Saturday, April 30, 2011

Monthly report: March & April 2011

Because it often happens that I read a book but don't review it (or I take a long time writing a review), I've decided to start posting brief monthly reports on what I read, including a sentence or two about the book if it was not reviewed.

I didn't read much in March and April, so I decided to (again) combine the two montly reports. :)

Black Man (Richard Morgan): First of 'The Pile specials' I actually managed to read! Black Man was not quite what I expected - it's a bit of an SF detective story, and while the plot had me quite interested, I didn't feel very close to either of the protagonists, I couldn't immerse myself in the story even when I tried and it was overall a very, very slow read. I have to add that these are problems I often encounter when reading SF, though; I'm never sure whether that's due to authors' style or whether it's just me.

Swan Song (Robert McCammon): A re-read. Swan Song is a total ripoff of The Stand (I mean it - the end of the world, plethora of characters, good vs. evil faction, supernatural powers on both sides, plethora of characters, a traumatised youngster who falls prey to the 'dark side' and 'the man with the scarlet eye' as the antagonists, ...), but still interesting and gripping enough to be read in one sitting.

(Karl Marlantes): While this one doesn't fall under the speculative fiction category, it seemed to be everyone's favourite book of 2010 and so I absolutely had to read it. Turns out that for once, I agreed with the praise I heard about it - the book was an awesome read, and I'm still struggling to describe it in the way that'd do it justice. Matterhorn is about Vietnam war as it really was through the eyes of a young man - mind-numbingly boring and yet incredibly exciting, futile and illogical, a dangerous game. The book was also gripping enough to keep me reading through the night until I finished it, which is always a good thing (unless you have to get up early ;).

The Folding Knife (K. J. Parker): this was another one of those curious books that are really intriguing, plot-wise, but at the same time the story is just not gripping enough and you stay somewhere in the middle, reading on because you want to know what happens, while taking your sweet time to do so because you're not that interested after all (and the pace of the book is not exactly fast, either). I know that the characters weren't the problem here - the story centers on Basso whom I actually liked very much - so maybe it was the lack of action? The Folding Knife was good enough that I want to read more by K. J. Parker, but I think it'd greatly benefit from a faster pace.

ng Fire & Mockingjay (Suzanne Collins): These two books have
exactly the pace The Folding Knife is lacking. While I was not as impressed with them as I was with The Hunger Games, I still devoured them - I read both in one sitting, and I don't think this ever happened to me with a series. There are some slight problems with the plot and characters, but this has to be one of the most exciting series I've ever read. (Review upcoming.)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Felix Gilman - The Half-Made World (Book Review)


Reasons for reading: I enjoyed The Thunderer and was thrilled when I got a review copy of The Half-Made World from Tor.

I actually like it when I forget what exactly the book I pick up as my next read is supposed to be about. It seems to me that this way, a book stands a better chance to be a pleasant surprise – and I, like most everyone else, love pleasant surprises. The Half-Made World was a surprise in most every ways, but one aspect of it especially stood out: the amazing steampunk-ish world featured in the novel and the way this world was described and handled throughout the book.

Aside from being only half-made, the world Gilman builds in this novel is above all intriguing and depicted in surprising detail. There is the mysterious territory where the world is not yet made; there are lands belonging to Line, a dangerous faction that is all about discipline and hivemind attitude, and neutral countries in the East which care more about science than about world politics. There is also a faction called The Gun, whose agents are spread all over the world; it is led by demons who possess the weapons of their minions, and there is an ancient, immortal race of the (First) Folk, enslaved by the current residents of the West, and this could sound like a right cliché if the Folk were even remotely similar to elves, which they're not – they have spiderlike legs, deep red eyes and manes, and when I say 'immortal', I not only mean that they don't die unless killed, but that they don't die, ever. There are also the Smilers, the remains of the Red Valley Republic, which was defeated by the Line 20 years before the events in The Half-Made World; sadly, despite the Republic's noble cause – an effort to stand against the Gun and the Line – the Smilers come across as a bunch of brainwashed fanatics hiding deep in the unknown territory. Gilman paints us a world so vast that it could easily fuel a whole series of books and/or inspire dozens of other stories set in the same universe – a world which would be wasted if it were only used in a single novel.

We follow the story through the eyes of three protagonists: Sub-Invigilator Lowry, agent of the Line who, despite Line's best efforts, harbours possibly rebellious thoughts of fame and success; Creedmoor, agent of the Gun who, despite Gun's best efforts, harbours definitely rebellious thoughts of doubting his master's competence and planning to escape their grasp, and Dr. Lysvet 'Liv' Alverhuysen, a rather naïve psychologist who travels west with one of her patients, Maggfrid, and also happens to be addicted to her 'nerve tonic'. The three characters all have their own quests, but their paths all intersect and by a series of coincidences, they all end up in the same place on the very border of the made world.

The Half-Made World is not all innovative world-building, interesting characters and gripping plot, though. For instance, Liv is the only character that develops considerably in any way. Creedmoor and Lowry are both archetypes – the incredibly loyal servant who worships his masters but at the same time wishes his loyalty were recognised and repaid, and a dashing adventurer who enjoys the company of pretty women and is tired of his eternal servitude. If Creedmor changes at least somewhat throughout the novel, Lowry remains the same despite opportunities to break free of his role, and even though that's perfectly plausible (because Lowry is too scared to change in any way), I must admit I was a bit disappointed. Agatha seems to learn the most from the situations she finds herself in, but even her behaviour is rather predictable – she becomes sympathetic to her captor and shakes off her nerve tonic addiction.

Despite the small flaws, The Half-Made World is a very good read. The plot flows effortlesly over the pages and descriptions of the setting are not tedious, as it so often happens, but immensely enjoyable. Many of the reader's questions remain unanswered, though; I hope that the sequel, will take care of that. Either way, I'd recommend The Half-Made World both to everyone who loves good world-building and to people who usually skim over the descriptive paragraphs, because if there's one book that will make you want not only to read such paragraphs carefully but also over and over again, this is probably it. A pleasant surprise all around; I eagerly await the sequel.


Tuesday, April 19, 2011

TV Series: Game of Thrones - Season One (First Impressions)

*mild spoilers ahead*

A Song of Ice and Fire is probably my favorite series and book two and book three are one of my favorite books of all time. I watched the first episode yesterday evening with Trin who's just as big a fan as I am. She also reread the first three books recently and loved them immensely even though she feared they would lose some of the shine the second time around.

I really want to rave about episode one, I want to tell you how friggin' good it is, I really do, but I can't. It is good though, even great in some aspects, but it's not as good as I wanted it to be. I guess it's impossible to reach high standards that the novels set up for me. So yes, I have to say I'm disappointed...but just a bit, the potential is there. Maybe it would feel different, if I wouldn't know what's going to happen in advance and suspension would grip me tight, but it's also a possibility that I just might have felt lost with all the exposition being thrown my way and by the background story. I missed moments when a simple dialogue line or a short silence filled with meaning rise goosebumps on your skin. I missed the hook.

I appreciate the artistic idea for the intro, but it feels like the cogs and the wheels were a bit off key with the general atmosphere and setting. I didn't really care for the music, which means that while I don't think it's bad at all, but it also doesn't make me want to buy the original sound track.

Scenery is...faithful to the books, which is a good thing for the most part. I especially savoured The Wall and the short panorama shorts of King's Landing. The scene in godswood was also enjoyably eerie. I hoped Winterfell would look more imposing and forbidding. As it turned out it was more like a rowdy village-fort, but I guess there's gritty northern appeal to that as well.

Arya, Brann, Cersei, and King Robert to an extent, but especially Tyrion were brilliant. Both child actors felt like transformed from the books, but it's reasonable to expect that it's much easier to portray a tom-boy and a reserved boy with little dialogue than a fully grown individual who's riven with conflicting emotions and motivations. When I saw Cersei on trailer movies I was dismayed, because I visualized her differently (her looks go towards classical beauty, but I always pictured her like a blond porn-star -- without over-sized body attributes ofcourse -- comparable to early Jenna Jameson or Krystal Steal, but with downplayed wantonness), but she transforms the b**** from the books (pardon my french) into a more wholesome and complex character. This gives the "evil" Lannisters another human face from the start which produces a more believable antagonism between the two houses. I don't think many people are aware how ugly Tyrion should be, with dwindling strands of hair, mismatched eyes and an appearance of a much older man while he's still in his twenties, but for what it's worth, Dinklage's performance is indeed stellar. King Robert was the other person I was dismayed when considering previews. The actor seemed more inclined towards "milder" roles, but I must say he plays the raucous king pretty damn well. I also relished the brief appearances of Jorah Mormont and Benjen Stark.

Performance from Viserys and Caitlin was equally enjoyable, if only a bit less impressive. Visery's conveyed the ambition and impetuousness from his literary inspiration well, but I missed the streak of Targaryen madness running through him. Cat is shown more as a caring mother than a woman obsessed with the well-being of her litter, which is also great, given the fact that her single-minded determination dismayed many fans and casual readers. Jamie was OK, but there was something about the final scene that disappointed me. I expected it to have a bigger impact, but it felt somewhat lukewarm.

Daenerys and Eddard were up to their roles, but without any truly stellar moments. Sean Bean is comfortable in his Boromir role - a caring and noble protagonist who's riven with conflicting emotions  - but he doesn't have any stellar moments, at least not in the first episode. Assaults on Dany's dignity and her coping with given situation were portrayed rather well, but I believe that flashes of her future self should be glimpsed at, even in introductory scenes. Her blond wig was terrible though, they might have given her purple eye-lenses as well. It couldn't look any worse that's for sure.

Jon is, sad to say, unremarkable. The same goes for Robb, but given how little screen time he gets, it's nothing to condemn yet.

Now to the bad, or rather, to the things that bothered me.

The Dothraki were undercooked, plain and simple. The lived-in surroundings that many early viewers describe as favorable only applies to Westeros, the scenery beyond The Narrow Sea is anything but. The lack of "grit" is stark in comparison to what we see elsewhere, but it doesn't add to the mystique of the place, to the contrary, it takes all of it away. The costumes look like something straight from the shop, the ceremony looked like a parade gone bad, or a dance performance with tasteless choreography. The short deadly duel by two revelers felt out of place in the cheesy setting and under the staring eye of Khal Drogo. The problem is, Khal Drogo didn't look so much as a taciturn savage, full of bridled power and charisma, but more like a depilated jock, trying hard to remember the lines he was supposed to say. The closing scene between Khal Drogo and Dany feels forced - Drogo's more uncomfortable doing the undressing than us who're watching it.

I'm no prude and enjoy the view of naked female breasts as much as anyone really. We have a fair share of these in episode one, as well as several glimpses of pertaining nocturnal activities. I'm not sure that it's the quantity of explicit material that bothered me, I was more put off by the forced nature of it. It just didn't feel natural to the flow of narrative. There's a a lot of coitus and nakedness going on in the books, but the nature of reading experience makes these things feel comfortably spaced out. Now if you cram all the boobs from the first third of book one into a single episode of the TV series I might cringe a bit, especially if there's so much actual story to be told (hidden behind the voluptuous lumps).

Despite my reservations, I think the story is setting up well and we can hope that the future episodes heighten the complexity, the drama and the immersion of the audience. I know I'm willing to give it my best, I hope you are as well.


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