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Don’t Judge a Series by Its First Book

Series are very common in speculative fiction, and especially in fantasy.  And even more especially in Urban Fantasy.  Normally, when you read the first book in a series and find it less than satisfying, you don’t read the rest of the books in that series.

So, when I finally put down Stacia Kane’s Unholy Ghosts, the first book in her Downside Ghosts series, I was very disappointed.  Here was I book I had greatly been anticipating, and had recommended to me, even though I don’t usually read a lot of Urban Fantasy.  The author is also active on Absolute Write, my favorite writing forum, and I have in fact spoken to her there.

But after the first 50 pages, I found the book very slow going.  The magic system was interesting, there was a unique twist on the post-apocalyptic world, the character was a strong but flawed woman with drug issues and ties to the underworld that actually caused conflict with her everyday job.  The writing was good.  The villain was interesting.  Yet the book wasn’t.  (Keep in mind this was my first Stacia Kane book.)

I tend to finish things I start, and so I finished the book.  I didn’t enjoy it as much as I usually enjoy books, and I felt let down.  Even though I was desparate for reading material, the other two books sat on the shelf for two or three weeks.  If I hadn’t bought all three currently available books in the series in one mass splurge of book-balancing, checker-shocking hemorrhage of cash, I would have written it off as bad luck and moved on.  I would not have picked up the sequels.  And I would have missed out big time.

Because the sequels were both page-turners, which I tore through in one day instead of studying for my finals.  I loved them.  I could see how much they benefitted from the set-up in the first book.  There was a bit much re-hashing from Unholy Ghosts, and I think the books could have still been good reads if I hadn’t slogged through the first book.  But overall, they were great, and I’m glad I bought them.

I’ve heard similar stories about Steven Erikson’s Malazan series.  Fans are constantly explaining that the series really gets started after the first book, Gardens of the Moon, which is apparently slow and boring in its overwhelming detail.  (Personally, I loved it.)  The point is, even though writers are often advised that the first whatever–sentence, paragraoh, page, chapter, novel–is what makes or breaks a sale, those criteria don’t always match up with reality.

While it’s true that there are more books out there than a single person could read in ten life-times, that you can always just move on to a series that is good from start to finish, that doesn’t mean you should never read a book by that author again.  Some authors deserve a second chance.

If you haven’t taken the hint already, Stacia Kane is one of those authors.  But this post is not about how much I now love Stacia Kane.  It’s about how no matter the amount of polish you grind into your first whatever, it won’t always be good enough to hook someone’s interest.  But that doesn’t mean it sucks, or that you should give up on further work in that direction.  So keep writing, and keep reading, and hopefully you’ll find what you’re looking for.

 
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Posted by on December 16, 2010 in atsiko, Authors, Books, Fantasy, Fantasy/Sci-fi, Rants, Reviews, Series, Writing

 

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Book Review: The Spirit Rebellion by Rachel Aaron

Learn more about Rahcel Aaron by visiting her website.

Read more about The Spirit Thief on the Orbit website.

As I said the first time, I normally don’t review books.  But, having reviewed the first book in this series, The Spirit Thief, I figured why not review the second?  So, here’s my review of The Spirit Rebellion by Rachel Aaron.  And, to pack even more goodness in, I’ll use it as an example of good series structure.

There may be minor spoilers for the first book, but hopefully none for the second.

Book Two of the Legend of Eli Monpress starts out Miranda Lyonette returning to the Spiritualist Court to face charges of improper acquisition of a spirit and conspiracy with our anti-hero Eli.  Eli is of course looking for a way to replace Nico’s dampening coat to hide her presence from the spirits.

Both of these opening conflicts have fairly high levels of tension and are built strongly on the foundations laid in the first book.  While the main plotline of Spirit Thief was clearly resolved, it has lead to some very good opening subplots for Spirit Rebellion.  And while these subplots are based on the first book and follow cleanly from the events surrounding that book’s climax, they do not undo what has occurred, nor make it irrelevant.  Thus, the previous book could have served equally well as a standalone novel, and so can the second.

Now, I like long interconnected epic fantasy as much as anyone, but a good fantasy series does not require video-game style stakes elevation, and I personally prefer when it doesn’t.  if you don’t agree, the rest of the post will still be interesting and relevant, but ymmv.

So, we’ve  established that each book has its own personal conflicts but that the second book builds on the first.  I’ll also note that the main plot of the second book is very similar to the first.  It is first and foremost a caper, in which Eli runs around stealing fantastic things from their less than fantastic owners. 

That said, the series is not episodic, as many urban fantasy series tend to be.  The two main plots still rely on one another.  In fact, the main event of the first novel is key to solving the conflict of the second.  While avoiding the common fantasy trope of “plot coupons”, where the character runs around exchanging one valuable artifact for another, Aaron manages to incorporate previous material into the solution of the present conflict.  And all this is accomplished while widening the readers understanding of setting and character.

We’ll start with the first.  In Spirit Rebellion, we learn a lot more of the functioning of the spirit world and the Spirit Court.  Both have their important figures and inconvenient politics.  The politics of the Court are an obstacle to Miranda, while the politics of the spirit realm serve to frustrate Eli’s attempts to steal the thing which will absolve him of a rather large debt to a rather dangerous person. 

What really makes these believable conflicts is that they cannot be easily solved with the skills and powers that got the characters through the last story.  Eli finds out that all the charisma in the world won’t help when no one will talk to you.  And of course, Miranda’s strong belief in the difference between right and wrong gets her in a great deal of trouble.  There’s no black and white in politics.

We also learn a great deal more about Nico’s part of the story.  There are several hints and clues as to the nature of demonseeds and how they grant their hosts their powers, as well as some revelations into their true nature and their relationship to the spirit realm.  Fascinating stuff, but I won’t be going into it here.  You’ll just have to read the book.

As for Josef, I learned that even publishers get confused by names, unless there’s an identical twin named “Joseph” somewhere that we have yet to meet.  Anyway, while we get basically zilch in terms of character backstory, there some lovely character-building scenes and a lecture from my newest favorite talking sword that do a good job of making him more than just Nico’s bodyguard.

Finally, there are relatively few minor characters cluttering up the pages, but those that are there are well-portrayed within their limits and move the plot along without being obvious plot-bots.

Okay, now for the bad part.  I’ve seen this mentioned in other reviews, most notably the one of the Spirit Thief over at booksmugglers, so I know it’s not just me.  While the books are fun and the plots competently constructed, the main characters tend to be a bit flat.  They’re fairly archetypal, I suppose you could say.  Eli is the charming rogue, Miranda the feisty female mage, Josef the stolid swordsman, and the Nico the quiet girl with a mysterious past and incredible powrs.  I like to compare Eli to David Eddings’ Althalus, and Miranda reminds me of Jordan’s Morianne, or possibly Siuan Sanche.  I could make many more comparisons, but this is fantasy, so I’m sure everyone has some character they find a bit similar to every other.  The point is, while there are three books left in the series, a little bit more info wouldn’t have hurt.

And now for the MCs.  Miranda is not so bad.  Things tend to go in her favor, but she’s a fantasy heroine, so it’s neither surprising nor especially damaging to the plot.  But, Eli is another story.  While he’s certainly powerful on his own, he would never have gotten so far without the backing of a powerful patron.  As Mellinor remarks in the climax of the Spirit Thief, how could any spirit be allowed to bring Eli to harm?  This backing has many positive and almost no negative effects on Eli.  While it’s impressive of him to refuse direct help in tight situations—it’s typical of Marty Stus in that he doesn’t really seem to need it.  It’s an empty refusal.  He doesn’t lose anything precious that could have been saved, and he gets to keep his pride.

Of course, I appreciate the unique approach to making Eli special.  Using a third and difficult method of encouraging the help of the spirits.  But he seems to do little enough of it after the first book, preferring to rely upon his inner “light” to do the trick.  Unlike the rest of the magic, this part seems little integrated into the story.

Overall, I liked the second book.  It’s a good build-up and there has been some writing improvement.  It’s not my favorite style of fantasy, being a lighter, more humorous take on the genre, but good writing and a good story make it one of the nicer additions to the new fantasy canon.  I am looking forward to the rest of this series.

 
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Posted by on November 26, 2010 in atsiko, Authors, Books, Fantasy, Fantasy/Sci-fi, Reviews, Series

 

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Review: “The Spirit Thief” by Rachel Aaron

Read more about The Spirit Thief on the Orbit website.

Buy The Spirit Thief on Amazon.

Learn more about Rahcel Aaron by visiting her website.

It took me about four hours to tear through my signed copy of Rachel Aaron’s new fantasy caper, The Spirit Theif.  Starring Eli Monpress, the world’s greatest wizard thief, Aaron’s book will put you in mind of David Edding’s Redemption of Althalus and Scott Lynch’s atmospheric The Lies of Locke Lamorra.

Eli, his sword-swinging comrade Josef, and the shadow-stalking demonseed Nico, conspire to kidnap the King of Mellinor, an old kingdom well known for its hatred of wizrds.  With a bounty on his head of 20,000 gold standards, Eli is one of the most wanted criminals among the Council Kingdoms.  And he has hatched his daring plot not for the ransom he will be paid, but to raise that bounty even more.  In order to reach his goal of 1,000,000 gold standards, kidnapping a king may be the pettiest of the crimes he plans to commit.

Opposing Eli is the formidable Spiritualist, Miranda Lyonette, assigned by the Spirit Court to hunt down and bring to justice this rogue mage, before he brings a bad name to all wizards.  With her ghosthound mount and her rings full of servant spirits, she sets out to rescue the king and capture Monpress before the kingdom of Mellinor collapses in shambles.

Rachel Aaron weaves these two sides together with a deep, dark secret, and a clever twist on the idea of the anti-magic kingdom.  You’ll have to read the book to find out what the twist is, but I promise you it’s worth it. 😉

Now, on to the specifics:

All fantasies are made up of four components: the characters, the plot, the world, and the magic system.

1.  Magic:  Rachel Aaron’s magic system is a unique blend of elemental magic and the idea that everything in nature is possessed of its own soul.  Think Japanese kami, elemental magic, and contract spirits all rolled into one.  Now, contract magic is one of my favorite systems , and I liked that even within that strict framework, Aaron left room for various paths to power.  While the powerful Spirit Court emphasises fair exchange, and duty to spirit and human alike, there are other ways to control this power, and most of them aren’t very nice.

2.   Plot:  If you’ve read any capers before, fantasy or otherwise, you pretty much know how this goes.  The clever thief arrives in town with a carefully crafted plan and a desire to thumb his nose at authority whenever possible.  Of course, no plan is perfect, and even the best strategies rarely survive the first engagement.  But that’s okay.  If everything went according to plan, there wouldn’t be much of a story, would there?  Well, both Eli and Miranda’s plans go drastically wrong and the most exciting part of this book is discovering how they clean up the mess.  No one makes it through unscathed.

3.  Characters:  I mentioned Locke Lamorra and Althallus earlier.  I’d say this book leans much closer to Althalus, with a light heart and a willingness to play around with the cliches of the genre.  Monpress is witty and charismatic, and frequently takes time out to joke with boulders and whisper sweet nothings in the ears of nearby trees.  There’s a fine line between magnificent bastard and mary sue, and Eli keeps a foot planted firmly on either side of it.  On the bright side, you get the clear feeling that these characters existed before the book began and will still be gallivanting through the lands long after it ends.

4.  World-building:  Now we get to the only real disappointment I had with the book.  I’ve heard it said that fantasies live or die by their world-building, and while I appreciate Aaron’s desire to keep the story moving, I felt the novel lacked the weight of history that really brings a fantasy together for me.  The characters may have existed before this story began, but I can’t quite be sure that the world did.  Aaron does bring up historical events, and one of them is even integral to the progression of plot.  But I felt she relied a little too much on the generic tropes of fantasy, and this means the world didn’t have the living, breathing indivdualism you find in many works.  Before you say, well, it’s light fantasy, I’d like to point out that Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn and  Lynch’s Locke Lamorra have very similar stories, but I get a strong sense of the past and present and the way things are outside of the protagonists tiny little section of the world.

All that said, if you enjoy light fantasy and grand capers that move all over the world, I’d definitely recommend reading this book, and I plan to read the rest of the series, too, if I can get my hands on it.  It’s very clear to me why this novel got published, and even though I think the author is still maturing, I look forward to her future work.

 
 

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I Don’t Normally Do Book Reviews, but…

Whenever you make a rule for yourself, there’s always going to be a “,but…”  No matter if it’s word count, books a year, limiting your research.  It doesn’t matter.  You can be the most organized, planned-out person in the world, and there will still be times when you come across an oppurtunity that is too good to pas up.

For this post, the rule in question is that I don’t do book reviews.  I have written a very few reviews of things, books and otherwise, and while some of them may have been good, it’s just not something I’m good at.  Also, I have so many other things to do, or even to just write, that doing any sort of regular book reviewing would be an enormous dissruption to my schedule.  And of course, I only buy paperbacks, and I make a small number of large buys a year.  I don’t have time to officially work my way into being an arc reviewer, either.  Finally, I’m terrible at not giving spoilers, because I don’t mind them all that much myself.  I’d prefer not to see them, but it doesn’t destroy the story for me if I do. 

So, I try to avoid the temptation to review things.

But, then one of those oppurtunities came along:  Rachel Aaron was having a giveaway to celebrate the release of her book, The Spirit Thief over on The Magic District.  I read the blog all the time, so of course I wanted to read the book, and support Rachel.  I’ve just recently caught up with the last 400 posts of my blog reading, and I was lucky enough to catch up just in time for this giveaway.  Twenty people were going to come away with a free, autographed copy of this book, and I haven’t read any books for the past two months.  (I love my college, but it’s in the middle of nowhere, and I hate Amazon.)  So I threw my name in the hat, and out of 28 entries, I was one of those picked.  Not tough really, since there was about a 75% chance of winning.

One of the caveats of this giveaway was that it wwas promotional.  In order to enter, I had to promise to post a review of the book somewhere online.  Now, I don’t use Amazon(though I have an account), LibraryThing, or GoodReads, so that just left my blog.  So, sometime in the next week or so, I’m going to be posting a review of this book.  I anticipate a fantastic read, and I’ll try not to give away too much in the throes of my enthusiasm.

Other days,

Atsiko

 
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Posted by on October 1, 2010 in atsiko, Authors, Books, Fantasy, Reviews

 

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Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

I don’t normally do book reviews.  In fact, this is barely a book review at all, for all it’s marked with that tag.  Suffice to say that if you have not read Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell”, you ought to get right to it.  I know I’m woefully out of date, the book being published in 2004, but I can only say it’s the best historical fantasy (or possibly fantasy in general) that I have had the fortune to read.  Damn long, though.  But worth it.

 
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Posted by on January 18, 2010 in Authors, Fantasy, Reviews, Titles

 

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