book reviews by Althea

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The Wise Man’s Fear – Patrick Rothfuss *****

(Kingkiller Chronicles #2)

If you liked ‘The Name of the Wind’,  you’ll like ‘The Wise Man’s Fear.’ The sequel continues in the vein of the first book, slowly telling Kvothe’s story in lengthy flashback. Kvothes’ first priority is always finding any information he can on the Chandrian – the mysterious group of seven who killed his family. But along the way, he pursues his studies as an arcanist, pursues the hard-to-pin down Denna, and plays his lute at the local pub… So far, so much like the first book. About half way through, it starts to change up… Kvothe goes questing, spends an extended amount of time in Faerie with a magical lover, and ends up in a different culture that teaches him martial arts, practices free love, and hands out a mystical sword. I found the latter two idylls a bit too typical-of-the-genre; but overall I still loved the book, and can’t wait for the third in the series to arrive!


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The Blade Itself – Joe Abercrombie ****

(First Law, #1)

It’s always a pleasure to discover a new author. Of course, if I didn’t take so infernally long to get around to reading books, I would have discovered Abercrombie a few years ago… but after finally getting around to reading his first book, The First Law, I’m delighted that there are already 3 more to read!
Since the book’s been kicking around my house, I’ve heard, several times, about how ‘dark and depressing’ it is. I am pleased to report that this is not true. Yes, it is gritty, and the characters are people from a violent world who have nearly all been touched (and damaged) by violence. However, the characters are all wonderfully human, and their motivations are understandable, even when reprehensible. While there is some thoughtfulness to the work, it’s still primarily an action-adventure fantasy.
The story is told through the eyes of 3 main characters: Logen, a fighting man, a ‘barbarian’ from the North whose family and friends have been destroyed, who must strike out on his own. Inquisitor Glotka – once a shining paragon, a rising star in the military; but now a survivor of torture as a prisoner-of-war, who has become a torturer himself.  And Jezal – a young aristocrat whose concerns have mainly centered around trying to impress his family by winning a fencing competition.
This is part one of a trilogy, and I still don’t have Part 2 – so finding out how things all resolve is getting a bit delayed, to my chagrin!
So far, I would recommend this to fans of Gene Wolfe, Patrick Rothfuss & George R.R. Martin.

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The Book of Shadows – James Reese **

Mixed feeling about this one… it had potential to be several good things. In the end, however, I feel that it pretty much missed the mark on all of them.
In the “positive” column: Blasphemy! Witches! A priest-incubus! A bloody revenant! A hermaphrodite schoolgirl!
In the “negative” column… a slow-as-molasses plot that suffers from ADHD, and an inexplicable middle-of-the-road approach to the outrageous subject material.
OK, our protagonist is intersex – but this is no “Middlesex.” This is not a literary fiction book at all, although the writing style isn’t half bad. It’s a trashy novel, at heart – but it’s not nearly trashy ENOUGH. And when a trashy novel doesn’t go all the way it just gets boring. It took me a ridiculously long time to finish this book; it just didn’t keep my interest and I kept reading something else instead.

A good part of this was the plot’s lack of focus. Nearly nothing actually happens in the story proper. Our protagonist, on a sort-of journey of self-discovery, meets various other characters – and then the book tangents off wildly and spends so much time talking about whichever other character’s back story that you pretty much forget where you were in the original plot… which wasn’t going much of anywhere, anyway.

More explicit sex with incubi, more perversion, and maybe a few orgy scenes thrown in could have elevated this book to a certain status… but the opportunity was missed. Reading this sort of felt like watching the R-rated cut of “Pirates.” (There’s no point, really.)

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Od Magic – Patricia McKillip *****

McKillip is one of my most favorite authors. I find myself hoarding her books, waiting for the perfect time to read them – because I know they’re going to be perfect. (I know this makes no sense, and I will likely die with wonderful books unread due to this horrible tendency.)
McKillip’s books remind me of neo-medieval bands (Qntal, Faun, etc.). They are deeply rooted in tradition, but unmistakably new. They are pure without being innocent, complex without being muddy.
That said, some of her books are very similar to each other. Reading Od Magic, in particular, I really felt like I was reading about many of the same characters portrayed in the last book I read by her, ‘The Bards of Bone Plain.’ Sure, it was a different story, and a different setting – but at times it was almost as if her standard characters had been dropped into a different story. However – I didn’t really mind.
Here, a young man, suffering from grief and having lost his way in life, is approached by a mysterious elderly woman who instructs him to travel to her school of magic – they’re in need of a gardener. When he arrives, he discovers that while that’s true, the old woman, Od, has approached legendary status at the school – she hasn’t been seen in decades. The school, on the surface a haven for talented magicians, is drowning in hidebound strictures and politics, and the king is deeply suspicious of any kind of magic that deviates from the ordinary.
When a group of traveling players with an extraordinary magic show arrives in town, suspicion is thrown on both them and on the innocent gardener, and the king demands arrests left and right.
The story is an excellent depiction of fundamentally decent people who often behave less-than-decently due to inflexible rules.

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The Drowned World – J.G. Ballard ***

This month’s Post-apocalyptic Book Club selection.
This was a re-read, though I’d read it so long ago it might as well have been in the Jurassic period.
JG Ballard succeeds marvelously in creating a hallucinatory, dreamlike environment here. Solar flares have heated the Earth. Only 5 million people still live, mainly on military-style bases in the Antarctic. Our protagonist, Kerans, is a biologist assigned to a team with the singularly pointless task of venturing south and mapping the changed earth, with its lagoons caused by polar melt and bizarre new plants… the formerly temperate zones are changing back to prehistoric-style jungle.
However, in this hot and humid atmosphere, people seem to be going crazy, afflicted by shared dreams from the primeval unconscious, losing the drive to live. In half-submerged London, Kerans, his older colleague Bodkin, and the woman Beatrice, decide to stay, rather than return to the Antarctic. It’s a decision that clearly will not lead to their continued survival; ambiguously suicidal.
However, the trio’s doomed idyll is thrown into upheaval by the arrival of Strangman, a bizarre albino riverboat captain with a crew of caricatured and allegorical savages.

Strangman seeks to drain the lagoon, and becomes more and more of a threatening figure. Although lethargic and passive, the trio oppose his wishes, feeling inexorably drawn to accept the course of nature, and embrace its terrible beauty, even though nature has become inimical to human life.

Ballard sure does love ‘Heart of Darkness.’ This is a deeply symbolic work, and draws a lot from Conrad’s. However, many of the themes touched on here are dealt with more deftly in Ballard’s later books. The characters here are very flat, especially for a psychological novel. Yes, Ballard is using the trope of the ‘savage’ for literary purpose, but I’m not at all sure that excuses his portrayal of the crewmen as nearly inhuman beings.

Flaws and all, I’d still say this book is worth reading. There’s a lot packed into its brief pages; it made for a really good book group discussion. I also simply enjoyed its evocative, lush and oppressive atmosphere.

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Railsea – China Mieville ****

Huh! I just learned two things. When an author uses a ‘descriptive’ name for a character, there’s a term for that: aptronym, probably coined in the 1930s by newspaper columnist Franklin P. Adams. There’s also a phrase for when a person has a name which relates to their chosen profession: nominative determinism.
Now, if this were universally true, I guess China Miéville should have gone into Asian studies or something… but since I’ve loved the theory since I came across an article claiming that boys with the name “Dennis” were 10x more likely to become dentists, I’m probably seriously subject to confirmation bias, but, reading Railsea, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a Melville/Miéville connection.
Personally, I don’t like Herman Melville. I went through a phase of reading all the whaling history and fiction I could get my hands on, as a great many of my relatives were on whaling ships. As a matter of fact, the incident that Moby Dick was based on involved members of my family (call me bizarre, but it’s kind of fun that my ancestral cousin was a cannibal [See: Seriously, do, it’s a completely excellent book.]). (And what Moby Dick was based on, not anything to do with buses on Staten Island. Damn artists! []) He also lifted one of my ancestral family names, Starbuck, but he’s not the only person to rip off that name, the ripping-off that Melville did has been fully eclipsed by caffeinated beverages.
Anyway, sorry, but Moby Dick has to have been one of my very least favorite whale tales out of the dozens that I read. (And ‘Billy Budd’? Even Worse.)
Miéville disagrees. ‘Railsea’ begins as a straight-up homage to Moby Dick, lifting incidents and anecdotes pretty much directly (from what I recall.) The differences: instead of ships, the vehicles here are trains, and instead of whales, the beasts under pursuit are Giant Moles. The train crews are terrified to ever touch the ground, because if they do, Giant Moles will instantly swarm up and eat you. Luckily, with the exception of raised “islands” and “continents” of actual land (bedrock?), where civilians live, the ground is massively crisscrossed with train tracks, extending as far as known geography.
I have to admit, it took me a while to get into this book. At first, I found the Moby-Dick-allusions tiresome and unoriginal, and I also felt that it was rather juvenile (this is marketed as YA). Giant moles? Kind of silly.
However, once the actual plot of the book got going (which is NOT the plot of Moby Dick), it really picked up. I also have to admit I enjoyed how it was simply the expected thing, here, that all captains would have an obsession with a giant and dangerous beast (or, a “philosophy.”) The descriptions of the Railsea itself were stifling and oppressive – but they’re meant to be, and it all comes clear at the end – with some obvious-but-not-too-bludgeony social messages about the dangers of letting huge corporations take over.

I still love Miéville, and I’d say this book is worth reading, for fans, but it’s not where I would recommend anyone new to Miéville should start. It is a YA book, with orphans and questing and coming-of-age and all that stuff. It reminded me quite a lot of Paolo Bacigalupi’s YA book, ‘Ship Breaker.’ Both writers definitely come from a very similar thematic standpoint – and both have stronger, more complex statements in their non-YA publications.

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The Black Opera – Mary Gentle *****

Read this for book club… well, that and because I really like Mary Gentle.
Here, in an alternate 19th-century Italy, we encounter Conrad Scalese – a professional opera librettist. Unfortunately, right now, he’s being unexpectedly pursued by the Inquisition. You see, last night the hall where his latest opera was being performed was struck by lightning, burned to the ground – and the Inquisition blames his music. Because, as it’s well known, religious music can often cause miracles to occur – and, sometimes, secular music can do the same, although this is an occurrence the Inquisition would like to avoid at all costs.
As an atheist, and firm believer in the natural sciences, Conrad has no truck with miracles. However, he admits that unexplained phenomena – such as the Returned Dead, when deceased people walk, vampire-like, and other ‘miraculous’ events do occur. Regardless, like most people, he’d rather not be in the hands of the Inquisition.
So when no less than the King himself offers Conrad an unusual assignment which would let him out of his arrest – of course he takes the commission. He is to write an opera – but not just any opera. A mysterious group of Satanists are embroiled in a plot to write a Black Opera which will cause volcanoes to erupt, wreak ecological devastation, and moreover, summon Lucifer and put evil in charge of the world. Conrad’s job is to write an opera that will stop this from happening – a “counter-opera.”
A countdown-style thriller proceeds to unfold…
The book is just full of wonderful details. Structurally, the plot of the book mirrors the plot of an opera itself, which is fun. There are tons of throwaway lines, which are just amazing (like the one about who Darwin married). The timeline plays fast and loose with history – although the background is vivid and thoroughly researched. I didn’t care. It may bug some people.
It’s not a perfect book. I often feel that Gentle’s characterization is a bit opaque – I’d like to see more of her characters’ interior lives. The whole race-against-time plot device is a little old, and the Grand Climax is a bit over-the-top.
However, the ending of the book made me up my rating from 4 stars to 5. I nearly cheered. I feel like I’ve read literally hundreds of stories just waiting to see this obvious solution to a common dilemma proposed. Gentle finally did it.