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Currently Reading: The Undivided by Jennifer Fallon

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Review: Shadow's Son by Jon Sprunk

Shadow’s Son – Jon Sprunk (Published 2010)
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-genre: Dark, with an implied Epic hovering beneath the surface
Completed: 3 November 2010

Shadow’s Son is the debut novel from American writer Jon Sprunk. On the surface it’s a generic action fantasy starring an assassin. There are many tropes that you’ve probably seen before and seen done better before, but Shadow’s Son works just fine if you’re after a (very) quick, enjoyable read. It’s solid entertainment with no pretensions.

Caim is a freelance assassin. After a job goes very wrong, Caim realises he's been set up and the only one he can turn to for an explanation is the daughter of his target, Josie. Of course, the men responsible for setting Caim up want to get their hands on her too.

Sprunk sets his action in a fairly standard early medieval world, which looks great in the dark but lacks a bit in the harsh light of day. Similarly, it feels spot on when the story is in motion, but its simplicities and clichés are exposed when the action slows down.

The good news on that score is that Sprunk keeps the action coming. It is undoubtedly his strength, and it’s enough to hang his hat on. Fight scenes are typically enthralling and the reader can genuinely feel the danger. Language that feels overwrought in certain passages sharpens in these sections. The plot is fast paced and as a result the book is surprisingly short for a Fantasy novel. Sprunk doesn’t feel the need to tell us about Caim’s years of harsh training, which is an overdone staple of similar books. There are also some enjoyable twists that keep things interesting.

Behind the action are some fairly basic characters whose development is predictable (and told to the reader through unrealistic introspection). Josie, the resident damsel in distress, particularly experiences some unbelievably rapid growth. Caim is surprisingly relatable for an assassin – Sprunk wisely employs the device of allowing Caim to choose who he kills (only bad people)! The mysterious power he holds over shadows is intriguing enough, but the only real surprise is Kit, Caim’s ghostly friend who nobody else can see yet seems very real. The bad guys don’t fare much better, not even Ral and Markus who could have provided some very personal conflict, but instead tread the line of caricature.

All told I can see myself reading the sequel on a lazy afternoon. It’s not like it demands a great investment of time or mental energy. Shadow’s Son receives 2.5 stars. It is a competent and entertaining story of a quality that many people would be very happy to match in their debut effort.

Read it – for some light Dark Fantasy entertainment, especially if you like you some ninja assassins!
Don’t read it – if you value originality above all else, there isn’t much to see here

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Review: Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

Follow this link to my review at The Ranting Dragon. The basics - it's occasionally intense and grotesque, but filled with so much zinging dialogue and pure class. I gave it 3.5 stars.

Hugo Nominations Closed

Nominations for the Hugo Awards have now closed. I was fortunate as a member of Aussiecon4 last year to be elligible to participate. Here are the works I went for.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms - N. K. Jemisin
Bitter Seeds - Ian Tregillis
The Way of Kings - Brandon Sanderson (I doubt this will even make the final ballot, it's probably more mainstream than the kind of books I think win Hugo Awards, but I wanted to show my support)

Writing Excuses Season 4 (my favourite podcast, officially elligible this year)

Schlock Mercenary: Massively Parallel - Howard Tayler


I didn't actually nominate, but I hope Fringe is recognised. I've really started to like that show!

Lou Anders

Jonathan Strahan

Dan Wells (his debut was I am Not a Serial Killer)
N. K. Jemisin (I have a huge soft spot for Wells but I think Jemisin should win)
Ian Tregillis

My responses obviously indicate my Fantasy bias and my love for the Writing Excuses crew.

I didn't nominate in every category, because even though I am a big fan of Science Fiction and Fantasy literature I just don't know enough to cover every category. I can't see anyone other than industry professionals and super-dedicated life long fans knowing enough to address everything from 'Best Fan Artist' to 'Best Semiprozine' I do hope that once I see the final nominations I will be able to read enough of the material to be an informed voter. I wasn't the most informed nominator.

If you are one of the chosen few who read the blog, why not reply and let me know what you nominated (or would have nominated if you were elligible).

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Aurealis Awards Announced

The finalists for the Aurealis Awards (Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards) have been announced. The awards of most interest to me are of course those for Fantasy and Science Fiction Novel:

Fantasy Novel
The Silence of Medair, Andrea K Höst
Death Most Definite, Trent Jamieson
Stormlord Rising, Glenda Larke
Heart's Blood, Juliet Marillier
Power and Majesty, Tansy Rayner Roberts

Science Fiction Novel
Song of Scarabaeous, Sara Creasy
Mirror Space, Marianne de Pierres
Transformation Space, Marianne de Pierres

Apparently not a big year for Australian Science Fiction! The bad news is that I have read precisely zero of these books. Time to get my patriotic act together.

For those who wish to see the entire list, including other categories (horror, short story, children's book, etc.) here is a link to the official Aurealis press release: LINK

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Review: Sabriel by Garth Nix

Follow this link to my review, posted at The Ranting Dragon. Highlights - I gave it 3 stars. It seems like a book that a younger audience (than me) would really latch onto, with a great magic system and some relatable characters.

The Alloy of Law - a new entry in Sanderson's Mistborn world

Mistborn (series review) is one of the most enjoyable series I have read in the last few years, so I was very excited to hear that Brandon Sanderson has penned a new novella set in the same world. Being one of those dedicated writer types, Sanderson wrote The Alloy of Law as a 'break' from The Wheel of Time and The Stormlight Archive. Way to relax! As the cover suggests, this new entry in the Mistborn saga taps into the Steampunk trend that has been gripping segments of the Speculative Fiction genre.

Here is the blurb:
Three hundred years after the events of the Mistborn trilogy, Scadrial is on the verge of modernity, with railroads to supplement the canals, electric lighting in the streets and the homes of the wealthy, and the first steel-framed skyscrapers racing for the clouds.

Kelsier, Vin, Elend, Sazed, Spook, and the rest are now part of history—or religion. Yet even as science and technology are reaching new heights, the old magics of Allomancy and Feruchemy continue to play a role in this reborn world. Out in the frontier lands known as the Roughs, they are crucial tools for the brave men and women attempting to establish order and justice.

One such is Waxillium Ladrian, a rare Twinborn who can Push on metals with his Allomancy and use Feruchemy to become lighter or heavier at will. After twenty years in the Roughs, Wax has been forced by family tragedy to return to the metropolis of Elendel. Now he must reluctantly put away his guns and assume the duties and dignity incumbent upon the head of a noble house. Or so he thinks, until he learns the hard way that the mansions and elegant tree-lined streets of the city can be even more dangerous than the dusty plains of the Roughs.

Review: Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

Mistborn – Brandon Sanderson
- The Final Empire (Published 2006)
- The Well of Ascension (Published 2007)
- The Hero of Ages (Published 2008)
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-genre: Epic Fantasy
Completed: April 10 2010

Brandon Sanderson wrote and released Mistborn at a similar time as Joe Abercrombie produced The First Law (review) – and the results are very different indeed. It is possible to enjoy these two thematically and stylistically divergent stories equally, but after reading them within weeks of each other I can’t help but compare them.

The world of Mistborn is a dark place. Sanderson’s intention, in his own words, was to turn fantasy convention on its head by depicting a world in which the bad guy won. Hence The Final Empire begins with the world in the grip of the evil overlord known as the Lord Ruler. Oppression of certain classes, suppression of new ideas (and very old religious ideas) and executions to maintain order are intrinsic to the Lord Ruler’s system.

Thus Sanderson gave himself license to portray an intensely dark and gritty fantasy… but didn’t. The darkness and some of the heinous deeds of the Lord Ruler and his followers are usually simply referred to, and ultimately condemned. Sexual habits and desires are discussed but not depicted. When the heroes kill, sometimes even on a large scale, they feel remorse or their friends question their motives and sanity. What really sets Mistborn apart from The First Law is that at the heart of Sanderson’s tale are good people who are attempting to preserve life because it is the right thing to do, not for an ego trip of global proportions.

Mistborn sits more comfortably in traditional heroic fantasy tradition where there is a degree of black and white morality, not just myriad shades of grey. Though it sits entrenched in tradition Sanderson avoids some of the awful fantasy clichés that ruin many stories. There are no orcs or elves and nobody wields inexplicably omnipotent magic. In fact, the magic is one of the most imaginative yet rational systems I have ever read (as ridiculous as that sounds), which is just as well given how central it is to the plot. I don’t want to suggest that detailed explanation and development of this system overpowers the story, rather when Sanderson describes the use of Allomancy the writing is at its most beautiful and engaging. You will want to be an Allomancer.

Sanderson was equally rigorous in creating his world, which flows from the premise outlined above. The premise isn’t a gimmick - there’s an incredibly vivid world that has developed in the grasp of the Lord Ruler (where ash regularly falls from the sky like rain) - but it is primarily about the setting. I felt a little let down that the whole ‘bad guy wins’ idea didn’t go where I expected because I had heard interviews with Sanderson where he talked it up quite a lot. It does resonate and impact on events throughout, but the genre hasn’t been revolutionized.

What Sanderson has done, which is interesting, is combine several genres and sub-genres to great effect. The story is an Epic, with powerful nods to Heroic Fantasy in the development of the past and person of the Lord Ruler. Elements of Urban Fantasy pervade The Final Empire, which also draws in tropes of the Hollywood heist movie. It’s not surprising that I found The Final Empire to be the most tightly written and inventive of the three books in the series.

The Final Empire also focuses on my favourite character from the series, Kelsier. The moment in that book when all of Kelsier’s plans take ultimate effect, and the purpose of all of his actions and dialogue snap into focus is one of the more brilliant moments in any genre novel I have read.

Generally the character development is strong, but it would have been nice if some of the characters could have grown without pages of introspection and self-doubt. Even this wouldn’t have bothered me too much if a few viewpoint characters weren’t all going through this phase at the same time. I have also read some criticism of Mistborn which suggests that the dialogue and the philosophies of his characters are too modern for the setting. I don’t disagree, though I didn’t feel pulled out of the story by any particular conversations or ideas. Sanderson has himself acknowledged this problem but, without dismissing it, he argues that he isn’t writing historical fiction and isn’t interested in portraying anachronistic thought.

I enjoyed the entire Mistborn series as much as I enjoyed The First Law so it gets 4.5 stars, however individually I felt that The Final Empire was a stronger book than the sequels (because it’s that good, and was a lot more focused).

Read it – if you enjoy more traditional fantasy with genuinely heroic (if slightly flawed) heroes and surprising plot developments
Don’t read it – if you are only intrigued by the promise of a tale where the bad guy won (that’s an element of setting, not necessarily plot – notice the past tense)

Friday, March 11, 2011

A couple of things worth reading

I should have a few reviews to post next week, but for the time being here are a couple of things I've come across during the week.

Firstly, an excellent conversation (hosted by Amazon) between two of the biggest names in Fantasy, Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss (who featured strongly on the blog a week or so ago). These guys have written two of the biggest releases of the past six months (both in sales and literal size - they define 'doorstop Fantasy epic'); The Way of Kings (Sanderson) and The Wise Man's Fear (Rothfuss). Enjoy the link.

Secondly, major Speculative Fiction publisher TOR ran a vote over on their official blog to find the 10 most popular releases of the decade (not limited to TOR releases at all). Here is the main page and official results.

I think the results are very interesting. They show diverging tastes and there was no runaway, landslide winner, considering that the number one book got 295 of 10 000 votes. I also think that there's a slight skewing towards the winner, Old Man's War, because of Scalzi's online presence and occasional writing work on the blog, but on a ballot done for fun and interest it hardly matters.

For each of the top ten a fairly prominent figure in the community did a review of sorts for the book. Some of my favourites include The Name of the Wind (Patrick Rothfuss), Mistborn (Brandon Sanderson) and A Storm of Swords (George R. R. Martin).

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Suvudu Cage Matches

Suvudu (the official blog of Random House's Fantasy unit) runs an annual competition called the Cage Match. They pit characters from Fantasy stories against one another and readers vote on who should win. Realistically, yes, that makes it a popularity contest, though I'm sure some fans who take their Fabtasy very seriously take the time to weigh up the powers of the characters involved before casting their vote.

However, it sort of needs to work that way. This year the folks at Suvudu have decided to introduce some characters who are fun and have a place in readers' hearts but realistically would suck in a fight. Like Tasslehoff Burrfoot from the Dragonlance books. Tas makes everyone laugh but he would get stomped by almost anyone else in the contest. Here's Brandon Sanderson's thoughts on that very issue.

The best part is when the writers who own the various IPs referenced pitch in to provide descriptions of how the battles might go down. Here is the best example (in my opinion) from last year:

George R. R. Martin on the final bout between Jaime Lannister and Rand al'Thor (very touching, written in memory of Robert Jordan)

In conclusion, Suvudu Cage Matches are fun, check them out. Don't take them seriously. Please.

Fantasy Maps and Joe Abercrombie's Circle of the World

A couple of posts just for fun today.

One of the staples of Fantasy stories has been the map. If you're going to move characters through a fictional world, let the readers have a clear refernece to help them follow. At least, that was the conventional wisdom. I'm not sure if he was the first to do it, but Tolkien's map of Middle Earth is a very prominent early example of this approach. In more recent times we've seen maps from the likes of Robin Hobb, George R. R. Martin and many others.

The newer wave of authors however have taken it upon themselves to buck the trend. Obviously, if you want to distance yourself from that traditional Epic or High Fantasy, ditch the trappings that are so common. Joe Abercrombie didn't include a full map with The First Law Trilogy or any subsequent book (Best Served Cold has a bit of the map). Neither did he release one online. Here is his reasoning.

However, a fan recently made a map of their own, using information from the books, and I haven't heard anyone argue with it's accuracy (yet). It's nice!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Writing advice that actually works

As an aspiring writer there is a lot of temptation to look for the big secret to doing good work, to seek that one gem of advice that will put you over the line. I found myself starting down that path. I bought a few books on the craft (at least I made sure they were produced by actual writers). I started following blogs and twitter streams of hoping to get some insight into the process that works for various authors.I started listening to podcasts about writing and writers. I've heard 'Heinlein's Rules' and read Terry Pratchett's 'Writing Secrets.' It has all been helpful, but it still didn't tip me over the edge to where I needed to be... actually writing.

Most writers seem to be in agreement that the not-so-secret path to success is to write. Write a lot. On that note I would like to introduce the most helpful piece of advice that I have come across, because it has really started to work.

These are Gene Wolfe's five pieces of 'writerly advice':

1.   Get up early and write.
2.   Read the type of fiction you’re trying to write.
3.   Remember that characterisation is what makes your story stand out.
4.   You do not characterise by telling the reader about the character, you do it by showing the character thinking, speaking and acting in a characteristic way.
5.   Do not start a story unless you have an ending in mind. You can change the ending but start with a destination.

I could have just stopped at 1. Obviously Wolfe makes some helpful points about the craft and about audience, but at this stage I am just very happy to be writing. The idea of getting up an hour or so earlier than usual and dedicating that time to writing is working. It does mean that by the time I go to bed at night I am genuinely tired, and I struggle to be productive in any way after about 9 p.m., but I am writing. Whether I am writing well remains to be seen.

Thank you Gene Wolfe.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Review: Legend by David Gemmell

Follow this link to my review, posted at The Ranting Dragon. Highlights - I gave it 2 stars. It's a significant book, but I don't think it's a particularly good book.

What I've been up to...

A week ago I mentioned my secret project. Here's the (big) reveal!

I've been investigating the possibility of writing articles and reviews for existing sites (as well as continuing with my blog) and my first such piece has now been posted. The folks over at The Ranting Dragon have taken me on provisionally as a reviewer. Here is my first effort for them (in their format, so it's a little different), a review of Legend by David Gemmell.

Any material that I post for these other sites (there are two more in the pipeline) I will obviously link here, since I created the content. So from now on some of my reviews will simply be links to those sites - I am obviously happy to engage in a bit of cross-promotion.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss Released

The release of The Wise Man's Fear (by Patrick Rothfuss) is probably one of the most significant dates on the Fantasy publishing calendar for the year. It is the highly anticipated sequel to The Name of the Wind, which has become known as one of the best debut Fantasy novels of at least the last decade. The momentum and renown for The Name of the Wind has built quickly and consistently since its release. I only read (and reviewed) it in the middle of 2010 myself, in spite of the 2007 release.

The Wise Man's Fear was of course supposed to be released in 2008, but in the way of all good Fantasy series there have been significant delays. I only allowed myself to read this unfinished series because I figured 'How long can a trilogy take?' We will see...

As a refresher for those not willing to re-read The Name of the Wind Rothfuss has released a summary of sorts on his official website. It is hilariously tongue-in-cheek and in graphic novel form! Whether or not you become a big fan of his books, Pat (I feel like I can call him Pat) never takes himself too seriously and his blog is always enjoyable. More importantly he devotes a good chunk of his time and money to a charity called Worldbuilders. It's hard not to like the man!

Since I haven't had the chance to read The Wise Man's Fear yet, here are a couple of reviews from some professionals:

Blogger John Ottinger at Grasping for the Wind
Author Brandon Sanderson at his official website

Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss (Published 2007)
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-genre: Heroic Fantasy
Completed: June 5 2010

The Name of the Wind is widely considered to be one of the most impressive Fantasy debuts of the last decade. Its renown was sufficient for me to break my rule of avoiding incomplete series (which grew out of the anguish of waiting for the next The Wheel of Time or A Song of Ice Ice and Fire books). I don’t regret the decision at all.

Of all of the Fantasy I have read The Name of the Wind is the book that most deliberately addresses the development of a legend. I use it as an example in my definition of Heroic Fantasy. There are no epic stakes, though a broader scope of events is certainly foreshadowed. Unfortunately, given the lack of epic struggle many fantasy readers will feel that not much happens and, to be honest, about halfway through the book I felt it too. But I didn’t care. It seems that the point of the story is to demonstrate how even mundane events in the main character’s life have been mythologised by the people of his world.

The structure of the story is deliberately designed to explore these ideas. The majority of the book is a first person narrative delivered by the protagonist, Kvothe. It is framed by a somewhat detached third person narrative in which we see the main character, disguised as a simple tavern owner and calling himself Kote (for unclear reasons), lured into telling his story to the aptly named Chronicler. A memorable scene occurs after the climax of Kvothe’s tale in which a group of the tavern’s patrons, unaware of Kote’s identity, retell some of the events which Kvothe has relayed to Chronicler, blowing them out of all proportion. The irony is very enjoyable.

Rothfuss’ language is beautiful and designed to be musical, given his main character’s love of music and performance. The segments of first-person narrative are delightfully lyrical, as befitting the narrator’s training in performance of all kinds. The mysterious and magical elements are very well developed and fit the world perfectly, combining believably with science in a way that gives strength to the wise and powerful characters.

The characters are similarly real, sometimes frustratingly so, with the main character in particular displaying youthful stupidity along with flashes of incredible (and often unbelievable, to be brutally honest) brilliance. There are effectively three major characters in the story – the young Kvothe from the tale, the older, damaged Kote, and the Kvothe of legend. Though they feel real, side characters really are side characters. This just isn’t their story, and they matter to the reader only as they interact with Kvothe. Enough information is presented to show that their lives carry on when they are away from the main character, but with one exception I was never really concerned with what they were up to when absent from the narrative.

Given that the majority of the story is first-person it is of course very dependent on enjoying and relating to the main character and some people won’t like the almost super capable Kvothe. He has obvious human limitations but he frequently proves to have incredible intelligence as well as a singular gift for music. He is a prodigy in every sense of the word, and some readers will get tired of being reminded of the fact. He simply won’t be accessible to many people and many will wonder how the character can grow in the coming volumes.

I would consider this a strength of the story, given that it could be attributed to the boastfulness of the unreliable narrator. However, it seems that the main aim of Kvothe in telling his story is, ironically, to downplay his own legend. This modesty is directly contrasted with the myths that have become so well known in his world.

The Name of the Wind is the first part of a trilogy (the structure is simply but creatively established when Kvothe declares that it will take three days to tell his story). Although there is a climactic event the story is in no way complete or contained. I enjoyed the story but I’m not as effusive in my praise for it as most are. I’m giving it 4 stars. In spite of its undeniable quality it didn’t engage me as much as other books have. I doubt that casual or new readers of Fantasy would find the book particularly accessible but there is plenty to offer experienced readers, particularly those interested in a more literary experience

Read it – to enjoy a powerfully written examination of the way heroic figures become legends
Don’t read it – if it’s your first foray into Fantasy