relatively poor--he's still a count and a lawyer--but virtuous man. It is never explained how he manages to accomplish this improbable feat. Why didn't the mob kill him when he began to oppose such a profitable business?

Furthermore, the virtuous count knowingly agrees to house, educate, and introduce to society the apprentice of one of the super-assassins. It is explained that he became a friend of the assassin while still a mobster; nevertheless, this strikes the reader as strange behavior for a supposedly virtuous man.

Finally, an important element of the narrative is that members of the underworld must give up all ties of love. They must never establish families, because loved ones who can be attacked allow too much power over the mobsters. This allows a vigorous circulation of the elites within the mob and lets the author establish a theme that love can redeem even the greatest of sinners. Unfortunately, that's not how the mafia in our real world works. At least at its height, it had the rule that wives and children were left alone. The mafiosi had and continue to have families. Why wasn't such an agreement instituted among Mr. Weeks fantasyland gangsters? Human nature is to establish families and attempt to pass one's wealth and advantages on to one's children (with varying levels of hypocrisy about one's intentions). Thus, a criminal underworld that has never established rules to protect non-combatants is the less natural state and is something that needs to be explained by the author.

In short, I never bought into the author's characters and setting. That the book still manages to be readable is testament to the author's ability to play upon the reader's emotions.

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A Kiss Before the Apocalypse (Remy Chandler, #1)A Kiss Before the Apocalypse by Thomas E. Sniegoski

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

For a novel that's given the trappings of a fantasy detective mystery, the main character is strangely ineffectual and passive. The big clue that cracks the case just wanders into his living room. He receives it through no effort of his own.

The action starts when Remy Chandler is alerted that something strange is happening when two people who should be dead don't die. Given that he is a seraph (not a spoiler) one would think such an astonishing event should put him on full alert and fill him with motivation. It doesn't; he just keeps lumbering on with his life.

Then he is given a heavenly visitation and is told that the world is ending and it's up to him to stop it. Then he's is attacked, twice, by creatures who it latter turns out have no reason to attack him. This is one of several continuity errors.

Why would a wayward angel (the protagonist), the Angel of Death, several Grigori (the Watchers from the Bible), and Lazarus (the Lazarus) all be living in Boston at the same time when they have the whole world to choose from for homes? The author never explains.

Then there are the fight scenes where the characters speak whole sentences to each other in the same amount of time as a punch or a headbutt a la Marvel comics.

How about the time a character apparently has three hands? He is holding a sword, a dagger, and a revolver at the same time.

The author tries for a few emotionally wrenching scenes, but my suspension of disbelief was so shattered that they left me cold. I couldn't sustain the reader's trance for this novel, so I was mostly bored. In addition to his continuity ineptness, the author also insufficiently filed the serial numbers of of ideas taken from Raiders of the Lost Ark and, I suspect, The Prophecy. Furthermore, pretty much all of the characters are stock cutouts.

About the only redeeming quality this novel has is that the author has done some Jewish-Christian mythology homework.

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Friday, July 16, 2010

Blood Engines by T. A. Pratt

I went and judged a book by its cover. You see, Blood Engines by T. A. Pratt (also published as Tim Pratt) has a cover by Daniel Dos Santos. Dan Dos Santos is the top, or almost the top, cover illustrator still actually working in the science fiction and fantasy field. (The great Michael Whelan is still alive, but he has moved on to fine art.) I reasoned that if Bantam was willing to spring for a Dos Santos cover, then they must expect great things from Blood Engines.

Well, the novel isn't bad. It's readable and moves right along. It has a big problem though: The main character isn't likable. Now, it terms of art, this is a daring choice for the author to make. But in terms of pleasure reading, it makes it difficult for the reader to enjoy the work and lose himself in it. We don't particularly want to experience a universe through the viewpoint of a bad person.

Now, in fantastic literature that people read voluntarily and not for a required class, Stephen R. Donaldson with his character Thomas Covenant used an unlikable protagonist to great commercial and artistic success. Covenant, though, while difficult to like, was at least sympathetic. He had been through much grief and had a reason for being unpleasant. Pratt's character, Marla Mason, is arrogant, foolish, violent, exploitative, and ruthless because that is her basic personality. As the novel goes on, it is hinted that she is also, perhaps, megalomaniacal. The reader is left wondering if it would not be better if her opponents kill her off. Her only redeeming quality appears to be that she cares about her home city, which she runs much like a mob boss.

Aside from the big problem of a protagonist I didn't like and didn't want to identify with, a secondary flaw shattered my willing suspension of disbelief at one point. There is a scene in which Marla Mason defeats a god in a straight-up kung-fu fight. True, the god is bound and limited, but please, we're talking a deity. Mason doesn't trick him or surprise him; she just outfights him with superior technique. Right.

In short, Blood Engines isn't a bad or poorly written book, but I didn't enjoy it as much as I had hoped.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Reading Highlights of 2009

I read a lot. My entertainment time is dedicated to reading. I watch almost no television. I seldom play computer games, just a few ancient ones now and then. It has been well over a year since I've watched a movie. My primary use for the Net is to find things to read (and occasional T&A). Furthermore, I'm omnivorous in my reading. I believe even honest crap (as opposed to bullshit) has interesting things to say about humanity and that so-called Great Books are often pernicious nonsense (often, certainly not always).

The second half of this year, I made the conscious decision to read more books (including digital books) and fewer articles. Consequently, I will easily average more than one book read per week this year. There are tradeoffs in this decision. Reading fewer articles implies less knowledge of current events. Books, on the other hand, provide more context, but it's easier for me, at least, to wallow in light fiction without really intending to do so. Light fiction isn't bad; it is a window into popular consciousness, but a steady diet of it tends to become somewhat nauseating, analogous to eating too much sugar.

The fiction book of the year is Jonathan Strange & Mr Morrell by Susanna Clarke. This is what literary fantastic fiction should be. To hell with the "magical realists." If you like fantasy at all and haven't yet given it a try, I urge you to do so.

The most delightful book of the year is Life With Father by Clarence Day Jr. It's a memoir about the author's parents, especially his eccentric father. Most of the stories in the book take place near the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Besides being one of the funniest things I have ever read, it is informative about life in the upper middle class of that era. I give it my highest recommendation. (It can be found online at the Project Gutenberg Australia site.)

The most enlightening book of the year is The 10,000 Year Explosion by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending. It makes a strong argument that not only is human evolution ongoing, it has greatly accelerated since the invention of agriculture. If you want to understand what is going on with the human race, you need to understand the information in this book.

The most disappointing novel of the year is The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton. I suspect that the book makes sense if one can crack the code of the symbolism, but I couldn't, so it made little sense to me. I suppose I failed because Chesterton was a Catholic apologist and I'm not religious. I find symbolism enriching if it fits the context and is also meaningful on a mundane level, but the symbols in this book had to carry most of the weight of the narrative. Ultimately, I found the novel annoying and over the top. (It is easily available online.)

The most disappointing nonfiction of the year is Greek Religion by Walter Burkert. The subject has interested me since sixth grade, on and off, and the information in the book wasn't disappointing. Much of it was new, and the book provided deeper context for things I had already known. Burkert, furthermore, appears to be the living expert on the subject. The writing itself, though, was dry and difficult. (The book is a translation, so it might not be all Burkert's fault.) A glossary of persons and of the many Greek terms he throws around would have made the reader's task much easier, too. I can only recommend the book to those with a large amount of background knowledge or who are willing to work hard. Google and Wikipedia, most likely, will be your friends if you tackle this one.

The best long Web fiction of 2009 are the continuing serial Tales of MU by Alexandra Erin and the ongoing series of novels about newly teenaged Bec by the pseudonymous BarBar. Both projects have been going on for multiple years. Also recommended is the written "television series" Shadow Unit. (In reality, it's a series of novellas or novelettes.) The project is led by Emma Bull and Elizabeth Bear, two fairly well known names in speculative fiction.

Finally, the Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris and the Stephanie Plum novels by Janet Evanovich are both a lot of fun. I prefer the Sookie Stackhouse books. I like the protagonist and the genre better. Ms. Stackhouse works at her full capacity more often than does Ms. Plum, so she is a more engaging character. The Stephanie Plum novels are more comedy oriented, if one is looking for a laugh.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Jonathan Stange & Mr Norrell

Ten years in the writing, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke is a masterpiece. It is one of the finest fantasies ever written. It is one of the best books I have ever read. My copy is 1006 pages long, and I enjoyed reading every single one of them. If you are a regular reader of fantastic literature and you have not yet read this book, I strongly recommend that you do so.

For someone who is not a regular reader of fantasy, the setting is mostly an alternate England during and shortly after the Napoleonic Wars. The two most important characters are the gentlemen in the title, two magicians with the goal of bringing magic back to England. Their characterization is contrasting, well rounded, and complex. All of the important characters are well rounded and believable. There are no cardboard cutouts. There is no melodrama.

The dialog is often witty, sometimes in a dramatically ironic way. The book contains an immense amount of dry--positively desiccated--humor. Those susceptible to it will find the humor alone makes the book worth reading. As I read, I often found myself grinning and chuckling aloud.

Ms. Carke's writing is clear and clean. For this novel, she chose to use the omniscient viewpoint, and the narrator occasionally addresses the reader directly. It's an old-fashioned technique decried in modern writing manuals, but the author uses it skillfully, conveying much of the humor through observations in the narration. Personally, I didn't find it obtrusive, and it didn't interfere with my reader's trance.

Readers who might want to avoid the novel: As stated above, it is one fat book. Those who read to get to the end will have a long journey. Despite the length of the book, it does not have a large number of superfluous side plots, but still, the novel sprawls a bit. Those who like tightly plotted, straightforward action should probably give the novel a pass. Obviously, those who believe fantasy is puerile shouldn't bother reading it.

Fantasy readers who stick to gaming-based worlds or paranormal romance, and who are uninterested in expanding their horizons, probably would not like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. On the other hand, kids who grew up with Harry Potter but who are now adults might want to give it a try. (I think it's a whole lot better.) For serious fantasy readers who have not yet read it, I can tell you that I think Ms. Clarke's creation might be an even grander achievement than Neil Gaiman's American Gods. That's how good I believe it is.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Very Hard Choices by Spider Robinson

This is a cross posting of a short review I did for Goodreads.

I'm having trouble thinking of a way to describe this book without giving away too much of the storyline. One thing I can say, despite the title, I don't believe the characters faced many hard choices. They face some incredibly painful choices, but those aren't quite the same thing.

As an example of what I mean that isn't an incident from the book, suppose one has a beloved pet that is dying in agony. What does one do? Surely the choice is painful, but is it difficult? The decisions that the characters make in the book strike me as similarly inevitable. They hurt, but given the set up in the story, I don't see how they could choose anything else.

Two more complaints are that I found the ending anticlimactic and the big plot twist predictable. I'm being vague so as not to give any spoilers. It's clear from the start, though, that potential plot twist is there. The only question is whether the author chooses to do it.

Another annoyance is the political tone of much of the book. Modern liberals will like it, especially those who still like weed. Free-market libertarians will like parts of it and feel picked on in other parts of it. Paleoconservatives will feel even more picked on. Neoconservatives will hate it.

I also think there is some paranoia on parade, but I don't know if it the author's paranoia coming through his characters or the characters' paranoia honestly depicted by the author. In any case, I found it absurd enough that my willing suspension of disbelief failed. The reactions of other readers will doubtless vary.

On the more positive side, I didn't hate the book. Spider Robinson's warm authorial personality still shines through, which rounds off the sharp edges of the many irritations. Although there are two or three places where a parenthetical statement gets so long that I forgot the opening of the sentence and had to go back and look, the writing is mostly smooth and clean. There is a lot of humor, some good jokes, a number of entertaining anecdotes, and a few painful puns.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Recommended Reading: William Poundstone

I've just found this blog owned by William Poundstone. He's one of my favorite nonfiction writers. I've read eight-and-a-half of his eleven books (I'm in the middle of reading one), and all of them have been good. He writes a lot about the implications of mathematical ideas, but it's in an entertaining way, not dry at all. He also likes uncovering inside information (secrets).

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Recommended Reading: Life With Father by Clarence Day

Find it here. Laugh a lot.

Recommended Reading: His Dark Materials

I finally got around to reading the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. It was marketed as "young adult" literature--a marketing category to which I have never paid attention--so I didn't hear about it when it first came out. When I did hear about it, I was in no great rush to read it, but I eventually saw it being sold at a discount, picked it up on a whim, and added it to the to-read pile.

Now I have read it. If I hadn't known it was marketed for kids, I never would have guessed. It doesn't much read like books for kids, other than the most important characters being young. Furthermore, I'm surprised that the publishers chose to market the trilogy to children. The subject matter is heavy, and the message is strongly anti-religion.

Anyway, Pullman is inventive, and the narrative is absorbing. The third volume, The Amber Spyglass, doesn't tie everything together as tightly as I would have preferred, and I'm not convinced that some of Pullman's narrative choices were necessary, but the books are nevertheless excellent. To my taste, they are far better and more creative than Harry Potter, which I suppose, in its later volumes at least, is the most obvious fantasy series for comparison. (The Narnia books might be an even more natural comparison, but I haven't read them.)

Christians of a more dogmatic sort probably should avoid the trilogy. It will upset them. Also, despite the marketing, I would hesitate to give it to anyone under fifteen or so, and only to someone that young if they are relatively well read. Pullman draws upon Christian texts considered as mythology, Christian apocrypha, Greek and Roman mythology, Gnosticism, animism, archaeology, anthropology, modern physics, and no doubt stuff that I failed to recognize. Therefore, much in the books will be over the head of someone who has not done a lot of reading. For people who are familiar with most of the stuff in the preceding list, or have picked it up indirectly by reading the canon of fantasy literature, I recommend the trilogy highly.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Lack of Progress Report

My apologies to everyone who has been reading Magician's Integration. I feel tapped out physically and mentally and incapable of doing anything creative. I'm declaring the story to be on indefinite hiatus. Sorry.

I'm glad that I didn't leave it on a cliffhanger.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Chapter 10 Is Up

Chapter 10 of Magician's Integration is up.

Getting this one out was like donating a quart of blood, one drop at a time. I hope Chapter 11 arrives a lot easier.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Bunny Shop Ads

Is anyone being bothered by the Bunny Shop ads currently running beside the serial? I don't want to ban advertisers, but I also don't want to drive off readers. Thoughts?

Progress report: approx. 2000 words.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Progress Report and Recommended Reading

I have about a thousand words of Chapter 10 written. I don't know when it will be finished, but at least I've started to make some progress again.

If you are looking for something to read, Emma Bull is leading an interesting Web project here. I've read four of Ms. Bull's novels, plus one more she wrote with Steven Brust, and I enjoyed them all. The writing on Shadow Unit isn't as polished, but it's entertaining nevertheless.

Friday, March 13, 2009

What's Going On

I've been waking up tired and spending all day kind of drowsy. It has not been a condition conducive to writing. I have faith that it will pass eventually.

I have not abandoned the story.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Chapter 09 Is Up

Chapter 09 of Magician's Integration is up.

I started this one, and then I slept on it to make sure that it was going in the direction I wanted. I'm still not sure. I hope it doesn't blow up in my face.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Friday, February 27, 2009

Chapter 07 Is Up

Chapter 07 of Magician's Integration is up. It took me longer than expected to get it finished tonight.

I've felt off all week, both physically and creatively, but I'm hoping to get at least one more chapter done before Monday. No promises.

I did manage to get some more of Magician's Merger re-edited, chapters 24-28. I've now given those and chapters 1-6 various amounts of rewriting and polishing. I want to get the whole thing done so that I can start making it available in assorted types of ebook. I'm strongly considering posting it on Smashwords.

If I do post it, it won't be offered for free over there, but I don't intend to charge a whole lot, either.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Progress Note

Chapter seven finally is coming along well. I'm going to try to get it up before I call it a night. Mistake catching is appreciated.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Bec by BarBar

I don't think I've recommended this yet: Bec by BarBar is webfiction of the highest quality. BarBar is one of the Web authors who is writing at a nearly professional level of competence. Actually, I've read conventionally published fiction that was much worse.

The novel is about an unusual adolescent girl, a protagonist that I doubt would put off anyone who has been reading my serials. The story is non-fantasy, but the title character is interestingly weird. So is her mother. Highly recommended.

The site linked is Storiesonline, and they publish some stuff that is frankly pornographic, so you might want to take that into consideration if you read at work. Storiesonline demands registration from their readers, but they've never spammed me. I suspect they do it as a form of self-defense, because of some of the material they have.

Bec itself, in my estimation, is probably suited for a teen audience and older. The sexual content is very mild.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Pssst, Brits

Would you normally say "trouser pocket" or "trousers pocket"?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Friday, February 20, 2009

Visualization, But Broader

Does anyone know a word that is similar to visualization but inclusive of all senses simultaneously?

Chapter 06 is coming along well.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Chapter 05 Is Up

Chapter 05 of Magician's Integration is up.

I write this stuff, and I think to myself, This is getting boring. Someone should smack someone with a sword or throw a fireball or something.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Progress Report

My dad is out of the hospital. He still has some outpatient tests he needs to have done. He at least looks better than he has for a while.

I have about 1600 words of Chapter 05 of Magician's Integration written. I don't have any feel for its ETA. Methinks it needs some more action.