Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

Words Of Radiance - Stormlight Shallan

I
 begin this review, not with a bang, but with a boom. The boom is the sound Words of Radiance made when I dropped it while reading. It was shortly followed by a howl of pain as it struck my pinky toe. It was not a manly howl, akin to a shrieking meerkat as its eviscerated by a laughing hyena. Now that I’ve made the obligatory “size” joke about Brandon Sanderson’s newest novel (make note that it’s required in the ‘review copy contract’ provided by Tor) I can actually talk about the merits of the novel, which is something like watching a ladies tennis match: extended volleys, a fair bit of screaming (and/or grunting), lots of excitement, and an ending that’s often predicated on fitness as much as it is skill.

Unlike most epic fantasies of its size, Words of Radiance features only four primary characters–Shallan, Kaladin, Dalinar, and Adolin. Although there are a host of other important characters, and a dozen other view points as part of Sanderson’s unique “interludes”, the novel boils down to these four. Given Words of Radiance comes in around 400,000 words, each of point of view is given nearly an entire novel’s length to bond with the reader. Combined with their appearance in the previous installment, Way of Kings, a Stormlight Archive reader has absorbed each of these characters for at least 150,000 words each. I would argue that level of intimacy with a group of characters is unheard of, where typically we’d get the forty disparate characters of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen or the unerring one-character-note of Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy.

The Ascendance Trilogy by Jennifer Nielsen (aka: ZOMG! The Yin and the Yang of Middle Grade!)

tumblr_mi2e9gyR931s0tbc4o1_1280Being the first Middle Grade novel I’ve read since the Harry Potter binge of aught four, Jennifer Nielsen’s The False Prince (and subsequent novels) was something of a dip into the unknown. Truth be told, I began the endeavor solely because I’m on the make for novels my four year old and I can read together. While the Nielsen novels are perhaps a little too dramatic (read intense) for her, the first one, False Prince, was an absolute delight to me. It is unfortunate that the well was poisoned by the following two novels written as they were with contempt for the reader’s perceptiveness.

The story begins with, Conner, a nobleman of the court, seeking a lookalike for the king’s long-lost son. His plan involves installing the youth as a puppet prince, and thus stabilizing a kingdom on the ropes after the death of the royal family. Four orphans are recruited to compete for the role, including a punk named Sage. Among the four, Sage is the most savvy. As he begins to uncover Conner’s plans he becomes more and more concerned about the role he’ll play.

Books I Have Minimal Thoughts On…

art by Keith Parkinson

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, art by Keith Parkinson

Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber

Although chronologically the first stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Swords and Deviltry is composed of three novellas that were written quite a bit later than the more classic tales of the iconic duo. They are stories that fill in the blanks surrounding the origins of the pair, first giving them both a story to come into their own and leave for Lankhmar, then a story of them on their first adventure together. Problems arise in the collection in large part because neither Fafhrd or Gray Mouser are remotely interesting as individuals in Swords and Deviltry. In fact, they only shine when on screen together, exchanging barbs and concocting ridiculous schemes. In other words, the first 150 pages of the book put the bore in boring.

As a side note, I find the portrayal of women in the novel extremely off-putting. A sign of the times perhaps, or at least I’m sure that would be the easiest excuse, but Leiber’s women are consistently portrayed as manipulating the men in what I feel is an unkind light. They whine and cajole and flirt and tease. Both have moments where they stand out as agents of their own destiny, but not a few pages later are swaddled by their menfolk and tucked away. It seems like Leiber had moments where he was writing vibrant female characters before reconsidering and falling back into the standard, and entirely annoying, expectations.

The Farseer Trilogy gets Simonized.

W
ith one of the most distinct styles in genre cover illustration today, French artist Marc Simonetti has painted the Brazilian covers for Robin Hobb’s famous Assassin’s Apprentice and Royal Assassin, the first two novels in the Farseer Trilogy. Unlike the original covers from the U.S. editions, Simonetti is doing a much better job of capturing the kind of novels Hobb wrote. Bleak, fraught with emotion, and far beyond standard epic fantasy themes, the series was never authentically presented. Even the titles of the novel are incredibly misleading to an audience who would expect from them something akin to a Brent Weeks or David Dalglish novel.

Marc Simonetti getting Robin Hobb incredibly right:

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Assassin’s Apprentice

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Royal Assassin

Are you with me? Doesn’t he seem to “get it” more than any other Hobb’s past artists have?

Analogies. Because. The Publishing Debate.

Malta 2006 - Fontana church painting 15This recent debate on self publishing versus traditional publishing feels a lot like the schisms within Christianity. Bear with me on this one.

Assuming publishing as a whole is akin to Christianity writ large–your Orthodox, Mormons, Methodists, Pentecostals, etc.–then the Big-Five are the Roman Catholic Church and the self-publishing community is the Evangelists. Think about it for a minute…

Founded in the 1st century AD, the Catholic Church has been around so long its part of the cultural fiber in a way that’s impossible to remove from the conversation. Worldwide there are 1.2 billion members, led by the Pope in Rome. Structured around rigid rules and tradition, the Catholic Church has some not-insignificant hurdles to become a Priest. Sure the Church is corrupt and plagued by scandal, but it remains the strongest faction of Christianity due not just to immense wealth and momentum,but to the status earned by its clergy over centuries. Whether that faith is warranted, the illusion of its value supersedes any argument of fact.

By comparison, most places will site the requirement to become an Evanglist Minister as a desire to be one above all else. Like all things in life there are good Evangelists and bad Evangelists, those who dedicate themselves to the Calling and those who pay lip service to it. Regardless there is only one fundamental requirement to becoming one, an unswerving desire to tell the story of Christianity and covert others, to bring the ‘good news’ to all corners of the globe.

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

the raven boys maggie stiefvater

Set in Henrietta, Virginia, Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys exhibits characteristics of the “southern novel”, a form I associate strongly with Tom Wolfe or Harper Lee. Novels of the American South tend to focus on the gross inequalities that exist there, often couched in racial terms, but also the nature of inherited wealth juxtaposed with the lack of opportunity that exists in the more urban centers. In the case of Raven Boys, Stiefvater creates that paradigm between Blue Sargent, daughter to a poor, but comfortable, and exceedingly proficient psychic, and four boys from Aglionby, a feeder high school for the Ivy League.

For all her life, Blue has been warned that Aglionby boys are trouble. They’re rich and live by a code that means the rules don’t apply to them. These Aglionby boys–Gansey, Adam, Ronan, and Noah–would be no different, except they can’t accept the lives they’ve been given. They want something more, for themselves and for each other. Bound up in a brotherhood dedicated to uncovering a measure of magic in the world, the boys come to Blue and her family for help. While the story is a quest, the novel is hardly about it at all. Not just about the unequal nature of the American South, Raven Boys is an examination of the power dynamics between people. The power we give to others over us, and the power we reserve for ourselves. In other words, it’s a novel of character and the connections that bind them together.

Gansey has everything—family money, good looks, and devoted (dependent?) friends. Adam is a scholarship student who refuses to be taken in by his friends’ resources. Ronan wants nothing, but to be left alone, to wallow in grief and throw away his life. And Noah just watches.

Militant heterosexual white cismale…erm… man speaks

On Tuesday, January 28, Larry Correia wrote a response to Alex Dally MacFarlane’s “Post-Binary Gender in SF: Introduction” on Tor.com. Regardless of what you think about the thrust of McFarlane’s points, Correia’s response is disproportionately offensive and factually wrong.

In her piece on Tor.com, McFarlane declares, “I want an end to the default of binary gender in science fiction stories.” A bold pronouncement, but one couched in the idea that McFarlane is “not interested in discussions about the existence of these gender identities: we might as well discuss the existence of women or men. Gender complexity exists. SF that presents a rigid, unquestioned gender binary is false and absurd.” These statement are what those of us in the business refer to as opinions. Interestingly, no where in the piece does McFarlane suggest that writing with binary gender is wrong, merely that she is no longer interested in reading fiction that trends in that direction. And, slightly more strongly worded, she wants more writers to challenge themselves to break through their own rigid thinking.

The impetus behind Correia’s response is,

Okay, aspiring author types, you will see lots of things like this, and part of you may think you need to incorporate these helpful suggestions into your work. After all, this is on Tor.com so it must be legit.  Just don’t. When you write with the goal of checking off boxes, it is usually crap. This article is great advice for writers who want to win awards but never actually be read by anyone.

Although Correia goes on from here to say some incredibly misguided things, the core statement has merit. Writing about gender, particularly non-binary gender, in such a way that it is not organic to the story you’re trying to tell is awful writing advice and will almost assuredly make your book suck. The problem is McFarlane never purports to give advice. Not even a little bit. She is writing her point of view. She is demanding something more of herself and the fiction she reads, not the fiction Correia writes or his readers’ read. What she’s asking for is more fiction that appeals to her, not less that appeals to Correia. It’s the same argument used by those advocates for marriage equality. Our marriage doesn’t lessen your marriage. Except, much like Correia is offended by McFarlane’s feelings, conservatives around the country cannot fathom sharing the precious with someone not like them. It’s a position that, as someone who has self identified as a conservative white male, I find continually reprehensible.

Blog Tour: Myke Cole’s Breach Zone (Giveaway)

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art by Michael Komarck

The Great Reawakening did not come quietly. Across the country and in every nation, people began “coming up Latent,” developing terrifying powers—summoning storms, raising the dead, and setting everything they touch ablaze. Those who Manifest must choose: become a sheepdog who protects the flock or a wolf who devours it…

So reads the blurb for Myke Cole’s newest novel, out today, Breach Zone. Yesterday you saw me throw praise on the novel and the author, albeit with some measure of bias. Let me restate, if you haven’t started the Shadow Ops Trilogy, get on it. Control Point is waiting for you. If you’re already a fan, well, a few moments ago, Cole Tweeted this:

I can get behind that kind of sentiment. Today, to celebrate the release and thank his fans, Cole’s publisher has provided five copies of the book to be sent forth to the United States and Canada. Want one? Here’s how.

How to participate:

  • To enter the giveaway, e-mail me at justin@staffersbookreview, with the subject BZ and declare intention to participate.
  • You must include a valid mailing address in the e-mail. Failure to do so will result in disqualification.
  • One entry per person, or face disqualification.
  • Entries accepted until 11:59pm ET on Tuesday, February 4, 2014
  • Winners will be chosen by random sorting entries, and then using a random number generator.
  • There will be 5 winners who will receive 1 book each.

Although not required, it sure would be nice if you:

  • Subscribe to Staffer’s Book Review via RSS.
  • Follow me on twitter, @jdiddyesquire.
  • Like me on Facebook.
  • Purchase a billboard for me on a highway near you.

Head to the Quillery to find more Myke Cole.

Thoughts on Breach Zone by Myke Cole

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art by Larry Rostant

T
his is not a review of Breach Zone. Why is it not a review? Because my name is in the acknowledgements. Why is my name in the acknowledgements? Because I slipped Myke Cole $20. Regardless I can’t review the novel impartially. But, you don’t read me because I’m impartial right? You read me because I have opinions. And I’ve got some opinions about Myke Cole and his newest novel.

breach zoneFirst off, this is the best thing Cole has published to date. And it’s not really close. If you’ve read the first novel, Control Point, you might have been a little frustrated with the character development or found the pace a little choppy. For those who’ve read Fortress Frontier, you might remember the part that linked the first book and the second felt a little spackled together to provide the cohesion that he needed without compromising the intimate story of Col. Alan Bookbinder. They were the kind of flaws that most anyone has in their early work. The result were very good novels, but not the sum total of what Cole was capable of.

Breach Zone has none of these problems. It is, for all intents and purposes, the natural culmination of the series. Not just in terms of plot and theme, but in terms of Myke Cole the writer. He’s come full circle, mastering character in the ways I could only hope he would three years ago. He’s more adventurous with his structure and thus his pacing, using flashbacks to interweave a narrative that reveals information at the right times. He’s writing like an author comfortable in his abilities, daring to take on things he was heretofore unwilling. This is a novel with romance, regret, failure, and betrayal. And it’s executed brilliantly.

Award Snobbery and Genre Reader Baggage

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Thursday, January 23, the short lists for the Kitschies were announced. Many of the novels on the list were not shelved as science fiction or fantasy, including a Thomas Pynchon novel and one previously short listed for the Man Booker Prize. In other words, the Kitschies awards are full of novels no one in the genre communities have read and many have never heard of. Fantasy author Saladin Ahmed made this statement shortly after the announcement:

I think the Kitschies, like the WFAs, do great work. I just wish juried awards didn’t smack of subtle derision toward deep-genre readers.

— Saladin Ahmed (@saladinahmed) January 23, 2014

I’d like to introduce Ahmed to my 2012 self. That version of me wrote:

In recent years, SFF bloggers (myself included) have tried to convince mainstream readers that the things we read have merit.  Awards like The Kitschies seem created, almost exclusively, to serve this purpose.  It seems as if reviews like the ones written by Bourke are geared towards eradicating a certain type of incredibly popular genre fiction and posts like Walter’s almost shame (for lack of a better term) readers into reading those things accepted by the mainstream.  I believe we should demand better writing and better storytelling.  Where we differ, is that I believe in demonstrating value in the things that the mainstream rejects, not only those things they embrace.

[I'm going to riff on my own words at this point, inspired by Ahmed's Tweet. Nothing should be construed as me making any assumptions about Ahmed's points. I think by qualifying his statement as he did he groks this very conflict I'm going to describe.]