Posts Tagged ‘Fantasy


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


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


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


Book Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora (Gentleman Bastards Series Book 1) by Scott Lynch

Oceans 11 in a fantasy Renaissance Venice surrounded by sharks. At least, that was how The Lies of Locke Lamora was initially described in Luke Burrage’s review of the book on The Science Fiction Book Review Podcast, and while he explained that this was only his initial impression and that the book ended up being different than that, it was enough to pique my interest.  I don’t read a lot of fantasy.  I’ve read Tolkien and studied the hell out of his medieval influences, and I’ve kept up with George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, but other than that I haven’t engaged the genre.  Although this blog is dedicated mainly to Science Fiction, I do want to selectively branch out into more genres that fall under the banner of SF, and The Lies of Locke Lamora sounded intriguing and different enough to me to warrant notice.

The book is set in the city of Camorr, which sits on the southern coast of the continent.  The city is built around a series of “alien” structures: towers, archways, bridges, and buildings made of a made of a translucent, seemingly-indestructible substance called “Elderglass,” built by the long-departed Eldren.  Camorr’s Duke, Nicovante, and the rest of Camorr’s upper echelon look out on the city from the heights of the five largest Elderglass towers.  The rest of the city is very much like Renaissance Venice: it’s hot and humid, there are canals traversed by gondolas, districts built on islands, and various trading and commercial hubs.  Renaissance Venice was a major trading hub, and thus a rich ground for cultural exchange as well as commerce.  This is what made it such an interesting setting for writers like Shakespeare.  It was rife with money, vice, and intrigue.  Camorr, likewise, is teeming with exquisite finery and no short supply of thugs who want to steal it.  It’s not an open field, however.  All organized crime in Camorr is run through the Capa (read Godfather) Barsavi and his “Right People.”  When he came to power, Barsavi made an agreement with the constabulary and the nobility known as “the Secret Peace:” in return for a blind eye towards his own activities, Barsavi guarantees that no one under his rule will steal from the nobility or the city watch.

Enter into this mix an ambitous orphan named Locke Lamora, taken in as a child by the Thief Maker to be trained and eventually sold to another gang as a pickpocket.  Locke, however, steals too much and draws too much attention for his master’s liking, so he is sold to another gang, the Gentleman Bastards, run by Father Chains (an older thief who has been conning the locals for years that he is  a blind priest of one of their 12 gods).  Normal gangs filch from commoners and merchants, use cat burglars and open intimidation or violence to make their scores, but The Bastards aren’t a normal gang, however. Oh no, Father Chains trains the Bastards in language, dialects, etiquette, disguises, and all the other facets of theater and the art of the long con; Chains trains the Bastards to steal from the rich in confidence scams, secretly violating the Secret Peace.

Lynch’s debut novel is a fun read.  It’s got an evocatively described setting, lots of intrigue, and great characterization.  I genuinely felt and cared for each of the major characters in this book.  Coming off of a book of such bland characterization as Fiasco, this was immensely refreshing.  It’s also well paced and full of great thrills.  I consumed this book in audio format, and initially groaned at the 22 hour listen time.  It turned out to be the quickest 18+ hour listen I’ve ever had.  I was genuinely hooked.  It’s not a deep book, though, and it’s not addressing any fundamental truths of the human condition, but it’s fun, and that does count for a lot.

The Right People and the Right Stuff

Characterization, setting, and tension-building.  These are the three things that I think make this book so much fun.  The main characters feel pretty well realized.  One way Lynch accomplishes this is by avoiding the James Bond I’m-awesome-at-every-skill-known-to-man approach.  The Sanza twins, Carlo and Galdo, are “Silver at everything and gold at nothing” to paraphrase Father Chains.  Jean Tannen is an excellent fighter and, since he descended from merchants, good at sums as well.  Locke is the bullshitter par excellence; he can ingratiate himself deeply with a target, get them to dance to his tune, and then go change disguises and do it again, all the while convincing the mark that he is two different people.  In this way, The Lies of Locke Lamora resembles movies like Oceans 11: the Gentlemen Bastards’ confidence schemes involve a lot of planning and intricate theater to part their noble marks from their gold.  What makes the characters believable is that they each have their limitations as well.  Locke really can’t hold his own in a fight, Jean isn’t all that great at mummery (the theatrics and dress up), and the Sanzas can act and fight but not as well as Locke and Jean respectively.  This plays a big part in determining how they will react to developments in the plot, but its not the only trait that defines them.  Locke is audacious to a fault, Jean (while seemingly humble) can be in turns overconfident and overcautious, and the Sanzas are flippant more often than not. I was able to believe the character’s reactions to situations in the book, and I cared about what happened to them.  By the end of the book, we know a decent bit about these characters as children learning the ropes and as adults pulling their own scams, so you have an investment in what happens to them.

What’s more is that the narrator, Michael Page, did a wonderful job with the voices and characters.  When I first heard his voice, the way he rolled some of his r’s I was concerned that he’d come off as foppish and that I’d wasted an Audible credit on an annoying performance of the book.  It gave me a bad flashback to when I started listening to the audiobook versions of Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe series that were narrated by Frederick Davidson, whose narration was far inferior to William Ganinara’s and which gave me the image of a snootily-dressed man trying to pretend he couldn’t’ smell a fart.  Thankfully, though, Page demonstrated a wonderful repertoire of voices and his performance of the exposition was thankfully engaging.

Lynch’s description of Camorr was pretty darn vivid.  It was an evocative blend of the familiar and the new (as a kind of twist on Renaissance Venice), and a refreshing change from the usual castles and townships of most Fantasy (or at least most Fantasy that I’ve read).  I get the genuine sense that this is a city built on the water and whose waterways are the lifeblood of commerce and society.  For example, Lynch describes extensive marketplaces and lavish parties conducted on a sprawling series of rafts and boats called “the shifting market” and “shifting revels” respectively.  He also does some interesting things with the extensive network of Elderglass structures throughout the book, making them a clear and felt presence throughout.  One particular use is the time he calls Falselight, which is when twilight rays catch the Elderglass and make them radiate light before the fall of true night.  Here is an excerpt from the prologue:

As the first hint of true darkness seemed to fall over the city a new light rose faint and glimmering to push it back; this light gleamed within the Elderglass of the Five Towers themselves, and within the translucent glass of the bridge on which they were standing. It was an aura, waxing with every passing breath, gaining strength until it bathed the city with the fey half-light of an overcast day.

The hour of Falselight had come.

From the heights of the Five Towers to the obsidian smoothness of the vast glass breakwaters to the artificial reefs beneath the slate-coloured waves, Falselight radiated from every surface and every shard of Elderglass in Camorr, from every speck of the alien material left so long before by the creatures that had first shaped the city. Every night, as the west finally swallowed the sun, the glass bridges would become threads of firefly light; the glass towers and glass avenues and the strange glass sculpture-gardens would shimmer wanly with violet and azure and orange and pearl-white, and the moons and stars would fade to grey.

This was what passed for twilight in Camorr – the end of work for the last daylight laborers, the calling of the night-watches and the sealing of the landward gates; an hour of supernatural radiance that would soon enough give way to true night.

‘Let’s be about our business,’ the Thiefmaker said, and the two of them headed down into the Temple District, walking on soft alien light.

These and the more lavish descriptions in the book were very pleasing to me coming off of reading short stories in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, in which the authors have to do a lot with very little space.

As for tension-building, Lynch seems committed to the drama-building principle of piling upon your protagonist more problems than he can handle.  As the novel builds to its crisis point and climax, it felt like there was no way Locke and the Bastards could get themselves out of the simultaneous jams they found themselves in, which helped defeat any sense of drag by keeping me interested.  There was a point where I thought ok, maybe this is a few too many big problems for one book, but I think everything came together neatly in the end, at least for the opening volume of a series which this certainly is.

The Letdowns of Locke Lamora

The characterization, as I said, is great, but not perfect.  We are kept at a remove from the characters via the third-person narration. Most of the time this is no problem.  We’re not completely locked out of the character’s thoughts and feelings, but there are times when information is being deliberately kept from us for dramatic effect, which I understand but it still frustrates me a little.  While most of it wasn’t a problem for me, sometimes it felt like a cheap dodge allowing Lynch to say “tada! Didn’t see that coming, did you?”  The thing is, you know when you’re being misdirected, so it’s not so much tension-building as it is annoying or, at worst, insulting.   Lynch comes off as either being coy at best or unduly manipulative with the narrative at worst.

This wasn’t the defining mechanism for the book and it doesn’t happen all that often, however, and by and large I could kind of understand why he chose to do it (but understanding is not the same as condoning or liking the decision).  There was one pretty major element in the book that Lynch played coy with that I just could not forgive, and that is Sabitha. WHO THE HELL IS SABITHA!?  Here is what I know about Sabitha: she’s a Gentleman Bastard, was recruited by Chains before Locke, has red hair, is away a lot, and was romantically involved with Locke before they had a falling out and she left.  THAT’S IT!  That’s all you know in the course of 700+ pages and 22 hours of narration.  She left the city for some reason or another during the book’s present storyline, and is conveniently away on some mission/training/flower picking seminar/whatever during all of the flashbacks, so we never see her in a scene, which is just a bunch of BS in my book.  She  is one of only FIVE Gentleman Bastards, has screwed up Locke’s emotional balance so bad his relationship with all other women is tainted, and was one of Father Chain’s star protege’s.  You can’t make such a huge character like that absent from the entire book!  We’re never even given a good reason why she’s not there, Lynch just basically says go with it.  No!  I will not!

At first I thought it was going to be like Orson Welles in The Third Man.  Welles plays the character that the protagonist is trying to track down throughout the whole movie, but he doesn’t show up until the last act of the film.  Despite that, his character and his mystique has been built up throughout to such a degree throughout the film that it’s the few scenes with Welles in it that have become the most memorable parts of the film.  I expected something similar here, that all this misdirection was just Lynch building to a Deus-ex-Sabitha with a big “tada! Didn’t see that coming, did you?” moment in which that mysterious missing Gentleman Bastard appears to save the day/complicate the plot/screw everything up/start a drum circle/whatever.  Alas, no.

So why does Lynch do this?  Well, my theory is based on the fact that he’s building a franchise with these books.  We’ve all seen movies or read books that are guilty of shamelessly writing in or retconning new characters.  I’m talking about those soap opera-ish moments of “Hey, I’m your long-lost brother” or “hey, remember me, that guy you have all that heretofore unmentioned history with and whom your readers are only learning about now?”  This is often used to introduce throwaway characters or, when it’s done very badly, to shoehorn something new into the plot.  I just read that Sabitha doesn’t actually appear until book 3, and I think Lynch wanted to set up that Orson Welles moment without making it look like he was retconning a big part of Locke’s past by writing in a heretofore unmentioned love interest.  But this…is just not acceptable.  If you want to keep a character underdeveloped in order to use him/her later, fine…but you still have to give us something more substantial than this. Given that this book covers such a wide swath of time in Locke’s past and present, Sabitha’s glaring absence feels like sloppy editing and planning.  Or maybe he didn’t even know who the character was going to be at that point…

The book begins and proceeds for a bit like a traditional bildungsroman, or a story about the early years and rites of passage of the main character.  Then it skips ahead to Locke running the show as the Garista (leader) of the Bastards.  Some people may find these two elements, the young Locke and adult Locke, to make for a schizophrenic story that can’t decide if it wants to be about a youth learning the ropes or an adult in crisis.  I wasn’t really bothered by it since I think Lynch wanted to balance that kind of close connection people get to young characters a la Harry Potter (albiet, a dirty, thieving Harry Potter in this case) without sacrificing a high-stakes plot of adult characters in crisis.  It was his debut novel, and I guess he wanted to get as much of the story in there as he could to tantalize readers who have no idea who he is or what he could deliver.  The slices we get of  Locke and the other Bastards as children had a genuine and appropriate impact on the future storyline, and many different strands from both story-lines came together like a Dickens novel, but the omission of Sabitha from each and every one of these sequences is like trying to explain why Pip in Great Expecations  is so angsty after you’ve edited Estella out of the story.

Wrapping it Up

I don’t read a lot of Fantasy, so I’m pretty circumspect about what I do choose to read in this sub-genre of SF.  The Lies of Locke Lamora is a fun romp in a refreshingly different Fantasy setting.  There are no deep messages here, no solemn exploration of the nature of truth or man’s role in the cosmos (which is why it took a hit in my final rating), and it does have its flaws (SABITHA!), but in the end I just don’t want everything I read to be too heavy of message-laden.  I need books that are well written, highly imaginative, and just plain fun, and The Lies of Locke Lamora delivers in that area.  I look forward to reading more in this series.  If any of you, dear readers, are interested, you can find the prologue online here and you can find out more about the setting of the book here.

Score: 4

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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