Sunday, October 31, 2010

Orcs by Stan Nicholls

Orcs by Stan Nicholls is a fairly straightforward sword and sorcery novel. That becomes the central problem as well. Orcs is sold as something different, a breath of fresh air. The central conceit is that the story is told from the perspective of the orcs. This sounds incredibly exciting but starts to fall apart immediately as the novel retreats into the tried and true.

The novel is set in the fictional world of Maras Dantia/Centralia depending on whose perspective you are reading from. The world is racially rich with everything from centaurs to trolls. The world is also dying. The why of it centers around humans destroying the delicate balance of nature. Humans who well up from the southern reaches like a plague of locusts, devouring the magic of the land and disrupting the lives of the elder races. Humans who have destroyed their homeland and now flee to new land for a new start. The setting is dramatic to say the least.

The story is largely told from the perspective of Stryke, the leader of an orc war-band. Stryke’s war-band is owned by Jennesta a half breed sorceress who is quickly identified as an evil tyrant. The story opens with Stryke’s team finishing up an assault on a human outpost. Their job was to retrieve a magical trinket or as it is called in the story, a “star”. En route to home base Stryke’s team is way laid by kobolds who steal the “star” and take of for their main encampment. Through a series of events and misunderstandings, Stryke is labeled a traitor by Jennesta. This sets off the main story.

Long story short Stryke finds out that there are more of these “stars” and that they have a hidden history; a history steeped in magic. So Stryke sets off to find the “stars” so as to barter his way back into Jennesta’s good graces. Along the way he starts a lot of fights, makes a lot of enemies and is chased by Jennesta relentlessly.

At this point, the plot basically goes on sabbatical. As you read through the next several hundred pages, the plot never advances. Stryke just collects “stars”. He rides from one place to next killing things. You get occasional hints of bigger things, but nothing materializes until the final pages of the book.

This is where I find myself torn in opinion. If Orcs hadn’t be sold as “something different”, I would have a generally positive opinion of the book. Orcs is a perfectly good sword and sorcery book. In fact I would call it one of my favorite books of that genre in recent memory. The problem is that the books sells itself on the “conceit” of how orcs save the world. This of course is playing on the Tolkienesque stereotype of the orc; a brutish semi-intellegent berserker.

Instead, the orcs of Orcs at best come across as a noble savage. At worse, they are simply humans with a few linguistic oddities. That to me is heartbreaking. The fact that the orcs seldom appear to be anything other than a different nationality of humans renders the primary selling point of the book as a complete failure to me.

Also a failure to me is the attempt at a ecological message. The opening of the book is framed with humans despoiling the land. That is about as far as the message goes. To let this theme just dangle without meaningful resolution when it is so relevant to many readers is a complete failure as well.

Another oddity in the book is the ending. While you spend the first six hundred odd pages reading a good sword and sorcery book with a few “mysterious” elements that hint and bigger things, the ending is an abrupt change in course. The last one hundred pages suddenly switch over to a high fantasy setting. Where as plot was no where to be found early on the last hundred pages are packed. There are twist and turns, surprises and revelations to be found on every page. The ending is satisfying if in-congruent with the marketing language on the rear cover of the book.

So, I am torn. Orcs at its core is a good book. The dialog is fun, the action abounds and there are plenty of sights to be seen. Orcs is a solid sword and sorcery book. But, I feel that it falls on its face with the whole orc conceit. At no point did I feel that I was reading something other than the viewpoint of a human. The orcs didn’t even seem different from the humans in the book which is all the more damning. Especially damning when you take into account the text found in bold and all caps on the rear cover of the book: “THIS BOOK WILL CHANGE THE WAY YOU FEEL ABOUT ORCS FOREVER.” Compounding this is the failure to expand on the environmental theme. Lastly, why so much plot was saved until the final of the moments of the book I do not understand. The last hundred pages show that Orcs could have been a radically different book.

Orcs is ultimately a good book that fails to live up to its promise. It is hard to ignore the potential this book had. It was trying to do something new but failed. The bitterness of that failure taints the sweetness of the underlying story craft on display. But, I am glad Stan Nicholls tried.

Hachette: Orcs by Stan Nichols
Image Source: Hachette
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 978-0316033701

Monday, October 25, 2010

Brandon Sanderson and Brent Weeks - Babel Clash Interview

 I know I am a month late to this fascinating back and forth between two of my current favorite authors, Brent Weeks and Brandon Sanderson. What makes this back and forth so interesting is that Brent and Brandon write in such differing styles. Brent is very up tempo with great dialog but with a more nebulous world. Brandon is a worldbuilder with a slower pace, leaning towards indulgent, with characters defined less by dialog as by narrative events.

The topic that is brought up that I can't help but comment on is Brent's assertion that in a long series, the books get worse as the length grows. They get worse because eventually, the weaknesses in each authors style is finally revealed. I agree with this in general but would like to make a subtle distinction.

The writing doesn't get worse per se, its just that the reader gets more educated in the writers style. The writing tends to stay equally good, it is the reader that improves in capability. So yes, eventually people get tired of recurring mannerisms or such. I know by the 10th Wheel of Time book I sighed every time Mat/Rand/Perrin made the comment that " always better with women." The joke wore thin. But, do not the people in your real life have these same issues? Doesn't your uncle repeat the same hunting stories every family gathering...or start mixing and matching them. You have heard the stories a hundred times but you still smile and laugh.

But, ultimately the point I would like to make is that after reading millions of words written by a single author, the reader KNOWS the subject. The reader can articulate well the technical merits of the author. This isn't because the author has become lazy as a series waxed in length so much as become the chatty uncle. We recite the stories by memory, we know the author's foibles...but we still love them. via - Babel Clash @ Borders Blogs

A Song of Fire and Ice Maps (Westeros) - UPDATED 12 Mar 2012

A fan of G.R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice has created a whole series of maps done in a High Medieval illuminated manuscript fashion.  They are truly engrossing pieces of art, especially when you consider how much I love maps to begin with.  Follow the links to the artist's, J.E. Fullerton, Deviant Art page to see lovely high resolution versions.  via - A Dribble of Ink via - Deviant Art

Since this post has become so popular I thought I would add some additional information to it for the benefit of my many webpage visitors.

HBO has created a new "official" map which can be reached HERE.

For an awesome fan made online map of the Seven Kingdoms click HERE.

For a more traditional map of the Seven Kingdoms split into the NORTH and SOUTH click the links.

Lastly, I have attached some photos from the above links below.  Enjoy!

UPDATE - 12 March 2012

serMountainGoat has created an absolutely beautiful and painstakingly created map of Westeros.  Please visit his website here to see a bigger and nicer version.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Musings on The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

The Way of Kings is an enormous book and a dense book at that. The amount of detail flowing off the pages is immense as Brandon Sanderson builds the world of Roshar. So far though, I have noticed a few quirks that I am not so sure about.

Spheres...I find them very interesting and at the same time odd. Instead of metal coins, the inhabitants of Roshar use gemstones found at the center of a glass marble, i.e. spheres. It makes a lot of sense if you consider the existence of soulcasters.

Soulcasting can transmute any material into another material except true gemstones. So, if you had coins made of metal, you could basically print your own money with a soulcaster. However, because of the inability to create true gems via soulcasting gems are still a rare item.

What makes even more sense is that there is a natural economical sink for gems. Gems power soulcaster and are consumed by the act of soulcasting. So, there is always need for more gems. So, gems are valuable.

So, gems as a monetary system are segregated based on use and rareness. Some gems are more valuable than others because of their use in soulcasting; e.g. emeralds are valuable because you use them to make food.

However, the issue that I find quirky is how the gems are managed. Naturally, handling lots of gems, especially small "chips" of gems which serve as the lowest denomination would be difficult. So, Brandon's answer are glass spheres. Gems are embedded in the equivalent of a clear glass marble, colloquially called a "sphere" much the same way we say "dollar".

I just can't for the life of me think that a glass sphere would be the best way to manage money. I will assume for the sake of simplicity that the glass sphere are by some means very robust and do not easily break. But, as anyone who has handled marbles as a kid...they are a real pain to handle. They roll everywhere. You can't stack them. They always compact into a clinking noisy spherical mass.

So, my point is, I would have picked a different shape of glass. Instead of a sphere, perhaps a rectangular prism. This would be an improvement, to me as the reader at least, in a few ways. First, you could stack them. Second they would still function as a light source but you could use them in something akin to a candle holder versus vases. Third, you could have a more flexible money system.

How exactly would this be a more flexible money system? Easy, each stick could hold up to say 5 chips or broams. This would allow for a base 5 system of counting versus a base 1. It would greatly reduce the number of spheres that needed to be carried.

So, the sphere system I just find quirky. Mostly because it seems so impractical. Visually though it would be arresting to see a glass sphere with a glowing center.

Image Source: Scanned Cover

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

New Book

I really enjoyed the Percy Jackson books, so I am really looking forward to reading my new copy of The Lost Hero that showed up on my doorstep today.

I have a soft spot in my heart for these books for two simple reasons.  Rick Riordan writes some amusing dialog and I am a Classics and Latin Literature major.  So, this is sort of like literary crack cocaine for me.

Anyways, this one is definitely bumped to the top of the old reading queue.

Image Source: Wikipedia

Religion & Logic in The Way of Kings

I have run into a recurring point of annoyance while reading The Way of Kings and that is the continuing religious debate going on with the heretic Jasnah Kholin. Jasnah Kholin's character is a logical empiricist and as such refutes the existence of God due to a lack of evidence.

This is aggravating because religion and logic are incompatible "means of knowing". Logic is a rational system of understanding the world outside of your consciousness. Religion is an irrational system, faith, of understanding the world outside of your consciousness. Using rationality to explain irrationality is pointless, they are inimical. This is also an issue I have with creating "logical" magic systems. Its a paradox of logic.

So, I just find it annoying to constantly see this debate as there is no solution to it. Neither can meet in the middle. Neither can agree to disagree. To prove either one right disproves the other. As I said, both are different, and incompatible, means of knowing.

UPDATED - 12 Oct 2010 @ 6:40PM: In response to Peter's comment.

Reading my post I see that I failed to put my annoyance in context of the book. I am fairly certain that Brandon would understand my point.

My main annoyance is that Roshar's foremost scholar seems to be so ignorant of the debate. At least as far as I have read so far, which is about halfway. this far into the book.

Rationality versus Irrationality is a fairly ancient debate in western society, easily found in Greek philosophy. So, whether the debate is medicine vs shamanism, chemistry vs alchemy, religion vs aethism you always seem to come back to this conundrum. This isn't a modern idea or issue.

So, to see this debate crop up in the narrative and taken at face value by Jasnah Kholin is why I am annoyed. I think she should have picked up on it. I could see Shallan falling for this early in her wardship or perhaps a young adept. But, to the higher echelons of scholarship, it should be old hat.

I am halfway tempted to think Brandon present this debate as he did just to challenge his readers. To someone not familiar with the debate it is certainly an alluring topic

Image Source: Scanned Cover

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Review Process

I have found that I have a very odd methodology for reviewing things.  I don't like to write a review immediately after reading/view whatever it is I want to review.  I prefer to wait, giving it some time, let it simmer in the back of my mind.

Why do I do this?  As the movie simmers, it distills down to the most memorable elements.  The elements my mind found as especially important.  This serves to provide clarity and brevity without relying on spoilers.  Both of which are valuable when I am limiting my word count but also provide punch to the reader.

Image Source: WordTipping

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Gift in the mail from The Random House Publishing Group

Last night, upon arriving home from work I noticed a package on my doorstep.  As I picked it up, I noticed it felt like a book which I thought was odd as I wasn't expecting a book delivery.

Upon opening the package I found a copy of Terry Brook's Running with the Demon, the first book in the Word & Void series which serves as a prequel of sorts to the Shannara series.

Also included in the package was a nice letter from Random House asking me to enjoy the book and to please visit

My first free book...ever.  I was rather excited.  But, this freebie held a special significance to me.

The first fantasy book I ever read was The Sword of Shannara back when I was a grade schooler.  This book had a huge impact on me and was an important milestone in my life.  After reading The Sword of Shannara I become not only a fan of the fantasy genre but I became a reader.

I had been a reader up until that point but I had mostly read non-fiction, natural sciences in particular.  But, after reading Mr. Brooks novel, I started to love books.  I collected books and I actively sought out new books.  Reading became my number one hobby over music and video games.  It has stayed that way since.

After reading The Sword of Shannara my search for new material lead me along a fairly linear path of Tolkien, to Robert E. Howard, to Eddings, to Dragonlance and then Robert Jordan.  After that my scope of my reading grew and I found myself reading multiple series and authors at a time.  Now, I own over a thousand books.  I still read a lot of non-fiction especially Classical/Medieval history but my true love is fantasy.

So, Terry Brooks had a big impact on me as a child.  His book altered the flow of my life and the development of my personality.  So, I found it more than a coincidental that my first free book was a Terry Brooks book...and a prequel to the Shannara series at that.  It has a nice sort of symmetry.

Image Source: WordTipping