Tag Archives: fantasy

Book Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Per the book jacket:

Released from prison, Shadow finds his world turned upside down.  His wife has been killed; a mysterious stranger offers him a job.  But <r. Wednesday, who knows more about Shadow than is possible, warns that a storm is coming – a battle for the very soul of America… and they are in its direct path.

To say that is an overly simplistic and practically boring synopsis compared to what my experience of it would be an understatement.  This work takes myths and legends of gods from many cultures and gives them faces, expounds upon their personalities, and brings them to life in a manner that is not wholly unlike what Toni Morrison does with her magical realism, but without the ethnocentric and overly wrought depressive tones.  The reader is taken on journeys to different times to learn how gods were brought to America or simply how the gods came into being each story told with a different flavor and oft times different narrative voice.  My favorite passage of the entire 588 page tome came in the section called “Coming to America 1778” :

Without individuals we see only numbers: a thousand dead, a hundred thousand dead, “casualties may rise to a million.”  With individual stories, the statistics become people – but even that is a lie, for the people continue to suffer in numbers that themselves are numbing and meaningless.  Look, see the child’s swollen, swollen belly, and the flies that crawl at the corners of his eyes, his skeletal limbs: will it make it easier for you to know his name, his age, his dreams, his fears?  To see him from the inside?  And if it does, are we not doing a disservice to his sister, who lies in the searing dust beside him, a distorted, distended caricature of a human child?  And there, if we feel for them, are they now more important to us than a thousand other children touched by the same famine, a thousand other young lives who will soon be food for the flies’ own myriad squirming children?

We draw our lines around these moments of pain, and remain upon our islands, and they cannot hurt us.  They are covered with a smooth, safe nacreous layer to let them slip, pearllike, from our souls without real pain.

This passage resonated with me a great deal and speaks to the heart of some of my views.  That said, there are a few areas where I would have preferred Gaiman to be slightly restrained in his sharing.  Mostly in that I really don’t like it when authors even mention characters needing to relieve themselves regardless of the vernacular used.  I get the idea that this is a way of demonstrating human action, that we might feel more grounded in the realism of a fantastic story with such details, but for me it’s extraneous.  When a character is human I assume they have to go to the bathroom upon waking and several more times throughout their day.  There’s also the matter of a few inconsistent point of views offered although they’re at least pretty clearly rendered even if mildly annoying when one happens across them.

But that’s the worst thing I have to say about this book and even to my thinking and ears it sounds awfully fussy.  Very much a worthwhile book to dedicate time to.  Gaiman is a master craftsman with an excellent literary voice and one of the most clever minds involved in modern fiction.  Is it any wonder I already have Fragile Things  on my TBR shelf?

Seriously, if you haven’t read it and enjoy GOOD fantasy, this is a must read.  And, heck, HBO is going to make a series out of it!


Review: A Game of Thrones

At the behest of several friends (you know who you are) I decided to delve into the George R.R. Martin fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire.  Of course this meant beginning with the first book A Game of Thrones as I am not the kind of girl who starts in the middle (and since the end of it is not written yet there was no option to really cheat- which I wouldn’t have done anyway).

The plot is what I would consider to be typical fantasy in a similar vein of Tolkien.  Although, to call Martin “The American Tolkien” is completely ridiculous and does no favors to Tolkien and his mastery.  So, the qualifier is that this is medieval with fantastic elements and in a different world whose general rules of scenery and physics seems to be the similar to our own.

Each chapter is from a different character’s point of view, the hero of the work being Eddard Stark who hales from the cold lands in the north.  A judicious and honest ruler who takes matters of punishment directly into hand, including that of death when appropriate, he lives and dies by his honor.  A family he has as well; three sons, the oldest 15, two daughters, and a bastard son.  The honor of Eddard is such that he brings his bastard to his keep to be raised, despite the upset of his wife (the child was conceived shortly after their marriage while he was at war).  There are no games he plays in order to rule and so his existence, and those he fosters in his children, are that of integrity and not subversion.

Unfortunately, Eddard’s world shifts as he is offered the role of “Hand of the King” by his friend Robert – the king.  It necessitates him leaving his home in the North, his sons – one of whom is in a coma due to a fall off one of the keep’s buildings, and his wife; the two daughters he brings to court with him, one of whom is promised in marriage to the prince.  And into the world of betrayals, distrust, dishonesty, and the veritable pit of vipers he travels.

Some of the other points of view are Eddard Stark’s children:  Rob- the heir who has to become Lord of Winterfell in truth and action after his father, then mother, leave; Sansa – the oldest daughter in awe of glitter and propriety; Arya- the warrior daughter; Bran – the poor child who takes a great fall; Jon Snow – the bastard child assigned to The Wall where honor is your duty, to escape it means death; Catelyn – Eddard’s wife as she journeys through the land to find the why of her child’s accident.

There are two more besides for pov characters and they are worthy of note:  Tyrion Lannister, brother in law to the King; Daenerys, survivor of the overthrown king living in a sort of exile.  Tyrion Lannister is a member of a conniving family painted as the villains in the story and a dwarf with a seeming great capacity for cunning and compassion.  He is the only Lannister whose point of view we get in this 674 page book and his motivations are no clearer in the end than in the beginning.  Of all the characters in this book I think his psychology is the most complex and, therefor, he is the most intriguing (next to Jon Snow).

Daenerys was daughter to the murdered king once referred to as “The Dragon”.  At the age of 13 she has never seen her homeland, her father murdered by one of his guards (a Kingsguard by the name of Jaime Lannister dubbed “The Kingslayer” after his betrayal – yes, that Lannister; he is brother in law to King Robert) she is in the care of a rather insane and power hungry brother.  Married off to a man thought of as a barbarian in the land across the sea from her “home” to secure her brother the army he needs, she journeys into love and pregnancy as an exiled man of the realm provides intel to the King.  Her role, I am sure, will become more readily apparent in the tale as the series unfolds.

There are a few difficulties I have with this work.  The beginning unfolds well, a few stumbles as I got to know the characters (and why, WHY did Martin feel compelled to give a few people a couple completely different names?!)*, but the read is steady and pretty engrossing.  In truth, I only paused in my reading of it when I reached the point of the eight year old falling from a roof because I was traumatized.  Then Eddard and his girls make it to King’s Landing for his political role to begin and the writing, while it didn’t fall apart, it didn’t remain as constant as it should.  Despite it having so many points of view (these were not excruciatingly kept to, although this is a point of anal retention for me so it likely won’t bug many) each word felt necessary and justified.  The writing even seemed to suit the vague time stamp of “sometime before life as we truly know it existed”.  Then I get to Sansa’s point of view (a character I did not and still do not like, although she’s ALMOST redeemable to me at this point) at a tourney had in her father’s honor.

They watched the heroes of a hundred songs rid forth, each ore fabulous than the last.

Fabulous?  Fabulous?!?! Um, no.  Completely and totally not in the period and tone the author established.

Then, we get to describing those in the tourney.

Other riders Sansa did not know; hedge knights from the Fingers and Highgarden and the ountains of Dorne, unsung freeriders and new-made squires, the younger sons of high lords ad the heirs of lesser houses.  Younger men, most had done no great deeds as yet, but Sansa and Jeyne agreed that one day the Seven Kingdoms would resound to the sound of their names.  Ser Balon Swann.  Lord Bryce Caron of the Marches.  Bronze Yoh’s heir, Ser Andar Royce, and his younger brother Ser Robar, their silvered steel plate filigreed in bronze with the same ancient runes that warded their father. [There’s more.  I decided to spare you.]

A lot of these guys you’ll see later on, some I don’t remember if you see them again, but none of that matters.  This is an info dump that is completely unnecessary and, for me, after a couple hundred pages in, the last thing I want to see is the editor not bothering and the author not being critical of his own work enough to assess what the story absolutely needs.  I understand that some people might want the imagery of the armor Martin takes pains in describing, the idea of EVERYTHING being described an attractive feature, but for me…  Not so much.  It has to matter for me to care, and if a book is almost 700 pages long (I’ve heard the third in the series is longer) then I need to know the time I’m spending reading it is being taken seriously by the author and that everything is of great importance.

But for moments like this, told from the pov of Bran Stark, I still have a great fondness for the work:

Hodor lifted Bran as easy as if he were a bale of hay, and cradled him against his massive chest.  He always smelled faintly of horses, but it was not a bad smell.  His arms were thick with muscle and matted with brown hair.  “Hodor,” he said again.  Theon Greyjoy had once commented that Hodor did not know much, but no one could doubt that he knew his name.  Old Nan had cackled like a hen when Bran told her that, and confessed that Hodor’s real name was Walder.  No one knew where “Hodor” had come from, she said, but when he started saying it, they started calling him by it.

I forgive Martin for not understanding a bale of hay can be really heavy.

Overall, it’s a fun read and, despite not being as enthralled at the end of the book as I was even halfway through, I have the second already out from my library and ready to be read.  I can not help but be intrigued by the issues of honor that are raised.  I find myself wondering how Martin will resolve them and what stance he’ll take.  Truth be told, this feels as though it tackles similar notions Franzen’s Freedom did but in a more philosophically succinct, logical, and appropriate manner (and despite the language snafus the thought process is far more complete and sophisticated here than that other work).  Some of the characters are complex and, truly, none of them are one dimensional.  If you have a want of reading modern fantasy I quite enthusiastically recommend this series.

And in case you didn’t know, it will be a miniseries on HBO starring Sean Bean.

Review: Graceling

Not a traditional reader of YA, but a lover of fantasy, had me plopping this book onto my hold list at the library.  Honestly, I did that so long ago that I had forgotten what book I had put on hold when they called to tell me it was available.  Before I prematurely begin my opinion of it let us start with  synopsis:

Katsa is Graced and indeed a thug, however reluctant she is to do this job.  Being Graced means she is ostracized from her people.  The world does not accept the gifted readily never mind those whose gift it is to be so completely lethal with so little effort.  The notion of power over one’s actions and subservience to another are addressed in the story as her growing conscience begins to demand her own rebellion from the King.  While women are relegated to traditional roles in her world Katsa’s gifts keeps her at least partially in the world of men.  Expectations of marrying and bringing men heirs are still upon her even though it is clear she shrugs these notions aside.  Her work is where she finds value for herself.  Not the orders of the king, but in a secret council comprised of mere citizens across the seven kingdoms in her land who act in people’s interests.  This is a way Katsa keeps her humanity amidst being ordered to mete out excessive punishments upon the citizens of her kingdom.

Prince Po is also Graced, a fighter she took on while in the middle of a mission for her council, and eventually becomes her friend.  They begin a quest together, one that becomes more dangerous than they anticipate as well as evolves into something far more.  In his kingdom the gifted are revered and treasured; no shame is to be had from this birthright.  As a result of this he does not fear Katsa, but embraces and appreciates her attributes while encouraging her to do the same.  Each day of their travels to a far off land, one in which they expect to find the reasons for a mysterious kidnapping, they become closer and eventually become lovers.

When they reach their destination answers are found and the reasons behind rumors and strange actions of a King are revealed they find that victory is all but impossible.  Katsa’s Grace is useless while the truth of Po’s keeps the stakes high and the chance of victory very low.

Lots of good stuff in there, but my main complaint is this:  If it’s going to be marketed for fourteen year olds then why is the sentence structure only as complicated as a Roald Dahl book?  Nothing against Dahl, but I was reading his books when I was about eight.  EIGHT.  Let’s have a look at the opening lines shall we?

In these dungeons the darkness was complete, but Katsa had a map in her mind.  One that had so far proven correct, as Oll’s maps tended to do.  Katsa ran her hand along the cold walls and counted doors and passageways as she went.

I admit to almost chucking the book after reading that.  What saved it for me was the political intrigue – not the writing.  Everywhere in the book the author tells and doesn’t show.  Just like above.  I have no idea of the experience of the character.  Not really.  Do I feel the walls?  See them?  Smell them?  No.  I was told they’re cold.  Woopty freakin’ do.  For all the time spent on discussing the scenery as the characters travel not once do I feel it.

This includes the physical aspects of the relationship between Katsa and Po.  Although I do admit the sex is pretty well written about, just unnecessary in the grand scheme of the story.  [For those who thought Meyer was graphic this book is not for you or your children; for those who thought Meyer wussed out on the sex in Breaking Dawn this is slightly better.]  Truth is the book in subject matter was appropriate for older kids, but the writing was so far below what fourteen year olds should be capable of reading that I can’t help but feel this type of book only further contributes to the noted dumbing down that’s been discussed as a problem in recent years.

When complex matters such as politics, notions of power and responsibility are addressed the lessons are better conversed about when the story doesn’t preach so much as illustrates.  The foundations of all these issues were ignored and instead addressed superficially leaving the reader with some notions of good/bad but not why they might be so.  I can’t help but resent a book that seems to want people to question authority or why they might do what they do and simply doesn’t encourage the thinking necessary to do so adequately.

I can’t say this is a must read for anyone other than those who really, really, really want to check out a fantasy book with characters who are only slightly more fleshed out than Bella Swan in Twilight.  Am I bummed I spent the time reading it?  Absolutely not.  I was engaged in the political intrigue and mysterious King so I quite easily read through it.  Still, the taste on my palate was that of a McDonald’s hamburger when what I really wanted was one from Red Robin (really I’d prefer Plan B, but for the sake of genre expectations Red Robin works best).

Please be patient while your world is built… Thank you.

For the first time, pretty much ever, I decided to put a project on the back burner (said project is already around 40-45k words) and go forth with a new idea.  That other manuscript was just not flowing right for me.  The premise, so simple when I started, got lost in the muck of new ideas and a shift in what I really wanted to do with it.  Then, the stagnation of the character annoyed me so I decided I was going to take my ball and play with someone else.  Who might that someone else be, you wonder?  Someone I never thought I’d create but somehow encompasses everything I’ve been wanting to write about.

I don’t know how it will be categorized, although I suppose some would consider it sci-fi but, honestly, it would be more appropriate to say it’s just a dystopic tale.  No, not fantasy, not other-worldly either, just our world but in the future.  This only came about for one reason:  I whined to my husband one too many times about the other work and was told putting it on the back burner did not mean I wasn’t going to go back to it.  And so, without much further ado, I sat at my keyboard and typed two pages of a new world.  Sounds great, right?  Then I hit page 5 where I promptly realized I wrote something different than I had planned for the world.  Being the ever diligent, anal retentive, author I went back and “fixed” it – then I realized it probably worked better/made more sense the way I had actually written it.  Now, I haven’t added any words to it because this seemingly benign issue is a cornerstone of the world I’m writing and so I’m stuck in limbo.  Yeah.

One would think when creating a world things would be so easy – I mean, you’re making it up so what’s the problem?  The problem is all these decisions I’m making about the world are integral to the bloody plot and so I feel like the ante has been upped.  I did it to myself, that’s certain, but it hardly comforts me when I’m lying in bed and the issue continues to plague me.

For people who read books where the worlds are relatively new (outside the realm of what we’re used to seeing/experiencing on a daily basis) – what sells you on it?  What annoys you about it?

Authors – how do you go about constructing your new world?