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Book Reviews

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A mix of hard science fiction and space opera, the story is set throughout the Milky Way galaxy over about six million years. Its mix of fantastic elements and plausible science takes some getting used to but Reynolds is a worthy world-builder; though I wished he’d leaned more to the science side than the fantasy side at times. The novel’s strength is undoubtedly its plotting. It moves most of the time at a brisk pace pulling the reader along and allowing seemingly disparate ideas to click together in the tapestry of the overall tale. Unfortunately, the characterization is lacking. It is told in alternating chapters from the perspective of two “shatterlings” called Purslane and Campion. Like in my recent review of Leviathan Wakes, this felt a wasted device as both seemed so similar and were mostly going through the same experiences. The nature of the shatterling (they are two of 1000 clones of an original human—Abigail—who is herself the POV narrator, in flashback, of the beginning of each of the book’s eight parts. That said, these shatterlings are clearly different characters and not Xerox copies, plus they’ve had six million years of individual experiences with which to shape them. But unfortunately they never feel very distinct nor do I share much empathy with them. Still, the ideas are grand and fun to experience. I’m not sure if the book left several key things purposefully ambiguous, or if they were poorly conveyed, or if I was too dense to get it, but I still have questions left unanswered. I would, in the end, give it a soft 3.5 stars.
 
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I didn’t love the first book but I bought the three book set so I plodded forward. I’m glad I did, but barely. I was worried at first because our main characters are not where I think they should’ve been. However that does get taken care of in the narrative and there is at least some attempt at character development and growth. But it all drags on a little too slowly for most of the book. I did find the plot more engaging in this book. I think it benefits from the fact that the magic system—allomancy—has already been established in book one. I’m sure many will find fault with the amount of politics in this book. And while I did feel like it could’ve been tighter, I liked the idea of exploring how a society might try to take root after a long reigning tyrant is deposed. Of course, the strength of this book is the plot which comes to a marvelous conclusion on the final hundred pages or so. Sanderson did a good job of laying the groundwork but also making the ending feel natural, earned, and surprising. Overall, it just felt like a much more mature work than the previous novel; enough so that I’ll jump right to the trilogy’s conclusion.
 
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After enjoying the second book in the series more than the first, unfortunately this one lapsed back into what gave me problems with the first book. Namely, it reads like an encyclopedia of the magic system and world building loosely hung around a plot. There’s just entirely too much time explaining what the various creatures are and where they come from and how it all fits together. And it is explained through clunky exposition. And that comes at the expense of characterization. While none of the books have been particularly great with regard to character, the second book at least gave us a bit more to grab onto there. But those main characters are mostly back to their one dimensional selves from the first book here. I have never read the Silmarillion, but from what I understand it backfills a lot of the lore and world building from Lord of the Rings. This is, I imagine, what the Lord of the Rings would have been had it sacrificed character to include all that lore from the Silmarillion.

I can easily see why this appeals to many fantasy fans though. It is meticulous in its world building and the plot does feel like it was all outlined in detail before one page of book one was written. I imagine geeks at ComiCon trying to poke holes in it to no avail. But for me, we’re told emotion and love matter to the story and indeed to our heroes’ advantage, but I never really felt it. Moments that are supposed to be big emotional climaxes felt hollow because these are mostly characters that exist to fulfill plot points, not real characters that I relate to.

The three books do provide a satisfying plot arc, with pieces neatly falling into place. I couldn’t help but think this is sort my anti-Lost. While that show, frustratingly lacked a cohesive plot and an overarching plan, it did well with characters. I’d argue the island was merely a MacGuffin for the characters‘ development. As such, I was less frustrated than many with the show because I enjoyed the ride with those characters. This book series was the opposite. Despite spending so much time, so many pages with these characters I hardly knew them. They all could be summed up in a couple of sentences as they were in book one. All plot, no character. But that strikes me as just the sort of thing many might be looking for in a fantasy series and, indeed, it feels like Sanderson wrote exactly the book he would’ve wanted to read.
 
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As the quotes on the jacket allude, Tartt’s novel clearly wears its Dickensian influences on its sleeve. There’s also not-so-subtle nods to Dostoevsky. I didn’t much like Tartt’s The Secret History. This is definitely an improvement and the prose is wonderful. But it could’ve used a stronger editor. It definitely loses focus quite a bit and for the deeper themes the author doesn’t trust the reader at all. The final bit of the book is literally just spelling out what she wants her readers to take away from the book.

Spoilers ahead

Still, it kept me interested and ruminating on the idea of the wounded psyche. Our main character Theo makes self-destructive choice after self-destructive choice and yet remained (somewhat) sympathetic to me. The titular Goldfinch painting serves as a through line for our main character and an avatar for the beauty the author wishes us to see, not to mention the main MacGuffin for the novel’s thriller elements. Theo views the painting less and less, eventually sealing it up and never viewing it as he seals off parts of himself—his beauty—due to his PTSD. It also serves as a totem of Theo’s inner struggle between innocence and guilt, a very Dostoevsky theme. As we reach the novel’s conclusion the painting is no longer Theo’s to be locked away; it (along with other precious works) is free to the world, again miraculously enduring. And so, too, presumably is Theo. Though not for a fairy tale, happily ever after ending. As Boris has told us, as a sort of reciprocal of Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin in The Idiot, good things have come from bad.

Tartt’s writing is much improved over The Secret History. I feel she still gives minor characters the short shrift, but main characters are much more developed. I wish she would’ve trusted the reader more, however. And another editing pass would’ve helped in my opinion. But obviously the Pulitzer Prize Board disagreed with me, so who am I.
 
Fazbear Frights #1 : Into The Pit

9/10 - I was actually surprised for the book to be that good. The only annoying thing (but yet understandable) was that the last story was left open-ended about whether the victim has escaped or not.
 
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I picked this up because I had heard it was one of the more character driven fantasy series out there. And while it does seem more interested in character than most of the fantasy I’ve read, I didn’t find it particularly compelling in that sense. Also this is not really a novel; it is the first act of a three part story. It introduces characters, settings, conflicts, etc., but it never really gives us a rooting interest or even anything to look forward to. It’s just stuff that happens to a collection of flawed characters that we only know as protagonists based on the amount of time we spend with them. Hopefully the rest of the trilogy will make this one better, but it is very hard to recommend this based on this book alone.
 
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Book two of Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy is more of the same for me unfortunately. I’m not feeling a compelling through-line nor do I feel invested in any of the characters. I’ll finish the trilogy—as it really reads as one long novel—and hope for the best.
 
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I first read this in high school and I think it’s a great novel for a high schooler. It is fun, light, interesting, quick “chapterettes,” feels subversive and is endlessly quotable. Its subtext is easy to decode, even if a bit sophomoric. It’s a fun read, but ultimately its messages about human nature, war, governments, and of course science and religion aren’t particularly insightful or deep in 2024, if they ever were. To his credit, I think Vonnegut knew this.


“Man blinked. "What is the purpose of all this?" he asked politely.

"Everything must have a purpose?" asked God.

"Certainly," said man.

"Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this," said God.”
 
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Ugh, I’m so disappointed by this series. The writing isn’t bad, but there’s little plotting and the much ballyhooed characters are frankly mostly inert. This wouldn’t have been nearly so bad if it were a standalone novel, but three pretty long novels that don’t really have individual story arcs is tough to forgive when you’re just not carried along by any narrative momentum. These are characters in the sense some of them are funny and they seem somewhat distinct from each other (though there isn’t THAT much distinct about them other than archetypes). But mostly the plot happens TO them rather than as a result of their actions. The lone exception may be Bayaz. We spend a great deal of the three novels on wars: one in the north and one in the south. But these foes are completely undeveloped. The north is led by a character (whose name I can’t even remember) that is goaded into this war by a “witch,” but that goes virtually nowhere. The south is led by an Emperor that we don’t really meet or learn about at all. So off folks go to war and war happens to them but the main characters don’t really impact things much other than maybe being good at fighting. I’m not even really sure why we’re following these characters most of the time. The side quest to the “end of the world “ to retrieve the Seed is a big dud. We don’t know the motivation for wanting the Seed and it all really leads nowhere for an entire 500+ pages. In short, these characters don’t have clear desires/objectives; there doesn’t feel like there are clear stakes; the obstacles to moving the plot forward seem arbitrary, unexplained, and largely unaffected by the main characters. There really isn’t much of a simple power struggle dynamic that one would expect in this sort of fantasy story. By far the most interesting characters are the aforementioned Bayaz and the crippled torturer Glotka. But, without spoilers, we spend entirely too long ambling along until we see them have any real objective. For Bayaz, at least, the objective was there all along, but we as the reader are not privy to it until the late in the third book. And by that time, I’d frankly stopped caring. If morally grey characters fighting for no good reason and displaying little to no growth interests you, perhaps you’ll get more out of it than I did.
 
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Gaiman creates a world and a literary universe that isn’t fully formed. Having not read other Gaiman, I’m not sure if that is intentional, leaving the reader with an opportunity to fill in the blanks—so-to-speak—with the reader’s own ideas. At that it succeeded wonderfully for me as it gave me new ideas to ponder each day. But scratch too much at that universe and it begins to fall apart. This is often an issue I have with this kind of magical realism. But I get the feeling that while Gaiman is intrigued with these ideas, he doesn’t have much to say about them or is afraid to offend the more modern gods. I’m not sure how you can have a book like this without Christianity for example (though there was a brief bit with Jesus included in the postscript of my edition that Gaiman opted not to include in the novel). Many of the gods (and the cultures from which they originated) represented are rather stereotypical and not always flattering. The middle eastern god as a cab driver, the Irish as a drunk bum, etc. The new gods of Media, Technology, etc. feel very underwritten. There just isn’t much there there for this to be the showdown we’re told it is. However I was able to overlook much of this through the first half of the book as I was intrigued by the ideas; it did get me thinking. Alas, the book really did regress to pulp fiction by the end and that ending didn’t feel properly climactic or earned. I’d give it a mild recommendation.
 
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It’s easy to see why this novel was so divisive. It’s at turns vulgar and comical, madcap and bizarre, bordering on science fiction while also at times toying with historical fiction. It swings wildly from episode to episode in terms of tone and even genre. It’s ambiguous and can be a totally frustrating read with copious obscure references that made me feel the need to use outside sources to fully comprehend (side note: I purchased A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion by Steven C. Weisenburger, which served as a sort of footnotes and made the experience similar to reading Infinite Jest). It also has some of the most beautifully written prose I’ve ever read punctuated by diversions that read like something a middle school boy might dream up. It is first and foremost a satire and has more of obvious through-line plot than many postmodernist novels I’ve read, even if that’s not really the point. With a handful of notable exceptions, though, the characters are thin and almost cartoonish, making them hard to empathize with despite seeing them go through some awful stuff. My favorite parts are when it focuses on the characters such as the episode with the German Pökler. The novel needed more of this in my opinion; and more of of that kind of development for our “main characters.” Though, of course, many would argue that’s not the point. What the point is could certainly be debated. The titular Gravity’s Rainbow might literally refer to the arc of the V2 rocket, but it also represents the arc of 20th century history, with World War 2 as perhaps the Brennschluss or the apex of that century, for better or worse. Pynchon throws the kitchen sink at this thesis with ruminations on ideas big and small. Every shower thought seems to have made its way to the page. If the novel has a main character it is Tyrone Slothrop. Mostly though the events of the novel happen to Slothrop or around him. He isn’t so much the primary mover as you’d expect from a protagonist. And there are a myriad of characters that could vie for the title of main character at various points in the novel. But Slothrop’s journey does loosely tie the novel together as does the V2 rocket. Pynchon seems to be arguing that World War 2 was the apex of the century—or perhaps even human evolution—from which we can only arc downward on inertia, with technology and (what we’d today call) late-stage capitalism leading the way. Nations and ideologies pale in comparison. And yet all those heady ideas are wrapped up in a farcical novel that features (among other things) a sentient and immortal lightbulb named Byron the Bulb. As with many postmodernist novels, I feel like now that I’ve read the book, I’m ready to read the book. And someday I might.
 
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This one had a ton of praise heaped upon it a few years ago. And I must say there is a lot to like here. It does a great job of establishing its world and making it feel grounded despite some fantastic elements (though not as much as many fantasy novels). It raises some interesting themes without being heavy-handed. It feels fresh in many ways despite a lot of standard fantasy tropes. And I enjoyed the author’s writing.

That said, I had a hard time getting past a few things. The first of which seems increasingly common: a book which is less a story of its own and more a set up for a series. I don’t mind taking a good story and expanding it to a series, but I do feel each book should be its own journey.

Second, the structure of the story told in this first installment is reliant on a couple of mysteries. But those mysteries are only for the reader and wouldn’t be mysterious if you were actually living in this world. Once you reach the conclusion of the book you realize that for anyone viewing or experiencing this story, there’s very little mystery at all. In other words, the mystery is mostly in how the author chooses to reveal information to the reader. Obviously I’m being cagey here so as to avoid spoilers. But suffice it to say, the author purposefully holds back key information about setting and character that should be given to the reader, in my opinion. To be fair, the author does provide clues and I was aware of SOMETHING going on pretty early. But to me this kind of manipulative mystery is the worst kind of plot twist and feels unearned.

But overall I did enjoy it enough to purchase the next installment (though not enough to jump right into it). I’m hopeful that, with the groundwork laid, the rest of the series can expand on the depth of the themes and world and dispense with the narrative trickery.
 
Oathbringer - Brandon Sanderson. I knew nothing about the book, a friend just picked it for some of us to read together and it was amazing.
 
Oathbringer - Brandon Sanderson. I knew nothing about the book, a friend just picked it for some of us to read together and it was amazing.

Without having read the first two books, does it still make sense since you started from the middle of the series?

I've never read any Sanderson stuff, but I've heard the Stormlight Archive has been one of the most popular fantasy series out there.
 
Without having read the first two books, does it still make sense since you started from the middle of the series?

I've never read any Sanderson stuff, but I've heard the Stormlight Archive has been one of the most popular fantasy series out there.
I haven’t read the Stormlight series but my reviews of the Mistborn series are at the top of this page. Sanderson is definitely a worldbuilding, magic system building, plot first writer. Characters? Not so much. If that sounds like your kind of thing I’d definitely give it a go.
 
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This series is getting all kinds of praise lately, but I held back on it because it is advertised as space opera. Space operas can be great. But those great space operas are few and far between for me. To me, a space opera is simply a fantasy story with a sci-fi facade. Star Wars and Dune could easily be told as traditional fantasy stories, for example. To me, science fiction is about ideas and if a fantasy story wants to be a space opera it should have those sci fi trappings for a reason beyond just being cool. I admit this is all just my hang ups.

Empire of Silence is definitely a space opera in the sense that it could be easily told as a traditional fantasy story; it, at least so far, has no need of its future and off-world setting. It actually reads like Dune fan fiction at the outset. Like Dune it does try to ground things with its science fiction aspects as opposed to Star Wars that simply uses a magic system. But I liked the world building and especially the character development of our main (and POV) character Hadrian Marlowe.

The book reads as a collection of three (or maybe four) novellas; distinct sections of the book that transition rather abruptly. But strangely, despite that, the whole book still feels like a prologue. I like the fact that Hadrian isn’t immediately all that sympathetic. And, as I said, the character work that happens as a result of getting his perspective is one of the book’s strengths.

It’s a very good book, very well written and almost astounding as a debut novel. But I find myself again left frustrated by the trend to treat first books as a mere first chapter (or prologue) in a series as opposed to a standalone story. I enjoyed the book and will definitely read more, but I do feel a bit betrayed especially given the promise of the book’s initial framing device. When I pick up a 600 page novel that tells me how it is going to end, I am assuming that end will come at the end of THIS book, not some future series. A series can still be built from a good standalone debut.
 
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A piercing account of the lasting effects of slavery. Though the body may be freed, the mind and soul aren’t as easily liberated. Told non-linearly through beautifully haunting prose the effect is a dreamlike experience that takes root and doesn’t let you go. It’s hard to call this an enjoyable read despite its power and beauty. But I’m sure it is not for everyone though it makes me sad to see that people actively hated this book. I can only surmise as to why, but I’d guess it has to do with a more literal reading and finding the surface level plot of ghost story/haunted house unfulfilling. And, if that’s what you’re after, there are probably better choices. But that’s not really what the novel is about. For me, it felt like an extended poem on trauma, grief, and, of course, the horror of slavery and evils that awful time in our history continues to wreak.
 
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Over the course of a week I read both the Shadow of the Torturer and the Claw of Conciliator by Gene Wolfe. These are the first two books on his four book series called The Book of the New Sun. It has an almost legendary status among authors such as Ursula K. LeGuin, Neil Gaiman, and George RR Martin to name a few. I was not taken by the first book and almost gave up on the series. But a little investigation revealed that the rewards of this series are said to really only be derived after completion of the whole series, it having a sort of postmodernist bent (though it is certainly not a postmodernist novel). So I decided to try to finish the series.

Having now completed the four books of the main story (there are other books), I can say I warmed to it a bit, but still did not love it.

On its surface it is a pretty straightforward Hero’s Journey road story. Our (unreliable) narrator and central protagonist Severian finds himself swept up into a series of adventures. Much of it proceeds in an almost dreamlike manner, with characters coming and going and set-ups without payoffs. Though I enjoyed Wolfe’s prose, I didn’t find the vignettes compelling enough to really hold my interest and I often found my mind wandering while reading. This is obviously suboptimal for a book that many describe as needing at least three readings before beginning to fully grasp what’s going on.

And perhaps I did miss much, but honestly it didn’t feel as deep as many would have you believe. And though I attended Catholic Sunday School as a child (Wolfe was a dedicated Catholic), perhaps my knowledge has waned enough that what Wolfe was doing was lost on me. Whatever the case, I just didn’t find the four book read compelling enough to want to revisit to see if that’s so.

There is a cottage industry of people dedicated to unraveling the subtext of these books with podcasts such as Alzabo Soup dedicating hours of analysis to each chapter. But again, I’m just not invested enough to pursue something like that. I’m glad I read it but I doubt I’ll ever get to a re-read or any of the continuing stories.
 
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Mao II is a painting by Andy Warhol. Warhol, the artist, through a series of screen prints of famous people from art, popular culture, and politics; the mass-produced monolith. There’s irony that Warhol himself became one of these figures; a singular face in a crowd. The push and pull of crowds and individualism is a constant theme in the novel.

The novel follows Bill Gray, a novelist who, uncomfortable with his fame, has become a recluse (of course calling to mind Pynchon and Salinger). But the more Bill shuns the spotlight, the more his myth grows and he becomes a sort of prisoner of his own making.

The novel is very American; an examination of American individualism. And in many ways, it was prescient and ahead of its time. With a few exceptions, it feels more like a modern novel than one written over 30 years ago. We wish to see ourselves as individuals, first and foremost, that stand above and mean something—that have an impact on culture, society, and the world around us. But we need that constant approval and those compatriots to validate us.

DeLillo uses the comparisons of writers vs. terrorists and the word vs. the image as his primary means of expressing all of this. And, as usual for DeLillo, reading the words on the page sweeps you in. This is only my second DeLillo novel (Underworld) and it didn’t come close to the lofty heights of that one. It does suffer from a lack of emotional connection with the characters. It is primarily a book to get you thinking, not one you’ll likely find yourself emotionally engaged with. Regardless, DeLillo is fast shooting up my list of favorite authors.
 
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Tigana is a fantasy novel. It has all the trappings: wizards and magic, warriors, sword & arrow, the Everyman (and woman) called to adventure, the warring factions in a vaguely medieval version of Europe (Renaissance Italy in this case). And it works as a simple adventure fantasy, if a little plodding in parts. But Tigana is much more than that. The titular Tigana is the homeland of our protagonists. But it was conquered, its people slaughtered, and its name, culture and history literally erased from the world through sorcery. The only ones who can even hear the name, let alone remember its history, are those born there. The perpetrator of this act is the sorcerer Brandin of Ygrath, also king of western Palm, the land in which the story takes place. Brandin is not a simple twirling mustache antagonist however. He did what he did to Tigana because they killed his son. And Brandin ends up being nearly as sympathetic as the protagonists, who have their own issues. I don’t feel any of this is particularly spoilery, by the way as we learn all of this very early on.

This all sets up the themes that Kay is playing with here. The most notable theme is that of memory. Obviously the erasure of the memory of Tigana and its cultural identity is crucial. It really taps into humanity’s need for a shared heritage and gets you thinking about what that all means to us as a society and individually. But Kay balances that with the idea that too long of a memory can be just as destructive. Brandin suffers for this as do our protagonists. Sometimes it is better to let the past be the past.

I really enjoyed this book. Kay’s writing is lyrical and further elevates the story. It is not without flaws however. It definitely drags a bit in the middle but I largely forgive this due to my enjoyment of the prose. The characters also come across as thinly drawn and forgettable. For characters grappling with these wonderful themes, I really hoped the book would engender more empathy for them. But you don’t get the feeling you really know them, which is a shame and my biggest criticism of the novel. Still, I definitely recommend this book if you want something a bit deeper from the fantasy genre.
 
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