Aug. 24th, 2014

varjohaltia: (Fitengli)
Me friend Tegan had recommended Max Gladstone's Three Parts Dead for the quality of its prose, and being still under the spell of Patrick Rothfuss for the same reason, I gave it a try.

Three Parts Dead is the first book in a series carrying the same name. The books do not proceed chronologically or feature the same characters, but are set in the same world and do have linkages. I liked the first book; didn't love it, but liked it. The prose was nice, the pacing good, and the world is original. If anything, it reminds me of a more serious Ankh-Morpork. If I stop to think about the internal consistency of it too much, I begin to have doubts, but it works well enough to keep the story moving.

The plot itself is a whodunnit, and the characters in question are pretty interesting, even if they don't become entirely three-dimensional. Definitely worth the time and price, though did not make my top-shelf list. Three and a half stars out of five.

Where things get more interesting is with Two Serpents Rise. The events of this book take place before the first, and approach the world from a different angle. In many ways it really fleshes out the cosmology and theology of the world to a much greater degree, and not just by exposition, but by bringing up the inherent moral and ethical conflicts involved.

The plot is hard to pigeon-hole, perhaps calling it an adventure tale will suffice. I was not horribly impressed by the beginning of the novel. It started a bit timidly, but it kept building momentum and continued a good clip for the rest of the book. There were several turning points both in the story and emotion, so the traditional build-up to a climax and descend from there did not apply.

What appealed to me the most here was the relationship between the protagonist and his love interest. The relationship is mutating and complicated, much as reality. While the romantic moment tropes are well present, the entire story is a lot more interesting. Even so, though, the characters never quite came alive as deep people — some of this may be forgiven due to the way the primary relationship serves as an allegory to more fundamental events.

Two Serpents Rise earns four of my five stars, with the note that one of those is completely subjectively given.
varjohaltia: (Fitengli)
Another Amazon / Goodreads suggestion, Ancillary Justice is Ann Leckie's first novel (though not her first published work), a space opera — when a review made a comparison to Iain Banks, and I saw the huge Kindle discount, I was sold.

The premise is that of a far future interplanetary empire. Humans have colonized hundreds if not thousands of planets, and there are huge ships and space stations with superhuman artificial intelligences. These AIs can use human bodies as "ancillaries," avatars of sorts. The main character is one of these ancillaries separated from their ship's AI. By now the parallels to Bank's Culture are probably apparent.

One particular, if not entirely believable, aspect is the way the book deals with gender from the viewpoint of a genderless language and a genderless machine. It'll cause any future Finnish translators a lot of grey hairs. While the rationale behind introducing the verbal trickery may be a bit suspect, the effect was pretty interesting, at least to me.

The language and prose were well crafted, and it's clear time was spent on this book. The pacing is a bit slow — this isn't as much space action as it is a more measured "what if" exploration, which speeds up towards the end. Unfortunately I felt like many of the moral issues were not entirely satisfactorily dealt with. Since the main character isn't human, criticizing them for not really getting all the depth one might want seems churlish.

Overall, I'm a bit torn; if I look at any single technical aspect, Ancillary Justice is a good enough, but not great. And yet it kept me turning pages and neglecting chores and sleep; it clearly is better than the sum of its parts, and all of those parts are perfectly serviceable, if not excellent or particularly original.

Three and a half stars, and I'll definitely pick up the sequel. The plot is self-contained; things are fairly well wrapped up making the read rewarding on its own, but there's a clear larger story arch that has been set up. At least in the Kindle edition, after all the marketing fluff, there's an interesting interview with the author. (And thank goodness, this book knows where it ends, rather than the Kindle thinking I have to page through all the previews for the book to be finished.)

varjohaltia: (Fitengli)
By the recommendation of a coworker, I started to read Steven Brusts's series of fantasy novels, known either as the Jhereg series (from the first book and the mafia-like organization in the books), Vlad Taltos series (based on its protagonist), or The Dragaeran books, though that term encompasses some others as well.

The first thing I should mention is that I think this series absolutely deserves to be thought of as one of the major fantasy series helping to define the genre. The second is that in many aspects it's a bit different from most other series I've read.

The books have been written over two decades and several more are planned. Wikipedia informs me that many aspects of the books have been influenced directly by events in the author's own life; notably the storyline with Vlad's wife, which I had been planning to mention as a wonderful example of a rich, complex relationship that does not feel like it follows the usual norm one expects in literature.

The setting is a fantasy world with magic, monsters, artifacts, gods and a typical low-technology idealized semi-feudal middle-ages social organization. The main character is, as far as we can tell, human. In a slight twist, the majority of characters however aren't; as far as we can tell they're close to the fantasy archetype of elves — who of course consider themselves "human" and the humans to be something lesser.

There are several houses or clans of elves, each of which has personality characteristic of an animal, either mythological or real — though almost all the "real" animals are still unique to this setting. In this respect it reminded me a bit of the Legend of the Five Rings role playing game.

The main character starts off as a minor boss / assassin in a criminal organization, though he also possesses some magic of his own. There is certainly moral ambiguity, and whether the protagonist is a good person or not is immediately apparent.

The series follows the same set of characters, but not in a strictly chronological order. Indeed one of the noteworthy aspects of the series is how skillfully Brust jumps around in Vlad's timeline, filling in events hinted at in previous books, or surprising us with a setting far in the future, and making us wonder how he got there.

The same skill with jump-cuts is also applied within the books themselves, which tend to interleave events and scenes, but do them in such a way that it adds to the story rather than seeming like an artificial storytelling device. For example, in Dragon, a military battle, the events leading up to it, and the aftermath all alternate. In one of the books one of the alternating narratives switches to two of the women in Vlad's life discussing his actions that are being covered in the book.

Finally, the style and approach varies from book to book. Sometimes the next book in the series picks up exactly from where the previous one left off, sometimes the next book jumps far away in time. Whether a book is high fantasy, a mystery story, military fantasy or something else also changes from book to book, as do the storytelling devices used. Not every book uses the same alternating narrative devices or the same way. As a consequence I like some books more than others; the aforementioned Dragon is likely my least favorite, but otherwise they've all been eminently readable and gripping.

The books are written from the narrative viewpoint of Vlad; he has a familiar with whom he is mentally linked, and aside from being amazingly useful, it affords a very powerful and constantly utilized way to add levity, exposition and and an excuse to voice Vlad's thoughts.

What the series isn't is high brow literature. There are aspects to the dialogue, plot and setting that clearly are intended to be humorous and almost meta, relying on our modern sensibilities and knowledge of our own world, rather than remaining an completely and utterly isolated treatment of a fantasy world. Perhaps this annoys some of you, for me it was sufficiently unobtrusive and worthwhile that it added to my enjoyment of the books. Brust also places some affectations on his character, primarily the indulgent descriptions and concentration on foods.

The prose is good; not amazing and lyrical like Patrick Rothfuss, but the vocabulary used is good and the use of language is skillful. The pacing of the plot is good, and while we obviously know some things ahead of time, I do not find the events predictable at all.

All of the books and stories seem to contribute to a coherent meta-plot and story. We see Vlad transform from the person we met at the first book; we learn what he was and how he got to that point, and we learn how he ends up changing with subsequent life events. Vlad's relationships with people and increasing knowledge of the world he lives in shapes him, much the same way those things shape us. We learn more about the cosmology of the world, and about the deeper meanings of many people, events and threads that may not have seemed important in the past.

The books are self-contained. They do not end on cliffhangers. I suspect you could, mostly, pick up any of

them and start reading, though it certainly is helpful to be familiar with the world and characters.

In short, the series is on my awesome list and gets four and a half out of five; four for the books, and the extra half for managing to turn it all into a truly epic scope of a tale.

As a bonus, here's Penny Arcade's take.


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