Sunday, 21 February 2010


Recent reading - quickies

O.G. has been been casting about for some titles to expand my fantasy library... with decidedly mixed results. 

Jim Butcher:  Codex Alera 5: Princeps’ Fury

So, what are you gonna do for an encore?
With Ten Million Screaming Extras!

In Captain’s Fury, the previous volume of Jim Butcher’s non-vampire alternate-universe fantasy, the author brought things to a climax (and knocked out the rebel forces) by igniting a dormant volcano beneath a city, killing the entire populace.  In this volume, he begins by depopulating an entire continent (off camera), then, later, setting off another volcano. Which destroys another city. And what’s left of its defenders. And an invading army. As well as killing off the ruler of the empire, which will leave Butcher’s heir-to-the-throne hero to finish things up in Book 6 - that’s provided he can overcome his political rivals and defeat the invaders and their collaborators.  The finish of Princeps’ Fury brought to mind Raymond Feist’s Riftwar Saga, in which the Final Magical Confrontation That Wraps Everything Up pales in comparison to the demolition of the city of Armengar - and the destruction of most of a besieging army - that comes half way through the final volume.  Caution:  Piling special effect on top of special effect eventually palls, just as the repeated massacres of thousands, and tens of thousands eventually numbs. Can you say “peaking early”?

Butcher has at least one more book to go in his Codex, and I’m wondering what he’ll do to top this one... blow up the planet?  Fortunately for him, unlike filmmakers, fiction writers don’t have to meet payroll for their disaster-fodder.

Will I get the next book?  Oh, hell yes, if only to see if Butcher can manage to crank things up to 11 without crossing the line into total unbelievablity..
Reread potential?  Unless book 6 turns out to be totally hokey.


Steven Erikson: The Mazalan Book of the Fallen:
Volume 1:  Gardens of the Moon
Volume 3(?):  Memories of Ice

We talked and talked
and talked some more.
We talked so much
it was a bore.

Haven’t quite figured out how the series fits together: Gardens of the Moon is the only book that carries a volume number, and there’s another book - Deadhouse Gates - that appears to fall between these two.  A satisfying read through Gardens sent me in search of Gates, which my bookseller didn’t have.  It did, however, have Memories, and, eager to continue, I grabbed that one.

My first discovery was that nothing whatever appears to have happened between the end of volume 1 and the beginning of the putative volume 3.  That turned out to be a feature, not a bug, as I had been  expecting to have to catch myself up with the plot.   Perhaps there’s an alternate storyline in the second book, although in view of my experience with Memories, it could be possible that, indeed, nothing whatever actually does(n’t) happen in volume 2.  I guess I’ll find out whenever I acquire a copy.  At any rate, I didn’t miss Gates one bit.

Erikson’s world includes several sentinent species, and he does a good job of constructing memorable characters from each of them (although one human, a Cowardly Fat Rogue Who Is More Than He Seems, is an obvious borrow from Glenn Cook’s Dread Empire series).   The action in these volumes takes place on a tiny fraction of the area described by the included maps; presumably all those other lands will be explored in books yet to come.  Erikson’s spectacular special effect is The Moon’s Spawn, a magical flying mountain inhabited by one of his species.

Many of the characters who figured in Gardens reappear in Memories, but despite that, and despite a plot that catches you up in it, as I read on I found
the second book dragging.  I confess I skimmed the last few chapters, just to get it over with. (Then I had to go back and reread them, due to some buried plot points.)  For this reader, Memories, which clocks in at 925 pages, is just too long.

It’s all about the book’s talk-to-action ratio.  Everybody talks, about themselves, about each other, about what has happend, and about what might happen.  When they’re not talking, they’re engaging in long interior monologues.  Eventually, you get some action - but by that time you’re often just glad that it’s finally over.

While dialogue and monologue do help make characters more three-dimensional, an author needs to recognize when enough is too much.   Erikson is an academic (anthropologist-archaeologist); perhaps he likes to lecture.  But IMO, Memories could have been cut by 1/3 with no loss.  (Just because J.R.R. Tolkein said that his book was “too short” doesn’t mean that everyone’s book needs to be longer.)  By the time I headed into the home stretch, I had gained a great appreciation for The Princess Bride’s (the Good Parts Version’s) “What with one thing and another, three years passed.”

Taken together, Gardens and Memories make up a complete tale.  By the end of Memories most of the loose ends from the earlier volume are tied up reasonably satisfactorily, with practically all of the significant characters either  retired or dead (although there’s an all-too-obvious setup for the future resurrection of some of them).  The two books stand together nicely, marred only by the longueurs of the second volume. 

In all, Memories of Ice was a let-down from Gardens of the Moon, leaving me reluctant to pursue the series further.

So will I read others in the series?  I’ll probably give it one more shot, but it’s no high priority.  Be warned, though: If the next one bogs down, that book, and Memories, will be headed for the Half Price Books Box.
Reread potential?  Gardens - yes.  Memories - only if it’s vital to future volumes.


John Levitt:  Dog Days
OK, Once can count as an an accident, but twice is malice.

Here’s another wizard-in-modern-America story.   Mason used to work for the Magical Bureau of Investigation, but hung it up to play jazz guitar in San Francisco.  His companion is his canine-shaped familiar, Louie.  Unfortunately Mason still has his magical talent, which makes him a threat to the bad guys, who won’t leave him alone but keep dragging him into... you get the idea.  Levitt rings some interesting changes on the-magical-world-beneath-the-surface idea, and along the way introduces several memorable characters and a number of interesting variations on magical theory and practice.

Unfortunately, he also manages to kill off not one but two of the book’s more sympathetic characters.  Sorry, that is not the way to convince this reader to follow Mason’s adventures any further. (One, OK, literary necessity and all that. But two is, as it were, overkill, and smacks of either Operating The Word Processor While Under The Influence of Something Bad or of Attempting To Declare That Life Sucks By Rubbing The Reader’s Nose In It.)  Levitt had me sold on his series up to that point, but not any more.  Disappointing, really.

Will I read others?  Sorry, I’m done.
And this book?  Maybe somebody at Half Price will like it.

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