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 starting 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 than 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 Lawtrilogy. 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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Book Review – Senlin Ascends, by Josiah Bancroft

I am, I confess, something of a hypocrite.

As a self-published author, I naturally harbor a constant hope that readers will be willing to take a chance on books like mine.

On the other hand, being a slow reader with a finite lifespan, I generally only read books that have come highly recommended, either by people whose opinions I trust, or by the greater sphere of readership-and-review at large. For better or worse, most of these tend to be traditionally published works. (Sobering thought: I am 47 years old and lucky to read 40 books in a year. If I live to be 80 and maintain my faculties right up until the end, I only have about 1300 books left in me.)

Still, in fairness to the self-pub world I occupy, I am more than willing to read a self-published book if it achieves the requisite recommendations and/or accolades I would demand of traditionally published fare. That is how I came to choose Josiah Bancroft’s Senlin Ascends, a book I cannot recommend too highly.

Senlin Ascends defies easy categorization. It is part steampunk, and part what is called “The New Weird” (of which Perdido Street Station is probably the best known example). It features a mild-mannered small-town school headmaster, who takes his new bride on a honeymoon to the Tower of Babel. The tower is the Weird part; it’s an enormous and mysterious tourist destination full of wonders, oddities and (as it turns out, to Thomas Senlin’s chagrin) a huge amount of danger. Senlin becomes separated from his wife Marya early on, and the book tells of his journey into the tower to find her.

While the setting is undoubtedly fascinating and the characters well-drawn, it’s the wordsmithing that’s the star of the show here. Josiah Bancroft is a sultan of the simile, a maestro of metaphor, a Rembrandt of painting scenes in language at once clear but evocative. Senlin Ascends is more literature than fantasy pulp.

Here, for example, is how the main character, Thomas Senlin, describes the season of spring to someone who has never been outside:

“Spring is gray and miserable and rainy for three or four weeks while the snow melts. The ditches turn into creeks and everything you own is clammy as a frog belly. Then one morning, you walk outside and the sun is out and the clover has grown over the ditches and the trees  are pointed with leaves, like ten thousand green arrowheads, and the air smells like…” and here he had to fumble for a phrase, “like a roomful of stately ladies and one wet dog.”

There’s mild irony in me having chosen that as my favorite paragraph, because Bancroft never feels like he’s fumbling for a phrase. His colorful descriptions feel natural in a way that fills me, as a writer, with unavoidable jealousy.

I experienced only the tiniest hiccup in my reading of the book, one which most readers will probably not even notice. The vast majority of the book is written in 3rd-person limited, meaning the reader is shown only things that the main character thinks or witnesses. But on one or two occasions that point-of-view slips into 3rd-person omniscient, and never consistently enough to make it seem intentional.

Also, readers should be warned that Senlin Ascends is the first book in a series, and while it ends satisfactorily, it does not wrap up the main plotline. The second book, Arm of the Sphinx, has already been published, but the third book (Working title The Hod King) has not yet been released.

But, as I want to end this on a positive note, let me sum up: Senlin Ascends is frikkin’ fantastic and you should read it. It’s unlike anything else I’ve read, is vastly entertaining, and is exquisitely crafted. Best of all, it proves that self-published fantasy fiction can be every bit as high quality as what gets through the forbidding gates of the traditional publishing empire.

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Book Review – John Crowley’s Little, Big

Crowley Cover.jpgOnly once before, I think, have I finished a 500+ page book and discovered I could not easily describe what it was about. (That was David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.) But it has just happened again, with the odd faerie-tale Little, Big by John Crowley.

I chose the book on the strength of multiple recommendations (and it won a World Fantasy Award) but I didn’t truly understand what I was getting myself into. Now that I’ve turned the last page and had some time to reflect, I still don’t fully understand it. Little, Big is… well, it’s a story about several generations of a family who live in a large and architecturally changeable house on the border between middle America and an abstracted faerie-land. (Possibly the physical border, but more likely the metaphysical.) The narrative shifts around among this large familial cast, showing blurry snapshots of their lives and hinting at their intersections with the faerie realm. Oft-referenced is “The Tale,” which is some grand and ancient story about the fate of faerie-kind, half-glimpsed by the characters, which they freely admit they don’t quite comprehend.

I choose words like “blurry” and “half-glimpsed” quite intentionally; almost nothing in this book ever comes quite into focus. With some rare exceptions the faeries in question are only implied, never seen, and though one of them gets some late chapters as a point-of-view character, the humans don’t truly come face to face with them. For the first two thirds of the book there is no clear plot in evidence, and though a larger story starts to emerge near the end, the author keeps it very purposefully abstract. One of the few sureties one can take away from the book is that the characters themselves are never able to clearly articulate what’s happening around them. Some accept that fact while others fight it, but the layer of gauze draped between them and the story they inhabit is not only obviously intentional, but is also positioned carefully in front of the reader as well.

The characters themselves, while numerous, are more setting than cast. They are pieces of the world, cogs in a mysterious machine, but their inner lives are something of a sidelight, a means to an end. Readers who want serious emotional investment in complex characters will be disappointed.

So, Little, Big lacks a clear plot or traditionally enjoyable characters, so obviously I’m not going to recommend it, right?

Well, maybe.

The star of the book is the language. Oh, the language! Crowley’s sentences, his word-painted pictures, are things of absolute beauty. For all that adjectives are given suspicious frowns in articles about the technical crafting of narratives, Crowley delivers a master class in their use. If graded on how often I wished there were someone nearby to whom I could read an exquisite sentence or paragraph out loud, Little, Big would be near the top of my all-time list. I may have been in a constant state of confusion, but it was an utterly enchanting confusion.

And the atmosphere of the story is hypnotic. Reading the book is like being transported bodily into a gorgeous piece of abstract art. The short sections are individually captivating, even if emerging from them left me blinking in a daze, wondering where I was. A slow reader at the best of times, I spent twice as long finishing Little, Big than I expected, because every sentence, every metaphor, demanded close attention. The book is over five hundred pages, and none of them ought to be skimmed. (In fact, often the story would lull me into a kind of daydreamish state, such that I went back and re-read paragraphs that I wasn’t sure I fully recalled.)

Finally, the physical book (at least, the version I bought from Amazon some years ago), alongside its language, is served up in a charming olde-tyme package. It features unusual graphical flourishes at its numerous section breaks, and a font evocative of the 18th century. It is all lovely, truly.

So.

Should you read it? That depends on what you want out of your reading hours. If you do decide to take the plunge, my advice is that you not waste your time trying to clear away the smudged and shimmering glass that will obscure your view of the story’s detail. I’m quite sure it’s there for exactly that purpose.

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