Saturday, January 30, 2010

Metropolitan by Walter Jon Williams

Let's say you're writing a book in the fairly early days of urban fantasy--maybe 1996 or so. (That makes your book a contemporary of good old Anita Blake, or for the less literate, it's a few years after the Buffy movie but before the TV series.) You want magic in it but your repertoire to date is heavily science-fiction based, and you're not yet aware that vampires are apparently going to Run The Show for the next twenty years so you've decided to leave them out.

Walter Jon Williams was in this spot when he wrote Metropolitan. It's all about magic (though it doesn't use that word) so it's got to be called fantasy, and it takes place in a very human, very realistic urban environment. So I have to categorize it as urban fantasy, even though it's about as different from today's UF genre as you can get.

The work takes place hundreds (thousands?) of years in our future, when our cities have long since encircled the globe and run together, expanding and aging until the whole planet looks like downtown Hong Kong today. In the layers and layers of metal and concrete a power called plasm has been discovered: created implicitly by the energy humans invested in their creations, resonating with and amplified by spacial relationships between buildings and towers and bridges, plasm pools everywhere humans have lived and built and dreamed. It's pervasive, it's capable of creating life or destroying it, and it responds to human thought and will. But it's controlled: the Plasm Authority taps wells, diverts plasm to its own collectors and batteries, polices the sources and sells plasm to anyone who can pay--and that excludes almost everyone, including our protagonist Aiah.

The plot is intriguing and the work is full of fun characters, but curiously it's actually the background that is the most compelling part of this book. Remember the first time you saw Blade Runner: that dirty, lived-in city stuffed with teeming hordes of realistic nobodies? Metropolitan brings that same sense back, and holds it for the entire novel. From the cracked tiles and faded plastic chairs to the floating cars and extravagant glowing billboards, the world Williams creates is almost too tasty to let one concentrate on the action. Almost. And if you have the sequel (City on Fire), it manages to do the exact same thing all over again.

I loaned out my copy of this book years ago, and had to resort to back-alley deals to find another copy. Actually I got two this time, since I'm about to send away one of them to my sister and keep the other gem for myself. As I was re-reading it I kept catching paragraphs and thinking, "I should quote that in my review!"--but when I had reached a few dozen, I decided I would just recommend you read it yourself instead.

Monday, January 25, 2010

How Not to Make a Wish by Mindy Klasky

It took me a long time to finish this book, which is odd because I skimmed most of it. I skimmed most of it because most of it isn't worth reading. But that's the same reason why I kept putting it down and refusing to pick it up for days. I nearly stopped reading it about a hundred times.

I'm sorry, but there's no way to make this sound nice: this book is terrible. Not only is it unimaginative, boring, witless, and cliche-ridden, it's extraordinarily badly written. It's told in first person, which Klasky has interpreted as a license to tell-not-show; not a single conversation goes by in the book without a paragraph or two in between every line of dialogue telling us something that should have been shown instead--or just deleted. There's so much exposition between every sentence every character speaks that I frequently lost track of who had said what, and of course the already lackluster pace of the novel (in which very little happens) just dragged.

Kira Franklin is a stage manager at a dinner theater that's closing. She's on the verge of being out of a job, which means she'll have to bow to her father's wish that she go to law school, when she finds an old brass lamp among the props of a production of Kismet. Of course she rubs the lamp, and up pops a genie named Teel. Naturally, her first wish is for her dream job--and let's face it, Kira does not dream big. She just wants to be stage manager at another local theater.

The set-up might have been interesting if the characters were even remotely appealing, but they're not. Kira is shallow, immature, and dumb as a hammer. She's obsessed with her weight--since being jilted by her fiance a year ago, she's gained 30 pounds and acts like she looks like someone who ought to have her own show on the freak channel. So naturally enough, her second wish is to lose the weight she's gained since her failed wedding.

Spoiler alert--I can't let this go, so I'm going to give away Kira's third wish. Since she's spent the first half of the book having a schoolgirl crush on an actor, it was no surprise that her third wish was for him to fall in love with her. Except that it was a surprise, because how obvious and stupid could the plot be? I really had thought that Kira would start to show some growth by the third wish, but she ignored Teel's advice and made the wish, and of course it was precisely as disastrous as you can imagine. Only not as interesting as I bet you're thinking.

Frankly, the book would have been better if there had been no genie in it at all, no magic lamp, no wishes. I'd have respected Kira more if she'd managed to land the job on her own, lost the weight on her own, and manipulated the actor into a relationship on her own. As it is, Kira shows no initiative whatsoever. Even the solution to her problems has to come as a deus ex machina--another spoiler alert; I'm about to give away the ending here. The genie forgot to tell her that she has four wishes, not three.

I wish I hadn't read this book, how's that? I could go on and on about how excruciatingly bad it is, but I'm tired of wasting time on it.

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Friday, January 22, 2010

Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

I was late discovering Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora, which I read about a year ago. It's a brilliant book. I don't know why I took so long to read Red Seas Under Red Skies, its sequel. I liked it almost as much.

Red Seas Under Red Skies picks up a few years after the events from the first book, although the preceding time is filled in with flashbacks. Gentleman Bastards Locke and Jean have started a new game in Tal Verrar; they're intent on swindling everything they can from the Sinspire, an opulent gambling house. Their careful plans are coming along perfectly when the ruling Archon discovers them and decides he needs a couple of pawns. After that, as usual things go steeply downhill for Locke and Jean; Locke has to keep his considerable wit and Jean has to mop up with his brawn to keep them alive.

If these books were straightforward romps, they'd be good enough, but they're more than just that. The writing is excellent and the worldbuilding is among the best I've ever read. Some books you just want to step inside them and explore--but I must say, this is not one of them. The world Lynch has created is violent and casually cruel; Locke himself is a thief, a con artist, and sometimes (when he can't avoid it) a murderer. But somehow, it's fascinating rather than repellent, and Locke is a likable, very real, very flawed character. His relationship with Jean in this book is deeper and more nuanced. Really, every one of Lynch's characters--no matter how insignificant, no matter how brief a mention he or she gets on the page--seems surely to have a real existence independent of the plot's needs. And the plot--oh, gosh, the plot is sort of amazing.

I'll now stop gushing for a moment and point out a problem with Red Seas Under Red Skies. Its tone is distinctly uneven. The first half or so of the book feels very much like The Lies of Locke Lamora, but once Locke and Jean set out to sea, the tone changes considerably. It feels weird to say this because much of Lynch's plots hinge on people doing awful things to each other, which I read while cringing, but the second half of Red Seas feels, well, tame. They sail about. I mean, sure, a lot happens, none of which I can tell you without dropping massive spoilers, but the intensity of the portions of the book that take place on land just isn't there.

I also found the ending less than satisfying. The first book ends spectacularly, fiercely, and when I finished reading the last page I felt sort of cleansed after the hellish emotion I'd just gone through. This ending just doesn't pack the same punch (although I should point out that I went through a lot of Kleenex while reading it). When I finish a book I want to feel like I've finished, and this ending mostly just had me frantic to start the next book.

On the whole, though, I found Red Seas Under Red Skies brilliant and well worth reading. (Even if my cheap-ass paperback copy already has pages falling out from the crappy glue binding not holding, and some of the pages were printed wrong so that the words were almost cut off the page.) The next book comes out this year, and conveniently enough it's being released on my birthday. You know what I'm getting myself.

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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Magic Kingdom for Sale--Sold! by Terry Brooks

I've spent the last couple of decades convinced that I read this book in high school. I even remembered it rather well as being light, shallow, a little snide (which put me off even then), and mildly interesting. I picked up a used copy a few weeks ago and decided to reread it--and I don't know what book I got mixed up with this one, but I had definitely never read Magic Kingdom for Sale until now.

It's possible I started the book in high school and never finished it, though. It's starts very slowly, and most of the first 50-odd pages is Ben Holiday, hotshot lawyer, angsting over his life. He debates at length about buying the "magic kingdom" advertised in a catalog addressed to his dead wife, then after he decides to buy it he spends page after weary page worrying that he's made the right decision. The mood so far is rather dark. Then Ben finally makes it to his new kingdom of Landover, where he meets his wacky, wacky castle servants: the incompetent wizard, the court scribe whom the wizard has inadvertently changed into a dog and can't change back, and Parsnip and Bunion, two kobolds who hiss instead of talking. Bring on the arguments and the hi-jinx!

I hate that kind of humor. Fortunately, it doesn't overtake the story too frequently. What does overtake the story are endless descriptions and Ben's even more endless internal monologue--paragraph after paragraph of him wondering if he's making the right choices. Then we get more description. Sometimes we get huge long conversations about nothing much. I skimmed a lot.

It turns out that Landover has been kingless for twenty years, long enough for its magic to begin to fade. Demons have moved in to try and overtake the kingdom; a dragon is ravaging the land; and when Ben tries to unite the bickering communities, no one will acknowledge him as king. He and his little entourage (joined eventually by the wacky wacky g'home gnomes, short for 'go home, gnomes') travel all over the kingdom--with the accompanying pages-long descriptions of the countryside and weather that matches Our Hero's mood, because after all this is a kind of high fantasy--and try to convince the kingdom that it has a king again.

I know I'm infuriating some readers who read this book when they were young and love it beyond all reason. I have books like that, and I would be yelling at the computer screen if, say, I saw a review dumping on Brighty of the Grand Canyon--even though as an adult I can admit that it's not very well written. Magic Kingdom for Sale is not very well written. Its tone veers from jocular to 80s-slang-modern to stilted high-fantasy formality. Except for Ben, the characters are one-dimensional. And I don't even want to discuss Willow, the beautiful sylph who takes one look at Ben and declares that she belongs to him.

On the other hand, it's an interesting plot, and Ben's grief for his dead wife feels very real and makes him a much more compelling character than anyone else. But despite the wordiness, I felt a distinct lack of details in the story, as though Terry Brooks was describing events from a long way away instead of from up close. I don't know if that makes any sense, but I never felt connected with Landover, never felt a sense of closeness to the land--which is bad, considering that that's an important part of the book.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Good, The Bad and the Undead by Kim Harrison

I'm falling behind, having read about a zillion books since my last post. So to help catch up, this review's going to be a twofer covering both Dead Witch Walking and its sequel The Good, The Bad and the Undead.

I had about three false starts as I tried to get into the first of these. On my initial attempt I made it through two chapters before I got bored and quit the book, re-reading an old favorite instead. A few weeks later I re-read the first chapter ("why is this still in my to-be-read stack? Didn't I read it? The cover looks familiar") and put it back on the stack again as soon as memory caught back up. Some time later I restarted yet again, this time making it through four chapters before deciding that although the book wasn't hopeless, I still had better things to read.

Fast forward another month, and I'd just put down something truly dreadful and grabbed the next book on the pile--Dead Witch Walking again. Fourth time lucky, right? I picked up where I had left off earlier and this time it stuck. I started carrying the book around, reading a page or two during free time, putting off chores to reach the end of a chapter. And when I finished the thing, I dug its sequel out of my to-be-read stack and started on it.

Reading these two back to back, I was particularly struck by the differences in character development. In the first book the protagonist Rachel is almost entirely a self-obsessed, whiny, ineffectual non-entity, while her "friend" Ivy is a moody goth Mary Sue non-entity with no real personality other than generic menace. The author forces the characters through scene after scene where they play out their precisely defined personas regardless of whatever motivations might be appropriate, and the resulting dissonance prevents you from ever really being absorbed. Or at least, not without a lot of effort, which kind of defeats the point.

In the second book, though, every single character (even the pixie--which the author always writes as "pixy", thereby bugging the hell out of me) has become more complex. They demonstrate varied emotions, their behavior is appropriate to a particular scene's motivations, and each of the characters has picked up both weaknesses and strengths--and I don't mean like "Ivy can now eat steel and spit nails," but rather that there are histories, emotional motivations and goals for all of them. It's a big and a welcome difference, but it does kind of highlight a problem in the first book. Thinking back, I'd have to say that the plotting is marginally improved as well: the first book is pretty linear, while the second--while still a far cry from a murder mystery--at least tries to throw a spin or two in.

Out of curiosity I popped briefly through Kim Harrison's web site, and from the looks of it Dead Witch Walking was her first published work by a couple of years. If so then she's managed to fix some big flaws in her writing pretty quickly--that's impressive. Her baddies are still kind of cookie-cutter (I need to pull out the Vampire Evaluation Sheet to find out where these score) but overall she's done a reasonable job at world building, and with characterization and plotting fast getting fixed that leaves her looking reasonably strong in the field.

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Monday, January 11, 2010

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

I liked Audrey Niffenegger's writing style so much that I went right to the library after finishing Her Fearful Symmetry and got The Time Traveler's Wife, her first book.

Symmetry is a ghost story, but first it's literary fiction at its best--a tour de force, I think--but I'm uncertain, really what a tour de force exactly is, although I imagine a fine conductor leading a fine orchestra playing a very creative, nimble work, and that's how I see Niffenegger's writing: nimble, clever (always clever, as are her interesting characters), and creative.

First, she did her homework, seeking out the advice and support of the staff at London's Victorian Highgate Cemetery, and then becoming a tour guide in order to immerse herself in the overgrown, mossy graveyard in which her story takes place.

She developed characters who were uniquely interesting and conflicted and all very likable. She set up a fascinating and surprising plot.

This ghost story has everything--an old Victorian house that backs onto Highgate's west end, mirror twins (they exactly mirror each other, so that one twin's organs are on her right side instead of the left) who inherit a flat in the house, a crossword puzzle maker who also is crippled by his compulsions, and an ingenious ghost...

Her Fearful Symmetry can be read in a day or so, and it will haunt you.

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Saturday, January 9, 2010

Moloka'i by Alan Brennert

From the first leg lesion in 1891 to kidney failure in 1970, Moloka'i offers the reader a morbidly fascinating if plodding account of a single wretched life spent in a leprosy colony.

Gentle Reader, allow me to spare you a day of bleak reading by summarizing the plot:

Little Rachel is a simple child of Hawaii, and her mother and father dote on her, but when she gets a rose-colored sore on her leg she gets shipped off to the Hawaiian leprosy colony in Moloka'i, where she is reared by nervous Catholic nuns who tend to throw up after changing bandages.

Rachel gets to live a long, long life, which means the book has almost 400 pages.

Maybe it didn't help that we're housebound right now--the roads are slick with ice, we only have two hotdogs and ten boxes of diet hot chocolate and one can of tomato soup left in the pantry, because we're wearily dieting this month--but this book made me so depressed that when Kate came down (still in her pajamas at two in the afternoon) to get some hot tea I confessed I felt (illogically) like a member of the Donner Party, and her eyes grew big and she jumped back! And I said, "Oh, I only mean I have cabin fever and I hate winter and there's nothing to eat," and she said, nervously I thought, "Well, there's the cat," and pointed out old Vincent, eating kibble from his little dish...

"I loathe leprosy symptoms! I hate winter!" I said, and thought how I should put on my (ripped) Russian coat and walk out into the ten-degree bleak afternoon, but Rachel and her lesions would just follow me. I can't shake her loose.

I promised a sort-of plot, so here it is, a Cliff's Notes version: Rachel goes to the infamous leper colony in 1891 and remains there until in the early 1950s the sulfa treatment that ultimately contains and weakens what is now known as Hansen's Disease cures her enough to leave at last. She's met and married a nice man who has leprosy of the eye, poor Godforsaken fellow, and they've had a child who got (naturally) taken away from them the day she was born.

Rachel sees the following innovations come to their colony over the years: moving pictures, aeroplanes, gramophones, electricity. She gets to experience World War I, the Depression, Pearl Harbor, the invention of the Hula dance, a great tsunami, and the eventual arrest of her disease via sulfa drugs.

She gets sprung from the island when she's cured in chapter 958, rides in an aeroplane, and finds her daughter.

The End.

Please: spare yourself.

I'm sorry if this review is poorly written. Brennert's dull, lifeless prose style is still clanging in my head.

I'm now going downstairs to make more hot chocolate and get a nice murder mystery to read.

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Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Blood Ballad by Rett MacPherson

It took me a while to warm up to this book. It wasn't until around page 50 that I really got interested, when the Percheron shows up in the main character's pasture and no one knows where it came from. I love draft horses, so I was hooked. Unfortunately, around page 50 was when I accidentally spilled an entire travel-mug of iced tea on the book while both the travel-mug and the book were in my bag. By the time I realized, the book was thoroughly sodden and falling apart. I read it anyway, because I wanted to find out about the Percheron.

The book has a fun layered mystery--one current murder, and one murder two generations before. Only local historian Torie O'Shea suspects the two may be related.

I've never read the other books in this series, but I didn't have trouble picking up the threads. The book stands well on its own. I liked Torie all right, even though her teenaged daughters' constant arguing got annoying and didn't contribute anything to the story for me. The setting was interesting, the mystery solidly plotted.

While I enjoyed the book reasonably well, I'm pretty sure they don't all contain draft horses and I can't say I connected very deeply to the characters--not enough to make me seek out the other books in the series. Just enough to make me read on despite the disintegrating spine and the pulpy, wet pages.

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Monday, January 4, 2010

Rampant by Diana Peterfreund

Ordinarily I love this kind of book, one where the usual fantasy tropes are turned on their heads. What if unicorns existed, but they were mean? Awesome concept. In Rampant, unicorns are not only bloodthirsty monsters with venomous horns, they have magical self-healing properties a la Wolverine and magical powers that keep them hidden from most people. Only descendants of Alexander the Great can kill them--and those descendants have to be virgins. Girl virgins, of course. Boy virgins aren't good for anything.

A little over a year ago, after reading one too many urban fantasies with nigh-invulnerable vampires, I formulated what I like to call the Undead Shark Theory of Natural Selection. If a type of shark evolves that's extra fast, it catches all but the fastest fish. The fastest fish breed, and the shark eats all but the very fastest of the next generation, and so on until the fast shark no longer has such an edge over the fish. This same principal applies even if the shark is undead. If an undead shark preys on fish, the fish will either become extinct from the shark's predations, or they'll evolve into Buffy-fish that can kick undead shark ass, or at least run away from it effectively. That's how things work in nature.

I can accept fantasy animals that are nigh-invulnerable, but only if they don't prey on regular animals or people. If they do, they're part of natural selection, and the result should not be--for instance--unicorns with superpowers that nothing can stand against except a select few girls who have not yet had sex. That's just silly. I had such trouble getting over this issue that I nearly put the book down after only a few chapters.

Then I realized there had to be a payoff at the end. There had to be some reason why the unicorns are so all-powerful, some reason why these particular girls could kill them, even some reason that the girls had to be virgins. I kept reading for the payoff, and--sorry, spoiler alert--there is no payoff. In fact, the ending is so weak I kept turning the last page thinking, "Where's the last chapter?" I guess the last chapter is actually the first chapter of the next book.

The plot is pretty much what you might imagine. When her boyfriend is attacked by a unicorn, Astrid Llewelyn discovers she really was born a unicorn hunter, just like her mom has always insisted. Astrid's always thought her mom was crazy, but it turns out that it's all true. The supposedly-extinct unicorns are coming out of hiding, and Astrid's mother packs her off to Rome to train as a hunter.

The writing is, well, workaday. It sometimes felt like the author was pushing the characters around like chess pieces--that would explain why characters who'd done their bit just disappeared from the plot. Although the book is set mostly in Rome, I never got a sense of the city's atmosphere despite all the details about where Astrid went and what she ate and so forth. Also, let me just say (nastily) that Astrid really does approach the "too stupid to live" horizon at times.

So no, I didn't like the book. I know I'm coming across as rabid with hate for it, but that's not actually the case. For all its faults, I kept reading. I was interested to see what happened. Of course, the answer is "not much," so, you know, whatever.

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Saturday, January 2, 2010

Agnes the Sheep by William Taylor

When I started Skunk Cat Book Reviews, I told myself I would review every single book I read. Even Agnes the Sheep by William Taylor, published in 1990 by Scholastic's Apple Paperbacks.

I picked Agnes the Sheep up in a used book store because I really, really like Taylor's book Knitwits. I was disappointed, frankly. It was a quick read, light and action-packed and often funny, but it didn't have any characterization at all. I didn't care about any of the characters, even Agnes, and the ending seemed abrupt.

I recommend Knitwits, if you can find a copy.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Nation by Terry Pratchett

I can't remember when I read Terry Pratchett's first Discworld book, but I'm pretty sure it was the end of the 1980s. I had to order it specially, since back then his books weren't available in the U.S. I've read just about everything else he's written since then.

So I feel pretty confident when I say that Nation is his finest book, the one he'll be best remembered for in a hundred years.

Nation is set in a world only subtly different from ours. It starts off with two separate calamities: a plague decimating Europe's population--even the king has succumbed--and a tsunami on the other side of the world that destroys the island village known as the Nation. Only one member of the Nation survives: Mau, who was traveling back from his month-long exile on the Boys' Island to the main island, looking forward to nothing more earthshaking than his initiation as a man. He'll get a feast and a tattoo and everything.

Instead, his entire world is swept away in minutes, leaving nothing but bodies and destruction--and a wrecked ship where the only survivor turns out to be a girl named Erminrude, although she much prefers the name Daphne. Together Mau and Daphne work to reclaim a Nation of their own, dealing with refugees from other islands, their own fears and expectations, and the threat of the cannibalistic Raiders.

The real magic of this book is how the two main characters deal with their losses. Mau turns his grief into rage at the gods, questioning whether they exist--and if they do, how they could have let the wave happen. He's poised between boyhood and manhood, which he likens to being a hermit crab who's shed its old shell and is looking for a new one; he's vulnerable while he searches, but the more he looks, the more he realizes there is no shell to protect him. Daphne bore her grief many years ago when her mother and infant brother died; she's more prepared to deal with this new loss, particularly with the hope of her father coming to rescue her, but she's ill-equipped to deal with realities that her grandmother has sheltered her from all her life--like helping a woman give birth, learning how to brew beer from a poisonous plant, and supporting Mau as chief of the tiny new Nation.

Pratchett's writing is clean and confident. The story is riveting, often poignant, sometimes funny, and moves very quickly for a book that explores such weighty topics as religion and civilization. I found it thoroughly satisfying, and I loved the secret Daphne and Mau discover on the island. If I'd known how good this book was, I'd have bought it the minute it was released in hardback instead of waiting for the paperback.

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