Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Throne of Jade

Following up a successful debut novel is always a challenge. Thankfully Novik managed to do it beautifully managing to maintain all the things she did right with His Majesties dragon and managing to add some new notches to her bow as well.

Picking up from the previous novel, a Chinese delegation arrives in Britain having learned that the Celestial they intended to send to Napoleon has ended up in the hands of a British soldier. They angrily demand that Temeraire be returned to them. The delegation is led by the Prince Yongxing, the brother of the emperor himself but it is immediately apparent to Laurence that the delegation might not speak with one voice. To Laurence’s disgust the British government are happy enough to send Temeraire back with them, being obviously fearful of offending China which could lead to alliance between them and France. Laurence and Temeraire are forced to brave the long and dangerous voyage to China and to try keep from getting separated once they arrive.

The only criticism that could be leveled at the first book was the lack of action and major battles, this is by no means the case in the second. There are two major battles early on and then a few more later in the book. Once again Novik does an excellent job of exploring the theme different people’s reactions when confronted with ideas and customs that are altogether strange to them. This apparent on the ship voyage with the Aviators, sailors and Chinese delegates sharing the same ship and later on when the British reach China. Not to mention Temeraire’s reactions when seeing how different the lifestyle is for dragons in China. I would have liked to learn a bit more about the Celestail Dragons; their motivations and what makes them tick and especailly would have liked to have had the motivations and relationship of Prince Yongxing and his cursed (albino) dragon explored.

Overall I really enjoyed Throne of Jade and have a feeling Novik is only going to keep improving in subsequent books. 8/10.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Alcatraz versus the scrivener's bones review

Before picking up the second book in the Alcatraz series I had to wonder if the novelty would wear off. After all the first book was an interesting mix of young adult/fantasy adventure/writing parody that quite frankly had never been seen before. It was both entertaining, fun and a bit silly at times (but in a very good way). Could that formula work a second time? Thankfully I can say the second book is just as good if not better than the first.

After a close encounter with librarian agents in a local airport Alcatraz finds himself in transit to Nalhalla with Bastille, her mother and his newly met cousin and uncle Australia and Kaz in a flying glass dragon. Alcatraz receives a message from his grandfather informing him that he has tracked Alcatraz’s father to the library of Alexandria, which is naturally one of the most dangerous libraries on account of having undead librarians who try to steal people’s souls. Alcatraz and co have to try and find his father and grandfather,keep their souls and avoid a nasty cyborg-like librarian who is a member of the Scriveners Bones and wants to steal Alcatraz’s translator lenses.

The story, like that of the first book, is told by Alcatraz in the style of an autobiography with frequent interruptions for general silliness. Aside from the comments on writing, the genre and literature in general Sanderson introduces some interesting ways to play around with the reader, including using 0’s,1’s and 7’s to make a smiley face in a paragraph.Surprisingly for a YA novel that doesn’t take itself too seriously there is fair amount of character development, especially with Alcatraz and Bastille. Both have grown since the last novel and we really start to see what makes them tick. As can be expected Sanderson really fleshes out one of the magic systems, the smedry talents, in this novel. There is a glimpse of where they came from and how they function. One thing which I really enjoy about this series is the subtle hints Sanderson puts in to future books. It is actually quite fun trying to figure out how some really arbitrary and strange statements will be incorporated into future volumes.

Overall Sanderson is able to successfully recreate the formula that made the first book so enjoyable. If they liked the first one be sure to give the second a go. 8/10.

Friday, July 10, 2009

His Majesty's Dragon

Dragons have been a part of the fantasy genre since its inception. In which case it would not be hard to believe that nothing truly original could be done with them. Naomi Novik dramatically proves that is not the case in her debut His Majesty's Dragon.

The story is set during the Napoleonic wars in an alternate history earth where dragons exist and have been incorporated as something of an air force in the armed forces. William Laurence, the protagonist and captain of a ship in the British navy, is thrust into a difficult position when it turns out there is a dragon egg on a captured French vessel.Normally this would be a godsend but the egg is due to hatch and they are still weeks away from land. To ensure the dragon doesn’t turn feral Laurence unwittingly harnesses him upon his hatching. He is shocked when the dragon turns out to be exceedingly intelligent and speaks to him in perfect English. Laurence names him Temeraire, appropriately after two ships.

The aviators are very different to the rest of society who know very little about dragons. A good chunk of the novel deals with both Laurence and Temeraire’s integration into the aviators. Novik does a particularly good job in creating a genuine 18th century English feel through Laurence’s thoughts and expectations. It is obvious a lot of period research has gone into this and it really shows. I particularly enjoyed Laurence’s reactions to practices within the aviators that defied the days conventions, it always felt genuine.

One criticism that could be leveled is the lack of action. I don’t really feel this was much of issue though, as it is obvious character development and interaction was the crux of this novel. Plus there was a real frantic atmosphere to the action sequences that there were, especially the explosive finale, which could only have been achieved this way. Still it will certainly be interesting to see if Novick changes tact in subsequent novels.

In sum if your looking for something a little bit different with a flagrant atmosphere and strong character development give Her Majesty’s Dragon a try you won’t be disappointed.8.5/10

Monday, July 6, 2009

Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Brandon Sanderson’s writing but I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from his young adult novel Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians. After all a good rule of thumb when it comes to movies is to avoid anything with ‘versus' in the title (Yes there are exceptions.) I needn’t have worried I found this book refreshing and overall fun.

The book is presented as an autobiography of Alcatraz Smedly a hero to those in the free Kingdoms, but unknown to us in the hushlands (Thus it is marketed as a work of fantasy.) Alcatraz often addresses the reader directly and has some entertaining opinions on the art of writing, the fantasy genre and literature in general. Alcatraz wants to prove to everyone that he is not a hero nor a particularly nice person. The young Alcatraz is an orphan passed from foster family to foster family because of his uncanny ability to break things. On his thirteenth birthday he receives a bag of sand, supposedly from his real parents as an inheritance. That same day he burns down the kitchen leading his latest foster parents to want to get rid of him. The next day a rather strange old man shows up, claiming to be his grandfather and wanting to see Alcatraz’s inheritance. It is then that Alcatraz discovers the sand has been stolen, the old man informs him by his social caseworker who is actually a librarian in disguise. Incidentally librarians covertly rule the known world through their control of information and subsequent spread of misinformation. And so begins the mission of infiltrating the downtown library with the help of some rather interesting characters.

As always Sanderson has come up with a unique and well thought out magic system, with two actually in this case. The first is a talent that everyone in the Smedly line receives. These are all different for each member and include; breaking things, arriving late, tripping and talking gibberish. All of which prove surprisingly useful. The second is Occulancy which is using specially crafted glasses to do different things, such as setting fires, freezing things etc.

Although obviously aimed at young adults I’d liken it to Shreck with a lot of ideas operating on different levels, ensuring that there is something for everyone. Anyone who liked The Harry Potter or Lost Journal of Ven Polypheme series will love these.I can’t wait to get my hands on the next one. 8/10.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Last Wish Review

There is a lot of hype around polish author Adrzej Sapkowski with his win in the inaugural David Gemmell legend award. As a result it was with high expectations that I read the first of his books that has been translated into English;The Last Wish. I was severally disappointed.

Last Wish follows the exploits of a Witcher, Geralt. Witchers are taken as children and are changed and trained to fight monsters. At times Geralt comes across as a fairly interesting character, slightly reminiscent of Harry Dresden but all too often his actions are downright strange and unexplained. The book is divided into a few short stories that follow Geralt’s exploits that are loosely tied together by his time recuperating under the care of his friend the priestess Nenneke after a particularly nasty scuffle with a striga. Presumably most of these episodes are the protagonist’s reminisces by that is certainly not clear. Each of these short stories seems to revolve around fairy tales, including snow white and beauty and the beast with some intense twists. It is difficult to see if there was any point at all to the book. There are some social commentaries applicable to modern society, such as people being more inhuman to other people than the monsters, but they seem pretty basic. Perhaps they would make more sense set against the backdrop of the late 80’s and early 90’s Poland but I don’t know enough about the issue to comment.

My biggest criticism is of the actual writing itself. It is terribly awkward and messy and at times hard to follow. Sentences are often overly long and poorly ordered. I don’t know if this is the Sapkowski’s fault or that of the translator Stok and who knows it might be considerably better in the original Polish. The dialogue of the characters is also overly simplistic and at times makes it hard to relate to them. If I was just handed the book without a cover I would have assumed it was someone’s first go at writing, it really was that bad. Due to the writing I almost gave up fifty pages into the book, I’ve only ever done that twice before in my life. There is also an attempt at humor which comes across as crude most of the time.

As things stand I won’t be giving Blood of Elves a try, David Gemmell award or not. The Last Wish has just put me off of Sapkowski that much. The only way this will change is if someone whose opinion I trust tells me that these flaws aren’t prevalent in the rest of his books. I really hope that most of these are the result of translation, otherwise I really have to question Polish taste in literature. Although I wander if English books come across this badly when translated to other languages. In sum I do not recommended this book.4.5/10.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Crossing the Boundary review

Okay so as you might have noticed this isn’t a fantasy book, but I read it and it’s my blog so I can review what I like . For those who might not know Kevin Peiterson is a batsman who plays for the England cricket team. He was born is South Africa but left when he was 20 to play in and qualify to play for England.

Pieterson wrote the book himself and it details his childhood growing up in Pietermaritzberg and Durban, early cricketing career in South Africa, the move to England and his cricketing career in that country. As is to be expected the 2005 Ashes series is the focal part of the book and it begins with it and (almost) ends with it.

For a guy who wouldn’t have had a lot of experience writing Pieterson does a really good job and his writing is concise and to the point. I do however question whether it should have been written when it was, Pieterson was only twenty-six and had only spent about two years playing international cricket. There are parts when it turns it a bit of a bitching session, with everyone from his high school coach to his first county captain coping it. A few more years may have matured and mellowed him and made for a better read. At the end of every chapter there is a piece written by someone who knows Pieterson giving their thoughts on him. The one by Stuart McGill was especially interesting when he says that Pieterson was partly to blame for the problems he had with teammates at Nottinghamshire. It was nice to get a balanced opinion.

Still I did find it fascinating to get an insiders view on what happened during the Ashes. You really get to see the inside working and dynamics of the England team. The version that I read had an extra chapter detailing the disastrous follow up series in Australia. This is all well and good but since Pieterson had already summed up everything in the previous chapter it did feel out of place and just something thrown on at the end at the last minute.

All in all there is a lot of good and bad in this book. I still feel that an autobiography should be written at the end of a career not the start of it and would have gladly waited a few years for a more complete book. 6.25/10