Review: Elantris

Elantris (Elantris, #1)Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am surprised I didn’t like this more given how much I enjoyed The Emperor’s Soul which is a novella from the same universe. I have generally enjoyed Sanderson’s worldbuilding, magical systems and writing immensely, but here the text felt as half-realized and lacking essential energy as the cursed Elantrians in the story.

The story works best when Raoden, the prince of Arelon, is discovering the history of Elantris while trying to survive within its current gang-filled ruins. His energy and cleverness fuel those chapters. The challenges Raoden faces and change he is able to effect on the city and its hopeless residents is well-paced and engaging. During this period Sarene, princess of the neighboring kingdom of Teod, is at her most interesting as well as she is fighting a political battle on three fronts with Raoden increasingly at the center of her attention and plots.

When the story turns back to the economic, political and religious battlefronts and the broken and unintuitive magical system it all mires down. Characters retreat to archetypes, obvious manipulators betray, and the morally weak corrupt. It all goes pretty much as expected, which isn’t to say that it is a bad book, or even that I didn’t enjoy reading it. I just expected more because Brandon Sanderson so often is exceptional.

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Review: Half the World

Half the World (Shattered Sea, #2)Half the World by Joe Abercrombie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Half the World picks up two years after the events of Half a King. Where the first book was told from the first person perspective of Yarvi, here we have alternating perspectives between two new characters, Thorn and Brand. Our new narrators are young outcasts both training to join Gettland’s army as it prepares for raids against its increasingly aggressive neighbors. Thorn, a young woman, has been touched by Mother War and is an aggressive fighter with few friends. Brand, a physically dominating young man, is a promising soldier touched my Father Peace who prizes justice over conquest. Their journey reunites us with Yarvi and several other familiar characters on a mission to find allies for Gettland for the coming war against the High King.

Joe Abercrombie is a great storyteller. He is more reserved in his literary flourishes then some of his contemporaries, but displays impeccable character development and pacing. He understands the rhythm of the reader and delivers character and humor with seeming ease.

The old woman scraped a spatter of fresh bird-dropping from a post, tested its texture with her thumb, smelled it closely, seemed on the point of tasting it, then decided against and wiped the mess on her ragged cloak.
“Inauspicious,” she grunted.

Unfortunately this character introduction brings me to one of my criticisms in the author’s worldbuilding. The character in the passage above is named Skifr. We also have another character named Safrit and the two are in close proximity for the majority of the book. As different as the two names sound they are annoyingly close in structure and break the rhythm of reading for disambiguation. Yarvi’s father and uncles’ names are similarly vexing, but that is more understandable. Skifr and Safrit are from entirely different cultures and have nothing in common.

While his character naming struggles, his character building is superb. Like Yarvi in the first book, Abercrombie hones Thorn and Brand through the actions we witness. They earn their skills, friendships and scars, and each builds upon the previous into a person we identify with, root for and fear for, and with good reason – the action is, as you would expect from Joe Abercrombie, kinetic and violent. These deadly stakes are offset by subtler moments created by the author’s incredible patience to reference lines hundreds of pages or even books apart; which while impactful in their immediate context, are amplified when reunited in the readers mind. One beautiful example is when Brand and his sister Rin individually reminisce about their mother, each admitting that they have no direct memories, but their sibling does. Both scenes resonate with additional meaning by Abercrombie’s faith in the reader to recall and interweave these moments.

Half the World is thrilling, heart-felt, satisfying and highly recommended.

Half the World will be available for sale on February 17th, 2015 from Del Rey. I received an uncorrected proof version of this book through a Goodread’s “First Reads” giveaway. You can read my review of the first book in the series here.

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Review: Half a King

Half a King
Half a King by Joe Abercrombie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Joe Abercrombie has a reputation for descriptive dark fantasy with gruesome battles and oppressive tone. I did not find that to be true in the case of Half a King, his first young adult novel and first in the Shattered Sea Triology. Yarvi, our titular hero, was born as second son to the king of Gettland and with only a partial left hand. His chosen path is to forsake his claim to land and title and become a Minister devoting his life to study of language, culture and herbology. Fate intercedes and Yarvi is named King of Gettland which, it seems, no one is happy about. The events which follow do involve brutal conditions, battles and deaths, but through Yarvi’s optimistic point of view we seem to rise above the worst of it. He is honest about his faults and abilities and chooses to make the most of the opportunities which present themselves – focused on surviving each moment in succession, but keeping his goals and his oath as his guide. The band of misfits Yarvi collects on his journey are a well written, diverse group which I hope will factor into future novels in the series. I enjoyed each of their perspectives and the color and meaning they contributed to the story.

I was somewhat disappointed that several plot and character moments were so obviously telegraphed, but revealed as if they were plot twists. It is a pet peeve of mine for the reader to be smarter than or ahead of the narrator. Young adult novels do not need to pander to their audience or treat them as less sophisticated, simply focus on issues and perspectives which relate to the age group. This is something both John Green and Pierce Brown were able to do in their stories and found that audiences (young and old) responded.

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Review: The Black Company

The Black Company
The Black Company by Glen Cook
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It took a while for me to adjust to The Black Company, and for a third of the novel I couldn’t figure out why it felt like a shoe on the wrong foot. Many of my favorite books are in the High Fantasy genre, as this is, and I am pretty familiar with Dark Fantasy, but this book kept running counter to my expectations. It was my lack of experience in the Military genre, coupled with the fact that The Black Company is a mercenary army that severed my familiar moorings. There is a change of focus and interaction with this mix of characters which separates it from other Fantasy. Each character’s past is discarded when they join the company. The folklore and mythology is not investigated and lovingly unspooled as you would find in books by Rothfuss, Lynch and Sanderson. These characters focus on the mission. They look forward only, but without an aim for the future, because they know they likely will not be part of it. The men of The Black Company do not fight for an ideal, god, revenge or other common motivation; they fight for honor, money and for each other. It is a bit like reading the Lord of the Rings from the point of view of one of the Uruk-hai or Riders of Rohan. This disconnection from the past and future feels untethered for Dark/High Fantasy, but the immediacy, once acclimated, makes for a unique experience.

The character who provides our point of view is a veteran soldier, Croaker, who serves as the company physician and annalist. I like that each character gets renamed as he joins the company, reborn as a brother in arms, but also in a world of magic true names are themselves a dangerous weapon. Some of the names are absurd, but always appropriate and often provide a bit of color to otherwise background characters. Croaker’s role as the annalist requires him to chronicle the deeds and death of each man of The Black Company in their annals. At times Croaker makes asides which would indicate that the book we are reading are the actual annals of The Black Company, but his description within the text of the annals’ content seems not to align, and would read too self-serving as this book is primarily about Croaker himself. Each reference which pierces the illusion to address the reader is jarring and unnecessary, but brief and infrequent. Croaker and his immediate band of veteran soldiers do get pulled into the politics and feuds of the rulers and wizards, but as pawns, only to return to the fraternity of their comrades. The Black Company is well written and well-paced with kinetic action and decipherable battlefield strategy that reminds us that the typically anonymous legions of soldiers are full of rich characters with full lives and motivations separate from the magical few who overturn these worlds.

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Review: Peter and Max

Peter and Max
Peter and Max by Bill Willingham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My previous experience with Bill Willingham was limited to the first trade of Fables, which along with Gregory McGuire‘s Wicked (or perhaps Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods) paved the way for the entire sub-genre of re-imagined fairytales in books, television and movies. I remember enjoying the those first comics, but did not continue with the series. I saw all the winks and nods towards the fairytale origins, but did not connect previously with the characters in a meaningful way. This novel (illustrated, but not a graphic novel) makes me want to revisit that series now over a decade since my last reading.

Peter and Max is a great fairytale. We start off in a rural village at the edge of The Dark Forest. Peter and Max Piper along with their parents are traveling minstrels visiting their long-time friends, the Peeps, when their reunion is interrupted by war in the kingdom. The resulting tale spans hundreds of years of betrayal, love, and revenge. To reveal any of the references and tie-ins would steal their charm. The darkness in this story is palpable and the threats are dire, but equal are cute, funny and loving moments which offset the tragedy. The prose is at times uneven and pacing stumbles slightly, but this is a fun read and recommended to fans of the genre.

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Review: Mistborn: The Final Empire

Mistborn: The Final Empire
Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mistborn combines Sanderson’s masterful world building with a Dirty Dozen style adventure story. The world of Mistborn is bleak. The skies rain ash and the nights bring mists which hide inhuman wraiths. The only people at home in the mists and darkness are the rare and magical Mistborn and other magically imbued humans skilled in allomancy. Sanderson’s magical system has an elegant magical framework based on pure metals and their alloys. Allomancers are humans who can ingest certain metals and “burn” them to enhance various skills and attributes; such as push and pull metal, excite or suppress emotion, or detect and mask use of allomancy. Our protagonist, Vin, is a small time thief who joins a team of highly skilled Mistings (allomancers in command of a single metal) lead by the charismatic Mistborn, Kelsier, who is a folk hero of the non-magical Skaa for his defiance of the tyrannical Lord Ruler. They form a team to undermine the authority of the Lord Ruler, incite a rebellion, and steal his fortune of Atium (a rare and power metal).

Sanderson reveals the social caste system, politics and mythology adroitly through a series of introductory scenes revealing our two primary characters’ personalities and their place in society. As each begins to infiltrate deeper into city politics and tiers of governance each class, institution or mantle is described without ever feeling like an exposition dump. The depth of the history, mythology and customs are staggering, yet the reader never feels the weight of the world building. I included this story in my “great storytellers” classification because of Sanderson’s ease in narration and the unique personality of each character of the team. Mistborn is intensely thrilling, full of reveals and surprises, and establishes a rich world I am eager to re-visit. This was a lot of fun to read and is highly recommended.

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Review: The Slow Regard of Silent Things

The Slow Regard of Silent Things
The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am an unabashed fan of Pat Rothfuss’ work. I have prodded, tricked and cajoled people into reading The Name of the Wind just so I would have someone to talk with about it. My fanaticism stems from Rothfuss’ intoxicating language, deeply layered storytelling, and the way he reveals the mind of the characters. A Slow Regard of Silent Things exemplifies exactly this. It is a story stripped of plot and dialogue, focusing entirely on mind of one of his most endearing creations, Auri.

Her profound damage is difficult to witness, and made all the more tragic when you see the threads of her brilliance interwoven with her madness. She is broken living amid the broken world of the ancient ruins below the university. I kept picturing a time-lapse of a flower bud, defrosting in the morning sun, blooming, following the sun across the sky and collapsing in on itself only to try again the following day. Her mind and heart can be marvelously expansive, but she cannot maintain it. We get to see glimpses of the causes of her maladies, but they never fully surface. She is revealed to be clever in anatomy, chemistry, alchemy, and have a sense very close to naming. Her ingenuity and bravery cannot mend all that is broken within and without her. Although A Slow Regard for Silent Things reveals much about the geography (if not the history) of the Underthing, and a great deal about Auri’s daily life; her history and future remain a mystery.

I chose to view this book more as a poem than a complimentary chapter to The Kingkiller Chronicle. From this point of view it worked for me. It was written not to solve a mystery, but to describe the truth of a series of moments that are too solitary and quiet to be part of a story. Rothfuss’ words are beautifully accompanied by Nate Taylor’s illustrations which playfully interweave with the text throughout the book. They are delicate with wonderful use of light and shadow; a perfect compliment.

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Review: The Emperor’s Soul

The Emperor's Soul
The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am a sucker for a beautiful magical system and Brandon Sanderson provides a subtle yet rich framework in The Emperor’s Soul. Every object or person has its essential self which is interwoven with the possibilities and potential it contains. Shai is a Forger who can manipulate the subject with a form of runes to reveal the latent potential. Through this elegant concept Sanderson artfully layers and extrapolates this technique to masterful extremes, and unlocks the best of each characters essence in a clever and soulful short story.

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