Status Update 5-30-19

God of Broken Things

Last year, Cameron Johnston’s The Traitor God was one of my favorite books and earned multiple Hippogriff Awards, including a tie for the top book of the year. I’m used to waiting for a few years for a sequel, so I’m amazed that Amazon is telling me that my copy of Johnston’s God of Broken Things, the follow-up to The Traitor God, will be here between June 17-21. Since I’m almost finished with An Echo of Things to Come, I’ll be tackling Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Quest in the next day or two, and by the time that’s finished, God of Broken Things should be arriving, so I will be able to read it immediately.

Unfortunately I’m still under a time crunch due to warm weather activities, so I’m not even close to being ready to post reviews of The Siege of Abythos or The Wrath of Heroes yet…

Book Review: Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft

arm of sphinxFormat:  oversized paperback, first trade paperback edition, 2018

Pages:  398

Reading Time:  about 9 hours

One sentence synopsis: Thomas Senlin and his crew look for a safe place to hole up as Senlin moves closer to finding his wife, but danger soon throws them into the path of the mysterious and god-like figure known as the Sphinx.

 

Last year, Josiah Bancroft’s Senlin Ascends blew me away…his imaginative world dripped with fantastic imagery and elegant prose that in my mind made it a literary classic, and was one of my favorite stories of all time. I approached this sequel with a mix of excitement and trepidation: the bar had been set high by the first book…could Arm of the Sphinx possibly live up to my lofty expectations? Read on to find out, but first here’s a look at some other reviews from around cyberspace…

 

James Tivendale of Fantasy Book Review states: “There are a larger number of point of view perspectives in the Arm of the Sphinx than in the previous entry. Written in the 3rd person, the characters we follow in addition to Senlin are the one-armed and trustworthy first mate Edith, the inquisitive and adventurous Voleta, her engineer and perhaps untrustworthy brother Adam, and finally, Iren who previously acted as a bouncer/bodyguard within one of the Ringdom’s seedy criminal underworld. The character development is excellent and the above-mentioned members of The Stone Cloud really grow and shine and they are no longer merely side characters in “The Thomas Senlin Show.” We are introduced to these characters’ personal thoughts and feelings which adds heightened affinity and I truly cared about each of these very different individuals. Bancroft writes an exquisite mix of fantasy and steampunk. As further mysteries of the Tower unfold science-fiction elements are introduced and merge seamlessly. The world-building is brilliant and totally unique. The grandiose and labyrinthine Tower is arguably the main character in this series and in this novel new Ringdom’s are introduced for the first time including the Silk Gardens. Each of the Tower’s many Ringdom’s is the size of a city and they all have great differences aesthetically, socially and politically. The only common denominator is that they can all present an extreme degree of danger.

Writer Dan from Elitist Book Reviews opines: “There were two aspects of the novel, however, that significantly detracted from the goodness of the book. The first you might have already guessed: point of view. Instead of the focused, driven, single (overwhelmingly) perspective of Tom Senlin we got in SENLIN ASCENDS, nearly every secondary character that calls Tom a friend got POV time, and there were even a few others that never even met the man. The main difficulty with this is that none of these various characters had anywhere near the motivation, drive, or persona of Tom Senlin, and so this diluted the story significantly. Additionally, there were egregious examples of head-jumping, which I just can’t abide…The second issue that really made me lose some of my steam for the book was the ending. With the title of the book being “Arm of the Sphinx” I fully expected that Edith would be a focus of the story, and she was. In my opinion, her POV was the only one that was justified though, and she should have gotten considerably more attention in the story. All of the others but Tom could have been removed, and it would have made the books much the better. With all the resulting dilution of the story, however, the ending really kind of fizzled for me, and it ended up feeling very much like the second book in a trilogy, or more directly: a setup novel for the final book. Granted, it was only the ending that made me feel this way. So much of the adventure of the entire book was exactly what I’d been looking for. With a lot more focus and energy, this book could have been just as good as its predecessor.

Finally, Dorian Hart of dorianhart.com writes: “First, the sentence-crafting is every bit as good as in Senlin Ascends. Bancroft’s sublime artistry with imagery and metaphors is on full display, making the story a joy to read on its lowest level. I found myself stopping to take notes on particularly lovely turns of phrase, which is not something I typically do while reading…It did feel to me like the author couldn’t quite bring himself to commit either to 3rd-person limited or true 3rd-person omniscient narration, and I did find the head-hopping to be distracting at times. Changes in POV sometimes felt haphazard and unexpected. But the story’s willingness to break its single-lead-character shackles was more a strength than a weakness; it allowed the author to treat us a tale of wider scope and at the same time give us wonderfully detailed characterizations. Of all the types of virtuosity on display in Arm of the Sphinx, my favorite was the author’s ability to present complex physical action with an almost uncanny clarity. I am reminded of a particular scene where [very minor spoiler] a character is trapped in a submerged boat by a monster, and the action could have been extremely confusing to follow in the hands of a less savvy author. But Bancroft made it so easy to follow the complexities of the scene, I never had to pause to reorient myself. All of his action sequences are like that – complex but clear. It’s a rare skill.

 

As the other reviewers have explained above, Arm of the Sphinx is very different from its predecessor. Where Senlin Ascends focused on Thomas Senlin’s point of view, his dogged, straight-line pursuit in search of his wife, and introducing the setting that is the weird and wonderful Tower, in contrast the sequel presents multiple points of view, drifts a bit and at times lacks clear direction, and instead of focusing on the setting of the Tower, instead begins to reveal some of the secrets behind it, much like the curtain being pulled back in The Wizard of Oz to reveal the true nature of the Wizard. In essence, it almost feels as though Bancroft abandoned his original plot and viewpoint to explore other ideas. At times, Arm of the Sphinx is better for it; at others, it suffers because of it.

The analogous phrasing that I loved so much from the first book is more subdued here, but the prose and descriptions are still absolutely stellar. At the beginning of each chapter, Bancroft presents sayings captured from books or other accounts that related to people or events in the tower. It offers a glimpse into the Tower’s past, which is expanded upon by the musings of the Sphinx, a mythical, god-like creature which is part of the mystery revealed as I highlighted above.

Whether or not the differing viewpoints are a benefit or detraction is a matter of personal taste. I enjoyed learning more about Edith, Adam and Voleta…their perspectives allow for a much wider look at the Tower and its denizens than what the single-minded Senlin provides. On the other hand, Senlin’s undaunted purpose, his influence on others, and his cleverness, which drove the first book to incredible heights, are largely absent here. When added to an unintended bout with a chemical substance, as well as Senlin’s wife Marya (who I loved in the first book) being largely portrayed as a negative element rather than a positive due to a plot twist, these things in my opinion cause Arm of the Sphinx to pale in comparison to Senlin Ascends. For most authors that would be a death sentence, but Bancroft is so talented that the story is still a delight in spite of this.

A lot of things I loved about the first book – the steampunk elements, figuring out how the Tower works (I was right on all counts as confirmed by this book), the unique settings, and wondrous moments – there’s still plenty of that to be found here. While the plot fairly bogs down and stagnates as Senlin becomes something of a joke and a side note, thanks to the other viewpoint characters (and Byron!) step up and the mysteries of the Tower and the Sphinx are revealed, I still did not want to put the book down. Another thing I appreciate is that it’s always easy to find a good stopping point when you only are able to sneak in quick batches of reading. And I loved how Bancroft, a self-admitted poet, paid homage to another poet by naming a character Byron.

The section of the book devoted to exploring The Zoo was perhaps for me the highlight of the book. This part of the story most closely resembles Senlin Ascends, with adventure, danger, intrigue, a touch of cleverness on the part of Senlin’s crew, and fair amounts of well-described action. I’ll not reveal too much here for fear of spoiling the plot…I’ll just say that it appears that The Hod King will return to this setting, and with a renewed focus on finding Senlin’s wife, I find that very intriguing.

Despite a host of problems, Arm of the Sphinx is still an exceptional story, told by a gifted writer. If I have one concern moving forward, it’s that Bancroft may have telegraphed his plot for The Hod King a bit too much. Hopefully the author surprises me with some twists and turns along the way, and I’ll be happy to be proven wrong. So I’m looking forward to The Hod King to see if it wraps up the series or if there will be more books, in order to see how it all turn out in the end…

Status Update 5-16-19

I have just completed reading David Benem’s The Wrath of Heroes. I’m really starting to fall behind on reviews but there’s just no help for it right now. As soon as my schedule eases up, hopefully I can knock out some of these backlogged reviews.

The Pages Read Count for the year is now 4654. Next up is James Islington’s An Echo of Things to Come, clocking in at a monstrous 716 pages…

A New Order, Hardcover Prices, and the Analog Experience in a Digital Age

I was originally just going to do a quick post on a book acquisition, but as I was thinking about the experience, the post began to evolve into something more, and then it morphed again. There’s a lot to unpack here, so I’ll take this one subject at a time and hopefully it will be fairly coherent.

Recently I decided to pick up the last book I needed in the Malazan the Fallen series by Steven Erikson, The Crippled God. I now have the complete series in hardcover, including the Ian C. Esslemont companion books, though I do not have the prequels or other ancillary novels. I thought The Crippled God would be the easiest book for me to find from the main series, since it was the most recently published, in 2011. I remember the buzz back in 2011 among those who were waiting for this book release to wrap up the series. But in my search for this book, what I had expected to find, and what I actually found, were two completely different things.

Throughout my experiences in acquiring the Malazan books, both from Erikson and Esslemont, I found it incredibly difficult to obtain a hardcover book for a reasonable price that was not a library copy, marked up, or missing the dust jacket, while buying from a trusted seller. I used to be able to go to Powell’s Books in Portland to find used hardcovers, but they now mostly stock new releases in hardcover, and seem to rarely have the older hardcovers I’m looking for. Most of the other used bookstores in my area are gone, and those that remain primarily stock paperbacks. So I had turned to Amazon and eBay to try to acquire the books. I discovered that in most cases, books could be found, but it was likely to cost me dearly.

For example, look at this list of hardcovers available for The Crippled God on Amazon:

the crippled god

As you can see, a new hardcover of this book starts at $123, so it was imperative that I find an affordable, used copy. When following the link to the used copies, of which there are 10, the following information is presented:

crippled god list

There’s a few things to note here. Ideally I look for “Used – Very Good” condition. Why is that? Check out Amazon’s definition of “Used – Good”:

All pages and cover are intact (including the dust cover, if applicable). Spine may show signs of wear. Pages may include limited notes and highlighting. May include “From the library of” labels. Shrink wrap, dust covers, or boxed set case may be missing. Item may be missing bundled media.

I put emphasis on parts of this description because they are pretty important to me. Has the book been written on or had text highlighted? Does it have labels, a library stamp, or even a library checkout sleeve inside the front cover? Does it have the dust cover? In their descriptions, some sellers describe wear, markings and highlighting; others say that wear and markings/highlighting “may” exist (that’s not very helpful), and some sellers do not provide a good description at all. None state that the dust jacket is included, so it is impossible to know if you will receive one or not. Price is also a factor, with the two cheapest copies selling for around $30. A “used – very  good” condition starts at $50 (when including shipping and tax) to over $120 (the two most expensive copies wouldn’t fit in the screen capture). That’s a tough cost to swallow considering that the original list price was $29, and as established above for “used – good”, the quality of what you get is going to be a crapshoot. The final important factor is the rating of each seller. The first seller has the best rating at 93%, but that’s not great. Most sellers here fall between 91% and 88%. I generally don’t trust any sellers with a rating below 97%.

In the end I took a chance on a copy from eBay for a total of $17 and received a beautiful book, with very little wear, no markings, and the dust cover intact. eBay can be just as nebulous as Amazon, with lackluster descriptions, and in some cases the seller doesn’t even list whether the book is a paperback or hardcover! In this case I got lucky, as the next cheapest hardcover copy on eBay is $26 from a high volume seller with lots of negative feedback. After that the prices go much higher.

Here’s a couple other examples of costly Malazan hardcover acquisitions featuring Esslemont titles. Return of the Crimson Guard had a list price of $28 on release. Now if you want a new hardcover, prepare to pay over $162 plus tax. Last year there was one listed for almost $4000 (it has since been removed).

rotcg

For a “Used – Very Good” copy, the price begins at $60 and goes up from there.

rotcg list

One final example comes from Esslemont’s Blood and Bone. Again, the list price was $29, but in an unusual twist, there are no hardcover editions to be found on Amazon except for a signed slipcase version with some bland cover art for $78+. eBay often parallels Amazon, and I only found one hardcover, in “Used – Good” condition for $66 there. It’s nice to know that my hardcovers have some value to them, while my paperbacks are virtually worthless monetarily (but still have entertainment value to me). I was fortunate to win my hardcover copy of Blood and Bone in a contest at Fantasy Literature.

blood and bone
no hardcover available…

I’ve talked before a little bit about why I like hardcover books…how the larger print makes them easier to read, and there’s something about the tangible feel of holding a real book in my hands that just feels good. I call this an “Analog Experience in a Digital Age”. The more our experiences are converted to digital, the more nostalgia there is for physical , or analog, experiences, even among those experiencing it for the first time. One example of this is in my other hobby, pinball. Pinball nearly died in 2000 when competition from digital video games forced the biggest pinball company, Bally/Williams, to turn to slot machines, which were far more profitable. However, pinball has made a big resurgence thanks to its analog experience, with much of it coming from younger players who are largely unaware of its near death 20 years ago. A physical ball careens chaotically around a playfield and provides a feeling that just can’t be captured by digital games. And speaking of slot machines, that’s another example of nostalgia for analog…many people who play slots confess that they miss the spinning reels and the sound of coins paying out into the coin holder, because now slot machines are essentially a video game that doesn’t use coins, plays a jingle upon winning, and prints winnings on a piece of paper.

As far back as 2014 (and even early by some accounts), articles were being written about the demise of the paper book, with e-readers being touted as the future of publishing. In this article by the Economist (registration required), it explains that hardcover editions have traditionally been published first due to their ability to generate more profits than paperbacks. The author contends that the premium quality of a hardback is not challenged by e-readers; if anything, it is the paperback format that is threatened by its digital counterpart.

In this article from 2016 by the BBC titled “Are paper books really disappearing?”, it talked about the emergence of the e-reader, the bankruptcy of Borders, and predicts that reading books will be an unusual activity by 2026, although it hopes that we will be a “bi-literate” society – one that values both the digital and printed word. However, in direct contrast to the BBC articles stands this one from Inc. that was published over a year later, titled “7 Reasons Why Ebook Sales Are Falling–and Print Book Sales Are Rising Again”. It cites declining e-book sales and rising print sales as the basis for the article, although it cautions whether these numbers are a one-time phenomenon or actually will be the start of a trend. The author talks about what he likes about hardcover books, including how a physical book makes a more meaningful gift and how they are not “device-dependent”.

One of my favorite articles on this topic is by David Farrer of The Quad, who (satirically, mostly) lists the top 50 reasons why printed books are vastly superior to Ebooks. Here are some of my favorite reasons:

1. Zombie Apocalypse Test
When the zombie apocalypse knocks out the electricity in town and the internet is down, your books will still work just fine. You might even be able to fight off a zombie or two by swinging a sizable Oxford Dictionary.

4. Feel Your Progress
You can physically feel your progress through a book as the upcoming pages get fewer and fewer. Not so with ebooks.

11. Decoration
Books aren’t just for reading, they also decorate your walls and nightstands (and stairs, and floors, and counters, and rafters, and chimneys, etc.). Even as decoration, books breathe an air of intelligence into the room — unless it’s the Twilight series.

14. Haptic/Tactile Pleasure
Books have a feel to them, with texture, thickness, and weight. There’s more interactivity with the physicality of the book than there is with an E-Reader. Many people find the “feel” of books more satisfying and nostalgic than with ebooks (see, Baron, Words On Screen, pg. 142–7). Compared to the substantial tactile experience of books, a thin little E-Reader feels like a toy.

47. Artifacts
Books are artifacts, tangible human creations. Books are the stuff of archeology, history, and anthropology. They are part of our physical culture. Ebooks carry information, and they are fine for what they are, but they aren’t suited for museum displays. They aren’t precious expensive artifacts of bygone civilizations. They aren’t mementos of important times in our life, or childhood memories. Compared to books, ebooks are ephemeral wind.

I hope I’ve captured here why I prefer hardcover books and also why I have avoided e-readers to date. Most of all, I’m glad my Malazan collection is complete…

Status Update: 5-1-19

I have just completed reading The Siege of Abythos. Unfortunately free time is at a premium right now, so it may be another week before I can post a review of Arm of the Sphinx and The Siege of Abythos.

The Pages Read Count for the year is now 4134. Next up is David Benem’s The Wrath of Heroes. It’s got some meat to it at 520 pages, and it’s hard to believe this is the smallest book I’m going to read over the next few months!