Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Mark Lawrence's PRINCE OF THORNS

Admit it. You've always wished that George R.R. Martin was gutsy enough to let Joffrey Baratheon have the odd point of view chapter. So, apparently, did Mark Lawrence. And he did something about it.

Admit it. You loved Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun in all its occult glory, but wished it had a reliable narrator, and would give bonus points if said reliable narrator was a boy psychopath. So, apparently, did Mark Lawrence. And he did something about it.

And here's the kicker -- he did both of these things in the same damned book! And thus Prince of Thorns and its two Broken Empire sequels came to be. So we have an extremely post-post-apocalyptic setting, in which civilization has been bombed back to medieval France but there is so much bizarre and inexplicable leftover technology and other phenomena about that it's basically an epic fantasy setting chock full'o'magic... and we have a boy psychopath, a prince of the blood with a thirst for revenge and a giant cauterized wound where his conscience might be, leading us through it from his perspective.

This is not a pretty book, folks (especially not for someone coming off the ravishing loveliness of A Song for Arbonne), but damn, is it a compelling one.

It does perhaps require something in the order of a trigger warning, though. Our boy, who rejoices in the name of Prince Honorus Jorg Ancrath, is truly a wicked one. Though only 13 years old when we first meet him, he's already a murderer, a thug, a manipulator, and, yes, a rapist (though the rapes occur offscreen). The book itself starts off with rape and murder and violence, as such is Jorg's origin story; when he was nine, he, his mother the Queen, and his little brother were waylaid on their travels; mama was raped and murdered; little brother was mutilated and murdered; Jorg only survived because he got tangled up in the world's wickedest briars and was held helpless and out of sight by the thorns, hence the book's title. He has scars inside and out, yo.

To make matters worse, his father the king declines to take revenge on the attackers. It's politically inexpedient. You'll understand when you're older. Be a good boy and go page through your Plutarch and leaf through your Livy and don't leave too many stiffened socks for the servants to clean up.

Wrong answer, dad.

So by the time the lad is 13 (the nine/ten-year-old Jorge we meet in judicious flashbacks), he's left home and become the head of a band of ruthless bastards. And these aren't fun, funny bastards like Scott Lynch has made us love. These are evil, violent, bloodthirsty marauders who you will find yourself a little abashed to be rooting for (more or less).

Some readers have complained that it's impossible for a 13 year old boy to take control of such a band. I'll let his friend Sir Makin answer that, as he did when Jorg asked him what he meant when he said Jorg is good: "Playing a role. Filling in for lost years with that intuition of yours. Replacing  experience with genius."

And then there is the matter of some mages. Sneaky, powerful, subtle, nasty mages, who can manipulate other people like puppets. Arguments can be made that some of Jorg's precocity, and maybe some of his ferocity, aren't entirely his own.

Maybe.

Regardless of who the baddest guy really is, though, regardless of how nasty things get, because Lawrence has presented Jorg's point of view so convincingly, so clearly, so logically, the reader winds up in some way rooting for him. Even if we find him utterly irredeemable, we love watching him go.

Yeah, you'd better believe I'm going to read the rest of his saga. With frequent showering in between chapters, but I'm going to be reading it. Soon.

Maybe I'll intersperse it with Guy Gavriel Kay. You know, just so I don't wind up hating humanity altogether 8)

Monday, January 26, 2015

Guy Gavriel Kay's A SONG FOR ARBONNE

It's been a long, long time since I struggled so with a book as I did with Guy Gavriel Kay's wonderful A Song for Arbonne. And that's a good thing. I'd never get anything done if I went through what I went through with this one every time I sat down to read.

The struggle, incidentally, was not to finish it all in one long greedy gulp. I had to force myself to pace myself. I had to sip.

I knew pretty much right away that I'd found another favorite, you see, and I'd only have this first reading once.

A Song for Arbonne is, for me, the perfect kind of fantasy novel, which means in lots of ways it probably barely counts as fantasy. There are no prophecies, no chosen ones, no blatant manipulation by gods or immortals or wizards. There's barely any magic, and a reader can pretty much choose to ignore as coincidental or at least as a matter of interpretation what magic there is.

What's there in place of all those tiresome tropes is absolutely top-notch character drama in a world similar to our own (except in that it has two moons, one of which shines a beautiful blue in the night sky), in a period that might more or less equate to our twelfth century. The known world consists of six nations, more or less versions of regions of Europe, with the titular Arbonne pretty clearly based on Eleanor's Aquitaine, a chivalric culture of troubadours and courtly love but one in which women can actually wield political power and inherit property and you can already see a part of why I loved this book so; Kay obviously did a lot of thinking about how this could work. The central fact of this culture is that it reveres a goddess, Rian as the equal of the world's war god, Corannos, so it follows that mortal women should also be treated as equals -- at least in Arbonne's high culture/ruling classes, which are all we get to see here.

This idyllic land is uneasy neighbors with a much more traditional fantasy kingdom, Gorhaut, a male-driven culture given to sneering at "woman-ruled Arbonne", who revere Corannos only, and who have, as this novel gets into gear, recently concluded fifty years of border war with another country by ceding over a huge chunk of territory in exchange for a lot of money, thus displacing a huge chunk of Gorhaut's population and leading all eyes to look south to the ripe-for-the-taking fertility and ports of Arbonne.

Drama button!

But it's the personalities of the figures involved that truly matter. I'm not going to spoil those here, except to say that a lot of the country's fate comes down to the unfortunate choice made a generation ago by a headstrong woman who was married to a duke and cuckholded him with a troubador who later on became a duke himself, leaving a legacy of hatred that threatens to weaken Arbonne fatally. Good thing the country is ruled by a devastatingly astute and strong women (who happens to be the headstrong woman's mother) -- and that a mysterious man from Gorhaut has appeared on the scene, introducing a whole new set of consequences (and daddy issues).

Every single character matters. Every single arc matters. Everything is given its due. The construction of the narrative is flawless. The writing is nearly flawless -- like many, I found myself annoyed by the occasional slip into present tense to, I guess, heighten the drama of some scenes, usually involving the mysterious man's family in Gorhaut, but even there the prose was gorgeous.

Now I've just got to struggle with the urge to binge-read the rest of Kay's stuff. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Starla Hutchton's SHADOWS ON SNOW: A FLIPPED FAIRY TALE

First of all, let us take a moment to bask in the glory of this cover. Bask. It is glorious. The author is a graphic designer and has a whole side business in designing glorious book covers. I plan on using her myself, when I finally get some things finished and ready to publish again (soon, I promise! There will be seven. See what I did there?).

Second, let me just say that I'm pretty sure that pretty much everything that feminists and their sympathizers have ever found to hate about fairy tales in general, and the tale of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" in particular, is addressed and corrected in Starla Hutchton's Shadows on Snow: A Flipped Fairy Tale. And not just because the genders of the rescued and the rescuer are flipped. Oh no.

So yes, the innocent and beautiful Snow White is, in this book, an almost ridiculously handsome prince. And he gets rescued by a princess. Dur. But wait, there's more.

Because the dwarfs, too, are gender flipped, but are also turned into something much more than mere caretakers of/providers of refuge for the hapless victim character. The seven in this tale are women. Moreover, they are magic users. Moreover, they are princesses. And the rescuing princess is one of them.

Already we're seeing fantastic levels of agency in the characters and an enrichment of the original Snow White plot that is wonderful to see. For these seven magical princesses have a deep and plot-relevant back story; the wicked stepfather (yes, more flipping. Starla flips it all, yo) has done his dirty deeds before, has a pattern of wickedness and sorcery, and these seven princesses were orphaned and exiled from their wonderful kingdom in the wicked stepfather's last go-around.

But this is all just background to the drama of the seventh and youngest princess, Rae, and her prince, Leopold, he of the skin white as snow and hair black as ebony -- but also he of considerable wisdom, kindness, martial prowess and all around quality. Snow White in the original tale is beautiful and innocent and kind, but Leopold could lead an army into war, yo. But he still winds up needing saving, because he doesn't know much about magic. Good thing for him Rae does.

But Rae also is not just a magic user. She's a fully rounded kickass heroine in the Katniss Everdine mode, with outdoor survival skills, a talent for managing horses, and believable vulnerabilities that keep her interesting even as she enacts the obvious fairy tale plot.

And this is key, when you're retelling classic fairy tales and legends. We know the story. We know the plot twists, know how it's going to end. We need reasons other than suspense to be bothered with reading the story yet again, and really, for this reader, said reasons need to go way beyond just "well, what if Snow White was a boy and he got rescued by Princess Charming."

On this, Ms. Hutchton absolutely delivers. Every character (well, except maybe the Voldemort-ish wicked stepfather, who is more of a looming threat than an actual presence in most of the novel, perhaps to the book's slight detriment, but oh well) is well-developed and unique. The novel length gives the author the chance to really explore the story's world, its politics, its history, its sexual dynamics, its humanity.

I'm pretty sure this is my favorite thing Ms. Hutchton has done. I am happily ever after.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Greg Kisbaugh's BONE WELDER

Do you love Mary Shelley's Frankenstein a whole lot? Like enough to be one of those pedants who can't remind people fast enough that Frankenstein is the scientist's name, not the monster's? Do you also love Chicago a whole lot? Do you wish these two things could be brought together into a heartbreaking further chronicle of the most misunderstood?

Then Greg Kisbaugh is definitely your huckleberry.

The main conceit of Bone Welder is that Frankenstein's Monster was real, that Ms. Shelley got most of his story right but that she got the ending really wrong. The Monster didn't kill anybody, grew to become a noble and cultivated soul, but botched his reunion with his creator on the scientist's wedding night so badly that he had no choice but to head north and build what amounts to his own Fortress of Solitude.

That is until our man Jonas comes along. Ah, Jonas, long a widower, recently deprived also of his daughter, duped by a mad scientist into believing he can at least get the daughter back, but did I not emphasize the mad enough? Anyway, this scientist (no, not our monster's creator, but someone with an intimate connection to that tragic figure nonetheless) turns out to have duped a lot of people before Jonas, producing a huge population of botched re-animations that shamble about the darker, seedier bits of downtown Chicago, immortal imbeciles who have merged with the city's homeless population, and who now count (or would if they still could count) Jonas' beloved daughter among their number...

Yes, the soundtrack music for this novel would be heavy on the weeping, wailing melodrama of the violin.  But this is not a bad thing.

Anyway, said modern day mad scientist, one Lucius Angel, has convinced Jonas that Frankenstein's Monster (who now calls himself Victor) is the only person who can help de-zombify Jonas' daughter. So off our hapless Jonas goes to track down a legend.

Soon Jonas and Victor are skulking around Chicago, trying to put a stop on Angel's operation, but of course this proves insanely difficult. For Angel is as old and immortal as Victor, but has spent his centuries more profitably, building himself an empire with seemingly limitless resources. All Victor and Jonas have to draw on is, you guessed it, an army of Angel's mistakes.

Yes, this is all exactly as awesome as it sounds.

But wait, there's more. For it turns out Angel's efforts don't always result in mindless failures. Unbeknownst to him, two of the mistakes he's loosed on Chicago are lucid. One, Cooper Shaye, is working to ease the suffering of his fellow undead. As for the other, well, he's the one the book is (at least superficially) named for: Raymond Grimes, sound (sort of) of mind but decrepit in body, a disgraced surgeon in life, Angel's Bone Welder henchman in death. The scenes featuring these two secondary characters almost steal the show, with Shaye's heroic pathos nicely countering Grimes' chilling amorality. I'd read an entire novel about either one.

But if course, this is a book about Victor, and an elegant reimagining of his story and extension of its themes. Man, do I wish I, Frankenstein had used this storyline instead of the hot mess it had. I just needed to put that out there. Hollywood missed its chance, big time. When I am queen, etc.
I do wish, though, that the ending had been tighter. I can well understand the impulse to want to preserve the possibility of sequels in this publishing climate, but this book felt all the way through like a strong stand-alone. Good as this was -- and it's very good indeed -- I don't really want to read further adventures of Victor & Jonas. But maybe that's just me.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Howard of Warwick's THE DOMESDAY BOOK (NO, NOT THAT ONE)

If your favorite bit of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was phrases like "the ships hung in the sky in exactly the way that bricks don't", have I got a book for you.

If you love the Blackadder series but don't think it was quite farcical enough, have I got a book for you.

If you love the History Channel's drama Vikings but think the characters depicted aren't stupid or violent enough, have I got a book for you.

If you love The Hallelujah Trail but wish it could have been set in the days of the Norman Conquest of England, have I got a book for you.

Howard of Warwick, famed for the Brother Hermitage books, a series of comic medieval mystery novels I'm definitely going to have to have a look at sometime, is your man, and The Domesday Book (No, Not That One) is your book. Set in the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings and featuring a ridiculous cast of historical and made-up figures, it's a deeply silly read that can easily be described in one choice excerpt:
From the north of Wisbech a cart load of Vikings. From the south a cartload of Normans. In the middle a band of wounded Saxons riding hell-for-leather. Well, riding as fast as most of their injuries would allow, which was actually pretty slow.
The Vikings have been dispatched on, of all things, a rescue mission; the Normans on one of capture; the Saxons, including a man of high repute wounded in the eye-or-thigh, are the targets of both. Because, you see, the knight who triumphantly brought King Harold's body to William the Conqueror's tent after the Battle of Hastings brought the wrong body, but this was not noticed until a lot of crowing and woofing had been done, and now the demented and homicidal William is demanding the real thing, loudly and violently... but in complete secrecy. Of course.

The story is mostly told from the points of view of two Saxons, Mabbut, drafted to act as a local guide for the Normans even though he's not really ever been to England, having grown up in France in the mistaken belief that his family are hostages (actually, his parents just like France better); and Siward, a village idiot and "filth man" kidnapped by the Vikings for the same purpose, even though he's never been a mile or two from home. Hilarity, mostly in the form of death threats and impatience with ignorant rustics, ensues in both storylines.

It's all deeply silly, though not quite in that Monty Python way you're probably hoping for. There's fun to be had here, but the fun is mostly for history nerds, I suspect.

I am one of those, so I laughed, often.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Paul Elard Cooley's THE BLACK: A DEEP SEA THRILLER

I like to see an author stretch himself, and stretching is what Paul Elard Cooley* is doing with his latest novel, his deep sea thriller The Black. On the surface an ocean-borne monster tale that has been described as Peter Benchley meets H.P. Lovecraft, The Black has more going on than just watching well-constructed characters getting et by a monster.

For starters, The Black has rather a unique setting -- a deep sea petroleum exploration platform, where roughnecks spend months at a time working hard and getting smelly, far from their families or anything like civilization. This particular platform is a locus of unusual excitement even before the horror elements set in: it's potentially on top of an oil find so big that it might allow the U.S. to tell the Middle East to pound sand.

Enter a crew of specialists, experts in fields like robotics and petroleum geology and ways to use the former to improve our understanding of the latter. They fit in poorly on the rig (even the ones who are not -- gasp -- women), and the tension between them and the roughnecks gives the novel a greater depth and substance than people usually go looking for in monster stories. Some readers have apparently complained of this a bit, but I find it only makes me care about the characters all the more when the excrement hits the air conditioning, as it does.

Oh, it does.

Cooley has also gone to the extraordinary trouble of creating a wholly new monster. I joked on twitter early on that oh, no, the robots were about to shave Cthulhu, but I was dead wrong. As it were. Actually, I'm still trying to sort out what matter of entity is disturbed to the characters' peril. It's not just big and black and aquatic; its biology is utterly alien (especially if I'm correctly understanding that what is causing most of the trouble in the exciting second half of the novel is pretty much just the entities blood? lymph? anyway, some kind of body fluid), as is its level of sentience. And, spoiler alert, the mystery is maintained to the very end, but without satisfying the reader's need for, you know, an ending.

I look forward most eagerly to its sequel, which promises to broaden the greater story's scope and threat, just as Cooley's pal (and mine) Scott Sigler's Infected trilogy did. Yowza. I just can't wait to find out what the Snape this entity/creature/thing IS!!!

*Reviewer's note: Cooley is a personal friend, so, you know, bias alert. But if I don't like a friend's books, I don't write about them. And if you haven't noticed by now, I'm a pretty demanding reader so, you know, don't let the bias alert scare you off, mmmkay?

Friday, September 19, 2014

Andy Weir's THE MARTIAN

You can keep your Heathcliffes, your Darcys, your Rochesters ; my literary boyfriend on whom I call dibs for all time is Mark Watney, almost-omnicompetent botanist, engineer, Martian.

Andy Weir's The Martian feels like it has a very familiar premise -- Robinson Crusoe on Mars anyone? -- but Weir's hero makes it a unique story all its own. Stranded on a newly-established Mars base after a sandstorm forces the rest of his crew to abort their years-long mission (an accident during the evacuation leads everyone to believe Mark has perished), he has to choose whether to give up and die and spare himself a slow suffering death from starvation after his NASA rations run out, or to outthink his situation and live. He chooses, of course, the latter, even though he is pretty sure no one is ever going to come to his rescue. And there is much rejoicing.

His story is told via his logs, in which he details his thought processes and his progress toward survival (making water, making [via a combination of Martian dirt and his own poop] garden soil, growing potatoes, hacking the expedition's exploration and sampling equipment to turn it all into a survival machine) as well as his occasional exasperation at his erstwhile crewmates' taste in culture; the mission commander had a serious Seventies problem, and her choices completely govern how Mark winds up spending his leisure hours while, e.g., waiting for batteries to recharge, for potato seedlings to grow, for hydrolysis to happen.

Intercut with Mark's journal entries are conventional third-person narratives detailing how NASA discovers he is still alive and the extraordinary efforts to which they -- and the rest of the planet, really -- go to get him home again. These characters are as vividly realized as Mark is, and almost as enjoyable to watch in action. Almost.

All this is very exciting and enjoyable, but really, for me it's the competence porn that makes this book the delight that it is. Mark is not truly omnicompetent -- he has some scary near misses and makes some nearly-deadly mistakes -- but he's close enough. Give me a man who can make his own soil, hack a Mars rover and maintain his sanity on a cultural diet of nothing but Three's Company reruns and I'll... no, just give me that man, all right?

And yes, I still want to go to Mars. Maybe my cadaver can go someday at least (which, see next review)...


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