Currently Reading

Currently Reading: The Undivided by Jennifer Fallon

Monday, February 28, 2011

Mini Review: Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

Revelation Space – Alastair Reynolds (Published 2000)
Genre: Science Fiction
Sub-genre: Hard Space Opera
Completed: November 14 2010

Revelation Space can best be described using one of its key figures as a simile. Like ‘The Nostalgia For Infinity,’ the starship at the centre of events, Revelation Space is a mysterious, sprawling and complicated monstrosity. It is the first entry in the saga of the same name.

Upon reading I was quickly struck by the depth of world-building Reynolds has completed. I didn’t expect Epic Fantasy depth from Space Opera. But what do I know? His setting is compelling but the sheer scope can overwhelm the narrative and characters. Similarly the time lag of space flight gives the story a non-linear structure that might be confusing for casual readers of Science Fiction (i.e. me).

Without a doubt I found Revelation Space intriguing, but by that token I enjoyed it on the same level as I might enjoy reading history, rather than fiction. It felt more like an intellectual exercise than an emotional one. This can partly be attributed to the frequent occurrence of heavy exposition and hard science explanations that pulled me out of the story (which I imagine are a staple of a genre with which I am unfamiliar). As a result the plot twists and developments were interesting as information, not because of their impact on characters.

My persistence in reading on and absorbing all of this information was rewarded in the tremendous climax. All of the plot threads came together and it became apparent that none of the exposition was extraneous. Reynolds leaves some mystery, but it isn’t a cheap cliffhanger that annoyingly demands an immediate sequel.

I’m glad this is a mini review, because attempting a plot summary might make my brain explode. The level of detail is so impressive. I give Revelation Space 3.5 stars.

Mini Review: Perdido Street Station by China Miéville

Perdido Street StationChina Miéville (Published 2000)
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-genre: New Weird, with lashings of Steampunk
Completed: October 7 2010

Perdido Street Station provided me with a unique, exciting and instructive reading experience. I was blown away by Miéville’s intelligence and imagination and forced to recognize that here is a writer who is truly smarter than I am. He creates a living, breathing (and let’s not forget dirty) city in New Crobuzon, filled with unforgettable and enjoyably disturbing imagery. To quote the review that convinced me to read Perdido Street Station in the first place, Miéville has written his ambition all over the page. I was thoroughly engaged and consumed by his city.

Then I read the second half of the novel. Perhaps Miéville was overambitious. The most obvious flaw is with the plot. Without going into too much detail in this mini review, the focus of the story shifts drastically away from Yagharek’s (a bird-man of sorts) struggle to have his flight restored and on to Isaac’s (the ‘mad’ scientist) effort to destroy the creatures he has accidentally unleashed on New Crobuzon. At times a somewhat complicated character known as the Weaver is required to step in and save our heroes as a classic deus ex machina.

It would be too strong to declare that the ending betrays the promise of the story. It is foreshadowed, but it still feels disappointing. Realistically, the conclusion is disappointing only in proportion to how superb the first half was.

Perdido Street Station certainly contains mind blowing passages that would merit 5 stars if the same quality was maintained throughout, but the inconsistency results in a solid 3.5 stars.

Secret Project (+ some links to recent genre discussions)

For the last few days I've been occupied with my secret project. Of course it isn't that big a deal and I probably don't have to keep it secret but it's much more fun for me this way.

Anyway, the secret project has occupied most of my non-fiction writing time, so the blog took a bit of a hit at the end of last week. Rest assured things are back to normal and today I'll be posting a pair of mini reviews that I should have gotten to a long time ago.

If you are keen for some reading, consider delving into the discussion of genre characteristics, specifically femininity. Two links to start you off are here:
N. K. Jemisin and Kate Elliott - two smart ladies that write wonderfully.

Then to get the controversy ball rolling go here:
Black Gate

And when you are sick of any such discussion head over to visit Sam Sykes.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Retentive Book Collectors and New China Mieville Covers

There's something about lining up books from a single author or series on your shelf. They don't look identical, but they share a similarity that links them and creates a beautiful symmetry (yes, I know that isn't what symmetry is). Unless things change.

In my early University days I had little money to buy books. The only books I bought were entries in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time and George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire. Imagine my terrible sadness when the Wheel books changed from the style of Winter's Heart to Crossroads of Twilight.



Now I have an income. Now I own all of the US Hardcover versions of the Wheel of Time books from TOR, and I can sleep at night. However, my dreams are about to be troubled again. As if the first change didn't hurt enough there is another evolution in cover design for China Mieville's next book, Embassytown.


Sure, conduct your market research, design more effective and modern covers, change with the times, grow your readership and your profits. But at what cost? Haven't I suffered enough? I can't believe the selfishness of these publishers. It's enough to drive me crazy.

Nebula Nominees Announced (get your alliteration here)

The nominees for the Nebula Awards have been announced. A full list can be seen in many places, including here. For those who aren't familiar with the Nebulas this is the place to start your reading.

My current Nebula record stands at 1 nominated work read (which I will review in full shortly)... 2 if I'm allowed to count a novella. I best get cracking, because in spite of being an infinite improvement on last year it is still a miserable effort.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Most Anticipated Books of 2011

We're already two months into the year, and one of the novels that would have appeared on this list has already arrived (The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie). Time to get moving!

There are some very high profile releases that barely need mentioning, but I will very briefly highlight George R. R. Martin's A Dance With Dragons, The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss and The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch (after all, The Lies of Locke Lamora was my favourite read of 2010). If I had read beyond the first entry in The Malazan Book of the Fallen to date I'm sure The Crippled God by Steven Erikson would also make the list.

I should also mention Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson's A Memory of Light, which is more likely to be released in 2012, but in case it makes a 2011 release window it should be highlighted as my most anticipated, bar none. A fifteen year commitment to a series means a lot.

Here are some of my most anticipated releases - and they aren't all sequels:

The Dragon's Path - Daniel Abraham
Abraham's debut series, The Long Price Quartet, has been regularly declared the most criminally underrated Fantasy series of the last decade. Early readers suggest that The Dragon's Path ventures into more mainstream (read: marketable) territory.

Cold Fire - Kate Elliott
This is an absolute no-brainer, since Cold Magic was my favourite book published in 2010. I haven't seen aa synopsis or cover art for Cold Fire, but I don't need it to be excited.

Spellbound - Blake Charlton
Blake Charlton used his own life knowledge and experience to create a refreshingly new world in Spellwright and deliver a hero with a perfectly believeable struggle - dyslexia.

The Coldest War - Ian Tregillis
Bitter Seeds was my favourite debut novel of 2010 and I can't wait to read what becomes of our heroes and indeed the world as a whole in the wake of a World War II that didn't quite play out as history suggests. The title is a pretty fair clue as to where Tregillis is headed.

The Unremembered - Peter Orullian
The most hyped debut of 2011. I'm caught up in it. Why not?

Honourable mentions should also be given to by N. K. Jemisin (The Kingdom of Gods), Mark Charan Newton (The Book of Transformations) and R. Scott Bakker (The White Luck Warrior) whose work I find very exciting, but I am not up to date in their series.

Favourite Reads of 2010

Obviously I am very late to the party, but late February in 2011 is a better time to make this post than never. So here are my three favourite books that I read in 2010, listed in their appropriate category.

Favourite Read of the Year (and Favourite Novel Not Published in 2010)
The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch - Full Review

The last book I read in 2010 has left quite an impression. For pure page-turning thrills and an unsurpassed level of enjoyment, I couldn't look past Scott Lynch's debut effort in The Gentlemen Bastards sequence. Vivid world building and an endlessly likeable hero combined with a devastating sense of humour.

Favourite Novel Published in 2010
Cold Magic by Kate Elliott - Full Review

Had a confluence of events not brought Kate Elliott to a semi-local independent bookshop I would honestly never have pickd up this book. 2010 was the year that I realised how male-centric my reading had been, and Kate Elliott's first entry in the Spiritwalker trilogy was an excellent initial step in remedying that situation. I choose to end this paragraph now, before I type something that will sound patronising, however well intentioned.

Favourite Debut Novel of 2010
Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis - Full Review

Another novel that would have probably passed me by, Ian Tregillis's attendance at Aussicon4 gave me the inspiration I needed to pick this up. His delightful alchemy brings together history, magic and fantastical science in this World War II era thriller.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Bankrupt Nihilism of Kitten-powered Zeppelins

Last week a blogger who has a sufficient readership to draw the attention of the online Fantasy crowd made this post, entitled The Bankrupt Nihilism of Our Fallen Fantasists. It's very open and intense attack on the growing wave of 'gritty' Fantasy and, more problematic in my mind, the people that write it.

If this guys is taking the piss, as we say in Australia, then the article is hilarious. If not, it's still hilarious, but for very different reasons.

Perhaps the main author to come under attack is Joe Abercrombie, which is not surprising given the very recent release of The Heroes. I'm no Abercrombie fanboy (and he doesn't need me to defend him - he did just fine here). In spite of my regard for The First Law Trilogy (old review, newly posted here) I found some segments of it and the followup stand-alone novel Best Served Cold pretty hard to take. Abercrombie was pushing the envelope and at times I felt it pushed too far (for my tastes). Yet credit where credit is due, Abercrombie is working to develop something different. It manages to be subversive and entertaining while still paying homage to the traditions of the Fantasy genre

I don't object to the sentiment that this style of Fantasy is not for everyone. I have friends to whom I would not recommend Abercrombie, while I have others I would insist should drop everything and dive in. I do object to the language and imagery used in this diatribe (again, unless he's joking, in which case Abercrombie might chuckle along). I don't want to make unfair assumptions, but given the amount of religiously-charged language the writer uses it seems reasonable to conclude that the term 'Fallen' in his title is saying a bit more than 'they write poorly.' Apparently Abercrombie and friends are committing 'postmodern blasphemies against our mythic heritage.' To steal a quote from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the subtext pretty rapidly becomes text. Apparently in daring to use the same epic tropes that Tolkien himself borrowed is tantamount to 'taking a crucifix and dripping it in urine.' Is there a bigger issue at stake here?

I think I am more offended by the manner in which this blogger has raised classic Fantasy to a point that one can blaspheme against it than by anything Abercrombie has penned. I think any author would happily say if you don't like it, don't buy it, don't read it. But don't tell them what their 'real' intentions were. There are many modern mythmakers whose works maintain the 'elevated prose' this blogger seeks. Some of them are even women, though you wouldn't know it to read the original post.

Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

The Lies of Locke Lamora – Scott Lynch (Published 2006)
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-genre: Sword and Sorcery, disguising a potentially Epic tale
Completed: December 30 2010

The Lies of Locke Lamora sat on my ‘to be read’ pile for a long time, constantly overlooked for more recent releases. Now I can sit back and marvel at my poor judgment in passing over Scott Lynch’s incredibly accessible and utterly unpretentious tale of a young thief who steals too much.

Of course, Locke Lamora doesn’t stay young. He grows to become the leader of the Gentlemen Bastards, a gang of conmen who are, unsurprisingly, a little too smart for their own good. Although the protagonists are criminals there is such a sense of innocence and fun that pulls the reader willingly into their world. Lynch does a tremendous job of establishing the Bastards as a group of boys who never had a chance at a legitimate life. They are so enmeshed in the criminal lifestyle that at one point Locke acknowledges the Bastards have no real use for the wealth they acquire, beyond financing their next job.

Lynch has deliberately layered his story to build upon this sense of sympathy and strengthen the vicarious thrill the reader enjoys. The account of Locke’s present ‘business venture’ is interspersed with episodes from his upbringing which very effectively inform choices made by the characters and create hilarious examples of irony as we see the Bastards ride roughshod over the lessons they were taught. Locke’s first meeting with a bondsmage (the magic users of Lynch’s world) had me laughing randomly and inappropriately for days after reading it.

That meeting is one of many examples of the cracking dialogue Lynch employs. It can occasionally feel overwrought, but it pays to remember that Locke has been trained to fight with his wits and words (which is fortunate, because he is rubbish with a sword). Indeed the verbal sparring suits the atmosphere of the period and society Lynch is working with. Locke’s home city of Camorr seems to be a fanciful iteration of Renaissance Venice, with its social structure, level of technology and (even more obviously) the canals that dominate its geography.

Making up for Locke’s martial deficiencies is his sidekick Jean, who throughout the story develops into a second viewpoint character. The relationship between Locke and Jean is beautifully developed, from their as boys to the incredible trust between them as adults. It is genuinely touching to see Locke willingly put his life in jeopardy knowing that Jean will keep him safe. Fortunately, Jean thoroughly merits that trust. He somewhat adheres to the Sam Gamgee archetype, if Sam had been a scary bastard running around with twin hatchets which he has given names to.

While I see The Lies of Locke Lamora as an excellent entry point to Fantasy for non-genre readers, some will find the humour bleak. There are many examples of brutality and the detached levity might keep readers at a distance. The book launches a proposed seven book series and in spite of its contained story there are several elements that point to a broader story with more traditional epic stakes, such as the indestructible ‘glass’ towers left by an extinct, magical race. I look forward to reading the sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies, and note with the inevitable mixture of disappointment and sympathy that Scott Lynch suffers from depression, which has substantially delayed the completion of further volumes.

I have to give The Lies of Locke Lamora a full 5 stars. I wouldn’t expect a story like this to win any literary awards (with the benfit of hindsight, it didn’t) but it was so enjoyable that I found myself frustrated whenever I had to put it down. To put that in perspective, I was holidaying in Europe – putting the book down usually meant going to see an ancient monument of tremendous historical significance.

Read it – for good-humoured story telling that succeeds in relating a serious story without taking itself too seriously
Don’t read it – if you prefer your Fantasy to raise the stakes to epic, end-of-the-world proportions

Review: The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie

The First Law Trilogy – Joe Abercrombie
- The Blade Itself (Published 2006)
- Before They Are Hanged (Published 2007)
- Last Argument of Kings (Published 2008)
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-genre: Epic (at least, in the end)
Completed: February 27 2010

For those in the mood to be uplifted by the heroics of a legendary hero, who defies the odds and overcomes his own flaws to save the world… move along, nothing to see here. Say one thing about Joe Abercrombie, say he’s cynical.

Joe Abercrombie’s trilogy belongs to the (not so) new wave of Fantasy made popular by George R. R. Martin in which wounds get infected, people need to piss (Abercrombie’s word) at unhelpful times and significant characters die, often without warning. And it’s great. It’s true to the world, and well, you have to be realistic.

The pace of the story also rockets along. There’s so much energy and fun (albeit of the twisted kind more often than I’d care to admit). Abercrombie tells a big story in a short space of time, relative to the epic sub-genre. It’s a manageable read for casual fans of Fantasy that tremble in terror at the prospect of The Wheel of Time.

This series is consciously structured as a trilogy. The Blade Itself could not stand on its own, unlike many first books of series in the genre (which authors didn’t necessarily intend to expand). There are three acts spread appropriately across the three books, and while there may be subplots resolved along the way there is nothing self-contained about the books. I came late to the party so I could finish and move immediately into the next book (which I did eagerly – reading the whole series in just over a week). The Blade Itself introduces the characters and the primary conflict is ultimately revealed towards the end of the book, dwarfing the earlier established sub-plots. Before They Are Hanged unsurprisingly expands the scope, with characters visiting other lands, cultures and people… and killing them.

Like many big series, the final payoff doesn’t quite match up to the build up, but in this case it’s because the build up was just so good. The dénouement is similarly disappointing but it’s because it’s real. It’s a reasonable conclusion (or rather, lack of) to the stories of the main characters. Abercrombie doesn’t betray the promises of his characters by giving them false, happy endings (or anything resembling successful romances). I hated it, and felt like Last Argument of Kings was the weakest of the three books. Then I loved it. Now I’m not so sure. Abercrombie may have pushed the cynicism of recent fantasy as close to the line of completely alienating the reader, but his genius is in staying right on that line.

In terms of plot the story has genuine epic scope. The series gets its name from the First Law of Magic – people must not touch the ‘other side’ where all the evil demon stuff is. Naturally people do. They break the Second Law too, which forbids eating the flesh of men. The epic conflict of magical forces is ironically and effectively portrayed as the more intimate plot. Abercrombie has invented a world in which even the greatest heroes of mythology are deeply flawed. The central, focused metaphysical plot is nicely contrasted with the business of kingdoms, invasions and wars which ultimately consumes most of the viewpoint characters.

The harshness of the world allows for small, realistic gestures of kindness and heroism to appear powerful and endear you to otherwise unsympathetic characters, many of whom commit or have committed atrocities. All of the main characters are scarred by their pasts, some literally and some more than others. Even Jezal, the naïve and arrogant young soldier is burdened by the upbringing that has made him so self-centred. It was often hilarious to see Jezal build things up in his mind, and in the mind of the reader, only to have their shallowness and insignificance exposed.

Characterisation is definitely one of Abercrombie’s strengths, as is the dialogue it allows him to capture so believably. He has several significant viewpoint characters and I have never read a book where it was so easy to distinguish between voices. He does use some ‘cheats’ - you have to be realistic - such as repeated phrases and dialect, but they work for him where for other authors they may become frustrating.

On the subject of character I have three words. San dan Glokta. Three more words. Best character ever. Glokta is one of the most complex and intriguingly twisted characters that I have read recently. Plenty of people will probably find Glokta a little too self-aware, not in the sense that Abercrombie breaks the fourth wall, but Glokta can seem too self-assured and has significant amounts of italicized internal dialogue. At one point he has the supernatural world that underpins all of the events in the story thrust in his face, and he is appropriately dismayed, but recovers from the experience very quickly.

There is a point to this behaviour – Glokta has been through hell, and nothing scares him because nothing he is threatened with compares to his past. Even more to the point, every time his arc threatens to head down a well-worn path it dodges away in a different direction. Glokta is the character that seems to understand the most and is probably the character whose personality and experiences are the most indicative of the ‘morality’ of Abercrombie’s world. Logen Ninefingers is also a very original and credible character, though I found the device of the Bloody-Nine, which I won’t spoil, to be irritatingly random and twisted. I mean, I know that was the point. When it was first used I was overwhelmed by how awesome it was, but it lost its luster as the author intended.

Abercrombie has succeeded in crafting an enjoyable story through the perspectives of a series of characters that can only be described as bastards. Even if I was unsympathetic to their personal sufferings (which they more or less cause for themselves) I was intrigued. The whole trilogy was a genuine page-turner and gets 4.5 stars from me.

Read it – if you despair that George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is in fact the infamous Song that Never Ends, and you want to read a gritty, uncompromising series that is actually finished.
Don’t read it – if you want enjoyable, escapist High Fantasy, and the map that usually accompanies such tales. Also, if you aren’t an adult.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

What have I done?

I have admitted something terrible. It didn't take professional police interrogators to drag the confession out of me. I've volunteered it freely.

The reviews that I have posted recently, based on my holiday reading, indicate that I have committed sacrilege against two of the seminal texts of Science Fiction and Fantasy. I didn't especially enjoy Good Omens and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

I'm sorry. I hope my parents can still love me.

In my reviews I pointed to the way humour is delivered in a fashion that felt intrusive to me, and I increasingly lost patience with being pulled out of the story. It was a deliberate device - I'm not implying an error on the part of the authors, it simply didn't work for me.

However I have since thought about other possible causes for my ambivalence... Media dates. I'm not one of those people who demands big budget remakes of old movies with modern special effects, but I have noticed that generally I don't enjoy older media (with those rare, brilliant exceptions). Technically it could be argued that I was not the audience for which old movies or novels were produced. Not many authors think enough of themselves to believe they are writing a great story for posterity, hence they are writing for their contemporaries.

I suppose I am implying that both Good Omens and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy don't resonate with a 28 year old male in 2011 the way that did during the times closer to their release. Had I read them earlier in my life I may have fallen in love with them and might be able to reflect on them with nostalgic affection. I didn't. I came into Good Omens in particular with no knowledge of the story, but with soaring expectations nonetheless. It never stood a chance.

I'm sure my kids won't like The Godfather either. Imagine their probable reaction to Star Wars...

Mini Review: Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

Good Omens – Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (Published 1990)
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-genre: Um… Biblical Parody?
Completed: January 16 2011

There is no doubt that Good Omens is based on an almost objectively hilarious concept. Unfortunately I didn’t find the conceptual humour sufficient to sustain an entire novel. The delivery of much of the humour by authorial intrusion, rather than through character or story, felt too forced after a few chapters. I’m a Christian, and the story certainly did not offend me. In fact, my knowledge of the Bible and understanding of church history and politics probably made it funnier for me. There was just too much of a good thing.

Good Omens is extremely ambitious in its effort to provide social satire. Gaiman and Pratchett seem eager to lampoon so many of the inconsistencies in Western society that to me it felt that they bit off more than they could chew. There are so many threads and viewpoints that the central (and most enjoyable) relationship between the angel Aziraphale and demon Crowley is overwhelmed.

Does the collaboration work? The two Gaiman books I have read I give 4 stars. Of Pratchett’s work I have only read The Colour of Magic (shame on me) and gave it 3 stars, but I am worried that it may be his style which is not for me (SHAME ON ME!). I can only see fit to give Good Omens 2.5 stars. I’ll be bunkering down now.

Mini Review: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams (Published 1979)
Genre: Science Fiction
Sub-genre: Parody
Completed: December 16 2010

Structurally speaking, this will be the worst (mini) review ever. You’ve been warned.

I enjoyed reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but not as much as I hoped. Everything that is good about Douglas Adams’s novel has been said many times… all I can add is an explanation of why I didn’t enjoy it as much as I anticipated.

I didn’t laugh out loud while I was reading the book. I smirked, I even occasionally chuckled, but I never guffawed. I expected to, hence I was disappointed. There are few books that have a reputation like this one, but the very British sense of humour hits and (frequently) misses with me. I feel the same about Good Omens. It certainly didn’t help that I had seen the 2005 film and thus already heard most of the jokes.

Sadly I can only award The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy 3 stars. It’s a good book, probably a great book, but I don’t think it supports the vast weight of expectation that popular consciousness has heaped upon it.

Mini Review: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman (Published 2008)
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-genre: Urban/Supernatural
Completed: December 23 2010

The Graveyard Book is overwhelmingly delightful and delightfully English (made moreso by the fact that I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Gaiman himself). It is hauntingly magical in some passages, profoundly human in others.

Gaiman’s premise is brilliant in its originality and simplicity. The story is well constructed, with each chapter almost worthy of being a short story of its own. However it occasionally feels overwrought as key points of resolution are thoroughly foreshadowed. This can be forgiven for the sake of younger readers; the target audience. Yet as a result The Graveyard Book lacks the subtlety of plot and chilling reality that Gaiman’s adult works contain (such as American Gods). But are those elements really missed?

I recommend The Graveyard Book for readers of all ages who are seeking a traditional story-telling experience. The audio version in particular gave me a tremendous and nostalgic ‘fire-side’ feeling. 4 stars.

Review: The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

This is another old review that I am posting in order to provide a sense of my opinion of Pratchett's individual work before I delve into his collaboration with Neil Gaiman, Good Omens.

The Colour of Magic – Terry Pratchett
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-genre: Satire
Completed: April 15 2010

Some of my friends loved Terry Pratchett in high school. He has a massive reputation among fans of Fantasy. His books are renowned for their humour. They’re so short. Why did it take me so long to read one?

I’m a completionist, so The Colour of Magic was an obvious choice. It’s the first of Pratchett’s (in)famous Discworld novels, which do for Fantasy what The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy did for Science Fiction.

I wanted to like it. I didn’t want to be that guy. I had been forewarned that it’s nowhere near the best in the Discworld series. Concensus among writers seems to be that you take a few books to hit your stride, but there’s still plenty to like and laugh at in The Colour of Magic, and enough to encourage me to read on in the Discworld. It’s a short read too, so there’s not much to lose.

Where The Colour of Magic shines is of course in establishing the Discworld. I’ll leave it to Pratchett’s words for explanation of what it is. Suffice it to say that the image he conjures on the page and in your mind is hilarious and unforgettable – simply trying to imagine it makes your head spin. If a setting made a story this would be an awesome book.

Naturally Pratchett’s quirky world needs to be filled with equally odd characters, beginning with his non-hero, Rincewind. Rincewind is an incredibly poor magician, but is freakishly successful at eluding Death (yes, upper case ‘D’). Rincewind is joined by the charmingly naïve TwoFlower, a tourist visiting the various nations of the Disc, and TwoFlower’s um… animated and rather ferocious luggage. Many of the other characters in The Colour of Magic are stereotypes but that’s precisely the point, because Pratchett is parodying the recurring tropes of Fantasy.

Regular readers of Fantasy books, like myself, will probably enjoy Pratchett’s writing because you will be in on the jokes. He clearly loves the fiction that he is lampooning, so his style is warm and the jokes are good-natured. None of the characters exist purely to be mocked. Their cowardice, greed and selfishness are made to seem perfectly reasonable in the ridiculous circumstances they are faced with.

So the plot… well it’s not always coherent, and it’s not really important. Nor is it concluded in The Colour of Magic (apparently I need to read on with The Light Fantastic). It’s simply designed as a vehicle to send poor Rincewind spiraling across the Discworld into the hands of whacky characters (who all want to kill him). A cynical reader would see it as an extended Discworld geography lesson.

I did enjoy reading The Colour of Magic though there were probably a few too many times that I found myself thinking either; a) it’s short, just push through, or, b) reading it will payoff when you read other books. I give it 3 stars for being fairly amusing, but again it’s one of those books that I appreciated and am glad I read, but didn’t love. I can’t give it 2 or 4 anyway, because they are factors of the number which must not be named.

Read it – if you are intending to delve further into the series, rather than just looking for a taste of Terry Pratchett’s work and sense of humour.
Don’t read it – if you think a whole novel, albeit a short one, is too much time to spend setting up a series.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

This is an old review that I'm posting to make up for the fact that I didn't really like Good Omens (I know, I'm sorry). I do like Neil Gaiman's other work!

American Gods – Neil Gaiman (Published 2001)
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-genre: Urban
Completed: April 1 2010

American Gods is one of those novels that won the rare Hugo/Nebula double. It is one of the most famous works of modern Fantasy and its writer, Neil Gaiman, is known in some circles as the rock star of Speculative Fiction. It chose itself as a book for me to pick up.

Gaiman himself has described this book as a ‘love it or hate it’ kind of book, which is interesting because I of course did neither. I certainly enjoyed the story and appreciated the experience of reading it but I wouldn’t be rushing to recommend it to all of my friends.

The inventive and intriguing plot follows Shadow, an unsurprisingly mysterious character, after the death of his wife and subsequent release from prison. Shadow barely has time to make sense of these events before the even more shady Mr. Wednesday convinces Shadow to work for him. From this point Shadow is increasingly exposed to the divine underworld – gods exist and people’s belief makes them physically real and powerful – and ultimately drawn into the conflict between the diminished old gods and the modern gods of technology.

None of these gods make for nice people, though some are more sympathetic or humorous than others. Most are frustrated and embittered by their loss of influence but they are, for the most part, content to mind their own business and eke out whatever existence they can. None are judged for their behaviours, however bizarre or sickening. Though the major gods in the plot derive from Norse mythology, the story acknowledges the myriad cultures of people who have moved to America from their faraway, traditional lands, dragging their gods with them.

It is the origins of these gods that Gaiman focuses his key themes and a number of fascinating (and disturbing) vignettes upon, which are interspersed throughout the story and give it more mystery, more power and an even broader scope.

Whatever your beliefs it’s difficult to disagree with the idea that faith in Western society has waned, but though we have withdrawn belief in any higher authority we unavoidably worship something – enter the gods of television, communication and finance among others portrayed by Gaiman in the story. It’s hard not to laugh when confronted with the god of the internet who is essentially a young, overweight jerk.

The conclusion was interesting in a surprising but inevitable way, though the set up was far stronger than the payoff. The link between events that ultimately come to pass in the story and the mythology that spawned it is very well drawn. The execution may not have matched the idea, but that’s because the idea was brilliant.

American Gods gets 4 stars. While Australian society shares many cultural and historical similarities with America, I can’t help but think that the themes and especially the setting would resonate far more strongly and effectively with an American reader, particularly if they are familiar with some of the locations which Gaiman has written such mystery into.

Read it – if you are American, or at least conscious of American history and values.
Don’t read it – if you hate America, in which case you have other concerns.

Mini Review: Grave Peril by Jim Butcher

Grave Peril – Jim Butcher (Published 2001)
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-genre: Urban
Completed: November 28 2010

Towards the end of last year I decided to blow one of my Audible credits on Storm Front (review), the first book of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. I was immediately hooked.

Popular opinion suggested that the series really takes off with the third entry – Grave Peril. I concur with the masses. This third entry really ramps up the tension. Butcher creates such an frightening mood that I found myself truly convinced that something terrible could happen to Harry Dresden. He becomes utterly uncertain and outmatched. The intensity overwhelmed the voice in the back of my head that tried, vainly, to remind me that Harry is the protagonist of a series that runs many books beyond this title.

For it’s value as engrossing and involving entertainment I give Grave Peril the full 5 stars. It might have even been my favourite book of the year had I not read The Lies of Locke Lamora.

Mini Review: Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

Gardens of the Moon – Steven Erikson (Published 1999)
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-genre: Epic, in the most epic sense
Completed: January 12 2011

It’s no secret that I love Epic Fantasy. Yet the idea of beginning a series of ten books is still very daunting. It doesn’t help that ten of Erikson’s volumes in The Malazan Book of the Fallen would swallow up twenty lesser tomes. However, what Erikson’s series has to recommend it is that it will actually be finished soon. Imagine that? A long running Fantasy epic actually reaching a conclusion.

I dived into Gardens of the Moon, fully realising that the end was nigh. I wanted to find out whether I should continue reading in the series. Since this is a mini review, the short answer is yes, I will. I had been forewarned that Erikson drops his readers into the world and bombards them with information. He has certainly crammed into this novel an incredible density of world building while delivering a compelling story with co0lourful, damaged characters.

This is not a novel for first time Fantasy readers. Erikson utilises many viewpoints and it is a challenge to work your way into the story, but as with any good challenge the reward is worth the effort. I give Gardens of the Moon 3.5 stars.


Mini Review: Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card (Published 1985)
Genre: Science Fiction
Sub-genre: Military
Completed: January 6 2011

Ender’s Game is a superb novel. Read it.

I should stop there.

Ender’s Game is deservedly acknowledged as a classic of the genre. It offers an ideal gateway for readers new to Science Fiction – long-term readers have probably enjoyed it already (I’m very late to the party). It is flawlessly paced. I enjoyed the twists of the plot even having been spoiled. The conclusion is incredibly moving and simply perfect for the hauntingly memorable Ender.

I can happily remove Ender’s Game from my list of shame. It was worth the wait, but if you haven’t read it, don’t wait. My first read of 2011 is an early contender for my favourite of the year. It will take some beating. A full 5 stars.

Mini Reviews Incoming!

There are many books that I would like to be able to comment on and promote (or warn readers away from), but writing a full review for every book I read is far too time consuming.

Introducing... the Mini Review!

During my holiday I read numerous books and only took the time to write brief notes about my feelings in my phone. Over the next week I will be uploading several mini reviews for the books I read at the end of last year, and as I travelled overseas. The first salvo will be fired off in the next hour.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Making a return...

No the blog didn't die at the hands of irrelevance and apathy, but the six weeks overseas didn't help. It is very difficult to put life on hold for that length of time and expect to come home and hit the ground running. The catching up is almost done and so it's back to blogging. In fact there is likely to be a saturation of material in the next few weeks the like of which this blog has not seen. Stay tuned...