Thursday, 16 August 2012

4 Brief Book Reviews

It occurs to me that I've been pretty bad about reviewing books that I've liked, which was one of the things I'd intended to do with this blog (the reviewing that is, not the being bad at doing it; that's just my natural default, not my intention).

So, here are brief reviews of four books that I've really liked over the last couple of months. I've read a bunch of other books too, of course, but who wants to waste pixels talking about books that I didn't really love?


The Wise Man's Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss

Those of you who remember me talking about the first of Patrick Rothfuss's high fantasy novels, The Name of the Wind, might remember that I wasn't entirely sure what I thought of it. I knew I must have liked it, because I couldn't wait to read the second novel, but even so, I wasn't quite sure. Not a lot happened in it, and not a lot of that seemed of great significance.

I'm pleased to say that all my reservations have gone in this second book of the Kingkiller Chronicle. I think I was in the process of adapting in the first book, because Patrick Rothfuss is not your average high fantasy writer.

As in The Name of the Wind, for a good part of this book, not a lot actually happens. Kvothe (the hero) tootles around the university, feuding with rivals, impressing attractive women, and generally figuring out how to get by day-by-day with not enough money and the enmity of several powerful people.

But there's stuff building here. Atmosphere, in-depth characters, a rich world, and we know, as Kvothe tells us in the framing story, that this is not a tale with a happy ending.

Far more importantly, though, Rothfuss is a compelling writer. He could spend a thousand pages writing about Kvothe painting his toenails, and I would still want to read it. (Luckily, he doesn't...) Rothfuss doesn't need to throw in a battle every other page, or a bunch gratuitous shock scenes, in order to keep us wanting to read. And because of that, once again, I can't wait to read the next volume. (Hear that, Rothfuss? Get writin'!)

Ordinary Magic, by Caitlen Rubino-Bradway

A little while back, I talked about the cover of this book as an example of a cover that doesn't actually illustrate any particular scene from a book, but which still represents the book perfectly. It's only fair now to talk about the book itself, seeing the book is every bit as good as the cover.

Ordinary Magic is kind of the anti-Harry Potter. Which isn't to say that I've got anything against Harry Potter (I think it's brilliant), nor that the author has (for the record, I have no idea what Rubino-Bradway's opinion is of Harry Potter). It's simply that if you imagined the set-up for Harry Potter and completely reversed it, you might have the set up of Ordinary Magic.

In this world, just about everyone is born with magical talent, and magic permeates everything in the world. But there are a few people -- shunned, ignored, or treated as sub-human -- who are born without a single bit of magical talent. These are the Ords. Ords are useful, though, because while they can't do magic, magic also doesn't affect them. Unscrupulous magicians with an ord as a slave can get past magical wards and defenses.

The hero of the book, Abby, is one of these ords. When her lack of magical talent is revealed, she is sent away to a secretive school for ords, where she can learn how to get by and survive in a world ruled by magic. That's if she can avoid kidnap by those who want to exploit her and the hazards presented by magical creatures.

If that makes it sound like a dark, grim book, it isn't. It's a book that sparkles with life and wit, with a high-spirited heroine and plenty of adventure.

I've taken off half a star from my rating, because I had a few issues with the world-building, and by the end, I was wishing that someone would rise up and depose the supposedly wonderful king and do away with his arbitrary abuses of power. But maybe that's just me.

This is a middle-grade book, but it's perfectly good for older readers too.

The Wind Through the Keyhole, by Stephen King

Stephen King can be a little mixed as a writer. I tend to think that he puts out a little too much. There are definitely books that feel to me like fillers, books where he seems to be running on autopilot (to be fair, other people think these are some of his best books, so...). Then, there are his other books. The really good ones. Because when King is at his best, he is quite brilliant.

The opening of Dreamcatcher, for example, completely blew me away. Bag of Bones, Gerald's Game, almost of his short fiction (add your own favorites) are impecable.

And then, of course, there are the Dark Tower books. In the Dark Tower, Stephen King seemed to find something extra, something quite extraordinary. Perhaps it was because he couldn't fall back to his stock characters and settings. Perhaps it was because the story itself was a far a greater, more mythic story. Whatever, The Dark Tower was a series on quite a different level to the rest of his work.

Which was why I was so delighted to see that he'd added a new book to the series. The Wind Through the Keyhole comes after Wizard and Glass but before Wolves of the Calla. It sees Roland and his ka-tet forced to shelter from a sudden, Arctic storm, called a starkblast. While sheltering, Roland tells a story of his youth, and within that story, the young Roland tells a story called The Wind Through the Keyhole.

This is undoubtedly a complicated conceit: three stories within each other: the framing story, the hunting of a shapeshifting 'skinchanger', and the story young Roland tells to a scared boy about another boy who set out on a dangerous quest for magic to restore his mother's sight.

There aren't many writers who could pull this structure off convincingly and involve you so intimately and viscerally in each of the three stories, but King is at his best here, and he doesn't falter.

Strongly recommended.

The Long Earth, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Finally, we have The Long Earth, the first of a planned trilogy by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. If you were looking for two of the most unlikely authors to collaborate, you'd be hard pressed to choose better candidates than these.

Pratchett, as pretty much the entire world knows, predominantly writes humorous fantasy, and while it's true that his work has evolved from its beginnings as pure humor to take a much deeper, more profound look at the world through the medium of fantasy, his major appeal is still the humor.

Baxter, on the other hand, is the hardest of hard science fiction authors. His books are meticulously researched, and his speculation is firmly rooted in bleeding edge science. Like Pratchett, Baxter has evolved, in his case to include more believable, rounded characters with real stories. But when you approach a Baxter book you do so for the science fiction. (Even in his alternate history Northland series, Baxter follows the logic of his premise with a sharp, unyielding, scientific focus.)

If you approach The Long Earth expecting to find something matching either Pratchett's or Baxter's usual output, you are going to be coming at it all wrong. This is a genuine collaboration, and between them they have produced something quite different from their normal works.

In the year 2015, mankind suddenly discovers the existence of possibly infinite alternate worlds, differing only marginally (but progressively, the further out they are) from our own, which can be reached by the means of an electronic device that anyone can easily assemble. But there is one thing that is different about all of these worlds: humanity hasn't evolved on any of them.

The Long Earth explores the consequences of this discovery, and follows the exploration by Joshua Valienté, a "natural stepper", who can cross rapidly between worlds without aid of a device, and Lobsang, an AI who claims to be the reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman.

The thing The Long Earth most reminded me of was Philip José Farmer's Riverworld, with its exploration of the unknown, mysterious new world the characters now find themselves in, and the overarching questions of what it all means and what it's for. And that's pretty good company for the book to find itself in.

There are one or two places where it seemed clear to me that either Pratchett or Baxter was responsible for a passage, but remarkably, in most of the book, you really couldn't tell, and that's a pretty impressive achievement for two such distinctive writers.

Most of the criticism I've seen about this book seems to come down to people expecting to read something just like Discworld and then being unhappy that it wasn't. It isn't supposed to be. It's very much its own book, and it's all the better for it.

Expect imaginative, accessible science fiction with a sense of wonder and a light touch, and that's exactly what you'll get in The Long Earth.

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