Hippogriff's Aerie

Apparitions of Imagination

Book Review: Slither by Joseph Delaney

slitherFormat:  Hard Cover, First Edition, 2013

Pages:  371

Reading Time:  a quick 4-5 hours

Slither is the eleventh book in the Last Apprentice series. Like book 9, Grimalkin, the story takes a detour away from Tom Ward, the Spook’s Apprentice, and on to a whole new character: Slither. A few other new characters are introduced, a horde of gruesome beasts parade through the pages, and a familiar character makes an appearance. I was fully prepared for a negative view of this book based on some early reviews I caught on Amazon. Is that my consensus? Read on to find out…

The setting for this story is a land far to the north of the County. It is a cold, harsh land, divided into farming communities as well as the lands of the Kobalos, a hairy, savage, blood-drinking humanoid race with tails. The Kobalos have a large city called Valkarky, where most of them live, but some of them are Haizda mages – outsiders who study magic and rule over their haizdas, a territory often containing humans. Slither is one such Haizda mage; he commands magic, is able to change his size, his breath has magical properties, and his tail warns him of danger. He makes his home inside a tree (through magical means) and his haizda consists of several farms, most of which are terrified of him. There is one farmer that trades with him, however. One day when the farmer has an accident and lays dying, he strikes a deal with Slither – if the creature will deliver his daughters to their aunt and uncle some distance away, Slither may keep the oldest daughter, Nessa, for his own. As Slither agrees and sets off with the girls, the viewpoint switches between Slither and Nessa.

Nessa has some great qualities, consisting of bravery, sacrifice, and empathy. Her story is a sad one, however, since she is destined to be a slave. Kobalos must sell a human at auction every so many years, or he will be hunted down and killed, and Nessa will fulfill this obligation for Slither. The younger sisters are more of an annoyance, however, as they constantly whine and cry about their situation, and aren’t really well developed. In fact, there isn’t really any character development here at all, other than Slither’s and Nessa’s.

The seemingly innocent journey quickly take a turn for the worse when a snowstorm hits and Slither is forced to keep his charges alive by seeking refuge in the manor of another Kobalos mage. When the mage turns out to be treacherous, Slither is forced to kill several opponents, including a mage-assassin who has the ability to send his dying memories instantly to the assassin’s order back in Valkarky. The assassin’s order vows revenge for the loss of one of their own. What follows is a steady stream of opposition that Slither is forced to overcome to keep his side of the bargain with the farmer.

The story has some pretty imaginative elements, from mage assassins and a two thousand year old knight that can’t be defeated, to a grotesque pit creature called the Haggenbrood and centaur-like creature called a hyb. Slither gets deeper and deeper into to trouble, and the main reason for this is surprising: Slither is an honorable creature who keeps to his word. He feels a great obligation to stick to the deal he made with the farmer, often to his own discomfort or risk of life. It’s a good story, and though it is not really frightening, the fantastic elements and change of characters and scenery are enjoyable, unlike the trip to Greece in Clash of the Demons (the sixth book in the series). Delaney goes all out to unleash his imagination with strange creatures and the even stranger culture of the Kobalos. One problem I did have with the story was that it did not seem that Slither was consistent with his people’s culture…where he is lenient and honorable, most of his people, including their rulers, are cruel and treacherous. Now maybe Slither’s years away from his people have changed him, but even when he is consistently betrayed by them, he stubbornly sticks to complying with their cultural norms and customs, putting himself at a disadvantage. This is only a minor annoyance, however. The appearance of Grimalkin, still carrying the fiend’s head and looking for something specific, was a pleasant surprise, and her character is fleshed out even more with qualities I would not have expected of her.

So despite the negative reviews I had observed, I actually enjoyed reading Slither. I know some people won’t appreciate the deviation from the main story line, but to me it’s not a stalling tactic or a money grab – it’s a good enough story, and looks like it’s important to explain what’s happening with Grimalkin. It will be interesting to see whether some of the characters specific to this book  will make an appearance again sometime in the future. The book is a quick read, with a large font and smaller page size (consistent with the rest of the series), and copious amounts of action. The book also contains a lengthy poem at the end and a Kobalos glossary. Recommended for fans of the series that don’t mind a change of scenery (and characters) once in a while.

March 19, 2013 Posted by | Book Review | , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines

libromancerFormat:  Hard Cover, First Edition, 2012

Pages:  305

Reading Time:  about 5 hours

I read a few reviews of Libriomancer when it was first released. Some people loved it. Others thought it was okay but flawed. I didn’t really know what to believe, but Little Red Reviewer’s take was probably the one that convinced me I should take a chance. Still, it took over 6 months for this book to find its way into my queue and then into my hands. Usually the sign of a good book for me is the inability to put it down. Every once in a while, though, I come across a book that strikes a chord in my inner psyche. There’s only a few authors who have had this effect on me (Roger Zelazny, Glen Cook, Robin Hobb, and Patrick Rothfuss come to mind).

For me, Libriomancer is one of those books.

Other reviewers don’t seem to have had the same experience. I’m not even sure I can completely explain my fascination with the story…but I’ll give it a shot. It starts with style and pacing. Hines lays out fast-paced, first person narrative that very much reminds me of Zelazny’s The Last Defender of Camelot or his Amber series. Add some sleuthing like The Dresden Files, a magic system that at times resembles Inkheart, and maybe a little craziness, sexism, and magic from Xanth, and you’ve got one heck of a story. It is in some ways a coming of age trope, as the main character, Isaac Vainio,  is a young man who has been restricted from practicing magic in the field. Although he understands the magic and its rules, what he must learn is how to bend those rules, without getting killed or going insane in the process. What I found most compelling about Isaac, however, was his innate understanding of how magic works; at the same time, he lacks the inhibition, or common sense, to know when to stop pushing himself, right up to the edge of death or madness. In other words, he’s a big-time risk-taker.

Isaac has been exiled to a small public library, where his job is to catalog book titles for the Porters’ database. The Porters are a secret organization of wizards who try to squash harmful magic from being unleashed on the unsuspecting populace, like the agents of Warehouse 13 or Harry Dresden, or even Supernatural. They keep vampires, werewolves and other creatures in line, cover up magical happenings, and nab people who show a talent for magic. Isaac’s talent is libriomancy; through the collective belief of a book’s readers, objects and people in the books become real, and a libriomancer can reach in and pull objects out of books, making them real in our world. There are a couple of problems with this, though. One is that you could pull out some incredibly power objects that allow you to dominate the world, such as The One Ring from Lord of the Rings or the Elder Wand from Harry Potter. To prevent this, all copies of Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter,  and other problematic books have been magically “locked”, meaning a libriomancer can’t access their pages. A second problem is that reaching into a book carries risks…for instance, while reaching into a book about vampires, your arm could get bitten by a vampire, which would then turn you into one. Finally, by reaching into a book, you immerse yourself in the story, and the more you draw on the magic in the books, the less able you are to separate the books from reality (remember, the people and objects within the books have their own reality). In a nutshell, the rules that govern libriomancy are there for a reason, and because Isaac once broke those rules while in the field, he can’t be a field agent again.

The trouble starts when some vampires come looking for Isaac. They want some answers, and when Isaac is not forthcoming, they decide to use force. Fortunately for Isaac, he’s got a couple of friends: Smudge, the fire spider who senses danger, and Lena, a dryad who shows up in the nick of time to help. This sets Isaac on a quest for answers of his own, and he follows clues that eventually lead him to face down more vampires, robots, and a mysterious adversary who may or may not be the missing Johannes Guttenberg, the father of the printing press who is over 600 years old, and the head of the Porter organization.

The story is smart, funny, and full of plenty of action. I enjoyed the characters, and watching the plot as it unfolded.  What I didn’t expect to find were ethical questions posed by the story. I had an idea about Isaac’s dilemma regarding Lena (see Little Red’s review). However, the lengths at which the Porters (and Guttenberg) go to protect society and themselves seems at times a bit heavy-handed. Also, Guttenberg uses magic (like the Holy Grail) to keep himself young, but forbids others from using that magic, in what appears to be a totalitarian system. What the story suggests, however, is how would you handle it differently? It’s one thing to be critical; it’s quite another to be able to offer solutions, especially once you know the motivation and reason behind those decisions.

In conclusion, the story was over all too soon. It was the most enjoyable read I’ve had in some time, and I’m looking forward to the next book with high expectations. The ending wrapped up a little strangely, and at times the book conveys some nagging inconsistencies, but they didn’t hinder my enjoyment at all. Highly recommended to anyone who loves books, or what lies within them…

March 3, 2013 Posted by | Book Review | , , | 2 Comments

Book Review: The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson

The-Alloy-of-Law-by-brandon-sanderson-colourFormat:  Hard Cover, First Edition, 2011

Pages:  325

Reading Time:  about 5 hours

The Alloy of Law is not quite a sequel to the Mistborn trilogy, although it does take place several years after those events, in the same world. Some of the characters in Mistborn are referenced, but none of them are around for this book – except, perhaps, a few (sorry, no spoilers here!). Much of the innovative magic system has been retained, with some new wrinkles. There are other elements from the previous books still floating around too – like the Mists, Koloss, and canals.  Sanderson has hinted that there may be sequels to this book, but that’s not a sure thing. On to the review…

It’s been 300 years since the events of the first trilogy took place. Not content to leave his world mired in medieval times, Sanderson has moved technology forward to an industrialized setting, featuring rifles and revolvers, skyscrapers, trains, and electricity. In between some of the chapters you will find artwork simulating the pages of a newspaper; I found myself looking forward to these inserts and read them with great interest. It gives the story a very Sherlock Holmes/Jules Verne/Victorian/(almost) Steampunk feel, which is awesome. Many other authors have medieval-type cultures that make no technological process for thousands of years, so it’s great to see Sanderson do something different. Add to the fact that magic is still around, and you can get a feel for the chaos of how bullets can be made to fly around, people leaping off trains, etc. Into this setting comes Waxillium Landrian, a twin born who possesses both Allomancy (the burning of metals) and Feruchemy (storing up abilities to use later). Wax can push on metals with his Allomancy, as well as make himself heavier or lighter with Ferochemy. This is the closest you can get to being a Mistborn in the current age, as more abilities have been discovered but powers have been somewhat diluted. Wax was born a noble in the city of Elandel, but spent time in the Roughs, which is a sort of desert wilderness similar to America’s Old West. In the Roughs he was a lawman who tracked down criminals, but eventually he is called back to the city to run his family’s estate when his uncle dies.

Accompanying Wax is Wayne, a former criminal turned deputy who worked with Wax in the Roughs. Wayne is a master of disguise and accents, and is also a twin born, who can create speed bubbles with his Allomancy and store health with his Feruchemy. The speed bubble allows Wayne to speed up time inside the bubble, giving him time to plan his maneuvers and move faster than his surroundings. We are also introduced to a myriad of other characters including Steris (the potential fiance of Wax), Marasi (cousin to Steris who becomes a major character), Tarson (an evil, part-Koloss thug), and Miles (another lawman from the Roughs). There are several other minor characters but they are not really fleshed out and remain for the most in the background.

The dynamic between Wax and Wayne feels very much like the Sherlock Holmes and Watson dynamic of recent movies and TV. The pace is brisk and the action at times is fast and furious, reminiscent of scenes in the previous trilogy…except now add bullets, moving trains, and dynamite. This lends an exciting air to the book, and the main characters are fairly well developed, but it seems to be over far too quickly – this is not an epic on the scale of previous Mistborn novels. I’m okay with that, though, because it means that there isn’t too much unnecessary filler. Both Wax and Wayne are likable enough – Wax has a nobility and ethos similar to Eland, while Wayne is somewhat of a scoundrel – he’d fit right in on Kelsier’s crew. Marasi is more than just a third wheel – her insightful thinnking, knowledge of law and university studies, and ability to fire a rifle go a long way towards helping solve the case.  Humor is abundant – sometimes it feels a little forced, but most of the time it’s appropriate, and though I never did laugh out loud, it had me chuckling a few times.

Wax and Wayne are pitted against Miles, who is robbing trains and kidnapping women. Miles has the ability to regenerate, making him near-immortal, and is somewhat reminiscent of an Inquisitor. But there is another figure behind the crimes, a benefactor known only as Mr. Suit. I have to say that the revealing of Mr. Suit’s identity at the end of the book was not a surprise, as the clues left by Sanderson are fairly obvious. Another element that is fairly obvious is Marasi’s Allomancy – not only is it not a surprise when revealed, but the fact that we are told it is useless several times just screams that it is not. I have to say I didn’t see its use coming, and when it was used, I just shook my head at how sly (and clever) Sanderson can be.

Overall I have a very favorable impression of the book and thoroughly enjoyed it. When compared against George Mann’s The Affinity Bridge, which is similar in setting, I greatly preferred The Alloy of Law. The ending is not a cliffhanger, but there are some loose ends deliberately left untied to set up a sequel, and a visit from a surprise character at the end has me wondering if the generally light-hearted tone of The Alloy of Law might give way to a more serious change if a sequel is written. Although reading the original series would help a new reader understand Allomancy and Feruchemy better, I think they could probably figure out what’s going on, especially with the help of the indexes in the back of the book. Highly recommended to fans of the Mistborn series, borderline steampunk/westerns, and Sherlock Holmes/sleuth action novels.

February 21, 2013 Posted by | Book Review | , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

memoryoflightFormat:  Hard Cover, First Edition, 2013

Pages:  909

Reading Time:  A long, long time…maybe 17 hours?

I must admit that I’ve wrestled with the approach to take on this review. The most effective review would be to look at the book as it stands, alone from the rest of the series, as well as it’s place in the series as a whole, due to the fact that it’s the conclusion. However, I freely admit it’s been 23 years since I read The Eye of the World. And here’s another neat fact about me – my long term memory is terrible. I really couldn’t tell you what happened in that first book, it’s been so long. I have a vague idea, mind you, but the details pretty much escape me. No, my time is better spent approaching this book as the final part of the trilogy that Sanderson has written.

Furthermore, I’m not a Wheel of Time superfan. I’ve never been to Dragonmount.com, I don’t debate and argue plot points, or speculate on what should have happened between the pages and what would have happened in the future. For some reviewers, the Wheel of Time is an important part of their life. I was simply a 23 year old guy who picked up and read The Eye of the World in 1990, liked it enough to continue buying the sequels, got more and more frustrated with the characters and the lagging pace and plot in each successive book, gave up on the series completely, figured it was toast when Jordan died, but renewed my interest when Sanderson took over. Now the series can have closure, and for me, I feel like that should suffice. Though the book has serious flaws, it also has its share of both shining and tragic moments, and I’ve walked away with a feeling that…well, let’s not say I’m completely thrilled, but instead, I’m satisfied enough that the 23 year journey was a memorable one. I’ve touched on both what I liked and didn’t like about the book in bullet format below. Minor spoilers to follow…

What I liked:

  •  As other bloggers have mentioned, Sanderson does a wonderful job of taking a cardboard character like Talmanes and breathing some real life into him during the opening battle for Camelyn. interestingly enough, Talmanes doesn’t show up for the Last Battle.
  • The bonding between Androl and Pevara is well done and one of the best parts of the story. It explains how a member of the Red Ajah could go from wanting to gentle a man with channeling to wanting to marry him. That’s no easy feat. Especially for a woman a couple of hundred years older than Androl.
  • The subtlety of Compulsion on the great captains was lost on me at first. I couldn’t understand why the shadow wouldn’t just kill the generals off. But it’s really a brilliant plot point. The idea is that by the time the armies discover their tactics have been compromised, it’s too late to recover. Were the Shadow to just kill the generals, some other commander would take their place. It also clears the way for Mat to step in and use those memories he’s been given.
  • Rand has a moving scene with his father, learning to duel with one hand, while they repair the rift that had grown between them. Both realize that this is probably the last they will see of each other.
  • The confrontation between Egwene and Fortuona is great, especially where Egwene dares Fortuona to put on the a’dam.
  • Where The Gathering Storm focused on Rand and Towers of Midnight put a heavy emphasis on Perrin, in A Memory of Light Mat steps up front and center to lead. And more of Mat is a good thing.

What I didn’t like:

  • Moraine’s importance seemed overstated. From my perspective, any Aes Sedai would have satisfied the “two women” requirement that Rand desired, including Egwene, Cadsuane, or Aviendha. And indeed it is Egwene that has the biggest impact when Rand is in trouble.
  • In addition, the Last Battle seems pointless. Why did the Shadow send a million Trollocks to attack the lands when it is Rand that determines the outcome of humanity and the pattern itself? Why not bend all its resources to stopping him and killing him?
  • The scene between Rand and Fortuona, after so much build-up, was bland and disappointing.
  • Many of the individual showdowns – Perrin vs. Slayer, Matt vs. Fain, even Rand vs. The Dark One – seemed underwhelming. The showdowns between Lan and Demandred, and Egwene and M’Hael, were better.
  • Elayne as the leader/coordinator of the entire army was ludicrous.
  • The use of the Mask of Mirrors. This is the single biggest flaw in the series, and its use is far more glaring than gateways. When anyone can pretend to be anyone at any time, why don’t they? Forsaken should have pretended to be generals, or Aes Sedai. Egwene could have pretended to be Forsaken or a Darkfriend and got close to Demandred and killed him. There’s just so many ridiculously possible storyline abuses of such a power…it was so effective that Demandred couldn’t see through Androl’s and Pevara’s disguise…that both its use and non-use is staggering. Just a horrible plot point, very deus ex machina.

Other random thoughts:

  • Many lamented Gawyn as a useless character; however, he was necessary to get Egwene into the right frame of mind to challenge M’Hael, and much more.
  • You can bet that Artur Hawkwind spoke to Fortuona about a great many things – including the abolishing of the a’dam.
  • It was good to read about the battle for the Black Tower, but it was somewhat underwhelming. However, the comment about “making the Asha’man into their own men” instead of being Rand’s weapons was accurate. At first I thought, “no, they just worship Logain instead. But when the time came for the Tower men to choose between Logain and doing what was right, they turned their backs on Logain. Impressive.

Final thoughts:

There were moments of intense grief. After finishing page 795, I had to stop reading as the tears just kept rolling down my face. A character who I had grown to love as my favorite was gone. This occurred again on page 904, when one character paid tribute to another that had fallen. I expected more big showdowns, awesome displays of one-on-one badass moments, and was disappointed that this was not the case. Overall it was an exhausting read…too many battles and tactics going on for page after page…the grief I just mentioned…the sheer number of pages to wade through. And the Epilogue is very, very short. It has been noted by those other than myself that it would not have hurt the book, and far enhanced it, to have about 150 pages less of battles and 150 more of Epilogue. After all, this is The End, and there will never be another Wheel of Time book. At one point in the series I would have shrugged, but now…it seems like a shame. A big thank you to Brandon Sanderson to get us to this point.

Thus it was that the Dragon rode once more upon the winds of time, and as I rode beside him, I observed and marveled at the immensity of his purpose, and wept as the Dragon fulfilled his destiny, but it was not the end. There are no endings to the Wheel of Time. But it was an ending…

January 23, 2013 Posted by | Book Review | , , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

towers midnightFormat: Hard Cover, First Edition, 2010

Pages: 843

Reading Time: about 15 hours

Okay, you know the drill…I’ve been reading the Wheel of Time series since 1990 blah blah blah…the end is nearly here blah blah blah, and so on. It’s really a series that is long past needing an introduction. Towers of Midnight is the 13th book in the series, and at a hefty 843 pages, is packed full of amazing stuff. So read on, but be warned that minor spoilers will follow.

The title of the book at first glance seems to literally reference the thirteen fortresses in Seanchan that, during the Consolidation, when Artur Hawkwing’s descendants seized power, was the center of Seanchan might. However, the Seanchan barely factor into this story. I thought it might refer to the two towers that have been hinted at but largely ignored to this point: the Tower of Ghenjei, where the Aelfinn and Eelfin reside, and the Black Tower, where the Asha’man are living and training. And certainly those do become the focus of the last 10 percent of the book. But what about the other 700+ pages? They are a buildup to the Last Battle, which is now suddenly, frighteningly close. Returning to the reference of the Seanchan fortress, Artur Hawkwind’s armies were able to conquer Seanchan, despite the presence of the fortress, due to the divided nature of the Seanchan lands, where factions were pitted against one another; such divisions weakened the Seanchan and made them ripe for the conquering. With that in mind, the time has come for Rand al’Thor to break the seals on the Dark One’s prison. Will he be able to unite the various factions into a single purpose, to break the seals and fight the Last Battle? Or, will the differences and divided factions turn against him, and much like the Seanchan fell before the armies of Artur Hawkwing, allow their division to be the means in which the Dark One defeats them? Though the question hangs in the air as the book ends, as of yet unanswered, it is the events throughout this book that bring us to this point.

The pacing of the story, for the most part, is fast and furious…there’s so much happening that if you let your mind wander, or skip a few pages, you’d be likely to miss something important. I often found myself reading ahead in anticipation, and had to go back and re-read the section I jumped, chiding myself for a lack of discipline. The change of pace in the series is so different – so incredibly quick now – it seems like the glacial pace of entries like Winter’s Heart and Crossroads of Twilight are but vague memories, the side plots and characters in those stories completely irrelevant to what has needed to happen. Towers of Midnight does possess a few slow moments, like Perrin’s attempt to master the wolf dream or Elayne’s political maneuverings, but these are small sections of the book. As armies march and travel through gateways, disparate events suddenly begin to tie together, plot threads are resolved, and the pieces are in place for the conclusion. There’s no telling how long it would have taken Jordan to get from Crossroads of Twilight to the Last Battle, had his health not suffered, but it would have been far more than four books.

The characters readers have grown to love – Rand, Mat, Egwene, Perrin, Thom – at times in the series were nowhere to be found; now they dominate the pages. Other supporting characters that once had pages and pages of focus, such as Aviendha, Min, and Cadsuane, are now reduced to bit roles. The whole reversal effect, of main characters returning to the forefront while supporting characters step into the background, is a good thing – heck, it’s a great thing. Where A Gathering Storm returned the focus to Rand, with Egwene’s situation as the other major plotline, Towers of Midnight focuses mainly on Perrin, with a generous helping of Mat sprinkled in. With Perrin being the focus, his storyline is finally fully resolved in a satisfying way. Though Mat’s loose ends are tied up as well, he suffers the cost greatly, and someone close to him is not who they seem to be. Even characters I once despised – such as Elayne, and the Whitecloaks – I grudgingly followed in this book without skimming, and it proved to be a good decision. Mat has a brilliant exchange with Elayne, and the Whitecloaks show that they aren’t all religious nutcases. There were still moments when I was peeved about Elayne’s arrogance as Queen, which is in stark contrast to how Rand attempts to lead people, but those moments are blessedly few in this book. This time around, Sanderson has a firm grip on Mat’s voice, and he even manages to make Aes Sedai feel different, which is no small feat.

I was fortunate to start reading this book at just the right time, during my company’s Christmas shutdown. It allowed me to sit and relax in solitude as I consumed my reading in large chunks, and it allowed me to be immersed and entranced by the story. I think reading it in smaller chunks, only a few chapters at a time, would be more difficult; the story requires – no, demands – your full attention. There are many plot threads occurring: Perrin’s attempt to destroy Slayer and face the Whitecloaks; Egwene attempting to flush out Mesaana in the White Tower; Mat and Thom attempting to rescue Moraine; Rand trying to convince the Borderlanders he is the Dragon Reborn; Lan reluctantly mustering an army for a suicide run; Nynaeve taking the test to be Aes Sedai and trying to recover Lan’s Warder bond; Elayne attempting to take the throne of Carhein; Gawyn trying to find his place in Engewe’s new world; trouble at the Black Tower…and that’s just a brief summary!

There are so many questions still to be answered: why is rescuing Moraine so important? What will happen when Rand breaks the seals? Who will aid him and who will oppose him? How will Min’s visions translate into actually events? What happened to Logain, and what’s going on at the Black Tower? What will the Dark One do now that so many Forsaken have fallen? What are the Seanchan going to do during the Last Battle? I can’t wait for the last book!

If there’s one failing of the story, it’s Aviendha’s visions of the future in Rhuidean. Though they are essential to her character’s plotline, I feel the authors gave away too much of the future and robbed the story of some of its tension, and I would have been happier not knowing. However, assuming Aviendha attempts to change the future, maybe things will shake out differently. But that’s my only real criticism.

Towers of Midnight is a brilliant read, the best book I’ve read in a long time. Plenty of action, tension, resolved plot lines, and the return of prominent characters as the focus make this the best book in the series by far. Here’s to hoping A Memory of Light, which should be holding in my hands in less than a week, lives up to expectations that have now set the bar very, very high…

January 6, 2013 Posted by | Book Review | , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: The Bones of the Old Ones by Howard Andrew Jones

BonesFormat: Hard Cover, First Edition, 2012

Pages: 302

Reading Time: about 5 hours

This has been an excellent holiday season – I don’t normally get much time to read, but I’ve managed to polish off The Bones of the Old Ones. I was so impressed by Jones’s The Desert of Souls (of which you can find a review here), that I had been hoping for a sequel, and was disappointed to discover that the collection of Asim and Dabir stories titled The Waters of Eternity was only available on Kindle. At last, The Bones of the Old Ones has been released, and I immediately acquired it. My review follows, with minor spoilers ahead…

Asim the warrior and Dabir the scholar are enjoying the comforts earned from their previous services to the son of the vizier, Jaffar. Told once again in first person, not through the eyes of Asim as it happens, but rather as a story being written some years later, the adventure begins immediately. Asim and Dabir are no longer members of Jafar’s household; they now have their own house in the city of Mosul. When a beautiful woman escapes her kidnappers and is found by one of Asim’s servants, Asim and Dabir pledge their assistance to help her return home. However, matters get complicated when the kidnappers try to take her back by force. It seems that the kidnappers are ancient and powerful wizards called Sebitti, and their arrival sets off a series of confrontations that reveal the kidnapped woman, Najya, is cursed. To break the curse, Asim, Dabir, and Najya must venture out to find the bones of the old ones, ancient weapons that are thought to be able to break the curse. Things, however, are not always as they seem, and as the curse gets stronger, the entire world is threatened. It is up to Asim and Dabir to join forces with one of their old enemies and try to keep the world from falling to an an ancient, alien evil.

In my review of the first book, I was impressed by the way Jones grew Asim’s character. That growth continues here, with Asim’s heart, courage, and determination becoming more defined as his most prominent characteristics, but he is also supported by his wits and wisdom. Like Hamil the poet in The Desert of Souls, who won over Asim’s dislike and mistrust, Asim is able to win over an old enemy, who comes to realize that Asim is not just a thug with a sword, but is much more than he first seems. Dabir again does not seem to change much – he seems like a tragic character – however, he possesses traits similar to Asim’s, and seems to show a resilience in the face of tragedy. Other supporting characters are well done, with the Sebitti portrayed not as simply good or evil; rather, they have their own specific motivations that are self-serving, although at times their shifting motives are hard to comprehend. The female characters are more fleshed out and show more depth than the first book; Najya is integral to the plot and is a strong character, but I would argue that the Greek necromancer Lydia is one of the best characters in the story – she also is transformed by events, and has more depth than first appearances suggest. She is a very strong character, and the tension and presence she brings is a welcome addition to the tale.

The plot moves along at a brisk pace. There are copious amounts of action and no pages are wasted filler, as the plot advances rapidly and more mysteries unfold as the story moves to its conclusion. It also helps that Jones doesn’t have to spend time on introducing us to Asim and Dabir, since that’s already been done in The Desert of Souls. The scope of the plot is far more epic than the first book, with the fate of the world at stake. There were some twists and turns that I didn’t see coming, with lots of shifting allegiances, and Jones does a good job of veiling who lives and who dies until they meet their ends. I can say that the ending was not surprising, given the fact that it could of gone one of two ways – happy or tragic – but it’s the tension of not knowing which of the two ways the story will go that keeps it compelling, as either ending would be fitting. Fantastical elements abound, from magic weapons and spells to flying carpets, rocs, and ghostly ice spirits. Humor is much the same as it is in the first book, delivered as witty barbs.

Like The Desert of Souls, The Bones of the Old Ones is an easy, enjoyable read thanks to the smooth, flowing prose of Jones. Although 8th century Arabia is still the setting, the culture is not quite as prominent as the previous story, due to the fact that much of the action takes place in barren countrysides and ruins. Jones has still done his homework, however, tying his story to some ancient legends and touching on the conflicts between Arabs, Greeks, and Khazars. Some of these thoughts can be found in the afterword, which provides a bit of insight into Jones’s thought process and his recommended references, and where Jones also reveals Howard Lamb and Fritz Leiber to be inspirations. According to Jones, however, it is Zelazny’s Amber series that he perhaps admires most, and maybe that is why I’m so drawn to Jones’s work, because that is the series that I admire most as well, as I mentioned in my classic review of Nine Princes in Amber earlier this year (I also purchased The Road to Amber a few months ago just to read the Amber-related short stories).

In conclusion, the sequel is everything I hoped it would be: more epic in scope, with a great deal of  action and adventure, while at the same time improving the depth of supporting characters, all wrapped in the guise of a mystery…swords and sorcery doesn’t get any better than this. Jones is rapidly becoming one of my favorite authors, and I for one hope he continues to find success and gives us more stories in this setting. Highly recommended to all – I believe there’s something here for everyone.

December 29, 2012 Posted by | Book Review | , | Leave a comment

Book Review: The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

gathering stormFormat: Hard Cover, First Edition, 2009

Pages: 766

Reading Time: about 13 hours

The Gathering Storm is the 12th book in the Wheel of Time series. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been with the Wheel of Time since The Eye of the World was released in paperback in 1990. The series has been both a delight and a struggle, and the payoff is finally here. There are a few minor spoilers ahead, so read with caution….

I would like to take a moment and offer the utmost praise to a man that has recently become my favorite fantasy author – Brandon Sanderson. What he has done here – advancing the story to it’s conclusion with nothing more than Jordan’s notes – is simply amazing. It’s hard enough to write your own stories; I can only imagine how much harder it is to write someone else’s story, in their voice. A standing ovation for Mr. Sanderson.

I’d also like to sidebar for a moment on the concept of the book itself. Initially fans were upset that the final book was to be split into two and then three books. They felt that they were being milked out of yet more money just to see the series to its conclusion. If you think about it, however, that’s really an asinine attitude. There’s absolutely no way this could have been wrapped up in one book – it wouldn’t have felt right. Conceptually, it’s already a struggle to relate this book to the previous few books that were glacial in pace, filled with padding and unnecessary detail, with viewpoints from a multitude of characters. To finish the story, it’s necessary to abandon that writing style, level of detail, side plots, and character viewpoints. With so many events that need to take place, main plots to explore, and main characters that need to be where they are, The Gathering Storm already feels much different from the previous few books. It would be worse with only one volume – it would be so jarring that it would never feel right. Splitting the last novel into three is the right move.

And speaking of right moves, the story is as good as any of the Wheel of Time books, maybe even better. Matt and Perrin are maneuvering their armies for the last battle, while Rand struggles with his inner demons, and Egwene tries to fix the broken White Tower. The pacing of the book is excellent; it’s been a long time since I was reluctant to walk away from a Wheel of Time book, but that definitely was the case here. I found the battle for the White Tower to be incredibly compelling and thrilling, as well as the final chapters when Rand seems to lose control and threatens to wipe out the Pattern (and all of humanity in the process). Both plot threads are resolved in a satisfying manner. I’m guessing that Towers of Midnight will feature both The Tower of Genjii, where Moraine is being held, and the Black Tower, which was notably absent in this book.

The characterizations are pretty much spot on, with Rand, Egwene, and most Aes Sedai captured perfectly. While Sanderson had a difficult time with Mat’s character, he did manage to capture Mat’s voice in a few places, and I wasn’t bothered by it as much as some other reviewers were.

While I don’t normally pay attention to cover art, Darrell Sweet’s cover is uninspired and just plain awful. I would have liked to see some Michael Whelan cover art (like the one done for A Memory of Light).

In conclusion, this is really an outstanding and thrilling book that is setting up a finale that has been over 20 years in the making. I’ll be moving on to Towers of Midnight with great relish, content in the knowledge that the conclusion of one of the greatest epics ever told is in good hands. Highly recommended for Wheel of Time fans; readers who want to get into the series should not start here – go to the beginning!

December 24, 2012 Posted by | Book Review | , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: The Skrayling Tree by Michael Moorcock

9780446613408Format: Hard Cover, First Edition, 2003

Pages: 330

Reading Time: about 6 hours

This review is going to be brief, because, quite frankly, this book is borderline awful.

The story is told from 3 main viewpoints of characters that were present in the previous book (The Dreamthief’s Daughter): Ulric Von Bek, Elric, and Elric’s daughter Oona (Ulric’s wife). The plot revolves around a threat to the Skrayling Tree, an ancient oak whose branches represent the multiverse. The setting is ancient America, particularly the Rocky Mountains, and involves time-traveling, as well as many Native American aspects, of which the Tree of Creation is one. Like similar stories that Moorcock has written before, multiple aspects of The Eternal Champion (Ulric and Elric) and the Black Sword (Stormbringer/Ravenbrand/Mournblade), must come together to defeat a threat to the existence of everything humanity holds dear.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a huge fan of Moorcock’s writing, and I love Elric as much as anybody. But the attempt to shoehorn Elric into a Native American setting is ludicrous. This immediately on the heels of Elric battling Nazis feels like Moorcock has jumped the shark. Of all the millions of worlds in the multiverse, Elric visits Earth multiple times? Really? I applaud the attempt at something different, but other than the setting, there really isn’t anything new here. During many parts of the story I had the feeling that I’ve read this all before, just in a different setting. Compounding the problem is a distinct lack of action. There’s lots of philosophy and debate, pondering existence and forces of the universe, and lots more traveling, but not much really happens until the last 50 pages or so of the book, when events finally begin to happen rapidly. I also noticed some pacing issues in places that I’ve not seen in moorcock’s writing the past. In addition I found the story fairly predictable – Moorcock does little to disguise that Gunner the Doomed is really Gaynor the Damned…I mean, you can tell by the name for crying out loud…

I will say that Moorcock’s descriptions of the setting are still top notch – he paints amazing imagery with an economical use of words, which I always find incredible. Also of interest is an explanation as to the origin of the Black Sword – it provided some background that didn’t previously exist.

I’m hard-pressed to even recommend this to hard-core Moorcock or Elric fans. While I found some aspects of the story interesting, I became bored with the philosophical meandering and the deja-vu feeling that I’ve read this before. I’ll eventual read The White Wolf’s Son, but only because I’ve already purchased it.

December 21, 2012 Posted by | Book Review | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Lure of the Dead by Joseph Delaney

the-last-apprentice-lure-of-the-dead-book-10Format: Hard Cover, First Edition, 2012

Pages: 418

Reading Time: about 4 hours

After a book that deviated from the norm by following the actions of the witch assassin Grimalkin, the story now returns to the viewpoint of Thomas Ward, Spook’s apprentice. Is Delaney able to maintain the momentum he has built up in the last couple of books? Read on to find out, but beware of minor spoilers…

While Alice and Grimalkin had their own adventure in the last story, we now follow the actions of Tom and the Spook. Tom is now about 16 years old and has been apprenticed for 4 years. While the Spook’s house is being built (it was destroyed several books ago), he receives an offer from a woman across the county. This woman is in possession of a large number of books, and offers to sell some to the Spook in order to rebuild his library. This message is delivered by another former apprentice named Judd Brinscall, a character that has not been previously introduced. (Note: I found it surprising that another former apprentice still existed, and wondered if there were more.) Tom and the Spook set off for the sleepy village of Todmorden to meet with the woman and see which books they might acquire. The villagers are unfriendly and keep to themselves, warning Tom and the Spook to stay away from the foreigners on the other side of the river.  Tom and the Spook meet with Mistress Fresque and examine the books. After Tom leaves to hire a cart to haul the books, the situation quickly deteriorates as the Spook goes missing and Tom must face down Romanian witches, strigoi (Romanian vampires/demons), and moroi (a spirit that possesses animals). Tom’s greatest challenge, however, is to prevent Siscoi, an old vampire god, from taking mortal form and terrorizing the countryside. At the same time, Tom learns more about his mother’s mysterious past and her plans for Tom and his abilities.

There are a lot of similarities between this book and previous books. Tom must make multiple attempts to defeat the strigoi, and fortunately does not get captured over and over as in some previous books; instead, he is forced to retreat and try different tactics. Although this has been a staple of the series and gets tiring at times, it also has consistently defined Tom’s spirit and willpower. Although Tom frequently meets with failure, his determination, persistence, and willpower carry him through. Grimalkin and Alice feature prominently in the last half of the story, and Alice is using dark magic more and more. A subplot involves Alice’s turn towards the dark, as well as the preparations for the ritual that will be required to destroy the Fiend. It’s also a transitional book, as we are given many hints that the Spook will be out of the picture and Tom will become his replacement.

Due to the smallish book size (it’s smaller than a normal hard cover) and large font, the reading time is shorter than books with a comparable number of pages. Another aspect that shortens the required reading time is that the pace of the story is quick, with lots of action being the most prominent feature, as it has been in previous books. Once again you won’t find a lot of character depth, but at the same time the story never bogs down in the details. There were a few instances where I thought I had discovered plot holes (such as why some strigoi offered Tom protection instead of killing him), but it is the main plot arc – the Fiend attempting to return to his body and rule the world – that explains these moments. Knowing events and explanations in previous books are key to understanding and answering these types of questions.

There are a few parts of the book that I feel are are extremely well-done. One of these parts occurs after the Spook disappears and Tom is once again on his own. Similar to events in Wrath of the Bloodeye, when Bill Arkwright disappears and Tom is alone, this creates a tense and compelling sequence. As Tom descends into the basement of a house, he enters what amounts to a nest of vampires, and it is the best part of the story – it had me on the edge of my seat:

“Then I heard a noise, and a cold gust of wind blew the candle out again. I waited, hardly breathing, and put the stub in my breeches pocket. Then I gripped my sword with both hands and went into a crouch, ready to defend myself. The blade began to glow once more, and as my eyes adjusted to the darkness I saw red points of light moving toward me. There were a dozen or more. I heard a low growl to my right, another directly ahead. I began to tremble, and the ruby light from the sword quickly faded. There were eyes – too many eyes! How many of the creatures were there?”

Another well-done part is when Tom tries to track down the boggart and enlist its help once more, in order to guard the Spook’s new house:

“Again there came the scritch-scratch of invisible claws on the wood. When I read what it had written, I was filled with dismay: my price is higher this time. you must give me more.

In conclusion I found the first half of the book to be tense and compelling, while the second half was action-packed but not quite as tense due to the arrival of Tom’s allies. It’s another solid entry in the series, and I’m looking forward to the next book, as it looks like Tom will be increasingly on his own – which makes for a great story. Recommended for those who have followed the series, enjoy well-written and action-packed YA, and a mix of horror and fantasy. Although the book could stand on its own, the characters and main plot arc (destroying the Fiend) could cause confusion…instead, for readers new to the series, I recommend starting with the first book, Revenge of the Witch (called The Spook’s Apprentice in the UK) instead.

December 10, 2012 Posted by | Book Review | , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: The Emperor of Nihon-Ja by John Flanagan

emperor_of_nihon-jaFormat: Hard Cover, First Edition, 2010

Pages: 435

Reading Time: about 8 hours

The Emperor of Nihon-Ja is the 10th and final book in the Ranger’s Apprentice series. I was slightly disappointed in the previous book, so I had debated about whether to spring for the final installment. Though it has numerous problems, The Emperor of Nihon-Ja is another solid entry in the series, and while Flanagan plays it safe, he also manages to entertain in this concluding volume. Minor spoilers to follow.

The previous entry, Halt’s Peril, wrapped up a two story arc, so this book takes on a completely new storyline. Horace, hero of Arulan, journeys to the land of Nihon-Ja to study different fighting techniques, and forms a strong bond with the emperor of the country, Shigeru. Unfortunately, in Shigeru’s attempts to enable and inspire the lower-class peasants of his country, he alienates some of the upper class Senshi warriors, including a clan leader that wants to seize power. Horace gets caught up in the ensuing civil war, and finds himself and Shigeru on the run, where they take shelter with the peasants.

Meanwhile, Halt, Will, and Alice are on a similar mission in Toscana, where they are observing formational fighting styles while negotiating a treaty. When Princess Cassandra, also known as Lady Evalyn, brings news of Horace’s plight, the group sets forth to rescue him. From there the story turns into sailing, marching, and battle tactics, with a side quest featuring Alyss and Evalyn, all leading to a final battle between the Emperor’s supporters and those of the would-be-usurper, Arisaka.

In many ways the story is very polished, and reminds me very much of the eighth book, The Kings of Clonmel. The difference this time is in the details. Flanagan shows well-researched knowledge about innovative sailing techniques, weapon creation, and battle formations and tactics. It’s all carefully explained, and although it is in simple terms, it appears logical to me (as a non-expert). Flanagan’s setting of land based on feudal Japan has the potential to be different and exciting, a departure from the typical medieval Europe setting, and in some ways Flanagan succeeds. His exploration of the difference between the lower peasant class and the upper Samurai-type class rings with authenticity. Also, the status of the Emperor and how he rules these classes seems feasible. In addition, the setting receives careful attention to detail, as Flanagan takes time to describe the food, clothing, bathing, speech patterns, and fighting styles of this land. The descriptions are brief and lack detail; however, the focus of the series has never been so much on detail as it has on action and logical reasoning, so in this respect Flanagan remains consistent. Unlike the previous story, it never seems like this tale spins its wheels going nowhere – there is always some kind of engaging action transpiring.

As in previous stories, there seems to be a lot of bickering among characters, and the forced humor that has been a staple of the series continues here. There are also many, many flaws, and while I’ll not pick the book apart completely, there are some aspects of the story that defy belief. First, if you’re going to set your story in feudal Japan, with Japanese customs, culture, and even Japanese words, why not just call it Japan?! Also, some of the main characters sail halfway around the world to reach Horace, and do it faster than Arisaka’s men who are in the same country! Then there’s the fact that Alyss and Evalyn are bickering over Will through almost the whole book, when that storyline was resolved 4 books ago. Communication should be a problem in a foreign country, but everyone pretty much speaks Arulan’s common tongue. Evalyn, the crown princess and heir to the throne of Arulan, is allowed to sail across the world to rescue her boyfriend, without any escort except for Skandian sailors…these inconsistencies (and more) plague the story and it loses much credibility. The careful attention to detail that Flanagan uses to describe the culture and fighting scenes is sadly lacking in the plot itself…in the past, when Flanagan sets up his plot, he takes painstaking detail to show the logic behind his story. That feature is lacking here. Also, the ending wraps up abruptly and is a curious way to end a series, especially one that has spanned 10 books.

Despite the story’s numerous flaws, it’s still an enjoyable read, but it’s so predictable that some readers will be put off. I’m not completely sad that the series is ending, as I think this series has run its course and it’s clear that Flanagan wanted to move on to other projects. Though problematic and unspectacular, this is nevertheless another solid entry. Recommended for those who enjoy YA series, have read the previous books, enjoy a feudal Japan setting, and can accept predictability while being willing to overlook plot issues.

November 30, 2012 Posted by | Book Review | , , | Leave a comment