Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Children of Earth and Sky, by Guy Gavriel Kay

book cover The only fantastical element in this book, except for a ghost that makes a short appearance, is a change in location. The rest is historical fiction in some place that feels exactly like Renaissance Europe, only it has another name and other gods. Worst than that, the story is boring and the writing mediocre. I couldn't finish it.

The story in Children of Earth and Sky follows a few chosen characters while they navigate the treacherous waters lying between warring (and spying) nations. I mean this both metaphorically and literally, since it is also about ships crossing the sea. Guy Gavriel Kay has been writing published works since 1984 which is why I was surprised to see such an amateurish writing style. He uses several tools again and again and again, without much effect. The worse, for me, was describing the same scene from different viewpoints, one after another, even if it did nothing to enrich the story or develop characters. Another is a certain repetition of a phrase for emphasis, something like "He didn't like the book. He didn't." OK, emphasized enough! Also I felt that the author coddled his characters too much. Instead of making them suffer in interesting situations, he just lets them off easy with crises that they can easily handle or at least manage with heroic skill. In one of the most important scenes, one of a battle, he kills off a major character, at which point I was thinking "OK, it's getting started", only to resurrect them immediately after. Ugh!

So beside being a boring historical drama (I mean boring even for a historical drama!), it really nagged me that it was marketed as fantasy. Maybe I am just getting fed up, considering I've just read a western and a heist story, both included in the fantasy and sci-fi genre because they happened in the future or in spaaaaaace. Bottom line: I can't in good conscience recommend this book and I am quite amazed that it has such a high rating.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Realm of the Damned, an improbably entertaining animated motion comic

At first I thought Realm of the Damned would be boring. It was a series of comic book images animated via moving them around or deforming them, while a narrator was speaking on the background. The story also had the seeds that have been used so many times with little success: Van Helsing, vampires, werewolves and so on. But it was only one hour long, how bad could it be? And as the story progressed I really enjoyed the experience. And it wasn't because of the gory graphics or the strong voices or the heavy metal music as much as it was the story. Surprisingly deep, it explores not only a world that is dominated by undead monsters, but the inner turmoils of the last defender of humanity. The ending was gripping and terrible and funny at the same time.

I recommend it highly. Here is the trailer:

Monday, June 12, 2017

Three (Legends of the Duskwalker #1), by Jay Posey

book cover Three is a western. The fact that it happens in a post apocalyptic cyberpunk world is incidental. Jay Posey writes about the classical strong silent reluctant hero who fights for a good cause represented by a woman who has changed her ways and her innocent child. There are cyber zombies, there are evil pursuers and a world in which the strong survive in strongholds that are few and far between.

The book works because the writing is good and because the author never attempts to explain what happened to the world or how things actually work. It could have just as well been magic and pixie dust and the story would have remained basically unchanged. And unlike what the title of the review might indicate, you can read the book as a stand alone story, even if it has sequels. It had a beginning, a middle and a resolution.

Bottom line: an enjoyable book, albeit a bit predictable. Its strong suit is the good writing rather than a particularly smart idea or world building or even subtle characterization. Characters are kind of cardboard, but their actions and what happens around them is all well written. I don't think I will continue to read the series, but the author intrigues me and so I may read other books of his, like the new Outriders.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Cool People

cool people next to the water cooler Cool people are those who respond to your opinions with condescension. Anything different from what they believe is ridiculous, pathetic, laughable or dangerous. I mean, they could even be right: you might have said something really stupid. But while you can handle finding out that something you were thinking is not true, they cannot. Their whole world view is based on them being right. While you might see them as a little hurtful and a bit annoying, they see you as a threat, because their truth is something they desperately cling to and any type of difference challenges their way of life.

You will usually meet them in positions of power. They are not enough of a sociopath to be top leadership, but they will be somewhere in the middle, telling themselves the story of how in control of their life they are. They clump together, because a tale is easier to believe in a group than by yourself. They drink together, they watch the same sports, they play the same games, they go in the same vacations, they have the same gods and the same rituals. Their information bubbles existed way before Facebook and while you might see them as ridiculous bubble people, they always fear you are carrying a pin to burst theirs. Cool people always know "how the world works" and to pretend otherwise would only mean you are not as savvy. Major changes leave them helpless and in search of a narrative that explains that away from their view of the world. Beware a former cool person for they are desperate.

They will applaud each other vigorously at every little success as they feel it's a validation of their own. Unfortunately, that means they will stand in the way of your success, as they feel it invalidates theirs. Cool people live on a narrow ladder, where everybody is clearly ranked on a vertical scale. Not being on their ladder makes them feel superior to you. Not wanting to be on their ladder makes them feel threatened by you. While you are exchanging information you possess, they only coerce it out of you in order to judge and rank you on their scale. When they are exchanging information is from a feeling of generosity, allowing you to know where the cool is; not being grateful angers them.

Cool people keep in touch. They cannot allow coolness to exist in different flavors. They maintain contact in order to synchronize their shared concepts. Socially it is easy for two cool people to communicate, because they are very similar. It is important to make other people feel not cool enough, because a cool person can't handle a conversation that doesn't follow a familiar pattern. While the problem is mostly theirs, they need to shift the blame onto others. They smile easily as a well trained skill, not an expression of how they feel. Smiles and laughter are tools and weapons for them.

Uncool people are essential to the well being of cool people. A careful dance of keeping people just far enough to indicate superiority, but close enough to make it visible to any outside observer, is essential to the lifestyle of cool people. While you either despise, pity or envy them, but you could easily do without them, they actually need you.

So how cool are you? I am not cool. I am better than cool. Me and my kind.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Roses and Rot, by Kat Howard

book cover This reminded me of The Call, by Peadar Ó Guilín, another very well received book I've recently read. It features a female perspective, fairies and an unapologetic dissection of the human soul. The Call is better, but still, this is a very interesting book I will also recommend reading.

In Roses and Rot, Kat Howard uses the world of the Fae as an excuse to examine the bonds between people, the toxic effects of self-centeredness, whether in a parent or in yourself as you try to achieve some of your goals at the expense of others, and how people have to sacrifice for what they love. Imagine a magical place where everything is offered to you on a silver platter, with the promise that the best of you will get... a golden platter or whatever. And there is always a price.

I liked the psychological aspects of the story. There isn't much else of it, actually. As I said, the magic is merely incidental as the book is about the struggles of artists and daughters of idiots. I would go as far as not calling it fantasy at all. I disliked the close similarity between Janet and the girls' mother - I won't expand on this for fear of spoiling it. Enough to say that Helena's character and sidestory felt like a training run for what could have happened to the protagonist if not for her sister, so in one fell swoop, two characters from the already short list of relevant ones are just shadow copies of others. Add to this a lot of other details that are customized for the lead and you start to suspect this is a very autobiographical story. I don't know Kat Howard so well as to say it was, though. I will quote from the book though: “These [fairy tales] will be more autobiographical in nature than the Grimms'.”

Bottom line: It was a heartfelt story and I liked it. It is also short and not part of a billionogy, so you can just read it and enjoy it. Less fantasy than psychological drama, though.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Dark Run (Keiko #1), by Mike Brooks

book cover Dark Run is a classic pulp space mercenary book. It isn't even sci-fi at its core. It could have just as well been a western, a pirates or a heist book, as the science and technology don't further the story in any meaningful way.

I don't have anything specific to say about the book. Mike Brooks uses an overused plot of a specialized team of renegades being double crossed and having to defend their honor and punish the responsible. The characters are pure cardboard, with no subtlety, and even the humor is weak. I mean, it's pulp fiction, the author did a decent job writing one. As literature, though, it's not something I could possibly recommend.

The Summer Dragon (The Evertide #1), by Todd Lockwood

book cover Sagas and trilogies be damned! The Summer Dragon was a really entertaining book and having it end as a mere episode in a larger story that hasn't been written yet is quite frustrating.

Todd Lockwood is mostly known for his fantasy illustrations, not writing, and Summer Dragon is his debut novel. It is an YA story, with a similar structure as so many others: young nobody discovers they have special abilities and are thrown in a world of mystery, wonder and danger, with adults being either weak supporting characters and/or villains, but done right! The heroine - yes, a girl - is thrown into a situation in which politics and culture are forcing her to either be completely passive and submissive or to take action by herself. She doesn't do it with superpowers, but with the knowledge she learned from her father and her own personal courage and ingenuity. In the end she does overcome some pretty insurmountable odds, but it never gets too annoying. If there is a flaw I have to talk about it is the fact that each chapter is written with the same hero's journey structure, with new tension added at the end and character building in the middle. The author is a bit too neat in following the writing guidelines.

I liked that the protagonist is a woman. This is, so far, a perfect feminist book, since she is fighting real issues, social, political and military, using her own skills and in the few situations where she is a love interest she doesn't automatically feel she needs to either reciprocate or condescend and insult her suitor. It is also a book about dragons, but she is the daughter of a dragon breeder, rather than a kid that suddenly discovers there are dragons or other crap like that. The world is not very detailed, but what is in the book is pretty consistent and has a lot of potential.

I don't want to spoil the book by giving details, but there was also something that I felt was a missed opportunity. In an already existing conflict a third party emerges, a super villain, if you will. It was the perfect moment to switch the real source of the "evil" and to reframe an existing war as something that no one participating really understood. As written, it is very difficult to understand why career military men locked in a prolonged conflict dismiss vital tactical and strategic information for silly things like religious fervor or personal greed.

Given the opportunity I would have immediately read the other books in the series. Alas, The Summer Dragon was released just last year and it's the only published book so far. If you want to avoid frustration, wait until Lockwood writes a few more books and then start reading the series. I have great hopes for it.