Archive for July, 2012

P.C. Hodgell – Bound In Blood

Saturday, July 28th, 2012

The previous two novels by P.C. Hodgell that I read I gave high recommendations. It is always exciting to discover older less known works that turn out to be great reads. Thirty years ago started to write her first fantasy novels of the so-called God Stalk series and while there were many years between the the publications of the following novels she has now picked up the pace to bring her story to a conclusion. However, we are far from there yet as Hodgell takes her time to develop the story.

Bound In Blood (2010) is the fifth novel in the series, pretty much picking up where To Ride A Rathorn ended. The story is set in a world of limited size where the nature of the land is influenced by supernatural powers. Hodgell uses this to great effect as the characters always have to be ready for sudden changes in their circumstances. I mention this here because Hodgell makes less use of it in Bound In Blood, perhaps because she used it so much in the previous two novels. This does result in a story that isn’t much influenced by strange events and has a more regular feeling to it.

A major difference from the previous two books is that the main character doesn’t start in a new situation where she has to learn and adapt to her new environment, with all the conflicts and clashes that comes with it. Instead she has found a temporary place for her own. This as she is at a military academy. The downside of this is that it is a familiar setting where Hodgell has to add the typical tropes to give it some substance. As positions are established since the previous novel there isn’t changing that much. Of course things do happen and it is nowhere boring. It is just that the plot lacks substantial development. Maybe I am wrong in my assessment that this novel can be considered a middle book. Hodgell has some minor plot threads she wants to resolve or develop while there are no major events. It lacks a beginning and an ending. Nevertheless the story remains very entertaining and unpredictable. Either way this might mean that Hodgell will start with the next phase of the story in the next book, although I cannot be certain. Hodgell follows her own pace and makes sure she writes everything she wants to tell about. It is well balanced, written in an easy writing style. Even though this “middle” novel doesn’t have the impact of the previous novels, it is still quite good and much better than the average fantasy novel.

What I haven’t addressed before is the plot complexity. This is no easy story to read as many factors come into play and one has no idea how important each element is. The plot itself does however not have that many layers. The main character is in the center of events and although there is a multitude of elements interacting with her, they do revolve around her. With that depth is created and it is complex on its own, while much outside her environment seems to develop on a lower scale. One could say that there are layers with the odd aspect that they are mainly concentrated around one character which makes the reader feel as if the general story is not as complex as it seems. Is it an optical illusion or will it all fall into place eventually? It are these aspects which make me enjoy these novels so much.

Of the three novels of the series I have now read (the first two are on my pile, awaiting the appropriate time to be picked up), this is the “weakest”. Still it is no easy feat to have two superb novels follow with another one when one doesn’t follow a specific format and focuses on one main character. Hodgell doesn’t seem to aim for a certain number of novels. She will write as many as she needs, which is much easier to do these days as publisher don’t focus on the trilogy format, but allow authors to continue a good series as long as they like, as there is more certainty that readers will keep buying them. I am certainly not complaining.

Brandon Sanderson – The Alloy Of Law

Friday, July 27th, 2012

There are a limited number of authors whose novels I can buy without having to read what it is about as the story and quality of the novel always reaches a satisfactory level. Of course it can happen that there is a weaker novel among them, but even then there are always worthwhile elements that prevent disappointment. One of those authors who over the years has been claiming a spot on that list is Brandon Sanderson. For this it helped that he also wrote standalone novels besides his serials, allowing him to show his skill and me to appreciate the different approaches he took on fantasy.

For all the great novels he wrote (not counting his work on the completion of the Wheel Of Time series) there hadn’t been an outstanding one, a novel that thrilled me all the way and left a lasting impression on me. With The Alloy Of Law (2011) however, he is getting close. Even as it is a standalone sequel to his Mistborn Trilogy, it hardly depends on it, as it is very different except for the unique magic system, one of Sanderson’s specialties at which he excels. That he writes more novels with this magic system thrills me even more, as I like things that are out of the ordinary.

There are no real flaws in The Alloy Of Law. Some things might not be given enough attention or developed more extensively. That is just part of the way the novel is written. Sanderson notes that he will probably write more in the new setting, so not going into all details allows him to leave them for later. The story itself is fastpaced and tightly written. No word is wasted and there was no moment where I slumped down or lost attention. Characterization is strong with some development, although this was limited due to the fast pace and quick development of events which left little time for more. What was much better than his previous novels was the character interaction. The dialogues were sharp and witty, allowing for a comedy element that was absent or weaker in his previous novels. A bit of comedy is not really required for a good novel, it has to fit the atmosphere or help give a story something extra.

The plot itself was good, and although the fast pace left me hardly any time to think about what would happen next, some small things that were put attention to were a bit obvious. There was a good balance between action and non-action scenes, allowing the reader some moments of rest. If there is too much action you don’t get much time to relish on some fine action before the next follows.

So are there things I can be negative about (always my best ability)? Not so much. Although the world is alien with a unique magic and belief system, the world feels rather familiar, looking a lot like late nineteenth century America. It is the first novel that is set in a steampunk environment, with plenty of technology of which most is quite familiar. With all the projects Sanderson is working on I can’t expect him to give it all complete attention and some familiar elements do allow the reader to easily feel comfortable in the new environment. So it could be by choice. It’s not good or bad, just a comment.

The only other comment I can make is that the main characters at times seem a bit too skilled. Sometimes it felt I was reading a superhero tale. Their ability is logically explained, and I enjoyed it very much, but I can think of readers who might think their strength to be too much within the usual fantasy setting. Personally I think many fantasy stories tend to slowly develop the skills until the very end, while now we have several experienced main characters at the top of their ability which at least avoids those typical fantasy clichés and the reader can enjoy full power from the start.

The Alloy Of Law blew me away and I was sad when I had soon reached the end. That’s how a good novel should be, so I can only recommend it highly.

David Eddings – The Ruby Knight

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

It has probably been over a decade since I last read the Elenium Trilogy, a high fantasy by David Eddings. In my review of the first novel, The Diamond Throne, I quickly concluded that the series would now be classified as Young Adult, due to the low level writing style and storytelling. Nevertheless it is not a series that is centered around adolescents. Eddings kind of forces a few adolescents into the story while the focus lies with a group of older adults. Personally I think the classification Young Adult cannot be clearly defined as multiple factors play a role. The Elenium Trilogy itself is a good starting point for kids venturing into the genre of fantasy.

Although my taste prefers more complex stories these days, I used to enjoy Eddings quite a bit when I was a kid. So after the first book, as I was waiting for other books to arrive, I decided to continue with the next book, The Ruby Knight (1990), as I hardly remembered anything of the plot anymore, so that it almost feels like a new read.

As the middle book of the trilogy The Ruby Knight doesn’t have a true beginning or end. On the other hand, the first book can lack an ending while the last book can lack a beginning. An advantage that the middle book can have is that the plot is already established so that introducing the characters is not required while the story can develop freely without having to bring closure. This advantage is what makes The Ruby Knight a better book than The Diamond Throne. In the first book Eddings was quite elaborate in introducing and setting up his characters. This wasn’t done in a very subtle way, probably because of the Young Adult aim of the author. In the second book there is no need to set anything up which allowed the character interaction and dialogues to become more natural which makes and easier read.

The story itself remains rather plot-driven. The development of the story is determined by external circumstances. The characters have little say in what happens except for minor choices which do not affect the story. A plot-driven story is okay, but I do like the character to have some influence on the story. Here it felt as if he had been incapacitated and that is a bit too much. Eddings tried to add in some twists in the form of unexpected obstacles, although they seemed a bit forced as the chance of these happening, even in a made up story, should be rather low. These were some minor flaws that were not that obvious, but for an experienced reader like me they could easily be recognized.

In the end my opinion of the novel is no different than the earlier conclusions I gave in the beginning. I have pointed out some differences which had positive and negative influences and much more I can’t add.

Patience awarded

Saturday, July 21st, 2012

When ordering books online it can take a while to arrive, especially, as I do, when they have to be sent from other countries. The downside of this is that the book you want to read first, arrives last. So this happened with Bound In Blood (2010) by P.C. Hodgell, while the books I wasn’t in a hurry to read, God Stalk (1982) and Dark Of The Moon (1985), by the same author, arrived much earlier. Diligently I thus wait, or rather, I put my attention on other things.

Waiting for a package to arrive is much easier than waiting for the right edition of a book to be published. I prefer small paperback editions as they don’t take up that much space and in general I like small letters better than medium sized ones. I don’t know if this will give me troubles rereading them when I get old; it’s just how it is. To keep my attention up to date I maintain a Wanted Books list, because not always the bookstores will have the listed books available. Today I am able to take another one down from the list, with the purchase of The Alloy Of Law (2011) by Brandon Sanderson, a sequel to the Mistborn Trilogy.

With Bound In Blood and The Alloy Of Law arriving almost at the same time I have to choose which one to read first, although my preference goes to the latter one.

 

David Eddings – The Diamond Throne

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

Although my pile of books to read is quite high I do like to wander through my bookshelves. As I lack space many shelves contain two layers of books, with my favorites in front and the rest behind them. Some books I haven’t read for such a long time that I would like to experience them once again and see how I like them now. One of those books is The Diamond Throne (1989) by David Eddings, the first book of the Elenium Trilogy. It has probably been ten years since I last read this book, although I’m not certain I’ve reread it before at all. Sometimes I buy books I’ve read before (and liked) because they are available at a cheap price. The first time I read the novel I was about fifteen. Around that age I first ventured into the adult section of my library and also quickly became a fan of fantasy and science fiction as those were far more accessible than literature novels. My library had plenty of high fantasy novels by David Eddings so I read much by him, although I have to add I read everything and was not picky.

Since then pretty much a lifetime of reading has passed in which I have become quite selective of what I read. I do remember enjoying the Eddings novels and since it had been that long since I had forgotten quite a bit of how it was. So it was a rather odd experience. Early in the novel I realized it would be classified as Young Adult the days. Back then, and that was the nineties, this subgenre did not really exist. Fantasy was still not as mainstream as it is today and making further distinctions was a waste of effort. So why Young Adult? The prose is very easy and laid back. The tone is rather light and violent scenes are short and without detail. The story is told in a rather informative way, close to infodumping as Eddings seeks any opportunity to explain some background or situation. This while certain characters should have been better informed or just vary the extent to which they are knowing certain details. Certain behavior is presented a bit to explicitly, making it all to clear that there is little subtlety.

As Young Adult goes, this is even quite low level in that category. There is little complexity with hardly any hidden layers. The plot itself is quite straightforward, told in a leisurely pace which is not too slow, but far from creating any tension or urgency. In my opinion there is quite some Young Adult around these days that is only classified as such because the main characters are kids, while the story is quite mature. This story is far from mature. It is even lighter than Feist, although I already knew that. Nevertheless my reading experience is now wholly different.

The story itself is solid enough, the characters clearly distinguishable while lacking complexity. There are plenty of openings to do so. Eddings simply chooses not to make use of it. It is also a relatively non-mainstream setting. As a unique mediaevil world with many gods and as only familiar fantastic creature the troll it does manage to provide a fairly refreshing setting, even with so much fantasy out there today.

Considering the fact that I did enjoy these novels as a kid starting with fantasy novels, this would still be an easy and enjoyable entry into the world of fantasy, avoiding many clichés, although some remain. Still as one of the older fantasies this one was written when such clichés were not that common.

Col Buchanan – Farlander

Wednesday, July 18th, 2012

My first impression from the back cover of Farlander (2010) by Col Buchanan was a hard, gritty fantasy novel with dark undertones with plenty of action and twists. Reality turned out to be somewhat different. While set in a dark environment, the tone of the novel is more humane with slow development according to more natural flow.

Buchanan created in Farlander an original world with hardly any fantastic elements. However, some things were clearly based on Earthly analogues while his use of naming at times felt a bit lazy, lacking originality.

The amount of characters is kept to a minimum. There is basically one main character whose point of view is used most and a few others ones to provide some insights in other environment as the main character stays far away from it. I can’t really say there was substantial character development. My feelings towards the central characters was hardly different from that of the start. Of course they did experience things, but their behavior felt rather unchanged. Either so, Buchanan did take his time to spend time sufficient time on his characters. Nevertheless I did feel that certain things were a bit cliché. Characters took in common positions and in most cases there was a clear difference between good and bad.

For the greater part the plot follows the main character whose perspective used mainly. Occasionally some other perspective are used to give the story more depth. This because the main story is rather straightforward. For over half the novel there doesn’t really happen much and although the relative development pace is fast enough, the actual plot pace is slow. Buchanan takes his time to build up the required components of his plot. The reader however already knows what will happen, it is quite obvious. With a lack of layers and subplots – not counting two subplots that have little impact on the main plot – it all develops rather predictably, although of course the details remain unclear. The paths to follow are limited, although Buchanan does manage to add a minor surprise near the end. Buchanan chose to follow one storyline and left the subplots a bit dangling, although they could have provided some stronger entertainment. The choice he did make was original in the sense that most writers these days would have chosen the subplots as the main perspective.

I had expected more complexity and originality with Farlander. The story is rather simple and not that surprising. It was only the original world which kept my interest up. At certain moments I did get bogged down a bit. I could put the book aside if I wanted to do something else and pick it up anytime I felt in the mood to do so again. Buchanan’s prose is however fine and provides an easy read. I can only say that this book is an original and rather realistic fantasy with some cliché elements, which is an okay read. Better than average and little more than that. No disappointment (from what I had perhaps expected) while not impressive either.

Celine Kiernan – The Poison Throne

Sunday, July 1st, 2012

This is somewhat of an odd review as I’ve first read books 2 and 3 of the Moorehawk Trilogy by Celine Kiernan before I got my hands on book 1, The Poison Throne (2008). In the past I used to start in later books more often when no others were available (at my library) and pick it up later if they proved to be good. These days I don’t have a library account (for my own safety and because I read preferably read books in the original language (as mine is Dutch) to prevent flawed opinions due to poor translation (unfortunately more often since fantasy got more mainstream over a decade ago)), so it is more risky as I have to spend money to read. That does make me more critical towards what I read, so that I don’t read too much crap.

Anyways, the point I want to make is that based on books 2 and 3 of the trilogy (The Crowded Shadows and The Rebel Prince) I decided to buy book 1 as well. My opinion was not particularly positive, but I was missing on certain background and details which were only glanced over in the later books and I assumed that Kiernan was nice enough not to repeat everything again and only remarked on some necessary references. I was thus interested in what had happened before to know what had led to the story as told in the later books. As such, this review will be using the later books in some ways as a point of reference and this review will also cover the whole trilogy as a whole. That doesn’t mean I will be spoiling, only preparing for what lies ahead.

So what about my assumption? It turned out to be completely wrong. Kiernan did not exclude unnecessary references as there were none. People sometimes complain about infodumping when an author tries to set up his world and explain how it works and what is going on. No chance for that here as the first novel is pretty much devoid of infodumping. There is hardly any background information at all. What is the life story of the main characters? How did they get together? What did they do before they joined together? Of course this doesn’t all have to be disclosed in the first book. It is a useful element to get the reader to read the next installment. Nevertheless one does expect to learn something substantial in the beginning. There is very little. Most is only superficial. Sadly enough even in the later books only one of the main characters gets serious disclosure. I hoped for the others to have gotten theirs already in book 1. Alas.

Well okay, that was not very positive. So lets look at the plot. Lack of plot development was one of my complaints of the other novels. Not that nothing happened. I got through the pages easily enough. It was just that a lot of little things were happening that were of no serious importance to the greater story and scenes were extended to their extreme before the story got on. Now what can I say about the plot of The Poison Throne. After a dramatic start it quickly slumps down. Then a lot of little mainly inconsequential things happen before the end comes and finally some things happen again with not that much impact. So the actual plot development could have been put in a quarter or perhaps a fifth of the novel. To be exact, if I cut out only the necessary plot development from all the three novels I would have just a medium-sized single novel.

In a nutshell The Poison Throne is a stunning novel, literally. It takes place in a single location with two-thirds of it focused in two rooms. There are five main characters of which one does not get much attention. There are a few side characters who however get very little attention time. Kiernan basically spends all of her time on the interaction between the four main characters. So what does she spend all those pages on? Very extensive melodramatic scenes. In my reviews of books 2 and 3 I said that she extended her scenes and the drama to the limit, although with great strength. Alas in book 1 she was still finding her way. The scenes are too long and the drama too cheap. Besides that the scenes became rather repetitive. Because of the lack of plot development the situation of the main characters barely changed so the scenes between them didn’t change either.

Keeping the majority of the scenes in the two rooms was an odd choice. The story is told from the viewpoint of one main character. She was basically shut off from the outer world and got only little information from the outside world. The few times she did go to someplace interesting, Kiernan in most cases skipped those events. We mainly got the “outside” scenes that would give no new insights.

If I had read this novel first instead of the second one I would not have continued. I would have considered it long-winded, boring and providing too few things that grabbed my interest. There is very little world-building in this supposedly fantasy story. It takes place in a unnamed castle in an unnamed kingdom in an only vaguely mentioned outside world. The fantastic elements are very minor and rather unsubstantial towards the main plot.

My strange conclusion now is that the second book of the trilogy is the best. It is the most entertaining with the strongest dramatic scenes. The third book has the most plot development, if only at the end and too much rushed and not really making much sense. The Poison Throne does not have that problem. The plot itself, although containing too much inconsequential elements, is okay, were it not that the main plot of the trilogy is a problem in itself. Kiernan has a keen eye for details, especially for creating dramatic scenes based on character interactions. What I see is an idea for a plot which results in a sequence of those scenes. Then the problem comes. What happens outside those scenes? Some she manages to connect together in a reasonable way. The rest she decides to simply ignore.

Kiernan certainly has talent and can write well. Telling a good story is a different thing. This plot failed, simply said. She should have aimed to write the tale in the mold of Mervyn Peake‘s Gormenghast Trilogy. That also has few fantastic elements, a vague world-setting, a single location and a great focus on characters. In such an environment many little things do play their part and are not bothered by a so-called greater plot.