Thursday, May 16, 2013
Necessary Evil is the final book of Ian Tregillis' Milkweed triptych. The second book of this (The Coldest War) absolutely blew me away.
In Necessary Evil, the story is taken from an alternate 1963, largely created by the events in the first book (Bitter Seeds) back to where it began in a war torn world in 1940. Through the machinations of the former Reichsbehorde seer Gretel, British secret service agent Raybould Marsh finds himself back in time, with the chance to save the world and at the same time change his own life and ensure the survival of his infant daughter; Agnes.
Because we've got two Marsh's in the one time Ian Tregillis had to distinguish between the two without always using 1963 Marsh's disfigurement as a description. I think he pulled off something quite clever to do this. 1940's Marsh is written in third person and 1963 Marsh is written in first. It was interesting to see things from his viewpoint as intimately as we did and it gave the character new levels and depth.
The other thing that really added to the story for me were the occasional interludes from Gretel where we got to see how deep her obsession with Marsh went and how she had been barely hanging onto sanity for most of her life. Although these sections are small, they must have been incredibly difficult to write, because Gretel often follows two or three possible timelines and outcomes before arriving at the one that suits her.
The planning to write this triptych is mind bending. He plays with the course of World War Two, this creates an alternate 1960's, then he goes back to the '40's and tries to steer the whole thing back on course to produce the outcome we all knew about.
Aside from a few instances where Ian Tregillis (an American) struggled with getting the 1940's British vernacular right (no Brit would use the phrase 'rogered the pooch') overall he got the tone spot on, and I couldn't fault it.
He drew me in so completely to the characters that I nearly threw the book across the room at one point where I thought some of them were stepping into one of Gretel's many traps.
Milkweed as a whole is superlative story telling and Necessary Evil is the perfect end for it.
Sunday, May 12, 2013
Black Dawn is the twelfth book of Rachel Caine's highly successful YA vampire series Morganville Vampires. I have to say that these are highly addictive. I started reading them late last year and have ripped through the last few in record time for me. I don't generally read things like this back to back, but I've made an exception with the Morganvilles, reading chunks of them before bed each evening (yes, in hindsight reading a vampire book just before trying to sleep is probably not the best plan). I had to go straight onto to Black Dawn because the previous instalment (Last Breath) was left on a pretty sizeable cliff.
Black Dawn is probably the most all action, all the time book in the series since Carpe Corpus in the middle of the Bishop storyline. In Last Breath Rachel Caine introduced the concept of the draug, a water affiliate vampire that is anathema to their land bound cousins. Before going on here I have to say that the concept of the draug is one of the coolest and newest ideas I've seen for a long time in vampire fiction, especially what could probably be termed as YA paranormal.
With the town under lockdown because of the invasion of the draugs, and Amelie infected and close to death it's up to Claire and her friends and allies to come up with a way to save the town and themselves in doing so.
As she had in Last Breath Rachel Caine continues the multiple PoV concept, expanding her first person cast, and continuing to write Claire in third person. I don't think she gets it right all the time. She's pretty down with Claire's gang, and she's been doing Shane for the last two books anyway, but the vampires' Oliver and Amelie, in particular just don't sound right.
Shane's dream sequence when he is held captive by the draug was particularly moving and effective, very well written. You're well into the chapter before you realise exactly what is happening here. Hats off to the author for that one.
This book also ends of the draug storyline, and while you're never really overly worried about the leads, some of the peripherals do get killed. Not many YA authors will do that, so I was both shocked and impressed, not to mention sad, because a personal favourite didn't make it.
The books have grown progressively darker as the characters have matured and situation altered, but it was dialled up in Black Dawn. It may have reached a peak, although the ending does tend to indicate that maybe this is not the case and there is more misery ahead for Morganville.
Monday, May 6, 2013
I have to admit to being a little wary of Erin Morgenstern's debut The Night Circus. It came out in 2011 and created a huge amount of buzz. I try not to listen to hype, because I often find that if the work can't live up to the words spoken and written about it then I wind up disappointed and that's really not fair to the author.
We did have a copy of it, but it was somewhere on Mt Toberead. Then it was chosen as May's book of the month by Fantasy Faction. So I picked it up and started reading.
This review could well have consisted of 'Go and read this, it is brilliant!' because those were my thoughts after finishing The Night Circus.
I could use a lot of adjectives, other people have: astounding, brilliant, outstanding, beautiful, lush, etc... They all apply. Mesmeric is the one I like the most, though. That's what The Night Circus does, it entrances you and draws you into it's tents filled with wonder and beauty.
The idea of the circus itself is intriguing and The Night Circus is everything that a circus should be, a place that is ever changing, ever moving, magical and mysterious.
Even the way it's written is different, and I don't use that word lightly. For a debut author Erin Morgenstern is both remarkably talented and extremely brave. The entire narrative is third person, present tense. This is really hard to do, and do well. Experienced and successful authors fear to try it, and with good reason. If it's not done well it is awful to read. Not with Morgenstern's The Night Circus, it's not even noticeable, and it adds to the strangeness and the hypnotic quality of the tale.
Then there are the timeshifts. Nearly every short chapter seems to take place in a different place and a different time. The narrative winds in and out of time over thirty years. This can be frustrating in other books, but not in The Night Circus. I felt the interlocking stories as they wove through that thirty year time period were perfectly placed and they gave the story a sense of history and depth.
The story largely concerns itself with a bet made between two magicians of who can produce the best practitioner of the art. It is those two that the readers follow: Celia and Marco. There are other side stories which are every bit as enchanting and interesting.
At times it seems like not a lot happens, and it is probably true, but you keep reading on the for the descriptions and the wonder that Morgenstern can evoke from her pages. The Night Circus is a feast for the senses of the mind.
She has strong, if strange characters, too, from the tortured Celia and her horrible father; Hector, to the mysterious tattooed Japanese contortionist Tsukiko, the tragic Tarot reader Isobel, the outsider Bailey, who wants to be part of the circus, the quirky twins Poppet and Widget with their performing kittens, the circuses owner Christopher Lefevre and Herr Thiessen and his incredible clocks. The only character that didn't really work for me was Marco. He seemed a little off at times, lacking in depth.
Get The Night Circus, read it and find out what all the fuss is about, you will not be sorry you did.
Sunday, May 5, 2013
The events of Bite Club (the previous book in the series) wrapped up the long running Bishop arc in this series, so Last Breath would be the start of a new crisis in Morganville.
Initially that could be seen as the marriage of new vampire Michael Glass to his human girlfriend Eve. The engagement party pits the humans and the vampires against each other and when the head of Morganville's ruling vampire community hands down the edict that she will not permit the marriage to go ahead Eve slaps the French vampire's face. I actually thought Eve was rather lucky to get away with that. As Amelie herself said only two people had ever done that before, they were vampires and they were both dead.
Thoughts of impending nuptials were however driven away by the arrival of a messenger from Blacke. Blacke is a nearby town that appeared in Kiss of Death (the eighth book in the series). It is also ruled by vampires and the messenger carries a message from Amelie's Blacke based equivalent; Morley. It says one thing only: RUN.
Soon after vampires start going missing and Claire Danvers notices a mysterious newcomer. It transpires that the reason Amelie set up a vampire friendly town in Morganville wasn't just because it was out of the way, it had to do with it being in an arid environment. Apparently what vampires fear most are the draug. In this particular mythology the draug are water based vampires. Rachel Caine ties mermaids and sirens into this (she doesn't mention the nixies, the poor nixies are always forgotten about). A draug or draugr is from Norse mythology and they are a kind of vampire. The sea-draugr definitely do have an affinity with water, hence the name.
The land vampires have fought the draugr before and failed, so they decide to run. It is Claire and her friends who convince them that the humans and vampires of Morganville should stand and fight for their town.
One very interesting thing happens in this installment. Claire dies. One of the draugr, a leader called Magnus, snaps her neck. She spends time as a ghost (I have the distinct impression the Last Breath of the title is Claire's) and meets Hiram Glass, one of Michael's ancestors, largely the reason the house itself is alive and has power, but he was a very nasty old ghost. Myrnin does manage to restore Claire to her body again. It didn't really make a lot of sense, but I find with books like the Morganvilles it's probably best not to dwell too long on the logic behind some of the 'science'.
Because Claire is 'dead' for a good part of the narrative and also stuck in the house (she spends a lot of it hiding from Hiram in the attic), she can't always be where the action is. Rachel Caine used this technique in Bite Club to tell the story from Shane's point of view and she does it again in Last Breath. This time she actually included an explanatory note at the start of the book to let readers know that characters other than Claire would tell some of the story and this could be recognised by the characters name at the start of the chapter. I thought that was a bit of overkill, but maybe there were complaints that she kind of sprung the Shane thing on them. I also have to keep in mind that Morganville's target audience is between 13 and 20.
I do find it interesting that Claire's point of view is third person, but the other characters are all first person. Aside from Claire, the author seems to have the best handle on Shane. The other characters, especially Amelie, don't have very convincing voices.
Last Breath ends on a cliffhanger and is clearly the beginning of a new story arc. It's quite a fun entry. Kiss of Death remains my favourite, but this one sets up a very juicy continuation that promises plenty of action.
Tuesday, April 30, 2013
Warning! This review is probably going to be more about my uneasy relationship with science fiction than the latest entry in the Vorkosigan Saga.
It seems that every time Lois McMaster Bujold writes a Vorkosigan book it gets nominated for the Hugo. I think three have won the rocket ship for best novel and if Captain Vorpatril's Alliance gets up that will put her level with Robert Heinlein for Best Novel Hugo's, with five overall (she also got one for an unrelated fantasy series).
For some reason the Vorkosigan's don't do it for me. Captain Vorpatril's Alliance is the third one I've read. I read the previous book in the series (Cryoburn) when it was nominated for the Hugo in 2011 and I think I've one of the early books, maybe the first one, years ago, but I can't reliably say that I did. If I did, it again failed to excite me.
I should have liked Captain Vorpatril's Alliance. Yes, it is science fiction, but it's heavy on the fiction and light on the science, which is how I tend to like my SF. It's also one part heist novel and one part romance. I can take or leave romance, although if it's done well with strong characters I can often be drawn in by it, but the word heist or caper is generally enough to sign me in.
The basic idea behind Captain Vorpatril's Alliance is that the one of the least highly regarded members of the powerful Barrayaran Vor clan, Ivan Xav (my wife, who has read more of the books than I have, and quite likes them, tells me that he is generally referred to by his family members as 'you idiot Ivan') becomes involved with an attractive girl called Tej, marries her hurriedly to give her the protection of his family, falls in love with her and then discovers that she appears to be from a family of con artists and thieves who want to steal the Barrayaran hidden fortunes and use Ivan to do it.
I think a lot of my issues with the Vorkosigans is that while Bujold tries to bring new readers up to speed on where the saga is that she's been writing these books since 1986 and they span a period in excess of 30 years. Most of the books take place in Miles' lifetime, but there are others about his parents generation as well. So coming in cold is very difficult. I liken it to attending a party where you really don't know anyone and all the other guests have a shared history.
I find the amount of names and history I'm trying to deal with confusing and hard to follow. In this book it didn't help that Tej also had a large and convoluted family.
I didn't dislike the book, it just didn't hold my interest. The romance was nice and ended happily ever after. The heist was audacious and quite often amusing, if a little too clever for the good of the plot, and had possibly catastrophic and startling consequences, but I just felt a little lost throughout most of the time I was reading it.
I've seen nothing but high praise elsewhere, but my final conclusion is that the Vorkosigan books simply don't connect with me and that could be because most science fiction tends to leave me rather flat.
Monday, April 29, 2013
I think it's fair to say that I thought Ghost Town (the 9th Morganville Vampires book) was becoming a little formulaic. This is probably a natural consequence of writing a YA multi book series set in and around the same small Texas town. Even the titles tend to follow a pattern. They're mostly about death or blood. Bite Club is probably the most openly groanable play on words that they've done, though.
As the title may indicate the story is largely about an underground online viewable fighting ring that pits vampires up against steroided human opponents. Unsurprisingly it is Shane Collins from the little gang that readers follow who winds up in the middle of all this.
The story is pretty complicated for a Morganville. As Claire fights to keep her boyfriend out of the ring, and possibly getting killed she uncovers all sorts of things, including bad guy Bishop and another former villainess in the form of Kim, who at one stage nearly upset the apple cart by trying to turn Morganville into a reality show.
Bite Club is full of revelations, both big and small. The reintroduction of Bishop and Kim are two of the big ones. Another is Michael, Eve and Shane finding out that Myrnin is using Frank Collins brain to control the computer that runs Morganville and of course that Claire knew this, yet chose to keep it from her friends. Yet another is when Eve drops the bombshell that she and Michael are engaged to be married. This particular storyline will have ramifications moving forward and is viewed badly by both sides of society in Morganville. The humans can't understand why anyone would marry someone who is effectively dead and feeds on human blood. The vampires on the other hand don't like the idea of one of their own marrying someone who is considered by them as cattle and food and clearly inferior.
There are some smaller ones. Apparently Eve is a gun fencer. That was fun finding that out. Claire gets offered a position by MIT. This I found interesting and I'm not really sure why the author did it. Any long time reader (if you're 10 books in you're pretty invested) knows that Claire won't accept the position, even if Amelie does let her go, she's not going to let Shane, Eve and Michael leave and Claire won't go if they don't, especially Shane. So she keeps this poor MIT recruiter hanging on for most of the book, yet we as readers know full well she's going to knock it back. It just seemed to be an unnecessary side plot.
One interesting thing Rachel Caine tried in this was the altering of perspective. Generally the books are told from Claire's point of view in third person. This one had sections labelled Shane where we got his point of view in first person. I think next to Myrnin, Shane is probably the character that Rachel Caine most enjoys writing, so this made sense. It was necessary as Shane spends a lot of time away from the others and often in his own head, so we needed that. It was just how it was done. I found it a little clumsy and at times jarring. It broke up the story's usual smooth flow.
The teenage seeress Miranda also reappeared. I really like her and hope she comes back. She's rather painful to read, because she knows what is going to happen and feels that she needs to do this, because the consequences may be worse. I almost felt like crying when she let Monica's psychotic violent friend Gina break her nose, because to not do so would have meant Claire died at Gina's hands. To make things a little better Gina did get in a serious car accident soon after, which she could have avoided if she hadn't been hell bent on hurting Miranda. I feel so sorry for Miranda, she seems like a nice kid, but has been dealt a wretched hand by life and cursed at the same time. Despite that I hope she comes back, because she's compelling to read about and I don't think her story is done by any means.
I have to say I loved Myrnin in this. His driving or lack of ability is wonderful to read about. As was the fact that despite him having a mobile phone and knowing how to text he still feels the need to pass notes wrapped around rocks through the portals to let Claire know what is going on.
This one also ended a major story arc and leaves the way clear to start a new one as well as deal with the aftermath of some of the things that happened in Bite Club.
Saturday, April 20, 2013
Knife of Dreams is the 11th book of the Wheel of Time and the last book in the series that Robert Jordan was able to complete before his premature death.
By the time Jordan started writing this he had been diagnosed with the disease that did eventually claim his life and had to face the reality that he may not be able to complete the series.
I think this prompted him to take a look at where the series was going, and come to the conclusion after looking through Crossroads of Twilight that the answer was: nowhere.
I hoped Knife of Dreams would be better than Crossroads of Twilight, it couldn't possibly be worse, could it?
The prologue, while still being overlong as had become customary with the books, contained more story development than the entire 700+ page book that proceeded it.
Knife of Dreams tightened the whole story up, started to conclude story lines (Faile was finally rescued) and showed signs of eventually reuniting all the characters for a big finale.
It suffers, as does most of the Wheel of Time, from Jordan's excesses and repetition (there's an unusual preoccupation with spanking. It could have almost been retitled Fifty Shades of Wheel of Time) as well as his delight in really hurting his characters without actually killing them.
I started to see some of the fan delight with Egwene, although she only has a section of the prologue and one really long chapter she rocks it. Conversely Elayne turned into the most ineffectual and tedious ruler in the history of epic fantasy.
Mat alternates between taking charge and being SuperMat, to being Tuon's play thing. She even continually and very annoyingly refers to him as Toy. This was hard enough to deal with when she was talking to him, but when one chapter took her PoV it was downright confusing. Would it have killed her to at least use his name when she's thinking about him, rather than addressing him?
I'd been hearing things about Rand's hand (that wasn't meant to sound as stupid as it does), but I didn't know where he actually lost it. This is it. Jordan has a habit of emphasising the small things and glossing over the big ones. I nearly missed the loss of the hand. Loial got married somewhere along the line and I missed that too. The Ogier take an age to make a decision, but they appear to favour shotgun weddings. Odd.
Overall this was an improvement on Crossroads of Twilight and sets it up well for the final three books which were written by Brandon Sanderson, working from extensive notes left by Robert Jordan.