Review of Something More than Night by Ian Tregillis

SMTNTitle: Something More than Night

Author: Ian Tregillis

Publisher: Tor Books

Format: eBook

Where I Received the Title: Amazon.com

Review:

The great archangel, Gabriel has been murdered and like a shooting star, he burns across the night sky. A fallen angel by the name of Bayliss, who has made the Earth his home, is tasked with finding a mortal to replace the slain seraphim. While wandering through a crowd of humans, he manages to knock an innocent bystander, Molly, in front of a street tram. Rather than suffer the fate of death, she is transformed into an angel. Molly tries to come to grips with her new reality, uncover the mystery behind Gabriel’s death. But she still clings to her past, which haunts not only her own memories, but the lives of those she loves.

Tregillis’s novel is written from two very distinct viewpoints, which I will say is the strength in the book. Bayliss is told in heavy noir form, using words that only can be found in classic pulp detective novels. Molly, who recently broke up with her girlfriend and tends to her addict brother, has a more modern narrative voice. The differences in voice help to differentiate two very distinct people. Bayliss is essentially an antihero demon. He is not filled with completely evil motives, but he does have a secret or two and he makes no apologies for his sins. Molly, on the other hand, has a big heart and cares for those around her. She puts up with Bayliss’s antics, likely because she has no one else to turn to.

There is no lack of description in the book and Tregillis writes with elegant prose. At times, the wordiness of the setting bogged down the narrative, but overall I found the writing a delight to read. It is intelligent and witty and his use of language helps build empathy for Molly’s character. One scene in particular involves Molly returning to her past lover, only to discover that her efforts to intervene only cause destruction. Each touch and emotion Molly feels brings the reader a sense of hurt and longing that is difficult to describe.

While angels and demons are the subject of the novel, it largely is an invention of Tregillis’s own mythology. Specific orders of angels (cherubim, seraphim, powers, etc.) are borrowed from Biblical and medieval texts, but liberties are taken with the theology to make it pure fantasy.

I would characterize this novel as a mid-twentieth century urban fantasy with a more literary flavor than the paranormal romances that consume a majority of the shelves. Thematically, I found the premise interesting, but I am not particularly attracted to noir, which runs throughout the novel. Bottom line — if the story sounds interesting, I think you will love it. I liked it well enough and certainly plan to see what other novels Ian Tregillis has in store.

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Review: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

7235533Title: The Way of Kings (The Stormlight Archives #1)

Author: Brandon Sanderson

Rating: 5 star

Publisher: Tor Books

Review:

Any fan of fantasy fiction is well acquainted with the name of Brandon Sanderson. Still in his thirties, he is already the author of several YA and adult fantasy novels and made a name for himself by writing the final three books of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series.

The first book in the Stormlight Archives, The Way of Kings, was written a few years ago and like most epic fantasy fiction, we’ve had to wait for a long period of time to read the second book. This is understandable given his commitments to finish The Wheel of Time.

There is always a danger in picking up book one of an epic fantasy series. George R.R. Martin has been at his Song and Ice and Fire series for a couple of decades and does not appear to have clear direction. Scott Lynch has battled medical issues and the third book in The Gentleman Bastard series has been postponed countless times.

With Brandon Sanderson, there is little danger of this happening. In his short career thus far, he has proven himself as an expert in the industry in three categories that will be the focus of my review: prolific writing, close third-person narratives, and magic systems.

Prolific Writing

Brandon Sanderson has been quite transparent about his writing process in the podcast, Writing Excuses. Together with Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, and Howard Taylor, Sanderson shares details from his outlining and revision process to the business side of things and the roles he assigns to his personal assistant. Where other fantasy authors are putting out a book every three years, Sanderson writes up to three books each year. And they are not short, either! The 1001 pages of The Way of Kings worked arm muscles that hadn’t been used in awhile.

Sanderson has also branched out into YA fiction, writing four Alcatraz novels and will be releasing the first in a new series this year. The quantity and breadth of writing is reminiscent of Orson Scott Card (a fellow Mormon and blurber on Sanderson’s covers). I would also maybe compare his quantity and breadth to Daniel Abraham, who is regularly releasing space opera, epic fantasy, urban fantasy, and even graphic novels.

Even though Sanderson is dabbling in several areas within the genre, I do expect The Stormlight Archive to be his magnum opus. It is expected to be a ten-volume body of work and I would be surprised if any of them are shy of the 1000 page mark. With other authors, I would approach this with trepidation. With Sanderson, I feel confident I am in good hands.

Close Third-Person Narrative

Not that long ago, books were typically written with an omniscient viewpoint. The reader was able to jump into one characters thoughts, then another. Frank Herbert’s Dune would be an example of this and it was so commonplace that the reader thought nothing of it.

The trend over the last couple of decades has been to write with a close third-person narrative. We see directly through the eyes of the viewpoint character and know there thoughts just as they do. Sanderson has perfected this art and in The Way of Kings, he makes clear delineations for when the viewpoint character shifts.

There are a number of viewpoint characters in the novel, but I will mention the three that make up a bulk of the first book:

Kaladin is a slave whose story is told in two timelines: the present and in a series of flashbacks telling his coming-of-age. In short, he is the son of a surgeon who joined the military with his brother and was later made a slave for refusing something that no other man would likely refuse. As a slave, he serves as a bridgeman, moving portable bridges in the midst of battle so that the troops can navigate the chasm-filled landscape. The bridgemen’s lives are worth little to highprince Sadeas and several men are killed by arrows in each run. Kaladin leads the men in technique and discipline, making his bridge crew more agile than some of the soldiers. His heroic acts, however, lead him to be seen as a threat by Sadeas.

Shallan Davar is a noble who has fallen out of grace. Her father has died and she has her eyes set on becoming Jasnah’s (King Elhokar’s sister) ward/tutor. While Shallan has a fascination with academia and shows a talent for art, her intentions are not scholarly and she intends on stealing the royal elite’s prized soulcaster.

Dalinar Kholin, like Sadeas, is a highprince and uncle to King Elhokar. He lives by a noble code, following a book known as The Way of Kings. Sadeas finds Dalinar’s methods ineffective, bringing conflict between the two throughout the novel. Dalinar also suffers from hallucinatory fits that could be a sign of him going crazy or a communication from the gods.

Magic Systems

What separates The Way of Kings from a series like Martin’s war-ridden A Song of Ice and Fire is the liberal use of magic. Of course, Sanderson is so enthralled with the concept of magic that one system is not sufficient.

To describe all of the elements of the magical system is premature in the first novel. One of the main forms comes from a source known as stormlight. The world in which the novel takes place suffers from frequent and violent storms that are strong enough to tear down houses and kill men if they are not properly protected. The storms bring stormlight, which is typically stored inside gems. These gems are used in constructing special armor known as shardplate that is quite resilient against bladed attacks. Only repeated strikes in the same area can wear the armor down.

Even more valuable than the shardplate is the shardblade — a magical sword that is so sharp that the user can barely feel it pass through solid matter (including rocks!). A shardbearer calls his sword out of the air like mist and if he lets go it disappears. The sword can only be taken if the shardbearer is killed. A shardblade is said to be more valuable than kingdoms, but it comes at a cost to the bearer of it. Not only are physical attributes (eye color) changed, but there seems to be an emotional change that draws or repels people who seek it.

For a few select people, stormlight can be harnessed from within themselves. This gives them great powers including surgebinding (defying gravity) and super-enhanced fighting prowess. A person with this power can jump from forty feet high and land safely or walk on walls.

Different from stormlight, there is another magic system known as soulcasting. This is a form of magic where one substance can be changed to another. Shallan believes that Jasnah uses her soulcaster to perform this magic.

Finally, Sanderson’s world has fairy-like spirits known as spren. There are many kinds of spren, appearing in response to human emotions (e.g. fearspren) or to physical changes in the world (windspren). They don’t typically speak to humans; however, one spren known as Syl becomes an acquaintance of Kaladin, forming a symbiotic relationship between the two.

Final Remarks

I will say that I enjoyed the novel for the first half of the book, but I didn’t love it until I got into the later parts. Large-scale epic fantasy requires so much character development and world-building that it often takes awhile to get into the groove. Writers such as Patrick Rothfuss and Scott Lynch grab me in the initial paragraphs with their poetic prose. Sanderson has high command of language and strong narrative voice, but his words are used to tell a story and make no attempt to be literary or elegant. This is not a criticism, but rather a description of his writing style.

I was somewhat reluctant to embark on this series, feeling somewhat lost with what to do with George R.R. Martin’s series that has lost its way in the last two volumes. It’s too late now, though — I’m caught hook, line, and sinker. The Way of Kings is a book I grew to love and I will be very eager to pick up the next volume in the series later this year.

Review: Existence by David Brin

Title: Existence

Author: David Brin

Rating: 

Publisher: Tor Books

Format: e-Galley

Review:

I’ve been trying to catch up on classic science fiction as of late. Recently, I read through Isaac Asimov’s I Robot collection, which was written to an audience with a different set of expectations than readers today. Fifty-plus years ago, science fiction was largely a genre of ideas — where plot and characters took a back seat to shear innovation. In I Robot, the short stories serve mainly as a series of logic puzzles that explore the what-ifs of robot psychology. Today’s reader, on the other hand, has a greater concern for plot and character development. If a science fiction author is seeking to predict or in some way encourage the future of humanity, it can only be successful if the story itself entertains or instills emotion in the reader. Ideas alone are not satisfying enough. Plot and character development must stand on at least equal footing with the ideas being expressed or the modern reader will lose interest.

And so begins my review.

Existence is a novel about humanity’s first contact with an alien species. It begins with Gerald Livingstone, an outer space trash collector, encountering a strange artifact. He recognizes it not as an ordinary piece of space junk, but as an object with power that wants to communicate with him. It is a fitting introduction, as Gerald is not an elitist by prestige, class, or intelligence. He is an everyman, blue-collar worker, whose discovery could change the fate of humanity.

The point of view shifts in the coming chapters and we encounter Hacker, a rich playboy who is saved by dolphins after crashing his rocket into the ocean; Tor, a field correspondent who must come to terms with an event that changes her way of life; Hamish, an apocalyptic novelist; and Bin, a man who salvages material from drowned buildings and homes along China’s shore. In later chapters, we encounter even more viewpoint characters (perhaps ten in all?) who all play a role in humanity’s first contact.

As my introduction suggests, Existence is not a novel about a plot or really about characters either. It is more philosophical in nature, examining the possible ways that technology can benefit or bring the collapse to human civilization. Much of the doomsday predictions are told through excerpts at the end of chapters. In particular, a non-fictional work, Pandora’s Cornucopia is referenced with its several doomsday predictions.

David Brin is certainly ambitious in this work. His pursuit to understand humanity in Existence (an ambitious title itself) is in a sense an undertaking as large as the many physicists’ pursuit of the Theory of Everything. He examines history of human civilizations and tries to understand how our progress and innovation either assists or hinders us in thriving in the future. On one hand, I want to call this novel remarkable and brilliant, but on another, the narrative is fragmented, characters are severely underdeveloped, and the plot is loose and disconnected.

I think what frustrated me most was the constant diverging from the central storyline. I found the use of extracts to be burdensome in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, but his use of them was much more palatable than in Existence. 2312 managed to also be a science fiction novel of ideas, but was successful in interweaving innovation with plot and the characters. Robinson’s ambition was in the plausibility of inhabiting the entire solar system. Brin’s ambition is much broader — examining the plausibility of human existence itself, not just how and where we live. But without a satisfying story or characters I could cling onto, many of the concepts of Existence were swept away with the tide.

For those who are looking for a deep, philosophical look at humanity in the context of science fiction, you may find full satisfaction with what Brin has achieved in this novel. For those who are looking for an entertaining story with characters who have internal and external conflicts to overcome, this novel is entirely lacking. For myself, I am left somewhere in the middle, admiring Brin’s ambition and conceptualization, but being somewhat apathetic toward the lives of the characters within.

Review: Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

Title: Range of Ghosts

Author: Elizabeth Bear

Rating: 

Publisher: Tor Books

Format: Hardcover

Review:
I’ve heard good things about Elizabeth Bear, but before Range of Ghosts, had never read her work. In interviews she is witty and intelligent and given the accolades this book has received, you can imagine my excitement in reading this book. In many ways it met or exceeded my expectations.

Range of Ghosts takes place in a fictional world resembling central Asia. This novel is not so much about plot as it is about the milieu and its characters. Range is primarily told through (but not limited to) two points of view: Temur, heir and grandson of a Great Khan, is left for dead and is roaming the countryside to stay alive. Samarkar, once a princess and heir to the Rasan Empire, has renounced her royal status and fertility to become a sorceress. Amidst a great war, Temur and Samarkar will cross paths and work together to survive.

Let me start off by saying that Bear has writing chops. Her prose is well-crafted and smart — sometimes the humor is embedded in the text and can be missed if read too carelessly. When I first saw that novel was only 336 pages, I expected a quick read. That is not the way to read Elizabeth Bear. Her words are carefully selected and the pace is slower than most, but that does not make it dull. The world building is fascinating and it is okay to stop and smell the roses.

The plot itself is not terribly complex, but it is made rich by applying non-traditional tropes. This is not an epic fantasy of white men battling in Western Europe during the dark ages. Rather, Range of Ghosts follows the trend of recent fantasy with a non-western culture. Applying ghosts and djinn also help to separate this from traditional fantasy.

I struggle to be critical of this novel and I suspect it will be nominated for awards next year. A couple items prevent me from giving it a flawless review. First of all, the pacing is a bit slow for me. Perhaps it is my own impatience, but I found my mind wandering a couple of times as the novel digressed on history, setting, and the nature and details of Temur’s horses. Secondly, I found Samarkar’s character a little rigid, making it difficult for me to care about her.

Criticisms aside, this is an excellent novel and Bear is an author whose works I look forward to reading in the future. Range of Ghosts effectively demonstrates her ability to create a compelling world and story, leaving the reader satisfied for having taken the journey.