Monday, January 25, 2010

Review: The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks

The last decade was an absolute gold mine for emerging talent in the fantasy genre and I’ve stumbled across yet another one in Brent Weeks.

Azoth is a young orphan living on the streets, part of a guild of child thieves. Life has always been a struggle for survival but becomes even more so when Azoth makes an enemy of Rat an older and stronger boy who is one step away from the guild leadership. Azoth dreams of becoming the apprentice of Durzo Blint the most skilled wetboy, super skilled assassin, in the city. A chance encounter with the man himself leads to an ultimatum; If Azoth can kill Rat within one week Blint will take him as an apprentice. Azoth finds that he can’t do it, at least until Rat horribly disfigures one of his best friends, Doll Girl. Once the deed is done Azoth fulfills his promise. Blint fakes Azoth’s death and the young man assumes the identity of Kylar, a young nobleman, and is thrust into a very different world. Kylar is swept up in larger events that threaten the kingdom, all the while he faces a threat of a different sort. If he fails to tap into his talent, the magical ability employed by every wetboy, Durzo will kill him.

What immediately struck me about Way of Shadows is it really is Kylar/Azoth’s story. Larger events are taking place but the focus is always on him which gives it a very intimate feel. Following a similar vein to other recent releases the story is dark and gritty but at the same time it emphasizes the message that hope lives on. I was very impressed with the way Weeks portrayed his characters, especially the younger ones. From the way Kylar grew up he is wise in some things while na├»ve in many others and this contrasts with the way other characters such as Logan and Doll girl, with different upbringings, see the world. One minor gripe I have is there are a few too many miraculous survivals after characters are seemingly killed. This is not so much an issue when the reader is aware of this and the characters are in the dark but I don’t think it is a good idea to bring characters back from the ‘dead’. If this happens too often it risks sucking meaning from the scenes in which important characters do actually die, a mistake often made in comic books.

Other than that The Way of Shadows is an immensely satisfying debut and one I highly recommend. 8.5/10.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Review: Dune by Frank Herbert

Dune’s cover gives it a lot to live up to. The front proudly proclaims the novel as the Winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards. While on the back Arthur C. Clarke, no less, boldly claims that it is the Science Fiction equivalent of Lord of the Rings. I was certainly intrigued to see if it lived up to all the hype.

The duke of the Atreides has been sent to the desert planet of Arrakis by the emperor. His task is to oversee the mining of spice, one of the most valuable commodities in the galaxy. However the Duke is aware that the appointment is only a front for the emperor and his mortal enemy the Baron Harkonnen. The duke believes he can turn the situation to his advantage but is quickly proven wrong, his house is almost entirely wiped out and he is killed. His son Paul and his wife Jessica escape and live among the native desert dwelling people who believe Paul is a Messiah type figure. Jessica herself is a powerful member of an all women religious society and had a son against that orders wishes. But it is hinted from the very first pages that Paul could be a messiah for that order as well. Paul bides his time waiting for the opportunity to restore his house.

I can see where the comparisons with Lord of the Rings come from. The World building (or I suppose in this case universe building) is very impressive. The political and religious systems are highly elaborate and a great deal of thought as gone into the ecology of Arrakis. Interestingly character view point can change multiple times during a chapter (A style of writing that I’ve only seen echoed by Elizabeth Haydon). Rather than being jarring it is a great tool for giving the reader more of an insight into secondary characters. Each chapter begins with a quote from various books on Paul most often written by Princess Irulan, who is a minor character that only appears near the end of the book. This was quite a clever way of introducing the reader to a character obviously intended to play a larger role in subsequent books. The characters are generally well realized and convincing with one notable exception; Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. He is painted far too much as a stereotypical villain to be convincing. He is so fat that he needs machinery to support his weight, he molests little boys and with the book coming out during the cold war period it is obvious that the name ‘Vladimir’ was deliberately chosen for this purpose as well. I was almost surprised there wasn't a giant sign pinned to his back saying 'I'm the evil villian so you should hate me.' What’s more is his plans don’t tend to make a great deal of sense. He invents a substantial amount of wealth into bringing down his arch-nemesis the duke but doesn’t really seem to benefit from it and it doesn’t seem to aid his ultimate goal of having one of his descendents become emperor. So all in all he comes across as a complete idiot and I seriously doubt this was the author’s intention.

Overall Dune is an enjoyable read which seems to have stood the test of time but falls short of being a masterpiece in my opinion. Perhaps I would have gotten more out of it if I had read more Science Fiction but then again who can tell? 7.25/10

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Review: Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavrial Kay is one of those authors I’ve heard nothing but good things about and have been meaning to check out but never got around to it. Until now that is. Having now read The Last Light of the Sun I can safely say that Kay is as good as they say he is.

The story follows a number of characters who share connections either through kinship or twists of fate. Alun ab Owyn, the younger son of a ruler, whose life is changed forever when his elder brother dies in a raid and he finds himself now his father’s heir. Consumed by a passion for revenge at the same time his faith is tested when he discovers that the fairies his ancestors believed in may be more than just stories. Ceinion one of the most renowned holy men in the land, saves Alun and his elder brother by an act of chance only to have the elder die soon after. Finds himself responsible for protecting the youngers’ life as well as his soul while trying to find a way to unite his people. Thorkell an aged raider who has his retirement spoiled when he kills a man in a fit of rage and is sent into exile. Forced to take up raiding again and he finds his life take another turn when he is captured on a raid. His son Bern, made a servant because of his father’s exile, he steals a horse and escapes seeking his own place among the raiders.

One of the themes of this novel is characters getting swept up in a tide of events larger than themselves. On a number of occasions a character would say something, either important or prophetic, and then wonder why they had said it. Almost as if an outside force is influencing them. It reminds me a bit of Homer’s Odyssey with the Gods running around in the background influencing events except in this case it is completely behind the scenes. Having mythical creatures like fairies in the story subtly reinforces this. Continuing along with this theme the reader is given a number of glimpses, usually a few pages long, into the thoughts of minor characters who either influence events or are profoundly influenced by them. Ironically enough in the end it becomes obvious one of the principal characters has played a role in another important event only vaguely related to the story but perhaps surpassing it. In terms of the actual characters themselves I enjoyed the distinction Kay made between the older and younger characters. He really conveyed the impression of how a persons view of the world can be altered by experience.

All in all I enjoyed my first foray into Kay’s work and will certainly read more from him in the future. 8.5/10.