February 18, 2014

Review: House Of Blades By Will Wight

This review will have some mild spoilers. I will try not to give any major or specific plot points away, and will speak more generally about the world, the characters, and plot concepts.

I'll say it straight off the bat: House of Blades by Will Wight was an incredibly surprising book. I don't say that because I expected it to be bad or even mediocre, because I had seen one or two favourable (albeit not glowing) reviews and the concept really intrigued me. I say it was incredibly surprising because it was very good. Not necessarily something I would consider up there with the best in the fantasy genre, mind you, but it was precisely the kind of fantasy book I like. Here's the blurb from Goodreads:

Simon can only watch, helpless, as his family is killed and his friends captured by enemy Travelers—men and women who can summon mystical powers from otherworldly Territories. To top it off, another young man from Simon's village discovers that he's a savior prophesied to destroy evil and save the realm.
Prophecy has nothing to say about Simon. He has no special powers, no magical weapons, and no guarantee that he'll survive. But he sets off anyway, alone, to gain the power he needs to oppose the Travelers and topple their ruthless Overlord. It may not be his destiny, but Simon's determined to rescue his fellow villagers from certain death. 
 Because who cares about prophecy, really?

Now let me tell you what, from this blurb, grabbed my attention and why it made this book so good.

How Many Surrealists Does It Take To Screw In A Lightbulb? Fish.

First, the plot. It starts on familiar ground: a village is attacked, many are killed and a several others are taken away to be "sacrifices" by their own Overlord (who serve essentially as Dukes, ruling territories of a larger kingdom in the name of their king). One young man manifests magical powers to save the rest, and a pair of mysterious travelers arrive to pronounce him as a great hero spoken of in prophecy. They take him away to learn how to master his power so he can lead them to victory over the evil Overlords and save his people from being sacrifices, including the beautiful young woman (named Leah) he vows in particular to save.

This is where the subversion of expectations begins. That prophesied hero is named Alin, and he is NOT the main character. That role falls to Simon, who as the synopsis above says was not mentioned in prophecy at all. His mother is killed, but Alin and the other magic users leave him behind to help rebuild the village. Instead, he seeks out the mysterious figure who haunts the nearby forest and who also saved his life as a child years before. This weird figure, who speaks to dolls, wields a MASSIVE sword, has the strength of giants and can move faster than the blink of an eye, reluctantly agrees to teach Simon. Simon is taken to a strange and magical realm, inside a house that constantly attacks and tries to kill him. The baths heal him almost instantly of any wound, but contains strange imps that attack him if he lingers too long. Black robes ambush him as he sleeps, a huge figure made entirely of blades and leather guards the only food and drinking water and Simon has to fight and impress him enough to be allowed to eat. He has to fight animated armour, and a metal skeleton.

The parts of the book where Simon learns how to become a Traveler – the magic users in the book – are surreal and compelling. The notion of a characters being trained with strange methods by quirky teachers is not new, nor is the use of strange and magical places where normal rules of time and being don't apply. But the make up and execution of this part of the book really drew me in, it was done so well. All the constant tests and trials Simon faces were very creatively conceived.

When Simon and Alin are both ready to test their new powers to save Leah and the other villagers from the wicked Overlord and set out into the world, Will Wight really begins to turn everything on its head.

To Know The Rules, You Know How Best To Break Them

Now it's time to dig a bit more deeply into the characters. There are three main characters: Simon, the un-prophesied young man who is the main character; Alin, the prophesied hero who patently isn't the main character, but is still significant; and Leah, the young woman who acts like the damsel in distress but in her first POV establishes that as a ruse but only hints at her true purpose.

Simon, since he's the prophesied hero, starts the book out being utterly defenseless whenever his loved ones are attacked. Alin, the prophesied hero, has his seemingly innate powers to help him protect the villagers (a bit late for some of them, mind you). Leah, who seems like a typical damsel in distress, very quickly establishes herself as anything but, and despite her strong magical power goes along with being a sacrifice as part of her father's plan. Oh right... her father is the King, and the King's Overlord is the one who was responsible for the village being attacked in the first place, all because he needed his annual sacrifice.

By the end of the book, Simon emerges as being decidedly more heroic than Alin. Alin's heart is in the right place, and he certainly wields tremendous power. But Simon earned all of his power through blood, sweat, and tears... mostly blood, mind you. Alin, meanwhile, did work hard to master his abilities as much as possible, but when this book's plot comes to a climax he rushes headlong into danger despite not being ready, and winds up having some new power given to him (despite him being warned that its dangerous for him  without earning it properly first). Simon also winds up being the one who starts to see the situation as being far less straightforward than it is. Where Alin is dead-set on revenge against the Overlord, Simon is exposed to the war between his kingdom and those that see Alin as their saviour. He is forced to save people who are supposed to be his enemies from his own friends and villagers. He saves his Overlord's family in the middle of the climactic battle between Alin and the Overlord.

And Leah gives the perspective of her kingdom and her father. There might be a good reason why those sacrifices, as brutal as they are, are conducted. It might actually be saving everyone from something worse. Precisely what is going on is only hinted at or glimpsed, but it is obvious that there's more going on than we're being shown.

Conclusions: Sanderson-esque Subversion, 

The world is fairly creative, though there isn't much depth to it. The book has a nice pace to it, but the book is fairly short and some parts feel rushed – the magic system and the world building could have used more elaboration for my tastes. The quality of the prose ranges at times between passable to kind of very good, but the construction of the story overall is good to very good. What I love about the book, in the end, is the creativity. The subversion of tropes and expectations reminds me of Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn: The Final Empire. The quality of writing isn't quite up to that standard, however.

On one hand I'm not very surprised, because House of Blades was published by a publisher I hadn't heard of before – rather appropriately called Hidden Gnome Publishing. I can't help but think that if this book was given to an editor from a bigger publisher, it would have been given a more thorough and higher quality edit. I'm disappointed that it didn't, because I think it could have been made as good as Mistborn otherwise. 

None the less, you can see on Goodreads that 960 readers have given House of Blades an average score of 4.24 out of 5. I'd give it about the same, if a bit lower because of the quality of prose: it's a solid 8 out of 10, and a great debut book for a fantasy trilogy.

February 16, 2014

That Moment When A Book That You Ordered Arrives...

This is something that all book lovers, or indeed any zealous collector of wondrous things, will experience at some point in their lives if they haven't already experienced it.

Here's the situation...

You ordered a book or two (or five) in the mail a while back, and promptly forgot about it (or them) because life is very good at keeping your mind focused on other things. So you're sitting at home one day, and it might be the best or the worst day in the world already when you see that a package has arrived. Instantly, the best/worst day in the world has been rendered irrelevant because HOLY CRAP A PACKAGE THIS IS EXCITING WHAT IS IT WHAT IS IT WHAT IS IT?????

You open said package with a dignified curiosity, and you begin to see the treasure (or treasures) within...

Hmmm, it appears to be some sort of book (or five). I love books! Why, it's the third book in that series I've been trying to collect, the only one I hadn't managed to get my hands on yet. Even better!

You celebrate in a manner that is conducive to the situation. Namely, the fact that you're alone and no one can see or hear you.

You might even shout out a "Woo!" (or five) and do a fist pump in glee, something you would never do around anyone else lest they discover that you're one of those people who actually shouts "Woo!" when you're excited.

Then comes the most glorious moment of all... when you put the new book (or five) in its new home, on the neatly organized shelf, in its proper place according to its number in the series and the series' arranged according to the series title, because you're slightly anal about that sort of thing and SHUT UP that's why.

But then THAT moment comes...

When you go to put it on the shelf, in its proper spot within the series, you notice a sliiiiiiiiight problem...

It's that moment when you realize: "Oh crap... I already got that book (or five) and I completely forgot about it and now I wasted my money when I could have spent it on that other book (or five) that I wanted!"

But you're a grown adult. You're used to disappointments in life, even of the most disappointing sort such as this, and so you handle it in a dignified manner befitting of your wisdom and maturity...

February 5, 2014

Review: God's War By Kameron Hurley

This review will have some mild spoilers. I will try not to give any major or specific plot points away, and will speak more generally about the world, the characters, and plot concepts.

Like a lot of books that I pick up these days, God's War by Kameron Hurley is a book that I had seen come up on numerous book blogs and review websites. She received some awards for things like "best new author" or "best debut book", and was shortlisted for more major literary awards like the Nebula and the Locus.

Despite that this was a book that I constantly forgot about and so never got around to reading until recently. Maybe because it's sci-fi and I tend to prefer fantasy, or maybe it's because the bookstore I worked at never really had the book until recently. In fact, the first time I saw the book in the store was earlier this week, and I bought it straight away.

Short And Sweet. And By Sweet I Mean Coarse. 

The world in which this story takes place is not Earth. That's never explicitly said, but implied heavily enough that the reader would figure it out pretty quickly. It isn't, however, ever explained where this planet is or what the history of its colonization is. Other planets are mentioned, you're told that colonists from off-world were cut off centuries before, and there are a few 'alien' humans who visit that become sort of important to the main plot. But that's it, this book doesn't have any real info dumps or asides to explain the history of something, or how something works. Some things are implied, and the rest you just pick up as you go along. 

Quite frankly, I really liked the way Kameron Hurley pulled it off. It kept the book shorter (only 288 pages) and the pace moving along briskly, even when she had to put various pieces for the plot in place before moving along. In fact Hurley's entire writing style can be described as very spartan: she describes people, places, things, and events as concisely as possible.
And oh what a world. 

What's Old Is New, What's New Is Old

It seems like the planet was populated by Islamic, or Islamic-like, colonists. Though there were different ethnic groups, factions, and sects that developed into distinct regional-political entities, they all worked together despite any tensions that might have existed between then. Eventually, however, a religious war erupted between two of the larger kingdoms that has lasted three hundred years. As a result, almost all men are legally required to fight in the war (and women can volunteer to serve), and this has a profound effect on the society of both kingdoms. The Nasheen (which is the main setting for the book) men are extremely rare, and so women govern the kingdom through various groups: the monarchy, the Bel Dame Council, and the Magicians. The other is more like a very orthodox Islamic state: men retain more power, because they're more rare, and stick to their religious principles more devoutly. 

Author Kameron Hurley
'Magic' in this world has two forms: bug-users and shifters. Both have mysterious origins, and a few times it's implied that the harsh environment of the planet is what caused people on the planet to wield both abilities - the 'aliens' that visit mention that people on planets they know of do not have them. The bug-users, simply called 'Magicians', are much more significant in this book. Basically, they can manipulate all the bugs of the planet. They can use them to attack (swarms of poisonous wasps), send communications long distance, they work them into the machinery as parts and fuel, and most importantly they use them to heal people... even people who are dead. The bugs cure the cancers that everyone gets, they reconstitute people who were set on fire, had their head blasted half-off by a shotgun, or had various limbs lopped or blasted off.

All for a price, of course.

Despite this curative technology/magic, people don't live very long. The world is harsh, apparently full of lots of radiation poisons and cancers from the burning sun(s). You need to be inoculated at birth with magic/technology, for a fee of course, or you'll be physically underdeveloped and weak and would be lucky to live into your 20's. As a result of this short life span, it is a prominent job for a woman to just churn out babies. They have them in bunches, aided by magic/science. Even so, by age 12-13 it seems you're basically an adult, and turning 30 seems to be the equivalent of being in your 50's or even 60's in real life. By law, anyone drafted into the war has to serve until they're 40 years old, so it's very rare for anyone to survive that long. Enemies are vaporized by bombs, burnt into ash by fire, cut up into tons of pieces, and contaminated by poisons and radioactive bugs in order to prevent them from being reconstituted. So unsurprisingly, a lot of young men try and dodge the draft or flee from the front. 

This is where the bel dames, and as a result our heroine, comes into the picture.

Bel Dame Apparently Means Badass Or Psycho

The main character is Nyx, a woman who volunteered to serve at the war front for a couple of years, and since became a bel dame - a group of women who hunt down and kill anyone who tries to draft dodge or escape from the front. On the side, she works as a bounty hunter. This is something VERY frowned upon for a bel dame to do. Bel dame's are noble and crucial to victory, and dabbling in bounty hunting and working with gene pirates (yes it's apparently a thing) is thought to sabotage the war effort. 

On the first page of this book Nyx sells her womb off to gene pirates as a spare body part to avoid being tracked by her sister bel dames, she gets drunk and high on whisky and morphine chasers, she loses all the money she made selling her womb betting on an underground boxing match, then goes home and sleeps with the woman who lost the boxing match. And she did it all to bring in a mark - the boxer's brother. 

Nyx is coarse, she's an addict and a drunk, she's a rogue in her own society, she's an atheist among fierce religious groups, she has sex with men and woman for both pleasure and business, and she cut off the wang of the man who introduced her to the bounty hunting business. She's also a badass, she's a survivor, a fierce and dirty fighter, loyal to her fellow bounty hunting crew (though she doesn't always allow herself to show it), and less cynical and selfish than she lets on. 


It's fast paced, it's interesting and refreshing, the characters are compelling, the plot has various interconnected twists, and overall it was a great foundation for the rest of the trilogy. I easily give it an 8 out of 10, maybe an 8.5.

February 1, 2014

Review: Doctor... wait... Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell

This review will have some mild spoilers. I will try not to give any major or specific plot points away, and will speak more generally about the world, the characters, and plot concepts.

Dr. Stra—crap—Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke is a book that I had known about for at least a couple of years. A co-worker of mine, who has very similar tastes to mine, absolutely gushed about it whenever it came up (and sometimes when it didn't). I knew that it won some awards (Hugo Award, World Fantasy Award, Mythopoeic Award, Locus Award for Best First Novel, and British Book Award for Best Newcomer), what I didn't know that it was also longlisted for the Man Booker and shortlisted for a few others.

So yeah, this book had some hype to it.

Despite that, it took me a long time to get to reading it. I can't really say why. I was told it had magic and fairy tales in a historical setting, and I like ALL of those things. Mind you it doesn't really matter how long it took me to read it, because I've read it now.

First, It's A Masterpiece Of Literature

I'm a bit weird, in that I can get through a book solely on the writing. It can have boring characters, poor plot, dull setting, and be written in a dry tone, but if the author can construct sentences using clever (to me) syntax, language, and rhythm I'll still read through the whole thing with a smile on my face. Dr Strange—dammit!—Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was not boring or dull or dry, and it was masterfully written. 

It's set in Britain during the Napoleonic Wars, and finishes some years after it. Two magicians, first Mr Norrell and then Doct... Jonathan Strange, reveal themselves to Britain as 'practical' magicians (not to be confused with the 'theoretical' magicians that study the theory and history of magic for its own pleasure), ready and willing to restore magic to Britain. For in this book, magic has a long and proud history in Britain, and the book cleverly adds all kinds of footnotes feeding extra information on that history, rather than filling the book with awkward info dumps.

As part of their efforts, they help the British government as much as they can. Doctor (fuck!) Jonathan Strange serves under the Duke of Wellington as he makes war in Spain against the invading French. Norrell conjures phantoms to harass and scare the French Navy, scries out the location of enemy fleets and armies, and brings a prominent politician's wife back from the dead. They also come to deal with the Fairies, some of whom threaten them, their loved ones, and the King of Britain himself. 

Last, there is the tension between Dr Jonathan—just Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, who acts as the former's tutor in magic. The two have much different views on magic, how it should be wielded, how to view it's history, and actually about everything related to magic. Norrell wants magic to be studied solely from books, specifically books he approves of, and he most certainly does not approve of older, wilder styles of magic that are related to the semi-mythical Raven King (Britain's most famous, powerful magician) and the Fairies. Doct-Jonathan Strange, on the other hand, craves adventure, experimentation, and the glory from Britain's historical magicians and what/how they practiced. 

It's Definitely A Good Book, But...

Everything I mentioned above constitute the main elements of the book: Norrell and Strange (from now on he's just 'Strange') bringing magic back, feud that erupts between the two, the Fairies interfering in the affairs of humans, the war in Continental Europe against Napoleon, and all the history/backstory/nature of magic in Britain. All of them are in their own way interesting, and I enjoyed them all to varying degrees. The problem I had is that none of those elements ever seemed to have any depth to them in the book. 

Strange being part of the army under Wellington, for the two different stages in the Napoleonic Wars, comprised only one small part of the book, and what got the most treatment was the different spells and magic Strange did at Wellington's behest. And those scenes were pretty brief: Wellington would present some problem he and the army were having, Strange would mull it over for a while, have some epiphany while reading through books about what spell might work, he'd do it, people would be some mixture of amazed/horrified... rinse, repeat until the war is over.

The magic itself was not at the level of other fantasy books, like Sanderson or Rothfuss. Basically, you had to read books and recite some spells. There was no internal logic or restrictions - as long as you had the book in front of you, or someone to tell it to you, you could do the spell. Except, of course, those occasions when Fairies or Strange (and some others at the end) seem to be able to use magic without any spells, but in a manner that's never explained at all. 

Norrell and Strange, and indeed all of the characters, are very repetitive in their behaviours and dialogues, without any real development. The most development, and it isn't much, is seen in some of the minor characters. In fact a lot of the characters were very similar, they all acted in that stereotypical way we all imagine the British to have acted and spoken "back in the day". 

Conclusion: I Wanted More Of It All

This was a very large book. The mass market edition is more than 1000 pages, and with all of the little footnotes in tiny writing, it crams a lot into the book. I almost wish that Susanna Clarke diminished one or more of those main elements, cut some minor ones out entirely, and gave more focus and depth to the others. After finishing the book, despite really liking it, I didn't feel satisfied. It's like whenever I eat fish for a meal... I could eat an entire, large fish and afterwards I'd still want to eat a whole pizza, it just isn't filling. Everything just brushed the surface, and we never got to really dive in to her characters or story.

And on those consecutive metaphors, I grant this book a 7.5 out of 10. Worth the read, and I know a lot of people love this book. I think the lack of depth is something that's a personal preference of mine that made me feel slightly disappointed that the book wasn't better.

I might have given it a higher ranking, but I'm annoyed by the fact I always want to call it Dr. Strange and Mr Norrell, not Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.