Friday, January 28, 2011

Friday Review, 1/28/2011

(It has been suggested that, if I include an image of the book being reviewed, the break between reviews is cleaner. I'll give it a shot - let me know what you think!)

Scott Lynch - Red Seas Under Red Skies

This is the second of the Locke Lamorra novels. (Amazon tells me that the 3rd one is due out in the middle of February, so not too much longer to wait!) If I were lazy, I'd say that this was Oceans 11 meets Pirates of the Caribbean, and that would be moderately accurate.  There's a casino, and a couple of con men, and also pirates. Locke is not all that far from Jack Sparrow in several scenes - he's a fast talker, he can get other people to cover up his own inadequacies, he likes dressing up - but I think that such a description would seriously cheapen the book, which is considerably deeper than either of those movies.

Ok. First up, I liked the first book better. Much of what I liked about the first book was still present in this book, but not quite to the same extent. Lynch ran out of flashbacks half way through the book - I really liked the conceit in the first book, and was sad when it wasn't continued throughout the second. Where the first book was proud to stand entirely on its own, this book more or less requires a sequel to be complete - good marketing, perhaps, but lacking in chutpah. (That being said, I'm not sure how one might end this book without a cliff hanger ending, so what do I know?) Finally, at the end of the first book, Locke is battered, but arguably triumphant - in this book, not so much.

With that out of the way, I still really really liked this book. It had much of the energy of the first book, and it touched on a lot of the same themes - justice, class warfare, charming rogues and cunning plots, that sort of thing. Further, you could totally read this book without having read the first - Lynch includes many grace notes that reference the first book, but I think they are not so much that, if you started here, you would feel that you missed something.

I especially liked several scenes which present a compelling philosophy of heroism - what does it mean to be a hero? Making hard choices, says Lynch, and being willing to face the consequences of those choices. There were also several scenes which were deeply moving; I may have cried a time or two. If I become emotionally invested in the characters of a book I'm reading, I'd say that it's a pretty good book. In fact, I'm going to go out of something of a limb here and say this: if the third book is as good as the first two, I'm going to have to start watching for these at a price I'm willing to pay.

Taylor Anderson - Destroyermen: Distant Thunders

Anderson is four books into this series of alternative history.*  Midway through World War Two, the USS Walker and the USS Mahan, US destroyers, have found themselves thrown through some sort of portal into a world where humans did not evolve. A world dominated by enormous monsters, both on land and in the sea. A world in which the most prominent sentient species are a group of highly evolved lemurs (the Lemurians) and a group of highly evolved lizard critters (the Grik). The Grik seek to control the planet, and eat anything that gets in their way. The Lemurians become critical allies for the American sailors, who help repel a major assault by the Grik, who have human assistance of their own - from the crew of the Japanese cruiser, Amagi.

In this book, things have become more complicated. There have clearly been several groups of humans from our world who have wandered into this new world, and they've started to have some sort of an influence. The Americans find themselves forced to deal with citizens of New Britain, a colony founded by remnants of an East Indian Company expedition, established on Hawaii. Alliances become complex, and the things which were black and white in the first trilogy suddenly seem less so in this book.

Ok. It's not great literature, but it's an interesting read. Taylor has done his research on the ships of World War Two, and has clearly thought about the attitudes and behaviors of his human protagonists, based on their historical contexts. (Some of this is a little off putting - Americans in the early 1940s were not exactly enlightened as regards gender equality, for instance)  He's also put a great deal of thought into the world he's developing - there is depth there, and complexity. There is a strong element of war porn - lots of loving descriptions of specific weapons and what they are capable of - and towards the end of the last trilogy I was getting an icky sense that the Grik existed so that Taylor could have his protagonists slaughter enemies without Taylor feeling guilty about having his protagonists slaughter enemies.  That icky sense is largely mitigated in this book - Taylor offers considerable nuance as his characters have some luxury of thought away from the confines of impending doom. Also, Taylor's characters develop nicely here - it's easy, I think, to have flat characters in a series like this, but Taylor continues to provide layers for his characters. So, good writing, good characters, lots of action and adventure, and giant fish. It's fun.

I would say, though, that I don't think you could reasonably start reading with this book - there's a lot of backstory that won't make sense if you don't start at the beginning.

Two final things. First, needs more maps. Taylor provides some; and in the past, there have been more - also, the maps come more or less where they are relevant in the book, which minimizes flipping back and forth between the front of the book and where you are reading. Still, there were several times when I wanted to know more accurately where things were happening - the Pacific Ocean is a big place, and narrowing things down a bit would have been nice. Second, Taylor seems to be introducing new ships and crews and such from our world with each book - that's going to get a little old if it continues. It already feels a little like deus ex machina - if the characters can't succeed without additional infusions of modern technology, perhaps they are not doing it right.

*is it alt-hist, though? I'm not sure. I think I described it as "folks from here sent off to somewhere that history went entirely different," so I'm not really sure it qualifies. Clearly, I need to define my terms. I'd say that alt-hist suggests a novel set entirely within a history not our own - Harry Turtledove comes to mind, as does Cherie Priest - and this represents something different. I'll have to think about it.

Cassandra Clare - City of Bones

I read the prequel to this some weeks ago - The Clockwork Angel - and I liked it enough to pick up the first part of the original trilogy. It's a YA novel in the urban fantasy genre. It has a spunky female lead, and she doesn't fall in love with the vampires. There's considerable action, lots of secrets and running around New York with shadowy denizens of the shadows, fighting against other shadowy figures. The plot was fairly twisty. Although Clare telegraphed a lot of her twists well ahead of time, there were a couple of plot twists I didn't see coming, which is always nice.

This book is deeply rooted in the experience of being 15, and I think you need to approach it with that in mind. There was a great scene early in the book where one of the supporting characters presents some truly awful poetry - one of the other characters suggests that it sounds like the poet has eaten a dictionary and is now vomiting up words. This made me wince a little as I thought about the poetry I was writing when I was 15 - it sounded very much the same. With your inner 15 year old firmly in charge, however, you may find this to be an amusing book. My wife has requested that I bring home the next two books, so watch for reviews of them as well.

Next week - Blood and Honey Month begins!