Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Mini-Review: Tricked by Kevin Hearne

The Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne have become some of my favorite comfort reads, and the latest in the series, Tricked (Indiebound,Book Depository, Amazon), only reinforces this. Basically, these are fun urban fantasy books, with lots of humor and wish fulfillment, creative takes on gods, mythology and legend alive and interacting in the modern world, and they are largely set in Arizona, the place I’ve called home for over 14 years. Add they are relatively short, easy reads which all adds up to a perfect escape for a few hours. 

In Tricked the last surviving Druid, Atticus, is dealing with the game-changing (and perhaps apocalypse causing) ramifications from the events in Hammered (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon, my review). He fakes his death, he fakes the death of his apprentice and the Navajo Coyote god calls in a favor. Things mostly happen in northern Arizona on the Navajo reservation with Atticus and company dealing with skinwalkers, a Norse god of death, and a tricky situation with vampires. His problems seem to get worse and worse. 

In Tricked we finally see Atticus’s apprentice, Granuaile, come into her own as a full, fleshed-out character. The banter with her almost equals the buddy banter between Atticus and his dog, Oberon, but thankfully there is a lack of sexual tension in the man-dog talk. And the humorous back-and-forth between Atticus and Oberon with the Coyote thrown in for spice is top-notch. Hearne also takes some time to explore the legends and religion of the Navajo people, which is interesting and refreshing to see.  

Unfortunately, I had some problems Hearne’s portrayal of Atticus and some of the environmental issues of the Navajo Reservation. It’s understandable and appropriate that the last surviving Druid would be a pretty hard-core environmental type. However, I find it very difficult that someone who is supposed to be over 2000 years old, who has managed to live so long among mortals, who has seen human nature and all its complexities play out over and over again, could have such as naïve understanding of the environmental issues faced by the Navajo Reservation. Basically, Atticus shows the nuance of an 18-year old college student in his environmental stance on mining, power generation and the environmental and social ramifications for the Navajo people. And Hearne has clearly never actually visited a working strip mine. Now, this is mostly just sour grapes on my part, since I live here, I am an engineering geologist, I work at mines, I work at power plants, I work on environmental clean-up projects, I know Navajo people, I know people who work for the mine in question and the power plant in question, I’m friends with the NPR reporter who covers the reservation, I know an FBI agent who works on the reservation, etc. etc. While I imagine that Hearne and I probably vote more or less the same, these are issues that I actually know things about, and the way the book treats them was a let-down for me and I found it to be a pretty big break down in the characterization of Atticus. But, thankfully, even though I’ve written more about this than anything else, it’s not a deal breaker for the book. These books are not deep, they are not supposed to be deep, and reading too much into them looses the focus on just what the books are trying to do. 

So, even with my reservations that I discuss above, Tricked is another fun entry into the Iron Druid Chronicles. These books have become a fun comfort for me and a must read anytime I receive a new one. It’s a great example of a light-hearted urban fantasy that succeeds well within its bounds and is not set in another generic city.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Review: Blade of Tyshalle by Matthew Woodring Stover

I read fantasy books. While I can write pages about the various reasons and all the great aspects the fantasy genre and many of its talented authors, this isn’t the place for it. Much if that discussion would boil down to escapism and how I interpret its definition. And sometimes with escapism, I just want to read about protagonist who kicks major ass. Matthew Woodring Stover’s character Caine is a classic example of an ass-kciking anti-hero – you don’t mess with Caine – you will die. Your friends and family will probably die too. And try as you will, you won’t be able to kill the guy. Even being paralyzed below the waist isn’t enough to stop Caine from kicking ass.

Think what you will on my maturity for occasionally wanting to read a book like this. And go ahead and make assumptions about Stover’s writing and books in The Acts of Caine series – you’ll probably be wrong (and I’ll go into some of that below). Escapism is often looked down upon and this is can be doubly so when looking at a book of seemingly gratuitous violence and a protagonist who’s most notable characteristic is kicking ass. But it’s all in the execution, and this is where Stover nails it. The writing is intelligent, moralistic, but without apology, and the setting is a perfect blend of science fiction, fantasy and a dystopian future. Characters are believable, flawed, powerful, victims, and survivors in the face of long odds. Acts of incredible caring and sacrifice are contrasted with acts of pure selfishness, with the distinction between the two often blurring until the contrast disappears.

The Acts of Caine is a series that began in the late 1990s with Heroes Die (Act of Violence) (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon, my review), continues with Blade of Tyshalle (Act of War) (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) in the early 2000s and finishes with Caine Black Knife (Act of Atonement, Book 1) (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) and Caine’s Law (Act of Atonement, Book 2) (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon). More may be coming in this series, but it’s uncertain. The series is set in a dystopic future of our world where plague wiped out much of the population and allowed the formation a world government based on a strict caste system with the highest casts living in extreme luxury and the lowest as slaves in squalor. A way to send people to an alternate dimension exists – a dimension known as Overworld that is a fantasy world populated by all of the classic fantastic beasts – elves, ogres, goblins, dragons, etc. This connection has been utilized to send actors to Overworld that allow people to see and experience every thought and emotion of the actors as they undertake dangerous (often deadly) adventures through a land of fantasy. Hari Michaelson is the world’s most famous actor, he is Caine, assassin, thief, lover and general bad-ass. Events from Heroes Die left Hari paralyzed and a shell of his former self. In Blade of Tyshalle, Caine returns.

Stover plays a bit with the narrative structure of Blade of Tyshalle, beginning with narration of someone who attended actor training academy with Hari and we see Caine being born through the eyes of someone who had no idea at the time. Then we flash forward to Hari seven years after events of Heroes Die, a Hari who has everything he ever wanted in life – a wife, a child, a relatively high caste position, etc. Of course Hari is miserable, his family is miserable, his job unsatisfying, his only friend is his greatest enemy and he continually questions who really ‘won’ in the events of Heroes Die. Much could be read into this portion of the book – is it commentary on a mid-life crises, the standard American-dream, what is a hero, what is a victory, knowing who you are and who you want to be, the various problems with an autocratic government, etc. The answer is yes and much could be written, but won’t – I encourage you all to read and make your own conclusions. However, the personal aspect of this, the ultimate journey of Hari, of Caine is expressed in sculpture crafted by none other than Caine’s nemesis from Heroes Die, Ma’elKoth – a classic look at a man in the fashion of David.

All of this is told in a compelling manner that makes it near impossible to put the book down. And that is the real key – execution. Stover writes well, very well. Caine is not really a likeable person, yet you can’t help but like him. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that had me so excited about what would happen next. You know that point in a great book or movie when the ‘hero’ reaches that absolute low, when that key realization is made, a decision is made, and you just know that the ‘hero’ is about to rise and all hell is going to break loose? One of the best examples of that moment that I can recall is in Blade of Tyshalle and it was simply brilliant to read all that hell breaking loose.

Through all of this, Stover plays with many of the reader’s expectations. Caine is the classic anti-hero – we want him to win, he’s the good guy. But he’s essentially completely selfish, he solves his problems through violence, he doesn’t much care for collateral damage, etc. And yet he is a good guy – he fights the horrible government, he fights to save lives, he fights for his wife and daughter. But he’s cold. Redemption is not what he wants. He leaves regret behind. Vengeance is attained. And it’s complicated – we see Caine’s origins, we see his present, we see Hari realizing who he is and who Caine is, we see choices made, we see the consequences of those choices. This mess of a character, with no clear or easy conclusions to be made is what keeps Caine real and interesting.

The complexities of Caine further let Stover explore what is evil. Is Caine’s nemisis, Ma’elKoth evil? Is Caine’s former boss in the ‘real’, dystopic world evil? Is the Board of Directors for the network evil? Or is evil more simply and more correctly humanity itself? This blend of good and evil, the blend of science fiction and fantasy, the blurring of hero and anti-hero makes for nuanced reading that serves to reinforce Stover’s writing and the compelling nature of Blade of Tyshalle.

Technically I think that Blade of Tyshalle may fail the Bechdel Test, however this is as misleading as it is telling. There are several women in Blade of Tyshalle and they are generally what you would call strong feminine characters with agency (which seems to be the buzz word of late). However pretty much every female character in this book is a victim, and rape occurs repeatedly – though rape as a physical act is not really there, with the majority of the rapes of this book being a metaphorical act of a forcible removal of choice and extreme mental anguish rather than physical penetration.  So where does this leave Blade of Tyshalle in the sense of the repeated discussions regarding the troubles of portraying women in fantasy? Stover is a male writer. The female characters in this book are victimized and raped. However, the women are strong, have agency, and do not relay on men to save the day. For me, this is an example of where it works, even though this book as a whole could generally be considered one that would appeal more to guys.

This review began with discussion on escapism and books about kicking ass. Then it dove deep into the nuance of complexity and expectation. This is the reader’s journey as they read Stover. Stover’s Acts of Caine do escape and they are in their most simple form, stories about an anti-hero who kicks ass – that guy who can stand up and kick someone in the balls, then kick them again when their down, that guy who threatens and follows up in painfully dramatic fashion, that guy who saves the day then kicks it in face. It’s that person we daydream of being as adolescents (and even grown adults). But Stover shows us the complexity of that guy – the good and the bad. And then he shows us the complexity of good and bad. And then Caine gets mad.  

Simply said – if you are a fan of the fantasy genre, you should read Stover’s books.



Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Review: Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed (Indiebound, BookDepository, Amazon) is a number of things, but first and foremost, it’s a well executed sword and sorcery adventure in an excitingly realized world. It’s also a fantasy written by an Arab-American that takes its inspiration more from the traditions and mythologies of North Africa and the Middle East rather than the more common north and western European influence. It’s a fantasy that honors characters with age and experience, shows women in strength in a society with troubling views on women, presents religious characters with varying interpretations of piety, and gives fans a city of personality.

Doctor Adoulla Makhsood is the last ghul hunter in the great city of Dhamsawaat – he’s old, he’s fat and he’s ready to retire to a nice cup of tea. Raseed bas Raseed is his young, pious assistant and member of a warrior sect. Throw in Zamia, the last woman of a ‘barbarian’ band who happens to be a shapeshifter, and a few of Adoulla’s old and magically-talented colleagues and the result is a rather motley crew fighting to save the city from powerful and mysterious ancient evil.

Throne of the Crescent Moon follows a rather traditional model of sword and sorcery – a group of varied individuals band together to save their city. There are monsters of various sorts that need to be destroyed, there’s politics and fermenting revolution in the city, there is magic, and there is ancient evil to be stopped. The group has its internal differences, whether religious, age or nationality yet still work together to get the job done as each one brings an important talent to the mix. And the evil is mysterious and more powerful than any of them have faced before – as I hinted at above, it’s a near-perfect set-up for a traditional sword and sorcery adventure.

The world that Ahmed presents is clearly derived more from the lands of the Middle East and North Africa than the usual Western Europe analog. As someone who lives in the semi-arid American West and spends a lot of time in deserts, I love to see such lands portrayed in fantasy – especially when they take much of their mythological inspiration from traditions I’m less familiar with. Though Ahmed uses the lands of North Africa and the Middle East as a template to build from to great effect, he grows things into his own creation using tools such as monsters that feel different from those typically seen fantasy and the ruins of a long dead, magical civilization.

Dhamsawaat, a city of around a million people, is the jewel of the nation of Abassen, a nation that feels like a mix of ancient Egypt, Persia and Babylon with heat, deserts and a life-sustaining river built on the ruins of an ancient civilization. The journey of Adoulla and his allies is largely undertaken within the city of Dhamsawaat and Dhamsawaat is wonderfully realized – it’s huge with a walk to a different section of the city taking several hours, ‘traffic’ jams of people make it impossible to leave the city quickly, and lives of the rich and the poor are shown. The result is a presentation of Dhamsawaat with a refreshingly ‘realistic’ feel to it.

Religion is a very important part of the society created by Ahmed and the characters at the center of Throne of the Crescent Moon. The created religion draws immediate similarities to Islam, though it’s never specifically presented as a stand-in for Islam. However Ahmed shows the diversity of people and the followers of religion with differing versions of piety. Raseed is the classic pious, religious conservative who has been taught that suppressing one’s desires is key component of religious belief, which he channels into his notable battle skills. Adoulla heartily enjoys life’s pleasures such as good food and drink and has quite a sharp tongue – however, through his actions as ghul hunter and care for the wellbeing of people, Adoulla shows an equally pious belief. Other views from women and foreigners are also presented in an equally refreshing manner as everyone quotes scripture to support their views.

Ahmed fully presents this traditional and religious society, including the usual repression of women and foreigners. With so much talk lately about female character agency and how historically-based fantasy settings show repressed women and minorities simply because that is how it was perceived to be in our own world, Ahmed shows how to walk the fine line and look good doing it. Through Zamia and the alchemist Litaz, Ahmed shows women both young and old who are well-rounded, interesting and strong. Along the same lines, Throne of the Crescent Moon isn’t a (just) story about young and inexperienced kids trying to save the day – it’s more about an aged legend and his equally aged colleagues stepping up to save the day ‘one last time’ (though we of course no it won’t be the last time). It’s great to see a fantasy that truly recognizes and appreciates the experience, wisdom and cynicism of such characters.

I’ve seen reactions to Throne of the Crescent Moon that include ‘best debut of the year’ and similar. Well, it’s still early in the year, I’m terrible with absolutes, and I’m not sure I agree. However, I’m confident in saying that Throne of the Crescent Moon is one of the most promising debuts of the year and probably one of the most promising of the last several years. It’s good, it’s fun, it’s intelligent and it’s relatively short for a fantasy novel. It’s also the start of a trilogy that Ahmed has said will escalate in scope over the next two books. It looks like we’ll get to see Throne of the Crescent Moon evolve from a traditional sword and sorcery through various level of fantasy, ending as something more akin to epic fantasy. Whether that’s true or not, I look forward to the journey, and you should too.

Books Received and Update

So, life and work are pounding me pretty hard and not looking to let up. So, that means content will be slow, though I'm on the verge of review purge. I hope to get my review of Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) up today. I've got part of a review written for Blade of Tyshalle by Matthew Woodring Stover (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) and I just finished Tricked by Kevin Hearne (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) and will write-up a mini-review for it soonish. I have big plans for reviewing the massive anthology The Weird edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) that I hope to begin soon. I'm going to break it up into distinct time periods (most have historically based cutoff points) to allow me to tackle it in a reasonable fashion. So I anticipate about 13 seperate reviews for the entire anthology over the course of a year or two. I'm looking forward to it.

You may have noticed that in my book links I've added Amazon and dropped Powell's Books. As far as I can tell, no one ever clicks on the Powell's links, so I'm not going to waste me time anymore. I still don't like Amazon and many of their business practices, but it's tough to argue against the convinience they provide customers. Also, since they now own The Book Depository, that's not a true alternative. Barnes & Noble for some unfathonable reason still makes it impossibly difficult for a blogger like me to set up affiliate links, so until they get their heads out of their backside I can't offer that as an alternative to Amazon. I still prefer and strongly suggest that you utilize Indiebound - especially now that DRM is dying a slow death and ebooks are easier than ever from independent sellers.

Anyway, on to books I've received.

Books Received: April 17 - May 8, 2012

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