Graceling (2008) and Fire (2009) by Kristin Cashore

January 26, 2010 at 7:37 pm (fantasy, teen) (, , )

If you really, really don’t like Romance mixed into your Fantasy, I suggest you turn away now.

For the rest of you, I have good news:  These are fun and excellent books!  According to the author’s blog, they don’t really need a plug from little old me, but then again, you may not have heard of them yet.

Apparently they are classed as YA, though I’m not entirely sure why.  Books about 18-year-old women are for girls?  Pfft.

Anyway, these books are very strong on character and creative ideas, slightly less so on plot and world-building.  Capsule summaries:

Graceling: Katsa, 18, has been used by her uncle King Randa as a semi-official assassin and torturer for quite a few years, because she has a supernatural skill (a “Grace”) for killing.  Or so everyone thinks.  The story follows the last stages of her growth toward breaking with Randa, as well as her romance with Prince Po of Leinid and their efforts to find out who was responsible for the kidnapping of Po’s grandfather.  I am still quite fascinated by the unfolding of that last plot point, which was full of surprises.  Not to mention drama, and a marvelously evil villain.

Fire:  On the other side of some very high mountains from Katsa’s Seven Kingdoms, the Dells have monsters instead of Graces.   Monsters are creatures that are fantastically colored and able to affect humans’ minds – often without intending to.  Fire, so named for her hair’s color, is the only living human monster in the Dells.  Her ability to touch and manipulate human minds becomes key to saving the Dells from civil war; her long-term relationship with her best friend Archer, and her growing attraction to Prince Brigan, are only part of her complex relationships with the human world.

I have quibbles.  Katsa spends a considerable chunk of her book convinced that she can’t possibly break with Randa; I think this phase doesn’t last too long, but others might disagree.  She also manages to cross an unmarked, snowy, and never-used mountain pass based on what has to be a medieval map.  This I could not believe even as I was reading it, probably because I know too much about maps and mountaineering.  On the other hand, the narrative succeeded in carrying me along despite this, which is pretty impressive.  And the near-tragic event in the romance plot thread was perhaps a bit too much, but not quite (for me).

Fire’s story has more, and more complicated, relationships in it, which overall is a good thing.  But I started wondering, towards the end, if any of the characters had ever stayed faithful to their spouses, or ever intended to get married.  And also why nobody seemed to care all that much.  The stories do have that handy imaginary birth-control herb, which helps to liberate female fantasy characters from certain concerns, but it was getting to be a bit much.  Along the same lines, I felt the key characters did not agonize enough about their decision to take extreme, tradition-shattering action to put an end to that civil war (I mean, they managed to keep it secret, but it’s still a dangerous precedent).  Some may also feel that Fire agonized too much about using her powers, but I think the level was just about right.

And I also felt that in Fire the author was trying to pack too many neat ideas into the narrative; Graceling didn’t have that problem.  Did it really need the whole long backstory about the villain from Graceling, and his involvement with Fire, which had nothing to do with the main plot?  I’m dubious.  And why add in the horse?  It’s an interesting touch, but fits oddly with the rest.

Overall the worldbuilding is long on creative and interesting ideas, and short on cohesion.  In my humble opinion.  Yes, it’s an imaginary world and all, but I’m not convinced that a very high mountain range is enough to explain the radical difference between the magical nature of the Seven Kingdoms and that of the Dells.  Neither book makes any gestures, that I could detect, toward explaining this.  Though it’s possible the next book, currently titled Bitterblue, will tackle that, I don’t understand why there couldn’t just be two entirely separate worlds, one with Gracelings and one with Monsters.    Trilogy-itis again?

Still, I really enjoyed both books.  I am, after all, an inveterate nit-picker, so other readers may not even notice what I see as problems.  My summary opinion is that if Cashore continues to grow as a writer, and manages to avoid falling into the trap of writing histories instead of novels (Bitterblue is an important character from Graceling), there are a whole bunch of even better books in our future.

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Non-Review: The Sleeping God by Violette Malan

January 17, 2010 at 8:48 am (fantasy, negativity, non-reviews) (, )

I feel a need to mention up front that the fact that I found this book unreadable does not mean that it’s universally unreadable – an obvious point, considering people at DAW must have read it before they published it in 2007.

On its face, and probably as much as four-fifths of the time, The Sleeping God is technically competent at the sentence level.  It’s the other one-fifth that’s the problem; to my ear, its rhythm, balance, and timing are off.   A huge amount of conveying information in prose is the choice of detail and the timing of its presentation.  I have a nice, clear little example of the problem from early in the book (the book itself has gone back to the library, so this is copied from Violette Malan’s website):

“The market?” Parno said dryly, bracing his feet as Warhammer, not as well trained as Dhulyn’s Bloodbone, shied slightly, pulling him forward.

My problem with this short paragraph is both minor and, multiplied repeatedly throughout the book, significant.   When I speak of choice of detail, rhythm, and so forth, I mean that this sentence would be better, to my ear, if it read:

“The market?” Parno said dryly, bracing his feet as Warhammer shied slightly, pulling him forward.

(1) The names of the two horses had been given before, so there was no reason to specify that Bloodbane belonged to Dhulyn; (2) there was no need to mention Bloodbane or the horses’ training at all.   It’s unnecessary detail that interrupts the (admittedly minor) action in this short paragraph.  Also, (3) I’m not convinced that “dryly” is the best word in this context; it means something between “wryly” and “ironically,” and all that’s happened is that Dhulyn stopped and said, “Did you hear that?”  So where did “dryly” come from?

After considerable thought, I believe that most of what I’m seeing here (and elsewhere) is a flaw in point of view.  This particular part of this scene is written from Parno’s point of view, in the close-focus third-person style that allows limited views of what’s going on in the point-of-view character’s head.  But in this little paragraph, why would Parno spare even an instant’s thought for the relative training levels of these horses?  That one short clause breaks point of view, undermining the narrative’s credibility (and incidentally irritating this particular text addict).

No writer is perfect in maintaining point of view (and Malan does handle shifting between points of view quite well, from what I read), but this insertion of irrelevant detail happens often enough in this book to bother me.

I did read far enough to be bugged by another choice of the writer (and/or editor): the antagonist’s point of view is given the occasional paragraph of unexplained diffuse malice, interspersed with the rest.   Since Dhulyn and Parno go on for some time after the dramatic opening scene not even knowing that there *is* an antagonist, these insertions served to make me frustrated that they didn’t notice what was going on.  Without them, the pair would have known something strange, unsettling, and dangerous had just happened, but their lack of understanding of the source would have seemed more perfectly natural.  The reader (me!) would have received the revelations at the same time as them, instead of hearing the ominous villain’s theme music in the background the whole time.

I would have liked to read this book, since it otherwise seems pretty good (leaving aside the appearance of another pet peeve of mine, the Significant Capitalized Noun that still isn’t a proper noun even with a capital letter on it).  I actually tried reading sections of the middle and even the end, to see if it improved, but … no.  And the end was … pretty cool in one way, and frustrating in another.  In case you want to read it for yourself, I won’t say more (except that this, too, could have been mended by not having seen bits of the antagonist’s point of view all along).

And this non-review is more than long enough now.

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Elizabeth Moon SF binge

January 3, 2010 at 10:23 pm (science fiction) ()

Back in June, I went on a binge of reading Elizabeth Moon SF.  This happens every now and then, since I have a bunch of it on the shelf and the books are, as they say, good clean fun.

Actually I started off with The Planet Pirates, a 1993 omnibus of three books co-written by Anne McCaffrey, Elizabeth Moon, and Jody Lynn Nye.  The series follows the occasionally intersecting lives of Sassinak (kidnapped as a child by pirates, rescued, goes on to do very well in the Space Navy) and her ancestress Lunzie Mespil (doctor and serial victim of long sessions in coldsleep).  They’re good reads, though I think the different world-building ideas of the authors don’t always mesh well.  There’s also some good stuff about prejudice and radicalization, and though I’m not 100% convinced by the series of events that led up to it, any space opera series that ends with a shootout on the floor of the interplanetary legislature is doing its job (IMHO).

Next up was the three volumes I own of Moon’s Esmay Suiza series (Once a Hero (1997), Rules of Engagement (1998), and Change of Command (1999).  These are in the same setting as the Heris Serrano books, using some of the same characters, and follow Suiza’s adventures in bureaucracy, dark family secrets, and warfare.  Among other things.  I like Esmay, but I don’t feel the plotting in these is as strong as in the other series.

There is, to my taste, a little too much Historical Event plotting, and not enough Character plotting, with the latter being defined for my purposes as plotting that revolves around the main character(s) being the reason for the novel’s existence in the first place.  Contrariwise, with an excess of Historical Event plotting, exploring and extending the history tends tries to take over as the novel’s raison d’être.  I don’t mind a space opera’s plot having important historical impact, but I prefer the balance to come down more on the character’s side than history’s.

For example – I finished up this binge with Moon’s Remnant Population (2003), in which a First Second Contact with an alien species is successfully conducted by a geriatric retired housewife/farmer because she stayed behind when the corporation that sponsored (but didn’t adequately support) loses its franchise and yanks everybody off.  I particularly like this book because it departs from SF’s tendency to focus on the strong, well-educated, upper echelons of society (even including, please, those characters who got there by hard work etc.).   Ofelia is something that Americans in particular don’t like to think about:  A member of a (putatively) economically and technologically advanced society who was systematically denied the opportunity to reach her full potential (heck, even a tiny fragment of her potential) for her entire life.   The book is really all about Ofelia, and her successful attempt to break out of the mold she’s always been cramped into.   It’s a great, if partly dystopic and occasionally depressing, story (with a positive ending, mind), and I heartily recommend it (it’s still in print in paperback).

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