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Bryan

Bry's Bountiful Book Blog

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The Elric Saga, Part II - Michael Moorcock

The final three novels of the original six Elric stories by SFF legend Michael Moorcock, compiled into an omnibus edition. Man, these stories are sure action-packed. I'll see how well I can individually sum up each novel.

 

The Vanishing Tower: This story chronicles a number of adventures of Elric as he travels the Young Kingdoms attempting to slay his (new) mortal enemy, the sorcerer Theleb K'aarna. The first portion of The Vanishing Tower was one of the worst and most derivative Elric stories I've encountered, saved only by some decent fight scenes with demons and a healthy dose of Moonglum, Elric's best bud (and probably his friend with the most longevity). The second portion, To Snare A Pale Prince, was pretty cool, as it sent Elric and Moonglum to wretched Nadsokor, city of Beggars. The whole Nadsokor adventure was very creative, and this is emblematic of why Moorcock is a visionary of the genre, in that he was able to discard well-worn tropes and do something new and exciting with sword and sorcery. Even fantasy produced today lacks the sheer inventiveness of Moorcock's now-classic efforts. The third portion of the tale begins with Elric being typically self-destructive and abandoning the storied peace of fabled Tanelorn, the Eternal City. He has many and sundry adventures, eventually encountering a couple of other Eternal Champions, Corum and Erekose, and then romps around kicking ass with them. This, to me, was reminiscent of Sailor On The Seas Of Fate (which I'm sure was intended) and that's a good thing, because I really enjoyed Sailor and the whole Multiverse crossover thing.

 

The Bane Of The Black Sword: This one was broken up into four shorter stories instead of the usual three. The first part, The Stealer Of Souls, concludes Elric's long-standing feud with the mad sorcerer Theleb K'aarna with the predictable termination of the sorcerer's life by soul-drinking hellblade. What's most interesting to me about this story is that Elric and Moonglum are essentially hired by an alliance of merchants to take out a successful rival who is undercutting them - in essence, they're engaging in price-fixing. Although supposedly against the principles of free market capitalism, this still occurs all over the real world. Anyway, in part two (Kings In Darkness) Elric meets a new lady friend and they are both promptly captured by a society of ghoul-worshippers. In stories like this one where the premise and villains are more typical of the genre, Moorcock really tends to come up short. His prose is curt, almost truncated, and his characters in these sword and sorcery tales are of such mythic proportions that there is actually very little character to delve into when the plot becomes more standard fantasy fare. Part three is little better. Titled The Flamebringers, it is another fairly typical fantasy tale of an evil invading force that gets somehow stopped by our reluctant anti-hero, interesting only in the fact that by this point Elric is truly sick of adventuring and had gotten married and hung up his black sword until this new menace comes along to disturb his retirement. The fourth part is actually my favourite in Bane, and doesn't feature Elric at all, but instead follows Rackhir the Red Archer, who is desperately trying to find the Grey Lords in an effort to protect Tanelorn from the invading hordes of Chaos. Really, there's too much interesting metaphysical stuff going on in this rather short story for me to even list here. It's an excellent read, completely redeeming Bane and nicely setting up events for Stormbringer.

 

Stormbringer: It's interesting that although this is the last of the six original Elric stories in terms of chronology, it was one of the first to be published. It's also the one of the best. In the first part, Dead God's Homecoming, Elric's young wife Zarozinia is kidnapped and Elric and his kinsman Dyvim Slorm must bring their runeblades, Stormbringer and Mournblade, to a confrontation with her kidnapper, the Dead God Darnizhaan. Darnizhaan actually makes some very compelling arguments as to why Elric should capitulate and hand over his sword but Elric, true to form, betrays and kills him. In part two, there are plenty of terrific fantasy scenes that have been rehashed by just about every author in the field. Titanic sea battles, Elric facing off against the aristocracy of Hell, prophecies fulfilled...this is good, classic stuff. Part three returns to a familiar quest narrative, although the face-off with Mordaga the giant was anything but typical. Elric, having just treacherously slain his friend Rackhir in a fit of bloodlust, decides to spurn the prophecy and not kill the giant, negotiating for the Chaos Shield instead. Having done the merciful thing for once in his wretched life, Elric is completely unprepared for when his faithful companion Moonglum then stabs Mordaga in the back, slaying the giant as was prophesied. Part four is called Doomed Lord's Passing, and it is truly the culmination of this tragic tale, no matter how many sequels Moorcock later decided to write. It is also where the Elric saga abandons the sword and sorcery subgenre and crosses over into epic fantasy. Elric vanquishes all foes, murders his friends and loved ones, and finally loses his life to his own demon-possessed sword. A more fitting ending to Elric's gloomy life could not have been possible.

 

Well, I truly enjoyed the Elric saga, despite the formulaic nature of some of the stories and the generally scanty nature of Moorcock's prose. Not sure whether I'll continue on and read the other 5-6 stories in the Elric "series" as these original six ended on a high note, and I haven't heard a tremendous amount of positive feedback about the others. Maybe some day.

Drawing of the Dark - Tim Powers

Man, Tim Powers is cool. He does this "secret history" thing, where he's almost writing historical fiction but the blanks in the historical record he fills in with fantasy elements. It really works.

 

It helps a lot that the historical aspects of his stories are really well researched. I guess that's a pretty important part of writing historical fiction, and it's something that I know a good number of historical fiction authors pride themselves upon, but I find it especially impressive in the case of Powers because he's not writing straight historical fiction and could probably get away with quite a bit more historical inaccuracy. It's clear, though, that to Powers cleaving closely to actual historical events is what makes his stories come to life. I've only read two of his novels (so far), but I'd say he's definitely made the historical periods in those books (this one and On Stranger Tides) live and breathe, enough that after reading the books I spent hours reading about the periods he merely used as backdrops!

 

The setting for this novel is the 1529 Siege of Vienna by the Ottoman Empire, but Powers' focus is on his main character, an aged Irish mercenary named Brian Duffy, and on the supernatural elements of the story, and there are quite a number of those. I mean, here we have Merlin, Arthur, the Fisher King, ifrits, dwarves, flaming swords, Ragnarok, Finn Mac Cool, Bacchus, and most importantly, magic beer. Yes, magic beer will save the Western world from the invading Turks. Now, put like that, the novel sounds quite ridiculous, but it's truly a testament to Powers' skill as a writer that when you actually read the book he makes it all sound fairly reasonable and not ridiculous at all.

 

My one gripe with this otherwise fine novel is actually a fairly major one, and that is that the entire premise of the book has a distinct cultural bias. Powers has Merlin explicitly state at one point that because he was Baptized, he fights for the Western world, whereas Ibrahim, even though an ethnic Greek, fights for the East due to the fact that he has embraced the Islamic faith. There's a subtle glorification of the Western world and an equally subtle vilification of the Eastern world which pervades the book, and I found it a little off-putting. Granted, the novel was published in 1979 and was one of the earliest books Powers wrote, but these types of attitudes do serve to date the works which present them, and as good as this book is, it did suffer a bit from an us versus them mentality. However, if fans of fantasy were to completely avoid all stories which bear troublesome philosophies, there would be precious little pre-1990 stuff for us to read. My recommendation is to enjoy this novel for what it is: a well-written, action packed historical fantasy with few weaknesses.

Last Argument of Kings  - Joe Abercrombie

Well, that was a very good, action-packed fantasy trilogy. It had great dialogue, terrific characters, and moved along at a consistently quick pace despite the now-typical girth of the novels themselves. I'll attempt to elucidate the reasons why I think fantasy fans definitely should read this series, and also why it wasn't the best thing I've ever read.

 

First of all, the good. As I said, the dialogue is quite strong, very funny. It impresses me that Abercrombie can write such savage action sequences and yet his books are replete with dialogue-driven comedic moments. Especially funny are those moments involving the crippled torturer Glokta, who tortures because torture is now the only thing he has left, and whose brutal sarcasm cuts almost as deeply as the many blades which are the tools of the trade he despises. Glokta's humour is what makes him easily the most entertaining character in the entire series, and this series has a plethora of characters with a high degree of entertainment value. As I noted in my review of Before They Are Hanged, characters are clearly what Abercrombie does best, so no need to belabour that point here. No, what was more significant about the third entry in the First Law Trilogy was the length to which Abercrombie went to subvert common fantasy tropes. He toyed with them all before putting them to death; the hero's redemption, the long unrequited love finally consummated, the benevolent wizard saves the world, the swordsman becomes a king, the betrayed man achieves his sought-after vengeance...there's probably a few more I'm forgetting. There are few happy endings here, and that's as it should be, as all the characters lived by the sword, literally or figuratively. Though few of them are content with their lot, many of them understand towards the end that the sword is a terrible thing to live by.

 

The series had some flaws, or perhaps it's just one major flaw. I'm not one of those who was depressed by the tone or put off by the perceived "nihilism" of Abercrombie's purported worldview - in fact, I don't grant the premise that Abercrombie believes that everyone is shit (in fact, I think that's a pretty shallow and facile reading of the series). No, my issue with the series, and this book in particular, is that it felt like Abercrombie wanted to do a lot of exploring and worldbuilding but didn't really have time to because he needed to deal with a bunch of obligatory fantasy plot threads. Now, as I said, he messes with the standard expectations of fantasy, but he still has to write within these stereotypes in order to turn them on their heads, if you see what I mean. For example, the second book in the series was largely a quest narrative featuring an adventuring party made up of a barbarian, a woman warrior, a noble swordsman, and a wizard. Quite cliched. Yes, he turns it around on us, but it took a whole book of a fairly standard-fare quest to do that. It felt like if Abercrombie weren't quite so busy thumbing his nose at what was expected of him he could have done something truly remarkable rather than what this series was.

 

Which was, all things considered, still quite good.

I Am Legend - Richard Matheson

It seems that there have been quite a few different publications of this extremely short novel, and the one I read had a number of other stories by Matheson in it. I'll review individually all the stories in the collection I have (the one with the image from the Will Smith movie on the cover; I'm normally hesitant to pick up books with movie tie-in covers, but I really wanted to read this story, and this was the only copy I could find).

 

I Am Legend: This was a great story, and I would have rated this book higher if there hadn't been other, less impressive stories in the volume. This was less a story about vampires than it was a parable about loneliness, the need for companionship, and what it means to be human. It read like a parable, too; the prose was terse, almost perfunctory, and the vampires could easily have been replaced by some other monster. In fact, the influence of this book is probably felt a lot more strongly in the zombie sub-genre of horror than it is in other vampire stories. It seems like every zombie apocalypse story owes a debt to Matheson. Although some elements of the tale were poorly thought-out (how is this guy maintaining a muscular physique off of canned food, and what's with the ever-burning fire?), in general it's a story that's aged fairly well, and deserves its place among the classics of both SF and horror.

 

Buried Talents: A confusing and seemingly pointless story that was too short to really do anything to make up for the spareness of Matheson's prose. At the end of the 8 page story I was left thinking, "OK...what the hell was that?" I feel like maybe Ray Bradbury could have done something interesting with such a simple plotline, but Matheson failed to pull it off.

 

The Near Departed: An even shorter story than Buried Talents, this one had a "punchline" I could see coming a mile away, and not much else going on. A story trying to be creepy for the sake of creepiness, and it fell flat.

 

Prey: This was a pretty good one, although it felt really familiar (I may have seen an adaptation of it at some point, I'm not sure). The homicidal doll trope has been used extensively, but this is the earliest example of it that I've come across, and definitely one of the better. Action packed and to the point, it was both exciting and eerie.

 

Witch War: This was a pretty silly story. Basically one side of a war is run by these seven cute little girls, who happen to be extremely powerful witches. They kill everyone, then laugh about it. Maybe this was a lot more shocking when it was originally published back in 1951, but I wasn't overly impressed.

 

Dance Of The Dead: This was a really weird story, but I liked it despite its shortcomings. It's a dystopian SF/horror without much of a resolution and some fairly clumsy info-dumps, and, worst of all, some terrible "youth slang of the future." For all of that, there were a number of neat ideas, and it was as creepy as it was trying to be. 1997 is a scary time to be teenager, it seems.

 

Dress Of White Silk: Written in the patois of a little girl, complete with bad grammar and no punctuation, this was probably a better concept than it was an actual story, by which I mean that it was a bit of a chore to read. The ending was predictable, though grim. It's pretty strange to call a story with ghost-possession and cannibalism boring, but that's what this was.

 

Mad House: So, this guy is ridiculously angry all the time and ends up losing his job and driving his wife away because he's a miserable human being, and eventually his house becomes animated by the force of his rage and kills him. It was kind of a relief getting to the part where he gets aced just because I disliked his character so much.

 

The Funeral: A combination of some themes from I Am Legend and The Near Departed except written as an over-the-top satire, which I normally don't go for, but this was actually pretty funny. A preposterous ossuary comedy, I wouldn't have expected to like this story, but like it I did.

 

From Shadowed Places: A story from 1960 which has aged very poorly. There is, underlying the fairly straightforward voodoo curse storyline, the assumption here that within every black woman, no matter how civilized, there is a wanton witch doctor who wishes to copulate with young white men and ruin their marriages. Suffice to say, I didn't like this one so much.

 

Person To Person: David Millman is being harassed by a crank caller, who claims to be everything from a government spy to the devil. It turns out that Millman's therapist was right all along, and that it's actually Millman's subconscious mind haranguing him in an attempt to take over his body. In the end, Millman is too weak to stand up to himself, and his psychopathic subconscious mind takes over. It's pretty much as unsatisfying a read as it sounds.

 

So, that's that. I feel bad that I'm downgrading the rating of a story I really enjoyed because of a bunch of lesser stories, but I'm simply giving an honest account of the book I read and how I felt about it. Yet another example of how reviews are far more important and informative than ratings.

Grave Peril - Jim Butcher

Another decent Dresden Files novel, although like Fool Moon, this one didn't impress me as much as Storm Front did. The action and pacing were good, keeping the story moving along at a fair clip for the entire novel, which made the pages turn pretty quickly. This kind of story really appeals to me if done well, and Butcher has proven himself fairly adept at it - "it" being writing action-based, fast-moving stories which, although not exactly capital-L literature, have clearly been thought out well enough that they're internally consistent. Speaking of well thought out, some of my favourite scenes from this book were the magical tracking sequences, where Butcher delves into the mechanics of his magic system a little bit more than the previous books in the series. He also fleshes his vampires out, making them distinctly his own and providing Harry with both potential allies and legions of enemies. Enemies who will feature prominently into future novels, I'm sure.

 

Really, it was a pretty good book, except for the way the women were portrayed. It's not as if there weren't strong female characters, it's just that Harry couldn't come within fifty feet of any of them without Butcher giving us a full description of exactly how their apparel hugged the curves of their breasts. I appreciate that Harry really enjoys the female form, and so do I...but I get the picture, girls have boobies, now let's move on. There's even a moment in the final scenes of the novel when shit is really starting to hit the fan that a vampires full curves are described in the middle of an action sequence! Harry must really have some libido.

 

The book was good enough that I'm interested in continuing the series, but I hope this objectification of women thing is just a phase that Butcher moves beyond in successive novels.

Little, Big - John Crowley

This book took me a really long time to read.

 

That statement alone would probably turn a lot of people away from reading the book, and that's most likely for the best. It's not a book meant for everyone (if there really is such a thing). A gorgeous, dense and allusive novel that is surely fantasy but barely reads like it, this isn't what anyone would call a page-turner. Instead, it's a dreamlike meditation on the intersection between magic and the real world, between fate and cynicism, between Faerie and family. It's slow-moving, for sure; that's basically what prevents me from rating this book higher, and it's what would prevent me from recommending it to most people I know. However, if one has a love for the English language and what it is capable of, and if one is not afraid to be taken on a journey that is simultaneously lyrical and prosaic, then there is a lot to love about Little, Big. Even the most scathing reviewer would have to admit that the book is written very beautifully, and although it's not strictly necessary to appreciate that aspect of it, I believe that Crowley's prose is meant to convey that sense of dreaminess that pervades Edgewood and the affairs of the Drinkwater clan, and it does this extremely well. I felt, when reading the sections involving George Mouse, that I was sharing his hashish high with him, though I was stone-cold sober while I read it. Similarly, Crowley's prose conveyed perfectly to me Smoky's scepticism, Sophie's somnolence, Auberon the younger's anger, and later, his despair to such a degree that I swore that these emotions were actually my own. I've read a lot of books in my time, and that sort of thing just doesn't happen to me very often.

 

Little, Big is sort of an anti-Tolkien fantasy, although not because of any intent on the part of the author (I think). It really tries to take fantastical elements and blend them with a literary sensibility, though with a marked absence of overblown heroics or a quest narrative. Instead of invincible superheroes, this is a book about regular people trying to lead regular lives in an irregular, or perhaps more accurately, a magically regulated world. It is a story about The Story, and the ending is both confusingly jumbled and completely inevitable.

Before They Are Hanged  - Joe Abercrombie

This book was quite strong, despite the definite "second book of a trilogy" feel it had. There was a lot of travel, and a lot of exposition (although the exposition was actually handled quite deftly). There was also an extremely typical Tolkien-esque quest which occupied the most central characters of the tale, and that went on for the entire novel, although Abercrombie thankfully subverts that tired trope in the end. In truth, I wasn't terribly impressed with the plot, either. It was reminiscent of Martin, but more predictable in many ways.

 

I was, however, very impressed with the character development. This is clearly one of Abercrombie's key strengths as a writer, and he makes extensive use of it in this novel. Every character in this book changes in a meaningful way, unfolding for the reader and letting colours show that hadn't been glimpsed in the first book of the series. Inquisitor Glokta, in particular, has developed from an interesting character into a brilliant and fascinating one, a deeply troubled Severian-meets-Tyrion Lannister (actually, his defence of the besieged city Dagoska recalled to me Tyrion's defence of King's Landing).

 

I love what Abercrombie brings to the table in this book, although I still think I prefer The Heroes. The combat was very good in this one, better than in The Blade Itself. Abercrombie keeps the darkness inherent in the story from becoming overwhelming with a liberal application of humour (dark humour, for the most part, but some undeniably funny stuff). There is also a definite undercurrent of class-consciousness which informed the politics in this novel, and being a class-minded kind of guy, I especially appreciated that aspect of the story.

 

Though this book isn't the best Joe Abercrombie can do, it's still pretty damn good.

Behold the Man - Michael Moorcock

I love subversive art, although this is probably a lot less shocking and subversive now - inundated as we are by graphic and potentially offensive content available at the merest keystroke - than it was when it was first published. Indeed, judging by online reviews, it seems that one of the more common reactions to this SF classic isn't shock at the blasphemy of the story, but instead a sort of blase boredom and cynical dismissiveness. Damn, the kids these days are hard to impress!

 

The book tackles a number of concepts. One is a depressingly personal look at a young Jew who fumbles his way through several painfully awkward sexual relationships as he gradually becomes a self-loathing, sex-obsessed Jungian with a Christ fixation. Another is an examination of a predestination paradox; essentially the idea that going back in time and changing something is impossible, that time is immutable and that anything you do while "back in time" has already happened in your past and is therefore consistent with history. Moorcock also looks at the desire of mankind for something to believe in, and the lengths to which some people will go in their attempts to justify and confirm their ideologies to both themselves and those they have met in their lives who have influenced them the most. These concepts are skilfully intertwined in a non-chronological narrative which follows the unlikable protagonist's psychological unravelling as it plays out in a thoroughly researched Palestine at the time of Christ's crucifixion.

 

Christians are pretty much guaranteed not to like this novel, but though the broad strokes of its ending were obvious pretty much from the outset, I thought it was brilliant, irreverent, and darkly humorous. It's a quick read, but a good one, recommended to anyone who is interested in the history of science fiction.

The Conquering Sword of Conan - Robert E. Howard, Todd McLaren

After reading this book, I have now read all 21 of the original Robert E. Howard-penned Conan stories. Some were good, some were bad, and some were excellent. I'll review the stories from this volume individually.

 

The Servants Of Bit-Yakin: A mediocre-at-best Conan story, and one which I've read a number of times over the years, usually under the title "Jewels Of Gwahlur". It contains the usual Howard racism and simperingly idiotic female companion without much of Howard's typically highly charged action. Some of the early scenes in the temple were the best of the story, as Howard by this point in his career had really developed a fairly lush prose style (well, as lush as the pulp medium would allow, anyway). At the end of the story, Conan is forced to choose between saving his new-found lady friend and saving the priceless Teeth Of Gwahlur and, rather surprisingly, he chooses to save the woman, somewhat redeeming an otherwise lacklustre story.

 

Beyond The Black River: This is a really great Conan tale. It was my second time reading it, and I think I enjoyed it more this time around. The scenery is well-described and yet not overdone, and the combat is some of Howard's best. One of the main characters in this story is an Aquilonian named Balthus who tags along with Conan, and I find that the Conan stories of this type tend to be my favourites - the ones where Conan and his deeds are seen through the eyes of others who stand in awe of his prowess. I also liked the undercurrent of Lovecraftian influence as seen in Jhebbal Sag, the forgotten god.

 

The Black Stranger: This one was a lot better than I thought it would be, as I had heard that it was originally written as a Conan story and later rewritten as a story about another character in order to find publication. I was therefore expecting a rather sub-par and forgettable Conan outing, but The Black Stranger was fairly strong, with a siege, some piratical backstabbing, demons, and even a female character who isn't a sex symbol (a rarity for Howard). It starts with Conan fleeing the Picts, having crossed a vast expanse of Pictish wilderness (a tie-in to Beyond The Black River) and ends with Conan most likely becoming a pirate again, this time with a little girl in tow. Too bad Howard never got to expand on that plotline.

 

The Man-Eaters Of Zamboula: This is one I had previously read under the title "Shadows In Zamboula," and it hasn't really gotten any better in the time between readings. This story simply doesn't do anything really unique or memorable, which unfortunately allows Howard's racism to come through loud and clear. Conan fights a professional strangler at the end, which lacks the gravitas of fighting giant snakes, iron golems, or swamp demons.

 

Red Nails: This is another classic Conan yarn, and possibly one of the darkest and most violent. It features not just the decay of a civilization, but the actual annihilation of the last members of an isolated society. Howard really goes full-out in this one, making it his definitive statement on societal decay, and whether you agree with Howard's conclusions or not, it makes for a very compelling story. It also has the benefit of being told for the most part from the point of view of a female warrior character named Valeria, which as I said before, I believe adds to the mystique and majesty of Conan.

 

There was also a lot of bonus material at the end of this volume, but I'll admit that I skipped the majority of it after reading through some of the miscellanea and finding that it wasn't really holding my interest. All told, some great stories in this one, making it definitely worth the time of any true Conan fan.

Sword and Citadel - Gene Wolfe

A fantastic, genre-blending novel, and one which I am most pleased that I have read. If this is what Gene Wolfe's stuff is always like then I think I am going to have to hunt all of his writing down and devour it. If anything, parts 3 and 4 of The Book Of The New Sun series are even more thought-provoking than the first two, and that's saying something.

 

The Sword Of The Lictor: Having finally reached Thrax, Severian sure doesn't stay there very long. After a strange encounter involving the Claw, our "hero" narrowly escapes a weird salamander-type monster, splits with Dorcas after learning (some of) her true nature, rebels against his position as Lictor of Thrax by releasing a woman he is supposed to defenestrate and then flees into the wilderness. Actually, the majority of Sword comprises Severian's adventures out in the hinterlands, which makes for what is, in my opinion, the high point of the series. What I like about this book so much is that even though it's by far the most action-heavy part of the New Sun it still is thoughtful and laden with meaning. From Agia to the Alzabo, the strange beast-men to the sorcerers, there's definitely no shortage of action and adventure in Sword, and yet there are some truly touching scenes and themes - I'm thinking mainly of Severian's relationship with little Severian (even though he later shrugs off his death like a sociopath). Also, is little Severian actually another version of Severian himself!?! Hard to say. Regardless, Sword is possessed of some terrific scenes; namely, the confrontation with the megalomaniacal Typhon and also the final reveal and showdown with Baldanders (although in some ways it's tough to say exactly what was revealed at the end there).

 

The Citadel Of The Autarch: By far the weirdest and most cerebral of the four New Sun novels, Citadel requires a lot of attention on the part of the reader, and even then you'll probably miss some stuff and have to go back and re-read certain passages in order for the whole to make any kind of sense (such was the case for me, at any rate). I'm not sure I should really bother with any sort of recap, as the events of this book involve a fair amount of confusing time-travel and also wouldn't really have any sort of meaning to someone unfamiliar with the series anyways. High points of Citadel: I really liked the complex language of the Ascians, and also the story-telling contest which Severian (sort of) judges in the camp of the Pelerines. Severian finally becomes the Autarch after consuming the flesh of the previous Autarch in another Alzabo ritual, gaining several hundred memories/personalities (which explains his detached nature as a narrator). The house-out-of-time, the return of the green man, the truth about Dorcas - all of these are pretty strange and only become stranger the more you think about them. All in all, I definitely wouldn't call Citadel a satisfying end to the series, as I was left wanting more, but I actually consider that a mark in its favour.

 

I should note at this point that I haven't yet read The Urth Of The New Sun, the so-called coda to this excellent series. I'm looking forward to it, to say the least.

The Blade Itself - Joe Abercrombie

I'm not entirely sure I did myself a favour by reading The Heroes before starting this trilogy. Granted, The Heroes stood alone quite well and at no point did I feel like I was missing something or having something spoiled for me. The Heroes, in short, was a fantastic book. Better, it turns out, than The Blade Itself.

 

This is not to say that The Blade Itself is a bad book; in fact, it's a very good book. Part of my problem with it is that I kept comparing it to The Heroes, and it came up a little short, but I suppose that's to be expected. I'm basically comparing an author's first novel to their fifth, which is not at all fair. If an author is at all worth their salt, they're going to get better at their craft with each book that they write, and such certainly seems to be the case with Mr. Abercrombie. The main attributes of this novel which I would consider to be lesser than in his later book are his pacing and his action sequences. The problem with his pacing is one remarked upon by many reviewers of this novel - namely that the whole book feels like a gigantic prologue to the real story. My issue with his action scenes is one which I've probably only noticed because I read one of his later books first. While the action is this book is depicted well, I wouldn't describe it as superb. It's a comparative flaw, but it is something I noticed.

 

What else do you say about Joe Abercrombie? He's good at writing humorous scenes in a story that is otherwise dark and gritty. He excels at making you sympathize with characters who, if they were briefly outlined to you, would sound fairly hard to sympathize with. He's clearly very interested in writing fantasy that explores real, human elements. He's good, this guy. Real good.

The Republic of Thieves  - Scott Lynch

I'm sold on Scott Lynch. He's put out three very solid books in this series and, although they're not the very best books I've ever read, I definitely rate all three of them as "amazing." I particularly enjoy how even though Lynch maintains a very recognizable style through the entire series, each book is quite different from each other; not merely taking place in different parts of Lynch's world, but actually taking on different "themes" or sub-genres in each book. So, we have Lies, which was a crime caper novel, Red Seas, which was a naval adventure story, and now Republic, which I would describe as a high fantasy political thriller.

This book centers around Locke's interactions with his long-lost love Sabetha, and as expected, she completely out-manoeuvres in most of their thiefly contests. In many ways, this is a love story, which Lynch pulls off fairly well, although it must be noted that the love affairs ends on a sour note (which may not be entirely surprising considering that Lynch went through a divorce while writing the novel). Locke behaves like a dumb teenager in many of their exchanges, which is entirely in keeping with the various hints about their relationship which Lynch has given us in the past.

Once again, Lynch splits his novel into two concurrently told stories which complement and inform each other: one from the Gentlemen Bastards' early days, and the one from the present. Lynch is quite good at mixing the timelines together and making them applicable to the central theme - that of The Republic Of Thieves, which is a play performed by the gang in the "past," and which takes on a different and more subtle and insidious meaning when applied to the "present." The dirty politics were fun, although the stakes never really felt as high in this book as they did in previous outings.

The bombshell dropped at the end of the book was startling but in reality was more of a set-up for the next one and didn't overtly affect the outcome of the plot. Still, it will be very interesting to see how Lynch carries that particular thread over into The Thorn Of Emberlain. I, for one, can't wait.

Mona Lisa Overdrive - William Gibson

Thus ends the Sprawl trilogy by William Gibson, a seminal work of cyberpunk fiction.  I won't bother giving any sort of synopsis, because you really need to have read the previous two books in the trilogy to be able to make any sense of this book.  If you have read Neuromancer, though, you'll be happy to know that Molly Millions has returned (now known as Sally Shears).  Millions is a classic SF character, a "street samurai"; basically a cybernetically enhanced, streetwise warrior-woman who pretty consistently takes names and kicks ass and is looking, in this novel, for the deletion of all electronic records of her life.  Joining her are a relatively new cast of characters (with the exception of Bobby Newmark and Angela Mitchell from Count Zero), most of whom are very compelling.  The exception might be young Yumiko, although her storyline was interesting enough that her lack of depth didn't really matter too much to me.

 

Gibson's prose style is a lot tighter in this outing than in the previous two novels in the trilogy, which really served to highlight his style rather than minimize it.  Gibson allows the characters and the action to carry the story, letting his prose add little flourishes where needed instead of sort of taking over as it tended to do in Neuromancer.  All in all, an excellent conclusion to the Sprawl trilogy.

Shadow and Claw - Gene Wolfe

It has been suggested that The Book Of The New Sun series is too complex a work to evaluate on one reading.  First of all, I don't necessarily believe that and secondly, I have a two kids, a full-time job and a band, and I'm also not the quickest reader.  As it seems that I'll probably never get to read all the books I'd like to in my lifetime, one read-through is going to have to suffice, at least for now.  I'd love to re-read it someday, though, and if any series deserves a re-read, it's this one.

 

For the sake of clarity (if such a thing is truly achievable with a work like this one) I'm going to separate my review of this book into its two component novels.

 

The Shadow Of The Torturer: Having read an article written by Neil Gaiman about Gene Wolfe, I went into this book knowing that Wolfe often employs unreliable narrators in his fiction and that readers must be wary in order to more fully catch Wolfe's gist, and yet I was still caught off-guard.  The main character in this series is Severian, an apprentice torturer who becomes a disgraced journeyman early on in this first part of the series, and who is blessed/cursed with an eidetic (photographic) memory.  It is his eidetic memory which serves to alert the reader to the first layer of unreliability in Severian, as a moderately attentive reader can catch Severian lying.  Once/if the reader allows themselves to read this story more cautiously and critically, the reader begins to question whether anything Severian says can truly be trusted, and this, I believe, is what Wolfe was truly aiming for.  Although it does make reading the story a more exhausting experience than that of reading other more conventional novels, I personally found this quality in particular to be one which gave me a high degree of satisfaction and which also increased my interest in and enjoyment of The Book.  Anyway, in Shadow there really isn't a lot of plot (if you were to ignore the interpretive aspects of the story).  Severian, a Christ-figure, gets sent out on the road by his guild and by the end of Shadow, is only just making it to the outskirts of the city Nessus.  However, he has by this time already met most of the key players in what will be his epic adventure, as well as found the legendary Claw Of The Conciliator, an artifact with reputedly magical properties (whether it actually has said properties is an entirely other matter).

 

The Claw Of The Conciliator: Inexplicably glossing over events which were about to occur at the end of Shadow, Severian picks up the story in a town outside of the city of Nessus.  Claw is a lot more eventful than Shadow, in my opinion, and also gives the reader many more puzzles to speculate upon, such as the identity and true nature of the green man, the powers (or lack thereof) of the titular Claw, the presence of cyborgs/androids and aliens on Urth, the metafictional aspects of Dr. Talos' play, the true motives of the Autarch, and so on, and so on.  Wolfe also really steps up his use of archaisms, which I, as a word-nerd, love (one of my favourites from this book is apotropaic).  Severian, in this book, also moves beyond being a typical testosterone-laden young lad (although he still retains that trait as a part of his dominant Severian-self) with his absorbtion of Thecla's personality and memories.  This, while on the surface giving Severian more insight into certain aspects of his world, in actuality further calls into question not only Severian's reliability as a source of factual information but also objectivity itself (namely, whether such a thing is even possible).

 

In closing, I thought this book was fantastic and challenging, although I would most certainly not recommend it to most people.  Sadly, the majority of people I know would have absolutely no interest in tackling such a tricksy and multifaceted piece of fiction as this one, or if they did would most likely not be willing to engage it on the level that it requires and truly deserves.

Fevre Dream - George R.R. Martin

A terrific book, although I expected no less from Mr. Martin.  As usual, his characterizations are superb, his action is gory and vivid, his details are well researched, and his meals are tasty-sounding.  If there is a major flaw with this novel it's that it's too short (kidding, kidding!).

 

If you've been become enamoured with the more recent depictions of vampires in popular fiction, then this book is not for you.  It worked quite well for me, however, as I firmly believe that vampires should be horrific, not sexy.  Fevre Dream does for the vampire what Robin Hobb's Rain Wilds Chronicles did for the dragon; it provides a sensible ecology within which vampires actually make sense, completely doing away with all the religious nonsense which traditionally surrounds the mythos of Nosferatu.  The vampire is typically portrayed in a manner which presumes the existence of the Christian God, whereas Martin here redesigns and transmogrifies the vampire into a ferocious and believable predator whose favourite food is homo sapiens.  Having re-imagined the nature of the vampire Martin then asks, "What would vampires do in the antebellum era of the United States?"  The answer seems fairly obvious - they would be slave-owners, of course, and Martin explores this with typical candour and brutality while also not failing to draw the comparison between vampirism and 19th century America's parasitic relationship with its slaves.

 

This book has a lot of selling points and no glaring weaknesses.  It seamlessly blends fantasy, horror, and historical fiction.  The narrative voice changes depending on whose perspective is being followed.  Steamboat technology is portrayed in as in-depth a manner as is necessary to make the reader believe that Abner Marsh is a competent steamboat captain, while never bogging down the story.  Marsh himself actually changes as a character, although not in an unrealistic way.  All things told, this book should really be more well-known than it is.

Red Seas Under Red Skies (GollanczF.) - Scott Lynch

What a great read, and what a great author!  Scott Lynch is really kicking a lot of ass in the world of fantasy fiction, and he's doing it in all the ways I love; that is, he's writing action-packed genre-blending books which are fun and full of verve while simultaneously ruminating upon serious aspects of the real world.  I've always been a huge fan of fantasy, but that of course means that I've read a lot of fantasy novels which...well, to call them mediocre is a kindness.  These days, if a fantasy novel doesn't have something to say or add to the genre, if it's not an innovator or a game-changer, if it doesn't have something special or remarkable about it, then I just don't have time for it.  There are simply too many other books I want to read for me to bother with run-of-the-mill genre fare.

 

Red Seas Under Red Skies is hardly standard fare.

 

Red Seas picks up right where The Lies Of Locke Lamora left off, but this is no mere Oceans 12 or Lies Of Locke Lamora Part 2.  No, instead Lynch takes our two plucky (though drunken) heroes into an entirely different style of adventure, which I greatly appreciated.  Where the first book in the series was a straight-up con artist heist novel, this one takes Locke and Jean onto the high seas to try their hands at piracy, and really, who doesn't like pirates?  I feel very comfortable admitting at this juncture that I've always been a sucker for naval adventure novels, so this turn of events suited my fancy quite nicely.  Of course, there was murder, romance, betrayal, plunder, mutiny, and sundry other elements that typically make up this style of tale, but the book isn't weaker for its faithfulness to such conventions - rather, it made me cherish it the more.  That a book can do all this and still take a hard look at classism and the pursuit of wealth makes it doubly impressive to me.

 

I highly recommend this series to any fan of fantasy or crime novels.