The Blizzard by Vladimir Sorokin (Jamey Gambrell, trans.)

Read: 13 February, 2017

How appropriate to be reading this as my home is slowly buried in snow…

This is a very Russian novel. It’s bleak, it’s unkind, and it’s fantastical. That 50 horse power sled? Powered by 50 miniature horses. Don’t bother with this book unless you’re a fan of depressing Russian absurdism.

As it happens, I am, and I enjoyed Blizzard. 

Spoiler talk ahead: The absurdisms don’t really add anything to the story. I picked this book up because of the promise of Russian zombies, but there are no Russian zombies. The zombie plague could have just as easily been whooping cough.

In a way, it reminded me of the movie Stalker, which builds up all the dangers of the Zone, describing how they kill, but then there’s no pay off. The goal is reached without incident, and the travellers decide they’d best not make use of it, and they go home.

That’s what happens here. The zombies are played up throughout the story. Again and again, we hear of their inhuman claws and the the way they burrow underground to pop up on the other side of barricades.

Do the zombies ever do this? Do they ever even appear? Of course not, because modern Russian story telling hates its audience, and hates Chekov’s gun.

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Gentlemen Bastards #1: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

Read: 29 January, 2017

Venice is such an obvious and wonderful setting for fantasy, it’s hard to imagine why it doesn’t get more use. Everyone always jumps on medieval England or France, maybe with a bit of Scandinavian, but Renaissance Venice? With its glass works, its intrigue, its cloaks, its daggers, its Carnival… That is a rich and fertile ground for fantasy!

I had a little trouble getting into this one at first because it does an awful lot of time hopping. I can understand why this was done – giving us the exhilaration of the adult Locke Lamora on a heist, while also feeding us some of his backstory in the form of child Locke. On the one hand, I’m not sure it was necessary to do it this way since child Locke gets up to quite a few exciting adventures of his own. On the other hand, it gives us a tighter narrative in which the beginning connects directly with the ending. Having gotten through the difficult beginning, I can appreciate it. But having to keep track of time skipping on top of all the new characters, the new setting, the new terms… it makes the book just that little bit less accessible.

Once I got into it, though, I loved this book! It was exciting! It was fun! There were times when the main characters got themselves into a scrape I couldn’t see a way out of and my stomach tightened and I read as fast as I could to find out what would happen.

I wish that there were more central female characters. There are women around – really cool and interesting women, women with power, active women – but none in the core group. Well, that’s not quite true. There is one woman in the Gentlemen Bastards, but we don’t see her in this book. She’s talked about, but always out of the picture for one reason or another. It’s obvious from the first mention of her that she’s Locke’s One True Love, and this gets brought up a lot, so having her be completely absent from the first book is a very interesting choice. It’s a good choice, too, since it lets us see more of Locke’s friendships. We need more books that centre platonic friendship! But now I’m worried that we’ll meet Sabetha and she’ll just be your standard “pretty but tough as nails” love interest. I like that she’s held back from the story for now, but my fingers are crossed that she’ll be given some proper development.

In conclusion, I loved this book. I devoured it. It was fun, it was exciting, it had some great character development, it had a fantastic setting, and it had one of those excellent plots that feels meandery but then ties up neatly at the end and I loved it so very very much.

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The Magicians #3: The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman

Read: 15 January, 2017

With this third and final book in the series, we find a Quentin in exile, and a dying Fillory.

Despite getting a good portion of The Magician King to herself, Julia is almost entirely absent. I guess Grossman felt that her story was done, but it was disappointing. In many ways, her journey seems at least as important to the series as Quentin’s – giving us the two paths of magic, the academic and the wild. I wanted more of her, I wanted to see her adventures on the other side (we’re told that she’s made queen of the dryads or some such, but I wanted to see that happening!). Instead, she’s replaced with Plum, who was an interesting character, but who seems to just fall off Grossman’s radar toward the end, and doesn’t get nearly the amount of attention she deserved either.

Janet, on the other hand, gets quite a bit more weight. In the first and second books, she seemed rather hollow – a plot device with bitchy one-liners. While she doesn’t get too much more in the third, she does get her own arc (narrated by herself after-the-fact, as with Julia), and she gets to have her own adventure. It’s not much, but I enjoyed it, and it made her feel a little more real.

After turning into a niffin in the first book, Alice makes a comeback. I struggled with this. At first, I was worried that Grossman would just gloss over her experiences and she wouldn’t get an arc of her own. But then she had such complicated and unexpected feelings about being saved, and that was great! And Quentin was caring for her and accepting responsibility for his part in what happened to her, and that was also great! And then they bone and that whole plot line just disappears. Nothing like the healing powers of sex magic, I guess? It was disappointing, and it didn’t feel respectful to Alice as a character, and it didn’t feel respectful to Alice as a person. And, suddenly, I had to wonder just how much Quentin really had learned.

Quentin’s main foible has been his ennui – his inability to feel satisfied, no matter how amazing things are in his life. He’s always messing a good situation up because he’s too busy chasing a better situation. For the most part, he seems to have change – he’s still clearly depressed, but he seems willing to make the best of things when he returns to Brakebills. He’s not happy, but he does seem content to treat water for a while, which seems to be exactly what he needs.

Then he gets this opportunity to create his own land, and that seems to be a very direct test – did his growth take? Will it withstand a little temptation? And… I’d say mostly yes. He does still go ahead with his attempt to create a land, but it lacks the desperation of his previous choices. He seems to be doing it because it interests him, rather than because he needs to escape. That worked well, I felt.

All in all, the ending felt earned. There are things about the series that I don’t like, and I didn’t like them in Magician’s Land either, but that’s no surprise. But, overall, it worked.

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The Chronicles of Narnia #3: The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis

Read: 10 January, 2017

This is the story of a boy and his horse (and a girl and her horse, too, but I guess titles can only get so long before they become unwieldy), and their escape to Narnia and the north.

I had a lot of trouble getting into this one. Every time the adventure starts picking up, there’s a sudden Grownups Are Talking scene that just seemed to go on and on and on. My poor son has taken to drawing pictures during bedtime reads because, advanced in so many ways as he is, he just can’t find it in himself to get excited about Calormen politics. And I honestly can’t say that I blame him.

I might have felt differently if there had been something interesting or creative about the Calormenes. But, instead, they’re pretty much just a hodge-podge of “oriental” middle eastern stereotypes. Which really only serve to date the book.

I’m also unsure of what this does to the Narnia universe. In both The Magician’s Nephew and The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, there was a sense of an empty world. Sure, there was the cabby who served as the first king of Narnia, but his court was comprised of talking animals. And in TLTWaTW, everyone makes a huge fuss over there being actual human children in their world.

Now, just a few years later, we find out that there are whole nations of humans less than a day’s ride from Caer Paravel.

It reminded me of the book of Genesis: God creates Adam and Eve, who have three sons, who then go off and get married. And, suddenly, we have near descendants going off to other lands and living in the cities there. Knowing a little of C.S. Lewis’s religious perspective, I can’t help but wonder if he wasn’t having a bit of a larf when writing this.

In conclusion, I found this to be a very pale follow up to TLTWaTW. There are too many grownups and grownup doings, and the use of stereotypes just comes off as lazy.

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Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening by Marjorie M. Liu (illustrated by Sana Takeda)

Read: 27 December, 2016

The summary describes the setting as “an alternate matriarchal 1900’s Asia.” Which… is better than any description I could come up with. Very little gets explained in this first volume.

Which is my main issue. While it could be argued that the storytelling dives right in without wasting a bunch of time on exposition, this left me with very little to latch on to. Things happened, characters acted, but I was just left feeling somewhat confused. I didn’t quite know what to make of them or what I was supposed to be feeling. I don’t need an infodump, but a little more context would have been nice. By the time I finally started feeling like I had a grasp on the world, the volume was over.

A lot of that is, I’m sure, in the nature of the serial storytelling common with comics. This is where I like graphic novels so much more – the story I pick up is complete, it has its arc, I don’t have to keep going through issues on blind faith that I will, at some point, figure out what the heck is going on.

But this is genre convention, so I supposed it isn’t really fair to judge Monstress for adhering to it. People who are more comfortable with serial comics will be fine, whereas people coming from a prose background, like myself, will likely struggle. Be warned.

The plot itself didn’t have much room to develop in such a short volume. It’s a fairly standard “ancient ones vs humans and oh yes the in between people”, with the twist that people can absorb an element from the ancient ones (and their mixed offspring) to gain power. It’s nothing I haven’t seen before.

The matriarchy angle is interesting. There’s a particular joy to reading a comic where nearly all the characters are female, except for a handful of background characters who have very little dialogue. After so much media being the opposite, it was refreshing.

But it felt like it just wasn’t going quite far enough. It’s a matriarchy, but soldiers wear armour that accentuates their sexy at the expense of protection (boob armour! boob armour everywhere!). And while there are a few larger bodies, they are in the background. All the central adult characters are super models. It would have been nice to have a little more variety.

That said, the main character is an amputee, and that is just wonderful to see.

Where the series really sells itself is in the artwork. It’s sort of art nouveau inspired, and it is so gorgeous. Every single panel is rich with detail. From what I can judge of the first volume, it’s the artwork where this series is distinguishing itself. It’s the artwork that’s going to make people giving volume 2 a chance.

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The Witcher Saga #2: The Time of Contempt by Andrzej Sapkowski

Read: 19 December, 2016

I’ve decided to play through Witcher 3 again (because it’s just that amazing), so of course I had to start reading the next instalment in the series. I need something to keep me going when I have to be AFK!

As in Blood of Elves, there’s no real structure to this novel. There are three distinct episodes – Ciri and Fabio’s Big Day Out, Geralt At The Ball, and Ciri On The Run – but nothing except chronology binds them together. Each one has its own structure, as though perhaps Sapkowski is more comfortable with the shorter format of the first two books but was compelled to publish full length novels.

I read Blood of Elves after playing Witcher 3. Now that I’m playing with two books under my belt, it’s been such an interesting experience. For example, there’s a side quest where Geralt comes across some sort of travelling carnival with a caged wyvern it claims is actually a basilisk. PC Geralt challenges the identity of the creature, but the argument ends when the cage falls apart and it escapes, endangering the audience. It’s was an amusing little side quest on my first play through – a Thing To Do as I work my way into completionist heaven – but this time it was delightfully amusing.

I have several of these experiences, or ones where I caught a reference made by a character. It’s added a whole extra depth to my enjoyment of the game.

The lack of structure is a bit jarring, but not distressingly so. I enjoy the characters, and I love the richness of the setting. I’m not sure that I would be enjoying it quite as much without all the emotional baggage I’m bringing in from the game, but it works beautiful in tandem.

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Star Wars: Shattered Empire by Greg Rucka and illustrated by Marco Checchetto, Angel Unzueta, and Emilio Laiso

Read: 27 October, 2016

Taking place in the aftermath of Return of the Jedi, this graphic novel features Shara Bey, mother of Force Awaken‘s Poe Dameron, as she meets a number of the Star Wars universe’s big names.

I really can’t say that I loved Shattered Empire. The dialogue writing was passable, but not great. The artwork was fine, albeit a little showy, and lacked character. The plot writing was unfocused.

The artwork felt a little too polished, and it bordered on the uncanny valley with the characters from the movies – trying too hard to make them recognisable. In some portions, it actually looked like the scenes were made with 3D models and then sketched over. There’s a certain stiffness, an inorganic Barbie doll-ness, to that art style that kept popping up. I also found that the action sequences lacked clarity, so that I had to skip ahead to figure out what I was supposed to be seeing.

For the plot, each section of the book has Bey going off on a different adventure, each time with a different original cast member from the movies. The adventures themselves are interesting enough, but nothing ties them together, they don’t build toward anything.

My last complaint – and this is with the Star Wars universe more broadly – is with the focus on parentage. I would have enjoyed Shara Bey just fine as a character without her being the parent of another character. I could have enjoyed Poe Dameron just fine as a character without finding out that his parents were important people who got to meet Luke and Leia.

The parentage theme works with Anakin and Luke because that’s the story, “the sins of the father” and so forth. But there’s no reason to take it any further than that. We don’t need to find out that Anakin is actually the one who built C3PO, or that fan favourite Boba Fett’s father was actually the genetic pattern used for the clone army, or whatever is going on with Rey. These characters are all lovely and important on their own, without the need for intricate breeding certifications.

What I loved about this book, and about the expanding universe in general, is how diverse they make the universe feel. And by retconning women and POCs back into the events of the original trilogy, they let me feel, for the first time, like characters who look like me can really matter in this epic story. I’ve always loved Star Wars, but the new canon is the first time I’ve ever felt loved back by the franchise.

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The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi

Read: 25 October, 2016

This is the story of the Grace children. After their parent’s separation, they move into their great aunt Lucinda’s old home – a house that has stood empty for years, ever since Lucinda went to live in a mental health facility. Almost immediately, strange things begin to occur…

The kid and I read the box set edition of this story, which combines all five books. Reading them all together like this, it’s hard to imagine how the series would even work as separate books. The first book stands alone all right, but the rest only really have a shared macro arc. They start, plot happens, and they end suddenly, without proper arcs of their own. Even the first book only works as a stand alone because it’s focus is on the initial discovery of the mythical creatures. My most generous guess is that the publishers didn’t want the whole story to look too daunting for emergent readers, but my cynical guess is that it was an attempt to cash in on the series format that’s been so popular with children’s books since Harry Potter.

Taken as a whole, the story lacks a certain focus. There’s an excellent build in the first book, but then it starts to break apart. Things happen, but the atmospheric building is lost. Occasional references are made to the Big Bad, Mulgarath, but he doesn’t really feel like a threatening presence until the final book. It would have been better if his influence were felt more palpably throughout. As it was, the big boss showdown didn’t seem all that much more threatening than the smaller boss showdowns we’d been getting throughout the story. I wanted to give my kid a good scare, but Mulgarath just didn’t cut it.

The strength of the series is in the characters. Every character, human and non, has a unique voice that made reading this aloud both easy and fun. I knew, even before I got to the dialogue tags, whether it was Jared speaking or his brother or a goblin. I also liked the way that each child character was special in their own way – Simon is the animal lover and Mallory is the fighter (and isn’t it wonderful for the girl to be the fighter?). Even Jared, who is your standard Gryffindor reader-insert hero character, begins to emerge as the artist as the story wears on.

The series starts very strong, but loses focus. That’s not to say that books 2-5 are bad, but rather that they just kinda happen, and I think the kid and I were both getting a bit bored with the series toward the end. The awe of discovery of the first book was gone, and there wasn’t enough else there to sustain our interest.

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The Magicians #2: The Magician King by Lev Grossman

Read: 25 October, 2016

Ever in search of his next adventure, Quentin sails out to Fillory’s far reaches to collect back taxes – a simple enough task that lands him back on earth with no way to return.

In the last book, the narrative followed Quentin fairly closely. Here, however, our time is split between the present, where Quentin & co quest to save magic in the multiverse, and filling in Julia’s doings between Quentin leaving for Brakebills and their reunion.

The back-and-forthing is an annoying narrative style and I hate it. I’m not sure what Grossman might have done differently, given the important information that Julia’s storyline gives us, but it’s irritating to start getting into the groove of one storyline only to be ripped out of it at every chapter end. I was enjoying both, but the transition pain was just too frequent.

Julia’s story is an interesting one. It’s much more rushed than Quentin’s in the first book, but it resonated for me in a lot of ways. It certainly wasn’t an easy read, though, as it’s clearly modelled on addiction (and includes symptomatic behaviours and great heapings of depression). Unfortunately, it goes even further and includes rape. (SPOILERS: Why was the rape necessary? In similar positions, rape was never on the table for Quentin, so why did Julia’s ‘price to be paid’ have to be this? Grossman could have done anything to Julia to bring her to her lowest, and he chose the easy route of having her raped. I’m quickly losing patience for rape being the default bad thing that can happen to a female character, especially when male characters in identical situations are almost never raped.)

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Pretty Deadly, Vol. 1: The Shrike by Kelly Sue DeConnick, illustrated by Emma Ríos

Read: 5 October, 2016

Bunny and Butterfly are talking about Death’s Daughter, Ginny – a reaper of vengeance. They say that when someone calls out to her by singing her son, she will appear to avenge them.

Pretty Deadly plunges straight into the story, which makes it rather confusing. Characters are thrown at the reader in quick succession – characters with traits or dialogue that make it seem like they might be interesting, like there might be something going on that I’d like to know about, but then the story just keeps moving on and the mystery is never acknowledged.

The illustrations have a similar issue. While absolutely gorgeous, they are often a little too stylised, making the action difficult to follow. I sometimes couldn’t tell what was happening in a panel until I’d read a few more and could piece together what happened by its result.

The use of animals and animal-human hybrids gave the story a mythic feel, which I quite enjoyed.

Unfortunately, though the visuals and ideas were great, the execution just didn’t do it for me. There’s too much “mystery box-ing,” which leaves me feeling frustrated rather than intrigued.

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