Sunday, March 27, 2011

New Books

This week I went a bit overboard perhaps in my book procurement but, I was provoked.  I picked up The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle: The Thing Beneath the Bed by Patrick Rothfuss and illustrated by Nate Taylor and Fall of Damnos by Nick Kyme from Amazon as part of my normally monthly habit.  However...I bought more than I probably should have when stopping by the local Border's in Erie, PA.

The local Borders, unfortunately, was one of the locates to axed despite being the leading store in the district.  Listening to the employees gossip revealed that the Erie location was one of the infamous locations with an extremely unfavorable lease agreement as detailed in various publications.
But, that doesn't stop me from circling the store like a buzzard trying to find a good deal.  This weekend, the store finally went to a 50-70% off sale.  While that may sound means that Borders is finally managing to beat Amazon's list prices...and you wonder why Borders is in such terrible financial shape.

So, with that in mind I ceased my circling and went in to steal a few morsels off the rotting carcass.  I picked up The Ragged Man by Tom Lloyd, Empire in Black and Gold and  Dragonfly Falling by Adrian Tchaikovsky, Tome of the Undergates by Same Sykes and finally New Spring: The Graphic Novel by Chuck Dixon, Mike Miller and Harvey Tolibao.
As you will notice, Pyr publishes some beautiful trade paperbacks.  I love trade paperbacks; they are perfect for reading.  Between the better paper quality (contrast), larger fonts, bigger pages, better covers and other smaller paperbacks are just simply my favorite format for reading.
The Adventures of Princess and Mr. Whiffle: The Thing Beneath the Bed by Patrick Rothfuss and illustrated by Nate Taylor was an impulse buy.  I have already read it, since it only a hundred odd words long, and loved it.  I will be posting a review shortly but suffice to say it is excellent and it will catch you by surprise.  The artwork is really fun and fits the story.  I love Patrick all the more for this one.

The Fall of Damnos by Nick Kyme is a Warhammer 40,000 novel in the A Space Marine Battles Novel series.  I am very excited about this book because the Necrons are my second favorite race, after the Space Marines of course, and there is so very little attention given to them.  So, I am really looking forward to this book as I get to read about my two favorite races making war on each other...awesome.  I have never read any of Nick Kyme's work so it will be nice to read a new Black Library author.

New Spring: The Graphic Novel by Chuck Dixon, Mike Miller and Harvey Tolibao was an fanboy buy.  I normally do not get into graphic novels..they are just not my thing.  Some are very good but the difficulty in marrying good dialog with good art often means you end up with sub-par results.  So, I am not sure what to expect from this other than I am happy I can quit trying to track down the issues of New Spring that I am still missing.

The Ragged Man by Tom Lloyd is a mystery to me but it had a few things going for it.  I love Pyr as they are generally a high quality imprint.  The cover art is striking.  The marketing print on the rear was convincing.  Also there are dragons.  The plot seems fairly straightfoward, the world is teetering on the edge of oblivion and only one person can save it.  Since Pyr has a reputation of selecting high quality titles I am assuming there is more to the book than the marketing blurb lets on.  So, this was my random buy of the month.  I have no idea what to expect but I expect it will be good!
Tome of the Undergates by Same Sykes I bought off the strength of reviews I have found on the blogosphere.  This book has nigh universal praise.  This is also another book published by Pyr.  I am excited about this one as books focuses on thieves, cutthroats, murders and worse...binding it all together with cutting dialog.  This is right up my alley and I hope it doesn't disappoint.

Empire in Black and Gold and Dragonfly Falling by Adrian Tchaikovsky are again published by Pyr and again are beautiful books.  Both of these books as well had high praise in Speculative Fiction circles so I am excited to read them.  The basic plot again seems fairly commonplace with the world in disarray and the burden of the future resting on the shoulders of a reluctant hero.  Due to the good reviews given to this series...I know there is more to be found and I look forward to it as well.

Image Source: Scanned Covers

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Robert Jordan and My Opinion of Him

Since my post on gender issues in The Wheel of Time has generated so much traffic, I thought it would be prudent to post my opinions on Robert Jordan in general.

First and foremost he is one of my favorite authors if not my favorite.  I love the Wheel of Time story faults and all.  But my first love was Jordan's Conan books.

Beyond that, by all accounts, Robert Jordan was a great individual and would not be a bad example for anyone to follow. He was educated.  He had a love for history which I find very important.  He was a man of many skills an interests; a Renaissance Man.  He was a patriot and served his country.  He was a man of faith.  He was a good and faithful husband.  He was a good man.  I was genuinely sad to hear of Robert Jordan's passing as his creative works had been a part of my life for a long time.

But, I don't feel that this means we cannot evaluate his work critically.  I honestly don't mind if his work was sexist.  In fact, with the Conan books it is an integral part of the story.  What bothers me is the lack of intellectual honestly.  Jordan's work was sexist.  Identifying Jordan's Wheel of Time or Conan as sexist in no way impugns Jordan's character in my opinion.  But I think it is critical to acknowledge that fact, else you risk back sliding.

Image Source: Jeanne Collins - Attribution

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

Hopefully I made it clear enough how much I loved the first book in the Inheritance Trilogy (The Hundred Thousand Kindgoms by N.K. Jemisinin) in my earlier review. This book, The Broken Kingdoms, is the next book in the Inheritance Trilogy, and it is just as splendid as the first book. In fact, I pretty much ignored everything except the most basic needs while reading it because I was so loath to put it down. I will be re-reading books again soon because I love the visceral reaction I have to them. After reading Jemisin, my head feels floaty and my heart feels glowy. This is amazing because they deal with some pretty dark stuff (literally and figuratively).

Each of the books in the trilogy could stand on its own, really, as the story is very serialized. But knowing the first story adds so much more depth to the second book that I would highly recommend reading them in order. The Broken Kingdoms picks up 10 years after the events of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. In the story, Oree Shoth, a blind artist, gives shelter to a mute homeless man with some unusual abilities. Her random act of kindness ends up drawing her into a complicated plot involving gods, godlings, and demons.

I don’t want to go into too much depth on the plot of this book for fear of spoilers. Instead, I would like to present a list of my favorite things about the Inheritance Trilogy, in general, and The Broken Kingdoms, in particular.

1. The gods: I already mentioned in my review of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms how much I love Jemisin’s revamped version of classical mythological elements. This incredible system extends even further in The Broken Kingdoms, and the reader is able to experience some new perspective on the events leading up to the Gods’ War.

2. The lead characters: In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Yeine Darr starts out with a fairly familiar backstory (young woman, destined for greater things, called to be heir of a kingdom). Yet Jemisin’s character development brings out so much more strength and complexity than you would expect from such a typical fantasy trope. The Broken Kingdoms follows with another incredible heroine-- Oree Shoth, who embraces her blindness with grace and intelligence. She too shows great strength and a welcome ability to question the world around her. Both women feel very whole to me as a reader and very real. It’s not something I have seen very often with female characters, especially in the fantasy genre. Jemisin is not afraid of bucking trends though, considering that Yeine is biracial and Oree is black.

3. The endings: Both books end well (relatively speaking), but I can’t say much more than that. I find the parallels between motherhood and goddess-hood fascinating and worthy of a lengthier discussion than what I will devote here.

4. The formatting: A lot of people will probably disagree with me on this one, but I really enjoy how both books were interspersed with narrative asides as the characters current state of being interrupts to flow of retelling the story. It provides some interesting foreshadowing and a thoughtful narrative break. I like having to juggle the little pieces and fit them back together as I read. It reminds me a little of quilting when you piece together small parts to create a greater whole.

There are probably more things that I cannot call to mind at the moment, and even more that I will not discover until a second, closer read. The complexity of the stories keeps pulling me in again. It is possible that I am reading too much into it, but that is what truly great books do. Like The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms is truly a great book.

Hachette: The Broken Kingdom by N.K. Jemisin
Image Source: Scanned Cover
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 978-0316043960

This review was originally published at Kawaii Writing and republished with permission.

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson is indulgent. Book One of a planned ten book series called The Stormlight Archives, The Way of Kings can be considered little else. Indulgent in scope, ambition and word count. This sense of scale carries through to every element of The Way of Kings and for the most part succeeds.

This indulgence even manifests in the physical aspect of the book. First, its a giant tome, eclipsing one thousand pages. Beyond that though is the obvious money lavished on the production of the book. The front cover is embossed with a sword glyph, what I assume will become the calling card of the series. Within you will find two distinct color maps on the front and rear covers. In the traditional spots for world maps, you will find yet a third distinct map.

Stunningly, you will also find full page black and white artwork spread throughout the book at divisions in the narrative. Each of these pieces of artwork are designed to look like pages from a narrative character’s notebook. Lastly, the heading of each chapter is adorned with one of the ubiquitous glyphs. I find all of this incredibly simply because of the additional cost involved. This is a statement by Tor of their faith in Brandon Sanderson and an investment as this is only the first book in a planned series of ten. The effort gone into this hardcover I would normally expect to see only in a special edition book, not a mass market hardcover.

Moving on to the narrative you mustimmediately take into account the fact that this is the first of ten books. Even the titles of the series, The Stormlight Archives, and opening book’s titles, The Way of Kings, are preponderous; evoking a sense of enormity. You much hold this fact in you head because you are going to be bombarded with information. Right from the beginning, the book is an enormous info dump. Brandon has gone through great lengths to build a living breathing world...and world that is utterly alien.

I must give credit to Brandon in developing a world that is so alien and one that breaks with the standard medieval Europe fare. For one, I do not think the average reader could have dealt with the amount of exposition occurring in this book if the world itself wasn’t so vibrant and new. The best short description I can provide is to think of the world as a giant coral reef, above ground. The world is routinely battered by gigantic storms that scour the earth. To protect itself, most fauna has chitinous shells and the flora retracts into stony growths ; i.e. coral. To that end, you can feel the joy leaping off the pages as Mr. Sanderson shares this imaginative new universe with his readers.

The culture of the world is the only thing that slips into more familiar modes; being a largely medieval culture. Since this a world developed by Brandon Sanderson, there is an complex, rational and clearly defined magic system. With such a structured basis, magic functions in nearly the same capacity as science. Brandon also goes a bit further than most fantasy writers and integrates the magic system into the economy and power structure of the standing culture.

Perhaps the only element of the cultural world building I disliked was the trite handling of gender roles. I can only guess at the rationale but essentially women are literate and the men illiterate. As a result, women are the merchants, scientists, artists, etc. Men exist only to perform manual labor and kill each other. I found this ploy at progressive gender roles to be rather obvious and banal. But, I could simply be reading to much into the world building.

The only thing not over the top and indulgent were the number of main characters. There are at present three main points of view: Kaladin, Shallan and Dalinar. Joining them are a number of minor characters that also have their own point of view. So, the cast, for now at least, is fairly restrained but this could easily grow as the series evolves.

Structurally, each chapter is devoted to one of the main characters point of view and every couple chapters there is a shift to another point of view. At major narrative breaks, Brandon introduces interstitial segments as Interludes where the meta-plot is slowly doled out. In these interstitial moments the fourth main character, according the dust jacket, is found and goes by the name of Szeth.

As I alluded to earlier, The Way of Kings is essentially one giant introduction. Each of the main characters is introduced, their motives described and personalities defined. They are slowly linked to each other as the story unwinds, foreshadowing the greater plot. There are numerous ominous and obvious hints spread through out the book of the coming calamity. By the end of the book you have a rough idea that the shit is about to hit the fan and how each of the main characters is special and has a unique part to play...and not much else.

The Way of Kings strengths reflects Brandon’s strengths as a world builder and story teller. The world is wonderful and original and feels like a character all by itself. Setting the world into motion is the story, which by the hints found in The Way of Kings is going to intricate and fascinating. Both of these elements, story and world building, are the keystone by which the rest of the book hangs.

What I did not like again reflects on Brandon’s skill, this time what I view as his weakness; character development and dialog. Given that the book is over one thousand pages, the characters themselves seem to develop little if at all. Kaladin is the most developed character. Much care is given to his past history and how he came to be a slave but even then there is not much depth.

Kaladin advances little beyond having an enormous sense of honor and self-sacrifice. It was his sense of honor that led him to his current miserable station in life. His sense of self-sacrifice won’t let him give up while there are those that need his help, such as his fellow slaves. But that is it. Kaladin is a black and white character. I find this lack of a grey area to be a weakness in Brandon’s character development. Every character’s point of view always seems to view the world in terms of right and wrong.

Exacerbating this issue is that all of the main characters have this same predicament; being their sense of honor and self sacrifice. Especially bothersome is Dalinar. Bothersome because you could easily see Dalinar and Kaladin being the same character. There is very little to differentiate the two in the narrative and they feel interchangeable. Perhaps they will diverge at a later point in the story but for now, they seem redundant.

Even Shallan is not immune to this issue but she at least has a little bit more to differentiate her character. Brandon is successful at capturing a sense of youth and naivety in Shallan and these are the primary qualities that separate her from the older and more pragmatic Kaladin and Dalinar. Otherwise, she shares the same sense of honor and self sacrifice. What doesn’t help this issue is that the minor character who shares scenes with Shallan, Jasnah, is basically a female version of Dalinar/Kaladin. That in itself is sort of ironic as in the narrative she is Dalinar’s sister. But, Jasnah’s character water’s down the unique elements of Shallan. These shared character traits serves to homogenize all three main characters points of view.

Ultimately, I enjoyed The Way of Kings. The world building and story are first rate but Brandon was given enormous leeway. The amount of exposition allowed into the novel is amazing and I can imagine few other authors given that luxury. Unfortunately the character building was not up to the same level of excellence but not enough to seriously hinder the book. Fortunately, given that there are yet nine books to go, the character issues can be mended as the series evolves. The Way of Kings is an indulgent book as it seems that Tor has given Brandon free reign. But, I have faith that Brandon will not abuse this freedom and instead in The Stormlight Archives, deliver a defining fantasy epic; something we can all indulge in for years to come.

McMillan: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
Image Source: Scanned Cover
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 978-0765326355

Friday, March 11, 2011

Robert Jordan and Gender Roles in the Wheel of Time UPDATED: 15 March 2011

Brandon Sanderson started an interesting discussion on Twitter today in regards to Robert Jordan and sexism in The Wheel of Time. With a flood of replies, Brandon moved the conversation over to TweetDeck to post a response unconstrained by 140 characters or less. That reply can be found here.

I disagreed with Brandon's general rebuttal. I even found it ironic that Brandon opened with a patronizing statement framing the debate as anyone who disagrees obviously doesn't understand feminist literary theory.

I responded with the following comment which I feel sums up my opinion of the matter:

"Starting your debate with a statement that amounts to "if you disagree then you don't understand" is not a constructive way to debate anything.

That aside, having read WoT since before the internet was common, I always assumed that it was a given that WoT was sexist. It wasn't until I was online and visiting other fan sites that I realized there was even a debate.

I see every major female character in the book as being defined by their relationship to a man. Whether it is Rand's harem, Lanfear's obsession, Moiraine's dedication, Nynaeve's surrender, etc all females characters have very little to stand on without their male figure. Some are better/worse than others but generally if you're a female character then the defining element of your character in WoT is your male relationship or rejection of it. The only character that I think makes any serious attempt at breaking away from this is Egwene but she is still conflicted between her duty as Amyrlin and her love of Gawain.

If you look any any female organization in the book, they are again defined by standard male centered terms. Any empowered woman or female organization is the exception in WoT. The Queens of Andor are special compared to the rest of their subjects and defined by their relationship with the Aes Sedai. The Aes Sedai themselves exist outside of any power structure and are defined by their association with otherworldly powers, to me clear parallels to the witch/nun archetypes. Warders are just one giant metaphor of mysterious female power controlling men, the classical fear of antiquity. Even village Wisdoms are defined by secret otherworldly female knowledge to be feared by men. Maidens of the Spear are defined by their rejection of traditional female Aiel roles and assumption of male Aiel roles and to break that means to be cast from the Maidens. Domani merchant women are defined by their sexuality and the ability to seduce/enslave men.

Even Saidin and Saidar to me seemed like a Freudian joke with the male half focused on conquering and the female half surrendering. Even the descriptions of the five powers frame the male half being hard power and the female half being soft power.

So whereas women are defined by men, men are defined by their purpose. Whether it is the Last Battle for Rand, the Hammer/Axe for Perrin, Mat as a Battle Master, etc they are not defined by women. Women's roles are focused on assisting/steering men to their destiny.

All this being said, I have never taken umbrage with Jordan and his views. To me they were never important to the story as the story was the showpiece. I always viewed Jordan's take on the male/female relationship as simply being indicative of his generation. But to think of Jordan as being a progressive writer? I find that amusing."

Image Source: McMillan

UPDATED 14 March 2011:
Terez @ Logic Tree linked to my post and has her own great viewpoint.

UDATED 15 March 2011:
I have continued this topics discussion on Terez's website Logic Tree.  Please visit.

UPDATED 15 March 2011:
I wrote a follow up post with my opinion on Robert Jordan. LINK

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Three Components of Fantasy

I find that a fantasy story can generally be broken down into three component parts.  In Project Management this idea is called the Triple Constraints.  Since fantasy is more about imagination, I suppose it would be better to call them the Triple Imaginatives.  The three components are: Prose, World and Characters

Prose is all about the written word.  Simply put, how well does the writing support the World and the Characters and your enjoyment of them.  Is the writing a hindrance or a benefit?

Characters as a category is how well the author develops the narratives characters.  This can be done via a variety of ways: action, dialog, internal thoughts, etc.

World is the world as a character, aka world building.  This is generally the category people think of first when trying to define fantasy.

As for me?  I love Characters first, Prose second and World last.  Although that is a not a hard order but more a preference.  I find I enjoy a novel with great characters more than a novel with a great story.  I just simply get more mileage out of characters and prose versus world building but I enjoy all of them if done well.

Now, which authors do I think best represent each of these categories?  When speaking of prose, I find it hard to beat Patrick Rothfuss.  He has such a masterful touch with the written word and the results of his craft is beautiful.  Characters is a bit tougher but I find that Brent Weeks is hard to beat.  He has this unique ability to take a stereotypical character and take them to heights unknown, resulting in enormously complex and textured characters.  Lastly, World building is firmly in the hands of Brandon Sanderson.  Few living rival his skill at creating a living breathing world.

Image Source: WordTipping

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Horus Heresy: The Difficulty of Reviewing this Series

As some readers might have noticed, I have a decent backlog of reviews that need to be written.  The majority of what I have been reading lately has been in the excellent Horus Heresy series by The Black Library.

I have honestly been struggling to figure out how I want to review these books.  What The Black Library has been very good at with the Horus Heresy is cultivating a consistent tone and style.  Even though there are a many different authors writers contributing to the series, each book has a consistent feel.  While this is great in regards to shipping a consistent product, it also serves to obfuscate the unique qualities of each writer.

That is what I am having difficulty with, finding the author's unique contribution in each book.  Since I typically write less of a review and more of an analysis, I feel like I am almost suffering from writers block.  But I have decided that I want to approach each review in a two-fold manner.

First I want to determine if the book meets the standards of the Horus Heresy series and second, what if any unique contribution did the author provide.  So, as I work through reviewing the Horus Heresy series, I hope my readers can see both of these points in each review.

Image Source: The Black Library

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

New Books

A few new books showed up today that I am very excited about. I received a trio of new books...each I am excited about for a different reason.

The one I am easily the most excited for is the long awaited The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. The Name of the Wind (review) was my favorite read of 2010. Yes I was a little late to the game reading it but I am now thoroughly a fan. As soon as I finish my current book, Battle for the Abyss by Ben Counter, I am going to dive right in.

I am also excited about Thunder and Steel by Dan Abnett. This is an omnibus of all of his Warhammer Fantasy novels plus some exclusive content. I have not read a whole lot in the Warhammer Fantasy setting but I am working on fixing that deficiency. One thing that is immediately noticeable about this book is the beautiful cover.

The last book I am also excited about because it is a first for me...a true ARC (Advanced Review Copy). The ARC in quest is The Children of the Lost by David Whitley. Now, I won this via a Goodreads giveaway but regardless...its an ARC! It is the second book in the Agora Trilogy...a YA series. I have always been fond of YA so I look forward to reading it.

Image Source for The Wise Man's Fear: Penguin
Image Source for Thunder and Steel: The Black Library
Image Source for The Children of the Lost: McMillan

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemsin

There are so many things I want to say about this book, that I am not sure where to start. Normally, I would try to come up with a clever hook for the review to sum up my feelings for the book in question. But I just can’t do it. My feelings about N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms are just too BIG to squeeze into a witty lead. Usually I go into a book knowing little or nothing about it. Even if it is recommended, I don’t always know why. This book was a little different because I was already aware of the racial and feminist undertones to The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms prior to reading it. I already followed Jemisin’s blog and knew some of her political views, and this awareness definitely colored my reading. Certain elements in the story stuck with me more readily than they would with someone who picked it up without prior knowledge.

To say that this book lends itself to a feminist interpretation would be an understatement. I love that the lead character, Yeine, is such a strong woman without being cruel, belittling, or manipulative (too often you see this bitchiness described as “female strength” but it rarely is). She portrays a full range of emotions from wrath to tenderness to despair without ever being diminished or weakened by them. She feels very much like a whole person rather than some idealized figurine or “pocket-sized goddess.”

I also appreciate how many of the male characters are also able to display emotion, although some are more direct about it than others. I don’t get the impression that Jemisin is into male-bashing, which is often present in feminist works. Personally, I believe that the value of feminism is advocating for women (and men) to embrace their fullest possibilities-- emotionally, socially, physically, and intellectually. I don’t think that hating men improves anything for women, and I suspect Jemisin might feel similarly.

But I digress. The most interesting manifestation of feminism in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the theogony. For the most part, her creation mythos is an exquisitely balanced distillation of Greek, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian myth. It’s very classical. From the Maelstrom came the god of change and chaos-- Nahadoth. Then came the god of order and law-- Itempas. The two warred for ages and in doing so, shaped the universe. Eventually they came to love each other, but then the Maelstrom gave forth a third divine being-- Enefa, goddess of balance-- who interrupted the love affair of the gods. She began tinkering with the world and, in the process, created both divine children and human children.

The goddess Enefa holds sway over both life and death. She embraces change and growth, yet she also has a certain order to her creations. I love that Enefa was not some passive vessel to creation, which is where Jemisin clearly deviates from classical mythology. She actively shapes life and experiments with it, destroying creations that aren’t fit. Nahadoth supports this activity, but Itempas mostly just seems to tolerate it. He doesn’t much like her interference and is very jealous of the love Nahadoth has for her. In some ways, this reminds me of how a man desires a woman, seduces her and then gets upset when she turns out to be pregnant a month later. There is no controlling life, really. It comes where it will.

So Itempas takes Enefa out of the picture-- this has obvious patriarchal overtones. This is ultimately overcome, but I can’t go into detail on that without major spoilers. Let’s just suffice to say that I loved making all of the little connections in the book and being able to think about it on a deeper level. It’s nice to read a book that is entertaining AND philosophically satisfying. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms definitely gave me a lot to think about, and I felt oddly happy after reading it.

The book was very validating somehow.

I am eager to start reading the next book in the Inheritance Trilogy (The Broken Kingdoms), and I am so excited about the possibilities for this author.

Hachette: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
Image Source: Scanned Cover
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 978-0316043915

This review was originally published at Kawaii Writing and republished with permission.