Thursday, December 27, 2012

On Writing: Character Writing Over the Long Haul

As we start going further into the New Year, I thought it would be nice to do a new On Writing piece. I looked through all of the books I've read, even considering doing a "Worst Read of 2012", but the books I've read have varied not just in the years they were published, but also in themes and overall feelings from books. Looking at the three bookshelves I have scattered (soon to be four thanks to a very thoughtful Christmas gifter,) looking at all the covers, the thought finally came to me. And after reading the final book by Rachel Aaron, it couldn't have been more obvious.

In the Legend of Eli Monpress books by Rachel Aaron, there are four main characters. There is Eli Monpress, the greatest thief in the world who can speak to spirits where others can't. There's Josef Leichten, a spirit-deaf warrior with the strongest sword in the world. There's Nico, a child like woman with a demonseed in her that makes her powerful. And then there is Miranda Lyonette, a spiritualist with the backing of powerful spirits. All of these characters are extremely interesting, each with their own innate stories and flaws. That's all well and good, but the problem with all of this is this: I don't know what any of these characters look like.

Now I've looked to make sure, and the only time the characters are ever given an in depth visual description is in the first book when they are introduced. Other than that, the most they ever say about them is that Nico is small with a black cloak, Josef is tall and powerful with a bunch of knives, and that Miranda wears a bunch of rings. After reading the books over the course of the last two years, I don't remember what these characters look like, and that is a void in the characterization in my opinion.

I know it might sound like I'm picking on Rachel Aaron, but I assure you, this is a broad generalization about a plethora of books in the fantasy genre. While reading Jim Butcher's Cold Days, the latest in the Harry Dresden series, I found myself being reminded about scars the character has accumulated that I don't even remember, and honestly, if it weren't for the more than consistent cover art depicting the character himself, I wouldn't know what he looks like either.

It seems that writers are picking the bad habit of taking the most iconic of looks that summarize their characters and leaving the rest up to imagination for readers. Now i know, reading is about using your imagination, but there's a template we're supposed to work from. Nobody expects a long, power-rangers-esq scene where a character is described, but there's a moment when you have to look at your work and think, "Do I even know what this character looks like anymore?"

Monday, December 17, 2012

Review: In the House of the Wicked by Thomas E. Sniegoski

Well it's three weeks late but here it is, the review of Thomas E. Sniegoski's latest book, In the House of the Wicked. In the House of the Wicked is the fifth book in the Remy Chandler series, one of my favorite Urban Fantasy series in publication. Anyone who reads my blog knows that I have a soft spot for the Urban series of fantasy books, and my favorites tend to be those involving detectives because things always have a habit of rounding out. There is the perfect mixture of mystery without too many unintentional plot holes, and the characters are always more relateable.

For those of you who don't know, Remy Chandler is an Angel of the Heavenly Host Seraphim who split with heaven after the war with Lucifer. He's spent centuries among humans, trying to pass himself as one and live as we do. For the majority of the plot of the series, Remy has been working as a Private Detective in Boston, solving mundane and supernatural cases for various human and preternatural characters. Most of the characters involved in the story are taken directly from Christian mythos, including Lazarus, Samson and Delilah, Adam and Eve, and of course, Lucifer. All of the characters have been given a modern and/or unique twist.

In the House of the Wicked's cover blurb barely scratches the surface of the actual plot of the book, which is typical of Urban Fantasy novels in general. Almost all paranormal detective series in the market have a typical opening that covers aproximately 1/100th of what the book actually is about. I jokingly relate them to the old Ernest movies, where the main character goes out to do something mundane and ends up in some kind of trouble. "Harry Dresden goes out for coffee", or "Remy Chandler goes to walk his dog."

In his recent story, Remy Chandler is just coming to terms with really accepting his angelic nature after suppressing it for so long, when it's discovered that his young friend, Ashley, has disappeared from college. After promising the distraught family that he will look into things, he discovers that Ashely has disappeared under less than ordinary circumstances, and that it might have something to do with his secret. On the opposite side of things, a secret Kabal of sorcerers is fighting a war in the shadows (somewhat literal in some cases) which might lead to the end of life as we know it.

I love Sniegoski's work. His writing is always clear and crisp with the right pacing to make the books interesting without splitting from the unusual to just plain weird. While reading the book I only found one slightly gaping plot hole which I wouldn't have noticed if I weren't such an anal-retentive show off, and the only gripe I had about the format of the book was so petty it might have been a lemon missing from my ice tea I didn't want to begin with.

I have to give kudos to Mr. Sniegoski first off. All of the characters in his previous books have had something to do with biblical evil. Demons, Lucifer, Delilah, etc. And while there is nothing wrong with that in the least, they have all kind of type-cast Remy as fighting a one-on-one war with Heaven's enemies. The latest enemies in the Remy-verse are monsters, yes, but they are humans first and foremost. Now don't get me wrong, I like that Remy is the saving humanity from the enemies of Heaven that might destroy us, but I like a well-rounded hero who can walk, talk, and chew bubblegum at the same time as he is kicking butt.

In this book, we get a good look at a new character, or old if you like, who, Thomas Sniegoski has said on twitter, will play a big part in his upcoming books. The character's name is Squire, and he is a hobgoblin living in a world of shadows. The character is a former hero, or associate of heroes at least, and he is vulgar on a level that made me actually stop mid-sentence the check again. The writing actually felt different than the rest of the text, he just felt that out of place. When I questioned Mr. Sniegoski about this, he confirmed that, yes; Squire is a character from a previous series he wrote with author Christopher Golden, The Menagerie. Now I genuinely like Squire, and to be honest, if you find yourself skipping over his "chapters" in the book, he grows on you. A bit like a skin-tag, or a non-cancerous mole. But my perspective on bringing characters from other series into a new one half-way through the storyline is a bit like meeting an old frat buddy halfway through a date. Just because you like your friend doesn't mean your date will appreciate you talking about old hazing rituals over crab cakes. In Squires case, though it works pretty well, and I look forward to seeing more of him in later books.

Now on to my own minor gripe, and lets just get it out of the way so that I can fawn over the book more. Thomas Sniegoski's books always have a multitude of perspectives, ranging from Remy to the main villain, even to Remy's dog Marlowe. I've always tolerated the perspective shifts in his previous works because they always round out and make sense to what’s going on. In this newest book, it's pretty much the same, but the perspective shifts were done in such rapid succession that it was almost dizzying. One "chapter" was about a page or two before shifting to something happening during World War II and after. Back and forth so frequently that I felt like I was in a Monty Python sketch shouting out "Get one with it!" Things slowed down after about fifty pages or so and got to the main story, but even so.

I would suggest the Remy Chandler books to any fans of good Urban Fantasy, or detective novels in general. Start with A Kiss Before the Apocalypse and go from there and enjoy a good romp through the world of Heaven and the supernatural corners of Earth. Just don't ask why a certain bartender know things he shouldn't, it would just confuse you.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Review: The Paladin Prophecy by Mark Frost

I know I've complained over the past few reviews about picking out bad books, but to be honest, just because I don't like a particular book, doesn't mean that it has no merit. It's only when I read a truly terrible book that my blood gets boiling and I begin to pull out the cannons and really prepare to wage war and that's only happened two times: I'll let my faithful readers decide what books those were. When I pick up a book, I generally know within the first chapter if it's my kind of book, a genre of fantasy I can really get into, but it takes much longer for me to figure out if it's a GOOD book. A book I'm not into I will put back on my shelf and save for when I find someone who may make a good owner for. A bad book, I read through all the way so that I can share my findings here.]

The Paladin Prophecy by Mark Frost was just that kind of bad book that I enjoy having come across my desk so that, like a finicky food critic, I can discuss the exact flavor of which I hated it.

The Paladin Prophecy is a book written by Mark Frost, a man I had no idea existed because he's famous for two things. The first is that he co-created a tv show called Twin Peaks that lasted for two seasons. I won't go into the show, because I never watched it, but apparently it was about an FBI agent solving a murder. He also co-wrote the Fantastic Four movies....but after watched the second movie, I'm not sure that that's anything to brag about.

The second thing he's famous for is writing a few books that I looked up, that seem to be based off a character of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and are a bit like mysteries. I take this of note because The Paladin Prophecy from what I've seen, this book is the first that Frost has done in the genre of Sci-fi/Fantasy and that places him firmly in my jurisdiction.

The Paladin Prophecy is about a boy named Will West who has lived his whole life trying to be ordinary. His parents, who have moved him around a lot throughout the years, have instructed him to never stand out and show how special he is. One day, Will finds out that he scored off the charts on a nationwide test and that he's been accepted to a prestigious school for geniuses. That same day, Will's parents get captured by a mysterious group of men and Will is forced to run away across the country to save himself.

I usually never use the term Sci-fi/Fantasy, because it's my belief that with very few exceptions they would never be mixed. But The Paladin Prophecy can't seem to make up its mind what genre it wants to be. On the one hand it has all the feeling of a fantasy with special powers and prophecies as well as holy knights, but on the other there are definite ESP/telekinetic moments as well as the fact that almost everything in the story is technology moments. It was definitely a feeling of "Keep your chocolate out of my peanut butter" kind of things that only got more convoluted as things went by. Halfway through the book, the story went from being about a kid who might be genetically enhanced to some kind of Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew/Scooby Doo crap where Will and his new friends at school decide to solve a mystery. I'm a big fan of the creative process, but The Paladin Prophecy had all the feel of a man who has three genres on a table and can't decide which to do so he just does them all.

The writing itself was generic and I kept flashing back on several other stories I've read over the years, Harry Potter being the most prominent obviously. Also, a big pet peeve of mine over the course of the book were THE RULES. Will's dad has created a list of rules throughout his life and Will has taken to them like a rich man to the country club guidelines. Every few page (sometimes even more frequently) a rule will pop up in big caps letting Will decide how he should act. There were two problems with this, the biggest part being the flow of the book. Having little rules of thumb pop up in the middle of the page was distracting and ruined the flow as much as having someone bang pots in the kitchen might and were almost as bad as Little-Did-They-Know moments. I don't know why Frost thought that these things were important enough to build a theme about because he could just as easily have made his character do the right thing rather than have it be his dad who drilled him over the years to memorize it. It all comes down to this: do you want a character who knows how to do the right thing on his own, or do you want a man with a parrot screeching in your ear every five minutes reminding you of a catechism that applies to just this kind of situation.

That brings me to the second problem with the rules. While the book approaches them as rules, most of them aren't even that. Don't get me wrong: while "Don't draw attention to yourself" might pass off for a rule, "There is no such thing as a coincidence" is not. It's sound advice, but for the most part, the rules of the book just pass off advice and common colloquialisms as a rule of life. It had all the air of a man who quotes famous people from history and tries to convince you that he said it first. Frost even has the gall to add the rules at the end of the book as if people are going to really want to remember that one rule that he said a few chapters off but can't remember. Here's a clue: they're in CAPS, I think they're fairly easy to find.

Not an easy segue way, but that brings me to the characters. For the most part, there were a lot of unique characters in the story, and each of them had a part to play, but it had a very cluttered feeling to them. Each character was introduced piece by piece throughout the story, and then quickly dismissed for the next, giving the feel of a group of attention-grabbing beauty queens on a tv show who are terrified they might get voted off. Almost every kind of stereotype was used. The shrimpy nerd, the smart bitchy one, the rich girl and the guy that should the white boy that needs to learn proper English. Once again, I had two problems with the characters. The first was a Hispanic taxi driver named Nando: he was so obviously stereotyped throughout the story that I can't help but feel it was a little racist. Nando has a billy-goat beard, barbed wire tattoos, and says things like "a'ight", "holmes" and "esse". While I know that some people say these things, some of them hispanic, a lot of it is just broad generalization. Most of the time Nando is portrayed as being this dumb gofer who helps out Will for some reason or other. The other character problem for me is that Frost seems to think that Samoan's are some kind of master race. The entire security force for the new school Will goes to is comprised of Samoans and the reason given for this is that they are: "huge and agile and strong enough to tear a bus apart with their bare hands" as well as "friendly, trustworthy, and incorruptible". I'm sorry, I actually had to stop there. While I will never say that those things aren't true about a person, saying it out loud is like saying Klingon's all stink and that munchkins all like lollypops. I think you get what I mean.

As far as the writing goes, I have a big problem with the fact that Will seems to just include himself in a group whenever he feels threatened. At one point he’s talking about people wanting to kill him and tells his roommates "We" have to do something and they just accept it as true as if they've known him longer than a hundred pages. At one point they even go down to talk to a man who just tried to kill him as if he’s just going to stand there and go "Oh yeah, sorry about that, my bad". A lot of the conclusions Will comes up with are completely unfounded because there was no real linearity to him discovering it, once again concreting my disdain for urban fantasy not involving a detective.

Which brings me to my last point to make before I stop my spewing of literary rage, and I think this is a big part. Will gets noticed by this school because he scored exceptionally high on a test. This would generally paint Will as being smarter that the average bear, but it's never shown. Not once does Will actually do anything moderately intelligent. This isn't to say that he is "stupid", though at some points in the book I had to stop reading and shake my book like an African lion trying to break a zebras neck, but he never actually shows that he's intelligent. This holds true for the other characters in the book. While they all have special skill, most of them have nothing to do with intelligence really. It all had a feeling of convenience: Will needed to be discovered by the school so that he could go and learn about other things. This was a common theme throughout the book: Will is constantly discovering the things he can do just when he has a problem, or help comes at the exact moment when he needs it, or there is a RULE that applies to just that situation. A story can be built around a lot of things, but having them built around convenience is the biggest Deus ex Machina crap that you can do and it's just lazy writing to boot.

While I can't deny that The Paladin Prophecy by Mark Frost had an interesting premise, I have to say that I don't believe Frost has enough expertise in the field of Fantasy to do the story justice. I think that every author at some point should take an expedition out into the world of mages and beasts, but I think Frost might have taken his first step too soon. He shouldn't be pitied or shown the way back, but I do think he should be pat on the head, scooted to the corner and given a cookie while the big boys get to work. Personally, I just feel the book had “bad book” stamped over every page like the world’s most travelled passport, and I don’t suggest it to anyone. A lot of these things can be marked off by claiming the book is targeted for young adults, but that’s a crap excuse. Young Adult writers should be held to a higher standard than adult writers in my opinion.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Second Glance: Devil Said Bang by Richard Kadrey

I usually leave second glance reviews for books I read years back before I started doing reviews, or even looking at books critically altogether. But as anyone who is up to date on my blog knows, I made a promise for this one. Several months ago I read a digital copy of Devil Said Bang and found that a good chunk of the books was missing. I said that if I found a hard copy of the book and it turned out that it was actually missing and not some stylistic choice of the writer, then I would rescind my statement. Well, I found a hard copy, found that the story WAS missing from the digital copy, and I'm not taking down my original review. I've never apologized for having a contrary opinion, and I'm not going to start now. To be honest, the missing pages probably made the story better.

Devil Said Bang is an Urban Fantasy novel written by a pretty badass author named Richard Kadrey. In the books, the main character, James Stark AKA Sandman Slim, is a man with the most abysmal luck. He was sent to Hell while he was still alive, tortured, came back to get revenge and was thwarted at every turn by the people who sent him there. Assisted by a talking head, an immortal alchemist, a woman who picks the damnedest times to get scruples, and a girlfriend who is a repressed monster, Stark still has the time in his life to worry about silly things like movie stores, and clothing.

In the latest story, after being Shanghai-d in Hell to be the new Lucifer, Stark is trying to get back and stay alive at the same time, and that's about how far I got in the digital copy before the big skip...132 pages of missing pages to be exact. I counted. I say that the missing pages made the book better because of this: there is no sense of linearity. The problem with Urban Fiction that doesn't involve a detective is that the characters don't go through life looking for how things connect, so often times, in the story they don't. For example: a detective might see a toothpick at a crime scene, remember that the dead man's chauffeur had one in his mouth all the time, and connect that to the gun they find on him that matches the bullet used to kill him. In a story with Joe Schmoe, he has to wait until the person who’s killing people puts a gun against his kidney.

Stark goes from trying to get out of Hell, to trying to find out who's gunning for him, finding a killer, getting back home, finding some conspiracy involving people he's just meeting, and then there's actually no resolution at the end at all. There was something to do with a ghost that might not have just been a ghost, that's killing people for no apparent reason. The reason they gave was kind of pathetic, which may have been the point, and then when they finish the job, she's just kind of gone? Where's the climax? Where's the meat of the story? It just seemed like Stark went through all the trouble to get out of Hell just to babysit or something.

This was of course on top of all the typos that were in the book. Names were transposed with other names that confused me, words were misspelled, missing, or sentences just didn't make any sense at all. I've re-read a few of Richard Kadrey's previous books, and they were never as bad as this. I know I said it before, but there might be something wrong with Kadrey's publishers, because if it was this bad when he turned it in, then that's on him, but the fact that all of this got through to print makes me think that they dropped the ball here and should be held accountable. People pay good money for digital and especially pricy hardback books, and should get what they pay for. I love the story of Sandman Slim, and will eagerly await his next book, but I have a feeling that Devil Said Bang is going on my list of books I just can't get into anymore.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Review: The Blinding Knife by Brent Weeks

On Brent Weeks, you sneaky bastard. After about two years of waiting for the sequel to The Black Prism, I was expecting another fiasco like with Patrick Rothfuss's Kingkiller Trilogy. Despite my misgivings, The Blinding Knife was the kind of wonderful book I hate reviewing because the bad parts sound worse after standing in awe of such a fantastic fantasy writer.

For those that haven't read the first book, I'll just gloss over the facts so I don't reveal too much of the spoilers. The Blinding Knife is the second book in the Lightbringer series (which i can only pray is just a trilogy) taking place in a land ruled by 7 different "satrapies" and a culture dominated by people called "Drafters". Drafters can control different colors in the light spectrum to create things: anything from tools to weapons and everything in between. Because of the strain such power puts on a person, Drafters have a fairly short shelf life depending on how frequently they draft and how powerful they are. When drafters "break the halo" they go mad.

The main characters of the story are Gavin Guile, the spiritual leader of the government that controls the drafters, and his bastard son Kip, a powerful, but self deprecating child. There are many other characters introduced throughout the story, which I'll get to later, but for the most part, Gavin and Kip are the ones to look out for. While Gavin is going about his business trying to save the world and working through some serious issues, Kip is learning to control his colors and working to become a Blackguard (elite drafters who protect Gavin and other high ranking members of the government.)

My favorite thing about Kip is that he is the perfect anti-hero. Even though he is immensely powerful, a quick witted smartass, and always does his best to save the day, he is so self deprecating I'm always surprised he doesn't start cutting himself halfway through a conversation with his fellow classmates. A lot of this has to do with his backstory: his mother was an emotionally abusive drug addict and his father is the most powerful and influential drafter in the world. It's enough to give anyone a complex, but no matter what Kip accomplishes, he always finds a way to show a way that he failed, making him such a flawed character that I can't help but  want to give him a hug and a cookie before telling him to go watch cartoons while the adults are busy.

On the flip side, Gavin is less likable in my opinion. Gavin is the Prism, the most powerful drafter in the world and the spiritual leader of Brent Weeks story. Gavin is not limited by the limitations of other drafters. While Gavin presents a cocky, self assured attitude, he has so many secrets that he always give off an air that he is misunderstood. There were so many times in the books that Gavin could have done something to fix his situation but doesn't and waxes at length about how misunderstood he is and how he wishes things were different.

As far as the writing goes, I have little in the way of complaint except for the speeches Gavin gives realism vs. believability, and the character shifts. First off were the long speeches Gavin gives about various things and indeed, some of them are given by other characters. Whole pages are filled up with exposition where Gavin or someone else will tell exactly how things go in paragraphs so long, even I feel winded reading them. While some of it was very important to the storyline, it just felt overdone to me (a little like Professor Binns in Harry Potter, the History of Magic teacher who puts people into comas just by talking.)

One of my issues I actually brought up on Brent Weeks twitter page, but here's just one example. Kip, who is kind of a country boy, is going out to a naval war and describing ships in great detail, everything to the terminology for parts of the boat to the different names for them. Later on, another character who has been trained in battle for years, goes on to say that she can't name any of the different sized ships. While naming the ships was realistic, it wasn't believable that Kip knew the smallest of minute details about every type of ship on the seas but his friends look at them and just say boat.

I've raged about shifting character views too much, but Brent Weeks almost seemed to have that under control in the first book. While there were about four characters in the last book, all of whom were given rich detail, this time Weeks did something new. Inter-spaced in the chapters are small chapters going into other characters lives. These chapters hardly lasted longer than a page or two, and while one or two of them was important, for the most part they seemed random and unhelpful to the actual plot. While I wouldn't be surprised if they show up to be important later on, I don't see them being all that memorable in two years when the next book coming up. To me they were kind of like a friend asking if you remember that one guy who worked at dairy queen two years ago.

For the most part, though, The Blinding Knife was an excellent book. While I was reading it I found myself setting it down after a few pages, just to make sure that I wouldn't finish it too soon, and I can't wait for the third book, The Blood Mirror.