Yes.

Yes.  With his First Law trilogy, Joe Abercrombie easily became my favorite fantasy author currently writing.  With Best Served Cold he entertained me tremendously but left me wanting more.  Now, while I know there are some who will disagree with me, I feel that with The Heroes, Abercrombie has published his best work.

The First Law trilogy had its flaws, that I will admit, and I think Joe Abercrombie would agree.  Even with them, though, it was far and away my favorite piece of fantasy writing from a contemporary author.  He matured in BSC, but there was nothing particularly original about the tale – though a darn good revenge tale it was with despicable and memorable characters.  The other night I was flipping channels and Robocop came on.  The original.  Before I knew it, I was 11 years old again watching a forbidden movie and loving it.  BSC is a fantasy version of Robocop.  Lots of fun; not particularly original.

The Heroes, however, I think is very original, well conceived, well executed, with amazing characters, fantastic scenes, unstoppable action, and a harsh gray morality.  I read it slow at first to savor it and because I didn’t want it to end.  I kept waiting for the Bloody Nine to show up.  Then I couldn’t put it down and when it was over…I was sad and elated.  It was awesome!  I love how Abercrombie takes fairly minor characters from other books and turns them into major characters in each new book.  That really adds depth to his world, as well as realism.  Each of these people have a story.  I appreciate how King Jezal was a character through Bremer’s letters, but that was it.  (I didn’t particularly like Jezal by the end of the FL trilogy.)  And the flip side, I love how Bremer came into his own as a character.

But the real joy, for me, in reading Abercrombie comes from the stories of the Northmen.  I think a lot of people would probably agree.  I’m not sure how he visualizes them, but to me, they’re a cross between everything ferocious and everything sad about the American Indians and the Vikings.  The batch we get the pleasure of reading about in the Heroes only solidifies the Northmen as probably my favorite people in current fantasy writing.  I love them!  Their brutishness, their humor (Whirrun of Bligh?  I mean, come on, that dude is awesome, scary, and hilarious!)  I love how flawed they are, how real.  I love how they all put on a bold face but inside they’re wondering: Is all this shit worth it?  I love the coward Beck and how he earns his name.  I love how you have to earn a name!  I could go on…

The writing has matured with this one, for sure.  It’s like he knows where he’s going with each character and each scene more than before.  It’s as if he’s living into these characters skin more, getting to know them more.

The battle descriptions: the best I’ve read in fantasy recently.  No long, drawn out death scenes; just blunt and to the point descriptions: he swung his mace and dented his helmet.  Everyone know a dented helmet means a dented head, but Abercrombie doesn’t have to say it.  He makes you feel it.  Ouch. And only a good writer can write a war book from opposing POVs and make you want to root for the one you’re currently reading about each time.

I thought the despair of Black Dow and Kroy at the end over the question of what the hell the whole thing was for anyway was very well executed.  Made me think about our wars, I’ll say that.  His refrain that all war is only a prelude to peace talks was haunting.

My one complaint was I wish there had been more ado made about Bayaz and Ishri’s surprises.  By this point I hate Bayaz, but I want to read more of him so I can hate him more.  He’s a great, I mean a fantastic character, and I think he and (even more so) Ishri go the short shrift this go around.  To me, they almost didn’t have a point in this story the way it was written, so I’d say either get them out of it, or do more with them.  Minor complaint, though.

If you’re not sure about Abercrombie, this might actually be a good place to start.  Sure, you’d learn some stuff out of order, but you wouldn’t have to commit to a trilogy.  And this is a damn good read.  It made me want to read the others over again, I’ll say that.  So, if you’re not sure about Abercrombie – why?  Get reading or go back to the mud.

Well done, Joe – I can’t wait for A Red Country!

Advertisements

Some Quick Summary Comments

I haven’t posted here in forever – something about having a baby now that limits my time.  So, here are a few things I’d like to say about what I’ve been reading.

This was on NPR’s “best books of 2011” list and it was about Florida, so I really was looking forward to it.  It had its moments, that’s for sure, but overall it wasn’t as tight of a narrative as I would have expected from a best books of 2011 entry.  There were also a few times when I wondered, without knowing the answer, just how much time the author spent in the everglades before writing this book.  I also wished she had used real place names.  I can’t decide – the book either tried to do too much or it didn’t do enough.  A better book like this is one called A Land Remembered by Patrick D. Smith.

I moved on from there to something that I knew I would certainly enjoy a bit more, but was for sure not on any top ten books of the year list.  Returning to my favorite sci-fi author, Alastair Reynolds, I read his Century Rain.  It was very good, though a bit of a departure for him from his normal, thematically.  It was still very much sci-fi, but not quite the hard core, vacuum of space, type story I’ve come to expect.  Nonetheless, I enjoyed it and also enjoyed how he incorporated little tidbits of real history into the flow of his narrative, like the bit about how Guy de Maupassant ate lunch under the Eiffel Tower because that was the only place in the city of Paris where you could eat lunch without having to see the tower.  Wanting something a bit more “spacey,” from him, I next turned to…

Pushing Ice, I had heard, was quite the fan favorite, and it was easy to see why.  I was riveted to the narrative, and genuinely felt some of the emotion behind the tough decisions the crew had to make.  One minor complaint was I felt the back and forth in terms of leadership position between the two main characters went one back and forth too much.  It felt a little bit forced then.  But that really is so minor because this is a fantastic story, a hard core space story with high stakes just like I was looking for. Reynolds has said he might like to return to this universe for another story and I for one would love that.

Then I left space and returned to a fantasy world for a bit, and wanted to see what all the fuss was about over Brandon Sanderson.  He’s currently writing a big fat huge fantasy epic “decalogy” and before I invest any time in that I wanted to get a feel for him and read the Mistborn trilogy that got him noticed.  The first book was pretty great, the second boring as grass growing, and the third just about as good as the first.  I loved the system of magic in it, though at times, when he would introduce something new about it just in time for it to impact the plot I was annoyed as that felt a little contrived.  The characters were fun, though some of the supporting characters were a bit 2D.  He tried really hard to create a dark fantasy environment, what with constant ashfalls and killer mists at night, but for some reason I just never bought it.  The danger wasn’t real for me.  I’m not sure this was his fault or not, cause he mentioned it often enough.  All in all, this was a fun, light series to read that probably could have been two, slightly larger books rather than a trilogy.  But, if you want to get noticed in fantasy you have to write a trilogy.  It’s like author hazing.

Having finished that, I wanted to read something that would be both quick and more literary, so I picked another of the books from NPR’s top ten of 2011 and went with Ben Lerner’s debut novel (he’s apparently more well known as a poet) Leaving the Atocha Station.  This is a story (maybe?) of a young American student on a prestigious poetry fellowship in Madrid, Spain that he feels he neither deserves nor particularly wants.  He is an unsympathetic character as he constantly lies and deceives everyone around him for personal gain, and by the end of the book, I just really didn’t like him.  I did, however, spend a lot of time (for a 150 page book) thinking about some of the social situations he found himself in and recognizing myself in those.  They weren’t particularly fond memories.  At times I felt like I was reading a younger Hemingway, but Hemingway would never have cared as much as this guy pretended he didn’t care.  There is some debate among readers about whether or not the character actually was a profoundly good poet, despite his protestations.  The thing that sucks is, I think he probably was.  I think what makes these kinds of books “good” is their ability to evoke that emotion in a reader, rather than a kick ass plot or edge of your seat suspense.  So, I get it.  It still wasn’t all that fun to read though, but it was probably “good” that I did read it.  I liked it.  I didn’t like it.  I read it fast.  I thought about it a lot.  I’m ready to move on.

Malazan 3 Done and now a brief marathon

It was a struggle, it was a slog.  I haven’t wanted to talk about it until now, and I still don’t, really.  Suffice it to say I finished Memories of Ice and did not pick up Malazan, Book 4.  I may one day, but not now.

I quickly grabbed one of the books I’ve really been wanting to read but waiting on my wife to finish.  Well, after several months of her being on page 6 or so, I decided it was safe to take it for a few weeks.  The Help, by Kathryn Stockett was probably the best book I’ve read so far this year.  I’m still not much in the mood to write about books, but this one was really, really good.  It was a conversation starter at the gym when I was reading it on the bicycle.  It gave me pause for though often.  But most of all it made me remember, fondly and sadly, Bernice.  How I wish I would have been able to know her both as the child I was and now as the adult I am.  I really think we could have had some amazing conversations about life, faith, God, and raising a family.  I cried near end of this book.  The last book to actually make me cry was The Kite Runner.

Having finished that book in record time after the several months it took me to finally be done with Memories of Ice, I grabbed another book I’ve been meaning to read that I knew I could also read quickly and get again that jolt of satisfaction that comes from finishing a book.  I grabbed Stephen King’s Rose Madder.

I’ve known for a while that this is one of King’s least regarded works, but it was on my shelf and I wanted to read it anyway. The subject matter of a picture having supernatural qualities intrigued me.  It didn’t disappoint, but neither was it earth shattering.  Actually, without any of the supernatural stuff, I thought he wrote a damn compelling story about spousal abuse.  On the list of evils, that one’s up there.  The story ended in a slightly unsatisfactory way for me, but what can you do.  It was a good read.  Even if I’ve read better King, this was the best book I’ve read about spousal abuse (actually, it may be the only one, but that doesn’t matter really).

Following that, I forged ahead, borrowing on my e-reader a book from the library that I’d heard about over the summer and been wanting to read.  Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.  Billed as a young adult book, it certainly is not.  Neither in theme nor content, at least in my opinion.  The author, Ransom Riggs, made clever use (I thought) of a bunch of old photographs to draw out and illustrate his story.  My guess is the story came after he saw the pictures and not the other way around, but who knows.  Some parts of it were bit too like Harry Potter but not most of it.  It was a neat story about difference and hatred, and about what makes a person unique and special.  A fun, quick read – I’d recommend it.

And now, I’m afraid, I’ve started another death march.  Depending, I may start another book to read along with Roberto Bolano’s magnum opus and ultimate work, 2666.  I’ve never read Bolano before, but I’ve been told to, many times by people who’s opinions I trust.  I take it that both in style and substance, it’s a challenging read.  So, far, and I’m barely into it, it’s not all that exciting.  Enough people say it is great though, truly great, to make me continue. So, until I finish it, or until I come across some inspiring quote or another, fare well.

Deadhouse Gates leaped into my hands

Once finished with Gardens of the Moon, which as can be seen from my previous post I did not find confusing, the next book in the Malazan series jumped into my hands. This made me realize two things: one, I really enjoyed the world, writing, plot, and characters of the first Malazan book, and two, the second book was about different characters.

After a moment this did not bother me. In fact, it just makes the world keep getting bigger, more real, and I like that. I also felt more a home once a few returning characters showed up. Everyone says the second book is better, and if that is true then I am in for a ride because I really liked the first one! I also did not think I would want to go directly onto the second book, but whoops, I did. A ringing endorsement.

20110702-045129.jpg

Malazan Is Not Confusing

I don’t know why there was all this hype out there about Gardens of the Moon being so impossibly confusing as to be unreadable.  Are readers these days that unable to hold multiple storylines in their heads?  I am around 250 pages into the book, loving it, and not confused at all.  It seems that what confuses most folks is the number of characters and how quickly the narrative shifts perspectives.  People, keep up!  That’s all.  Book One within Gardens featured one large set of characters, and Book Two featured another.  Ok, got it, no problem.  It’s a 10 book epic fantasy – there are going to be a lot of characters!

 

The other thing I’ve heard/read that there is a lot of confusion about is the vocabulary.  It’s a fantasy, people!  Did you know what all those words meant when you read Lord of the Rings, or perhaps an even better example, The Wheel of Time for the first time?  No!  You didn’t!  But you got the hang of it as you went on.  Some people seem to be confused by the use of the term “warren” in Gardens.  Now, I don’t know exactly what it is, but I have a fairly good idea from contextual clues.  Remember that: contextual clues are your friends.  (Did all of you fail that reading comprehension section of your state’s standardized tests????)  A warren is either: (a) a magical pathway through another dimension that works like a teleport/wormhole, or (b) a particular source of energy/another dimension, from which mages draw their power; there are different warrens available to different people and not all warrens seem to be equal.  Within those places of energy reside some pretty nasty beasties, so mages should be careful. To go between the warrens is to access something called the Warrens of Chaos, which seems to be generally frowned upon.

 

That’s really not that hard.  If you really need to, do as I did, and keep a list of characters going in the back of the book.  I’m enjoying and can’t believe I’ve been afraid of it because of all this nonsense I’d read!

From one end of the world to another

Two nights ago, I finished Glen Cook’s The Black Company: Chronicles of the North.  It was just ok.  The short, clipped style I referenced before didn’t entirely disappear, but it definitely calmed down as the stories went on.  Throughout it all, you still lacked a sense of what was really going on.  Well, perhaps in the third book you got a bit of that, but then what you knew misled you from what was really going on.  That sort of a twist only works well for me if it was set up properly; as in, looking back through the book there was evidence that the twist was either coming or plausible, even if you didn’t recognize it at the time.  In this case, there was neither.

In the end, I liked the second book the best (a strange trend for me – my favorites in their respective series’ are The Two Towers, and The Empire Strikes Back).  It had the most coherent plot, the most well defined supporting characters, and the best scary/oppressive bad guy device – the black castle.  I really enjoyed that.

By the end of the third book, I felt like I had really grown to know Croaker a lot more than I anticipated at the beginning, but I wish we had seen more of him as the surgeon, and more of the narrative developing from his perspective in the battlefield operating room, but that didn’t happen.  All in all, it was an ok read, but not one I would consider mandatory by fantasy fans.

After I finished that book, I looked over my “to-read” pile and settled on Blood of Ambrose by James Enge.  But I was too tired to start it.  When I got up in the morning, I went to pick it up but found myself far more interested in Mark Chadbourn’s Age of Misrule: World’s End.  Funny how one’s preference can change like that over night.  Maybe Blood of Ambrose sounded too much like the Black Company or something.
Well, I immediately liked it upon commencing it.  The style was approachable and I just like the way British authors use the language – like they’re more practiced at it, oh, wait, they are.  The cover admittedly is a bit young-adultish, but so far the novel hasn’t struck me as that way at all.  Putting that aside, that big green guy looks cool!  Good cover art, though I could do without the shadows of the (I guess they are the) heroes.  I get that the big green guy is a bad guy and that he is likely the causer of hopeless situations, so I don’t need the futilely small human figures to help me figure that out, thank you.

The story, so far, actually has some nice horror elements to it, and ones that I actually found frightening, which is always a surprise.  I found myself looking forward to being able to pick it up again, which is always a great sign when starting a new book.  The other great sign was that both of the next two in the trilogy were available on half.com for a total of $9 and change, shipping and all.  Ordered.

Some lines have already stuck out to me, which didn’t happen in The Black Company.  This means I like the style, which is great, but I already mentioned that.  Here’s my two favorites so far:

“lulled by the whirring of disk drives…”

“She didn’t have much in the way of a social life.  It was like she was holding her breath, waiting for something to happen.”


Finshed 2 out of 3 of Chronicles of The Raven

After finishing up Noonshade, the Chronicles of the Raven are still pretty good, but only just this side of mediocre.  I also thought of another Gripe:  Don’t have characters say things like, “By the gods!”, or “The gods won’t like that…” if those are the only references whatsoever to divine beings.  If you want a deity or a pantheon in your story, do the work and create one.  Weave it/them into your tale.  Have them interact with characters or have characters pray to them but don’t just throw a god line in there because it sounds good.

I think part of the reason I have so many pet peeves about Barclay’s trilogy so far, yet still enjoy reading it, is that there is just so much potential here!  The characters are interesting, but a bit one dimensional sometimes.  The world is fascinating, but underdeveloped.  The writing is ok, but sometimes a bit flat.  It’s like I keep waiting for something really cool to happen or a particularly good line to come up and when I think I’ve waited all I can, it happens!  And I keep reading!  Only to start to get disappointed again.  And then it happens again!  Incidentally, this is also how I play golf.

Anyway, I am not moving on to the final book of the trilogy just yet – in part because the story was resolved at the end of the second and I have no idea what the third will be about.  But the main reason is we are now in the month of October and I find myself in the mood for horror once again.  So, remember all those old horror authors I picked up a while back?  Now I’m going to read them.  One story from one author at a time as I cycle through the various books I have until Halloween.  On tap is:

  • M.R. James
  • J. Sheridan LeFanu
  • H.P. Lovecraft
  • Algernon Blackwood
  • Ray Bradbury
  • Stephen King

Pyr Sends Me Back to Epic Fantasy

It’s been over a year since I read any “epic fantasy” – you know, the stuff that comes in lengths no shorter than trilogies, has sweeping geographical locations (and always includes a map!), far reaching consequences to seemingly inconsequencial actions, grand characters with grandiose plans and a diabolical enemy with connections, likely connections, to dark magic?  Well, I could go on, but you get the idea.  The last series of epic fantasy I read was Joe Abercrombie’s “First Law Trilogy” and not only was it epic but it was fantastic as well.  Brilliant stuff.  His blog turned me on to Scott Lynch, and I devoured those books.  I copied down several more names and this past week, while convalescing from some surgery, I started a new one by an author he recommended, published by Pyr (they are putting out amazing stuff, folks, check them out!), and was immediately confronted with mixed thoughts.

Right off the bat, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue, but bear with me as I did with this book, because despite the following gripes, I’m loving it right now.

Gripe #1: On the first page of the first chapter we meet a character known only as “The Unknown Warrior.”  Groan! It’s sooooo cheesy.  But at least he’s the biggest, baddest warrior of the group because otherwise I would think any other character would beat his ass until he gave up his name or laugh him out of the room.  Caveat:  After a while, I kinda got into the mystery behind the Unknown, but it still had elements of cheese.

Gripe #2: Why elves?  One of the main characters is an elf.  Why?  No one knows why this world has elves (at least I don’t yet).  He appears to be absolutely no different than his human counterparts.  I always thought a cardinal rule when writing speculative type fiction was if you can pull something off with out introducing the speculative element, you should, otherwise it leaves readers asking, Why?  If you’re going to have an elven race, at least describe them, make them markedly different from humans, and give the reader a plausible reason for why they are there.  i.e. Tolkien – Elves were the first race created by the deities and the most beloved.

Gripe #3: The map.  Ok, one of my favorite parts of epic fantasy world building is the geography and the map that accompanies it.  You have a blank sheet of paper and free reign!  Go to work!  Draw a creative world.  Splitting your world vertically right down the middle with a mountain range and calling everything on the West side evil, desolate, and degenerate, and everything on the East side good, civilized, and educated is a cop out and a disappointment.  Why not just draw a rectangle:

Gripe #4: Magic.  Again, another amazing opportunity for some creative world building and neat ideas to develop in epic fantasy.  Smushing capitalized, pedestrian words together does not a creative spell system make.  Examples: CloakedWalk.  HellFire.  WarmHeal.  Come on!  Do something neat with your magic system!  Please….  Or at least do what Abercrombie did and make it so ridiculously chaotic and powerful that when the magic user sneezed, walls blew up.

Gripe #4: Pedestrian words.  Nothing spectacular about Barclay’s writing; nothing extraordinarily bad about it either.  It’s just average.  But I am disappointed that he relies solely upon the groundwork of others for some of his fantasy words. Magic users are called “mages.”  Thank you D&D.  Their source of energy is called “mana.”  Thank you every other fantasy book and video game ever.  One of the characters is called a Barbarian, yet there is no mention of what that means, what kind of “uncivilized” society he comes from, why others think of him as a barbarian and if they do, why they accept him in polite company.  Again, please see how Abercrombie did it.  The Bloody Nine was a barbarian-like character but I don’t think the word barbarian was ever used, or if it was, not so often that I remember it.  Show don’t tell.

Now, like I said, gripes aside (and I’m sure there are more), I am really enjoying this book.  The plot is engrossing, the characters I’m starting to care about, the political world is fun and creative and I really, really like how Barclay sets up his opposing magic schools and the history behind it that lurks beneath every seething glance one mage gives to another of a different school.  This is Barclay’s first book ever.  I’m betting he gets better at writing with experience and critical feedback.  Even if he doesn’t this is a fun read and a good tale.  It’s not spectacular like Lynch or Abercrombie, but you can’t get that all the time.

I titled this post “Pyr sends me back to epic fantasy” because I just ordered a bunch of books (half.com of course) in the epic fantasy genre all published by Pyr.  I’m excited by what they’re doing and if you like fantasy, you should be too.

The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart

For me, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart was a highly anticipated read.   It was by a young, new author; the story seemed intriguing and wholly new; it didn’t shy away from being rough or violent and sought to characterize thieves and murderers as nought else but that, which is to say the opposite of how they’re treated in Red Seas.  (I can enjoy both sides, no worries.)

Sad Tale begins violently and murderously.  And then, somewhat mysteriously, it lets up.  The level of violence and sheer brutality at the beginning was a bit of a shock, but one that I was waiting for, so it didn’t make it too bad.  I actually thought it was well described and seemed to convey an apt sense of the horror that something like home invasion (medieval style) would have.  Bullington shied away from nothing.  And it served its purpose; you simultaneously were disgusted by Hegel and Manfried and yet wanted to read more about them.  Despite their occasional comical moments and their even rarer (yet surprisingly present) moments of brotherly affection, these are not characters I ever came to like, but I don’t think I was supposed to do so.

As the story developed, it took a turn for the religious (or sacrilegious, perhaps).   The grave robbing aspect of the story, while staying the characters principle motivation throughout, never really developed into any action at all.  It was always around the next corner.  There always seemed to be something in their way, whether that be a demon, a witch, a town to sack, etc.  The demons of the story were interesting, growing out of what was probably the real fear of 14th century persons, and they proved difficult opponents for the Brothers.  But never opponents by which they felt overmatched.  They were very well thought out and described demons, too.  Very scary stuff.  And this is where the religion got interesting.

The Brothers believed they were pseudo-soldiers of the Virgin Mary, whom they held in higher regard than Jesus (they dubbed him a wuss of a boy) and God himself.  The Virgin Mary was where it was at for them, one of them even naming the other a saint of the Virgin by the end.  This caused me to think a lot about how the Virgin Mary has been extolled by the Roman catholic church, especially in the middle ages, sometimes to the downplaying of Christ, and how that might be interpreted by uneducated, unchurched people such as the Brothers.  I thought it was an interesting historio-social commentary.

By then end, I was actually ready to be done with the book.  The anti-heroes as main characters left me with nothing to root for or hope for and the bleak secondary characters did little to relieve that pressure.  When the book never delivered on the promise of a graverobbing adventure (well, it sort of did once, but it was unsatisfying) I found myself disappointed.   I kept waiting for it, but it never came, and I think that led me to enjoy what I was reading about even less.

At the end of the day, this is a well written book, but not one I enjoyed reading and not one I’d likely recommend to too many people.  I do applaud Mr. Bullington for not only getting published, but also for sticking to his guns about the kind of story he wanted to write.  I hope he continues to do so because I think with more practice, his prose will get more fluid, his plots tighter, and his characters might develop the ability to be enjoyed even if not liked.  When I read a book, I want to have at least one character to enjoy reading about, otherwise, no matter how good the writing, no matter how extensive and thought out the world building, no matter how irresistible the plot, without an enjoyable character, there is little point to continue.

Vacation: Book II

I’ve actually already finished this one and I’ll write about it later.  I hate to do this, but I can only give this much anticipated book (by me, at least) 2  and  3/4 stars.  More on why, later.  I would not abandon this author, though.