Archive for June, 2012

P.C. Hodgell – To Ride A Rathorn

Thursday, June 28th, 2012

There lie twelve years between book 3 and 4 of the Godstalker Chronicles by P.C. Hodgell. The series started in the early eighties, with a new installment almost ten years later, while many years later Hodgell finally got the chance to continue what looks on the outside as a not particular high fantasy while the inside is refreshing and original. I had many praises for Seeker’s Mask, the third book, so when there is such a large gap in between novels, there can always be the question on how well the story is continued, especially as Hodgell didn’t publish any other works in between. There could be the chance of a change in style or influences from other fantasy as during the long interval the popularity of fantasy has grown greatly, becoming more mainstream with an expanded market.

To Ride A Rathorn (2006) picks up almost immediately after the events of Seeker’s Mask and reading the two books continuously I felt no change in pace or style. It was as if there was no long period between them. Fortunately this time Hodgell did not waste the beginning on a recap of what happened before so that the start is really fresh.

While Seeker’s Mask was a great adventure story, the adventure in To Ride A Rathorn is more confined as the main protagonist is sent to a military school for training. Lacking any military basics the main character has to prove herself able enough. Luckily she is supported by side characters from the previous novel, of which some have now a larger or smaller role. Still it’s the main character who gets almost all of the attention, which is also somewhat of a minor flaw, as some interesting minor storylines remain rather undeveloped.

Although Hodgell manages to put in a lot of her own odd quirks in the plot, the school setting makes the plotting to easy, as it is a common format many authors have used and while not really predictable, the flow of the story is familiar as the setting is confined to a standard well-known environment. If it is developed naturally it can’t go wrong and Hodgell makes no mistakes. It is fun to read and while the many pages easily flip on, there seems too little time to develop the side characters which play a larger role this time.

This plot is not another rollercoaster ride and follows a regular track. Only near the end Hodgell lets go for a short run. In a way it is not so bad as the downside of a rollercoaster is that it’s harder to follow what’s exactly going on and it’s easier to grasp certain complexities. There is much less of that here.

To Ride A Rathorn is good sequel and a fairly standalone novel. I enjoyed it a lot although it did not bring the unpredictability of Seeker’s Mask. Either way, it stands out among the more well-known and popular fantasy series and I will certainly promote this series to a greater prominence. Highly recommended.

P.C. Hodgell – Seeker’s Mask

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

Although having published her first book 30 years ago, P.C. Hodgell has only published half a dozen of fantasy novels. All those novels are part of the God Stalker Chronicles. The first two books were published in the early eighties. The third was published almost 10 years later. This one, Seeker’s Mask (1994), is the first one I’ve read of the series.

Seeker’s Mask starts off not very long after the end of the second novel, Dark Of The Moon. Possibly because of the large time gap between the two novels, the beginning contains a lot of reminiscences of earlier events, probably to bring the reader up to date with what has happened before, before the story really starts. A bit too much in my opinion, because it means that I will wait some time longer before picking up any of the earlier novels so that I will have forgotten most of it by that time. Of course some things are unavoidable as the earlier events still play a role later on. Nevertheless it wouldn’t have hurt (for me at least) to leave out unnecessary details and keep certain things mysterious.

The slow introduction luckily doesn’t last long and before long events speed up in which Hodgell discloses the strange world in which the story is set. Hodgell steers far away from any clich├ęs and mainstream fantasy. While some elements seem familiar for the experienced reader, it are the odd details and twists which makes this a refreshing and original read. The female protagonist can be seen as a feminist, independent, pro-active with a strong willpower who tries to make her own way in a world which doesn’t want to let her be. Thanks to the two previous novels she has already coped with a lot, providing with a fully developed character. During the reading I could feel that Hodgell was very confident with her main character, enjoying to write about her.

Hodgell throws the main character through all kinds of hectic situations, allowing the reader to explore the character and develop her at the same time. The side characters mainly play a minor role, with the females showing strong against weaker men, while it is supposedly a male-dominated world.

The plot in itself is not very complicated. However Hodgell tells it with many odd twists and there was not a moment that I was able to predict what was going to happen next. I haven’t had that for quite some time and although it can also point at poor plotting in this case the plotting was solid enough, as the strangely behaving world was how it is supposed to and part of the setting, to make me enjoy reading this greatly.

So is there something besides the introductory beginning which I can complain about? The only serious weakness of this novel is the dialogue. It is a bit too simplistic everyday easygoing style with repetitive commonplace phrases. At times she manages to do better when the scene uses more formal speech. In my opinion characters should only use certain peculiar speech to reflect their character. If there is none then one should aim for using the words that have reflect the intent of the dialogue best and give it a greater effect. Hodgell is lacking on this part, although it is not that bad that it annoys.

What kind of fantasy this is, is hard to say. It has some old-fashioned style to it. It is high fantasy with some epic tendencies, while Hodgell keeps a fair balance between a character and plot-driven story. Although there are a few other viewpoints at times, Hodgell sticks mainly to her main character to tell the story. The story itself has some lighter and darker moments. Overall Hodgell sticks to the middle of the road. There is some nastiness, but not very much, while avoiding strong sexuality or violence.

In the end I was quite surprised with this novel. I enjoyed it greatly. It gave me something new and it proves (again) that there are still many undiscovered old gems in fantasy literature which stay clear from the mainstream bulk. It’s a good thing I have the next novel already at hand to continue. Highly recommended.

Celine Kiernan – The Rebel Prince

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

After completing the second novel of the Moorehawke Trilogy, The Crowded Shadows, I was quite anticipating the third novel, The Rebel Prince (2010). The second novel was more or less the story of a journey and now the journey was over and we could return to the heart of the matter around which the main plot revolved. Celine Kiernan showed plenty of qualities in The Crowded Shadows, although there were also weaknesses. In the third and final novel she should have to deliver and make up for those weaknesses and the lack of plot development.

Alas she failed to do so, delivering an unsatisfying conclusion to the story. As I had not read the first novel of the trilogy yet, I had not encountered several central characters, as they had been absent in the second novel (another one of those weaknesses), so I was happy to finally meet one and see the story progress. However, the plot did not move on. The main characters instead got stuck and Kiernan ensued in extensive politicking, focusing, as she had in the second novel, to character interactions and conflicts. Although she handles that part very well, it seems to be the only thing she cares about. If she does other things just as well I don’t know as she hardly bothers to spend time there. Either so, despite a more forward start of the novel, the development slumped down and the character conflicts just became repetitive to me. The story did not really move on and it also lacked the variety of the second novel as it become more static. The worst thing is that all this went on for more than two-thirds of the novel. At that point it seemed that Kiernan suddenly realized there was still a plot to finish. There was no time to make use of the possible impacts of the politicking, so they were pretty much ignored. A sudden change was thrown in and Kiernan quickly rushed to the final, including some odd twists which may have been not implausible, but were in a way irritating as they provided no clear reason why it should be thus. I was left with many questions.

The funny thing about this strange final novel is that I am still quite interested in how the first novel is set up to allow such strange second and third novels. Perhaps it will give me some better insights to understand how it all developed to such odd plot development.

Kiernan’s world-building remains vague as ever as there is again little movement from location and urban settlements are absent in the story. We have to do with a camp and even that is not explored at all. Of course such is not required for a story. This is a character-driven plot. It is just with so many references to other places it feels strange when they play no role at all in the story.

I considered the second novel to be between a decent and good level. I don’t give this novel more than decent. Kiernan remain strong at character interaction as she proves again in this novel. However, she seems to have serious issues with setting up a plot for the story. The trilogy seems to revolve about a single event with a few secondary storylines. Strangely enough it are the secondary storylines which receive the main focus.

So is this series recommendable? It is a fantasy with few fantastical elements set in an alternative medieval Europe, so that can appease fans of more realistic fantasy. The character interaction is strong and provides an enjoyable reading experience. You don’t realize the plot is not really developing until you get to the end. That is a quality. Are you looking for something for a great or complex, multi-layered story, then you won’t really find it here. Kiernan does make it seem at times that it is, but in reality she spends more time on other things than developing her plot.

Celine Kiernan – The Crowded Shadows

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

It is not ideal to start a trilogy with the second book. The most important question is how much the author will give away about events in the first book. The less, the better, as it will keep me guessing about what happened before and keep my interest to read the first book high. Luckily this was the case for The Crowded Shadows (2009), the second novel of the Moorehawke Trilogy by Celine Kiernan.

The main element which makes this series defined as category is that it takes place in an alternate Europe. How it exactly differs is unclear, as the book had no map and familiar places are mixed with those without any references. Even the time period is vague. It seems to be set in the late medieval period while there are elements from earlier and later periods. The world also contains some fantasic elements in the shape of some supernatural components, while there are no references to other things. The characters’ behavior seem to point towards certain familiarity and acceptance. I cannot say much more about it.

The Crowded Shadows is very much a middle book. Strangely enough it is the story of a journey, a quest so to say, without the beginning and the end. While the events during the journey are entertaining and well told, it is a journey with limited impact on the overall plot. To be exact: Kiernan delves deep into the details and puts in everything she can to use every possible thing to make it a rich and insightful journey for the reader and the characters. She explores and develops her characters, adds conflicts and clashes (mostly in dialogues), while she also goes in the background and culture of a group of foreign travelers the main characters come into contact with. The downside to her great focus on characters is that the environment and world plays no role in the novel. The main characters avoid towns and villages so the world is an unknown place and the group is not bothered by outside influences except those that the author wants to include.

So in a way this is a strange novel. From beginning to end it was highly entertaining, captivating with good character development. Although I did not know the overall plot, there was quite little that happened that would have great effect on it. The journey could have been edited to half or maybe even a quarter of its length if all the elaborate details and extended dialogues had been cut short. One does not need so many words to have the same impact. The way of writing reminded me much of Janny Wurts, although the style is quite different, as Kiernan’s is much lighter and easier. Wurts also has a habit to go into great detail and depth while it has little effect on the actual plot. It is still entertaining to read as one certainly connects with the characters. The thing is that scenes are stretched out to the maximal possible length. Just when the reader (or just me) thinks that it is time to get on with it, she finally does. I didn’t have the exact same feeling with Kiernan, but it came close.

At times I am surprised how good my instinct is on the quality of a novel. I categorized this one as between decent and good and this is also how I think of it now. Kiernan is quite good in character development and creating interesting drama to keep the reader engaged and turning the pages. While she does so, she loses focus on the actual plot and leaves it simmering on the background, pretty much unresolved and without much impact. I understand that a middle book of a trilogy can give trouble at providing a good beginning or end. It does not work if the middle book only connects the beginning and the end, not really moving the general plot forward as it only describes a (captivating) journey that mainly aims at exploring the main characters.

Louis Couperus – Eline Vere

Sunday, June 17th, 2012

One of the great authors of Dutch literature is Louis Couperus. He wrote contemporary novels around the year 1900 which distinguished themselves as naturalistic, which means that the authors tried to write realistic stories, often with a tragic or not-likable main character which is controlled by his environment and the society he lives in. Nineteenth century Russian literature produced many great novelists like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky who were also part of this literary movement. These kind of novels are interesting to read because the aim for realism leads to an analysis and accurate picture of the times the author tries to write about. Of course it depends on the author on how well this is done.

Eline Vere (1889) depicts the life of a group of young people from the upper class in the governmental city of The Hague in the Netherlands in the late nineteenth century. I live in this same city so I am fairly familiar with the locations mentioned in the novel. Couperus also grew up in similar circles so one could say he used autobiographical elements, although non-personal, to create an accurate description of that society. The main character is the woman of the titular name. Much of the story revolves around her, but there are several other storylines, short and long ones, involving characters related to her in some fashion. This provides some variation and relief as the main storyline is rather tragic while the other storyline are relatively more uplifting.

Eline Vere is also very much a psychological novel as Couperus writes about the motives and influences for the behavior of his characters. They don’t have full self-control. In a sense they have to struggle to escape the confines they have created for themselves as they tried to follow their own twisted logic. Couperus spends considerable time on these elements. Fortunately not too much as this could lead to (too long) dreary monologues which would be boring reads. Obviously there is no lack of characterization in this novel, although the time spent on the different characters varies.

The storylines themselves are mostly of a romantic fashion. It is about relationships and each contains its own type of drama which the couple-to-be has to overcome to get together. It is because of this that I classify the novel as a romance as well, although it focuses on multiple ones and not just one.

As I’m a Dutch native I read the book in Dutch and thus in the original version. The prose is a bit old-fashioned, but in no way less readable. Couperus writes in a beautiful style. It is simple, avoiding complicated words and dramatic tendencies. When I first started reading I was quite blown away by it. Obviously I have read quite a bit of Dutch literature over time and I hadn’t crossed an author who was this skillful in using the Dutch language. It is a pity that any translation won’t be able to capture the same quality.

With such wonderful prose one would think this would have been an easy read. This was not the case. A tragic main character does not make an enjoyable read. One has to be in the mood for it. Besides that the fact that the plot revolves around romances is for a male like me is not something to enjoy all the time. Further the frequent time spent to explore the behavior of characters can make the reading tough at times. All this and the many storylines make this (as naturalistic novels seem prone to do) a long novel at 450 pages.

Nevertheless this novel is great literature of excellent quality, especially the magnificent prose and the vivid picture it paints of Dutch upper class society in the late nineteenth century.

Crossing the threshold

Saturday, June 16th, 2012

When I am looking for new book there are different reasons that make me decide if I want to buy it. The text on the back cover is most important. It has to give a good impression of what the book is about and should not give away too much, as it will else tell me too much about what to expect. The lesser I know, the better, although no information and just review blurbs don’t help much either. Sometimes the cover can also play a role. It can tell me if the publisher has put some effort into it or if they lack knowledge of what would appeal to a reader. If it looks cheap or mismatches what the genre atmosphere should be about then the chance is they won’t have spent much time on knowing if the story is original or good.

So if those two things fail to give a bad impression I fall back on my instinct. Over time I’ve rarely been wrong on knowing beforehand if it would be either great, good or alright. There are times I don’t know and usually I’ve at least not been disappointed. When I think a book is probably between alright and good I have to decide if I want to give it a try or not. What influences my decision to cross the threshold and give the book a try is the price. That’s why I love discounts as the prices are usually at or below the threshold of what I allow myself to waste a bit of money in case the book turns out bad. This price lies around 5, 6 euros, which is approximately half the regular price.

So why am I talking about this? Obviously because I bought some books that passed the threshold price for deciding to try them out. The downside of discounts is that when you have a series, which is often the case with fantasy novels, they miss an earlier volume. I picked up four fantasy books, each two of a series, and in both cases not the containing an earlier volume. The first two are books 2 and 3 of the Moorhawke Trilogy by Celine Kiernan, titled The Crowded Shadows (2009) and The Rebel Prince (2010), and an omnibus called Seeker’s Bane by P.C. Hodgell, containing the novels Seeker’s Mask (1994) and To Ride A Rathorn (2006). Seeker’s Mask is a sequel to an earlier duology called the Godstalker Chronicles, so it is probably self-contained, like the second novel, which was written 12 years later. As the were put together in an omnibus I only paid for 3 books, so that made the threshold even lower.

Now that I think of it, both authors are female and the main characters of the novels is female as well. A coincidence I didn’t realize until now.

William Beckford – Vathek

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

One of the early Gothic novels is the tale of Vathek (1786) by William Beckford. In essence it is more alike a traditional fairy tale in the style of the brothers Grimm mixed with Tales Of One Thousand And One Nights. The Gothic element is found mostly in its cruel depiction of events which provide some play on morality as early on a sense of doom starts creeping in. The events told are obviously bad and evil and nothing good will come from it. The setting is the Middle East in times when the Arabs were dominant, which would be around the year 1000. The location is kept vague as Beckford makes up names and places for which no real analogues can be found. It is the story that matters and as it is a fantastic tale which would be hampered by trying to fit it in a real environment.

It are the strong fantastical elements that sets it apart from, what I consider to be, the typical Gothic tale that has become common. Usually Gothic tales are embedded in a realistic environment which gets twisted in one way or the other. This to have a greater effect on the reader experience. I wouldn’t call it fantasy in the straight sense as it has a closer resembles to fairy tales and the tales of the Arabian Nights. The latter has probably been used by Beckford as inspiration. Although I haven’t read the original stories (yet), I did get that genuine feeling I had when seeing movie and TV adaptations. In that sense the story will give you a familiar feeling.

One of the problems of the novel is some lack of internal coherency. The tale is episodic in nature although it follows a main theme. I say episodic because events don’t follow naturally. Instead the story simply jumps from one to another storyline, often with little repercussions of what happened previously in what happened next. Realism is very much absent so it doesn’t matter anyways (so one could assume the author might have thought). Because of this I had trouble sticking to the story, even as it is a short novel (rather a novella in truth).

The main trouble I had to keep reading continuously was the prose. It is not bad at all. Beckford knows his style and has a large vocabulary besides it. No, the problem with the prose is that is written for a story teller. Beckford uses a dramatic style that works best when read aloud to an audience. Because of this dialogues are somewhat unnatural as they are written as proclamations or as if it were a play. This quickly gets tiresome unless you try voicing what you read in your own head.

The story itself is fairly entertaining although at times it felt like a hotchpotch of fairy tales mixed together. It is only lightly Gothic as the fantastical dominates and the events are more comical than trying to put it in a realistic setting. A nice read, but not really remarkable.

Adam Lee – The Shadow Eater

Saturday, June 9th, 2012

It took me quite some time to finish The Shadow Eater (1998), the second novel in The Dominions Of Irth, a fantasy series by Adam Lee. The main reason for this, getting immediately to the bottom of it, was the erratic behavior of the characters combined with an unstable plot. For a while I managed to trudge on until I was tired of it. I put it down for quite some time while I was about halfway. A few days ago I decided to pick it up again for some reading during travel and for once I found the right rhythm and managed to finish it within a few days.

It should be clear already that this will be a negative review for this novel. The first novel of The Diminions Of Irth, The Dark Shore, was not particularly good, but is had some interesting odd notions which gave it something different from the usual fantasy. It has some strange things in it and mixed it with some familiar fantasy elements. When I came across the next novel it was these traits which made me decide to pick it up and see where it would go.

In this novel returns with a number of familiar characters while adding in new ones. He expanded the setting almost to the max, with several strange new worlds in a interestingly crafted universe. However, he does not manage to make good use of it. The visits to the different places are so brief and superficial that there is hardly any time to get acquainted or to provide a stable setting. This was one of the elements that attributed to the unstable plot. A lot of things happen so quickly in a row that you lose track of time and the synchronicity of different events which seem to occur without having to bother by what happened elsewhere. Everyone just pops up wherever and whenever the author needs them to be. At a certain point I gave up trying to make sense of it, ignored it simply and read on.

Now for the erratic behavior of characters. One thing that Lee used often was that if a group of characters was deciding on the best course to follow, one of object and propose an obviously stupid course using poor arguments for his claim. The others would try to convince him, fail and accept the stupid decision, although they realize its not smart to do. The next thing would be that the chosen course would lead to disaster. Sure, it can happen once, but when the stakes rise the more experienced and strong characters should lead and decide and not let their plans be overturned by the inexperienced and weak characters almost every time.

So all in all the plot didn’t make much sense in the way it developed. In itself the plot was fairly interesting. The problem was that with all the chaotic things happening there was little time to spend sufficient time to develop the characters and explore the settings.

What is still nice about the series is that it contains some original ideas and concepts. It can certainly be classified under weird fantasy, mixing a lot of elements together. The prose itself is alright. Unfortunately Lee rushes events so much that he does not use enough words for decent dialogues, characterization and settings. There is no more than is needed for the story and that is a pity. Some scenes were written quite vividly and were quite enjoyable. There were only few of them so they were the only highlights in and novel that lacked in many other places. This was far from the decent quality of first novel. There is still a third novel called Octoberland, but I don’t think I will try to get it that quickly. In The Shadow Eater Adam Lee explores the universe behind the first novel. It concludes some leftover open ends and answers many leftover questions. I did not have the feeling that there was more to know.