Friday, February 22, 2008

The Darkness That Comes Before: Book One of The Prince of Nothing Trilogy by R. Scott Bakker

608 pages
Overlook Press (June 2004 UK)

This is the fourth series I picked up on from Sffworld readers, publishers, and forum posters praised several series that I decided I had to find and read, the first being The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, which turned out to be one of the past several years best reads. Second was Joe Abercrombie's First Law Trilogy which also turned out quite spectacular and comes to conclusion later on this year. Then I picked up probably the most praised on the forum, Steven Erikson's Fallen Book of the Malazan Series, which turned out to be quite the disappointment, though I only ventured one book deep. I guess I saved the best for last because Scott Bakker's foray into fantasy is leaps and bounds better than Erikson's, as far as my tastes go at least, and is also better than Lies and The First Law. Lynch's unfinished series may have better characters and a more accessible, fun story; Abercrombie's trilogy may be more mainstream and more of what fantasy readers may look for in a book, but Bakker's Prince of Nothing trilogy presents something on a grand scale. This first book touches only the tip of a presumably immense iceberg, The Darkness That Comes Before threatens the readers religious and moral upbringing and intellect, demanding deep and reflective thinking.

The Darkness That Comes Before is about a land on the brink of Holy War where warlords and leaders are vying for control of a massive marching army. The army is headed for Shimeh where they plan to defeat the Fanim and Cishaurim, the rulers in the southeast and haters of The Tusk and Inrithism, which is the widely accepted, dominant religion across the western Three Seas. The Fanim is an upstart monotheistic faith that is founded on the revelations of the Prophet Fane, and the Cishaurim is their highly feared faction of sorcerer's.

The novel is seen through several pairs of eyes. Anasurimbor Kellhus is a Dunyain monk that receives dreams from his lost father of an impending holy war. The Dunyain is a hidden monastic sect that focuses on highly refined motor reflexes and higher thinking. They are capable of seeing the future and are highly trained in combat.

Drusas Achamian is a sorcerer of the Mandate, a gnostic school that fights against the Consult (a faction of ancient magi that are bent one bringing about the return of the No-God, whom is responsible for the first apocalypse).

Cnaiur is a ruthless Scylvendi tribal leader that lost his entire clan in a bloody battle against the Nansur Empire. With nowhere to go, he joins with Kellhus and travels through Nansur to join in the Holy War.

Esmenet is a prostitute that resides in Sumni. She is often paid for services by Achamian, and as result, she has further feelings for the sorcery, and he likewise.

It sounds like its a convoluted mess of characters, lands, and religions, but when read each is fleshed out and described in not overly detailed description, but just enough to make you grasp who the person is and what their mission is. Not long into the book you understand where places are, what religion is practiced where, and what ruler wants of this Holy War. This book is like a much better version of my previously reviewed Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson. His novel wasn't nearly as mapped out as Bakker's, and the characters weren't nearly as real.

The plot is original and the characters are believable. Cnaiur is devilishly brutal and Kellhus is god-like in his ability to see what is to come before it happens. Achamian is subject to a dying faction of magic users, but he sees his role in this war. In this initial novel, the Holy War isn't fought, but its impending doom is foreboding and dark. Common soldiers are excited about the coming battles and chances of glory and fame, yet the players that move the pieces are frightened and reluctant to face the dreaded Cishaurim. Bakker knows what good reading consists of and he litters his debut with it, rarely does he let up and allow the reader to take a restful breath. The Warrior Prophet is next in line on my bookshelf. [4.5/5]

Friday, January 11, 2008

Gardens of the Moon: Volume One of the Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson

496 pages
Bantam/Tor (1999, 2000 UK)

I'll start by saying that this book is very difficult to review. I really don't know where to start in regards to defining the plot of this book. It's mainly about the battles among the invading Malazan Empire, the mages of the city of Darujhistan, and Lord Anomander Rake who is the lord of Moonspawn, a floating fortress. All of which want control of one of the last remaining free cities (Darujhistan).

Right from the start, this is a very confusing book. I consider myself well-read in the fantasy genre, but this one is on the edge of being beyond understanding and comprehension, even more so than The Lord of the Rings. Too many leading characters, too many different factions of warriors and their leaders lead me to scratching my head constantly wondering 'When will this make sense?' I persisted through it to the ending in hopes of finding out why so many fantasy aficionados put this series of books on such a high pedestal. After some blog and forum reading, many do say that this book is confounding and that the initial book of the series makes sense later on after reading subsequent stories. Who knows if I'll make it to book two?

I don't have much to say about Steven Erikson's alleged modern day masterpiece. It wasn't a bad book, just too much going on for my likes. I'm sure all of these pieces fit into a greater puzzle, but it's just not a great way to start a series. I will say that the book picked up in the end, becoming a page turner that I literally didn't want to put down, but it would have been better if the entire book followed that pattern. The series is definitely high fantasy, which I do like, it's gritty and violent and isn't afraid to be so. While the book isn't large, I think it would have been better if it was fleshed out in two books, making it more understandable and a better overall read. The Deadhouse Gates is the next Malzan Book of the Fallen, maybe one day I'll read it. [2/5]

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Red Seas Under Red Skies: Book Two of the Gentlemen Bastard Series by Scott Lynch

576 pages
Spectra (July 31, 2007 US)

Scott Lynch invites us back into the world of Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen on their second outing as the appropriately titled Gentlemen Bastards.

This time around, the duo find themselves two years older and a safe distance away from last years "The Lies of Locke Lamora" Camorr setting. Looking to rebound from their previous heist, Locke and Jean set out to rob a casino and simultaneously pull the rug out from under the archon of Tal Verarr. Aristocratic casino owner Requin and city-state mayor Stragos are at odds with each other and both find means to use Jean and Locke against the other to rob them of their money and their position. Of course in the midst of this, the Gentlemen Bastards have ideas of their own to make out with the loot for themselves and pack an emotional punch to each of the arrogant mens ego. Gambling, booze, beatings, near deaths, pirates, sea monsters and laughs await Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen in Scott Lynch's second book, Red Seas Under Red Skies.

There is a lot of good about this book. Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen are still the best pair of characters in recent memory. The two go together like a fine fitting leather glove and a hand model, a story without just one of these two characters would be a considerably less enjoyable story. They work off each other like James Hettfield and Kirk Hammet, hand in hand. In Red Seas the duo set their sights maybe a tad bit too high, and in one two many places at once, and they then find themselves out at sea captaining their own pirate ship, something neither of the two have any knowledge of doing. The story falters a bit here, although the journey out to sea is by far the best part of the book and story, it seems way too far askew of the original plot of the book. Scott Lynch had two great ideas it seemed, but he just couldn't find the best way to properly combine the two. Each story would have been better and more fully realized if they were in two separate novels. The ending is also way too short, Locke finds a way out way too simply, but Lamora is the best thief in all of Camorr and lands beyond, he does seem to work best on short notice.

I loved this book the whole way through, it was just too much fun to witness the interactions between Locke and Jean, between those two and everything they come across. Without these two icons the Gentlemen Bastard series would be just another attempt at fantasy storytelling. With that being said, I loved Red Seas while reading it, but in retrospect, the story is too convoluted at times, especially in the beginning and ending sequences. When compared to The Lies of Locke Lamora, Red Seas fails to even come remotely close to equaling the story and plot of its predecessor. I still consider the end of Lies as my personal second favorite end to a novel. Plot and story set aside, this is still my favorite pair of characters to read about. The Republic of Thieves is due out in June of 2008 in the UK. [3.5/5]

Monday, August 27, 2007

Before They Are Hanged: The First Law: Book Two by Joe Abercrombie

448 pages
Gollancz (March 15, 2007 UK)

Joe Abercrombie proves himself with his second book in the First Law Trilogy, Before They Are Hanged, follow up to last years well received The Blade Itself. This book is equally, if not more, exciting than last years First Law book.

This time around, Logen Ninefingers, Bayaz: First of the Magi, his apprentice Quai, Jezel dan Luthar, and Ferro Maljinn trek across the ragged countryside, through treacherous terrain and through mysterious, ancient cities, all en route to the 'seed' that will bring down the army of the Eaters, gruesome human/devil hybrids that literally eat their prey.

Newly promoted Captain West leads the Union into battle against King of the Northmen-Bethod. Upon finding Bethod's army, West stumbles upon Dogman, Threetrees, Harding Grim, Tul Duru, and Black Dow, five 'Named Men' of the North that are old mates of Ninefingers. These brutish warriors want to take down Bethod and his army for their own personal reasons. Together, the Named Men, West and a very untrained army head face to face against Bethod's front line.

Superior Inquisitor Sand dan Glokta is sent to Union owned Dagoska to find the truth to the disappearance of his predecessor Superior Davoust. Upon arrival, Glokta finds the walled fortification under imminent siege and lands himself as head of Dagoska's forces. Glokta and underling Practicals Severard and Frost make friends and enemies (of course) alike in the place and finally heads back for home, only to find himself in yet another tight spot.

Joe Abercrombie told a great story in The Blade Itself, the continuation Before They Are Hanged is even better. The story flows better and the characters become much more intriguing than they were in the first installment. The battles are more gruesome and bloodier, the journeys are more devoted and character altering. By the end of the book you really wish you had the next chapter in The First Law waiting in your bookshelf. Oddly enough though, and also a welcome change to most endings of the second book in a trilogy, the novel does not end in a cliffhanger. It concludes gracefully and leaves separate openings for each story taking place and leaves you not guessing and saying 'I have to read the next one, now!', but thinking about what could and what may take place.

Once again, Abercrombie does not open any doors in the realm of fantasy, he just expands on the framework that most people love and find enjoyable in a fantasy book. Great heroes, ill tempered and mutated enemies, laughable situations, palpable characters, and all in all, an immensely fun story. The Last Argument of Kings is due March of 08. "We should forgive our enemies, but not before they are hanged." -Heinrich Heine. [4/5]

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Renegade's Magic: Book Three of the Soldier Son Trilogy by Robin Hobb

624 pages
Voyager (July 2, 2007 UK)

Robin Hobb concludes her newest trilogy with Renegade's Magic, book three of her Soldier Son Trilogy. Can Hobb top or equal any one of her previous three trilogies that are considered by most fantasy readers as one of todays best fantasy stories?

Nevare Burvelle's role in Renegade's Magic is a voice in the back of the head of Soldier's Boy, the living part that is in control of the body that was once military fit Nevare. Now as a magically fat 'Great One', Nevare loses all control of his being and sits as a passenger with little to no say in what his body does. Soldier's Boy is set on destroying Nevare's military post of Gettys in order to stop the building and construction of the Kings Road that will eventually tear down the ancestor trees in which dead Great Ones souls now reside in. Nevare is dead set on letting his family and friends of Gettys live while Soldier's Boy will not relent and is determined to destroy at whatever means necessary the lives of every person alive in the small military front. These consciences battle for control of the physical body of Nevare Burvelle and ultimately the fate of the country of Ghernia.

First off, one must comment on Robin Hobbs writing ability, and for her style of writing throughout the first three quarters of Renegade's Magic. She somehow writes in first person of Nevare with zero control of his physical body. What this translates to is that Hobb was writing a whole lot like 'Soldier's Boy regained a good deal of his weight...The height I had inherited from my father benefited him there...'. She basically tells the story of a voice that is disconnected from its body, and someone else with an entirely different focus has control of it. I imagine it was very difficult to write this with such precision and without losing focus of the story.

Now for the story itself. The story is very original and near brilliant, its just very slow paced. The magic system is very original and different, a direction I would say that few would dare to take. The story of the Great Ones and their ancestor trees is borderline too close to Orson Scott Cards 'Speaker for the Dead' Sci Fi masterpiece. There are no dragons, no explosions, no breathtaking romances, and no dramatic fight scenes (aside from one that lasts very little time). Altogether, the story lacks fireworks and bangs, bells and whistles, but Hobb's books always have. The action, as always for her, is backseat to the character interaction.

Once again, being a Robin Hobb book, this one is no different from her others, its main attraction is its characters. Absurdly real thoughts and feelings are displayed in Nevare, his decisions are ones that you and I would make in a real world situation. His love is real, and likewise, his hatred is real. Robin Hobb's knack for writing about frighteningly real characters is equally as prevalent in this book as it is in any of her writings. Nevare is easily this years most believable character.

In conclusion, book three is far better than one and two, but that being said, Renegade's Magic is still not the best of books, and still further, its far from what Hobb has done in the past. Sadly, I doubt she will ever top her Assassin, Liveship, and Tawny Man trilogies. Whats strange is that right around page four hundred, this story takes a turn that almost brings me back to the edge of my seat page turning from her three previous trilogies. If there was more of this, this series would be much better. But aside from that, The Soldier Son Trilogy is very solid, very original, and a strong story of the inner battles of an easily realized character. Robin Hobbs latest isn't her best, but it still beats a great majority of what litters the Science Fiction/Fantasy shelves of your local bookstore. [book: 4/5, trilogy: 3.5/5]

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Year 7
by J. K. Rowling

759 pages
Scholastic (July 21, 2007 US)

Does The Boy Who Lived survive? Does He -Who -Shall -Not -Be -Named live? Is Severus Snape really to be trusted, what really happened to Albus Dumbledoor? All of these questions and more are finally answered in J. K. Rowling's final installment of the Harry Potter series.

After an explosive, emotional, and eventful trip from Privet Drive to the cluttered Weasley abode, Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger resurface from their summer vacations and find themselves preparing the place for a wedding joining Fleur Delacor and Bill Weasley in marriage. Finally, the wedding day arrives and the celebration is crashed by Death Eaters and members of the Ministry of Magic. Of course the evil followers of Voldemort are searching for Potter, but he and his two best of friends narrowly escape and find themselves on a months long hideout from the searchers. Harry and crew during this time of hiding contemplate possible Horcrux's and their various possible locations. In the midst of this hideout is where the tale of the Deathly Hallows comes into being. Harry becomes addicted to finding the Deathstick Wand and the Resurrection Stone. After many epiphanies and realizations, many way too close captures by the Death Eaters, and many arguments and fights, the gang find themselves in possession or near-possession of the Deathly Hallows and cracking down on all of the Horcrux's. Of course to gain what is needed and what is needed to be destroyed, Harry finds himself at the Battle of Hogwarts and face to face with every existing Death Auror and every conceivable monster, and of course..Lord Voldemort. The battle ensues and comrades are fallen, tears are shed, and a winner is left victorious. An epilogue closes out the book and brings finality to the mega blockbuster series that is Harry Potter.

There are many, many great parts of this book. There are also many parts of this book that are not so great. For me, this final chapter of Harry Potter does not contain the magic that the first four books held in so much abundance. The characters and their interactions are all still very enjoyable and the dialog is often enjoyable as well, but this story just falters where The Prisoner of Azkaban and The Goblet of Fire strives. The story takes way too long get to its points, and the points themselves seem to be way too contrived. The Deathly Hallows, in my opinion, is such a weak plot for this unrivaled series ending book. The Horcrux idea was a great plot that may have gotten its start maybe a bit too late in the series, but it did have a bit of a glimpse with Tom Riddles diary and the locket in the drawer, but if Rowling would've just kept that story as the main focus of Year 7, this would have been a much better and more cohesive book. The ending is way too confusing, or rather, befuddled. Rowling twists plots way too much, and seemingly way to forcefully. The book reminds me of a season of 24, way too many time bomb in your hands but you cut the right wire at the last second moments. All kinds of new twists in the magic system are discovered and all new sides of important characters are found as well. This book just does not meet the overall flow of Harry Potter as a whole. Severus Snape was basically cut out as a character, he shows up in the last two chapters of the nearly 800 page book, weak. I won't say how the book ended, but I will say that I don't like it, but at times I forget, this is a children's book, but is it anymore?

My complaints seem to greatly outweigh my pros. At times in the book I did laugh, I was also mournful at times, and very nearly shed a tear. Dumbledoor is still one of the best characters of all time, and so is Snape, but of course he had somewhere less than a dozen lines of dialog. Ms. Rowling got rolling a wonderful and imaginative tale but she left it kind of floundering in an unfleshed out mess. Too little thought was given and too weak of writing was done to maximize this once untouchable story. You don't write an epilogue seven and a half pages long to a seven book large series, especially when its the most anticipated book of all time. I'll end this by saying it was a mediocre book, a disappointing ending, and it left me nearly mad at Rowling, I felt wronged by her lack of imagination. She ended not horribly, probably just disappointingly, what she started so grandly, so full of imagination and so flawlessly. [book: 2/5, series: 4/5]

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Name of the Wind
The Kingkiller Chronicles: Day One
by Patrick Rothfuss

662 pages
DAW (March 26, 2007 US)

"A silence of three parts. The Waystone Inn was his, just as the third silence was his. This was appropriate, as it was the greatest silence of the three, wrapping the others inside itself. It was deep and wide as autumn's ending. It was heavy as a great river-smooth stone. It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die."

The last paragraph of the first chapter sums up the whole of what the reader will find in Patrick Rothfuss' tale of a lonely innkeeper divulging his inner secrets and life story to a traveling writer. This book is both deep and wide. It is also heavy. It can also be quite grim, like the patience of a man waiting to die.

Another new author in the year of 2007 that seeks to fit amongst the ranks of todays premier high fantasy legends. Rothfuss hits the nail on the head his first person narrative debut, The Name of the Wind. Part one of a trilogy (so far), the novel opens with an innkeeper looking inwards and finding not what he wants to see, or rather, not what he use to be. With a great longing to get back what he once had, he sighs to himself and lays in a bed devoid of sleep. Out of nowhere, a traveling writer named Chronicler visits the inn and captures Kvothe's first person narrative on paper, which is what we, the readers, read. In Day One, Chronicler visits Kvothe's childhood and early to mid teen years.

Kvothe of the Edema Ruh, a traveling troupe of actors, singers, and musicians, finds himself to be an orphan (much to my dislike, aren't all of our heroes orphans?). Without his parents and traveling family, Kvothe follows his love of magic to Hogwarts, er The University. While there, the young student proves his talents and knowledge and surpasses his peers in the art of magic and naming. Financially strapped and always in trouble, Kvothe is at constant odds in his first year of magical learning. Ron and Hermione, er, Wil and Sim are loyal and honest friends that are at his side to voice their opinion and deal out sometimes helpful and sometimes not so helpful advice. Then there is Denna, the hard to get flower of a girl that is always at Kvothe's fingertips but always ever so distant. Harry, er, Kvothe is our lovable hero that is trying to make something of himself in the hard world that he lives in.

I hate comparing this to Potter, but it's just so much along the same lines plot wise, but aside from the Harry Potter likeness, Patrick Rothfuss' dive into fantasy has plenty of originality that consumes the reader and saturates the pages with brilliant concepts and characterization. The magic system is quite original, simply put, if you know the name of the wind, fire, water, etc., you can make it do as you please. Of course, wind isn't simply wind, its some unpronounceable word in a foreign, archaic language thats long forgotten. Kvothe and his relationship with his friends, teachers, and especially the girl Denna, are easily read and make you yearn for more interaction. Kvothe's chase of the Chandrian, those who killed his troupe, is believable and exciting, you as the reader can't wait for him to gain just a little more knowledge about the elusive demons. This book releasing the same year that Potter's story draws to its end is definitely something that older fans of the Hogwarts student may want to check out. It is much more mature, much more believable, on an adult level, and in my opinion, better. Day Two is slated for April 2008. [4/5]