The Blood King by Gail Z. Martin

March 18, 2008 at 2:20 pm (Gail Z. Martin, Reviews)

Warning: contains spoilers for The Summoner.

Gail Z. Martin - The Blood KingI’ve been getting lazy about writing up entries lately. That’s what comes from finishing books on Fridays. When I fist finish them, I’m brimming with opinions and can’t wait to sit down and type them all out. But when it’s Friday afternoon, and I’m not going to have time to write them up until Monday, well, those few days really sap my enthusiasm. So here we are, three weeks later, finally getting some thoughts down about The Blood King.

The Blood King picks up right where The Summoner leaves off, and though it’s only the second book in Gail Z. Martin’s Chronicles of the Necromancer series, it aims to finish off the Matris vs. Jared storyline. So Tris and his crew are now the guests of King Staden of Dhasson (at least I think – that’s the trouble with late reviews; plenty of time to forget the little details like names), who has promised to buy him an army in aid to reclaim Margolan.

The first half of the book is slow moving. While Matris Drayke heads off the complete his magic training, Vahanian, Soterius and handful of others work out their strategies for the coming campaign. Basically, the highlight of The Summoner, its marvelous pacing, is completely destroyed for the sequel.

While at first it looked to be a book that would be primarily a military campaign, which I can get excited about, it ended up focusing on a lot of mundane encounters and training exercises. Honestly, it felt like Gail Martin was trying to stretch the story a bit.

In The Summoner, Gail Z. Martin used a number of basic fantasy archetypes and clichés, making it a pretty unoriginal story. This time around, instead of merely repeating basic formula, she’s repeating herself, reusing a number of plot devices from the first book, recapping character descriptions, even repeating event descriptions between one chapter and the next. It’s no longer the same old story told in a new voice (which redeemed the book to an extent), but now the same old story told in the same old voice.

The prose itself is marginally cleaner, but that’s only to be expected. Characters were all more fleshed out, offering the back stories of Vahanian, Soterius and Carroway, along with adding more screen time for Gabriel and Mikhail, Tris’s vayash moru allies. And she added some inner-conflict for Tris to deal with – the possibility that he may have to sacrifice Kiara and his other friends in order to defeat Arontala – which is something that I was complaining about on The Summoner. But on the down side, the “love stories” were played up significantly, much to my irritation. I enjoyed her approach to this in The Summoner, when everyone was too busy running for their lives and distrusting one another so that there was no time to get all emotional. But this time… well, I’m sure there are plenty of people who will appreciate a more romantic bent, but I’m not one of them.

About halfway through, just when I’m sure that this is going to drag on to another book, she finally gets to the point, and the story becomes readable again. Mostly.

I thought that she did a good job of portraying the decay and oppression that has permeated the kingdom of Margolan in the few months since Jared took over. Of course, Jared is probably the most incompetent leader I have ever read. I’m sure that she wanted to make him a poor king, somebody completely evil that the reader can’t find any sympathy for, but he ended up as stupid and unbelievable. He’s was a prince right? Surely he must have been training his entire life to eventually be king, but he seems to be just making it up as he goes. So how can he let things get this bad? Well, he’s the bad guy, and that’s what bad guys do. I probably wasn’t supposed to think too far into it.

Despite some complaints along the way, I found the ending to be quite satisfying. Everything was properly foreshadowed, and even with a clever twist, it still felt natural in the context of her world. The only problem is that she may have wrapped things up a little too neatly, not leaving much room for the next book in the series. She’s obviously come up with something, but I’m not sure that I can be bothered to care.

So there it is. I probably would have had much more to say (and been able to say it better) had I done this three weeks ago. But I didn’t, so this is what we’re stuck with.

Overall Impression: Okay.

Final Thoughts: Gail Z. Martin does a decent job of wrapping up the story, but The Blood King fails to be quite so engaging as its predecessor.

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The Summoner by Gail Z. Martin

February 11, 2008 at 3:34 pm (Gail Z. Martin, Reviews)

I first read Gail Z. Marin’s The Summoner last year, I say it was summer, maybe late spring. I remembered enjoying it. I remembered looking forward to the next Chronicles of the Necromancer book. But somewhere between finishing The Summoner, and last weeks release of The Blood King, I forgot what it was about. Was the book that unremarkable, or have I just read too much in the interim (I think it’s actually a little of both). So I decided to give myself a refresher and take it back off the shelf.

Some vague details of the story came back quickly enough once I started reading, but much of it remained lost, and so was like reading it for the first time.

Matris Drayke is the second son to King Bricen, favored by the people of Margolan but content in his minor role. His older, half-brother Jared and his blood mage Foor Arontala raise a coup and murder Bricen and Tris’s mother and sister. With the help of his closest friends, Ban Soterius and Carroway, along with loyal guardsman Tov Harrtuck, and a helpful ghost, Tris manages to flee Shekerishet castle into the surrounding countryside. Vowing to avenge his avenge his family’s murder and free their souls, Matris Drayke must escape the kingdom of Margolan and learn to use his powerful spirit magic to save his father’s kingdom and defeat Arontala before he can release the dreaded Obsidian King. The plan is to head for the neighboring country Dhasson, ruled by King Harrol, Tris’s uncle, and win their aid in deposing Jared. Along the way, they hire mercenary/smuggler Jonmarc Vahanian to guide them through the perilous journey.

Meanwhile, in the country of Isencroft, Princess Kiara Sharsequin is desperate to find a cure for a mysterious illness that has befallen her father, King Donelan (her distant cousin Carina had already been sent to the Sisterhood, but had yet to return with a solution), and to avoid a pre-arranged marriage to Jared of Margolan.

The Summoner is only the first half of the story; the return home is going to wait for the next book.

So, it’s pretty basic story, and it has some basic characters to match. Tris manages to be an ignorant farmboy despite being a prince. He is young and naïve, but he has had his memories locked away, so I he has an excuse. Vahanian is a typical hardnosed nomadic mercenary. A man of worldly experience, he falls into a mentor-like role to the young prince. Vahanian, while not the main character, is the only one who has any measure of depth. Once he is introduced, he takes command of the story. In fact, often times, it feels like this is really Vahanian’s story, and Matris Drayke is simple along for the ride. Tris is likeable enough, but ultimately shallow. There was potential for him to be a much better character, but she had him brush over what should have been some very difficult decisions with little thought. Had she drawn out his internal conflict, it would have made for a more believable character. But still, he is charming.

Beyond those two, everyone else is pretty flat. There’s Kiara – the warrior princess, Soterius – loosely taking the barbarian role for coming from a mountainous people, Harrtuck – the veteran soldier, Carina – the healer, and Carroway – the bard. On the other side is Jared – the despotic king, Arontala – his evil mage and the Obsidian King – the god-like uber-villain. A basic fantasy cast.

The events of the story are driven by an active Goddess, who will randomly appear to bail Tris out of a mess, guide the different characters together, or send a messenger with timely information. It might seem, to some people, a bit of a cop-out. For myself, the approach takes a little bit of the sting off; instead of trying to pass these events off as purely coincidental, she allows for a higher power to direct events, sort of a consolation, an admission of guild, that she couldn’t come up with a better way: if things fall together a little too neatly, well, it’s the will of the Goddess.

The story is all formulaic and forgettable, but Gail Z. Martin makes up for it with the narrative. The language is fairly simple, and plenty of awkward phrasing, but keeps a brisk pace with plenty of action. It’s also clean (as in largely without profanities), and she refrains from overly-gory descriptions in the books many skirmishes. The Summoner is well foreshadowed throughout, but between that and the familiar plot, it does get a little predictable. The book has a lackluster start, but every turned page pulled me deeper into the tale, so that by the end, I was excited at the prospect of beginning The Blood King.

And now for my complaints (which may be minor spoilers). First of all, there were no zombies. Now, if you’re going to call a book The Summoner, have a main character that’s a necromancer, and tell me that he is going to raise armies of the undead (back cover)… well, what does that mean but zombies, right? Nope. Tris is a necromancer, true, but he’s not allowed to raise zombies. That would make him a bad guy. That’s what the Obsidian King did, and why he’s the world’s great villain. His Summoner powers mainly center around ghosts – calling ghosts, seeing ghosts, getting them to help out, giving them their final rest (he can also perform more generic spells). That’s all well enough, but I was hoping for zombies! The “armies of undead” are actually vampires (termed vayash moru in the novel).

Second, as basic as the story was, I thought that she was at least steer away from a few of the genre cliché’s. And it looked good… for a while. There were no ancient prophesies, which I appreciated, but the Goddess’s frequent intervention still gave it a prophetic feel. Not exactly the same, true, but close enough. “You are my chosen warrior, the hope of the world rest in your hands… blah, blah, blah.”

And third, the magic sword. Have we not had enough magic swords already? I thought we were going to get out of this one too. There was no mention of a magic sword… until the last fifty or so pages. Why, Gail, did you have to blow it in the end like that?

One consolation, though, was that Tris, bumbling farmboy prince that he is, doesn’t just instinctively develop his magic. He’s had training. A lot of training. Though his memories have been suppressed so he doesn’t know it. Then, when he’s reacquainted with those memories, he’s still only a mid-level mage for all that. And it is a decent magic system.

Overall Impression: Pretty Good.

Final Thoughts: The Summoner doesn’t break any new ground, but good pacing and likeable characters keep it interesting and engaging. A solid light read.

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City Of Saints And Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer

February 1, 2008 at 5:38 pm (Jeff VanderMeer, Reviews)

Jeff VanderMeer - City of Saints and MadmenFollowing up on my books-that-I-want-to-show-off tour, I picked up Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen. Many others have espoused on the quality of VanderMeer’s work; people more articulate, more credible, and, more importantly, better known than myself. (In fact, I’m daunted by the prospect of reviewing this, as I’m sure to do a poor job.) But I can’t help from piling on additional praise (I’m a slow enough reader as it is, and I can’t pass up the chance to make an entry, no matter how little it actually means).

City of Saints and Madmen is a collection of stories, all set in the hazardous city of Ambergris, that are both whimsical and macabre. The best word I can describe it with is absurd. But delightfully so. Mushrooms and squids spring up in the most imaginative ways, winding their way into each tale. The prose flows smoothly, but I found each story took a little bit of effort before it took hold. VanderMeer exhibits a ready willingness to make fun of both his readers and himself.

The collection starts off with Dradin, In Love, the title being self-explanatory. It follows the young minister Dradin, newcomer to Ambergris, who spots an enchanting woman in the window of a local merchant house. With the help of a dwarf, Dvorak, he attempts to anonymously gain her affections. This story, sadly, didn’t contain the humor that is featured throughout the rest of the book. Or maybe it’s humor was too sophisticated for me to understand.

Next is The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris, also self-explanatory. It is a story set up in the manner of a historical pamphlet, written by fictional author Duncan Shriek. This is an account of the founding of Ambergris and events leading up to the beginning of the cities troubles with the mushroom-like Gray Caps and the mysterious event called the Silence, dotted with footnotes that poke fun at impatient readers to beak up the dryness of the story itself.

The Transformation of Martin Lake follows the early career of the famed painter, Martin Lake, and how he became the profound artist fondly remembered through history. It offers commentary on the death of, also famed, composer Voss Bender (whose name springs up in practically every story), and the conflict between the Reds and Greens that ensued because of it. Delightfully gruesome.

The Strange Case of X is funniest piece in this collection. VanderMeer himself shows up, having been transplanted into his own world, and held for psychiatric evaluation.

The rest of the book is classified as an AppendiX, and features stories in support of The Strange Case of X, but which also stand well enough on their own. King Squid is set up as a scientific pamphlet on the most revered of squids, the narrative dripping with venom that the author, Frederick Madnok, has for his fellow squidologists. It features a 38 page bibliography that demands to be read for its commentary on the books included (which feature detailing of the many adventures of the Torture Squid), and for the conclusion of Madnok’s tale. The Hoegbotton Family History is a world-building piece that sits as a primer for The Cage, which follows Richard Hoegbotton’s early days in Ambergris, and his acquisition of a cage left by the Gray Caps, but fails to ever explain itself.  And The Exchange, and odd tale set over an elderly couples dinner.

Low points include The Release of BelacquaThe Man Who Had No Eyes and Learning to Leave the Flesh. While not bad, they don’t compare to books other offerings.

Even The Ambergris Glossary demanded to be read in full. Glossary’s are something I have little trouble ignoring, but that the book didn’t really require a glossary was telling that there was probably more to it. Indeed, there were some memorable entries:

MANZIKERT VII. Death by an extreme miscalculation while flossing. Of his actual reign, the less said the better. See also: Manziism; Manzikert VI; Manzikert VIII.” – page 35 (Glossary)

NUNK, AUTARCH OF. Although a real historical figure, the Autarch is more commonly known to children and adults as the happy fool of Voss Bender’s Nunk poems, which contain such rhymes as ‘The Autarch of Nunk/Was a collector of junk/Which he kept in a trunk/Beside his pet skunk’ and ‘The Autarch of Nunk/Loved to get drunk/And, in the grip of a sudden funk,/Pass out fitfully on his bunk.’ Several critics have complained that a less famous personage would not have been able to get such doggerel published, but the illustrations by Kinsky in the omnibus version amply make up for the simplistic verse. Recently, amongst the few possessions left by Michael Abrasis to the Manzikert Memorial Library, archivists discovered a second set of Nunk poems, decidedly more adult, as this excerpt demonstrates: ‘The Autarch of Nunk/Liked women with spunk/To wiggle and tickle/His enormous pink pickle.’ (Although some historians believe this is a gardening reference.) See also: Abrasis, Michael; Bender, Voss.” – page 41-42 (Glossary)

There are many other comical definitions, but many of them are also simple world-building descriptions.

Overall Impression: Great.

Final Thoughts: City of Saints and Madmen is a delightfully absurd, gruesome and comical collection that demands every page be read, no matter how insignificant it may seem.

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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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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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The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

December 31, 2007 at 3:49 pm (Brandon Sanderson, Reviews)

Brandon Sanderson - The Final EmpireIt’s fairly well known by now that Brandon Sanderson has been selected to complete Robert Jordan’s beloved saga, The Wheel of Time. I didn’t bother reporting the news here; many other blogs had it covered, and I didn’t feel the need to jump on the pile. Furthermore, I didn’t really have anything to add to the topic. Am I happy that the series will be finished? Yes. How do I feel about Sanderson being the one to do it? I don’t know; I’d never read his work. But if this guy is going to be finishing A Memory of Light, then I need to know what I’m in for. And a slew of other people picked up his books with the same sentiment. Of course, I was already planning to take a look at Sanderson’s Mistborn series, all the announcement really did was bump it to the top of my list.

I approached The Final Empire with mixed expectations. I wanted to love it. If this is the man to complete The Wheel of Time, then he’d better be good. But at the same time, I wanted to hate it. If A Memory of Light turns out to be a disappointment, then at least we’d have a scapegoat. Either way, it’s not going to be the same as it would have been had Jordan been able to finish it. But will it be good enough?

Brandon Sanderson has been known to site Robert Jordan as a major influence, and I think that it shows in his work. Their writing styles are vastly different, sure. Jordan is stricken with an extreme, and sometimes irritating, attention to detail, while Sanderson takes a more minimalist approach. He pays less attention to the scenery, and more to his characters. Which is not to say that there is no depth to his world; he just doesn’t get bogged down with descriptions of how everyone is dressed. But while their writing is so dissimilar, elements of the story in The Final Empire rings with an echo of The Wheel of Time.

Sanderson takes and interesting, and, I believe, unique approach to epic fantasy – this is no quest of a prophesized savior to unite the land and save the world from a supernatural threat. Sure, that in there, but it happened a thousand years in the past. The Final Empire, book one of the Mistborntrilogy, deals with what happened after. And what happened was that, apparently, the Hero of Ages failed. The world is now controlled by the tyrannical Lord Ruler. The common people, or skaa, have been reduced to slaves, working in mines and on plantations, beaten into submission by the noble class – the nobles themselves being the descendants of those who supported the Lord Ruler in bid for domination.

But the Lord Ruler can’t keep everybody in order. Throughout the history of the Empire, there has been rebellion. However, the Rebellion has been fairly useless; the people just too deflated down to insight enough passion to overthrow their dark Lord.

Besides the ineffective rebellion, an underground of thieves has also sprung forth. Outlaws band together and devise plans to rob the merchants and nobles, always hunted by the Empires enforcers, the Obligators and the Inquisitors. The story in The Final Empire follows one such thieving crew. Their plan? To rob the Lord Ruler. But they don’t want his money, or at least not just that. Hired by the Rebellion’s leader, they will attempt to steal the Empire itself.

The Final Empire features two main characters:

Charismatic crew leader Kelsier. Former prisoner at the Pits of Hathsin, and the Pit’s lone survivor, Kelsier is determined not only to take the Empire away from the Lord Ruler, but to kill the Ruler himself – a feat that most consider impossible.

Vin is an orphan, conditioned to mistrust by her older brother, Reen. Beaten and betrayed, Vin is abandoned in the underground, working under a reckless crew leader, until she’s rescued and recruited by Kelsier.

These two characters are well realized. Both of them almost pitiable for the psychological wounds that they must overcome. Kelsier, despite betrayal and imprisonment, is able to view the world with undaunted optimism, while Vin comes to it with unrelenting paranoia. Vin is smoothly transformed from an urchin to a socialite, and Kelsier from a prestigious thief to a legendary leader and potential megalomaniac. Indeed, one can’t help but wonder along the way if Kelsier will succeed in unseating the Lord Ruler only to replace him, with the nobles and the skaa changing places. The same tyranny but with different victims.

My only complaint about The Final Empireis with the supporting cast. Specifically, Kelsier’s crew. There is a diverse set of personalities – the haughty and manipulative Breeze, the strong-arm and amateur philosopher Hammond, the sour old Clubs, the practical and efficient Dockson, and the passionate, former Rebellion leader, Marsh. Every member has his role to play, and they do it well. Only they do it, for the most part, from behind the scenes. I just felt that they were a bit underused; what was supposed to take a full team ended up more as a two-man operation.

The story progresses with Kelsier, Breeze and Hammond trying to rally the people and build an army, while Vin and Marsh infiltrate the ruling class as spies.

Like many others have said before me: the magic system is where The Final Empirereally shines. Sanderson sets up a detailed, job oriented system called Allomancy, which involves the ingestion and burning of certain metals, each having their own magical attribute. The system is very specific in what the different metals are able to do. Those who are able to use this power are called Mistings, and are limited to one power a piece. Then there are the extra-special people, Mistborn, who can use the whole bunch. Mistings are rare, and Mistborn even more so. Naturally, our two heroes are both Mistborn. They’d have to be. Right?

It’s a difficult system to explain, so I’m not going to attempt to sum it up any further. Indeed, the author goes through much effort to explain it within the book, and I think that it needs those lengthy explanations to be understood fully. Even though the plot sometimes got stalled by it, the system itself was interesting enough that I didn’t mind.

Wait a minute. Wasn’t I talking about how Sanderson compares to Jordan? Well, outside of the level of detail in the magic system, which he manages better than Jordan, each chapter is begun with an excerpt detailing parts of the Hero of Ages journey to save the world from the mysterious Deepness. Written as journal entries in the Hero’s own voice, they often express self doubt of whether he is qualified for the job. It is those passages that resonate with Jordan’s influence. Even though we see precious little of him, the Hero’s tale holds a similarity to that of Rand al’Thor, and raises many of the same questions. Does the Hero fail? Or does he succeed and, corrupted by power, become the Lord Ruler? It is a mystery that permeates The Final Empire, never allowing you to fully grasp what actually happened until he wants you to know.

Besides the mystery of the Lord Ruler and the Hero of Ages, there are many others questions that compelled me along the book: What is the power of the Terris people? Why did Vin’s brother, Reen, abandon her? How did he betray her? Are the nobles really as bad as Kelsier believes them to be, or are they secretly just as oppressed as the skaa? How do the Inquisitors function? What does the mysterious eleventh-metal do?  Where did the mists come from? What was the Deepness? Can the god-like Lord Ruler even be killed?

All but one of those questions are answered in the end. Have to save something for the next book after all.

But one more question remains: Is Brandon Sanderson the right choice to finish The Wheel of Time? I think so. He’s already written a story that, except for the different magic systems, could serve as its, unofficial, sequel.

Overall Impression: Fantastic.

Final Thoughts: The Final Empire is exciting, clever, and, at times, thought provoking. With religious overtones, and deft political maneuvering, the plot is well paced, and manages to stay intriguing all the way through.

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The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

December 17, 2007 at 7:56 pm (Joe Abercrombie, Reviews)

Hoe Abercrombie - The Blade ItselfI had heard such a buzz about Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, book one of The First Law trilogy, that upon its September US release date, I rushed out to the store to find a copy, and immediately began reading it.

The first thing that I want to make clear, Joe is a fantastic writer. He has a flair for characterization that I’ve not seen matched by another author (for what that’s worth). His characters came to life, the very prose dripping with personality, not to mention a crisp sense of humor. Each character’s PoV chapters were so variegated, that I might believe they were written by different authors. In short, this is a character driven story.

The Blad Itself has many PoV characters, but three seem to warrant the title of “main character:”

Logen Ninefingers, the Bloody Nine, a legendary barbarian warrior. His name is respected and feared in the Northlands that were his home, and has now been exiled from. Logen is surprisingly refined for a savage, marked by an acute practicality. He is also reluctant to fight, though perfectly capable of handling himself when the need does arise.

     “Wells bent down and tested the flesh round the wound while Quai peered cautiously over his shoulder. ‘It’s mending well. You’re a fast healer.’
     ‘Lots of practice.’
     Wells looked up at Logen’s face, where the cut on his forehead had already faded to one more pink line. ‘I can see. Would it be foolish to advise you to avoid sharp objects in the future?’
     Logen laughed. ‘Believe it or not, I always did my best to avoid them in the past. But they seem to seek me out, despite my efforts.’” – page 146

Captain Jezal dan Luthar is a arrogant snob. Self-absorbed and untrustworthy, he has no real ambition but to live in pampered leisure. In order to achieve his goal, he needs to first make a name for himself. To do this, he has entered the Contest, a renowned fencing tournament, that to the winner goes fame and the likeliness of position. Under the training of lauded instructor and former champion, Marshal Varuz, Jezal trains for the prestige that he deserves, though not without complaint.

     “He wiped his face, and then-his favorite part of the day-gazed at himself in the looking glass. It was a good one, newly imported from Visserine, a present from his father: and oval of bright, smooth glass in a frame of lavishly carved dark wood. A fitting surround for such a handsome man as the one gazing happily back at him. Honestly, handsome hardly did him justice.
     ‘You’re quite the beauty aren’t you?’ Jezal said to himself, smiling as he ran his fingers over the smooth skin of his jaw. And what a jaw it was. He had often been told it was his best feature, not that there was anything whatever wrong with the rest of him. He turned to the right, then to the left, the better to admire that magnificent chin. Not too heavy, not brutish, but not too light either, not womanly or weak. A man’s jaw, no doubt, with a slight cleft in the chin, speaking of strength and authority, but sensitive and thoughtful too. Had there ever been a jaw like it? Perhaps some king, or hero of legend, once had one almost as fine. It was a noble jaw, that much was clear. No commoner could ever have had a chin so grand.” – page 311

Inquisitor Sand dan Glokta, an embittered cripple. A former winner of the Contest, and possibly the greatest swordsman of his day, he was left mangled in a conflict with neighboring Gurkish Empire. Once a tortured prisoner of war, he learned firsthand how to break a man. Now Glokta works in the House of Questions, along with his two assistants Practical’s Severard and Frost, putting his experience to use rooting out treasons against the Union.

     “What a place. Glokta stifled a smile. It reminds me of myself, in a way. We both were magnificent once, and we both have our best days far behind us.
     ‘It’s big enough, wouldn’t you say?’ asked Severard, picking his way in amongst the rubble towards a yawning doorway under the broken staircase, his lamp casting strange, slanting shadows as he moved.
     ‘Oh, I’d have thought so, unless we get more than a thousand prisoners at once.’ Glokta shuffled after him, leaning heavily on his cane, worried about his footing on the slimy floor. I’ll slip and fall right on my arse, right here in all this bird shit. That would be perfect.
     The arch opened into a crumbling hall, rotten plaster falling away in sheets, showing the damp bricks beneath. Gloomy doorways passed by on either side. The sort of place that would make a man nervous, if he was prone to nervousness. He might imagine unpleasant things in these chambers, just beyond the lamp light, and horrible acts taking place in the darkness. He looked up at Severard, ambling jauntily along in front, tuneless whistling vaguely audible from behind his mask, and frowned. But we are not prone to nervousness. Perhaps we are the unpleasant things. Perhaps the acts are ours.” – page 162

So there are the characters, but what do they do? Sadly, not much. We see Logen in a couple of fights. Jezal spends most of the book training for the fencing match, and agonizing over his love interest Ardee. Aspects of the upcoming war against the Northmen are brought out through Bayaz, the First of the Magi (using Logen as an intermediary), and Colonel West. Glokta tortures anybody he can get his hands on, in remarkably inventive ways. And that’s about it for more than 500 pages.

It looks like the main plot of The First Law revolves around the conflict between the Union and the Northern barbarians, but the book shuffled through so much characterization that it wasn’t made clear until the book was almost finished. Not that I mind a little characterization. Or even a lot of it. But I think that The Blade Itself goes a little overboard. Memorable characters will only go so far, if they don’t actually do something.

The plot dragged so badly, that after 340 pages, I had had enough. It was boring me silly, and I could force myself to press on no longer.

I don’t know if I needed the break, or if I just put it down too soon, but when I came back to it last week, I found the story much more enjoyable. The last couple hundred pages started to pick up steam, and an actual plot materialized.

As much as the pacing bothered me, I can’t put down The Blade Itself too much. Indeed, I think that it should not be judged on its own merit. It was not the first episode of a trilogy, but the first third of a story that is being spread out into three volumes. At that, I think that The First Law should be judged as a series. But, alas, I have not the other books, and so cannot speak for the series as a whole.

Overall Impression: Regrettably Mediocre

Final Thoughts: Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, while enjoyable, is ruined by an unfocussed plot. By the end, though, it picked up enough to offer hope for the next volume, Before They Are Hanged.

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The Skewed Throne by Joshua Palmatier

December 10, 2007 at 5:49 pm (Joshua Palmatier, Reviews)

Joshua Palmatier - The Skewed ThroneThe Skewed Throne is the debut novel from Joshua Palmatier.

Such a boring intro is fitting for this book as that’s about how enthusiastic I was while reading it.

At the start we are treated to a short info dump about a mysterious White Fire that burned through the world a millennia ago, and then again a few years before the outset of the story. What it does is never explained (apparently it just wanders through, without actually burning anything). Nor is where it came from.

The Skewed Throne tells the story of Varis, orphaned at 6 years old, she survives on the Dredge, and in the slums of Amenkor beyond, for 8 years before the opening of the novel. The book spans 3 more years.

It follows dual timelines, the present, which shows Varis’s mission to assassinate the Mistress, and the past (which dominates the book) chronicling her rise to super-assassinhood, and other events that lead up to her present-day mission.

We start in the Dredge, what appears to be the only main thoroughfare in the slums of Amenkor. Varis is a gutter rat, stealing what food she can to survive. Attacked in an ally, she is observed by Erik, a “Seeker,” as she fights off her assailant.

Forgive me for being a little hesitant of reading any book that features a character titled “Seeker.” I can still taste the foul residue of Goodkind clinging to the word. If it hadn’t been for the glowing praise it was represented to me with, I might have abandoned it here.

A Seeker, in this novel, is something of a bounty hunter/assassin. The Mistress dictates who needs to die, and the Seeker sees that it is done. As refugees pile in to the slums of Amenkor, Erik’s work becomes increasingly more difficult. So he uses Varis to locate his marks for him. She sits along the Dredge, finds the men he is looking for, follows them to the hole they live in, and then leads the Seeker to them. Wherein they are killed mercilessly.

Just for kicks, Erik teaches Varis how to fight, though for how serves his use for her, I don’t know.

“Varis soon realized that some of those marked for death were not guilty.” That from the back cover. One time does she notice it, little good it does anybody, and she does little to find an explanation. It’s not even what drove her from the Dredge; that came from a rivalry with another gutter scum named Bloodmark.

After Varis flees to the upper-city of Amenkor, where the rich folk live, and we are treated to some lackluster political maneuvering until the story reaches it’s climax.

Being that this is fantasy, she, naturally, has a special ability: “She had a gift for ‘Seeing’ the true nature of people…” That is also from the synopsis on the back cover. “The true nature of people” is a broad overstatement of a simple ability.

     “I peered out from the darkness of the slums now, huddled low, mud-brick pressed into my back. On the street, men and women moved back and forth. I watched each of them as they arrived, caught their faces, scanned their clothing. That man wore tattered rags but carried a dagger at his belt. Yet there was no danger in his eyes. Hard, but not cruel. He carried nothing else, and so he faded from my mind, nothing but a darker blur against the dull gray of the world. Unconsciously, I kept track of him-of all the people-but he’d ceased to be interesting. Not a target; not a threat. Gray.
     A flash of fine clothing and my eyes shifted. Not truly fine clothing-frayed edging, a tear down one side of the gray shirt, breeches stained, oily-but better than most. He wore boots, one sole loose at the heel, the nails visible when he walked. He also carried a dagger, hidden, his hand resting over the bulge of its sheath at his side. He walked quickie, tense, and his eyes…
     But he turned before I could catch his eyes, his torn shirt and loose sole vanishing through a doorway.
     He faded.
     Gray.
     I settled into position next to the wall, wincing once over the bruise on my chest, and let the flow of the street wash around me. When the pain receded, I focused on the street, squinted in concentration, and felt a familiar sensation deep inside.
     With a subtle, internal movement, like relaxing a muscle, the sensation rushed forward.
     The world collapsed, slowed, blurred. Buildings and people faded, grayed. Those men and women I’d determined to be possible threats slid into washes of red against the background gray, like smears of blood, moving through the flow of the street. Occasionally, I’d concentrate on one person and they’d emerge from the gray, sharp and clear, so I could watch them, consider them. Casual glances would draw others out of the gray, their actions entering the field momentarily, and then I’d lose interest, determine they carried nothing I could eat, nothing I wanted, and the people would return to gray.”
-page 24-25

A lengthier explanation maybe, but it much more clearly states the process of her ability. Varis did not see “the true nature of people,” but was able to detect only whether or not they were a threat. A threat to her specifically. When she dipped into her “Sight,” the good guys (or not so much good guys, but those who were inconsequential) came up gray, and the bad guys red.

Going “beneath the river,” as Varis commonly calls it, seems to work much like the “Void” from The Wheel of Time. It is a state of extreme focus. Only with discoloration.

It seems a truly black and white, or red and gray as it were, assessment of the world. Until people start coming up a combination of the two colors. At which point a great opportunity for explorations on morality is passed by, as the author never bothers to explore those characters in any depth. The phenomenon gets a fleeting notice, and is then brushed past to advance the plot instead.

Beyond the thermal-vision of the “river,” Varis also has something of a spidey-sense infused to her by the White Fire. She gets a burning sensation, sometimes in her chest, sometimes in her limbs, whenever someone is going to do her, or those she cares for, harm. Her abilities are never really made clear, and he seemed to making up new levels for the convenience of the plot.

     “The depths beyond the Dredge began to shift, as they’d done when I’d followed the hawk-faced man. Except now, five years after the Fire, the decay had crept closer to the Dredge itself, like a blight on the city and its streets. Mud-brick slipped to crumbling granite. Streets narrowed to alleys, then narrows, shortened and filled with heaps of decaying filth. Mildew thickened to slime, streams to sludge. The reek of the Dredge deepened, stank of piss and shit and rot. The light darkened, as if the depths of the Dredge were sucking it away, swallowing it as it swallowed everything that lingered too long, that hesitated. Soon, everything north of the River would be subsumed. I could see it happening, could feel the blight of the city on my skin.” –page 123

Of all the complaints that I may find in The Skewed Throne, poor imagery is not one of them. The above excerpt clearly describes the cities decay. But numerous references of its deterioration are tiring. Phrases like “the smell of rotten butter and piss and blood,” and “blood and piss and shit,” spring up every few pages, bludgeoning the filth into reader. It was edgy the first time. But only the first time. The overuse of these phrases create a forced grittiness that detracts from its believability.

When the story moves to upper-Amenkor, the focus shifts from the outer-decay of the environment, to the inner-corruption of the people. A social statement perhaps?

The prose is in the midst of an identity crisis. It’s written in a first-person narrative that lacks the intimacy normally associated with the voice, instead opting for the florid detail more befitting a third-person perspective. I wonder why he didn’t just go with third- person? The story would have flowed much more smoothly. As it stands, the writing is not bad, but it is a little disorienting.

Varis is a well realized character, even if nobody else is. The author takes the effort to explore the morality associated with some of her victims, and brushes by those that she doesn’t feel personally responsible for, lending her a vague sense of ambiguity. But it comes off as more of an outlet for the author to highlight the difference between murder and self-defense.

I have a few more lingering complaints. The layout of the city was unclear, and could have benefited from a map. Apparently the author believes that people have black blood, as not a drop of it comes out red. And in the present day scenes, Varis is hinted at as being a great assassin, but when the flashbacks are done, very little has taken place to actually make her so effective; her skill mostly resulting from her “gift.”

Overall Impression:  Mediocre.

Final Thoughts: The Skewed Throne manages to be interesting without becoming engaging, and Varis appealing but not compelling.

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Death Masks by Jim Butcher

December 3, 2007 at 5:55 pm (Jim Butcher, Reviews)

Jim Butcher - Death MasksI came into Jim Butcher’s Dresden Filesseries a few months ago, the uproar that was going on at Westeros bringing it to my attention.  In the four books that I’ve read through thus far, I’ve only been disappointed once, and that with Summer KnightDeath Masks, the fifth book in the series, fortunately pulled the series back on track.

This book makes me want to start spouting off a bunch of clichéd movie taglines like “rollercoaster ride!” and “takes no prisoners!” Eugh, even the feeling of that temptation disgusts me. But regardless of my own revulsions, it really was “action-packed.” The frenzy came on early and drove the story along to the end.

Ortega (wait, isn’t that a salsa brand?), a Duke of the vampire’s Red Court, has come to town to challenge the affable Harry Dresden to a duel. The stakes? If Harry wins, Chicago will become a neutral zone in the war between the Red Court and the White Council. If Ortega wins, it may curtail the war altogether. The Shroud of Turin, the ancient artifact speculated to have covered Jesus of Nazareth in his tomb, has been stolen, and, surprise surprise, brought to Chicago. And the Vatican, naturally, has recruited the redoubtable Wizard PI to find it. The police have turned up a handless and headless mystery corpse, and Murphy, head of Chicago PD’s “Special Investigations” division, is looking for a little unofficial, and unpaid, consultation to aid in its identification. The Denarians are running loose and have it in for Harry.  And on top of all that, Susan, Harry’s half-vampire ex-girlfriend, is back in town.

What seems at first like a plot overload, especially for such a short book, quickly dissolves into two rival storylines: the duel and case of the missing Shroud. Two villains, the Duke and the Denarians. With the latter taking up the majority of the focus.

The Denarians , or the Fallen (as in Angels), don’t follow the same rules as the other demons we’ve met up to this point. Ancient coins serve as prisons for the fallen angels, but they are also their route to power. Humans who come into possession of the coins are tempted and beguiled, by the demon trapped inside, into turning over their own will in favor of Denarian control. They’re pretty much indestructible, vulnerable only to the sacred swords wielded by the Knights of the Cross. Conveniently, a team of Knights are on hand to deal with them.

The two cases threaten to get in each others way throughout, helping to increase the tension of an already hectic story.

The humor is crisp and remains Jim Butcher’s greatest attribute. Harry brandishes his sharp wit on nearly every page, and serves up numerous amusing one-liners. Sporadic pop-culture references help to lend the story a more authentic real world flavor. But Harry’s personality has infected the rest of the cast, specifically Susan and Thomas, making the characterization a bit redundant. Jim Butchers penchant for wisecracks kept it entertaining, and he did throw in a few more serious characters to keep it from getting out of hand.

Despite the intimacy of the first-person narrative, Harry still manages to retain an element of mystery. [Jim Butcher] continues to parcel out information on Harry’s background and family, offering just a pinch more in each book.

The action itself has gotten better as well. I’ve always found that action sequences come off as clumsy when using the first-person perspective. To remedy this, the brunt of the fighting is handled by Susan, Michael, and the other Knights of the Cross, allowing us to pull away to something resembling a more traditional third-person view.

The prose is simple and straightforward, alleviating the need to dig for clues within the text as many of the more ambitious epic series require. And we are treated to some interesting plot twists that are believable without being overly predictable.

But it’s not all good news. The action an comedy take their toll on other aspects of the story. Though it’s probably nit-picking on my part.

I understand that he’s trying to keep the story set in a real world timeline, but without any political references, mentions of current events, or concern for the latest technological advances, it’s pointless. The story is set a year after the last volume, (indeed, all of them so far have been set a year apart), but it could easily have taken place two or three months later. It would have been more readily believable considering that nothing has actually happened in that time.

Between the third book, Grave Peril, and the fourth, Summer Knight, we had a lot going on. There was Harry’s downward spiral, and obsessive research to find a cure for Susan’s condition, and various attacks on the White Council by the Red Court. In the gap between that and Summer Knight and Death Masks? Not so much.

The war against the vampires has ground to a standstill. Even though the vampires were winning, they apparently decided to let up. It seems as though the author has lost interest with the Vampire War story arc, only two books after it was introduced. Either that or his neglect is a stalling tactic so that he can drag it out over a few more volumes.

Besides the annual movement in the war, Harry also seems to only get big cases on the same schedule. If we have a year between each story, then by the end of this series Harry will be close to 50. So he’ll retain his virility by the fact that wizards age more slowly than regular people, which works fine to justify the action, but he’s pretty high profile and people are going to notice that he’s 100 years old and still has the body of 25 year old. Harry could take a lesson from the Highlander immortals who were more circumspect.

After the fist book, Storm Front, the investigative aspect has taken a back seat, and serves as more of a façade than anything else. After all, how else is he going to get into these situations? The first lead seems to turn up the villain, and start the action extravaganza that stretches the next 300 pages. And the cases are always solved within a few days. Not that I’m complaining too much; I didn’t pick these up because I’m a fan of Mystery novels.

Death Masks was uncharacteristically rife with consistency errors, with the details sometimes shifting within only a few paragraphs. I blame sloppy editors for those. Other times it was more broadly confusing, which falls on the author himself. If I’m noticing this trend now, as imperceptive as I am, then other more discerning readers have probably long since become annoyed at this.

So what’s next? We’ve already averted the end of the world with the threat of a second ice-age, and now it’s a stand off with demons trying to bring about Armageddon. I don’t see how he’s going to be able to raise the stakes much higher the next time around, but I am looking forward to seeing it.

Overall Impression:  Pretty good. 

Final Thoughts: Death Masks, and The Dresden Files in general, is mindless fun that will satisfy the guiltiest of guilty pleasures. 

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