Friday, May 10, 2013

Three Brief Book Reviews

Just finished three books recently (not counting several hiking books that I also read--but which it would be silly to review on this site.)  One of them I "read" as an audiobook on CD, checked out from the library, and listened to mostly during my commute to and from work, and occasionally a bit here and there during my lunch hour or other times when I could break away to the car.

Crossed Blades

The last--so far anyway (the next book is already announced and due out this summer) book in the Fallen Blade series that I've been reading is Crossed Blades, and it's an interesting one.  McCullough continues to dazzle me by writing these fast, breezy, somewhat noirish but really more swashbucklery, light tales.  One of the things he does best is continue to add significantly to both the setting, and to the life and secret history of the main character, Aral, in each volume.  Jim Butcher does this, to some extent, as well, but Butcher is much more slow and deliberate--his Dresden Files novels tend to be much more about the villain of the week, and additions to the setting and grander "meta-story" are trickled out slowly, rather than expanded upon significantly in each volume (although the last Dresden Files book which came out late last fall did expand on the setting in very significant ways--I was impressed.)  Then again, I presume that McCullough isn't going to attempt to stretch his series out as long as Butcher.

Anyway, I don't want to get into re-treading things I've already said in earlier reviews--always a problem in series where for the most part the strengths, weaknesses and qualities in general of the books tend to be similar--so I'll probably wrap this one up quickly--but I liked Crossed Blades quite a bit.  Possibly it's my favorite of the series so far, although it's hard to tell.  Considering the short nature of the books, if there doesn't end up being too many of them, maybe they'll be omnibussed together, then I won't have to necessarily think of them as separate entities anyway.

The Ruins of Gorlan

In my last post on the Calçan rangers, I very briefly hit on a micro-review of this book.  This is part one of the Ranger's Apprentice series of YA fantasy novels, and is apparently quite a big hit.  The concept looked pretty cool to me, and since I'm always encouraging (demanding, even) that my kids have something to read, I've been trying to get my middle-schooler to read this series for a couple of years now.  He finally relented and tried to read this, but gave up over halfway into it when the next Percy Jackson book was available from the library--a series that he enjoys much more.  On a whim, I decided to pick this book up as well as a audiobook on CD and listen to it while I commuted.  I do, after all, have fond memories of some other YA fantasy series I read when I was younger, like the Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander, or of course, the Harry Potter series more recently.

And I can sympathize with his reluctance.  The pacing of the novel is really quite slow.  Not much happens until nearly the end of the book.  Parts of it are, in fact, quite annoying (I admit to being easily annoyed by reading accounts of characters helplessly enduring bullying of any kind--part of the reason why Dolores Umbridge made Harry Potter 5 the worst book in the series--and this book had a fairly strong helping of that.)  The characters also weren't terribly interesting, for the most part, and the plot, like I said, was a non-starter.  The setting also wasn't anything special, being basically an idealized "Merry Olde England" type setting with a YA type dark lord and his YA type orcs but even more caricaturish villains (which only make an incidental appearance, actually.)  So there's nothing yet that really stood out--cardboard characters, cardboards fantasy setting, and weak plot.

In spite of these rather crippling faults, I found myself intriguingly caught up in the book by the end, and when it finished, I almost ran off to the library to pick up the next book on audiobook.  I decided I've got better ways to spend my time, but I dunno--I still want to see what the big deal with this series is.  I may come back to it yet.  Someday.

Fade to Black

I saw this book on the New Book rack at the library and picked it up on a whim.  By Francis Knight, a first-time published author (I believe) this one also had a very noirish tint to it, as a kind of strange fantasy Coruscant type place, where traditional fantasy elements (like magic) are blended in an interesting way with elements that are more at home in noir crime novels or cyberpunk dystopias.  In fact, noir fantasy cyperpunk is a very good description of what this could be called.  A fascinating setting blend.

Sadly, of course, a setting does not a novel make.  The prose and main character(s) were interesting (for a time) but the novel kinda goes off the rails somewhere in about the last third or so.  I'm not terribly fond of making gender-related stereotypical observations, but I've noticed in several novels written by women authors for books that otherwise look like books I would quite like (Amanda Downum's Drowning City being another recentish example) that attention to plot and action kinda fades away while characters sit around emoting and "feeling" and I'm left wondering what exactly happened.  The climax of Fade to Black certainly had a resolution for the emotions of several characters, but in terms of actual events, I'm a little confused.  In fact, the plot resolution seems to be completely missing.  It happens "off-stage" and isn't even described after the fact (a la Bilbo's resolution to The Hobbit)--it just really doesn't happen at all, and I don't even know exactly what even happened.  But I know how the characters feel about it!

This is all well and good if characters and emotions are what brings you do genre fiction, but that's only part of the attraction for me, and not necessarily at the very top of the list.  In fact, this is largely a feature of romance, not fantasy, bringing further anecdotal evidence to Vox Day's assertion that fantasy has largely been completely invaded, metastasized, transformed, and in the process destroyed by romance with only a few superficial fantasy trappings.  I argued that such is not the case, but it's a little disheartening to read a book that basically followed his pattern exactly so shorty after making such an argument.  My argument is, of course, based on the fact that plenty of "good" fantasy still exists, and in fact, much more of it now than ever before.  The fact that so much material that does fit his pattern is out there doesn't invalidate all of the stuff that doesn't.  But, and I said this in other reviews and discussions as well--when you can't tell the difference until after you've already bought the darn book and read it halfway through, that can be quite disappointing.  At least I got this one at the library.

Also; the none too sutble S&M themes running through this book hardly endeared it to me.  Not coincidentally, those themes became much stronger as the book entered the last third as well.

Moving forward, I still have the Abyssal Plague series to finish, but before I do that, I picked up the long-deferred first book in the Nagash trilogy from Warhammer, so that's my current project.

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