Books received, and a Disappointing Result

I picked up my package from Amazon at the post office yesterday. This consisted of:

The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones

Girl Genius 7 & 9 by Phil and Kaja Foglio

The Kings of Clonmel by John Flanagan

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

I really was looking forward to reading The Wise Man’s Fear. But when I opened the box, this is what I found:

I’ve never seen this before. The pages were mounted to the binding at an angle at a good distance from the edge, and were cut at an angle. In addition, some of the cuts weren’t complete, resulting in partially-cut strips hanging off the bottom of the pages, as you can see in the second photo. It’s definitely a manufacturing defect, but I’m surprised that the Amazonian who packed my order didn’t see it.

Luckily, Amazon is replacing it at no charge, including paying for the return postage. I’ve bought defective items from other merchants that required me to pay for return postage (Newegg, I’m looking at you).

So The Wise Man’s Fear goes back and I’ll have to wait a little longer for the replacement. In the meantime I’ll be reading Desert of Souls.

Book Review: Scar Night by Alan Campbell

Format: Hardback, First Edition, 2006

Pages: 421

Reading Time: about 8 hours

As I stated a few days ago, gritty urban fantasy is not my cup of tea. I don’t have anything against that genre per se, and I won’t stir up any controversy like Leo Grin did with his post on Nihilism and Tolkien last month. Now, understand that I wouldn’t be happy if editors chose to publish urban fantasy at the expense of traditional fantasy, much in the way that record executives turned to Grunge in the early 90s and let 80s Melodic Rock die. Fortunately that’s not the case here…there’s room for everybody’s brand of fantasy in today’s publishing world. So normally I steer clear of urban fantasy without disparaging it, and everybody wins.

What attracted me to Scar Night was the synopsis on the inside sleeve: a city suspended by chains over an abyss, with angels and assassins – it hinted at the makings of a great fantasy story. So I decided to take a chance on an unknown author and I picked it up. I was well over a 100 pages into the book before I lost interest and put it back in the queue. I finished Glen Cook’s Angry lead Skies a few days ago, and while I waited for The Wise Man’s Fear to arrive, I decided to pick Scar Night back up and finish it. And although I’m glad I did ( I wanted it out of the queue), the story was not what I expected, nor what I was led to believe. More on that in a moment.

The story takes place mostly in the city of Deepgate. There is also a nearby area called the Deadsands that is visited, and the bottom of the abyss is also used as a setting. Deepgate is suspended over the abyss on a network of immense chains. It is an industrial city, at war with the people of the Deadsands. The Deadsand people are called Heshettes, and they bear a strong hatred towards Deepgate due to the airships/zeppelins of Deepgate dispersing chemical weapons on the Heshette. The main characters in the story are Devon, the Deepgate Poisoner; Dill the Angel; Rachel the Spine Assassin; Mr. Nettle, a giant of a man searching for his daughter’s soul; Carnival the vampire/demon/angel; and Sypes, the Presbyter, priest of the god Ulcis and ruler of Deepgate.

The characters are interesting and fairly well-developed. My main problem with them is that I didn’t really care about any of them. This is a risk that writers face when writing dark or urban fantasy – it can be hard for a traditional fantasy reader to care about deeply flawed characters that aren’t heroic. Campbell tries hard to make Dill the most sympathetic character, but the angel is annoyingly weak throughout the book. Rachel is the only character that feels heroic, as her task is to stop Carnival from killing the citizens of Deepgate. But we don’t spend enough time in Rachel’s head to feel what she feels. Her feelings are explained, but not felt…that’s probably the best way I can describe it. Carnival is the most intriguing character, but not enough time is devoted to her thoughts and actions. These characterizations are one of the reasons I lost interest 100 pages in; the other reason is that much of the action takes place over the last half of the book, so the first half suffers from bad pacing as it attempts to establish the characters. There is also a third reason I lost interest: my own misconceptions of the book’s genre, drawn from the only information I had at the time of purchase at Borders (back in 2006): the dust jacket.

Campbell’s ideas are highly imaginative, and Scar Night is not a bad story by any means, but I was expecting something different. Nowhere in the synopsis (on the inside dust jacket) is mention made of industry, chemical warfare, or other aspects of urban fantasy; therefore, I read the synopsis in the context of a traditional fantasy setting and was surprised that it wasn’t. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine that the synopsis was carefully written to exclude any mention of its urban fantasy elements, so as not to scare off traditional fantasy readers (keep in mind that this was a debut novel for the author). Also, the inside sleeve of the dust jacket has a blurb that describes the story as “the stunning clarity of Neil Gaiman with the rich world-building of Steven Erikson.” I haven’t read Neil Gaiman, but I have read Steven Erikson, and this book doesn’t have 10% of the world-building of Steven Erikson. It’s not the first time that blurbs on the dust jacket have been deceptive – I can’t count how many times a book was compared to Lord of the Rings and ended up falling well short of that mark – but it doesn’t change the fact that the statement is (in my opinion) highly inaccurate. Also, the synopsis claims that Dill and Rachel join forces with Carnival to prevent the annihilation of the city and themselves. This is also deceptive, as the characters don’t even know they are facing annihilation upon entering the abyss…the joining of forces seems like more of an accident, and (minor spoiler alert ahead!) seems unbelievable – when Rachel jumps into the abyss, Carnival saves her, when just minutes before Carnival wanted Rachel dead. Why was Rachel saved? It’s never explained. I will offer the disclaimer that the issues I have with the synopsis and dust jacket blurb are not the author’s fault, but since they played a part in my decision to purchase the book, I feel it should be mentioned.

As the action picks up in the second half of the book (major spoiler alert ahead!), I became more engrossed in the story. However, the ending was a disappointment, as the god Ulcis was easily overcome despite the implication that he was incredibly powerful (he is described as a god, after all), and his undead minions continued to fight even after his death, when it’s not clear what their motivation was to keep fighting. Maybe these issues are resolved in the sequel, but I suspect they aren’t. When combined with the illogical “joined forces” problem I mentioned earlier, and an abrupt ending designed to set up the sequel, my overall impression of the story was apathetic.

Readers of urban fantasy may enjoy Scar Night despite these issues. From the reviews at Amazon, it seems as if the sequel, Iron Angel, is better, although the third book, God of Clocks, sounds like a big disappointment to most readers. With the last book in the series getting so-so reviews, you have to decide whether or not it’s worthwhile to put the time into these stories. Based on my reading experience and my misconceptions of Scar Night, I won’t be picking up the sequel unless I have nothing else to read. Considering the amount of books in my queue, that probably isn’t going to happen.

If you could only grab 5 books…

Last night I mentioned Little Red Reviewer posted her 5 books she would take if she had to flee the house before disaster struck, and that I posted my 5 books over at her site. To me, the question suggests the books are irreplaceable. I mean, I could say I’d take The Name of the Wind, but why would I do that when I could go down to Barnes & Noble or on to Amazon and order another one? There’s really nothing special about my copy – it isn’t rare or expensive, it isn’t signed by Patrick Rothfuss, it wasn’t given to me as a gift – do you see where I’m going? The books I would save are books I could not replace by simply re-buying them, or are so rare I couldn’t justify the cost. Here are the ones I listed:

1. The Sword of Shannara Trilogy (combines The Sword of Shannara, The Elfstones of Shannara, and the Wishsong of Shannara). More specifically, my 2002 deckled-edge hardcover edition that Terry Brooks signed for me at Powell’s Books. I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Brooks for a few minutes, and he offered me encouragement on writing my own story.

2. Fool’s Errand. My 2002 hardcover edition that Robin Hobb signed for me, also at Powell’s Books. I spoke with Robin for a few minutes and asked her a couple of questions about publishing which she answered gracefully. She probably gets those questions constantly, but she was thoughtful, sincere, and kind regardless. Her answers were also very helpful.

3. I’m not sure of the title – it may be something like “History of the 54th Artillery Brigade” (I have it put away somewhere safe and would have to dig it out). This hardcover book details the movements and battles of my great-grandfather’s brigade, complete with maps, through World War I France. I believe it was published in 1918.

When my great-grandfather died back in 1983, I was a young high school student. I remember going out to sit on the curb, despondent, as the older relatives were inside the house, bickering over his things. My grandfather brought out some boxes, and as he ruffled my hair he said, “these are things no one wants. Take what ever you like.” Among other items in the box were lots of old books, many of which were children’s stories that belonged to my great grandmother. I kept them all. But for me, the most prized find was the Brigade book…it caught my attention with it’s detailed descriptions and fold out maps.

4. The Golden Phoenix: Eight French-Canadian Fairy Tales. My 1963 hardcover version. Besides the fact that it was my favorite book during my childhood, it is demanding a price of $235 on Amazon.



5. A big, beautiful hardcover book of Italy called Italian Splendor. Having met my biological father for the first time last year, this book was a gift to me, from my newly-discovered parents and sister, celebrating our first Christmas together. Though I could purchase another copy, obviously this particular one is now irreplaceable.

Those are my five books. The reason for keeping them is different for each one, but they are all irreplaceable. I would be devastated if I had to leave them behind…

Blogspotter, Tuesday March 22

Another day, another The Wise Man’s Fear review at King of the Nerds:

Until my copy arrives, I’m trying to finish Scar Night. It’s a gritty, urban fantasy that is not really my favorite type of fantasy, but I’m giving it shot anyway. Review will be a few days away as I’m about halfway through.

Little Red Reviewer has a post from yesterday: if you were fleeing your house and were only able to grab 5 books, what would they be? I left my thoughts there, but I’ll expand on them more later tonight when I get home from work. Here’s the link to Little Red’s post:

Also, the original post over at Grasping for the Wind that inspired Little Red:

Book Review: Angry Lead Skies by Glen Cook

Format:  Paperback, First Edition, 2002

Pages:  364

Reading Time:  about 7 hours

I am a huge Glen Cook fan. I’ve devoured every book in the Black Company series, and I’ve been following Garrett P.I. for some time. Garrett has been around far longer than Harry Dresden or Eddie Drood…Cook laid the groundwork for these types of books, and there was nothing like Sweet Silver Blues when I first read it back in 1990. Angry Lead Skies is the 10th book in the “series”. I use that word loosely because each book is a stand-alone tale that does not require reading previous installments. Although it would be more helpful if you know some of the backstory, Cook takes the time to re-introduce each character to get you up to speed.

Each Garrett novel begins with a knock on his front door, leading to a mystery that the P.I. is asked to look in to. Along the way people usually try to kill him, and he struggles with his romantic relationships as the case gets in the way. Garrett has several friends, partners, and romantic interests: The Dead Man (a 400 year-old dead Loghyr with psychic capabilities); Dean (the housekeeper); Morley Dotes (a vain, vegetarian, elven assassin); Playmate (friend and stable owner); Saucerhead Tharpe (muscle); Doris, Marsha, and Dojango (half-troll, half-giant, also muscle); Tinnie Tate (off-again, on-again romantic interest); and The Goddamn Parrot (also known as Mr. Big).

The premise of this particular tale has aliens invading the town of TunFaire. Yes, that’s right, aliens. There is a loose plot of a boy gone missing, but not much mystery to speak of. In fact, most of the plot is resolved in the first two-thirds of the book. The last third of the book has Garrett setting himself up with money and explaining himself to the police and is incredibly anti-climatic. And what’s with all the sex with these ugly aliens? Over and over again…really?!!!

This is in fact the worst story I have ever read from Glen Cook. I was unhappy with how dark the Black Company books were at the end of that series, but this is far, far worse. I’ve seen several reviews that suggest this book was ghost-written by someone else. If that’s true, it would explain a lot, as it’s hard to imagine Mr. Cook wrote this story. What I enjoy about the Garrett novels are compelling mysteries, twists and turns, minor skirmishes, big dust-ups, sexual tension, and a tremendous dose of tongue-in-cheek humor mixed with sarcasm and wit. But I found none of that here.

In fact, not only are these elements absent, but several inconsistencies arise, based on what has transpired in previous novels. “illiandantic” has a review over at Amazon that sums up these inconsistencies nicely:

“First of all, where did Garrett’s love interest, Katie, come from? Usually, he finds these women as part of his cases (either the principal or a player). In this case, we start out the book with her already there. She has no background and plays no part in the book. He doesn’t even mention Tinnie (whom he had gotten back together with at the end of the previous book — a couple of weeks in Garrett time) until half way through the book.

– Second, Playmate is way out of character. In all the other books, he’s a simple, honest person. In this one, he’s essentially a walking Dead Man or a more honest Morley Dotes: a sophisticated, educated, smooth talking, cynical person. Plus, Cook specifically notes that he’s NOT really 9 feet tall. Yet, in all the other books, he IS 9 feet tall. A couple of books ago, Cook graphically portrayed him in a situation at Morley’s restaurant as being bent over to fit inside. My guess is Cook needed some way to work a specific type of character in as a principal and a 9 foot tall, simple guy wouldn’t work. So, he just changed him.

– Similarly, Singe has miraculously graduated from a smart, though barely articulate, rat woman into practically an Einstein.

– Ditto for the Rose triplets. Specifically, Doris and Marsha. In all previous books those two grolls were dumb as stumps. Even more importantly, only Dojango spoke “English” (that was why he was around — to translate). Doris and Marsha ONLY and SPECIFICALLY spoke grollish.

– And, finally, near the end, Cook mentions that the Tates have DWARF blood somewhere back in their line. That’s not correct. Again, specifically, in all previous books he’s mentioned that they have ELF blood in them.”

Everything pointed out here is spot on, and goes a long towards proving something is fishy about this book. From the opening chapters it becomes clear that something is up – the prose and dialog is clumsy, hard to follow, and it takes 3 chapters to introduce the “mystery”. I was scratching my head in confusion. I’ve never had this much difficulty getting interested in one of Cook’s stories.

I struggled to finish this book, and don’t want to waste any more of my time reviewing it. The story is that bad.  I will give the next book a chance, but if it’s more of the same, I’ll be dropping this series, and dropping Glen Cook as one of my favorite authors. My time is valuable to me, and I don’t want to waste it reading pedestrian material.

More Reviews of “The Wise Man’s Fear”

Head over to The Little Red Reviewer’s site for another review of The Wise Man’s Fear:

Besides leaving a comment on my latest review, Little Red is well-read, with lots of good reviews and topics to explore on her site. I hadn’t heard of her site before, but I’m now a fan and have added her to my Blogroll.

Also, Stephan has a review up at The Ranting Dragon, which you can find here:

Finally, Jeffrey Dern has his review posted:

My Amazon payment has just gone through, so my copy should be shipping soon. It will move to the top of the queue when it arrives…

Book Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

Format: Hardback, First Edition, 2007

Pages: 662

Reading Time: about 13 hours

I’m three years late to the party that began with The Name of the Wind, and what a party it has been. Winner of the Quill Award, on most people’s best new book and best new author awards for 2007, and with hyped anticipation for a sequel that was released this month, The Name of the Wind certainly has its champions. I picked it up from Borders back in 2008, but it has languished in my ever-expanding queue. With reviews praising the sequel as an improvement in every way, I knew it was time to find out what all the (Roth)fuss was about.

The story is a coming-of-age tale about a boy named Kvothe, who appears to be brilliantly gifted in almost anything he learns – music, acting, magic, studies – you name it, Kvothe is good at it. Kvothe goes from beloved son to orphan to street rat to university student to legendary hero in the book. Whenever roadblocks pop up, Kvothe always seems to find a way past them. He spends much of the book poor, looking for ways to get money to keep a roof over his head, food in his mouth, and paying tuition for school. Kvothe’s ability to overcome obstacles reminds me of MacGuyver or other TV heroes such as Sydney Bristow from Alias.

There is, however, a caveat or two, because Kvothe has flaws just like anyone else. Kvothe admits freely that he doesn’t know a thing about women. He also has a stubborn attitude and refuses to lose or back down from a challenge. While such an attitude sees him through many difficult situations, it also has consequences that contribute to making those situations more difficult than they need to be.

This is most evident in his dealings with fellow student Ambrose, the son of a noble. Ambrose and Kvothe start out on the wrong foot, and it escalates from there. Unlike Hemme, an instructor that Kvothe clashes with but has no teeth, Ambrose has the wealth and influence to make life difficult for Kvothe. Given that Ambrose is truly unlikable, I found myself both rooting for Kvothe and shaking my head at the same time, because it is soon apparent that every time Ambrose is insulted, he’ll find a way to strike back at Kvothe. Still Kvothe cannot resist pushing back against Ambrose’s arrogance, and seems surprised at the results, underestimating Ambrose each time.

The beginning of the book almost has a David Eddings’s Belgariad feel to it. It then moves into something you might find in Dickens, or Robin Hobb’s Assassin Apprentice series. Most of the book, however, has a Harry Potter-like feel, as it takes place in a university. It is, however, a darker Harry Potter, targeted at adults rather than children. I was surprised to find out later that Orson Scott Card had already voiced these same sentiments, as I hadn’t read this in other sites’ reviews.

I love stories told in the first-person narrative. All my favorite authors follow this style: Zelazny’s Amber, Hobb’s Assassin Apprentice, Cook’s Black Company, and Delaney’s Last Apprentice. The story of Kvothe is told in first person as it jumps back and forth between present day, told in third-person, and Kvothe’s storytelling, which switches to first-person. Rothfuss has an easy, engaging style that makes reading The Name of the Wind a joy to read. He has an ability to weave words into story with enough detail to picture what is happening, without so much detail that the story bogs down. In this way, Rothfuss’s narrative style is much more appealing than say Robert Jordan or Steven Erikson. At the same time, it doesn’t have a simplistic feel as The Last Apprentice or Harry Potter does. There’s plenty of things happening in the story. It is not swords-and-sorcery action, but rather overcoming obstacles through clever means – though there is a sort of battle with a dragon.

Supporting characters are consistent and well-defined. In addition to Kvothe’s antagonists, he has a couple of good friends in Simmon and Wilem, a handful of instructors, and a couple of potential love interests in Denna and Fela. Denna is a strong female character, flawed in a few ways and intriguing in others. I would prefer that Kvothe was attracted more to Fela, who has some intriguing qualities herself, but she isn’t fleshed out enough to know why Kvothe doesn’t even consider a relationship with her. The magic system, called Sympathy, is detailed and well-thought out, although I still don’t have any idea how much power someone is capable of by simply knowing the true name of something.

I do have a few problems with the story. As I stated above, after a chapter or two of the University, it began to feel slightly derivative of Harry Potter at Hogwarts. This leads to my second issue with the book: the story spends so much time at the University that the plot struggles to move forward. It feels more like an “I did this, I did that” recounting, rather than a story with a clear and well-defined plot, although I am sure that is by design since Kvothe is relating the events of his life. And the ending is so abrupt, so unresolved, that it is a disappointment. I feel for those who have been waiting three years for the sequel. We also don’t have any idea yet why the series is titled “The Kingkiller Chronicles.”

The truth is that these are minor issues that didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story. Once reaching the last third of The Name of the Wind, I found it difficult to put down, my measure of a great book. While some of the praise and hype of The Name of the Wind is deserved, and some of it is overdone, I can’t deny that this is one of the best books I’ve read in some time. If The Wise Man’s Fear is truly better in every way, I’m looking forward to it with great anticipation, although my fear is it won’t live up to my expectations, which are now quite high. The Wise Man’s Fear is now on its way from Amazon, so I’ll find out soon enough…

Emerald City Comicon: photos

Over 25,000 people descended on Seattle last weekend for the Emerald City Comicon. I attended Saturday, along with a friend. I avoided the long lines for panels and signings (William Shatner was a 2 hour wait!) and instead focused on comics and art. I bought some prints and had a good time. There were so many talented people there. Here are a few photos my friend and I snapped (before my phone died)…

Nightcrawler showed up…

There were Clone Troopers everywhere…

Phil and Kaja Foglio were looking sharp…

and Frank Cho was a busy man…

Todd and Craig were great fun, I loved The Perhapanauts…

One of the prints I purchased from the guys who made Wayfarer’s Moon – it’s a beautiful map, my camera doesn’t do it justice…

It was quite an experience, I’ve been to a couple cons in Portland, but they are tiny compared to this one. I also hit Pike’s Market, and my parents and my sister (who live in Seattle) took me to dinner for my birthday and then out for karaoke at the Hula Hula. On Sunday I said goodbye to them and drove back to Portland. See you next year, Emerald City Comicon!

Book Review: Bearers of the Black Staff by Terry Brooks

Format: Hardback, First Edition, 2010

Pages: 353

Reading Time: about 8 hours

It’s been 500 years since Hawk led humans and elves into the valley protected by the magic of the Gypsy Morph, a magic bestowed by The Word, as the rest of the world was pummeled by nuclear and chemical attacks. Now that magic is fading, and it’s time for the inhabitants of the valley to adapt to the new environment that has been formed, or perish.

Brooks remains an easy pleasure for me to read. His style is simplistic and provides just enough detail, and lately his stories have moved along at a fairly rapid clip. After reading an intense, dark read like Steven Erikson, reading Brooks is a nice change of pace. Having said that, I struggled with this story. It’s not that Bearers is a difficult read, but I really struggled with interest level. The story to me just wasn’t compelling. Once again we have recycled characters – Sider is the precursor to druids, Phryne is your typical elf, and Pan is like any Ohmsford. Deladion Inch is probably the most interesting character, but is not really fleshed out enough. Also Phryne’s storyline was incredibly predictable. I knew what her role was early on, because her storyline was so boring that I knew she had to be there for a reason. And I was right.

The “bad guys” I found lacking. A scheming human and a scheming elf, along with an army of trolls make up the villains, and they’re quite uninspired. The consistency of the trolls is laughable. There is a scene where one of the characters tries to free Prue from the troll camp. Before and during the rescue, the trolls allow the rescuer to live, which makes no sense, and then during the rescue attempt they are too incompetent to stop the rescuer. But later, as the rescuer flees, the trolls suddenly become able to track the rescuer for miles, through water no less, and then are presented as competent and deadly. This is in direct contrast to their actions in the troll camp.

To make matters worse, the whole “Prue is a hostage while Pan is released” makes no sense based on the troll actions I just described. If the trolls are such great trackers, why not let Prue and Pan go, track them through the pass while the army follows, and then the army marches in unopposed and destroys everyone? Of course, this wouldn’t make for a good story, so we’ve got to give the valley people a chance to build defenses. It’s the sort of logic that makes you think Brooks either didn’t think the story through, or didn’t care.

And here is where we get to the root problem of the story. Besides the shallow characterizations, I found it really hard to care about the plot. Because Brooks focuses on the main protagonists and the evil-doers, I never got a sense of why I should care about the valley being saved. We aren’t shown but a few minor characters, and so all the people in the valley remain nameless and faceless. It seems that most humans are ruled by the teachings of the cult known as the Children of the Hawk. The elves seem more noble, but have abandoned magic. So why exactly do I care about the people in the valley?

There is a deeper cause related to the ambivalence I feel about the characters, and that is Brooks dodges questions relating to characters and plot that he has created, instead focusing on what he needs to get the story out. What has happened to the Word and the Void? What has happened to the King of the Silver River? What has happened to the Ellcrys, and where are all the demons it will eventually imprison? Why was the protective magic of the valley only good for 500 years? Why was it so important for Hawk to save these people when the end result is they slip into the teachings of a cult? Maybe some of these questions will be answered in the sequel, but based on my experience with the previous series, I doubt Brooks will ever bother explaining these things – they just exist to move the plot along when he needs them to.

I did have to say I was a little surprised by the ending. Some good guys bite the dust, while not a single bad guy goes down. It’s an abrupt, cliff-hanger ending that is designed to set up the sequel. I’ll buy the sequel to finish the story, even though I have an idea about what’s going to happen. This book is also shorter, at 353 pages, than the Gypsy Morph was, at 402.

In conclusion I was disappointed with the story, mainly for the reasons I’ve described above. I really liked the Gypsy Morph, but Bearers of the Black Staff pales in comparison. There were elements of the story I liked, and I did like the backstory of Sider, which is presented in a series of flashbacks. But my overall feeling is less than satisfied – I know Brooks is capable of more.