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!

Some Standouts So Far from YSNKS

That’s “You Shall Never Know Security,” J.R. Hamantaschen’s collection of short stories through which I am currently making my way.

I am over halfway through these stories now and I haven’t been disappointed.  “Endemic” was particularly satisfying, scratching that itch we all have somewhere inside of us for justice irrespective of the legal system.  One of my favorites so far has to be “Truth is Stranger than Fiction.”  This is a “found” story presenting itself as a factual document in grand horror story traditon.  HPL did this a lot to great effect and this story pays homage to those, while firmly grounding itself in contemporary society.  It presents itself as a legal opinion about a murder trial.  Very effective.

“Jordan, When Are You Going to Settle Down, Get Married, and Have Us Some Children?” was disgusting, in a can’t-help-it-but-grin-at-the-grossness kind of way.  But halfway through it I realized I knew this story.  It had been read on pseudopod some time before and I remember having the same reaction then.  I have a father and a father in law that may have this problem.

“College” I thought was a little boring.  It didn’t hold my attention as well as the others.  I feel like this concept has been explored before, though I’m hard pressed right now to say where.

“Sorrow Has Its Natural End,” though, was really, really good.  Disturbing in a fresh way and on multiple levels.  There were a lot of things of which to be fearful here.

Flaccid Squid Story

Well, at least as far as I’m concerned, China Mieville hasn’t changed his ways much. His editors must be afraid of him. By page 200 of Kraken I was bored, and found myself not caring about the characters. I soooo wanted this to be a good story. I felt like it had a lot of promise when I began. But it fell apart. Sure there were bright spots, like the villains Goss and Subby, who reminded me so much of the pair of school-children like villains called “The Prefects” from The Somnambulist. I enjoyed his exploration of cults and religion even as I understood he was poking no small amount of fun at the idea of religion and religious persons in general. I just don’t know – nothing since Perdido Street Station has been that great. Which is too bad really, cause each book seems like it has so much potential. Anyone out there (as if anyone reads this) feel differently? Which Mieville book besides Perdido stands out to you as being excellent?

So, and I’m getting much better at doing this the older I get, I put Kraken down. I used to think I owed it to the author to finish their work since they put so much time into writing it. But now I realize I don’t owe the author shit. I also thought I owed it to myself to finish the book if I paid good money for it, but alas, this was a library ebook checkout. Free from obligation, I moved on.

The good folks over at the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast – you do know about and follow that podcast, right? Right?! – have been highlighting a new book of short, horror stories by a new author. I checked it out online and the ebook version was only $5 – great! I snatched it up and have begun reading J.R. Hamantaschen’s You Shall Never Know Security. The title comes from this quote by Edward Bellamy in his 1887 novel Looking Backward:

“Do your work never so well,” the spectre was whispering–“rise early and toil till late, rob cunningly or serve faithfully, you shall never know security. Rich you may be now and still come to poverty at last. Leave never so much wealth to your children, you cannot buy the assurance that your son may not be the servant of your servant, or that your daughter will not have to sell herself for bread.”

I have to say, it’s a brilliant title for a collection of unsettling horror tales. I’ve read the first two stories so far, “A Lower Power,” and “Wonder.” Both left me uncomfortable in pretty profound way. The writing is clear and concise, contemporary but very erudite – I had to look up a few words.

“A Lower Power” was quite the disturbing story to read in the dark, at night, in bed. At least the first few pages. It got stranger after that, but the truly disturbing line that had me cautiously glancing at my ceiling was in the first few pages. It’s a tale of desire and revenge, loss and a failure to understand. Good stuff.

“Wonder” was fun. Disturbing, but fun. Goes to show you that you never truly know who you are pissing off. Be careful.

I’m looking forward to the rest.

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.

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!

Game, Set, Match

I finished The Player of Games, Iain M. Banks’ second Culture novel, yesterday and truly enjoyed it.  It wasn’t a brilliantly written book or even an amazing or inventive narrative (I flashbacked to Ender’s Game regularly, which was published only three years prior to Player).  But what I really liked about it was how it didn’t take itself too seriously, it was fast-paced and fairly lighthearted, and a really fun read.

Banks’ Culture is a wonderful setting, too.  It is almost the exact opposite of Reynold’s Revelation Space universe.  Where as Reynolds’ universe is dark, scary, unconquerable, and oppressive, Banks’ Culture universe is settled, utopian, calm and orderly, and you don’t get the sense there is any real threat to the Culture out there.  If push came to shove, I would prefer Reynold’s universe, but Banks’ Culture is quite enjoyable, too.  I particularly enjoy his sentient drones and called what happened on the last page just before getting there.

The whole book is a build up to the ending (duh!, right? – but not all books do this well) and the real shocker, like Ender’s Game, is at the end.  Ender’s Game did it a lot better, but this was still good, if slightly more predictable.  Looking over my shelf, that’s the last sci-fi book I have to read, which is somewhat sad, but also the opportunity to go get more – likely more Reynolds and Banks; I’ve heard Use of Weapons (the 3rd Culture novel) is amazing.

But for now, I’m headed back to fantasy and am finally ready to begin the enormously daunting and much talked about Malazan Book of the Fallen series by Steven Erikson.  On sffworld.com, there are three distinct groups of people: those who hate the first book (often because of how confusing they say it is) and never finish it or the series, those who like the first book but find it ridiculously confusing, and either do or do not continue the series, and those who love both the first book and the series.

Now, this series has a huge advantage in my opinion – it is completed!  I hate reading series books that are not yet completed.  That is not to say that I will read all ten, fat, Malazan books in a row, but I like to know that there is a concluding volume on the shelf somewhere and that the author won’t up and die before finishing.

The Malazan series is what is apparently now known as BFF – Big, Fat, Fantasy.  I like those.  Yes, they are confusing because they’re so large.  No, you won’t be able to grasp every name, place, and concept within the first 50 pages, and yes, a lot will be asked of you as the reader.  I know that.  I accept that.  Which is probable why I’m 50 pages into Garden of the Moon and am not having any trouble with it.  I refer to the maps (which are impoverished in the paperback version I have) and to the glossary regularly.  Nether of which is 100% helpful.  But that is ok – I’m being taken for the ride and I’m going to enjoy it.  The writing is fine so far, in my opinion – another frequent complaint I’ve read, so that’s good.  Apparently, the story is going to jump around a lot in terms of people, places, and even time.  Ok, so what?  Pay attention, follow along, and if worse comes to worst, there are several kind and energetic folks out there who have written chapter by chapter guides!  So far, the story and the characters have grabbed me; the writing has succeeded in putting me squarely in a fantasy-war ravaged environment that I can see and feel in my mind’s eye; and sense of the huge setting with all of its complicating factors is palpable.  I’ve not yet been confused.  There’s stuff I don’t understand, but I feel like I will, the more I read.  So, in essence, I’m not afraid of this book and I felt like I might be.  And I’m poised to enjoy it!  Here we go!

Swimming with Pattern Jugglers

I finished Absolution Gap this morning, after furiously reading it the past two days.  The end was absolutely incredible, and a wonderful way to conclude the trilogy.  Alastair Reynolds’ matured in writing this book, even more so than from Redemption Ark.  The narrative was tight, while still containing all that neat astronomy and science-fiction description that I so enjoy.  I loved how, in the end, many loose end were tied up and you really weren’t left wondering too many questions about what happened to characters or places.  Which is not to say the end did not raise questions, it did, but they were questions about going forward, not questions about things a reader would want/need to know about the characters in the story in order to feel a sense of closure and completeness.

The ideas in this novel were big, as befits a space opera, and they were sufficiently alien.  That’s one thing I admire about Reynolds’ universe, the aliens are very alien, not just little, green men.  They are so alien as to be unknowable.  I suspect, if we ever encounter intelligent life beyond Earth, that it/they will be more like this than like the Star Trek version of things.

I enjoyed how much the ship, Nostalgia for Infinity, became a character in its own right, for a variety of reasons, but not the least of which was the slow but total assimilation of the ship’s captain into the ship via the melding plague. 

I appreciated how Reynolds’ paid attention to the passing of time, enormous amounts of time, and it effects on the characters and how their motivations changed.  The chief, excellent, example of that was Scorpio.  His was perhaps the most complete character arc in the whole trilogy.  By the end, he was my favorite character.

It is incredible to me, and I don’t know why it should be after all the times I’ve experienced it, how much a good book demands that you read it.  The last book I was reading, I disliked so much that I loathed picking it up.  Absoluti0n Gap seemed to go out of its way to find itself open in my hands.  It’s the kind of book that makes you late for work. 

I look forward to reading the rest of Reynolds’ corpus of literature, but I will be somewhat sad to leave the Revelation Space universe – I was just coming to understand it.

Next, sticking to the sci-fi genre, I’m picking up Iain M. Banks The Player of Games.

Not wasting any more time

I had to give up on the Age of Misrule.  I just couldn’t do it any more – I found I didn’t really know much about the characters, let alone care about them or what happened to them.  I had a hard time differentiating between some of them even.  I made it to about 1/3 of the way through the second book when I caught myself thinking before bed, “Oh, I don’t want to read tonight…” which is never, NEVER a good sign for a book for me.  So, I shelved it.

And was thoroughly excited to pick up Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds, the third and final book in the “Revelation Space” trilogy.  A bit unusually for me, I’ve not read this trilogy back-to-back-to-back, like I normally like to do.  It’s been pretty good that way, as Reynolds’ books tend to be dense, packed with information, and mostly by the end of one two things have happened: I end up loving the book, and I don’t want to read another one of his right away.

I picked this one up because I had been reading so much fantasy recently that I decided it was time for a shift and I’ve been having my hard sci-fi/space opera itch lately (probably cause I’ve been playing a lot of Mass Effect 2).  I’m about 80 pages into it so far and I think Reynolds’ writing has gotten better with each novel.  It’s tighter, somehow, which is daunting, given how much information is already in his books.  But I love reading about stars and star systems – the grandeur of it all impresses me.  I love how much he knows about astrophysics, and I’ll happily go to his school for several pages if that’s what he wants to do.  This trilogy took some time getting into, but the payoff is definitely worth it – the end of the second book, Redemption Ark, has really stuck with me and this final installment picks up right where he left off.  The only thing I would say might be helpful to add is a glossary of terms (astrophysics), factions, characters, and locations.

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