Monthly Archives: April 2014

Review: Half a King, Joe Abercrombie

It left a bad taste in my mouth, like toothpaste and orange juice, when I learned that Joe Abercrombie was writing a series for young adults. Lord Grimdark is pandering to the kiddies? Gross. I needn’t have worried. From the moment I got my clammy, fanboy hands on Abercrombie’s latest book, I was hooked. Abercrombie and YA is like peanut butter and chocolate. Come, fantasy fans and Abercrombie aficionados, and gorge upon the bounty that is Half a King (Del Rey, July 3 2014).

Half a King, Joe Abercrombie

Half a King, Joe Abercrombie

The story opens when Prince Yarvi of Gettland, intended for the ministry (in this case, a brotherhood of advisers and diplomats who work toward peace) learns that his father, King Uthrik, is dead, killed by the Gettlanders’ neighbors and foes, the Vanstermen. Yarvi was not meant to be a king: His left hand is deformed, rendering him unsuitable for the throne. But with his older brother dead, too, Yarvi is the only heir, and he swears an oath to avenge his father. Yarvi leads a raid against Vansterland, only to be betrayed. Armed with only one good hand, years of resentment, and the cunning he learned as an initiate of the ministry, Yarvi sets out to fulfill his oath.

The world of Half a King is separate of that from Abercrombie’s previous fiction. Although still within the vaguely medieval consensus that defines traditional fantasy settings, there is a definite Norse, particularly Icelandic, flavor here. Gettland, Vansterland, among other kingdoms unified under the “High King” border the Shattered Sea, a roiling, storm battered mass traversed by longboat. Much of the middle of the book is set in northern ice fields and, subsequently, land rent by hot springs. And then there are the elves. Not to worry: Abercrombie’s focus is decidedly human, and his elves are long extinct. Only their ruins and artifacts remain, hinting at a curious back story. For instance, the woman who wears around her neck “an elf-tablet, the green card studded with black jewels, scrawled with incomprehensible markings, riddled with intricate golden lines.” The millennium-old ruins, untouched by time, are reminiscent of the Eldren constructions of Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series, haunting the scenery with an implicit threat.

Is this an "elf-tablet"?

Is this an “elf-tablet”?

If the setting is different, the tone is the same. This is a broken world: Yarvi has a “crippled” hand; the characters sail on the Shattered Sea; and even the gods are broken, the elves having waged war on the One God, shattering her into many. Perhaps writing for young adults has mellowed Abercrombie. Half a King may not be upbeat, but neither is it the cynical Ouroboros that characterizes Abercrombie’s previous novels: Here the backstabbing has an end. The camaraderie of Yarvi and his fellows is refreshingly authentic, free of the edges apparent in The First Law trilogy and its successors.

That’s not to say that violence is absent from Half a King. I lost count of noses broken with a “crunch” after a half a dozen. Abercrombie continues his fascination with the grotesque; he knows that, however much violence sickens us, it draws us in, too. We cannot look away. Abercrombie has always been sophisticated in his attitude toward violence: He portrays it with gusto, knowing that we’re attracted to it despite our denials (and thus making us complicit). But he has always portrayed its consequences, too, perhaps to greater effect in Yarvi, who is no warrior: “And Yarvi realized then that Death does not bow to each person who passes her, does not sweep out her arm respectfully to show the way, speaks no profound words, unlocks no bolts. The key upon her chest is never needed, for the Last Door stands always open. She herds the dead through impatiently, heedless of rank or fame or quality. She has an ever-lengthening queue to get through. A blind procession, inexhaustible.”

If Half a King has a weakness, it is the plot, which is predictable. Perhaps that’s because I’m older than the intended audience, or maybe, having read Abercrombie’s other novels, I am able to intuit when he’s preparing to spring a trap on his readers. That the twists and turns of the story are unsurprising in no way diminish the reader’s pleasure, a testament to Abercrombie’s storytelling skills. Indeed, I found myself turning the pages as quickly as I could, impatient to see what travails would next befall Yarvi.

Abercrombie, if not the anti-Tolkien, is a contrarian, turning on its head the tropes of high fantasy. He lays aside that ideological jihad in Half a King, instead telling the story of one character’s quest, and a very grounded one at that, motivated by revenge and gold. The only magic here is the depth of the world and the propulsive story, all of which Abercrombie manages in less than 300 pages. The only disappointing thing about Half a King is how soon it ends, and how long we have to wait for the sequel. Highly recommended.

 

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Review: The Lives of Tao, Wesley Chu

People require meaning. Indeed, we so crave meaning that we devote much of the human enterprise to generating it, whether in the form of religion, or politics, or (and especially) fiction. What can fiction tell us? In the case of Wesley Chu’s 2013 sci-fi novel The Lives of Tao, we learn that individual happiness can only be achieved by having a cause. And possibly by mastering a martial art.

The Lives of Tao tells the story of Roen Tan, a schlubby, unhappy, Chicago-based engineer. After a lonely night at a club, and while vomiting out of the door of his car, Roen is unwittingly inducted into a worldwide extraterrestrial war. Humanity is not alone: Quasings, a gaseous alien race, have been stranded on Earth since the age of the dinosaurs. Unable to exist for long in Earth’s atmosphere, Quasings are able to survive by entering a living “host,” be it rodent, chimpanzee, or sad, chubby human. Unfortunately for Tao, the recently-evicted Quasing who takes refuge in Roen, his new host is a mess. But there’s a war on, so Tao gets to work. Extraterrestrial symbiotic buddy dramedy!

The Lives of Tao, Wesley Chu

The Lives of Tao, Wesley Chu

As Roen and the reader learn, Quasings have been trapped on earth for millions of years, using animal life as hosts. When the first hominids appeared, Quasings saw their opportunity, and stepped in to direct evolution. One can only imagine the rictus of fear on the face of the first australopithecus to be inhabited by a wise and ancient cloud of sentient gas.

With the development of modern man, the Quasing realized that they now had a being capable of devising ever more advanced technologies, which presented them the (very) long-term possibility of finding a way home. Convinced that conflict drove human technological advancement, Quasings meddled with abandon, fostering discord throughout human history. In the wake of the Black Death, a small group of Quasing, calling themselves Prophus, determined that they should coexist with their human hosts and promote peace. The Prophus oppose the Genjix, those Quasings who believe that humanity is a mere means to their end. Roen is a bit player on a drama the timescale of which he can’t even imagine.

Chu does an admirable job of presenting his scenario to readers without overwhelming them. The Lives of Tao opens with an action-oriented prologue that grabs the reader’s attention and introduces Tao, who is clearly not a familiar life form. Tao’s decision to wait to introduce himself to Roen serves to further ease the reader into the plot: The reader learns about Roen (and his many weaknesses), and Chu uses the opportunity to explain the back story to the reader by positioning it as Tao speaking to his new host. It’s a very clean and clever way to orient the reader.

The book’s structure is its weakest point. The Lives of Tao is an action-oriented story with dashes of humor. It is not comedic: The sobriety of the climax and ending belie that. Still, Chu writes the first third of the book from a comedic viewpoint. The joke is on Roen, to whom Tao serves as drill sergeant and counselor. Readers will enjoy Roen and Tao’s exchanges as the latter harangues the former about getting shape, standing up for himself at his job, and so on. This portion of the novel is more lighthearted. Chu also shares extensive background about the Quasing sojourn on Earth. Readers will want more.

Unfortunately, Chu treads more traditional territory in the remainder of the book, which is mostly action. Finally trained, Roen begins to go on Prophus missions, one of which leads to some soul searching before he returns to the fold. Chu ends The Lives of Tao with an extensive action sequence and neatly positions it for a sequel.

Quibbles about structure aside, Chu poses interesting questions about human agency at both the individual and collective levels. Roen won’t quit the job he hates. His colleague tells him to do something about it, to go to law school. Roen balks. It’s only later, with Tao on board, that Roen finds the willpower necessary to improve his life. He eats right and works out. He stands up to his boss. He asks out his cute coworker. In the book, of course, Tao is an intelligent alien life form giving Roen a kick in the pants. But perhaps Tao is really that part of the mind that tells you to try something different. Chu seems to be saying to the reader that, if you don’t like something, it’s up to you to do something about it. For those of us who aren’t locked into impossible circumstances, there are choices to be made. You can take the safe route, like Roen, or you can change things. It might not be pleasant, it might not be easy, but it’s probably better than suffering in silence. Diagnosing Roen’s unhappiness, Tao tells him, “You are causeless.”

Those existential questions occur at the “species” level, too. What is the human enterprise all about? Is human history really just the story of war punctuated by all-too-brief periods of peace? Is there a common narrative to our history? The Genjix position, that war is necessary for evolution, seems almost to mirror certain theories that humans evolved only to better perpetuate the “virus” of DNA, or the assertions of some neuroscientists that humans lack free will, that we are simply acting out, based on received stimuli, the actions programmed into us.

This is all to say that there is more going on in The Lives of Tao than it would first appear. The Lives of Tao isn’t a “big idea” book. It is light on science-fiction; don’t read it expecting a serious exploration of the implications of this or that science. Chu, a martial artist (and former stuntman!) is firmly focused on telling an action-oriented story. There are guns. There are explosions. Still, The Lives of Tao is far from shallow in its examination of human motivation and agency. Recommended for casual sci-fi readers who enjoy action and a touch of comedy.

Review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

There is a moment early in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore when the narrator, Clay Jannon, first meets and describes his love interest, Kat Potente, describing her thus: “[T]his girl is a Googler. So, she really is a genius. Also, one of her teeth is chipped in a cute way.” It’s narration that not only describes Kat, but also reveals Clay’s reaction to her, and, above all, it’s true: It’s the way a twentysomething geek might react to a girl to whom he’s attracted. I couldn’t help thinking, “Reading is fun again!” Over-the-top, perhaps, but that’s how I felt throughout the entirety of Robin Sloan’s 2012 novel.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan

The story begins in the wake of the Great Recession. Clay Jannon, recent art school graduate and employee of NewBagel, the pet project of two ex-Googlers, finds himself out of a job and in fear of living in a tent. Desperate for a job, Clay gives up on Internet searches (which invariably lead to hours spent bookmarking articles that are too long to read) and turns to the now-arcane art of “beating the pavement.” On one of his treks throughout San Francisco, Clay notices a “clerk wanted” sign on the window of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Inside, Clay meets the kindly and aged proprietor, Mr. Penumbra, and takes the job; Clay will work the 10pm to 6am shift.

But (of course) the bookstore is not all it seems. The entryway is stocked in a desultory way with the kinds of books a reader might expect to find — A Steve Jobs biography, some Dashiell Hammett — but the bulk of the store’s cavernous interior is devoted to huge folios checked out by members of the “club.” Clay opens one of these books (despite Penumbra’s instructions not to) and finds that they’re all written in code. A data simulation run on Clay’s laptop reveals a strange pattern in the customers’ borrowing behaviors. And that’s when things start to get weird.

The symbol that adorns the facade of Penumbra's store.

The symbol that adorns the facade of Penumbra’s store.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a delight to read. Clay’s narration is spot-on. Meeting Kat for a second time, he notices that she’s wearing the same t-shirt as she was during their first encounter. Clay concludes: “(a) she slept in it, (b) she owns several identical t-shirts, or (c) she’s a cartoon character — all of which are appealing alternatives.” Later, describing Kat’s enthusiasm for various Google initiatives: “They are making a 3-D web browser. They are making a car that drives itself…They are building a time machine. They are developing a form of renewable energy that runs on hubris.” It’s that sort of knowing and just-slightly-jaded-enough tone that Clay uses throughout the story.

Of course, Clay’s commentary is informed by Sloan’s firsthand experience in the tech industry: Sloan has worked for Twitter, among other companies, and knows a thing or two about their culture. Several scenes take place on Google’s campus and, based on Sloan’s descriptions, it seems safe to say he’s been there. San Francisco, too, is lovingly described, and Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore will be recognizable to those bibliophiles who still indulge in haptic reading experiences.

Indeed, part of Sloan’s purpose appears to be the examination of the intersection of tradition and innovation, of old and new technologies. While Penumbra champions Clay’s use of technology, Corvina, Penumbra’s boss, takes umbrage: The “cult” (Clay’s word for it) should only use its traditional methods, which involve print books and slates for notes. Sloan recognizes that too great a reliance on any one idea or artifact is the basis for the cults he describes. He rightly points out that the movable type was a disruptive technology in its day, and that, of course, Google is not the antithesis of print (and other, more “traditional” forms of information and knowledge), but a continuation on a spectrum. The print book is a technology, among the most successful the world has ever known, but its use led to, and interacts with, the digital world. One does not negate the other. The story’s end points to a hopeful partnership between the two.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was a pleasure to read. Sloan’s humor is snarky without resorting to cynicism; there is a touch of whimsy that buoys up what is ultimately an uplifting narrative. Even the secondary characters are recognizable, real, and readers will find themselves emotionally engaged with them, which, after all, is what you want from a good book. The “bibliomystery” aspect is really a device to move the plot forward, but book lovers, in the truest sense of that world, will especially appreciate it. Highly recommended.

Review: The Ritual, Adam Nevill

There lurks in the pages of The Ritual something even more terrifying than the creepy crawler that stalks the novel’s protagonists: A better book. Adam Nevill’s 2011 horror novel begins with a promising premise but becomes confused, and, ultimately, disappointing. You’ve read this before: Think The Ruins crossed with Deliverance.

The Ritual, Adam Nevill

The Ritual, Adam Nevill

Seasoned readers will be familiar with The Ritual’s conceit: Four friends (as they are English, perhaps they are best referred to as “mates”) head to Sweden for a camping holiday. Their relationship is tense: Hutch takes the role of leader and peacemaker. Dom and Phil are husbands, fathers, successful businessmen. Luke, from whose perspective the story is told, is the odd man out. Dom snipes at Luke, takes swipes at his record store job, his string of failed relationships. Predictably, amid their bickering, they lose the trail near the forest south of the Arctic Circle.

The story takes an interesting turn as the crew winds its way further into the forest. Soaked by rain, with night coming on, the group — fortuitously! — discovers an abandoned shack. Only Luke, heeding his instincts, balks at the idea of taking shelter in the cabin; he is vetoed by his friends. Luke et al do not enjoy a pleasant night. The next day, demoralized, lost, low on food, and aware that they may not be alone in the woods, the men face grim prospects. During a heart-to-heart, Hutch tells Luke, “Cities don’t work,” an ironic statement, given the circumstances. Readers will not be surprised that this is the moment when things really begin to go wrong.

Nevill does many things well. He is skilled at describing his setting, in this case the heaths and boreal forest of northern Sweden. Readers will be drawn into the woods with Luke and his friends: The endless rain, the dark, overhanging branches, the rocky hills where lost hikers might hope to find gentle slopes. Nevill’s talent extends to human habitats, as well; an especially strong scene involves an abandoned church surrounded by prehistoric mounds.

Nevill wisely situates the perspective with Luke, the outcast, with whose anger and self-doubt readers are likely to identify. Indeed, Luke is the most likable of the four characters. The early dynamics Nevill establishes seem to point toward a psychological thriller in the tradition of Scott Smith’s 2006 novel The Ruins, but his analysis of his protagonists’ behavior and motivations is shallow and remains firmly located with Luke. There is some commentary on the “modern world,” especially insight into how friendship in the West has (d)evolved into “PR.” Short, punchy sentences move the story forward.

But Nevill makes missteps that weaken The Ritual and denude its potential. Perhaps the biggest of these is his decision to structure the story in two parts, the first set in the forest, and the second, well, not far from the forest. The effect is jarring, and the two parts never quite gel into a cohesive whole. The second half of the book is especially weak, and bloated, becoming a repetitive litany of horrors visited upon the characters. How many different ways can a guy hit the floor? Read and find out.

The supernatural element becomes more pronounced in the second half of the book. The peeks readers get during the scenes in the forest are effective, due perhaps to the energy Nevill devotes to creating context, and to his decision to keep things unseen, always an effective horror tactic. The reader’s imagination is always more effective than the author’s words. This truism is borne out as the story winds on, revealing (minimal) supernatural touches that are less frightening than they are bemusing. Capering in the woods figures heavily.

This is not to say that The Ritual is not a good book or that readers should avoid it. I enjoyed it, compulsively reading it over the last few days. Nevill clearly drew me in: I cared about the characters, and wanted to know what indignities they might suffer next. I likewise developed an intense (and, given the tone of the novel, unwise) yearning to see the Swedish countryside, where Nevill has clearly spent time. But The Ritual is a disappointment; it does not deliver on its promise. Like the granola bars consumed by its characters, The Ritual is a tasty treat, quickly and easily devoured, but with little nutritional value. Readers should approach The Ritual with managed expectations.