Book Review: The Bonehunters by Steven Erikson

bonehunters

Format:  hard cover, first American edition, 2006

Pages:  984 (not counting a glossary)

Reading Time: about 25 hours

I’ll admit that I was a little worried about skipping Steven Erikson’s Midnight Tides in order to tackle The Bonehunters. My reasoning was that Midnight Tides was essentially a prequel, and I didn’t really want to move backward just to move forward. Would it create confusion and impact my enjoyment of The Bonehunters? Only one way to find out! But first, some guest reviews from some other sites:

 

Strakul’s Thoughts thinks: “This is yet another fine addition to the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. By now, the story is well in place and the characters are all familiar. As in every other book, the plot is epic and overwhelming. It is satisfying to see many threads connecting, but the sheer scope of it is vast. The author, unfortunately, tries to grasp everything at once and it requires a very dedicated reader to follow along…The story feels like it’s all over the place and far less focused than some of the prior novels. This is very strongly a middle book in that the characters are all known and are just positioning themselves (and making discoveries along the way) for the final confrontation. While there are clear climaxes or turning points in the novel, most of it feels like it’s jumping around trying to follow the diverse set of characters…As I have previously mentioned in prior reviews of the Malazan series, words of wisdom can be found among many of the characters, even ones of “lower” status. This is very much evident here and, in my opinion, have made the story a bit heavy. It is not surprising to start a chapter with a character undergoing deep reflections on the nature of life, gods, duty, love, etc. Sometimes interesting aspects of the world are revealed in such reflections, but more often than not these only add to our knowledge of the character. What is surprising is the frequency with which it happens and how it comes from characters we don’t expect. Soldiers or officers in an active army, I would expect, would be more focused on their tasks rather than, for example, wondering the nature of the gods. Some of these discussions feel a little out of place and can make the story drag a little.

Matt Hilliard of Yet There Are Statues says: “More so than previous books in the series, Bonehunters gets off to a distinctly slow start. The first third of the novel reintroduces dozens of characters from previous books and sets them in motion. Characters are traveling every which way on the Seven Cities continent, and since mapmaking is apparently a popular pastime for the series’ hardcore fans, it would be interesting to see an animation of the various characters and groups of characters criss-crossing the continent with their journeys. Much of the content of these traveling scenes takes the form of introspection, as characters think about where they’ve been (probably to help readers who didn’t recently read the previous books), where they are now, and what they hope to be doing in the future. It would be easy to overstate the problem here. It’s not boring, exactly. Erikson’s characters are thoughtful and have interesting observations. But in a series this long, for someone like myself who has been reading these books in a relatively short time period, it’s inevitable there’s some repetition…Perhaps my biggest problem with the introspect moments is they tend to emphasize one of my least favorite elements of the series, namely the way the characters so often seem weakly motivated. Why do Apsalar and Cutter work for Cotillion? Why is Fiddler still in the army? What is Kalam doing with his life now that he’s out of it? Where is Karsa Orlong going? The characters themselves wonder about these questions to varying extents, which is never a good sign…People like Quick Ben and Ganoes Paran are living in a high fantasy story as they struggle against the Crippled God and his allies. The soldiers of the Fourteenth Army, many of whom are colorfully fleshed out in the early parts of the novel, are in a low fantasy story about a military campaign. This allows us to view some of the same events from two very different angles, but it does make it that much more difficult for the myriad viewpoints to coalesce in the reader’s mind. The high fantasy characters tend to have strong motivations and clear goals, but they do their best to hide them from others, including the reader. The low fantasy characters are caught up in their machinations and wondering if they should be trying to free themselves, but they know even less than the reader about what’s going on.

 

The Bonehunters can, in my opinion, be divided into three acts. Act 1 follows a few characters around and culminates with the siege of Y’Ghatan. Act 2 follows the army as it leaves Y’Ghatan and attempts to rendezvous with the Malazan fleet, while at the same time following the actions of Ganoes Paran, the Master of the Deck of Dragons. Act 3 wraps up the story with a portrayal of civil unrest on Malaz Island, as well as a battle for the First Throne. So I’ll talk about each of these 3 acts, and then conclude with my overall impressions.

In his review above, Matt states that story gets off to a slow start, and I would wholeheartedly agree with that…for me, The Bonehunters starts out glacially slow in Act 1. This inhibits pace and any kind of momentum building. In this early part of the story a creature called a T’rolbharahl is released by the mysterious Nameless Ones. At first we only know that the Nameless Ones unleash this terrible entity in order to target a victim, but who that victim is remains a mystery; later, however, it becomes clear that the Nameless Ones intend this evil to kill Mappo and remove his influence over Icarium. Meanwhile the Malazan army is pursuing the remnants of Leoman’s forces across the desert until they reach Y’Ghatan.

One of Erikson’s writing traits that has been difficult to embrace is jumping around from viewpoint to viewpoint, with multiple viewpoint jumps within a chapter. It adds confusion, affects continuity and investiture, and definitely has an impact on pacing. I understand why this is done, and that’s due to the sheer number of characters that share their perspective. My question, then: is this really necessary? Think about what Matt has said above regarding character motivations, and then ask yourself if shedding a few viewpoints, especially when the character motivations are questionable, would make a more coherent, flowing story. My answer is undoubtedly yes. The siege of Y’Ghatan is a perfect example of this. Although there is viewpoint jumping during the siege, the viewpoints are among characters involved in the siege, and because the story focuses exclusively on this event, the payoff in continuity and coherence is evident.

Another Erikson writing trait that has been problematic is prose…specifically (and I’ll use the siege of Y’Ghatan as an example here), Erikson is not great at “painting a picture” with his words. He has great mastery of language and executes his action sequences effectively; however there are many times during his narration that I have to “fill in the blanks”, because the setting is lacking in detail. It’s stunning, actually, to say that about a nearly 1000 page book, but it’s true. Most of the prose is spent on character interaction, retrospection, and movement from one place to another, while very little time is spent on physical descriptions of the characters, or on places like Y’Ghatan, where I’m forced to draw on other stories I’ve read to picture what the city might actually look like. All that aside, the siege of Y’Ghatan is a great example of how much easier Erikson’s writing is to follow when focused on a specific event rather than jumping all over the world (and into warrens as well). The lasting effect of the siege of Y’Ghatan is that it ends the military campaigning on Raraku, and provides a replacement for the legendary Bridgeburner regiment – and that replacement is The Bonehunters.

Act 2 seems like it should slow down in pace, but I did not find this to the case. In fact, Erikson does a great job in building tension over this section of the book. What will be the fate of The Bonehunters? What is Ganoes Paran doing with Bridgeburner ghosts? Where are Icarium and Karsa Orlong traveling to? What havoc will the T’rolbharahl unleash? How do Cotillion and Shadowthrone show up everywhere? Why are they the only gods that seem to be personally influencing events? Who are the mysterious Perish? Although we don’t get answers to all these questions, it feels like the story is building up to something big.

If you’re looking to avoid spoilers, this next section involving Act 3 is that “something big”, and it is going to contain some major spoilers. It is the culmination of events that build throughout the story, and also some of the previous novels. In essence, it shows the folly of an empire that overstepped in pursuit of conquest. There is a price to be paid for war. Most often that price is blood, but there is also an economic cost, a social cost and a political cost. What I mean by that is that war is never popular within a civilized population. A society may believe they have good reasons for entering into war, such as possession of resources, to defend itself, or simply to subjugate other cultures. However, there will always be those within society that are opposed to war on moral or economic reasons; there will be soldiers within the ranks that do not believe in the orders they have been given or the competence of their leaders; and there will be allies that may decide the cost is too high and decide to sit the war out. During a war, the poor are the ones most likely to pay with their lives. Those remaining behind may feel the need to assign blame as the war strains resources and becomes increasingly unpopular.

So why the exposé? The Malazan Empire has been at war for many years, with campaigns recently being fought on two fronts. All the costs I mentioned above are becoming quite high. The Bridgeburners are lost, and the war on Raraku has stretched on for what feels like ages. The citizens of the Empire have had enough, and are looking for someone to blame. Empress Lassen could restore order by force, but that move would be unpopular and could lead to being overthrown. Instead, she decides it will be better to blame and sacrifice a group of people in order to satiate the bloodlust of the people and calm the unrest. I found this part of the book absolutely riveting…in fact, I will boldly state that these tension-filled scenes are the finest writing Erikson has executed to date. There are some eye-rolling moments, such as how a couple of villains from Raraku are now the top advisers of the Empress (without any explanation as to how that occurred), or the superhuman fighting by Kalam that is pretty much unbelievable. Still, these quibbles don’t detract from a fascinating depiction of the Empire fracturing in the course of one night.

The final occurrence in Act 3 is the unleashing of Icarium. We’ve been told what a danger it is to keep him from fighting, but here we finally see what the fuss was all about as he becomes a force that destroys everyone around him in the battle for the First Throne. This part of the book is where I regret having not read Midnight Tides, as there are multiple references to events and characters in that novel that affect The Bonehunters.

In conclusion, despite some pacing issues, viewpoint hopping, and a detachment due to a lack of detail, The Bonehunters is Erikson’s finest Malazan novel I have read to date. It is the brilliant conclusion on Malaz Island that really pulls everything from the previous books together and leaves me dying to know what happens next. I have high expectations for Reaper’s Gale

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Status Update: 4-13-19

I just returned from a business trip to Denver, during which I was able to complete The Arm of the Sphinx. However, due to a lack of time and a slow internet connection in my hotel, I have not yet had a chance to finish writing my review of The Bonehunters. Hopefully I’ll finish that later today or tomorrow.

The Pages Read Count for the year is now 3415. Next up is Phil Tucker’s The Siege of Abythos, which is by far the thickest book in the Chronicles of the Black Gate series…

Status Update: 4-1-19

Finally!

It took me the entire month of March to read Steven Erikson’s The Bonehunters, but it is finally in the rearview mirror. Hopefully I’ll have the review done by the end of the week. All those epic pages brings the Pages Read count for the year to 3017. I’m a bit behind schedule, and although I should be able to get through Arm of the Sphinx fairly quickly, there are some serious doorstoppers looming ahead:

The Siege of Abythos (719 pages)
The Wrath of Heroes (520 pages)
An Echo of Things to Come (716 pages)
Fool’s Quest (754 pages)
Words of Radiance (1080 pages)

I have a sinking feeling that those 5 books will take me until the end of August to complete. At that point I’d be at 7204 pages read, sitting at less than half of my goal with only 4 months remaining. The challenge is heating up!

Book Review: The Death of Dulgath by Michael J. Sullivan

death of dulgath

Format:  oversized paperback, first edition, 2015

Pages:  392 (not counting author notes and preview material at the end of the book)

Reading Time:  about 10 hours

One Sentence Synopsis:  Royce and Hadrian take a consulting job on how best to perform an assassination (in order to prevent one), but like any good mystery, things are not as they might seem.

 

To this point I’ve really enjoyed reading the Riyria Chronicles, the prequels to the Riyria Revelations series, especially the previous book The Rose and the Thorn. As the thickest book in the series so far, and being the longest read, would that trend continue? Read on to find out, with some minor spoilers appearing, but first it’s time to host a couple of guest reviews from around the Internet…

 

Sarah of Bookworm Blues says: “The mystery of Death of Dulgath was rather straightforward, and didn’t overwhelm me overly much. What I truly enjoyed about this novel was the growth, the developing relationship between Royce and Hadrian, and the history of various cultures and peoples that Sullivan liberally splashed throughout the novel. Royce and Hadrian are obviously at their early years as a partnership, and Sullivan has a lot of fun showing just how trying and rewarding that early relationship truly was. He had me laughing quite a bit at certain moments, and feeling deep, powerful emotions at others. These two characters are so real they practically leap off the page. The world itself grows quite a bit as Royce and Hadrian end up traveling elsewhere on a job. Elsewhere ends up being a rather interesting place, with a medieval feeling culture that has quite a few surprises thrown in to keep things interesting. With a powerful religious influence, and an elevated lady who is absolutely her own woman. Thrown in with this are some fantastic dollops of magic and very ancient history. It’s quite ambitious when you consider just how much Sullivan packed into this novel, but it never lost its fun vibe or intense emotions. It’s hard not to love this novel. It really is a lot of fun, but it’s also quite educational and informative, and gives me a new perspective regarding some aspects of the rest of Sullivan’s novels set in this world. However, what always impresses me with Sullivan’s work is just how real it all is…He managed to make this book fun, and quite compelling at the same time. There are plenty of twists and turns, a good number of surprises, and a lot of pleasant intensity, but Death of Dulgath shines because I can tell that the author really loved what he was doing, and I felt that in the book.

Total Inability To Connect states: “The novel itself is, frankly, exactly what we’ve come to know from Riyria novels – somewhat complicated plots that the duo have to unravel, intense action scenes that showcase the strengths and weaknesses of the pair, interpersonal relationship conflicts between Royce, Hadrian, and the people around them. There are, however, some glaring differences between this novel and the previous two in the Riyria Chronicles series. The first, and biggest, difference being that this novel contains a MASSIVE spoiler for the Riyria Revelations trilogy. The kind of spoiler that completely takes the ‘oomph’ out of one of the main storylines in the entire series…The writing as the Revelations series goes on improves with each book, and I felt that reading the prequel books first put the reader in the right mindset for the series, and made the writing quality of the first book a bit more of a moot point, as the focus would be on the story and characters. However, that plan of attack is completely tossed out by Death of Dulgath, as it all but ensures that you must read the Riyria Revelations trilogy first, unless you want it to be spoiled by the revelation (sorry) in this novel…Sullivan handled many parts of this particular story very well – Royce and Hadrian’s interactions in this novel were quite interesting, still in the ‘feeling out’ process of knowing each other a little bit, and some more background was revealed about the pair of them. It also featured Royce and Hadrian in some of their weakest and most vulnerable states at any time in the series as a whole – both physically and emotionally. Both had their internal working stripped bare at times, exposing them, leaving them vulnerable and weak, and forcing them to overcome those lapses in strength…The writing in the books is what we’ve come to expect from later Sullivan – crisp and without excess, incredibly approachable for people of all reading levels, not lacking in sophistication but also not wowing you with the prose and structure. Sullivan makes his living as a storyteller, one with very easy-to-read works that appeal to a large audience, and he certainly has that part of things down. It works with Royce and Hadrian, and he is able to drop lore bombs, have impactful scenes, intense battles, and plot twists and turns, but without encumbering the reader…Unfortunately, I personally found The Death of Dulgath to be his most predictable work – I am fully self-aware that, as a reader, I am not always the most intelligent or active person when it comes to deciphering plot twists, diagnosing the story elements, or using my skill in soothsaying to predict upcoming events or endings. However, in this book I found myself easily predicting upcoming events, including the ‘main’ story twists.

 

Sullivan’s prose continues to be very approachable and smooth, getting better with each outing as Total Inability To Connect states above. In fact, the section of the review that states “crisp and without excess, incredibly approachable for people of all reading levels, not lacking in sophistication but also not wowing you with the prose and structure. Sullivan makes his living as a storyteller, one with very easy-to-read works that appeal to a large audience”…all of that is incredible insightful and right on the money as to how I felt about Sullivan’s writing here. After having recently read several average or disappointing efforts in my TBR pile, I was looking for something to “raise the bar”, so to speak. The Death of Dulgath comes close to satisfying that requirement, though it is not without flaws. Still, it was an enjoyable read that I gladly welcomed.

I was disappointed to find out about the “MASSIVE spoiler” in that review. I thought I was being clever by reading the prequels first, only to find out that this prequel ends up spoiling what comes later…c’mon Sullivan, it should be the other way around! Will this remove some of the mystery of the Riyria Revelations? I hope not, but sounds like that is very possible. I’m pretty sure I already know what that spoiler is, so it will be interesting to find out what the impact on me will be as a work through the original series.

The characters presented here are the strongest element in a mostly successful story. Royce and Hadrian continue to forge a strong partnership…so much so, that there are scenes in the story where each is dismayed that the other might have died. We know that isn’t the case, because, well, Riyria Revelations, but it’s still fun to watch the relationship develop. We get to learn a bit more about Royce’s backstory, as well as how he and Hadrian have become more comfortable together despite their different outlooks. I enjoyed the introduction of two strong female characters in Scarlet Dodge and Lady Dulgath…as I have mentioned in the past, Sullivan’s reliance on prostitutes as his main female characters has been a detriment. Here, however, are a couple of wonderful exceptions. Scarlet Dodge, a former criminal that is now living the placid life of a villager, and Lady Dulgath, who is eccentric and mysterious, are both welcome additions to the story. The other characters don’t stand out quite as much and are a bit predictable.

Which leads to one of the main problems with the book: the plot just isn’t very compelling. Mysteries are fine themes, and can offer some unexpected twists and turns to keep the reader guessing. Sullivan does that here to an extent, but thanks to some telegraphing – whether intentional or unintentional, I’m not sure – it’s not hard to figure out where the story is going. In addition, it takes the book a bit of time to build up some momentum as the groundwork for the mystery is established. The reviewers above use the words “straightforward”, “didn’t overwhelm” and “easily predicting”, and I would agree with that. The Death of Dulgath directly contrasts what I experienced in reading The Rose and the Thorn, where multiple possibilities really kept me guessing about what direction the plot would take.

Otherwise, the book had me turning pages, and I can’t really say I was ever bored, so Sullivan did a fine job of holding my interest in spite of what I wrote above. The action sequences are well done, there are some underlying currents that set the royalty and church on opposite sides, and magic is more prevalent than it has been in previous outings. There are some nods to the distant past (tying in to Sullivan’s Age of Myth series I’m sure), and other questions are raised, especially regarding Royce’s heritage and how he got interred in the salt mines, with only a brief explanation of how he escaped. I will say that so far the books are slanted heavily in favor of Royce when it comes to character growth. What I mean by that is with each story, Royce appears to be changing…swiftly in some ways (such as when Gwen is around) and slower in others, but there’s still progress found in stretching the character’s boundaries. Hadrian, on the other hand, seems mired in naivete and misguided intentions. While there is some growth found in his grudging acceptance of performing unlawful acts when needed, his personality doesn’t seem to be allowing room for him to change and really become more than he was at the beginning of the first book.

In conclusion, The Death of Dulgath is a fine story. Not quite up to the standards Sullivan set with the previous book, but still better than other material I have read lately. It is really the developing relationship between Royce and Hadrian that holds the story together and ultimately makes it satisfying. At some point I will get to the original series, but with the release of The Death of Winter’s Daughter last year, which is the next book in the Riyria Chronicles, it seems that the Riyria Revelations while have to wait a little bit longer…

Book Review: The Crimson Vault by Will Wight

crimson vault

Format:  oversized paperback, first edition, 2013

Pages:  380

Reading time:  about 9.5 hours

One sentence synopsis: As the Incarnations of the Territories begin to break free, and war breaks out between Enosh and Damasca, Simon and his friends find their allegiances shifting as they struggle to determine who their enemy truly is.

I was pretty impressed by Will Wight’s House of Blades – so much so that I purchased The Crimson Vault and City of Light in order to continue following the story. The Crimson Vault is the middle book in the series…does it suffer from middle book syndrome (existing only to bridge the gap between the first and third books), or does it exceed the first story (a tall order)? Read on to find out, and I’ve actually managed to keep spoilers to a minimum this time. First, however, we turn to some other reviews online. I was a bit concerned as I had trouble finding reviews from sites other than Goodreads or Amazon, which can be a bad sign, but I was finally able to settle on a couple thoughtful reviews.

 

Benjamin Espen of With Both Hands states: “There really are few comic book villains or heroes in the Traveler’s Gate trilogy. Almost everyone has a reasonable motivation somewhere along the line. Simon, son of Kalman, is moderately introspective, but neither talkative nor gifted in seeing into other men’s souls. Thus, Simon does not often stop to inquire why the people he is bludgeoning or stabbing would do the things that they do. Fortunately for us, there are a number of other characters in the book more interested in these things, and more adept at drawing them out, so we get to see a remarkable amount of moral complexity. We also see conniving, backstabbing, greed for power, and pride in ample measures. Then there are miscommunications, judgments made from partial information, and motives that while otherwise just, simply work at cross-purposes with what someone else wants. When evil is done, it is not uncommonly because inflamed passions, or personality defects combined with a surfeit of power, run away with someone…Every Territory is like that: an embodiment of a virtue that has gone so far in a quest for perfection that you literally cannot see any of the other virtues from where you find yourself…All of the Territories tend to just embody their respective virtues turned up to 11. This excess of virtue is bad enough on its own, but when you mix them all up together without anything to put them in order, bad things happen.

Wizard’s Blog says: “Compared with the first book in the series, this one has a lot more point of view characters. I think this is an improvement, because one of my complaints about the first book was not understanding some of the main characters because we spent very little time with them, but it does make it harder to keep track of what’s going on… I do still feel like the author should have spent some more time with some of the main characters so that the choices they make seem less arbitrary – with Alin in particular I feel like I’ve been told what he’s done and why he did it rather than experiencing it with him and empathising with his choices…It does have a plot arc, but (unsurprisingly for the middle book in a trilogy) it leaves a lot of things for the third book to resolve. Overall it’s better than the first one but not perfect.

 

The Crimson Vault is a much different book than House of Blades. At first they seem similar, as something bad happens in the beginning and then the rest of the story centers around the fallout from that event. The plot of House of Blades could be boiled down to “young man trains to become a hero then goes on a mission of revenge”. Conversely, The Crimson Vault focuses on a large scale battle, shifting allegiances, and as Benjamin calls it, “moral complexity”. The plot is much more chaotic than the straight and narrow line its predecessor walks, and although some plot points are revealed, they don’t really have the same impact of those in the first book, which were more intricate – those “a-ha!” moments, and had me drawing comparisons to Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn. The Crimson Vault didn’t really have the same effect.

Though Simon is still the focus, more time is spent on developing the other main characters, Alin and Leah, which is of much benefit to the story. Leah’s development in particular was one of great interest to me. The “succession”, or those siblings of Leah’s who want to take her father’s place, has taken a toll on her and pushed her towards a destiny she never saw coming. I was also able to empathize more with her character as she struggled between that destiny and the empathy she felt from her time spent in Simon’s village. She seems particularly focused on “the greater good”, where some must die in order to save multitudes. Simon and Alin don’t quite grasp or agree with this concept. It is a perfect contrast between the outlook of the ruling class and the working/villager class.

The Crimson Vault suffers from the same issue that I felt afflicted House of Blades: it simply isn’t long enough. Although it is 100 pages longer than the first book, some of the scenes in The Crimson Vault suffer due to brevity, in particular the large scale battle I mentioned above. There is no page time devoted to the actual siege of Enosh by the Damascan army; the layout of Leah’s war camp is not described well, and the battle with the Incarnation had me wondering where everyone was in relation to each other – what were the soldiers doing? How did some people just disappear from the battlefield? Were some characters simply bystanders? A lot of detail that would have been very helpful to “paint a picture” or “set the scene” is missing. As a result, I felt greatly detached from what is perhaps the most important sequence in the story. Finally, although I admire Wight’s effort to try something fairly groundbreaking, I felt that the sheer amount of changes and chaos, combined with the lack of detail mentioned above, gave the story a feeling of being “all over the place” and lacking focus.

There are a few other problems, such as how Simon was able to use a very dangerous artifact for so long without becoming an Incarnation himself, and although Wight’s writing has improved in this second book, there’s some modern phrasing used that is distracting and out of place…it felt more like I was reading subtext in a Final Fantasy video game than a fantasy novel. Which in turn reminds of another problem, the “leveling up” of the characters, particularly Simon…it’s almost like I’m reading about a video game being played as Simon and Alin get more and more abilities and items as they gain experience. And speaking of Alin, his character was inconsistent with regard to the portrayal of abilities in House of Blades. In that story, he seemed to have almost endless reserves of power when battling the Overlord. Yet here, he seems barely able to get past less (or equal) opposition, and in a couple of cases is forced to retreat. It felt like he was actually weaker when he should have been stronger.

In conclusion, I feel a bit isolated in saying that I actually enjoyed House of Blades more. That does not seem to be the case for most other reviewers, who on Goodreads and Amazon proclaim that they liked The Crimson Vault better. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that this sequel is a bad story, and I enjoyed the improved characterization of Leah and Alin…the plot just didn’t grip me and have the same payoffs at the end that the first book did, which is typical of “middle book syndrome”. I’m still quite interested in finding out how things will turn out in the final book of the series, City of Light.

Status Update 2-26-19

I’ve finished reading The Death of Dulgath. The pages read count for the year is 2033. I will be posting a review of The Crimson Vault shortly. Next up is Steven Erikson’s The Bonehunters, a 984 page epic that is going to take me some time to work through. I might sneak in a classic review (or two) in the interim…

Book Review: Revisionary by Jim C. Hines

revisonary

Format:  hard cover, first edition, 2016

Pages:  342

Reading time:  about 8.5 hours

One sentence synopsis: Isaac has now exposed the world to the presence of magic and supernatural creatures, but now must deal with those who are threatened by this revelation and plan to eliminate that threat.

 

The end is here for the Magic Ex Libris series, aside from a novelette about ancillary character Jeneta entitled Imprinted. Jim C. Hines noted on his website back in 2015 that, barring some unusual circumstances, Revisionary would be the final book in the series as he desired to move on to other projects. In my opinion the sequels have been great, but with a slight decline in quality from each book to the following one. So does the trend reverse with Revisionary? Keep reading to find out, and as always there’s going to be some spoilers, but first, on with the guest reviews…

 

Liz Bourke at Tot.com states: “Hines’ love for speculative genre literature shines through on every page. In many ways, this series is an ode to the weird, the batshit, and the wonderful imaginative possibilities of speculative fiction—which does occasionally make it feel as though it’s playing an insider’s game: it might be a little too sincere about its love, sometimes…It reflects, too, a world in which governments cannot be trusted in the least to respect due process and human rights, and its generally optimistic tone is darkened by the underlying dialogue on the nature of civil rights and equality before the law when whole classes of people can be designated as not human enough at a government’s convenience. This is a fantasy novel that deals with the trappings of the security state, and its positive ending is a fragile, fragile thing. Deeper thematic arguments and questions of political morality aside, Revisionary is an awful lot of fun. I personally really enjoyed the fact that Isaac spends most of the novel simply surrounded by competent women…If I have one complaint, it’s about the italicised sections of context-free dialogue that open each chapter. It takes a while for a reader to realise who’s talking in these segments, and that is a little distracting.

From the Mind of C.E. Tracy says: “This was the best book in the entire 4 book series. The best. At least it ended on a high note. The story was fun and full of adventure. I liked how there was very little lull in the story. Even in the parts where they wasn’t much action, there was still something being learned, understood, figured out, etc. I also liked how Issac had much more freedom than in the previous books. He always seemed held back. Now, with the death of Gutenberg, he is finally able to spread his wings and grow. All of the characters have grown tremendously throughout the series. As I mentioned in the paragraph above, Issac was held back because of Gutenberg, but now he has since become so much more powerful. I think it is cool that he can read magic. I also like how he can siphon others’ magical abilities and use them temporarily…Then there’s the relationship between them and Nidhi. It feels like one of those things where they finally realise that no one is going anywhere and have finally just accepted each others’ role in it. It wouldn’t be too far a stretch to also say that Issac and Nidhi have developed a fondness for each other. The writing is much more polished than it was in the other books. This one had a better flow and just felt better put together.

 

I disagree with both of these reviews: I think Revisionary is, while still a good story, the worst book of the series, and I’ll tell you why. In the plots of the previous novels, Isaac uses libriomancy to battle against magical threats, from automatons and killer bugs to ghosts and god-like creatures. Isaac’s libriomancy allowed him to pull really cool things from books, things that make many of us readers “geek out”. In Revisionary, however, I never really felt that “geeking out” experience. The things that Isaac used were appropriate, and his libriomancy has evolved in a spectacular way. But both of these things are driven by the plot and Isaac’s adversaries, and that’s where the true problem lies.

Spoiler Alert! The main plot of Revisionary revolves around a subset of the government trying to destroy magic, or as Liz eloquently put it, “whole classes of people can be designated as not human enough at a government’s convenience”. This plot is so worn out and cliche that I really struggled with it. There’s nothing new about the government (or a subset of it) trying to control or destroy people with supernatural powers…X-Men used it, The Avengers used it, the TV show Alphas used it, and there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other stories, movies and TV shows that have used it. In other words, it’s over-used, it’s tired, and it’s quite frankly annoying to see it pop up yet again. Sadly, with the direction the Hines took by the end of Unbound, there was no other way to go, and that’s what is most disappointing to me.

One could argue that the means by which this plot was implemented – using magical creatures and networked clones to destroy magic – was fairly unique, and regarding the actual creatures used, they’d be right. Ultimately, however that plot point – using supernatural creatures or people against other supernatural creatures or people –  is also not new. As I expressed in my review of Unbound, I was afraid that with this new direction Hines was taking, that he wouldn’t be able to consider all the ramifications that would result from the direction of his plot, and I was right…I thought of at least a dozen things that Hines never considered, because one person can’t always conceive every detail when using a scope this big (the integration of magic and magical creatures into societies all over the world).

Very little time is spent on the ramifications of Isaac’s decision to reveal magic to the world. He didn’t ask anybody else what they thought. He didn’t get a consensus. He didn’t really think through what the consequences of his actions would be. Some of this is explored through the chapter intros, where Isaac sits before congressional hearings, or discusses the issue with someone (I won’t reveal who), but the ethics and morality of the decision that he made, by himself, are largely absent from the main story, except in the research center and the way that Isaac attempts to aid his niece. This means that the story presents the ways in which Isaac benefits, but spends little time on what the cost has been to those he has “outed”, except for a report on an exterminated vampire nest that is strangely clinical and cold.

Another problem with the book is that Isaac has become far too powerful. His magic is so strong that he can solve any problem and threats don’t feel as substantial. And he doesn’t even really need the physical books anymore to overcome problems, which is sad because the original form of libriomancy – reaching into books and pulling things out – has been pushed aside to a large degree, and in my opinion it was one of things that made libriomancy so much fun. There are some other issues, such as Ponce de Leon, a once-prominent character, completely disappearing. He does not appear in the book, and his disappearance is never really explained other than he is grieving for the loss of Guttenberg. Also, in previous books, an enemy could get to Isaac by threatening Lena’s tree. Although the government is aware of Lean’s tree, Isaac’s enemies don’t use it against Isaac and Lena, which is a giant hole in the plot.

It’s not all doom and gloom. I agree with C.E. Tracy that it’s great to see the way Isaac and Nidhi (and Lena of course) have evolved their relationship. I also like that Bi Wei and Jeneta are integral to the story, although I would have liked them to play a bigger role. Deb DeGeorge the vampire is a great character – and in fact, Hines continues to write outstanding female characters, as Liz points out (and as I have pointed out in previous reviews) – and Smudge the fire spider is always a delight. As has been the case in previous books, Hines handles his action scenes (and there are a good amount here) with a deft hand, building the scene, and the tension, quite well. I just didn’t find them as compelling here as I did in those previous books.

In summary, I’m a bit sad that Revisionary is final book in the series, but mostly I’m relieved, as I didn’t like the direction it was taking. Obviously I’m in the minority, as my guest reviews (as well as reviews on Amazon and Goodreads) can attest to, so maybe it’s just me. As I mentioned above, on his site, Hines has a post entitled “Ending the Magic Ex Libris Series“. In this post, Hines states the following as one of the reasons for ending the series:

The series reached a natural stopping point, one that brings closure to a lot of the things I’ve been doing throughout the books. In truth, Unbound could have been a good end point as well, but I’m happy to have been able to take that next step with Revisionary.

And then further on there’s this tidbit:

My son gets very sad and upset when a show he likes comes to an end, and I understand where he’s coming from. He’s young enough he doesn’t understand the danger of a series stretching out too long and jumping the shark, or simply losing its magic.

I think this is what has happened to me: the series has stretched out too long and lost its magic, and to me, Unbound would have been a good end point. I can say that I sure am going to miss Lena, Smudge, and some of the other characters. I will also miss reading about the ability to pull things out of books; the initial awesomeness of Libriomancer still resonates with me, and has certainly sparked my imagination in a good way. For that, I will always be grateful to Mr. Hines…