Book Review

Steven Brust: Vlad Taltos series.

By the recommendation of a coworker, I started to read Steven Brusts’s series of fantasy novels, known either as the Jhereg series (from the first book and the mafia-like organization in the books), Vlad Taltos series (based on its protagonist), or The Dragaeran books, though that term encompasses some others as well.

The first thing I should mention is that I think this series absolutely deserves to be thought of as one of the major fantasy series helping to define the genre. The second is that in many aspects it’s a bit different from most other series I’ve read.

The books have been written over two decades and several more are planned. Wikipedia informs me that many aspects of the books have been influenced directly by events in the author’s own life; notably the storyline with Vlad’s wife, which I had been planning to mention as a wonderful example of a rich, complex relationship that does not feel like it follows the usual norm one expects in literature.

The setting is a fantasy world with magic, monsters, artifacts, gods and a typical low-technology idealized semi-feudal middle-ages social organization. The main character is, as far as we can tell, human. In a slight twist, the majority of characters however aren’t; as far as we can tell they’re close to the fantasy archetype of elves — who of course consider themselves “human” and the humans to be something lesser.

There are several houses or clans of elves, each of which has personality characteristic of an animal, either mythological or real — though almost all the “real” animals are still unique to this setting. In this respect it reminded me a bit of the Legend of the Five Rings role playing game.

The main character starts off as a minor boss / assassin in a criminal organization, though he also possesses some magic of his own. There is certainly moral ambiguity, and whether the protagonist is a good person or not is immediately apparent.

The series follows the same set of characters, but not in a strictly chronological order. Indeed one of the noteworthy aspects of the series is how skillfully Brust jumps around in Vlad’s timeline, filling in events hinted at in previous books, or surprising us with a setting far in the future, and making us wonder how he got there.

The same skill with jump-cuts is also applied within the books themselves, which tend to interleave events and scenes, but do them in such a way that it adds to the story rather than seeming like an artificial storytelling device. For example, in Dragon, a military battle, the events leading up to it, and the aftermath all alternate. In one of the books one of the alternating narratives switches to two of the women in Vlad’s life discussing his actions that are being covered in the book.

Finally, the style and approach varies from book to book. Sometimes the next book in the series picks up exactly from where the previous one left off, sometimes the next book jumps far away in time. Whether a book is high fantasy, a mystery story, military fantasy or something else also changes from book to book, as do the storytelling devices used. Not every book uses the same alternating narrative devices or the same way. As a consequence I like some books more than others; the aforementioned Dragon is likely my least favorite, but otherwise they’ve all been eminently readable and gripping.

The books are written from the narrative viewpoint of Vlad; he has a familiar with whom he is mentally linked, and aside from being amazingly useful, it affords a very powerful and constantly utilized way to add levity, exposition and and an excuse to voice Vlad’s thoughts.

What the series isn’t is high brow literature. There are aspects to the dialogue, plot and setting that clearly are intended to be humorous and almost meta, relying on our modern sensibilities and knowledge of our own world, rather than remaining an completely and utterly isolated treatment of a fantasy world. Perhaps this annoys some of you, for me it was sufficiently unobtrusive and worthwhile that it added to my enjoyment of the books. Brust also places some affectations on his character, primarily the indulgent descriptions and concentration on foods.

The prose is good; not amazing and lyrical like Patrick Rothfuss, but the vocabulary used is good and the use of language is skillful. The pacing of the plot is good, and while we obviously know some things ahead of time, I do not find the events predictable at all.

All of the books and stories seem to contribute to a coherent meta-plot and story. We see Vlad transform from the person we met at the first book; we learn what he was and how he got to that point, and we learn how he ends up changing with subsequent life events. Vlad’s relationships with people and increasing knowledge of the world he lives in shapes him, much the same way those things shape us. We learn more about the cosmology of the world, and about the deeper meanings of many people, events and threads that may not have seemed important in the past.

The books are self-contained. They do not end on cliffhangers. I suspect you could, mostly, pick up any of
them and start reading, though it certainly is helpful to be familiar with the world and characters.

In short, the series is on my awesome list and gets four and a half out of five; four for the books, and the extra half for managing to turn it all into a truly epic scope of a tale.

As a bonus, here’s Penny Arcade’s take.

Posted by Toivo Voll

Ann Leckie: Ancillary Justice

Another Amazon / Goodreads suggestion, Ancillary Justice is Ann Leckie’s first novel (though not her first published work), a space opera — when a review made a comparison to Iain Banks, and I saw the huge Kindle discount, I was sold.

The premise is that of a far future interplanetary empire. Humans have colonized hundreds if not thousands of planets, and there are huge ships and space stations with superhuman artificial intelligences. These AIs can use human bodies as “ancillaries,” avatars of sorts. The main character is one of these ancillaries separated from their ship’s AI. By now the parallels to Bank’s Culture are probably apparent.

One particular, if not entirely believable, aspect is the way the book deals with gender from the viewpoint of a genderless language and a genderless machine. It’ll cause any future Finnish translators a lot of grey hairs. While the rationale behind introducing the verbal trickery may be a bit suspect, the effect was pretty interesting, at least to me.

The language and prose were well crafted, and it’s clear time was spent on this book. The pacing is a bit slow — this isn’t as much space action as it is a more measured “what if” exploration, which speeds up towards the end. Unfortunately I felt like many of the moral issues were not entirely satisfactorily dealt with. Since the main character isn’t human, criticizing them for not really getting all the depth one might want seems churlish.

Overall, I’m a bit torn; if I look at any single technical aspect, Ancillary Justice is a good enough, but not great. And yet it kept me turning pages and neglecting chores and sleep; it clearly is better than the sum of its parts, and all of those parts are perfectly serviceable, if not excellent or particularly original.

Three and a half stars, and I’ll definitely pick up the sequel. The plot is self-contained; things are fairly well wrapped up making the read rewarding on its own, but there’s a clear larger story arch that has been set up. At least in the Kindle edition, after all the marketing fluff, there’s an interesting interview with the author. (And thank goodness, this book knows where it ends, rather than the Kindle thinking I have to page through all the previews for the book to be finished.)

Posted by Toivo Voll

Max Gladstone: Three Parts Dead and Two Serpents Rise

Me friend Tegan had recommended Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead for the quality of its prose, and being still under the spell of Patrick Rothfuss for the same reason, I gave it a try.

Three Parts Dead is the first book in a series carrying the same name. The books do not proceed chronologically or feature the same characters, but are set in the same world and do have linkages. I liked the first book; didn’t love it, but liked it. The prose was nice, the pacing good, and the world is original. If anything, it reminds me of a more serious Ankh-Morpork. If I stop to think about the internal consistency of it too much, I begin to have doubts, but it works well enough to keep the story moving.

The plot itself is a whodunnit, and the characters in question are pretty interesting, even if they don’t become entirely three-dimensional. Definitely worth the time and price, though did not make my top-shelf list. Three and a half stars out of five.

Where things get more interesting is with Two Serpents Rise. The events of this book take place before the first, and approach the world from a different angle. In many ways it really fleshes out the cosmology and theology of the world to a much greater degree, and not just by exposition, but by bringing up the inherent moral and ethical conflicts involved.

The plot is hard to pigeon-hole, perhaps calling it an adventure tale will suffice. I was not horribly impressed by the beginning of the novel. It started a bit timidly, but it kept building momentum and continued a good clip for the rest of the book. There were several turning points both in the story and emotion, so the traditional build-up to a climax and descend from there did not apply.

What appealed to me the most here was the relationship between the protagonist and his love interest. The relationship is mutating and complicated, much as reality. While the romantic moment tropes are well present, the entire story is a lot more interesting. Even so, though, the characters never quite came alive as deep people — some of this may be forgiven due to the way the primary relationship serves as an allegory to more fundamental events.

Two Serpents Rise earns four of my five stars, with the note that one of those is completely subjectively given.

Posted by Toivo Voll

Brandon Sanderson: The Way of Kings (The Stormlight Archive 1)

I don’t actually remember how this book ended on my “to read” list, whether it was someone’s suggestion, a Goodreads plug or Amazon’s recommendation. Regardless, I read the book without having any idea who Brandon Sanderson is or what the book was about.

The way of Kings is an epic fantasy novel, the first part in a series that, according to Wikipedia, might be ten books long; no other books in the series are out yet. It stands reasonably well on its own, plot-wise, so the serialization shouldn’t necessarily put you off. The first novel, at least, is quite long. I read it on a Kindle, and in this particular case a print version might be better; there are maps and drawings that did not reproduce well on the e-ink screen.

The book is a bit confusing at first; there’s a time-shift, and a number of separate characters and threads are introduced. Some of them also keep switching to historical flashbacks for extra complexity. The world is pretty unique — broadly fantasy medieval, but the cultures, animals, geography, plants and indeed the entire cosmology are different from our world. This could be risky, but in the end I felt like Sanderson did a good job at making this alien world seem real, and stimulated my imagination in trying to envision the various things described.

The world, and plot, are deep and multi-layered. The first novel generally just introduces the reader to the tapestry, and few of the story threads are concluded or secrets revealed. For whatever it’s worth, this didn’t bother me as much as I would’ve expected. The characters remain a little artificial, but interesting. There’s a main protagonist of sorts, and the story follows his trials and tribulations. There is a lot of death and misery, but unlike in Robin Hobb’s books, there is a point to it, and the characters grow through the story. Still, in balance, it feels at times like a bit of an angst-fest, though of course the fate of the world hangs in balance. The story runs well, and I wasn’t tempted to skim.

This all sounds somewhat non-committal, but I actually really liked the book. Whereas Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles are exquisitely crafted, down to every word, the Stormlight Archive is in too much of a hurry with too much to tell to spend that much attention on everything. And yet, when I speak of one I instinctively contrast it with the other. There’s just something properly epic in The Way of Kings to elevate it to a level above your run of the mill fantasy novel. Sanderson has set himself some ambitious goals, and he delivers.

If you like your fantasy epic, if you love complex and unique new worlds and magic, if you enjoy the clash of armies and the fight between good and evil, I can easily recommend The Way of Kings. Personally, I’m going to rate it four out of five.

Oh. Turns out that this Sanderson fellow wrote the final book in the Wheel of Time series, except that his book ended up published in three volumes. That explained a lot.

Posted by Toivo Voll

Tanya Huff: The Silvered

I’ll have to hand it to Ms. Huff — she’s not happy with any one setting or world or genre, and boldly explores new ones. I generally like her work, though find the quality of it somewhat uneven.

Amazon had suggested, or at least one of its reviews did, that Silvered was Huff’s foray into steampunk. Since I like her and I like steampunk, I picked it up. It’s not steampunk. Yes, there are cannons and balloons and such, but the role of technology is minor, and the type and technological level is not close to that genre either. Instead, it’s a tale of a nation of witches and werewolves at war with a nation of technology and religion. A young witch and a young werewolf have to step up when it becomes obvious that only they can prevent a great calamity.

I have some trouble figuring out just what this book tries to be. There’s obviously a bit of romance. It’s a tale of a girl growing up to a woman, and a powerful hero. It’s a tale of personal conviction and morals overcoming duty when duty is immoral. It’s a werewolf story, it’s fantasy paranormal romance, it’s… a bit hard to pin down.

The characters never quite gain the depth I wish they did. The setting has potential, Ms. Huff doesn’t shy away from brutal violence in her depiction of evil, of fear and war. The plot is well crafted. And yet somehow it doesn’t quite get together, the chemistry doesn’t quite work. There’s nothing wrong with the pacing, the prose or the setting, it just didn’t quite grab me that way I think it should have.

Two and a half out of five.

Posted by Toivo Voll

Sharon Shinn Troubled Waters

I rather liked Sharon Shinn’s Thirteen Houses series, and of course her science-fiction flavored Samaria series.

Troubled Waters starts a new Elemental Blessings series; currently this and the second book (Royal Airs) are out.

The setting is, as expected, a late-medieval world, just on the cusp of industry and transport beginning to change the world. The protagonist is a privileged woman, people are generally smart, nice and wise, there’s a small amount of magic in the world, and there’s an undercurrent of romance or relationship. In that respect it’s quite similar to Thirteen Houses and has a similar Mary Sue air to it, if you find that offensive.

In this series Shinn has created a new world, with a very convincing numerology-based system that permeates social organization, religion, timekeeping and commerce. There’s a regent and five essential houses. There are five fundamental dual human characteristics — Elay (Air/Soul), Hunti (Wood/Bone), Sweela (Fire/Mind), Coru (Water/Blood) and Torz (Earth/Flesh). Each of those characteristics is associated with a set of eight blessings such as “joy” or “resolve” or “honesty.” The character of a person is somewhat determined by blood, based on their parents or grandparents, and typically is predominantly one dominant characteristic with a possibility of another lesser one. Some combinations are good, some make for a conflicted or difficult personality. There are temples in which you can divine a person’s character as well as coming events by drawing random blessings.

It all sounds rather convoluted, but it really isn’t. The entire setting flows naturally as the plot progresses, and once I was done with the book I was a bit surprised to remember that that’s not how the world actually works. The money and timekeeping are a bit more work, but an appendix explains it, should it become confusing.

The system reminds me somewhat of a role-playing game with its archetypical characteristics or alignments; so much so that this entire world would lend itself rather well to a game setting. Either way, Shinn does a brilliant job structuring a world around people whose personalities are either predetermined to some extent, or who appear to be easily sorted into these categories. The protagonist is a Coru (Water/Blood), and the way she is always moving, restless, calm yet potential for amazing fury does the element of water and the likeness of a river great justice.

The plot eventually becomes court and succession intrigue. Frequently new revelations cast past events — both major and seemingly inconsequential — in a new light, either to the reader, the protagonist, or both. The machinations and motivations generally seem believable and consistent and weave a rich tapestry.

The pacing is good, though falters a bit towards the end; it almost feels as if the book vacillates between finishing properly or splitting into another volume — as she’s done before, Shinn picks up the next installment years after the events in this, so how repercussions played out is hinted at but not given as a story. That being said, this volume clearly stands on its own, and ends in a way that doesn’t make you demand the next volume to found out what happened. The prose itself is good enough to overcome any desire I might have to skim, with occasionally delightful vocabulary. Most importantly the flow is great, and this easily was one of those books that makes one ignore bedtimes or even mealtimes.

Four out of five.

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Anne Bishop: The Tir Alainn Trilogy

I’ll bundle The Pillars of the World, Shadows and Light, and The House of Gaian into a single review. The plot and storytelling was sufficiently consistent between all of them, and each subsequent book immediately picked of where the previous left off that they might as well be considered one long work.

The premise is an idyllic fantasy world that has fae crossing into the human world at their leisure, and generally behaving somewhat like arrogant brats. There are sprites and other little folk, and witches that are either appreciated or shunned, and of course humans.

An evil power is gathering and hunting the witches, and old linkages between all of the races have been forgotten, so now fae, witches and humans desperately need to relearn what their role in the greater weave is to counter the threat.

So far, so good. What I didn’t like was that the evil was incredibly caricatured. There’s a strong women’s rights lesson to the story, but the threats are so overt that they detract from the point being made. Another major shortcoming is the plotting. Occasionally evil and conflict gets built up only to utterly deflate. Occasionally it actually leads to tension.

Overall, I was left with a feeling of quite a mess that didn’t have a good dramatic flow; huge amounts of traveling between random places for what occasionally seemed like very contrived reasons, and at other times excessively plot-convenient proximity of people and events. The characters were witty, but didn’t quite ever develop proper depth or sufficient differentiation from each other. The one exception and my clear favorite of the series met with a tragic end, for which I’ve tried to find a good plot justification but haven’t, so I may have a bit of personal beef on that account.

The cosmology, on the other hand, was noteworthy. The origin of the fae or man is not explained satisfactorily, but their roles in the world, their realms and their connection to the witches is a very nice and consistent. The maturation of a couple of the primary characters was pretty well done, even if it didn’t give them that much more depth as people. The duality of some of the more powerful creatures, the tempering of power with responsibility, of destruction with compassion, was interesting.

The characters and prose were sufficient to make me read, if somewhat skimming at times, the entire trilogy, so for that I give it two and a half out of five.

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Patrick Rothfuss: The Wise Man’s Fear

Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind is an amazing fantasy novel. It is the opposite of most of the other fantasy I read these days, as it’s obviously crafted with great time and care. It is the fantasy novel my more refined (and librarian) friends recommend to people wishing to discover new fantasy authors.

However, having started his trilogy with such a spectacular work, Mr. Rothfuss faces the task of living up to the expectations he’s set.

To be brutally honest, he doesn’t.

This doesn’t mean that The Wise Man’s Fear isn’t a spectacular book, it is. It just isn’t more spectacular than The Name of the Wind, and perhaps a bit less so since we know what to expect.

The tale continues, as expected, from where The Name of the Wind left off. As in the first book, the setting is a tavern where the protagonist, Kvothe, retells his life’s story to a chronicler. Obviously things are afoot that tie into the history, but almost all of the writing pertains to the past, and the current time is advanced via brief interludes. Once more, Mr. Rothfuss uses this narrative device with perfect skill.

Unlike works from Patricia Briggs or Wen Spencer, The A Wise Man’s Fear is not a book that kept me up past my bedtime because I just couldn’t set it down. I have been wondering why this would be, and came up with a few hypotheses. Narratively, we know the end point to which the retold tale will lead; Kvothe in his tavern. There is little indication that the real-time thread of the narrative would reach a conclusion in this work either, so that motivation is also not present. Similarly, I suspected that Kvothe’s biographical tale would only proceed another third of the way.

However, there are other aspects as well. I had a slight feeling of dread for Kvothe as I went along; I fully expected horrible calamities and unpleasant events to befall him any moment — to the extent that it detracted from my reading pleasure. Whether this ominous air was Mr. Rothfuss’s intention or my own doing is unclear to me; perhaps others who have read it can chime in. On a more positive note, I was also unwilling to skim ahead or read it with less than proper attention, in fear of missing wonderful language or sayings.

Rothfuss continues with his world-building, introducing the fae archetype and the ascetic eastern warrior archetype, among others. I’ve always been fascinated by sidhe, fae and similar mythos, but even so I feel that Rothfuss has done an amazing job with both. While these are known archetypes, the re-imagining, both in prose, in plot and in world-building are top-notch.

The ancillary characters do not gain much in depth; Kvothe, Bast and Denna being ones that notably come alive. Trying to judge beyond that runs into the many-layered nature of the narrative; the description of the protagonist is one of a young man given by his older self, both of whom are clearly flawed and blind to certain aspects of themselves. Some darker plot elements are introduced, and Rothfuss earns another honorary mention on that account — something occurs in the book, and it is left for the attentive reader to speculate what it means and whether it’s important — and if it is, it will appear later in the tale, without being telegraphed or explained. The same applies to some philosophical aspects, such as the notion of free will in the face of prophesies of omniscient beings.

The book ends on a cliff-hanger of sorts, but a tasteful one that does not artificially hold the plot hostage. It also winds down, narrative-wise, in a sort of epilogue that I found very pleasing.

Summarizing The Wise Man’s Fear is hard. It contains many epic and memorable characters, lines, and ideas. It is tremendously well written. Is paced in a very deliberate manner. My brain is still thinking about the people and events in it, long after I’ve set it down. Perhaps it is like a fine spirit, to be enjoyed in a quiet setting with proper decorum and gravitas, rather than a beverage which allows for a good, raucous party.

Five out of Five. It’s not the best possible book, but it is so far above most of the other things I read in the genre these days, that there’s no point in splitting hairs.

Posted by Toivo Voll

Wen Spencer: Endless Blue

I finished my Wen Spencer binge with a sci-fi novel of hers that I had laying around in paperback format.

Endless Blue is science fiction; it has space ships, clones, genetically altered super soldiers, aliens, shuttles and rail guns. It’s not an amazing literary feat, following the more typical Spencer of very enjoyable prose and plot that moves along propelled by interesting protagonists.

The setting is thick with tropes, and few if any novel ideas are introduced. And again, Spencer manages to bring an interesting fresh angle at the material. The familiar criticisms are still there — as interesting as the character concepts for the protagonists are, they don’t ever quite develop the depth I’d like. The plot is self-contained — the book begins and ends within its covers — but towards the end it seems like the author woke up from all the fun she was having writing and had to quickly start tying up loose ends. It also engages in Marty Stu/Mary Sue fantasy with its protagonists.

For all its hard sci-fi setting, Endless Blue is about the relationships between the characters and how they define themselves and each other, their actions when they’ve been yanked out of their comfort zone, and musings on equality and humanity as a whole. While cinematic, some touches of the world seem unnecessary for the plot. There are also occasional plot clues revealed only shortly before they’re used, which annoys me a bit, having grown up with the proper British mystery novel tradition.

Deux ex machina is the novel’s strength and Achilles’ heel. The unlikeliness of some of the events and setting are explained by it. On the other hand, the divine hand is elevated to a central element of the setting and left mysterious, giving the work and its events a lot more depth. Just what was preordained, what was free will? What was human nature, and what was human nature being made into the image of something else?

The setting could easily support a multitude of further novels with different protagonists, and as a credit for her world building I still find myself trying to imagine the visuals and wondering about just how certain things would work and develop.

Much like a lot of Spencer’s books, I feel that it shows great promise, but only wish it had been worked and finished with a lot more patience and care. Nonetheless, it was a book that was readable, made me think of deep, existential issues, and successfully convinced me that sleep could wait, and for that I’ll award it four out of five stars.

Posted by Toivo Voll