Jul 30, 2010

Malazan: The early books - Lether

The third (and last) major plot-line of the Malazan Book of the Fallen starts in Book five, Midnight Tides. It begins at the time of Gardens of the Moon and brings us to the faraway continent of Lether, situated on the opposite side of the globe from the Malazan birthplace of Quon Tali. As the story unfolds, we see the descendants of the first Tiste Edur invaders in this world. The Children of Shadow have degenerated into tribal savages and the tribes have recently been unified by the Warlkock King. Tensions between the Edur and the humans from the nearby mercantile expansionist Kingdom of Lether are rising.

The Walock King prepares for open conflict with the Letherii and for that purpose, he sends the Sengar brothers - Fear, Rhulad, Binadas and Trull (whom we have briefly met in House of Chains, set further in the chronology) - on a mysterious quest that ends with Rhulad - the youngest - being killed. But that is only the beginning of tragedy for the Sengar family, and also the beginning of a great change not only for the Tiste Edur clans, but also for the Kingdom of Lether and quite possibly the whole world.

Midnight Tides is my favorite book in the series, and - ironically - the last really good one. Erikson's prose has long since found its proper pace, and the story unfolds with smoothness that only Deadhouse Gates could match. The characters, although new and unknown to the reader, are among the finest in the series. Trull Sengar is brooding and introspecitve, but has not yet turned into the emo b**ch he will become in later novels. His brother Rhulad is a tragic image of youthful insecurity gone terribly wrong, while in the Kingdom of Lether we have the amazing Bedict brothers (yes, brotherhood is a big theme in Book five. Actually, I think that in every one of the first few installments a prevalent theme could easily be found) - the eccentric genius Tehol and Brys - King's Champion and the finest swordsman in Lether. Also a great addition to the series is Bugg - Tehol's servant and a creature of extraordinary wit and many talents who competes with Kruppe and Iskaral Pust as the Malazan's best comic relief character (even though - just like them - he is much more than that).

Midnight Tides is unique in that it shows a place quite literally frozen in time. Due to events shown in the prologue, time in Lether has not moved the same way as in the rest of the world, and that accounts for a lot of differences. First of all, magic exists here in rawer form. Instead of Warrens, mages use the older Holds. The Deck of Dragons does not exist and prophecies are based on the Tiles of the Hold. Elder gods walk the continent, unchallenged by the new Houses and younger Ascendants. But that is not all. Ghosts and the Undead are common in Lether, and some even play a major part in the story of the book. All this creates an atmosphere that is quite different from what we're used to in the series.

This is - alas - the last book that manages to find the balance of epics and human drama (further installments completely miss the second part), as the ending is possibly the second best in the Malazan Book of the Fallen. It is also the last book to make an overpowered character believable and human - Brys Beddict is always spoken about in terms of his inhuman ability with the sword, but never actually shown to use it, while at the same time he is a kindhearted and gentle person of responsibility and integrity. So when he does use his sword at the end of the book, the reader is left quite literally gaping.

In the end, Midnight Tides is the last installment in the series to show Erikson's true potential, and in my view - one of the very few greatest works of fantasy ever written. It is a sad thing what this particular story-line turns into in later novels, but as a stand-alone story (and it reads quite well that way, especially considering the fact that it has almost no connection to what has happened before in the series) the book is pure genius.


Next: Malazan: Novels of the Malazan Empire - Night of Knives

Jul 29, 2010

Comics: The Walking Dead, Volume One: Days Gone By

So, I got into non-superhero comic books rather late, having grown up in a country where comic books in general were a rarity. That means I have a lot of catching up to do, and hundreds of different places to start doing it. It is usually outside factors that decide which series I am going to give a try, and in this particular case the outside factors were my love for zombies and the TV show based on The Walking Dead and directed by Frank Darabont (of Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and The Mist fame) that is about to start airing in the Fall.

So anyway, back on topic. The Walking Dead tells the story of a group of people, trying to survive after a zombie apocalypse that basically wiped out civilization. Volume 1 begins with a small-town cop named Rick Grimes who wakes up after a month of coma, having being shot while on duty. He finds the world irrevocably changed, and starts searching for his wife and son. What he finds is a small community of refugees, with all their little and not so little dramas.

The setting is overused, true, but Robert Kirkman's treatment is still admirable. As he points out in the forward for the trade paperback, his purpose for this series is to show the lives of people as they survive in a hostile world. It is a bit off-putting when he bluntly tells that he plans The Walking Dead to be almost a never-ending story, but apart from that, the series accent aims true. A particularly favorite quote of mine from the back cover is "In a world ruled by the dead, we are forced to finally start living."

Days Gone By is a bit rocky as most beginnings often are. The dialogue is nothing to write home about, motivation is a bit too spelled-out for my tastes and sometimes scenes don't connect well with each other, leaving the reader with a feeling of gaps in the narrative. Despite those little flaws though, the focus on characters is really well-executed, and there are moments of really strong emotional impact. I have high hopes of Kirkman's style maturing as he finds his stride in later volumes.

So far The Walking Dead looks like a solid read, and certainly worth checking out both by zombie buffs (who have probably already done that since the series has been running since 2003 and is nearing its 80th issue) and comic book fans in general. I know I'll be digging into Volume 2 first thing tomorrow!


Jul 28, 2010

Cover Art for the collector's edition of Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself

Not Subterranean's best effort, but the cover still looks gorgeous enough to make me sad that I don't have that kind of money...

Jul 27, 2010

Starcraft II Frustration

So, Wings of Liberty is out. I went to the midnight launch in my local Game Stop, being a fan of the original Starcraft. It was fun and all, but then I got home and tried installing the game. Nope. Can't. Need online connection, and I don't have one, cause I just moved in a new apartment. Went to the closest Wi-Fi hotspot (five minutes walk) at 2 am. Managed to begin installation. Went back home. Continued installing, but then I tried to play. Nope. Can't. Need online connection. To play Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty, you have to be on-line, and it doesn't matter if you want to play single or multiplayer. So basically, that means that while pirates all over the world have been enjoying the game for more than a day now, I can't play it, even though I payed for it. And that is why I hope PC gaming dies in agony, and will never touch a PC game if I ever have the choice.


Jul 26, 2010

Malazan: The early books - Seven Cities

The second novel in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series makes a sharp turn away from the story of the Empire's invasion in Genabackis. The reason - believe it or not - is that Memories of Ice's draft got lost in a computer crash and Erikson was so frustrated, that he wrote an entirely new book before returning to his original storyline. Whatever the reasons, the model of jumping to different storylines between books turned out to be successful, so there's no reason to complain.

Deadhouse Gates is situated in the desert continent of Seven Cities. The birthplace of humanity, and home to the First Empire of man, it was also the first to fall under the expanding Malazan Empire's rule. But now a rebellion rises - the Whirlwind, led by the prophetess Sha'ik who resides in the holy desert of Raraku. As the occupied territories fall one by one, the Seventh Army, under the command of the legendary Malazan Fist Coltaine, begins a daring journey across the continent to get fifty thousand refugees to the safety of the Imperial Seven Cities capital of Aren - a march that will later be known as the Chain of Dogs. Amidst the chaos of the Whirlwind, the ancient and powerful half-Jaghut Icarium travels on the Path of Hands to find clues to a past he does not remember.

Meanwhile the Empire's nobility is being culled by the Empress to prevent the noble families from gaining too much power. Many are killed, but others, like the young Felisin Paran - sister to the Bridgeburners' commander Ganoes and the Empress' Adjunct Tavore - are sent to the mines of Otataral island, to dig for the sorcery-negating substance. The cull sends Felisin on a journey that would change the course of events on the opposite side of the world.

Deadhouse Gates is arguably the best book in the series so far (and considering the significant decline in quality in later installments that is not likely to change). The three intertwining stories of the Chain of Dogs, Icarium's journey and Felisin's adventures create an epic tapestry rich with the ancient history hidden under the sands of Seven Cities, and revelations concerning both the Empire's origins and the bigger powers that play a part in the apocalyptic events of the rebellion. It also marks an amazing improvement in terms of style. Erikson's prose - at times clumsy and clunky in Gardens of the Moon - suddenly blooms into a rich and mature writing that will hold for the next four books, before starting to degenerate into the verbose heaviness of the last few installments.


While Deadhouse Gates is possibly the most stand-alone part in the series, it is still only a step in the development of the myriad story-lines that are meant to converge at the ending of the series. Thus comes House of Chains, book 4 of the Malazan Book of the Fallen. After the events of the Whirlwind and the Chain of Dogs, the Empire sends Adjunct Tavore Paran and the Fourteenth Army to venture into the heart of Holy Raraku and confront Sha'ik herself.

Meanwhile, from the northern mountains on the continent of Genabackis, a man like no other arrives into the world. Karsa Orlong is Teblor - a race of giants, descended from the legendary ancient Toblakai. He sets on a journey that will change not only his life, but the fate of the entire world.

House of Chains develops both the Seven Cities stories and that of the Crippled God's ascension, after he was introduced in Memories of Ice. Although a lot of important events occur, it is less self-contained than the previous two novels. Erikson's introduction of Karsa is also controversial, because for the first time a single-character story-line takes a quarter of the book without ever switching to a different character.

It is still a solid book though, and closes nicely the Whirlwind line, even if a few loose ends are left for book 6, The Bonehunters. It also introduces the series' most notorious character, and sets the scene for the third and final big story-line of the Malazan Book of the Fallen.


Next: Malazan: The early books - Lether

Jul 25, 2010

SF Masterworks - The List

So, this list has been circulating the net for a while now (together with its Fantasy Masterworks twin which I will not post here because I'm ashamed of how little I've read from it). It originated as part of the SFFM Reading Project but bloggers outside of the contributors post it too. So, anyway, bold means "read" and italic means "owned but not read".

I - Dune - Frank Herbert
II - The Left Hand of Darkness - Ursula K. Le Guin
III - The Man in the High Castle -
Philip K. Dick
IV - The Stars My Destination - Alfred Bester
V - A Canticle for Leibowitz - Walter M. Miller, Jr.
VI - Childhood's End - Arthur C. Clarke
VII - The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress - Robert A. Heinlein
VIII - Ringworld - Larry Niven
IX - The Forever War - Joe Haldeman
X - The Day of the Triffids - John Wyndham

1 - The Forever War - Joe Haldeman
2 - I Am Legend - Richard Matheson
3 - Cities in Flight - James Blish
4 - Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
- Philip K. Dick
5 - The Stars My Destination - Alfred Bester
6 - Babel-17 - Samuel R. Delany
7 - Lord of Light - Roger Zelazny
8 - The Fifth Head of Cerberus
- Gene Wolfe
9 - Gateway - Frederik Pohl
10 - The Rediscovery of Man - Cordwainer Smith

11 - Last and First Men - Olaf Stapledon
12 - Earth Abides - George R. Stewart
13 - Martian Time-Slip - Philip K. Dick
14 - The Demolished Man - Alfred Bester
15 - Stand on Zanzibar - John Brunner
16 - The Dispossessed - Ursula K. Le Guin
17 - The Drowned World - J. G. Ballard
18 - The Sirens of Titan - Kurt Vonnegut
19 - Emphyrio - Jack Vance
20 - A Scanner Darkly - Philip K. Dick

21 - Star Maker - Olaf Stapledon
22 - Behold the Man - Michael Moorcock
23 - The Book of Skulls - Robert Silverberg
24 - The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds - H. G. Wells
25 - Flowers for Algernon - Daniel Keyes
26 - Ubik - Philip K. Dick
27 - Timescape - Gregory Benford
28 - More Than Human - Theodore Sturgeon
29 - Man Plus - Frederik Pohl
30 - A Case of Conscience - James Blish

31 - The Centauri Device -
M. John Harrison
32 - Dr. Bloodmoney - Philip K. Dick
33 - Non-Stop - Brian Aldiss
34 - The Fountains of Paradise - Arthur C. Clarke
35 - Pavane - Keith Roberts
36 - Now Wait for Last Year - Philip K. Dick
37 - Nova - Samuel R. Delany
38 - The First Men in the Moon - H. G. Wells
39 - The City and the Stars - Arthur C. Clarke
40 - Blood Music - Greg Bear

41 - Jem - Frederik Pohl
42 - Bring the Jubilee - Ward Moore
43 - VALIS - Philip K. Dick
44 - The Lathe of Heaven - Ursula K. Le Guin
45 - The Complete Roderick - John Sladek
46 - Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said - Philip K. Dick
47 - The Invisible Man
- H. G. Wells
48 - Grass - Sheri S. Tepper
49 - A Fall of Moondust - Arthur C. Clarke
50 - Eon - Greg Bear

51 - The Shrinking Man - Richard Matheson
52 - The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch - Philip K. Dick
53 - The Dancers at the End of Time - Michael Moorcock
54 - The Space Merchants - Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth
55 - Time Out of Joint - Philip K. Dick
56 - Downward to the Earth - Robert Silverberg
57 - The Simulacra - Philip K. Dick
58 - The Penultimate Truth - Philip K. Dick
59 - Dying Inside - Robert Silverberg
60 - Ringworld - Larry Niven

61 - The Child Garden - Geoff Ryman
62 - Mission of Gravity - Hal Clement
63 - A Maze of Death - Philip K. Dick
64 - Tau Zero - Poul Anderson
65 - Rendezvous with Rama - Arthur C. Clarke
66 - Life During Wartime - Lucius Shepard
67 - Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang - Kate Wilhelm
68 - Roadside Picnic - Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
69 - Dark Benediction - Walter M. Miller, Jr.
70 - Mockingbird - Walter Tevis

71 - Dune
- Frank Herbert
72 - The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress - Robert A. Heinlein
73 - The Man in the High Castle - Philip K. Dick
74 - Inverted World - Christopher Priest
75 - Cat's Cradle - Kurt Vonnegut
76 - The Island of Dr. Moreau - H.G. Wells
77 - Childhood's End - Arthur C. Clarke
78 - The Time Machine - H.G. Wells
79 - Dhalgren - Samuel Delany (July 2010)
80 - Helliconia - Brian Aldiss (August 2010)

81 - Food of the Gods - H.G. Wells (Sept. 2010)
82 - The Body Snatchers - Jack Finney (Oct. 2010)
83 - The Female Man - Joanna Russ (Nov. 2010)
84 - Arslan - M.J. Engh (Dec. 2010)

Jul 23, 2010

I write like...

I write like
Cory Doctorow

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

I write like
Johathan Swift

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

I write like
H. P. Lovecraft

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

I was pointed to this hilarious site. I obviously write like Cory Doctorow or Jonathan Swift (if anyone finds a common denominator between the two, please let me know!) when it comes to fiction. My reviews however seem to be influenced by one Howard Lovecraft... Like I said, hilarious! Try it!

Movies: Inception

Let me start by saying that - yes - Inception is, without a shadow of doubt, the movie of the summer. It is also the movie of the year, unless some tremendous surprise occurs, which I find highly unlikely. It is also something unprecedented - a movie with all the markings of a summer blockbuster, which is none the less based on a very complicated idea and presents an intelligent treatment of it.

The story is set in our time, but with a twist: the technology exist to enter and construct other people's dreams. Specially trained thieves called Extractors use it for industrial espionage, and there are those whose subconscious is trained to resist them. Cobb (DiCaprio) is the best Extractor in the world. A man with troubled past and loose grasp on reality, he is running from a powerful corporation after botching a job, when he receives a proposition that could potentially untangle the mess he's made of his life. But the new assignment is the complete opposite of what he does - instead of extracting an idea, he is hired to make an Inception - to plant a new idea into the mind of the subject.

Inception is a mind-twisting ride in the spirit of Philip K. Dick, and one which - just like Dick's best novels - leaves a lot of room for interpretation, especially where its ambiguous finale is concerned. Nolan's treatment of his own script is cold and almost clinical, while characters outside Cobb are given very little development (presumably on purpose). Still, there is none that rings hollow - from pragmatic and cautious Point Man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and sarcastic easygoing Forger Eames (Tom Hardy) to caring and curious Architect Ariadne (Ellen Page) they are all believable and well constructed, not to mention that all the actors are supreme in their roles.

Visually, the movie is a blast. Unfortunately, the physics-defying fun is nowhere near as much as we could've hoped for, and really, most of it was on the trailers. Still, the cold blue-gray-brown palette that permeates the whole of Inception builds a powerful atmosphere, and some of the locations - like Cobb and Mal's limbo city for example - are mind-blowing.

Inception being what it is - a summer blockbuster - it is chock-full of greatly varied action. There are car-chases, and there are shootings, fist-fights and zero-gravity grappling. There is even a Call of Duty-esque snowy mountain war sequence.

But the movie's greatest strength remains its script. The story is never boring, never slows down and never fails to present a new element. The ending feels almost a cliffhanger, until you realize that Inception has been feeding you a steady stream of clues since the very start. That makes for an exciting second viewing, and - the script being the perfect construct that it is - a third one that is just as good.

I hate the "if you watch/read one thing this year" line, but this is a rare case where it is actually appropriate. Because in the unnaturally weak Summer season that we've had this year, Inception is the only movie worth watching. And if you are even a little into SF, there is no way you're going to miss it. My advice is only this - watch carefully, listen carefully... and then do it all over again!


Jul 22, 2010

The Malazan Book of the Fallen is oficially done!

Via Facebook:

GASP! That would be me, coming up for air. How long was I down there? About twenty years, from conception to completion. The Malazan Book of the Fallen is done. Sure, editing and all that crap to follow. But ... done. I don't know who I am. Who am I again? What planet is this? Three months of butterflies ... maybe this double whiskey will fix that. Hmm. No. Delayed reaction going on here.

Congratulations to Steve! It's a major achievement finishing a series of such magnitude in such a short time. SOME authors should take note...

The Crippled God is expected on 20 Jan 2011 in the UK, and on 22 Feb 2011 in Canada (and possibly the US).

Jul 21, 2010

I have joined the SFFM Reading Project...

...and thought I'd mention it here. Today I posted my first review there, of Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light. For everyone interested, just click on either the link for the review itself, or on the picture for the blog.

Jul 20, 2010

Fantasy Masterworks: Something Wicked This Way Comes - Ray Bradbury

Something Wicked This Way Comes was my first contact with Bradbury, and it was a mindblast! The powerful story of archetypes and conviction that has inspired not a few of Steven King's books, and the beautiful and colorful prose of the novel enchanted me in a way that very few authors have ever managed.

The story is set in a small Midwestern town. One October, a mysterious traveling carnival arrives, filled with strange attractions and stranger performers. And as the carnival's dark promises of secret desires turn to madness and despair, the lives of two 13-year old boys change forever.

The beauty of Something Wicked This Way Comes is contained in its contrasts. Will Halloway is born a minute before midnight on October 30. Blond and blue-eyed, he is careful and timid. Jim Nightshade on the other hand - born a minute after midnight on October 31 - is his exact opposite. With his chestnut hair and dark eyes, brooding and always "looking at his shadow", he is ever getting into trouble. Perhaps it is this duality that accounts for the boys' friendship. It is also another beautiful contrast that Jim's brashness is what makes him the weak one in the story, while Will's timidity hides greater strength.

The monstrous performers of Mr. Dark's carnival are among the most vivid images of nightmarish dementia I've seen in any type of fantasy, not in small part due to Bradbury's amazing descriptions. The scene of the Wax Witch's flight in a balloon held by her breaths, as she touches people's dreams in search for the boys, brands itself deep into the imagination, and won't let go long after you've put the book down. And it is but one example of the powerful imagery that occurs many times throughout the book.

In the end, Something Wicked This Way Comes is a story of growing up and coming of age, of overcoming the greatest obstacles - your own desires and self-doubts - and of finding strength in what makes us human, against a power that would steal your dreams and turn them to nightmares. The book has mythic resonance, despite its "YA" setup and small-town setting, and in its wake one feels maybe a little stronger, as if the reader, and not the characters, has overcome the obstacles of Mr. Dark's traveling carnival. It is a beautifully written and imagined novel, and an attestation to the genius of Ray Bradbury's writing. I can not recommend it enough!


Jul 19, 2010

Cover Art for Michael Moorcock's Elric: Swords and Roses

An awesome cover! Some of the previous ones have been hit and miss, but Volume 6 is spot on. Michael Moorcock's multiverse is something I've long wanted to try out, but I still haven't. I am buying the Chronicles of the Last Emperor of Melnibone volumes as they come out. Maybe I should think about actually reading them now...

Jul 18, 2010

Cover art for the e-book edition of Robert Jordan's Crossroads of Twilight

The days when I actively cared about The Wheel of Time are long behind me, but I keep being amazed by the awesome covers e-book editions get. Why, I ask, didn't the hard copies look this way? Even Memory of Light has that ghastly "the problems of gas" cover...

Jul 17, 2010

Malazan: The early books - Genabackis

After describing the Malazan world, it is time to go into the novels themselves. However, the story of the Malazan Book of the Fallen is way too complicated to go book by book. In the first five installments of the series three major plot-lines are presented, on three separate continents. Characters sometimes jump from one to the other, but mostly they are almost completely self-contained until book six, The Bonehunters, where they start to merge. So, I have decided to separate my first posts on the series into plot-lines instead of books. This entry covers the continent of Genabackis, where the first and third novels are set.

Gardens of the Moon begins with the siege of the city of Pale in northern Genabackis - another step in the conquering campaign of the Malazan Empire. As Pale falls, seemingly abandoned by its allies - the Tiste Andii of Moon's Spawn - Empress Laseen sets her gaze on Darujhistan - the jewel of the continent, and its richest city. The few surviving Bridgeburners - an elite group of soldiers, lead by the legendary Sergeant Whiskeyjack - are sent before the army, to ensure victory from within. But many powers gather to prevent Laseen's insatiable conquest. Anomander Rake, the Son of Darkness, allies himself with Darujhistan, while the Ascendants of High House Shadow - the gods Shadowthrone and his right hand Cotillion - have their own reasons of wanting to hurt the Malazan Empire. Meanwhile Oponn - the twin-gods of Chance - play a game in which two mortals become their unwitting pawns. And as powerful forces converge on Darujhistan, and a few mundane humans try to stay alive amidst the onslaught, an ancient creature stirs in the outskirts of the city - one mighty enough to shatter all carefully arranged plans in its icy fist.

The beginning of the Malazan Book of the Fallen has a few faults that prevent it from appealing to the broad audience. One of those is the fact that Erikson chooses to literally thrust you into the middle of a raging battle. As the reader finds himself among the soldiers of the siege of Pale, he is drowned under a wave of names, relationships and history that he knows nothing about. True, it takes less than fifty pages to find your way to the surface of those dark waters, but it is an unfriendly beginning to say the least, and many people don't like being treated in that way. Then follow the "GotMisms", so named because they are incongruities specific to the first book - things that contradict facts, established in further installments. Nothing particularly major though, and definitely nothing that steals from the enjoyment of the book. Steven Erikson's style is still a bit tentative here, not daring (or simply not yet matured enough) to unleash his full potential. Still, the quality of his writing is high, even if some parts are chunkier than others.

In the end, Gardens of the Moon is not even half as good as the books that follow it, but still remains among the best in the genre, and sets the scene for most of the major plot-lines that comprise the series. I would strongly recommend giving it a chance, and if after it you are unsure as to where you stand with Steven Erikson - plunging directly into Deadhouse Gates. By its end you will know.


Book three, Memories of Ice, continues the story of those left on Genabackis. After the disastrous events of Gardens of the Moon, the survivors have forged new alliances, as an unexpected threat has risen in the southern part of the continent - the Pannion Domin and its mysterious leader, the Pannion Seer. The Domin conquers and literally devours every land on its way north, and the fragile alliance of powers forged to stop it is nowhere nearly enough to defeat it. Until the undead hordes of the T'lann Imass emerge to join the battle, following a new call to arms and the tiniest glimmer of something that has long been buried under the ash of millenia - hope.

Meanwhile, in the city of Capustan, the mercenary army of the Gray Swords must defend against the cannibalistic tide of the Domin, while hoping against hope that help will come from outside. And underneath it all, something poisons the Warrens themselves, turning traveling through them, and even the simple use of magic into a deadly perilous affair. Bridgeburner mage Quick Ben is bent on unraveling this mystery, before magic becomes completely unaccessible.

Memories of Ice finally gives us the main "villain" of the series, if he could be called such. The Crippled God, fallen from the skies after being summoned from a place outside of the Malazan plane and its Warrens, has been chained by a host of Ascendants, but he still manages to touch the world both directly, and through those he bends to his purposes. And his power is growing...

The third installment in the Malazan Book of the Fallen was for a long time my favorite. After rereading it, I realized that its main appeal is in the thunderous revelations and plot-twists it contains, and thus the experience diminishes after the first time. Still, Memories of Ice is undoubtedly one of the best books in the series, especially due to the fact that it is centered mostly around the T'lan Imass and their tragic fate. Also, together with book two, it boasts the most epic, emotionally engaging and truly "heroic" ending in the series so far. The intensity of emotion is so huge, that I can't read its last fifty pages without putting the book down for short rests. Erikson's style, after its sudden bloom in book two, Deadhouse Gates, is in top shape here, finding perfect balance between exuberance and narrative flow (one which the author will, regrettably, lose in later installments). The novel is a fast read, despite its scope and the rich descriptive prose used to paint its chaotic world.

In the end, Memories of Ice is Steven Erikson at his very best, proving that the Malazan Book of the Fallen is a bar setter and a series to be reckoned with. The book is among the very few greatest examples of what Fantasy is capable of, and an unquestionable must read.


Next: Malazan: The early books - Seven Cities

Jul 16, 2010

Buffy The Vampire Slayer - Season 1

Words could hardly express my adoration for the "Buffyverse" (the shared world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel) and my respect for its creator, Joss Whedon. It is easy to scoff at those shows, with their cheap special effects and unrealistic premises. But if one but looks with unbiased eyes, it is even easier to fall in love with their deep characters, the complex relationships between them, the underlying themes in each episode, and the brilliant dialogues. What Joss Whedon has given us with Buffy and Angel is something that has rarely, if ever, happened on TV - not just entertainment, but an experience, something which changes us, if only a little. And I really love those shows. Not with the fervor of a fanboy, but with the respect and fondness of someone who felt the characters of the Buffyverse come to life before his eyes, and become his friends, even if for a short while. See, I cared for them. And still do.

Recently I decided to rewatch the shows, and I thought I might as well express my geekness in written form, season by season. I am aware that most of you probably have either watched them, or do not care to, but for the sake of those who haven't and maybe some day would, I will review the seasons without spoilers.

In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 1 we meet Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) - a 16-year old California girl who just moved into the little town of Sunnydale with her mother, after being kicked out of her school in LA for torching the gymnasium. In her first day at Sunnydale High, she meets two outcasts who will quickly become her best friends, and the core of the show's cast - science geek Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and goofy slacker Xander (Nicholas Brendon) - as well as the British librarian Mr. Giles (Anthony Steward Head), and the mysterious Angel (David Boreanaz), both of whom know entirely too much about her. Because Buffy is the Slayer - one who is born into each generation to fight vampires and the forces of darkness. And Giles is a Watcher, sent to guide and teach her. Only, Buffy doesn't really fall in line with what is expected of her, and often her teenage girl problems take precedence over world-saving. But then the Master - an ancient and powerful vampire - threatens to escape from his prison in the Hellmouth under Sunnydale (a vortex of mystical energy, which also acts as a portal to the demonic dimensions), and it is up to Buffy and her friends to stop him.

Season 1 is a tentative first step in what will be one of the greatest TV shows of all time. It is nowhere near the quality of the following seasons, but even here the traces of what is to come are visible. The first two episodes - "Welcome to the Hellmouth" and "Harvest" - comprise the two parts of the pilot. After only half an hour of watching it, we feel as if we've known these characters for years, as small details are scattered all over the place, giving flesh and depth to what could easily have been card-board one-liner delivery devices.

Episodes worth mentioning are the hilariously over-the-top "Teacher's Pet" with its kitsch sexy Giant Preying Mantis slash Biology Teacher villainess, as well as "Angel", which was one of the biggest shockers of the 90s (its plot-twist regrettably long since ruined by Angel's pop-culture popularity). This season also offers two of the best episode endings I've seen anywhere on TV, in terms of comedic timing - those of "I, Robot... You, Jane" and "The Puppet Show". But nothing shines as bright as the season finale - "Prophecy Girl". Directed by Joss Whedon himself, it raises the overall quality of the show almost to the heights that it will reach by the end of its run. The very real drama of the Slayer who is also a very scared 16-year old girl who just doesn't want to die, is portrayed in such painful and touching manner, that if "Prophecy Girl" were the last episode in the show (as, for all its creators knew at the time, it could've been), Buffy the Vampire Slayer would still be among the best things to happen to TV in the 90s.

Fortunately for us, that was not the case. As for Season 1 though, it is a brilliant, if a bit childish and unsure beginning, and apart from a one or two mediocre episodes ("The Pack" springs to mind, even though it shows a very cool "dark side" of one of the main characters) it is well worth the time.


Jul 15, 2010

Cover art for China Mieville's Kraken and arts from Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself

Here is the cover art for the Subterranean Press limited edition of China Mieville's Kraken:

It looks gorgeous, and the full artwork is also incredible:

I really want to get my hands on this one!

Subterranean also released two arts from the upcoming limited edition of Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself:

Those also look very good. It kind of makes me want to just start reading Abercrombie's books right away...

Jul 14, 2010

Malazan: An Introduction, Part II

...continued from Malazan: An Introduction, Part I

While the conflicts of the four Founding races teared the world, a different war raged in Kurald Galain, the Elder Warren of Darkness. Mother Dark, creator of the multiverse, had committed a sin in the eyes of her children - the Tiste Andii - by giving birth to Light. Anomander Rake, her second son, led a small group of his race into the Malazan world, swearing never to return to the mother that turned her face away from her firstborn. Others followed him later, together with their new cousins - the Tiste Edur, Children of Shadow, born from the congress of Light and Darkness. The Andii and Edur fought a war with the already declining K'chain Che'Malle and won, but a betrayal from within led to the near decimation of the children of Darkness. In the end, Anomander Rake's followers were among the few who survived, while the Edur left for a distant land. The Son of Darkness now dwells in a flying mountain called Moon's Spawn, pledging the help of his people to causes not their own, as even though they can use the powers of Kurald Galain, entry to their home Warren is forever denied to them.

Powerful beings walk the Malazan world. Some of them manage to obtain godlike powers and immortality. The paths to Ascension are many, and the Ascendents assume different roles. Some, like Anomander Rake, lead their people, denying their attempts to revere them. Others grasp at godhood, gathering followers or slaves and feeding off their faith. But just as not all Ascendants are gods, the opposite is also true, for there are gods that were never mortal. Some were part of the forces that shaped the multiverse, while others were called into being by the myriad beliefs of civilizations sometimes long gone.

Many other powers form the balance of the world, such as the shapeshifting Soletaken and D'ivers; the sentient Houses of Azath that sprout at random places to imprison in their grasp everything that threatens the order of the multiverse; the draconean Eleint, children of the dragon goddess Tiam and Starvald Demelain, the First Warren; and a plethora of other creatures, races and groups that wage war on each other, form alliances and play in the games of intrigue that span worlds and centuries.


It is easy to lose oneself in the labyrinth of the Malazan world, with its myriad factions, ridiculously overpowered characters and ceaseless conflicts. What I've spent two posts in describing is never presented in such a synthesized form. Steven Erikson never explains anything outright, and sometimes different points of view present conflicting information. And yet, it is all there, and it quickly starts to make sense. Even when you feel you've been thrust in the middle of an unfamiliar place with its unfamiliar history and a vast cast of characters you know nothing about at the beginning of Gardens of the Moon, the story just propels you forward, until suddenly you realize this grasping for firm knowledge is unnecessary. Because, especially in the first half of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, you become part of this world. And as such, you can't ever truly know the whole picture - not until you've lived through it.

Next: Malazan: The early books - Genabackis

Jul 13, 2010

Malazan: An Introduction, Part I

I was first introduced to the Malazan Book of the Fallen around the time that book five, Midnight Tides, was coming out. By that time my fantasy experience had been pretty standard, with names like Jordan, Martin and Feist comprising the core of my knowledge of the genre. Then along came Steven Erikson and knocked me off my feet, changing my whole perspective of the field. Here was a series of such epic proportions, a vast world of such immense historical depth, and a cast of characters of such magnitude and diversity, that I could not believe a single person could have invented it. I was later to learn that it were actually two people that invented it, but at the time Esslemont's name was still unknown.

I fell in love with the series, and it bordered on religious adoration until book six, The Bonehunters arrived. Even then I retained most of my good feelings for the Malazan world, but then came books seven and eight, and the magic was mostly gone. But the journey is not over (and neither will it be over when the final tenth installment of Book of the Fallen comes out, since there are many more tales in this universe), and I am yet to read book nine too. But although my feelings for the series are somewhat colder now, I still consider the first five books to be among the greatest examples of what Fantasy has to offer. There has never been another work in the genre that deals with events of such magnitude, on such a broad scale and with so many fully developed characters.

So I decided to write a series of posts on the topic. Not exactly reviews, although the latter ones may turn out to be such, but more an overview of the Malazan world. I am not entirely sure how many posts there will be, although I am guessing the number will be around five or six. There will be no spoilers, although some of the stuff written bellow might be more fun to dig out on your own. Still, I'd like to think that it is safe to read my ramblings without fear that they would ruin your enjoyment of the books if you haven't read them yet.

And here we go.

The Malazan world is a place of ancient secrets and devastating cataclysms. Powerful godlike beings dwell on its many continents among races both old and young, human and inhuman. It is a world of layers, where what has happened before never disappears, but sleeps under the feet of civilizations rising and falling for hundreds of thousands of year, waiting to be awakened. It is the center of a multiverse created by Mother Dark, one through which the blood of an Elder God flows freely to create the streams of magic.

As the story begins, we are introduced to the powerful Malazan Empire. A century ago a band of rogues captured a small pirate island off the coast of the continent of Quon Tali. Led by the charismatic Kellanved, those extraordinary people created the heart of what was to be a power to conquer half the known world within less then three generations. At the time of the first book, the Empire controls three continents and wages wars of conquest on two others. Its armies are the finest fighting force in the world, as the brilliant Malazan leaders have paid heed to the lessons of innumerable civilizations that have preceded them. But the Empire is only the beginning for its creators.

Outside, inside, over and under this world are the Warrens - pocket dimensions, through which mages can both travel and access their magic. Some of the Warrens are aligned to an element or a god. Others are the birth places of the world's races. Many are not accessible to humans. They are both places and the road to places. Sources to power and knowledge. And some of them have preceded the Malazan world itself. Magic is always fluid in the Malazan series. There is the ordered system of the Warrens. But there is also the magic of ancient spirits and shamanism. There is the power of faith and symbolism, and there is the power of curses that span millenia. And those often merge to create mind-blowing effects, especially in the first few books.

The Malazan world is populated by many sentient races, and all of them are original creation of Erikson and Esslemont. No elves and dwarves here. First, the Four Founding races:

The ancient prehistoric progenitor of humanity, the Imass, made the ultimate sacrifice to wage a war of utter extinction on beings who had the power to trap whole continents in a prison of ice. They became the undead T'lan Imass - immortal and indestructible creatures of dust and fire who can not find rest as long a single one of their enemies still breaths. But the mortal was never meant to endure the weight of immortality, and as hundreds of thousands of years pass, the T'lan Imass' souls have turned to dust, and of memories of ice.

The Jaghut were once the rulers of the world, after the decline of the K'chain Che'Malle. Creatures of Omtose Phellack, the Elder Warren of Ice, they were forced to live alone by their own power, as the conflicts between Jaghut could tear down continents. As they themselves had once been slaves, so too did they enslave the hapless Imass, posing as gods for no other reason but the joy of control. Too late the Jaghut realized the threat that loomed beyond the horizon, and even as the last Jaghut Tyrant was cast down by his own kind, the immortal T'lan Imass emerged to drive their race to near extinction. Three hundred thousand years later the immortal Jaghut still pay for their hubris.

Little is know of the lizard-like K'chain Che'Malle, except for the fact that they came from beyond the stars, and used technologies that the world has not yet rediscovered. Their Matrons possessed powerful magic and utter control over their broods. Until a new experimental breed turned too volatile to control, and the ensuing civil war destroyed the K'chain Che'Malle civilization, opening the way for the emergent Jaghut.

Even less is known of the mysterious Forkrul Assail. They were creatures of limitless power, almost indestructible, with tremendous physical strength and near impervious to magic. The Assail never formed any sort of culture, nor did they have connections to the other races of the world. Obsessed with balance, their only interaction with others was to come when imbalance was perceived, to unleash a genocide of apocalyptic proportions and then vanish again. At the time the series takes place they have disappeared, although some remain in remote places.

To be continued...

Next: Malazan: An Introduction, Part II

Jul 12, 2010

The Dervish House - Ian McDonald

Ian McDonald has long been a part of my Pile of Shame - the books and authors I've always thought I should read, but somehow never gotten around to. In his case, I tried tackling Desolation Road a few months back, but for some reason I just lost interest halfway through, even though I enjoyed it quite a lot until that point. The Dervish House, then, was to be the novel to acquaint me with McDonald. It is his third "ethno" work after River of the Gods and Brazil, and it has generated an avalanche of on-line praise, so the timing was perfect.

Istanbul, in the year 2027. Twenty million people live there, and it is still the Queen of Cities, a crossroads of worlds and religions, a maze of ordered chaos and quiet cacophonies, of petty dramas and grand designs. A city where the old and the new, the mystical and the futuristic embrace in prayer around its many mosques. Turkey has become part of the European Union, and a major player in the nanotechnology field.

A suicidal bomber in a tram heralds the beginning of life-changing events for six people. A rogue trader prepares himself for the scam of the century. His wife, an owner of an art gallery, sets on a mission to discover a legendary treasure hidden somewhere in the great city. A young marketing graduate is hired by a family business that could change the world, but she has only five days to save it. A nine-year old boy with a heart condition that forces him to wear ear-plugs, thus stealing all sound from his world, becomes the accidental witness to the beginnings of a conspiracy, and turns into the Boy Detective. His friend, a retired Greek economist, is hired into a military think-tank, but he has to battle old demons before he could face new ones. And a good-for-nothing slacker caught in the tram accident starts seeing jinn, and becomes a new man. All those lives intertwine as Istanbul plunges into a five-day heat-wave, to weave a tale of dirty deals, nanotechnology and a whole new kind of terrorism.

Ok, so I want to come clean before I continue. It took tremendous effort on my part to finish The Dervish House, and in the end, it was sheer stubbornness and determination that prevented me from giving up on it. Not for a second did a sympathize with any of the characters, and the story started to actually go somewhere only in the last seventy pages.

Now, don't take me wrong. Ian McDonald is obviously a very talented writer, and even if the present tense he uses in the novel is a bit tiring at times, his style is beautiful - rich and vivid, playing with rhythm and phrase in a multitude of ways. Alas, I could never feel his Istanbul. Not in any real sense, even though it is evident that he has put a lot of effort and knowledge into building the atmosphere of the city. And his work seems to have payed off, as many on-line reviewers point mid-twenty first century Istanbul as one of the strongest aspects of the book. To me, it remained just a random place that nothing was happening in for three hundred pages.

The characters are given small segments of a couple of pages each, before McDonald moves on to the next one. That means we follow all of their stories pretty much simultaneously, but it also means that none of those stories actually move. The Dervish House is split into the five days of the heat-wave, and chapters plod ponderously over the hours, as little snippets of different lives are shown in painstaking detail, with all the atmospheric minutiae that I would love, if they actually did it for me. Considering that I turned out to be immune to McDonald's atmosphere-building and character-developing skills however, all I was left with were six separate stories that seemed to go nowhere, lacked anything to make them even a little exciting, and when the final seventy pages finally kicked in, and the stories started to merge, I wished that we had arrived there a lot earlier. Plot-wise the book needs anywhere between a hundred and fifty, and two hundred pages less.

Honestly, I am somewhat saddened. I really wanted to like The Dervish House, and to become a fan of McDonald's writing. I still do, actually, and after some time has passed, I will most likely try and read others of his books. He seems to be exactly the type of writer that I respect ia like. Yet, even if nothing in The Dervish House touched me in any way, it is a good book, and I can appreciate that a tremendous amount of effort and thought has been put into it. Also, considering all the stellar reviews over the Internet, I suspect I am in the minority here, so my advice would be for you to try it out for yourself. What it didn't do for me, it might do for you.


Jul 11, 2010

Soulless - Gail Carriger

I don't know what drew me to Soulless. Could be the mixture of steampunk, vampires and werewolves; or maybe the Victorian setting, which I really love. Or possibly the little Lovecraftean octopus thingie on the spine. Whatever the reason, I ended up reading a supernatural vampire/werewolf -slash- urban fantasy with a "some name novel" over the title, no less! - something I'm usually averse to. But what a pleasant surprise it turned out to be!

Alexia Tarabotti is a twenty-something spinster with Italian blood, coming from a family of the London middle-high society. She lives in a world where ghosts, werewolves and vampires have become public, to take place at the top of England's aristocracy, working in concert with the Crown. They are supernaturals: people with "too much soul", which allows them to survive the transformation - the bite of a werewolf or a vampire hive queen. Very few have this abundance of soul, and no one knows if they are the lucky ones until the transformation begins. Still, a lot of hopefuls strive for immortality and serve the vampire hives and werewolf packs as drones and clavigers respectively.

Alexia is the very opposite of the supernatural. She is a preternatural, a person with no soul at all, which not only means that she is immune to any supernatural threat, but also that her very touch is a deadly weapon - while she is touching a vampire or a werewolf, they revert back to normal humans for as long as the contact lasts. In the case of ghosts, the touch destroys them completely. In the past, preternaturals have been hunters of the creatures of the night, but nowadays the knowledge of their existence is all but lost. Alexia is a subject of interest to BUR - Bureau of Unnatural Registry (the supernaturals' governing office) - and sometimes helps their leader - the Alpha of Woolsey Pack, Lord Connal Maccoon - with special cases, much to his annoyance. But when she is attacked by a starved vampire who obviously knows nothing of either the laws, or proper behavior in cultured society, both Alexia and Lord Maccoon become entangled in a conspiracy that threatens the whole supernatural community. They are forced to work together despite their mutual dislike, and the result is nothing if not outrageous.

Soulless is an urban fantasy of the romantic variety. Although the story is engaging, the real point of the novel - apart from some pretty decent world-building - is the budding relationship between a strong-willed London woman of unusual origins, and a barely cultured nobleman who could tear a horse in two with his bare hands. The combination is explosive and at times hilarious, and even if the reader knows right from the beginning how that part of the story will end, it is still highly entertaining to read the verbal dueling between the two main characters.

Gail Carriger tries to tread the path of Susanna Clarke, and even though her style of writing is nowhere near the immaculate pseudo-Victorian beauty of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, she still manages to playfully imitate the posturing, conventions and politeness of expression of the high society of that era. Her attempts are at times clumsy, and at other times way too in-your-face, but for the most part Soulless creates a great - if a bit comical - atmosphere of an English aristocracy that manages to be quite the same foppish and pretentious bunch of gossiping bigots as it was in real life, despite the presence of the undying among them.

All in all, Soulless is a pretty good read, and delightfully playful one. There is enough action, romance, balls and lace to satisfy anyone, and even some horror here and there. The concept of the vampires, werewolves and their servants is also well developed, and the only reason not to like the book would be a (completely reasonable) dislike for supernatural romance. However, as a fellow hater, I can assure you that Carriger doesn't let herself get carried away, and both Alexia and Lord Maccoon are way too likable characters to annoy the reader with their clumsy flirting.

So, if you are into urban fantasy, and/or supernatural romance, and/or pseudo-Victorian language and style of writing, then Soulless is a must. Even if one of the three does not apply, you should still give it a try. I doubt you'll be sorry.


Jul 10, 2010

Shadow's Son - Jon Sprunk

In my own private world the assassin with a heart of gold is almost as big a cliche as the similarly-inclined whore, and perhaps even more annoying than the poor wench. I have never been able to understand some people's infatuation with ruthless killers that end up saving the day while being very mean and bad-ass about it. Somehow it always rings false to me. However, I have a soft spot for newcomers, and so I decided to acquaint myself with Jon Sprunk and his debut novel, Shadow's Son.

Caim is an assassin with an appropriately tortured past, plying his trade in the corrupt city of Othir - capital of the Nemean Empire, ruled by the Church of the True Faith, after a coup that disposed of the last Emperor seventeen years ago. When a routinely-looking job goes wrong, and people begin to die left and right (that is, without Caim's help), he becomes entangled in the intrigues and ambitions of the nobility and the Church. His only allies are Kit - a mysterious spirit woman that only he could see and hear, who has been his companion since early childhood - and Josephine, daughter of his last target. Now the assassin has to fight not only for his life, but also for the girl he has been tied to, and the city he secretly loves. But to stay alive, Caim might be forced to call upon a power hidden deep inside him - one that he has spent his entire life trying to deny. The power of shadows.

Shadow's Son is a fast-paced action ride. Like most assassin fantasy novels out there, it could easily be put under the Young Adult flag, if it wasn't for the blood, gore and violence factor. The characters are clich... archetypes, their motivations simple and clearly stated in POVs and dalogues. The story is straightforward, and even though the plot is intrigues-ridden, it all really boils down to who is going to murder whom first. Sprunk's style of writing drags a little at the beginning, but the book soon finds its stride and becomes engrossing page-turner. The action scenes (mostly duels with swords and knives) are good, even if they couldn't compare to Scott Bakker's flowing descriptions or David Gemmell's dynamic sequences. However, as someone who has had the dubious honor of translating Richard A. Knaak' s game tie-ins in another language, I think I am qualified enough to say that Jon Sprunk's fighting scenes are among the more successful in the genre.

Where he fails though, is the world-building and history of his world. Although only a part of a series, Shadow's Son should have been able to give way more flesh to the setting, and to some recent events. We get no real feeling of the Empire, and even though certain on-going wars and exotic neighbors are mentioned, they never appear a second time and the reader is left hanging. Even Othir herself gives the impression of being comprised of one poor street, one rich street, a half-finished cathedral, an Evil Castle and Another Evil Castle. Nothing like the fleshed-out Luthadel from Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn, or Scott Lynch's Camorr from The Lies of Locke Lamora. The real threat to the Empire is also just vaguely shown - the supernatural Shadow and its servants from the Other Side seem really interesting - but I guess it will play a bigger role in next installments. Then we have the Evil Chirch of Evil, which oppresses everyone and is at the root of all the characters' dramas EVER, but we never learn anything about the regime it replaces (supposedly it wasn't better), or even what the Chirch's dogmas are, beside the fact that it is pseudo-Christian and very corrupt. And we really should have more information, considering how crucial it is to the plot.

In the end, those are not book-ruiners though. True, Shadow's Son lacks depth of world and history, but it more than compensates with non-stop action and an Evil Conspiracy plot (if a bit simplistic one) of the type that makes you devour every page until you reach the inevitable convergence. I have to admit that Jon Sprunk's fascination with sodomy struck me as curiously morbid (or, as Kruppe would suggest, morbidly curious) - as I consider it a really strange city guard, whose members' first instinct when they catch an adolescent thief is to try and rape him - but that is not a book-ruiner either.

What ruined the book for me, was one scene toward the end, where Sprunk crossed the border between violent-but-simple-and-entertaining-assassin-fantasy, and unsettlingly-disgusting-and-"gritty"-showing-the-ugliness-of-the-world. I'm talking full on Terry Goodkind disgusting. I won't spoil the "fun" for anyone. Suffice to say I don't consider myself a prude, and in the right book this kind of development would be perfectly fine with me. Shadow's Son just isn't the right book for it. And I simply didn't like it as much after this scene.

That said, Jon Sprunk's first novel is engaging and light read, and one that leaves you wanting more. I don't expect that Shadow's Son will be among the best debuts I've read this year, but I will definitely read the sequel, when it's out. The author has undeniable potential, and if he develops his world and gives it a few historical layers - and if he could also refrain from gratuitous "grittiness" - this could turn out to be a truly great series.


P.S. There is a whore with a heart of gold in Shadow's Son. True story.

Jul 9, 2010

Mistborn: The Final Empire - Brandon Sanderson

I heard about Brandon Sanderson a few years ago. The reviews were always praising, especially in terms of world-building and magic systems, and being the nerd that I am, those are pretty attractive to me in fantasy. However, when I started reading Elantris, I just couldn't get into it and gave up a hundred pages through. Then I bought Mistborn (or The Fnal Empire, depending on which edition you read) at JFK airport, and immediately loved it.

Reading Brandon Sanderson right now is a little like listening to Muse after the Twilight movies. Sure, he wasn't a nobody before, but he wasn't nearly as famous as he has become in the last two years either. And if you tell anyone you are reading his books now, they'll smirk and say you only do it because of his work on The Wheel of Time. But to me, it was the other way around. I was happy he was the one to finish Robert Jordan's magnum opus because I knew how good he is.

If I have to find a niche in the genre to put Brandon Sanderson in, that would be the same place occupied by David Gemmell (may he rest in peace), the one Raimond Feist vacated when he went the way of Salvatore and Brooks - the road of endless tired sequels, one every three months or so... It is the niche of high fantasy, of adventures and magic, and of characters that would be cardboard in the hands of a lesser author, but who in Sanderson's writing have just enough of that little spark that makes us care for them.

Mistborn is set in a setting that is rarely explored in fantasy. A long time ago, a great threat loomed over the lands, and a hero rose to defeat it. Many united under his banner, and he was the last hope of the world.

He failed.

It is now a thousand years later, and the land is covered by ash, spewed endlessly by active volcanoes. When darkness falls, unnatural mists envelop everything, and strange creatures lurk inside them. This is the time of the Final Empire, held in the iron fist of the Lord Ruler - an immortal god-like being that has controlled humanity for a whole millenium. Under his rule there are only two castes - the nobles, descendants of those that once helped the Lord Ruler ascend to power; and the skaa, slaves belonging to nobility, to do with as they please. Rebellions have been few and far between, and all of them end in total bloody suppression.

But now a new kind of rebel appears. One with the means and will to end the Final Empire once and for all, by striking at its heart - the Lord Ruler himself.

The story centers around the skaa rebellion in Luthadel, capital of the Empire. Even though it is a part of a trilogy, Mistborn is actually self-contained; the next installments in the series broaden the concept, revealing new layers to the world, previously hidden by the Lord Ruler's reign. And as a stand-alone book, it shines. It has everything a high fantasy needs: intrigues, lurking in the dark, amazingly cinematic fighting sequences... and magic.

Magic in this world is called Allomancy. An Allomancer is a person who ingests little slivers of metal and then "burns" them in his body, producing a specific effect. There are a number of metals, each working in opposing pairs: one gives you the ability to pull metals, another - to push them; one detects Allomancy, another hides it. This power is extremely rare, and only flows through the blood of some members of nobility, which is the reason for a law that states that any nobleman who takes a skaa lover has to kill her after, to avoid the power being given to the slaves. Of course, this doesn't always happen the way it should, and thus the unlikely cast of characters that shape the events of Mistborn. There are two kinds of Allomancers - those who could burn only one metal are called Mistings. There is, however, an extremely rare number of people, able to burn all metals - the Mistborn.

The magic system is so ordered and used with such precision throughout the book, it resembles more a Science Fiction concept than a Fantasy one. Sanderson obsesses over the interactions between different Allomantic talents, and the result is something that you could imagine so vividly, you almost begin to believe it possible. The action scenes involving Allomancy (that is, nearly all of them) are breathtaking, with people flying, Pulling and Pushing objects to amazing effects.

The story itself is a classic tale of insurrection from within, as the main character Vin - an orphan girl from the street with the powers of a Mistborn - is turned by the rebellion leader Kelsier - also a Mistborn - into a lady from the minor nobility, who he uses to infiltrate the world of the nobles for the purpose of sowing dissent and mistrust. The characters are more or less black and white, although enough nuances exist to make them come to life.

In the end, Mistborn is a greatly satisfying read. It lacks the grand scope of "Hard Fantasy" authors like Martin, Erikson or Bakker, but it does't need them either. Sanderson has written a thrilling adventure filled to the brim with action, intrigue and one of the most wonderfully developed magic systems I've encountered in the genre. I'd recommend it without reservations.


Jul 8, 2010

Scott Bakker talks White-Luck Warrior and beyond

R. Scott Bakker wrote on his blog that he is now in the polishing stage of a fully written The White-Luck Warrior. He has also changed the title of the third Aspect Emperor novel to The Unholy Consult (previously The Horns of Golgoterath). Last but not least, he announced that the recently released White-Luck cover is only a stand-in for the ARCs, and will, hopefully, be replaced with something that doesn't look like - to quote Bakker - a POV shot of his childhood.

Meanwhile, the author expressed his optimism that he will reach the end of the journey that The Second Apocalypse has turned out to be. Bakker also seems sure now that the third and last series in the cycle is going to be a duology.

Man, I can't wait for The White-Luck Warrior to be released!

Official statement from Night Shade Books

I you are following the blogosphere, you've probably read Liz Williams' and Brendan Halpin's statements concerning their mistreatment from Night Shade Books. I first read it on Adventures in Reading, but there are a lot of other places to find details. The situation was really surprising to me, since NSB has always appeared to be the perfect small independent publishing house, and I never expected them to do the things they were accused of.

As I was hoping, Night Shade Books issued a statement today, in which they address the issues. Here it is:

First and foremost, we at Night Shade Books would like to apologize for any problems we’ve caused any of our authors. The last three years have been brutal on us, although not in any way we could have expected. While we’ve faced the same difficulties every small and independent press has suffered in this age of sales downturns, higher-than-expected returns, and other challenges, what has caused us the most trouble have been our successes. Night Shade has grown faster and more uncontrollably than we had any idea how to handle. What started as two guys shipping books out of a garage now consists of a full staff working out of an office in San Francisco. We’ve shuffled around a lot of our responsibilities, but in many ways, we’re still figuring this out as we go.

This has led to some major miscommunication, and sometimes flat-out lack of communication, with our authors, sometimes, even amongst ourselves. We screwed up: Details were missed, one of us assumed another was handling a situation, or a reluctance to deliver bad news turned into an unprofessional excuse to procrastinate. The issues that have come up today, at their core, are really ones of communication. All this could have been avoided through simple phone calls and emails, through us letting people know what was happening.

That said, this has been a wakeup call for us. We have been working hard to improve all areas of Night Shade Books. Perhaps not fast enough, nor in the places that needed the most work. Doing royalty statements by hand was fine when we were doing five books a year, but now, with over 150 books in print, it has become a cumbersome, time-consuming, painful process that too often has been put off until later. And, as evidenced by the two books we sold as ebooks without the proper permissions, clearly we need a better contract/rights management system. We are already working on this: Last month we hired a new employee, whose primary responsibility will be managing our contracts and subrights, as well as developing and implementing a royalty system that won’t take two people a month to run royalties. We have already addressed the issues currently at hand involving Elizabeth Moon, Brendan Halpin, and Liz Williams. We have also contacted SFWA, and will be working hand-in-hand with them to find out if any other authors have issues with us, but haven’t come forward yet, and get those problems resolved.

At this time, we would very much like any of our authors, past or present, who have or have had issues with our conduct or business practices, to step forward either to us or to SFWA, so that we can attempt to resolve any hardships we have may have caused.

I really respect a publisher who has the guts to say "I was wrong, and I'm gonna do what I can to make it right." Of course, they don't address all the issues raised by Williams and Halpin, like the unclear situation of royalty statements, but this is not something to discuss in a public statement I guess. Anyway, I hope everything is going to be ok now, and I will be waiting to read the authors' comments on the situation soon.

Jul 7, 2010

The SF And Fantasy Masterworks Reading Project

I am a HUGE fan of Gollancz's two series SF Masterworks and Fantasy Masterworks, especially the former. The beautiful covers and the great selection of classical works in the genre - half of which couldn't be found in other editions anymore - has made for one of the most attractive shelves among my libraries. Although there are certain flaws with the series, like the lack of certain authors (which should be blamed on rights issues I guess), and the recent changes in the design of the series, I think this is one of the worthiest endeavors in the SFF field of recent years.

That said, I was recently made aware of a new blog - The SF And Fantasy Masterworks Reading Project - in which eleven bloggers (some of which many of you know, and could be found in the list of links to the right) review the titles from both the SF and Fantasy Masterworks series. It is certainly worth checking out, and I know I'll be following it daily!

Games: Alan Wake

I am a casual gamer. I care mostly for the story and atmosphere of games, which means that I end up playing around ten or less per year. However, Alan Wake is nothing if not story-driven and atmospheric, and so I couldn't pass it over.

The game is a "psychological thriller action-adventure", developed by Remedy Entertainment (of Max Payne fame). It is heavily influenced by Stephen King, to the point of being slightly ridiculous about it - King's name is the first piece of spoken dialogue in Alan Wake and pops up at random places in the game. The story takes us to the little north-western town of Bright Falls (what is it with small town horror and creepy scenic names?) where Alan - a successful writer of thrillers with a heavy writer's block - and his wife Alice go for their vacation... or so Alan thinks. Pretty soon Alice disappears, and then the writer wakes up in his wrecked car, missing a week and finding random pages of a novel he has no memory of having written. Alan is forced to uncover the dark secret of Bright Falls - one that has been lurking under the waters of a caldera lake for more than thirty years - and find Alice before what has been unleashed by his arrival manages to set itself completely free.

The supernatural element of the story is very strong, and adds to one of the more interesting gameplay additions. Alan's enemy is the Dark Presence - a force of pure darkness that possesses the townsfolk, turning them into the Taken. The Taken - apart from being really scary buggers - are invulnerable while the Darkness protects them. To be able to inflict any form of damage, Alan must first purge their defense with his torchlight.

Unfortunately for the player, this more or less sums the gameplay up, as there is nothing more in Alan Wake but fighting the two or three kinds of Taken with your torch, revolver, shotgun and flare-gun. But despite being repetitive, the gaming experience is more than adequate, and does its job, which is not to stand in the way of the story. The story, on the other hand, is superb! The mystery of Bright Falls and Alan's involvement in it, is told in the form of six "episodes", thus adding to the feeling of watching a TV show miniseries. Each episode adds new layers to the story, and as it unfolds, we are treated to a beautifully imagined world where art comes alive, but also one where forces both human and inhuman try to pervert it to their own ends. There are other world-building elements, like the radio-show programs the player encounters through the course of the game. Those give information of the normal life of Bright Falls and add to the feeling of being utterly alone - you know that people's lives go on just as usual no more than a ten minutes walk from where you are fighting for your life. More interesting however, are the episodes of the TV show "Night Spring" - an obvious tribute to The Twilight Zone, and deliciously creepy one at that.

Alan Wake has, simply put, one of the greatest and most masterfully told stories in the game industry, and even though the game is planned as the first in a series, it is completely stand-alone, and satisfying. One could gripe about the characters' faces (which are - with the possible exception of Alan himself, quite hideous) or the almost non-existent lip-sync, but those are really not such a big deal, and are easily explained by the long development process (the game was announced back in 2001!). True, Alan Wake could have been more diverse in its gampleay, and that would've only enhanced the gaming experience. But with this quality of story-telling, it just doesn't matter.


Jul 5, 2010

The Shining - Stephen King

Like every male with vivid imagination, born after the Seventies, I went through a Stephen King phase in my teens. Luckily, I outgrew that (not before it branded me for life with the nickname you see in the blog's title though), but I'll always have a soft spot for him, and I still read some of his books on occasion.

Reading The Shining was a result of an argument on a message board, about which one is better - the book or the movie. I am a big supporter of the "It is a different medium - don't compare!" school of thought, but I love an online argument as much as the next guy, so I had to check for myself. And checking for myself, I stumbled upon one of the best Stephen King novels I've ever read.

King's greatest strength as a writer has always been, in my opinion, his depiction of "classic" American life. The Shining however shows very little of this, as it quickly plunges into the oppressive claustrophobic setting of an isolated mountain hotel. Jack Torrance - an aspiring writer struggling with the lasting effects alcohol has had over his family and his career - accepts a job as a caretaker of the Overlook Hotel in Colorado during the winter months when the building is almost completely unreachable. He moves there with his wife Wendy, and his boy Danny. Although the place has a colorful history, and most of it - unpleasant, Jack feels it nurturing his inspiration to write. However, his son feels differently. Danny has psychic abilities that the hotel chef Dick Hallorann calls "shining". Dick himself possesses this gift, but not nearly as powerful as the boy. Before he leaves for the winter, he warns Danny to stay away from certain places in the Overlook, since the shining could attract things he may not be prepared to see. Of course, the boy couldn't resist the temptation, and the hotel begins to waken. But its first target isn't the clairvoyant Danny, but his father - Jack.

The Shining is an exceptionally well written thriller, and - as most of King's good books - an in-depth look into the psyche of ordinary people and the demons that possess them. Even though the supernatural element is strong, the true villain in this novel is not the entity inhabiting the Overlook, but the monster hiding in a loving father's weaknesses. The book is large in scope, detailing not just the Torrances' life in the few months of winter isolation, but also parts of the history of the hotel - little chunks of intrigue, happiness and drama, painting a vivid picture of the place. Although nowhere near as grand as It, there are some similarities between the two, especially in the way King beautifully captures a child's view of the world through the eyes of little Danny Torrance and his exploration of the haunting building.

King's style of writing is at its best. Exact and to the point, he doesn't waste time with unnecessary details, and no more than ten pages pass before something disquieting occurs. His ability to ascribe horrific qualities to mundane things like going down a dark staircase, avoiding a fire hose in a corridor, or - indeed - taking a drink, is sharpened to the point of cutting, and the book is filled with moments of chilling tension in situations most of us just pass through without ever thinking twice.

In the end, I enjoyed The Shining tremendously, and when I watched Stanley Kubrick's movie, my expectations were proven correct. There was little in common between the two, and little point to even try and make a comparison. But from this message board argument I was left with a great reading experience of a book I might otherwise have missed. So who says that arguing on the Internet is always like winning the Special Olympics?