Thoughts on Fifty Books

I’m a slow reader. Always have been. Historically I think I’ve been lucky to finish 20 books in a year.  This January I set myself a goal to read 50 books in 2017, and I’ve managed to hit that mark exactly.

Because of my creeping pace, I tend to be picky about what I read.  I stick to recommendations from people I trust, books that have won awards, and works held in high esteem by fan communities. It’s a strategy that pays off; I read very few duds, and my DNF list is miniscule. My 2017 list was no exception; I enjoyed almost every book I read, and even my least favorites were still above average.

What I’ve written here are brief thoughts about each of the 50 books.  In some cases I’ve provided links to reviews I wrote earlier in the year, since this post is very long as it is.

I hope you find it useful and/or enjoyable!

But first, some stats, because I love stats:

19,219 total pages

10 listened to audiobook
6 read on my iPhone
1 read on my PC
30 read on old-fashioned paper
3 read out loud to my kids

46 of the 50 were fantasy or science fiction.

If I had to pick my five favorites, I’d say:

  1. West with the Night by Beryl Markham
  2. Bone Swans by C.S.E.Cooney
  3. Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft
  4. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
  5. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

 

Enough Preamble. Here are the books! The numbers indicate the chronological order of my reading.

  1. The Final Empire – Brandon Sanderson (audio and print)

Sanderson is one of the biggest names in contemporary fantasy, and this was my first experience reading him, so I felt a bit deflated by my experience. The Final Empire isn’t bad, mind you. It’s decent. It’s serviceable. The allomancy magic system is neat. But the author’s writing style seems unexpectedly amateurish to me for someone so highly regarded in the fantasy genre. The sentence structure is unvaried and uninteresting.  “Character [verbed], [verbing] the [other noun]” (e.g. “Kelsier nodded, handing a drink to Dockson.”) He uses that one a lot.  And the amount of nodding, smiling, frowning, shrugging and eyebrow-raising was at times overwhelming.

What’s more, his vocabulary, his characters, and his action scenes are all…plain, I suppose, is the best way I can put it. They serve the story, but seem so uninspired. (It’s possible that my experience was colored by the audiobook narrator, who tended to speak in a flat, unvarying tone.)

On the positive side, the story and world-building grew stronger as the book progressed. Despite my constant annoyance at the writing, I was invested in the outcome and cared about the characters. The Final Empire feels like a real place to me now and I feel real sympathy for the downtrodden skaa. In that sense, Sanderson succeeded. Also, [minor spoiler] the plot twist at the end totally got me.

I’m keeping the other two books in the series on my TBR list, but they keep getting sifted to the bottom.

 

  1. Bone Swans (short story collection) – C.S.E. Cooney (Kindle)

I was fortunate enough to hear C.S.E. Cooney narrate a bit of one of her upcoming short stories at ReaderCon, and I knew right away I should find more of her work to read.  This collection of stories, which won the World Fantasy Award, seemed like a good place to start.  Some of the stories are re-imaginings of folk tales (maybe they all are, and I’m simply ignorant of the origins), but each is rapturously original.

All of the stories herein are absolutely fantastic, crackling with imagination.  The eponymous story The Bone Swans of Amandale (a retelling of the Pied Piper tale) is the crown jewel of the collection, but each one is worth a close read.  (Warning:  The Big Ba-Hah will seriously mess with your head.)

I’ve said this before, and now I’ll repeat it:  I’m a decent author with serviceable wordsmithing skills, but any sentence taken at random from Bone Swans would almost certainly be among the ten best sentences I’ve ever written.

 

  1. The Wise Man’s Fear – Patrick Rothfuss (Kindle)

Not sure I can say much about Rothfuss that hasn’t already been said by a million people.  This is the second book in his trilogy,* and I’m surprised by the amount of hate it gets. Somewhat famously, there’s a long scene in the middle where the main character has a lot of supernaturally good sex with a faerie who’s famous for seducing and killing her lovers. Find any review that rags on this book, and chances are that’s specifically what they’ll call out first.  And, yes, it does come off as a trifle silly and self-aggrandizing, especially given that the book’s being narrated in the first person.

But never mind that. Like the first book, The Name of the Wind, this one is gorgeously written. Rothfuss’s prose carries a reader along like a gentle wave, and the story, while a bit awkwardly paced, is still extremely entertaining. The way he writes about music, and about the nature of stories, is top notch. I would recommend it highly to any fantasy reader.

*  Rothfuss has not actually finished the trilogy. Back in 2006, he told the world he had essentially finished the series, and would be releasing one book a year over the following three years. In 2007 he released The Name of the Wind. It took him until 2011 to publish Wise Man’s Fear.  But as 2017 draws to a close, he has not yet announced a publication date for Book 3, The Doors of Stone.  This has drawn the ire of many of his fans, who feel like they were promised something that hasn’t been delivered.  And it’s true that Rothfuss has been extremely busy and visible on various social media outlets, running kickstarters, streaming video games, and front-lining his Worldbuilders charity.  This makes people even more inclined to gripe.  “Why isn’t he working on Book 3!” they cry.

Here’s my take.  First, we have no idea how much time he puts into his writing, and it’s not really any of our business. Second, writing a book is hard work, can take years, and that’s not even considering the added pressure of finishing a series regarded as the fantasy masterwork of the 21st century.  As a writer myself I’m inclined to cut him near infinite slack. And third, as I write this, his charity just raised A MILLION DOLLARS for Heifer International, largely on the back of his own fame and fandom. So if he wants to spend some of his writing hours helping poor folk in poor countries, I’m cool with that.

 

  1. A Wrinkle in Time – Madeline L’Engle (audio)

Somehow I escaped my childhood without having read this book. I’m reasonably certain I liked it, but our family was listening to the audiobook version in the car during a severe blizzard, so while some of my attention was on the book, most of it was focused on peering through a wall of rushing snowflakes and not killing myself and my family by sliding off the road into a tree.

The highlight of the book for me, as I suspect it is for many, is the trip to Camazotz, and the notion that the pinnacle of evil is a mind-controlled conformity.  (Fun fact: while reading Dyrk Ashton’s Paternus: Rise of Gods, I learned that “Camazotz” was an ancient Bat God of Death.  It’s a great name, no matter how you slice it.)

 

  1. Grandma Gatewood’s Walk – Ben Montgomery (print)

One of the two works of non-fiction I read this year, Grandma Gatewood’s Walk is an account of Emma Gatewood, the first woman to solo-hike the Appalachian Trail back in the 50’s.  And she did it at 67 years old!  I’m 20 years her junior, and my knees are aching putty after a day going up and down any typical 4000-footer in New Hampshire.

The writing in this book is forgettable, a matter-of-fact narrative that alternates a biography of Emma Gatewood’s pre-hiking life with the plainly-told story of her walk. But I read the whole thing in a state of near disbelief. She hiked the Appalachian Trail in sneakers! With almost no gear!  Escaping an abusive marriage, she told her adult children she was “going for a walk.”  And then hiked two thousand miles.

The book is not long, and if you’re intrigued by the story, it’s not a terrible way to spend some reading hours. Otherwise, you should still take five minutes and check out her Wikipedia page.

 

  1. The Forever War – John Haldeman (print)

This is a classic military science fiction novel that won both the Hugo and the Nebula back in the mid-70’s.  It’s a thinly-veiled allegory about the Vietnam War, using space opera to show the meaningless nature of the conflict and its dehumanizing and alienating effects on its soldiers.  It feels dated in many ways, but is still powerful and sobering.

 

  1. Taran Wanderer – Lloyd Alexander (read aloud) (reread)
  2. The High King – Lloyd Alexander (read aloud) (reread)

My formative reading-years (way back in the 70’s and 80’s) were full of beloved SFF classics: The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia, John Christophers’s Tripods trilogy, The Belgariad, The Shannara books, among many others.  But my shortlist of favorites would have certainly included Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, a wonderful five-book coming-of-age tale full of unforgettable characters, with storytelling that is so charming yet economical, it feels at times like a magic trick.

I have just within the past week finished reading the series aloud for the second time in the past few years, this time to my younger daughter, age 10. I was trying and mostly failing to hold back tears as I reached the end, both because of the wrenchingly bittersweet conclusion, and because it’s possible I have now read these books for the last time. One more reason to hope for grandkids someday, I suppose.

 

  1. Prelude to Mayhem – Edward Aubry (audio)
  2. Balance of Mayhem – Edward Aubry (unpublished draft)

Ed Aubry is a friend from my college days who has published several excellent books. He and I serve as Beta Readers for each other, and his insights and feedback have been immeasurably valuable to my own writing.

His “Mayhem Wave” series is wonderful—a fresh take on the post-apocalyptic genre, dancing on the border between fantasy and science-fiction.  My experience reading Ed’s work is one of constantly muttering, “Damn, I wish I could write dialogue that good.”  He has published three books in the series so far:  Prelude is Book 1 and Balance is Book 4.  The full series is:

Prelude to Mayhem (published)
Static Mayhem (published)
Mayhem’s Children (published)
Balance of Mayhem (not yet published)
Mayhem’s Reign (not yet published)

And here’s one of the best things about Balance of Mayhem: There’s a “party” of characters who are engaged in an action-packed quest together for most of the book, and they’re all women.  All very different women, with complex relationships and hugely disparate personalities. It’s fantastic.  If I haven’t yet convinced you to try this series, consider this another encouragement.

 

  1. The Girl Who Drank the Moon – Kelly Barnhill (print)

This is a charming and gentle middle-grade fantasy that won the 2017 Newbery Medal for Children’s Literature. My daughters (10 and 12) absolutely adored the book, as did my wife.  They urged me to read it too, and I’m glad they did. It features a baby offered up as the annual sacrifice to a mysterious witch, but it turns out the witch raises the babies and then lets them loose in a distant land. Luna, the baby who grows into the protagonist of this book, gets accidentally “enmagicked” by the witch and the story proceeds from there.

Among the many characters is a kindly and philosophical Bog Monster named Glerk, whose very existence kind of sums up what kind of book this is.

 

  1. The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas (print)

The person I know in all the world who is most knowledgeable about books, Alison Morris at First Book, wrote that if one were only going to read one book this year, Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give should be the one.  So, not being an idiot, I bought it and read it.  And she was right.

It’s about a black high school student, Starr, who lives two different lives: one as student trying to assimilate in a suburban prep school, and one as a teen living in a mostly black inner city neighborhood. She’s a passenger in a car driven by a black friend who is murdered by a policeman during a “broken tail light” traffic stop.  Powerful and timely, The Hate U Give should be (and forgive my bluntness) mandatory reading for white people.

 

  1. The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemesin (print)

Another Hugo winner, The Fifth Season is amazing, powerful, challenging, and lots of other similar adjectives that have been lavished on the book by reviewers before me. It takes place on a continent that suffers constant seismic catastrophes, the worst of which are semi-regular apocalyptic “fifth seasons” that wipe out huge swaths of civilization.  These calamities are held back by orogenes, a class of people with the genetic ability to control (to varying degrees) seismic activity.

Though I recommend this book wholeheartedly, I should warn: it’s not “fun” in any sense. It is not a happy book, and there’s very little humor to be found. It’s a sobering look at how a society can develop in response to a constant threat of natural annihilation, and the terrible choices such a society forces on individuals.

I’m also going to use The Fifth Season to gripe about something entirely unrelated. The book is the first in a trilogy, and I read it back in the spring. It is now late December, and just today I started the second book, The Obelisk Gate. I don’t like re-reading books—life is too short and my reading speed too slow—but The Fifth Season was full of details and characters about which I wanted reminders. I scoured the Internet for a detailed plot synopsis…and couldn’t find one! For series of 3+ books, I wish every author would include an “our story so far” preface, either in the books themselves, or somewhere on-line. As it was, I had to cobble together the details of Book 1 from Wikipedia and the spoileriest reviews I could find.

 

  1. The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman (audio)

Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors, and this is my second-favorite of his works (behind the collected Sandman graphic novels). It’s a retelling of The Jungle Book with the main character living in a graveyard with ghosts, rather than in a jungle with animals. The humor and style are quintessentially Gaimain-esque.

Like The Girl Who Drank the Moon, it won the Newbery Medal. It’s fairly dark for children’s literature, opening as it does with a young child barely escaping the murder of his family.

I listened to the audio book, which Gaiman himself narrates, and I’ll tell you: If aliens or evil sorcerers ever erase Gaiman’s ability to write, he could have a very successful second career as an audiobook narrator. That man has a lovely, lovely voice.

 

  1. The Dispatcher (novella) – John Scalzi (audio)

The was my second Scalzi book, the first being the wacky meta-Star Trek novel Redshirts. Scalzi is a Big Idea author – his books are (to me) less about intricate or emotional storytelling and more about exploring fascinating ideas and premises. In this one, the idea is that, if someone is murdered by another person, they wake up alive, 99.9% of the time, back in their homes soon after. The titular character is someone hired to kill people who are otherwise about to die of natural or accidental causes, so that they’ll come back to life instead of becoming permanently deceased.

The Dispatcher is short – a novella length work that explores some of the inevitable societal effects of this odd phenomenon. Scalzi writes in clean, plain prose, with lots of explanation delivered naturally via dialogue. His wordsmithing here is not spectacular or even particularly colorful, but it takes the shortest line between the reader and the Big Idea of the book, which was good enough to keep me entertained.

 

  1. Little, Big John Crowley (print)

Review at:  https://dorianhart.com/2017/05/02/book-review-john-crowleys-little-big/

 

  1. West with the Night – Beryl Markham (audio)

This is the other non-fiction book on this list, and it’s also probably the best book I read in 2017 . A good friend recommended it, and I listened to the audiobook over a weekend in which I spent 14 hours driving.

I had never heard of Beryl Markham. Her fame comes from being an aviator; in 1936 she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west.  This book, Markham’s memoir, also tells of her childhood in early -20th-century Africa, her late-teen years spent as a race horse trainer, and her adult career as a bush pilot spotting elephants for safari expeditions. It’s utterly riveting, and I cannot recommend it highly enough, but don’t just take my word for it. Some fellow named Ernest Hemingway, a man notoriously stingy in his praise of other writers, had this to say:

“Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, West with the Night? …She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers … it really is a bloody wonderful book.”

 

  1. Senlin Ascends – Josiah Bancroft (Kindle)

Review at: https://dorianhart.com/2017/05/19/book-review-senlin-ascends-by-josiah-bancroft/

 

  1. How to Twist a Dragon’s Tale – Cressida Cowell (audio)
  2. A Hero’s Guide to Deadly Dragons — Cressida Cowell (audio)

The “How to Train Your Dragon” movies were based on a series of delightful little children’s books by Cressida Cowell.  Our family has taken to listening to the audiobooks on long car rides.

The books are short, sweet, full of memorable characters and humor that will make kids and adults giggle (at least the ones in our family), and David Tennant’s wonderful narration is the best I’ve ever heard. His voices are varied, evocative, and you can hear how much fun he’s having.

To be sure, these are kids’ books, targeted at readers/listeners between (I’d say) 8-12. But even 48-year-old dad has been utterly enchanted by them. The ones we’ve listened to take about 3-5 hours, so if you’re intrigued, it won’t cost you much to take a flier.

Cressida Cowell’s husband is named Simon Cowell, but it turns out he’s not the talent-show judge, a fact about which I have evidently been mistaken for years.

 

  1. The Arm of the Spinx – Josiah Bancroft (Kindle)

Review at: https://dorianhart.com/2017/09/10/book-review-arm-of-the-sphinx-by-josiah-bancroft/

 

  1. The City and the City – China Mieville (print)

Heretofore my only experience with Mieville had been the amazing Perdido Street Station, one of my favorite books of all time. The City and the City is much different, and I didn’t like it quite as much, but it’s still excellent.

At its heart, the book is a murder-mystery crime thriller, but what makes the story unique is its setting. The events of the book take place in two overlapping cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma.  Some streets and buildings exist in one,  some in the other, and some in a nebulous state called “crosshatch.” There are strict rules about how one can interact with persons,  things and events in the “other” city. Intriguingly, there is a group of enforcers who seem to pop into existence whenever someone violates these rules, intentionally or not.

The most interesting (to me) part of reading this book was deciding if it was fantasy/sf or not.

 

  1. The Lies of Locke Lamora – Scott Lynch (print)

Review at: https://dorianhart.com/2017/09/26/book-review-the-lies-of-locke-lamora-by-scott-lynch/

 

  1. Old Man’s War – John Scalzi (print)

Having read and enjoyed Redshirts and The Dispatcher,  I decided to try Scalzi’s military sf adventure Old Man’s War.  I didn’t realize it would read so much like a modern retelling of Haldeman’s The Forever War, but having read the two within months of each other, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities.

In Old Man’s War, the military recruits old people (the narrator is 75) and downloads their minds into new, younger, and physically enhanced bodies. Then they’re sent out into the harsh universe of deadly alien species to fight on Earth’s behalf.

Scalzi pulls a neat trick with his writing in this book; it feels like nothing special, with simple and straightforward storytelling, but the pages practically turn themselves. I think this happens because the reader is discovering the nature of the world and its conflicts right alongside the main character, and so it is curiosity, rather than an enchantment with the writing or characters, that drives the reader along.

 

  1. Uprooted – Naomi Novik (Kindle)

As I said at the preface to this list, being a slow reader, I typically add books to my TBR list only if they come highly recommended by friends, have won awards, or are positively regarded by a preponderance of commentary in places like Reddit’s fantasy forum. As such, I enjoy almost every book I read.

Uprooted seemed like a solid choice by the above criteria, and… I guess I kind of liked it? Mostly? It’s a darling among critics, so I’m likely either missing something or am just not a good fit, but I finished the book feeling underwhelmed.

The writing itself is lovely, and the story has the trappings of a dark, rich fantasy with an eastern-European feel.  The “villain” is wonderfully creepy – a dark, corrupting forest with which even the mildest contact can prove deadly. And I enjoyed the authentic friendship between the main character and her childhood companion.

Two things bothered me about the book. One was the long middle section, when the MC leaves her forest village to live in the larger capital, where she is bewildered by the new and complex social environment. It dragged for me, enough to reduce my engagement with the story and its characters.

Worse for me was the weird and awkward physical relationship between the young Agnieszka and her captor/mentor, the ageless wizard called Dragon.  Said relationship becomes unexpectedly physical despite nothing seeming to change about the Dragon’s utter contempt for her protégé, not to mention the power dynamic and complete lack of chemistry between the two. That entire arc, at the core of the story, felt so forced and inauthentic, it made it hard for me take the rest of the book seriously.

Obviously I’m in a minority on this. Uprooted won a Nebula and was a Hugo finalist. It naturally makes me nervous when I’m left lukewarm by a work with such critical acclaim.  As such, I won’t not recommend it. Read some of the many positive reviews and decide for yourself.

 

  1. Three Parts Dead – Max Gladstone (Kindle)

Review at: https://dorianhart.com/2017/09/26/book-review-three-parts-dead-by-max-gladstone/

 

  1. The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O – Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland (print)

I’m happy to say that, for me, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. falls into the “Good Stephenson” pile along with Anathem, Cryptonomicon, and Reamde. (Note: While there are plenty of readers who are similarly divided by N.S’s work, each of us divides his books up differently. I am apparently in a tiny minority who lists both Anathem and Reamde among his best.)

D.O.D.O. is a fun time-travel romp full of humor and hijinks, but also a well-shot arrow aimed at the excesses of bureaucracy and corporate culture. There’s plenty of Stephenson-y cleverness and humor (wait until you get to the Lay of Walmart!) without an excess of technical/scientific explanations. (There is a small amount, front-loaded near the start of the book, but it never weighs the book down the way it did (for me) in Seveneves.)

The storytelling is non-traditional. Most of the book takes the form of e-mails, posts from message boards, private diary entries, letters, etc. But for me that made the book speed along nicely, broken up into easily digestible chunks.

Also, the time-travel plot itself is… sparse. And not the point for much of the book. Oh, certainly there’s tons of time-travel, and the last quarter of the book is full of the best kind of temporal shenanigans. But at its heart the book stays true to its title; it’s about the building up of a government organization that eventually collapses under its own weight.

The ending is fine (not always true for Stephenson), though it does set up the 750 page doorstop as merely the prologue of a larger story.

I’ve not read any other Nicole Galland, but I ought to credit her both with the entertaining storytelling and the dialing back of some of Stephenson’s densest excesses.

As with Anathem, I cannot uncategorically recommend D.O.D.O. because its pacing and structure are so unconventional. But I enjoyed the heck out of it. Readers who like time travel yarns should give it a try.

 

  1. Shards of Honor – Lois McMaster Bujold (print)
  2. Barrayar – Lois McMaster Bujold (print)

My author friend Ed Aubry (see the Mayhem books above) is a huge fan of Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, and he pestered me until I read these first two in the set.

Shards of Honor was fine. I thought it was in the “good but not great” set. It’s a short and entertaining small-scale sci-fi story (the main chunk of the book features only two characters) that nonetheless manages a space-opera feel. I finished it feeling more reflective of the characters than the plot, which is not a knock.

Barrayar took the setting of Shards and expanded it into something magnificent. More characters, more world-building, and tons of intrigue. The relationship set up in Shards is front and center of a political science fiction thriller.

Though these are the only two books in the set I have read, I gather that they form a two-volume prequel that only at the very end introduces the much-beloved character, Miles Vorkosigan, who stars in over a dozen more books in the saga. Ed’s not going to leave me alone until I read them.

 

  1. The Goblin Emperor – Katherine Addison (print)

Review at: https://dorianhart.com/the-goblin-emperor-by-katherine-addison/

 

  1. Timepiece – Heather Albano (print)

I am a friendly acquaintance of author Heather Albano. I have been trying to be helpful to my talented and creative friends, getting the word out about their works.  I recently had this to say about Timepiece:

“Timepiece is… how to put this. It’s a Jane Austen steampunk time-travel undead-monster Battle-of-Waterloo story. You know, one of those. The writing is smooth and engaging, and Heather’s self-proclaimed label of “history geek” shines through in the details.

You should get it. And read it. And then, if you like it, you should tell your friends about it.”

All of that is true.

 

  1. Best Served Cold – Joe Abercrombie (print)

Review at: https://dorianhart.com/2017/09/22/book-review-best-served-cold-by-joe-abercrombie/

 

  1. The Two Towers – J.R.R.Tolkien (read aloud) (re-read)

I’ve been reading Lord of the Rings out loud to my eldest daughter E for a couple of years now. It’s slow going—she often wants to read her own books, or doesn’t have time due to ever-increasing homework demands (she’s about to turn 13)—but we’ve finally made it through the first two books.

She loves Tolkien, just as I did at her age. I am an unapologetic LotR superfan; from about the ages of 15 through 30, I would re-read Lord of the Rings every January. I read the whole thing out loud to my (now) wife back when we were dating. To this day they are my favorite works of fantasy, and reading them aloud has only increased my regard for the lush, lyrical writing and dizzyingly deep world-building.

[Spoilers coming up]

The Two Towers contains some of my favorite scenes of the trilogy: Gandalf’s confrontation with Saruman, and Sam facing down Faramir, not to mention the encounter with Shelob in the pass of Cirith Ungol. My daughter found the most powerful moment to be when Smeagol almost triumphs over his Gollum persona, looking down at Frodo while he slept, but then Sam comes along and ruins the moment with his rudeness and mistrust. E literally jumped to her feet and howled.  “Sam, no! Why did you do that? You ruined it!”

She gets it, that one.

 

  1. Who Fears Death – Nnedi Okorafor (print)

I don’t often finish a book and think “I’m not sure I’m qualified to have an opinion,” but I came close on this one.

Who Fears Death, which won the World Fantasy Award for best novel in 2011, is set in a post-apocalyptic Sudan, and follows the life of a girl, Onyesonwu, who’s part of an oppressed racial tribe. The story is told in simple, brief, and powerful  language. On the surface, the tale is brutal. There’s murder, rape, and child abuse. Female genital mutilation features prominently.  Yet despite that, and despite that the main themes in the book are racial divisions, genocide, and the dangers of unexamined traditions, the book manages to convey a sense of strength and hope throughout. It’s about breaking through the chains of victimhood.

If you’re anything like me, Who Fears Death will take you far out of your comfort zone. I recommend it anyway; getting out of your comfort zone is a good thing.

 

  1. Shift – Hugh Howey
  2. Dust – Hugh Howey

I could have used these as exemplars for how it’s frustrating not to be able to find plot synopses of old books. These are the 2nd and 3rd books of Howey’s ballyhooed post-apocalyptic Silo series, which have been sitting on my shelves for a while now. It’s been many years since I read Wool, the first book, and my memory of its details was shaky at best. I wanted badly to find a good plot refresher, but there doesn’t seem to be one. So I struck out with these two hoping I could pick up context and remember details as I went along.

Wool told the story of the inhabitants of a Silo, a self-contained underground community of about 10,000 people, stuck there for generations because something has made the surface world uninhabitable.

Shift, published after, is a prequel. The reader finds out what happened to necessitate the building and habitation of the silo. Dust is the sequel to Wool, concluding the trilogy as life in the Silo breaks down along with a series of unexpected discoveries.  (I’m being intentionally vague to avoid spoilers, naturally.)

The Silo Trilogy is typically held up as the Holy Grail for self-published authors. Howey started it as an on-line serial, which gained such a large and devoted following that he was able to turn his stories into fantastically successful novels. And the success is well-earned, I think. Its serialized nature makes the pacing very fast and cliffhanger-y, so the books are hard to put down.

 

  1. The Crosser’s Maze – Dorian Hart (Kindle and print)

I have to list this for the sake of completeness and accuracy. When you write a book, you end up reading and re-reading it constantly as you go, and then a couple more times when the print proofs come back.

It’s the second book in my Heroes of Spira series, following book one, The Ventifact Colossus.

If I were pitching my books to someone, I’d say something like this:

“Imagine a fantastic 15-year-long tabletop fantasy campaign, used as source material for a series of fun and exciting character-driven adventures. If you’re a fan of fantasy epics with flawed but likable characters, daring swordplay, high magic, terrible monsters, powerful but enigmatic artifacts, intriguing mysteries that will all be explained by the end of the series, and villains with excellent mustaches, then you will most likely enjoy the Heroes of Spira.”

Oh, and a book-blogger just called The Crosser’s Maze “bonkersly inventive,” which is neat.

 

  1. Poe Stories and Poems: A Graphic Novel Adaptation – Gareth Hinds (print)

Gareth Hinds is an incredible talent. I was lucky enough to work with him for many years in the video game industry, but my real fortune, one that everyone in the world can share, is that he’s gone on to write and illustrate a whole pile of fabulous graphic novel adaptations.

His most famous work is a retelling of The Odyssey, but  he’s also done Beowulf, MacBeth, King Lear, The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, and a few others.

This one, a collection of Edgar Allen Poe’s most famous stories and poems, is as wonderful as the rest, with lovely and haunting illustrations.  It includes The Cask of Amontillado, The Masque of the Red Death, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Tell-Tale Heart, and more.  You’ll find yourself lingering over, and marveling at, the artwork throughout.

 

  1. All the Birds in the Sky – Charlie Jane Anders (print)

All the Birds in the Sky is a quirky little book, a fantasy/sci-fi blend that serves as a cautionary tale and meditation on the balance of technology and nature. It follows the lives of two alternating protagonists, Patricia and Laurence, from childhood into adulthood. Patricia (a magic-wielding witch) and Laurence (a child techno-prodigy) each find opposing tribes of like-minded folk and are drawn into an epic struggle.

The backdrop of the story is a world sliding into exact kind of chaos the real world seems headed for:  natural disasters, rising military tensions, massive social unrest. But the story’s camera stays focused on Patricia and Laurence, who seemed destined to clash, draw apart, and eventually fall in love.

The book is written in jaunty, modern prose, and takes place in a slightly-alternative present where no one finds it incredible that (for example) one can build a miniature time-machine from schematics downloaded from the Internet. I found throughout the book that I was strongly reminded of some previous work I couldn’t put my finger on, but I think I’ve figured it out.  All the Birds in the Sky is like a weird cross between Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs.  Or, maybe, it’s like The Magicians but with about 75% of its cynicism replaced with whimsy, and whose characters are just as downtrodden but much more likeable. There’s a sad sweetness to the story that persists throughout the many odd turns and conflicts.

It’s short (< 100k words), a standalone, and in my opinion, well worth your time.  Oh, and it won the 2017 Nebula Award for best novel.

 

  1. Red Sister – Mark Lawrence (audio)

I confess that, for a long time, I shied away from Mark Lawrence’s books. That’s because, having heard some good things, I checked out the “Look Inside” feature of Prince of Thorns on Amazon and read for about five minutes. The opening of that book is narrated by a murdering, raping, psychopathic 13-year-old who seems to be somehow in charge of a gang of similarly-minded adults. I don’t mind a bit of “grimdark fantasy,” as it is known—see Joe Abercrombie, above—but that was too much for me at the time.  I let it be, and let Mark Lawrence drop off the radar.

Still, on message boards and the Twitters, when people listed some of their favorite works, his name kept popping up. So, when he released the first book in a series that was obviously not in the Grimdark vein, I purchased the audio book, Red Sister.  And you know what? It’s great!

Imagine if Hogwarts were an all-girls religious school that taught its students to be assassins. That’s Red Sister, more or less. The writing is strong, if a little on the overwrought side at times, and little too proud of its frequent philosophical one-liners. The characters are memorable and fun to follow, and Lawrence does an excellent job of world-building given that over half the book takes place on the grounds of Sweet Mercy convent.  It’s not a fast-paced book; the author takes his time building up relationships and settings, but it’s never boring. There’s plenty of action and violence, be assured.

Also, Red Sister has a great opening:  “It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size. For Sister Thorn of the Sweet Mercy convent Lano Tacsis brought two hundred men.”

 

  1. Sourcery – Terry Pratchett (print)
  2. Wyrd Sisters – Terry Pratchett (print)
  3. Pyramids – Terry Pratchett (print)

I read some Terry Pratchett back when I was in college, and remembered enjoying them quite a lot. Recently I’ve decided to make my way through the whole set (intermingling them with other books), and in 2017 I got to books 5, 6, and 7.

Pratchett’s humor isn’t for everyone, but I think it’s brilliant. (Oddly, it didn’t click at all with my British-born wife.)  His books may deliver plenty of satire and social commentary, but it’s his exaggerated, surprising, hilarious, and often incisive descriptions of people, places and events that keeps me coming back for more.

The plots –eh, they’re just vehicles, really. I thought the plot of Sourcery was sparse, the chapters and events stretched out too thinly across too little story.  It delivered the humorous goods just fine, but if that’s not your thing, there wasn’t much else to recommend it.

Wyrd Sisters was brilliant – a delightful send-up of Macbeth as well as a meditation on the power of theater to shape perceptions and transport the imagination.

Pyramids fell somewhere between the two for me. The story was a bit wobbly, but the humor was nonstop wonderful, and its satire (on religion and its clinging to traditions) was spot on.

Certainly my experience with the first seven Pratchett books has not dampened my enthusiasm for continuing my journey through his series.

 

  1. Swordspoint – Ellen Kushner

I’m a bit conflicted by Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint. Having pondered it for a few days after finishing it, I’m putting it in the “liked it but didn’t quite love it” category.

It’s a small and contained fantasy-of-manners, a heavily character-driven story of political intrigue and romance. There is no magic, no fantastical or supernatural elements to speak of, so it only lands in the fantasy genre by dint of its nobles-and-peasants setting and the prominent role of swordsmen in the fabric of its society. Its scope is small and tight, with only two settings of note: the Hill where the nobles live, and the town of Riverside below it, home to a variety of lower class rabble. (I think the author made a conscious choice to limit the narrative focus only to a thin slice of the world’s characters and events.)

The writing is gorgeous. Kushner writes with a lovely, pastoral elegance that makes even mundane settings a joy to read about. Even when my interest in the story faltered, I was always happy to read the next sentence. She has a particular knack for finding just the right odd detail to focus her camera upon to both color a scene and deliver sparkling moments of characterization.

The characters of Swordspoint were both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand the main characters, the swordsman Richard St Vier and his lover Alec, were fascinating and well-drawn. Wanting to know what would become of St Vier was the main driver that propelled me through the book. But he was the only main character that was, to me, in any way likeable. Alec was rude and recklessly self-destructive, and the other characters were either clearly villainous or aimlessly self-absorbed. (There was a minor character, a retired Swordsman, who was sympathetic, but he didn’t get much page time.)  Also, one of the POV characters never found a real place in the story, and had drifted away to an afterthought by the time the book came to an end.

The political intrigue was excellent and handled with a deft touch, but I was left feeling that despite the clever machinations and entertaining sword duels, there was little sense of stakes. Alec is aware of his own tendency to self-destruction, and St Vier comes right and out tells you he doesn’t expect to live long as a Swordsmen. Since the protagonists didn’t seem to care if and when they were in danger, it was hard for me to care. And there’s nothing outside the story, no sense of the events fitting into a world larger than the political maneuvers of this one city.

I may be being unfair, faulting the author for things she consciously didn’t prioritize. And there’s a lot to like about the book. The dialogue is excellent and sprinkled liberally with humor; the role of swordsmen in society is fascinating; the intrigue falls nicely into the satisfying strata of “complex-but-not-byzantine”; the two main characters, whatever you may think of them, are fascinating to watch interact with those around them; and the romance is believable and handled well without needing to be explicit.

If you’re in the mood for something small, beautiful, and character-focused, without a need for high magic and epic quests, Swordspoint will fit the bill very well.

 

  1. The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell

David Mitchell is a wonderful storyteller, a man considered one of the greats among living authors. I had previously read Cloud Atlas and regard it as one of the best books I have ever read. My experience with The Bone Clocks has only cemented my high opinion of Mitchell.

Its structure hews closely to the formula of Cloud Atlas. The Bone Clocks is a series of a half-dozen interlaced novellas, each chronologically forward from the previous. They are loosely tied together by the character of Holly Sykes (the narrator of the first one) and by a mysterious ongoing war between two magic-using factions. The fantasy elements of the book are understated but powerful through the first four novellas, and are the primary focus of the fifth. While technically fantasy (and it won a World Fantasy Award for best novel in 2015), you are more likely to find The Bone Clocks in the literature section of your local bookstore.

Mitchell’s writing is brisk and witty, filled with surprising and colorful images, unexpected metaphors, and immensely clever dialogue. Beyond the writing itself, his greatest talent is his authentic investment in his characters, making them feel absolutely real despite their variety. If verisimilitude were a substance, it would be pouring out of the book in  waves. He transitions from a 15-year-old rebellious love-struck girl, to a charming early-20’s sociopath, to a bitter war correspondent, to a curmudgeonly middle-aged author, with perfect finesse.

(He uses the author character to tweak fun at himself and his critics at once. Minor spoiler: the author, Crispin Hershey, is reeling from a scathing review of his latest work. The review includes this):

”The fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look…What surer sign is there that the creative aquafers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?”

The final novella is a jarring take on the apocalyptic consequences of society’s blind eye toward climate change and inveterate addiction to fossil fuels. It’s powerful, sobering, and believable.

If I had to level one criticism at the book (and I do so with great misgivings, given Mitchell’s stature), it’s that the style of his writing, so immensely colorful and modern, doesn’t change between one character and the next. Normally this wouldn’t bother me a bit, but each of the novellas is narrated in first person, by very different characters. (In 3rd-person narration, a consistent narrator’s voice would be fine, as long as the dialogue and inner thoughts of each character were distinct.) Reading such disparate souls telling their stories in such uniform language—even though that language is delightful—smudged the diamond a bit for me.

It’s still a diamond, though. I enjoyed Cloud Atlas a bit more, but The Bone Clocks joins it on my list of favorite novels.

Postscript: I read Mitchell’s Slade House immediately after finishing The Bone Clocks.  The former is a small companion piece, a side-story running concurrent with the narrative of the latter. That reading order significant changes the experiencing of reading Slade House, but I’d still recommend reading The Bone Clocks first. Either way: read them both!

 

  1. Slade House – David Mitchell

See above. Slade House, a companion piece to The Bone Clocks, is a little haunted house novel written brilliantly by one of the best writers currently plying his trade.

 

  1. The Crown Conspiracy – Michael J. Sullivan

I’m cheating a little bit here to get to 50 books. The Crown Conspiracy was originally released as a standalone novel, but has since been combined with a second book into a volume called Theft of Swords, which is itself only Book 1 of The Riyira Revelations. I’ve been listening to Theft of Swords in the car, and I’m counting it as two books instead of one.

The Crown Conspiracy is the perfect antidote to Grimdark. The heroes are likeable and easy to cheer on, and there’s nothing that would be objectionable to young teens even though the story itself seems aimed at an adult audience.

The book is full of standard fantasy tropes—dwarves and wizards, rogues and princes, frugal monks and conniving royalty and knights and all the rest—but they’re so well executed I didn’t mind in the slightest. It’s a tale of two good-hearted thieves conned by their employer, and becoming embroiled in a larger political conflict. The audio narrator, Tim Gerard Reynolds, is absolutely perfect for the material, and elevates Sullivan’s solid prose to a higher level. Riyira is the satisfying meat-and-potatoes meal of the fantasy banquet.

The two main characters, Hadrian and Royce, are literally partners in crime. They have the best bromance going on out of all the fantasy books I’ve read.

Finally, the book feels like the outer layer of an onion beneath which is a much wider and more epic tale. I’m most of the way through listening to the second book, Avempartha, and the plot is constantly thickening.

 

  1. Paternus: Rise of Gods – Dyrk Ashton

Review at: https://dorianhart.com/2017/12/14/book-review-paternus-rise-of-gods-by-dyrk-ashton/

 

  1. The Slow Regard of Silent Things – Patrick Rothfuss

This is an odd one. Patrick Rothfuss wrote a novella-length character study of a minor character from his Kingkiller Chronicles series.  There’s only one character—Auri—and no real plot.

Auri lives alone in a vast maze of connected rooms and corridors that make up an old abandoned wizards’ academy, far below the current active one. Though the narrative never comes right out and says it, Auri has profound OCD, a fact which is the lens through which the story is told. She is constantly engaged in two-way communication with a variety of inanimate objects, whose secret hearts and desires she believes she knows. And she’s so certain of these desires, the reader is nearly convinced as well. Rothfuss manages to make broken gears and pieces of cloth feel like characters.

I’m not sure I would have enjoyed this little book had I not already read Rothfuss’s two novels. Auri was a charming and mysterious character in those, and it was nice getting a closer look at her secret life, never seen in the wider picture. But this isn’t a novel in any conventional sense. Nothing happens. Be warned.

 

  1. The Last Unicorn – Peter S. Beagle

Some of the classics slipped past me during my childhood, and we’ve had an ancient copy of this sitting on our shelves for years. So.

The Last Unicorn is a strange book, but mesmerizing. It’s about (surprise!) the last unicorn left in the world, who leaves the safety of her forest to seek out the last of her kind. Though almost immediately captured, she is rescued by a middling wizard named Schmendrick who then accompanies her on her quest.

It’s written as an odd and lovely fairytale, with prose as beautiful as any on this list. The whole book has a dream-like quality that carried me along quite happily as I read, and, when it ended I had a distinct “just woke up from a dream” feeling that few books since Lord of the Rings have given me.

I realize I may be the last person I know to have read The Last Unicorn, but if I’m not, and you haven’t, you really should give it a go.

 

 

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Book Review – Paternus: Rise of Gods, by Dyrk Ashton

I’m not sure I’ve ever been as conflicted about a book as I am about Dyrk Ashton’s epic slugathon of deities, PATERNUS: RISE OF GODS. So here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to talk about a bunch of things I didn’t like, and then I’m going to rave a bit, give it 4 stars and tell you to buy it. So please don’t get part way through, decide I’m slagging the book, and give up.

My issues with Paternus are mostly of the technical/editorial sort; it felt like any editing done was light and incomplete. That is not to say the book is one of those amateurish nightmares of the self-pubbed world with dozens of typos and piles of broken grammar. Overall the writing is quite good. But there were many small things that kept pulling me up short: comma splices, wrong homophones (e.g. peaked instead of piqued), use of interrobangs and multiple exclamation marks, and similar small glitches.

The author also made the (to me) puzzling choice of adding straight parenthetical translations to foreign language phrases. (In my opinion, if you’re going to have characters speak in a foreign language, you have several decent choices: make it clear enough from context that you don’t need a translation; or tell the reader it’s French/Latin/Persian/whatever but write it out in English; or trust your reader to look it up if they care. But simply adding parenthetical translations immediately following every foreign phrase jarred me out of the story, as though my urban fantasy novel had just become a textbook.)

That’s just one example of how the author needs to trust his reader more; he wastes time over-explaining and using redundant adverbs. (If I can easily tell from context that a character is being sarcastic, don’t follow up with a sentence explicitly telling me the character is being sarcastic.)

Paternus is written in the third-person present tense, which is fine, but the head-hopping between characters was so constant, it gave me whiplash. It often happens between short paragraphs without so much as a section break. And while there are a lot of characters in Paternus (and I love some of them and like most of them), the two lead characters, Fi and Zeke, felt flat to me. They seemed more like witnesses and people-to-whom-things-happen than interesting characters driving the action.

So…  two stars and don’t bother, right?

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

I. Could. Not. Put. This. Book. Down. And I say this as a stickler for writing quality, as someone who normally would have little patience for a self-published book with editing issues. So, what did I like?

First, just to get this out of the way, the author knows how to write sentences to serve his action…and this book is almost all action. There are beautiful and evocative images throughout, and his ability to describe scenes is magnificent. So understand, despite my complaints, this is not by any means a poorly written book. Quite the opposite.

But the star of this show is the action. The pace of Paternus is so relentless, and the battles so entertaining and cinematic, no piddly little editing issues were going to stop me from turning the next page. The conceit of battling gods from multiple pantheons is absolutely brilliant. (Quetzalcoatl vs. Hephaestus and the Minotaur! Anansi vs. Galahad! Kali vs. Baphomet! Cerberus vs. the Devil!)  As a 14-year-old D&D nerd reading the hardcover Deities and Demigods, I loved to speculate about who would win if (for instance) Odin fought against Cthulhu. Dyrk Ashton wrote a whole book about that kind of epic clash of titans, and it’s every bit as delightful as it sounds. The research and knowledge of world mythologies that went into his work is astounding, and the novel is just plain popcorn fun from beginning to end.

As such, despite my curmudgeonly nitpicking, I would recommend this to anyone who thinks an action-packed urban fantasy featuring battlin’ gods sounds like a good time. And while the book ends satisfactorily on its own, it’s clearly a long opening salvo in what’s likely to be an ongoing barrage of deific battles in further books.  I can’t wait!

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Book Review – The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch

The Lies of Locke Lamora (hereafter “TLoLL”) was pure entertainment, start to finish. Lynch managed to balance adroitly on two different tightropes: pacing/description, and tone/content. What do I mean by that?

TLoLL barreled along at what felt like a brisk, exciting pace. I never felt like I was waiting around for something interesting to happen. This is a page-turner, no mistake about it, and every minute of the day I wasn’t reading it, I felt an itch in my brain. And yet, thinking back, there was a ton of straight-up world-building description, often in dense blocks. How Lynch delivered all of that without bogging down my reading experience is a testament both to his engaging prose, and to his sense of timing as he meted out his action and plot advancement.

Regarding tone/content: TLoLL can be absolutely vicious. Violent things happen to a lot of people (including good people), things that wouldn’t be out of place in a GRRM novel, and they are described in unflinching detail. There’s murder, torture, the works. But the book never exuded that ugly god-I-hope-my-mom-never-picks-this-up vibe of black brutality that permeates the Grimdark sub-genre. The prose is delivered with a wry wink, a kind of laughing cynicism, even as characters are maimed, mauled and murdered.

If I had to level a criticism at TLoLL, it would be regarding its characterizations. Don’t get me wrong – the protagonists, a band of thieves called the Gentleman Bastards, are entertaining to read about. I cared about what happened to them. But they are not particularly differentiated. Yes, they’re clever, wisecracking con-men who deliver top-quality Witty Banter™ from page 1 to page 720. But they’re ALL that way. Even most of the villains are that way. Every character in the book seems to have gone to an amazing finishing school to learn how to deliver the perfect entertaining quip, every time. The dialogue is a strength of the book – probably the author’s greatest strength – but I couldn’t tell you much that made any particular character meaningfully different, interior-wise, from the others. Yes, they have different skillsets, but when they’re sitting around a table chatting, they all feel pretty much the same. Let the record show, though, that this realization did not particularly hamper my reading experience. I didn’t even notice until I finished devouring the book and started reflecting upon it.

My only other quibble was the lack of major female characters. The main group of heroic ne’er-do-wells is an all-male club, and the main villains are likewise men. The most prominent women are a couple of secondary characters and some one-dimensional minor villains. Granted, the secondary characters are fascinating – probably MORE complex than some of the heroes. But in terms of pure screen time given to lead roles, women got short shrift.

All of that said, TLoLL was fantastic. Beautifully written, gripping to the end, full of rich world-building, highly kinetic action sequences, and cleverly-conceived cons, deliciously blended together. (By the last page, the Italianesque city of Camorr, where the action takes place, felt as real as any fantasy locale I can think of. Oh, and speaking of delicious, I’d put Lynch’s mouth-watering descriptions of gourmet foods up against anyone’s. Mmmmmmm.)

I certainly plan to acquire and read the sequels. The heaps of accolades and recommendations piled upon TLoLL are well earned.

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Book Review – Three Parts Dead, by Max Gladstone

Three Parts Dead, the first volume of Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, is a good book, a clever book, a beautifully written book. On some occasions it rises to greatness. On other occasions I thought it had some problems. There’s more good than bad, and I would certainly recommend it, albeit with some very minor caveats.

The main protagonist (one of a handful of POV characters) can best be described as a lawyer-wizard. Gods are defined by the legal contracts that allow others to draw on their power, and the plot revolves around the sort of machinations one might imagine would spawn from that.

The setting is bizarre and wonderful, a steam-punky urban fantasy realm with gargoyles, vampires, gods, priests, wizards, and a few things that defy easy description. It feels unique in a way that’s hard to achieve. But it’s also confusing. Gladstone circles around some core world-building concepts without offering anchors, so I spent a great deal of time wondering if I really understood what was going on. Even so, there’s some gorgeous spectacle here.

The characters are a bit hit or miss. Our protagonist, Tara Abernathy, felt to me more defined by her (very cool) backstory than her actions in the book. She didn’t have much of an arc, but felt more like a Plot Mover and Explainer. But I loved her boss, the unflappable Elayne Keverian, and her sidekick, the hapless God-fearing technician Abelard. And the main villain of the book was extremely entertaining, despicable without being a conventional Bwa-Ha-Ha sort of bad guy.

My main beef with the book was its magic system: the Craft, after which the series is named. It was fascinating, but both ill-defined (intentionally, I believe) and constantly central to the plot. As a result, there seemed a number of clashes between magical forces where the outcome seemed arbitrary—as though the author needed someone to win, or escape, or discover something, and happened to pull out just the magic gobbledygook that was needed right then. The Craft is at the heart of everything that happens in the book, so I would have liked it to have more consistency.

On a positive note, the plot itself is extremely clever, full of foreshadowing, and I loved how the author wrapped up everything at the end. There was a lot of “Oh, now that makes sense!” head-slapping for me as a few consistently mentioned but seemingly unimportant details became central to the story. The book has no end of creativity, the writing is top-notch, and there’s a good balance of action and mystery. I’m putting it in my “liked it but didn’t quite love it” category, but it’s easy to see how someone could absolutely adore it.

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Book Review – Best Served Cold, by Joe Abercrombie

BSC.jpgBear with me here. I’m going to start my review of Best Served Cold by talking very briefly about another of my favorite books, China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station.

My favorite aspect of PSS was Mieville’s relentless use of language to impart an overwhelming feeling of grime. For all its cast of entertaining characters, for me the star of the book was New Crobuzon’s overwhelming aura of dingy decay, filth, and muck.

Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold gave me the same sensation, albeit with a different focus. If one were to make one of those word cloud thingies from BSC, I’m certain that “blood” and “shit” would be front and center. Abercrombie’s metaphors for just about everything are laden with brutality and violence; he wants us to live in a harsh, cruel world, and he does that not only with dozens of scenes where people are butchered, but by describing everything from architecture to sunsets in terms of blood, guts, and excrement.

Even more than that is his use of his “camera.” Consider than in any scene of a book, there are hundreds of sensory objects an author could show us, a dizzying array of sounds, sights, smells, actions, movement. The same underlying tale could be told in any number of ways, with any number of stimuli in focus.

In one particular scene of Best Served Cold, a battle leader sits upon a majestic horse, ready to lead a charge of men into battle. But in service to his goals, Abercrombie points the camera at the horse’s rear, showing us that in that moment it’s taking an inglorious dump. “Hey, look over here. There’s a lot going on in this scene, but I want to make sure you get a good look at this horseshit.”

For six hundred pages the book is like that: a tale of violence and revenge told in the basest, roughest, most brutal way imaginable. Not that I was not surprised by this, having read (and greatly enjoyed) Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy. But I was struck even more by the unrelenting river of ferocious language used in service of a blood-soaked tale.

The “heroic” characters ranged from serviceable to excellent. The poisoner Castor Morveer is an absolute joy, and I adored Caul Shivers, the mercenary Cosca, and the killer/math savant Friendly. I was less inspired by Monza – her chapters drove the story more by her compelling circumstance than her character. I was driven to root for her more by the wrongs inflicted upon her than by her personality, which was unlikeable and without the enjoyable quirks of the others. (Now that I think upon it, the author, I think, had an easier time with his male characters than his female ones. Day, Vitari, and Monza were all flatter and drier than Shivers, Cosca and Morveer.)

My experience of the story was a tiny bit uneven. During the first few chapters I felt as though I was settling into a comfortable, guilty pleasure. What could be more straightforwardly entertaining than an Abercrombie revenge fantasy? Sometime around the 20% mark, though, it felt like the story was losing its meaning, tottering very slightly on the edge of a “paint-by-gore-soaked-numbers” sort of letdown. But it pulled itself out of that a short while later, and became the engrossing tale full of colorful characters I had expected, with a plot arc that rose above the simple structure promised at the beginning. By the midway point I couldn’t put the book down, and the final couple of chapters were an edge-of-my-seat delight.

As for the actual ending (spoilers ahead):

I thought it suffered from the same thing that slightly marred my enjoyment of the First Law trilogy’s end: it’s revealed that all of the convolutions and contortions and bloody battles were secretly driven by mysterious characters with godlike abilities, giving me a mild aftertaste of “so no one’s agency truly mattered?” But on the other hand, there were some marvelous revelations and a satisfying sense of the greater story neatly coming full circle.

Overall, Best Served Cold is a marvelous book, filled with clever battlefield philosophy one-liners and powerful visual images, but mostly with severed limbs and crushed skulls. Abercrombie isn’t “Lord Grimdark” without good reason.

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Book Review – Arm of the Sphinx, by Josiah Bancroft

Having been delighted with Josiah Bancroft’s Senlin Ascends, I dove straight into its sequel, Arm of the Sphinx. Top-line verdict: it’s wonderful. I liked it nearly as much as the first book, which is to say that if forced to assign stars, I’d give it 4.9 out of 5.

AotS is a more complex book than its predecessor, and I expect my thoughts on it will be more rambling and less coherent, but here ‘goes. First, the sentence-crafting is every bit as good as in Senlin Ascends. Bancroft’s sublime artistry with imagery and metaphors is on full display, making the story a joy to read on its lowest level. I found myself stopping to take notes* on particularly lovely turns of phrase, which is not something I typically do while reading. All the praise I heaped on the author in my review of Senlin Ascends applies equally to Arm of the Sphinx.

The major departure of AotS is its ensemble-cast nature. While the first book’s narrative was almost exclusively limited to Thomas Senlin’s point of view, Arm of the Sphinx treats us to the thoughts and motivations of his entire crew. Bancroft bounces the narrative from character to character with vigor, such that I’d be hard pressed to call Voleta, Adam, Iren and Edith secondary characters at all. This is a book about a group of complex people with fascinating relationships, and in that sense represents a leap in energy level from the first book. (Oh, to be sure, there are secondary characters, fascinating ones bursting with mystery, but talking about them would spoil a bit more than I’m comfortable with.)

Where Senlin Ascends was a single sparkling jewel, Arm of the Sphinx is more like a high-end jewelry store. It feels sprawling, its narrative expanding in unexpected directions but never quite flying out of control. It did feel to me like the author couldn’t quite bring himself to commit either to 3rd-person limited or true 3rd-person omniscient narration, and I did find the head-hopping to be distracting at times. Changes in POV sometimes felt haphazard and unexpected. But the story’s willingness to break its single-lead-character shackles was more a strength than a weakness; it allowed the author to treat us a tale of wider scope and at the same time give us wonderfully detailed characterizations.

Of all the types of virtuosity on display in Arm of the Sphinx, my favorite was the author’s ability to present complex physical action with an almost uncanny clarity. I am reminded of a particular scene where [very minor spoiler] a character is trapped in a submerged boat by a monster, and the action could have been extremely confusing to follow in the hands of a less savvy author. But Bancroft made it so easy to follow the complexities of the scene, I never had to pause to reorient myself. All of his action sequences are like that – complex but clear. It’s a rare skill.

As the second book in a four book series, Arm of the Sphinx wraps itself up nicely while offering a clear segue into the next chapter. Some mysteries are answered while new ones are introduced. (What the $#@! is up with Byron?) And the ending, where [huge spoiler redacted], is a sharp splash of water to the face. I look forward to the third installment of the series (The Hod King) as much as I have looked forward to any sequel I can recall.

*A few of my favorite lines/passages:

“It raised a cry that was as forceful as a cannon and tuneful as a rusty hinge.”

“Dignity is entirely ephemeral; it is like the dust of a butterfly’s wing. Once shed, it is impossible to recover.”

“The air is redolent of parchment, glue, leather, and must. It is a soothing perfume. I wonder why. What is the appeal of this pulp and board technology? Books are seldom more than an author elaborating upon their obsession with the grammar of self-doubt. How superior are books to authors! Nothing believes in itself so much as a book; nothing is less bothered by history or propriety. “Begin in my middle,” the book says. “Rifle straight to my end.” What difference does it make? The book comes out of white, empty flyleaves and goes into the same oblivion. And the book is never afraid.”

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Elanor and the Trail Junction

(This is a companion piece to Kira and the Gold Coin from a few years ago.)

It is late morning in the Hundred Mile Wilderness, a section of particularly uninhabited forestland in central Maine that is best known for containing the most challenging section of the Appalachian Trail. My family is staying at the Gorman Chairback AMC lodge near the southern end of the HMW. Gorman Chairback offers a surprising amount of luxury for somewhere so far from other civilization. The wonderful staff of young volunteers prepares a hearty and sumptuous breakfast and dinner for the guests, and assembles bagged lunches to order. The individual cabin we’re staying in has no electricity, but it’s comfy, warm, dry, and offers a heart-easing view across Long Pond. The main lodge – a three minute walk from our Cabin #6 – has a reading room, small game room with a ping-pong table, and civilized bathroom facilities.

But I’m not writing this to sell you on Gorman Chairback. I’m writing this because I want to tell the story of how I thought my eldest daughter was gone forever.

The guests at Gorman typically spend the day either out on Long Pond or enjoying one of the many local hikes. This is our third trip to the place, and today we are hiking one of the more popular trails: the ascent to Third Mountain. It’s a short 4.2 miles round trip, the elevation gain is about 800 feet, and in theory the entire there-and-back hike can be done in 3-4 hours. In fact, we’ve been here before, and hiked this very mountain with the kids. We embark with no worries. The day is partly sunny and promises great views from the summit. The girls have their water bottles, lunch bags, and (just in case) raincoats.

Elanor, at 12 years old, complains at the start that she’s tired. Red flags: zero. It’s par for the course that one kid or the other will gripe a bit at the start of hikes, but we know from experience that they’ll be loving it before long, bounding over rocky scrambles at a pace their parents, whose knees are eroded with 40+ years of wear, cannot hope to match. From time to time one or both of the girls will stride on ahead, but they are veterans of dozens of similar hikes, and they know the rules: don’t get so far ahead that you can’t hear the people behind you, and if you reach a trail junction, stop and let everyone catch up.

On this lovely morning, Elanor is the one out ahead. Despite her protestations of weariness, she is a powerful hiker, tall, strong, seldom wanting to pause for snacks or water. I’m not worried about her. Why would I be? The trail upward is marked with clear blue blazes on trees at regular intervals.

At about the three-quarter mile mark, we pass what is technically a fork in the trail; a branch splits off to the left. But that is not the way we want to go, the sign calls it “Gorman Loop,” and the blue blazes continue forward on what is obviously the main trail. Elanor’s absence there is not particularly alarming. Kate, Kira and I hike on.

According to the map, at the 1.4 mile mark, after twenty minutes of a steep uphill climb, we are going to reach the next junction. I know, as surely as I know anything in this life, that Elanor will be there waiting for us, probably a little bit out of breath, possibly pretending to be bored, and she will wonder out loud what took us so long.

Except, she’s not there.

She’s not there.

Right. No need to panic. Perhaps she’s in earshot. We call her name, loudly, all three of us. The forest answers us with silence.

My first emotion is annoyance, of the “Ye Gods, how could she have done something so irresponsible?” variety. But it doesn’t take long for the reality of the situation to set in. The junction is four-way. Left and right is the Appalachian Trail itself. Eighty-odd miles to the east is the summit of Mt. Katahdin, the northern terminus of the AT, but before that, only a mile distant, is our destination, the peak of Third Mountain. To the right, westward, is Georgia, eventually. To go back obviously returns us to our car, and to go straight forward (and up) would take a hiker to something the signpost tells us is the Indian Head Campground.

The problem is, none of the signs specifically say “Third Mountain This Way.” The east-west sign only says “Appalachian Trail,” which I’m sure is of more significance in the grand scheme of things, but wouldn’t have done Elanor any good. More troublesome is that the trail we’ve been on, and which heads up into the woods toward Indian Head Campground, is marked as the “Third Mountain Trail.” And it has the same blue blazes as the trail we’ve been following.

Kate and I share a moment of rising frustration, though we’re both still expecting a good outcome. Kira understands that This Is Bad, but is willing to follow her parents’ lead. We discuss plans. Our sharpest hope is that Elanor will realize she’s left her family behind, and backtrack until she returns to the junction. We are unwilling to send Kira off by herself, and we have to leave someone here in case Elanor comes back. My anger at Elanor grows as we talk things through. How could she have done this? WHAT WAS SHE THINKING? I may say that last one aloud several times, thinking to burn my anger and nascent fears down to simple exasperation, but it doesn’t work.

So, the plan: Kate and Kira will continue on to Third Mountain, hoping that Elanor figured out, or remembered from last time, or was told by a passing stranger, which way to go. I will stay camped at the intersection so that when Elanor inevitably returns, I will be immediately on hand to berate her to within an inch of her life. The three of us punctuate this strategizing with regular calls into the wilderness. Ehhhhhhh-Laaaaaaaa-Noooooooor! There’s never an answer.

Off go Kate and Kira, calling as they walk. I sit. I fret. I fume. I stand and pace. I shout Elanor’s name. WHAT WAS SHE THINKING? Left alone with my thoughts, I start to entertain some grim scenarios. She’s just too experienced a hiker to have blown through this intersection without stopping. She’s a very mature twelve-year old, independent, usually level-headed. So if she didn’t blindly strike out in a random direction on the path, what could have happened? I can hear the sounds of my remaining family’s shouts for quite some time, which suggests that Elanor must be far away indeed not to hear them.

After about ten minutes during which I grow ever more agitated, an AT through-hiker comes down the trail from the west. He’s heard the shouting, and has been hoping to discover we’re calling for a lost pet. He is very sympathetic and concerned to find it is instead a lost 12-year-old. I find the act of explaining what has happened to be strangely calming. Oh, yes, my daughter seems to have taken a wrong turn, that’s all. Nothing serious, surely. The hiker promises to keep an eye out, but he’s heading in the same direction as Kate and Kira, so it’s not clear how much help he can be. But he does, before leaving, point upward toward Indian Head Campground. “All else being equal,” he says, “kids will go uphill.”

That does seem to be the most likely explanation. Elanor interpreted the sign as indicating a continued southward direction, and ventured off to parts unknown. In that case, any minute now, she’ll come back, having realized that none of her family is behind her.

Then, an idea. The through-hiker had not encountered her from the east, and we’ve just come from the north. Kate and Kira have the west-to-Third Mountain trail covered. There’s no reason for me not to spend some time trekking southward to Indian Head, perhaps accelerating us toward the moment of joyful reunion wherein, somehow, I hope to not kill my own daughter out of sheer frustration.

I shoulder my pack, grip my hiking poles, and head uphill as fast as my aged knees will go. I’m hopped up on Naproxen and adrenaline, so my speed is considerable. My plan is to go for twenty minutes, shouting at regular intervals, then turn around (ideally with Elanor in tow) so that Kate and Kira do not discover the junction abandoned.

Inside of ten minutes I reach the top of the wooded ridge and start to descend. The trail becomes narrow and overgrown, difficult to navigate, though still marked frequently enough with blazes that I know I’m on the right track. It’s a beautiful, moss-shaggy stretch of trail that I would normally stop to admire, maybe take pictures. Every minute or so I stop and shout, but my voice, growing hoarse, vanishes into the greenery and is not answered. After twenty minutes there has been no sign of Elanor, and the path has become ever more thin and abandoned-looking. She hasn’t been this way. Surely she would have realized she was descending without having reached a summit. I give a last fusillade of shouts, a last listen to the surrounding silence, and then I head back.

I tell myself, repeatedly, that Elanor must have gone onward to Third Mountain. Kate and Kira will have either found her there waiting for us, or met her coming the other way. It has to be that. The alternative is that Elanor left the trails altogether and is lost, injured, kidnapped, or some unthinkable combination of those that makes it impossible for her to answer our hollering. I maintain my fast speed, knees be damned.

I arrive back at the intersection and find it abandoned.

I wait. I wonder if a bear could have taken her unawares, knocked her out. I wonder if a crazed through-hiker has her at knife-point. I wonder if she went off-trail to pee in the woods, tripped, and cracked her skull against a tree trunk. I wonder how silly I’ll feel about these doomsday scenarios when Kate and Kira show up having found her.

A few minutes later Kate and Kira show up.

They haven’t found her. She wasn’t at Third Mountain, and no one at the summit had seen her.

She’s gone. Just…gone.

Time does that funny slow-down thing that comes at times of great stress. Kate is nearly speechless with worry. “This is really, really, really, really not good,” says Kira. By the greatest of miracles, I am able to make myself think calmly. I realize what we have to do now.

“Kate, take Kira and go back to the car. When you get to Gorman Chairback, tell them Elanor is missing. Have them call the police, or whatever else needs to happen to have a search party formed. We have to assume she’s off trail and unable to get back here. In the meantime I’ll head back uphill and not stop this time until I’ve reached Indian Head Campground. Except for that Gorman Loop branch, it’s the only stretch of trail left we haven’t looked.”

Kate agrees with the plan. She takes the car keys and our nine-year-old and heads back toward the trailhead. I have my cell phone, but Kate’s is back at the lodge, charging. We agree that she will text me when she gets there, and I will do likewise with any updates. The signal out here is sparse, a single intermittent pip on our phones.

According to the map, Indian Head Campground is about 2.5 miles from the trail junction, at the shore of Indian Head Pond. Given the poor trail conditions, I’ll be lucky to get there in an hour even if I hurry. And I am certainly going to hurry. In a short time I have again crested the ridge of the mountain and am on my way down, passing the landmarks I recall from an hour earlier.

Soon I am in unfamiliar territory. The trail is terrible, a footprint wide, overgrown, muddy in spots. Though I am still hiking quickly, the footing is doubtful and I need to stop every minute or so to check for blazes, since the landscape doesn’t always offer an obvious route. (I also make myself turn around and look for blazes on the opposite side of the trees; I’ll need to come back this way, after all.) With each passing minute I know, more and more clearly, that Elanor never came this way. No one has come this way in years. I check for footprints in the muddier sections. There are none.

A mile down toward the distant pond, the trail is blocked by a fall of birch trees, the bottommost too low for me to crawl under. The top one is at the height of my shoulder. My arthritic knees ache even through the adrenaline and complain bitterly as I clamber over the treefall. On the far side I keep walking, quickly, mechanically, keeping as much an eye out as I can to the woods beside the trail in case Elanor has fallen there. It’s been steadily downhill since the ridge, and my knees would have long since given up if not for my trekking poles. I walk, and walk, and walk.

But it’s pointless. It’s midafternoon, the sun is on its way down, and Elanor is not here. I know it. A stubbornness for completing things is all the drives me now; I can’t come back without knowing I had checked the entirety of this dubious route. Part of my brain is telling me I should stop now, turn around, that I’m heading in the opposite direction of wherever Elanor is and so wasting precious time I could be spending on a more productive search. The rest of my brain, having reviewed every disastrous possibility, has moved on to questions like “how will Kira react to her sister’s death,” and “what will we tell her school, which starts in a week?”

I have gone over two miles, and am likely only minutes from the pond, when I suffer a hallucination. Over a rise and down into a more lightly wooded stretch, a stream runs beside the trail.

There is a large boulder in the stream.

There is a girl on the boulder.

Elanor is sitting up as though something has woken her, a curious smile on her face as she looks at me.

For several seconds I am absolutely certain I am imagining her.

“Dad? Where’s mom and Kira?”

I lean my head into the closest tree and sob into my arm. For thirty seconds I am wracked with a mixture of laughter and tears.

“Dad? Are you okay? I can’t tell if you’re laughing or crying.”

She hops from the boulder to the trail beside the stream, and I compose myself. I grip her in a fierce hug.

“Elanor,” I whisper. “I think I ought to warn you. As soon as I’m done hugging you, I’m going to murder you.”

Elanor had no idea. She had been too tired to think things through clearly, and figured she had gone the obvious right way at the junction. Every so often she had stopped and waited, but always figured we were just coming up behind her and would catch up eventually. She loves resting on boulders, and had actually fallen asleep on this one. Gods help me, but while I was falling apart with worry, she was sleeping. I now know how Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli felt upon discovering Merry and Pippin among the ruins of Isengard.

I texted Kate immediately with the news of my discovery, which was good because a search party was only minutes away from heading out when she received it. As for Elanor, she was extremely apologetic afterward when I explained the fallout from her error. She followed me back up the hill while I speculated out loud about how her mom would react. By the time we were done with our 4.2 mile hike, I had logged almost 9 miles, over half of them at a near-jog and with a heart rate I don’t like to think about.

In the comic Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin’s father opines “Being a parent is wanting to hug and strangle your kid at the same time.”

Yes. Yes it is.

/ / / / / / / / / / / /

A FAVOR: Some of you reading this will see Elanor in person. She’s embarrassed enough about the incident; please don’t bring it up when you meet. Thanks!

 

 

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