Tag Archives: fantasy

Four months of reading, TV and film…

In the four months since I went dark on the blog I’ve been ploughing through all sorts of fiction.

On the literary front, I ploughed through the back-catalogue of Jack Campbell, reading through his militaristic space-opera. Readable, entertaining, and demolished at great pace, if not of any great literary merit. I read the Peter F Hamilton short story collection, Manhattan in Reverse (some great concepts in there), two Ben Aaronovitch PC Grant novels (great dark urban fantasy set in London, reminding me lots of Mike Carey’s Felix Castor books), the latest Terry Pratchett (wonderful, wonderful – more sophisticated and engaging that some of his other recent Discworld books), and a book by a client’s wife, Death at the Chateau Bremont – a fun murder mystery set in the South of France. I’ve got through more of Brandon Sanderson’s back catalogue (including the fantasy/Western the Alloy of Law – great fun!), and now I have a stack of books to get through from Amazon’s 12 Days of Kindle (currently reading the End Specialist about a world in which death is cured (99p on Kindle!), and the final Eragon novel) and from various Christmas presents (including the new Holmes, and some exciting fantasy and SF from Arvind).

TV-wise, thanks to my brother I’ve gotten into Modern Family (funny ‘cos its true), Community (funny ‘cos its off the wall and geeky), and via other recommendations/my own recognizance, Transformers Prime (after the horror of Michael Bay, this was a true wonder of storytelling – absolutely brilliant), Young Justice, Batman: the Brave and the Bold (thanks Arvy, brilliant) and Fringe (trashy but entertaining). I’ve dipped into Terra Nova (meh, Outcasts with dinosaurs) and Parks and Recreation too (not sure yet). I’ve been enjoying the Christmas specials too – Doctor Who nearly made me cry, Eastenders had me on the edge of my seat, and the AbFab specials gave me pause to giggle. Our sole cinematic expedition was to Mission Impossible 4 (a great ad for BMW, and fun as you’d expect it to be), and we watched Kung Fu Panda 2 on DVD on the bank holiday Monday. The Inbetweeners Movie awaits me on DVD…

So I’ve not been idling from that perspective, at least! More recommendations / comments on my reading/viewing history appreciated!

Quiet time on division6

Sorry, I’ve been quiet on here. It’s been busy at work, leaving me little brainspace for much else, and for the last three days I’ve had baby-led man flu. And so I finally understand what that’s about – it’s one of many parenting-led experiences that you have to have, you can’t just be told about, to fully comprehend.

I was in bed for a lot of the time, working from home for the rest, but I managed to finish Fiona McIntosh’s Valisar trilogy (meh) and watch some average films (and one good one – Attack the Block!).

Need to find something new to read now…

Song of Ice and FIre 5: A Dance with Dragons iPhone app

adancewithdragonsNo spoilers herein, don’t worry, on the publication of the latest book in the epic George R R Martin series, A Song of Ice and Fire. I’ve managed to avoid spoilers so far despite the fact that the publisher’s screwed up and shipped copies into the UK a few weeks ahead of the official launch.

There’s a lot of hype around this book, not least because it’s been four years in the writing, the critically acclaimed HBO series has launched in the meantime, and, well, the fact that its a great story. I’m going to resist buying it until I’m through the excellent Mistborn saga (down to the last half book of that), and will probably then get the eBook to help me get through the 1000 odd pages of the new novel without lugging a massive tome around with me.

The iPhone app that accompanies the book launch comes complete with a summary of the previous books (invaluable for a quick recap, especially if you’re not sure how much ground the TV series has covered and want a reminder) as well as a few other goodies, so I will refresh my memory ahead of getting the book in.

Constraints on magic

mistbornI’m blitzing my way through Brandon Sanderson’s ‘Mistborn’ trilogy and enjoying it profoundly. He has an effortless way with world-building that’s wondrous without being painstakingly expository.

One of the things I particularly like about the books is that he’s given himself a clearly defined set of constraints within which his heroes operate. "Magic" in the world of Mistborn consists of a set of powers derived from consuming and draining metals (and some variants on that I won’t go into here).

The nice thing about this mode of storytelling is that you’re never confronted with the dread Deus Ex Machina – that scenario where the odds are stacked against our hero, but he says some random spell in pig-Latin that no-one knew he knew, or that has the exact power needed to snuff the baddies’ ambitions (I’m looking at you, Potter).

It means that the world is internally consistent and whilst there are surprises, you never feel cheated by cheap storytelling. I think its an awesome thing and am fast becoming a Sanderson fan.

Fantasy brings bad things from the North

compass Whilst watching Game of Thrones, and having recently read Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series, a conversation with Amanda led to the observation that a lot of bad things seem to come from the North. Mr Martin’s Whitewalkers, Joe Abercrombie’s slavering Northmen, the hordes of the Shayol Ghul in Jordan’s Wheel of Time universe, right the way back to Mount Doom in Mordor on Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

The distant South is cold, too. What is it about fantasy writers that gives the North such a bad rep? Is this our North American/US-centric world view? Or just prejudice against the Scots/Canadians?

The Heroes – Joe Abercrombie

I absolutely blitzed my way through Joe’s First Law trilogy, and made relatively short work of ‘Best Served Cold‘  – the first sequel, set across the sea in the same universe. But I’ve been very slow at getting through The Heroes, another follow up featuring many of the characters from the original trilogy.

Normally, compulsive commute blogging and the return to work notwithstanding, I’d have made more progress here – I read very quickly and yet I’ve taken the best part of three weeks to get two thirds of the way through this one. But I think its the slightly experimental narrative style that’s slowing me down.

Unlike the first four books, which covered a relatively long expanse of time and events, the first four hundred pages of Heroes takes place over the course of three days. You might think this makes for a ludicrously high words to event ratio, but instead what it makes for is a large and detailed tableau of a battle, in which we’re provided insight into characters’ inner monologues, doubts and fears; into military strategy, manipulations and intrigues; into insults, wholesale slaughter and semi-wise philosophy. One scene / chapter will take the point of view of three different characters, one of which might end up dead three paragraphs later before passing the torch to another. It reminds me of the Scrubs episodes when the internal monologue was passed to a character other than Zach Braff – a jarring experience on television, it’s even more bizarre in a novel.

For many this might well be the perfect fantasy novel fodder. For me? I like the larger story arcs – the epic quest, the conflict between good and evil that sits at the heart of this. The character in the novel – Bayaz – that is the driving force for one side of the conflict – is himself contemptuous of the detail of the battle. It’s hard for me to be enthralled…

But as the battle progresses and the pre-ambles complete, the novel is picking up its pace. I imagine I’ll be done by the weekend and looking to add the next Joe Abercrombie to my reading list… His dark, cynical view of the world – tempered by the doubts of his heroes – makes for stories that are quite different from your run-of-the-mill epic quest.

Next up? Trudi Canavan’s newest Black Magician book. Then? I might eventually finish the novel in the Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant I keep failing to pick up… followed by Eoin Colfer’s take on the Hitchhiker’s guide universe (how did I miss that had been written?), before I wait for the newest book in the Stormlight Archive, Charlie Stross’ Rule 34 and Terry Pratchett’s Snuff to be published – not to mention the latest George R R Martin.

It’s nice to have a few books to look forward to.

Good fantasy writing vs the not so good

I’ve been ploughing my way through books this sabbatical. Two particularly awesome books were Patrick Rothfuss’ ‘Name of the Wind’ and ‘Wise Man’s Fear’ – everything I found tedious about Stephen Donaldson’s latest Chronicles is missing from these books. His use of language is precise and accessible, his narrative flow is well-paced and exciting, his characters are compelling and both the present day and historical stories he tells are equally engaging – both of which provide ample dramatic tension and kept me completely absorbed. Great value, too, LONG books, and that’s not a complaint!

Interesting that when John Scalzi, a great sci-fi writer and blogger who I rate, felt similarly about the book and wrote a tribute saying as much on Tor’s best SFF Novel’s of the Decade readers’ poll series – although he did pick up on a ‘stew’ cliché.

I love these polls because they help me decide what to read next…

Here are the top 10:

  1. Old Man’s War by John Scalzi – READ
  2. American Gods by Neil Gaiman – READ
  3. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss – READ
  4. Blindsight by Peter Watts
  5. Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey
  6. A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin – READ
  7. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke – READ
  8. Anathem by Neal Stephenson – TRIED…
  9. Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
  10. Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

Which leaves me at least four new places to go when I’m through with my current batch (reading Trudi Canavan’s first book in the Traitor Spy trilogy, and a couple of shortlisted books from the Arthur C Clarke Awards 2011 – Declare by Tim Powers and Hellhole by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson). I think I’ll try more Brandon Sanderson next as I’ve been so impressed with where he’s taken the Wheel of Time

I read Raymond Feist’s latest Midkemia novel yesterday (yes, it took less than a day) and was moderately depressed by it. As the first book in his final trilogy in the series it is predictable and absolutely riven with references to his previous books. That’s the problem with writing what is broadly speaking one continuous story over 20+ books and 150 years of virtual history – you end up being tediously self-referential. Politics you don’t care about, characters you’re meant to care about because they’re related to characters you used to care about, &c &c. I’m principally reading this series now out of a desire to know what happens next… which I guess means its good enough!

Epic fantasy month slows

My problem with writers that love “language” is that you end up clawing your way through pages of stodgy, turgid text in which virtually nothing happens. It’s one of the reasons that I’m generally dubious about literary fiction – a big vocabulary and ability to structure long sentences doesn’t make you a good storyteller. Case in point is the latest novel in Stephen Donaldson’s Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, which breaks several rules of good storytelling:

  1. It has so many characters and special terms (places, food, etc) it requires a glossary.
  2. It frequently uses words that really, if you wanted to understand what he was trying to say, you’d have to use a dictionary (and this isn’t me being dim…) – examples include “irenic,” “orogeny” and “frangible,” and those are just the unusual words, not the ludicrously verbose dialogue that can just about be interpreted if you stop reading for a second and think about it…
  3. Pointless use of old English in narrative flow – would it hurt to say “truth” instead of “sooth” and “virtue” instead of “virtu”?
  4. It has a higher word to event ratio than Jane Austen. The opening scene of the latest novel lasts 150 pages – in which all that happens is that they decide to go somewhere, pretty much.

So why am I still reading? I guess 15 years of being immersed in this particular story leaves me wanting to know where it ends up and my OCD is just about strong enough to see me through it. But time is against me – we go on our travels on Monday (more on that soon!) and chunky hardbacks are not coming with us!

The problem with epic sci/fi & fantasy…

…is when you’re reading 3,000 pages of novel (or in the case of the Wheel of Time series, more like 7,000 pages so far), spread out over between 5 and 15 years, it’s pretty easy to forget some of the details of the stories you’re reading. I guess this is why so much epic fantasy in particular gets slammed for poor, simplistic writing: it just needs to be. The multi-layered plots, post-modern story telling style is just hard to keep up with over that volume of book.

Alistair Reynolds approach, as with Iain M Banks, is to create an intricate universe but only rarely come back to the same characters. This gives huge depth to the stories without requiring multi-volume sequences, and let’s them flex a more refined storytelling style. Peter F Hamilton, however, is happy with the epic space opera, and the Commonwealth saga – which I’m 95% of the way through, has been a wonderful 6,000 odd pages of fiction over the last few years. But I do sometimes forget, over a thousand years of history, two separate trilogies and, in the Void trilogy, two separate universes… exactly who and where everyone is, how they relate to each other, and why some of them are so terrified by others amongst them.

At least for the first couple of hundred pages. After a while you start to get the hang of things and then the wonder of it all soaks in. And/or you check the Wikipedia article for a quick précis…!

Epic reading month continues

Three weeks to go before the vacation and two massive hardbacks down – I’ve just finished ploughing through all 800 pages of the latest Wheel of Time novel disappointingly quickly. I’m not sure what I’ll do when I finish it – I’ve been reading the series since the mid 90s, waiting for each new book to come out.

It may be sacrilege to say so, but I actually think Mr Sanderson (commissioned to finish the series when Robert Jordan passed away in 2007) is a better and more efficient writer than RJ – there’s been far less smoothing of Aes Sedai skits in his novels so far – but then Robert Jordan left a lot of story left to be told as we inch closer to Tarmon Gaidon. Only one book left in the series, depressingly, then I will need to bid farewell to another universe… unless, of course, the estate commissions some prequels… and I’m not sure how I feel about that!

Next two hardbacks to read, before I go on vacation and take only digital books with me, are Peter F Hamilton’s Evolutionary Void and the latest novel in Stephen Donaldson’s Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Any tips on what to dip into next? Is there any epic sci-fi or fantasy I’ve missed on offer in the Kindle store?

Thoughts on a comment appreciated Smile.

I’ve now got a strange hybrid image of Rand Al’Thor sitting in a multi-purpose hab unit within an abominator class GOU heading to blow the hell out of Shayol Gul. It’ll be very weird in my head by the end of the month….