Category Archives: Fantasy

Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin

After Patrick Rothfuss, I have really high standards for “epic” fantasy. GRRM has set up a series that is often seen as the current epitome of epic fantasy – with the fear that he and it, like Robert Jordan and The Wheel of Time, will continue until the series inadvertently outlives the author. It made for a natural follow-up while I was still in an epic fantasy mood – and the recent series in on our to-be-watched list.

Writing-wise, it’s not nearly as captivating to me as Rothfuss was. Oh, it’s not bad – there are moments that suck you in, and the concept of the world (a land where seasons last for years) is intriguing, but it’s more about the characters than the world right now. And looking at it relatively impartially or analytically, the characters are basically just stereotypes. Stereotypes with feeling, of course, and well-crafted stereotypes, but stereotypes nonetheless. The most interesting characters so far are the ones who don’t quite fit the stereotype, or the ones that you hope don’t: Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, and Jon Snow.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I love the Starks, as you’re supposed to, and I despise the Lannisters, as you’re supposed to. But that’s almost one of the problems: you’re so clearly supposed to. They are all painted with such broad strokes that it’s too obvious what you’re supposed to feel. I gasped with horror – out loud, even –at certain plot points (I won’t spoil them for you) and felt a smug satisfaction at others. But I also felt like hissing every time certain characters appeared and cheering for others. It’s like a melodrama.

There’s not a lot more I can say about it without spoiling things or having read the rest of the series – because, after all, it is the first in a series. It’s entirely possible that some of the things that I felt were lacking in this book (world-building, mostly) will be more fully explored in later books. I’m definitely hopeful that the Wall and the Others will be more fully explored later – they’ve been hinted at so far, and briefly met, but this book didn’t really deal with them at all. (One of the reasons that I think Jon Snow is a more interesting character is because his storyline deals less with the “game of thrones” part of the world and more with the fantasy elements.)

I don’t own the second book, and I have at least two dozen unread books around that I do own, so I am not sure when I’m going to get to the rest of the series. It probably won’t be too long, though – especially if the rest of the series is also filmed, giving me more of an impetus to read the rest.

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The Wise Man’s Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss

I’ve finished the second book in the Kingkiller series by Patrick Rothfuss, and I’m ready for the third one now. (Of course, since this one has only been out for a couple of months at most, I would imagine that book 3 is a couple of years away.) It wasn’t quite as flawless as the first, but I still loved it.

Some of the reason that the first one was more engrossing, for me, was because a lot of the action of the story is still to come – we’re still in the setup of Kvothe’s story. Not that things don’t happen in this book, or in The Name of the Wind, but the main events, the point of the story – the expulsion from the University, the beginning of the war – are still to come. We’re still learning about Kvothe and the world, and so is he, to some extent. That was the best part of The Name of the Wind – because it was the first book, it was obviously going to deal with setting up the story. This book was still setup, though. From a structural sense, if The Name of the Wind is world-building, The Wise Man’s Fear is world exploration. Kvothe travels to the farther ends of the world, experiencing several different cultures including Faerie, and the reader gets a deeper understanding. Because the basic principles don’t need to be explained, more time can be spent on the more subtleties.

A lot of this book deals with the nature of wisdom and knowledge. I should have kept track of how many times the idea “the wise man fears….” came up – and what the various fears were. I definitely noticed them, even if I didn’t mark all of them. (It’s kind of obvious when the title is namechecked within the story.) Different types of knowledge are also explored – from Kvothe’s typical studies at the University to cultural education at the court of the Maer to physical and metaphysical explorations with the Adem to sexual education with Felurian.

I’m getting quite anxious to find out about the Chandrian and the Amyr: it’s Kvothe’s main purpose in life, but so far details have been rather thin. What we do know about them is fascinating, but there hasn’t been enough yet. I would assume and hope that the third book will explore them more fully.

I’m not as desperate for the next book as I was for this one – although I can easily see myself rereading these two about five times before book 3 is published, and I definitely will be reading it as soon as I can when it’s out – but the story still has me hooked. It’s definitely soothed my need for a book/series that I can lose myself in.

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The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

The goal of reading is to immerse yourself in another world. To find yourself in a place, a time, a situation that becomes so real to you that it’s a wrench when you realise that they were words on a page. I remember reading a book with a blind protagonist when I was a teenager (I think it was The Cay but I can’t be 100% sure now, after fifteen-ish years) and being surprised when I finished that I could see. Intellectually I knew that, of course I could see, I was reading, but the world the author had created was so non-visual that it was a shock to come out of it.

I read The Name of the Wind mostly in half-hour spurts, my lunch break at work. Almost every day that I read it, I was surprised by the beeping of my break timer. I finally got to the point where I couldn’t take being wrenched out of the world anymore, so I avoided any kind of social/online interaction and just finished it.

And then I came downstairs and said, “I want to be back in this world. I’m ordering the sequel.” (I did check to see if it was at the local library, but all the copies are out and I seriously don’t want to wait that long.)

It’s hard to describe this book in a way that’s not trite. It’s an epic fantasy novel, with the medieval-esque setting and the swords and sorcery aspects of that – but it keeps from becoming clichéd. It’s also the first in a series. And it’s an amazing feat of worldbuilding.

I’m not even sure how he did it. With some authors, you can see how they do the worldbuilding. It may be skilful, but you can see that this is where they’re telling about the religion and this is where they’re laying out the social structure. There’s some of that in The Name of the Wind of course, but it’s often very subtle. The storytelling structure is incredibly effective, weaving hints and foreshadowing through the “present-day” bits as well as through the story. The world that he develops and presents is so incredibly real that it is almost painful to leave it.

Favourite quotable bit: Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts. There are seven words that will make a person love you. There are ten words that will break a strong man’s will. But a word is nothing but a painting of fire. A name is the fire itself.

The whole book isn’t in that vein, of course: that passage was said by a professor at the university where the main character is studying. But it basically sums up the motivation of the main character and, presumably, the impetus for the series. Words and communication of various forms – especially music, and especially singing, the combination of music and words – are so important throughout this book. People die because they say or sing the wrong things; names – pure names, not just the words – have immeasurable power; the stories told create the event and the character.

I don’t want to say too much about the story itself, in part because it’s the first in a series. This book, while a book in itself and a story in itself, is also very much only the beginning of the story. It sets up the world and the characters and the conflict, but the conflict is not even close to being resolved, or even completely revealed.

It’s an incredible world, and I can’t wait to be in it again.

(Sidenote: This book didn’t completely register on my radar for a long time. I’d heard the name, but got it confused with The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, which I read several years ago. It wasn’t until the sequel came out a few months ago, and a lot was being written about Patrick Rothfuss, that it clicked with me that they were different books. Also, The Shadow of the Wind is very good, and also has a relatively recent sequel, which I have not yet read and still want to.)

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One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, by Jasper Fforde

You may remember that I love Jasper Fforde. Hearing him speak on the Shades of Grey book tour is still one of the highlights of my literary life, and I’ve been looking forward to the fifth Thursday Next book for literally years. I love the world of Thursday Next and it’s so much fun to be back in it.

This one is a bit more complicated than the other Thursday Next books (and if you’ve read them, you know that that’s saying quite a lot). The world of Thursday Next is an alternate reality to our world, first of all – a world where literature is the primary form of … everything. Political parties are formed around adherents of specific authors, Richard III is “interactive” in the same way that The Rocky Horror Picture Show is in our world, and there is an MI5-type organisation which has books and book-related activities under its jurisdiction (forgeries and the like). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: there’s so much more to this world than that, but those are the easiest to relate.

And within the alternate reality that is the Thursday Next world, there are books about Thursday Next. These books are similar to, but not identical to, the Thursday Next books that exist in our world.

Oh, and also? There is an alternate reality within the alternate reality, where books are actually real, where characters exist when they’re not being read. In this Bookworld, there is a Thursday Next who is the written Thursday, portraying Thursday’s adventures to her readers in the “real” Thursday Next world. (There was a previous written Thursday, but the real-world Thursday didn’t like how the previous written Thursday was being read, so they got a new generic character to become Thursday, Thursday-approved.)

Confused yet? I swear, it makes more sense when you actually read through the series.

So, anyway, there are several versions of Thursday. And one of them is missing in this book. And one of them has to figure out where the missing one is, as well as various other issues that the missing Thursday was involved in, and, to some extent, who she is as well.

If I have one complaint about this book, it is the previously-mentioned complications. The other Thursday Next novels weren’t stand-alones, by any stretch of the imagination, but they didn’t rely quite as much on previous readings of the series. The reader, if I recall correctly, was reminded of quite a bit more detail in the middle three books , where in this book there are references that assume that you’ve read through the rest of the series. Let’s be honest, if you’re reading the fifth book in a series you’ve most likely read the previous books, but this one is not going to bring in many if any new readers.

It also didn’t have quite as much of the “fun” stuff of the other four books: the footnoterphone, Mycroft and his inventions, some of the intrigues of the “real” world. They were mentioned, but not used, and that was vaguely disappointing.

It’s good, though. It’s got a bit of a different feel than the others (although I definitely need a massive reread. You know, to make sure….) and some of the more philosophical/psychological issues that are explored by the end are very interesting. It’s one of the things that Fforde does really well: the blurred lines between fiction and reality. It’s a theme he’s explored in all of his books, not just the Thursday Next ones (although it is most explicit in Thursday Next) and he does it better than most. However, you definitely need to read the entire series before you read One of Our Thursdays Is Missing.

Of course, everyone who’s at all interested in British literature and/or wordplay needs to read The Eyre Affair anyway….

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The Thief Lord, by Cornelia Funke

Cornelia Funke is a fantastic children’s fantasy writer. The Inkheart trilogy was a fairly brilliant double story (the story in Inkheart and the story of Mo and his family), so I was expecting great things from The Thief Lord.

It’s not the tightest story in the world, but for some reason I couldn’t put it down. There are different threads that don’t always quite mesh together, but the kids – the main characters – are wonderful.  The fringe characters are a bit broad, almost to the point of caricature – which was distracting when the first character you really meet is a villain who is so unremittingly bad that I kept expecting her to be revealed as an literal witch or something like that (who then vanishes for most of the book, until she’s needed again to create tension).

Like I said above, there are different threads in the book. There’s the story of the two brothers, Prosper and Bo, who don’t want to be separated. Their thread runs through the whole book. It occasionally is more prominent than at other times, but it is always present. Then there is the story of the gang – a group of homeless, abandoned children (which sounds more pathetic than it is) who are led, in a way, by one who calls himself the Thief Lord. They in turn mix in with the thread of the magical merry-go-round, which is one of the turning points of the book but isn’t even mentioned until at least halfway through. There are also vague subsubthreads that feature the adults – the detective searching for the brothers and the fence who buys the children’s stolen goods. And Scipio, the Thief Lord, has his own thread that appears and weaves in about halfway through as well.

All the threads merge together by the end, sort of, but the book as a whole never quite gels properly – and I kept waiting for it to. The ideas are all there, and all interesting, but because there are so many of them, it bounces back and forth, and I was waiting for things to happen, things to get explained, or things to resolve that never quite did. I think it just suffers from too many stories to tell. The magical merry-go-round was kind of overkill. I know what she was trying to do with it, but I think that was the thread that, for me, pushed the story over the top. There was plenty to deal with in the stories of all the children, who had been abandoned in a variety of ways, without adding the merry-go-round to it, even if the merry-go-round is what tilted the world into fantasy. Don’t get me wrong, I think the magical merry-go-round was a fantastic idea; I just think it was overkill in this particular book.

But, at the same time, I couldn’t put it down. I wanted to know what would happen to the kids; if Prosper and Bo would be able to stay together; what the detective was going to do about them. It was a fairly quick read (it took me two days of inconsistent reading to get through – so only a couple of hours, really), and in general I like Cornelia Funke and whoever translates her from the German. It wasn’t as good as the Inkheart trilogy – especially not the first book – but it wasn’t a waste of time, either.

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Coyote Blue, by Christopher Moore

I usually think Christopher Moore is a very funny writer. Lamb made me laugh out loud more than once (as it did my religiously-conservative grandfather, which is pretty impressive given the book’s subject matter). I tend to read Christopher Moore when I want something substantial but not too dense.

Coyote Blue is not really that funny a book, though. It’s about a Crow who has – sort of unwillingly – abandoned his heritage, right up to the point where Coyote, the trickster, comes back to his life and he is dragged back into it. The book still has the relatively light style of the other Christopher Moore books that I’ve read, but the irreverence of books like Lamb or Fluke just isn’t there. It maybe is meant to be, but I couldn’t find it.

That’s not to say that it’s a bad book, it’s just … less funny than I expected from Christopher Moore. I liked Sam, for the most part, but I didn’t really know Calliope as a character, and what I did know I couldn’t really identify with. The storyline got to be a little bit manic, and I’m still not sure why some of the things at the beginning happened, unless the entire motivation was to get Sam’s attention.

It reminded me quite a lot of Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman. It had some of the same themes: ancient, almost forgotten American gods who originated in Africa (spoiler! and actually something which in retrospect kind of bothers me*) forcing their attention onto the human that they have chosen to tell their stories. I like Anansi Boys better; I think it’s a more logical story (within the constructs of the story, at least).

But, again, it’s not a bad book. I did quite like it. It’s just that if you’re looking for something like Lamb, you might be disappointed.

*Why does one of the more common American gods (Coyote) need to have originated in Egypt, to be the brother of Anubis? Why can’t the American gods and the various American cultures have originated in parallel with that of the rest of the world, instead of being an off-shoot of them? It seems like an unnecessary addition. Sam could have gone to “The Spirit World” to bring Calliope back; it didn’t have to have a random Egyptian connection to make it valid. And if you’re going to throw in random lines about Mormonism being valid (I did kind of laugh at Coyote’s reaction to that), why not also play with the idea that the Vikings were the first “white” people to settle in North America, and have it be Valhalla that Sam finds himself in? Having it be Egypt doesn’t really make sense to me, on a number of different levels. I may not know that much about the Crow beliefs, but I dislike the fact that he went outside an American context when the rest of the book is so focused on the Crow and the “Native American” culture. (Yes, I put “Native American” in quotation marks. They’re not a homogenous group.) I think he probably could have – and, in my opinion, should have – found a different path to the same thing, one that didn’t implicitly diminish the value of native American beliefs and cultures.

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The Fourth Bear, by Jasper Fforde

Man, meta stuff is fun.  It’s one of the thing that I love about Jasper Fforde’s first two series (Thursday Next and the Nursery Crime Division). There are characters who are aware that they are characters, conversations about what plot device to use, the understanding that, in some cases, you just have to let the story play out to its inevitable conclusion.  Those are the moments in The Fourth Bear that made me literally laugh out loud.

Other things that intrigue me about Jasper Fforde, and which I unashamedly have tried to do myself:

  • Turning what, at first glance, might just be a running joke, into a plot device.
  • Taking fairy tales and cultural memory stories, in this case Goldilocks, and completely altering the perspective of it without changing the actual story.
  • The inside jokes for those who do know the literature, and the craft of writing, and the theories and interpretations of it.

It’s one of those books that gets funnier the more danger that the characters are in, without actually diminishing the danger – and then, in a subplot, he throws in things like this:

“…networks are everywhere. The road and rail systems, the postal service, the Internet, your friendships, family, electricity, water – everything on this planet is composed of networks…..because it is the way you are built – your bodies use networks to pass information; your veins and arteries are networks to nourish your bodies. Your mind is a complicated network of nerve impulses. It’s little wonder that networks dominate the planet – you have modeled your existence after the construction of your own minds.”

And it made me think, “….Wow. That’s true. We are a collection of networks. Networks areeverywhere. I’d never thought of it like that before.”

I especially appreciated the way that he included electricity and water in the list – we talk about them as grids so often that we – well, I – lose sight of the way that that’s just another network. It’s not linear (at least, not in the way that the aliens in The Fourth Bear are linear). I wonder if that’s one reason that we have such philosophical questions about time – we perceive time as linear, and that is imposed on our network, almost web-like, mentality and worldview.  It could be one reason that time travel is such an intriguing concept for us – if we could travel back in time, it would make time more of a two-way (multi-way) network than it is now, and that would be more comfortable for us.

(Or maybe I’ve just been watching and listening to too much Doctor Who….)

The only thing that I’m not happy about, upon finishing The Fourth Bear? I have to wait a year for the next Jasper Fforde book. I may have to go through a rereading binge sometime soon.

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