Friday, July 03, 2020

Oathbringer, by Brandon Sanderson

Oathbringer (The Stormlight Archive, #3)

This third book of the Stormlight Archive might be the best of the three so far. The main players have all been introduced, but their roles are continually changing keeping them interesting. The war hinted at in the previous novels is here in full force, and yet rather than devolving into battle after battle the plot is still filled with mystery. The twist in motives towards the end was masterfully done, arriving as a surprise yet clearly being obvious in hindsight.

Sanderson's writing continues to sparkle, sometime taking me out of the story entirely with wonder. When one character wakes up with a stiff shoulder he thinks to himself, "He had found middle age to be like an assassin—quiet, creeping along behind him." Having turned 50 myself this year, I found this to be a delightful and sobering description of life these days. And speaking of sobering, one character discovers to her delight her magic can immediately cure her drunkenness. Now that is a power I'd like to have!

Rhythm of War is the next book and is due out later this year. With ten books being planned for the series, my worry is that this will deteriorate into a George R.R. Martin-style of delay after delay, but am willing to give it a chance. At least for a while!

First Sentence:
Eshonai had always told her sister that she was certain something wonderful lay over the next hill.

Monday, June 15, 2020

The Ruin of Kings, by Jenn Lyons

The Ruin of Kings (A Chorus of Dragons #1)

This novel explores a rich fantasy world, complete with dragons, magic, quests, and prophecies. It is also confusing as hell, with characters that switch bodies, get resurrected or are seemingly immortal, a narrator that makes comments and footnotes as the story unfolds (and is himself a player), and a storyline that jumps back and forth in time with each chapter. I was hooked when I read the blurb on the back: "Then again maybe he isn't the hero after all. For Kihrin is not destined to save the empire. He's destined to destroy it." A lot of promise in that statement, and as the main character (Kihrin) isn't really likable as most stereotypical heroes there seems to be some weight to the premise. Sadly, the outcome is muddled, almost as if Lyons couldn't decide what to do. Hard to follow, but I think I'll give the next book in the series a chance.

First Sentence:
"Tell me a story."

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

A Fatal Grace, by Louise Penny

A Fatal Grace (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #2)

The second in the Inspector Gamache series brings back many of the same people from the first novel and introduces several more. The mystery here wasn't nearly as interesting this time around—the big reveal with the letters was pretty obvious—but the characters are why we keep reading. We get a peek into Gamache's past, which seems to be an overarching story that is told across the books; a bonus for people that read them all in order, but I suspect a detriment for anyone first picking one up later in the series. Penny's style is laid-back but engaging, with a lot of literary references thrown in throughout: Georges Simenon, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and the Old Testament all figure in to the narrative. (And don't think this means the book is too haughty; Casablanca and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer make an appearance as well.) A pleasant read and a nice diversion.

First Sentence:
Had CC de Poitiers known she was going to be murdered she might have bought her husband, Richard, a Christmas gift.

Friday, June 05, 2020

The Gray Man, by Mark Greaney

The Gray Man (Gray Man, #1)

This book reads like a bad action movie. No real plot other than save the captured princess (here the princess is played by twin girls) while racking up a huge body count all across Europe. The hero is an assassin with a heart of gold: "Court Gentry was the Gray Man simply because he believed there existed bad men in this world who truly needed to die." Two thirds of the way through, Gentry has a gunshot wound in his leg, a broken rib, a severely swollen wrist, deep lacerations on his knees and the bottoms of both feet, fallen off a mountain, and received no medical attention for any of these injuries. Seemingly cornered, he manages to perform a standing leap to grab a rafter, pull himself into an attic, and crawl through a small vent to safety. He later takes a vicious stab to the gut requiring stitches (delivered without anesthetic in a moving car which he was driving) and a blood transfusion. This all sets the stage for a huge gun battle where Gentry shoots his way into a fortified castle to confront his enemies. The Gray Man is part Jack Reacher, part Jason Bourne, and part Batman, but possessed none of the depth of those characters. This is a series, but not sure I'll read any more. Not bad, but not good either.

First Sentence:
The first gunmen arriving at the crash site were not Al Qaeda and had nothing to do with the shoot down.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Words of Radiance, by Brandon Sanderson

Words of Radiance (The Stormlight Archive, #2)

This is the second book of the Stormlight Archive, following The Way of Kings. It has some of the failings of a middle book, being somewhat slow moving and largely preparing for the following novels, but certainly stands on its own. Heck, Sanderson kills off a major character from the first book not even 10% of the way through! The most interesting thing here is that the protagonists and antagonists aren't entirely clear. The war between the humans and the Parshendi heats up, but it is revealed that the Parshmen were enslaved centuries ago so is this truly an unjust war? The Radiants and the Voidbringers are basically gods and seem to be the ultimate factions of the conflict, but it appears that tools from each are used by both humans and Parshendi. And division is rife within the human cabals as well, with some trying to gather power to preserve humanity from the assumed arrival in the flesh of the Voidbringers while others are trying to destroy that same power, fearing that it is what is drawing the Voidbringers in the first place. A book of contradiction and ambiguous motives, this is setting up to be a very interesting opus.

The length is a bit of problem here again, weighing in at over 1300 pages. Several sections felt like they dragged on when I was reading them, but on reflection I'm not sure which ones I'd edit. The curse of good writing, I suppose! Speaking of good writing, one line has stuck with me since finishing the book. A main character defines a good life as "A day of honest labor, followed by an evening at the tavern with friends." That strikes me as a wonderful description and resonates deeply with where I find myself these days.

Many of Sandersons novels take place in a shared universe, called the Cosmere. Occasionally characters cross from series to series, but usually play only a minor role. However, in the closing pages of Words of Radiance a sword oozing black smoke is found. "Hello, a cheerful voice said in his mind. Would you like to destroy some evil today?" I can only hope this is Nightblood from Warbreaker, another novel that takes place on another world in the Cosmere. Things are about to get entertaining here...

First Sentence:
Shallan pinched the thin charcoal pencil and drew a series of straight lines radiating from a sphere on the horizon.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson

The Way of Kings (The Stormlight Archive, #1)

Sanderson is a genius at the art of world-building and creating unique yet consistent systems of magic, and The Way of Kings is absolute evidence of his mastery. Humans are the main characters here, but far from the most interesting. Spren are spirits of a sort, described as concepts given physical form by our collective subconscious. Most wildlife is crustacean based, such as the giant crab-like creatures that act as oxen. Plant life is also unique; the land is ravaged on a regular basis by powerful and deadly storms, so the flora has evolved to pull into the ground or stones during a gale to protect themselves. Finally, the Parshendi are the antagonists (of a sort) being at war with the humans, and they are a bit of a mix of humanoid and crustacean. Magic is called surgebinding and is a collection of several different abilities all powered by the storms. For example, one form can affect gravity and adhesion, another can transmute objects from one thing to another. There are magic items in this world as well, including indestructible swords that can be ordered to appear and disappear by their wielder and armor that regenerates when damaged. All fascinating, and all just a backdrop to a gripping adventure.

My biggest quibble with this book is its length—over 1200 pages. While I dearly loved the peek into the world in which it is set, several passages and quests could have been shortened or left out entirely without harming the overall narrative. That said, once the story gets rolling it is quite good and many characters are both complicated and quite witty. One line uttered by an academic researcher especially rang true: "Proof that one can be both intelligent and accept the intelligence of those who disagree with you? Why, I should think it would undermine the scholarly world in its entirety." While referring to academia in the novel, one could easily (and sadly) apply it to the divisive political system in our world today.

This is the first in a series of twelve novels, only three of which have been released to date. Luckily there is an actual conclusion here; plenty of loose ends and setups remain for future episodes, but there is an actual denouement and resolution, not just an abrupt pause in the action waiting for the next book like some authors seem to enjoy. If the other eleven books are of a similar length (and in general, fantasy epics like this tend to get longer, not shorter) we are looking at some 15,000 pages of material to read. While daunting, I find myself eager for the next entry, Words of Radiance.

First Sentence:
Szeth-son-son-Vallano, Truthless of Shinovar, wore white on the day he was to kill a king.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Tarzan of the Apes: The First Three Novels, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Tarzan of the Apes: The First Three Novels (Tarzan, #1-3)

Any character that remains popular for over a century has something unique to offer. Tarzan could easily be called the first superhero: he possesses extraordinary strength, stamina, speed, agility, healing, and intelligence—basically Captain America without needing the Super Soldier Serum. Tarzan can speak with apes, kill gorillas, lions, and crocodiles with his bare hands, and his senses of hearing and smell rival those of bats and bears. His skill handling animals is also remarkable; at one point Tarzan trains a group of apes to man oars and sail through the Atlantic Ocean. There isn't much depth to these books (the volume I read collects the first three of twenty-four) but they are thoroughly entertaining pulp novels.

Both set and written in the early twentieth century, the style of writing suffers from what we expect today. Plots are melodramatic and driven by coincidence after coincidence, the characters are thin and one-dimensional, and the rampant negative stereotyping exposes the widespread sexism and racism common in the period. Despite all this, there is an undeniable charm to these stories and it is easy to see why they remain in favor today. Escapist and fun, the Tarzan books are a wonderful set of adventures.

First Sentence from Tarzan of the Apes:
I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or to any other.
First Sentence from The Return of Tarzan:
"Magnifique!" ejaculated the Countess de Coude, beneath her breath.
First Sentence from The Beasts of Tarzan:
"The entire affair is shrouded in mystery," said D'Arnot.

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