Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Read-Along: Part 2 of The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

It's a bit late in the day, but here are my responses for part 2 of the read-along, which covers chapters 6-9.  Much thanks to Dab of Darkness and Little Red Reviewer for organizing, hosting and providing discussion questions.  There's only one week of reading remaining for this fun little book, after today! 

From here on out, there are spoilers through Chapter 9 of The Wee Free Men.

1.  Do you think Tiffany will be able to hold up her end of the bargain that she made with the Kelda? 

I don't think she and Rob are going to have 'hundreds of wee babbies", but I think she'll try to do her best by the Feegles until they get a new kelda.  With their superior knowledge of Fairyland, they're more looking out for her at the moment than she is for them.  I get the feeling that's going to turn around at some point.

2.Do you think Tiffany and Fion will ever be friends?

I think they'll eventually come to respect one another, but I doubt they'll ever be having sleepovers and braiding each other's hair.  I think Fion will be much less resentful of Tiffany when she's kelda of her own clan of Feegles.

3. What do you think of the Queen's world? How does this interpretation of Fairyland mesh with other interpretations you've run into in other books?

I think this is probably my favorite interpretation of Fairyland.   At the very least, it is up in my top Fairylands, which also includes the Fairyland from Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (which is also quite a deadly place). I liked the nightmare creatures, the danger, and how it is too little reality stretched over too large a space.  I wonder about the worlds where it picked up some of those creatures. 

4. What do you think of Roland? Will he be a help to Tiffany or a hindrance?

He doesn't seem very helpful at first glance, but then again, he has managed to not die in Fairyland for a while.  I wonder if he was actually kidnapped by the Queen, or if he actually just wandered in.  If the Queen took him, how did he get away from her?  Considering all this, I think he'll be a help to her, though she might have to twist his arm a little.

5. I don't know about you, but I do NOT want to run into a Drome!

Yeah, I would like to never encounter one of those, too. I'm pretty good at telling when I'm dreaming, but I don't know if that would even be a good enough defense.  If the Drome puts you in the state of mind you find while mostly unconscious, I don't know if I would be able to choose to leave a pleasant dream.  

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Review: Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb
Published: Random House Publishing Group (1996)
Series: Book 1 of the Farseer Trilogy
Awards Nominated: British Fantasy Society Award

The Book:

“In a certain coastal kingdom, the nobility were named for the qualities their parents hoped they would possess. Prince Chivalry, heir to the throne, was the picture of propriety, respectful of others, and a skilled diplomat.  That all ended the day Chivalry’s illegitimate son was discovered.  Chivalry abdicated his position and left the court, leaving his bastard to be raised by the gruff, kind stableman, Burrich.

The nameless boy, commonly called “Fitz” or “the bastard”, lived in Buckkeep Castle, where few bothered to treat him with anything but contempt.  However, while he was growing from a small boy to a young man, he caught the king’s attention.  King Shrewd knew that a bastard could be either a dangerous threat or a loyal tool, and he was determined to make Fitz into the latter.

As the king’s man, Fitz is thrust into the world of court intrigue, while being secretly trained as the king’s new assassin.  In dangerous times, where vicious raiders employ dark magic against civilians, and the people are losing confidence in the monarchy, Fitz may be instrumental in safeguarding the future of his homeland.” ~Allie        

This is my second book for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge at WWEnd.  The challenge is to read 12 novels by 12 female authors in the year 2013.  To make things more interesting, they must also be authors that I have never read before.  I also selected this book as a result of Calico Reaction’s Ladie's First Dare, which gives a reading suggestion each month of a novel by a female author that Calico has read and enjoyed. 

Though I’ve often seen her name around bookstores, Assassin’s Apprentice is the first novel I’ve read by Robin Hobb. I have not been having the best luck with these kinds of traditional, high fantasy stories lately, so I was a little wary starting this one.  I’m glad I gave it a shot, because Assassin’s Apprentice is a very entertaining story, and it definitely makes me want to read the rest of the trilogy. 

My Thoughts:

Assassin’s Apprentice is in some ways a pretty standard fantasy story.  The world is a variation on a pseudo-medieval setting, there’s a fair amount of court politics, and the magic appears to be nothing new.  The two major forms of magic are the Skill, which is a power of the mind, and the Wit, which is the ability to mentally commune with animals.  The story is quite familiar as well—a boy from humble beginnings (an illegitimate birth) discovers his strengths and talents, and grows into a young man who may be able to change the course of his society.  The framing device consists of an elderly Fitz setting down the story of his early life.  Each chapter begins with texts of world information, and the story is told in first-person from Fitz’s viewpoint.  All of this is pretty traditional for the genre, but I think this novel is an example of why this sort of story might be so common. When it is done well, as in Assasssin’s Apprentice, it makes for a very engaging and enjoyable story.

In many ways, it was really the characters that made this story work for me.  They seemed very real to me, with their individual insecurities, needs, strengths, and weaknesses.  For instance, Chivalry’s wife Patience was unable to have children, and she struggles with defining what she and Fitz should be to each other.  As another example, Burrich struggles with a serious injury and a declining career after Chivalry’s abdication, and he still has to figure out how to raise a rather troubled child (Fitz).  Also, Prince Verity, the new king-in-waiting, is a highly competent and thoroughly decent man, but he has to cope with the fact that he can’t live up to Chivalry’s charisma and diplomatic skill.  Some of the characterization is a bit more tell than show, but their characterization also shone through in their actions.

In addition to the engaging cast, Fitz was an excellent protagonist.  While he has a nice handful of natural talents (such as the Wit), he has his fair share of weaknesses as well.  He struggles with his identity and role in the court, and with his need for acceptance and belonging.  Fitz is no stranger to mistakes, and it sometimes takes him a while to bounce back from the consequences of his failures.  I also appreciated the moral ambiguity of Fitz’s position.  His desire for acceptance, loyalty to his king, and sense of morality all come into conflict through his training and first missions as an assassin.  In comparison with Fitz and the other characters, the villains of the piece seem a little simple in their motivations. Their schemes were clever enough, though, that I was mostly just willing to enjoy having villains that are easy to despise.   

The story follows Fitz’s life, starting from early childhood, so the pace is somewhat slow and the story can sometimes seem to be meandering.  I was typically interested by the stories of Fitz’s daily life, but I felt like the story dragged a bit when he was very young.  At that age, he didn’t interact with very many people, and he had little understanding of the world around him.  As a result, the reader wasn’t given much information about anything happening in the world that didn’t directly involve Fitz.  His knowledge and experience increased as he grew up, and the story began to broaden, involving court intrigue, foreign threats, and more.  From the early scenes on, though, I appreciated how the foundations of connections between characters were established, and how important these relationships continued to be throughout the story.  Though much of the novel had a kind of “slice of life” feel, it eventually built up to an exciting finish.  Some questions were answered, but some major plotlines were left open for the rest of the trilogy to explore.

My Rating: 4/5

Assassin’s Apprentice is a familiar kind of story, following an unwanted, illegitimate boy as he grows up in a troubled court.  The setting is a fairly usual medieval-style kingdom, and the magic consists mainly of powers of the mind and telepathic communion with animals.  For me, the strength of the story was in the characters, which were fallible, mostly sympathetic, and very human. I enjoyed following Fitz’s life, watching his painful failures and hard-won successes. The story began slowly, with Fitz’s early childhood, but eventually built up to an exciting ending.  While I enjoyed this novel on its own, it is clearly the first third of a larger story, one that I am looking forward to reading!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Read-Along: Part 1 of The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

I've joined a read-along of The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett!  The read-along is hosted by Dab of Darkness and Little Red Reviewer, so hop on over to their blogs if you want to join.  It's a pretty short book, so I'm sure it's still possible to catch up! This Discworld novel is the first of his YA series, which features the young witch Tiffany Aching.  I've been meaning to get more into the Discworld series, and I've got high hopes for this read-along after all the fun with the Scott Lynch ones last year.

These posts are intended for discussion, so there will be tons of spoilers.  This week, we are discussing Chapters 1-5.

1) Since I am a nosy person, I want to know if this is your first Terry Pratchett book for you? Do you enjoy the humor and writing style so far?

I've read a few Discworld novels (Making Money, Thud, and Reaper Man).  The humor and style in The Wee Free Men seems more childish than in the previous novels I've read, likely because it is targeted towards a younger audience.  The style is still as light, quirky, and clever as I remember, though, and Pratchett's writing still makes me laugh at inopportune times (such as when I'm on public transit).  So far, I've especially liked the wandering bands of wild, rough-living teachers, and Miss Tick's stealthy, spring-loaded pointy hat.   

2) We've been introduced to Tiffany Aching's world of shepherding and cheese making and her family. What about this quaint setting has caught your eye?

My first thought was to wonder what kind of cheese exactly Tiffany makes.  The sheep, cows, and cheese makes me think of Switzerland, which makes me think of Gruyères, which makes me think of the 7-month-aged slab of Gruyères waiting for me in my fridge.  I highly doubt the Achings pasteurize their milk, and cheese made from raw milk is so much more delicious!

However, I'm pretty sure the setting is meant to reference Scotland, based on the 'Pictsies', the witch-hunting, and the emphasis on sheep.  

I also like how Pratchett manages to throw in a nicely open-minded way for children to think about having pride in their heritage, as when Tiffany was considering her family's long history in the area: 

"Tiffany felt quite proud of this, in an odd way, because it might also be nice to be proud of the fact that your ancestors moved around a bit, too, or occasionally tried new things." ~p. 9

3) Ah, the Nac Mac Feegles! Can you understand their speech? Who or what do you think the kelda is? 

Yeah, I think I'm understanding it fairly well.  It does fill me with the near-overwhelming desire to read out loud, though!  I'm not really sure about the kelda.  It is apparently someone/thing that has knowledge, is dangerous (but not evil) and lives in a cave.  Maybe some kind of oracle?  I'm sure I'm going to be embarrassed when we finally learn who/what it is!

4) Do you see a future for Tiffany at a witches' school? Or do you think Ms. Tick will take on a mentor's role? 

To get to the 'school', Ms. Tick told her to open her eyes, and then open them again.  I could be wrong, but I got the impression that Ms. Tick was telling Tiffany that witches learn from taking a good look at the world around them.  Their school is the world, and their classes are observation and experience. Miss Tick could well take a mentor role, but the toad seems to be serving that purpose for Tiffany at the moment.

5) Wentworth has gone missing and there is a Queen involved. What do think she wants with him?

Given that we've got Wee Free Men in this story, I assumed that the Queen was some kind of dangerous fairy queen.  If so, some kinds of fairies are commonly known to kidnap children.  I've never been exactly clear on what they want them for.  

Please feel free to add anything else that stood out for you, made you chuckle, quirk an eyebrow, etc.

On a more serious reaction, I am so far very impressed with the attitudes about adults and the elderly.  All the characters are pretty silly (which I think is quite normal for Discworld novels), but 9-year-old Tiffany is a delightful protagonist due to her cleverness, perceptiveness, and calmness in the face of danger--not because all adults are stupid. In fact, Tiffany is fairly polite and respectful towards adults, even when they don't necessarily appear to deserve it.   

In terms of the elderly, her Granny Aching seems like a real character (and possibly a witch), and she was obviously very highly regarded by Tiffany and others. I think Granny Aching's leaving Tiffany the respect of the Nac Mac Feegle is going to prove very important to Tiffany's story.  I also appreciated Tiffany's empathy for the 'evil witches' in fairy tales, and her understanding that they were often simply elderly, eccentric women (like poor Mrs. Snapperly). 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Review: Osama by Lavie Tidhar

Osama by Lavie Tidhar
Published: P.S. Publishing 2011
Awards Won: World Fantasy Award
Awards Nominated: BSFA and Campbell Awards

The Book:

Lavie Tidhar was in Dar-es-Salaam during the American embassy bombings in 1998, and stayed in the same hotel as the Al Qaeda operatives in Nairobi. Since then he and his now-wife have narrowly avoided both the 2005 King’s Cross and 2004 Sinai attacks-experiences that led first to his memorable short story “My Travels with Al-Qaeda” and later to the creation of Osama.

In a world without global terrorism Joe, a private detective, is hired by a mysterious woman to find a man: the obscure author of pulp fiction novels featuring one Osama Bin Laden: Vigilante...”

This is the first book I’ve read by Lavie Tidhar. I didn’t much know what to expect going into Osama, since I picked it out to read primarily due to the award attention it received the previous year.  Since it was very convenient to buy as an e-book from P.S. Publishing, I decided to give it a try. 

My Thoughts:

It seems to me that Osama would be best read in one sitting.  It took me a while to get into the flow of the writing, and my appreciation of the style and structure increased as I read.  I didn’t feel like there were any natural stopping points, so picking up the novel again always required a little re-orientation. On one occasion, for instance, I picked it back up in the middle of a particularly delirious section, and had to backtrack a chapter to regain my sense of where I was in the story.  Osama requires a relatively attentive and focused reader, and I think I could have provided that with a lot less effort if I had just read it all in a long evening.

Most of the novel was written in short, choppy phrases and sentences, which tended to be surface descriptions of Joe’s thoughts and observations.  Most of the interpretation of Joe’s experiences was left to the reader.  For example, here’s one interesting excerpt:

He thought about doors in film. … Films were constructed landscapes, a fakery made up of the torn pieces of differing locations.  A door opened on the outside of a building, in a movie, and it led—more often than not—not into the inside of the building, but somewhere else.  There were transitions in film, smoothed over, made seamless, but they were transitions nevertheless, a shortcut through both space and time.” ~p. 403 

The clarity of the writing fluctuated along with Joe’s mental state, which resulted in some trippy scenes.  It was sometimes difficult for me to feel engaged with the style, but it seemed to well represent Joe’s detached, confused state of mind.  Interspersed throughout Joe’s story were accounts of terrorist attacks, most of which seemed like they were supposed to be taken from the story’s Osama Bin Laden: Vigilante novels.  These didn’t really seem like pulp novels or like news reports, but something in between.

The basic story followed a standard detective formula, but the plot seemed more symbolic than anything else.  Joe’s world was filled with people known as ‘refugees’ or ‘fuzzy-wuzzies’, people who fade in and out of focus.  It was implied that they (or at least some of them) were victims of terrorist attacks.  They were like fragments of people, their solidity determined by their ability to cling to what pieces of themselves they chose to be defined by.  In a similar way, Joe defined himself by his role as a detective, and the surface plot was central to his ability to adhere to that chosen identity.  Though he went through the motions of a detective story—questioning people, following leads, dodging mysterious enemies—the atmosphere was not filled with the tension of a mystery story, but with a strong sense of disorientation and sadness.  The basis and rules of Joe’s world were left unclear, but there was enough information for some interesting speculation.

Beneath Joe’s search for the author, it seemed that a lot of the story was about the near impossibility of truly processing certain things, such as the concept of terrorism.  In Joe’s world, terrorism was basically thought of as trashy fiction, existing primarily for shock value.  They would have considered it unrealistic to think that someone might actually do such a thing.  The ‘refugees’ weren’t able to truly grasp what had happened to them, and even the accounts of victims highlighted the seeming unreality of their situation.  There was some effort to make sense of the motivation and intent behind these acts, but not to excuse them.  I wondered if the ever-present opium in the story might have been a nod toward the other side, alluding to the damage that can occur in a clash between cultures with differing power and priorities. A lot of Osama seemed open to interpretation, and I’m sure there are many other ways to consider the content of the novel.   I think that the novel contains plenty of interesting content for discussion, though I am only able to point out a few brief topics in this review.  
My Rating: 4/5

Osama was an unusual novel, and one that requires a fairly focused reader.  The style tended towards short phrases and sentences, and it typically reflected the changing clarity of mind of the main character, Joe.  The story followed a typical detective format, but with an atmosphere of confusion and loss.  I found the content surrounding Joe’s devotion to his role as a detective to be more interesting—the basis of his world, his mental state, and the difficulty of mentally processing horrible things.  This is not a simple novel, and there are many aspects of the book that would be interesting to discuss at more length with other readers.  I am curious to see how Osama compares to Tidhar’s other work.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Review: This Immortal by Roger Zelazny

This Immortal by Roger Zelazny
Published: Ace Books 1966
Awards Won: Hugo Award

The Book:

“Radiation has ravaged the Earth, and the surviving humans live on islands, away from the hot spots of the mainland.  Mutants and monstrous creatures roam the wilds, making travel even more dangerous.  In humanity’s darkest hour, an alien civilization from Vega came to their rescue.  Humans moved in droves to the worlds of the Vegans, willing to live as second-class citizens in exchange for a home in a comfortable and highly advanced society.  Those who remained on the Earth saw their home slowly turned into an exotic Vegan vacation spot, despite their violent efforts to stop the process. 

Conrad Nomikos, Earth’s Commissioner of Arts, Monuments and Archives, is a mysterious, close-lipped figure with a long history.  He is not especially happy to find himself impressed into the service of a visiting Vegan, Cort Myshtigo, especially when he finds the alien insisted on him personally.  Myshtigo plans to tour the remains of the Earth, ostensibly for a book he intends to write.  Some humans believe there’s more to his trip than meets the eye, and they are not willing to watch more of their home slip into the hands of aliens.  Conrad may be the only thing that can stand between Myshtigo and an untimely death, but should he?” ~Allie

Zelazny is an author I’m rather familiar with, as I have read his Amber novels.  I believe this was actually Zelazny’s first published novel, though I wouldn’t have guessed it from reading.  It’s pretty impressive that he was able to win a Hugo Award with a debut novel, and tied with Frank Herbert’s Dune, no less!

My Thoughts:

 This Immortal or …And Call Me Conrad, as Zelazny preferred the novel to be titled, is a book that works on several different levels.  The intrigue surrounding Myshtigo’s presence provides an undercurrent of tension throughout the story.  There’s very little evidence along the way about Myshtigo’s true intentions, but speculation on them illuminates parts of Conrad’s history and the continuing political situation of the remaining humans.  It also provides an interesting moral dilemma for Conrad, who is hired to protect Myshtigo but driven to protect the Earth.   On top of this mystery, the basic plot concerns the adventure of the journey Conrad and the others undertake.   There’s plenty of well-written action to move the story along, as they encounter mutants and dangerous creatures.  The action segments seemed episodic to me, but I appreciated how they were used to highlight information about the world, the characters, and the situation with Myshtigo.

Of the characters, Conrad is the most memorable.  He seemed somewhat similar to Corwin, from the later Amber books—both of them are flawed, (probably) immortal super-humans, who have a wry sense of humor and seem like fundamentally decent people. Conrad also appears to be instrumental in the fate of his world, shown both through his role as commissioner and Myshtigo’s guide, and through his comparison to the Greek kallikanzaros.  I am not usually a fan of main characters that are vastly more powerful than everyone around them, but Conrad’s down-to-earth personality made this story work for me.  While he is undeniably physically strong and long-lived, he is not untouchable.  Conrad is also very invested in the future of Earth and the lives of his friends, and even his superhuman abilities cannot assure positive outcomes for either of them.

Aside from the surface plot and characters, I also enjoyed the confluence of science fiction and fantasy atmosphere in the story.  One can see this clearly in the case of Conrad, who can be seen as either a kind of god (or kallikanzaros), or as simply an extraordinarily long-lived mutant.  In a similar vein, the monstrous and mutated animals of the irradiated Earth are often compared to mythological creatures, as if the ruined planet was sinking back into times of myth and legend. There are actually quite a lot of Greek mythological references throughout the story, which were pretty fun to pick out.  On the science fiction side of the story, I enjoyed piecing together the future history that led to the current situation for humanity and their home planet. The future history was also quite interesting, and I enjoyed piecing together the events that led to the current Earth.       

My Rating: 4/5

This Immortal (or ….And Call Me Conrad) is a highly entertaining novel from early in Zelazny’s writing career.  The superhuman Conrad is rather similar to future Zelazny heroes, such as Corwin of Amber.  The story features a ruined future Earth, where many mutated creatures seem almost mythological.  The references to Greek mythology and the nature of Conrad’s identity also give the story an atmosphere that seems like a mix of fantasy and science fiction influences. Conrad’s task of escorting the alien Myshtigo around the Earth is full of conflict and action, but the story is also underpinned by the tension surrounding Myshtigo’s true purpose.  I think the novel has stood up well to the test of time, and will undoubtedly be enjoyed by many more readers in the future.