Five Stars and You’re Welcome

name of wind

If you haven’t been paying attention—and even if you have—you might not have noticed that the reviews on this blog operate on a “five star” rating system yet within all the posts there is nary a five star review. This is by design. Or at least by default.

I sort of seize up when it comes to writing about novels I consider to be the top of the top-notch. The reason for this apoplexy is because no matter how profusely I gush adulations, my praise will nevertheless fall short of simply saying “Just read it!”

Being the case—and in lieu of a review—I have three sci-fi/fantasy five-star-ers that I will recommend to you with the aforementioned “just read it!” exhortation.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. It’s the greatest thing in fantasy since sliced bread. Or dragons. However, once you finish it and its sequel, contact Rothfuss and complain that he’s taking to long with the third book. 5/5 stars.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. Good books make you sympathize with characters, to experience their emotions. Great books make you want to throw the book across the room and scream “No! No! Stop!” And then cry. 5/5 stars.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. The best comedy of manners and social critique novel since Jane Austen. In fact, it’s better. Plus there’s magic! 5/5 stars.

Now that you have this vital information, I beseech you, tarry not. Call out of work—for three, yay, maybe four days—purchase these novels from Second Time Books (and if we don’t have them in stock I will lend you my copy), and let the five star fun begin!

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Has Hereby Attained the Degree of Doctorate of Moon Gardening

malaz

The way I have described my experience in reading Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon—and how I will continue to refer to it—is graduate level fantasy. This definition became increasingly apt when, after finishing the novel, I Wikipedia-ed Erikson and found out he is, in fact, a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. It all makes sense.

If you haven’t read much fantasy before, I don’t recommend this book to you. If, conversely, you’ve read a lot and all the narratives are beginning to sound the same, then I highly recommend Gardens of the Moon. I put myself in the venn diagram overlap between fantasy reader amateur and fantasy reader pro. This is to say that while I enjoyed the novel, it was unexpectedly difficult. My undergrad was English. I’m well accustomed to reading turgid, florid prose from the 1800s. Yet I still struggled at times with the complexity and vastness of Erikson’s world. I’m not even going to give a synopsis for this reason. Moreover—and mostly why I’ve coined the term ‘graduate level fantasy’—is that concepts, subplots, and characters exist without explanation and without adhering to traditional fantasy tropes.

There are foundations upon which almost all fantasy writers scaffold their stories. When I use the world “elves,” for instance, that’s enough of a description to conjure up the image of tall, stately, and regal creatures (possibly with pointy ears). Elves are everywhere in fantasy. Although it’s worth revealing that those kind of elves were more or less created by JRR Tolkien. Before Lord of the Rings, elves were relegated to the squat, waddlesome kind usually associated with Santa. However, if I were to start talking to you about a Barghast, you might not have the same reaction. The obvious thing to do when a writer is introducing a new non-human creature (albeit with humanoid qualities) is to provide the reader with some background, function, and description of that creature. Well, okay, here you go: Barghasts are a relatively barbaric society as evidenced by their tribal tattoos and draw their heritage as an interbreeding between the T’lann Imass and the Tehelomen Toblakai.

The what! The who!?

Exactly. Erikson doesn’t take the time to provide the minutia concerning Barghasts. The astute reader must keep reading until descriptions of T’lan Imass and Thelomen Toblakai have been given and then, Erikson expects you to put them together and draw your own conclusions. But he doesn’t tell you to do that either, it’s all implied. This is graduate level. You, dear reader, must do the work because this bloody campaign is ceaselessly moving forward and there’s no time to dillydally on silly physical details.

If that wasn’t enough, Erikson hijacks foundational fantasy elements to fit his world. Dragons for instance. Erikson has argued in an interview that it doesn’t make sense that dragons spit fire. His world relies very heavily on magic (his own redefined version of magic) and thusly, dragons exist and subsist on that magic. And they don’t exhale fire—they use magic. Erikson doesn’t explain that either. It just is. And if you’re not quick enough to keep pace, then you’re not up to snuff. No apologies given.

Take that and about 200 characters in a rotating third person point-of-view between all those characters for about five hundred pages and you’ve got Gardens of the Moon. Except, oh yeah, that’s only the first installment of the ten volume Malazan Book of the Fallen series. So my real question is, if I finish all of them do I get an honorary doctoral degree? 4/5 stars.

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Steelheart is a Great Start (No, Not the Band)

steelheart

If you’ve been following along, you’ll realize that I’m breaking my standalone reading parameters this week. Previous reviews have also heavily concentrated on science fiction works, and although Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart take place in the future it is very clearly, a fantasy novel.

After the advent known as Calamity, scores of humans begin to attain varying and remarkable superpowers. The bigger problem is that all of these Epics (as they’re called) uses his or her power for evil. The only way to kill an Epic is to discover his or her unique weakness and exploit it. The most powerful of these super humans is an Epic named Steelheart. He has usurped rule over the city once known as Chicago and as far anyone knows, he has absolutely no weaknesses. Introducing David Charleston: he watched Steelheart kill his father, and ever since then, he’s been plotting his revenge. Through detailed research and planning he joins up with a (human) rebel gang known as The Reckoners in order to kill epics and reclaim the city.

While this novel is considered young adult fare—and that argument can certainly be made as David’s awkward boy-meets-girl dialogue will attest—I nevertheless found it deliciously entertaining, well-plotted, tension-chocked, and satisfactorily concluded. Chiefly, however, what I have been told and what I am discovering about Brandon Sanderson is that his world-building is unrivaled. Any drawn-out explanation will not suffice, so in this instance, think of the narrative of Steelheart as Pokemon on steroids. Maybe that doesn’t appeal to everyone, but I was a part of the initial Pokemon generation and reading this novel felt like an upgraded nostalgia flashback. When I spent hours scouring the tall grasses and battling gym trainers as a kid, I didn’t consider the world building that went into the game of Pokemon. I just enjoyed it. But as an adult, and moreover a writer, these considerations of craft cannot be ignored. It might be easy to say “this guy can fly—because I said so,” but to create an entire culture of evolved species, each with different abilities and then to have it all make sense in a compelling way and within the never violated rules of the world is an accomplishment to behold.

Speaking of behold, when I’ve chanced a gander at some of Sanderson’s other works, specifically the concluding three volumes of Wheel of Time and his Stormlight Archive series, I’ve balked at the girth (ie 1,100 pages each. But reading Steelheart is making me reconsider. Excepting a few subplot threads that hint at the content of the sequels, Steelheart could have stood alone—but I guess like with everything Sanderson, the world was just too big, complex, and enthralling to keep contained in one book. 4.5/5 stars

 

*And we have copies in stock!!

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