Friday, November 25, 2011

Friday Review post, 11/25/2011

I'm writing this on my in-laws desktop, and I just want to say that this monitor is huge - my data entry window, which on my monitor mostly fills the screen, is a tiny rectangle in the middle of a sea of grey. A little difficult to get used to.

Ok, to the reviews. Three this week:

Lee Arthur Chane - Magebane

Chane combines some steampunk sensibilities with a magic world, infuses the whole thing with some potent political plotting, and presents the result - a fantastic novel.

The setting - a magical kingdom completely separated from the rest of the world by a magical barrier. Within the kingdom, magic users are the ruling class (the palace is further separated by a second barrier within which it is perpetually summer) and the common folks are little better than slaves to the whims of the magic users.

Plot one - Lord Falk - a magic user - seeks to use his position as Minister of Public Safety to plot his way onto the throne. Falk is a delightfully mustache-twirler of a villain, entirely willing to use torture and murder of innocents to get what he wants. Once king, he plans to dissolve the great barrier and invade the outside world.

Plot two - a character who I will not name for spoiler reasons also seeks to see the barrier collapse - because si conjectures that this will result in the destruction of magic as a force, allowing the Commons to rise in revolt. Si is also perfectly willing to use torture and murder to get what si wants, but hir cause is righteous, so it MUST be ok, right?

Falk and the unnamed plotter (UP) work together; Falk is unaware of the UP's ultimate goal, and thinks he is using hir to further his aims.

Everything is thrown into disarray when Anton, a young man from the non-magical side of the barrier, drops in (literally) when the dirigible he is using fails. Anton falls in love with Falk's ward, and they end up engaged in yet another plot - escape Falk and survive.

A further complication is the possibility of a magebane - someone who can absorb and redirect magical energy, thus depriving the magic users of their strength. Given the book's title, I don't think it's much of a spoiler to suggest that this character does indeed exist.

The steampunk comes from the idea that technology levels the playing field between the Commons and the Lords. It's a fairly light element in the novel, which is far more concerned with magic and love than it is with technology.

Ultimately, a highly satisfying novel. I'd love to see something further in the world that Chane has created, although this book stands entirely alone. The element that I most liked was the fact that the UP's righteous cause is not sufficient to justify hir unrighteous means - good triumphs despite its dubious allies.

George Martin - A Feast for Crows

This book does not stand alone. It is the fourth of Martin's Song of Fire and Ice series. This is the book that Martin split into two books. The first book (this one) was published in 2005; the afterword suggested that the second book was mostly finished, and would be published, ideally, in 2006. It was finally published this year, in July. As such, this book is a little unsatisfying, since it only tells half of the story it was originally intended to tell. I suspect that the next book (Dance With Dragons) will be equally unsatisfying. One of the elements that I have enjoyed about the series is the way in which plotlines which are geographically diverse feed on each other - this element is missing from this book, and is likely to be missing from the second half as well. Further, the material in the most recent book will occur simultaneously with this book. I want to read the book, and will, as soon as it shows up at the library again. But, ok, that's not so much about this book, but rather about a book I haven't read yet...

This book opens with a reminder not to get attached to characters at all. Martin introduces a character, with a back story, friends, motivations, ambitions, a love - and then kills him. We hear nothing more about him or the circumstances around his death.

Martin is just as casually brutal with characters who we've been following since book 1. Don't get attached - there's a decent chance your favorite character is going to die, probably while doing something disgustingly noble and good. Probably as a result of the noble and good thing they are doing.

So, look - if you're already reading the series, and you've arrived at book 4, you're probably going to continue with book 4, and push on to book 5, and, ultimately, the end of the series (which, I predict, will be cataclysmic and destructive). If you aren't reading the series - this isn't the place to start. If you like politics heavy books with an unrelentingly grey moral tone, in which the person who is mostly likely to die is the one who is most noble and good - start with A Game of Thrones and push on from there. If not - this is probably not the series for you.

Some further musings, however. This book seems to focus heavily on two motifs. One is the character with a romantic view of the world prior to the chaos of the civil war. (There are several characters who fit this mold, but Brienne is the one I'm thinking of.) This person acts as though the romantic image is something that was a) real at the time (Martin suggests, repeatedly, that it was not) and b) that, through dint of will, the romantic version of the past can be re-created in the present (Martin suggests, repeatedly, that it cannot). The other motif is the character who recognizes the endemic ugliness of the world and seeks to do something concrete about it, either to better the world (in this book, I'm thinking of Jamie [oddly enough] and Arianne) or to better themselves (Cersei [naturally] and Petyr Littlefinger [also naturally]). The strong implication is that the last group - those who seek to use the ugliness to improve their own lot in life - are (at least temporarily) the most successful. That is why I think this is leading to a cataclysm - this world is so rotten that it needs a despot (with dragons!) to make it right.


I did say 3 books didn't I? The third book:

Lisa Medley - Castle Waiting, Vol I and II

An utterly delightful graphic novel. I had read Vol I ages and ages ago, and Vol II came out earlier this year - a long wait (not unlike George Martin, above). I don't, as a rule, review graphic novels, but I thought I would make an exception for this one, because it is a) gorgeous, and b) really really good.

So. It is gorgeous - the printers chose a nice heavy paper with a pleasant yellow tint. The art is all hand drawn, and highly detailed. The books each have one of those attached bookmark things - the ribbon in the binding so that you can mark your place without losing your bookmark. Both volumes are a pure delight to hold, look at, and read.

The story is brilliant as well. Medley is playing very complex games with fairy tales. The titular Castle is the castle of Sleeping Beauty. When Beauty wakes up to her prince's kiss, she abandons the castle (and everyone who lived in it), and it has since become a place of sanctuary for an odd group of characters.

The cast of characters is quite odd, ranging from some fairly normal fairy tale type humans to a group of dwarves to a whole menagerie of animal headed people. Medley makes no effort to explain why some of the characters have animal heads, and, really, she doesn't need to. No one in the story feels that this is odd in anyway; why should the readers?

Medley weaves a series of interlocking stories together in much the same way that Catherynne Valente does in her Orphan's Tales books. Someone will be telling a story, which will have nested within it a second story, which will have nested within it a third story, and so on. Delightful (but also frustrating, because the stories just keep going on and on without finishing...)

Which is, in the end, the only problem with the books. The second book ends rather abruptly, right in the middle of a story. Presumably, the story will be continued in a third volume - perhaps even concluded - but that's not guaranteed. At the author's request (according to the publisher), Medley's name is nowhere on the second volume. That bodes ill, perhaps... Still, a third volume, even if we have to wait several years, will be well worth it. I recommend this pair of books to anyone who likes fairy tales, strong independent female characters, excellent writing, and gorgeous artwork.