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Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Magician King - Lev Grossman

Warning: I have never taken a comparative literature course.  This are merely my musings about a novel I very much enjoyed beyond the story.  It's quite possible I have completely missed Grossman's point.  It's also possible I'm full of shit and committing intellectual masturbation.  Whatever - I was bored.

To deconstruct something, literally, means to take it apart. In a literary sense, to deconstruct something means to take apart the structure and expose the assumption that things have a fixed reference point beyond themselves.  I am of the opinion that The Magicians is a deconstruction of the young adult fantasy novel (almost, I'll come back to this later).  It strips down each of the components that represent the genre, exposes them, knocks them into unfamiliar shapes, and ultimately uses them to tell a narrative that's still familiar.  If Magicians is the beginnings of a deconstruction, than Lev Grossman's sequel, The Magician King, is a reconstruction of that same paradigm.

To anyone who's read Grossman's first novel, everything will be familiar.  Quentin is now a King of Fillory.  Along with his old friends from Brakebills (Eliot and Janet), he is joined by Julia - one of his closest friends from his days as a normal person, or as normal as Quentin gets.  It turns out ruling a magical kingdom gets rather boring and Quentin soon finds himself in search of a quest.  He sets off on a benign sea journey to an island called Outer to check up on their unpaid taxes.  Joined by Julia, the pair find themselves caught up in a larger war that sends them bouncing between worlds trying to save Fillory from destruction.

In many ways I think Magician King is the novel Magicians detractors wanted to read.  It doesn't have near the level of nihilism or self-loathing that's so present in the first novel.  Nor is it full of the boredom and minutia of learning magic at Brakesbills.  What results is something far more akin to the standard fantasy novel - there's a quest, a wrench gets thrown into it, and then ultimately the quest is resolved.  Characters undergo change and demonstrate growth concluding with some measure of closure for all of them.  What survives from the first novel is Grossman's tremendous prose, clever integration of modern culture, and warm vulnerable characters.

A major departure structurally, half the novel is told from a point of view other than Quentin's.  Julia's flashbacks detail her journey to becoming a magician on the "mean streets" and draw a juxtaposition to Quentin's rather posh education.  Since anyone reading Magician King should have read the first installment, being able to see what became of Julia will be like remembering a dream thought forgotten.  Her absence from the second half of Magicians was a glaring omission and Grossman's resurrection of the character works beautifully.  Even outside the flashback chapters where she is viewed only through Quentin's point of view, Julia shines as a character emerging onto the stage as Alice and Eliot did in the first novel.

Julia's story arc is primarily where Grossman begins his reconstruction.  The components of this narrative are in familiar shapes and move through a very linear process where she is identified, inducted, educated, and graduated from her learning phase only to move on and join a quest to save the world.  Sure she's a lot more Draco Malfoy than Hermione Granger and her education is more on par with what Harry might have expected if Snape taught all his classes, but the fundamental plot movements are that of a coming of age tale - albeit of someone in her early 20s.

Contrasting that throughout are Quentin's points of view from the present where he continues to lack direction or the ability to properly produce serotonin.  For a deconstruction to work (I'm coming back to it now), at least as I'm applying the term here, the disparate pieces that were exposed in Magicians have to ultimately come back together into a recognizable shape.  Otherwise, what's the point?  Through Julia and her growth as a character, Grossman pulls Quentin along by his bootstraps providing a completed arc that is recognizable as a young adult fantasy (again, there is an irony here given Quentin is closer to 25 than 15).

Now if that's all Magician King had going for it, it might be a successful bookend to Magicians, but it would be a pretty boring read.  Beyond the main story arc Grossman delves into cultural mythology frequently paying homage to and poking a little fun at European legend.  Many called Magicians Harry Potter for adults.  The comparison is hardly accurate, but if it were then this part of Magician King might be American Gods for teenagers.  Overlaying the themes of mythology and de/reconstructed YA fantasy, is the edge Grossman gives to everything he writes.  Removing all of the novels undertones, Grossman still leaves his readers with an adventure romp that can be enjoyed purely on surface value alone.

Additionally, as I mentioned earlier, Grossman's deftly applies modern culture to alleviate what is an oftentimes dark tale.  Sure he sometimes tries overly hard to cram in some hilarious references to an internet meme or incorporate a rap lyric such as "suckers walk, players ride."  But for the most part these references provide laugh out loud moments.

In my review of Magicians I said I wasn't sure it demanded a sequel.  I thought it stood on its own and adding to it would only weaken the original novel.  I feel simultaneously vindicated and chastened.  In many ways Magician King is a superior novel.  It has a more complete plot and works better as a narrative.  At the same time, it lacks some of the inherent charm that comes from tearing down and exposing long held conventions.  I still believe Magicians stands on its own as a piece of fiction.  That said, I also believe that Grossman's intended thought experiment isn't complete without the second verse.  What to do?

The truth is, the sequel is just as good Magicians.  For many it will be a more rewarding read and it would not surprise me if many who were turned off by the first novel will find a lot more to like in The Magician King.  But to me it will never approach The Magicians because of its audacity to challenge its readers.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Folding Knife - K.J. Parker

I started writing this review last week, but it just wasn't coming together like I'd hoped.  With over 2,000 words written, I was approaching critical mass.  You see, The Folding Knife is not an easy book to review.  There's a lot going on and it's rather non-traditional for a fantasy novel in a lot of ways and then entirely traditional in others.  It wasn't until I ran across Lev Grossman's article in the Wall Street Journal Monday morning that I knew how I was going to attack this post.

Grossman says:
"Fantasy does tend to be heavily plot-driven. But plot has gotten a bad rap for the past century, ever since the Modernists (who I revere, don’t get me wrong) took apart the Victorian novel and left it lying in pieces on an old bedsheet on the garage floor. Books like “Ulysses” and “The Sound and the Fury” and “Mrs. Dalloway” shifted the emphasis away from plot onto other things: psychology; dense, layered writing; a fidelity to moment-to-moment lived experience. Plot fell into disrepute. 
But that was modernism. That was the 1920s and 1930s. It was a movement – a great movement, but like all movements, a thing of its time. Plot is due for a comeback. We’re remembering that it means something too."
Yup, that sounds quite a bit like what's going on in Folding Knife and to everyone's benefit it allowed me to cut about a thousand words.

In the Vesani Republic, the First Citizen's word is nearly law. Elected by the people, he administers the largest economic power outside the somewhat fractured Eastern Empire. Today, the First Citizen is Bassianus Severus (Basso). Deaf in one ear and brilliant in business, he killed his own wife and brother-in-law after finding them in bed together. Alienated by his surviving family, he uses his influence to become the most powerful man in Vesani. Now what?

The first two sentence of that last paragraph, forget them... entirely. Anyone who has read this blog before knows I believe that world-building is a vital part of what imparts fantasy. I've always said great prose, great characters, and all the rest will only get someone so far in the speculative fiction genre. K.J. Parker has proven me wrong... mostly.

Folding Knife takes place in an invented setting. Want to know a secret? I don't care. I have no idea where Vesani is in relation to the Eastern Empire. I don't care. The moniker of Eastern Empire is so nebulous that I realized Parker doesn't want me to care. Parker's intent, I believe, is to cut away all the extraneous items that distract from the plot. Into that pit go world building, flowery prose, and unnecessary description. Parker even seems to do away with foreshadowing instead opting to tell the reader what happens before going into the details after.

What Parker has accomplished is like taking a car from Pimp My Ride and restoring its far more useful and effective former self.  Parker picks out the important bits, remove the extraneous fluff, but keeps the meaning the same. This is accomplished to a degree that the novel possesses a style almost reminiscent of a news article (albeit the most impressive news article anyone might read). Even the opening chapter hits the reader with the WHO, WHAT, WHERE, and WHEN as Basso leaves the Republic in poverty on the top of a wagon. What it holds back is the why. Parker relishes filling in that blank with a brilliant tragedy in the tradition of Shakespeare and Euripides (ok, that might be hyperbole - but not absurdly so).

So that's what Folding Knife is.  As for what it's about, the closest I can come is finance, loneliness, and in true Shakespearean form hubris. Finance is the device that Parker uses to move the plot from Basso's role as head of the Charity and Social Justice Bank. As someone who makes a living in the American political system I couldn't help observing a parallel between the Vesani (read: Basso) economy and America's. Leveraged, always betting on future profits, never cutting back - all of these are part of why Congress is having a lengthy argument about how best to restructure the federal budget.  In that way Folding Knife can certainly be read as a criticism of U.S. economic policy.

As for the other two items (loneliness and hubris), they are the impetus behind Basso's machinations both economic and political.  Basso is emotionally challenged and acts out like a robber-baron to preserve not only his place in society, but to boost his perceived infallibility.  While this doesn't make him particularly likable, it does make him extremely compelling.  Beginning with Basso's murder of his wife and brother-in-law, Parker sets up scenes of loss and heartbreak that resonate time after time.

After writing this glowing review, I started wondering why Parker isn't ubiquitously mentioned as one of the foremost authors in the genre?  If I had to answer I'd give a two-fold answer. First, Parker is an anonymous writer with no social media presence.  Second, Parker writes literary fantasy. Last time I checked Martin Amis and Don DeLillo weren't exactly making the New York Times Bestseller List. If we can all agree that less people read fantasy than "real" fiction, the market Parker is ultimately writing to is even smaller than her mainstream contemporaries.  Most the novels that are placed above Parker's are more traditional epic fantasy - A Song of Ice and FireThe Black CompanyThe Kingkiller ChronicleLord of the Rings, etc.

Interestingly, for all that, Folding Knife is an epic fantasy - just not traditionally so. It follows a man through thirty years of his life describing his rise and fall from power through war and peace in 400 some odd pages.  Unfortunately, this straddling the line of epic and literary fantasy limits Folding Knife's exposure somewhat preventing Parker from being appropriately recognized.  I might be wrong.  But if I am, why is there any list of the best fantasy novels out there without The Folding Knife right near the top?  I can't explain it any other way.

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Monday, July 25, 2011

Interview with T.C. McCarthy: Debut Author of Germline

Germline is T.C. McCarthy's debut novel from Orbit Books.  My review can be found here and I'm calling it my favorite debut of the year so far.  It's due out in stores tomorrow July 26 and on August 1 in eBook format.

War is Oscar Wendell's ticket to greatness. A reporter for The Stars and Stripes, he has the only one way pass to the front lines of a brutal war over natural resources buried underneath the icy, mineral rich mountains of Kazakhstan.

But war is nothing like he expected. Heavily armored soldiers battle genetically engineered troops hundreds of meters below the surface. The genetics-the germline soldiers-are the key to winning this war, but some inventions can't be un-done. Some technologies can't be put back in the box.
Kaz will change everything, not least Oscar himself. Hooked on a dangerous cocktail of adrenaline and drugs, Oscar doesn't find the war, the war finds him.

Justin: Given the extremely personal nature of Germline’s first-person narrative, any conversation about the book will begin and end with your main character - Oscar Wendell. I would think that an author’s first published protagonist would be very personal. Is that in the ballpark?

McCarthy: Not only are you in the ball park, but that's a bulls-eye. It was my first book and so reflected the fact that I'm in that "write what you know" zone. Oscar is a blend of my own feelings, observations I've taken reagarding people around me, and what I would imagine combat to be like from the perspective of someone least equipped to handle it. This last point was a conscious choice because it underscores the emotional aspects of Oscar's character since he was no warrior at the book's start; I wanted a strong contrast. That was the idea, anyway, so I hope it worked.

Justin: The most surprising thing to me after finishing the book was that you aren't a vet.  The whole story is told from inside the head of a guy on the front lines and it feels so authentic.  With your background I’m sure you’ve been exposed to guys who've been in the shit.  Did you do any interviewing or biography reading to prepare to write this kind of firsthand account?

McCarthy: I did no interviewing, but I've read about war almost my entire life and it's odd now that I have kids; one of them is already showing signs of liking the same books despite my efforts to steer him in another direction. Back to the question: I already had a sense of how war-novels read, and how the best ones are written -- especially Michael Herr's Dispatches (Justin: not in eBook format yet, grrrr). I re-read it a few years ago after I'd failed to sell any short stories and realized that his style was so amazing and so unique, and his story so compelling, that many science fiction war novels have a hard time measuring up. I'd already started working on Germline at that point as a novella. But upon receiving a critique from a fellow writer (Nick Mamatas) I scrapped my draft, and re-wrote it as a novel while still under the influence of Herr. Blame him.

And, yeah. I know guys who have been in it, and only one stands out but he wasn't an influence for Germline. He was a lifelong friend of my family, had been in Vietnam, and was a supremely nice man whose gentleness overwhelmed everyone. But he had those eyes. Sometimes you sensed he was back in the jungle-- mentally -- and you just knew never to ask him questions about the war.

Justin:  We've got a lot of soldiers coming home these days suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Symptoms shown in the novel suggest PTSD among well – everyone.  In your imaginings of Germline's war, how much thought did you give to what kind of impacts it was having back home? Will we see those impacts at some point in the trilogy? 

McCarthy: Confession: I have PTSD -- but it was the result of a family tragedy, which occurred here in the States, so Oscar's thoughts and feelings (some of them -- and not the really crazy ones) came from those experiences. I have given thought to the impact PTSD will have here at home, but other than what's in Germline, its impact only makes a brief appearance in book three. Instead of trying to deal with such a complex issue in my writing, I decided to send freebies to veterans' groups who deal with returning soldiers. My thought was that young guys and girls coming home probably will resist discussing their personal problems despite having PTSD symptoms (funny thing: if you have PTSD, the last thing you want to do is talk about it), but they might be willing to discuss Oscar Wendell's problems; so I'd like to see Germline used as a tool to get people to open up. PTSD is really, really shitty. Really.

Justin: In your novel, the primary conflict between the U.S. and Russia is over rare metals.  Have you been following the Rare Earths issue in the press (article)? China is the largest exporter of Rare Earths today and the U.S. is in full-court press to begin developing our own source of supply. It seems like your conflict in Germline is a bit prophetic. Should we send some clones to China?

McCarthy: You bet I've been following it! There's a lot of attention being paid to oil and the fact that we'll run out of it someday. This is true. However, as a geologist I look at the oil problem and see so many solutions: fusion, tidal power, alcohol, biosynthetically derived hydrocarbons, etc. How does one synthesize rare earth elements? Just like oil, our metallic resources will dwindle and expire some day (and what about gaseous resources -- have you ever thought about where all that cheap helium comes from?) and to replace those we can't just set up a production factory; we'll have to go into space. I really hope lawmakers can make some kind of deal where US rare earths can be mined in a way that satisfies environmental concerns. And it's amazing you'd ask: in books two and three we don't send clones to China, but they sure send them at us...

Justin: When Publishers Weekly gave you a starred review, what did you do to celebrate?

Nothing. I am on such a tight schedule that I jumped up and down for a while, told my wife, tweeted the news to everyone I could and then started writing again. Sigh. It was the first indication that a professional reviewer "got" Germline; a few "meh" or negative reviews I've gotten don't appear to have come from people who are widely read. That's the great thing about PW, Kirkus, Staffer's Musings, etc; their reviewers will have not read only SF, but also all the great military nonfiction, literary fiction, and anything else they can get their hands on -- so their perspective is likely much broader.

"I love Harlan Ellison and Theodore Sturgeon, therefore am qualified to review everything", or "I don't know you or your background so without reading it I can tell your book glorifies war" or "your book mentions Stars and Stripes and has Marines so must therefore be an SF version of 'Full Metal Jacket'" are assessments that (a) I've actually encountered -- I'm not kidding -- and (b) are somewhat disturbing. By the way, Full Metal Jacket was actually based on a book by Gustav Hasford called The Short Timers, and I don't think that particular reviewer ever read it. I have the fourth edition from 1983 and promise you: it reads nothing like Germline.

Justin: So, Germline is due out tomorrow and I believe you've already turned in the sequel Exogen to your publisher.  Is it a sequel or more of a second, but detached, installment to the Subterrene War Trilogy?

Two is detached from one. It has different characters, leaves the battlefield within the first three chapters, and you never see Oscar Wendell again. However, books two and three are a little more linked to each other and I could see how three would be considered a sequel to two. In those books I examine something that seems really strange to me: there are people who feel at home in war. So I wanted to look at the character traits of folks like that from two perspectives -- one genetic, one human. 

Justin: What's the "goal" for the series? Feel free to wax rhapsodic here. 

I have two goals.

The first is simply to get people talking about war, its effects on people young and old, and what happens when war becomes a business. Where is our society headed? You mentioned in your Germline review that some women might be offended by the way they're portrayed, and when I read that I thought "good." In book three you get a closer look at the homefront and how women are treated in what, I admit, is an extreme scenario with a low probability of actually occurring. The point I'm making is not that I think women can't fight, it's that the closer we move toward treating war as a business, the less we think in terms of people and their rights regardless of sexual orientation, gender or race; economizing war makes its practice more a question of efficiency and bottom lines than one based on human life. Hence the choice of women genetics over men. Hence the removal of human women from the battlefield so they can have children to populate future armies. It sounds corny here, but I think in a fictional setting it plays out better.

The second goal was to write a book that would sell -- in real brick and mortar stores. And I want to continue writing, hopefully until I die. In order to accomplish this mission and get future publishing contracts, my books have to make at least some money for Orbit and can't just sit on shelves. Fingers crossed...


Of course, I couldn't let T.C. go without asking some nonsense questions... believe me... I'm full of nonsense questions.

Justin: I know you've got a few kids. Where do you come down on Dora the Explorer and her cousin Diego?

McCarthy: Resistance is futile. Just go with it. Backpack, backpack; backpack, backpack...

Justin: You're from down south. My wife wants to move us down there. Give me two reasons why my wife is right. 

McCarthy: The people are very friendly. 2. I love the slow pace. 3. I love the kudzu and Spanish moss. 4. There's a feeling you get when you see the poverty down here that just makes you want to help, and makes you feel like although things are bad, the people are tough -- they deal with it. 5. would be golf, but I'm not much for golfing.

Justin: Texas, Memphis, or KC barbecue. I'm open to a fourth option.

McCarthy: Carolina. I love the honey-based sauces and I'm not talking about the stuff at Applebees, I'm talking about the barbecue joints down here that are run out of people's homes and are only open two days a week because they need the rest of the time to roast. Now I'm hungry. But Texas is pretty good too, especially brisket.

Justin: I have a full head of hair, but choose to keep it buzzed at a zero blade. Are you horrified by this disregard for my wavy locks or do you find it an expression of brotherhood with the follicly challenged?

McCarthy: You are a fool; doesn't your wife beg you to let it grow? (Justin: no, my mother on the other hand...) I find myself horrified and grateful at the same time for the show of solidarity. That being said, as soon as they find the cure, I'm breaking out my wallet and growing some hair to leave you guys behind.

Follow T.C. on Twitter @tcmccarthy_ or visit his website and blog at

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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Couple of eBook Bargains

I'm a sucker for eBook bargains. Earlier this month I posted some great deals from Orbit and Pyr, which I'll reiterate below along with a "few" new ones.  I actually put a lot more effort into it this time around and there are a crap load of quality price-reduced offerings out there right now.  All the links I've provided are to Kindle ordering.  I have no idea if they're being offered in other formats at the same price.

Just to emphasize, all of these titles are from major publishers in SFF and discounted from full-price by as much as $10 in some cases.  Usually these reductions are for a limited time.  I'll try to do posts like this more regularly as a dedicated eReader.

Check it out!
The Clockwork Rocket, by Greg Egan ($3.99) *New*

Zendegi, by Greg Egan (Free) *New*

The Electric Church, by Jeff Somers ($1.99)

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke ($2.99

Blood of Ambrose, by James Enge ($1.99)

Child of Fire: A Twenty Palaces Novel, by Harry Connolly ($0.99)

Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes ($0.99)

Empire in Black and Gold, by Adrian Tchaikovsky ($1.99)

The Parasol Protectorate: Soulless, Blameless, and Changeless, by Gail Carriger ($9.99)

The Edge of the World, by Kevin J. Anderson ($1.99)

Armageddon's Children, by Terry Brooks ($1.99)

Hunter's Run, by George RR Martin, Daniel Abraham, and Gardner Dozois ($1.99)

Hard Spell: An Occult Crimes Investigation Unit, Justin Gustainis ($0.99)

Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack, by Mark Hodder ($1.99)

Sasha: A Trial of Blood and Steel Book One, by Joel Shepard (Free)

Kushiel's Scion, by Jacqueline Carey ($1.99)

Dawnthief: Chronicles of the Raven, by James Barclay ($1.99)

Elfsorrow: Legends of the Raven, by James Barclay ($1.99)

Fast Forward 1: Future Fiction from the Cutting Edge, Edited by Lou Anders ($0.99)

Bright of the Sky (Book 1 of The Entire and the Rose), by Kay Kenyon (Free)

Keeping it Real (Quantum Gravity, Book 1), by Justina Robson ($0.99

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Reality 36: A Richards and Klein Novel - Guy Haley

In the year 2069, the first true Artificial Intelligence is created.  Thirty years later the Class Fives are born, becoming the first fully self-aware AIs.  Along with their less advanced cousins, "Fives" become known as the Nuekind.  One of them is Richards, a private detective considered to be the most human of his kind.  Richards is approached by the EuPol (think European Union/Interpol) to investigate the disappearance of the world's foremost expert in Nuekind rights.  Unfortunately for Richards and Klein, it appears their quarry has hidden himself in Reality Realm 36, a now defunct game world populated by AIs and thus afforded the same rights as Reality itself.

In true Angry Robot form, Reality 36 has lots of robot stuff.  There are cyborgs, androids, cydroids (what?), super AIs, wussy AIs, and insane AIs.  The internet is on steroids and with a little work the more powerful AIs can send themselves anywhere there's a connection with enough bandwidth to handle them.  Naturally, there's no shortage of action.  Klein, a decommissioned military cyborg, is almost never still.  He leaps over cars, absorbs dozens of flechettes, and generally causes mayhem wherever he shows up.  By contrast, Richards is an investigator and a bit of a flirt.  He prefers to let Klein get his hands dirty while he plays the mental game.

While the action is very well done, the part that works most in Haley's favor is the application of technology.  Everything just makes sense.  Haley's world hinges on the discovery of the Singularity within the next hundred years.  This application of processing power leads to, as Ray Kurzweil stated, "technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history".  Thanks to this technological change, game worlds (think World of Warcraft) have developed to the point of becoming alternate realities with machines as aware and alive as those existing in Real Space.  Makes sense, right?  I know I can think of a few humans that spend more time living in a game world than in reality.

This reality (so far as science fiction goes) is what makes the book so compelling.  It's an actual glimpse into the future as much as it's a mystery yarn and an action thriller.  Isn't that what Science Fiction is all about?  I hesitate to put the label of "hard sci-fi" on Reality 36, but only because I don't have the knowledge base to determine how much of what Haley has created is nonsense versus actual science.  What I do know is it reads authentic.  When bullets aren't flying I felt like I was having a discussion with the author about the implications the Singularity will have on humanity.  And that's cool.

Generally speaking Haley writes a strong narrative.  In my head as I was reading the novel I was comparing it favorably to another debut from earlier this year - Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief.  They really aren't similar in any way other than they read with a similar pace and absence of information dumping (a pet peeve of mine).  While there are some expositions from time to time about the world's history, for the most part Haley allows the understanding of his reality to be absorbed organically as opposed to forcing it down his reader's throat.  When he does ramble a bit, it's usually integrated into a character that's a bit of a windbag (Hughie, I'm looking at you dude!)  I thought this formula was very successful in Thief and Haley accomplishes it here as well in Reality 36.

My only fundamental problem with the novel is that it's not complete.  Haley ends things on a pretty brutal cliff hanger akin to the season finale of a TV drama.  The way the title is currently worded makes it seem as though the book will read a bit like a TV procedural where each Richards and Klein Novel is a mystery to be solved, but fully encapsulated within the pages of the book.  Instead Reality 36 is more like Reality 36: The First of Half of a Richards and Klein Duology.  I know I shouldn't be too upset about it, but there it is.  Even first installments in a larger series should have a beginning, middle, and an end (call me close minded). 

Ultimately, the only conclusion I was able to draw from Reality 36 is that I'll definitely be checking out the sequel Omega Point next year.  Sure the ending was annoying, but Guy Haley has really produced a first rate robot novel.  While Robopocalypse is this years hottest robot release and will assuredly sell more copies, I think Reality 36 is a superior novel in almost every way.  Angry Robot Books keeps churning out great additions in speculative fiction.

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Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Dance with Dragons - George R.R. Martin

I first read A Game of Thrones when I was a 16 year old high school student. My mother had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer and who couldn't use a little escapism at a time like that? A Clash of Kings was already on the shelves by then and I blew through them both. My mom recovered and I fell in love with a genre that would become a huge part of my life.

I remember my second year in college waiting eagerly for A Storm of Swords. Like any college kid I was still finding my way. I hated where I was living and was searching for some direction. I bought the hardcover on release day at the Barnes and Noble down the street. To this day, hundreds of book later - I have yet to be more blown away.

By the time A Feast for Crows was released I was an adult working in Washington DC. Better read and more mature, I reread all the first three books before starting the fourth. It was better than I'd remembered. By now Martin's world was as familiar to me as our own. It was alive in a way few authors could ever hope to create. And I was better for having read it.

I only tell this story because I think it's important for anyone reading this review to know how long A Song of Ice and Fire as been with me. If Harry Potter is the story of today's youth, and Middle Earth was the majesty that was my parent's, then Westeros is mine. It's the world I have escaped to more than any other in my life and I want nothing more that to love each book Martin gives us.

So this past week, when A Dance with Dragons was released, I found myself a husband and a father. Successful (or close enough) and happy, I waited up on July 11 refreshing my Kindle every minute until it arrived. I read the prologue that night and two more chapters over breakfast. I read at work and at the gym. I read while watching Dora the Explorer and while lounging on every piece of furniture in my house. This morning, as I turned the final page to the heraldry of the Boy King, I put down my Kindle and said out loud - seriously?

Strangely enough I was reminded of Tiger Woods. One night he got in a car accident. He came up with a story, but couldn't get himself out. He was in so far that the only way out was to tell the whole story no matter how long and sordid. He ended up on national television doing a tell all press conference. Dance is Martin's press conference.

The reckoning of Dance is the response to what he calls the "Mereenese Knot." This knot was tied when Dany decided to stay in Mereen and rule instead of continuing her march to the Seven Kingdoms. As the rest of Westeros became aware of Dany and her dragons, many different factions began to coalesce around her. How, why, and most importantly when all these factions arrive in Mereen is the knot Martin struggled to untie. Instead of choosing to cut the knot like Gordian and thus impeaching Dany's character, he actually untied it. Well, tried to untie it.

This untying is why as a novel(as fifth installment in a series, its success remains to be seen), Dance is a failure. The book's pace is abysmal with over half the chapters existing as travelogs. Tyrion on the ocean, Tyrion on a river barge, Tyrion on a horse! Several POVs are far longer than necessary and some exist for seemingly no reason. The timeline is convoluted with the first half of novel coinciding chronologically with the events in Feast. This leads to scenes being rewritten, word for word in some cases, in an alternate POV. All that aside, the most unfortunate part of the novel is that 1100 pages later Martin still has yet to bring all the disparate pieces together that compose his "Mereenese Knot." For all the talk about the second half of Dance advancing the story beyond Feast, the plot only advances a few days with none of the promised conflicts among the King's Landing crew coming to fruition.

Additionally, some of his tricks are getting a little tired. The imminent death fade to black has been used about ten times too many with survival being the end result nearly every time. There also seem to be some reoccurring themes that successful governing is irreconcilable with honor and duty. Or perhaps that honor and duty preclude the ability to compromise. This is of note most significantly in the Jon and Dany chapters where neither seem capable of or willing to listen to those around them. Given their ages, this is probably an accurate characterization. Nevertheless, I find it a bit dogmatic.

Despite its shortcomings in storytelling, Dance is beautifully written, as always. Martin litters his pages with suburb foreshadowing and Easter eggs. Nothing I've read urges a reader to comb through paragraphs for hints like A Song of Ice and Fire and nothing here changes that legacy. Some of the POVs are stunningly good - especially Reek/Theon and Victarion. There are exciting seminal moments for the series (dragons!) and in true Martin style he's not shy about putting his most cherished characters to the sword.

Like Tiger, I think Martin made the decision to tell the ENTIRE story instead of creating a compelling narrative. The difference being Martin has the ability to change his story at will. If this was the only way through the knot for my favorite author, so be it; but I can't help but be disappointed after seven years of anticipation. Does my disappointment reek of reader entitlement? Maybe, except the fact remains this just isn't a very fun book to read. I don't mind Martin's lack of progress with the plot so much as I lament the excruciating detail with which he wrote what is still the "first half" of a novel. My complaints have nothing to with what happened, only about how they happened. Had Martin written this same book with two thirds the word count minus a POV or two, I would surely be trumpeting the novel as the next great installment in the most brilliant series fantasy has ever seen (like nearly every other blogger is).

Instead I'm here saying to anyone who hasn't started A Song of Ice and Fire, wait until the it's done. A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, while being eminently better written, are the functional equivalent of the Wheel of Time post Crown of Swords and pre-Sanderson takeover. Martin has thrown so many balls into the air that to keep any from dropping he's got to painstakingly orchestrate all his chess (cynasse) pieces before he can go on the attack. If I were a new reader, I'd want to make sure the pieces start moving before I invest in 5,000 pages of reading.

On the other hand, to current fans of the series, I'll be hitting refresh on my Kindle at 12:01 the day The Winds of Winter is released. What can I say? I'm pot committed.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Magicians - Lev Grossman

Lev Grossman's The Magicians has engendered no small amount of vitriol since its release two years ago.  I'm not sure there's been a more divisive book released in recent memory.  Most of the negative comments seem to hover around the the novel's bleakness and the notion that it's extremely derivative.  Strangely enough, that's why I like it.  Grossman has taken the young adult fantasy genre, poked it with a stick, and then told a darkly beautiful coming of age story within that framework.

Quentin Coldwater is a brilliant and depressed high school senior. He's secretly obsessed with a series of fantasy novels he read as a kid, about the adventures of five children in a magical land called Fillory. Compared to Fillory, everything else is listless. As it turns out, Quentin is one of the few born with a talent for magic and is chosen to become a student at a prestigious (just ask them!) magical university in upstate New York, where he receives a rigorous education in sorcery. He also discovers all the other things people learn in college: sex, alcohol, and boredom. But magic doesn't bring the happiness and adventure Quentin thought it would.  Then he makes a stunning discovery: Fillory is real.

First of all, Fillory is Narnia.  It's not even derivational - it just is.  Quentin's college is a university level Hogwarts.  Alice is Hermione (kinda).  Eliot is a gay Ron (kinda).  There are references to almost every young adult fantasy novel of any repute.  Many of Grossman's critics have called this derivative.  I call it intentionally subversive.  He doesn't twist the genre tropes so much as he uses them didactically.  The result is that there's nothing remotely young adult about this novel.  Yes, he uses a young adult frame work, but the thematic underpinnings are adult.

So adult that most of Magicians is disturbingly depressing.  There's very little happiness for any of Grossman's characters.  It's raw and real in a way that is so divorced from traditional fantasy.  Even Quentin's study of magic is benign.  In that way, I get why people pushed back on it.  To someone looking for a more adult Harry Potter (as the book was often advertised) there is going to be some intense dissatisfaction.  Unlike Harry Potter, where magic and "fantasy" are the point, Magicians uses these things as a thematic device to deliver a message - life is hard, even when it should be easy.

Quentin is nearly a nihilist.  He is a vortex of woe-is-me at a school full of tortured teenagers who until they became magicians were socially awkward and painfully excluded.  What Grossman is trying to do it well summed up by Quentin's professor.  He said:
"Most people carry that pain around inside them their whole lives, until they kill the pain by others means, or until it kills them.  But you, my friends, you found another way: a way to use the pain.  To burn it as fuel, for light and warmth.  You have learned to break the world that has tried to break you."
Quentin, carrying this pain around is looking for an escape.  Go to any fantasy message board right now and ask, "Why do you read fantasy?"  The common answer is - escapism.  That's what fantasy is all about (or at least, was about).  Quentin wants to be able to turn the page and go away.  He keeps chasing a carrot for what will make him happy instead of recognizing what makes him unhappy.  When magic isn't enough, he tries love and then ultimately he pins all his hopes on Fillory - a magical land imagined in his youth.  Want to guess how that works out?  I guess I'm saying Quentin is a metaphor for fantasy readers.  He wants to escape so he throws himself into one new adventure after another.  Instead of escaping he just ends up ignoring everything around him.  Hmm, now I feel kind of insulted?

That's not to say that the novel doesn't have some "bright" spots.  Most of these are moments of comedy when one character or another uses some cultural reference to great effect.  As a fan of a few on-line shooting games in my youth, I couldn't help but blow milk out of my nose when I read:
"Or we're in some kind of really high-tech multiplayer video game." He snapped his fingers. "So that's why Eliot's always humping my corpse."
These moments are fairly frequent, especially later in the novel once Quentin and his "party" go on a dungeon crawl reminiscent (again, intentionally) of a misguided D&D session with a power tripping dungeon master.

And that's the rub, isn't it? The novel knows it's borrowing, bastardizing, and in some cases copying what's come before in an effort to parody it.  This clearly puts off readers that aren't invested enough in the genre to enjoy what Grossman is doing or are looking for the notion of escapism he's lampooning.

Despite all of the games Grossman is playing, the heart of the story is the coming of age tale and a tragic love story.  If he removed all the fantasy elements, the novel still has a fairly compelling story - albeit not remotely something the typical fantasy reader would be interested in.  If I had to classify all the fantasy novels ever written into "beginners, intermediate, and advanced" categories.  The Magicians would be decidedly placed in the latter.  Not because it's a difficult novel.  Grossman writes an eminently readable book.  But it's a novel written to and about fantasy readers , but not necessarily for them.

Even with my enjoyment of The Magicians I'm a little concerned about his sequel due out next month.  This novel stands on its own, but it only stands up because of the thematic game Grossman played.  To use the same trick of subverting the genre would leave me feeling cold.  Still, I enjoyed the first novel so much that I can't help but look forward to the second.  Color me cautiously optimistic.

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Monday, July 11, 2011

A Feast for Crows - George R.R. Martin

My re-read is complete as of Saturday afternoon - three days ahead of the release for A Dance with Dragons.  I immediately logged on to Amazon and pre-order Dance on my Kindle.  It will be delivered at 12:01 AM on Tuesday (I hope).  I may power through 100 pages or so before going to bed.  Showing up to work with dark circles under my eyes is always a win.

A Feast for Crows was better than I remembered in some ways, and worse in others. The narrative is paced so slowly and jumps into so many different points of view that it never gets great pace.  Some suggestions about reading each POV in order makes some sense.  Reading Arya or Brienne chapters all in a row would probably alleviate some of the difficulties with the books structure.  In any case, I read it as it was intended.

As I've completed my re-read of each of Martin's books I've posted a few major thoughts from each about what I found interesting. What follows is full of spoilers, obviously.

#1) Let's say A Song of Ice and Fire is an allegory for all of fiction. A Game of Thrones might be the Epic of Gilgamesh and A Storm of Swords might be Crime and Punishment. In this scenario there's no doubt in my mind that A Feast for Crows is the Tales of Canterbury. Stick with me here. 
Feast is a novel for the smallfolk as Martin calls them. Like Chaucer's classic was a peak into the life of the common man at a time when novels were written solely from and for the noble perspective, Feast is the window into the heart of Westeros people. Up until this point Martin hasn't shown much of anything when it comes to the vast majority of the population. I think it provided him with the opportunity to wax rhapsodic about injustice and natural rights. Reading Feast from that point of view, it's a wholly different book for me and something I can enjoy as I didn't the first few times through. 
#2) Lady Genna, Tywin's sister, is a great addition to the Lannister clan. When she says: 
"Jaime," she said, tugging on his ear, "sweetling, I have known you since you were a babe at Joanna's breast. You smile like Gerion and fight like Tyr, and there's some of Kevan in you, else you would not wear that cloak... but Tyrion is Tywin's son, not you." 
Oh baby, it doesn't get more awesome than that.

#3) I think the reason Martin's fans were so down on Feast when it first came out is that the novel is too disjointed with POVs. Seeing the Kingsmoot from three different POVs really chops it up and sucks out a lot of the energy. That's also true of Dorne where we see Hotah in the early going, Arys in the middle, and Arianne toward the end. I'm not entirely sure what Martin was trying to accomplish by doing this except maybe to set things up POVs for future books. Personally, I think it would have worked better if he'd only had one POV from both of those settings. 
#4) Jaime is almost as cool of a character as Tyrion. Man I love these two. Cersei is just a caricature and I can't get behind her as a character. She doesn't seem authentic to me.

Tune in around Friday for my Dance review!

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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Germline - T.C. McCarthy

Wow. Before I go any further into this review I want to be up front that I don't really feel qualified to review or judge this novel until I read it a second time. Nevertheless, I'm going to give it my best go. Please consider this more of a "first impressions" review that some kind of detailed analysis.

(Edit: After finishing the review, this has got be the longest "first impressions" post ever.  Oh well, my blog, my run on incoherent thoughts.)

I finished Germline over the Fourth of July weekend. More accurately, I sat down with it Saturday morning and didn't even get up to eat until I finished it. It stunned me. The novel's blurb doesn't begin to encompass everything it has to offer. I don't think Orbit Books is trying to mislead anyone, but a few words can't capture everything T.C. McCarthy is trying to do. This is not, I repeat not, a military science fiction novel in the tradition of Honor Harrington (Weber) or even the more recent Old Man's War (Scalzi). Instead, over the course of 300 pages Germline is an incredibly dark coming of age story about a broken man who can only justify his existence by going to war.

Oscar Wendall is a reporter and not a particularly good one to ask his editor. Lucky for him, he's made a few well placed friends over the years that help him pull the "plum" assignment of being the first civilian allowed on the Line. He quickly finds himself in Kazakstan joining a battalion of Marines fighting the Pops (Russians) to secure rare minerals "vital" to the U.S. economy. Already an addict, Oscar begins to rely on drugs more and more to survive the terrifying world he now inhabits.

Told entirely in first person, Germline reads almost like stream of conscience at times replete with run on sentences and incomplete thoughts. What at first feels a bit like self indulgent writing quickly starts to feel more like an authentic look inside the mind of a drug addled narcissist. Having never done any serious narcotics, I'm not sure how close McCarthy hits the mark on the paranoia and dependence but he describes it as I've always imagined it to be - super shitty.

Germline's narrative style seems to give McCarthy carte blanche to toy with his reader's emotions. The inherent bias in a first person narrative makes the reader privy to all of Oscar's affectations. It allows the reader access to all of his fantasies of the mind as well as the truth of his motivations. Early on Oscar is the star of his own story, but then later describes himself as a coward who only stays because he can no longer rationalize life without the war. It wouldn't surprise me if some readers find it all a bit overwhelming. Oscar is a dark figure without many redeeming qualities (especially in his own mind). He starts off annoyingly naive full of unwarranted confidence and willing to put his life on the line for a Pulitzer because he has no idea what that life is worth. He's unemotional at times when he loses friends, and cripplingly emotional at other times.

That said, one of the things I kept ask myself time and again throughout the novel was how others perceived Oscar.  Telling the story solely through Oscar's very flawed eyes, McCarthy leaves the answers to questions like that open to interpretation.Thankfully, McCarthy's ending is incredibly cathartic. If I'd read the ending by itself it may have come off a bit contrived and convenient. After the roller coaster of emotion that Germline sent me on for the first 250 pages though, I couldn't have handled anything except what McCarthy gave me. I found myself choked up on at least three occasions at the novel's conclusion - an extremely rare occurrence.

Like any good science fiction novel Germline includes gads of social commentary. The most prevalent is the theme on which McCarthy is building his trilogy - Some technologies can't be put back in the box. For the most part this debate plays out through a squad of soldiers known as genetics. Women raised for no other purpose than to die in combat (and kick serious Russian ass), the genetics are McCarthy's opening statement into a larger debate of how the concept of shared humanity survives when a man's (in the larger sense) first and last line of defense is dehumanizing everything around him. I believe he extends the metaphor throughout the entire novel using Oscar's journey to redeem the notion that while things can never be put back in the box (Oscar's own humanity or sense of community), they can be made right. I think it'll be interesting to see how this discussion continues to take place in future novels.

Additionally, those who have a political leaning one way or another will quickly make a connection between McCarthy's description of Kazakstan's minerals and oil in the Middle East. There's a scene in the book that really focuses in on this discussion and it's so thinly veiled as to make me wonder if the commentary is merely coincidental. Given the author's background in international conflict analysis, I find that hard to believe. I didn't find it heavy handed by any means, but it's there. Readers with a feminist bent (I mean that in the nicest possible way) might also struggle a little bit as the only two female characters are an overbearing socialite mother and clones bread to kill.

Brief aside: I would be totally remiss if I didn't at least comment on Germline's cover. Where the blurb fails to convey the heart of the novel, the cover nails it. Reminiscent of the Blackhawk Down movie poster, I think the art absolutely captures a man totally beaten down, but still willing to shoulder his burden and move forward. I'm usually not a fan of the "photo realism" covers, but I think artist Steve Stone nailed it. I guess McCarthy agrees.

Germline is a tremendous debut novel.  To be honest, I'm a little nervous that I've butchered the author's true intent in trying to communicate how it made me feel.  I'd love a chance to talk with McCarthy at some point because I don't know how a character like Oscar Wendell gets written without leaving an author hollowed out when it's all over.  Hell, I felt hollowed out just reading it.  This novel isn't for everybody and I wouldn't touch it as a so called "summer read".  For me, it's immediately going into my personal pantheon of war novels next to Gates of Fire and All Quiet on the Western Front.  Hell of a debut, T.C.

P.S. - McCarthy's second novel Exogen is due out next year as the second installment in his Subterrene Trilogy.  Germline stands so well on its own that I hope future novels set in the same world steer clear of Oscar Wendell.  

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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Greyfriar - Clay and Susan Griffith

As I was nodding off last night to the thundering pops of at home fireworks outside my window (northeast D.C. thinks the 4th of July lasts for a week), I couldn't get Disney's Beauty and the Beast out of my head. Beautiful Belle is trapped in the Beast's castle and held against her will. During her imprisonment Belle comes to see the Beast for what he is and not what he looks like. He's smart, gentle, and compassionate. Outside the castle, Belle's suitor - Gaston - plots to "rescue" her. In truth, Gaston is a blowhard who only wants to free Belle to pump up his own ego.

After twenty minutes or so of pondering, I realized that I couldn't get Beauty and the Beast out of my head because I'd just read it. Only Beast was a vampire in a book called The Greyfriar by Clay and Susan Griffith. Of course the realization came at the same time my neighbor set off a screamer, so my epiphany was accompanied by me falling out of bed - not terribly impressive.

In 1870, vampires rose up to become the dominant life form on earth.  This event would come to be known as The Great Killing.  150 years later free humans only exist in enclaves near the equator where vampires refuse to live.  Adele, princess and heir to the largest of these enclaves, has been captured by Prince Cesare, the most notorious vampire alive.  Not everything is at it seems in the world of vampires, and Adele soon comes under the protection of Cesare's brother Prince Gareth.  Now, she's a piece for both sides in a chess match that's sure to lead to open war between vampires and humans.  The only thing between Adele and a gruesome death are Gareth and a mysterious entity named the Greyfriar.  Can they keep her alive long enough for her betrothed, Senator Clarke, to come and rescue her?

So the plot of a fantasy novel is retread?  Right, no one is surprised.  There are more examples of recycled material in fantasy novels than almost any other genre.  As long as there's enough to otherwise entertain a fantasy yarn can get away with some unimaginative storytelling.  By and large, I think Greyfriar accomplishes that.

I maintain that world building is the most important aspect of a novel in the speculative fiction genre.  So many blemishes can be covered up by a world that stimulates the imagination in a new and unique way.  The Griffith's blend a fully realized alternative reality earth complete with imperial borders, political infighting, and magical powers.  They also up the ante by providing something fresh to the vampire narrative by tossing out many of the stereotypical "vampirisms" to create a more realistic (lol?) interpretation.  It's my opinion that they pull of this off near flawlessly providing such a great backdrop that the underwhelming plot becomes an afterthought to the world's epic scope.
Your neck looks so tasty, Belle!

Outside the not-so-imaginative plotting, my complaints are two fold.  First, two real places featured heavily in the story - the Tower of London and Edinburgh Castle - just aren't well drawn.  I've been to both of these places and neither were described in a way that made them come alive.  I'm not sure what the point was of naming them as real places given their lack of ambiance.  Both of these places are as haunting and impactful as a place can be.  None of that really came through in the writing.  Second, there's just a too much Twilight going on between Adele and Gareth.  It's pretty well done and there's a great deal of action to keep things butch enough for male readers (yes, a generalization, sue me).  Still, in this post-Twilight world vampire/human infatuation is going to near impossible to pull off without some serious eye rolling.

To use a ridiculous metaphor, Greyfriar is to books like Big League Chew is to chewing gum. I mean it's no Bubblelicious, the unquestioned king of gums. Nor is it like a black licorice gum with nuanced flavors. It's not even one of those gums that's like regular gum until it's bitten into and there's that squirt of liquid whatever it is. Nope. It's Big League Chew - simple, fluffy, and a little overwhelming after an extended chew. It's not a gum that's meant to be chewed every day (unless exhausted jaw muscles are the end game), but there's nothing wrong with occasionally shoving a big wad of Big League Chew into your mouth and endangering your ability to breath.

So where do I come down on this book anyway?  To be honest, I'm not really sure.  This definitely isn't the kind of novel that I gravitate toward with the, how can our love survive the gulf between us malarkey.  Still, there's a pace of action, and a depth to the world that are impossible for me to ignore.  For anyone who enjoys romance, action, and some blood sucking - The Greyfriar is a great choice.  It hits all three of those things out of the park and provides enough that I will absolutely check out the sequel, The Rift Walker.  Looking for something with a dynamic plot or lustrous prose?  Eh, I might look elsewhere.

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This month's eBook special offers

This week I'm going to have two reviews out that I acquired from Pyr and Orbit via their monthly eBook deals.  Sometimes these offers land me a title I've wanted to read for a long time like Joel Shepard's Sasha or Ian M. Bank's Consider Phlebas. Other times I end up buying a title I would have never considered at full price like The Greyfriar by Clay and Susan Griffith or The Edge of the World by Kevin J. Anderson.

This month Orbit is offering the first three books in Gail Carriger's The Parasol Protectorate for $9.99.

Pyr has put out Adrian Tchaikovsky's first book in the Shadows of the Apt series, Empire in Black and Gold, for $1.99.

It's also my understanding that in the UK, Angry Robot Books is offering a ton of their eBooks in the Kindle Store for 99p.  Angry Robot Books has also begun a new subscription series for their eBooks where for $75 the consumer gets every book they publish from July 1, 2011 to July 1, 2012.  It's certainly an interesting new dynamic to the eBook marketplace.  I can't wait to see if it catches on.

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Hope everyone had a great 4th of July

We sure did!  My daughter and I at the 8th Street Parade here in D.C.


Friday, July 1, 2011

The Whitefire Crossing - Courtney Schafer

I always hear the phrase, "write what you know." My reaction has typically been who the hell would want to read a fantasy novel about bodybuilding, basketball, or energy policy? Of course the answer is - my mom. Thankfully for me, and everyone else who will have the pleasure of reading The Whitefire Crossing, Courtney Schafer's knowledge of mountaineering has a much broader appeal.

When I received my advanced copy of Whitefire, I took a minute to read about the author's background. As it turns out she's an avid rock climber with years of experience. She even has a picture of herself inverted on her "About" page on her website. I always find it difficult to walk the line between writing what I know and committing mental masturbation. Look how much I know about this! In a surprising development (notice the sarcasm here) Schafer is a better writer than I am. While she may have shared my same concerns, she shouldn't have.

Every second spent on rock climbing or related activities in Whitefire is a breath of fresh air. Her enthusiasm bleeds through the page infusing her main character Dev with vigor and life that couldn't have been accomplished any other way. It's clear that when Schafer put fingers to keys she was excited to write this story. This passion sustains the novel in its early stages and provides the momentum that carries it to a great conclusion. 

Schafer's main character Dev is an outrider for a merchant caravan with a penchant for scaling difficult mountain sides. He's also a part time smuggler who gets talked into bringing the mage Kiran across the border that divides two nations with diametrically opposed viewpoints on the legality of magic. Kiran ends up posing as Dev's apprentice which provides Schafer adequate opportunities to wax about talus, pinions, scree, and a host of other climbing nuances.

Once Dev and Kiran get out of the mountains, the story is only half done. Schafer proves that she's not a one trick pony immediately delving into a far more gritty and urban setting. While some of the urban world felt flat in comparison to the lushness of the mountains, by the novels conclusion it starts to reveal itself in more depth opening up a host of avenues for future installments in the series.

I always find that when reading a review, one of the things I want to know about is point of view and how the novel handles it.  In this case, Whitefire is written with two different narrative perspectives. Dev is given the first person treatment where Kiran's point of view is from the third person. If I’m being honest, I really struggled at times from the switching points of view.  When I read my eyes train themselves on where to focus in sentences for pertinent information and when the switch occurs in point of view from first to third these information cues switch too. Ultimately, it was a small annoyance (and possibly exclusive only to me and the way I read) and given the inherent bias in a first person narrative getting an additional point of view was refreshing. 

Equally refreshing was Schafer's decision to write two male protagonists. Every female fantasy reader is now saying - ugh, all fantasy books have male protagonists! And they'd be right. But not all male protagonists are written by women - in fact, very few are. The only thing rarer is male writers writing female protagonists. I can only hope that more male authors look to Schafer's cross gender example and attempt to write stronger women. There's no doubt a few male fantasy authors could use to imagine being in woman's shoes a little more and in their undergarments a little less.

Whitefire is one of the best novels I've read in 2011 (out of 38 so far, but who's counting?). What starts off as an adventure novel of rock climbing and trekking quickly turns into a full blown fantasy romp full of magic, ne'er-do-wells, and flawed heroes.  
I'm always nervous when I recommend a book this highly, especially when it doesn't do something that's going to change the genre. But what can I say? Schafer's debut novel totally charmed me and I can't wait to read her sequel, The Tainted City, due out late next year.

The Whitefire Crossing will be available in stores on August 16.

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