[Review] The Gardens of Almhain

gardensofalmhain

I haven’t done any book reviews for months, I know; life exploded a while back and I’m still figuring out the new arrangements. I’m still reading, of course, and there’ve been a few books that I considered reviewing fully, but time and circumstance left me defaulting to the Kindle tweet-length reviews. This one, however, got in my head enough that it needs a fuller review.

I finished this book last night, and my first instinct (which I tweeted) was to give it four stars. I knew it had editing problems (many), but the story kept me involved enough that I basically ignored them. As soon as I put down my Kindle, however, I started to wonder if I may have judged too soon. Things that I hadn’t really noticed in my quick read came back to my attention, encouraging more confusion.

The Gardens of Almhain is a stand-alone epic, and this format, while it first impressed me (yay, no sequels!), ultimately does a disservice to the story. In the effort to keep such a grand scale idea contained within one volume, many opportunities are missed. Characters have good bones but only a small amount of flesh, and certain aspects of the plot are ignored or elided in the process of compacting the story.

One of the major issues I have with the story is its magic system and how that’s employed. The female protagonist is an extremely powerful mystic (as they are called) but she’s essentially a pacifist due to upbringing and PTSD issues; she gets to defend herself once or twice, and she manages to hold back the tide of, essentially, the apocalypse for a while, but it’s established as inevitable regardless of her interference, and she’s basically in a coma when that happens. The male protagonist is established early on to be “special,” and while the details are slow in coming, the reader knows far more about this than most of the characters, including him. And while he comes to his power at the climax, he never gets to exercise it.

The author’s decision to make her primary characters magical without letting them actually employ their powers in any significant way is either genius or madness, and I find myself perplexed. The way the story is structured, the protagonists’ magic is designed to be of use only after the action is completed. There’s something subversive in that idea, giving the heroes magic powers that are, while not irrelevant to the plot, mostly ineffectual. At the same time, it could easily be read as a failure on the author’s part, wanting her heroes to be super-special but not really allowing them to employ their specialness.

Part of the issue, I suspect, is that this is a destiny tale. I typically loathe destiny tales, but in this case, the references were subtle enough that they didn’t overwhelm the plot into a bullet list of Heroes Must Do X at Y Time. Towards the end, it started becoming more direct and confining to the plot, but there really wasn’t a sense of This Is Your Destiny as much as a certain bemusement as the characters are carried along by the tide. In the great failure of most destiny tales,  ultimately, the characters have no real agency or impact on the events in which they take part.

At the end, in another possible genius-or-madness move, the protagonists literally have no effect on the battles leading to the climax; the final battle itself is a fight between the gods who started the whole mess, while our heroes just sit and watch from the comfort of their magical protective bubble. The goal, at that point, really does seem to be for them to witness the epic battle and (I presume) keep that in mind as they magically go forward with whatever happens after the book ends, hopefully not to repeat the failures of the past. I kind of can’t imagine a writer actually writing that ending without the realization that her heroes are doing nothing, so I have to assume that it was intentional. Is it effective? I don’t know.

I think that this book would fare better as a longer tale, maybe not a trilogy but at least a duology; it needs more space to fill in the many blanks left behind and to further develop the characters and their intentions. I want to know more about the Gardens, and the villain’s history. I want to know why the story needs two primary assassins and thousands of others that ultimately do nothing. I want to know more of Dunak and Argenta and the kingdoms’ history. It needs more detail to help the reader understand why the characters can do nothing (or very little) and still be significant to the plot. There’s the bones of that, I think, in the focus on having the land be the ultimate power and protector, and our heroes subject to it. There could be an interesting argument made about the actions of humankind and its effects (both significant and insignificant) on the greater existence, on the need for humans to be conduits but not saviors.

Do I think the author realizes this theme? I suspect not, but I could be wrong. More likely is it’s weak storytelling that just happens to have run to an unexpected theme (which happens often, in stories, weak or strong). I read it, and at the time I enjoyed it and found the characters worthwhile. It’s kind of a fluff book masquerading as an epic, but there’s a potential there for it to be more.

I think, ultimately, I may drop this to three stars based on poor execution, but give it a half-star for potential. Pity I can’t be so nuanced with Kindle ratings; some of these books could really benefit from a more thorough review.

 

 

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

[Site Review] Jim C. Hines: jimchines.com

[Note: This is my first site review, and I’m still working out the format. Apologies if it seems a bit awkward.]

Overview

jimchines.com is the site of author Jim C. Hines. He is a traditionally published fantasy author with a solid web following. His blog is a big draw to the site, especially when he’s posted one of his cover-pose photo shoots (the last batch of which were used to raised $15,000 for the Aicardi Syndrome Foundation).  The site is WordPress-based and managed by the author, as is clearly stated in the site’s footer.

Branding & Visuals

The only overt branding on this site is the header, which is visible on all pages. It’s one big image made up of the author’s various book covers, with a bit of fancy background. It also contains the actual site title as part of the image, which is generally considered bad practice these days. Once upon a time you couldn’t do fancy fonts without making an image, but there are now many ways to have both looks and readability. In this case, I suppose, since the title is equivalent to the URL, it’s less of a concern. Still not recommended. Also, the title font is dated and inconsistent with the rest of the site. Otherwise, the header is small enough that it doesn’t take away from the site content, although I find it a bit busy.

The only other “advertising” evident (outside of the bookstore page) is an image of his latest work in the left sidebar. This is subtle enough to ignore if you’re just there to read a blog post, but obvious enough that it’ll get noticed under most circumstances.

The color scheme is pleasing, if bland, but it fits well with the simplicity of the site overall. The design utilizes shades of black and blue on a white background. The shades are distinct enough that there’s no difficulty reading the text.  The font choice is sans-serif, easy to read on a screen, and the text is mainly black on white. Titles are the same font as the text, and are well-sized.

One thing that slightly confuses me is the tabular highlighting on several of the pages. It makes sense on the Bookstore page, where there’s one item per row, with several columns. Other pages, however, have images on the same line which are separate items, but the whole row highlights when hovered over. Granted, the images in each row are related, but it can be confusing to the user to have multiple items highlighted together.

Layout

The site is well-organized and has a clean layout. There is a header menu across the top, and two sidebars. Content is front and center, readily distinguished from the navigation.

The sidebars are well-ordered. The left sidebar focuses on Hines’ newest publications and his web presence beyond his site. It also contains links to free samples of his fiction work. The right sidebar is dedicated to his blog, which is a significant part of the site and has a large following. Here you can get yourself a subscription to the blog and see the most recent posts, as well as browse the archives by month or by tag.

The right sidebar also includes a Meta section, which is a WordPress default, and which I think is probably unnecessary. Since there’s only one active user, the Log In link is irrelevant, and the other links are redundant, since one can subscribe to posts and comments via other elements.

Navigation & Ease of Use

The header menu contains a lot of information, as there are twelve main topics. The menu items are clear and concise, although there’s so much information that they all kind of run together. I would suggest a menu with fewer items, perhaps by consolidating similar sections.

The sidebars are easier to read, although trying to sort through the tags dropdown is… time-consuming.

There is no footer navigation, which isn’t a problem on the book-related pages. The blog and long posts/pages, however, could benefit from basic navigation in the footer, even if it’s just a “scroll to top” link.

Mobile Version

No. There’s no “requirement” for having a mobile version, but it can make browsing a site difficult on smaller devices. There are numerous plugins for WordPress that can easily convert a site. Recommend this list to start.

Accessibility

WordPress is only partially successful in producing accessible pages. There are plugins and practices that can help, but the subject is far too complex to be addressed in a site review. [This is probably going to be a standard disclaimer on my reviews until I manage to write an essay about accessibility, at which point there will probably be a standard disclaimer linking to said post.]

Other Notes

I appreciate that there are good quality images of his book covers,  with multiple sizes, and easily located. It can be hard to find decent images for reviews/etc., so this is a big plus!
Hines is a trained crisis counselor and an outspoken advocate against sexual violence and rape culture. His site contains a section devoted to the subject, which includes his own related articles and links to outside resources. it may seem a little strange to have a section like this, but I say kudos for being brave enough to engage in discourse on such a difficult and complex topic. The only (purely cosmetic) criticism I have on that subject is that the large banner for RAINN at the bottom of the page is outdated and hard to read.

Verdict

This is a generally well-designed and maintained website. It might be considered plain by some, but it’s such an information-dense site that it doesn’t need anything more; extraneous imagery/tricks could overwhelm the user experience. I need a rating system that doesn’t conflict with my book reviews; until then, I’ll just say that visiting this website is an overall positive experience.

Posted in Site Reviews | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Coming Soon: Site Reviews, Finally!

When I began this blog, I had every intention of making site reviews a regular topic. In fact, Site Reviews have their own category, which so far has sat empty in my menu bar. I am a bad blogger, having an empty category all this time.

It’s relatively simple these days to start a blog or website. Personally, I love WordPress because it takes care of the heavy lifting. That said, not everyone understands the thought process and effort that goes into making a site; organization and ease of use are paramount, and there’s a science behind placement and navigation. WordPress and its ilk make it easy to get your message out, but only the site creator/manager can assure it actually makes sense.

In my website reviews, I intend to focus on authors who manage their own sites, and in particular indie authors who may not have a lot of support when it comes to managing their web presence. I haven’t seen much in the way of exploration of this topic, but as publishing and the web evolve, information on maintaining a clear and accurate web presence becomes more valuable.

In case you’re wondering why I’ve decided to focus on this aspect of writerly life, I’ve been managing my own websites (in myriad and various forms) since 1999, I have a degree focused on interactive design, and I worked as a professional web designer for several years. I’ve written code by hand and I’ve edited WordPress templates. I’ve maintained sites from file upload to email accounts and everything in between. I may not be the best designer on the block, but I’ve got a good handle on the basic principles. Check out my portfolio site if you’re curious.

I’ve already lined up my first site for review, and it’s about 3/4 done. Should be posted tomorrow, or at latest the next day. Cross fingers! I hope you’ll like what I’ve got in store.

Posted in Site Reviews | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

You Just Do

First, read this post by Chuck Wendig. It is genius in its raw simplicity. It is harsh and accurate and straight to the point. No caveats; you can’t caveat truth. It’s perfect writerly motivation.

Simplicity, however, can be a disservice. Simplicity speaks to the majority, not the absolute all, regardless of how hyperbolic the dialogue gets. You can try to speak to the absolute all, but you can’t; there will always be outliers. You’re not writing for them. You’re writing for the ones you believe need to hear. Without caveats, however, you can’t specify your audience. In regard to a powerful essay such as the one linked above, which is potent and strong and will get passed on to many, there’s no way to define the audience. Simplicity becomes an implied absolute.

Simplicity can be harmful. Absolutism can have unintended consequences.

Wendig writes:

You’re depressed? Get in line. You’re depressed. So’s that woman over there and she wrote 1000 words today, and yesterday, and the day before. You think I don’t deal with depression? Of course I do. We writers are tailor-made for that. I know, I sound unsympathetic — trust me, it’s the opposite. I’m completely sympathetic. I’ve been there. I’m sometimes there still. It doesn’t change the cold, hard fact that all the power lies with you.

I do not disagree with the intention behind this. It’s perfectly true that nothing will get done unless, as Wendig mentions several times, you just do it.  But.

But.

Some people can’t. Some people who want very much to do as Wendig says, who want to write and be that writer who sits down and just does it, are incapable of doing just that. The implication in the article is that they are less, because obviously if they were okay, they could do it. In particular, the sweeping statement of “You’re depressed? Get in line.” says get over it. Or in this case, work through it, perhaps. Wendig goes on to point out that “Nobody ever said it was going to be easy.

Articles like this don’t speak to the mentally ill; they streamline their message for their audience in a way that involves glossing over details. Throwing in “nobody ever said it was going to be easy” is a facile avoidance of the impact of the preceding sentences. It’s the equivalent of the pithy but also inaccurate “Do or do not; there is no try.” Yoda wasn’t talking to the mentally ill any more than Wendig is, but they both encourage othering, stigmatism, and alienation by implying that those who think “it’s too hard” are just wimps. The wrong words can actually encourage further negative thinking in people with depression or anxiety; it is more natural for them to accept that they are just as bad/broken/useless as they already believe.  Granted, if their illness is significant, they may not be able to think anything else, and there’s nothing a writer can do about that.

And that’s not to say that tomorrow, or a month from now, or a year from now, they won’t be in a position to explore the issue more positively, and perhaps become that writer they want to be. Or they won’t, and they need to recognize that that is not a failing. This is where we as a culture fall short, encouraging the false dichotomy that implies those who don’t Do are in fact less valid than those who Do.

I’m not saying Wendig – or anybody else – should go back and edit and add caveats or explain differently. That’s not the purpose of their essays. And trying to say “this is for everybody except you” just draws more attention to potential negatives, as well as watering down the initial message. When simplicity is the point, write simply, and harshly if need be. It might be nice for authors to consider how their words might affect certain portions of their audience, but it’s certainly not a necessity. 

My point is: sometimes it’s not in the potential-writer’s best interest to write. Maybe you’re one of those people who can be depressed and still crank out a novel, and that’s great. We can’t generalize that to all people with mental illness, particularly chronic, clinical illness. You need to recognize that your health comes first. If writing, or trying to write, is making you suffer more, don’t do it.

This is a caveat that should come with any essay that says “this is how you do X.” Language and clarity don’t always allow for it to be a conspicuous caveat. And it’s not the responsibility of authors to call attention to it unless that’s part of their message. That does not invalidate the point, however. Writers and readers need to be aware that sometimes, it’s not writing that You Just Do. Sometimes, it’s just living.

I indirectly referenced this in my post on why I am not a writer. There have been times in my life when writing and trying to write and not being able to write have had a significant impact on my mental state. In those times, an article like Wendig’s could cause ripples that would continue to affect my life for weeks or months; there was no “getting over it.” It wasn’t until I started to recognize that my situation was unhealthy, and began to focus on my health and well-being that I was able to see just how much damage I was doing to myself with my insistence that I Must Write.

You Just Do is a good philosophy; the important thing is how it’s applied. It’s not about writing; it’s about living. If writing is how you live, metaphorically or otherwise, then you’re gold. If writing – or the thought of it – leaves you dying inside, however, that’s when You Just Don’t. You’ve got more important things to do.

Posted in Opinions | Tagged , | 1 Comment

[Compare/Contrast] Two Plucky Girls With Ghosts

I planned to review these books separately, but then it occurred to me that they’re basically the same story. So I decided to do a comparison review. Both books can be categorized as supernatural romances/mysteries, with the focus more on the romance and/or mystery and less on the supernatural.

The books in question are Revenge Gifts by Cindy Cruciger and Dead Case in Deadwood by Ann Charles.  Cruciger is a first-time author, while Charles has a number of books under her belt (Dead Case is #3 in the Deadwood series). The gap in experience is obvious: Revenge Gifts is a morass of typos and grammatical errors, inconsistent text and page formatting, and rookie mistakes. Dead Case has obviously seen an editor and a proper layout artist, although I found the (few) illustrations irrelevant, amateur and distracting; the text conveyed its imagery far better than the actual pictures.

I read these two back-to-back, not realizing how similar they were until well into the second book. Given that Dead Case is the third book in the series, and I’ve read the first two, one might think I’d catch on quicker, but it’s been about a year since I read the last one. The details are vastly different, but they’re both riffing off the same basic trope, and there’s only so far one can go while maintaining said trope.

Revenge Gifts

Revenge Gifts stars Tara Cole as a web entrepreneur who runs a website that sends twisted gifts dedicated to, well, petty revenge. Pillows filled with allergens, chainmail-lined boxers, weekly chocolates (to known food addicts), that kind of stuff. She’s also haunted, and targeted by a voodoo witch. This could be the stuff of a great book, but it falls flat; the author simply doesn’t know how to construct a detailed plot from great ideas. Nor does she have a great grasp of tense: the narration should be present tense, as near as I could tell, but it wanders a fair amount.

The main love interest essentially falls in her lap, begging for sex immediately after admitting he’s still depressed from the tragic death of his wife and son (which is barely mentioned again and never dealt with). The fantastic job concept is barely background material, mostly serving to give a reason for the nosy UPS guy to show up. There’s talk of a business merger with loverboy and another guy, which is played up as suspicious for all of one scene and then becomes irrelevant until the end when it’s used for the denouement, of all things.  The voodoo would be more interesting if there was actually a reason for it that made sense, and there’s not one, but two stalker storylines that come out of nowhere and turn into nothing. Oh, and it’s set in the Florida Keys, so there’s sun, fun, fishing and a ton of drinking. Everything is either instantaneously resolved or left hanging.

Dead Case in Deadwood

Dead Case, on the other hand, has pretty solid characters; they’re mostly eccentric in the way of gimmick characters in humorous mysteries, but their eccentricities are part of their charm and not their entire characterization. It brings in the hanging threads from the last book (yes, this is a cliffhanger series) and begins the new plot in context. Our heroine, Violet Parker, has the usual tangle of financial, romantic, and familial entanglements as well as her supernatural woes. She’s single, which seems to be a requirement for Plucky Girls anyway, but she’s also got a pair of ten-year-old twins and at least one relative who is, pardon the pun, relatively sensible.

She’s also haunted, or at least very good at tripping into haunted houses. There’s an overarching metaplot involving a demon, which I am not sure I trust (the plot, not the demon) as it – or the demon, at least – seemed to come out of left field in this book despite the buildup of previous books. The author’s got a good handle on ghosts, and the Black Hills, South Dakota, setting is rife with potential, but I’m not sure there’s enough supernatural depth in the books to accomodate jumping into demon territory. Or I may need to re-read the preceding novels to see if there were hooks I missed.

Both books mostly fulfill the Plucky Girls trope expectations: they’re independent, financially and otherwise, they go barging into things without really thinking, they have multiple hot guys with the hots for them, they ignore commonsense advice (and their own common sense) and they’re magnets for trouble. They both have quasi-random chickens. (I say quasi- because both chickens have purpose, but the confluence amused me.) Their supporting characters are all quirky or eccentric. Oh, and they’re both self-deprecating to the point of needing treatment.

Tara spends most of her book telling us how bad a person she is, despite the evidence of those around her – telling her directly and showing indirectly that they don’t believe her. Violet is a bit more directly neurotic, and tends to lean a bit closer to sensible, but she still spends the majority of the book berating herself for being a bad friend and for her lying and sidestepping and other issues. To be fair, she does bring this on herself, but between the repeated mantras of self-hatred and her inability to take responsibility for her actions (also a requirement these days) it… well, it gets tiresome.

Now, you could say I’m being oversensitive, and it’s true to a point, but I’ve noticed this is a trend in these kinds of books of late. The inner monologues often go way too far, and it’s always the women. Usually in books written by women, for women. I get the angst fetish, but let’s try not to glorify it, please? There’s angst, and then there’s “requires serious help and possibly hospitalization.” Quirky is not equivalent to mental instability. If these are our heroines, our escape fantasies, why are they so depressed all the time? Or at least, why are authors using depression as an unacknowledged requirement in defining these characters? Depression is not heroic nor should it be portrayed as a “normal” mentality. Either acknowledge it and utilise it properly as a plot point or stop unintentionally reinforcing negative stereotypes by pretending it’s “just” guilt or angst.

::puts away soapbox::

As for plot, Dead Case includes a satisfying mystery, whereas Revenge Gifts merely meanders through its many plot threads without much coherence. The romances mirror the rest of their books: Violet’s love interest situation is evolving from the previous books, and has depth, whereas Tara’s turns into random sexcapades that further distract from the already thin plot. Perhaps the author should refile it under pornfic and be done with it. I have no problem with sex scenes, provided they are done well and situationally appropriate, and that they don’t get in the way of the actual story. I know where to find erotica if I want that, otherwise plot is required.

I will give Revenge Gifts bonus points for attempting a nonstandard relationship, with a secondary love interest remaining an interest and a friend, neither ignoring nor glossing over either aspect, and not engendering any jealousy subplots.

Dead Case doesn’t push any boundaries, but I give the series so far a bonus for allowing Violet to evolve from “doesn’t believe in ghosts” to “reserving judgement” in a relatively natural manner. She doesn’t switch from her initial beliefs, but she’s willing to admit that circumstances warrant an open mind and perhaps a change of opinion.

If this were a contest, Dead Case would win, with a rating of 4 stars vs. Revenge Gift’s 2.5 (the half-star goes to the nonstandard relationship and chainmail boxers, which are a stroke of genius). I got both books (and the earlier Deadwood books) through the freebie channels, and I’m relatively sure I’ve seen both on multiple occasions. I will most likely continue the Deadwood series, but I suspect I’m leaving the rest of the Revenge Gifts series behind. 

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Today, I am a Space Marine

Updated 8 Feb 2013: Amazon has restored the e-book! Spots the Space Marine is back! Thanks to the internet (and the EFF) space marines have been freed.

Let me tell you a secret… I don’t really like military fic in general. I skim the battle sequences in Lord of the Rings, and you’ll rarely find me picking up a book with soldiers and guns on the cover. Of course, there are exceptions to everything.

One of those exceptions would be Spots the Space Marine, an atypical humans-vs-aliens war story. It is the story of a  woman who is first a mother and second a soldier, and what happens when her reserve unit gets called to the front of an interstellar war. She bakes cookies. She doesn’t swear. She kills the enemy. And she’s just flat-out awesome.

Spots began as a serial on M.C.A. Hogarth’s livejournal, where I first read it. Later, it was published as an e-book and a print book. You used to be able to get both on Amazon, but right now you can’t. The print book is available, but the e-book has been taken down. So has the archive of the serial, which had been available free to read on the web.

You see, Games Workshop, which makes the game Warhammer 40K, asserts that any and all mention of “space marine” outside its own works infringes on its trademark of the term. Despite the fact that their trademark in the US does not include any mention of e-books, or fiction at all for that matter. Despite the fact that the phrase can be legitimately traced back to the pulp fiction of the ’30s. Despite that it is currently in use in any number of sci-fi books dating back to Heinlein and up to the present.

So who do they attack about use of the term? A suburban working mom whose writing directly funds her daughter’s education, and who voluntarily sends a portion of all sales of Spots to the Wounded Warrior Project. An indie writer with no support system to handle a major lawsuit. I suspect that they may well have picked her because her title character is a woman and prominently portrayed on the cover. I have no proof of this, but given some of the things I’ve learned about GW since this began, it would not surprise me.

I have followed Micah’s blog since she started on livejournal ten years ago. I have been a fan of her work for longer. I own several prints of her art and have read her serials and a number of her short stories. I admit to bias in this situation; I am a fan and somewhat of a friend (I hope). At the very least, I respect her greatly.

Micah may be indie at the moment, but she’s been a pro member of SFWA in the past. She knows the value of editing and layout, and she’s even done her own cover art. The books she produces are as close to pro-publishing as one can get in the indie world. She knows how the business works.  It doesn’t work like this.

When Games Workshop first came after her, she contacted Amazon and then Games Workshop directly. When they both blew her off, she contacted lawyers. But as a working mom in our economy, she doesn’t exactly have the wherewithal to manage a massive lawsuit on her own. So she did what any good geek would do and took to the internet.

Yesterday, the geekosphere got wind of this, and it exploded across the internet. Today, major news outlets are talking about it. I am very happy about this turn of events, and I am glad to see the outpouring of support. I’m sure it’s been overwhelming, but as far as I can tell, the response has been largely positive. Huzzah to all who have extended their support. There have been some encouraging signs so far.

If you’re interested in the coverage, Micah’s got a page on her wiki collecting the articles. Go read it.

So that’s why today, and until this situation is resolved, I am a Space Marine. Not only because the attack is on someone I know and respect, but also because it’s an attack on the whole genre. Genre is nothing without its tropes, and space marines are part of its great history. Space marines are not figures in a game, though those figures can be space marines. Space marines belong to all of us; those who write and those who read and those who dream.

Go Team Kitty!

 

 

Posted in Opinions | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

[Review] The Emperor’s Knife

The Emperor's Knife

I got this book from its publisher, Night Shade Books, free as part of a Thanksgiving giveaway. It’s taken me until now to get around to it, partly because I was kind of avoiding epic fantasy over the holidays. They take too much time.

I don’t know if I’d’ve picked this one up if I had to pay for it – I may never even have noticed it at all. (So. Many. Books.) Now that I’ve read it, I can say it’s definitely worth the splurge. I would like to continue the series, but I don’t know when I’ll be able to afford it. That said, many thanks to Night Shade Books for their generosity!

This particular epic fantasy has the twist of a pseudo-Arabic setting, complete with camels, harems, and lots of sand. Oh, and the killing of potential heirs in childhood, to prevent future inheritance issues. Except for the one they keep locked up in a tower as a spare. Welcome to Cerana.

This becomes a relevant plot point early on, because apparently the Emperor is dying and has produced no heirs. Also he’s cursed. He’s been infected with a disease(?) that produces complex tattoos on his body and will eventually take his mind and turn him into a killing machine. The Carriers, as they are called, are considered a serious threat to the empire and the Emperor’s own laws call for any found with the pattern to be killed and their bodies burned.

Suddenly, that extra prince in the tower becomes very useful indeed. A plot is formed to marry him off to a girl from the plains riders in order to  produce an heir. And he might become Emperor when his brother dies, although the Lord High Vizier thinks he’s completely mad. Of course, technically, the Vizier is plotting treason, but that’s royal politics for you.

The story has four major POV characters: the tower prince, Sarmin; the Vizier, Tuvaini; the plains rider betrothed, Mesema; and the Emperor’s Knife, Eyul, the only man with the right to kill royals.

Sarmin spends 90% of the book in the tower room, but is surprisingly active in events despite that limitation. The fact that he’s a born magic user has something to do with it, although he doesn’t figure that out until trips into it. And there are times when the reader can’t exactly tell if he’s sane or not, which makes him more dangerous than you’d expect from a man alone in a tower.

Tuvaini, however, hops from the treasonous plot to get Sarmin an heir to a treasonous plot that puts himself on the throne. Through him, we get the sense of the palace and its politics, and are introduced to various secondary players in the various treason plots. He’s not a nice guy, but he’s not really malicious, just power-hungry and blind to anything that doesn’t serve his purpose.

Mesema is a fascinating character, and a complete outsider to the Cerani culture. The plains riders, called The Felt, are a pretty typical tribal society, so Mesema’s trip from the plains to the desert palace teaches her (and us) all sorts of things that an outsider would need to know. When she discovers she’s being used as part of a treason plot, she expects to be killed when the Emperor finds out. She takes this remarkably well, but finds herself instead delivered to the harem by the Emperor himself.

Eyul embodies the role of honorable assassin, though he’s been at it for a number of years and the joints don’t always react the way they should. He’s sent by Tuvaini to seek information on the pattern disease, but that doesn’t work out the way either of them expect. By the time he gets back to the palace, the pattern magic has mostly taken over and it’s time for backstabbing: literally and figuratively.

Patterns are a major part of the book; the primary threat of the book is driven by the Carriers and the patterns that drive them. It’s a theme as well, the precision of patterns, the trap of that precision and the ways to break or change the pattern, which change its meaning and effect. There’s also the game Settu, a combination of chess and dominoes, which makes visible the impact of actions and their patterns. I may just be a sucker for pattern magic, though. It’s an excellent descriptive tool that the author employs properly; it adds another layer of detail to the story (which is pretty layered to begin with.)

The book follows the epic fantasy roadmap well, keeping to the relevant points without making it seem like a checklist. The characters all have depth and personality, which makes them entertaining to read and also very human. There are shades of grey in this book. The villains aren’t all bad and the heroes have their blemishes. The setting seems pretty solid, and even though there’s a lot of places where you can see the tropes, they’re handled deftly and often in unexpected ways; while certain aspects are occasionally stereotypical, the worldbuilding as a whole is deft enough that it never feels like Just Another Fantasy World.

There’s a lot of meat to the character arcs, as well, especially Sarmin and Mesema (who look to be the central series characters). Their choices have consequences, and those consequences impact the story. The author brings their threads together organically, which gives the story as a whole a relatively seamless progression. This can be tricky given the number of POVs, but the author does it well. There’s missteps here and there, a bit of handwaving in a couple places makes the transitions a little too smooth, but they’re relatively minor.

And may I say the romantic arcs in this book are splendid? There’s a realistic May-December romance with Eyul (who, by his character, is an unlikely candidate to begin with) and a wonderfully complex romance arc for Mesema, involving an old love, her new husband-to-be, and his brother. Oh, and her husband-to-be’s beloved. It’s remarkably organic despite its complexity, and there’s no whining on anybody’s part, nor is there any significant jealousy component. Alternative relationship win!

The only editing issues I saw were probably typesetting errors (missed spaces), which is to be expected from a Real Publisher. After some of the indies I’ve been reading, this was refreshing. It helps to remember that manuscripts can be as good as their stories, sometimes.

All in all, I found this a delightful read. I would recommend it highly, especially to fans of Arabic-style fantasies. Even if you’re not, give this a look; it might surprise you.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

A Question of Respect

I finally got to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey this weekend. I liked it, but I have decided that Jackson made it a trilogy because it will take that long for the audience to keep track of all the dwarves. On the way home, I got into a discussion regarding accurate portrayal of characters in secondary media. I picked the wrong people to discuss such things with, so the conversation didn’t get very far, but it left me wondering: when should we say changes to a story are disrespectful to the source material?

I know that it can vary by individual opinion – something egregiously wrong to one person will be a nonissue to someone else – but is there a point where we can establish a concrete line and say “this is too far?” Or is all fair in artistic interpretation? And should we care?

I’m not talking about being disrespectful to the original author, or to the audience, though most media are guilty of both at times. You could argue that any disrespect to the source material is indirectly disrespectful to the author, and there’s a valid argument there, but I’m more interested in the direct connection between source and variant.

For instance, take The Hobbit movie: Peter Jackson tossed in a bunch of backstory that isn’t part of the original. Now, this backstory is also Middle Earth canon, so it’s part of the story world, but it’s not directly relevant to the plot. In this case, I don’t think it’s disrespectful because Jackson takes care to keep the spirit of the story and its main points intact. In his LOTR movies, as well, his changes were, for the most part, in service to the story, making it accessible to a medium for which it was never intended.

On the other hand, there’s The Last Airbender movie. Considering the internet backlash when that came out, it’s fair to say it was downright insulting to fans of the series because it damaged the canon. The makers didn’t have enough respect for the source material to get character’s names right, much less have any concern for how their casting choices undermined the entire canon of the source. (the racefail involved and its cultural impacts are a whole ‘nother can of worms, which has been covered in detail elsewhere)

I’m mentioning The Last Airbender because it is a specific and obvious example of the kinds of changes that can affect secondary media. By secondary media, I mean any kind of media retelling of a story, be it movie, book, or other format. While many reinterpretations can add to or expand upon the source material, giving us a different perspective on the original while retaining its core / spirit, there are others where the story is manipulated for reasons completely unrelated to its intent.

The issue of respect for source material comes up a lot in “based on real life” stories, and it’s a valid discussion. You’re talking about real events that impacted real people. Respect, in that regard, can be a significant issue. In general, people don’t pay as much attention to changes made to fictional worlds and characters (except the hardcore fans, of course.) Does that mean fictional stories deserve less respect than “real” stories? Some fictional stories have significant impact on a large number of real people, often more than the impact of reality tales.

I don’t think a poorly done retelling necessarily implies disrespect; it might be a labor of love by someone who lacks skill or finesse. Fanfic forums abound with poorly-written homages to their favorite stories, and YouTube allows for clumsy acting and editing that can still show heart. One could argue that parodies are disrespectful, but, really, it depends on the parody.

A reteller can change many facets of a story without losing the inherent story itself. Shakespeare can be set in the Jazz Age, and Dorothy doesn’t have to be the only POV in Oz. Watson can be a woman… but can Sherlock have a happily ever after? Where is the point of no return?

As a reader and potential author, I am aware that I pay more attention to details in storytelling than the average person. I know that there’s no deerstalker caps in the original Sherlock stories, and that all Shakespeare’s roles were technically written for men. I know that the average person doesn’t care about such things. I also know that stories are more significant than most people realize. Stories are the foundation of human society, the record of our history, and the space we use to explore the limits of imagination. We should respect them, and care for them, not just as books or other physical media, but for the inherent qualities that make them special.

So, is there a point where we can say “this is not right?” I suspect it may come somewhere around when a reteller stops using the story as itself, and cannibalizes it in order to further some commercial or personal purpose. When it’s used for name recognition or to draw in an audience without any relevance or context. When it’s being used to mislead for purposes unrelated to the new story. One could say it’s when a person chooses to use, but not to care.

Subverting expectations is a time-honored practice in storytelling. As with all the tricks in one’s arsenal, however, it must be employed properly. Ending the mystery without finding the killer? There’s probably a way to spin that, but it would be difficult. Even if done well, the reader may be offended, and if done poorly… well, that’s practically driving them away on purpose. Taking a story that means one thing and changing to mean something else is not necessarily disrespectful, but it really depends on how one does it. Recognizing the source material and using it to illuminate your interpretation is good. Taking names and ideas and plopping them in randomly just so you can say you’re talking about X? Not so good.

Should it matter? Individual incidents depend on circumstance, but in general I think it should. Someone who disrespects the story also disrespects the audience. Ultimately, the stories don’t care, but people do.

Posted in In The Details | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

[Review] Frost Arch

Frost Arch

  • Frost Arch
  • By: Kate Bloomfield
  • Book 1 of the Fire Mage Trilogy
  • Rating: 3 (out of 5)

This is the perfect example of the indie author’s Achilles heel: a book that’s been run through spellcheck but hasn’t actually been edited. Homphone abuse runs rampant; my favorite, “draws” for “drawers” (as in “chest of draws”) consistently pops up every time the furniture is mentioned. It’s so bad it’s comical.

You may be wondering why I didn’t stop reading; in fact, I planned to after the first few pages but never actually got around to it. Mostly, I suspect, because I’m a sucker for a plucky heroine, and even more of a sucker for animal sidekicks.

The story is a post-apocalyptic-Earth fantasy, and the characters are at least vaguely familiar with basic bits of modern Earth in that vastly out-of-context way that all such stories seem to embrace. Apparently, humans did bad things, and now they are evil scum of the earth and pitiful slaves considered unintelligent: think Planet of the Apes. Those people who have inherited the Earth are a race of Mages (always capitalized) who all have a special power that defines them as Mages and not human.

Our plucky heroine is a Fire Mage by the name of Avalon. She runs away from home at the beginning of the book because she’s not very in control of her power, and also because her sister may be ::gasp:: human and isn’t able to defend against Avalon’s accidental flare-ups. She hitches a ride to the town of Frost Arch, where it always snows despite what the surrounding lands might think the weather should be doing. In the process, she manages to pick up the aforementioned animal sidekick, a fox-hawk hybrid that changes color depending on mood and/or surroundings. She also manages to immediately snare a job at one of Frost Arch’s four manors as a specialty maid, lighting fires and heating bathwater for the nobles. They have matches, but apparently they’re not good enough.

The story wanders through troubles at the manor, trying to keep the ever-growing fox-hawk out of sight, a subplot involving the noble’s son and a lost-love-lookalike, our heroine losing her powers and getting on the bad side of her boss, escapes and rescue attempts, and a lot of secrets causing the drama that secrets do.

It was refreshing to note that no overt romance happened between Avalon and Jack, the young healer who becomes her best friend. By the end of the book it’s fairly solidly implied, but the only love interest of note is the noble’s son, and that ends fairly quickly, if dramatically. Avalon is the spitting image of his lost love, but she doesn’t find that out until he gets drunk and tries to rape her. (Herein lies the problem of secrets being secret, as it were)

Now, I find the rape trope overdone at best, a symptom of larger cultural issues, and far too often a crutch for authors wanting some drama. I have to say that this scene was better than many, contextually relevant (even if the context is also an overdone trope) and significant in that there are consequences that don’t involve the heroine turning into a punching bag or a revenge machine. She does, however, seem to lose her power, which, for a girl in this society, is probably more traumatic than the (aborted) attack itself. I don’t find it a particularly necessary way of getting to that plot point, but it’s perhaps more acceptable(?) than usual.

That said, there was a lot of inconsistency in the setting and a fair amount of anachronism in the speech patterns. The author rather haphazardly drops modern vernacular and slang into the dialogue, and random details that aren’t well-defined within the context of the story. Apparently, they’re still using modern-day country names and ethnicities,  except that there wasn’t any mention of that until three-quarters of the way through the book. Ditto for items mentioned once and never explained (I recognize that a Time-Keeper is, well, some sort of timekeeping device, but it’s only mentioned once at the very end of the book for no apparent reason). It lacks consistency.

A lot of plot threads are left dangling, which is expected from a first book in a series.  A number of plot elements that did get page time seemed a bit underwhelming compared to the implications of the loose threads. Other plot points are presented as significant but without any followthrough; for instance, Avalon spends the beginning of the book complaining about not being able to control her power, but we see her use it, completely in control, as soon as she gets her job. So much for the angst and potential for character growth.

I think, if it had been a stand-alone book, with more focus on the plot-thread that leads to the climax, it could very well have been a good book. While that plot is relevant throughout the story, it’s backgrounded until the very end, which lessens its effect. As it is, it feels like the author was reaching for something greater, but her story isn’t up to the challenge.

Overall, it’s a typical plucky-girl YA story, entertaining if not particularly original. The characters are done well, and the narrative voice is engaging. If it weren’t for the plucky heroine-and-animal-sidekick focus, I’d probably have given it a 2-star review, if I finished it at all. That said, I am not ashamed of my reading kinks, and sometimes you just need a book that pushes those buttons.

 

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

[Review] Kraken

Kraken

  • Kraken
  • By: China Mieville
  • Rating: 5  (out of 5)

There’s a giant squid, preserved in a giant bottle, in a museum in London. It’s the museum’s most popular exhibit. It’s Billy Harrow’s turn to be tour guide. Nothing special, just another day… except when Billy’s tour group gets to the squid room, there is no squid.  It’s gone, gigantic bottle and all. How does one steal a giant squid? Where would they put it? And, more importantly, why?

So begins a saga where nothing is sacred, because everything is sacred. It’s a story of belief, of cults and crackpots and criminal overlords, of how men create myths and what the myths do once given their heads. But mostly it’s a story about London.

Now, Mieville is known for making setting, and particularly cities, characters in their own right. It’s one of the things I love about his writing. With London, however, it’s a challenge one should not take lightly. London is one of the primeval cities. It has depths beyond its material bits and bobs. One can’t dismiss London as simply a setting, especially not in a fantasy of faith and belief and human nature. London has, in its time, ruled the world. That leaves a mark.

I suspect everyone has their own London, their interpretation of the great city. You need not have seen London to know London. This is Mieville’s London: complicated, twisty, full of secrets and wishes and the detritus of thousands of years of humanity.

As the story delved into the other London, the London seen only from the corner of the eye, I was reminded of my first other-London: Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. The stories are vastly different, but there are significant parallels. They are both entrenched in magic and history, with their clans and superstitions and laws hiding beneath the surface. Even the villians parallel, though I suspect an intentional homage on Mieville’s part: Goss and Subby are this world’s Vandemar and Croup, otherworldly wolves amidst the sheep, frightful impossibilities made flesh. There is a recognition, in both works, that London is more than just a spot on the map.

In Neverwhere, to reach London Below you abandon your place in London Above. In Kraken, the two intertwine; shadow-London is not separate from true-London. Once entered, Kraken’s other-London is a hotbed of faiths shaped by humans who are shaped by their faiths. There is much sacred about this story; gods are involved, holy wars are fought. London itself is a faith, in its way; it has its worshippers. They are, as one might guess, essential to the story. Without London, saviors and saints would lack anchor, adrift in their crises of faith.

As with London, there are depths to this book. The twisting, writhing plot echoes the essence of the title character, winding around itself until everything’s connected – but not easily and never in a straight line. It can be confusing at times, but given its subject matter, I find that part of the charm.

As an urban fantasy, this falls solidly under weird-fic. Tentacles, tattoos, blood and ink magic are significant. At the same time, it’s an ode to high fantasy with its rituals, cults, and cultures. There’s a pretty classic British mystery in there too, often in the background but never lost.

Mieville’s creations are fascinating and detailed; everything is more complex than it seems on the surface. The arc and essence of the story is echoed in the arcs of object, character and setting. The sea owns a townhouse. Familiars have a union. And through it all there is London, both support and shackle, the unintentional center of the universe at the end(s) of the world.

My favorite of all the crazy characters has to be the mnemophylax. An angel of memory, it has only a small amount of page-time but a significant impact on the story. It’s the symbol of what can happen when history itself takes its own initiative, successes and failures both. My second-favorite character is probably the Kraken, but I can’t say why without spoilers.

There are some rough edges in the story, and some threads not well handled, but these are minor. The story is both fast-paced and long, and this makes for sketchy detail in places, but I found that this often helped rather than hindered. That said, it is inherently a metaphorical piece; even the most basic of plot elements can have unexpected meaning. Some people find this frustrating; I am not one of those people, but I recognize that not everyone squees over metaphor. Then again, it’s Mieville; I expect nothing less.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , | 1 Comment