Archive for March, 2014

Daniel Polansky – Tomorrow, The Killing

Friday, March 28th, 2014

I usually select books purely by feeling as I am often correct to my inclination towards the quality or likability of the book. Sometimes I don’t know yet but I am willing to give it a go. I had that with Daniel Polansky‘s debut novel The Straight Razor Cure which proved to be much better than expected which greenlighted his name for other books to his name. So when a sequel to this novel, in what is called the Low Town series, was published I did not hesitate to get it. However, the imposing title, Tomorrow, The Killing (2012), has the greatest impact. This in contrast to the story.

The story is again centered around the main protagonist of the first novel, a crimelord without ambitions except for keeping his side of town under his control. He is very flawed and it is almost surprising how he manages to keep himself on top if he didn’t show a cunning mind. As a central character he is refreshing compared to the main protagonists of other fantasy novels and this partially attributes to me liking the books.

Although this is technically a fantasy story the fantastical element is almost absent in this book. We only see a little on the sideline and it plays no role in the story. This is all about people.

There is no introduction to the plot and Polansk immediately puts the case on top. In the first pages he presents the case as start of something bigger. This only lasts a short time as he throws in some great twists that turn everything upside down. Unfortunately that is also where it ends. Barely a sixth into the story and all the gusto that reminded me of why I enjoyed the first novel was gone. The plot becomes very straightforward. The main characters may juggle between his friends and enemies but the actual course is steady and there are no real twists as much happened as I expected and what did not was of little importance. Polansky tried to mask this simple plot by adding a number of flashbacks of the main protagonist to fill in some background and provide a light into what happened before. Although they complement the story they felt to me as filler to give the novel more body and to hide the fact that there was not much of a plot.

I did not feel the main protagonist undergoing any development. He has few morals and he walks on a thin line between caring and not-caring regarding the actions he takes even though he suffers some. It provides some amusement in between an atmosphere that is gloomy and to developing in any positive direction. We see the bad side of society where justice does not really exist. The side-characters are clearly presented and far from stereotypes. The problem is that there are many of them and they get too limited time to be part of the story. Each has a couple of scenes and that’s it.

To me Tomorrow, The Killing was mostly a light and quick read. After a good start it became more straightforward with few surprises. I was entertained but it did not have the impact of the first novel which had a much more complex plot and twists that lasted until the end. I was not disappointed and I am willing to give the next novel in the series another go, although I do hope Polansky can provide a stronger plot that holds more relevance. There is much talent here, with skillful writing and a broad cast of amusing characters.

Michelle West – House Name

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

House Name (2011), the third novel in The House War fantasy series by Michelle West, is a break from the previous novels as the setting has changed and there is a change in focus on the characters and plot development. There is also a change in atmosphere. The main protagonist and her group of side characters were in the lower echelons of society, now they are suddenly propelled into the highest. There are different rules of behavior to which they have to adapt.

The different environment also has its effect on the story. The playing field against the enemy changes. West makes a realistic choice which has a peculiar consequence. In the first half the main protagonist stands central and the story revolves much around her. This is where¬† actually the most dramatic scenes are found in which characters are portrayed the most strongest. Very early on in the novel there is a minor great event which compared to the previous novels would have been equal to a finale. Much earlier than expected things get overturned and the scale of the story suddenly changes. The main protagonist, and her group, get sidelined for a long great finale of the story. Other characters get center stage, but they remain much less developed and the reader doesn’t care as they did for the central group of characters. The finale is engaging and very entertaining, but it lacks the cleverness and emotion one was used to. It is an epic clash while the previous ones were more mundane and limited in scope. Now there were too many people engaged which made the attention to each of them too limited.

The fantastical element is increased even further in this novel. It had been steadily expanding in the earlier novels and plenty of supernatural things and magical happens in House Name. One could almost say it goes all out. The magic itself remains rather mysterious and West does not spend time explaining how it is supposed to work. They just “do” it.

Somewhat peculiar is that the story has a lengthy epilogue-like conclusion. West wraps up a number of things and takes her time for it. From Wikipedia I have learned that the first three books of this series form a sort of prequel so it is understandable that West wants a neat fit with her older works. I am just not that certain that it needed this extension. I guess I will find out once I continue with those earlier novels before I continue with The House War.

House Name has more great events than the previous novels but it does not have their strength and compelling atmosphere. A great part of the story is overtaken by other, less familiar characters. It were the familiar characters that had the best scenes and they were lacking in presence. I enjoyed the read and kept flipping the pages easily but it did not deliver as strongly as the first two books of the series. Still, the overall quality of the book is good and there are many new things to discover. West creates some interesting worldbuilding although we didn’t get to see that much yet as the events had a stronger domination on the whole.

Michelle West – City Of Night

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

An ever ongoing question when starting on a sequel to a great first novel is if it is able to stand up to it. Such a case is also City Of Night (2010) by Michelle West, the second book of The House War series, a fantasy novel taking place in an urban setting while not being a typical urban fantasy. I had very little negative to say about The Hidden City and very much praise. The situation is alas different for City Of Night.

Several years have passed since the first novel and not much has changed. The group that has formed in the course of the first novel is still pretty much the same albeit that they are older. More than a third of the novel is spent on the daily lives of the group in which West gives several attention and introducing a new character. The male protagonist, Rath, leads a separate life and his activities are far more interesting as they are a continuation from the final events of The Hidden City. His story moves up around the second third and the overall everything picks up pace in the second half of the novel when the group gets caught up in greater events leading to a number of dramatic conclusions.

It is the first half of the novel that holds most of the weakness of the story. Very little of significance happen. We see a group of children struggling with daily life. Despite the older age they have barely changed or developed. The more stronger characters were livelier in the first book. That change is too be expected as they have adapted to a more normal environment with far less issues. It does result in less character dynamics. The minor events in this part have no impact on the second half although it does get the reader back into the familiar atmosphere. The second half makes up a lot for the weaker first half but it also increases the contrast between the two halves.

There were a few notable flaws in the novel. In the first half there is a moment of infodumping by a side character which, to my feeling, came too early as it also was quite extensive. Technically the disclosure was allowable as the characters had worked together for several years but the moment and presentation fit less well. Another flaw was near the end where Jay, the female protagonist, suddenly had an object which I had not have seen her getting it. Perhaps I overread something. I am a fast reader and it does happen, but there were some constraints to it.

City Of Night is still a good novel. It is not as strong as the first one and it also lacked the many strong character development sequences as most characters were more ‘finished’. However, maintaining the high level of the first novel was hard and overall the quality remained solid. The second half was certainly mostly on par. I enjoyed the book a lot and I enjoyed the great atmosphere West was able to create, keeping me turning the pages with a great driving force. Recommended.

Go West

Friday, March 21st, 2014

As often, when I am very satisfied with a newly discovered author, I ransack the available books published, if not too expensive. In this case, after having started reading The House War series by Michelle West and discovered that there are two series that should best be read after the first three books, I got both series.

The first series is The Sacred Hunt duology, containing Hunter’s Oath (1995) and Hunter’s Death (1996). The second series is The Sun Sword, encompassing six novels: The Broken Crown (1997), The Uncrowned King (1998), The Shining Court (1999), Sea of Sorrows (2001) and The Sun Sword (2004). If you have counted, these are five, as the fifth novel, The Riven Shield, is strangely out of stock and even second hand books of average quality fetch a rather quite high price. I dislike having a poor quality edition next to a good set, so I have no choice but to wait until it comes back into stock. I don’t know if I will start the series before then. It will depend partially on my interest for the rest of my read pile.

 

Michelle West – The Hidden City

Friday, March 14th, 2014

Michelle West has written several series taking place in the same universe. According to Wikipedia one can start off with her most recent series, The House War, as the first three novels form a sort of prequel. As the local bookstore only had novels of The House War and I was able to get them on discount the choice was easiest to take my first glance into this universe with The House War.

The setting for the first novel, The Hidden City (2008), is one large city. It is however not an urban fantasy in the common sense. It does not take place in an alternative earth and it does not contain familiar beings from fantastical Earth mythology. Well, that is not completely true. They are just not that obvious. The pace of the story is also slower and the characters do not roll from crisis into crisis at each turn.

The novel has two main protagonists which also form the focus of story in the beginning. Gradually West expands the number of characters. She does this in a careful way, taking her time to introduce them while also moving the plot forward. Because she does not present them all at once she has plenty of time for characterization in between the plot development. The pace of the read is in this way never slow although one cannot call it fast. I can only consider it well balanced. The characters presented in the story are of a familiar mold but nowhere stereotypes because West is able to flesh them out and make them different.

The plot develops steadily. As the situation becomes more dangerous the cast of characters grows and the action is turned up a notch while never going overboard or dominating. Each event provides opportunities to develop several characters. West does this in an excellent way. It is not too obvious although the reader is well aware of the process the particular character is going through.

Usually my reviews are more of a list of flaws and weaknesses that I’ve noticed in a novel. There is usually less to be said about the qualities of the novel or whatever makes it good. This time I have to admit that I have no flaw or weakness to comment on. I would not call The Hidden City perfect as the story might be engaging and entertaining, it did not hit home for me or have a plot that surprised or captivated me. West kept it all on a relatively low level, providing plenty of character confrontations and conflicts which provided great sparks. She kept a great focus and the story and plot are perfectly balanced with the characters and their development. I can only say that I was very much impressed with this novel. I could name it a hidden gem as I haven’t seen or heard anything about Michelle West before. I only got her name as a tip from a friend. I don’t know yet about the quality of her other novels, but when I compare it to the average mainstream fantasy stuff she, at least on this novel, moves far above that level. I can’t imagine her other work to be that much worse. So now I am certainly incensed to explore the other novels that are set in this universe. This one is highly recommended.

David Weber – Ashes Of Victory

Sunday, March 9th, 2014

In Ashes Of Victory (2000) David Weber finally moves up the interstellar war that has been main piece of his nine-book (at this stage) military science fiction series to the main stage. Before that the focus was mainly on localized conflicts. This of course cannot always be the case. One can tell the story of a war through a series of battles either from the viewpoint of a single character or from battles that are noteworthy. Weber tries to vary in his approach for each novel to prevent wearing the reader out as military science fiction is a limited subgenre and also because in his universe wars are fought mainly through space battles between war ships. Once these have been defeated a solar system will be isolated and can’t do much more than surrender.

An effect of this system of war is that there is little attention for planetary activities or worldbuilding. Much takes place on space ships where the environment is pretty much similar in any situation, the characters are set up in similar positions with the fighting for a large part determined by firepower or technical abilities of the spaceships. Weber is aware of this nature which can cause very repetitive situations. There is some play with the strategies and tactics used in space battles although these are mostly driven by changing technical abilities.

In Ashes Of Victory, as mentioned, Weber puts more attention to the larger war efforts. Much of it is similar to a chess game. Space is however large and it is hard to detect each other while communication is often slow. One cannot move too hastily unless one is certain of a strategical advantage. In a way it is nice to see how Weber has designed the development of the war. On the other hand it is similar to watching a chess game. One knows to a degree where the pieces can go or do and that it takes time before they get to a certain position to strike. Besides that the antagonists never really meet or see face to face. They only deal with their own people and there are no direct clashes.

As a lot of time passes between these moves Weber put a secondary storyline into the story to provide a change of setting and mood. In fact he puts his main protagonist in this storyline. After the events of Echoes Of Honor, the previous novel, she has to recover which means that she is actually sidelined. He puts her in a different setting although the reader gets to see very little of it during the course of the novel.  There are so many events Weber needs to cover to tell the story for this novel that he has not time for it.

The main flaw of Ashes Of Victory is that Weber has decided he wants to get the war to a much farther stage. This lead to him cutting out many things that were not essential to each of the storylines. As each storyline followed a different theme and setting each got its own cuts. The result was that each storyline was diminished. I would have wanted to explore or experience more of a storyline. To go deeper into the material and create more focus on a limited set of characters. Now the characters were all over the place and there was not much focus as Weber jumped around. It was all fairly entertain but not great. There was little space for any characterization, especially as Weber rarely puts two opposed characters against each other. And if it happens we only hear it afterwards.

While most of the novel mainly cause ripples Weber puts the twists at the end. Partially its a missed opportunity as I would have loved to see and experience more of the actual events. The reader however gets only some notes. So overall it all keeps coming back to the problem that Weber has put too much plot into the novel that would have worked much better if it had been spread over more novels as he kept his usual pace which caused the different storylines to be dulled and fragmented at times. Only at the beginning and the end he was able to grab the attention of the reader. The rest was mainly a gentle stroll.