Archive for March, 2011

The first modern novel

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

Many will probably be surprised to find out that the book that is considered to be the first modern novel is of Japanese origin and written in the early 11th century. This is The Tale Of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, a woman no less, which is even more rarer for those ancient times. In Japan it is put on par with Homeros and Shakespeare and also in the rest of the world of literature it is considered to be a classic. Although it is thought that the work was completed around 1008, the first mention of a complete edition being available stems from the year 1021.

It is actually a very complex book. Most translations have attempted to help the reader to keep trace of the hundreds of characters in the book. The original version is about 1000 pages long. As such one will find many abridged versions that pick out the best parts. The version I purchased is such an abridged version, just over 300 pages long, covering the first third of the book. Maybe I will obtain the complete version some time later.

Patrick Rothfuss – The Wise Man’s Fear

Saturday, March 26th, 2011

The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss is the first book I’ve read that is published in 2011 and as such the first one on my Wanted List for this year that I have obtained. The Wise Man’s Fear is the (for many) long-awaited sequel to The Name Of The Wind. I enjoyed that book quite a bit although I thought the praise it got everywhere was overrated.
The Wise Man’s Fear is built up similarly as The Name Of The Wind: in a certain present day the protagonist tells his story to a chronicler. During the storytelling the reader sometimes switches back to this present time, providing the information that the story will not have ended yet, although what or how remains unclear.

As it has been 4 years since I read The Name Of The Wind I had forgotten quite a bit of details from it, but the story brings the reader back to the familiar setting of the first book. No less than a third of the book is actually not much different from the setting and events of The Name Of The Wind. The main character is still attending the University, where he progresses further in his studies. As it was mostly more of the same I started longing for the moment the character would leave or do something noteworthy. As said this fortunately came after one third. This certainly improved things as there was finally some real development. The middle part itself consisted of two parts with different settings. The second half was certainly very strong with some strong action and strange settings. I liked this part most of the book. In the final part Rothfuss provides the reader with a completely different setting. It is partially a continuation of the second half of the middle part and can be noted for it’s philosophical themes. Rothfuss manages to present these in a natural way. However, even with a different setting, the story feels a lot like we are back at the University albeit with more restrictions. Rothfuss certainly kept himself on familiar ground.

Overall The Wise Man’s Fear is not that particularly exciting or filled with action. About two thirds of the book the main character is in a learning environment. Nothing really eventful or dramatic happens and although some background is filled in the most significant revelations happen in the middle part, which is also where most of the real action takes places. In the whole book there were only one and a half events which got me rocking (the half one had not that much a climax as hoped), both in the fore-mentioned section. For a book of almost 1000 pages this is way too little, especially as it’s supposed to be the middle book of a trilogy. The first book gave us the early childhood of the main character and his development after joining the University. The Wise Man’s Fear does nowhere get into full gear. Sure, plenty of things happen, but most of them are minor events with (seemingly) little impact on the major story. Rothfuss keeps a leisured pace and after a more active middle part got back to his old pace again leaving the book ending without any impact. The main character has learned a lot but this has nowhere affected the greater story yet. Like The Name Of The Wind there is a small event related to the greater story but it shows no repercussions. It thus seems that all the real action will take place in the third and final book which is a bit odd.

Even as there are few major events happening Rothfuss is a solid writer who knows how to entertain his reader. Nowhere the story gets boring or slogs down. The main character is active and plenty of funny and interesting things are happening. He builds his settings and develops his characters really well. They feel natural and are easily comfortable to the reader. Strong characterization certainly attracts readers and he does a great job at it. In the second book he adds a large set of different characters to the existing ones. They quickly fit in and are very recognizable without being cliché in any way.

Besides the lack of major events the main problem of The Wise Man’s Fear is that it is too long. Rothfuss often makes small digressions and goes into detail to explain situations and backgrounds in a natural way. However it all feels like an extended version of a movie. These days DVDs often provide deleted scenes or and extended version for the fan who isn’t bothered by the length of the movie. This is also how it feels with The Wise Man’s Fear. I always read about how authors tell that editors cut down their first drafts substantially but it feels like it didn’t happen here. Many digressions add little to the story. They provide a greater whole but when cut out you wouldn’t have missed them. Especially the first part contains much similar to the first book and presented little that was new, even if it was done to allow the reader to get back into the story more easily.

Remarkably about these digressions and details is that it does not happen everywhere. Certain events or mini-arcs are quickly skipped over and dubbed as unimportant to the narrator. Of course this is something that can happen, but to me the significance of other events, which were far more fitting to be skipped over or summarized, is unclear. In my opinion probably the book could be a quarter shorter without much effort. If you write a book of almost 1000 pages this amount should be justifiable, for example if there are too many connected events happening that lead to certain conclusion. This is nowhere the case for The Wise Man’s Fear. It could have been cut in two or even three books without much of a problem.

The last thing I want to say something about is that Rothfuss added a considerable amount of romance to the book. As I’m a male I’m not particularly looking for romantic stories but I don’t mind some romance to add some extra dimensions to a story. Even so I noticed that Rothfuss spent quite more attention to romantic events than I’m used to. Could it be he did so to please more female readers? As this is a first person story where the male narrator tells his story to only male listeners it seems a bit too much to spend so much time on these events while skipping on others that would’ve been more interesting to the ones listening to his story. Of course different perspectives can explain things like these, but it just felt a bit odd to me.

As I often do, it will perhaps seem that I’m only critical to a book and sing few praises in comparison to the negative comments. This is mainly because negative comments require more explanation to make clear what specifically is less good. It is the curse of a thorough analysis. Weaknesses are made much bigger than they seem.

The Wise Man’s Fear is a strong sequel to The Name Of The Wind. The reader will feel at home quickly and enjoy a solid and entertaining story with excellent characterization. I certainly had a great pleasure reading it although it did not have many peaks that would make it a memorable book.

I highly recommend The Wise Man’s Fear to every fantasy reader. For now I don’t categorize it in a specific type of fantasy. It dabbles a bit in epic fantasy but the scope and range of events remain restrained so much that I wouldn’t define it as such. It remains a bit in the middle of the road. It does not thread new paths but does contain interesting ideas and concepts. As such this book hasn’t changed my opinion of the series. It is a very well written fantasy story but lacking in impact. Much happens to the main character but it has only a small effect on the surrounding world and the greater story. We know this will change, but usually there is more general development. Until now the main character can just do what he wants and it does not really matter that much. Either way I will surely pick up the next volume of the series.

The not-so-much long-awaited one

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

A cryptic title perhaps, but a fitting description. Today I received The Wise Man’s Fear (2011) by Patrick Rothfuss, the sequel to the very popular The Name Of The Wind. As it has been 4 years since that book’s publication the wait has been relatively long for a second novel by a new author. Personally I think The Name Of The Wind was quite overhyped, which happens quite often with books, but it had sufficient things to make me decide to get the sequel. The wait of four years thus did not trouble me much. I had almost forgotten until I noted the sequel would be published this year.  Still the first book was hardly that original, so I am interested in finding out if Rothfuss can really lift this book into fantastical territory. Expect a review soon, but as it is almost 1000 pages and I still have my job during the day it will probably be this weekend.

Robert Louis Stevenson – Catriona

Monday, March 21st, 2011

In modern literature it is not that common to have sequels unless they fit the genre. The historic novel Catriona (1893) by Robert Louis Stevenson is a sequel to his famous novel Kidnapped, but never reached a similar popularity. Most people probably only know Kidnapped and are not aware there is a sequel.

Kidnapped had a conclusion but as it takes place in a historic setting there are always more events happening related to the historic people and events that take place afterwards. Stevenson had intended to write more about the main character of Kidnapped but it took some time until he knew how to make it into a full novel. This is mainly because the historic event he wanted to tell about is not that extensive. What Stevenson did was create a situation for the main character in which he plays a hidden role in the historic event which could have dramatic effects. Even this was not enough and the events only fill about two-thirds of the book. As the title suggests the remainder and some more a taken up by a romance.

Stevenson plays out the situation of the main character to the fullest. There is little focus on adventure but more on psychological situations in which the main character has to prove himself and build and show character. My feeling is that it is done too extensively. Most of that feeling is caused by the great formality with which most characters act. It is all quite tedious. There is little actual danger and mainly threats which have to be countered. With far fewer words a much stronger impact could have been created.

The romance part is quite constrained by the Victorian age in which it was written. Even as the story takes place almost 150 years earlier the author has been constrained by the allowed behavior of those times. The romance will feel weird for the modern reader, even considering the different values. It creates great tensions over little and also this part is quite tedious at times.

Even as it is tedious, the prose is strong but because of its formality not always that easy. The real problem is Stevenson’s extensive use of Scottish dialect in his writing. I don’t mind it here and there, but if a lot of dialogue is filled with it, it gets tiresome. There is even a whole chapter that is mainly written in Scottish dialect while the chapter itself seems to add little to the story.

It is quite obvious why Catriona did not gain the renown of its prequel. It is certainly more literary, with Stevenson aiming for more psychological situations instead of adventure. Stevenson also adds some interesting historic elements but they remain somewhat few to make it a more substantial historic novel as he spends much of the time on an invented subplot to the historic event and a somewhat tedious romance. As a sequel it is still a story that will interest those who liked Kidnapped and want to know more and will not disappoint much, although it is quite below the level of that book.

Michael Moorcock – Elric : Swords And Roses

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

The stories about the albino Elric span the career of Michael Moorcock. He even appears in alternate versions in Moorcock’s Multiverse in which many fragrances of familiar and unfamiliar worlds exist. For an outsider it thus can be hard to distinguish which stories belong to which series and main characters of one story can appear in the stories of others. This is of course clever ploy by Moorcock as it attracts readers who like one series to more quickly try out the others. As I’ve read some other works by Moorcock I can say that it does help a lot if you are capable of embracing the concept of the Multiverse in which anything can be related to other stories. It is not so much a puzzle but more a variation of surrealistic events in which Moorcock explorers different ideas. In the end however there are many similarities. Personally it does not make me want to immerse myself into the Multiverse as the main concepts remain similar and I am not that interested in reading books where there is little change or difference between the concepts that drive the stories.

Moorcock’s Multiverse in itself is a grand and interesting concept which a fantasy reader should explore in some way. Moorcock’s most famous creation is Elric, an anti-hero for which he has written many novels and short stories in the sword and sorcery subgenre. Moorcock’s first novels about Elric were actual the final stories. After they gained popularity he wrote a large number of prequels to those books, exploring the background and world in which Elric lived. As the first novels were fast paced and rather short as in those days (the sixties) fantasy authors usually published serials in magazines, there was little time to spend on other details than the story itself which had to keep the focus of the reader.

Because of all those prequels and short stories a lot of different sets of collections and omnibi were made in the past. As Moorcock kept writing new stories those collections obviously became incomplete. A few years ago a new grand collection was created. Moorcock is getting older and he has said that chances are low that he will write more Elric stories (but one never knows), so I decided to pick up this collection as I was somewhat confused myself with all the available collections. The new collection is called the Chronicles Of The Last Emperor Of Melniboné and consists of six volumes with an average of 400 pages. The volumes contain artwork, interviews, introductions and essays besides all the Elric stories. So basically all you need to know or were unaware of. They are beautiful editions and certainly the best to date.

The volume I will be reviewing is the sixth and final one called Elric : Swords And Roses (2010). The core of the volume consists of the last published complete Elric novel The Revenge Of The Rose (1991) and the most recent short story Black Petals (2007), next to an old Elric-related screenplay that never was to be. As a screenplay is not really a genuine story to be read, or rather, fit to be review-able, I won’t pay attention to it besides mentioning it is not even a pure Elric screenplay but rather related.

What unites The Revenge Of The Rose and Black Petals is the unusual elements of heroic females who join in battle. The Elric-stories are usually male-oriented with the usual maid in distress or female companion who does not really join the battle unless it is sorcery. As both stories are more recent than most other stories they are probably influenced by the change in fantasy of the last two decades in which the role of female characters became more physical (or maybe I should say emancipated). After having read so many more male-oriented stories this is a nice change. Still, the female characters play a more minor role compared to the male characters.

Both stories follow the typical Elric story concept of a quest. Sure quests form a typical parts of fantasy stories but often they are less obvious or are broken in different parts that are not directly connected. This is not the case for the Elric quests. They are fairly straightforward with the typical quest company although in the longer stories the composition can change. It the weakest component of the Elric stories. They follow a rather standard format with little change. The story depends on the strange worlds that are visited and the events that happen during the course of the quest. After having read several stories the quests become somewhat predictable.

As Black Petals is a short story it does not change much as there simply is not much space to do so. The prose is typical of Moorcock. He uses a third person point of view and creates tension and atmosphere by using dramatic phrases. To show the brooding nature of Elric he spends some extra time to express those parts.

What makes The Revenge Of The Rose different is immediately noted. Moorcock’s prose is much more dramatic and lyrical than usual. He clearly has put in more effort in the words he uses. I’m not much of a fan of too lyrical prose. It should be used in moderation so it creates a special effect in certain scenes. If it is used too much it disturbs the reading pleasure as the sentences start feeling a bit too contrived. The lyrical style would probably work better in an audio book, but not in a regular novel. I am not saying it is annoying but it is certainly no improvement.

For a longer Elric novel (still only 250 pages) quite some time in The Revenge Of The Rose is spent on describing the nature of the Multiverse and its main powers. In my opinion it is just some metaphysical generalization which has little importance to the story and doesn’t have real impact to the story. In effect we don’t really learn anything although for a less knowable reader it might seem complex and imaginative while it really isn’t.

The Revenge Of The Rose is still an engaging story which introduces some interesting new characters, but also sometimes drags on a bit or in which things happen with convenient coincidence, which is just part of how it works in the Elric universe. In essence this is a standalone Elric story like all the others.

As those Elric stories are all similar in concept they are fun to read individually but reading them all in a row can become tedious as you will be reading a long series of singular quests. What makes the Elric stories stand out are the surrealistic events, the original character of Elric himself and the lax style in which the characters behave within the Multiverse. There is little narrow-mindedness or fanaticism. There is a continuous struggle between individuals and greater powers to control their destiny. These unique themes are not common within fantasy. Even today, in which Moorcock has influenced many fantasy authors, it is hard to find a story in which most of the cast follows the behavior of characters that Moorcock does. It is these things that make the Elric-saga a kind of classic within the fantasy genre, although the stories themselves do not create that classic notion. Still, any fantasy reader who want to explore the far reaches of the genre should read some Elric novels.

Roger Zelazny – Prince Of Chaos

Sunday, March 13th, 2011

It requires quite some effort to write ten consecutive reviews on a single series of books. Most of the effort is put into writing really different reviews as style, characters and such are often much alike so that each review in which I highlight certain elements more adds up to the whole leaving less and less for the later books. I’ve also noted it is most troublesome to write the required introduction to a book as I would need to write almost the same each time. I guess the reader will just have to start with the first review to get a complete picture.

The final book of Amber, the fifth of second series, is Prince Of Chaos (1991). Here Roger Relazny finally introduces us to the world of Chaos itself. Before we had seen only glimpses but now we get some real experience. It is a marvelous place and in his common style of telling the story Zelazny only provides a limited experience, leaving it to the reader to guess and wonder. As usual this is done very effectively and this is also what makes the Amber series so strong. Even with his quick pace and lack of time spent on details, the details that he provides charm the reader into imagining the fantastic worlds Zelazny has created. It leaves the reader craving for more.

The last book of Amber however, is somewhat of a disappointment. There is a conclusion to the story but it seems somewhat haphazard. Zelazny had been clearly enjoyed writing the first three books but apparently wanted to stick to the five book format. In the fourth, Knight Of Shadows, he took the story in a different direction. There were hints in the earlier books but somewhere I am not convinced that Zelazny really wanted to take events in the direction he chose. It just felt somewhat un-Amber-ish to me. Of course it was spectacular and engaging but it lacked the strength and determination of the final of the first series.

The story of Prince Of Chaos is a kind of a farce. The main character is hopping around continuously from place to place but it all seems a bit random as he doesn’t know what he wants or what to do. His actions do not lead to a clear conclusion and to me it was rather confusing. The main character has some serious character flaws which unfortunately do not change. Character development is not really important to Zelazny but he missed a great opportunity here.

Prince Of Chaos is a rather weak ending to such a great series. Most importantly because it leaves too many story threads open. Little is actually resolved and there has only been reached a new status quo. Zelazny actually wrote some short stories that took place after Prince Of Chaos which seems to hint that he would perhaps write another sequel. As he died early we will never know.

Even with a somewhat weaker last two books the power and originality of the first eight books are sufficient to uphold Amber as a classic in epic fantasy and even those two last books contain so many magnificent ideas that just for those they can’t be skipped or ignored.

Zelazny created a universe with endless possibilities, iconic characters and a story of great complexity with many twists and turns. Since I first read the books I’ve reread them many times which is for me most important about the quality of a book or series. They are and will remain one of my lifetime favorite books.

Roger Zelazny – Knight Of Shadows

Saturday, March 12th, 2011

After three books with continuously twisting story-lines Roger Zelazny provides more straightforwardness in Knight Of Shadows (1989), the fourth book of the second series about Amber. The first three books were mostly about the interaction between people. This book is all about greater powers and how they change the perspective of the Amber universe.

As Knight Of Shadows follows this change of perspective Zelazny adds several new ideas to the story. Personally I am a bit more human than greater power oriented person. It is interesting but it is humans who make actions and behavior more recognizable and relatable.

Knight Of Shadows also contains a fair number of silliness and as a fourth book also reminded me of the fourth book of the first series, The Hand Of Oberon, as quite some time was spent on changing the perspective on the events in the past story.

One thing that does make me wonder sometimes is the timescale. At times I have the feeling that Zelazny just adds things as he sees fit without using a chronological organization of events. In the books it is often mentioned that time can be different in other places, but one cannot truly go back in time. It is not something that is bothersome within the story, but when references are made and you remember at what place in time they put them, they do give the feeling that it doesn’t always fit.

After three books with a lot of things happening I’ve started to realize the main character is actually suffering from uncertainty and strong will. He even partially admits it. He is living his life, doing things he is interested in but does not really want to fit in. He is a loner who doesn’t like responsibilities. He is no charmer but his powers and heritage allow him to obtain things easily to which he shows a dual behavior, as he does not want to commit.

In this sense we have a more normal main character, but I liked the more iconic figure that was the main character of the first series far more. Even so, this makes the main character more real and probably quite likable.

Knight Of Shadows is not on the same level as the previous books, which were about equal, as the theme and style has changed. This change is interesting in certain ways but it does not provide the drive that was before. Even the ending is lackluster. It’s not a cliffhanger but not an open ending either. I somewhat had the feeling that Zelazny was not sure what direction to take the story. Before he was just enjoying himself with a complex story, but he was having trouble to bring it to a certain conclusion. He has taken a direction in Knight Of Shadows which will lead to a conclusion in the final book of Amber.

Roger Zelazny – Sign Of Chaos

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

Whereas the books of the first series about Amber still could be read as a standalone story, this is not the case for the books of the second series. Sign Of Chaos (1987) follows up after the cliffhanger ending of Blood Of Amber and ends itself in a cliffhanger. This is not uncommon in fantasy series, but personally I’m not a particular fan of the concept as the reader usually has to wait some time before the next book comes out.

Again Roger Zelazny starts with a short re-cap of earlier events to explain the situation. In my previous reviews I’ve already complained about the fact that Zelazny does this fairly often. Of course the story is complex with many intertwined stories and full of twists and turns, but it is not that complicated that a reader would need to be updated so often. Personally a complex story gives me more reason to read the story well or reread it later on so I’ll be able to get a better grasp of what is going on. Not everyone likes that of course and lack of explanation can limit the accessibility of the book to the average reader, causing them not wanting to read more. It’s a thing that has never put me off at least.

Sign Of Chaos is still an entertaining book and in line with the style and plot elements of the first two books (of the second series that is). New is that Zelazny is adding some flashbacks which provide more insight in the background of the main character. As it is limited to his own short history we don’t learn that much. It might have been interesting to have had them in the first series, but of course that would’ve only worked if Zelazny had developed sufficient background to be used. I somewhat assume that he made up new elements as they came up in his head, so the range of ideas was limited in the beginning. In the second series he clearly has had many new ideas since finishing the first series and is now adding them in the second series. Sign Of Chaos also finally provides some conclusions (or answers) to some mysteries that formed several story-lines, which after so many turns provides the reader with something to hold on to.