Thursday, May 16, 2013

Book Triad: Series of Fantasy

So it's been a while since I've done a Book Triad entry. As usual, it's not because I stopped reading. No, I think I could give up the television and the gaming before I gave up the reading. Rather, it's because I've fallen rather thoroughly off my 2 nonfiction / 1 fiction rule.  Eventually, though, you have to just go with the fall, and move on. So without further ado, here is an all fantasy book version of Book Triad. Reviews of

The Blinding Knife by Brent Weeks
Blood of Dragons by Robin Hobb
River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay

all after the break.

The Blinding Knife by Brent Weeks.   The Blinding Knife is book two in Weeks' Lightbringer series, and it continues the story of Gavin Guile, the Prism, and his son, Kip. The surest measure of whether you'll like this book or not is how you felt about the first one--and if you don't know because you haven't read the first one, then this book isn't going to make a lot of sense. The subplots are largely a continuation of the first book: Guile's finding a location for the survivors of previous big fight, and preparing for the next counterstrike against the Color Prince. And Kip starts training as a Blackguard while simultaneously fighting off the attention of his controlling grandfather. And all the while, Gavin's brother struggles to get out of his prison. The book has a very contemporary tone for a fantasy novel; all of the characters are very ready to trade quips and jokes as if they were starring in a sitcom. It's kind of distracting at first, but I got used to it fairly quickly. The book's a real page-turner too; Weeks knows how to use short chapters to really drive the plot forward, and balances the action and talking bits well--he reminds me of Jim Butcher in that regard. And he still deserves credit for setting up a world with an interesting fantasy dynamic, where magic is based on the light spectrum, and it quickly drives its users insane. Granted, it's not a perfect book. A lot of the characters seem oddly sex-crazed. And while I was impressed when Weeks ended what seemed like a major plot point in a surprising manner, the method to reach that point seemed exceptionally contrived. Ulimately, though, it's a fun "shades of grey" sort of modern fantasy book.

Blood of Dragons by Robin Hobb. The fourth book of the Rain Wild Chronicles offers Hobb's signature: a slow plot that builds to a moving conclusion, and some of the most solid character development you can find in a fantasy series. While this almost certainly won't be the last set in this universe (or so I wildly speculate), as Hobb's been building it for decades, most of the longstanding plots get resolved. By implication, that means all the plotlines from previous books get their fair airing: the new dragons continue their development into fully fledged beings of power; Tats and Rapskal continue their attempts to win Thymara; Selden's fate, imprisoned alone; the fate of Malta and Reyn and their failing newborn; and, most significantly, Hest's confrontation with Alise and Sedric. It says a lot about what Hobb can do with the genre that the book's greatest dramatic moment is not a big fight or the resolution of a quest, but a conversation where two abused characters assert their independence. Unfortunately, that really IS the climax; the resolution afterward seems rather perfunctory and forced. It's certainly not a book to start the series on, but that's more or less a given in a fantasy series. It's also not much of a book on its own--like most of the quartet, for Blood of the Dragons to have its full impact, it should probably be read immediately after the previous book, as one gigantic novel. Too bad the series' publishing schedule didn't lend itself to that sort of reading. 

River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay. River of Stars is the second book in Guy Gavriel Kay's Under Heaven series, a fantasy series set in an ancient pseudo-Asian realm. Taking place centuries after the events of the first book, River of Stars depicts an empire in decline, a nation still so torn by a previous civil war by a rebellious general that it is willing to accept decadence and decline rather than risk another powerful military leader. Under this setting, Kay introduces a wide cast of characters (of course) but with two leads: a woman who has been raised by her father to do unwomanly things like read and shoot arrows; and a minor son of a minor official, who dreams of martial prowess that regains his nation's former glory. It's probably an irony of some sort that whenever I read Kay, a writer whose work is always seeped in history, that I can't forget his history, that his career began with his help in collating Tolkien's work. To me, their work shares something in common: both are about ordinary people (or in one case, hobbits) caught up in extraordinary, epic events. There's a lot more philosophizing about destiny, fate, and how events take form than in some of Kay's books, but that sort of wandering fits the nature of the imperial court he's created. Like in the previous book, there is magic in this world, but it's very rare and mysterious, making its appearance more... well, magical. I don't think he quite nailed the romance; while I liked both characters, their relationship together was a bit going through the motions for me, though your mileage may vary. There also seemed to be a weird Lady Macbeth thing going on that never quite came to fruition. But all in all, it's a great book. By far Kay's best trait is how he incorporates the small moments of bravery and human emotion in general into his larger tapestry, and the book isn't lacking those. In the end, that's the book's heart; it's not about the fall of emperors or battles and massacres, but a man alone in a room with two goblets of wine.  

It wasn't until I put all three books side-by-side in this review that I noticed they were not only all fantasy genre books, but they were all also books that are not the first in a series. Of the three, I'd say only River of Stars can really be read on its own. Fantasy books are very odd in that regard--while there are plenty of fiction series, fantasy is really the only genre that consistently has series where much of a given book won't make sense unless you've read what comes before. Even sci-fi is more relatively stand-alone. I think that might speak to the genre's roots in the picaresque and the epic, both sprawling works that tend to contain dozens of adventures before coming to a conclusion. That sequential storytelling might even be the reason I like fantasy so much--like superhero comics, like the TV shows I'm big into, they're interested simultaneously in the larger story and the moment at hand. Another notable thing about this particular trio is the way I read them. I read them all on my iPhone, which isn't particularly remarkable; I've been reading things on my phone for ages now, and it's probably my most used app. What is more interesting is that I started reading them simultaneously. That is, I'd read one hundred segments of one, then jump to the next. I wanted to see how that changed the reading experience. Mostly, it made me much more aware of each writer's style. Compared to each other, Weeks writes in short staccatos, Hobb tends toward long conversations, and Kay puts a lot of truck into wandering prose. And all three do a lot of good dialogue, which is generally key to my personal enjoyment. It surprised me that of the three, it was Weeks' book that I first abandoned the sequential switching, and just started reading it before I moved on to the other two. But it makes sense--Weeks put much more effort into constructing a roller coaster plot, something that's constantly moving from one climactic moment to another. If I can use a food metaphor, reading The Blinding Knife was like wolfing down fast food--it's a great sugar high. Going to Blood of Dragons, afterward, bycomparison, was like sitting down to a good home-cooked meal after weeks of fast food. And River of Stars was like going to a five star restaurant and getting the chef's special. All great foods, but all very different flavors.

Later Days.

No comments: