Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Review: Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson has become the obvious heir to epic fantasy of this generation. Sure, there are plenty of great authors writing in the epic genre, and many more picking at or blending the edges, but when it comes to pure epic fantasy, Brandon Sanderson is King and in no danger of being usurped anytime soon. The focus of this effort is The Stormlight Archive, a projected 10-book series. Words of Radiance is the second book in this series, following The Way of Kings.
 
Above I called Brandon Sanderson the King of epic fantasy, I very much believe he deserves the honor and has earned it through work and dedication to the craft and just a bit of luck and goodwill along the way. King Sanderson* has benefited greatly from the unique opportunity to complete The Wheel of Time after Robert Jordan’s tragic and untimely death. His efforts to complete the final 3 books in the series based off writing fragments in various states of completeness, rough outlines, dictated scenes, thousands of pages of notes, and his own interpretation to bridge the gaps provided him with a view into a nearly completed work of the immense scale common to multi-book series of epic fantasy and the challenge of finishing the series in a satisfying way. As a result, he gained a great understanding of the consequences of choices made earlier in the series that become amplified in later volumes. This in turn provided King Sanderson the chance to set his own massive series up in a way to avoid such consequences (in theory), or to put in a few other terms, avoid jumping the shark or becoming tangled in a Meereenese Knot. Of course, it’s far too early to judge the ultimate success of this when King Sanderson is only 2 books into his projected 10-book series, but initially I think the signs are there showing that he could pull it off – particularly with the way that Sanderson has chosen to juggle character points of view, keeping it to a relatively bare few (just 2 or 3 per book), with brief interludes where others can be thrown in to expand the breadth of the story at hand.
 
Above I’ve liberally used the term epic fantasy and I will continue to do so throughout this review. This is because of the importance of acknowledging what this book (and series) is, and therefore, what it is not. The Way of Kings is 1008 pages long in hardback (US). Words of Radiance is 1087 pages (US hardback). These books are back-breakingly big and capable of propping open a ten-ton vault, let alone stopping your door. In other words, they are big and they are bloated. The pacing reflects this – not everything included is strictly necessary (though this opinion of mine could vary greatly by one’s own point of view) – with events playing slowly and deliberately. The primary characters are explored in great depth, dwelled on in ways that are often mind-numbingly blunt and repetitive. Brevity is not the soul of Wit in these books (though Wit is the most interesting character, of which we see relatively little, though I digress). These books are for people who want to dive in, staying immersed for hours on end, and experience all possible aspects of the story. The eloquence of word count plays out in the epic way of King Sanderson and fans will flock to rule. (OK, I’ll stop now with my attempts at radiant word play).
 
So, that 200+ word paragraph above basically boils down to knowing what you’re reading. If you don’t like big, bloated epic fantasy of the likes of Steven Erikson, Robert Jordan and George RR Martin, then don’t read these books. They are long and could be edited down to a fraction of their end size, but that’s not the point of epic fantasy – at least not this epic fantasy. Enjoy it for what it is, or move on. Because complaining about the word count of book 2 in a proposed 10-book series in a genre notorious for large page counts is just silly. (But friendly mocking of that word count is encouraged, at least by me)
 
If you are beginning to wonder about where I intend to talk about the plot or specific characters, let me spell it out that I have no intention of doing so. There are plenty of other places that do a wonderful job of that, and I have plenty to talk about in my thoughts on this book without ever going there. Basically, with Words of Radiance being a book within a series that isn’t the first book, I think that those discussions are largely pointless in a review like this – or at least I have no interest in them. I prefer to talk in bigger picture terms on whether or not I think it works or not.
 
Above I mentioned three other epic fantasy authors: Steven Erikson, Robert Jordan, and George RR Martin. These three were chosen with intent as I think that there are similarities to be had with each. Robert Jordan is obvious and clear in his in influence and Sanderson has talked in detail about it in many places as he completed Jordan’s series. George RR Martin may seem like me just pulling out a popular name with little more than surficial similarity for extra SEO. However, I do see some similarities and influence through how points of view are utilized and how, ‘petty’ human struggles dominate early in the series, with the ‘true evil’ or ‘big bad’ only becoming a bigger focus as things progress.
 
The comparison to Steven Erikson is a bit more nuanced, and perhaps, more worthy of discussion. In my opinion, Erikson is the first author to truly pull off what could be considered a post-modern epic fantasy (in many ways the term ‘post-modern epic fantasy’ is a complete oxymoron). In the past Sanderson has been lambasted for calling his Mistborn series post-modern. And while he did backtrack a bit on that, I still think that King Sanderson really believes in the idea of him being a post-modern epic fantasy author. Honestly, I can see where that comes from – King Sanderson’s epic fantasy is an answer to what has come before, and there is a bit of commentary built into it. In The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance, look no further than Wit (or Hoid of you prefer). Now do I think that The Stormlight Archive will ever rival Malazan in a postmodern view of fantasy – NO. But I do think it’s an interesting perspective to view this series through.
 
The Way of Kings was released in 2010 and with 4 years between releases, people may be struggling with the idea of whether or not they should re-read the 1000+ page first book in the series before moving on to the even bigger second book. I did not re-read and I did not look up any of the many summaries available online. I wanted to see how Words of Radiance held up given the time gap (plus I don’t have that sort of time these days). In general, I don’t feel that I was held back by my choice not to re-read, however there are of course caveats to this. I’ll start with the good – with The Way of Kings being a standard intro book and Words of Radiance being something of continuation and transitional book, it’s pretty easy to catch up on what’s important to know. But, one of the most popular aspects of this series does make it difficult to not be up-to-date with a full understanding of people and events – this series is huge and is meant to be huge. It is meant to be full of mysterious details and open-ended ideas that encourage ‘theory-craft’ to develop. King Sanderson absolutely wants his fans pouring over minute details to see what they may say about events to come and events that have already happened. And this does put the casual fan at a disadvantage. So far, King Sanderson balances things well enough to satisfy both, but he runs the risk of tipping one way or another as the series continues, and I doubt that potential tipping will favor the more casual fan.
 
This brings me to The Cosmere. King Sanderson is nothing if not ambitious, and from the start of his professional career he has developed an epic within the epics where most of the books he writes all take place in the same universe and all relate to each other in one way or another and an ultimate confrontation that is occurring. A single character known most often as Hoid (Wit in The Stormlight Archives) is present to one extent or another in each of these books. Up until now, this epic within the epics has been subtle and in the background, with only dedicated fans having much of a clue of what was going on. In Words of Radiance, it becomes clear that this series will become a central component of The Cosmere, and that the whole concept will grow and become much more important. This is another blow to the casual fan as only dedicated fans who read and digest all of books in The Cosmere will be able to fully enjoy and appreciate King Sanderson’s edicts. Or, from another point of view, this is a huge boon to King Sanderson’s fans as they get enjoy the epic within the epics as he brings something truly new to the genre. I suppose it’s time to throw Michael Moorcock into the mixing bowl of what has come before.
 
So, all you dedicated readers who have made it this far into the review may be wondering whether or not I liked the book and what I actually thought of – this is a very valid point to make considering I’ve rambled on for over 1600 words at this point and still haven’t really discussed this yet.
 
Yes, I liked the book – quite a bit actually. King Sanderson continues to improve as an author and I think this is one of his strongest efforts yet. Even though the book is so long, the pacing is remarkably consistent throughout and the writing is engaging enough to keep the reader (at least this reader) interested and entertained even while events progress at a measured pace. I believe that The Stormlight Archive is on pace to become the defining epic fantasy series of a generation and I will be along for the ride. Fans of epic fantasy and King Sanderson are getting more of what they crave with Words of Radiance – and likewise, those who aren’t fans of epic fantasy and/or King Sanderson should probably pass this one by.
 
So, all hail King Sanderson, overlord and archivist of The Cosmere…he’s earned it. But…
 
Wit, thy soul has brevity not.
 
And that works just fine for King Sanderson.
 
*I refer to Brandon Sanderson as King Sanderson throughout the review. I do not do this to mock Brandon, as I have the upmost respect for what he does and my personal interactions with him have always been wonderful. I do so partially to reinforce my point of him being at the top of epic fantasy at the moment, to help keep my rambling review somewhat cohesive, and because it amuses me.
 
 
Books of The Cosmere:
 
 
 
The Emperor’s Soul: Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon
 
Mistborn
 
The Well of Ascension: My Review, Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon
Full Trilogy Boxed Set at Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon
 
 
The Stormlight Archive
 
Words of Radiance: Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon
 
 

Friday, March 14, 2014

Review: Caine’s Law by Matthew Stover

I have raved in the past about the Acts of Caine series by Matthew Stover, so if you have a moment, take the time to read those other reviews.
 
Heroes Die (Act of Violence)
Blade of Tyshalle (Act of War)
Caine Black Knife (Act of Atonement, Book 1)
                     
If you’re not familiar with Matthew Stover and the Acts of Caine series, please at least go back and read the review for Heroes Die. It’s a great start to get a feel for things, though the series really gets going in Blade of Tyshalle (in my opinion anwyway). Because, if you are a fan of epic fantasy, you are doing yourself a huge disservice by not reading these books. Do you like dark fantasy (or gritty/grimdark as it’s being called these days)? This series pre-dates and out does anything you’ll find in grimdark today. Seriously, this series is criminally under-read and I cannot state strongly enough that fans should read it.
 
Caine’s Law (Act of Atonement, Book 2) completes the series in what is the best conclusion to any series I’ve read. Let me say that again…this series has the best ending of any series I’ve read to date. The pure satisfaction of this ending is second-to-none. To give just the slightest hint at this, I will quote the last line of the book/series (now, this is slightly complicated due to non-linear storytelling, but this is essentially the last line).
 
Any fucking questions?
 
Caine is the antihero of antiheroes. He is not nice, he is selfish, he is ambitious, he will sacrifice whatever he needs to, and he will torture and kill without a second thought. But, he’s also the good guy. He is the ultimate take no prisoners, bad ass motherfucker. Caine is someone that you don’t want to mess with – it will end badly, and it will probably end just as badly for everyone you know.
 
And for all that Caine is fiercely protective of his own. Heroes Die is essentially about him saving his wife. Blade of Tyshalle is about him saving his daughter. Caine Black Knife is about Caine coming to terms (of sort) with his past and the wrongs that he has done (and about him saving his brother). Caine’s Law is about him saving everyone else. And it’s way, way more complicated than that.
 
Structurally, Caine’s Knife is a wonderful mess. As I indicated above, it’s nonlinear, but that doesn’t go far enough. It’s metaphysical – similar to what was seen in parts of Blade of Tyshalle, but much, much more. The best way to express this is to quote author’s note.
 
Several parts of this story take place before the events depicted in Act of Atonement Book 1: Caine Black Knife.
 
Other parts of this story take place after. Still others take place before and after both. Some parts may be imaginary, and some were real only temporarily, as they have subsequently unhappened.
 
This book begins with the end and ends with the beginning – framing it as a journey. Perhaps the hero’s journey…only not, because Caine is no hero…except when he is. This only adds another layer to the long list of what this book and series is about. Which is yet another reason to read these books – depth, depth unlike 99% of what’s out there. These books will make you think, they will entertain you, they will make you think about why they entertain you, they will make you lose sleep, and they just might make your language a bit more colorful.  
 
This book, and the series as a whole, are more than just the best, most badass character in fantasy. It’s a book about being human and what it means to be human. It’s a series the darkness of humanity and it’s a series about conquering the darkness. It’s a series about redemption and progress. It’s a series about the horror of oppression – both from government and gods. It’s a series about overcoming that oppression. It’s about love, sacrifice, family, and fatherhood. In short, it’s about progress, it’s about becoming better, and the inner strength of humanity to make it happen – in the face of all the pure evil that’s present as well. And along the way there is both romance, and lots and lots of graphic violence with equally graphic language.
 
It’s really ineloquent and ironic to continually gush my love for this book and series, so I think I’ll pause and to illustrate much of what goes on and what I was attempting to say above, below are a few of the chapter titles for Caine’s Law, in no particular order.
 

Beloved of God
Scars and Scars
What Dreams May Come
Times that Bind
Assbitch of the Gods
Enter Hero
Meat Puppets
Love Absolute
Consider Insanity
Truth to Power
Father Issues
The Art of Unhappening
Fuck God
To the Masters of the Earth
  
Assbitch of the Gods – is there a better chapter title ever? And as I said, it’s only better.
 
Go, read, now. That is all.
 
Any fucking questions?
 



Blade of Tyshalle: Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon

Caine Black Knife: Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon


 




Thursday, March 13, 2014

Review: Fortune’s Pawn by Rachel Bach

Science Fiction can at times be a tricky genre, especially for those who haven’t read a whole lot of it. It can be very dense as it relies on words and concepts that it assumes a reader is familiar with. So, it’s often the case that someone relatively new to science fiction is not and thus they dislike what they read. In response, there is often discussion on entry-level science fiction, which, as it sounds, is science fiction that provides a good entry into the genre for the uninitiated.
 
Another common issue in science fiction is the general lack of diversity of those writing it (or at least a perceived lack of diversity depending on the view point) – there is often a lack of women/minorities/etc. writing and/or as the intended audience. Sure, there are notable exceptions, and this is a generality, but it’s certainly the case, particularly with the most prominent and heavily marketed science fiction in the market.
 
Fortune’s Pawn by Rachel Bach (aka Rachel Aaron) can be considered an answer to both of those issues.
 
It is an entry-level science fiction novel that really does nothing new, but is a whole of fun to read. We’re talking space marines, mechanized armor, abandoned alien ships, alien parasites, inter-stellar travel, space hippies, and tasty human flesh. It’s all the fun of a good military science fiction adventure and it has the beginning of an interesting space opera. And the way it’s written makes it a very accessible book.
 
Rachel Bach is indeed a woman writing a science fiction novel and the main protagonist of Fortune’s Pawn also happens to be a woman (named Devi). The best way I can think of to further illustrate this aspect of the book is that several reviewers (and even the author herself) have compared Fortune’s Pawn to urban fantasy. Now, my initial reaction to this (before reading the book) was to laugh – it’s set on a spaceship, calling it urban fantasy is absurd. However, I do see the point now as a shorthand for one of the ways the story sets itself up with (though the method certainly isn’t only used in urban fantasy). A strong woman with agency who is not looking for a love interest meets the tall, dark mysterious man who is hiding a big secret. They hit it off and fall in love, though there are many complications (in this case evisceration is but one). Of course this is a classic romantic plot line and one that is often disparaged by science fiction fans (yes folks, there is even sex in this book). For me it adds to the book and makes it better and the characters more interesting. Of course I don’t see how gratuitous violence is often accepted without question in SFF yet romance (or even sex) is often held at arm’s length like a nasty set of dirty underwear. So let’s remember that romance in our fiction is a good thing and in Fortune’s Pawn it works quite well.
 
While I’ve brought up romance, let’s not forget that Fortune’s Pawn is one hell of an adventure. You could also call it an analog to Firefly with a motley crew of characters on a spaceship having crazy adventures through the galaxy. Personally, I wouldn’t – the character development is almost completely focused on a relative few, the mystery is bigger, the consequences seem bigger, and the galaxy (and number of species) certainly is. But I bring up the point because it illustrates that this book has a lot going for it where most commentary I’ve seen ends up pigeonholing it in one way or another.
 
Fortune’s Pawn is simply fun. It is a well executed space adventure that should have wide appeal and is particularly accessible for relative newcomers to science fiction.  This is just the sort of book that science fiction needs more of right now and it’s great to see an author like Rachel Bach deliver in this respect. Fortune’s Pawn is the first book in the Paradox trilogy – book 2, Honors Knight is available now and Heaven’s Queen will be shortly. So, there are no excuses for waiting.
 
Fortune’s Pawn (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)
Honor’s Knight (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)
Heaven’s Queen (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)
 
*Note: My one quibble about this book is the Force. OK, Fortune’s Pawn doesn’t have the actual Force in it, but there is a mystical energy that space hippies seem to be able to tap into that sounds suspiciously like the force. In Fortune’s Pawn it plays no big role(well possibly excepting ___ at the end), but I suspect it’s something of a Chekov’s Gun. For now I’m merely annoyed by it, hopefully it works better as things move forward.
 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Someone Disagrees With Me on the Internet

OK, I think a lot of people disagree with me, but that’s not really the point. Renay over at Lady Business doesn’t like my review of Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. She disagrees with me (in fact a lot of people disagree with my opinion on that book), but that’s not really the point. She takes the biggest issue with how I end the review.
 
My ultimate takeway is simply this. Seeing this book get so many accolades, so much attention, only emphasizes just how stagnant SFF is as a genre. With relatively few exceptions, the genre that’s best suited to explore what’s possible, what should and should not be, what our own expectations say about us and everything in between doesn’t do any of that in regard to many fundamental aspects of our society. 
And I can’t decide if that depresses me or pisses me off.
 
Renay really disagrees with the idea of SFF as a stagnant genre and expands this to disagreement with the very commonly espoused idea that SFF is dead. Perhaps it’s mostly due a poor word choice on my part, but that’s not really the point I’m making here. The point I make stems from a rather simple observation – compare Ancillary Justice with pretty much any book that Ursual K. Le Guin wrote 40-50 years ago, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s say The Left Hand of Darkness (my review if you're interested to compare my thoughts of each). How much progress is evident from that simple comparison? EDIT: For a more in depth comparison of these two books check out this post on Tor.com./EDIT
 
It seems to me that there is relatively little progress evident in that specific direct comparison given all the actual social change that’s occurred in the nearly 50-year time period covered. Or to put it another way, after 50 years the same issues keep coming up over and over again. Sure, it’s great to point out that the baseline (or perhaps goalposts?) shift every time these issues come up. But at least from my point of view, I can’t help but feel a bit saddened by apparent lack of progress evident in the SFF genre over that time period (admittedly, from a single comparison).
 
To go back to that excerpt from my review, I do consider Ancillary Justice to be an exception to the ‘stagnation’ I reference. And that’s why it depresses me, because after 50 years (or more) of this repeating cycle, a book like Ancillary Justice is still an exception, something outside of the mainstream of the SFF genre, something different. And it shouldn’t be. Not by a long shot. That’s what really pisses me off.
 
And as award season ramps up, Ancillary Justice is proving to be a shortlist favorite – and has already won its first with the Kitchies. Now, I personally would not have nominated it (I don’t really nominate for any awards so it hardly matters), but I am pleased to see it on the lists. To me it shows that a growing and increasingly vocal part of fandom craves books that push boundaries and expectations, just as the best of the genre always has. So, while not my choice, I am happy to see it gaining attention over the same old, same old that often populates award shortlists.
 
Oh, and by the way, I still thought Ancillary Justice was boring and an overall mediocre book. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth talking about.
 
 
 
*A note that I hesitate to even mention, but another unfortunate part in all this is some of the discussions I’ve seen on Twitter about my review – apparently writing the review I did has regulated me to being just another male critic who doesn’t get it. I find that reaction terribly hypocritical, but it’s also one I don’t plan on engaging any further than this note.
 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Review: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) is a book that people who follow this blog have probably heard about by now, a lot. Many of you have likely read it, and those that haven’t should certainly consider reading it, if for no other reason than it seems to be at the top of many people’s award nomination list (it’s already on several shortlists) and I’ve seen people calling it something along the lines of the most important science fiction book in the last decade.
 
Here comes the big ‘BUT’.
 
All of this buzz, and I’ll even elevate the buzz to hype, essentially results from one aspect of the book – how it uses pronouns. The primary society of this book treats gender in a way fundamentally different than any of the dominant societies of our world. Gender is simply not a distinguishing characteristic of people and the default pronoun is ‘she’. This results in some interesting observations and confusions in other cultures and a default view of all the characters in the books as female rather than male. This rather simple shift can have a pretty significant impact on expectations.
 
Now, I want no confusion on this point. The above aspects of the book are great. SFF needs more interesting treatments of gender, race, etc. and this is a book that has people talking. These are important issues that SFF as a genre is particularly suited to addressing since it can make up pretty well whatever it wants as default conditions. To put it lightly, it’s unfortunate how often the default conditions mirror our own society with little to no reflection on why.
 
Here comes BUT again.
 
Ancillary Justice as a novel is boring. The plot seems…absent. Sure there is a plot and it involves some potentially interesting exploration of artificial intelligence as well as discussions on where a society as a whole should go. BUT, while I won’t call the plot secondary, it’s entirely uninteresting. The characters are less interesting than an inflexible wooden board. I didn’t know or didn’t care what the character motivations were. I didn’t care how the book would end. I DIDN’T CARE.
 
If a book can’t make me care about the plot or its characters, then it’s almost certainly a complete waste of my time. And that would be the case – any other book like this and I wouldn’t have finished it. I doubt I’d make it 50 pages in.
 
BUT
 
There’s all the hype, the buzz, the talk about how this book is such a wonderful exploration of gender. Only the whole gender thing – it’s really nothing. It’s simply a part of how things are in Leckie’s world society. Which is great, which is how things should be. BUT it didn’t add anything to the story. Nothing of interest (at least to me) was explored in any depth. Not gender. Not the interesting religious implications of an AI-lead, galactic-spanning theocratic empire. Not the politics of an empire ripping apart at its seams. Not the impact of a xenophobic society expanding through a galaxy. NOTHING.
 
After a fair bit of thought, I think it really comes down to my expectations for Ancillary Justice after seeing so many people I often agree with praise this book so highly. I was expecting something new, something exciting. Ancillary Justice is none of those things. Ursula le Guin was exploring gender in much more important, more shocking, and more meaningful ways 50 YEARS AGO.
 
My ultimate takeaway is simply this. Seeing this book get so many accolades, so much attention, only emphasizes just how stagnant SFF is as a genre. With relatively few exceptions, the genre that’s best suited to explore what’s possible, what should and should not be, what our own expectations say about us and everything in between doesn’t do any of that in regard to many fundamental aspects of our society.
 
And I can’t decide if that depresses me or pisses me off.
 

Monday, January 20, 2014

My Warped Sense of Humor

A few years back my wife asked me what my 10 favorite books were. The point of the question was that she was interested in reading what I considered my 10 favorite books so she could learn a bit more about me and we could have some interesting stuff to talk about (at this point we'd been married for almost 10 years, so we were hardly newly weds). Anyway, I'm pretty terrible with lists, but I did come up with a few of my favorite books to give over to her.
 
Fast forward to this last weekend and she was looking at those books and asking me to describe them to see what she may want to read. One of those books I described something like this:
 
"Imagine all the most inappropriate and offensive aspects of my sense of humor - you know the really bad stuff. Ramp that up by an order of magnitude or two and you'd get this book."
 
Her response was something like 'Oh'.
 
And I said, 'yeah, I don't think you'd want to read this one at all.'
 
For the record, this is the book I was talking about:
 
 
Escape From Hell! by Hal Duncan
My Review

Friday, January 17, 2014

Review: The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley

A few times a year I notice a big push by one big traditional publisher or another about a book that they’ve clearly identified as the next big thing. The marketing is typically ratcheted up a notch or two – many review copies, interviews, blog tours, free sample chapters, etc. One of these books for 2014 is The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley – go ahead and search out the buzz, you’ll find a lot, including 7 sample chapters.
 
Of course these books are often mixed in how they are received both critically and financially, but in general it’s safe to say that they tend to have a potentially wide-market appeal and are not overly different from other popular books at the time. In this, The Emperor’s Blades is no different – it’s a fairly traditional sort of epic fantasy somewhat in a similar vein as George RR Martin and David Anthony Durham.
 
I rather enjoyed the story of the book, and I have to freely admit that Staveley writes a very good action scene and made me connect in a positive way with the characters of the story. This makes the book very readable, hard to put down, and flat-out entertaining. The world is neatly developed in the familiar medieval European and surrounding environs sort of way and the magic system is subtle in this opening book of the series with a potential to be bigger. All in all, it’s exactly the sort of thing that fans of epic fantasy crave, making this book a very logical choice to push as the next big thing.
 
However, I had a few nagging issues that simply didn’t go away. The first, and lesser, is with the character Adare, the daughter of the emperor, though not an heir due to being a girl. The book’s description talks her up in a big way, though this isn’t well realized in the book as she seems marginalized to a low page count as she plays something of the traditional role of female victim. It was disappointing, and consistent with the treatment of the only other female character of note in the book. I’ve been told that the second book rectifies many of these issues, but so far the series is not out to a good start.
 
But the bigger issue I had was with the general framework of this series. In short, epic fantasy is often a very conservative genre at heart and this series appears to be a poster-child example of it. Much of traditional epic fantasy revolves around the basic tenant of maintaining the status quo – the goal is keep or re-establish some monarchy or other style of generally oppressive government, usually in the face of some grave, even existential, threat that only the government can protect the people from. Only rarely is any sort of actual human progress sought.
 
This is absolutely the case with The Emperor’s Blades – there is a rather tyrannical empire, complete with casual slavery. Everything in the story is about maintaining this empire at all costs, and the always looming great evil that this government must protect its people from is introduced. This is a story of an aristocratic elite fighting to keep power.
 
To me, this sort of storytelling in epic fantasy is tired and lazy. I want something more, something progressive, or at least not something inherently conservative (and I’m not necessarily using these terms in a political sense). And I find it troubling where the default for epic fantasy is basically that tyrannical governmental structures are fine as long as they protect you from evil. Especially as I look at around at my own and similar governments.
 
In spite of my reservations, I feel that Staveley’s storytelling rose above the mediocrity of its framework, and I agree that most fans of epic fantasy will find it enjoyable. The book was fun to read and I imagine that I will read the second book, The Providence of Fire, to see where things go. Hopefully there will some big picture surprises that improve upon my reservations.
 
The Emperor’s Blades (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)
 
 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Hurt: The Ballad of Roland of Gilead

The other day I heard a song that I haven't in a while. The song is Hurt, not the Nine Inch Nails original, but the version sung by Johnny Cash that made such a splash about ten years ago. I love both versions, though the Johnny Cash version just feels so real. And to me, I've always, since the first time I heard the that version, thought of Roland of Gilead from Steven King's Dark Tower series. To me, that song embodies Roland perfectly.
 
Roland of Gilead is the last gunslinger, a holdover from a gilded age of civilization and prosperity. The world is decaying, humanity is decaying, and Roland is the symbol of it all, He's the decay of humanity, and the last hope for it. He's a deeply flawed and hurt individual, on a quest, perhaps the most noble of quests. But he's single-minded, selfish, and willing to sacrifice anything to reach the end of his quest, even his own humanity. He is the tragic hero.
 
The series itself if flawed, Roland is flawed, humanity is decaying, and the gilded age of before was never the ideal everyone remembers. The metaphor is strong, and perfect, and flawed. Say whatever you want of the series, but Roland is one of the most powerful protagonists I can think of in the fantasy genre. And he is so deeply imperfect.
 
So, I give you Hurt, the Ballad of Roland of Gilead. A song that nearly always brings me to tears - whether I think of Roland, Cash, Reznor, or others from my own life.
 
 
 
 
 
The Dark Tower begins with The Gunslinger and one of the best opening lines I've ever read.  
"The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."

Monday, January 06, 2014

Checking in with 2014 and SpecFic'12

Somehow, someway it's already 2014. Time flies and since my birthday is on New Year's Day it literally is another year older for me. But I digress.
 
Last year had the distinction of being my least productive blogging year in the 8 years this blog has been around. I hope to improve on that this year, but I doubt it'll be dramatic. I do have about 7 reviews in various forms of writing (mostly in my head still) so hopefully I can get a few of those posted soon. Anyway, I imagine I'm still going to be on a 1-2 reviews per month pace while I read about 3 books per month. Nothing notable there, but it's been ages since I've been anything close to a post per day blogger. I may do a 2013 summary post and I may not - I'll decide later.
 
However, somehow last year I never got around to blogging about one of the coolest things that's happened to me in 8 years of blogging. I was actually published (and paid). I think that makes me semi-pro now, though you'll have to pry my amateur status out of my cold, dead hand (I should note that I have no aspirations of being a writer, so it doesn't matter one way or another).
 
One of the reviews I wrote in 2012 was selected for publication in Speculative Fiction 2012, (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) which is a collection of reviews and other non-fiction web-based content from 2012. It's sort of a best-of publication and it's an honor to be included. I mean, my contribution is clearly bringing up the average with authors like Kate Elliot, Elizabeth Bear, Christopher Priest, and Joe Abercrombie holding the publication back. Anyway, it's a good read and I think it's worth checking out. Nomination are still open for the next publication in 2013 of what I hope will become a long-running series.
 
Below is a bit of promo from the editors Jared Shurin and Justin Landon the book that I figured I pass along.
 
What are we asking?



We're writing this particular message to make a request. Speculative Fiction 2012 is eligible for a Hugo Award in Best Related Work. As a contributor to the project we would very much hope you would include it on your nomination ballot (if you have one). If you're a member of LonCon3, or were a member of LoneStarCon3, you have the ability to nominate. You can do so here.



Why nominate SpecFic'12?



Well, as contributor I'm sure you know all this, but Specfic'12 came to be for two reasons: to create a record of the year and to recognize blogging, for the first time, as a legitimate means of commentary in a world obsessed with... erm... legitimacy. We believe the project was outlandishly successful on both fronts. Three reasons, even, as all the proceeds have been donated to Room to Read.



The collection included over fifty of your pieces written on subjects ranging from ethnocentrism in My Little Pony to the role of historical authenticity in fantasy. We were privileged to publish your book reviews, biopics, essays, and eviscerations. We convinced Campbell Award winner Mur Lafferty to write the foreword because we knew she'd win the award and aid us in our quest to build votes for the project (that's what we call REVISIONIST history). In short, we put together a time capsule for future generations of science fiction and fantasy readers to understand what was important to readers in 2012. And we're excited to see it happen again in 2013, and on into the future.

What else can you do to help?



Share the contents of this email on your social media and blogs. Leave out the first paragraph. It's terribly charming, but may not make a lot of sense out of context. Encourage your networks to consider SpecFic'12 in Best Related Work. Talk about why criticism and commentary and blogging and online debate are all important. Share links to Room to Read. Talk about how fun it would be to own exactly 1/50th of a Hugo Award. We believe it's a project shared among the entire online community, a symbol - and hopefully some sort of small representation -  of all the great work that's happening online.

Regardless of what you decide to do with your nominations, thank you so much for contributing to SpecFic'12. It's a project we felt passionate about and we're so proud that it came to fruition, and even more proud that it's in good hands for 2013 with Ana Grilo and Thea James of the Book Smugglers.

Sincerely,



Justin Landon & Jared Shurin



P.S. Because we're especially shameless, we're making the eBook of Speculative Fiction completely free this weekend - January 11 and 12th.
 
 
 

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