Review: The Rithmatist

December 27, 2013 at 10:17 am (fantasy, negativity, teen)

The Rithmatist
The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Why have I been waffling over this review for months? It’s not like it’s ever going to be read by more than a dozen people or so. I expect it’s because Sanderson is a VPA (Very Popular Author) and I’m about to be really critical of this book. But you know what, Sanderson fans? Tough. These are my opinions, and you don’t have to agree with me. You don’t even have to read them. Go on, stop reading. Shoo!

Now, then. Oh, wait, one more thing: SPOILERS AHEAD.

This was a good read, up to a point, but flawed in several important ways. The way I see it is that Sanderson had two reasonably original ideas – animated and sometimes dangerous chalk drawings, and a colonized country made up of a vast collection of islands – and pasted them over top of a bog-standard school story and the real world circa 1890-1910. To my eyes, the paste is rather lumpy and the surface of these ideas got quite wrinkled and torn.

The book is convincing when describing the chalklings in action and even the science/magic behind the creation and control of them by Rithmatists. The larger world-building, however, is much less so. Even after 200 years of tangling with the “wild chalklings,” it seems, the general populace and also the non-Rithmatist educated elite are profoundly ignorant about virtually everything to do with them – and so is the main character (Joel) and, worst of all, so is the reader. Apparently the wild chalklings just appear from a dark tower or something, off in what might be the upper Midwest or Nevada (except that it’s all islands with ripped-from-the-real-world names) and the Rithmatists who aren’t teaching or on leave are all there, trying to keep them contained.

By the way, Sanderson did avoid the major sin of pretending that the Native Americans were never there, instead saying that the wild chalklings drove them all south into the still-surviving Aztec Empire – ooookay then. Apparently it’s still the Mighty Whities who have to save the world. With SCIENCE!

… And religion: one of the things I really balked at is the notion that what looks like the High Anglican church has made all its saints Rithmatists, despite the fact that (as far as I can make out) chalklings are apparently a strictly New World phenomenon and Rithmatism a (relatively) modern response to them. Oy gevalt, he’s thinking I should believe this stuff? Old religions are really set in their ways. – Of course, it could be a new religion that’s taken over and pretends that it’s really just the old one, but nothing even hints at that (nor is it necessary: newbetterdifferent religions seem to do just fine with claiming superiority to the old ones here in the real world, nu?). Or is it really an old religion that is somehow congruent with the science/magic needed to deal with these New World chalklings? Argh. It makes no sense.

Finally, you would think that in a region consisting of a bunch of islands, creatures that are essentially drawings would have a lot of trouble getting from one island to the next. Right? Drawings, expanses of salt water, logic. This was bothering me for a good four-fifths of the book, until the BIG REVEAL: wild chalklings can inhabit and take over human beings (and probably animals, I should think)! Water problem solved. And then there’s the SLIGHTLY LESS BIG REVEAL: Rithmatists are inhabited by what, for lack of vocabulary provided by the book, I’ll call Good Chalklings, which bear a great resemblance to ancient petroglyphs.

Now, why the heck is all this a SECRET? In fact, how COULD it be? 200 years, remember. Huge chunks of the book’s plot were spent on Joel attempting to find out what everybody (or at least every educated person) should’ve known – in other words, on finding out how the world he actually lives in works. It’s like Sanderson felt that the plot about somebody murdering Rithmatist students with chalklings and the plot about Joel learning more about his deceased chalkmaker father and the plot about Joel becoming friends with Melody-who-draws-unicorns just weren’t enough to carry a novel. Honestly, the secrets of chalkmaking for Rithmatists would’ve been interesting and much less of a plot-based stupidity than the Truth about Chalklings.

And then there’s the thing that utterly killed my enjoyment of the novel, right at the end. I’d put up with the things I’ve already mentioned well enough. I tolerated the School Story 101 material, partly because I like Melody (I like characters who stubbornly refuse to conform to expectations) and partly because it was really quite well done in an “oh look, that was really quite well done” technical way – you know how you can appreciate a good magic trick even if you can see how it was done? Like that. And I have to say that when Joel joins Melody in the dueling circle (yes there is dueling) it really is a stand-up-and-cheer moment, I loved it.

But the thing that really upsets me is that Joel really wants to be a Rithmatist, but for what turns out to be boring scheduling reasons he never had a proper “inception ceremony” in which he might have become one. (It appears, by the way, that the local priest in charge of these things doesn’t even know or care how important the ceremony proper can be – whyyyyyy?? Because plot!) With a little persistence and support from friends and authority figures, though, Joel finally gets one right near the end of the book.

And two things happened that pissed me off. First, after all the setting up and setting up and setting up this event, Joel didn’t become a Rithmatist. Apparently not every reader minds having their genre expectations stomped on by the author for no good reason, but I do. Second, the no good reason is this: somewhere around here (I was too angry for the details to stick in my mind) it was casually revealed that there are only supposed to be X number of Rithmatists at one time, so there was no point in Joel going through the inception ceremony (which you’re only allowed to do once!) unless there was an opening. Which he and his professor friend would’ve known about, since they’d been laboriously going through the rolls of Rithmatists, all without a single mention of this key fact. Unless (BIG REVEAL) the fact that a number of Rithmatists (including the apparently-murdered students) had been captured by wild chalklings, who then carried them into the inside of their human hosts, threw off the count … but there was no mention of the missing-person problem, or even of this possibility. Which, again, after 200 years of experience? No.

Yes, I’ve noticed that I’m willing to give a pass to the idea that two-dimensional creatures can capture three-dimensional beings, turn them two-dimensional, and carry them to the inside of other three-dimensional beings, but NOT to the idea that knowledge crucial to the survival of a civilization has been buried in the secret sections of university libraries for generations. The one thing is a wild and interesting idea fit for exploring in a fantasy novel. The other requires generations of human beings to be so criminally stupid that I want to drag them out of the book so I can punch them in the face.

See? It’s actually quite simple. Overall, the book was written to withhold vital knowledge from all of the characters and the reader for no better reason than SURPRISE! Or to generate extra tension. Or whatever. I hate that, and I’d give it one star except that it really was a pretty good read, up to a point.

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Review: Bastion

December 8, 2013 at 3:30 pm (fantasy)

Bastion by Mercedes Lackey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Better than the previous volume … or was it Volume 3? I have a feeling I missed one somewhere, or maybe a couple of them are blurring together in my memory. The fact is that the series is at least two volumes too long – artificially extended, in fact, by attempting (or pretending?) to have three main characters instead of one. I like Mags, but not enough to really want to spend this much time with him and his friends. And his story is interesting, but not enough to justify a five-volume series.

There’s also the way that the answers to all the questions about his origins more or less arrive, rather than being found as a result of his efforts. Everything works out a little too conveniently, as is common in Lackey’s less spectacular works. Still, it was a good enough read, and much better-paced than at least one of the others.

A last thought: It may be that I feel that another book of Valdemar’s history should have had a more direct relation to that history – that Mags should have a more obvious impact on that history (and I say this despite his helping prevent the assassination of the monarch). This relative lack of impact makes the whole thing seem like busywork rather than a meaningful contribution to the history.

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Review: A Brother’s Price

November 23, 2013 at 12:27 am (fantasy, science fiction)

A Brother's Price
A Brother’s Price by Wen Spencer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A person’s favorite books can be – are – intensely personal. A favorite book may not have the most amazing writing or worldbuilding or plot or characters, and yet be just the right book for certain readers. For such a book and such a reader, a review is rather pointless. Which is why I haven’t gotten around to writing a review of this book until now, even though I usually re-read it a couple of times a year.

Consider, for example, the worldbuilding here: it’s muddy. Is this another planet? A post-apocalyptic former United States? An alternate history of some kind? There’s no way to know. I’m inclined toward the post-apocalyptic US, because of some of the names (“Renssellaer” just shouts familiarity with New York state to me, though it’s spelled a bit wrong) and because the uneven tech and science levels suggest that someone, somewhere, has access to a smattering of “ancient texts.” A date in the 1500s is mentioned at some point, suggesting that it’s been a very long time since a new calendar was started, based (I suspect) on the teachings of seven prophets of a pantheon headed by Hera. But there’s absolutely no way to be sure; it’s completely irrelevant to the narrative, and none of it’s actually explained. This is the kind of thing that’s guaranteed to drive a certain segment of the f&sf reading public absolutely nuts, so if you’re one of them, I wouldn’t suggest trying to read it.

On the social plane is, of course, the conceit emphasized in the book: that for some reason, at some point in the past (and continuing to the present), live births of males cratered. As a result, 95% or more of the population is female, and they have line marriages – one man marries a family of sisters, and also takes on what we would consider a female role. Males are also considered property, and the “brother’s price” of the title refers to the money a batch of sisters can get for their (usually one, if they’re lucky) brother, if they don’t swap for another family’s brother so they can have a husband. This, a topic of great relevance to all the characters, gets quite a bit of attention in the narrative.

The plot is actually a rather simple one of problematic romance between Jerin Whistler, a farmers’ son, and the princesses of the boringly named “Queensland,” with a side order of high-level intrigue, treason, and murder. (Plus steamboats, for those who are interested.)

What I like about the book is, I think, actually two things. First, most of the characters have thoughts and opinions about their own society, not all of them positive or happy; the inherent problems of such a society are out in the open and sometimes discussed, just like the inherent problems in our own society. Second, the themes of love for and responsibility toward one’s family that run through the book. Jerin doesn’t like the risk of being married into a family he won’t like, but he also knows that his sisters really need a husband and the money his marriage can bring.

And there’s a third thing: the way the Whistlers see some of the things that happen as what they call “a shining coin”: a chance for brilliant success or even just survival that they can have if they only reach out and catch it – and are lucky. I see it as the thing that ties the whole book together, and for intensely personal reasons, is probably the real reason why I love this book.

Your mileage will probably vary. But that’s okay. Wen Spencer obviously wrote this book specifically for me.

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Review: The Raven Boys

November 22, 2013 at 6:16 pm (fantasy, teen)

The Raven Boys
The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Finishing a book with a resigned feeling of “Oh, of course, it’s a trilogy” is not a good sign. In fact, it’s a real shame in this case because I could have really liked this book, but instead I feel, well, resigned about it. The ending was clever and well done, and the climax actually succeeds at being credible by having been set up, invisibly in the background, for quite a while. But.

But what?

The book strives for mythic sweep while also containing a gleeful jumble of psychics and pseudoscience made real, among other elements that ‘twould be spoilery to discuss. (I will say, however, that the subplot about Noah was excellent.) But to my mind, the scope of the tale is too small for multiple volumes. It is set up – or at least that’s how it came across to me – to be the story of a Tragic Hero, not an Epic Quest. Think Orpheus, not Odysseus. No doubt the Tragic Hero thinks he’s the hero of an epic quest, and perhaps his author does too, but as far as I can see, all that’s at stake is the personal fate of him and several people close to him. That’s not epic.

So what I wanted was for the book to end with the tragic death foretold at the beginning. As I remarked while reading it, I like the Tragic Hero enough that his death would be tragic, but not enough that I want him to live. But it didn’t happen. The story veered off to become a the story of Sacrifice and Redemption of one of his friends, instead. And while that was a good story, certainly, well-done and well-characterized, it was not the story that the book appeared to be setting up in the first third, or even half.

So this book is quite good, but muddled in execution. Perhaps eventually the Tragic Hero will die, but I have doubts.

I also found the prose annoying in spots, because it seemed like every single character’s point of view contained deeply poetic insights and imagery. I like that just fine when it’s just one or two characters, or when the book is clearly written with an omniscient narrator, but in this case it just wound up feeling overdone and occasionally irksome.

I could probably also quibble about the character of Blue, the kooky magical-battery girl, but I actually like her too much as a person. So there’s that.

Worth reading, I’d say, but not spectacular and not something I’ll be adding to my personal library.

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Review: Limits of Power

November 8, 2013 at 11:34 am (fantasy)

Limits of Power
Limits of Power by Elizabeth Moon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is such a middle-of-the-series book that I hardly know what to say. A lot of important things happen, but very few conclusions are reached. Arvid Semmison, the character I’m most interested in finding out more about, seems to be marking time until his number comes up. Kieri keeps wandering further into the elven magic stuff but full understanding of what’s it all means stays just out of reach. Dorrin continues to work on fixing her duchy and on not being arrested, and her escaped family members still haven’t organized an attack. What are Dragon’s plans now that his progeny are taken care of? And Stammel!!!! I suspect Arcolin is closer to the important places and facts than everyone else, but he doesn’t know it yet.

In other words, I’d be much happier with this book if I already had the next volume in my hands so I could find out where it’s going immediately, rather than some time next year (hopefully).

Thing is, I still love this series, and my frustration is all about how it’s not getting to its conclusion fast enough. I’m enjoying the trip, but still.

Oh, and the other thing is the marketing for this book. The blurb and all makes it sound like the hostility to the sudden re-appearance of mage powers in random people is the main focus, but it just isn’t. It’s something that Arvid, Dorrin, and the Marshal-General spend time worrying about, but nothing truly major or conclusive happens with respect to it. That’s not the author’s fault, though, that’s just the marketing department trying to find something to say about it besides “The Story Continues!”

My recommendation is that if you’re not already addicted to the series, don’t start reading it until the whole thing is published.

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Review: Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook

November 7, 2013 at 6:46 pm (fantasy, nonfiction - cooking)

Nanny Ogg's Cookbook
Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received this book as a gift last year, and I understand it had to actually be shipped from Britain – apparently there is no market in the US for funny cookbooks based on fantasy-fiction characters. Besides me, that is.

Anyway, I read more than halfway through it last year and then misplaced it in a pile of other books, and only re-discovered it this week. Finishing it made a great way to procrastinate this afternoon.

You have to have at least read Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series to get the most out of this book since most of the references to the fictional world will make no sense at all if you haven’t. Really liking the series is probably a prerequisite too, because a lot (most?) of these recipes are not things one would normally make, except maybe for a Halloween party.

I haven’t tried any of the recipes myself, because the major ingredients (flour and so forth) are given in metric weight, and since I measure by volume I don’t have a kitchen scale.

Note that yes, it’s funny, but not really for kids. Though I think the scattered innuendo will go right over the heads of kids younger than 13.

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Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear (2012)

April 16, 2012 at 8:41 pm (fantasy, Reviews)

This book is magnificent, and I’ve been trying to come up with a review worthy of it.  Silly of me, I know, and I’ll stop now.  So:

This book is magnificent.  It provides all that the dedicated reader of fantasy fiction requires for a superlative reading experience – an exotic setting (quasi-Central Asia!), distinctive characters (one horse-obsessed ~mongol warrior, one ~tibetan magician, one ~arab priest/magician/villain, among others), and a sinewy plot that somehow manages to admire the scenery while racing forward to … a good stopping-point for Volume 1, with a real sting in its tail.

Things I really liked:  The way the sky changes from realm to realm.  The horse called Dumpling.  The villain not always succeeding in controlling events.  Necessity.  Butterflies.  The best initiation narrative that it has ever been my privilege to read. The facts that heroism requires putting one foot in front of the other on the correct path, magic requires sacrifice, and evil requires the conviction that anything – anything at all – is justified in order to reach a desired end.  That sneaky, sneaky trick the villain played on the girl.  And did I mention the horse?

The plot itself is not especially complicated: war and treachery and chaos-sowing evil, curses, oaths, escapes and long journeys.  At a certain point, it turns into a quest story, which is fine by me.

If I may digress, I was once told that a piece of my own writing was good, but lacked “grounding.”  This is, I was informed, a bit difficult to define, but consists of placing the characters in their contexts in ways that make both feel immediate, fully fleshed-out, and real.  It’s tricky.  Some are better at it than others.  This author is excellent at it.  As Temur plods across the plain, as Samarkar meditates in the dark, as al-Sepehr contemplates his deadly crystal book of spells, the characters and circumstances are as convincing as any reality you care to name.

The book is not flawless – but what book is?  In this case, I find Samarkar to be rather cold, as if she’s willingly substituted dedication to her goals for everything else in life.  I am uneasy with the fact that the evil guy’s religion venerates a written text, as do the monotheistic faiths in the real world (yes, he’s leader of a small cult, but he’s also the only representative of his faith that we see in this book).  And every time Temur has the point of view, we get detailed descriptions of any new horse the narrative happens to introduce, which gets a little tiresome (I did mention horse-obsessed, so at least it’s consistent with his character … and can easily be skipped over).

But overall? Wow.  This thing has depth; the narrative is suspended over history.  It’s awesome.  It’s as good as anything Guy Gavriel Kay has ever written (and better than some).  You’ll see what I mean, because you are going to read this book.

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Empire in Black and Gold by Adrian Tchaikovsky (2010)

March 22, 2012 at 2:11 pm (fantasy, negativity)

Page 143: I’m bored. I shouldn’t be bored – Tchaikovsky’s world-building is amazing, and his writing in general is excellent – but there it is. The writer loves his world so much that he spent 70-odd pages exploring one city. And the characters and the overall situation, which required them to leave that city. Now he’s already spent another 70-odd pages exploring a different city, with the four main characters handily divided up into three groups so as to expose the widest range of its huge and chaotic society.


And there are two [ETA: excuse me, SEVEN] more volumes of this series.

I mean, seriously. This is an incredibly creative fantasy world – the conceit is that in this world, humans used to be at the mercy of the giant insects that inhabited it, but instead learned to adopt specific insectoid aspects that gave them an important edge. So the Ant kinden are linked mind-to-mind, the Beetle kinden are sturdy and industrialist, the Mantis kinden are unsurpassed warriors, etc. There are physical differences between the kinden (the Fly kinden are all very short, and unreliable), and through the “Art” most people are able to do things like generate wings and fly. The aggressive Wasp kinden can apparently generate a “sting” of energy.

Fascinating. But not enough to carry on the story by itself. Intrigue and fighting in the streets and treachery and stuff are all there, but … I’m bored. It’s taking too long. Huge events are rumbling forward (evil empire versus loosely affiliated city-states). I’m not against big, sprawling novels in theory, but I just can’t get into this one.

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The Legend of Eli Monpress by Rachel Aaron (2012)

March 15, 2012 at 3:57 pm (fantasy)

ImageThis wasn’t the book I went to the bookstore for, but it was one of the three I allowed myself to buy this month. (Sure, it’s three volumes in one, but it counts as one purchase!)

And I bought it because I’d never before read a book in which the first scene features a protagonist sweet-talking a door. I just had to read the whole thing. Also, the cover art is perfect – how could you NOT like a book with that face on it?

But I digress. The titular Eli Monpress, sweet-talker of doors, rocks, and entire forests, romps larcenously through a vaguely earth-like world in which spirits inhabit everything. Those few who can hear and speak to them can get them to do extraordinary things that inanimate objects, plants, and so forth normally don’t do. Eli, however, is unusual even among these. I’m not going to tell you how, but I will tell you that there’s a reason such a young man is acting like he’s trying to get all his shots in before the end comes (note: it’s more complicated than a terminal illness). Apparently we’ll have to wait until the next volume or so to find out how that actually works out, though.

There are other major characters. The strait-laced and well-meaning Miranda would, to be honest, hold up better as a character in a book that didn’t have Eli in it. She also unbends quite a bit along the way, but sticks to her principles (including the one that says she has to arrest Eli, as soon as arresting him wouldn’t also cause a worse disaster), and you have to respect that. There’s Josef the swordsman, who we have to wait a while to learn more about, and his sword Heart of War (I’d call it a magic sword but frankly it’s more like a force of nature). And there’s Nico, a girl who has the great misfortune to be inhabited by a demonseed – created by a malign entity that’s been trapped under a mountain. There’s a whole organization devoted to hunting down demonseeds, which is yet another complication. These last two are Eli’s partners-in-crime.

Three books’ worth of plot and world-building is impossible to sum up in one review. The pace of revelations about the characters and their world is well-thought-out and creates a solid feeling of being given the information necessary, at the right time, to understand what’s going on in the story. It’s moving toward truly world-shaking events, it seems, and I look forward to seeing how it all works out.

What I liked best, however, is that the books are both dead serious and light-hearted, with events and issues of grave import – and moments of sheer ludicrousness. A lot of high fantasy these days seems to be grim, grim, grim all the time, and this series is a very nice change of pace.

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The Magician King by Lev Grossman (2011)

March 4, 2012 at 3:28 pm (fantasy, negativity)

I returned this book to the library unfinished.

I’d checked it out because I’d heard about it somewhere, in positive terms. And it’s quite interesting, really, even if a lot of it’s a ripoff of Narnia. Excuse me, an homage to Narnia. There are in fact some pretty interesting things in the chapters I managed to get through – I like the clock-trees. The backstory section about Julia was sad and fascinating. And I liked the part about Quentin choosing to take the ship that had to be refloated and repaired first.

But. Every other paragraph somehow gave me a vibe of “Look at me! I’m a Fantasy Novel!” An artifact of the point of view character being a transplant from our real world? Perhaps. My actual diagnosis is that it’s really a Literary Novel transposed into a fantasy world, leaving mostly intact the detached, nearly antiseptic mode of nearly every modern Literary Novel that I’ve started to read and then set aside in detached, nearly antiseptic boredom.

Quentin’s ennui is, to me, indistinguishable from the ennui of the real-world corporate time-server or ambitionless yet frustrated housewife. The attempt to transplant this mode into fantasy does no favors for either genre.

So “It was ok” about sums it up. It just wasn’t ok enough for me, personally, to finish reading it.

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