Wednesday, February 18, 2009

China Miéville - Un Lun Dun (Book Review)

"Un Lun Dun" (Amazon: UK, US)
Format: Paperback, 528/496 pages
Publisher: Pan Books/Del Rey (February 1, 2008/January 29, 2008)
Un Lun Dun
was recommended to me as a book I'd surely love, since it was 'a lot like Alice in Wonderland'. The part about me loving Un Lun Dun was completely right, the one about it being similar to Alice less so – there's so much more to Un Lun Dun than that. It's definitely a YA book, a very good one on top of that, and the illustrations are adorable, adding to the experience - but the book is written with so much imagination that you don't really need them.

Deeba and Zanna are best friends, who have lately noticed some very strange things going on around Zanna. When one night Zanna sleeps over at Deeba’s, they are awoken by a strange sound coming from outside. It turns out to be a broken umbrella, and when they follow it, they stumble straight into the strange world of UnLondon, made of garbage and facing a severe threat, an enemy named Smog. It was prophesied that Zanna is the Shwazzy, a hero who will save UnLondon, but things go badly wrong and the girls get sent back home. Zanna has no recollection of events in UnLondon whatsoever, so Deeba, still determined to stop Smog, decides to take things in her own hands – but she only has a limited number of days before everybody in London forget she ever existed.

At first, I had some suspicions that the morale of the story will be something about saving the environment, which would make the book a very annoying read (I don't like a too obvious morale to the story, be it on environment, family ties or respect to other people), so I was very relieved to find out that all the garbage in UnLondon plays a much simpler role – it makes a great setting for the story. The idea of a garbage world (or even better, an un-world) struck my imagination like a lit match strikes a barrel of gas. I was totally intrigued by the whole idea and I guess I even got carried away a bit – I imagined a dark, wicked place, a lost and morbid city instead of just, well, a garbage one, which (despite everything) never gets really scary or dark - Un Lun Dun is a YA novel and my imagined city could not exist in it by default. UnLondon makes for a fine substitute, though – it’s a place made with obvious precision and leaves more than enough space for a reader’s imagination to go rampant, being filled with wonders (mostly made of garbage) and a unique set of various characters. It is clear that MIÉVILLE is a master writer who enjoys his language – a lot of the aforementioned characters are, in fact, puns and various wordplays brought to life. Others are no less imaginative; my favourite was Curdle, a little carton of milk, which Deeba adopts as a kind of pet. It bothered me, though, that he was left forgotten at times – there were long spans of pages without him showing up at all.

The plot was no less enjoyable than the setting and the characters. I especially appreciated the fact that Mieville does not underestimate his (young) readers – the plot is far from naive, without major, unconvincing holes that too often appear in YA novels. It’s basically about The Chosen One’s best friend, which is uncommon enough, since we all too often get a tale of how The Chosen One saved the day (and, usually, also the known world) with a little help from a selfless best friend. While Deeba remains a bit idealised, she is still a far more realistic and plausible character than the heroes we usually meet in aforementioned tales. She doesn’t play by the rules – she starts her ‘quest’ right at its end and learns that saving the world is much harder – but not impossible – when people know you’re not the hero destined to help them.

Overall, Un Lun Dun is one of the best YA books I’ve ever read, including the ones I’ve read as a kid. In fact, I’m a bit sorry that I couldn’t read it when I was twelve or so, since I’m pretty sure I would adore it and sympathise with Deeba far easier than I do now. I’m content that I got to read it at all, though – it is a great book, and (as said before) perfect for people whose imagination runs on the wild side, regardless of their age.


Monday, February 9, 2009

In the Limelight - Simmons, Kearney and Abercrombie

Everybody's been talking about Drood these days. "Drood" is the new novel by Dan Simmons, mastermind behind many prestigious award-winning novels, such as Hyperion (one of my all-time favorites), Ilium, Carrion Comfort, Song of Kali and others. His opus spans genres, from science fiction and fantasy to horror, mysteries and thrillers (often within the same novel). His 2007 novel "The Terror" made a (lifelong) fan out of Trin as well.
Drood is being officially released later today (February 9) both in US and UK, and me&Trin are both eager to read it. If you are wondering about the meaning of the word 'Drood'; "The Mysteries of Edward Drood" is the final novel by Charles Dickens that was left unfinished at the time of his death and thus the fate of the main protagonist remains undisclosed. Simmons' "Drood" draws heavily on historical facts about Dickens to create an engaging narrative, but spices it with fictional elements, just as he did with "The Terror". And the word on the street is that it's terrific.

The other interesting news that I've come across - thanks to our fellow blogger Adam (The Wertzone) - is that Paul Kearney signed a deal with Solaris for two more books set in the world of "The Ten Thousand". Early titles are "Corvus" and "Kings of Morning". This sounds very promising, since Kearny will be given a chance to expand on the sometimes scetchy world of the Macth. At the moment I'm reading and enjoying "This Forsaken Earth" which is the sequel to [...]the very decent, but short of brilliant[...] "The Mark of Ran". A bit of advice for those who don't like to start reading unfinished series , the final book in "Sea Beggars trilogy" was written, but never released, due to the fall out with his publisher at the time. The good news is, though, that Kearny's new publisher, Solaris, supports him to finish the project, but they have to wait for the rights to the books that Bantam US is clinging to to expire, before they can give the green light for the final volume which is to be realeased in an omnibus together with the first two books.

Last but not least: a while ago I've written about the fabulous UK cover for "Best Served Cold", the upcoming novel by Joe Abercrombie, one of the most recognizable names of the new wave of epic fantasy writers, due to be released this summer. Every since the US cover leaked out, there have been heated debates over the blogosphere whether they are any good or not (I tend to agree with the argument that the UK cover looks superior by far): A Dribble of Ink: part 1 & part 2, Grasping for the Wind, Fantasy Book News & Reviews, Dark Wolf's Fantasy Reviews, Pat's Fantasy Hotlist to name just a few. Orbit responded to the tirade in this article, revealing all the pruposed covers, giving insight into their creative process and explaining their pick, which is all very considerate and nice, but that doesn't change the fact the cover doesn't look any prettier for it. I might be too harsh to the US cover, I've seen plenty worse, but when you have something to compare it to, well... you can't help but wonder. But I leave you decide for yourself:

US Cover -------- vs. -------- UK Cover

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Peter V. Brett - The Painted Man / The Warded Man (Book Review)

"The Painted Man" (Amazon: UK) a.k.a. "The Warded Man" (Amazon: US)
Format: Hardcover, 560/423 pages
Publisher: HarperVoyage/Del Rey (September 1, 2008/March 10, 2009)
PETER V. BRETT burst onto the epic fantasy scene in late 2008 with a memorable, but also quite traditional debut effort entitled “The Painted Man” (aka “The Warded Man” in the US). I requested a review copy from the author himself over half a year ago and he was kind enough to provide one for our blog; due to unfortunate circumstances (and a bit of lazy inertia) I didn’t get to read the novel well past what I’d consider polite (I did ask for this title, not the other way around) or professional (by my own standards). Be as it may, now that I’ve finished the book, I must say I really liked it, despite some undisputable shortcomings which I’ll address later.

To return to the initial statement; “The Painted Man” is stalwart in the way that it includes many of the run-of-the-mill tropes that define epic fantasy – a) first fifty or so pages are a variation on Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time”, but without the nagging braid-tugging, skirt straightening etc. nonsense; and b) the main theme could be easily, but not entirely justly, summarized as “a farm boy grows up to be a hero” – but it’s also fresh and tailored for the modern reader. Yes, even epic fantasy has to grow in some ways. BRETT’s heroes refrain from becoming passive pushovers, who get swept up by the development of events, running brainlessly around and depending on luck or just standing idle for the benevolent and all-knowing sage to guide them by the hand. Here, the three protagonists, each given his own POV, take their fate into their own hands, or at least they show the will to do so.


With every nightfall, demons rise from the Core and sow terror throughout the known world. The only thing that keeps them at bay are wards, a form of protective runes, drawn around homes and cities, where mankind huddles in terror of the night. But the wards often fail, and when that happens, carnage ensues. Neighbors and friends can do little else, but watch from the protective prisons of their homes and hope that their wards will hold for the night. But there are individuals who are sick of hiding and being unable to fight back. One of them is Arlen, a young boy, who chooses to search for a way to strike back upon seeing his mother torn apart by a horde of Corelings…

The other two POV’s are just as enticing as the determined Arlen; Leesha, a maid of 13, is apprenticed to a local Herb Gatherer – a healer of a sort – after being falsely accused of premarital sex. She finds succour, understanding and a friendship of a sort with the ancient Herb Gatherer. Rojer, on the other hand, is an apprentice jongleur who struggles to make a living for himself and his fallen-from-grace drunken master. At the end of the novel all three plotlines converge in a cataclysmic battle for Cutter’s Hollow, a small village whose residents take a stand for themselves and defy the terrors that rise with the night.


Like I’ve already mentioned, there is nothing vastly original in “The Painted Man”, but when I’ve finished reading the book I couldn’t help but admire what BRETT delivered on the market. What makes this book special is characterization. Most of the characters are walking stereotypes, true, but BRETT really has a knack at presenting character traits and fleshing them out through engaging dialogue and events they participate in. The three main protagonists are smart, witty and what is most important – likeable. They grow on you before you know it. The author would do well writing plays (satires and comedies in foremost), since he is really good at bringing his relatively non complex, but never trivial, characters to life.

An example of great character portrayal and snippets of a fairly amusing scene as well:
‘Sweet day!’ Leesha exclaimed. ‘You have more books than Tender Michel!’
---‘These aren’t witless stories censored by the Holy Men, girl. Herb Gatherers are keepers of a bit of the knowledge of the old world, from back before the Return, when the demons burned the great libraries.’

---‘Science?’ Leesha asked. ‘Was that not the hubris that brought on the plague?’

---‘That’s Michel talking,’ Bruna said. ‘If I’d know that boy would grow into such a pompous ass, I’d have left him between his mother’s legs. It was science, as much as magic, that drove the Corelings off the first time. The sagas tell of great Herb Gatherers healing mortal wounds, and mixing herbs and minerals that killed demons by the score with fire and poison.

…Her hands were quick, but Leesha still noticed the old woman throw something extra in Gared’s cup. She poured the water, and they all sipped in an awkward silence. Gared drank his quickly, and soon began rubbing his face. A moment later, he slumped over, fast asleep.
---‘You put something in his tea,’ Leesha accused.

The old woman cackled. ‘Tampweed resin and skyflower pollen,’ she said. ‘Each with many uses alone, but together, a pinch can put a bull to sleep.
---‘But why?’ Leesha asked.

---Bruna smiled, but it was a frightening thing. ‘Call it chaperoning,’ she said. ‘Promised or no, you can’t trust a fifteen year old boy alone with a young girl at night.’
---‘Then why let him come along?’ Leesha asked.

---Bruna shook her head. ‘I told your father not to marry that shrew, but she dangled her udders at him and left him dizzy,’ she sighed. ‘Drunk as they are, Steave and your mum are going to have at it no matter who’s in the house’ she said. ‘But that don’t mean Gared ought to hear it. Boys are bad enough at his age, as is.’

---‘Don’t be so quick to leave childhood behind, girl,’ Bruna said. ‘You’ll find you miss it when it’s gone. There’s more to the world than lying under a man and making his babies.’

---‘But what else could compare?’ Leesha asked.

Bruna gestured to her shelf. ‘Choose a book,’ she said. ‘Any book. Bring it here, and I’ll show you what else the world can offer.’
Bruna, the Herb Gatherer, transforms in this short scene from being a trickster, ‘an old hag’ and a bit of a bully to a friend, consort and an intelligent person.

The story, looked at as a whole, is nothing we haven’t seen somewhere else before as well, but it is wholesome, it brings to a satisfying conclusion (no major cliff-hangers!) and it genuinely makes you want to read more…fortunately, the sequel with a catchy title “The Desert Spear”, comes out sometimes this year (around summer I believe).

The style is very reminiscent of David Gemmell, and maybe Paul Kearney, but without more somber elements of storytelling of the latter. This is nothing less than a compliment in my book. I extremely enjoyed how some of the events unfolded and how particular life choices (and their consequences) played out. A few ‘unsanctimonious‘ elements of the story (e.g. implied incest and referrals to sex that are made at times) made some people resentful of the author, but I believe that he made the right choices and I respect him for how he handled things. But what I respect the most about this novel is that it’s honest and straightforward (this is where most of my Gemmell referrals come from). The characters aren’t preoccupied by feelings of guilt or incapitated by personal trauma, even though some really bad things happen to them. Sure, it marks them in some way, but their every move isn’t saturated with what happened in the past. They have a very pragmatic attitude towards life, they want to live it, not pass through it without tasting at least a little of it.

The majority of the story is embedded in an alternative Anglo-Saxon (bordering on Renaissance) setting, but a part of Arlen’s voyage takes him through a desert land, a home to, you guessed it, a fierce Arab-influenced culture. The lore and constant referrals to the old world suggest that this is a post-apocalyptic world, akin to that of Terry Brook’s Shannara. A new element, introduced by BRETT, is that people can hardly travel for more than a half-a-day’s length away from their homes, since getting caught outside during night means certain death. Only a few brave individuals (i.e. Messengers) are sturdy and experienced enough to travel around and act the role of messengers and tradesmen alike.

Most of what I’ve said until now was praise, and it’s not entirely undeserved, since there’s not many books, especially those of the epic fantasy genre with a traditional premise (think Wheel of Time for a moment), that manage to draw me in so profusely. Well, this book managed it with ease. I shouldn’t get too carried away, though, since this still counts as a light-weight read that fits completely within genre limits, so don’t ruin your fun by expecting the unexpected. “The Painted Man” doesn’t even try to hide where it comes from and who it’s meant for, and thus sits proudly and comfortably among its genre colleagues; well it just might be the best fantasy debut of 2008. Kudos, Mr. BRETT.

- Thrinidir -

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Eye Candy Covers IX

It's been a while since the last Eye Candy Cover article - Best Served Cold, remember? - and it was well past time for me to find another. I don't know how I've missed this one, since it was disclosed quite some time ago - a coincidence that it was on the same day that we've posted the cover for Best Served Cold on November 19 - but what matters is that the cover looks damn fine and if you haven't had the chance to see it before you do so now. The cover I'm speaking of is the cover for "The Desert Spear", a forthcoming sequel to one of the better epic fantasy debuts I've had the pleasure to read since...well, since Joe Abercrombie's "The Blade Itself" ("Lies of Locke Lamora" was great, but not on par with these two behemoths and I unfortunately haven't yet read "The Name of the Wind" by Patrick Rothfuss). The debut I'm refering to is "The Painted Man" (aka "The Warded Man" in the States) which was published in 2008 and kicked off, what I hope to be, a long and prosperous career for a young and talented author that goes by the name of Peter V. Brett. The review for "The Painted Man" will be online in a couple of days, but I'll let this beautiful cover whet your appetites until then.

---"A war is brewing between humans and demonkind, but when another man claiming to be the Deliverer appears out of the desert, the isolated human fortress cities seem more likely to turn on one another than unite. And the demon generals have yet to reveal themselves…"


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