Sunday, July 8, 2018

Supernatural Elizabethan Spy Horror. Ish.

The Scar-Crow Men (Swords of Albion, #2)The Scar-Crow Men by Mark Chadbourn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a well-written fantasy novel that weaves history, literature, mythology, and invention into a dark Elizabethan spy story. This second in the series was an improvement on the first, IMO, and I liked the first one.

I imagine this filmed entirely at night. I'm sure there are scenes that take place in the daytime--I half-remember a few--but it is such a dark story, with so much shadow, so much darkness, so much that is hidden and only glimpsed, that it feels like it is must be night all the time. The action plays like a spy story, but the tone is dark, closer to horror in feel.

The darkness here works, though, setting a somber, threatening tone. I like it, the same way you can enjoy a heavy rain that keeps you indoors; but just as the rain eventually makes you long for a break in the clouds, I was wishing for a little light. A little more openness and honesty between characters. A little hope for better days. It would have been welcome. Maybe we got a tiny flash from Launceston recognizing friendship, and a bit from Henri of Navarre's good cheer, but those were fleeting. Some revelry or banter or friendly carrying-on wouldn't go amiss. Is nobody happy anywhere?

I quibble, though. The prose is tight, the plot is well-constructed, and the characters are nicely developed, even if their arcs progress slowly. That just means I have to look for the next book to see if Will catches a break or Nathaniel chills out or if anybody else settles down and raises flowers or something. Anyway, I hope there is another book...

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Thursday, July 5, 2018

Purchase, Enjoy, Demand a Sequel. Nicely, of Course.

Kingsway WestKingsway West by Greg Pak
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an imagination-wide-open fantasy western, and I loved it. The weird West setting, with a Chinese empire and Mexican republic and Native city-states farther east, is stimulating and has nothing but room for any number of stories. The characters are also varied, giving the Old West a fresh look and feel, and the fantasy action multiplies that. It reads fast--I don't find that to be true of all comics and graphic novels--and I like that, but the brilliant art is worth lingering over. Or reading multiple times, of course. The only real flaw with the comic, IMO, is the lack of a sequel.

(I found this creator by accident, when he pledged to donate 100% of the purchase price to a couple of non-profits helping families separated by the current border policy. That made me look.)

I'm glad to be introduced to this artist, and will look for more of his work in the future.

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Monday, June 25, 2018

It was a free book, so it's all good

Kill The Farm Boy (The Tales of Pell #1)Kill The Farm Boy by Delilah S. Dawson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had high hopes for this novel. I got it free at Phoenix Comicon/Comic Fest/Fan Fusion, which was very nice of the publisher, and I was eager to read it, especially because I like Kevin Hearne's books. (Still do.)

But...

...it didn't pan out. It looked funny and clever, but it didn't feel that way to me when I made myself push through it.

It's meant to be a comedic fantasy, and it is funny in bits, and it has some of the trappings of fantasy, though they are mostly subverted in a comic way. Some of that's funny, some isn't. Calling the Elven home Morningwood is kind of funny. Calling some towns Dismull, Bruding, and Sullene (for example) is pretty funny. Having a special wine called Amon Tiyado is kind of funny. (It comes in a cask.) In fact, many of the premises are funny, but not much of the action and dialogue. (IMO, of course.)

The map is by far my favorite part of this book. The towns in Kolon are pretty Mad Magazine funny. For reals. Take a look.

But even in a funny book, you want to care about somebody and something. And even in a funny book, filled with absurd ideas, you want to be able to sort of suspend disbelief. But that is made pretty hard. Impossible, for me. My connection to the characters and the action and their goals was bent until it broke, and so I stopped caring.

Almost nothing that is attempted is achieved. [Spoiler, unless you're past page 31.] The people we start with are not the people we end with. As the reader, you think you're following this character with this conflict, but then those things are abandoned. Now we're following a different character with a different conflict... and then something else. I get that we're subverting expectations, but it also undercuts caring. Or wanting to go on.

(There is a hint at the end that some of the narrative dead ends will actually be revisited in the next book. Action that seemed pointless might then be relevant again. I don't think I'll be going along for that ride, though.)

My favorite scenes were the ones played almost straight. [Slight spoiler follows.] The adventurers are caught in a net that makes them speak the truth, and that bit really worked for me. It made sense instead of nonsense, and humanized them enough that I cared about them again, for a little bit. And there were a few tastes of that here and there. A few places where the quest seems like a real quest, if somewhat silly. It didn't last.

I kept wishing for a Michael Bluth character, for one non-ironic, non-foolish character, the one the reader can identify with, the one who can comment on and anchor a ridiculous crew. But there was no anchor like this. No straight man, as it were. Every character was foolish. What they wanted and what they had to do to get there was equally foolish. There was no foil for the clown-car of misfit characters.

I thought I was more up for it than I was, I guess. I suspect that readers with a higher tolerance for (appreciation for?) absurdity and a more flexible attitude toward narrative structure will enjoy this a lot more than I did.

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Monday, June 11, 2018

Where I Realize I Have a Favorite Linguist. Huh.

The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any LanguageThe Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language by John McWhorter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a useful, informative book that is a pleasure to read. It does exactly what it says it will do: show how the differences in languages make no appreciable difference in how people think. But in addition to that, it is clearly written, entertaining, and full of surprises.

A key to McWhorter's take on language is his scientific stance. He doesn't overlook what the research does say, but neither does he exaggerate it or read too much into it. He is careful to always describe exactly how far his claims or anyone else's can be taken, based on the evidence. He gives credit where it is due, explains the significance of various studies, and gives support for his claims. This means that he will sometimes knock down extravagant claims and pull the rug out from under exciting but flawed ideas about language, and that's a bummer, but it's also good science.

McWhorter popularizes the information for interested amateurs, but he doesn't sensationalize it. He shows how the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis--the notion that the form of a language affects its speakers' world view--can be demonstrated in a reduced way, at an academic level, but how it does not hold true in any significant way, how it does not, in fact, make any appreciable difference in the way groups of people think.

He makes a case for Whorfianism to represent only tiny differences which ultimately don't make a difference.

Even though he is debunking an idea that until now made for entertaining conversation, he isn't killing the fun; he still manages to provide his own entertaining revelations, which is one of the joys of reading his books. The tidbits about languages, the strange rules in this language and odd vocabulary in that one, are the details that I find most intriguing, and they're abundant here. Some are famous examples, some seem vaguely familiar, but many are new, and amaze me as they always do with the strangeness and variety of language and human experience.

Another thing I appreciate about his writing is his empathy. He knocks down patronizingly glowing attitudes toward certain languages, especially those of the Amazon or New Guinea or other native groups, while recognizing how those attitudes emerged from a genuine attempt at progressive thought and respect for others eighty or ninety or one hundred years ago, back when most academics were hopelessly dismissive of such "savage" or "unsophisticated" cultures. He accomplishes a similar feat with his discussion (here and elsewhere) of Black English, where he neither minimizes its complexity nor treads unnecessarily carefully around it, even though the subject has long been fraught with controversy. It helps, frankly, that he is an African American linguist, and so able to approach the subject in a respectful and sensitive way while maintaining rigor and academic distance.

He analyzes a single overheard sentence here in such a brilliant way that the reader almost wonders how we ever put a sentence together. He is able to show how clear meaning emerges from usage that appears inaccurate to some (looking at you, prescriptivists...), demonstrating that Black English can communicate precise ideas as flexibly as standard English. At the the same time, he shows that the differences in form do not correspond to a difference in thought.

Or maybe those are the same thing, said two different ways...

This is not a long book, but it's full and complete and entertaining. For people interested in language, it is highly recommended.

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Monday, June 4, 2018

Big Ol' Book of Woes--but Good!

La reina descalzaLa reina descalza by Ildefonso Falcones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book, like all of the author's books, is large in scope, covering many years and encompassing the fortunes of many people. He chooses to tell the history of his native Spain, but not in a general way. Falcones focuses on marginalized groups, revealing something of their experience in a Spain that never wanted them. Other books deal with Spain's treatment of its Jewish population (La Catedral del Mar) and its Moors (La Mano de Fatima), especially the injustice and unfairness and cruelty shown to these groups. This book does the same for Spain's gitanos, (gypsies, though better rendered Romani) and it's just as brutal and hard to take.

This is a well-written novel, and it's entertaining as well as instructive, but it's not often fun. (That's his style, actually.) The author makes you care about Milagros, a beautiful young gitana, as well as Caridad, a recently freed slave, and people connected to them, and then puts them through all the horrors that their population endured in this time so that the reader can, I suppose, feel their pain. I did, anyway. Characters are separated from one another, jailed for no reason, prevented from earning a living, coerced into accepting Christianity, beaten, killed, raped, punished, and humiliated in every possible way, with only a few moments here and there of kindness and acceptance and peace. It's a taxing story, though one is forced to recall that the events are essentially true, emerging from the history of intolerance in Spain. If they had to survive it, a reader should be able to at least read about it, right?

That's how I see it, anyway.

So... not too fun, but still entertaining, which is a different thing. It's also more of a struggle for me since Spanish is my second language, and that affects how I perceive the joys of reading it. Nevertheless, I feel like it's worth the effort. The text is harder, and my progress slower, than if I read it in English, and I must confess that I spread the reading out over too much time (months, actually), but I'd rather read it haltingly in the original than fluently in translation. Better readers will be able to avoid this difficulty. :) And they may report having more fun than I did.

In terms of craft, I feel like the author wanders too much, tries to include too much, to the point that every character seems to have lived two or three lives. But that seems to be an expectation of the genre. Many readers, I think, want to have that kind of meandering middle with lots of pages to get lost in. I found it less charming, but his other novels do the same thing, with endless ups and downs (and downs) for his characters, so I was not surprised by it. Still, that rather gratuitous punishing of all the main characters through the middle section is why I rank it (just for me) as good at 4 stars, not 5-star-amazing.

Perhaps the best part of the novel is el Galeote, Milagros's grandfather. He's a hard man, uncompromising and foolhardy, but loyal and dogged in his efforts to protect his family. In some ways, he's the real hero of the novel. Other characters get to be the hero here and there, but he carries it the most. And his relationship with Caridad, the freed slave, is both realistic and touching.

I recommend this novel for those are interested in Spanish history and can bear the cruelty heaped on its main characters. You should find a lot to entertain and instruct. You may even find some rays of hope for humanity in places.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Brief semi-positive review

In The Shadow of LightIn The Shadow of Light by Tracy Causley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There are a few well done things in this novel that some readers will enjoy. I liked parts of it--moments of good action, some interesting characters, a setting I'm intrigued by. Overall, though, it's uneven, with long stretches of unconvincing, exposition-laden dialogue, and main characters who have almost nothing to do--a bit of travel, from Florence to the countryside and back, about covers it. The antagonists, who bring about a plague and have plans to destroy their enemies, have much more compelling arcs.

I don't want to build too strong an argument against the novel. I did enjoy some of it, and though it doesn't really work for me, others might find more to like. I hope that's the case.

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Sunday, May 20, 2018

Con-men and Pirates

Red Seas Under Red Skies (Gentleman Bastard, #2)Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an inventive, clever novel. The plot has more moving parts than any single book should attempt, but the author makes it work. The dialogue is witty and fun. And the world-building is excellent, following up on the first novel in the series.

When I had less time to devote to reading, I got stuck a bit. When I had more time, I read it avidly with a lot of enjoyment. I guess that means I should read more.

Its greatest weakness (I would argue) is evident when you pick it up--it's a big book. Bigger than it needs to be, maybe. Lots of twists and turns and scams and cons and double-crosses and extortions and escapes. Though all fun, they blur a bit. One review I saw suggested that the pirate section in the middle could be removed without harm. I was thinking just the opposite, that the the pirate section made the best part of the book and could have been the whole novel. So there you go--that's what you get when readers give advice! Incoherence.

Even though I thought it was longer than necessary for perfect reading pleasure, I still gave it all five stars because there's so much to enjoy here (especially the aforementioned pirate section). The action is driven by well-drawn characters, eccentric but comprehensible, that I could root for even though they have a very different sort of ethics. Above all, the wry tone with above-average banter carries you through a lot of action and plot twists. If you're a laugh-out-loud type of reader, maybe a John Scalzi fan, this should be your next fantasy series. Lots of good lines.

That is not to say that there is no emotional weight to the novel, because there are many human, affecting moments throughout. Some minor characters make a lasting impression, especially a couple of pirate women, but most of the emotion derives from the protagonists' friendship. The connection between Locke and Jean is genuine and warm, and the arc of their friendship carries us from literally the first page to the last.

Also, there is a delightful kitten.

Finally, and this is not a minor point, I like the author, as a human viewed from the middle distance of conventions and twitter, and judge him to be a good person, so the book is ethically sourced. (If he is not that, it's an excellent scam, and therefore I approve even more.)

Okay, to sum up, an (apparently) good guy wrote another good book, and I liked it. I hope you do too.

I mean, come on! Pirates!

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