Sunday, March 25, 2012

REVIEW: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I managed to polish this one off before bedtime! I'm now really glad that I read the book before seeing the movie because I think that the movie would have ruined it for me.

The Hunger Games was in two distinct halves for me. The first half, which involved everything leading up to the Hunger Games and then the second half being the games themselves. Pretty much everything that happens in the first half is portrayed in the film trailer so there were no surprises for me, but I had no idea what would occur in the latter half.

The first half fell down a bit for a few reasons. One was that, because of the trailer, I knew what was happening every step of the way and that obviously killed a lot of the suspense. But mostly, I felt it was because of the speed of the narrative; it really seemed like Collins was in a huge rush to get to the games and spend as little time on the preliminaries as possible. I was really interested in the world, the characters and the other pre-game elements, but all of these received only the briefest of explanations. I was actually starting to feel incredibly let down and my opinion of the book continued to slump.

I justified this by thinking that perhaps the novel was aimed at a much younger audience than myself, but even then it was still little more than the bare bones of a story.

This all turned around the moment the games commenced. While I admit that the story and prose itself is nothing ground breaking, the pace became a lot more appropriate here. With a lot of running around the same old wilderness, Collins' cut-to-the-chase tactics save us a lot of drawn out and repetitive scenes and keeps the focus honed and the energy high. Now that I think about it, there was never really a lull, which is what you would hope for in something as danger fraught at The Hunger Games. For me, unlike the first half, there was just the right amount of detail.

While the reasoning behind the ruling government holding the games didn't sit quite right with me, the games themselves are an interesting concept and I can easily see how it played right into a movie deal. Collins does a good job of not woosing out of the true nature of the games, but then simultaneously ensures that her protagonists are never caught out actually killing in cold blood. We couldn't have that, could we?

One of the best parts of The Hunger Games are the relationships between characters. Nothing is ever black or white with Katniss who is thrown into a world where everyone's true intentions are called into question. Characters such as Effie and Haymitch who at first seem hostile and little more than useless to Katniss' cause develop quite surprisingly. Best of all though is her relationship with fellow tribute Peeta which keeps us guessing right until the very end.

I did feel a genuine attachment to all of the characters portrayed and there were times that I felt overwhelmed alongside Katniss and close to tears. This evocative empathy was a strong point and highlight of Collin's work for me.

While in the end a very satisfying and fast read, I can't help but think I would have enjoyed this book a lot more if it had fallen more into the 'epic fantasy' category - if it was much longer, darker and much braver in its execution. With The Hunger Games now over, I am interested to see what the two sequels hold.

REVIEW: Harshini by Jennifer Fallon

It actually feels like a relief to have finished this book/series ... not because I didn't like them, but because I have been dying to get to The Hunger Games trilogy and A Song of Ice and Fire which have been sitting on my shelves for weeks. It was one of those series I started years ago and had to finish to fulfill my obsessive compulsive nature.

I have a really big bone to pick with Jennifer Fallon in this book, other than the titles (Medalon, Treason Keep and Harshini) which turned out to be little more than three arbitrary elements plucked from the story. No, worse than that was the fact that she got halfway through the book before it dawned on her that the whole Harshini magic system was flawed beyond belief and that for the ending to have any credibility whatsoever, she was going to have to introduce a few more rules that had somehow never come up before. Um, hello? WE'RE IN BOOK THREE!

The climax was a spectacular fail almost on par with Jemisin's Kingdom of Gods (I've been really raking poor JemJem over the coals lately). I've said this time and time again, yet it seems to be an acceptable norm for some fantasy authors ... just because you're using magic doesn't mean you can throw all sense of logic and reason out the window. Your protagonist cannot just draw on some incredibly powerful and unprecedented level of whoop-ass, making some flashy lights and then pass out, only to find everything has miraculously turned out the way you hope. Fallon dedicated the better part of two whole pages to the fate of Xaphista which as I recall, was the point of the whole three novels. And he really didn't put up much of a fight.

This was where the series really fell down for me. In the end, R'Shiel's quest took a back seat to everything else that was happening. Fortunately, the 'everything else' was absolutely fantastic. Unfortunately, because the poor demon child received so little screen time the whole thing because a half-arsed effort and detracted from the series as a whole. All she really did was get some powers, pretend to look at some scrolls, put in a token effort to appear helpless and overwhelmed, and then miraculously defeat the bad guys in less time and little more than rolling over in bed.

Throughout Treason Keep and most of Harshini I really hated R'Shiel. She was very similar to Harry Potter in Order of the Phoenix ... you know when he goes all annoying and angsty and everyone wants to hit him over the head with a stove? R'Shiel is so inconsistent and in fact has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Towards the end however, this was pointed out by Fallon in a no so subtle way, that in fact she's meant to be like that. Her brutal upbringing, her confusing heritage and her unwieldy powers have all contributed to making her a selfish and annoying bitch and just because she finds herself the heroine of a fantasy series doesn't automatically make her a noble and gracious warrior goddess. Hmm ... maybe I underestimated you Fallon ... you can have this round.

Adrina and Damin were once again in fine form, providing some much needed witty banter and more than a few comical moments. Actually, one of the funnier moments was Brak and R'Shiel's arrival at Talabar at which I actually laughed out loud. I think this was when I started hating her a little less.

The world-building is quite strong in this series and the history and politics between the four nations is what makes up the bulk of the narrative (at least the interesting part). I would really have liked to see a little more of Karien and perhaps some part of the story from a Karien point of view. In fact now that I think about it, the story could have included a lot more and did feel a little rushed.

Harshini like its two predecessors was incredibly easy to read and is a credit to Fallon's uncomplicated and flowing prose. From this point of view I really enjoyed reading it - it was really only the eye-roll-worthy moments and the gaping plot holes that were a little disappointing.

I'm scheduled to see The Hunger Games movie in just under a week and while I like to read the book before the movie, I'm not a fan of having freshly finished it right beforehand. I made this mistake having re-read HP and the Half-Blood Prince the day before seeing the movie ... totally ruined. But I think I'm going to take the risk because I really want to read it ... and who knows, the movie might just ruin the book for me!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

REVIEW: Treason Keep by Jennifer Fallon

Firstly, can I just point out how incredibly bad these covers are ... I know there is another edition which has a much better cover, but these are the ones I have and they're terrible. It's so ... nondescript.

I mentioned previously that it's been years since I read book one of The Demon Child trilogy, Medalon, and so some details were a little sketchy. There were some large points concerning the histories of R'Shiel and the Harshini which eluded me, but I made do. The Harshini make a cameo appearance at best anyway.

Overall I am really enjoying this series although it does have a touch of 'Jemisinitis' (a term I have recently coined that refers to when fantasy authors make a whole bunch of stuff up as they go along that makes you want to narrow your eyes in suspicion). The roles of the Harshini, the demons and the demon child was not very well thought out and is only explained in passing (to avoid pointing out the pot holes no doubt) ... I still can't figure out why they need R'Shiel if Brak is also half-Harshini half-human, although I'm sure it was explained previously ... at least I hope.

I have to admit that R'Shiel is the most annoying and underwhelming protagonist I have come across. I wish she would just go away and let the story continue with other more interesting characters. I was very thankful she actually only had a minor role in this book, although that in itself was a little strange because the whole series is actually meant to be about her and her 'destiny'. I think this is where the series lost it's way ... it had some other great characters, relationships and political goings-on which was subsequently attacked in a dark alley by what was meant to be the primary storyline. The whole, let's kill Xaphista thing really became an afterthought in this one.

Ignoring that however, there were some great things about Treason Keep. Adrina was an incredibly welcome addition to the series and I found her character to be fresh, humourous and entertaining. Bringing all four countries and their royalty into the picture also made the medieval style politics all the more interesting. 

Fallon's prose is easy to read and there is never a point that it can be accused of dragging. While I wouldn't call it 'fast paced', she spares us of lengthy 'travel scenes' which we can all be thankful for.

All in all an interesting story and a good read, but nothing incredibly original that we haven't heard before. Next up, Harshini!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

REVIEW: The Gray Wolf Throne by Cinda Williams Chima

This ended up arriving at the bookstore on Friday afternoon so I went and picked it and immediately started reading it - sorry Treason Keep! I was a little dismayed to find out after a quick Google that this is in fact the penultimate novel in the series, the final being The Crimson Crown; so more waiting in store! Because these novels are relatively short and I read the previous two some time ago, I found that I had forgotten some crucial twists and details which detracted from my read of The Gray Wolf Throne. Occasionally I can find a detailed synopsis online which helps, but alas, not with this one. I said this of The Exiled Queen and I will say the same with The Gray Wolf Throne, that my biggest criticism is it's length. It's far too short and I am left feeling robbed! This story could be on the same par as The KingKiller Chronicles (in terms of length and depth) and in fact it does share many similarities (I found myself often getting confused between Kvothe and Han and with Imre and Oden's Ford). So far I feel that all of the books could have been combined into one. I'm obviously expecting more than what Chima has to give us.

The Gray Wolf Throne has a great cast of characters who are extremely genuine and likeable. Yes, they can be a little archetypal at times (the headstrong feminine lead, the loyal captain, the urchin-turn-powerful underdog, the evil wizard) but each one has a strong and commanding presence. This is especially true of Han and Raisa who are the two points-of-view through which the story is told.

Not a lot actually happens in this novel and I felt it was lacking the drama and action its predecessors; it was all a bit too safe and killed the momentum of the story a little. The end was a little disappointing with no real climax and little to no foreshadowing for the final book - I found too many things were resolved for this stage in the series; this should be when things are heating up and getting complicated!

Some elements of the story are dragging a little after being spread too thinly across each book. Han's dealings with Crow are obviously important and especially after this book, are easy to see as potential for a major plot turner. However, Crow was only given a couple of short appearances in The Gray Wolf Throne, Chima obviously (hopefully) saving him for later. But I wanted to know more; I wanted to spend more time with these smaller asides.

Overall I really like this series. It's fast-paced, it's unpredictable and I really enjoy the depth of political intrigue and insight into each character's motives. It's thick with history and tradition, which always goes a long way with me too, but without being too cumbersome. In saying all that, it's nothing groundbreaking and I can see why many others wouldn't warm to it - there are many other books on my shelf that I would recommend over it.

Now ... back to Treason Keep!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

REVIEW: Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson

I really love how for me, every Sanderson novel is a winner - this man can't go wrong! I don't feel like I have a lot to say about Warbreaker because I think I would be repeating a lot of my review of Elantris.

Compared to Out of Oz which I just finished reading, Warbreaker was such a fast and easy read. I read most of it within three sittings because it was relatively easy to get through 100-150 pages without needing a break.

From the first chapter I was instantly drawn into yet another captivating world by Sanderson with another completely original system of magic, politics and laws. I find this a real strength of his; the ability to almost instantaneously make the story and the characters fascinating without any lengthy exposition. And this story, like Elantris has some really great protagonists. My favourite by far was Lightsong (and his constant companion Blushweaver) for his incredible wit and humour. For Sanderson to come up with half of this banter, I feel he must be incredibly witty himself. This was also the case with the mercenaries Denth and Tonk Fah - another pair of humouros characters who become far more complex as the story progresses.

The branch of the narrative I found most interesting was that following Siri (which was very ill-timed with Apple's release of the same name haha) and Susebron. It was the one that held the most mystery and I could have kept reading about them forever.

I quite enjoy how Sanderson gives equal time to events concerning different protagonists whose stories only come together at the very end. It breaks it up quite nicely and lets the story move fluidly with continuous waves of suspense and revelation.

The use of prose doesn't stand out like that of authors such as Feist of Gregory Maguire, but instead it slides under the radar in the form of understated genius. The fact that you don't even notice it is what makes it so great - it's completely effortless.

The epilogue was a really fantastic ending. I feared that some things were going to go left unsaid or unexplained ... Oh yea of little faith! As if Sandy would pull an N. K. Jemisin on us! For shame. He turned out to be nothing but thorough yet again. A few little tidbits in the final pages were enough to leave me satisfied yet wanting more - and I really believed in his decisions, they make sense and are true to the story rather than taking the 'this is fantasy, I can do whatever the hell I want' approach. *coughTheKingdomofGodscough*

I don't think there is going to be another Sanderson release (other than WoT) until the sequel to The Way of Kings, which is a little sad. On an interesting note, I was standing next to a really cute guy at the bookstore today and he was holding Warbreaker. We had a little conversation about how much we loved Sanderson and how I had just finished Warbreaker. I then recommended that he read The Name of the Wind (mostly because it was also there in front of us, but also because it's AMAZING). When I passed him at the checkout he was holding both books. Job well done!

I've been anticipating moving onto The Gray Wolf Throne, but Book Depository decided it didn't actually have it and gave me a refund. And even though it was published last month, the bookstores don't have it in yet. Any day now though. I was then going to start with The Hunger Games, but I know I will see the movie when it comes out in 9 days and reading the book directly before seeing the movie is a terrible move. Learnt that the hard way with Harry Potter. So I decided to finally get around to Treason Keep. Hope I can actually remember what happened in Medalon.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

REVIEW: Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire

It's been almost a month since I've posted which means it took me almost a month to read this; a combination of life events and Out of Oz being a particularly dense read. I've temporarily moved to Tasmania for a residency with Tasdance and with that, a range of social opportunities and a lot of other work involving my other projects, it's left me little spare time.

Out of Oz is the last book in the Wicked series on which the incredibly successful musical was based. I began it with a strange mixture of excitement and reluctance, for a few reasons. Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West was absolutely mind-blowing, as was the sequel, Son of a Witch. They were the kind of books you read, thinking 'this is OK I guess' and then by the time you turn the final page you think 'that was the best thing I ever read.' The way that Maguire so cleverly worked with L. Frank Baum's tale of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was intensely satisfying, putting such a realistic and adult spin on an incredibly light-hearted and fanciful tale. The life of Elphaba and in the following book, Liir, was extremely captivating, especially when viewed in contrast to what we thought we knew about them from Baum's works.

Book three, A Lion Among Men was not so successful for me. I felt the series started to lose it's way here and any kind of point to it all became extremely vague. Not to mention that the Lion, Sir Brrr, which the book follows is incredibly boring and un-noteworthy. The best part of Son of a Witch was the legacy of Elphaba and this was kind of side boarded. So while I really enjoyed the overall story and Maguire's unique writing style, I was a little worried Out of Oz would be further a let down a trip into further obscurity.

To start with I want to talk about Maguire's writing style, which is by far the most outstanding thing about these books, and in fact most of his others. Even though he writes fantasy, Maguire does away with any and all notions of theatrics or romanticism, instead simply delivering the cold hard reality. In fiction and even non-fiction this is extremely rare. There are no miracles, no bizarre twists of fate, no demonstrations of incredible talent or power, no emotional reunions, no loves so deep you cannot swim to the bottom and in fact very little use of any kind of archetypal character. The characters make stupid decisions sometimes, they fail, they piss and they die without a fanfare of emotions and dramatic writing. It is really the closest writing to true reality that I have come across.

This has its pros and cons. It is immensely gratifying to read something so raw and true which is also incredibly subtle and gives a huge amount of credit to the intelligence of the reader. But then again, sometimes, especially when reading fantasy, we all want a bit of drama and a bit of magic! Key moments that were walked through as if they were any other were sometimes a little dissatisfying ... but in this book I don't think I would have had it any other way.

At times I found the story itself a little winding and laborious, but in hindsight it is easy to see how even the more dull parts are included for their authenticity, to bring back down to Earth the fanciful romantics of previous tales of Oz. This book after all dwarfs all of its predecessors. 

The best thing about Out of Oz was the enormity of the history and the legacy. For most of the time we follow Elphaba's son Liir, his wife Candle and their daughter, Elphaba's granddaughter, Rain - who was also born green. Coupled with the omnipresent tension of Elphaba's mysterious death/disappearance and the family's struggle to reconcile with their place in history and to continue Elphaba's legacy (or not), this gave an incredible depth the the world and characters that transcended any previous Oz literature and most other fantasies I have read. I think this was helped along by my incredible love of the Broadway musical and my attachment to Elphaba both in the musical and in the story. This is where Out of Oz succeeded for me where A Lion Among Men did not. Her life was really such a non-event and a tragedy from beginning to end, yet the repercussions of her actions and her life left a mark like none other. It's incredibly beautiful and touching.

I loved how this book worked through the events of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz' sequel, Return to Oz and featured Mombey and the return of Dorothy Gale. 

Rain was a real highlight for me. As a child with an incredible legacy and potential to change the events of Oz, she is presented as any other without any remarkable qualities or traits - incredibly refreshing after all the child prodigies out there these days. She struggles to grasp the enormity of the world and events unfolding around her and things such as her unenthusiastic yet realistic reunion with her family were appreciated when another author may have made it all about hugs and tears and the formation of an instant bond. None of this codswallop for Maguire thank you very much.

The relationship of Rain and Tip was handled exquisitely, especially at the end when events take a bizarre turn. It's no story book romance where they instantly fall in love and cannot be parted. It's a gradual and unproclaimed love of fresh adults, which is told almost obliquely and beautiful to experience. It is during this period where we finally see Rain start to become a young adult and begin to interact with the world around her too.

The ending is a little unresolved but could we really expect anything else? It's not as if Elphaba was going to suddenly reappear, or Rain was going to make some final flight over the Emerald City on her grandmother's broom - that would be far too romantic. The final pages however were a little too obscure for me and I did question some of the final moments and decisions of the author.

For anyone that is frustrated by the blase nature of this narrative, I would suggest that you are putting expectations on it that don't belong there. Don't start reading Maguire thinking it's going to be a happy endings fantasy story like any other. I feel that when you start to appreciate the honesty the story gives and the overwhelming faith it has in its readers, you will appreciate the beauty in it.