Tag: fantasy

The Alchemist

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I enjoyed the Alchemist quite a lot! It had quite a range, both creating believable, sympathetic characters as well as creating a harsh world with pockets of tenderness. Khaim is a city on the brink of destruction in a world sliding towards catastrophe, and the daily struggle and the sense of loss is palpable. Nonetheless, people continue on as best they can. It was quite impressive how much the world shapes the societies, the societies shape characters, and the characters’ actions feed back in at each of those levels. I found the resulting scenes very impactful.

Bacigalupi handles the plot and pacing very well, although towards the last third of the story the pacing falters as the summary becomes too thin. However, the story’s climax and conclusion regain the excellence of the beginning, and also left me simultaneously horrified for and excited by the future of Khaim and the characters.

Bacigalupi’s writing is excellent. The narrator’s voice is gentle and easy to follow, the descriptions often lengthy but still sharp, clear, and vivid. The word choice was also an absolute joy.

Additionally, reading this story was a very strange experience, because I had an incredibly strong feeling that I had heard of these locations and nations and terms before. And then I connected it to Tobias Buckell’s novella The Executioness, but was uncertain until I realized what the bramble was referring to, and then I knew they were in the same world. Apparently these novellas were released together, but were listed as separate stories on my Kindle, and I happened to read this a week after the Executioness. This metafictional surprise lent a really odd feeling.

P.S. The concept of the bramble and its relationship to magic brought to mind Larry Niven’s short story “The Magic Goes Away”, a 1976 story / 1978 novella investigating the consequences of magic. I was excited to read another story that explores the consequences of magic.

Obligatory Kindle Notice!

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The Executioness

The Executioness (Front Cover)

Having read this novella a few days after A Stranger in Olondria, I must confess being predisposed against the Executioness simply because it lacked the beauty of language present in A Stranger in Olondria.

While I enjoyed reading the novella, there were parts that made me struggle to enjoy it. The concepts were compelling – the role of women in life, politics and power; the consequences of magic and the resulting political pressures; the personal cost of geopolitical struggle; tragedy as a motivating force – and I was very excited to see them explored. However, the execution of these concepts often cooled that excitement.

I found Tana’s perspective unconvincing. However, the dialogue of other characters also frequently thrust me out of the story, even though I enjoyed the characters and found them acceptable. Additionally, the story proceeds at a breakneck pace, with little description or evocation of the world. Whether that is a net positive or negative is a matter of preference for the reader, but the chosen style inhibited my ability to feel the world and be immersed and take it seriously. It also resulted in some plot hole moments. There was also a general absence of believable human reactions that struck me as quite odd in several moments.

P.S. The concept of the bramble and its relationship to magic brought to mind Larry Niven’s short story “The Magic Goes Away”, a 1976 story / 1978 novella investigating the consequences of magic. I am excited to read another story that explores the consequences of magic.

Obligatory Kindle Notice!

A Stranger in Olondria

I am always nervous writing a review of a book that touches me deeply, as I feel my writing is insufficient to convey that deeper experience with the story. I type this before typing that, of all the things I expected A Stranger in Olondria to be from its title and a too-short descriptive blurb (not the one on the back cover), I did not expect it to be a well-told literary epic telling the tale of a man’s childhood, his journey into the depth of Olondria, and his entanglement in a struggle between two ideologies and cultures, a rift that threatens to rip the kingdom apart.

A Stranger in Olondria is amazingly well written, with vivid descriptions of a young man discovering a foreign world, with a winding plot that unfolds with no shortage of foreshadowing and connections to the past. The most important of these connections occurs as a result of his bond with the ghost mentioned on the back cover. Most importantly to me, the story is a poignant tale of life, with plenty of travel and adventure, but told honestly, rather than dramatically, with no edges blunted. Jevick of Tyom shares his childhood memories, the joy and pain of life, both with and without the sting of adult awareness, and the varied experiences he falls into, from imprisonment, to conspiracy, to living alone with only the company of a ghost.

The story is slow paced, and takes quite a while to reach the heart of the narrative, which may be engaging or tiring, depending on your persuasion. I found it worked very well with the descriptive depth of the novel, and the sheer number of thematic threads woven together. I also found Jevick’s interest in reading, writing, and storytelling fascinating, as these topics are deep in the soul of the story itself, and that meta-commentary resulted in a few moments of genuine wonder. I really enjoyed the prevalence of culture and to a lesser extent ideologies in driving the plot, with the differences in place and dynamics resulting in power struggles with wide-ranging effects. The two viewpoints were generally depicted more than explained, and such explanations usually fit the scene, never feeling forced or like a lecture to the reader. In fact, nothing in the novel felt forced to me: everything had its place and its time.

The Tomorrow Log

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When trying to summarize this, my first attempt came out to “What even is I don’t even but whaaa…” But it is essential to note that this confusion feels masterful and intentional. This is not a lack of skill, this is Lee and Miller throwing together a surreal world and, through excellent execution, getting you to care about it and want to figure it out. Sharon Lee and Steven Miller produce fascinating cultures/societies as always, with stellar writing and amazing, evocative turns of phrase does a great job at submersing you into this weird little universe. If you have read books from their Liaden series, then this will feel familiar, but strange.

I honestly could not figure out how to define this as I was reading it. In the jacket description, Gem is named a wizard – literal description or metaphorical description of his mechanical training? Spaceships, communicators – science fiction? Houses and clans, powerful artifacts – fantasy? Action, drama, and advanced medical tech – sci-fi? Speculative fiction? Science fantasy? Mythos? I quickly decided that whatever it was, it felt magical and I liked it. This may sound inconsequential, but often knowing the genre you are reading sets a certain mood and expectation, and here nothing was certain.

The Tomorrow Log is also on a treadmill of crazy. It starts out fairly reasonable, but then slowly picks up craziness and gets crazier and more cray until it’s just blasting along and you don’t even care that it feels incoherent because it’s such a strange and evocative adventure and your brain is spinning hard to connect pieces to make sense of it.

Cover Art Review: This is a pretty great depiction of feeling of the novel. Dark, mysterious, but with playful elements. Additionally, it’s hilarious to me that this rendering of Gem ser’Edreth looks a little like Neil Patrick Harrison.

Brother to Demons, Brother to Gods

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Conclusion: This book is a hot soggy mess. It is also weird, but not in a good way.

Theoretically the pacing and the plot should be fine, but it drags terribly, and feels like it’s going nowhere very slowly. The overall setting concept and plot concept are solid, and there were some nice reveals, but they in no way salvage the story.

The setting is simultaneously super not interesting and confusingly off the wall, with some very arbitrary worldbuilding choices. The concept is interesting, sort of a revival of the struggle between Greek Gods, Titans, Demigods, and mankind, and if better executed could be very engaging. However, the characters are annoying, and every time a new character was introduced or I spent a scene with an existing character, it just drove me further away from caring about the setting at all. The character development feels mostly arbitrary, like the author suddenly decides to grant some new perspective or ability randomly to the protagonists, rather than the protagonists gaining abilities or knowledge from what they were experiencing. There is also an awful lot of incestuous-feeling stuff going on between Buglet and Davey, which was creeping me out the entire time.

This is also very much subjective, but the writing style did not appeal to me. It felt very jerky, as few paragraphs have any kind of transition to the paragraph before or after. This is fine for about 70% of the paragraphs, but 40% just feel awkwardly disjointed, coming before / after a paragraph with no transition or connection.

Also subjective: the title is amazing and inspiring.

COVER ART REVIEW: There is a lot that is mysterious here, from the budget tank-girl (who’s actually Davey, the dude protagonist. woooops!), to the beam that demon Edward Scissorhands is shooting out of his forehead which budget tank girl is absorbing with her hands / the beam that budget tank girl is shooting out of her hands into demon Edward Scissorhands’ forehead / the beam that is erupting between budget tank girl’s hands and demon Edward Scissorhands’ forehead, to the Fonzi demon-God goin’ all “Eyyyyyyy!” in the sky, to the general appearance of the Edward Scissorhands demon.

Eyyyyyyy!

Un Lun Dun

China Mieville's UnLunDunn

Wow.

I know a few people who got English degrees. These acquaintances were endlessly gushing over China Miéville’s works a few years ago. I understand why now, and wish I had gotten around to reading some works of his much earlier, because Un Lun Dun is amazing!

There are three main elements as to why I found it so appealing: the plot structure, the feel of Un Lunn Dunn’s world, and the characters, especially the protagonists from London.

I clicked with the characters far more than I expected to. At first the characters felt a bit flat, but I quickly forgot that and was engaged and following along with the characters. Thinking back on this, much more is shown than told about the characters, and so even though it did not feel like the characters had been fleshed out because we were told less about them than the protagonists, I actually knew a lot more about the characters than I thought I did.

The plot starts off light and ramps up quickly, throwing Zanna and Deeba into the world of Un Lun Dun, where they find themselves drawn into the orbit of an ancient prophecy known to almost all UnLunDuners. This part is delightful, for even as prophecies are a fairly cliché plot device, the various characters’ reaction to meeting the Chosen One is generally delightful and revealing, and the world revealed along the way is eccentrically marvelous. The characters infuse the prophecy with meaning, such that it becomes more than just a sterile outline. UnLunDun is a realm fundamentally similar to yet different from London, and the delight is in how something so fundamentally different can feel so delightfully Londonish. (Note: I’ve not spent much time there, so I probably have a low bar for authenticity.) No matter how surreal or bizarre a scene Mievielle serves up, it is always feels believable, as well as vivid and breathtaking.

And then, as the book jacket says, things begin to go shockingly wrong. And this is where the story roars up to full speed. With the introduction and buildup we have had so far, not only can we dive straight into drama and action and confrontation, but we’re invested in the characters and setting so it’s more meaningful.

Again. UnLunDun. Amazing.

 

Lhind the Spy

by Sherwood Smith

Published by Book View Cafe in 2015

So if you are expecting this to be a light-hearted romp as per Lhind the Thief, you will be disappointed. Instead, you will receive a somewhat gritty story about Lhind being kidnapped and forced to live as a royal princess in a grotesque society of conformance.

Lhind the Thief focused on Lhind’s interactions with the various characters she came across, how Lhind changed over time and how she built relationships. However, Lhind the Spy is primarily focused on Lhind’s inner struggles to satisfactorily play the role she has been thrust into in order to survive, while retaining her own identity and preventing that role from consuming her. This is a lot grimmer story than Lhind the Thief, and to some readers (and characters in the book!) Lhind’s struggles may seem like a bit much, seeing as how much of a privileged position her kidnappers place her in. However, Lhind pays attention to both the nobles and the common people and their role in the society she has been thrust into. This is actually a fairly interesting exploration of cultural patterns and societal classes, and if the reader is so inclined, they could draw parallels to present culture and glean some insight if the reader is so inclined. Good stuff, in essence.

All that said, I enjoyed my time, although it was more melancholy than in Lhind the Thief. While I am looking forward to another LHIND book, I hope it modulates its tone between Lhind the Thief and Lhind the Spy. Or adopts an entirely different tone altogether! After all, I’m just a reader, not the author.

Obligatory Kindle Note: I read this on a Kindle.

COVER ART REVIEW: What cover art?

The Straits of Galahesh

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I really enjoyed nearly all of this book, but the climax of the book soured much of it for me. I have not read the third book, the Flames of Shadam Koresh, and I am sure once I read it I will change my mind, but it feels like the ending for this book was pure artifice and that everything should have ended in the climax here.

I’ll dive into what aggravated me. In the last ¼th of the book, one of the major antagonists suddenly was revealed to have an unstoppable super power that no one could defend against, until suddenly someone could defend against it. It felt like a lazy way to get everything to happen that the author needed to happen for the final scene, as if characters being driven by their actual motivations / flaws weren’t enough to get exactly what the author wanted, so they just pulled the strings, moving the puppets around jerkily such that it becomes clear they’re puppets and not characters. That breaking of suspension of disbelief really hurt the ending for me.

Phew, now with that aside, the first ¾ of the book were on balance pretty good, although I do admit to enjoying Atiana and Nikandr’s chapters more than Nasim. I found the writing and point of view more engaging. I did have a problem with the sheer amount of twists, turns, betrayals, and reversals. The first third of the book had some very well done plot twists, but after that the density seems to just increase, and even though well done, simply due to the density of them, they just become tired. So when something dramatic and unexpected happens in the climax of the book, I didn’t go “WOAH WHAAAAAAAT HOLY CRAP”, I thought “Huuuuh. Neat. Well, I bet something will undo what just happened within 20 pages.” There is also a problem with the protagonists implementing  straightforward and reactive plans, while the antagonists are the masterminds with plans that have wheels spinning within wheels. As a result, anything the protagonists do is usually either “part of the villain’s plan,” or reacting to something irrelevant and so anything they achieve will be either undone or rendered irrelevant within 50 pages. As a result, the investment you have in seeing characters succeed is lessened, as it’s like Charlie Brown and the football. You just know that little girl is going to pull the football away and he’s going to stumble and fall.

And yet, I kept reading, and grumbling aside, enjoyed what I read. Putting aside the plot, the amazing worldbuilding was still there, and the character development was also very well done. Nearly every Duchy character we saw in the first book has changed drastically in the five years since the Winds of Khalakovo, and in ways that are believable, logical, and true to the characters’ nature. That feels rare to me, and to see it done so well was really great.

The magical metaphysics were still unclear to me, as I am still not clear whether there is any clear explanation for all the various the times a character arbitrarily cannot summon a hezhan when it would be very useful to do so. And while it is unclear how the Al-Aquim can do seemingly unique magic, their status as the Al-Aquim kinda grants them a pass!

Oh, and the glossary – it froze my kindle with its awesomeness! Once I got it rebooted, it was great to have all the terms in one place, not because I needed to look up any of them (again, Beaulieu is great with providing enough context to understand the functional use of a term, letting you build connotations from the sound of the word and its associations), but just to glory in it all.

One thing I really liked about the worldbuilding in the first book was the the cultural bent of the Cyrillic-feeling Duchy relative to the more Arabic Aramahn and the Maharrat cultures. The Straits of Galahesh does one better by throwing in Yrstanla’s Turkish-inspired culture, and seeing the geopolitical counterbalance between the Grand Duchy’s internal struggles and the external struggle with Yrstanla was really great.

For now though, as much as I enjoyed the first two books, I will take a breather to read some lighter fare, and then dive into the Flames of Shadam Koresh after the weekend.

COVER ART REVIEW: I definitely checked this out before reading the book, and gotta say, this kind of thing happens a lot in this book! I like the green coat and the walrus-bone powder shells on the bandolier, and the composition is great, but I wish the background colors were more muted. The jumper’s hair, eyebrows, and mustache-goatee in combination also made me snort.

 

The Winds of Khalakovo

 

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I really enjoyed The Winds of Khalakovo. The story unfolds on Khalakovo, an archipelago of seven islands, one of nine island kingdoms in the Grand Duchy of Anuskaya, all wracked by famines, a wasting plague, and a guerrilla war against the Maharrat. The world is incredibly detailed and incredibly fascinating without being expository, the drama is gripping, the characters are well realized, and the stakes feel real.

The worldbuilding is very dense, in that Beaulieu is not afraid to just go and use characters, concepts, places, social classes, kingdoms, faction names, and professions without any explanation or introduction. This sounds like it should be bad – but it’s not! Beauliu uses the terms in context quite well, so I figured out the functional use of the terms well enough, and I quickly built connotations that helped me figure out the cultural meaning of the terms as well. For example, Landed terms are usually Cyrillic, while the Aramahn and Maharrat use much more Arabic-sounding terms. For example, the characters know what streltsi are, what a sotnik is, what a havaquiram is and how it relates to havahezhan, what ethnic groups Landed and Landless refer to, how the Aramahn fit into Khalakovoan society, etc. On the other hand, figuring out what the Maharrat are up to is something both I as the reader and Nikandr the character struggled with together.

On one hand, the plot often feels harsh, with some overly vindictive, petty characters and willfully blind characters. On the other, the Greek tragedy feel of some moments lends a lot to the feel, with a mixture of the characters’ motivations and flaws driving them to their actions. The plot also has lots of twists, turns, and mysteries, both in terms of the characters figuring things out as well as the reader figuring out the world as they read. Some of the assumptions I made make early on were wrong, and realizing that and reassessing everything on the fly was both somewhat frustrating and really interesting.

One negative aspect of the worldbuilding is that it can be hard to pin down everything that is happening, as there are so many characters, factions, terms, and concepts in play. Since much of my knowledge of the world’s magical physics and political balance was inferred from context and scraps of explanation, often a new phenomenon would upend my understanding. This might be something you are looking for (exhilarating, thrilling), or it might not be (confusing, jarring, disorienting).

Cover Art Review: I actually did not see the cover art until writing this review. (Kindle. And this book actually had the cover art in the .mobi! Not sure how I missed it.) Which is a shame, because I really like this cover art! It nails the windships – a lot of the scenes make a lot more sense having seen this, and as one thing I missed was environmental description, seeing some of the landscape is really nice too.

The Five Elements

TheFiveElements.jpg*(I couldn’t find a back cover, so I took the official description I could find and pasted it on black.)

The Five Elements is a totally functional book. It was exciting at points, and kept me reading to see what happened, and there were some neat scenes and ideas scattered through, but at the end I felt it had been a decent experience, rather than an unforgettable one.

The characters sometimes felt rather flat: it was mostly fine, but since the characters all had one main facet and little else, after that was initially developed, it got somewhat less interesting. This was also an especially large problem with the villains, who had limited motivations aside from wanting unlimited power.

Unfortunately, while the plot and world started out feeling promising, after the first half both descended into a state of eh. Norwynne was great, and the world of that city was really interesting, especially with the Undercity and all. Then the story left the city for the wilds. The tech-magic stuff was intriguing and promising: for a while it seemed like the details of the encorder and attunement system would be important to the plot. In the full scheme of things, while theoretically that knowledge should be important, it was not particularly well woven into the story. I never felt like magical events really were totally sensible given our knowledge of the world. Instead, it felt like something happened and Aaron or a villain explained how/why it did in context of the world. Additionally, there were some gaping holes in the villains’ various plans, and as those come to light in the later half, it throws a dash of cold water on the immersion. I will say the mystery and confusion around some of the villains kept me distracted until the very climax. However, at the end I was bummed out by the revelation of what the Fifth Element is. The Fifth Element feels like something that is pretty prone to tropeing, so if you use it, you want to make it something special rather than something eh.

I probably will get the sequel (The Nullification Engine) on the Kindle, but if I do, it will be out of interest in the plot, structure, and worldbuilding aspects rather than a particular interest in the plot or characters. (Okay, maybe I am interested in the relationships between Ensel Re, Serena, and Aaron, but that’s really not the main motivator.) Since the Five Elements was first published in 2010, while the Nullification Engine was published in 2013, it will be interesting to see whether the authors’ style has changed.

OBLIGATORY KINDLE NOTE: I kindled this. On a Kindle.

COVER ART REVIEW: It’s rather… abstract? Conveys the theme, if little else. But very shiny!