Saturday, September 22, 2012

REVIEW: Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

I cannot fathom how respected reviewers that I follow could give this anything more than two stars, let alone herald it as the years best debut release. Are you all on crack? Is the author paying you all off? Only once in my life have I ever not been able to finish a book (and that was in 2008 with Kate Elliott's Spirit Gate). Throne of the Crescent Moon has now brought that tally up to two.

The worst part is that at only a short 288 pages in length, it still took me a week to get halfway because I literally kept falling asleep - and I think if a book hasn't gotten any good by halfway, you know it's time to throw in the towel.

Where did it go wrong? Great title, great cover art and foremost for me a great premise - I was really looking forward to some Middle Eastern flavour after a lifetime of medieval-centric stories. That's really about it on the pros list.

Firstly, there is absolute zilch world building and character development. All I really got to learn was that there was a crowded city, a desert, an impressive palace, a square with cool statues and a green door - that's about as far as Ahmed's prodigious lack of anything descriptive gets the reader. The three main characters are about as three dimensional as a Hallmark greet card, the ones with the annoying, repetitive jingle every time you open them. Every word that comes out of Adoulla's mouth is a complaint about his age, weariness and likely impending death (other than the times he is making unexpected, unjustified wise cracks/wild bursts of outrage). This is great at the beginning for setting up a protagonist that doesn't follow the usual tropes, but by page fifteen it's getting old. Exactly the same situation with Raseed and Zamia, except old and weary was replaced with overly-pious/confused about liking vagina and woe my family is dead/I am constantly insulted, respectively.

It was like each character had one, single, simple thing that defined them and Ahmed chose to harp on about this for the entire story, rather than actually letting the characters, you know, develop and/or express at least one other facet of their personality.

Every time Raseed opened his mouth, all I heard was 'I got a- I got a- I got a pocket, got a pocket full of sunshine.'

And can anyone honestly say what any of the characters looked like, other than Zamia as a lion. Unless I missed it as I was drooling and my head was lolling backwards, this book is like reading from the perspective of a blind person.

As if any of this wasn't bad enough, the plot itself is slow-moving, predictable, unimaginative, incredibly lame and downright boring. Ahmed shows absolutely no skill or subtlety in moving the story along, instead hand delivering information to the characters on a silver platter. The worst example of this is the villain Mouw Awa, who seems to have Tourette's and within thirty seconds manages to divulge his entire identity, nature and plan to the protagonists.

And I'm sorry, but what the hell is Adoulla's magic. He plucks an object out of his skirts (sometimes not even that) and mutters a seemingly random one line of scripture and the enemy just literally falls over and dies. And then he just feels a little tired afterwards. What a freaking cop out.

The story just gets more eye-roll-worthy when they discover the identities of their enemies and it turns all anti-life, anti-existence, so dark and foul and evil that it would make Baby Jesus roll over and vomit. Well, Saladin, I had the same reaction. How about you stop harping on about how nasty these guys are and actually just show us and get on with the story. 

I just put it all in the basket with guys that brag about how big their penises are.

Suffice to say I didn't like the book. I will not be moving on and pretending it never happened.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

REVIEW: The Black Prism by Brent Weeks

I'm really not sure why it took me so long to get around to reading this, I've had it on my shelf since Christmas 2010 and I was a huge fan of Weeks' Night Angel trilogy when I read them in 2008. I like to tell myself that I was waiting for more of the series to be published so I didn't have to wait for so long in between books.

Firstly, can I just say that I didn't get in the end why it was called The Black Prism ... I was expecting some kind of last-chapter revelation a la Warbreaker, but unless I missed something ...? Anyone?

Coming off the back of A Song of Ice and Fire I found the beginning of The Black Prism quite clumsy and unpolished, but in fairness I think this would be the case with almost anything in comparison to GRRM. Whle GRRM is meticulous in his pace and crafting, Weeks throws us instantly and haphazardly into the action of the story. There is a real sense here that anything that isn't essential to the telling of the main story thread has been avoided or culled.

This awkwardness for me didn't last very long however before I was able to readjust to the magic that is Brent Weeks. After reading some dismissive reviews of his works, I wondered if I would still love the Night Angel trilogy today, having initially read it as a much younger and more inexperienced reader. The Black Prism was just confirmation for me that this stuff was sheer greatness.

Week's prose and vernacular isn't anything special and there are always some moments of weakness within the plot, but he writes an enthralling and captivating story that is incredibly hard to put down once you've started. I was very appreciative of the great pace, amount of action and some really great plot twists throughout which kept it intensely interesting.

I struggled a little bit with the magic system in this one, which was incredibly complicated and overloaded with detail, which meant that it became easy to find flaws and holes - but then again, this was also the case with the vague and mysterious system in Night Angel. If someone is able to create and move matter from light, why not create one thousand tiny bullets and spray them at the oncoming army? Then, even matters such as the opposing backwards thrust can be dealt with. Weeks tries to create limitations and barriers to the seemingly omnipotent form of magic, but while they help, they do not stand up completely. I'm sure it's been said, but there are also obviously huge similarities between this system and that of Warbreaker (not a bad thing, just sayin').

Gavin Guile was the real highlight character for me as challenges constantly thrown against him showed his incredible complexity and both his strengths and weaknesses. Kip was a little hit and miss for me. I liked that Weeks created a protagonist that wasn't a cookie cutter young hero, but instead a typical angsty overweight teenager, however his dichotomous personality was both a little far-fetched and overly repetitive. The amount of times he would berate himself for being weak and a failure, only then to go all Super Sayan and/or open up a can of verbal buuuurrrnnn became excessive and predictable. Both Kariss and Liv had potential to be awesome, but I think they were a little under developed and in fact, sometimes I got confused between the two (somehow). And who calls themselves Lord Omnichrome, I mean, really?

I have a feeling that things are really going to heat up in the following novels ... It seems (judging only by the last two of course) that Weeks' opening novels are kept comparatively simple and tame, while (I think/hope) the following become a real roller coaster ride in every sense. Thankfully I now don't have to wait for The Blinding Knife!

If you haven't read any Brent Weeks yet, get to it!

Friday, September 14, 2012

REVIEW: Legion by Brandon Sanderson

I don't usually read anything that isn't strictly fantasy, but given this is by Sanderson, I made an exception. I also don't tend to enjoy or go for short stories or novellas because I find that they aren't long enough for me to invest in the story and if I do, it's over too quickly.

Legion is incredibly brief yet incredibly captivating. Sanderson's effortless writing shines through even outside his typical genre in a way that you easily forget you're even reading a book. 

The premise, which was a slightly familiar combination of The United States of Tara and Monk was still fresh and cleverly thought out and delivered. We learn that Stephen is a genius, whose mind can do and learn things that we mere mortals can only dream of - however the way he copes with this is by dividing his personality into hallucinatory 'aspects' who each take on and provide him with certain skills and traits, thereby offloading his own mental prowess onto them.

This could so easily present a lot of plot holes, but Sanderson is meticulous and subtle in his handling. While Stephen's aspects make observations and contributions that in fact of course are all derived from Stephen's own experience, there are several moments where it is clear that the aspects are not real and do not have any additional influence in the real world, which I really appreciated.

Within the story Stephen has provided constant intrigue for psychologists and I can see why; I was incredibly interested too. It wasn't so much his prodigious skills, but more the way in which he handles them and the way they manifest themselves - the weapons expert aspect physically guiding Stephen's aim as Stephen's 'own aim' is shaky and terrible for instance.

This worked really well as a short story but I think it could so easily be expanded - like all of Sanderson's other work. I won't push for it though, because I'm still of the belief that we should lock him up until he finishes The Stormlight Archive.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

REVIEW: A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin

"For the night is dark and full of turnips."

So unlike the rest of you who had been waiting for this book since the dawn of time, I was fortunate enough to start reading the series this year and could make my merry way straight on from A Feast for Crows. I say this because I think it has a lot of impact on the reading for me compared to those who sat outside bookstores at midnight. Now I find myself in the queue. Le sigh.

Firstly I just want to say how easy it is to take the brilliance of these books for granted, especially given their length and when comparing them to each other. Saying A Dance with Dragons is crap compared to A Storm of Swords is like turning your nose up prime steak because there is pheasant available. It has also had, I'm sure, a lot to do with the wait and the expectations. And on top of that (this occurred to me as I started reading The Black Prism), ASoIaF runs on a very slow burn; it doesn't get your adrenaline running every other page or have you burning for in anticipation for the next chapter. No, it is more clever and subtle than that.

In this book in particular I could really feel the build up of the whole series as different arcs started to merge and come together. That said though, kudos to GRRM for keeping this shit together, because there are currently so many balls up in the air at this point it would make any juggler run in fear. I hope he had some bad ass visual mind maps pinned up on his walls. If real politics are like this, how are we surprised by the global economic crisis? With only two more books to go (egads!) I still feel like it will be a squeeze to wrap everything up ... it's like we've been going up one giant hill since A Game of Thrones and at some point we need to start going down.

I think a lot of negative opinions of this book stem from the lack of plot movement or any kind of resolution it offers, given the huge amounts of time between book publications. There is also the 'Get Daenerys out of Meereen God Dammit' movement, which I'm sure has it's own fanpage somewhere. I can't say that any of this occurred to me during my reading. I've become really content to travel along wherever GRRM takes us and a dull moment was never had. Some other reviewers described 'lengthy travel scenes' ... obviously they have never read Earth's Children by Jean M. Auel, which is essentially one good book and 5 more LONG books of travelogue.

I have to say I loved ADwD just as much as previous books. Daenerys has been a long time favourite character of mine and I welcomed her return with open arms. I think out of the multitude of characters, she is the one that I associate with most strongly and I love her strength, intelligence and ferocity. I didn't realise it to begin with, but during ADwD she really lost something; she had been cowed and was pandering to menial politics rather than, I don't know, slaughtering wantonly. This was rectified for me on a grand scale during the scene with Drogon in The Pit - I had to put the Kindle down to do a fist pump! FIRE AND BLOOD! YEAH!

I recently learned a lot of people actual dislike Dany and her arc of the story (especially after swanning about in Meereen). I'm totally gunning for a Targaryen victory.

I was pleasantly surprised to see the return of characters from A Feast For Crows about halfway through the book, especially Cersei, Arya and the Dornish. I now understand why GRRM split the books as he did, with Southron characters having substantially more material than others to fit into the same time frame. It offered some nice resolutions that I believe would have had people crying for blood if they had been left to the next book (including me). I have to admit that after Daenerys, my favourite character has become Cersei. Though she features only briefly on ADwD, she makes it a doozy and I'm very interested how recent events will have changed her.

I've been amazed at how much ASoIaF has infiltrated and influenced my life on such a profound level. I think about it on a daily basis, as if the characters were people I knew and I was living alongside them. I think that really says a lot about the skill of GRRM and the 'slow burn' I talked about earlier. These books are just a burst of flame, they are here for the long run and they stay with you. Whenever I think of a lion, I now automatically think 'Lannister' for instance. The word 'leal' also (annoyingly) pops into my head all the time. The whole world and incredibly huge cast of characters has been so well built, I feel as if I believe in it as much as our own. Except for the black horses with red manes, that's just stupid. If Harry Potter was the series of my teens, this is definitely the series of my twenties (and potentially thirties, god help us).

GRRM is really the master of foreshadowing and easter-egging. There are so many little (and giant) links forming everywhere, little hints and tidbits, but can any of us honestly say where the series will end up as a whole? Who will win the Iron Throne? What is the fate of Daenerys and the dragons? What role will all the Stark children fulfill with their individual gifts? He gives nothing away!

Now for some nit picking. There are some repetitive elements that have just become annoying - yes, we all know about them, this isn't groundbreaking news. Firstly, have to say it, 'words are wind.' I believe this only actually surfaced in AFfC and is here to stay. The fade to black death scene at the end of a chapter has happened countless times now and let's face it, have they ever actually died? Not fooling anyone anymore GRRM. While I actually like that some characters have their own little mantras (they're quite beautiful/sad/poetic most of the time), it does become too much, especially given it's not just one character ... If I look back, I am lost/You know nothing, Jon Snow/Wherever whores go/Fear cuts deeper than swords ... the list continues. AND THE WORST ONE ... Why does everyone who speaks Westerosi only ever have the slightest accent? EVERY TIME! Sometimes I feel GRRM has found the formula and become comfortable with it, and now he can just spew out the same thing.

And the names out of Slaver's Bay ... I seriously cannot keep track. The Griff and Young Griff introduction, while an interesting twist seemed to come out of nowhere with not enough pizazz in my opinion. And you can't just invent names for each hour of the night (eg hour of the wolf) in book five and then continue to use them frequently as if they have been around forever.

The only thing I might wish for some of the time are more scenes like The Red Wedding or Drogon in the Pit, something with a bit more urgency and fire. It seems each book is only allotted one each.

All in all I have to say this is another great and epic installment in the series that does not disappoint (unless you have been waiting 6 years and are looking for some serious plot advancement and a swift exit from Meereen). I leave you with my favourite line from the book ... I don't know what it is about Cersei's vicious humour (which seems often aimed towards Septas ...) but I made me laugh out loud.
"I do," she said, "I feel reborn, as if a festering boil has been lanced and now at last I can begin to heal. I could almost fly." She imagined how sweet it would be to slam an elbow into Septa Scolera's face and send her careening down the spiral steps. If the gods were good, the wrinkled old cunt might crash into Septa Unella and take her down with her."

Friday, September 7, 2012

REVIEW: City of Dreams and Nightmare by Ian Whates

This one has been sitting on my shelves unread since the dawn of time (or so it feels like) so it was good to finally get around to it! This will also be a quick review because I am currently in Barcelona and let's face it, the beach is calling to me.

I have to admit that I bought this book because it was cheap and had a nice cover, and I guess the blurb sounded alright too. Unfortunately that wasn't enough to guarantee a good read ... and it's usually such a good method of choosing for me!

The concept of this story, while not overly original, was OK. Now that I think about it though, it's actually identical to The Novice by Trudi Canavan in every way imaginable. 

The biggest problem I had was that Whates spells everything out for us, bit by excruciating bit. Every action is explained and justified to us through each characters internal dialogue. Mary Sue knew she could kill the beast easily because she had been trained specifically for this situation and always carried a knife on her personage. She also knew she was having curry for dinner because it was Thursday and on Thursdays Gary Stu always makes curry. You get the point.

Things started of promisingly enough, but by the middle of the book, so many potential villains had been introduced, it became ridiculous. There was even some ominous being cloaked in shadow who had been biding its time in the dark to strike ... It was all I could do to not yell out 'LAME!'. By the last third, everything is wrapped up so quickly and with little to no effort on behalf of the protagonist and his helpers that it became nothing less than unimaginative and boring. 'If you just think really hard while I sit here and enhance your powers with my own mystic powers, we should be able stop global warming, bring about world peace and bakes some nice scones for morning tea.' I'm not even kidding.

This isn't really written like a book, but more like a movie. It's like Whates is describing each scene from some kind of Hollywood action/thriller, complete with all the over used tropes and cliches.

I could have stopped reading a number of times, but I decided to persist out of need for a sense of completion. Don't think I'll be buying or reading the two sequels however.