Posts Tagged ‘Fantasy



25
Mar
12

Book Review: The Desert Spear (Demon Cycle #2) by Peter V. Brett

This review has been long delayed.  Getting behind on my review meant it was more difficult to write as I started new books and got further away from this one.

I was skeptical when I sat down to read (well, listen to via Audible) The Warded Man, book 1 of Peter Brett’s Demon Cycle, but I was soon drawn way the hell in to a world besieged by a nightly onslaught of demons.  Great characters, nice action, and good prose helped to carry an intriguing multiple-perspective tale about living in a world of fear and the struggle to rise above it.  Book 2 of Brett’s Demon Cycle picks up where The Warded Man left off, although it backtracks to give us the story of one of the more insidious characters of that first volume, Ahmann Jardir.

When the corelings, demons spawned from the bowls of the earth, first rose ages ago, it was the Deliverer who taught mankind the combat wards used to slay them and pushed their hordes back to the core.  When the corelings rose again, they all-but decimated mankind.  People now pray for the return of the Deliverer to bring back the lost combat wards of old and deliver them from the coreling’s nightly onslaught.  There are two men called Deliverer now, however.  The first is The Warded Man, a misanthrope so obsessed with killing demons and ending their reign of terror that he covered his own body with tattoos of combat wards he discovered in the ancient tombs of the Krasian desert.  At the end of the first book in the series, The Warded Man, he fought demons and saved the people of Cutters Hollow, who now hail him as the Deliverer returned (much to his resentment).  With the help of the Herb Gatherer Leesha and the magical musician Rojer Halfgrip, they shaped the wood cutters into an elite group of demon killers.

While The Warded Man bristles at the title of Deliverer, Ahmann Jardir grips it with both hands.  Bearing the Spear and Crown of Kaji (supposedly belonging to the last Deliverer) Jardir has untied the desert tribes of Krasia and has begun The Daylight War: a campaign to conquer all lands to the north and press all able bodied men into military service for the final war against the corelings.  There seems to be room for only one Deliverer, as Jardir showed when he stole the spear from the Warded Man before declaring himself Deliverer.  However a larger question that Brett deals with very well in this book is whether or not there is also only room for one worldview or one way of fighting the demons.  As the humans squabble, however, the demons have taken notice of the possible return of their greatest foe.

Enjoyment at Spear Point: What The Desert Spear Does Well

Like in The Warded Man, strong characters and strong character development continue to in The Desert Spear.  The Warded Man, Leesha, and Rojer are all characterized and developed well.  The Warded Man battles much more visibly in this novel with his misanthropy and whether or not he could really cast aside his previous life and the people in it.  As The Warded Man, with no past and no ties, he is completely free to fight the demons and does not have to bend the knee to anyone who would misuse him or his talents.  As a man, however, he finds more and more that it is his relations with others that literally keeps him human.  Leesha continues to struggle with being the female leader of Cutter’s Hollow and with watching over her flock, and Rojer struggles with his gift and his sense of overall worth.  Characters in this book seem to be traveling over a nice arc that keeps them dynamic and interesting, and as in the first book I still find myself caring a lot about them.  In my reasoned opinion, a sequel has two primary goals aside from furthering the plot: it should reinvest us in what made the first book good and it should include enough new ideas/struggles to keep it interesting.  In terms of character development, The Desert Spear does just that.

Then there is Jardir.  I have both praise and criticism for how Brett deals with Ahmann Jardir the Sharum Ka (head of the warriors of Fort Krasia) and self-proclaimed Shar’dama Ka (Deliverer and head of the holy war against the demons).  He came out as quite the backstabbing villain in The Warded Man, but instead of leaving him as a two-dimensional caricature of the evil Other (coming from a culture with palpable similarities to Muslim religion and culture in our world), Brett decides to flesh out his back story as he does his other central characters by showing us his childhood.  Jardir was taken in to the Spartan-like training program of Fort Krasia’s elite demon killers at a young age wanting to redeem his family’s name.  He became something of a prodigy.  As the leader of their warriors as an adult, he becomes not only a strong military figure, but a political upstart as well. On top of everything else, his wife is a mystic who plots and plans to put him on his destined path to be Shar’dama Ka, the Deliverer returned.

My praise for Brett’s strategy here is that it makes this potential villain (and his entire people by extension) not only understandable but sympathetic.  I really felt for Jardir’s characterization as a man caught between  honor and fate, and he becomes just as deep and nuanced a character as Arlan, Leesha, and Rojer do in The Warded Man.  In doing this, Brett complicates what we want and expect from the story.  Simple black and white is cast into shades of gray as we, the readers, must weigh the pros and cons of each worldview and how they propose to deal with the demons.  The people in the north, for example, have a medieval worldview that includes a concern for the sanctity of life that Western readers of fantasy are bound to find very familiar.  The Krasians, however, cull strength and abhor weakness in their campaign to defeat the demons head-on; while their methods are unforgiving, so too is there enemy.  Instead of following a cliched plot structure with an exotic Other as the two-dimensional villain (like the Persians in 300), Brett does a good job of complicating the issue and really making us think about who might be right given the extreme circumstances.  In an interview, Brett cited George R.R. Martin as a significant influence on his work, and I think it really shows in how he makes what first seemed like a villain into a real human character with relatable struggles and aspirations.

Brett flexes his worldbuilding muscles to greater effect in this book by fleshing out Krasia in more detail and contrasting it to the lands in the north.  In particular, Brett develops pieces of language and terminology in the Kraisian tongue and uses them as more than window dressing.  Kraisian terms for demons, for kinds of battle, for honorifics make you feel like you are getting a peek into a fully-realized culture, language, and religion.  I felt this most keenly when two characters were shouting for Jardir to look out for a demon behind him.  One person shouted only an untranslated Kraisian term taht, by then I knew fairly well, and it was enough to make the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.  That was one of many instances where, like Arabic in Effinger’s When Gravity Fails, I felt that Brett’s use of a foreign tongue in his prose really deepened the overall effect of the book.

The action in this book was very satisfactory as well.  We get a deeper view into how the Kraisians fought the demons before the combat wards, relying on clever traps and subterfuge to  lure the corelings into pits where they would await destruction by the sun when it rose.  With the combat wards, we get to see how clever Leesha and the Warded Man are in modifying and applying the new wards for new devices and weapons.  While the book is still fairly unspecific as to how exactly the wards have power, Brett does further develop their workings and shows more clever applications that makes it feel like a solid speculative magic system.

Overall, the clash of cultures between the Kraisians and the people of the North (in particular the Kraisians and the people of Cutter’s Hollow) is the central strength of this book.

Shivering Spears: Where The Desert Spear Could Have Been Better

When I first sensed that Brett was going to characterize Jardir by using the same tactic he did with the characters in his first book, I felt it was a cheap move.  Pathos is an easy way to generate sympathy, as Disney and Pixar and other animation companies have demonstrated when they anthropomorphize inhuman objects and creatures (cars, brave little toasters, woodland creatures, etc.), and here was Brett pulling the pathos trigger to make an antagonist seem sympathetic.   I suppose it felt cheap and artificial at first because Brett could have established Jardir in the first book as we were following the early lives of his other characters.   Now, George R. R. Martin jumps between perspectives all the time in his books, so what made this different?  Well, Brett is jumping way back in time and then synching us up with important events in the first book.  It feels like hindsight, that Brett realized after publishing The Warded Man that he needed to do more with Jardir and, at the same time, do more worldbuilding.

In the end, however, I feel I understand the move.  Including this story in the first volume may have made The Warded Man too bulky and unwieldy for a first novel.  With interest in his series and his writing established in the first book, Brett was freer to explore his created world in more detail.  Jardir’s narrative elevated The Desert Spear and the series as a whole further to a work of cultural criticism with no easy answers, i.e. the kind of book that is fun and useful to talk and debate over with friends and other readers.  Also, this book is thematically different in certain, substantive ways from the first book, so on a thematic level Jardir’s story fits better in this book than it did in the first.  My first impression, however, was that it was a cheap pathos move to make a sympathetic character where before there was none as a kind of rectonning.  Consequently, I was resistant to the move at first, but then I became more immersed in the worldbuilding going on and the very considerate cultural clash between the Krasians and the people of the north.  In the end, the inclusion of Jardir’s story raised my esteem for the book and for Brett as an author, even if the way it was worked in there struck me as inelegant at first blush.

Other readers may not be as generous, however, as it’s not the only such anomaly in the book.  A very minor character from the first book is given more back story in much the same way, and she is far, far removed from the action of the book until her narrative intersects with the others.  For a long while, however, I found myself thinking “why is this important?”  It was an enthralling narrative that made you emotionally invested in that character’s plight, which is one of Brett’s strengths, but it didn’t seem to be well used until the point where it intersects with The Warded Man’s story much later on.  Between Jardir’s story and this other character’s tale, I felt that Brett’s strength for character development and for utilizing pathos was indeed admirable but perhaps overused.  Once again, it all made sense in the end and came together in a way that makes me applaud the result, but the process by which we arrived there left me in doubt.  I’m learning to trust Brett more as a storyteller, but a reader who does not posses that trust will find a problem in this aspect of the storytelling.

Concluding Thoughts

Despite my initial misgivings about the way Brett was developing and using the two characters discussed in my previous section, ultimately I found the destination of the book to be very thought provoking and aesthetically pleasing, even if a few twists and turns on the way there gave me doubt and pause.  Brett is particularly strong with character development, but some of the intricacies of managing multiple viewpoints and plot lines may be something he is still perfecting.  Still, overall this is a great book with creative worldbuilding, strong character development, intense action, and an enthralling overall plot that reveals the overall plight of humanity through the suffering and struggles of certain key individuals who fight not only the monsters but the infectious fear that keeps others from rising to the challenge as well.  If you liked The Warded Man, you will become even more drawn into Brett’s world by The Desert Spear.  Just be ready to roll with some of his viewpoint changes.

Score: 4.5/5

Coming Up: The Name of the Wind (Kingkiller Chronicles #1) by Patrick Rothfuss

21
Feb
12

Book Review: The Well of Ascension (Mistborn #2) by Brandon Sanderson

I was genuinely surprised at how much I enjoyed Mistborn: The Final Empire. The setting of a nigh-ruined world ruled by a messiah-turned-evil ruler, the well-crafted magic system,  and the interesting mythos blended with good characterization immersed me in pure SF pleasure.  I was eager to pick up  The Well of Ascension, the second installment of Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, which picks up the story roughly a year after the events of the first book.

The Lord Ruler is dead, killed during the uprising in Luthadel that finally freed the skaa from the oppression of The Final Empire.  Elend has been named king and has put in place a new government with a representative assembly.  All of this is put in jeopardy, however, as an army headed by Elend’s father, Straff Venture, lays siege to Luthadel.  Straff has named himself the rightful king of what remains of the Final Empire, and is determined to claim the city one way or another, particularly so he can secure the Lord Ruler’s valuable atium stockpile for himself.  He isn’t the only one with designs on the Lord Ruler’s stash, however, as another army enters the scene, headed by another warlord and would-be king.  As if invasion and the religious adoration of the people wasn’t enough to deal with, Vin also must contend with assassins targeting herself and Elend, a mysterious mistborn who is either there to help her or kill her, and a strange apparition in the mists.  This apparition isn’t the only thing odd about the mists these days, and Vin fears that with the Lord Ruler gone the Deepness is returning the world.  Can the crew protect the city?  Can they keep control with opportunists and possible traitors in their midst?  Can they unravel the mysteries left behind by the Lord Ruler before it’s too late?  Will they find the Well of Ascension?

Overall, I enjoyed this book, but it didn’t satisfy me as much as the first volume did.  I only had a few tiny criticisms of the first book, but my problems with this one are more numerous and much more glaring.  Taking that into consideration along with the feeling that my compliments of this book feel mainly like a recapitulation of what I said in my review of the previous novel in the series, I’m going to flip my usual reviewing style and start with my criticisms before heading in to what I thought worked in the book.

Where The Well of Ascension Could Have Been Better

The primary theme in my criticisms of The Well of Ascension is that, while each element of the book on its own is thoughtful and interesting, in concert they make for a story that drags unnecessarily and possibly tries too hard to solidity its themes.

One problem I had with The Final Empire  is that the majority of the story takes place in Luthadel.  The siege of Luthadel confines our main characters to that city once again, which limits the opportunities we have to see more of the world Sanderson has created.  The capitol of the former Final Empire is nowhere near as engaging as Lynch’s Camorr from The Lies of Locke Lamora (a book I find myself continually comparing other fantasy titles to), and it quickly becomes an uninteresting setting in and of itself.  While reading, I began to question Sanderson’s world-building as I became dubious whether or not he had conceived of all these other locals he makes reference to but never shows.  There are only brief forays to other locals, such as the Conventacle of Seran (a retreat of the Steel Inquisitors), but the narrative always pulls us right back to Luthadel like we are chained to it.  I didn’t mind staying in the city throughout the first book, but I think a second volume in a fantasy series should continue to wow us with the worldbuilding by taking us to some new places.

Now, I understand that staying within Luthadel made sense for the story considering the siege it was under, and I understand the reason for the siege: the Lord Ruler’s death left a power vacuum and now would-be kings are seeking to claim his capital and his atium stockpiles.  This is where the primary theme in my criticism comes into play, because while I understood the reason for this siege, the way it was executed left a great deal to be desired.  Overall it felt like it lasted too long.  I know that sieges are meant to last long, but from the get-go Elend, Vin, and their crew knows two things for certain: 1) if an army decides to attack, the city will fall, and 2) an army will attack.  The sense of inevitability of the loss of the city and the death of just about everyone is pervasive, and early on it creates this nice Sword of Damocles for the plot, but when the sword takes so long to finally drop that you check your watch and decide to catch a quick nap while you wait, something is definitely wrong in the pacing. Take for example the crew’s plan to play one army off of the other by making alliances with both and then goading them into a fight while Luthadel sits back and watches (which makes me think of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo).  It’s roughly 150 pages between the time that strategy is broached and when the first part of it, Elend’s negotiation with his father, goes into effect. 150 pages!  Why the delay?  Why not keep things moving to keep the characters behind the 8 ball?  Well, I’m 90% sure that the siege was just a framing device for all of the other stuff going on in the city in the meantime.

As for when an army finally attacks, I was somewhat disappointed.  I hoped for a riveting battle like Helms Deep or a last stand like Thermopoalaye, and I at least expected a climactic full-city battle like the one from the previous book.  What I got, however, came from a very restrictive viewpoint and only showed the battle in snippets, with a good deal of it happening off stage, so that when main and supporting characters die (and several do die) it is unsatisfying.  One death of a beloved character was almost like the cheap shot at the end of Serenity.  The build up to the battle lost its pzzazz, and the big break in the tension was  unsatisfying to a large extent, particularly given how long I waited for it.

As I said, the siege seemed to be a framing device for what was happening within the city: Elend dealing with trying to keep his throne while also trying to stay an honest man,  we have the arrival of a new party that wants to make Elend look and act more kingly, there is the possibility of a traitor in the ranks, Vin sees a strange mist apparition like the one the Hero of Ages saw, another mistborn who  pulls the “we’re alike, you and I” card with Vin, the escalation of the religious mysteries engendered by Kelsior and continued (unwillingly) by Vin, another translation mystery being tackled by Sazed, etc.  The siege seemed to be protracted in order to give this stuff time to play out, and on their own each element was interesting and felt vital, but together they kept the novel from moving like it should: bloated with good ideas is how I might describe it.

Sanderson characterizes his viewpoint characters through a great deal of inner monologues to a significantly higher degree than he did in the first book, it seems.  He comes back to these inner struggles time and again throughout the novel, unnecessarily in some instances. Kudos to Sanderson for giving these characters rich interior lives, complicating their relationships with others, and solidifying certain important themes, but  I frequently felt pounded over the head with this stuff.; I get it, VIN IS INSECURE, you don’t have to wail on it every chance you get.  In one scene late in the book, for example, Vin decides to run a long way to the rescue of some of her friends.  The following chapter cuts to her mid-trip to have her first despair and then decide she will never give up, and then it cuts away again to someone else.  Nothing else happens in that snippet.  I didn’t need this since this attitude has already been well established earlier, and it felt remarkably like treading water.

Overall, The Well of Ascension is ambitious and tries to accomplish a great deal not only in terms of plot but in terms of character development as well.  Overall, however, I think it was weighted down by too many good ideas, so much so that in order to fit it all in the pacing of the book suffered.  One thing I really liked about the first book was its pacing, so it was disappointing to feel this novel dragging along as it did.

What The Well of Ascension Does Well

I still like what Sanderson is doing with the prophecy of the Hero of Ages.  Playing with the  expectations of the well-used genre of the hero’s quest is part of what makes this series stand out.  There are very significant developments in terms of unraveling the mystery of the Well of Ascension and the Hero of Ages that adds a new layer of complexity and intrigue to the overall story.  I am sufficiently intrigued and creeped out (in a good way) by what Sanderson has done here.  Prophecy and legend and foretelling are so overused that they usually come across as tripe.  Who made these prophesies?  Why does it have to go down this way?  It all feels artificial most of the time, but Sanderson puts an interesting spin on this all-too-familiar plot device that, as I said, makes this series stand out.  A lot of this is accomplished through translation of another mysterious document, a project once gain spearheaded by Sazed.  Snippets from this translation once again are used as epigraphs for chapters, and while at first I was worried that this conceit had run its course in the first novel, it ultimately is worth it.  As the mystery is partially unraveled at the end of the novel, we are called to question all the characters have seen and heard in the book in an intriguing way.

I also still enjoy the magic system.  Sanderson has added in the discovery of a new alloy that adds new possibilities for Vin’s allomancy.  Just as Vin is touted as one of the most powerful mistborn ever, we are also well aware of the limitations of her gifts.  This keeps her from seeming like an invincible superwoman and, as I’ve stated in my review of the first book, requires her to be clever and cunning in addition to being flat out powerful.

While the inner monolgoues of the characters and their musings on their problems and insecurities seemed overdone in several instances, overall the characterization was interesting and engaging.  Vin is insecure about her place in the growing myth of Kelsior in addition to being unsure about her place with Elend.  This seems to be a natural extension of a concern many lovebirds in drastic situation must face: is it love or just infatuation strengthened by intense situations?  Elend is delcared king at the end of the first boo (a plot development that was glossed over so quickly at the end of the first book so as not to raise too many questions, it seems) and in this book he struggles with trying to maintain his power and help his people without losing his honest nature.  Is he a good man, or just a naive one?  Sazed is developed more in this story and becomes just as interesting a character as Vin and Elend.  Breeze also is surprisingly made more nuanced, although I still wish I knew more about Dockson!

The action is still satisfying overall, although I wish the battle for Luthadel in the end was more completely fleshed out than it was.

Concluding Thoughts

The Well of Ascension has a lot going for it in terms of characterization, the continuation of an interesting mythos, action, and the novel use of a well-thought out magic system, but it doesn’t feel more than the sum of its parts.  The book drags to an extent that the siege of Luthadel loses its teeth.  Overall it becomes a hindrance to the pacing of the story.  This stands in great contrast to the first book, The Final Empire, which was a very tight, well-paced story.  This is not to say that its a bad novel, however.  It continues the story and themes of the first book in a way that feels believable and interesting, and much of what made the first book great makes this book good.  I’m going to read Hero of Ages and the more recent installment The Alloy of Law not because I feel bound to since I started the series, but because I’m genuinely interested in what happens to these characters and in how Sanderson plans to play out the mythos he has created.

Score: 3.5/5

06
Feb
12

Book Review: Mistborn-The Final Empire (Mistborn #1) by Brandon Sanderson

My first encounter with Brandon Sanderson was listening to the Writing Excuses podcast where he and two other authors (with frequent guests) discuss the craft of writing stories and novels with frequent attention to science fiction and fantasy genres.  Sanderson was tapped by Robert Jordan’s widow to finish out Jordan’s Wheel of Time series (of which started years ago and put down after I realized what a commitment it was).  I picked up Mistborn while picking over the bones of a Borders during it’s closing sale, not really sure when I was going to read it, but after reading The Warded Man I was in the mood for more fantasy.  First, I picked up Brent Weeks’ The Way of Shadows…and I put it down when it read too much like an overzealous teenager’s unabashed use of stock characters and situations, and I was reminded of why I’m so cautious about reading fantasy.  Then I noticed I had Mistborn on hand in my bookshelf and decided to give it a go, not sure what to expect.  My reaction was at first negative in a very selfish sense in that it captured (better than I could) the essence of several ideas I had scribbled down for a fantasy story, and then once I got over my own egoism I really, really enjoyed the book.

Long ago in in this book’s world, a man believed to be the prophesied Hero of Ages journeyed to the Well of Ascension to find the power necessary to defeat a mysterious evil known only as The Deepness, which threatened to destroy the world.  Afterwards, said man decided that saving the world made it his, and so he kept the power he was entrusted with to establish himself as god-emperor.  The now-immortal Lord Ruler created The Final Empire, a brutal totalitarian regime that conquered all other nations in the known world and has brutally and systematically oppressed the lower classes for over a thousand years.  The Lord Ruler’s control is total, extending even into culture, philosophy, and religion; he has systematically eliminated all other religions except for the government-sanctioned worship of him as god-emperor.  Every attempt at insurrection or rebellion has failed, and time and again the Lord Ruler has proven that he cannot be killed.  For the thousand years since the Lord Ruler’s fight with The Deepness, the sun has only glowed a dark red, ash falls from the skies constantly, and eerie mists–feared to carry man-eating monsters–appear every night without fail.  This is a ruined world, but its inhabitants have known nothing else in The Final Empire, and hope of change is as ephemeral as the mists that disappear with the dawn.

Enter into this scene a young female thief named Vin.  Abandoned and betrayed by her brother, Vin is left to pay back his debts by working with a thieving gang in the sprawling, ash-strewn city of Luthadel, capital of The Final Empire and seat of The Lord ruler.  She is a skaa, the lowest class in the empire, and like most of her kind is used to beatings, starvation, and squalor.  The only thing keeping her from ending up dead in a gutter is her innate magical talents, which she doesn’t even remotely understand.  Her path crosses with Kelsior, a powerful Allomancer once imprisoned by the Lord Ruler himself.  Kelsior is running his own thieving gang and plotting the ultimate heist that could bring down the Final Empire, and he has taken a special interest in young Vin’s gifts.  Can she strust Kelsior and his crew of skaa thieves and revolutionaries?  Can anyone stand up to the Lord Ruler?

What Mistborn: The Final Empire Does Well

On its surface, this book does sound somewhat Lies-of- Locke-Lamora-esque given the thieving crew and the whole caper aspect, but it’s really a book about revolution employing the covert tactics of a thieving crew to foment it, and the whole profit-vs-doing what’s right angle does become an important theme.  Actually, I was surprised by how this book complicated several of its themes so that it (thankfully) didn’t devolve into simple cliches and stock fantasy plotlines.  For example, the opening of the book shows a typical noble being cruel to his skaa workers, which made me think at first that Sanderson was going for the easy and (possibly) overused plot device of an  oppressed people rising up and overthrowing their oppressors, but later on in the book Sanderson does show that the nobility are not all uncaring, cruel plot devices whose only job is to be obviously callous and evil so that we can have someone to root against.  Overall the book was well paced and introduced new facets and complications at the right moments.  If, say, I found myself wondering about one character’s real intentions or approaching the point that I desperately needed to know an answer to a certain question (or to at least see addressed in some way) to keep invested in what the book is trying to do, Sanderson obliged nicely.  It’s a big book, but it doesn’t get bogged down, neither did I feel like later plot events were telegraphed too early nor that Sanderson was playing keep-away with important plot elements in an artificial measure to heighten the excitement or mystery.  Overall, it was a well-structured read throughout and I came to trust Sanderson’s plan for unfolding the plot and the ideas.

Maybe it’s all my reading in genre theory as of late, but one aspect of the book that really endeared it to me is the way it played with the notion of the hero’s quest, which in fantasy is a core ingredient next to swords and magic.  Most bad or mediocre fantasy employs the usual cliched hero’s quest: a young and initially naive protagonist, usually from a rural community and lowly  upbringing, finds that he or she is The One that some prophecy has gabbed about and that he must do this or that, find this or that McGuffin, or learn this or that in order to destroy the evil force and make everything peachy again (see John Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces for more detail on the exact elements and stages of this archetype).  Sanderson throws a spanner in this usual formula by 1) showing us what happened over a millenia after the hero’s quest, which given the ruined state of the world didn’t seem to go quite as planned, 2) engaging his characters in the mystery of figuring out what happened during that time, and 3) making the prophesied hero the enemy.  Every chapter is preceded by an epigraph from the personal journal of the Hero of Ages as he proceeds on his quest to acquire the power to defeat The Deepness, and this journal becomes important to the plot in a very interesting way.  We’ve got Lord Ruler knows how many texts with Johnny Whitebread as the expected hero-savior going on a quest that will take him to place A, teach him skill B, and gain him item C that will let him defeat villain D that the entire thing just feels rote and uninteresting as brushing your teeth, but Sanderson does some interesting things with this cliche by making the hero the villain and making his quest–which was supposed to go off without a hitch–into a mystery in which something went horribly wrong.

Thankfully, character is a big focus in this book in addition to plot and mythos.  The characters feel distinctive and believable for the most part, and the core group has interesting characters who are scoundrels, but the good-hearted scoundrels (despite how hard they try to hide it) that you can’t help but love.  Kelsior is trying to balance his desire for revenge against the Lord Ruler with his friends’ concern that he is too full of himself and that his hubris will get them killed, Vin is learning that there is more to life than fear and abuse, Ham (an allomancer who can increase his strength) is a philosophical thug who frequently annoys Breeze (the party’s emotional magician), Sazed the terrisman (a northern people subjugated to be servants by The Lord Ruler) is an Alfred-Pennyworth-type character who nevertheless finds ways to be brazen within his training as a servant (and who is more than he appears), etc.  Vin and Kelsior, the primary viewpoint characters, are given satisfying arcs that show them dealing with pain, loss, and the idea that there is still hope beyond the crushing deperssion created by The Final Empire.  A great deal of character development is done through personal conversations instead of exposition, which I always like to see in SF/F.  Indeed, it’s the personal interactions between characters that helped me care for them, the small moments of fellowship and occasional levity that provided a nice counterweight against the grim world and seemingly-impossible task they are confronted with; such moments kept the bleakness of the situation from overwhelming the narrative (in a similar way to how fellowship kept hope alive in The Lord of the Rings).

The magic system deserves special notice here, and it’s going to take me 3 paragraphs to flesh out my thoughts on it (fair warning).  In the Writing Excused Podcast, Sanderson and his colleagues have discussed “Sanderson’s First Law of Magics”, which holds that ” An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.”  To put it plainly, if you want to have a magic system with rules, then your reader needs to understand those rules if the way in which magic is used to further the plot is going to be acceptable to the reader.  You can’t suddenly pull a deus ex machina out of your ass and expect your readers to keep respecting you if, up until that point, everything has been plotted out with a rule-based system.   The Harry Potter books have a very nebulous magic system in which just about anything can happen, which means that Rowling can introduce a new magical ability or spell that you’ve never heard of before and it won’t be inconsistent with how she has used magic elsewhere in the series.  This makes for a very mysterious magical system that can keep its sense of wonder because you never know what will happen next, which is part of the charm.  Sanderson, on the other hand, is trying to establish a rule-based magic system that readers can understand, so that when he uses it to resolve plot components the reader can see how his resolution fits in with the established rules.  It’s the difference between Agatha Christie’s detective characters and Sherlock Holmes:  Christie liked to establish all elements of the crime so that the reader is capable of solving the mystery for himself/herself, but in Doyle’s detective stories you can’t solve the mystery because you are not Sherlock Holmes and you have no idea what detail he will glom onto or what bit of knowledge or lore he will apply to solve the thing.  The former allows the reader to play along, and the latter requires the reader to wait until the author or main character reveals his/her brilliant and unexpected twist.

Sanderson’s central magic system in Mistborn is called Allomancy and it’s centered around swallowing bits of metal and using the properties of those metals to fuel one’s special abilities.   I know that sounds weird, and it is strange at first, but after a while I could see how clever it was.  In the real world, metals are often burned or used for their special chemical properties to produce certain effects or products.  In Sanderson’s world, magic users can “burn” metals that they have ingested and draw upon their special properties to produce certain effects: pewter produces a vast increase in strength, tin enhances the senses, brass allows one to soothe others’ emotions, etc.  These properties are all set against one another in a system in which a pure metal allows for an internal “pulling” ability whereas its alloy can produce an external “pushing ability”: iron can enable you to pull metal towards you, and its alloy steel allows you to push metals away.  The chart that explains all of these reminds me of a Chinese horoscope with one sign’s qualities contrasting to its opposite.  Now, this doesn’t mean there are a ton of Magneto’s walking around The Final Empire.  Allomancers only come from noble bloodlines (and our heroes are the children of nobles who dallied with skaa), but these magic users are rare and most of them can only burn one metal and use one ability.  Rarest of all are the Mistborn who can use all of the metals and their corresponding abilities.  This makes for a nice dynamic since “Mistings” have only one power, but are often more deeply experienced with that one gift than a Mistborn might be, who can use all of the powers.

By establishing these basic rules, Sanderson is able to impress us with the ingenuity with which characters employ them.  Allomancers who employ steel, for instance, are often called “coin shots”  since coins are a seemingly innocuous thing for someone to have, but a steel-pusher can turn them into powerful weapons by rocketing them towards a target or by pushing them into a person or structure and then using their ability to push against their target.  Given these rules, we understand not only the capabilities of each character, but their limitations as well, which enables Sanderson to show how clever his characters are by showing how they overcome their weaknesses while remaining within the rules of the system.  Sanderson also uses the magic system to flex his world-building muscles by showing how fashion and popular culture in general reacts to these abilities: metal is rarely worn as decoration or on clothing since a coinshot or lurcher (someone who uses iron to pull on metals) can use one’s own belt buckle or ring as a weapons, and wooden dueling canes are carried in place of swords or daggers by most people.  I’m deliberately being coy about some of the other talents so I don’t spoil anything, but I will say that a concern I had was that if the magic system is so well regulated it would seem to limit Sanderson’s ability to surprise us, but this was another place where I was thankfully proven wrong.   There are several metals that Allomancers can use that are either very rare or deliberately kept secret by The Lord Ruler and his Steel Ministry, which enables Sanderson to clearly map out his system but leave some room for mystery and wonder as characters search for these metals.

To return to characterization for a moment, Sanderson does a great job of setting up The Lord Ruler as a villain by showing and not just telling.  You can’t just say a bad guy is bad, you have to show it, and like with any good monster you have to tease out some telling details and let the audience’s minds fill in the rest.  There are some interesting similarities between how The Lord Ruler is characterized and how Paul Atreidies is canonized as god-emperor in the Dune series in that he is not only the government and the economic chief of the land, but the focal point of the religion as well.   “Lord Ruler!” is the typical all-purpose exclamatory remark in the same way we might use “Dear God!”    From birth, his subjects are acculturated to see him as the god-king, and, love him or hate him, they can’t help but see him as an fact of life that cannot be changed let alone killed and replaced.  He has won not only the military war, but the propaganda war as well.  This characterization is done through dialogue and not just exposition, so we learn about the villain by the way characters talk about him and react to him, not just through Sanderson telling us “this is a bad, bad, bad dude.”  The impact of The Lord Ruler’s power, mystique, and savagery is also well presented through his lieutenants, the Steel Inquisitors.  These are high-ranking officials and powerful Allomancers who are distinguished by the steel spikes driven through their eyes and poking out thought he back of their skulls.  How they survive that process is a mystery, and their monstrous nature and ominous presence builds up their master, The Lord Ruler, even more.

Foggy: Where Mistborn Could Have Been Better

What nagged me the most about the story was how Vin’s trust issues were fleshed out.  Vin has a very appropriate amount of distrust for people around her given her life of abuse with outlaws and cutthroats.  She has had very little power before the events of this book, and her principle survival strategy has been a very large scoop of paranoia.  She doesn’t let anyone pour a drink for her (in case it’s been poisoned), she looks at every kind act with suspicion, and she can’t even conceive of a thing like true friendship, which she interprets as yet another mask that conceals betrayal on down the road.  This is fine and understandable given her background, but the way it was presented felt too heavy handed.  Granted, her character arc involves her journey towards learning to trust and to love in earnest, but early on she sounds like a crazy person in how she mistrusts absolutely everything, and the way it was carried out felt too artificial at times.

I also wanted more from the character of Dockson, Kelsior’s closest friend and the only non-allomancer member of the central thieving crew.  We learn that he is a skaa who escaped a plantation some tragedy, that he is a great organizer, and that he is supposedly a great warrior, but by and large he feels mostly like a foil for Kelsior: the straightman who points out all of the problems with Kelsior’s wildly ambitious plots and plans. I found myself wanting to understand him better than just the guy who is inevitably going to say “That’s crazy, Kelsior.”

Concluding Thoughts:

In preparing for this review, I read a few other blogs that posted on this book, and one in particular described Sanderson’s writing as “workmanlike,” meaning well-executed but not outstanding.  I don’t know if this reviewer was expecting poetry or something more elevated and Tolkien-like, but he didn’t write it in a necessarily disparaging way.  Sanderson’s Mistborn: The Final Empire is a well-crafted, thoughtful piece of fantasy that plays with certain genre conventions in interesting ways.  It played with genre conventions in the hero’s quest, complicated its themes about oppression and revolution, kept me guessing without keeping me in the dark, employed an innovative and systematically-constructed magic system, and built the plot on the actions of believable characters instead of just action scene after action scene.  It does so much right and it was so engaging its faults were negligible.  Sanderson also leaves enough threads out there to keep you interested in what happens in the rest of the series without resorting to cliffhangers or similar plot devices.  I’m eager to learn more about the mystery of The Lord Ruler and about what happens to the characters in the following volumes.

I can be very stingy when it comes to spending money on books and I usually buy used, so when I tell you that after reading Mistborn I made a special trip to buy a new copy of the second book, The Well of Ascension, you should have a pretty good idea about how much I regard this book.

Score: 5/5

31
Jan
12

Book Review: The Warded Man by Peter Brett

The demons rise every night without fail, and every night a few more humans are viciously killed.  The only thing that can hold them at bay are the magical wards people put around their homes, and within which they huddle together at night, trying to ignore the sounds of the monsters outside constantly looking for a way in.  Some of them find it.  When the corelings–demons of fire, rock, air,water, sand, and rot–first rose, they massacred humans close to the point of extinction.  Then mankind discovered the magical combat wards that allowed them to fight the beasts.  An unparalleled age of science and progress followed, but safety bred complacency, and when the corelings returned mankind fell into a dark age and lost a great deal of knowledge about the wards.  Now, during the day men and women work and check their defensive wards, while at night all they can do is huddle in their homes and hope the defenses will hold and keep the monsters out.  Travel between townships is minimal, and few know the world beyond their own hometown.  Much has been lost, and much continues to be lost as every night as a few more people succumb to the corelings.

Three young people from different towns in this perilous world set off on paths that will eventually converge, and which may eventually lead them to some measure of hope and salvation for mankind.  Arlen is a young boy with a knack for wards who has become sick at everyone’s cowardice and lack of resolve to fight the demons.  Leesha is a blossoming young woman with a talent for herb gathering and healing, making her a keeper of some of the oldest surviving tradition, lore, and medicine from the days before the corelings return.  But a nasty rumor and a town scandal threatens her.  Rojer always wanted to be jongleur, a wandering musician and performer who is the delight of every town he passes through (and who brings rare rays of sunshine and joy into this otherwise bleak world).  When demons attack his home and he is horribly maimed, that dream is threatened, but eventually he discovers he has a talent for music that goes beyond mere entertainment.  Each has been scarred by the demons, and the book follows their growth from childhood to adulthood.

This is the premise of The Warded Man, which is yet another book that made me think “fah, what crap” when I first saw it.  I guess at the time I was put off by what I have noticed is a pretty formulaic title: The (insert adjective here) Man, as in The Demolished Man, the Illustrated Man, The Female Man, The Invisible Man, The Unincorporated Man The Thin Man, ad inifinitum.  Once I got over my title prejudice and took a close gander at the blurb, I was seized by the interesting premise.  It put me to mind of the dark ages following the fall of the Roman Empire, when knowledge was lost and the world grew smaller, darker, and scarier, and having just seen a documentary on the dark ages the premise of this book grabbed me at the right moment.  After checking out a few reviews of the book, I decided to give it a shot; I had a spare Audible credit at the time, and I was keeping my expectations flexible.  To my surprise, I was really sucked into this book, and once again I found that (ugh) you can’t judge a book by its cover (thank you every elementary school teacher I ever had).

Strong Magic: What The Warded Man Does Well

Brett has stated that he really wanted to write a book about fear and it’s effect on people, and in this YouTube interview he links that desire to his experience with 9/11 and it’s aftermath.  The fear angle really comes out in this novel.  It is strong in the first thread, Arlen’s, where the young boy learns contempt for his own father’s cowardice before the demons.  Much of the worldbuilding Brett does revolves around fear of the corelings and the precautions taken to stay safe from them, which fits since it is a constant, pervasive threat in a similar way fear of terrorism swept the U.S. following 9/11.  The night is a time of danger and fear for the people of Brett’s novel, so much so that “night!” has become a curse word.  Brett has showed how fear of the corelings has affected everything from architecture and city planning to the way cities and societies have become more insular.  Messengers, who travel from town to town bearing supplies and act as diplomats and emissaries, are raised to heroic status for braving the open night between towns with nothing but a portable warding circle between them and the monsters.  People have become resigned to living in this world, with only one group, the desert people to the south, actively fighting the monsters.  Overall, the atmosphere this creates has an appropriate dark ages feel, similar to what happened after the fall of Rome: technology and knowledge has been lost, and the world suddenly grows a lot smaller and a lot scarier.

The characterization is very good as well.  Thankfully, the characterization is not filler in between action scenes.  The demons are catalysts and background for the tragedies and rites of passage that each character struggles with as they grow up, and their circumstances and character arcs makes them feel like distinct, believable characters.  I lost myself (in a good way) in the stories of each of the three viewpoint characters, and even when they were not dealing with the demons their stories were still exciting, tense, and interesting.  Will Arlen find a way to fight the demons, or is it only a boy’s fantasy?  Can he ever settle for a normal life, one with a wife and children? Will Leesha ever get past the stigma put on her by that nasty rumor, and finally be able to move on with her life?  Will she ever be rid of her domineering mother?  Will Rojer be able to hang on to his dream of being a jongleur given his maimed hand and his now drunkard of a mentor?  Their life experiences feel true to the human condition given such an environment, and like George R. R. Martin’s books (which Brett cites as a major inspiration) the situations they are in frequently offer no easy out or simple moral choice.  Each viewpoint character feels well-realized, so that when they eventually come together their relationships with one another is dynamic and interesting.

While the characterization is not just filler between the action, that doesn’t mean that the action is disregarded or underdeveloped.  The action works pretty well, especially the climax of the book.  There are very few ways to fight the demons, who can shrug off the attacks of most weapons and heal rapidly, so most of the time it’s a desperate struggle for survival and a dash for safety.  When a character is caught out at night and trying to find shelter from the monsters, the narrative puts you on the edge of your seat.

Finally, while this book has some very dark places, there is the thread of hope that Brett nurtures along the narrative: hope of turning the tide in the fight against the demons, hope of the people finding courage instead of despair, hope that characters will find their dreams, etc.  My one major problem with dystopian or apocalyptic narratives is that the bleakness of them can be a real turnoff.  The Warded Man shares elements of the latter genre, although it is squarely fantasy, but thankfully the bleakness does not overwhelm the narrative.  Normalcy has a way of asserting itself in the midst of prolonged disaster, and Brett does a good job of showing how each character finds hope and pursues dreams and ambitions both because of and despite the nightly dangers of the demons.

Faded Wards: Where The Warded Man Could Have Been Better

While the fear people feel for the coreligns is very well established in the prose and the interpersonal interactions of characters, the demons themselves failed to dazzle or horrify).  The monsters are not particularly well described in the beginning, and while I would certainly not want to be trapped outside with any of them, they didn’t scare me all that much.  I kept thinking back to how Jim Butcher describes monsters, how, even when seen full view, I not only had a better idea of what they looked like and what distinguished them, but why they were frightening as well.  In most monster stories, the monsters lose some pzzazz after they are revealed in full.   Perhaps since Brett was revealing the mosnters very early on, they never seemed very scary.  It may also be that they lost some of that oompf by being such a common sight.  Still, given that they were so central to the conceit of the novel, I was a bit disappointed in their presentation.

As mentioned earlier, Brett has stated that he really admires George R. R. Martin, and that the moral complexity Martin brings to his characters has caused Brett to really bring up the level of his own writing.  Like Martin, the world that Brett creates is filled with ugly, immoral people who will kill you as soon as look at you, but it’s almost too full of those characters.  There are characters who help and support the viewpoint characters and characters who are unambiguously bullies or just plain evil, and I didn’t sense that there a whole lot of a middle ground.  The bullies and evil characters are frequently, and obviously, foils for the development of the viewpoint characters, but after a while the presence of a bully/rapist (or would-be rapist)/opportunist who has bad intentions on our main characters stopped being surprising and started feeling like a matter of course.  Things start to feel soap-opera-ish at times.  While Brett does complicate our view of one bully character greatly in the climax of this book, I sense that I will have to wait until future volumes to see how he wraps up the plot threads of these other characters, so I might just be rescinding this criticism later.

My last criticism comes with a big damn hedging comment attached to it.  I found myself wondering about other aspects of the world Brett had built since the worldbuilding only went so far.  I imagine if demons started to rise every night in our world, they would take up a lot of our time and consideration, but normalcy and culture find ways of establishing and reestablishing themselves, so I was wondering about other aspects of the world that were not touched on.   Of course, this lack of deep worldbuilding can be attributed to the fact that trade and communication is extremely limited by the nightly monster mash, so what would Rojer, Leesha, or Arlen know about far-flung lands?  Still, I wanted to see the local culture, government, politics, etc. fleshed out in some more detail.

Concluding Thoughts

Despite some of these criticisms (which I may reverse my opinion on after reading the rest of the series), I enjoyed The Warded Man immensely.  I was initially taken in by the central conceit of people barely surviving a nightly onslaught of demons and of kindling the hope to find a way to beat them back, but I stuck with the book for its characters and storytelling.  Indeed, I’m pretty invested in Arlen, Leesha, and Rojer, and I really want to see what happens to them next and what happens to the world given the plot events set in motion by the epilogue!  As I’ve stated in previous posts, I’m very discerning with what kind of fantasy I read.  Perhaps I’m more of a fantasy snob than I am a Science Fiction snob, I don’t know, but I take greater care in picking my fantasy books.  I was skeptical about this book, but I found myself hungry for a little fantasy and, given that Lynch’s much-anticipated The Republic of Thieves kept suffering setbacks and that I’m still waiting for Martin’s A Dance with Dragons to come down to a reasonable price ($15 for the ebook from the kindle store?  No thank you!) I took a chance on The Warded Man.  It not only met and exceeded by standards, but it has put me in the mood to expand my fantasy horizons.  I’ve already downloaded the sequel, The Desert Spear, but in between this review and the one for that book I am going to try the first parts of at least two other fantasy series.

In short, I recommend this book enthusiastically and am going to make Brett someone to keep my eye on in the future.

I listened to to this as an unabridged audiobook narrated by Pete Bradbury, whom I was dubious about at first.  His somewhat deep voice has a kind of twang (one I can’t quite place) to it that at first didn’t seem to mesh with a fantasy story, but once I got used to it I enjoyed immensely.  Come to find out that he has done a few roles on Law and Order and Criminal Intent, which makes me kick myself for not recognizing the him (being the L&O nut that I am).

Score: 4.5/5

Coming Up: Mistborn: The Final Empire (Mistborn 1) by Brandon Sanderson

07
Aug
11

Book Review: Red Seas Under Red Skies (Gentleman Bastards #2) by Scott Lynch

As I’ve said before, I don’t read a lot of fantasy.  There’s a lot of hackneyed, pulpy writing out there in both Science Fiction and Fantasy, and I try to stay away from both but it just grates on me more in Fantasy form for some reason.  The first book in the Gentleman Bastards series, The Lies of Locke Lamora, caught my attention, however, due to its unique-sounding premise: an Ocean’s 11 style caper with thieves living in a shark-infested city constructed of weird glass and highly reminiscent of Renaissance Venice.  Of course, I found it to be so much more than an interesting premise, although the city was brought alive with vivid description.  The  book proved to have characters you can’t help but get invested in and a layering of crises on top of crises for the main character that nearly gave me a heart attack towards the end.  Lynch also has a gift for language that most-often displays itself in the form of rich description–which doesn’t veer over the top into purple prose–and wry humor.

I was a bit sad to learn that the Gentleman Bastards were leaving Camorr, the aforementioned shark-infested Venice-type city, at the end of the first book: while it was understandable given all the bad shit that went down in book 1 and all the people they had ticked off (the Bondsmagi of Carthain in particular), I also felt so immersed in the place that I wasn’t ready to leave.  By taking the crew off their home turf, way off, Lynch gives himself the chance to flex his world-building muscles, which are pretty impressive, even further.  The world Lynch creates, which is indeed in a type of Rennaisance and/or late feudalism, feels rich and substantial.  I was even more apprehensive, however, when I found out that a huge chunk of the book took place at sea.  The Gentleman Bastards typically rob from the rich on land and are very much creatures of the city, more like a medieval Danny Ocean than a piratical Patrick O’brien, so I wasn’t sure how Lynch was going to have them make the transition from street thieves and high-risk confidence men to pirates.

Overall?  It works.  I have some qualms about the book (as usual), but it’s profoundly enjoyable.  Once again, Lynch crafts a compelling and well-paced narrative that keeps you guessing and keeps you on the edge of your seat, so to speak.  I listened to Michael Page narrate this unabridged audiobook.  It lasted about 22 hours and I finished it in a shade less than a week, if that tells you anything about how easy it is to get immersed.  If you liked The Lies of Locke Lamora, then you should like Red Seas Under Red Skies.  Like it’s predecessor, it piles on conflicts and antagonists for the Bastards to contends with, and it makes one point abundantly clear: no one screws with a Camorri and gets off scott free.

Avast! Where Red Seas Under Red Skies Does Well

Lynch made it very clear in the first book that he’s not pulling any punches, so I’m going to try to avoid any significant spoilers here and if it seems like I’m being vague on some details, that’s why.  The Bastards are now in Tal Verrar, another city comprised of elderglass islands although these are spaced apart further to form marinas and harbors since the city is a major port on the Sea of Brass in (I think) southwest Therin.  Tal Verar is the city of artificers, alchemists and artisans of clockwork devices, and home to the Sinspire, a towering, multi-tiered casino that caters to the rich and adventurous.  The owner of the casino, Requin, is kind of like Tal Verar’s version of Barsavi in the first novel in that, while he is a legitimate businessman, he also owns many of the gangs in town.  No one messes with Requin and walks away, unless you can walk after a 10 story drop.  Ridiculously wealthy, owner of one of the biggest gambling houses in the world, and dangerous as all get out.  How could the Bastards refuse a mark like that?

The book opens with Locke and Jean subtly cheating their way through a game of carousel hazard–which is kind of like poker but with added penalties in that losing means you have to imbibe randomly-selected bottles of liquors with varying effects and strengths dispensed by a clockwork carousel–in order to impress Requin enough to be invited to the top gaming floor of the casino.  They have invested two years in this caper, and just as they are in sight of the end and in the thick of bullshitting their way into Requin’s confidence, the Bastards are unwillingly compelled into the service of Tal Verar’s Archon, a military ruler named Stragos, to be used as cats paws in his gambit against the city’s civilian authorities who, now that the pirate wars are over, see less and less need to let the Archon’s position and armies stand.  The Bastards are sent on a mission into the Sea of Brass to stir up a new conflict between those waters pirates and Tal Verrar to convince the people how much they still need their Archon.  Layer that on top of old enemies giving not-so-gentle reminders that their past misdeeds are not forgotten, and you’ve got a web-work of seemingly insurmountable challenges that seems to be Lynch’s modus operandi.

The plotting is tight and paced very well.  I never sensed the story floundering for somewhere to go.  Indeed, Lynch seems to try to avoid lulls by adding new complications or antagonists.  This all builds up and up until 4/5 through the book you wonder how the hell he’s going to resolve it all by the end.  It makes for great tension, and he does resolve everything in the end, although if I felt that The Lies of Locke Lamora could have extended it’s third act climax–which doesn’t feel rushed or underdeveloped, just that he’s trying to build up to an explosive conclusion–then I feel doubly so here.  Still, the plot gets you involved, pushes the characters to crisis points, and keeps things moving.  The only thing close to a doldrum I sensed was when Locke and Jean have it out with each other when either one or the other is in an emotional state and spoiling for a fight.  I get that Lynch is trying to develop the characters further by showing how the trauma of what they’ve been through strains their relationship, but it felt like he hammed it up a shade too much sometimes.

This book illustrates just how carefully and fully Lynch can world-build.  The more we see of Therin the more it feels like a fully-developed world with its own mythologies, histories, languages, customs, and even literature.  The excess of the Sinspire, the customs and superstitions of sailors on the Sea of Brass, the byzantine politics of the ruling class; Lynch pays attention to detail.  I suppose one thing that makes me leery of a good deal of Fantasy is a tendency towards the generic and cliche’d fantasy setting: lords and ladies, magic, altruistic crusaders, MacGuffin-type artefacts, prophecies, etc.  In Red Seas Under Red Skies, Lynch continues to prove that the world he has created is not generic by any stretch of the imagination.  Even though the transition to a nautical story is kind of strange, Lynch makes it believable with his nuanced understanding of ship life and sailing that would make Patrick O’Brien proud and the way he plays with naval traditions and superstitions to adapt the sea adventure to his unique world.

In my review of The Lies of Locke Lamora, one important criticism I made was that the book really didn’t have any moral center or any deeper message.  In the composition classes I teach, I call this the “so what?” turn: what is the social worth of this text or what do we take away from it in terms of how it can enrich our lives or the way we think about a topic.  After Father Chains, their mentor and garista, passed away they ran long cons on the nobility more out of habit than out of a desire for wealth.  They had piles of money and no idea what to do with it other than to bankroll more confidence games.  This left a big question mark over the story, even the characters were perplexed by it, and what seemed like a missed chance for a moral.  Well, Lynch seems to have thought a bit about that and has made some moves in Red Seas Under Red Skies toward giving the book a moral center.  Avoiding any kind of altruistic, Robin Hood-esque cliche of robbing the rich and giving to the poor, Lynch does a bit of retconning and adds in a flashback to something Father Chains told Locke after he initiated the boy as a peasan under Barsavi: thieves prosper, and the rich remember.  Thieves will thrive off of the rich who, after having their money and possessions taken, will get a dose of how shit the world is for everyone else.  I liked this idea since it avoided idealistic or altruistic cliche, which wouldn’t have rung true for the narrative Lynch was crafting, and it does play into the plot of Red Seas Under Red Skies in a few important scenes, although I felt it could have been actively talked about and thought about in more detail to make it feel stronger.  Still, it’s an improvement!

S.O.S. (Save Our Story): Where Red Seas Under Red Skies Could Have Been Better

Ok, so in my review of The Lies of Locke Lamora I indicated how the complete absence of one crucial character from Locke’s past, Sabitha–a Gentleman Bastard and his lost love for whom he will always carry a torch–really pissed me off.  Having a novel where you recount important scenes of growth and development from a child’s upbringing means that you just can’t purposely omit any scenes including such a pivotal character as the first love who is continually talked about in the rest of the book if you don’t want people to harshly criticize your writing.  You can read the rest of my rant on the subject by reading the rest of that review.  Sabitha is mentioned in this book in passing, but thankfully Lynch seems to realize his severe shortcoming in this aspect and doesn’t dwell on her too much, just enough to keep her in mind.  Still, it makes me very leery about what he is going to do with her in the third book, since she and the other Gentleman Bastards will be bound by a history we know nothing about, and demanding consideration and possibly even sympathy that is, at this point, completely unearned.  Lynch does frequently use this device where flashbacks, either directly or indirectly, give us clues as to how characters will act in the main storyline and tie themes together, so perhaps he is planning on telling the story of Sabitha and Locke’s childhood together and later romance via flashback in parallel with the main plot of the book to establish a thematic framework of some kind.  If so, that still doesn’t let him off the hook for the shoddy job he’s done with the character so far, not one jot!  Two books, 2000+ pages of action and character development, and fewer than 5 pages total (guesstimate) of information about the love of the main character’s life!

Ok, if I write about that anymore I’ll probably have an aneurism, so moving on.   I also found myself wishing that the whole piracy deal established itself earlier, because here we have this very intriguing scheme on this high-stakes casino interrupted in the middle of the book by this turn of events.  It goes from being Oceans-11-y to Patrick-O’Brien-y, a transition that felt a bit weird.  This series certainly seems planned out; you can go online and see the titles for the other books in the series, those that haven’t’ been written or possibly even begun in earnest yet.  So a lot of things that Lynch does, including having the Bastards make pirate allies and waiting to fully unveil Sabitha until book 3, smacks of timed execution.  Still, some of it comes off as a bit rough around the edges.  I mean, between the stuff in Tal Verar and the storyline at sea, Lynch could have done two books that were more closely linked thematically.  It’s still a good story, but that switch from pulling card tricks as part of the confidence game in the Sinspire casino to worrying about the how the top-gallant mast on a stolen ship will weather a storm is a bit jarring.  The first bit with the Sinspire is to set up Tal Verrar and it’s political situation as the place to return to in the climax, but I hope Lynch knows what kind of whiplash it might cause readers.

Finally, I mentioned earlier that Lynch likes to build everything up for a fairly rapid and frantic third act, and I’d like him to extend that out more and perhaps cut some of the long building up in the process.

Coming in to Dock: Concluding Thoughts

I listened to all of this unabridged, 22-hour audiobook in about a week’s time.  That says something about Lynch’s ability to spin a tale and keep you interested, although it may also mean that the book’s not shooting for any deep philosophical or moral message that it wants you to stop and ponder.  While this book in particular had that jarring transition and begun developing a moral center that I would liked to have seen developed in further detail, it still carried on from the first book in a way I thought was engaging and made me even more invested in the world and what happens to its characters, which is a sign of a good sequel.  If you are going to pick up this series, you absolutely have to pick up The Lies of Locke Lamora first to have the context for much of the drama in Red Seas Under Red Skies.

Michael Page’s performance was again a very solid one.  There is a very grand lilt to his voice, but he can do the voice of a scabrous peasant with the same aplomb he can do a foppish dandy, so between his vocal range and the almost soothing cadence of his voice my enjoyment of the book was certainly enhanced.  I plan on waiting to dive in to Republic of Thieves, book 3 of the series, until it hits Audible (provided Page continues to narrate, of course), so here’s hoping that Lynch continues to develop the book’s moral framework and that he deals with Sabitha in a way that doesn’t enrage me to toss my listening device out the window!

Later Note: As I return to this review in order to update the rating system from a 10 point scale to a 5 point scale, I find myself reconsidering my score of this book as, upon later reflection, I found the experience uneven.  The whole casino plus pirate thing was a lot to try to pull off, and while it was entertaining it still felt awkward in places.

Final Score: 3.5

Coming Up: A Review of Lightspeed Magazine‘s Story Podcast




Welcome to my Speculative Fiction Book Review Blog!

Books read and awaiting review:
Starfish by Peter Watts
Shadow of the Torturer (Book of the New Sun #1) by Gene Wolf
Monster Hunter Vendetta by Larry Correia
Spellbound (Grimnoir #2) by Larry Correia
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

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