Archive for May, 2014

Michelle West – Battle

Saturday, May 31st, 2014

If I hadn’t already recently read twelve novels by Michelle West I would say it had been a while since a read an outstanding novel. Not that all those novels had been superb. There were weaker ones and only some I noted as excellent which always makes it hard when reading them closely after each other as you start to compare them to each other instead of on their own merit. What makes Battle (2013) different is that it is the fifth book of The House War series and in essence it is a middle book as the first three novels formed a set and the fourth set off a new sequence many years later. Battle is much about the consequences and after effects of the fourth novel, Skirmish, so that makes it even more unusual that it has proven to be better as it is by no means a novel one can start with. So I will start with naming why this novel stands out from the others.

Most important is the character development. Previously there was some moderate character development and these were just side effects of the events undergone by the main protagonists. In general they still behaved as we had gotten to know them. In this novel West (finally) gives many of them a welcome change. Like when I first got to know them I once again got to experience familiar characters in a different way and that was intensely satisfying.

Very enjoyable was the deepening of the fantastical elements in the story. In the earlier novels West moved in relatively familiar territory. There were some minor explorations but they were just glimpses. The novel Skirmish already introduced some nice things but Battle takes it all to a new level. It is just swarming with original fantastical concepts and ideas. This may depend on the reader’s taste. For me it was grand. Fantasy is often taken too easy. It has endless possibilities and most authors stay within close boundaries. Not that such is a bad thing. One creates a world or universe and it has to have rules and limits. One usually doesn’t imagine to create rules and limits that go beyond the familiar. West stayed at that level for quite some time and with Battle she has completely broken through it. She handled it quite well and I have to add that I have taken it as it came and not thought too much about it. One has to do that sometimes.

While the different novels have not been lacking revelations this book holds a few important ones, including one the reader will have been waiting for a long time. West had been pushing it a long time. It was a secret kept in full daylight. Everyone saw it while West just kept brushing over it.

The novel has a slightly better pace than the previous one which had a rather large density. There are some moments of contemplations although West has so much story to tell that they are just minor moments for the reader to breathe in. I certainly could not stop turning the pages. I am almost amazed I was able to get some sleep.

So are there things to complain about? It is hard to say. Even though it is a sort of middle book West manages to provide the story with something of a starting point, skipping straight to where the action begins again. One could say that handling so many events  made West sometimes take the easy path. Like Skirmish the ‘chuckle’ disease sometimes pops up but it occurred less and so didn’t leave an after taste. There are also some scenes which play out a bit too friendly. West wants to impress a bit too much at times and several threats are countered without much consequence.  These are all just minor things if one start looking well into the material. I don’t think any novel is perfect as I like many different types of stories and an author has to make choices in what to use. The cases above are, I think, side effects of West trying to fit in certain plot elements in a logical way while making it not seem too easy or convenient. So in fact she tries to reduce the effects.

The only bad feeling that I had about this novel is that this was the last novel of the series available and I couldn’t continue until the next installment comes out. I have to say that I haven’t read thirteen novels by one authors in such a short span of time. Fortunately I could cram in some others to give me some breathing space and let it sink in. It has been a while since I found some great books to read although I am still pleasantly surprised I manage to discover so many hidden gems as I read a lot.

I can only conclude by giving this novel my highest recommendation. Just make sure to read all the previous books before starting with this one. Compared to the relatively slow style of most of the other novels this book doesn’t give you time to immerse yourself into the story. You are pulled in and escaping is nigh impossible. Why would you want to escape?

 

A dive into history

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

I take the field of literature in a broad sense. As I have mentioned before I like to read books from earlier times which are often not truly novels but relatively contemporary narrations of historic events. As they are written in the times they author lived in he writes from his own cultural and social perspective which gives each of these narratives a unique feeling.

These days many webshops provide the option to create wishlist. Here you can store items you don’t want to buy yet, usually because they are of lesser priority or because they are too expensive and you want to wait for an acceptable discount. Recently I decided to clean up one of my wishlists a bit as I realized many had been in there so long they wouldn’t get a serious discount soon and that I have been buying cheap books for such a long time now that its not that bad to buy some books for a more regular price.

The batch that I have purchased covers a wide range: Books XI to XIV of the Library (30 BC) by Diodorus Siculus. It is the only work that covers the period of Greek history between the rise of Athens and Sparta after their victory over the Persian Empire in 480 BC and the conflict that would mark the decline of Greek power in 431 BC. The books continue until 401 BC, but for that period contemporary historic works have survived and Diodorus Siculus uses these much as source. In a way the work by John Zonaras is similar. Books XII and XIII of The Epitome Of Histories (1134) covers Roman history between the years 218 and 395, which also lack suitable sources. More contemporary is History Of The Lombards ( 799) by Paul the Deacon, who lived in Italy in the eight century. The man who conquered the Lombards was Charlemagne. A combined book I bought contained two biographies: The Life Of Charlemagne (836) by Einhard and Charlemagne (887) by Notker the Stammer, of which the first is more famous as Einhard was knew Charlemagne personally. Next follow several books from the later Middle Ages: The Orkneyinga Saga (ca. 1200), a history of the Orkney Islands around they years 1000 and earlier. No author is known. The same is the case for Njal’s Saga (ca. 128o), which provides detailed stories of life in Iceland. And finally are two chronicles of the Crusades: The First is narrated by Ralph of Caen in the Gesta Tancredi (1118), which describes the Norman participation, and The Chronicle Of The Third Crusade (1222), written by multiple authors and thus not clearly attributable, in which the most powerful rulers of that time joined in like Frederick Barbarossa of Germany and Richard the Lion Heart of England. Both narratives are eyewitness accounts of these events.

It is a grand set of works. They are of course not on top of my read list but regularly I am much in the mood to pick something like this up for a different kind of read.

Michelle West – Skirmish

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

The House War fantasy series by Michelle West continues after The Sun Sword series with its fourth novel Skirmish (2012). Skirmish takes places 17 years after that third book and in a way it is a direct continuation of one of the storyline within The Sun Sword series. This particular storyline was a bit the odd one out as it told a mostly separate story to the major one that only in a few events was fully involved in the other one.

The plot of Skirmish itself actually takes places during the events of the final novel of The Sun Sword although it is for the most part completely separate from it. This detachment is good as it allows West to give full focus again on one central character and story. It is not that she cannot handle multiple central characters and storylines; to the contrary. West does however rather excel when she has more focus. The plot is more solid and she had more control over the flow as there isn’t that much asking attention.

The plot itself somewhat surprised me. I expected it to have a steady flow forward like the earlier House War novels. Instead Skirmish has more in common with The Uncrowned King, the second book of The Sun Sword series. West creates a dense and intense plot in which all takes place within a short space of time. In fact, so much happens that one can hardly believe West can cram it all in there.

It is not all action that takes place in the novel. There is much politicking and plenty of heavy dialogues. The only thing I was not very satisfied with was the character development. The main character has a group of companions and most of them seem to be rather unchanged after 17 years, when they were just street kids, while they are now long standing members of a powerful House. They still seem to be fairly insignificant and I was sometimes wondering what they had been doing all this time. Even the main character doesn’t handle herself as well as her age and position should. One could claim that the basic character traits of a person don’t change, and I would agree with that, but experience will in most cases allow a person to handle situations and other people in a far better way. I did not see any change on those fronts yet. On a base level they seemed to have remained isolated and sometimes acting like they were still kids. It is the main criticism I can make on this novel.

A minor flaw, which is more of an annoyance on my side is that towards the end of the novel West seemed to revert to some lazy writing. To me this was notable because a lot of characters suddenly started to ‘chuckle’, including some that were totally out of character and inappropriate. Fortunately this occurrence was limited in scope so it didn’t bother me too much. It does make me worry a little that West was taking less care of what she was writing. Her plotting is still excellent, but if the prose might begin to falter that would hurt things a lot more. I have not seen it in any of her other novels so it is certainly something new. I have seen it before in long running series where the author writes down her own feelings on a dialogue or scene, because that is what a ‘chuckle’ is too me. The author has fun with what has been written and then starts to add it at every instance where it matches her own feeling although it doesn’t fit the scene or the character.

I should not give too much attention to such a minor thing. Skirmish is a great novel. It is a real page turner with many unexpected things going on in which West weaves a tale with marvelous experiences and great imagination. It is not too light or too heavy, although there is much detail that keeps a possible fast pace in check. This just makes it a rich story with many great characters, although I have to add here that most of them have been familiar to me from the earlier books. I would certainly not advise anyone to read this novel without reading the earlier ones because one is dropped right in the middle of many events at the start. Highly recommended.

 

Michelle West – The Sun Sword

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014

With this review of The Sun Sword (2004), the final book of six book The Sun Sword series, I reach the nice milestone of 250 reviews, and I am happy it is a good book to discuss at that position. This series is a sequel to both The House War series (albeit only the first 3 books) and The Sacred Hunt duology. In effect it is thus part of an even greater story as The House War continues the story. Even so the series is much contained in a different setting than those series with its own central cast of characters although it shares a fair number with the other series. It does not hurt to mention that much is resolved in this final volume although there remain quite a few open strands for later.

As mentioned in my review of the fifth book, The Riven Shield, Michelle West had to cut her intended final book into two parts. This has its effect on the beginning of The Sun Sword. In the other novels there was every time a build up. This time, except for the prologue, there is none. The story quickly continues from the end of the previous novel although West has moved the story forward unexpectedly. Before long there is an early climax which develops in some strange ways. It quickly follows with the climax to another storyline which had been the odd one within the greater plot. West surprises by making the climax the end of the storyline, although nothing is yet resolved.

Instead of the plot heading for a crash course it takes a sudden turn. Politicking returns when a new mysterious conspiracy is discovered that is reminiscent of The Shining Court’s, the third novel, plot. This conspiracy starts taking center stage and all developments in the center of the novel are related to it. It provides West with the material for some powerful character development and a number of emotional scenes. The central conflict does not seem that important anymore and as any reader might have slowly been guessing throughout the course of the series West is not intent to let things develop in an expected way. The path may seem simple if you look at it from far away but it is full with splits, diversions and knots while other paths aim to overtake it. In that sense there is some very original and creative plotting in the different novels of this series that I have only glimpses of in other fantasy novels. West takes many different elements and a careful and ingenious plot is wrought that elates the reader.

Despite this there is some lack of balance. Each novel of the series has a different plot structure and setup. In the first three novels this worked out magnificently, creating rich and powerful stories. The last three novels are not able to match it. The fourth was relatively poor, the fifth much better and the sixth comes closer to the first three again. That it doesn’t is partially caused by the unbalance within the story. It is more a second part with a pair of climaxes in the first part and in the last part, the latter being the actual finale. In between there is a long middle sequence with a different rhythm and focus. There is a large cast of characters and West can’t give them all equal attention. She makes her choices and on its own that is not bad except that the focus changes between each of the three parts. An additional problem with the last part is that it is the grand finale and this means it involves all the characters at once. For the first time West makes sacrifices. Where before she went into extensive writing to get maximum result from the possible events spending time anywhere. In the finale we only see some short scenes with the different characters and then West leaves them behind to spend her time with the most important characters, leaving the reader in the dark with what happens with the side characters. Unfortunately the reader learns little of what occurred afterwards. West pushes forward to close the story. One can imagine that there is not complete satisfaction as to what West was able to deliver before. Yes, the most important issues are taken care of but West’s trademark of taking care of the details is this time brushed over. This is one of the things that make this final novel not as great as the earlier.

There is a lot to enjoy in this large novel. West explores many themes and provides plenty of variation in events and developments. The story itself hangs a bit out of balance although the average reader will not notice it at first hand as the reading pleasure will be great throughout the book. There are some minor remarks to make about the finale and, and this is a first, it should have been longer as West seems to have cut out some material to prevent the novel going too long (it is over 900 pages).

The whole series is very great. It is original, engaging, with great worldbuilding, and many unique and well developed characters that will connect to the reader. It is not a perfect series, with a slight dip in the fourth and (partially) fifth books. There is however much great intensity, care for detail and it is all written in fine and easy readable prose. Highly recommended.

Michelle West – The Riven Shield

Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

In the foreword of The Riven Shield (2003), the fifth book of The Sun Sword fantasy series, author Michelle West states that she had to split her final book into two parts (where have we heard such things before?) as it had become much longer than expected. She apologizes for not being able to provide a more rounded plot like her previous novels. In reality most fantasy series barely have rounded plots per novel although I have to admit that this has improved over the past decade, although I might be biased because I am picky in what I read. The apology is actually overrated as some of the plots of the previous novels of the series were not that strong either. Now that I’ve read The Riven Shield it has more than sufficient plot of its own and has a reasonable finale.

What The Riven Shield still suffers from is that West goes too much into details and expands her scenes to full measure, causing a relatively low pace and the abundance of words to describe it all. It is well written so that the reader is sufficiently entertained and barely notices it. It is when the reader gets to the end that he realizes that the overall plot has moved little. West managed to handle this far better in the first three novels, where her detailed writing benefited the story and held a steady powerful flow. While she has improved from the fourth book, Sea Of Sorrows, she is not up to par yet in The Riven Shield. She is a bit driven to create a number of important meetings between certain characters and spends much time to set it up and play it out while there isn’t the fireworks that could have been and would not have been expected. The same happens with a carefully set up secondary storyline that does not lead up to much as it would only divert her more from the goal she is aiming at. It is all a little shallow, not hitting the right buttons as she did before.

I am not completely truthful about The Riven Shield. It holds many engaging and strong scenes that I enjoyed very much. They were however mostly relatively short and scattered throughout the novel. There is a large cast of characters, all quite unique and original, that she handles in an easy way although she has not got much time to spend time on them as she could before. In the earlier novels she could limit the scope by using a narrower plot for each book. In this first of the final books she has to move everything forward which also means giving sufficient attention everywhere. Not all of the events seem that relevant. There were opportunities to shorten the material although not enough to reduce the two final books to one.

The fifth book of The Sun Sword series is a rich and detailed novel. With the different storylines now needing to converge West still moves the story in her own way. What I expected to be the central part of the overall story does not happen and is moved until the very end. In a way I am somewhat baffled by it. To be honest it is a good thing to tell a great story without reverting to what seemed to be the core of the story and change it to something very different. I have no clue now how the actual final book will play out. It could be anything. Unfortunately for this novel, and I can see now why West apologized in her foreword, is that we see a convergence of storylines and she has to cut it not far from the expected convergence. This means that this novel has a more ‘middle book’ feeling than the other books. It lacks the steady drive or buildup of the story and while it has a nice finale, it is not as strong as before.

As a whole The Riven Shield is a big improvement to Sea Of Sorrows but falling short of the first three novels which to me stand out much in their high quality and power. It will be interesting to see if West can take me there again in her last novel, although the fact the story in two and the first part of it didn’t impress me as the others did, make it a hard to achieve. Either way, I have enjoyed this series greatly until now. The only serious weakness can be found in the expanded scenes which West enjoys too much and could use some editing to make them more concise and stronger. Recommended.

 

Michelle West – Sea Of Sorrows

Monday, May 5th, 2014

After three strong novels The Sun Sword series by Michelle West flounders with the fourth book Sea Of Sorrows (2001). It is not really bad but it does not keep it the level maintained previously. In my earlier reviews I expressed the note of a relatively low pace. With this I meant that the plot does not move forward much but there usually happens more than enough to keep the reader engaged.

It is mostly that where West does not succeed as well as before. The start of the novel is handled poorly. The reader returns to the familiar cast of characters from the end of the third book, The Shining Court, and we discover that they have been waiting. Unfortunately for the reader the waiting is not done yet and we are served with elongated scenes that depict the further waiting and as such the reader is waiting as well for something to happen. The characters aren’t doing anything except perhaps some reflection. Personally West could have jumped to a point more closely to the end of the waiting.

When things start going they remain with little conflict. The dialogues feel somewhat extended and they add very little new information or insight. The only real big event takes place elsewhere. It is actually only one scene and West chooses to expand it greatly by going back and forth with flashbacks. I actually counted the page and came to 80 for the whole sequence. It would not be the first sequence of flashbacks. In the whole book, which is over 800 pages, there are only 3 notable events that provide excitement and each is expanded greatly by adding flashbacks, although the last, which is part of the finale, has an acceptable reason for it. The flashbacks provide some extra background information but they are a bit too obviously inserted.

It is enough to say that Sea Of Sorrows lacks a good plot and that the reader is served with three expanded scenes that are filled up with flashbacks and in between very little of note happens. It is quite poor and has a lot of excess fat. Perhaps a third could be cut down of the length to lose its weaker parts.

The character development has not much room in such an environment. There are a few moments, usually in the more exciting scenes where West can do so but the way she put it forward was not all to my satisfaction. It was sometimes a bit too easy as West made some choices that were not completely logical and only the easiest to get where she wanted to take the story.

Despite my criticism Sea Of Sorrows is still a better than average fantasy novel due to the quality of writing by Michelle West. Where other authors would get me annoyed sooner with a weaker plot it was not that hard to get through the weaker sequences and she was able to put in the events at the right places to lift my mood up again. That does not mean that this novel was not a let down. I had expected West to move the main plot forward after book two, but she created a reasonable excuse to put in book three. With book four I expected the main plot to get into the next gear. There were no obstacles anymore. So it is to my surprise that Sea Of Sorrows was another minor story arc inserted with the main plot again being stalled. As the plot of Sea Of Sorrows was rather convoluted and do not really understand what West intends to do. There are only two more books to go and what I expected to be the main course of the plot appears to have been moved to the very end which will automatically mean we won’t be seeing that much of it. In a way I am a bit worried about the way West has devised the main plot. Although it is very much surprising me in the way it is developing in its non-conformal way it does put the series as a whole a bit out of balance. I am thus quite intrigued in how she will resolve matters with the last two installments.

 

Michelle West – The Shining Court

Sunday, May 4th, 2014

The third novel in The Sun Sword series by Michelle West carries a number of similarities to the first novel. The Shining Court (1999) for example can be split into two parts with the first being more introductory and the second holding most of the action. Another is that the whole story is a gradual buildup to the finale at the end. In both cases the pace is relatively low and West takes her time.

There are some distinct differences. The first novel The Broken Crown was the beginning of the series so an introductory beginning is not that strange. Actually, after the second novel it looked as if things would get going seriously soon. Alas, that is not going to be the case. As mentioned earlier the first part is again introductory. Although West returns to a number of familiar characters from the first novel the setting is expanded into a direction not yet explored before with a new people and their particular culture. It is not that complex but West takes her time to make sure the reader is well versed with the extra cast of characters. In my opinion there was no need to spend that much time. Second to that West spends a lot of time to provide some background to a character we knew little about yet and now gets to the front. Although the sequence is interesting it is also slow and not very exciting. As the other storylines around it were also carrying a slow pace there was a lack of variation to me. A combination with more action sequences would have been more enjoyable.

Another difference was that the first novel held a strong focus and told a story of its own. With the third novel there are more things going on and West gives them each attention which creates a more unstable focus and each has its own rhythm. There is a greater diversity in characters and events which could be a strength but compared to The Broken Crown this does not succeed at that.

After the plenty action sequences in the second novel the story of The Shining Court is much more about politicking. There are many different factions with different and similar goals. This creates an unusual and interesting palette of developments. The bad guys don’t seem that bad and one gets to sympathize with them.

West introduces a number of characters although I wasn’t that satisfied with all of them. West assumes a certain age for some of them but they act much younger and that didn’t fit. Overall the character development is not as strong as it used to be.

The best part of the novel is the second half. Things start moving and plenty of things start happening. On some parts there is a sudden surge of development that I didn’t see coming. Even so there were some weak parts. There was a rather lengthy sequence of visits. I understood the importance of providing a full introduction, but it was a bit too long for me. Another thing was a looming threat that would shake things up or raise the tension. Surprisingly nothing at all happened and things got done without any trouble. They were not that bad but they were minor disturbances in what otherwise was a very engaging story.

So my final conclusion of The Shining Court is that it is a weaker version of The Broken Crown, which was a powerful opener of the series. It lacks the strong sequence of action events of the second novel which got me going from start to end. Instead The Shining Court’s first half required me to force ahead as it wasn’t that interesting as I hoped for. Despite these things the story turned a number of things upside down, creating a change in the development of the plot that I hadn’t expected, and the second half made up a lot, giving more excitement than that the first novel was capable of. There is still a lot of politicking, but West manages to make it quite interesting, although the pace is relatively slow. As before there are many minor things happening that keep the reader attentive. Overall this is again a strong installment. Highly recommended.

 

A travel kit

Friday, May 2nd, 2014

Whenever I go on a trip one of the first things that are put on my things-to-not-forget list are books. I don’t have a car so all long-distance traveling I do is by public transport. This means I have plenty of time on my hands to do something. In most cases I read. If the trip takes some time longer I need more books, although that depends on the activities I might be doing. I don’t know beforehand, but my motto is that carrying more is always better than carrying less as this might result in the risk having nothing to do or being forced to buy something rubbish instead to read.

Finding some good books for travel is not easy. Usually they are not the books on top of my wanted list and often leftovers. Books by authors I have read before I considered readable enough without me getting absorbed too much that I spent more time reading than planned. This year I obtained a pretty nice stash, all by authors of which I have a positive opinion. The first is a contemporary novel, for a change, by Michael Chabon. He is one of the few contemporary authors whose work I have always enjoyed, so I am quite content to read Telegraph Avenue (2012). The other author is Richard Morgan. The books that I have read were both fantasy novels. The pair of novels I have picked up now are both science fiction. That is pretty different fare and it is guesswork if it will be to my liking and possibly it has a very different style and approach.  The first is Altered Carbon (2002) and the second Broken Angels (2003). At least I have a full travel kit now and should not have to worry lacking having something to spend my travel time on.