Archive for May, 2012

Ian Irvine – Vengeance

Sunday, May 27th, 2012

I consider Ian Irvine to be one of the better fantasy authors. His stories are original and very different in setup and development than other fantasy. The style he prefers has some weakness, to me at least, especially because he hasn’t managed some variation to it. He wrote three series, eleven books, of his Three Worlds cycle, and his latest book is something different to provide him some time to refresh his inspiration and creativity. As it does not take place in the same universe as the Three Worlds, I was interested in the new take it could provide.

The first book of the Tainted Realm Trilogy is called Vengeance. The scope has been downsized a lot, focusing on a rather small nation inhabited by two conflicting peoples. The title is chosen aptly as the vengeance theme plays a role throughout the story.

Irvine keeps a smaller cast for this series, limiting himself to three characters of which there are almost always at least two together. This provides plenty of interaction and character development and Irvine manages to do well as I am used to from him. There is fairly large subcast of side characters, but their interaction with the main characters stays so limited that that they remain somewhat one-dimensional.

Even though the setting is limited to a small nation, travel by horse can be fast enough to reach most destinations in one day, there is a large geographical variety of ice fields, mountains, volcanic landscape and fertile lands. To me this seemed a bit too much for such a small area. Not impossible, but at times implausible within the story framework. The advantage was that little time was needed to spend on traveling, allowing events to follow quickly.

The plot itself starts with two storylines. The first starts somewhat slowly and is besides the twists leading to an inevitable conclusion, although Irvine does his best to make it hard to get to the destination. The second storyline I thought was much more entertaining and refreshing to his usual style as developments were fast and full with action. Mixing it with the main storyline provide with the right variation to allow the first storyline to play out without getting too tedious.

At the moment the two storylines started to converge Irvine fell back to his usual habit which I consider his weakness. In this the main character suffers from a long series of bad luck, only bearably managing to go forward, while the adversaries enjoy a series of good luck. This is, they are vastly superior, always manage to catch up at anytime necessary and seem indestructible. And I should not forget that the number of adversaries is simply staggering. They all pop up around the same time around the same place. Irvine manages to play this incredible complex convergence of conflicts out in an impressive way. The thing is that he does this too often. If it happens once or at a final scene it is okay, but when it occurs almost everytime (as he did in the Three Worlds novels) it becomes implausible. Besides this, the complexity is so great that Irvine goes into full detail to keep it all together, creating an extended sequence that lasts 100 or 200 pages. It is marvelously done and it makes a thrilling read. At the end however, the reader will realize that plotwise not really much has happened and only one event has been described. I’ve read novels that took place over just one day. A lot was happening and there were usually several storylines. At the end all of them were concluded and the story was done. Why this doesn’t work for Ian Irvine is that at the end of the sequence you are only at one third of the book. It doesn’t form a greater whole and is just no more than an extensive event.

Either way, this time Irvine only did his habitual thing for the first part of the book. After one third the story changes. The pace moves up and plot-twisting events follow with great speed. Irvine drops the detail and the story becomes an intense pageturner that propels the reader to the breathtaking end.

So this second part is very unlike Irvine and in a way refreshing. There is a downside to this change of habit and pace. Irvine always impressed me with his details and precise storytelling. This time he became quite sloppy. Several times I got confused at sudden appearances and minor events that didn’t make much sense. Again there was the implausibility. Not because too much happened at the same time and the bad guys were too lucky. Characters popped up suddenly from nowhere and some seemed to know everything without any explanation. All in all these minor annoyances turned into dissatisfaction. There was a lot of good stuff which I enjoyed a lot. Sloppiness can happen. It just shouldn’t happen too much or not be too obvious.

So this new novel doesn’t live up to the quality of Irvine’s previous work. There is more action and more intensity. The plot contains more twists and thrills. This does come with loss of detail and sloppiness to keep the plot coherent. A good pageturner and overall enjoyable, without being as outstanding and original as Irvine readers are accustomed to.

Welsh myths

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

I am interested in a lot of different topics. Related to my love for fantasy is the world of mythology which still often inspires contemporary stories. One of the most popular sources of mythology are the Welsh myths. The collected tales are usually called the Mabinogion. As it goes with such tales which have their origin in different versions spanning centuries it is not easy to find a good edition which covers them as completely as possible. Of course such editions don’t include every version. As such I am satisfied enough with the most common version of the tales. The edition that is considered to be the best is a modern rendition (so a more readable rewriting for the modern audience) is the one by Evangeline Walton. Her Mabinogion was originally published in 4 books, although they are usually combined in one omnibus. The four novels, in the omnibus order, are The Prince Of Annwn (1974), The Children Of Llyr (1971), The Song Of Rhiannon (1972) and The Island Of The Mighty (1964).

Daniel Polansky – The Straight Razor Cure

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

Debut novels are often not perfect as they still lack some writing experience by the author. Most important however is that they show promise for growth. The Straight Razor Cure (2011) by Daniel Polansky is such a novel. It is a fantasy and detective story seen from an underworld perspective, taking place in a city and is told from a first person narrative. Those two choices allow the author to build up his setting and his main character. He avoids clichés by putting his main character in a position of certain power and influence, with certain limitations to make it not look too easy at times. The main character has weaknesses and strengths and contrary to the usual fantasy mainstay, seems to be on a eventually declining path. This is also something unusual as the story progresses. He wins some and loses some. What will be the final advantage remains to be seen.

The main character is likable enough although his noble attitude seems to clash with his somewhat dark position. That mix combined with a solitary nature is one of the weakness of the story. It’s not entirely plausible, although many things remain vague enough to leave room for explanation. This is another strange thing about the book. Polansky mixes into the story a number of flashbacks to give more background information. Here he provides quite some details while in the main story he refrains from going into detail, leaving other things vague. It is a minor unbalance, not really noticeable. Only for me as a reviewer, thinking about the little things, it can be seen. As there will be a sequel to the novel I expect more details will be revealed.

The flashbacks do provide intermezzos in the somewhat singular murder plot. There are some nice twists, although some elements that lead to surprises can be expected long beforehand. Luckily knowing what the surprise will be is not easy, so they are not that bothersome as they are also not that many. Polanksy focuses on his main story and does not stray much from it. Because of this there are not much hidden layers to be anticipated in the next novel, making it more or less a standalone novel.

Polansky also keeps his setting in familiar territory. His world is templated on Europe, with the central nation resembling England, and using familiar names from European countries for his foreigners although the countries’ names are of his own devising. This is not a bad thing, many fantasy authors do the same. It does depend on the way it is implemented. Polansky does provide a different geographic setting, although no map is provided.

The prose is good, easy to read, although Polansky seems to throw in an unusual word now and then. I’m not a native English speaker, but I’ve read plenty to have a fair understanding of non-typical Englishy vocabulary. Nevertheless Polansky’s unusual words were really new and rather unknown to me, while his prose didn’t really much use unusual or difficult words that often. It’s just a detail, not really important, but it’s these oddities that I noted.

Overall The Straight Razor Cure was an enjoyable read. It’s not outstanding. It’s not weak or mainstream either. It is not complex and also not cliché or too simplistic. It had its minor flaws and as a debut novel show sufficient interesting things to promise growth. As such I will certainly pick up the next installment of the series. Recommended.

Three from eleven

Sunday, May 20th, 2012

Another three books I have been able to add to my stash, all three published in 2011. First is The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco. Although not all his works are of great quality, they are always interesting reads. Second is The Straight Razor Cure, the debut novel of Daniel Polansky. I had the feeling this one might turn out more interesting than others. Third is Vengeance by Ian Irvine. The first book of a brand new series called The Tainted Realm. I have read all of his Three World Cycle series and he always manages to provide an original and interesting read, so I will see if this one will manage similarly or maybe do something different.

Adrian Cole – The Sword Of Shadows

Friday, May 18th, 2012

With a trilogy you know the third book is the end of the story, but when the books are less than 200 pages, the end comes quick. The Sword Of Shadows (2011) is the third volume of the Voidal Trilogy by Adrian Cole, an epic dark fantasy consisting of a series of connected short stories. The original stories date 25 to 35 years back. To complete the trilogy Cole wrote new stories with the main difference that they have a stronger connection as it was his aim to complete the story. Subsequently the effect is that with each volume the independent story element has become weaker. The stories of The Sword Of Shadows feel more like chapters although Cole still tries to give each chapter a beginning and end.

With its short length and short shorty arcs the plot is mainly filled with action. Little time is spent on reflection or character development. Still it is not absent. The different characters are quite distinct and original, which can be seen as a consequence of the strange and weird universe Cole has created. Normal is not a word that can be put on the creatures, beings and persons that inhabit his universe. There are few rules and Cole simply lets his imagination run free. Just this provides a great reading experience as Cole also uses a stylized easy readable prose to tell this tale of mysterious powers.

There is not much else to say about this novel except the ending. Throughout the series I kept guessing about the truth of the mysteries that spurred the stories and the main characters on. I came fairly close to the right answer, but Cole managed to surprise me in a magnificent way. As such he presented a great and original end for the story which was probably one of his earliest ideas for writing this tale. It puts all the earlier stories together and is an excellent explanation for the sequence of events. A good ending is not that easy to write. At a certain point you have read many variations and getting surprised rarely happens. What does work is making sure the reader can’t guess beforehand what the end will be. It does require that the unexpected ending works and satisfies, else it is still not a good ending. Either way, just the great conclusion is a great bonus to this story. Highly recommended.

Adrian Cole – The Long Reach Of Night

Monday, May 14th, 2012

The Long Reach Of Night (2011) by Adrian Cole is the second volume of the Voidal Trilogy. It has the rather unique format of consisting of a series of connected short stories. While the first volume Oblivion Hand seemed to have more random episodes The Long Reach Of Night starts to form a genuine plot development. In a way this is a good thing as each book is less than 200 pages long and to reach a conclusion of this epic dark fantasy tale there has to be some serious progress. Cole wrote the short stories about the Voidal, a cursed being who had little control over his actions, 25 to 35 years ago and never completed them. After a first collection of stories published in Oblivion Hand he decided to complete the tale. There were a number of other short stories left so it isn’t a surprise that while he sticks to the original format the new ‘stories’ have a greater focus because Cole just wants to write what is necessary to complete the tale.

The remarkable short length of the books and the short story format keep the pace and action fairly high. Because of the episodic nature he only needs to use those which are required. The stories thrive on the weirdness of the settings which are reminiscent of Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories and other Multiverse novels. The prose is also stylized but quite more readable than Moorcock’s and the stories have a stronger focus. Cole keeps his mysteries well locked, only slowly giving small bits of information. Of course the Elric novels lacked a base of mysteries for the stories as they were aimed more at weird adventures than otherwise. Although the Voidal stories contain little characterization, there is some, and there are always the questions about the weirdness of the whole chaotic universe in which the stories take place. One could call that a different kind of characterization. Is there a greater scheme or is this just how it is?

Because of the episodic format the story in itself is pretty straightforward as the setting keeps changing with different characters being introduced. This does keep the reader fresh as each setting provides new weirdness to explore and wonder about. It is a cesspool of imagination. I name it that because the settings are often dark and creepy, although Cole stays way from making it depressing or horrific.

When I read my first Voidal stories over a decade ago I knew this was great stuff, although not of a groundbreaking level. Just good fantasy. I was confirmed on this opinion when I obtained the first volume a couple of years ago. Personally I think it is impressive that Cole managed to find the exact same tone and style for writing the new stories as it has been over 25 years ago since he did last. Of course he kept writing and as I don’t know the original versions of the republished stories he could have rewritten them to obtain overall coherence. Anyways. This is some great stuff which deserves to be promoted more. It may lack complexity or details like most fantasy these days aim for, but it is refreshingly original and provides an old-style feeling from when fantasy was still far off the mainstream reader. Highly recommended.

Stephen King & Peter Straub – Black House

Saturday, May 12th, 2012

Often my reviews contain first time reads, but as an enjoyed book is always worthwhile for later, I do add the occasional re-read. Black House (2001), which I read first almost ten years ago, is the second joint novel of Stephen King and Peter Straub and a somewhat standalone sequel to their previous joint novel The Talisman. In this period of writing, most books Stephen King wrote have elements relating to the Dark Tower series and so does this one. We actually learn some different things of the background of the at the time still ongoing series, although they remain minor in reference. For fans of that series, this is a reason for reading this book as well and as such it feels more like a Stephen King novel than something else.

Black House contains elements of the horror, fantasy and detective genre. At times it is nasty and brutal, while it is also scintillating and tragic, which seems to be something typical for King’s style. I mainly read his Dark Tower (related) novels, so I can’t say how it works out in his other books. I’ve read nothing of Peter Straub’s work, so I can’t say which parts belong to him. There are two things that do stand out.

First is a very strong third person narrative in the form of an actual narrator talking to the reader most of the time, which is something I haven’t seen Stephen King use. To me it was not a likeable narrator as he was telling the story without personal feeling. The emotions were for the sake of the story-telling and not about the characters. The narrator also had a habit of taking too much time shifting from scene to scene, making these parts longwinded and not very interesting.

The second thing, which for me carried the story, was the powerful characterization of the many average American characters. This is one of King’s strong writing skills and at times I was quite blown away with the easy manner of how he brings them to life so distinctly. It has been some years since I read a King novel, so I am better at noticing and comparing these things.

Another King element, I assume, is that the elderly play an important part again, like he did in Insomnia and Hearts In Atlantis. With this I don’t mean a few old people have a role, but that the elderly community is involved and that certain parts of the story revolve about it.

The plot itself is quite engaging, shifting from horror to fantasy or detective with ease. All of this is interwoven with character scenes creating a multitude of strands which form a greater weave for the whole story. At times these strands seem to cross each other too often, especially as the story takes place over a relatively short time. Certain scenes are sometimes retold from different viewpoints to create a more dynamic picture. Now that I think back it is partially because of those many strands and details that are added to the story that you have the feeling that there happens too much while it does not really do so.

The downside effect of all these strands and details, combined with the longwinded narratives when shifting between scenes and the sometimes replaying of scenes from different viewpoints, is that the book is quite long. Too long in my opinion. Perhaps 100 or 200 pages could have been cut, making the story tighter and more powerful. It isn’t bad to have details. It is just that one does not have to spend time on every little character who plays something of a role in the story. Sometimes it just doesn’t matter.

Obviously as I’ve re-read the book it is certainly enjoyable. I’m no fan of horror, so certain nasty scenes I did not enjoy. Luckily they are few so that was bearable enough. The long length of the book and the not-likeable main narrative are reasons why I don’t consider it a great book. Nevertheless it is recommendable for its powerful characterizations and the Dark Tower references.

A case of un-rarity

Sunday, May 6th, 2012

About 15 years ago I bought three collections of high quality short fantasy stories. They contained a lot of older works and several authors I had never heard of before. Two stories by Adrian Cole, written in the late seventies and early eighties piqued my interest. The stories were related to each other and told a tale of a person named the Voidal who had been terribly punished by a group of gods for some unknown crime and who was forced to live a cursed life he could not control. Finding more stories seemed impossible. These were the early days of the internet and webstores were still in their early stages. I could only think: “Maybe one day”. I’m a patient man and I’ve seen rare items pop up suddenly when least expected.

A couple of years ago I was looking for some interesting books to look for on the web. I remembered the stories by Adrian Cole and I was happy to discover a collection of the Voidal stories named The Hand Of Oblivion, published in 2001, although it was not complete. At least I could read more, although it wasn’t as cheap as a normal book. Considering the possible rare audience who would be interested in such a format – a tale told through a series of related short stories – I simply accepted it for it’s rarity. I quite enjoyed it, like I did with the two stories I already knew. Information on Adrian Cole was limited so I had no idea if anything more was in the stage for this rare tale to be completed. Again patience and hope were all I had.

Recently I once again did a search for Adrian Cole in a few webstores and I was stunned to find out two new Voidal story collections had been released in 2011, naming them to be books 2 and 3 of the Voidal Trilogy, being titled The Long Reach Of Night and The Sword Of Shadows. A quick peak showed they contained the few leftover Voidal stories from 30 years ago while Cole had added the remaining tales about Voidal where they were required within the overall plot for these two completing collections. As they are newly published the tales about the Voidal are now available again and their status as rarity, for the time being, is gone. Joy is mine now that I can finally find out what happens next and what is really going on.

For those who wonder what kind of fantasy the Voidal stories are I can say it is dark fantasy with similarities to the works of Jack Vance (mainly the more gloomy Dying Earth tales), Michael Moorcock (Elric but also other novels) and Tanith Lee (Tales From The Flat Earth and the Lionwolf series). Although there are resemblances it is a unique universe and fans of those three authors will certainly like it.