Thursday, December 30, 2010

Review: Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

Years ago King Galivar of Alethkar was assassinated; plunging the kingdom into a war of vengeance on a ruined landscape called the Shattered Plains. Here the various princes fight separately against the same foe, more interested in securing gem hearts and their own personal glory than in winning the war. Bright lord Dalinar Kohlin, brother of the late king, grows increasingly frustrated with this situation and is troubled by his brother's dying words that have pointed him towards an obscure text called the Way of Kings. What's more during high storms Dalinar is plagued by visions that have him doubting his own sanity. Kaladin, a slave who has recently been brought to the shattered plains, finds himself assigned to a bridge crew whose sole purpose is to run bridges to a battlefield and draw enemy fire. Haunted by past failures Kaladin is caught on a knife edge of either giving up or trying one last time to aid those around him. Meanwhile a young woman named Shallan is seeking to train under an enigmatic scholar called Jasnah who also happens to be the king's sister. Her motives are less than pure as she plans a daring theft to steal an object of magical power, her only hope to save her troubled family.

Sanderson has really put a lot of effort into building a believable planet in Roshar with a deep history and it really shows. Lashed by periodic storms the creatures and plant life have evolved to survive the harsh conditions. Sanderson describes these in exquisite detail and is aided by illustrations taken from Shallan's drawing book. One of the most interesting creatures are called Spren and are drawn to different types of emotions and phenomena. The history in question is deep and we only scratch the surface in the opening novel.

The action is told primarily through the three protagonists point of view but there are various interludes from other characters that are set to feature in subsequent novels. Sanderson captures the inner turmoil of Dalinar and Kaladin brilliantly and while I found Shallan slightly harder to relate to I believe he did a good job in portraying her naivety. The structure tends to have alternating chapters from two of the story lines at a time with the other taking a back seat. Sanderson seems to have done this as an alternative to what he has seen in other longer series like the Wheel of Time. While I do feel that this structure should be given more of a chance I am less than convinced with it's effectivness and found myself constantly wondering what was occurring in the storyline currently sitting out. Although a number of plotlines are naturally left unresolved there are definite conclusions to arcs introduced for each of the three protagonists. There has been a bit of debate around the character's morality, namely whether they are either black or white or fit into shades of grey. My own take is that the three main protagonists are all morally good (even Shallan), though some minor characters are definitely in grey territory. Most notably Dalinar's chief rival Sadeas who is certainly more than a simple villain and a character that intrigued me.

Anyone who has read any of Brandon's work before will know that most of his books are set in the same universe with a recurring character named Hoid making sporadic appearances. Hoid is here again and features far more prominently than before even having a chapter told from his perspective. As always Brandon has some well thought out magic systems in play. Though they are less well defined and understood than in his previous work, partly due to the characters lack of knowledge and partly due to this being a longer series and I'm sure all will be revealed in time.

Overall Way of Kings is a solid opening to one of the most ambitious fantasy series in decades. 8.25/10.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Review: A man Rides through by Stephen R. Donaldson

With Geraden, who has been accused of his brother's murder, having fled the castle Theresa finds herself imprisoned for her part in his escape. Her situation worsens quickly with the unhinged Castellan Lebbick being given permission to use whatever means necessary to get the truth from her. Theresa is finally able to get to the bottom of who is behind the imagery attacks throughout Mordant and discovers her own talent for imagery which allows her to escape. Together with Geraden Mordant's only hope of survival rests in her hands.

Donaldson did a great job opening this novel which caught my attention from the very beginning. Instead of directly addressing the cliff-hanger ending from the first book he kind of worked his way around it from the Castellan's perspective which was highly interesting to say the least. The Castellan is an interesting character, having lost almost everything he has cared about and remaining steadfastly loyal to king Joyse who appears to have lost his mind, he is pushed to the breaking point and beyond. He and the Tor are placed in rather similar positions yet go in different directions before finally arriving at a similar fate. Theresa and Gerdan certainly develop as characters and put most of their self-doubt behind them and really mature in themselves and finally as a couple.

In the first volume the action was primarily restricted to Orison castle but Donaldson treats us to a bit of a tour de force of Mordant which doesn't quite work for me as we offered nothing more than glimpses into some intriguing places. I highly recommend any authors writing series with bloated character perspectives to note Donaldson's excellent treatment of the King Joyse and Myste and the champion’s story lines. Since they aren't central to the main plot line we only learn what Theresa knows as she learns about it, a perfect example of how to tie in multiple story arcs without the clutter.

Overall A man rides through it a fitting conclusion to a great duology. 8/10.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Review: The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay

It’s funny how a book can develop a reputation. It’s even funnier when the reputation of the book in question is based on nothing more than hearsay. One such book is Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Summer Tree. It was Kay’s first novel written during the 1980’s and there is a perception that it is nowhere near as good as Kay’s subsequent work, that it has dated badly and that it should be slotted into the young adult category. Oddly enough most of these comments seem to stem from people who have either A) not read the novel in question at all or B) ‘got a few pages in before giving up’. I have learnt much to my pleasure that these people don’t know what they’re talking about.

The story begins with five university students attending a lecture and meeting a man who was much more than he appeared. Loren Silvercloack is a Wizard from another world, the first of all worlds in fact called Fionavar. Loren convinces the five of them to journey with him back to his world under the presumption that they were to be guests in the festivities celebrating the fiftieth year of the reign of Aielell the high king of Brennin. Loren, however, has an ulterior motive and is convinced that the drought affecting the kingdom is unnatural and that the five students will have a large role to play in shaping Fionavar’s future.

Like a number of other works from that time, such as that of Scott-Rohan, the story is told through an archaic style prose reminiscent of the epics, though Kay breaks this up nicely considering five of the protagonists are from modern-day earth. The story itself moves along at a good clip which works well though does lead to my only criticism. Namely that the five students agree too easily to accompany Loren back to Fionavar which struck me as a touch unrealistic. Paul and Jennifer’s reasons are explored a little later in the book and having Dave try to change his mind at the last minute was a nice touch, this is still an area I would have liked to have seen explored more. The characters themselves are well realized with their backgrounds from their different lives on earth effecting the way they perceive Fionavar. I found the scenes of Paul on the Summer Tree particularly powerful, I advise anyone who classes this book as young adult to have another read through those scenes and see if they still hold the same opinion.

Overall I believe that not enough people give Kay’s first book a fair chance as it is certainly both well-written and powerful. 8/10.