Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Review: King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

It wasn't bad.

Can I go now? No? have no idea how hard it is to say that about this book after reading Prince of Thorns, the first book in the Broken Empire series by Mark Lawrence. I should also say that I have nothing against Mark Lawrence, he seems like a very nice man and I've enjoyed what few twitter conversations I've had with him. He seems like the kind of man who is more amused by bad reviews than annoyed, which isn't surprising since almost every review I've ever read on his books have been positive. As you know by now, though, I don't do "Positive" reviews, I do realistic ones, where I critique what works and what doesn't. My review of Prince of Thorns was, of course, one of my harsher reviews because to be honest, I really didn't enjoy it as a whole or in any part individually. I was reluctant, therefore, to pick up the second book, King of Thorns, because not only would it be unfair to review a book I already knew I wouldn't enjoy, but also because...honestly, I'm not a masochist.

But this month is about doing things differently, I picked up a book I really didn't want to read, a book in a genre that isn't exactly my forte, and I'm also doing an audio book to show that I can mix things up. So with that in mind, I picked up King of Thorns, (figuratively speaking since I got it on my new Kindle [yes I have a kindle, I like buying books at 2:00 AM when everything's closed]) and ripped into the pages with an open mind, and you know what, it really surprised me.

King of Thorns is the semi-direct continuation of Prince of Thorns, taking place in the far future, where the world has devolved back into a dark-ages type land after nuclear war set the world back to castles and knights. It's main character, the morally bankrupt Jorg Ancrath has become King of his uncles lands and has to take steps to protect them from a man who would take control of the Empires lands. All the while he is tortured by a figment from his past that he has locked away to retain his sanity, but which holds the key to making him whole again.

This book was a toss-up, to be honest. The first half of the book irritated me as much as I thought it would, all the problems I had from the first book were present in the second. Jorg is still self-serving and a moralizing nut job. Let me put it this way: listening to Jorg talk about life after having murdering an entire nation is a little like listening to Hannibal Lecter expounding on the moral imperative of vegetarianism. The characters are still disposable, most of them don't last long, and many that the author gets you to like end up dying in really inconvenient ways, making me wonder who's going to be alive by the time the third book comes around. The problem with the secondary characters is mostly that they are forgettable probably because they have such a short shelf-life, but I find that with the exception of Jorg's "brothers", if the characters are skipped for a few pages I sometimes forget who they were and have to look back. In any case, it's definitely a situation where more characters are being subtracted than added, and while far fewer of them were killed by Jorg, and indeed the body count for Jorg was at least kept in the thousands this time, it does make me wonder what kind of Emperor Jorg would be.

I'd have to say that the biggest problem that I have with the Broken Empire books is really Jorg's self-serving attitude. The majority of the book takes place with Jorg trying to help his young brother, Gog, who has been spontaneously setting his castle on fire and needs to learn to control himself. This is the perfect example of what I'm talking about, and is an ever present theme in the book, Jorg sets off to do something dangerous, and seemingly altruistic, and you think for a moment, "wow, this is growth...this is actually character development " And then Jorg says something stupid to ruin it, like that he was only doing something selfless to do something selfish, and it all falls back down to the lowest common denominator. It's common in the entire book, the entire series so far, in fact: that Jorg does something nice, then proves that he was only doing it for himself. I get it, that's your story and you're sticking to it, but at some point, the character really needs to grow otherwise who are you really reaching out to as far as readers?

But this month was about doing things differently, and that's what I did: I took this book, which I initially wasn't interested in reading, and I looked at it a way that I wouldn't even consider reading any other book before, or after as a matter of fact. What I did was, for lack of better word, whiteout Jorg's character flaws. Now I don't mean all of his flaws, because I get it, I really do: Jorg is a tragic character. He's had a rough break in his life: the unavenged murder of his mother and brother, the pain and rage that he's had to hold onto to get to where he's at, and the threat of murder by his contemporaries in both the noble society and the bandit brothers he camps with. Those are understandable; I'm talking about the manner of which he is morally ambiguous at the best of times, and a cesspool of crud at the worst. When I completely blanked out the part where Jorg does something corrupt for no apparent reason other than that he seems to be on a timer for it, (oops, I've been neutral for more than five pages, I better stab something!) the book became a surprisingly wonderful read. Don't get me wrong, I'm not so blind that I didn't notice it at all, I just kept it to my peripherals.

The opening sequence for the book was spectacular, giving an edgy, humanistic approach to the savagery of the setting. I kind of wish that the entire book could have been written just like it. I liked the interspersed journal entries by Kathrine, though I didn't like that they kept her from being a truly sympathetic character by making her a little crazy towards the end, although her spiraling was kind of interesting and it kept with the consistency. Mostly I just have to say that I really liked the segment where Jorg went to his maternal Grandfather's lands. That segment really humanized Jorg in a way the rest of the book could not. No matter what Jorg loses, as far as brothers or "friends" or even enemies and allies, he still remains a bit of a monster. But when Jorg goes there, it almost brings him to a level state where he's almost, if not quite, redeemable, than at least personable. 

Mostly, when I was looking through my blinders, I noticed that Jorg doesn't really have a plan in life. He wants to do things, don't get me wrong: he wants to be king, bam! he does just that, he wants to be emperor...well that seems to be on the agenda. But, like I said earlier, I just don't see the kind of emperor he will be as a good thing, and the way things are going it seems like it would be a random occurrence for it to happen at all. Mostly, Jorg just wanders around, meeting people he has somehow made a connection to, that we know we should find interesting, but don't really get a backstory to. Hey Lawrence, maybe you could make a short story about how Jorg met the circus the first time, so we can feel connections to them. That'd be cool...

When viewed through rose-colored glasses, the book takes on a much more interesting twist, becoming a story about a man who really wants to do the right thing, but doesn't know how. He wants to help a young boy, orphaned, learn to control this power he's been gifted with. He wants to prove himself to a family he's never met. He wants to gain alliances with other kingdoms for his future march for emperor. All of this done by being tortured by a memory he doesn't dare reach for. It becomes a story about a man who's lost everything, and wants to gain what little he can through whatever means he has at his disposal, which aren't always the most warm and fuzzy, but then again, war is hell and all those fun, generic platitude.

As far as writing goes, the book was a little mushed. Several things are happening all at once, and if you put the book down for a few days after finishing a chapter, you might pick it up to find yourself completely confused by what happens next, and that's ignoring the big disconnect that happens in the first act where Jorg has a memory taken out of his head and comes to learn he's missing weeks or months, I can't remember which it was just that disconcerting. If anyone remembers my review of Devil Said Bang, the first one at least, you'll understand what I'm talking about. One moment something's happening, the next, Rike's rooting through his pockets in some kind of desert.

I could go on for hours about what I didn't like about the book, but the fact is, it all pretty much evened out. Lawrence's use of irritating catchphrases, (really? "I don't like being angry, it makes me angry" made it off the cutting room floor again?) is evened out by some surprisingly fitting quotes from other books and historical events. Jorg's rambling inner monologue is matched by some deep scenes that have a deep feeling that reminded me of some of my favorite books, (yes, Mr. Lawrence, I secede the point that there were no trees in your marsh. I still say the overall scene reminds me of the FEELING that I got when reading Tolkien's Mirkwood section in The Hobbit.) And overall, the book felt well balanced and had some really good parts in them that made me want to continue reading.

My Final Point, is just to say this to you, the reader, and any writers out there. Mark Lawrence's Jorg seems to fall victim to one of the classic blunders, and no it's not "Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line." It's that just because something is obvious to the author, and to the character, doesn't mean it fits within the story. Several times in the book, Jorg has an "Ah-hah" moment, where he reveals that he knew something all along and that it was because...he's smart? He's been paying attention? No, he just knew, and we are supposed to go, "Oh, of course, that makes sense." Jorg is that kind of teacher that doesn't really care if you are paying attention to what he's teaching, because at some point he's going to say "1+1=banana," and watch with an amused smile while everyone copies it down studiously. I don't care about this trend with writers where they write without plot, to each their own. But things still have to add up. As a contrast, the big plot-driving secret in the book about the ghost Jorg keeps seeing seems less thrilling when you look at the clues hidden within the text. It's revealed to be a little bit of a twist at the end, but less so because Jorg's nature makes the reason for what happened somehow unimportant. Things have to add up, otherwise you are just saying random things and expecting people to make conclusions that never quite match up to reality.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Single Handed Part 2


I was brought out of my thoughts by yet another bump in the road, accompanied by a high-pitched giggle from the man across from me. It was hard to decide which was more irritating. I didn’t bother guessing though, and instead turned my attention back to the small gold band wrapped snugly around my pinky. It was the only finger the ring fit comfortable on.

“Isn’t it odd,” the man across from me asked, his tone overly cheerful, “for the chief of Asgard police to escort a prisoner to a court hearing?”

I looked up. The man across from me was Elias Fenton, one of the gang leaders controlling the central Asgard areas. You wouldn’t know it to look at him, though, chained up hand to foot and sitting casually on the other side of the transport van. He was as tall as I was, at six-foot-four, but wiry and lean. His hair, once spiked and ragged, laid flat against his skull in uneven clumps. In his orange jump suit, he reeked of sweat and some kind of cheap aftershave they’d let him wear for his arraignment. It had helped a little, but the man stank and he refused to shower.

I lowered my eyes back to the ring and debated answering him. It was dumb not to. I had questions, but the one I had to ask myself, was whether or not the little psychopath would answer them. Fenton’s gang, the Wolves, was one of the most vicious in the city. Fenton’s rap sheet alone was as long as he was tall, and even that failed to really show what a nut job the man really was.

In the end I decided it couldn’t hurt to talk. “Not odd…just rare,” I growled, looking him in the eye, “Lt. Locke wanted to escort you, but I had other things for him to do.”

For a second, I thought I saw a subtle twitch of Fenton’s jaw, but it disappeared the moment he grinned. While Fenton’s childlike giggle was irritating, it was the grin that unnerved me the most. Rather than looking pleased, the grin made him look predatory…feral. It was the look a rabid dog gave before it bit your fingers off. “Good,” Fenton said, “I hate that fucker.”

“Oh?” I said, trying to seem casual, all the while my heart racing. I tried not to let too much of my thoughts show on my face as I wondered how I could get what I needed without tipping him off. “You know Lt. Locke? Alexander Locke?”

Fenton’s smile faltered a little, but he blustered through, “That’s his first name?
 Yeah, Lt. Locke. He runs the gang unit, right? I’ve had a few close calls with him. Finally caught me though, right?”

“Nope, that was me,” I said, and it was true enough. A few weeks back I’d been brought in on a case involving a local private detective and a family of scumbags. Three murders, all of them brutal, especially the sister who’d died worse than any of them. The best part had been the evidence: a single ring implicating a dirty cop. After that, I’d known I had to bring in Fenton. It had taken a lot of work, and a lot of palms had needed greasing, but in the end the net had finally caught Fenton. Now I just needed answers.

Once again, Fenton seemed to falter, but recovered quickly. “You’re an idiot, Tyler.”

“Excuse me?”

“You come off like some kinda peacock, strutting your stuff: moving officers around, claiming credit for an operation you probably only had a small part in, and for what? So I can be impressed? You’re nothing. You’re less than nothing. A glorified desk jockey in a shiny uniform.”

“I got you, though,” I said, smiling at him.

“Yippee!” Fenton said, twirling his hand in the cuffs. It was a little disturbing to watch. Fenton’s hand was viciously mangled: his ring and middle finger were missing, and the middle of his palm was gutted and hollow in the center so that you could see all the way through it. “You must feel so clever, Tyler. Well, don’t: I won’t stay locked up.”

“You’ve got at least three dozen murders on your record,” I said, “at least four of those were cops, one of them died during your arrest. You’re going into a cell so deep, you may forget what fresh air smells like.” I took a pointed sniff in his direction. “Not that you ever knew what that smelled like.”

Fenton just kept grinning, “If it were anyone but you, I might think I was, and maybe for a good reason. But I’ve had too many close calls to get caught now. I think you’re being played.”

“What do you mean, played? By who?”

“I mean that somebody probably wanted you, me and that ring you keep flashing in my face in this cage together, so -”

Fenton never finished his sentence. There was a crash of screaming metal behind me that sent me flying just as the whole world went sideways…then, black.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Review: The Daylight War by Peter V. Brett

First off, I'd like to thank everyone for their patience in waiting for my new review. We had a lot of tragedies this month, and it's good to step aside sometime and give notice to the things that matter. Books are important, but it's important to look aside sometime and branch out and do new things. That said, I thought that I would ease back into my normal, catty, snarky routine with a book that I really enjoyed, rather than going full blast on a book that has taken me more than a month to get through. That said, here we go.

Long ago, so long ago that it has long passed into legend, there was a war between man and a power much stronger than themselves. In that battle, this man, this chosen one, if you will, used the power of his enemies against them, changing the course of battle. After his death, it was fortold that there would be another chosen who would bring victory to the humans and one day drive their enemies back for good. Now man has fallen into subservience once more, becoming both food and sport for the enemy, until a chosen one stood up once again, forming a group of resistance, using the very weapons their enemies have used against them for centuries. the Matrix.

Wait, no, sorry, got confused, this is The Demon Cycle series by Peter V. Brett, starting with The Warded/Painted Man, depending on what country you live in, continuing with The Desert Spear and now with the third book, The Daylight War. The book chronicles a world where every night, demons come out of the core of the earth and rampage, held at bay only by wards, a kind of cuneiform/mandarin script that sometimes fails them. In the story, four people, now 5 in the newest book, take control of their destinies and fight back the demons.

First of all, I know it doesn't seem like it by the catty introduction, but I have nothing but the utmost respect for this book. The fact that the book series reminds me of a fantasy version of the Matrix doesn't detract for the series. If anything, it only adds to it for me, because I actually liked the Matrix. Christopher Paolini did a similar thing with his first book, Eragon (honestly, just give it a real clinical look and you'll see it too,) but his books just dived after the second book anyway.

I liked the series so much in fact, that after I bought the first book, it only took me a day to read and I immediately bought the second one and have been waiting on pins and needles anticipating the next which only came out recently. What's so great about this book? The characters are realistic and sympathetic, unique and free thinking in such a regard that I can actually believe in them. The action sequences are fun and spine-tingling, but not too long, so as not to detract from the story.

The part that really gets me, in a bad way, is the race called the Krasians. The Krasians are a desert living people, they hold fast to an almost fanatical religion that has them fight the demons in a losing battle each night. The interesting thing about them, is what I learned after taking a Western Civilization course in college last year.While I was taking the course, I was reading Desert Spear, and it was impossible not to notice the increadible similarities between the cultures of Muslims and Krasians. Now, there's nothing wrong with this in general, people do this all the time, drawing from stereotypes and cultures to make world developement flow easier, but the funny thing is there is a disclaimer at the beginning of the book stating that "any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental."

...Really, Brett? It was too hard to just let people think you got them from Muslim culture. Do me a favor, readers, look up the history of the Muslim culture with their introduction to Western Civilization and how they spread across Europe. It's always good to learn something useful, if you get anything else out of it.

A broad overview of The Daylight War is that the main characters have realized that there are smarter demons out there than the ones that they have been fighting since they first learned they could do so, and that they are preparing to start an all out assault on them to snuff out human resistance before it can really take hold. These demons are so sensitive to light, being from the darkest part of the core of the earth, that they can only come out on the new moon, giving the characters time to better prepare and have some good character developing points, which is more or less what the book is actually about. I'm not going to say there wasn't some good storyline and battle scenes, but in actuality, the story had very little to do with the demons or the "Daylight War" which I'll get to later on, and more to do with how the characters are drifting from each other and really making themselves individuals.

That said, it's really important to know that I really like this kind of storytelling. Battles don't always translate very well to print, and I think that Brett does an excellent job of keeping them short and sweet. What matters is the characters, how they work together, and how they are unique. The characters started out very well in the first two books, but they were kind of joined at the hip. Now that they are forced to kind of branch out, it's interesting to see how they are growing and developing on their own.

The first book, which I started before I really got to reviewing, was primarily about the main characters (at least the primary ones, in my opinion since they are more centralized to the story.) Arlen, the painted man who has wards tattooed onto his flesh to battle the demons and has developed a certain god-like quality to him literature-wise. Leesha, the herb-gatherer of Cutter/Deliverer's Hollow, a kind of medicine woman/doctor of her village who has taken to creating inventive ways to protect her people. And Rojer, a Jongleur or traveling bard who can repel demons and even control them a little, with his fiddle music. With the advent of the second book, a second set of characters were introduced, Jardir and Abban, and in the third, Inevera, Jardir's wife was given segments.

A lot of people complained that Jardir's storyline was too invasive in the second book, since much of the book was dedicated to background to his and Abban's life. I just have to roll my eyes about that, because the first book was DOMINATED by backstory as to how the main characters became how they needed to be. It was only fair that Jardir should get the same right. What people need to understand is that Jardir, and by extension, his people, are not the antagonists in the story, at least not major ones. They have a reason for doing what they are doing, and for them it's every bit as important as everyone else's. What I don't like, though, is that Brett seems to have taken everyone’s complaints to heart in his development of The Daylight War.

The main cover shows Inevera, Jardir's wife, a powerful mystic in her culture called a Dama'ting. Inevera has shown herself to be ruthless and powerful as well as jealous and vengeful, making her a bit more fun in the previous books. Her back-story in The Daylight War has shown her to have developed that way, and actually didn't reveal any startling developments in her character. I get the feeling that Brett was trying to humanize her like he did Jardir in The Desert Spear, but it kind of fell short. It didn't make me like her any less, but I certainly didn't like her justifications any better afterwards. This could have been because her sections were stunted. Rather than have her character dominate the book like Jardir's did, hers were shorter and less impressive, only spanning a few chapters worth of information, almost like filler episodes in a series when they are waiting for the real episodes to air.

Arlen's sections were similarly stunted, to the point that we didn't actually get to see his perspective until almost half-way through the book, instead being replaced by Renna Tanner, a blip on the first book and a secondary character in The Desert Spear, her main purpose mostly explaining what happened after Arlen ran away from home and really justifying Arlen's return home to Tibbet's Brook. Renna is Arlen's promised bride and takes a similar route as he does. At the end of The Desert Spear Arlen seems to have attained a new level of power making him again stronger than any of the normal demons and many of the people who were finally beginning to get to his level of power. I really feel that the reason that Arlen is so downplayed in the new book is because of that whole ultimate power thing.

It's not until later on in the story when he comes head to head with the Mind Demons, a demon general if you will, that Arlen's perspective is really brought back into play, and it mostly seems like its done to smack him down a few pegs when he's found wanting. This is both good and bad in my opinion. On one hand, it led to some good character growth for other characters, and the new ones that were brought in, but on the other hand Arlen is a major player in the series, and just having him be seen to change doesn't bring as much to the table as when he realizes he is changing. So I guess it's kind of a neutral point for me.

That brings me to the other characters, who are not really secondary protagonists, but are less omnipotent than Arlen and Jardir get to be at times. Rojer has always been important in my opinion, but that's mostly just because I have a feeling he's being downplayed for a very important reason that I think was hinted at in the first book but not fully explored. I don't know if that's because Brett wants to leave it as a surprise in the next or last book, or if I'm reading too much into the Deliverer mythos, so in any case, I'll leave that for later. He's a fun character, but at the same time, I think that he really gets downplayed when the more serious events come up, or when he's not playing music.

By comparison, Leesha has been played up a lot, making her seem a little more important than she really is. On one hand she's attracted the attention of some important men, and I think that that makes her feel a little like a chess piece in the book, but on the other hand, she has some real importance to her if only because she is one of the more practiced Herb Gatherers in the area, and because she's been doing research on the demons, discovering weaknesses and ways to battle them. On the opposite side of things her jealousy of Renna seemed a little bit forced considering Renna is an unknown quality to her and that she's already developed feelings for other people. I felt it was a little forced in the end, and with all of the triangles being introduced it's turning into some kind of weird pachinko game where characters keep bouncing off pegs and who know where they're going to wind up.

The writing for The Daylight War is solid, and the pacing was nice. The book was set up in four different quadrants: the return home and things being worked out with Jardir's people, then the battle at Deliverer's Hollow, then the battle at Everams Bounty, then the conclusion which was intermixed with the demons planning things out and Inevera's back-story. Mostly I just thought that the battle at Everams Bounty took too little time and Deliverer's Hollow took too much, but considering the people in Deliverer's Hollow all worked together and had unique stories that was expected, whereas there were only really two perspectives being shared at Everams Bounty and Jardir is more of a lone-wolf leader.

All of this just leads me to one thing, because I know that this review has been particularly long, but like I said, I really do like this book. The one thing I have to wonder is: Where is the "Daylight War" in The Daylight War? I know that this is really anal of me to mention, but the book is all about the battle with the demons during the New Moon. I know we couldn't really call it that, damn you Stephanie Meyers, but the title is incredibly misleading. In the book series, the Daylight War is the war with humanity where the Deliverer, the chosen one, unites all of the people under his banner and prepares his people for the final battle with the demons. I get that, that's very important, but at the same time, no part of that is in the book, it's hardly even mentioned at all, except in passing. It might have been important in the first part when the Hollowers are returning home through the occupied land, but it's not central to the storyline of the book at all, so why even name it that, out of anything that could have taken place.

The Warded Man was all about the three characters converging with Arlen and the new battle starting. The Desert Spear was primarily about Jardir's rise to power and attaining the Spear of Kaji, a relic proclaiming him as the new Deliverer. The Daylight War is about fighting mind demons and a very interesting conclusion that just shouts out "CLIFFHANGER", though I should say it's a bit ironic to say so. All in all, my few gripes are tiny, I would definitely suggest The Demon Cycle books to real lovers of fantasy, and remember to keep your wards clear, because Waning is on its way again...