Shaman

Thoughts on Kim Stanley Robinson's Shaman

I have seen Kim Stanley Robinson’s books in the science fiction section of my local bookshops for decades going back to the days when I worked in one of them.  His readers are accustomed to Robinson’s intelligent and thought-provoking prose about the far future. 

Shaman is very much about the long ago past and after reading this 2013 novel, I do not understand why it is labeled Science Fiction.  The book even says Science Fiction right on the spine above the imprint label.  There is a little bit of hocus pocus, but it is nothing so out of this world as any mystical goings-on you might find in a story about a tribe of Native Americans.  There is more paranormal wackadoo going on in Dan Simmons’ Black Hills and it is labeled Historical Fiction.  I know Kim Stanley Robinson is known primarily as an author of science fiction, but I do not understand why that means this work of historical fiction ends up on the SF shelf.

Taking place over a period of a few years, Shaman is the story of Loon, a young apprentice shaman living with his prehistoric tribe during the Ice Age.  We join Loon as he is a boy on the verge of manhood, beginning his shaman wander, a rite of passage during which he is stripped of everything including clothing, and told to disappear into the wilderness and not return until the next full moon.  What follows is a tale of survival told the Kim Stanley Robinson way.  His words are a paint brush.

The pace of the story is slow, much like the pace of Loon’s life.  Devoid of the hustle of the modern world, Loon and his tribe exist just to survive.  They are not worried about their 401(k), getting to a sales meeting on time, or navigating through gridlock traffic.  These humans are practically still just animals.  They hunt, they eat, they breed.  They maintain a connection to nature by naming themselves after birds (Loon, Hawk), plants (Heather, Moss), and rocks (Schist).  They recognize and appreciate their place in the ecology, unlike modern man who has paved over nature and replaced tree lines with skylines.  I enjoyed experiencing the simplicity of the ancient world through Loon’s eyes.  There are certainly harrowing moments that elevated my pulse, but I found Shaman to mostly be an exploration of early mankind’s life, like watching a well-produced documentary.

Robinson explores the cyclical nature of life, the passing of years marked by the seasons, the passing of days marked by the path of the sun across the sky.  He puts great effort into detailing these cycles and their importance to Loon and his Wolf Pack.  I found it almost hypnotic.  His setting is so crystal clear that even now, a week after finishing the book, I retain a vivid image of the woods in which Loon and his pack live, the river nearby, the tufts of snow on the ground late into Spring.  The seasons do not mean much to industrial man, but early mankind’s entire lives revolved around the seasons.  Summer was bountiful with rich hunting and gathering opportunities.  Autumn was a time to begin storing food for the long Winter.  The Hunger Spring was the worst, when food stores were low and wildlife had not yet returned so hunting was poor.

In a prehistoric society, the people told stories to retain their history and build their culture.  These stories were passed down through the generations.  The Wolf Pack’s shaman Thorn spends much of his time trying to teach his reluctant apprentice Loon the value of these stories and the importance of getting the details right.  I found myself wondering how much the stories might have changed over so many years, like a multi-generational game of Telephone.  In the Internet Age, information is at our fingertips.  Prior to the Internet, I could go to a library and read any number of volumes of scholarly information.  None of that existed thirty thousand years ago.  History was verbal.  This is how legends are born.  One person tells a story, the next embellishes a little, the next embellishes further.  Before we know it, we are sitting around the village bonfire listening as our shaman tells us the story of a man so strong, he killed an invulnerable beast with his bare hands and now wears its pelt as a trophy.  Loon’s own story is narrated by a seldom seen third party.  Is this the real tale or has it been sweetened to enhance the listener’s experience?

I thoroughly enjoyed Shaman and think even more highly of it as I continue to ponder it days after reading the final page.  Robinson can always be counted on to impart knowledge in an entertaining form and with Shaman, I feel as though I have been given a well-researched glimpse into a world I would not normally think about.  It is not science fiction though.  Not even a little bit.

Promise of Blood

Thoughts on Brian McClellan's Promise of Blood

Powder mages in Brian McClellan’s debut novel Promise of Blood are finesse bad-asses.  They can magically ignite gunpowder from a distance, which makes challenging a powder mage to a pistol duel a foolhardy endeavor.  They can expend gunpowder to adjust a shot’s trajectory mid-flight, so they could probably plunk a bullet-dodging Neo.  They can inhale gunpowder to enter what they call a powder trance, a state of being during which the powder mage enjoys heightened senses and extraordinary strength.  However, a powder mage can overindulge, causing a debilitating state known as powder blindness.  One of the four primary point of view characters, Taniel, a skilled powder mage in the Adro military and my favorite character of the novel, tends to overdo it now and then.  He is a flawed character, but heroic.  If there is any single character with whom I could identify, it is Taniel.  He is troubled.  He is fiercely loyal to those he loves and is protective of his comrades in arms.  He yearns for parental approval – don’t we all – yet endeavors to establish himself as a dependable and independent.  Despite this, he is also borderline dependent on powder, constantly using it to resolve or escape difficult situations.  Taniel’s story is of a young man at war with himself as well as with the neighboring nation attempting to invade his homeland.

Powder mages aren’t the only ones with special ability.  Adamat is a retired police inspector, working as a private detective to maintain a living for his family.  His is the Raymond Chandler private eye, dirty underbelly of the city kind of story.  He has a Knack, a lesser class of magical ability, but useful if one knows how to use their Knack.  Adamat has a perfect memory, quite a valuable trait for a detective.  Like these detective stories tend to go, Adamat is working against forces unseen, dangerous and deadly.  In over his head and constantly under threat of harm to himself or his family, he has to work the angles and do what he needs to do to get the job done.  Not bound to anyone but himself, his motive is preservation of self and family, not duty to king or country.  His is the perspective of the regular citizen caught up in the machinations of his nation.

Field Marshal Tamas, an aging powder mage and a commander of the nation’s military, begins the novel having just executed a successful coup d’état, putting the king and the nobility beneath the guillotine’s blade.  It is a brutal act, but necessary.  Right?  His story revolves around the aftermath of his coup as he deals with the fallout of his decisions.  Morality ambiguity is touched upon, perhaps to be further explored in books two or three of this trilogy.  When the life of one’s entire nation is at stake, how far can one go to protect it?  Is executing hundreds morally wrong when those hundreds could put your entire plan at risk?  What if you are wrong?  But aren't the lives of millions worth the lives of hundreds?  Nation leaders across our globe struggle with that question on a daily basis.

There is a fourth P.O.V. character who I feel was under-used.  Nila, a young laundress to a noble family before the coup, is only seen a few times throughout the novel and is present to provide the point of view of those victimized by the coup.  Tamas thinks his coup benefits all, but Nila is proof that it does not.  During the coup, she is attacked by a squad of Tamas’s soldiers and nearly raped. Her employer is executed along with the rest of the nobility so she is left homeless and jobless.  Her story could have been much more effective had more time been spent exploring it.  Perhaps she makes a more meaty appearance in the second book of this trilogy.

I would like to highlight the cover art designed by Lauren Panepinto with photo illustration by Gene Mollica and Michael Frost.  This is one of the most beautiful and story-appropriate covers I have ever seen.  This is Field Marshal Tamas at the very moment the reader opens the book to read chapter one.  He has overthrown the king, the battle is won.  He sits on the throne in the dark, his flintlock rifle across his knees, disheveled graying hair across his downcast eyes.  He slouches in exhaustion and sorrow. He doesn't wear the crown.  It sits on the floor beside him in a pool of blood, bathed in a single ray of light.   It is night and the room is dark so what is the source of this light?  If it is divine light, then Tamas has more than just angry citizens loyal to the king to deal with.  Simply beautiful artwork.  I adore it.

Promise of Blood is so much fun, fast-paced, and creative.  The supporting characters are well-realized and intriguing, particularly Taniel’s ward, Ka-poel, a young savage with a mysterious and powerful ability. Now I am suffering an OCD struggle. My copy of Promise of Blood is the trade paperback version.  The second book of the trilogy, The Crimson Campaign, is available now in hardcover and isn't available in paperback until 2015.  I want to read book two now, but can’t allow myself to buy it because it will be the hardcover version – which I always prefer – but it will not match the version of book one have on my shelf.  Books in a series have to match, don’t they?  No, it there is no question.  One simply cannot have a trade paperback version of book one, a hardcover version of book two, and a mass market paperback version of book three.  It wouldn't look right.  Back me up here, folks.  Maybe if I snort some gunpowder, I will be granted the superior mental clarity required to think through this dilemma.

Bookthump Bits

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  • Check out the author's blog at http://www.brianmcclellan.com/.  He has interesting things to say about online juggernaut Amazon's feud with Brian's publisher Hachette.
  • Brian isn't just supporting his fictional world with traditional novels.  He has written a series of self-published novellas set in the Powder Mage universe, all of which are available for download on your Nook or Kindle or what-have-you.  I don't much care for reading books on a computer screen so my hope is that Hachette will purchase these works and publish them in a collection I can buy at a bookstore.

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  • The author stopped by Sword & Laser for a video chat: 
Uploaded by The Sword and Laser on 2014-02-19.

The Martian

Thoughts on Andy Weir's The Martian

When I was a little boy, I wanted to be an astronaut.  Well, first I wanted to be a fire truck but then astronaut.  As I grew older, it became clear that my brain is not wired for the maths so my toddler dream of becoming an astronaut was quickly scrubbed.  Space exploration still fascinates me from a dreamer’s perspective and this is probably why I appreciate science fiction and speculative fiction so much.

I imagine the pitch room logline for Andy Weir’s debut novel The Martian probably was:  Robinson Crusoe on Mars.  Then the publisher said something about there already being a movie with that title and the agent deftly redirected with a “yeah, but…” statement.

Like Robinson Crusoe, this is a survival story.  An accident leaves astronaut Mark Watney stranded alone on Mars.  Even on Earth, where we have all of the breathable atmosphere we need, people die when stranded in unfamiliar territory.  Either they lack the skills, the intelligence, or the willpower to survive.  Mark Watney possesses all three in abundance.  Despite numerous setbacks (I could swear Watney was being followed around by Joe Btfsplk), he has to use his vast NASA brain to figure out solutions to problems that would probably kill anyone else.

Watney’s story is told via first person journal entries.  Normally, I do not care for diary/journal-style narrative, but I liked this over a first person continuous narrative because it caused me to wonder if I, as the reader, could possibly be playing the role of a person reading the posthumous account of Watney’s life on Mars.  During each event, I was left to wonder if this was the obstacle that would kill him.  Watney is a brilliant man, but Mars is a hostile environment.  After all, how many disasters can one man survive before his luck runs out?  Andy Weir's use of the journal-style narrative effectively increases the tension.

Mark Watney is a fun, likable character.  He possesses genius-level intelligence, but talks like a regular person.  When he describes the science of what he is doing, he does it in a conversational way, as though he is talking to a group of normals at a cocktail party.  I worried that The Martian would be too hard SF for me, but Andy Weir’s and thus Mark Watney’s skill at describing brainy science hoopie-doo in a way even a nit like me could understand was much appreciated.  Watney also possesses a wonderful sense of humor.  He’d have to, I suppose, to be able to maintain mental stability during such an ordeal.  I would probably lose my mind and panic.  This guy starts ruminating on 70s television while trying to figure out how to grow potatoes in space.  I rooted for him.  I desperately wanted him to live because the world needs more people like him.

The Martian is a great adventure story.  I enjoyed every page and look forward to Andy Weir’s next book.  My mom liked it, too.  I bought a copy for her and we read it together.  She is generally more of a contemporary fiction – Grisham, Patterson, Robb – kind of gal, but she raved about The Martian and about Andy Weir's excellent storytelling.

While I am still not an astronaut, my current vocation does involve lots of math.  I mean, like, I do complex calculations on paper with a pencil and stuff.  It is nothing like what astronauts have to do just to empty their space toilet though, so I’ll continue living vicariously through speculative fiction, especially when it is as good as Andy Weir’s The Martian.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Thoughts on Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray

As the regular readers of this blog (all three of you) may remember, my mother and I started a book club of sorts, the first selection of which was Will Schwalbe’s memoir The End of Your Life Book Club.  When my mother announced her choice for our next read, she told me she feared the choice would turn me off reading altogether.  I reminded her that the point of book clubs is to be exposed to works to which one might not normally choose to read. I assured her that I was completely open-minded and willing to read anything she suggested.  I think I successfully persuaded her because she shipped her selection to me:  Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.  I am proud to annouce that I finished the book, despite her doubts.  Point in my favor. However, point in her favor, it is the end of March and she shipped the book to me last October.  Well, maybe that is half a point.  Another half-point against me is that the book is just over two hundred pages long.  When we talked in January, after I told her in December that I saw no reason I couldn't finish before the end of the year, she told me she was afraid this would happen.  There was a bit of a told-you-so tone to the statement. I tried my best to convince her that my delay in finishing had nothing to do with the book itself.  There are several reasons (some might call them excuses) it took me six months to read a tiny two hundred page book, but as Paolo Coehlo once said, “Don’t explain. People only hear what they want to hear.”  I was determined to finish.

After some additional delays, I finally managed to shove all distractions aside and spent a weekend finishing the book.  As a matter of fact, I enjoyed The Picture of Dorian Gray.  I tend to struggle with 19th century literature – I still haven’t finished Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood, into which I stuck a bookmark over a year ago and haven’t returned – but I found Oscar Wilde generally easy to read provided I was not trying to read in bed after a particularly exhausting day at work, which is all of them.  I found Wilde’s prose beautiful, lyrical, smooth.  Some of his dialogue – especially that of my favorite character, Lord Henry Wotton – is snarky, cynical, critical of the Victorian society in which Oscar Wilde lived and I find it humorous that much of what he said in the book absolutely outraged that society.  So much of what caused the outrage seems innocuous now in this age of greater acceptance in which we live, though I suspect a few of his statements would still upset some segments of the modern population.  One such passage that coaxed from me a bark of laughter followed a description of Dorian Gray’s brief dalliance with religion:

“But he never fell into the error of arresting his intellectual development by any formal acceptance of creed or system.”

Oscar Wilde states elsewhere, in a critical tone, that “men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography”, but I strongly believe that statement regarding religion is the author’s personal opinion on the matter, though it is known that Wilde wanted to join the Catholic Church, only succeeding in doing so upon his deathbed.  I suppose one can appreciate the spirituality of religion while still exercising scientific thought.

The major problem I have with the novel is that I find the titular character so unlikable.  Dorian Gray, a victim of his own beauty and the easy life he enjoyed because of it, is completely spoiled.  Adored by all, desired by many, Dorian wants for nothing.  Wilde uses the dialogue descriptor “he cried” so often to identify Dorian as the speaker that I got the impression Dorian was in a constant state of hysterics.  I pictured him with the back of his hand to his forehead, eyes rolled back, swooning this way and that.  Later, he is a dreadful narcissist and later still, he is darn-near sociopathic.  None of these are positive character traits designed to help the reader relate.  Dorian does experience the most dramatic character arc in the story, though, and I was interested to see what would happen to him even if I didn't think very highly of him.

Had I read The Picture of Dorian Gray in a high school literature class, I suspect I would have disliked it.  As an adult, however, I have spent the hours since I finished reading the book organizing my thoughts about it and wanting to read more about it and discuss it with others who have read it.  Fortunately, I am currently taking a road trip to visit my parents - I am in the passenger seat - so I’ll finally get to talk with Mom about it… if she remembers any of it six months later. Driving from Los Angeles to El Paso to visit earns me a bonus point so I win, 2-1.

The Farther Shore

Thoughts on Matthew Eck's The Farther Shore

Novels, indeed any entertainment media, about war tend to fall into one of two categories:  the action-packed hoorah kind or the thought-provoking, realistic kind.  There is a place for both.  The first category is infinitely more entertaining and fulfills the glory-in-war fantasy so many of us have.  The second category is not at all fun to read but is necessary to bring us back down to Earth and remind us that the lives of real people are lost in war.  Matthew Eck’s debut The Farther Shore falls wholly into the second category.

This is not to say I did not enjoy the experience of reading The Farther Shore, but I am saying it is not a fun book to read, nor do I believe Eck intends for it to be so.  There is a tremendous amount of honesty crammed into this short book.  Eck is a veteran of the United States Army and so I suspect some of the chaos and doubt expressed by the characters come from experience rather than imagination.  The story reminds us that combat is a truly terrible thing, often inglorious.  Death is sudden and sometimes accidental.  The hoorah kind of war story puts the hero in a situation where they are mowing down scores of enemies and high-fiving their squad mates.  In reality, a single incident can weigh heavily on the mind of a soldier who is put in the position of taking a life, often with devastating life-long psychological effects.  Eck doesn’t sugar-coat it.

I would recommend this as mandatory reading for any person on their way to the recruiting office with a glory-in-war fantasy in their head.  If after finishing the novel, they still want to sign up, I will thank them for their sacrifice and service, but I will not criticize any person who reads this book and second-guesses their decision to enlist.  When I was nineteen years old, I had glory fantasies, too.  Through my university’s Army ROTC program, I attended Camp Challenge at Fort Knox, Kentucky.  For six weeks, I and my fellow cadets went through a truncated officer training program learning military tradition, drill, and ceremony, weapons training, field tactics, communication and leadership.  During that time, I was trained to use a variety of weapons and I realized that while firing at pop-up targets is one thing, the thought of putting another human being in my sights and pulling the trigger was something I would not want to do.  Camp Challenge was a no-obligation program so when I returned home, I turned in my boots and thanked Captain Wiersma for the experience.  Had I read The Farther Shore first, I might found something else to do with those six weeks in the summer of 1996.

photo by Katie Cramer Eck

photo by Katie Cramer Eck

From his author bio:

Matthew Eck enlisted in the Army in 1992 and served in Somalia and Haiti.  He has a BA in English Literature from Wichita State University and received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Montana.

He won the 2007 Milkweed National Fiction Prize for The Farther Shore.

And thank you Matthew Eck, for your service to your country.

Boneshaker

Thoughts on Cherie Priest's Boneshaker

Steampunk intrigues me.  I enjoy imagining a speculative world built upon steam-powered technology instead of the electrical technology we take for granted today.  I like the chunky, mechanical look of the equipment and the Victorian-inspired attire with its myriad straps and buckles.  I have always appreciated the genre from afar though, having never read, watched or listened to any Steampunk-related media, so Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker is my participatory introduction to this world of clockwork mystique.

We are oft cautioned not to judge a book by its cover, but that should not stop us from appreciating an exceptional one.  Jon Foster’s illustration on the 2009 TOR paperback edition is attractive and succeeded in drawing my eye to it on the bookshop shelf in the midst of hundreds of others.  We see an extreme close-up of a young woman’s face as she gazes skyward, herself colored with a muted gray palette while her bulky metal goggles are colored gold and reflect the giant, wire-frame zeppelin that has drawn her eye just as it has ours.  Is she looking at the zeppelin in excited anticipation or is it a threat to her?  The goggles hide her eyes so we don’t know.  I don’t often lose time staring at cover illustrations, but this one captures my imagination completely.

Even the color of the text in the book was an interesting artistic choice.  Instead of the standard black print, the text is sepia.  I don’t recall ever seeing a book printed in anything other than black.  It is a neat choice and fits the genre and time period of the book well since it brings to mind sepia photographs from the late nineteenth century.

Boneshaker is not merely a Steampunk novel though as it also includes zombies, or “rotters” in the parlance of the denizens of this cursed version of nineteenth century Seattle.  While this is my first experience with the Steampunk genre, I am an unabashed appreciator of zombie fiction.  Priest’s alternate history version of Civil War-era Seattle has been walled in to protect those outside from The Blight, a noxious yellow gas that corrodes material and turns those who breathe it into groaning, shambling cannibal terrors.  This awful gas infecting the city is the result of a pre-narrative accident, the test of a drilling machine gone awry.  The conductor of the test, the brilliant inventor Leviticus Blue, supposedly perished in the accident but questions remain.  Sixteen years later, Ezekiel Wilkes, the teenaged son of Blue and his widow Briar Wilkes, decides he wants to learn the truth and sneaks into the walled-off part of the city seeking answers.  When Briar learns what her son has done, she goes in after him.  What follows is a fun adventure tale as mother searches for son in a dead and deadly city.

Boneshaker is full of great atmosphere.  Priest does a wonderful job of describing how the thick-as-pudding blight gas has corrupted and corroded the buildings inside The Wall, how the sun never really seems to provide enough light, how the rotters’ moans and groans unsettle one’s nerves.  It is an oppressive setting and it effectively filled me with dread.  Priest takes her time establishing the setting, peppering in action scenes with character-developing walk’n’talk scenes.  Chapters switch between Zeke’s activities and those of his mother and occasionally I had difficulty reconciling when one person’s scenes took place in relation to the other’s scenes.  Ultimately, it all works out but I felt like I spent too much time trying to figure out if I was reading simultaneous or subsequent action.  The pace of the story is generally slow until the exciting and satisfying conclusion.

While Ezekiel and Briar are sympathetic characters, they frustrated me.  I found Ezekiel to be obnoxious, foolish, and smart-mouthed, all of which I was as a 15-year-old boy so I suppose Priest wrote him quite accurately, but I didn’t like myself when I was fifteen either.  I forgive Briar for her occasional brash and rude demeanor due to the stress she was under, but her behavior in some situations still baffled me as she acted in the complete opposite manner I would have expected.  Still, she is a strong woman and not a damsel in distress so for that, I commend Cherie Priest.  As in her debut novel, Four and Twenty Blackbirds (which I reviewed here ), Boneshaker is full of strong female characters.  There are too many stories in all media wherein the women are either window dressing or quest rewards.  Cherie Priest’s heroines are a nice change of pace.

The supporting cast interested me much more than the two protagonists and while we do learn a bit about characters like Lucy and Angeline, I wanted to know so much more about the backstories of Swakhammer and the zeppelin crew.  A novel detailing the origin story of the antagonist would be particularly interesting.

As a first experience with the Steampunk genre, Boneshaker did not disappoint.  This is the second Cherie Priest novel I have read and I enjoyed both of them so I think I can safely put her on my author watch list.

Black Hills

Thoughts on Dan Simmons's Black Hills

I have previously expressed my favorable opinion of Dan Simmons (here and here ) and with his 2010 novel Black Hills, he reinforces my appreciation of his amazing storytelling ability.  Black Hills tells the non-linear story of Paha Sapa, a Lakota Indian with the extraordinary ability to absorb another person’s memories and see their future simply by touching them.  As though that were not burden enough, he is also a participant in the Battle of the Greasy Grass (you know it better as the Battle of Little Big Horn) as a young boy and in touching the dying body of General George Armstrong Custer, he feels the ghost of Custer enter his body.  Paha Sapa then lives with the ghost of General Custer within him throughout his life, both of them watching as Paha Sapa’s people, culture, and way of life are destroyed by the relentless westward advance of modern civilization.  This is a fascinating, thought-provoking, sometimes heartbreaking story of a man who loses everything, always seeming to take two steps back for every step forward.  I enjoyed seeing this story from Paha Sapa’s perspective throughout several important periods in his life as the ghost of Custer offered the white man’s counter-perspective, usually in humorous fashion.

While there is a hint of the supernatural in this work of fiction, there is a lot of fact here, too.  Let no one say Dan Simmons fails to do proper research before he writes an historical novel.  The bibliography (humbly labeled “Acknowledgments”) is four pages long.  It is staggering to consider how much time Simmons must have spent just reading and researching the works of others before beginning his own project.  It demands respect.  On occasion though, it also gets in the way of the story and this is my one major concern with this book.  During a few rare moments, I felt as though I was reading a history text about Native American life or about the Battle of Little Big Horn or about the sculpting of Mount Rushmore or about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge.  It was always interesting information but in some cases, it felt like too much information presented in a dry manner and it slowed the story.

After reading Black Hills, I will view the Mount Rushmore monument, which I have not yet seen in person, in a completely different light now that I know how important the Black Hills region of South Dakota is to the Native American tribes of the area.  It is interesting to think that the monument was carved into that mountain to honor American democracy, but to the native peoples of the region, it is graffiti, a disgraceful defacing of a sacred mountain.

Masterfully interlacing fact with fiction to tell a story of American history from a perspective we rarely see, Dan Simmons has created a wonderful novel and solidified his position on my watch-list.  I truly enjoyed Black Hills and look forward to my next opportunity to read a Dan Simmons book.

The Wise Man's Fear, The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day Two

Thoughts on Patrick Rothfuss's The Wise Man's Fear

adored Patrick Rothfuss’s debut novelThe Name of the Wind.  It was a wonderful, entertaining first volume (of a planned trilogy) of a boy’s quest to acquire a suite of skills, talents and knowledge, increasing his power to the point where he can avenge the slaughter of his family at the hands of an evil mythical being, growing his own legend in the process.  The book felt much shorter than its six-hundred-plus page length due to Rothfuss’s superb storytelling.  I was excited to read the sequel.

The Wise Man’s Fear, topping out a nearly one thousand pages, is just too long.  While the first novel felt tightly crafted, the sequel seems to meander at times, settle too long in one place at other times.  While the transition from one location to another was supported with believable narrative reasons in the first novel, protagonist Kvothe’s reasons for traveling in The Wise Man’s Fear do not feel like an organic part of the story.  They are more like cheats used by the author to get from point A to point B so he can get on with the next part of the story.

A portion near the middle of the novel dragged the story nearly to a halt and had I not already been invested in the story, I might have stopped reading.  I am no prude, but the entire section deals with Kvothe growing his sexual prowess through a lengthy series of training sessions with a literal sex goddess.  As the character is only sixteen years old, this section of the story comes off as teenaged boy fantasy and I was unable to take it seriously.  By the time I struggled through this scene, I could have sworn it was a couple hundred pages long.  After finishing the novel, I located that section again and was shocked to discover that it was a mere sixty pages.  Even after finishing the book, I do not feel there is a good purpose for putting a sixteen year old kid in a sex scene.  I understand that Kvothe’s talents between the sheets are a part of his legend, but to have him acquire this particular skillset in the manner in which he did just did not sit well with me, especially given his age.

Another gripe I have is Kvothe’s repeated and coincidental reunions with a particular supporting character.  No matter the time of day or place in the world, the two seem to find each other just when it is most convenient.  The first time or two it happened did not bother me, but when the characters repeatedly separate, independently travel hundreds or thousands of miles to different places in the world and still happen to end up at the same place for no reason, I find it just too unbelievable.  It happens multiple times and I uttered an audible "ugh" the last time.

Despite these problems, I think Patrick Rothfuss spins a great yarn.  This second volume could have benefited from some additional edits, but the story he tells is engaging.  I like Kvothe.  He is witty, intelligent, and determined.  His smart mouth and arrogance get him into a lot of trouble and sometimes he gets out of it, but usually he suffers painful consequences. I am not sure I can trust him and I do not know if this story he is telling us is the truth or more legend of his own fabrication.  A handful of times during the first and second volumes of this Kingkiller Chronicle, Kvothe claims to be the source of embellishments designed to expand his reputation.  He says things like, “There are many versions of this story, but I like this one best.”  These statements establish Kvothe as an unreliable narrator, adding a layer of intrigue to the story that draws me in.  I want to know how he ends up being the Kingkiller referenced in the series title or if he is even the true Kingkiller at all.  I enjoy following Kvothe on his journey, watching his skills and talents evolve, watching his legend grow.

While I had some narrative problems with The Wise Man’s Fear, I still enjoyed the story and look forward to reading the final volume of the trilogy.

The Snowman

Thoughts on Jo Nesbø's The Snowman

This was a disappointing book. I picked it up based on several positive book reviews and a couple of articles heralding Jo Nesbø as a superstar author in his home country of Norway. I was in the mood for a good crime thriller and was intrigued by the dark and dreary Norwegian setting, which seemed perfect for the genre.

I like the main character, Inspector Harry Hole.  Described as not particularly handsome, some would even say ugly, he is a troublemaker at the office often rocking the boat much to the chagrin of his superior officers. He struggles with alcoholism, has a complicated relationship with his ex-girlfriend, but is the most successful detective on the force. Pretty standard noir hero stuff, I suppose, but he is well-written and I found him easy to like despite or perhaps due to his flaws.

The story begins well enough with a flashback that sets up the events to come. Once victims begin to go missing or are found murdered, the hunt is on and for me, that's where things fall apart. Circumstantial evidence is gathered and suspects are falsely accused one after another. I was particularly aghast at one suspect practically being accused on a national talk show. These false accusations result in the suspects being either killed, wrongly imprisoned, humiliated, or tortured. Pretty sloppy police work and I am surprised the third act of the book wasn't about all of the lawsuits brought against the Police Department by the families of these people.

The author overuses misdirection and red herrings and I stopped trusting him halfway through the story. There are only so many times an author can pull the rug out from under a reader before the reader finds somewhere else to stand, preferably with a different novel in their hands. There was also a lot of vague description designed to enhance tension in particular scenes, but I found it tiresome. In one scene, a character reaches his hand under a blanket and "finds what he was looking for". A gun, a knife, his car keys? We'll never know because it is never revealed. What is the point of that? Instead of enhancing the tension of the scene, it just frustrated me.

I don't read crime thrillers often and I hope the novel isn't representative of the genre in its current state. It would be irresponsible and over-reactive of me to write off an entire genre based on one bad read, but I do think I can cross Jo Nesbø off my list of authors to watch. It's a shame because I was really looking forward to this.

Under the Dome

Thoughts on Stephen King's Under the Dome

Under the Dome is not ripped off from "The Simpsons Movie". Those of you ignoramus maximi who are saying that on every Internet forum I have seen on the subject of this novel or the upcoming television series on CBS need to stop immediately. You are embarrassing yourselves. Good. Now then...

I love this book. The size of it was intimidating, but I calculated that I would need to read just thirty-six pages per day from the day I started reading the book on May 25 to finish before the premiere of the television series on June 24. For a Stephen King novel, thirty-six pages is manageable as his novels tend to be page-turners, quick reads, hard to put down. I averaged almost twice that and finished well ahead of schedule. I was in from the first chapter. This is one of King's high population novels like The Stand or The Regulators (R.I.P. Richard Bachman) with lots of interesting characters who get themselves in all kinds of trouble. And like The Stand, there are good guys and bad guys. I hesitate to use the word "evil" as much of the evil done in the book is a product of either illness (mental or otherwise), physical and emotional stress, peer pressure, environment, or opportunity. Indeed, this last point is one of the main themes of the novel. What would happen if consequence were eliminated and people were free to do as they pleased? Read Philip G. Zimbardo's The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil for a chilling tale of a real-world experiment that explores how good people can break bad given the right set of circumstances.

I found myself cheering for some characters and loving to hate others. King does a fantastic job of creating a huge cast of characters, all of whom are distinct, most of whom are sympathetic (even those who do bad things), and all completely believable. Not once did I scoff and think that no human being would behave in such a manner in such a situation. Anyone with a modicum of adult life experience will know that some people are capable of just about any behavior at any time if they think they can get away with it. In most cases, I dread the television or film adaptation of a beloved novel, but in the case of Under the Dome, I look forward to seeing these characters on screen and watching how the actors choose to portray them.

My only gripe is that I did not care for the ending, the cause of The Dome, but I so completely loved every moment that lead to it that I cannot allow the ending to cloud my enjoyment of the rest of the story. I felt the ending was too out there, too ridiculous. It speaks to Stephen King's ability to make outrageous situations feel so real (I mean, a gigantic DOME that traps an entire town... c'mon) and believable that I bought in to the entire story, over one-thousand pages before I said "waaait a minute". I had no trouble believing that the dome was there and I was horrified at the immediate impact (pun intended, maybe) that it had on the people of the small town of Chester's Mill, Maine. That is some impressive story-crafting.

I am looking forward to the television series based on this novel. For one, Stephen King is an Executive Producer and has input on any changes that are made. Second, the series is created by one of my favorite comic book authors, Brian K. Vaughan. Check out his Y: The Last Man and Pride of Baghdad for examples of his brilliance.

Downbelow Station

I love C.J. Cherryh's style, but this is not a novel to be read casually. I recommend you carve out decent chunks of time to absorb this book, concentrate on it. Chapters are divided into sections and each section is told from the third-person point of view of a different character so if you pick at this book over the course of several weeks, you could get lost, forget what who is who and what they've done or had done to them. Cherryh packs a lot of information in tight spaces, sometimes sneaking into the heads of her characters and coming out with a sentence fragment of just a few words but that is intended to convey a thought process, a reaction to events, emotion. It happens quickly and if you aren't paying attention, you can miss these flavorful moments.

There is a large cast of characters in this novel and in the hands of lesser author, many of them could have easily been copies of one another, but Cherryh manages to make each of them distinct and clearly establishes their reason for existing in the story. Some are motivated to do what's right, some by personal gain, some by something they haven't quite figured out.

I enjoy Cherryh's vision of the future. It is messy, hazardous, lived in. Conditions on the station and on starships feel cramped, sweaty, and uncomfortable. These are not crisp, clean places with flawless machinery and on-station shopping malls full of viewing decks with gorgeous views of the stars. People die and when it happens it is quick and without fanfare. There is no slow-motion scene of them falling to the ground while those around them scream "Noooooooooo!" It just happens and that's that. And I love Cherryh for it. Her world feels real.

Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was

When the village of Ku-fu is struck by a mysterious plague, the exceptionally strong but not particularly bright Number Ten Ox recruits the help of Li Kao, an elderly scholar "with a slight flaw in his character", in his quest for the Great Root of Power, a legendary ginseng root with the power to cure any ailment.  During their quest, this odd couple will encounter a wide variety of strange characters, many of whom are more caricatures, and will get themselves wrapped up in more trouble than they have any right to survive.  Their adventures are outrageous, told in a lighthearted and sometimes humorous tone.  A couple of scenes had me laughing aloud and these are the highlights of the novel for me.  The often ridiculous nature of the events had me imagining this novel as an animated film in the visual style of 2003's The Triplets of Belleville.

I found the supporting characters more interesting than the two main characters, though Li Kao is the more entertaining of those, but I think that is the very reason I did not enjoy this novel more than I expected to.  Number Ten Ox, the narrator of the story, was plain and uninteresting to me.  He seemed only to exist in the story to carry Master Li from place to place and to serve as a reasonable introduction to the character of Lotus Cloud.  Other than that, he could have been omitted from the book and the story could have been told from the perspective of Master Li instead.  Perhaps the point of Number Ten Ox's existence is to be the perspective of the reader, the normal person who is experiencing the magical and supernatural elements of this ancient China that never was with as much wonder and awe as the reader is meant to feel.

Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was is an interesting book.  I have never read anything quite like it.  I am not sure I will seek out the rest of the trilogy but I am grateful for the experience.  Enough people seem to really love it that I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasies and is looking for something a little different from the standard swords and sorcery stories.

Cell

Thoughts on Stephen King's Cell

Stephen King is a master of creating horrible situations and then dropping average people into them to see how they react. This is one of the reasons I enjoy his novels so much. The heroes of his stories are regular folk, easy to identify with, carrying the same life baggage as the rest of us. None of them are prepared to deal with the atrocities Stephen King is about to throw at them. Another thing of which Stephen King is a master is describing these atrocities in such a manner that he has me laughing out loud. To be able to create such scenes and infuse them with a bit of humor takes real skill and this is King's bread and butter. The initial scene of Cell is a cavalcade of horrific events that get crazier and more surreal with each turn of the page.

It is no spoiler to say that the premise of this novel is that a strange signal is broadcast over the cellular networks causing all who hear it to completely lose their minds. The victims of this broadcast become murderous or suicidal which winds up being really unfortunate for those who were not using their cell phones at the time of the broadcast. Small groups of people not affected by the signal band together and try to survive while wondering what caused such a bizarre event. Their journey is fun to read as King crafted some terrific, exciting scenes full of "holy [EXPLETIVE DELETED](I am trying to swear less in 2013)" moments. I enjoyed the core characters, all of whom are believable in their behavior, their reactions to events around them and their interactions with each other. Ultimately, though, the explanation of the cause of strange signal did not satisfy me, nor did it make much sense to me. Still, in this case, the journey is more important than the destination so I can easily recommend Stephen King's Cell to people who enjoy reading End-of-the-World-As-We-Know-It stories.

John Cusack

John Cusack

A film version of the novel was announced in October 2012. The film is still in the pre-production stage, but so far John Cusack has been attached to star.  He is one of my favorites so I'm optimistic.  The script was co-written by Stephen King himself and "Last House on the Left" remake screenwriter Adam Alleca.  There is no information yet about who will direct, but at this point, Cusack's involvement is enough to pique my interest.

Four and Twenty Blackbirds

Thoughts on Cherie Priest's Four and Twenty Blackbirds

Of the thirteen books I have read since joining goodreads in May 2012, eleven of them are by authors I have not previously read and the majority of those are the first published works by those authors. I was introduced to Cherie Priest by the Sword & Laser show in one of their Author Guide episodes. They predominantly discussed her recent steampunk novels but ignored her early Southern Gothic ghost trilogy, the first of which was her debut novel:  Four and Twenty Blackbirds. Though interested in the steampunk novels, I wanted to begin at the beginning so I read Four and Twenty Blackbirds first.

Cherie Priest was born, raised, and received higher education throughout the American South so it is no wonder that her work is heavily influenced by the attitudes, culture, and legends of the South.  Four and Twenty Blackbirds tells the story of Eden Moore, a young woman of mixed racial heritage who grows up in Tennessee with the gift (curse?) of being able to see and communicate with ghosts. Along with her strange ability is a twisted family history rife with scandal that none of the living members are willing to discuss with her. Eden wants answers and the novel becomes a bit of a detective mystery as well as a ghost story as Eden strikes out on her own to learn what has everyone's lips so tightly sealed.

The novel is dominated by strong, female characters which I believe may be the author's answer to the Southern chauvinistic environment in which she grew up. I speak of the region of America in which many of my own family members were raised, not of her own familial upbringing of which I know nothing. Eden is headstrong from the very first pages in which we are introduced to her as a young child. She continues to develop into a strong adult woman, bright, curious, and resourceful. I enjoyed her and it was easy to root for her.

Cherie Priest writes some really creepy supernatural encounters, a couple of which stood my hair on end. Her storytelling is straightforward, not over-flowery in an attempt to win the award for most thesaurus words used. She just wants to tell a good story and I think she was largely successful, but I felt the conclusion was a bit disappointing. The entire story seemed to be advancing toward a confrontation with a cult determined to raise a dangerous man from the dead but what actually happened was on a much smaller, and in my opinion, much less satisfying scale. I largely favor the journey over the destination though, so my disappointment in the ending does not tarnish my overall enjoyment of the story. I have already added the next book to my To-Read list.

Check out the Sword & Laser Author Guide to Cherie Priest below:

Old Man's War

Thoughts on John Scalzi's Old Man's War

Old Man's War  is my introduction to John Scalzi and it has one of the most interesting first lines I can ever remember reading:

“I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.”

Hooked! My first thoughts were, “Aw, that’s sad” followed immediately by “What the? How can he?” I had to know more. The explanation of how and why the main character could enlist in the army as a septuagenarian pulled me into the story and Scalzi’s ability to tell a story where awful things happen in a humorous way kept me there. The action reminded me of the movie “Starship Troopers” in that is it violent and gory but presented with a humorous tone. His writing style is comfortable, easy to nestle into. Reading this book is almost like coasting a bicycle down a hill. You start under your own power, then physics takes over and you squint into the wind, letting gravity do the rest until the hill flattens out and you come to an easy stop, satisfied with the ride. Part III adds some heart to the story that I thought was sweet, but that also gave me some concerns about how the story might end. I am pleased to say that Scalzi surprised me.

After finishing the novel, most readers will be considering whether or not they would enlist. I’m not sure I would but I can certainly understand why so many in my book club would jump at the opportunity. I will, however, jump at the opportunity to read the next Scalzi book I find.

The Name of the Wind, The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day One

Thoughts on Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind

It has been a long time since I read a novel that gave me such an enjoyable experience.  Patrick Rothfuss is a superb storyteller, planting seeds early on that pay off later while still leaving enough carrots dangling on sticks to make the reader keep turning pages and immediately place an order for the second volume of the series within minutes of reading the last word on the last page and ERMAGERD IT ARRIVED YESTERDAY SOIHAVETOFINISHTHISSOICANSTARTREADINGIT! Well, that was my experience anyway.

The Name of the Wind is a fantasy adventure as told by the main character, Kvothe, who appears to be on the exciting first leg of what I expect to be a dramatic character arc that will develop over the course of the three-volume series. The main criticism I have seen leveled at this novel is that Kvothe is unrealistically skilled at everything he does: music, acting, crafting, wit, humor, language, magic, academics. While this may be the case, I’d argue that we are reading the story of an extraordinary person. His almost superhuman abilities are countered by great tragedies and his victories are contrasted often by tremendous setbacks. Despite, or perhaps because of his amazing abilities, he is arrogant, brash, impatient, and his sharp tongue gets him into and out of trouble in equal measure. He is far from perfect. Kvothe spends as much time in stitches as he spends basking in his own brilliance. He is a wonderful character and one I have no trouble wishing I could be, at least during his good moments.

Throughout the story, Rothfuss evoked reactions from me that I haven’t experienced while reading a novel in a long time: trepidation, laughter, joy, frustration, heartbreak, vehement desire for justice and revenge. He has crafted such an inspiring and entertaining story that I yearn for more even after finishing this 662-page first volume, the last third of which I read in a single sitting. I could not put it down.

Check out Sword & Laser's interview of Rothfuss below.  I would love to have a beer with this guy.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

Thoughts on David Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

 I have a love-meh relationship with The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.  David Wroblewski's debut novel is a hefty one, both in word count and in ambition.  I was fascinated by the titular character, a young boy born without a voice who communicates through sign language and spends his days helping his mother and father with the family dog breeding business, the running of which was explained in such detail that I felt I could probably walk onto the farm and help without much training.  All of the characters, major and minor, felt real and fully realized.  Edgar's relationship with his dog, Almondine, was honest and heart-wrenching and it so completely reminded me of my relationship with my own childhood dog that I found myself choked up more than once.  Through Wroblewski's wonderful descriptions, I had no trouble imagining what the Sawtelle farm and its environs look like.  The story is excellent and its parallel to Hamlet, once I realized it, added an extra layer of enjoyment to my reading.

Despite these positives, I found myself struggling through the first half of the novel.  While I was enjoying the author's writing, I felt the story, while interesting, moved at a glacial pace.  I rarely read more than a few pages at a time before dozing off and after several months, I had only read half of the novel.  This discouraged me.  I found myself not enjoying my nightly read-in-bed and after much thought, I shelved the book.  Ever the optimist, though, I left the bookmark in place as I had promised myself to return to the story.  I read several other books, refreshed my love of reading and in a moment of inspiration and motivation, I dragged The Story of Edgar Sawtelle out of its place on my crowded bookcase, flipped it open to the bookmark that remained stoically in its position for months, and began reading again.

Either I originally gave up just a page too soon or I happened to be in the mood to read a story like this because I read the second half of the book in just over a week, a mere fraction of the time it took me to read the first half.  It helped that I had come to the realization that the story was a modern retelling of Hamlet.  Once that thought was in my head, I evaluated all that had come before and all that I read after with a renewed interest and zest.  It was a treat to recognize the Shakespeare-to-Wroblewski characters and situations.  Wroblewski wraps up the story in a satisfying whirlwind crescendo.  Ultimately, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone looking for a well-written American drama that they can stroll through at their own pace.

The Hobbit: Or There and Back Again

Thoughts on J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit

Tolkien's original cover design

Tolkien's original cover design

This is my second attempt at reading The Hobbit after extreme boredom with the story ended my initial effort when I was in college.  I was inspired to try again by the forthcoming film and by my participation in the 

Sword & Laser Book Club, of which The Hobbit is the December selection.  Having finished the book this time, I am pleased to add my name to the list of people who have read this classic, though I was terribly disappointed by the novel itself.

The main reason for my disappointment is the writing style of J.R.R. Tolkien, which I found meandering and far too whimsical for my taste.  I fully understand why this is such a beloved book, but I was not able to whip up even a fraction of enjoyment that my peers seem to have gained from the same experience.  I felt Tolkien lingered too long on uninteresting encounters and completely rushed through the scenes that I found myself enjoying.  The story itself is entertaining, but my enjoyment of it was marred by the writing style.  I feel badly about that, as though I've completely missed the point. 

I do appreciate what I feel is one of the lessons of The Hobbit, which is that with the right coalition of allies, you can overcome overwhelming hardship.  Tolkien learned this lesson personally as a soldier during World War I.  It is an important lesson, but I wonder if the children who were the original target audience of this story would see it.  Despite my disappointment, I am glad I read The Hobbit.  It has informed so much our current popular culture since its publication and will surely again when the films are released.

Song of Kali

Thoughts on Dan Simmons's Song of Kali

I've called myself a fan of Dan Simmons for several years and have a shelf dedicated to his novels. I recently realized, however, that I had really only read two of the books on that shelf:  Hyperion and The Terror, both of which are excellent. I decided to dig into his 1985 debut novel to broaden my experience with this author I claim to favor.

I enjoyed Song of Kali. Even in my limited experience, I've felt Simmons excels at character and place. The narrator feels like a real, flawed person who, despite some of his unpleasantness, is put into such an awful situation that I rooted for him to escape and hurt for him each time something bad happened. The characterization of Calcutta, India as oppressive and overwhelming in both size and environment, filthy, confusing, aggressive, unwelcoming firmly cemented my wish to never find myself there.

The story is fast-paced, and when it isn't exciting, it is at least interesting or intriguing. I would put this novel firmly in the category of "page turner". My only gripe with it is that the last few chapters caused the conclusion to drag and took some of the punch out of the climax. Otherwise, this book convinces me that my high esteem for Dan Simmons was not premature, but rather prescient.

The House of Sight and Shadow

Thoughts on Nicholas Griffin's The House of Sight and Shadow

Having greatly enjoyed Nicholas Griffin’s first novel, The Requiem Shark, I was excited to discover this second novel bearing his name in my local bookshop.  The House of Sight and Shadow (the full equivocal nature of the title is revealed slowly throughout the book) begins as young Joseph Bendix arrives in eighteenth century London hoping to become the apprentice to the talented and notorious anatomist, Sir Edmund Calcraft. Upon their initial meeting, Bendix admits to Calcraft that what compelled him to seek the doctor was his reputation. Bendix relays, “They say that your house is built upon bones, curtains stitched of women’s hair, and pillows sewn of eyelids. They say that you are monster.” This stirred within me an excitement that perhaps this Dr. Calcraft was of a similar moral character as other doctors of literature, such as Victor Frankenstein and Henry Jekyll.

During the first half of the novel, the plot progresses at a deliberate pace, with Griffin teasing the reader with tantalizing morsels of information, introducing foreboding characters such as Mister Sixes, and putting the main character into unusual situations that caused me to question what was really going on and wish for more facts. Unfortunately, the great first half was tarnished by the final third of the story which seemed rushed, with events happening so rapidly that I was left wondering if it was the author’s intent to zip through them, thinking he was bringing the story to an exciting crescendo, or if he had simply run out of time to meet his delivery deadline and was not able to flesh out portions of the story as he may have liked. Especially as the story draws to a close, it seemed the events taking place deserved to spend more time on the page than Griffin allowed. One particular event, similar to another that had consumed an entire chapter earlier, was over in just a couple of pages but was of such monumental importance to the main character that I felt cheated. The event was handled so rapidly, almost thrown away, that it landed with no weight at all when it should have been a huge moment in the story. This seemed to happen several times during the final third of the book, which hampered my enjoyment of the overall experience and brought a novel I was really enjoying to an unsatisfactory conclusion.