Archive for April, 2014

Michelle West – The Broken Crown

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

Michelle West starts with a clean sheet after having first read the first three books of The House War and The Sacred Hunt duology in a new grand fantasy series named The Sun Sword, a series composed of six books. Although there are familiar characters from the earlier books who have some minor roles, largely later in the story, most of the characters in The Broken Crown (1997) are brand new. And that is not the only that is new. The setting is completely different. West creates a whole new and complex world where men and women live separate lives in a culturally original and layered society.

As she did in The Hidden City, Michelle West shows a strong gift for starting a story. Along a carefully laid path she introduces and develops the broad cast of characters in a skillful way. While the progression of building her world is relatively slow, and West takes her time to write all she needs, it is nowhere predictable. She creates a strong connection between each character and the reader. Each character is uniquely crafted with flaws and strengths that are wholly realistic.

The novel can be cut into two halves. The first half sets up the new characters and the new setting. It is not all introduction as they also develop the plot to the point where the story really begins. At that point the reader knows where everybody stands within the story and the many complicated relations that are contained within it. West creates a strong focus and immerses the reader completely in the world she has created. There are few action scenes and much of what happens is politicking, although these are presented in such a natural way, without being too obvious, the reader can only enjoy these engaging dialogues that do not sparkle or are crude.

The second half contains many dramatic scenes and some exciting action sequences. Nevertheless it is the restraint that provides a great tension within the story. There is a buildup that is subtle. You think that you can guess what will happen but West deflects expectations with gentle twists that have much impact.

In the second part the setting begins to vary and many familiar characters from the earlier books return to the front as the events that take place have there influence in these familiar places as well. The familiar characters play a more minor role however. West does not give them that much attention as the new characters. As I had gotten to know these characters really well in the House War novels I am not certain how a new reader would respond to them. It was my opinion that they were not given full center stage. They got not more than necessary.

With calm and intricate detail West builds up toward a powerful finale. It is no climax in the traditional sense. There is very intelligent play. None of the central characters are stupid. They all plan and set up their goals without it all being complicated. They need to work together at one time and subtly against the other time. Are there only hollow victories? The reader will not think so and feel great satisfaction.

West has delivered with The Broken Crown a marvelous fantasy novels that is both captivating and engaging. Despite are relatively slow pace there happen many small things that together form something greater. I have other writers try the same and hopelessly fail. West however has succeeded magnificently. I can only compare this novel to The Hidden City which had a different but similar reading experience, although the course taken was more straightforward and the buildup toward the climax start immediately at the beginning. There are barely any real weaknesses or flaws to mention. They are all very minor. West has created a great story and no reader will be able to resist going for the next installment. Highly recommended.

 

Sherwood Smith – Banner Of The Damned

Monday, April 14th, 2014

If there is one thing to be said about female authors then that is that they can be categorized in very distinct different ways than male authors. This is certainly the case as well in the fantasy genre, where most male authors can be put in the same category. The female authors however are able to write like male authors as well quite differently. In my experience there are pretty much two other categories. The first is the romantic/erotic fantasy, which I pretty much avoid, and second is the, for the lack of a better word for it, woman’s fantasy. The best way to explain this particular category is by my review of Banner Of The Damned (2012) by Sherwood Smith, who, despite the possibly misleading name, is a woman.

Banner Of The Damned is set in the Sartorias-deles universe in which Smith has written a collection of novels. Banner Of The Damned is however a standalone novel, as far as I know. The world is medieval in setup and magic is a common part of daily life. The novel is partially about a clash of cultures. Between those who have shed the mantle of barbaric violence for civilized diplomacy. Both have their complex arrays of behavioral patterns in which hidden communication is performed. As long as both cultures live alongside each other they require each other to maintain a balance.

Smith tells her story from the civilized perspective albeit from a relatively neutral stance. There is one main protagonist who tells the story mainly from a first person narrative. Unusual is that she aims to be an observer. Her world revolves around others whom she considers more important than herself. Nevertheless she plays a slowly increasingly important role.

The first quarter of the novel is all about this observer position. The narrator sees and hears but is not involved. It is a display of courtly life where gossip and simple desires play an important role. As I had no idea where the story was going I was all but thinking this fantasy novel would be a romance with perhaps some fantastical elements. The novel changes when the clash of cultures, as mentioned earlier, diminishes the romantic element. The story collects some drive before suddenly settling again in a new environment where threats and dangers are great. The reader sees very little of it. The main characters stays away from most of it and is again hardly involved. Much is about daily life and how to cope with minor events that trouble the peace. The story is like a gentle stream that provides a calming reading flow. There is sufficient excitement to prevent boredom (for me at least), although in my case it helped that I only read a few chapters each day while traveling to work. The climax is sudden, but not completely unexpected. A few moments of fireworks bring closure to the lingering threads that, like real life, do not always lead to something. This time they did.

What is typical about a woman’s fantasy novel is that it is about people and social interactions. There is a bit of a fantastical elements to provide a different kind of setting and possibilities for events. The women are feminine. While they may have an external weakness they have an internal strength. Similarly, in contrast, the men have external strength and internal weakness. It is for the women to guide them to the right path. Smith writes all this in a very subtle way and she takes her time. Banner Of The Damned is a big book. It is the story of a life and the lives of others. The plot is not complex, but subtle and Smith takes her time to tell it. She sets the pace. Although the general flow is not fast, it is not too slow either, and there are sequences that run faster to capture more tension.

While there is plenty of space for character development there are few real changes. There is movement and some building. Oddly enough characters often fall back into their previous selves after a crisis has passed. There is some truth in that so I am not sure how to give a clear opinion on it.

In my conclusion I have to say that Banned Of The Damned is a nice read. There is little to complain about except for the lack of a truly exciting plot that could have happened if Smith had chosen to write a story in the mold of the common type of fantasy. She did not. She wrote a story about characters and choices and that not all is that obvious. The world she created is intriguing and original in its setup. On the other hand, after one visit, it does not interest me that much to visit it again. I have a pretty good guess about the nature of the other novels set in this world. They will probably also be nice and provide just enough excitement to keep me going while not giving me the gratification and true pleasure that I usually seek in a well created fantasy novel. Plenty of female readers will probably think otherwise and enjoy this kind of novel much more. It is, after all, a woman’s fantasy.

 

Michelle West – Hunter’s Death

Friday, April 11th, 2014

It is a bit complicated for me to review Hunter’s Death (1996), the second book of the Sacred Hunt duology, a fantasy series by Michelle West. I have chosen to read it after the first three books of The House War series, which shares a number of events with with Hunter’s Death. Because of that a substantial part of the novel was a revisit so I didn’t read the novel in a normal way.

The overlap in events cover about the last third of City Of Night and all of House Name. About 100 pages are virtually identical to Hunter’s Death while the rest provide either a different viewpoint of known events and the rest is original. The original parts were the most interesting. Many gaps in the story of The House War are suddenly filled. Some I had noticed and complained about in my reviews of those novels while others provided greater insight into what was going on. The same can be said on the different viewpoints although this was not always the case.  Those were more of a rehash, similar to the duplicate scenes. As I had read the other novels quite recently I knew the contents of the scene and simply skimmed them until I got to something new.  All this diffused my reading experience, although I was glad the story became more complete. I am not sure how West could have solved the overlap of the two narratives. My main surprise was how much she had already set what would be part of The House War storyline. I had expected a different approach, instead it was unchanged. The reader is thrown right into the middle of it with many relationships unclear. It felt somewhat remarkable that West was able to fit in the House War storyline without needing to make any changes to when it would merge with Hunter’s Death. It is however hard for me to give a clean review of it as all the background details were already known to me.

There is one light annoyance about the Sacred Hunt duology. Within the plot there is a guiding force that pops up at most events of consequence to steer the other characters in the best course of action. This is all very convenient and the characters thus seem to matter very little in regard to what they might choose themselves. Much of the character hardships are caused by them being forced to do something else than they wanted. They rarely suffer from choices of their own, so the emotional damage they do have can be blamed on something else. That is thus quite peculiar. Normally it happens incidentally and not frequently. It sometimes seems it doesn’t matter what they do or think, and that is a bit annoying.

Because of the similarities between Hunter’s Oath and House Name it is hard to give a separate final opinion. The main difference between Hunter’s Oath and House Name is that Hunter’s Oath has more action and events are more tightly packed. While House Name had several periods with minor storylines of no consequence to the greater story, Hunter’s Oath has more focus. In general it is thus a better novel, except for certain things that seem to come out of nowhere but are explained much better in The House War novels. By reading these novels first the story of Hunter’s Death receives a better foundation. Hunter’s Death also provides a better resolution, while House Name clearly keeps things open for the next novels to follow.

 

Michelle West – Hunter’s Oath

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

Although Hunter’s Oath (1995), the first book of The Sacred Hunt duology, is Michelle West‘s first novel set in the Essalieyan universe it is advised to read it after the first three books of The House War. I followed this advise and can only agree to this statement. The events of Hunter’s Oath occur simultaneously to the first two books of The House War although there is no overlap of any kind. To me the reason why to read Hunter’s Oath afterwards is that The House War provides a more solid introduction to the universe.

Hunter’s Oath starts a bit clunky as West spends a too little time in her introduction to build some characters before she moves ahead in time to events that really matter. In a way I can understand the difficulty of the choice. One could change the introduction into flashbacks added in later but those could disrupt the flow of the narrative too much. Fortunately, as the introduction is kept rather short one will forget about it soon when the action kicks in. A secondary storyline kicks in which is rather more sudden as there is no introduction here. There is, I think, no way to do it differently, but it creates a contrast to the other storyline that did have an introduction. Here the reader is thrown in the middle of unknown events involving new characters we know nothing about. As I had read The House War first I had already been given the missing introductions to those characters so they felt familiar to me. I’m not sure how a new reader would respond to it so I have to imagine it. It is one reason why writing this review is a bit more complicated than usual. I am comparing with another set of novels all the time while I should try to keep this book apart from them.

Although some characters lack a decent introduction other characters that played a side role in The House War have a far better introduction and we get a greater understanding of who they are. We certainly get to see a lot more of them and where they were more mysterious characters there they become less so here as they take more center stage.

The plot itself keeps a steady pace, quite faster than the House War, and events occur in a steady flow. West puts in her moments of contemplation and adds details where possible to provide a greater worldbuilding as she describes a unique culture. Aside from the unstable beginning the story keeps its footing for the rest of the novel. The plot itself is not that solid. One of the main drivers of the plot remained poorly explained. I could not find the real starting point although later events covered it up a bit. The plot itself is fairly straightforward but not predictable.

Hunter’s Oath is overall an entertaining novel with original and interesting characters that provides an engaging read. There are some weaknesses in the beginning, but these are quickly forgotten once the story grabs hold. Reading the first three books of The House War will not spoil anything told in this novel as the events take place outside of those in The House War. As it is in a different pace and in a very different setting it has a different feel to it while providing familiarity through characters that take center stage here. Recommended.

Michelle Sagara – Cast In Shadow

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Another go at an urban fantasy, it seems the season for it. This time it is Cast In Shadow (2005) by Michelle Sagara, the first novel of the Chronicles Of Elantra. It stays away from the typical urban fantasy mold by being set in a unique fantastical world where other species are not hidden from normal society but instead dominate it. Humanity is the so-called weakest of the races, at least in the eyes of the other races.Unfortunately that is the only original premise of this novel. The main character is a young woman with a bad past and strange hidden powers who generates a lot of sexual tension with several male characters who happen to be similarly mysterious and also are so-called ‘bad’ men. The young woman defies with passion but is attracted to everything she should avoid.

The plot thunders straight ahead, pretty much from the start. There is no time for contemplation. We rush from event to event and where possible a lot of information is disclosed. There is supposedly much secrecy but that seems to be only for pretension’s sake because whenever the main protagonist is around everyone’s mouth can’t keep shut. They try to resist, a bit, with futility. Already very early on big revelations are made before we get to know the characters and the world a bit and this goes on with a steady frequency. I could keep up, but that’s only because I like complex novels and can handle a lot of information. I can imagine other readers might feel swamped and lose coherency on what is going on. I barely felt any tension in scenes, between characters or the plot build-up. It was all too fast. Sagara’s prose was okay and she presented everything in readable chunks but it was like eating a dinner with only main courses and far too many of those.

With all that up-high tempo I did not feel there was any real character development. Sagara put in a few crisis moments for the main protagonist but the change in emotional turnarounds was simply not logical and lacked sense. I could not connect with her and neither with the other characters. These remained rather flat and without depth although Sagara tried to give them some background story. Even with such different races I barely felt that they were that much different from humans. They only had some special properties.

Quality-wise Cast In Shadow is quite poor. It would probably provide some quick and not too heavy reading on a vacation or when traveling. To some extent it was not that typical for an urban fantasy so it provides some different fare for those who do love the genre. I am not very inclined to read more of the series as it didn’t provide any attachment while reading and no interest in what would happen next.

 

Brandon Sanderson – Words Of Radiance

Friday, April 4th, 2014

It is one of the greatest joys for a reader when one of his favorite authors publishes a new book and manages to deliver, providing the reader with a story that gives complete satisfaction and a strong desire to keep on reading. This is so the case for Words Of Radiance (2014) by Brandon Sanderson, the second book of his epic fantasy series The Stormlight Archive. I have not read all of his works, but those that I have picked up have proven him to be one of the major fantasy authors of today.

What is it that makes Words Of Radiance so enjoyable? Foremost it is one of the three main protagonists who has center stage in this novel, the only female, Shallan. Sanderson has used female characters as main protagonists in several of his previous novels and he did so well. With Shallan he has made a leap forward. In the first novel, The Way Of Kings, the three main protagonists did not really stand out for me. They were okay, but I did not like them particularly well and had no preference. This has now changed very much for me. While the two male protagonists did not change much, Shallan became someone different. Following the advice of a fellow characters she changes her mindset. She dares, shows smarts and skills and is witty. She still struggles and makes mistakes, but remains headstrong and goes forward with great power. I have read my share of female protagonists over the years and I can hardly think of anyone who I connected so well with.

Another great things about Sanderson is his easy to read prose. He does not use fancy or complicated words. They flow easily and I went through the pages without effort, even though it is almost 1100 pages long. That said, it is also one of his weaknesses. I know he can write concise novels with no fat to spare. Words Of Radiance does not feel like it uses too many words and that every scene counts. Something there does go wrong. The series is supposed to be an epic fantasy. Sanderson has created  a large world with many countries and cultures, most of which we only see glimpses of as his novel has no time for it. I guess about 900 pages of the book are set in the same place, which is strangely enough outside civilization and the center of anything important happening. I complained in my review of the first novel that it was way too long, as it also revealed weaknesses in the story, and I should complain about it here, with some pain in my heart. The story stays too long in the same place and although many entertaining things happen little of it drives forth the greater plot.

There are a few other comments to make. One of the characters undergoes a development that felt rather familiar to a sequence in the final of The Gathering Storm. Sanderson makes another strong point of this, but it is also a sequence that is played out for a long time of which you know how it will turn out, either way

Sanderson also put more fun into his story than the previous novel. To me it shows that he is still improving in his writing abilities. His earlier works had barely much of it. I saw the first changes in The Alloy Of Law, and here he does more where he sees the opportunity. They are not frequent and the plot still holds an ‘end of the world’ theme; it is just not all that gloomy anymore. There are some sparkles to lighten the mood.

Like the previous novel Sanderson added a sequences of flashbacks to tell a background story to one of the characters. In the review of that I was negative on those flashbacks. They added too little and were too long. This is much less the case here. There are several minor revelations in the flashbacks which forced me to pay more attention to them as they had more significance. They were still not that great as an addition to the story although they did have more value.

Although the story holds some darker moments, Sanderson chooses a more positive vibe for his story, which one could say is somewhat unusual for this age, where characters either undergo great ordeals all the time or suffer in a gritty environment. For Sanderson there is always a light at the end of the tunnel and more of it. It is nice to see the change and I kind of like it. One gets too used to a certain approach and atmosphere and one should be open to something different.

Words Of Radiance is not a perfect novel. It is still too long for the story it holds and it is too constrained in one setting with far too many minor storylines that while entertaining do not move the greater plot forward. Much remains on the background with little development. Fortunately events will force things to change in the next installment and I cannot wait to get it. Unfortunately I will have to be patient as such big books aren’t written that easily. Highly recommended.

 

R. Scott Bakker – The White-Luck Warrior

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

I have read some strange works of fantasy over the years but The White-Luck Warrior (2011) by R. Scott Bakker, the second book of The Aspect-Emperor Trilogy, which is the second cycle of the Second Apocalypse series, can certainly be marked as quite unusual. He reaches a new form of characterization, as no characters seem to be untouched or wholesome. I would describe it as an orgy of insanity. Nobody behaves normally and as madness goes there is a great variety in them with different degrees of sanity. Even when you think some persevere and get back on track they are unable to hold on and have to let some go. One can only be baffled or stunned by the ongoing sequence of minor events that are impossible to predict. You can stagger, but not stop going on.

An even so, even so, the plot itself is not that complicated. The trilogy is about a great crusade and the main journey before reaching the goal. There is thus not much of a beginning or an end. In the wake of the great crusade there are several minor crusades that have different aims. These are no less in their horrific nature. They are bloody and brutal and not so different. There may be, to some extent, unpredictable events, the general course is rather straight. They are not really twists. At a certain point you start expecting something crazy to occur again at certain junctions and you are only disappointed if there doesn’t.

It may sound somewhat depressing. How can this be an enjoyable read? Much is compensated by three things. The first thing is the prose. Bakker writes imaginative and in a clear way. The reader is drawn into the many spectacular scenes and the often haunting course of events. The second thing are the details. The world that Bakker has created is well crafted, be it in ancient history, philosophy, poetry or religion, all in a range of different cultures which are unique and original. The third thing, which I already mentioned earlier, is the characterization. There is a broad cast of characters and even many of the minor ones are clearly depicted with hidden depths and different faces. An within all the mad events all are changed.

For some The White-Luck Warrior may be a tough read. One has to see and experience the many things that make it worthwhile to keep going on. It is hard to call it a great novel. Plot-wise Bakker does not provide much development. The first novel of this trilogy, The Judging Eye, was similar and there is no improvement here. The reader knows where things are going, we are just not that certain how it will all end. It is the shocking journey and the craft of the novel that give the book an unusual edge. It is not a rollercoaster ride but everything goes through a slow meatgrinder where you have no clue who will survive and how. That makes it recommendable.