Monthly Archives: August 2014

The sword of truth

In a dramatic shift in setting, I’m now going to take a look at an author who’s either the Heinlein of epic fantasy or its Ayn Rand, Terry Goodkind, and his Sword of truth series.

Wizard’s first rule / Terry Goodkind.

The sword of truth series (occasionally also known as the “Richard and Kahlan books”) is the sine qua non of libertarian fantasy fiction. As with Heinlein, Goodkind’s work is strong enough to be enjoyed by those who don’t share their political proclivities. That being said, as the series goes on, Goodkind’s work becomes increasingly polemical and the actions taken by the characters become increasingly difficult to justify. By the end, it’s less Heinlein and more Ayn Rand.

Brief plot summary

Richard Cypher is a woosdman lives in the Westland, a land without magic kept partitioned from the magical Midlands by a supernatural barrier. After rescuing a mysterious young woman from a group of assassins, he becomes involved in a quest that will reveal the secrets of his heritage and determine the fate of the world.

Continue reading The sword of truth

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The child thief

The child thief / Brom.

I realize that I’ve kind of been on a contemporary fantasy kick this month, so I figured I’d switch things up by doing another contemporary fantasy review.

In all seriousness, I’ll take a break from the contemporary fantasy after this one. Probably.

It’s not like you can stop me if I choose not to. Pardon me while I let all this power go to my head.

BACK TO THE CHILD THIEF!

The child thief is Brom’s contemporary take on Peter Pan, coupled with a healthy dose of celtic mythology. It’s not-too-dissimilar (in a good way) from Clive Barker’s The thief of always (the subject of a future post. Probably).

Peter Pan is the titular child thief, who travels between the human world and Avalon, kidnapping abused children to use as cannon fodder in a never-ending war against Captain Hook. It’s a dark fairy tale without clear heroes and villains.

Continue reading The child thief

Dead harvest/The wrong goodbye

Dead harvest / Chris F. Holm

The wrong goodbye / Chris F. Holm

Why do I keep reading Angry Robot books again?

I’m doing these two books as a two-fer ’cause that’s how I feel like doing them today.

Dead harvest and The wrong goodbye are a pair of contemporary fantasy novels about a noir-style hardboiled grim reaper. It’s an interesting premise, and the cover art is certainly eye-catching in that it evokes that old-school pulp style. Apparently there’s a third one now (The big wreap) but I haven’t read it and don’t really plan on reading it unless somebody asks me to do so for this blog.

Some background on the publisher

I’m going to end up reviewing more than a few books from Angry Robot and I feel like it’s worth mentioning something about them as a publishing house. Angry Robot is a relatively small UK-based publisher of weird fiction. They are supported by an extensive guerrilla marketing apparatus, and the library where I worked at the time seemed to acquire pretty much their entire catalog.

I’ve read close to a dozen books published by Angry Robot so far, and to be honest I haven’t generally been “wowed” by them. Still, their marketing is incredibly effective on me and I find myself continuously picking up books by this publisher. The only other publisher that markets to me as effectively is Orbit. Tor and Baen are probably tied for third but that’s chiefly because that’s where many of my favorite authors are.

Back to the books in question: plot

If you recognize the source of the titles (Red harvest and The long goodbye), it’s pretty close to what you’d expect.

Sam Thornton was once  a living human who sold his soul. Now he is a collector, a disembodied spirit that possesses the recently deceased in order to collect the souls of the damned and send them to Hell. Upon being tasked with collecting the soul of a young woman he believes to be innocent, Thornton decides to rebel against his masters in an act that threatens the balance between Heaven and Hell.

Continue reading Dead harvest/The wrong goodbye

Libriomancer

Libriomancer / Jim C. Hines. Originally published 2012.

Libriomancer is The club Dumas for sf/fantasy fans.  It’s a relatively light adventure story packed to the brim with cameos from other, more well known books. It’s a fantasy novel with a bibliography, and as such provides fans of the genre with plenty of in-jokes as well as possible suggestions for further reading.

Brief plot description

(Spoiler free)

Isaac Vanio is a library cataloger with a secret. He is also a libriomancer, a magician with the power to make fiction real. After being assaulted by vampires, he discovers that an unknown power has been manipulating the vampires into attacking magicians. Joined by dryad Lena Greenwood he sets out to save the world …

Continue reading Libriomancer

The Vor game

The Vor game / Lois McMaster Bujold. Originally published 1990.

The Vor game is the second of the Miles Vorkosigan novels by internal chronology. It serves as the jumping off point for Miles’s career in milititary intelligence where he will serve for about the next decade. It is also the last novel to keep the more action-oriented fast-paced plot style of The warrior’s apprentice. It also won the Hugo award for best novel, so that’s something.

As usual, I encourage you to ignore Amazon’s method of numbering the series, which apparently counts novellas and short stories as full volumes.

Brief plot description

(Possible minor spoilers for the previous volumes)

The plot of The Vor game is split into two main sections, one based on Barrayar and one with a more interplanetary setting.

Miles Vorkosigan has just successfully graduated from the Imperial Academy and is reaady to get his first shipboard assignment. Unfortunately for him, he ends up the weather officer at a remote arctic infantry training camp staffed by bigoted alcoholics.

The second section follows Miles in his first assignment as part of Impsec. He quickly discovers that his supervising agent has no faith whatsoever in him, and after a run in with the Dendarii Free Mercenaries Miles is forced to re-activate his Admiral Naismith persona in an attempt to rescue an important Barrayaran and prevent an interstellar war.

Continue reading The Vor game

Sandman Slim

Sandman Slim / Richard Kadrey. Originally published 2007.

If one were to create a spectrum of contemporary horror/fantasy/whatever, with John dies at the end on one end and the Dresden files at the other end, Sandman Slim would end up somehwere in the middle. It’s the first novel of a series that now includes five novels and at least one short story.

Brief plot description

(Spoiler free)

Stark is a punk rock magician/car thief who has just escaped from Hell ten years after being betrayed by his circle of magical collaborators. Stalking the streets of L.A., Stark attempts to hunt down his former allies one by one, seeking revenge for his long imprisonment and the murder of his girlfriend.

Continue reading Sandman Slim

The maze runner

The maze runner / James Dashner. Originally published 2009.

In which I struggle to be objective about a book I absolutely hated

The maze runner is the first book in the eponymous series, soon to be a poorly reviewed but possibly financially successful film. It’s a post-apocalyptic YA novel that has been widely successful but has less name recognition outside its target demographic than more popular series like The hunger games.

Brief plot description

(no spoilers)

A boy named Thomas wakes in an elevator with no memory of anything but his name. He soon finds himself in the company of about 60 other boys trapped at the center of a mysterious maze, none of whom have any idea how or why they are there. The most well-respected of these children are the “maze runners”, who daily explore the maze in an attempt to map it out and find an escape.

Continue reading The maze runner

The curse of the blue tattoo

The curse of the blue tattoo / L.A. Meyer. Originally published 2004.

The curse of the blue tattoo is the second novel in the Bloody Jack series. Like the rest of the series, the setting departs considerably from that of the previous novel while still maintaining its wit and sense of adventure. It is in equal parts school story, fish-out-of-water comedy, and murder mystery.

Brief plot description

(minimal spoilers for the previous installment)

Bloody Jack ends with Jacky Faber, her gender having been discovered by her captain, being dropped off at an East Coast bording school for young ladies. Jacky is then forced to contend with a minister named Mather, “old money” types, and strict teachers all while trying to figure out how to be reunited with her Jaimy, her One True Love.

Continue reading The curse of the blue tattoo

John dies at the end

John dies at the end / David Wong. Originally published 2007.

John dies at the end is one of those books I randomly picked up because the Kindle version was on sale and I was looking for something new. It’s an irreverent horror novel and was adapted into a moderately well received film.

Brief plot description

(Spoiler free)

David Wong is a 20-something slacker living in an anonymous midwestern college town (implied by the film version to be Champaign-Urbana, but more ambiguous in the book). After a bizarre experience at a party involving a mysterious drug called “Soy Sauce”, he and his friends end up on a wild adventure involving talking meat products, celebrity exorcists, and a demon-like creature known as “Shitload”.

Continue reading John dies at the end

Le maistre chat, ou, Le chat botté

If you couldn’t tell from my user name, I’m a huge fan of the “Puss in boots” story. There are a couple of reasons for that. If I’m being honest, the fact that it stars a cat is probably the biggest one.

Still, it’s an interesting fairy tale because it has perhaps the most obnoxious main character of all the classic fairy tales, and the cat’s behavior would have rendered it a villain in many other stories.

In Puss in boots, for those unfamiliar with the tale, a miller dies and leaves his posessions to his three sons: the eldest inherits the mill, the middle son inherits the mules, and the youngest son inherits the cat. Initially despondent, the youngest son uses his remaining funds to buy the cat a pair of boots. The cat, through a campaign of bribery, theft, threats, and deception, manages to trick the king into thinking that the young son is actually a wealthy noble. The son marries the princess, and everyone lives happily ever after.

It’s an interesting story. The human characters are completely passive. The son does whatever his cat tells him, however nonsensical. The princess has no personality whatsoever. Divorced from its fairy-tale context, Puss in boots is the story of a con artist who manipulates his gullible master into riches. Perrault’s moral is that even without a rich inheritence it is possible to be successful with hard work. The fact that the miller’s son does absolutely nothing and ends the story a wealthy noble married to the princess notwithstanding. The second moral, which doesn’t seem to have much of anything to do with the story, is that being young and well-dressed makes it easier to win the love of a princess. Puss in boots is, according to illustrator George Cruikshank “a clever lesson in lying”. The real moral of the story is that it’s easier to trick your way to wealth and success than it is to earn it honestly. In an attempt to mitigate this issue, according to the link above Cruikshank changed the story so that the miller’s son was in fact the deposed marquis of Carabs. The cat’s activities were then justified as an attempt to regain his master’s rightful position.

The fact that the miller’s son’s first inclination is to eat the cat could provide a different interpretation to the story: the cat’s activities are his desparate attempts to save his own life. Still, one thing that’s interesting is the human hero of the tale is largely passive and almost completely irrelevent. Unlike the other “clever trickster” type tales in the commonly accepted Mother Goose canon, the youngest child isn’t particularly clever or special at all.

We are supposed to root for the heroes of Puss in boots not because of their behavior, but because they are the ones the story is about. There’s a similarity to one of the four classics of Chinese literature: The water margin (Shui hu zhuan, also translated as “All men are brothers” or “The outlaws of the marsh” and widely known under the Japanese version of the name: Suikoden). The water margin is the story of a group of bandits who hole up in a fortress in a marsh and fight the government. It’s true that the government officials they fight are corrupt, but the majority of the story involves the “heroes” taking part in more traditional bandit-type activities, including robbing passing travelers and kidnapping the daughters of wealthy merchants. One of the bandits is initiated into a monastary by a wealthy benefactor in order to avoid the authorities. He ends up drinking heavily and laying waste to the temple.

It’s a fun story, but along the same lines of Puss in boots: the “heroes” behave more like the villains of other stories.

There’s a saying in Chinese, it translates to “The young shouldn’t read The water margin, the old shouldn’t read The romance of the three kingdoms”. Like Cruikshanks’s view of Puss in boots, The water margin is seen as sending an inappropriate message to children. The Chinese saying goes on to suggest that The romance of the three kingdoms, a story largely focusing on political scheming and betrayals sends an inappropriate message to older people. The water margin will be the subject of a later post, if this blog still exists at that point.

Now that I consider it, Journey to the west has its share of this issue as well, and it’s a common theme in Chinese literature. It’s also found in the the Japanese Momotaro stories. The various Native American trickster figures, the most well-known of which is Coyote, the European Reynard stories, the Anansi stories of Africa and the Caribbean … all feature the trickster animal whose motives are frequently selfish rather than altruistic. As I write this, it seems to me that Puss in boots stands out less for its irreverent amoraliy than the fact that it takes the classic trickster animal story and places it in a mainstream collection of fables ostensibly presenting good moral guidance.

I love Puss in boots because it’s the anti-fable. Also, it portrays a disturbingly accurate picture of what life with a cat really is like: you do whatever they tell you to, and you end up the better for it.*

 

*Results may vary.