Sunday, February 1, 2015

Book Triad: Could Be Worse Ever After

Ah, the blog. Or, as it is at the moment, that thing I do when I'm between videogames, just finished a book, and there's no new shows on because it's Super Bowl Sunday. There's been an alarming build up of book triad reviews building up over the course of the last year or so. I haven't done one of these since 2013. My goodness. That means there will also be a lot of me going "wait, wasn't this the book with the guy who did that thing? To that unicorn? Or was it a pegasus?".

Let's get right into my equine questioning, with reviews of Karen Miller's Empress, Jonathan Stroud's Heroes of the Valley, and Peter David's Fable Blood Ties, after the break.

Empress by Karen Miller. Hekat, born as an unwanted daughter to a man and woman struggling to survive in a near lifeless country, is sold into slavery. But she's certain she's destined for something more, and she's not afraid to do what's necessary to make that happen. She becomes a warrior and, alongside the warlord Raklion and the priest Vortka, she forges a testament of God's power. I admire the construction of Miller's world; from top to bottom, she presents a fully-formed warrior culture complete with religious fanaticism, a long way from the usual fantasy knights and dragons. And the world is reflected in everything, even the sentence construction. Here's an example: "She did not look at Vortka, she did not need to look to feel his concern for her. Foolish Vortka, there was no need to worry." All the characters think in this comma-spliced way, and it goes a long way to enhancing the sense that you're looking at a different world. At the same time, I can't say I found the book particularly appealing. Even aside from the brutality of the warrior culture, Hekat is a fairly unappealing character. She's arrogant, quick to anger, and slow to admit any mistake. And there's not any particular suspense in what's going to happen to her--the book's CALLED Empress. She's probably not going to die as a slave, you know? The book could be read as a sort of female version of Macbeth or Richard III, but the lack of suspense in the ending makes the whole thing sort of a drudge. It gets better as the book progresses, and the last third or so, while still fairly predictable, is at least foraging into new areas. I can't say I'm particularly compelled to follow it, though. I respect Miller's writing ability, and might check out another series by her, but I think this one ends here; it's just not my thing.

Heroes of the Valley by Jonathan Stroud. First, let's mentally adjust that 4 to a 3.5. Good? Right. I was a big fan of Stroud's Bartimaeus trilogy, particularly for its snarky lead/narrator, and the way it challenged traditional YA fantasy tropes. And Heroes of the Valley does some challenging as well. In particular, its satirical target is ancestor worship. In the valley where the book takes place, a group of legendary heroes reluctantly banded together to rid the area of trolls, and now the descendants of each hero claim their ancestors were better than the others, even though all the stories seem to be the same with the victim and hero changed, and the heroic deeds often involve a lot of murder and thievery. And there's more trope attacking with the lead, Halli Sveinsson, who, the book is quick to tell us, is stumpy and squat, quite unlike the traditional Viking hero. And when he tries to leave the family to avenge a great wrong, he learns just how relative the term "hero" can be. The book builds nicely, and a final twist fits well with the overall themes. But at the same time, it just never grabbed me quite as much as Stroud's other stuff. Maybe it's the change in lead--Halli is clever, but a little too earnest for my tastes. Or maybe it's just a personal preference, that I tend more toward the high fantasy or steampunk sort of thing than the minor scope Viking tale Stroud's telling. Still, it's worth a read if you're a fan of his work.

Fable: Blood Ties by Peter David. Call it a 3.5. Bored with life in Bowerstone after the heroes won the day, charismatic rogue Ben Finn travels elsewhere, only to get caught up in a power struggle involving strange beasts, one with a very close connection to him. This is a much better book than David's last one set in the Fable universe, the Balverine Order. That book, to get around the problem with setting a book in a world determined so much by user choice, created blank slate characters. The problem there is that the characters were pretty white bread. Here, the book's protagonist is an existing Fable 3 character, Ben Finn, a gun-slinging rogue. Granted, there's still some trouble with adapting a playable story to a book--the book makes a point of stating right off the bat that it's based on one of the possible endings of Fable 3, and yours may have been different--but on the whole, the balance it strikes is better. Add to the cast the acerbic also-prexisting Page, and an insulting-slinging gnome, and you have a group that play to David's strengths in writing comedy and dialogue. The plot is the book's weak point, as it revolves around Finn's connection to a character which is told to us rather than showed to us. And the fact that it uses more source material than the previous book means that it's a little less accessible, or at least that those who have actually played Fable 3 will get a little more out of it. But it's a fairly amusing book, and stands above the admittedly low bar for video game novelizations.

It's been a while since I've done the Book Triad; as a reminder, the way it works is that I present three reviews I wrote for Goodreads on three books I've read, then spend a paragraph focusing on how they fit together, or compare. And given that I'm not selecting based on this paragraph, sometimes the connection is a little tenuous. Lower your expectations is the message I'm trying to convey here.

 Actually, more seriously, lowered expectations is a good summary of these three books. They were all fine, but somewhat disappointing. And disappointments tend to be exacerbated when reading fantasy books, because there's so much more book to be disappointed by. At 350 or so, Blood Ties isn't too bad, but Heroes of the Valley clock in at nearly 500 and 800 pages respectively. When you're reading something you're not enjoying as much as you'd wish, that extra length is dreadful. In each case, I respect what the authors were trying to do. Empress avoids a lot of the fantasy cliches of a female-led book set in a male-dominated society--by going with a more flawed protagonist, Miller definitely differentiates herself from, say, Tamora Pierce. Videogame-based stories are *always* going to be a bit of slog, unless constructed from the ground up to deal with the support required for such a story; I think the broadly satirical nature of a lot of the Fable series (remember, this is a game series that started with the ability of the PC to fart in order to impress people) really detracts from its narrative potential, so David is basically making a lot out of a little. And Stroud's book winds up being its own rhetorical jab against the notion of hero worship in fantasy. Each one, essentially, attempts to twist fantasy conventions to say something new, or at least different. Maybe deep down, what I'm looking for in a fantasy story is just a recitation of those conventions, and part of my distaste for these books is that they're trying to move away from exactly what I want. And yet, I can't shake the feeling that each of these authors have done better. With David and Stroud, I've seen them do better. And with Miller, it really feels as if she's still finding her feet. Well, if nothing else, I still appreciate them for trying.

Later Days. 

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