Published: June 16th 2015 Publisher: Crown Genre(s): Fantasy, Horror Format: Audiobook Length: 16 hrs and 47 mins
The Library at Mount Char is a fantastic book, but it’s almost impossible to summarize. Part of the problem is that a lot of the book hangs on misdirection. The main character knows a lot of things that she isn’t telling us, so we have to work with what little the author provides.
This means that to summarize the book past the first few chapters is to spoil some really great surprises. On the other hand, some of the bat-shit weirdness that occurs in later chapters is what made me truly, madly, deeply love this completely insane novel. It’s a bit of a quandary, because I want to recommend this book to everyone I know.
It doesn’t help that the book’s cover looks like the sort of thing you might find on a remaindered thriller in the bargain bin. The design doesn’t really grab you by the face and insist that you start reading the book RIGHT THIS INSTANT.
The basic summary is as follows: Carolyn and her adopted brothers and sisters are apprentice librarians in a massive, strange Library full of books that include all the knowledge in the world. When they were young, all of their parents died suddenly and a mysterious man they call “Father” adopted them. Father is viciously cruel, incredibly dangerous and infinitely powerful… but he’s gone missing and now none of them can get back into the Library. When they discover what actually happened to Father, it may change the fate of the entire universe as we know it.
Published: February 10, 2015 Publisher: 47North / Brilliance Audio Genre(s): Fantasy, Comedy, Adventure Format: Audiobook Length: 11 hrs and 46 mins
Scott Meyer’s Magic 2.0 series is fantasy with a science-fiction hook: a computer hacker named Martin discovers an all-powerful file that lets him control reality, so he travels back to medieval times and pretends he is a wizard. This fails spectacularly when he meets all the other hackers who had the same idea.
An Unwelcome Quest is the third book in the series. The first two weren’t perfect by any means, but they were at least funny and light on their feet where this one quickly wears out its welcome. It’s a huge shame, because this series was exactly what I was looking for when I wanted to have a few laughs during my commute. One definite bright side is that Luke Daniels continues to bring his A-game as narrator. Also, I occasionally enjoyed the last quarter or so after gritting my teeth and slogging through the fairly dire middle.
I think the only reasons I made it through this installment in the series are because I wanted to know what happened to the characters and the fact that I received a review copy. Unfortunately, one of the first big changes in An Unwelcome Quest is that the events take place almost entirely in the magical world instead of jumping back and forth between modern times and the past. This means that treasury agents Murph and Miller don’t even appear during the story. Their presence is sorely missed. Meyer also splits up his cast of heroes into two groups, with Martin – the main character in the earlier books – relegated to a supporting role in an ensemble.
The book opens with Todd, a psychotic ex-wizard, escaping from prison. He kidnaps half of the characters and forces them to run through a badly designed RPG campaign. When Martin and the remaining wizards realize their friends are missing, they rush to the rescue and run through the same campaign in slightly different ways. Both sets of wizards bicker endlessly at every turn, and the effect is more sour than funny. It doesn’t help that Meyer includes constant explanations and recaps at every turn, in case you weren’t paying attention during the previous chapter. This repeats ad nauseam.
There is also a running joke that all the enemies in the game have the same basic attack pattern, which does nothing but undermine the already very low stakes. In fact, the villain explicitly tells the wizards that the obstacles they face will only annoy them without actually killing them until they reach the climax. That final sequence is basically the only part of the book where it feels like the characters are in even mild danger.
In the end, An Unwelcome Quest feels like an over-padded novella. There are entertaining moments here and there, and I did actually laugh out loud a few times. Unfortunately, getting to those good parts required slogging through a lot of tedium and redundancy. I might be willing to read another book in this series if Meyer somehow course-corrects, but it’ll take some pretty glowing reviews to convince me.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley. Of course, I ended up going ahead and buying the audiobook version because Luke Daniels is a fantastic narrator.
The art in Wayward Volume One is probably the best part of an otherwise cliché book. The backgrounds are gritty and realistic in a way that feels completely grounded, and the character art is bright and stylized. Unfortunately, all of that beautiful design is in service of story about yet another teenager discovering hidden magical powers and using them to fight monsters.
Rori Lane is half-Irish and half-Japanese, which means she speaks the language but has a head of bright red hair that makes her stand out in a Japanese crowd. The story opens when she moves to Japan to live with her mother after a (so far unexplained) falling out with her father. Her mother works long hours and is hardly ever home, but Rori seems to have nowhere else to go, so the arrangement works.
There are the occasional interesting details, but they feel more like window-dressing than real characterization. Rori’s mixed heritage means she’ll never really fit in, no matter how well she learns to speak Japanese. The author plays with that theme, but doesn’t dig deeper than a moment where her teacher tells her to dye her hair black so that people won’t think she’s a troublemaker. We also learn that Rori is a secret cutter, but the revelation feels completely arbitrary and gratuitous because it doesn’t have any impact on the story. Ultimately it just feels like a cynical attempt to add depth to the story.
The other characters aren’t given much more depth than their magical abilities, but at least Ayane – a magical “cat girl” – is entertaining and strange. The story rushes through Rori discovering her powers and meeting other powered characters so that it can get to the fight scenes. I don’t necessarily prefer stories that dwell on characters discovering a secret world in plain sight, but Rori starts out the book lost in another country and ends up leading a team of magical teenagers in a very short amount of time. Additionally, the dialogue is oftentimes very wooden, reading as if Zub is trying to imitate English poorly translated from Japanese.
Ultimately the art and colors are the only things I actually liked about this book. Without the art, you have nothing but a story that relies on well-worn tropes, limited characterization, and dialog that is both wooden and unnecessarily vulgar. I doubt I’ll pick up another volume.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.
Story: Kurtis J. Wiebe Art: Roc Upchurch and Stjepan Sejic
Published: May 19, 2015 Publisher: Image Comics Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Fantasy Format: Paperback Length: 136 pages
Rat Queens is a modern spin on classic fantasy tropes that plays within those boundaries while also subverting clichés, and does so with a light touch. It has a great premise: a group of rowdy adventurers in a fantasy world fight, fuck, and generally incite civic destruction. The twist is that they’re all women, and they work both with and against other adventuring parties with similar mixes of race and gender.
The character designs are great, and Wiebe has a fantastic sense of humor. The character development is especially well-done, and each of the women at the center of the story feel both fully developed and entirely unique. In fact, characterization is probably the strongest aspect of the series so far.
I definitely enjoyed the first volume, Sass & Sorcery, which was a story about the team as they dealt with a surprising betrayal. This second volume, The Far-Reaching tentacles of N’Rygoth, tells a story that focuses on Dee, a semi-lapsed member of a religion that worships Lovecraftian horrors. I get the impression that future volumes of the series will tell similar stories that focus on each member of the Queens, so this volume is probably a good template for things to come.
Unfortunately, although I did enjoy volume two, it wasn’t as funny as volume one, and the pacing felt a little rushed at times. It opens with the Queens fighting against invading inter-dimensional horrors, and doesn’t really let up much from there. There are flashbacks interspersed throughout – part of the invasion involves strange mind control that distracts the Queens with hallucinated memories while they try to fight – so we do get a bit more back story for the characters, but it still felt like this volume didn’t gel quite as well as the first.
There was also a significant change behind the scenes when the original artist, Roc Upchurch, got arrested for domestic abuse charges and Wiebe fired him from the series. Stjepan Sejic, the artist who completed the last few issues in this volume, has his own unique style, but definitely fits very well within the established Rat Queens universe.
Although I do think this volume had a slight dip in quality, I would still heartily recommend picking up the series, and I look forward to future issues. Definitely worth checking out.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.
Published: February 19, 2014 Publisher:Dynamite Entertainment Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Fantasy, Swords-and-Sorcery Format: Digital Length: 184 pages
I don’t have much experience with Conan the Barbarian or Red Sonja; my dad had a pretty sizable comic book collection when I was a kid, and I spent many an hour digging through it, but he didn’t have many comics from either series in his collection. I think there was maybe one over-sized Conan annual in the entire bunch, and that lone issue might have been my entire exposure to both properties. I never watched the movie adaptations made in the 80s because they looked TERRIBLE. However, when I saw that Gail Simone is the writer for the new Red Sonja series, I became intrigued even though I’ve never read any of her other work.
All this is to say up front that it’s possible I am not the right audience for this book. Simone writes in her introduction that she’s loved the character ever since she was a young comics reader, and as soon as she got the chance to work for Dynamite, writing a rebooted Red Sonja was her dream project. She’s enthusiastic about the title, found great female artists to illustrate the covers, and wrote the book so that it stands proudly on its own, separate from the Conan mythos. Simone’s Red Sonja sounds like the sort of thing that should leap off the page, but for some reason the book just felt inert and clichéd.
The Queen of Plagues bounces back and forth between Sonja’s origins and her attempt to protect the only king she’s ever respected – Dimath, who rescued her from gladiatorial slavery and to whom she pledged allegiance. Sonja is smarter, faster and more skilled at swordplay than her foes, but she is also an unrepentant drunk when wine is at hand. When two young warriors, Nias and Ayla, find Sonja in the forest and ask her to come to Dimath’s aid, she reluctantly follows. However, when she arrives at Dimath’s court and agrees to lead his army, she soon discovers that her old friend, Annisia, is general of the opposing army. Annisia, who survived the gladiator pits at Sonja’s side only to go mad from guilt.
The story in this first volume of Red Sonja isn’t particularly deep or twisty. Sonja fights her foes and usually comes out ahead; if she occasionally fails, it is only a matter of time before she finds new resolve and returns twice as fierce. Simone relies on tropes that feel well-worn but for the fact that most of the characters are female, with male characters relegated to supporting roles. However, instead of breathing new life into hoary old clichés, Simone’s version of Sonja feels like it only satisfies the bare minimum of swords-and-sorcery storytelling.
I think my biggest problem with this book was that the dialogue is never more than serviceable, and as a result the characters fail to rise above their archetypes. I never got much of a sense of Sonja as anything other than a relentless warrior; her solitary quirk is her love of drink, played for (weak) laughs in what is an otherwise deadpan book. If any part of this book was extraordinary – plot, dialogue or characterization – it would be enough to raise it in my estimation, but unfortunately Simone just doesn’t deliver the goods.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.
Published: July 29, 2003 Publisher: Del Rey Genre(s): Fantasy, Steampunk, Weird Format: Paperback Length: 640 pages
After reading Perdido Street Station, I can’t decide what China Miéville loves more: feverish world-building or the sheer impenetrability of his prose, and I say that as someone who (occasionally) enjoyed the book. It took me a good six months to make it through that dense little tome, mostly because I only managed to read it in 30-50 page chunks about once or twice a month, and I have to admit that in the end I only finished out of sheer bloody-mindedness.
This was actually my second attempt at Perdido Street Station. I first bought it in 2003 and only made it about 50 pages in before putting it down for more than a decade. This time around, I gave it a bit more persistence, but it was never an easy book to pick up. Each of those 30-page sessions was hard-fought over the course of several hours, and I oftentimes found myself reading and re-reading passages just to make sure I’d fully comprehended their contents and meaning. I enjoyed many parts of the book, but I can’t help feeling a certain amount of exhaustion and relief after struggling to finish it for so long.
In broad strokes, Perdido Street Station tells the story of Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, inventor and disgraced academic, and what happens when a disfigured garuda – a sort of half-man, half-bird creature – named Yagharek comes to his laboratory in New Crobuzon and asks Isaac to help him fly again. Yagharek is flightless, his wings removed as part of a brutal judicial punishment, and he’s travelled hundreds if not thousands of miles just to ask Isaac for his help. Yagharek’s gold is plentiful and Isaac is in need of a patron, so he soon sets off on a quest to restore the garuda’s flight. What Isaac does not know – cannot know – is that he will inadvertently set into motion a series of events that bring only nightmare, catastrophe and death to his city and everyone he knows and loves.
However, before the novel gets to the point where the plot kicks in, Miéville spends several hundred pages on setup, character development and a huge amount of world-building. If one of the characters visits a new neighborhood, Miéville includes a minimum of a few paragraphs describing how it looks, smells, sounds, pulses with life and interacts with the city around it. These passages are oftentimes beautiful, carefully drawn and incredibly dense, but over the course of the 600+ page novel, it becomes hard not to react with impatience when Miéville’s attention strays yet again to the architecture of his imagined city.
The idea is, of course, that New Crobuzon is another character in the story, but the problem is that Miéville seems intent on including too much of everything; the kitchen sink, a few bathtubs and maybe a swimming pool for good measure. Every new neighborhood has enough detail to support an entire storyline, but Miéville barely takes a breath before introducing even more obscure and bizarre details. What seems magical and fascinating for maybe a hundred pages or so becomes overkill when it just keeps happening past the halfway point of the novel.
Also, it doesn’t help that Miéville seems to delight in writing incredibly dense prose. I’m sure a large part of why I took so long to finish the book is that it felt like I was barely making any progress even though I would sit down and read for hours at a time. I was finally able to increase my pace a bit once the actual plot became clear, but at the same time I was a little disappointed to discover that all of Miéville’s baroque wordplay leads up to a relatively straightforward man versus monster story.
Ultimately, Perdido Street Station was a difficult book that I respected and sometimes liked but can’t help finding fault with as I think more about it. I’m glad I finally finished it so that I can mark it off my near-infinite list of unread books, but it will be a good long while before I pick up another one of Miéville’s books. Of course, there are at least three others on my shelves, waiting for me to read them.
Published: September 24, 2013 Publisher: Tor Books Genre(s): Fantasy, Superheroes Format: Audiobook Length: 9 hrs and 55 mins
V.E. Schwab’s Vicious had a lot to recommend it: an eye-catching cover, rave reviews from authors I trust, and a premise that promises to toy with superhero and villain tropes in interesting ways. The problem is that I never really bought the way the main characters get their powers, and that ended up souring me on the book. It also didn’t help that Vicious seemed to have ambitions of subverting the genre but fell prey to some of its hoariest clichés.
Victor Vale and Eli Cardale are college roommates and unlikely best friends. Victor is an anti-social misfit and Eli has every appearance of all-American normality, but as they get to know each other, it quickly becomes clear that they share not only an ambitious drive to succeed but also a darkness boiling just under the surface. Their relationship comes to a crucial turning point when Eli starts working on a term paper examining the source of “extra ordinaries” or “EOs” – near-mythical human beings with super-powers – and Victor suggests they try to put Eli’s findings into practice.
When Eli brings up the topic of EOs, that is the first real hint we’re given that we are dealing with a world that isn’t quite our own. Eli mentions EOs and everyone in his class knows what he means, but the world of Vicious doesn’t seem to have the concept of traditional comic book superheroes and villains. EOs may exist, but they certainly don’t run around wearing capes or acting under flamboyant pseudonyms.
Honestly, I think this reveal is where I started having problems with Vicious. The world-building felt a little shaky at this point and things only got worse from there. After Eli announces his intention to write about EOs, it isn’t long before he theorizes that near-death experiences are connected to EO powers and Victor convinces him to test that out. Before you know it, they’ve performed a few incredibly irresponsible experiments and become super-powered under conditions that just feel trivial.
Eli and Victor’s experiments aren’t at all scientific or rigorous, and Schwab never provides an explanation for their powers that I found satisfactory. The only thing that made sense to me was that they must live in an alternate universe where anyone who almost dies comes back super-powered. That would create a lot of EOs, but doesn’t jibe with the way everyone in Vicious treats EOs as nothing more than a fanciful rumor until Victor and Eli start digging into the subject. Schwab tells us how EOs happen but never explains why, and that bothered me the whole time I was reading.
It’s a shame, really, that I got so hung up on the basic building blocks of this story, because Vicious was reasonably entertaining at points. The characterization was decent, the moral grey areas were impressively large, and the details of the world were tantalizing enough that I wanted to know more than Schwab delivered.
Vicious is a book with a few cool ideas that ultimately don’t pay off, but I do think it speaks to the potential of its author. I’ll be curious to see what else Schwab writes, and it’s possible I’ll give another one of her books a shot some day. Unfortunately, this one just wasn’t my cup of tea.
Published: June 18th 2013 Publisher: William Morrow Books Genre(s): Fantasy Format: eBook Length: 178 pages
Neil Gaiman’s most recent novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, is a study in contrasts. It’s his first book written “for adults” in many years, but the main character is a seven-year-old boy and the writing style is the same clean, spare style he used in The Graveyard Book and Coraline. It’s a novel, but it has the flavor of a short story or a novella, and Gaiman admits in the afterward that he originally thought it was a short story until it took on a life of its own. Then there’s the fact that despite the writing style and length, it took me a month to finish. That last part is my fault, of course, but I digress.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane tells the story of an unnamed narrator who returns to the town where he lived as a child for a funeral. To escape from the day, he decides to drive to where his former house used to stand, then he continues his journey on down the lane to the Hempstock farm, where a girl named Lettie Hempstock used to live. He speaks with the old woman still living there and asks if he can see the duck pond out back that Lettie used to call her “ocean”. He sits down to look at the pond and finds himself awash in memories of his childhood, back when he was just a boy and Lettie Hempstock still lived down the lane.
The narrator’s life collides with that of the Hempstocks one day when a boarder at his house commits suicide on the border between his house and their property. The narrator becomes friends with Lettie, a girl who seems strangely assured for her age and who also demonstrates powers and abilities that are at odds with her farm-girl appearance. The narrator becomes more and more entwined in the strange world of the Hempstocks as supernatural events begin to escalate and his world becomes far more dangerous.
I’ve long said that Gaiman’s Coraline is one of a handful of books I’ve read that genuinely freaked me out. The Ocean at the End of the Lane isn’t exactly the same kind of freaky, but it definitely feels like his darkest and most surreal novel. Gaiman is a skilled writer when it comes to ratcheting up tension and slowly pouring on more and more unreality, but he normally saves his weirdest stuff for his short stories. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the first time he’s let those sensibilities loose on a larger canvas, and although it did take me a while to finish, he sticks the landing.
I was slightly bothered by what felt like the passive nature of the narrator, but it’s easy to forget that he’s only a seven-year-old child during the events he is remembering. He’s as brave as possible and he takes action when he thinks it matters most. Ultimately his heart is in the right place. I’m honestly not sure what slowed me down while I was reading this – in fact, I read an entire book by Lisa Lutz during a break in the middle – but I don’t necessarily hold that against it. Although I was occasionally unsure what I thought of the book, the payoff in the epilogue cemented its status in my mind.
I think if you enjoyed this book, you should definitely check out some of Gaiman’s short stories. They’re occasionally hit or miss, but they can also be shivery and intense and beautiful in all the right ways. I particularly recommend Bitter Grounds.
Published: October 12, 2010 Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. Genre(s): Young Adult, Fantasy Format: eBook Length: 352 pages
In Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, Sam LaCroix is a college drop-out with a dead-end job at a burger joint. He just coasts along, hanging out with his friends/coworkers Ramon, Brooke and Frank, never quite satisfied with his lot in life, but not exactly unhappy, either. That all changes one night when he accidentally smashes the headlight of a sports car while playing potato hockey behind the restaurant.
It turns out the owner of the car, Douglas, is a dangerous man with a chip on his shoulder, and when he comes into the restaurant to complain about the smashed headlight, he sees something in Sam that puts him directly in Douglas’ crosshairs. Apparently Sam has been hiding in plain sight his whole life, but Douglas is suddenly able to sense his powers and demands to know what he is doing in Seattle. Sam blows him off, but finds out very quickly that this is a huge mistake.
First, Sam is attacked by one of Douglas’ henchmen, a man who somehow manages to slice up Sam’s back without using a weapon. Sam makes it out of the encounter alive, but Douglas isn’t done with him. The next morning Sam wakes up to discover his friend Brooke’s decapitated head in a box… and then she talks, and explains that she was sent as a message. Things only get weirder and more dangerous for Sam and his friends after that.
For whatever reason, this book took me a long time to finish. I started it about a month ago, but put it down for weeks before finally plowing my way through most of it in one sitting. I ended up enjoying it overall, but there were definitely a few plot holes and strange choices throughout that didn’t bother me while I was reading but felt a bit more problematic once I finished and let the book sink in.
First off, the book jumps back and forth between first person and third person. The first person scenes are told from Sam’s point of view, and take up most of the book, but the third person scenes are both longer and more common than I was expecting. There are several scenes from Douglas’ perspective as well as some from a girl named Brid whose connection to Sam’s storyline isn’t immediately apparent. These scenes do eventually come together with the main storyline, but in retrospect I think part of what bogged me down for so long was getting stuck in one of those third-person scenes without understanding its purpose.
Also, Douglas’ motivations don’t entirely makes sense. He tells Sam that he needs training and can either die or be his apprentice, but never even tries to gain Sam’s confidence. It’s clear to both Sam and the reader that Douglas only means him harm from the outset, so there’s never really any danger that Sam might be tempted towards the dark side. It’s kind of a shame, really, because if Sam had been presented with more of a moral quandary, it might have ramped up the tension a bit.
That said, I enjoyed the book enough that I immediately bought the sequel when I was done. I like McBride’s writing style, and I enjoyed the setting and characters. I’m curious to know what happens next, even if this book started unravelling a bit after I let it sink in. I think there’s a decent chance this is a series that will actually improve as it goes on despite my criticisms of the first book. Worth a read.
Published: September 27th 2011 Publisher: Walker Books Genre(s): Young Adult, Fantasy, Horror Format: Hardcover Length: 215 pages
A Monster Calls is a young adult book with a deceptively simple plot – a thirteen year-old boy wakes up in the middle of the night and discovers a monster in his back yard – that reveals an unparalleled depth of emotion and storytelling prowess. Patrick Ness, working from an idea by the late Siobhan Dowd, takes that simple start and builds it into a novel that I would argue is a modern masterpiece.
The first complication to the story is that the boy, Conor, lives alone with his mother, who has been sick for months. She is in and out of the hospital, trying new treatments, bald and thin but always firm in her belief that the next treatment will do the trick. Over the course of this up-and-down cycle of treatment and relapse, Conor has become withdrawn and angry. He’s bullied at school and outcast from his peers by their knowledge of his mother’s sickness.
Then one day a monster wakes him in his room at 12:07 AM. The monster comes as a walking yew tree – the very same one that watches over Conor’s house from a nearby graveyard – but it is an ancient thing, older than the tree and apart from it, taller than his house and powerful enough to knock holes in the walls. Conor, strangely enough, is unafraid, because it “isn’t the monster he was expecting”, and he’s “seen much worse” in his horrible recurring nightmares.
The monster, only momentarily taken aback, smiles its evil, leafy grin and informs Conor that it will tell him three tales and then he will return the favor with a tale of his own. Thus begins the meat of the story, and it is quite a story at that. Ness weaves together fairytales, horror, fantasy and the crushing banalities of modern life in a strange and compelling novel that packs an incredible emotional punch.
The book is illustrated throughout with stark black and white paintings that splash across the pages, bleeding into the margins and evoking just enough of the story to fill in the corners of your imagination. The monster looks like something you might find hiding in the darkest shadows at the back of a closet, and its head is a bundle of spikes that could either be twisted branches or alien spines.
As I read the last few pages of the book, I had to stop several times to get my emotions under control. In fact, the book affected me that strongly several times throughout. It’s a powerful story with an ending that lingers long after the last page is done. A Monster Calls is sold as a young adult book, but I think Ness tells a universal story here, one that could – and should – be appreciated by readers of any age. It’s an intense experience, but well worth it. Very highly recommended.