Thursday, August 23, 2012

REVIEW: King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

The masterpiece that is Prince of Thorns continues on in a sequel that truly delivers on all expectations set before it.

I've read a lot of reviews of this book that almost unanimously claim that King of Thorns is much better than it's predecessor. I actually think I am going to have to disagree, but perhaps for different reasons. Obviously the plot and characters thicken quite nicely in KoT and really, I couldn't ask for a better sequel - but there are two reasons that I enjoyed PoT just that little bit more. Firstly, I think part of the magic of PoT was about experiencing the unexpected and the biting freshness of it all; by default and through no fault of its own, KoT was not going to have that. 

Secondly, and more importantly, I felt that Jorg lost a lot of what made him interesting. I loved how unhinged, blase and impulsive he was in PoT, obviously a product of youth and troubled past. In KoT even he admits that as you grow older, you start to care about things and in this case, it means he becomes a lot more normal. In this case, I don't blame anyone - it had to happen for the story to get anywhere at all. But I really lamented the loss of 'lop-of-their-head' Jorg who has been replaced with Jorg who now cares about people, has responsibilities and begins to regret his previous actions.

Right, now with that slight negative out of the way, let me rave about how freaking good this book is!

I loved the structure of the story, which jumps between three main threads; the current day conflict at the Haunt; events beginning four years ago from the conclusion of PoT; and pages of Katherine's diary which run simultaneously with number two. Then of course there is a chunk of unremembered time that Jorg re-experiences during the current day, just to shake it up further.

All of this really lends itself to maintaining the breakneck and no nonsense pace that made PoT so good. The events in the current day perspective only span one day, while the past perspective stretches across years. By 'revisiting' them, rather than telling them in chronological order, Lawrence can cut through to the important bits, like flashbacks. Genius! It's also great for some excellent foreshadowing and suspense.

The whole book is really like one action scene that doesn't end. While there are still highs and lows, there are never points where you are ever in danger of needing a break ... in fact, if I didn't need to eat or sleep (or if I wasn't visiting Berlin) I would have read it in one sitting.

While Jorg has matured a lost a little of his recklessness, his sheer genius and 'plans' (or lack thereof) are once again one of the best parts of the story. Numerous times I chuckled at his dry wit and his unfathomable reasoning and decisions kept me in a constant state of anticipation. One thing that occurred to me while reading this was that Jorg was one of the very, very few protagonists that I did not identify or empathise with - and that is extremely exciting! He is a prideful, reckless boy whose mantra is pretty much 'fuck it' and it is always hard to place how he will react, given his particular lack of sentimentality. I feel like most other authors would make an aspiring Emperor altruistic and with a noble purpose ... Jorg openly admits he wants to be Emperor because it's a challenge and because he can - be damned if he'll be a good one or not.

KoT also features an excellent cast of characters, some new, some old. The band of brothers were once again a highlight for me - they may not say much but they are such an incredible presence in the story. I actually found Miana's brief appearances quite entertaining, especially given that she's like an even younger, female Jorg.

I am a massive fan of post-apocalyptic worlds, and KoT continued to deliver and expand on this. What I loved was that it wasn't what the book was about, but it instead formed the backdrop for the real story and contributed elements that gave it a nice kick out of the traditional fantasy worlds.

I did question the system or reasoning of 'magic' a little more in KoT as it became more prevalent. Elements and key figures were introduced without anything more than vague justification or explanation. Necromancy and fire magic and dream-witches and ice-witches ... it just didn't seem to fit within one whole scope, like there was nothing linking it all. The other thing that bugged me was how crucial it became to the story, and how it is looking to become, without any real time given to it to do it justice. It's like watching a movie about racing cars and in the last third aliens arrive and kill everyone. I just don't feel like these necromancers, witches et. al. really fit in.

And Sageous' role became really, really confusing. So ... what was a dream and what was real and which decisions that anyone made, ever, were do their own or to do with Sageous?

All in all, King of Thorns is epic fantasy on a George R. R. Martin scale, but on speed. How the hell am I going to survive the wait for Emperor of Thorns!?

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

REVIEW: Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

I'm quite annoyed that it took me this long to get around to reading Prince of Thorns, one of the sharpest, freshest and most entertaining reads in recent times for me.

I begin my quasi-review (let's be honest, I don't actually write reviews, I just spew forth unchecked opinions) with an excerpt which demonstrates why I loved this book.
""What in feck's name was the point of stealing a horse if I have to drag the damn thing up the slightest incline we meet?"
"To be fair, Prince, this is more by way of a cliff," Makin said.
"I blame Sir Alain for owning a deficient horse.""
Of course it's not as entertaining without the context of the rest of the story, but rest assured I had a good chuckle. This is really one of the strengths of Prince of Thorns for me; the easy flow in which Lawrence moves between the ofttimes macabre and the amusing, the latter in a very droll kind of way. His handle on humour reminds me a lot of Pratchett's Discworld novels, some of the only books to have me laughing out loud. Especially in fantasy I find the key to a good laugh can just be a simple real-world reference or colloquialism, and its often the surprise of it and the simplicity that makes it funny. For instance:
""For Christ's sake" I drew my sword and swung on a rising arc in the same motion. His head came off clean. I let the momentum carry me round, and brought the blade down with all my strength, overhand on the pulsing stump of his neck. The blow cut him before he could fall and cut deep, splitting his sternum.
"I'm not interested!" I shouted the words at his corpse as I let its weight pull me to the ground."
The casual manner in which Jorg deals with this foe as if he were a door-to-door salesman might not be that funny on its own, but of course it takes place after a harrowing battle in which a favoured character meets their end. The swift transition between exhaustion-fueling-hopelessness and exhaustion-fuelling-an-impatient-rage is one I appreciated.

Jorg is really one of the things that makes this book. Thankfully Lawrence has no time for woeful and angsty heroes or simpering maidens fair. Rather than lamenting his losses and considering at length the problems that plague the world along with his own inner-torments, Jorg is prone to simply lop off someone's head and be done with it. That isn't to say he's a happy-go-lucky teenager though - far from it. Jorg is cold and more than a little unhinged, but somehow his extreme sociopathic tendencies do little to sway us from his side; in fact his brusqueness and honesty are a breath of fresh air and quite endearing.

However, even with his dark past and unpredictability, it is sometimes difficult to truly believe in Jorg and his actions. Most 10-year olds I know are sitting on the couch eating Coco-Pops and watching Cartoon Network and still cry if they fall over (wow, still sounds like 25-year old me). Yes, different world, different circumstances, but what bugged me a tiny bit was how unapologetic Lawrence was about his teenage-genius-killing-machine. Of course there are many strong similarities between Prince of Thorns and Rothfuss' KingKiller Chronicles, both in terms of the style and story, but also the protagonist. But where Rothfuss continually points of how extraordinary Kvothe is, taking pains to detail how he actually got that way, Lawrence just lets us assume that it's totally normal for pre-pubescent boys to hatch plans that decimate entire kingdoms.

I read some tidbits about this book containing shocking violence and rape ... I'm sorry, but is there another version of this book that those people read? I'm no horror expert (in fact I totally steer clear), but I think a quick viewing of something like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre will get some perspective happening. In fact, it was so toned down that I didn't even take note of it while reading the book. All we really experience is some run-of-the-mill gore from one-on-one combat and some hinting at rape, that is never actually experienced on described. I make it sound like I'm unimpressed, but of course this is just my case against the bemoaners. I thought the violence was handled with a masterful stroke and genuineness. Some parts were even given over to the black humour mentioned earlier ... this was one of my favourites:
"The combination of a woman and time on my hands wasn't one I'd tried before. I found the mix to my liking. There's a lot to be said for not being in a queue, or not having to finish up before the flames take hold of the building. And the willingness! That was new too, albeit paid for. In the dark I could imagine it was free."
The pace of Prince of Thorns was something I really appreciated, especially after spending the better part of this year reading A Song of Ice and Fire. Traveling scenes? Lengthy descriptions of times gone by? No, no, not for Mark Lawrence! In my opinion he really has created the perfect balance; hints and tidbits of exposition are delivered gradually throughout, building a dark and desolate world and characters which leaves us satisfied yet intrigued, stroking our ego's like a house cat as it let's us begin to fill in the gaps. Not weighed down, this leaves the storyline free to race on ahead!

The way the foreshadowing, or lack thereof, is handled has something to do with this I think. Lawrence doesn't set up some grand quest or ultimate goal to be achieved and so we have no expectations or holes that need to be quickly filled. We don't necessarily need to know all the details yet, which keeps us from going mad with curiosity, which would usually be the case in this situation.

This mystery of this formerly technologically-filled, post-apocalyptic world checked all the boxes for me and was handled very similarly to Paul Hoffman's The Left Hand of God, with just enough info being casually mentioned to make you question where the story was taking place. Even more so however, it reminds me of the setting for Isobelle Carmody's Obernewtyn Chronicles, in which the technological remnants of the past remain to plague, mystify leave their mark on the current population. Whereas Carmody's series was a little bit more believable in terms of the mutations that occurred in human-kind, teetering on the knife-edge of fantasy and sci-fi, Prince of Thorns is like a child on red cordial, taking every liberty to introduce some fantastical elements which just seemed a little too far fetched for me. 

The only downside to this break-neck pace and lack of foreshadowing for me however, is that when new elements or plot-twists are introduced later on in the story, they seem to come out of nowhere and the absence of justification or strong-grounding within the plot is keenly felt. This is especially so in the last two thirds of the book as they depart severely from where the first third was going and if you were like me and didn't even read the blurb, this is quite a jolt. There is a point where the story goes from band of vagabonds making a living by smashing heads of all kinds, to dealing with sorcerers and alien-like creatures that look like they should be Pokemon.

By the end of the book though I think we all come to terms with it and finally get to settle down in the world Lawrence has created, with hopefully a clearer view of what to expect next ... buuuuttt also hoping for more of the unexpected! King of Thorns has definitely been bumped up through my to-read list!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

REVIEW: A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin

I've been reading a lot on my Kindle recently, on which the only way to tell how far through the book you are is the percentage in the corner. Of course, I keep forgetting how freaking long the appendices are for A Song of Ice and Fire and every time the ending catches me totally unaware because I still have a good 8% to go. It's very unsettling.

Being quite a recent ASoIaF fan, it took me a while to cotton on that half the characters had been waylaid in this book, to appear later on A Dance with Dragons. About two thirds of the way through I was having Daenerys withdrawals and decided to Google it, where I learned that in fact a lot of fans had been resentful of this when reading A Feast for Crows, especially given the wait between books.

I think in that context I too would have been disappointed in this book, but as it stands, being my first reading, I thoroughly enjoyed it and hold no ill feelings at all. In fact, apart from it having a little less action, I would say that it was just as good as it's prequels - although A Storm of Swords was pretty epic. Having read it without any knowledge of it's history or the general consensus of the fans and knowing I could go straight onto the sequel made for a much better read for me I think.

Jaime and Cersei were the real highlights in this book for me. Jaime really begins to become a crowd favourite as he follows a path to restoring his honour and morals, ferrying him from the shores of contempt and scorn over to the sunnier bank of redemption. Having him as a viewpoint for the reader is obviously the key stroke in executing this - no one really believes they are evil after all - and seeing Jaime's sincere regrets and changes from his own thoughts helps win us to his cause.

Surprisingly this is not the case when we finally get a glimpse behind the mask of Cersei Lannister. This bitch trogg from hell is a piece of work. Yes she claims that her motivations are to protect her children (read also between to the lines as 'to protect her own sweet ass') which does in a way justify all her actions, but more than ever before we can see how messed up she actually is. In a way there is a strange sense of sympathy for her ... for all her foul deeds they really are just products of her life and upbringing. That aside however, she is still one twig short of a cuckoo's nest.

With the unfolding of events by the end of A Feast for Crows, I feel that I may be left hanging until The Winds of Winter to find out what happens ... and in that case, I'll be joining the fans with the pitchforks.

Now that I think about it, my Kindle really did trick me out of enjoying the ending for this book. Brienne, Arianne, Cersei, Samwell, Sansa, Arya ... all had cliffhanger moments that I thought would be resolved in the following chapters. In saying that though, I think some were a little bit washed out because they happened so far from the final pages, especially in the case of Arya.

Speaking of Brienne ... although her quest seemed a little dry to begin with, I started to enjoy it. Her battle at the crossroads was actually one of the few points of action and had me as excited as I had been since the Red Wedding. Prince Doran's revelation to Arianne was also extremely juicy!

The only small (very small) criticism I have of this book is the overwhelming amount of names that get introduced and bandied about. Some would pop up and I could not for the life of me tell you who they were. Most of the time this really wasn't important anyway and didn't affect the story, but still. Even when Littlefinger is explaining part of the history of the Arryn line to Sansa in very plain terms, I struggled to keep up. And spending most of the story within the court at King's Landing with more Sers than I care to count, it gets a little baffling. No wonder the appendices are so long.

All in all, I really enjoyed A Feast for Crows, probably just as much as A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings - I did manage to plow through it at a good speed which always says a lot.

I think I'll take a small break to read another book or three before moving onto A Dance with Dragons, especially as I'll then be joining the cue for the next book with everyone else!

Most entertaining excerpt from this book goes to the droll wit of Cersei Lannister. I apologise for the language. She does not.
"Cersei did not intend to squander Tommen's strength playing wet nurse to sparrows, or guarding the wrinkled cunts of of a thousand sour septas. Half of them are probably praying for a good raping." 

Friday, August 3, 2012

UPDATE: A Comprehensive Wishlist

As I am lacking the time and resources to be buying my usual weekly haul of books (currently being abroad) I have found myself suffering withdrawals and scrolling longingly through my Book Depository wishlist nightly, each time resisting the urge to buy just one little book. To combat this in my own anally-retentive way, I made a comprehensive wishlist with I will now share with you all to further offset my addiction.

Please note:
1. I already own some of these titles on my Kindle, but it is extremely important for me that I own the physical copy too - weird? - especially the ones that are close to moving from trade paperback to mass market size ... we can't have series comprised of mismatching sizes!
2. This list only includes books that are released or about to be released very soon.
3.They're in no particular order.

Prince of Thorns and King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
With the release of the latter, I am a little tired of not being on the bandwagon - time to get on it!

The Emperor's Knife and Knife Sworn by Mazarkis Williams
Like Lawrence's books, I think it's about time to get into these.

 The Winds of Khalakovo and The Straits of Galahesh by Bradley P. Beaulieu
More hype, another bandwagon.

Embassytown and The Scar by China Mieville
Thought it was time to give Mieville a go and after reading through all the blurbs, these two sounded the most appealing to me. Can someone please tell me the correct way to pronounce him name so I can stop feeling so awkward?

The Warlock's Shadow, The King's Assassin and The Black Mausoleum by Stephen Deas
I really loved the Memory of Flames novels by Deas and so The Black Mausoleum has naturally been on my list for a while - although I refuse to buy it until they release a matching cover. The first two are the last of the trilogy that starts with The Thief-Taker's Apprentice, which is on my shelf waiting to be read.

City of Ruin, The Book of Transformations and The Broken Isles by Mark Charan Newton
Again, I have The Nights of Villjamur on my shelf (unread) so feel obligated to buy the rest. My problem is this series has ten bajillion different cover editions so I'm struggling to find all three to match my book one ...

The Heir of Night and The Gathering of the Lost by Helen Lowe
Saw these at the bookstore and thought they looked good.

Theft of Swords, Rise of Empire and Heir of Novron by Michael J. Sullivan
Heard good things about this series, plus I like the covers.

The Magician's Apprentice by Trudi Canavan
A prequel to The Black Magician trilogy which I finished reading earlier this year.

The Ambassador's Mission, The Rogue and The Traitor Queen by Trudi Canavan
A new trilogy following on from The Black Magician trilogy. In the name of duty and loyalty I thought I best get them. Plus, nice covers.

Priestess of the White, Last of the Wilds and Voice of the Gods by Trudi Canavan
Another trilogy by Canavan's I thought I would try.

The Written and Pale Kings by Ben Galley
Let's be honest, I'm getting these for the amazing covers.

Stardust and American Gods by Neil Gaiman
I thought it was time I tried some Neil Gaiman and picked Stardust because I loved the movie and American Gods because it seems the most popular/loved/awarded.

The Stormcaller and The Dusk Watchman by Tom Lloyd
I gradually picked up books two, three and four of this series at bargain bookstores, so now just need book one and five, the latter being a brand new release.

The Dark Divide and Wolfblade by Jennifer Fallon
I bought the prequel to The Dark Divide (The Undivided, still unread) last year so need to get this one. Wolfblade is the first book of the trilogy following the one I finished this year - I already have books two and three.

The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun by N. K. Jemisin
I have a very strange relationship with N. K. Jemisin. I was undecided on The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, absolutely adored The Broken Kingdoms and thought The Kingdom of Gods was utter trash - so much so that I started coining Jemisinitis as a term for fantasy gone wrong. But I'll give these a go and get back to you.

City of Hope & Despair and City of Light & Shadow by Ian Whates
I've had the first novel in this series, City of Dreams & Nightmare for a while and while I haven't actually read it yet, I'd like to complete the series ... plus they're only $7 each!

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed, Debris by Jo Anderton and Rapture by Lauren Kate
I've been wanting to read the first since it was released, but I refuse to do hardbacks and there is (to my knowledge) no paperback out yet. Enough said. Please no judgement for Rapture ... my friend has been hounding me to read this series for so long and I already have the first three, as yet unread.

Temeraire by Naomi Novik and The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
I love the covers for Novik's series, but I'm not convinced that the story itself is for me, so I'm going to try the first book. As for The Song of Achilles, I went through a phase where I was listening to and loving the soundtrack of the musical Paris, watching Troy and loving all things Achilles/Iliad - and this book sounds great!

UPDATE: Traveling Europe

Just a quick update to excuse myself from the lack of updates (paradoxical, I know). I'm currently 3 weeks into my 14-week trip of what I like to refer to as 'my government funded tour of Europe'. Yes that's right, hard working tax-payers have paid for me to sip wine on gondolas in Venice and sunbathe on the pebble strewn beaches of Nice. 

But really, I am actually doing professional development/dance-related things, which is what the trip is for. I'm currently in Vienna at ImPulsTanz doing a crap load of workshops and seeing some weird ass shows ... the last one was a solo work where the woman pulled metres of ribbon out of her exposed vagina. Yep.

Being the semi-introvert I am however, I have been sorely missing my down/alone/reading time and so this week I've spent a little bit more time in my accommodation making serious headway into A Feast for Crows. Even though I am loving it like a baby loves poo, I feel that I'm going to take a little break before delving into the doorstop that is A Dance with Dragons. There are a few books/authors on my Kindle that I've been neglecting and want to finally get around to, namely China Mieville, The Black Prism, Prince of Thorns, The Winds of Khalakovo, City of Dreams and Nightmare and His Majesty's Dragon (Temeraire). Ok so that's more than a few ... I'm so indecisive. I may go with whatever it shortest, just to make myself feel more accomplished more quickly.

Going to attempt to post an update of all the books that are hanging out on my wishlist!