Posts Tagged ‘4 stars’

Book review: The Fold by Peter Clines

Monday, April 27th, 2015

I’m a big fan of Peter Clines’ Ex-Heroes books, so when I saw he had a new thriller out, I jumped at the chance to get my hands on a review copy. I generally like to go into a book knowing as little about it as possible, and in this case I didn’t even read the back-cover synopsis, so I was practically jumping in blind—Clines’ name on the cover was enough to get me excited. And my enthusiasm was amply rewarded.

The Fold starts out at a slow burn. We meet our protagonist, Leland “Mike” Erikson, who has a genius-level IQ and an eidetic memory, but prefers life under the radar, teaching English at the local high school. But he gets a call from Reggie, an old friend at the Department of Defense, who persuades him to fly out and use his special skills to observe a certain government-funded project. Reggie won’t tell Mike what the project is, but it works, and it’s amazing—but the project team appears to be stalling for more time and funding. Mike’s job is to make sure everything at the project is on the level, so Reggie can push the funding through. But of course, things at the “Albuquerque Door” project aren’t entirely what they seem…

The first half of the book takes its time setting things up: Mike flies out, meets the team, and gets to see the project’s success first-hand. He also spends a lot of time getting to know the individual team members and poring over the project’s logs and records. It reminded me a lot of a good Michael Crichton science thriller, with a lot of talking and science-y stuff, and only the occasional shock thrown out to deepen the mystery.

This goes on for the first half of the book, but the pace never flags: Clines keeps the tension high and the slowly-unfolding mystery intriguing. The short chapter-length and crisp prose work wonders, too. At about the halfway point, though, the Big Reveal hits and things start to unravel (in a good way!) at an accelerated pace, with the final act (after the Bigger Reveal) just going completely off the rails. It’s nuts. Maybe a little too nuts. But it’s frigging compelling reading. I read the whole thing in 24 hours: the first quarter Friday night (late Friday night), the second quarter Saturday morning. By Saturday afternoon, I couldn’t stand it anymore, and plopped down and cranked through the second half in a single sitting. I just could not put it down.

As I said previously, I’m not big on spoilers myself, and I also like to keep my reviews fairly tight-lipped when it comes to plot. But I mentioned Crichton earlier, and somewhere around a third of the way in I was very heavily reminded of his novel Timeline. If you took some of the concepts from that book and mashed them up with Patrick Lee’s The Breach trilogy (read that if you haven’t already, seriously) you’d get something very much like The Fold.

If I had to quibble, I’d say that the main premise (cool as it is) probably doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny (or if it does, there are a lot of coincidences going on) and that, despite Mike Erikson’s memory and intellect, I was able to arrive at a number of correct conclusions long before he did. And the end certainly does get weird. But really this book was just so much fun that I can barely bring myself to voice the complaints themselves, let alone delve into them. It’s just that good. And according to the afterword, it’s also tangentially-related to an earlier Clines book called 14. Shoot, looks like I’ve got a book to track down… [4 out of 5 stars]

Book review: Runner by Patrick Lee

Monday, December 16th, 2013

A couple of years ago, I read Patrick Lee’s debut trilogy, consisting of The Breach, Ghost Country, and Deep Sky. It was a new breed of fiction for me: the structure and feel of your run-of-the-mill action/thriller novel, but wrapped around the chewy gooey center of a science-fictional premise/MacGuffin. I enjoyed the heck out of them, and when I heard that he was writing another novel (albeit one unrelated to the trilogy) I was sold, sight-unseen.

Fast-forward to October 2013, and while perusing the latest offerings from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program, what do I stumble across but a new novel from Patrick Lee! I was excited, but even better, I was fortunate enough to land a copy for review.

The blurb was inoffensively generic, bordering on cliché: Ex-military man takes in a girl on the run from bad guys trying to kill her. I wondered if this was to be a straight-up thriller this time, or if Lee would manage to work in a SF angle; I assumed the former, but held out hope for the latter. All the while figuring it would be a wild ride either way.

I love it when I’m right.

Sam Dryden is an ex-special forces operative who lost his wife and child in an accident a while back. Recently he’s been having bouts of insomnia, and has taken up midnight jogs along the boardwalk. One fateful night, he runs into Rachel, a 12-year-old girl being hunted by a squad of armed men. Naturally, Dryden decides to help her. But Rachel is more than she seems: not only does she have the uncanny ability to read minds, but her drug-induced amnesia hides a terrifying secret.

Science fiction it is, then—and Lee even throws some pseudo-scientific explanations for Rachel’s telepathic powers (but then, I’m no biologist.) But beyond that, he teases out the ramifications of such an ability: if telepathy actually existed, how would the military-industrial complex seek to utilize it? Lee’s answer is both horrifying and depressingly realistic. Most importantly, it’s wildly entertaining.

The pace Lee sets for the book is a breathless one. The action starts right on page two, and hardly lets up from there. The entire first chunk of the book is an extended chase sequence, and even when you think you can stop and take a breath, there’s a massive twist or turn on the next page to keep you reading. In fact, the only criticism I have of the book is those sections where the pace actually does slow down: these sequences shift away from Dryden and Rachel to show what is essentially the “bad” guys’ side of things. Much of the insight into the military’s use of telepathic powers is revealed in these sections, and though they all end up tying together at the end, they don’t do a lot to advance the plot at that moment. In any other book, it wouldn’t bother me like it did here; but in a book this relentlessly-paced, such a noticeable slowdown is harder to forgive. But this is a minor gripe for a book that is still nigh-impossible to put down.

Probably what most impressed me, though, was the emotional layer Lee was able to squeeze in. I got a hint of it in his Breach books, but here…well, here it may have seemed a bit manipulative at first (guy loses his own child, then takes in a young girl on the run? Where do you think this could be going?) but Lee totally makes it work. The ending does much of the heavy lifting in this regard: instead of wrapping everything up all happily-ever-after like you might expect, Lee goes for the truer, more realistic approach, and the whole work is the more powerful for it. The last page in particular not only made me mist up a little, but actually had me flipping back to the first page to reread how it all started. Great stuff.

Runner will be out in February. Get it. Read it. And whatever Patrick Lee decides to write next, I’ll be in line for that, too, no questions asked. [4 out of 5 stars]

Book review: Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines

Thursday, May 2nd, 2013

Superheroes versus zombies. That’s Ex-Heroes in a nutshell. Don’t like superheroes or zombies? Well…that might not be a problem, actually.

Ex-Heroes is about a group of super-powered heroes trying to protect a last enclave of humanity in a Los Angeles movie studio-turned-fortress following the zombie apocalypse. I will admit that I’m a bit of a superhero guy, but I couldn’t care less about the current zombie trend. It’s okay, though, because the zombie apocalypse featured in Clines’ books is just the setting; the real show is the larger-than-life yet all-too-human characters: St. George, Stealth, Zzzap. Gorgon, Cerberus, Regenerator. You could draw some easy parallels between Clines’ creations and the stable of popular DC and Marvel Comics heroes, but it doesn’t matter because Clines makes his so engaging.

I loved the structure of the book, too. The chapters alternate: two “Now” chapters set in the present day, told from your standard third-person perspective; then one “Then” chapter set in the past and told in the first-person by one of the superhero characters. The Then chapters move forward chronologically, slowly building up the history of the zombie apocalypse (including an ingenious superhero-related origin for the zombies) as well as fleshing out the backstory of the characters involved. And the way they interact with the ongoing plot of the Now chapters works brilliantly.

If there are any real flaws in the book, it would be that one of the heroes seemed way too powerful, and the hasty explanations given for why he wasn’t more effective didn’t really satisfy me. Also, the main bad guy has huge question marks in his background that (thankfully) are mostly cleared up in the sequel, but still drove me nuts for most of this book. Those are minor nitpicks, though. This book is just too much fun. [4 out of 5 stars]

Book review: The Whitefire Crossing by Courtney Schafer

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

The giveaway gods were smiling on me again when I won a copy of Courtney Schafer’s fantasy debut from the Staffer’s Musings blog. I hadn’t previously read any of the reviews in detail, but I got the sense that it had been favorably received overall—plus, I really wanted to find out just what was going on in that cover—so I threw my name in the proverbial hat, and viola! free book! Following some friendly correspondence with Ms. Schafer, a copy of The Whitefire Crossing showed up in my mailbox, complete with an encouraging personalized message in the front. Very lovely. Thanks, Courtney!

I had told her I wasn’t sure I’d get to reading it before year’s end; I was in the middle of Brent Weeks’ massive Night Angel trilogy, and having already let too much time pass between reading the first two books (you know how it is sometimes) I wanted to finish the whole thing in one go. Well, Thanksgiving rolls along, and the end of the second book is within sight, but man I really didn’t want to lug that massive omnibus edition up to my grandparents’ house, and The Whitefire Crossing had been sitting on my nightstand this whole time, with me (rather unexpectedly) itching to read it…

So I packed it and brought it up with me. Cracked it open Thanksgiving Day, and was immediately hooked.

Hooked bad.

Dev is a mountaineer and a smuggler who takes a job that’s a little out of the ordinary: smuggling a man across the titular Whitefire Mountains and into the country of Alathia. Kiran is the man being smuggled. He’s also a mage, on the run from an even more powerful mage. And magic is outlawed in Alathia…

The story is told in intriguing fashion: the narrative alternates between Dev’s and Kiran’s perspectives, but where Kiran’s POV is told from a third-person perspective, Dev’s is done in the first-person. It’s a fantastic device, as both characters have secrets they’re trying to keep from the other, and never truly getting inside Kiran’s head means the mysteries surrounding him remain tantalizing. However, the imbalance also means Kiran never quite seems as “real” a character as Dev, but that’s okay, because Dev makes for such a fantastic POV character. Saying he’s basically Han Solo seems kind of unfair, but it’s not entirely off the mark; he’s very much of the smuggler-with-a-heart-of-gold archetype, though his gold is perhaps a tad tarnished. But he’s got a past history and well-defined motivations; Schafer makes him a very real, very three-dimensional person. (Which is not to say Kiran doesn’t have those things, as well—he does. But again, he’s got that slight feeling of removal from the reader that Dev does not.)

There’s plenty of magic in the book, and mages and charms and wards and everything; it’s very well done, nicely consistent, and integrated into the story seamlessly and effortlessly. There’s not too much else to say about it. The plot’s not nearly as straightforward as my (very) brief synopsis above makes it out to be; there are some fantastic twists and turns that take the story in unexpected directions. But I don’t have much else to say about the plot. This is a book about relationships. Dev and Kiran. Dev and his fellow outrider, Cara. Dev and his former mentor, Sethan. Kiran and his master, Ruslan. I’ll stop there, but you get the idea.

The book is the first in a series, with The Tainted City due in late 2012. Don’t let that stop you from picking it up. This first entry more or less stands on its own, and comes to an acceptable (if not entirely satisfactory) conclusion. The future of the series depends on how well the first two books do, and they deserve to do quite well indeed.

I went into this review having given the book a 3.5-star rating. 3 stars is pretty much my baseline “I enjoyed it” rating; 2.5 would be “I enjoyed it, but” and 3.5 is a favorable “I enjoyed it, and…” 4 stars is another level entirely, and much as I wanted to, I didn’t feel like The Whitefire Crossing was quite at that level. But reflecting back on the book while writing and proofing this review, it’s become obvious to me that it is at that level. This is a really good book. [4 out of 5 stars]

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The Whitefire Crossing

Book review: Reamde by Neal Stephenson

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

Neal Stephenson’s latest novel is a contradiction of a book: a taut, fast-paced thriller that spans 1,000 pages and took me a month to read.

Richard “Dodge” Forthrast is the creator of the popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) T’Rain. We first meet Richard at the annual Forthrast family reunion in Iowa, and the book starts out slowly as we meet certain of Richard’s family members. We’re introduced to his niece, Zula, and her boyfriend Peter. We meet Richard’s brothers, Jacob and John. There are stories of Richard’s days as a smuggler crossing the border between Canada and Idaho. And lots and lots of information regarding the creation of T’Rain.

Stephenson takes his time kicking the plot into gear. 100 pages slowly pass before it really arrives, but it’s never a chore; Stephenson has a gift for being highly readable, and is somehow able to make reading about firearms or midwestern cuisine or the creation of a geographically-plausible video game world consistently entertaining.

But then the titular, brilliantly-conceived “REAMDE” virus makes its appearance, and suddenly Zula and Peter find themselves abducted by a Russian mafioso. While they head to China to root out REAMDE’s creator, back in the western hemisphere Richard is left to try and piece together what has happened to his niece. And still that’s just the tip of the iceberg: when things finally throw down in China about a third of the way through the book, a bevy of new players are introduced and only then do you realize that the real story is just starting. What’s left is 700 pages of straightforward globe-hopping thriller, filled with spies and terrorists, not to mention the occasional hacker and militant libertarian.

Sadly, the books started to drag a little for me around the halfway mark. If you read many thrillers, you’ll know that they’re not particularly long books; 300-400 pages on average, perhaps. But the thriller portion of Reamde runs a solid 700 pages, and though there’s plenty of action, there’s also a lot of what feels like downtime. It got to the point where I had to force myself to pick the book up every night, but the funny thing is, once I started reading, I’d get sucked right back in. The pages didn’t exactly fly by, but I was absolutely riveted all the same.

Still there’s an advantage to Reamde’s length, and it’s that events and characters feel that much more real. The story itself takes roughly three weeks, and lengthy and copious amounts of detail make it feel like three weeks. (That it took me four weeks to read probably has something to do with it as well.) And Stephenson’s created a diverse cast of well-realized characters that you come to love, or come to love to hate. The day after I finished reading, I looked over and saw the book sitting on my nightstand and was actually saddened that I wouldn’t be reading it anymore. I already missed Richard and Zula and Csongor and Sokolov and Olivia and Seamus and… well, you get the picture. If you had asked me at the halfway mark, I would have told you I’d consider Reamde a “read once” book; but now I’m fairly certain that, years from now, I’ll be picking it up again to revisit some old friends.

If I had to come up with one real beef about the book, it would be that the title is pretty misleading. It hopefully doesn’t spoil much (and if so, I’ve spoiled far more already!) to say that the book has very little to do with the REAMDE virus—nor with the T’Rain game, despite the numerous pages devoted to detailing its creation and inner workings. Put plainly, T’Rain exists mainly for REAMDE to exist, and REAMDE is there to kickstart the plot, and little else. You could probably drop a bare minimum of 50 pages from the novel just by trimming away the T’Rain infodumps, and lose little from the story besides some of its “Stephensonesque” quality—but then, those random asides and tangents have long been part of Stephenson’s charm.

Despite being somewhat overlong (I didn’t even mention the drawn-out—and by “drawn-out” I mean “Michael Bay in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen drawn-out”—final climactic showdown) Reamde still manages to be a fantastic book. In a nutshell, it’s “What if Neal Stephenson wrote a thriller?” and I absolutely loved it. [4 out of 5 stars]

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Book review: Writers of the Future, Volume XXVII

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

So yeah, it turns out I’m not a big fan of L. Ron Hubbard. But that didn’t stop me from requesting a copy of L. Ron Hubbard Presents: Writers of the Future, Volume XXVII from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. I always enjoy a good sci-fi/fantasy anthology, and I was at least subliminally aware of the Writers of the Future program, and figured this’d be a good bet for some high-quality SF/F short fiction (SFFSF?).

I love it when I’m right.

The Writers of the Future contest seems a fairly reputable program, with contest entries judged by such esteemed SFF writers as Orson Scott Card, Anne McCaffrey, Larry Niven, and Frederik Pohl, among others. And past contest winners include such notable names as Stephen Baxter, Patrick Rothfuss, and Dave Wolverton. So right off the bat, this book showed the promise of some good stuff inside.

And on the whole, it delivers. There are some weaker stories, but they’re merely decent, not bad. But beyond that, there are a few truly phenomenal entries. Here’s a (very) brief review for each story:

  • “The Unreachable Voices of Ghosts” by Jeffrey Lyman — Almost every story in this collection is a science-fiction piece; this is no exception. A lonely man goes on what is essentially a suicide run to the edge of the solar system, fishing for a miniature black hole, and finds something else besides. There’s a nice atmosphere to the piece, and if the twist at the end isn’t entirely unanticipated, well, it’s still a solid and oddly-moving start to the anthology.
  • “Maddy Dune’s First and Only Spelling Bee” by Patrick O’Sullivan — Maybe this fantasy story should have been held until the end of the collection, because it sets the bar impossibly high for everything that follows. I’m not going to spoil anything by going into any detail, but this is hands-down the best entry here; it’s worth buying the book just for this one. I would love to see someone pay O’Sullivan to turn this into a series.
  • “The Truth, From a Lie of Convenience” by Brennan Harvey — A reporter on the Moon discovers that a Crazy Conspiracy Theory just might be true! Shocking! Nothing really new here, though it is still mostly enjoyable, even if the ending is kind of weak.
  • “In Apprehension, How Like a God” by R. P. L. Johnson — Another strong story, this time a sci-fi murder mystery. I guessed the killer early on, but I never guessed the killer’s actual identity. Color me impressed.
  • “An Acolyte of Black Spires” by Ryan Harvey — Fantasy or sci-fi? I couldn’t tell, but it doesn’t really matter. This one felt fairly cliché and dry throughout, though the mild twist at the end made me appreciate it more.
  • “The Dualist” by Aaron Hughes — At this point, the trend seems to be that the even-numbered stories are my favorites. It wasn’t until the last couple of pages that I figured out where this story was going, and it wasn’t until the final paragraphs that I understood, and was thusly blown away. A surprisingly moving tale.
  • “Bonehouse” by Keffy R. M. Kehrli — An intriguing premise: hunting down people who’ve run away and fully immersed themselves in the internet. But it didn’t really do much with it. Enjoyable, if entirely forgettable.
  • “This Peaceful State of War” by Patty Jansen — A decent “first contact” story, and if the fact that mysterious alien biology is the culprit is fairly predictable, the truth of that biology is stunning.
  • “Sailing the Sky Sea” by Geir Lanesskog — A fairly-entertaining tale about survival in a gas giant’s atmosphere. I loved how they pulled off the rescue, though I wish it had been foreshadowed earlier, instead of just coming out of the blue as it did.
  • “Unfamiliar Territory” by Ben Mann — This might be my least favorite story here. It felt pretty clichéd, and didn’t really have a whole lot of plot, though it managed to tease at a larger story to be told later.
  • “Medic!” by Adam Perin — This story saves the collection from a comparatively-weak second half. We get the story of a crotchety battlefield medic as he attempts to save his 1,000th life and earn his transfer out of the service. The main character is entertaining, and the ending is nicely emotional.
  • “Vector Victoria” by D. A. D’Amico — Another weak entry, based on the otherwise-intriguing premise of a government-engineered virus and the protesters (terrorists?) that try to counter it. Unfortunately, the story is a ho-hum rehash of old government-is-good/government-is-bad arguments, with no real resolution. And I found titular protagonist to be incredibly naive (as intended, I’m sure) and irritating (likely not).
  • “The Sundial” by John Arkwright — This might be the second-best story here. If you pressed a gun to my head, I’d probably classify it as “fantasy”; it almost feels like it doesn’t belong in the same book as the rest of these stories. I won’t spoil anything, though; you have to pick up this book to read “Maddy Dune”, anyway.

Also included are three essays on advice for writers and artists; I’ll be honest: I skimmed ’em. I was just there for the stories. On the whole, it’s decent collection, elevated by the presence of 4-5 particularly strong stories. If I had to rank the top five, I’d have to go with “Maddy Dune”, then “The Sundial”, with “How Like a God” and “The Dualist” tying for third, and “Medic!” bringing up the rear. It’s worth checking out just for those stories. And I’m going to have to keep an eye out for previous collections, as well. [4 out of 5 stars]

Book review: Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding

Saturday, May 21st, 2011

Let me just state right off the bat: this is a great book. I’d heard good things about this series, and with its impending stateside release I was fortunate enough to snag a review copy through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program.

Retribution Falls is the first of the Tales of the Ketty Jay, which chronicle the adventures of Captain Darian Frey and his airship, the Ketty Jay, and its crew of mercenaries. The setting has a light steampunk flavor, and takes place in what I presume is the distant future (my own theory, based on the game of “Rake” being described as a variant of poker.) Or it could be some created fantasy world. It’s not important.

What’s important is this: Frey and his crew take on a job that seems too good to be true. Guess what they discover? Yeah, it is. Soon Frey finds himself framed for murder, and the Ketty Jay is on the run from both the Navy and the queen pirate of the Vardian skies herself, Trinica Dracken.

For the most part, the plot moves along briskly, focusing on the action. Indeed, the book starts off in media res with Frey and his companion Grayther Crake captured at gunpoint. And there are a couple of nice twists and turns to keep the reader on his/her proverbial toes. But it’s the characters that bring the story to life. All of Frey’s crew—and Frey himself—are each and all running from something. Everyone has demons in their pasts. Some are common knowledge, but doled out to the reader at a nice pace. Others are kept secret from both the reader and the other characters. Wooding does an admirable job of withholding these secrets, then waiting until the perfect moment to drop a bombshell.

In all, Retribution Falls is a blast; an action-packed tale with great characters. I’m definitely looking forward to future volumes. Recommended to all sci-fi/fantasy fans. [4 out of 5 stars]

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Retribution Falls

Book review: The Princess Bride by William Goldman

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

When I say that The Princess Bride is a modern classic, you know of course that I’m talking about the 1987 film by Rob Reiner. It’s one of those movies that you have a hard time finding someone who hasn’t seen it and almost as hard to find someone who has seen it, but didn’t love it. (Because of this, I’ll skip the standard book review plot preview/summary, and also won’t bother tiptoeing around plot spoilers.)

What a lot of people probably don’t realize is that the movie was based on a 1973 novel by the same name. Normally, this would be a point in favor of the novel; rare is the movie adaptation that is actually better than the book upon which it is based. But in addition to writing the novel, William Goldman also wrote the screenplay for the film. The result is that the story of Buttercup and Westley, Fezzik and Inigo, has been completely polished and streamlined for the screen, and improved upon in every way. Pretty much every single change that was made ended up being a change for the better. (The most amusing part about this is, while the majority of the dialogue was lifted verbatim from the novel, a number of the famous quotes from the movie, while also taken word-for-word from the text, are, in the film, either spoken by different characters, or inserted at different points in the story. But again, all of the changes made were improvements.)

What I’m getting at is that in a straight-up comparison of the fantasy story presented in the novel and that of the film, the film version wins hands-down. While some of the additional material in the book is of interest (like the flashbacks for Vizzini, Fezzik, and Inigo) much of it just ends up being tedious (Fezzik’s and Inigo’s entrance into the Zoo of Death) or awkward at best (see anything with Mad Max.) It makes for an interesting read viewed as the genesis of the screenplay, but is otherwise an inferior presentation in almost every respect.

Fortunately, Goldman’s book doesn’t concern itself with only Buttercup and Westley. Just as the film uses a framing device—that of the grandfather and boy—to tell the fantasy story, so too does the novel, but in this case they are entirely different creations. Goldman starts the book off with an entire chapter devoted to explaining how, when he was younger, his father would read to him from a book called “The Princess Bride” (thus the direction taken for the screenplay adaptation) and how, when Goldman finally tracked down the book years later, he discovered that his father had actually been abridging the story to cut out all of boring historical and satirical passages written by the author, one “S. Morgenstern”. Hence the subtitle to Goldman’s novel: “S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure, the ‘Good Parts’ version, abridged by William Goldman”.

As enjoyable as the fantasy story is, it was this real-world “secondary” narrative that entertained me the most. Goldman weaves an amusing tale of his search for a copy of Morgenstern’s book mixed in with life as a Hollywood screenwriter; and throughout the book he drops in asides (in italics to separate the commentary from the story) explaining what got cut for the abridgement and why, or (as in the film) comments that his father made upon first reading the story to him. It’s all very amusingly done, and, for me, was even more entertaining than the “main” story. I’ve seen some readers complain that Goldman’s commentary distracts them from the story, and to address that I would recommend picking up one of the more recent editions that includes a 30th anniversary introduction and a 25th anniversary introduction before the text of the main story. Pick it up and start reading at the beginning. Yes, that puts something like 90 pages between the front cover and the start of Buttercup’s tale, but the introductions are what sold me on the book this time around. (I had read it about a decade ago in college, an edition containing neither introduction, and gave it only 3.5 stars at the time.) Besides being downright entertaining, these sections serve to drive home Goldman’s secondary narrative and (hopefully) get the reader invested in it to the point that his later interruptions don’t feel at all intrusive, but rather a welcome addition to the book. The 30th anniversary editions also include, after the main story, the “abridged” first chapter of the sequel, Buttercup’s Baby, prefaced by a long explanation by Goldman about the sequel, and why he’s only abridged the first chapter. It’s all terribly amusing.

I hope I didn’t come off as sounding too rough on the “main” story; I enjoyed it, I did. But really, the real reason to read this novel—as opposed to just watching the movie again—is to get all of Goldman’s delightful commentary. I’m keeping an eye out for some of Goldman’s other (non-genre) fiction, I enjoyed it that much. [4 out of 5 stars]

Book review: Dissolution by C. J. Sansom

Monday, April 11th, 2011

Of all the books I’ll read and review this year, this will be the one I was least expecting to do. In fact, I had never even heard about this book (or its author, or the series) until it unexpectedly showed up in my mailbox one day, courtesy of my friend Amanda over at Floor to Ceiling Books. See, she had been sending out copies for World Book Night 2011, but I had gotten behind on my Internets, and didn’t know anything about it—and honestly wouldn’t have been expecting anything anyway. Suffice to say, I felt honored to have been a recipient, and planned for Dissolution to be my next read, once I had finished with The Wise Man’s Fear.

Dissolution is the first in a series of mystery novels set in the 1500s that feature—and are narrated by—hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake. I know nothing about the subsequent books, but I do know I’ll be checking them out at some point in the future, as I enjoyed this one so much.

Thomas Cromwell is in the process of dissolving the monasteries of England when his commisioner at the Scarnsea monastery in southern England is brutally murdered. Cromwell dispatches his emissary, lawyer and sometime-detective Matthew Shardlake, along with his aide Mark Poer, to investigate. But all is not as it seems at snow-covered Scarnsea; too many of the monks there have the motive, but not necessarily the means, and the bodycount will rise before the truth is finally revealed. But Shardlake and Poer must contend with more than a murderer, for the struggle between the Reformers and the Papists will sorely test the loyalties of both men.

Though I consider myself woefully under-read in the detective/mystery genre, I’m not entirely unfamiliar with it; and it seems to me that the actual mystery in a “whodunit” novel is perhaps less important than those things that make a good book work in any other genre—namely, the setting, characters, and narrative style. Dissolution has a fairly standard murder-mystery plot; Sansom includes a bizarre and grisly murder, lots of potential suspects, a slow but steady trickle of clues coupled with some red herrings, a couple of twists, and increasing amounts of danger as the investigation nears its conclusion. There’s even a little romance thrown in for good measure. It’s all very competently handled (save for one possible mistake that I’ll mention later), but it’s nothing groundbreaking.

What makes this book work is the setting. The claustrophia of the snowbound monastary is nicely done, but to be honest the “corrupt/lecherous monk as villain” seems to have become a bit of a cliché by now. Rather, it’s being set against the backdrop of Cromwell’s war against the monastaries that brings everything to life. You have the tension between the Papists and the Reformers simmering in the background the entire time, and Shardlake’s investigation of the murder of a Reform commissioner—presumably at the hands of a monk—duplicates this clash of ideologies in the foreground. And yet, as Shardlake’s investigation proceeds, it becomes clear that this struggle is not a black-and-white affair; many of the monks are, in spite of their own personal failings, just as devout in their Catholic faith as Shardlake is in his Protestantism, and it comes to light that Cromwell’s own motivations and practices may not be as moral as Shardlake has believed. There are some good debates here, including a brief take on the age-old “works versus grace” argument, and though everything is colored by the first-person viewpoint of Shardlake, neither side is presented as being either right or wrong, even as our narrator holds firm to his own beliefs.

And kudos to C. J. Sansom for that. It would have been all too easy to have Shardlake begin to doubt his own beliefs, or lose faith entirely, or even start to get just a little wishy-washy. This is done all too often in fiction nowadays, it seems—especially speculative fiction. I guess a lot of authors think it’s realistic to write a person of faith coming up against some knowledge or revelation or trial that ends up shattering their faith in God. As a Christian myself, I always find such developments rather insulting. Sansom instead writes Shardlake in a manner that I find more realistic; here’s a man who has heard the voice of Jesus Christ speaking to him, who holds to his faith in God even as the men who profess to act in God’s name commit despicable acts. He keeps an open mind, while still retaining complete confidence in his doctrine. Perhaps I’ve said too much about Shardlake’s development, seeing as how part of the suspense (for me, at least) was seeing how his faith would survive the events of the novel, but it was this that impressed me the most about the book, and for which I must applaud Sansom. (The character of Mark Poer provides a nice counterpoint to Shardlake, but I will leave it that.)

I mentioned earlier catching what I thought might have been a mistake in the story, and I’ll try to explain in as non-spoilery a fashion as I can manage: Along with the murder there was a desecration of the monastary church, and while investigating, Shardlake is told that it was Brother Andrew who first “saw” what had been done. But we met Brother Andrew earlier in the book, and he’s completely blind, and presumably has been for some time. I thought maybe I had stumbled on the clue that would wind up busting the whole case wide open, and wondered how Sansom could have been so clumsy, but it turns out it’s never addressed. My only thought is that perhaps there’s more than one Brother Andrew? Not a big issue, but I have to say it distracted me for most of the book.

In summary, Dissolution is a good murder mystery in an intriguing setting, narrated by a great viewpoint character. If you’re not the religious type, it’s a very good period piece; if you are, there’s some good stuff to chew on here. If you’re a fan of mysteries, or of historical fiction, or religious fiction, or (like me) just a fan of good books in general, you should check this one out. [4 out of 5 stars]

Book review: The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

It’s safe to say that The Wise Man’s Fear was the second-most-anticipated book of all 2011. The first book in Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicle was a monster hit in 2007, but rewrites and delays held the sequel back for a couple years longer than fans would have liked. But arrive it did, hitting #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list.

Day Two of the Kingkiller Chronicle continues Kvothe’s story right where The Name of the Wind left off. After a welcomely-brief “present-day” portion to re-set the stage, we jump back into Kvothe’s first-person narrative as he resumes his tale: He’s back studying at the University, still struggling to pay tuition, still battling with Ambrose Jakis, still hanging out at the Eolian, still chasing after the mysterious and elusive Denna… There are a couple of new developments, but quite honestly, it feels like just a retread of the previous volume, and after a few hundred pages I was finding myself a little frustrated.

Thankfully, a third of the way through the book, Kvothe decides to take a break from his studies and venture out into the world, hoping to find himself a patron and, more importantly, discover the secret of the Chandrian. Suddenly, the book picks up. And quickly. Kvothe finds himself in the employ of a nobleman, gets involved in some palace intrigue, heads out on an expedition, loses himself in the land of the Fae, trains with a rigid warrior society. By the time he returns to the University, he’s started to build up the reputation that we’ve heard all about during the frame story, and which we started to see glimpses of in TNotW.

Now, all of these adventures I just described? They’re all very so obviously set-pieces, and the book is divided neatly (and perhaps awkwardly) into hundred-or-so-page sections dealing with each piece. It’s almost jarring when you notice the pattern. (If you notice it. Needless to say, I did.) But once again, Rothfuss sucks you so far into the story that it doesn’t really matter. Each set-piece has its own pace, its own mood, and Rothfuss more or less succeeds with each and every one. I’ve heard many reviewers say that his prose has improved with this second book, but I have to confess I don’t see it. There were a handful of passages in TNotW that left me breathless with their power (just off the top of my head: Taborlin’s fall, the doors of the mind, the leap from Elodin’s roof) and though I enjoyed every minute of TWMF, and while it included numerous memorable scenes, the words didn’t seem to contain the same magic this time around, even if the story still had it.

So while TNotW came in just shy of perfection, TWMF falls just a hair short of the standard set by its predecessor. But really, if you loved the first book, you’ll love the second book, too. And if you hated that one, this one’s not going to do anything to change your mind. It’s very much Part Two of a single, cohesive story, and I can’t believe we’re going to have to wait another three or so years for the finale, but man am I looking forward to it. [4 out of 5 stars]

Now, if you’ve read both books, and want to have your mind completely blown, check out this speculation round-up post at

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The Wise Man’s Fear