A Slow Month

January 30, 2008 at 7:24 pm (Acquisitions)

It has, sadly, been a light month for book purchases, with only three new titles.

Simon R. Green – Something from the Nightside
Jeff VanderMeer – Shriek: An Afterword
Gail Z. Martin – The Blood King

Green’s book has already been read and reviewed, as I needed a small break from Devices and Desires, and that was a short book that I read over a weekend. I had intended to dive right into The Blood King next, but I’ve decided to put it off, and, instead, re-read The Summoner first. After all, what use is a review on the sequel if I never put anything up for the first book?

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Devices and Desires by K. J. Parker

January 18, 2008 at 3:42 pm (K. J. Parker, Reviews)

K. J. Parker - Devices and DesiresAs a reader, I sometimes like to show off. To show off that I read, as well as, occasionally, what I read. It’s completely shallow to want to show off a book, and I have shallow criteria for deciding which I want to show off. I don’t do anything so obnoxious as announcing it to everyone I meet, but more subtle things like leaving it in a prominent position on my desk so that, as people walk by, they might be able to catch a glimpse in passing.

What books deserve to be flaunted? It comes down to a number of factors: cover art, book title, the quality of the prose, even the authors name plays into it. But when reading Fantasy, there are few books that I want to actively display. It is, in fact, a very rare thing. Not that I’m embarrassed, but most titles tend to get turned over when I set them down. The last Fantasy book that I felt the need to advertise was Bakker’s Prince of Nothing (which I read almost a year ago). But now I’m doing it again with K. J. Parker’s Engineer Trilogy.

I’m not trying to say that Parker is a that great of an author (and I’m not saying that she isn’t), just that her books are aesthetically pleasing. On a purely superficial and self-serving level. Am I really impressing anybody? Probably not. It just one of my quirks.

Devices and Desires is the first book in K. J. Parker’s Engineer Trilogy (the other two are titled Evil for Evil and The Escapement). First off, I’d like to give credit to Orbit for the fantastic covers (they do that a lot), and for releasing all three volumes with only a month’s wait between them.

As the story goes, Ziani Vaatzes, a foreman and engineer in the Eternal Republic (whose people are referred to as Mezentines), is convicted of abomination, a crime of innovation, and sentenced to execution. Naturally, he escapes and flees the city, with no clear inclination of where to go, or what to do, and only the desire to someday be reunited with his family to spur him on. By chance, he comes upon the retreating army of Eremia, staggering their way home after a spectacular defeat at the hands of the Republic. Ziani quickly devises a plan to use his knowledge of the war machines that defeated them to entice the Eremian’s to shelter him and to serve as the instrument of his revenge.

In the background is Duke Valens of the Vadani, chasing after his lost love, Veatriz, who is now married to the Eremian Duke, Orsea. And in the Eternal Republic, there is the political maneuverings, as they prepare for war with Eremia, in and effort to recover the deserter, Ziani Vaatzes.

It’s an compelling story with many interesting plot twists along the way. But it’s also a difficult book to read. The prose is somewhat mechanical. While it does serve the tone of the story, I have to wonder if it was deliberate, or if Parker is, in general, just a long-winded author. Her main focus is on world-building. Whether it’s the scenery, political structures, mechanical processes, fencing maneuvers or hunting theory, the world is meticulously detailed (an impressive display of knowledge). So much so that the story often suffers for it. I had to dig through a lot of nonsense, things that I don’t particularly care to know about, in order to find the story underneath.

In example:

     “The Ducas rides to the hunt on a white palfrey. He wears a quilted pourpoint of white or gray silk over a white linen shirt, cord breeches and arming boots with points for his sabatons; the only weapon he carries is a slightly curved, single-edged hanger as long as his arm from shoulder to fingertips. He may wear a hat if rain is actually falling. He is followed by four huntsmen on barbs or jennets, who carry his armor, his great spear, his light spears, his bow and his close sword, which can be either a falchion or a tuck depending on the likely quarry. A page on an ambler or a mule follows with the wet-weather gear – a hooded mantle, a surcoat, chaps and spats – and the horn.
     On arriving at the meet, the Ducas dismounts, and is accomplished for the hunt in the following order, which differs slightly from the proper order for war: first the sabatons, laced tightly at the toes and under the instep; next the greaves, followed by the leg-harness of demi-greaves, poleyns and cuisses (gamboised cuisses are considered excessive except where the quarry is exclusively bear of wolf) – these are secured by points to the hem of the pourpoint, and the usual straps and buckles around the thigh, the calf and the inside knee. Since the cuirass and placket are not worn for the hunt, the upper points are secured to the kidney-belt, after which the faulds are added to protect the buttocks, thighs and groin. The arm-harness is fitted next; in the hunting harness, the vambraces close on the outside of the forearm with buckles, and the half-rerebrace is worn, secured at the shoulder with a single point. Spaulders are preferred to pauldrons fort he protection of the shoulder, and a simple one-lame gorget suffices for the neck. Finally, the Ducas puts on his gauntlets (the finger type is preferred to the clamshell or mitten varieties) and his baldric, from which hang his close sword and his horn. He carries his great spear in his right hand. The four huntsmen carry the rest of the gear between them; the page stays behind at the meet to hold the horses.
” – page 375-376

I don’t mean to present this as a bad book, but one should be aware of what they are getting in to. It takes considerable effort to get through, but there were many shining moments to make up for the sections that dragged. But, regretfully, I don’t have any examples of them to display. I must blame my own poor foresight; I didn’t think to note the pages of her greater moments when I came upon them. It’ll be too much to go digging for them now. But I must offer something:

     “’Hello,’ Miel said, squeezing out a little more affability from somewhere. ‘I’d forgotten, Jarnac mentioned you were coming along today.’
     Ziani Vaatzes turned his head and looked at him for a heartbeat before answering. ‘I’m afraid I sort of bullied him into inviting me,’ he said. ‘Only, I’ve never seen anything like this before.’
     Miel smiled. ‘Anybody who can bully Jarnac has my sincere admiration.’ He said. ‘I’d have thought it couldn’t be done. So, what do you make of it all?’
     ‘Impressive,’ Vaatzes replied; not that it mattered, since Miel wasn’t particularly interested in the truth. ‘I had no idea it’d be so formal. I expect I look ridiculous.’
     ‘Not at all,’ Miel said (it wasn’t a good day for truth generally). ‘What’ve you got there, in the bag?’
     Vaatzes looked sheepish. ‘I didn’t know what to bring, so I fetched along my bow. I hope that’s all right.’
     ‘Very good,’ Miel said. ‘Is it one you made yourself?’ he added, as a way of filling the silence.
     Vaatzes nodded, loosed the knot and pulled something out of the bag. It would have looked quite like a bow if it hadn’t been made of metal. He was holding it out fro Miel to examine, like a cat that insists on bringing small dead birds into the house.
” –page 377

Though not one of Parker’s finest moments, between the two excerpts, I think that it gives a fair summation of her writing style, and the interplay between massive infodumping and dialogue. Much of the book follows a similar structure. While I hate to say it, you could probably skim half of it without missing anything.

The one place where Devices and Desires didn’t get bogged down in details, was in battle sequences. In those scenes, Parker takes a narrow view of the field, without attention the greater flow of the fight. For that, I thought that the battles were the best part of the book. I found them to be suitably confused.

The environment is described down to the placement of every nail, but the characters are, as far as appearance is concerned, mostly left to the reader’s imagination. She does, however, detail every facet of their personalities in the same manner that she does the world.

The characters are set up to extreme opposites, giving them something of a yin and yang effect (which I like to think was deliberate). Valens is a strong, confident, charismatic leader, while Orsea is weak and indecisive, leaving most decisions to others. Naturally the nations that they lead – Valens’ Vadani and Orsea’s Eremia – are old enemies. Then there’s the calculating and methodical Ziani, who’s main opposition, Miel, acts more on intuition and a sense of duty.

The same structure is applied to the nations themselves. The Vadani and Eremians take their cues from the Dukes. The Eternal Republic is excessively organized, while their greatest enemy, the Cure Hardy, are chiefly dispersive and nomadic. Accordingly, the strong and structured nations, the Vadani and Mezentine’s, are rich, while their opposites are very poor.

The only flaw in her characterization (that bothered me anyway) was that her everybody was almost emotionless. When this was first pointed out to me, I wrote it off as: “well, nothing that bad has happened yet, but when _____ happens…” Only, when those things did happen, the characters all shrank down into contemplation rather than displaying any emotional reaction. Even at the beginning of the novel, when Ziani is fleeing his execution, it’s more of a rational process than it is a desperation to not be killed.

Devices and Desires has it’s strengths, certainly, but it’s the things that went wrong that I always seem to dwell on the most. Besides the weaknesses of the characterization and the over-descriptiveness, there were a few points that struck me as especially jarring. First was the fact that the Republic is a highly industrialized society, while the rest of the world seems to be dwelling in the middle-ages. I can understand the Mezentines being secretive with their technologies, but it only stands to reason that someone else would be able to figure out how to make a few innovations themselves. Extra attention is given to innocuous events that will come into effect later in the story, making the foreshadowing feel artificial. I thought there was an over-reliance to the scorpion, and would have liked to see some other war engines get a little more spotlight. And the other major point was a “bad guy explains the plot” scene at the end. I had puzzled out a good deal of what happened on my own, so half of the explanation was redundant. The other half I liked better thinking of it as coincidental.

I can’t help but to bring this all back to comparisons to R. Scott Bakker. I could easily draw parallels between the characters in both series – Ziani to Khellus, Miel to Achamien (no, Devices and Desires has no magic, I’m talking about personality), Valens to Conphas, etc. Not to accuse Parker of borrowing ideas; I think it’s more of a “great minds think alike” proposition. The characters really are quite different, overall, but they share some fundamental similarities. The story’s are nothing alike. But they both try to present higher concepts than might not be readily comprehensible to the average reader. Well, they were a little beyond my understanding at least. And they’re both a bit of a chore to read.

Overall Impression: Good.

Final Thoughts: Devices and Desires is a difficult book.  It took a lot of effort to get through it, but it was, in the end, satisfying.

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New Releases – January 2008

January 15, 2008 at 5:22 pm (New Releases)

 A couple of January releases that I’m interested in:

Geroge R. R. Martin, Gardner Dozois, Daniel Abraham - Hunter's RunHunter’s Run by George R. R. Martin, Gardner Dozois and Daniel Abraham. Hardcover 1-8-08. I have yet to read Daniel Abraham (though I do look forward to doing so in the near future), and I know Gardner Dozois only by references by G. R. R. M. So, obviously, George Martin is the big selling point for me on this one. In all likelihood, I’ll probably wait until it’s available in paperback, but I still thought it was worth a mention.

Gail Z. Martin - The Blood KingThe Blood King by Gail Z. Martin. Mass-Market Paperback 1-29-08. The second book in her Chronicles of the Necromancer series. While The Summoner had it’s flaws, I still enjoyed it as a guilty pleasure type read, and look forward to checking out its sequel.

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Something From The Nightside by Simon R. Green

January 15, 2008 at 1:42 pm (Reviews, Simon R. Green)

     “Private eyes come in all shapes and sizes, and none of them look like television stars. Some do insurance work, some hang around cheap hotels with camcorders hoping to get evidence for divorce cases, and damn few ever get to investigate complicated murder mysteries. Some chase things that don’t exist, or shouldn’t. Me, I find things. Sometimes I’d rather nor find them, but that comes with the territory.” – page 1

Simon R. Green - Something From The NightsideThus begins Simon R. Green’s Something from the Nightside, a book that makes itself clear from the onset in what it is not. The main character, John Taylor, finds things – as hinted above, he does not solve murder mysteries – and in this first book of the Nightside series, he is hired to find a runaway teen.

Wealthy businesswoman Joanna Barrett has tried nearly every investigator available to track down her missing daughter, and has met with a series of money-sapping disappointments. All she has gotten for her efforts are the names John Taylor and Nightside. In a last act of desperation, she hires Mr. Taylor to take her into Nightside and locate her daughter.

So what is the Nightside exactly? It’s set up as a square mile, that may or may not be much larger than a square mile, at the center of London. Or perhaps it’s more of an alternate reality, that is accessible through London. It’s never made clear how the Nightside connects to real world London, but then, it doesn’t really matter. What does matter, is that it is a bad, bad place. And in case you ever forget, the author will frequently remind you. Nightside a slum where creatures too horrible for the real world dwell. A place where both dreams and nightmares can, and will, come true.

I think we get the point: it’s a bad place. And five years prior, John Taylor, a man with a big, bad reputation, fled the Nightside for the sanctuary of the real world, vowing never to return. Only, business is scarce and money is tight, so when Ms. Barrett offers him a hefty sum to locate her daughter, he can’t possibly refuse.

Lack of murder mysteries aside, I was expecting something a bit more intricate from the plot. Maybe a nice little conspiracy. Oh, I got that, sure, but it was presented in such a straightforward manner, that I was a little disappointed. But, to the authors credit, he didn’t present the book as anything other than what it was. I suppose it was just wishful thinking on my part. Something from the Nightside comes off less as a detective novel, and more as a guided tour. Not that it’s a bad tour, mind.

The location takes center stage, and Simon R. Green squeezes some nice touches into it. We get to see Stangefellows, local bar, and hotspot for information, that’s haunted by the ghost of Merlin (though we don’t get to see him). There’s the Hawks Wind Bar & Grill, a restaurant that is itself a ghost. The Fortress, my personal favorite, which is a stronghold set up by alien abduction victims. There’s also a trip through a possible future.

But the focus on the locales takes it’s toll on the characters. Aside from Ms. Barrett, all of the other character are, basically, the same person. John Taylor, Suzie Shooter and Razor Eddie are the most notable of the bunch, and they are, all three, pretty generic tough-guys (or tough-girls in the case of Suzie). Sure, their backgrounds are all unique, but in the present, the only real difference between them is their choice of weapon (John has some indistinct magical gift, Suzie likes guns, and Eddie a straight-edge razor). The only thing in the way of character development, comes from laying down some basic mysteries behind John. Who was his mother, and why would him finding knowledge of her be so cataclysmic? What is the extent of John’s power?

But at only 230 pages, can we really expect more?

He does a fair job of laying out the John Taylor questions (and for that alone I may pick up the next volume), but otherwise the writing is simply… good enough. The prose itself is brisk and clear. Dialogue is smooth, and doesn’t try too hard to be edgy. Every time we come to a new character or location, Mr. Green treats the reader to a thorough explanation of them/it. And that’s before they actually show up. A page later, when we meet them, he puts in reminders of the same information. It was a little annoying, but the pacing was so fast that I didn’t have much time to dwell on it.

     “’Why aren’t there any windows?’ said Joanna, after a while.
     ‘Because you don’t want to see what’s outside,’ I said. ‘We have to travel through strange, harsh, places to reach the Nightside. Dangerous and unnatural places, that would blast the sight from your eyes and the reason from your mind. Or so I’m told. I’ve never felt like peeking.’
     ‘What about the driver? Doesn’t he have to see where he’s going?’
     ‘I’m not convinced there is a driver,’ I said thoughtfully. ‘I don’t know anyone who’s ever seen one. I think the trains have been running this route for so long now that they’re capable of running themselves.’
     ‘You mean there’s no-one human at the controls?’
     ‘Probably better that way. Humans are so limited.’ I smiled at her shocked face. ‘Sorry you came yet?’
     ‘No.’
     ‘Don’t worry. You will be.’”
– page 31-32

And that’s how most things are explained. “You’d rather not know.” In all fairness though, half the time he does go on to explain what those things are. The Nightside comes off as alternating between dark and whimsical. Still, the descriptions are, generally, little more than a lecture. But at least he admits it.

Overall Impression: Okay.

Final Thoughts: Something from the Nightside is a fast and, occasionally, fun book with a setting that is more interesting than its characters.

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Gil’s All Fright Diner by A. Lee Martinez

January 2, 2008 at 5:06 pm (A. Lee Martinez, Reviews)

A. Lee Martinez - Gil's All Fright DinerI picked up A. Lee Martinez’s debut novel, Gil’s All Fright Diner, as an impulse buy. It looked quirky and fun; a nice light read to recharge between epics. I’m a sucker for quirky fun. Well, I got quirky. But fun on the other hand… not so much.

This book serves best as an example of why I distrust trust “professional” reviewers. Boasting blurbs like:

“[A] terrific debut. Fans of Douglas Adams will happily sink their teeth into this combo platter of raunchy laughs and ectoplasmic ecstasy.” – Publishers Weekly

“[A]promising launch for a buddy horror series.” – Krikus

“Delightfully droll, this comic romp will be a crowd pleaser.” – Booklist

And there’s a fairly sizable list of others. Admittedly, the rest of the review that goes with those lines might not be as flattering, but I don’t care enough to hunt them down and find out. I can only hope that those remarks were meant as sarcastically as my own.

Gil’s All Fright Diner is, like one of the above blurbs mentions, a buddy comedy. It’s the story of wanderlusts Duke, an overweight werewolf, and Earl, a scrawny vampire with a comb-over, in their aimlessly trek in their beat up old pickup. Almost out of gas, they come upon the small town of Rockwood, and, more specifically, Gil’s All Night Diner. We come to find out that Rockwood has a long history of supernatural activity, the least of which being frequent zombie attacks on Gil’s Diner, now operated by Loretta, a large women who fancies inappropriately tight clothing.

Duke and Earl, with a little help from Loretta and local police chief Marshall Kopp (oh, the delicious irony!) spend the book bumbling around town, trying to solve the mystery of who is behind these attacks. We soon find out that it is a sexy local teen, Tammy, who likes to be called Mistress Lilith, and her cult, what’s only member is her horny boyfriend Chad. It’s all a part of her sinister plan to unleash the old gods and destroy the world.

Gil’s offers such devices as a haunted magic 8-ball, a tentacle monster in the freezer, zombie-cows, a love affair between a ghost and a vampire, and pig-Latin as the secret language of the gods.

The biggest problem was the comedy. I was, for some reason, expecting clever satire, but what I got was a couple of rednecks drinking beer, ogling a teenage girl and calling each other ass-holes. The only thing missing was fart jokes.

Besides the inherent lack of wit, Gil’s All Fright Diner is thinly written. Martinez doesn’t bother to internalize the narrative. In fact, he can’t even decide who the narrator is; the PoV just hops around randomly, now on Earl, now on Tammy, now on a dog. Anybody is fair game, and he doesn’t give so much as a warning.

Outside of the occasional infodump, the bulk of the story is dialogue. Bad redneck dialogue. Often with conversations between three characters, with nary a speaker-tag in sight to let us keep track of who is saying what. Good think that Duke and Earl are essentially the same character (excepting that Earl is a little more cowardly), so it doesn’t really matter who’s talking. And on top of that, it’s all written in dialect. Bad redneck dialect.

To illustrate my points:

     “’Did you check out the cemetery?” he asked, wiping crumbs from his chin.
     Earl nodded.
     Duke popped open a Coke and took a long draught. He smacked his lips and took another bite.
     ‘And?’
     ‘I’m handling it, Duke.’
     ‘You talk to the guardian?’
     Earl tossed Duke an annoyed glance.  

     ‘’Course I talked to the guardian.’
     ‘And?’
     ‘And I’m handling it, you dipshit.’
     The kitchen door swung open. Loretta entered with two teenagers in tow. The boy was tall, athletic, with sand blonde hair. The girl was a petite Asian in short shorts and a blue tank top.”
– page 39-40

And that was the briefest occasion of name-calling between Duke and Earl. I can flip to any random page an come up with similar passages. In fact:

     “’We’re talking about a cult or sumthin’?’
     They nodded again.
     ‘In Rockwood? But we don’t even got a move theater.’
     ‘That’s how it usually works. People who got stuff to do don’t usually sign up with the minions of darkness. It’s the folks with lots’a time to kill that you gotta watch out for.”
     ‘Idle hands,’ Duke agreed.
     ‘So you’ve seen this kind of thing before?’
     ‘All the time,’ Earl replied, ‘especially in isolated, quiet little places like this.’ He leaned closer. ‘If you’re ever in New Mexico, don’t pick up any hitchhikers. Better than fifty-fifty chance you’ll wind up strapped to an altar.’
     ‘You’re making that up.’
     ‘Happened to me twice. Swear to God.’
     She snorted skeptically and returned to the original subject. ‘You figure Gil’s disappearance is related to all this?’
     ‘I got that feeling.’”
– page 80-81

And another:

     “Earl wore threadbare overalls that were at least as old as he was. (Which for the record, was much older than he looked, but still not all that old for a vampire.) Duke wore denim jeans, a leather jacket, and a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan NO FAT CHICKS.
     ‘Next chance we get, Duke, we should get some new tires, too.’
     ‘Tires are fine.’
     ‘This one’s ready to blow.’
     ‘No it ain’t.’
     ‘What the fuck do you know about tires, dipshit?’
     ‘I know it ain’t going to blow.’
     ‘Fine, but when it does, you’re changing it.’
     ‘Fine.’
     Duke didn’t bother to point out the truck was currently riding on its spare.”
– page 11

If that didn’t make you want to vomit, then maybe Martinez is for you. Maybe it really is funny, and I just don’t “get” blue-collar comedy.

Gil’s All Fright Diner was, for me, the literary equivalent of The Mullets.  The only thing that compelled me to the end was the thought that, once it was finished, I could start something better.

Overall Impression: Poor.

Final Thoughts: Gil’s All Fright Diner had a couple of decent ideas, but they were buried beneath thin writing and sophomoric humor.

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