Saturday, July 16, 2011

Friday Review Post, 7/15/2011

Four books this week. Man, I was a reading machine this week! I discovered a secret - if I take the baby outside, she will roll and play happily much longer than if she's on the floor in the living room. Plus, since I have to sit and watch her, there's not a lot else I can do while I'm outside with her. So, reading time! (Also, hanging laundry and such.)

Patrick Rothfuss - A Wise Man's Fear

This is the second of Rothfuss' King Killer Trilogy. The second, and much awaited, I should say. I have decided that this book could kill its readers in at least 3 different ways. 1) It could fall off of a high shelf and cave in their head. 2) a reader could trip over it and fall down the stairs. 3) It could induce the reader to stay up long into the night several nights running, thus impairing the reader's judgement, and thus resulting in some sort of fatal kitchen accident.

From that, one might gather that the book is quite large (which it is - massive!) and that it is the sort of book that you don't want to stop reading, even though it's midnight, or one, or two in the morning. And that would be true. The thing is, when the book is described, it's hard to imagine why that would be the case. Kvothe, the principle character (and the narrator) has been presented as someone who, when making their role playing character, took all of the backgrounds. He's a gypsy (Edema Roh - but, basically, a gypsy), he's an orphan, he's been a beggar, he's a bard, he's a magician, he's a sword fighter and a monk ... He's the youngest person ever to be accepted at the University (where people learn to be arcanists - magicians), he startles his professors, he struggles his way through adversity - this book shouldn't work. But it does. It works on a lot of levels.

First, Rothfuss presents us with a highly sympathetic character. Kvothe isn't super-capable; Rothfuss shows him trying, and failing, and learning, and trying again. He's not unnaturally bright, either - he falls into a lot of the traps that the average 16 year old falls into, especially in re: women. Plus, Kvothe is narrating the whole story from his retirement (more or less), so we get a wry view of his youthful escapades, and that's good.

Additionally, Rothfuss has Kvothe wrestle with some fairly weighty stuff; justice, revenge, mercy, love, the relationship between men and women in society. At one point - I really liked this, incidentally - Kvothe spends some months with a group of, basically, monks, where he learns (to the best of his limited ability - there's a whole chapter of him being beaten up by a 10 year old girl, because she's been practicing since she could walk, and he hasn't) a particular style of fighting. As he leaves the society, he learns that the society firmly believes that men are utterly extraneous. The society is entirely sex-positive - there is no social taboo against sex - and so women periodically get pregnant. When Kvothe suggests that sex leads to pregnancy, they laugh at him; his society, they suggest, believes in man-mothers, but this is clearly absurd. Sex is fun, yes, but pregnancy just happens, and men have nothing to do with it. I dunno, when I describe it, it sounds kinda silly - but it works in the book.

Above all, this book is about stories. It is about telling stories, about how stories start and spread and change. It is about the struggle between truth and rumor, and how rumor becomes truth. I think this is why I like the books - I'm sucker for a discussion on stories.

There were two bits I didn't like. Twice, Kvothe skips over stuff - there's a trial, and he says "it was boring, I don't want to talk about it, let's skip to the next bit where I'm amazing." Later, he uses a single paragraph to sum up a difficult passage between the University and where he's been sent to get a job for a year - there were pirates, and a storm, and he got mugged, so he arrived with rags and his lute case. Kvothe's (and, one assumes, Rothfuss') position in both cases is that fully describing those events would have made the book even longer, and we, the readers, don't really need to know what happened there. Still, it felt a little awkward.

A final caveat - I've spent some time thinking about whether you could start the series here - and I don't think you can. I mean, you can probably pick up the narrative, but the first book was equally massive, and so you'll miss a lot of the back-story. I do think the books are worth picking up if you haven't read them yet. They're full of adventure and humor and wonder and sword fighting and danger and such, and they're a surprisingly quick read, for all that they're huge. Just, you know, don't operate heavy machinery after your second late night, and try not to put your copy up on a high shelf, or near the top of the stairs, and you should be fine.

A slight digression - I have several young (early 20s and younger) who have taken to abusing the term "Epic." Ok, it's not just them - suddenly everything is "Epic." So, I've begun insisting that something can't be epic unless it involves at least one god and/or classic epic poetic form (Hiawatha is clearly an epic, but no gods.) The problem I have is this - can I describe these books as an epic? I don't think I can, given my own definitions - I may have to revise them.

Neve Maslakovic - Regarding Ducks and Universes

This one was odd. First, it's set in San Francisco, about 10 years into the future. Sort of. In 1986, the universe bifurcated, but in such a way that transit between the two universes is possible. From the split point (Y day - because prior to that point, the universe was a single thread, but it diverged into two separate threads, like a Y), the two universes have gone in separate directions. In Universe A, the Golden Gate Bridge collapsed in an earthquake - in Universe B, it did not. Oh - also, the universe prior to 1986? Not, actually, our universe - the big California Gold Rush was not until 1855 in that universe (in our universe, it was 1849; hence the Miner '49er with his daughter, Clementine).

So, anyway, Felix is a writer for a kitchenware company in Universe A. He is also trying to write a mystery novel. Shortly after his 35th birthday, he receives a picture from his great-aunt (who has died) which suggests that Felix was born before Y day, not after, as he had originally believed. This means that he has an alternate in Universe B - Felix B - who might, conceivably, also be writing a mystery novel. Or, worse, have already written it, in which case Felix A is wasting his time. So, the action of the novel focuses on Felix A travelling to Universe B to see if his alter has written a mystery novel, or is further along in the process than Felix A. This is illegal - unless your alter specifically requests it, there should be no contact between the two. So, it's an odd story. And it just gets odder from there - Felix ends up mixed up in a scientific study of the divergence point, and the whole thing spirals into confusion and complication.

Despite this set up, the story is really quite good. Yes, it's complex and complicated; yes, there's a lot of mad cap dashing around, trying to find clues that are at least 35 years old. Felix A finds that someone is trying to kill him - could it be Felix B? Possibly, Felix A falls in love (it's unclear). Maybe ducks can create universes (that's also unclear). Could there be a Universe C, or D? The whole book is a puzzle, but not the sort of puzzle where the author is clearly messing with you. It's a comfortable puzzle, a puzzle that the author asks you to help her unravel as you both muddle along - as all three (or four) of you; the author, and you, and Felix and Felix - muddle along through the complexities. So, it was odd, but fun.

Hilari Bell - Trickster's Girl

This is also set in the mid-near future. Ecologically, things are starting to get better - but they got worse first. There's a reference to the Florida Islands, and a suggestion that, if water levels drop a bit more, they might be a peninsula again. Additionally, some bio-terrorists released a tree disease in the Amazon to blackmail the world governments for money. They got the money, released the counteragent - and the disease spread anyway.

Into this mess, Bell tosses Kelsa Phillipps, who's father, a biologist and ecologist, has just died of cancer. Kelsa encounters a young man who claims to be Raven, the Native American Trickster. He does some things (changing into a raven, mostly) that finally convince her that he isn't lying. Then he convinces her that the issue with the trees is because people don't believe in magic, and so the ley lines are all messed up, and so Kelsa must help him fix them. They set off (Kelsa, reluctantly) on a quest to Alaska to heal ley line nodes.

Over all, the story was cute, but not very deep. Bell has some fun updating technology - maglev cars; really tight security around and within the United States - and playing it off against classic fairy tale magic. The plot is pretty linear -  Kelsa and Raven get chased by some scary bikers, and Raven lies and misrepresents facts a lot. Kelsa learns something about herself and the world, which is the point, I guess. Still, after Rotfuss and Maslakovic, there wasn't much to sink my teeth into.

Also, I didn't like the relationship between Kelsa and Raven. As I say, he lies a lot. There's a strong stalker vibe from him, too - Kelsa spends a lot of the book worrying about that, but travels with him anyway. Which, I suppose, is the point of a Trickster - you end up better off at the end of the interaction, but the transit from the beginning to the end is circuitous and often confusing. Still - it was odd to see in a YA novel; "he's a stalker, and I'm not sure he's not going to rape and kill me (possibly in that order), but I'll travel with him (without mace or anything, even) and see where it goes..." I would have liked some sort of justification for that, I think.

In the end, I didn't not like the book, which is fairly faint praise. It was a nice change of pace. I'll probably read the second half, if I see it.

Cherie Priest - Bloodshot

Raylene is a vampire. She is also a burglar; a very good one. She's also full of snark, which is delightful. I really like Raylene as a character, and will happily read more of these books.

A little plot - Raylene is hired by Ian Stott, a vampire, to retrieve some paperwork. Ian was captured by the US military and subjected to experiments that have left him blind. He wants Raylene to secure his records so that he can get the assistance of a doctor to fix his eyes. As Raylene begins to look into the case, she finds that it is far more complicated that originally thought, as government agents descend upon her and make her life ... interesting. Throw in some parcour/parkour (which is hella cool - I wish I was in better shape, because it looks like fun!) enthusiasts, and the result is a pretty solid book.

It's also, fairly clearly, an establishing book. We're being introduced to a series of characters who will be in the next book, and the book after that. Lots of juicy character description - this is either good (because it means that the characters are already deep and real) or bad (because there's nowhere to go but down), but I'm inclined to view it as a good thing. Priest also establishes a long term antagonist which will provide plot for at least the next book, and probably the book after that as well. That is ... mostly good. As expressed in a much earlier post, I'm not keen on books that don't end. I'm not a fan of " be continued." As I approached the end of the book, it became clear that we (the readers) were being set up for a "... to be continued," and I read on with trepidation. Priest skirts that - the story resolves in this book, and it's mostly satisfactory, but there are serious loose ends. To stretch the TV analogy - this episode concludes, but a future episode will required a prologue - "previously on ..."

Beyond that, a very good book. Solid narrative. A delightful snarky voice in Raylene (who is clearly over-confident, but also really very good at what she does). Some interesting musing on what makes someone human. Priest really plays with that - vampires as a metaphor, perhaps - and drives it home with the fact that one of the characters is an ex-navy SEAL and a drag queen, which places him/her in an interesting social space. If he is socially accepted, how about vampires? If vampires are socially accepted, what about her? Surprising depth, and a nice cap to a week of (mostly) deep, chewy books. I will definitely pick up the next one of these.