A Wizard of Earthsea – Timeless In The Truest Sense

coverA Wizard of Earthsea, the first book in the Earthsea series by Ursula K. Le Guin, has been around a long time. I knew it was old before I started reading it, but it wasn’t until I opened the book and saw the publication date that I realized it was from 1968. One of the original magical school books, beating out Harry Potter by over 20 years. This is a series that has been on my to-do list for a long time, but I have constantly held off on due to the consistent complaints I have heard about the book: it’s well written, but slow and boring. With Le Guin’s passing this year, I have been making an effort to read all of her work that I have held off on too long. So, do these complaints have merit, or are they just the words of ignorant fools who don’t understand Earthsea’s greatness? Read on and find out.

The plot of A Wizard of Earthsea is very straightforward. Ged, our protagonist, is a boy with great magical potential who is learning to become a wizard. The book follows his life from early childhood, where his aunt helps him discover his powers, to early adulthood where he becomes a wizard of some renown. The book focuses on Ged’s struggle with his inner demons, metaphorically represented by a shadow that he released into the world when he was a young man in a moment of arrogance. The book is split between three time period arcs: Ged’s time with his family and first magical master, Ged’s time at a magical university, and Ged’s first forrays into the greater world and his confrontation with his shadow.

Ged is an interesting character and one whose head I enjoyed spending time inside. Le Guin did a great job of making him flawed, but very likable, in order to make a vehicle to portray the experience of growing up and learning humility. He initially is an arrogant and lonely child with a streak of spite and jealousy in him. However, Le Guin does an incredible job of showing Ged’s simple desire for a place to belong, and it makes his flaws feel both understandable and sad – as opposed to making me irritated with him as a character. His personality is not particularly deep, but I think this was an intentional choice on Le Guin’s part in order to leave as much room for projection from the reader as possible. Instead, Le Guin spends her time going into the philosophy and psychology of Ged’s actions on the world – which makes Wizard a great book for introspection.

The philosophy and psychology is fairly light though. Circling back to my comment in the introduction, a lot of people have told me that these books have beautiful prose but can be painfully slow. I think the prose of the book is pretty good, but it is definitely evident that this is one of Le Guin’s earlier works. While nice, it doesn’t quite live up to the standard of excellence that comes to mind when I think of her later work (understandably). On the other hand, I also think that the claim that the book is slow is overstated. I think the book is quiet, and that is not the same thing as slow. Modern fantasy has a lot of flashy explosive books with some huge fighting set pieces, and A Wizard of Earthsea is nothing like that. The book takes place mostly in Ged’s head as he experiences new places and does great things – and it has a somber quiet tone to it. However, I do not think it is slow at all. In 300 pages Le Guin takes us through a sizable chunk of Ged’s life, jumping from event to event. In fact, I sometimes felt the pacing was a little too fast and wish I could have spent more time reading about various places Ged went and things he did.

A Wizard of Earthsea is an impressive book and I will definitely be finishing the full Earthsea series. When you read classics like this, or Lord of the Rings (for example), it is often easy to see the profound historical impact they have had on the fantasy genre and why they are held in such high regard. It is much more rare for a classical book to feel like it still reads as well as a modern fantasy, and I feel A Wizard of Earthsea reads just as well today as it did 50 years ago. I think that if you were to read Earthsea as a teenager it would have a profound and life changing effect on your outlook on the world. If you missed the boat though, it is still a fantastic read to those of us in our later years and you owe it to yourself to check out this timeless classic.

Rating: A Wizard of Earthsea – 9.0/10
-Andrew

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The King of Ashes – Feeling Feisty

18505747Goodness gracious, Raymond Feist is back. I hope all of you are somewhat familiar with Feist. He was a staple of my childhood and wrote a ton of fantasy that was a part of my gateway into the genre, and into reading in general. His classic Magician is fantastic and I was excited to hear that he was writing something new. His new release is called The King of Ashes, and is the first in a new series called The Firemane Saga. I dove into it full of nostalgia and the hope that it would be another classic – but did it live up to my expectations?

First, as always, let’s talk about the plot. The King of Ashes is the start of a “big” series that has plans on being a sweeping epic that tells the story of a large continent. Appropriately, the story starts with some backstory about the death of a kingdom. On the continent of Tembria there are five countries, all in an uneasy peace with each other. The King of Ashes begins with the death of one of these countries, Ithrace, at the hands of the other four. The kings of these four countries have gotten greedy, and came up with a backstabby plan to collectively take out a rival, kill all of his bloodline, and split his land. Not everyone in the four kingdoms supports this plan, and we open the book with the POV of a semi-independent duke who is trying to quietly avoid being involved with the pillaging of Ithrace. Due to the duke’s reluctance to be a part of the bloodbath, the sole remaining heir to Ithrace (a baby named Hatu) ends up in his care. The duke, in a moment of kindness, decides to hide the child and have him raised to one day take back his home. Declan is sent to a school of spies and assassins to learn their ways until he comes of age. Hatu is our first protagonist, but we also have a second lead named Declan on the other side of the world. Declan is a smith prodigy that is beginning to come up in the world and his rise to stardom slowly brings him to meet Hatu. Each of these boys is part of a puzzle that will change the land of Tembria forever, and this is their story.

I know that plot summary is vaguer than I usually give, but this story is massive and it is really hard to give you a spoiler-free sum in a paragraph. Our time is divided half between Hatu at his magical school (which seem to be big this year in fantasy books) and Declan mastering his forge. Both the leads are enjoyable POV’s to follow, but I tended to prefer Declan. Hatu is an angry and spontaneous orphan that can sometimes make his story frustrating to read about, but I came to enjoy him a great deal by the time I finished the book. The world of Tembria is vast, complicated, and has a ton going on. A significant part of the book is devoted to world building, with Hatu often going on spy missions to gather intel or Declan spending time at taverns learning what is going on in the world. The King of Ashes felt like it was laying a foundation of a sweeping epic with a huge scope, but it still manages to hold its own as a self-contained book.

The book is filled with magic, friends, twists and all the things that Feist’s older novels taught me to expect in the fantasy genre as a child. On the other hand, The King of Ashes is definitely aimed at an older reader compared to Feist’s earlier work, with a larger emphasis on graphic scenes (both sexual and violent) and more complex prose. It felt like the perfect novel for someone who grew up on his earlier work and was now looking for a more adult version.

However, despite my praise I did have one major problem with The King of Ashes that held it back from getting high marks. The book can feel noticeably repetitive sometimes. In particular when it came to internal monologues, several characters obsess over things and will bring them up multiple times per chapter. For example, Hatu is obsessed with his growing feelings for one of his classmates. While I enjoyed this the first time it was brought up, my appreciation for the budding love interest waned after it was brought up an additional 20 times without any indication of Hatu actually doing anything about his feelings. The King of Ashes is not a small book and I felt it could have been trimmed a little more to take out several of these repetitive moments for a better paced read.

Overall, I would say that Feist still has it and has created another book that people will be talking about for awhile. I did not enjoy it as much as some of his earlier works, but that was a high bar to meet and I still think The King of Ashes is worth picking up. I look forward to seeing if Hatu and Declan change the world as it is for the better or if they burn it down and rebuild it as kings of the ashes.

Rating: The King of Ashes – 7.5/10
-Andrew

The Poppy War – The Makings Of Greatness

35068705For my older readers, you know how, when you turn on the Olympics and see these 18 year old athletes achieving tremendous success, you start to feel incredibly old? This month I got to experience that for the first time with a book. The Poppy War, by R. F. Kuang, is a Chinese inspired fantasy about a magical school. Kuang is in her early 20’s and I am astounded that an author this young created something of this quality. Before I start heaping on more praise, let’s talk about the plot of the book.

The Poppy War follows Rin, a war orphan raised by a pair of drug lords because they were legally obligated to take her in after the last conflict. To escape being sold as a bride, Rin tests into the most prestigious military academy in land where she will be trained alongside the children of aristocrats on how to be a general. Upon arriving at the school, Rin realizes that even though she tested in – her orphan background and peasant upbringing does not endear her to her teachers or classmates, and she has a lot of work to do to succeed at the school. The one advantage she has is she seems to have a connection to a mysterious teacher that no one else talks to and he may be able to teach her the art of shamanism.

There is a distinct Harry Potter vibe going on here: orphan with terrible step-family goes to magical school to escape terrible previous life. However, that is where the direct comparisons end for me, and I am happy that Kuang did a good job of making The Poppy War her own book. Rin is a likeable character with an interesting story. Watching her explore the world and master challenges thrown at her is very satisfying. I love all the time we spend in her classes learning about the world, and she is surrounded by a host of interesting side characters that made the book more fun to read. The school itself is awesome, feeling like a place I myself want to attend. The shamanism teacher is great, on par with a number of my other favorite teacher characters throughout fantasy. All of this creates an engrossing backdrop for an exciting and fun plot that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

The world itself is also fascinating. I love the history of the empire where Rin lives. As I mentioned, the school that Rin tests into is an extremely prestigious military academy to train generals. While famous schools in books are not new, Kuang’s angle for its importance was very original. The school is not prestigious for training the greatest military minds of all time or because it has a history of greatness. Instead, the school is elevated above its peers because it is seen by the governing leadership as a chance to finally stop losing wars. The empire does not have the best track record in its poppy wars (for which the book is named). They have been on the losing side twice, and are getting rather tired of it. To combat this, they established a premier school with the hopes of distilling the best and brightest to win the coming conflicts. All of this adds a deep feeling of genuine urgency to the classes and lessons. These are not kids taking abstract classes with no application or stakes, these are people trying to distinguish themselves to be the leaders in a war that is right around the corner. This was a fascinating change to the magical school formula and I loved it.

For all my praise, The Poppy War is not without faults. The two issues I had with the book were its prose and its pacing. At times the prose could feel rather rough. There were repeated phrases or responses in the same paragraph occasionally and the dialogue could feel wooden and awkward once in awhile. In addition, while the pacing was good for the majority of the time – there were clear sections where the book moved way too fast to fully grasp events and lost me as a reader. There were scenes I had to read multiple times to understand what was happening and scenes that felt like they had little to no emotional payoff because they moved too fast. However, both of these problems are things that authors tend to improve on as they write more, and with her powerful skills in tons of other areas I expect Kuang to only get better.

The Poppy War was a fun, engrossing, journey to a world I wish I could visit and a school I wish I could attend. With its strong characters, interesting world building, and intriguing plot it is a great read that I would recommend to anyone. I look forward to seeing what R. F. Kuang has in store for us next, as I expect her next book will be even better.

Rating: The Poppy War – 8.0/10
-Andrew

Grey Sister – A Younger Sibling With A Bag Of New Tricks

9781101988886_GreySister_FCOmech.inddI managed to get my hands on one of the most anticipated releases this year, Grey Sister by Mark Lawrence, and thanks to Mark for an early review copy. The book is a sequel to his incredibly powerful Red Sister, a book that placed in my top 3 favorites of 2017. Since most of you are going to be reading this book no matter what I say let me ease your worries and stoke your excitement, Grey Sister is excellent and something to be very pumped for. On the other hand, I don’t think it quite lived up to the success of Red Sister (which is fine as it was an incredibly high bar to reach).

The plot picks up right where Red Sister left off and ties up a few small loose ends and cliffhangers from book one. The story then immediately jumps forward two years as Nona finishes grey class and moves into mystic – ahead of most of her friends (except Darla who is her only ally in her new class). This works as a nice reset for the social dynamic, allowing Nona to still have a great group of friends to interact with, but she is also forced into a new group of people that present new challenges. Nona’s new antagonist classmate is delightful to hate. I found myself constantly hoping she got punched in the face and I felt much more satisfaction when the antagonist experienced small humiliations compared to when they happened to Zole/Ara in Red Sister. The plot mostly follows around a number of characters working to return the Sister Mercy’s shipheart and to ferret out Sherzal’s plans.

One thing I truly like about Mark as an author, and why I will always read his books, is that you can constantly see him growing and evolving as an author. Each book he writes, he tries to improve and iterate on past ideas and techniques. While it can occasionally make it feel like some sequels don’t live up to their predecessors, his books always feel fresh and exciting. Grey Sister still has a ton of strengths that Red had: a lovable cast, intense action, an engrossing setting, and a plot that hooks you and doesn’t let go. It also has a number of new things that improve upon Red Sister, such as the better antagonist I mentioned before. For me, the biggest improvement between Red and Grey Sister is that Abbess Glass is a POV with a large amount of page time. I really, really, like Abbess Glass and getting to spend time in her head did not disappoint at all. In addition, while Red Sister spent a lot of time meandering and exploring the world without direction – Grey Sister is much more laser focused in its pursuit of the shipheart/Sherzal plot established in book one.

I think some will see the more focused approach of Grey Sister as a good thing, but for me it kept me from reaching the highest highs I got in Red. There isn’t a ton of time spent in class or learning things in Grey Sister, instead the book focuses more on the times between class where Nona and her crew can plot and scheme. As a result, there were a lot less moments of delightful discovery as Nona learned a new skill or lesson, one of the biggest draws of Red Sister. They are definitely not absent, Nona’s grey trial was endlessly fun, but they are just noticeably less frequent than in Red Sister and it makes Grey feel like a thinner book.

Despite my few less than positive comments, I read Grey Sister in two days, so I obviously enjoyed it immensely. Grey Sister delivers on most of what Red did with a number of new delightful tricks that help distinguish it from its sister novel. I know that Mark wrote this series as a trilogy all at once, but I find myself hoping that he somehow keeps writing books in the setting. I don’t think I will be ready to leave this world after one more book and I don’t feel like I have gotten nearly enough time with any of these characters.

Rating: Grey Sister – 9.0/10
-Andrew

Age Of Assassins – A Blade With A Little Too Much Edge

33296298As per usual, I often spend a good chunk of the start of a year catching up on books I missed from the year before (which causes me to miss more books this year, it’s a vicious cycle). Up next in my 2017 cleanup is Age of Assassins, by R. J. Barker. Assassins are a tricky subject to tackle in fantasy. In the past I have gone into assassin novels expecting constant action and murder, but assassination has typically been more of a waiting game than anything else – which can leave me disappointed. So when I realized that this book had all the soul of other classic assassin novels, with great pacing, I was quite excited to dig in. But first, let’s talk plot.

Girton Club-foot, apprentice assassin, still has much to learn from his master (Merela) before he can strike out on his own. However, thanks to a past she can’t outrun, Merela strikes a bargain with a queen to hire Girton as an assassin/bodyguard to kill the other assassins after her son, Aydor. So a sheltered Girton is thrust into knight training and must navigate the perils of friendship, mystery, and political intrigue. If you haven’t guessed it already, this is a coming of age story about Girton. The book primarily follows the first person POV of Girton and follows him as he essentially shifts from assassin homeschool, to knight public school. On top of this, there is the mystery of who is trying to murder prince Aydor, and a lot of political intrigue around the noble families of the world. The three elements of storytelling (coming of age, mystery, and political intrigue) pair with a fast pace for a thrilling read, but there are also some issues.

First let’s talk about Girton. Right off the bat, let me say that I think Girton is an incredibly well written character that does a very good job placing you in his shoes. The problem is sometimes his shoes are terrible and I don’t want to wear them. I would describe Girton as that socially awkward friend that every person has, where nine times out of ten they are wonderful to be around, and one time out of ten they are a cataclysm of awkwardness. I honestly think this is a realistic portrait of a boy who basically never had a friend until the age of 14 and spends most of his time learning the most efficient way to murder people. However, that doesn’t make his extremely awkward or edgy passages fun to read. Generally Girton is a fun and endearing boy to read about as he awkwardly makes his first social steps. However, his secret assassin background enables some internal power fantasy monologues that shattered my empathy for him like throwing a mark through a window. The appeal of the characters in general was very varied. My favorite group of characters was the “suspects”, or the various individuals around the castle that Girton investigated to see if they were behind the attempts on Aylor’s life. This group were varied, well fleshed out, and had a lot of personality that really brought the mystery to life and made you wonder who was behind the assassination attempts. On the other hand, Girton, his master, Aylor, and a few others fell flat for me. Aylor in particular, clearly trying to embody the “jackass prince who will become a spoiled terrible king” trope under delivered. I was initially worried that he would be an over the top asshole, but I instead found I was generally apathetic about him and not invested in him getting his comeuppance.

Along a similar line, the plot also felt like it varied in quality. The pacing was very fast, which was both good and bad. In some chapters I found myself on the edge of my seat, dying to know what would happen next. In others, I found myself metaphorically shot from a cannon through world and character development, so that the payoff of story arcs was smaller than it could have been. For example, there were a few small passages that talked about the origin and structure of Girton’s assassin organization, but they are so few and far between that they left me wanting. In addition, it was almost halfway through the book before I realized that the “horses” of Age of Assassins were a cross between elk, tigers, and boars and I am super disappointed the book did not spend more time talking about these rideable death machines. The mystery and political intrigue elements were much more solid, remaining strong almost throughout the book. There were a couple of small twists that a blind man could have seen coming from the horizon, but as a whole the core mystery was extremely well done and I found myself deathly (get it? Because assassins) curious about the identity of the culprit until the final pages. Finally, Barker has a real talent for action writing. The action sequences in Age of Assassins were definitely a highlight, and they satisfied my desire to see a well-trained assassin murder large groups of people.

Overall, Age of Assassins was slightly disappointing. The book felt like a long prologue that could have been a lot better with a little more depth. However, the bones of something excellent are here and I am going to stick with the series and give the second book a shot. If you are in the market for a coming of age story about assassins, and are willing to forgive a little awkwardness, you should give Age of Assassins a shot.

Rating: Age of Assassins – 6.0/10

Dawn of Wonder – Dusk Of My Interest

51ffxlj4tvlHello everyone. I apologize for the missed day this week, but I am changing to a new job (as a researcher for the New York Public Library, which is super exciting) and I found myself a little short on time. Accordingly, I wanted to talk about something I rarely mention in my reviews: a book I did not finish. It is uncommon for me to drop a book, as I usually vet my reading material enough that books I won’t enjoy don’t often slip through. However, every so often I find myself reading a book and dragging my feet so much that I realize I should put it down and read something else. Dawn of Wonder, by Jonathan Renshaw, was one such book.

I actually have a lot of good things to say about Dawn of Wonder. The story tells a coming of age fantasy centring around the young Aedan. Aedan and his friends live in a small farming town, making trouble and being generally boisterous. Their lives are turned around when slave traders try to take the town and upheave Aedan’s life. This event ultimately leads Aedan to start training at an academy for mercenaries, hellbent on revenge against the nation that let his homestead be attacked by slavers.

The story is a bit slow at the start, but picks up significantly once Aedan starts training at the academy. Aedan’s unique and defining personality quirk is an aptitude for strategy and tactics that sees him matching wits with seasoned generals in his ability to plan battles. Additionally, Aedan is struggling with some inner demons left from an abusive father that has emotionally crippled him. Watching Aedan attend the academy and pass various trials and tribulations, overcome his inner demons, and plan his revenge is a joy to watch. In fact, in abstract everything about this book is exciting, fun, and has the markings of a great read. However, there are a couple issues with it in practice.

For starters, the biggest issue I have with Dawn of Wonder is the exposition about Aedan. There are constant passages of written exposition about Aedan’s skill and greatness that are awkward, rip me out of the story, and make Aedan feel like an unrealistic ‘Gary Sue’. In one of the earliest chapters, two retired war vets comment aloud (with no context) that Aedan is one of the smartest, coolest, greatest, strategic minds in any book ever, and he’s only a teenager! (I am hyperbolising but this is what it felt like). These aggrandizements soured me on Aedan really, really quickly and made it hard to get attached to his character in any way. Additionally, the inner demons segments of the book are really heavy handed and handled in a melodramatic way that I thought was over the top, further distancing me from Aeden.

These writing problems dissociated me from Aedan as a character so much that I found myself having no interest in continuing to read a book that was otherwise a lot of fun, With a little more show, and a lot less tell, this could have been a favorite of mine. There was no reason that Renshaw couldn’t have just used the academy and the various trials to show Aedan’s brilliance in a much more natural setting. If you can move past the initial bragging, this book might be a home run for you, but I unfortunately got about 40% through before I put it down.

Rating: Dawn of Wonder – 4.0/10 (DNF)

Binti and Home – Why Isn’t This A Full Book

Whenever a series get explosively popular in fantasy and science fiction, it always inadvertently makes me feel like an old man. I always feel like I hear about new popular books weirdly late for someone who is literally a source of talking about new awesome books. I clearly need to read more of my competitors sites or do my job better. Anyway, speaking of new popular books, I managed to check out the wildly popular Binti, and sequel Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor recently. These books/short stories/(I don’t really know what to call these, maybe vignettes?) were sold to me as “the next Harry Potter”, which seemed like it might be a bit of an exaggeration, but then Nnedi Okorafor got an HBO show for one of her series and I figured I should probably check her out.

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While I think referring to Binti as the next Harry Potter might be a bit of a stretch, I do understand the comparisons. Binti follows the story, surprisingly, of Binti – a young mathematical genius from an African tribe who is the first of her people to get accepted into what is basically space Harvard, called Oozma Uni. I found some of Binti’s mannerisms a little grating at times (she tends to yell a lot), but generally liked her. In addition, the university is a place filled with all sorts of interesting space races and forms of study. Spending time exploring the university gave me the same sort of whimsical feeling as being exposed to Hogwarts. The primary function of the story (at least the first two installments) is to talk about Binti’s personal story and her relationships with her friends and family. Binti spends almost no time at the Uni and Home spends a brief stint there before jumping back to Earth to talk about Binti’s relationship with her family. I was pretty frustrated we didn’t get to spend more time in this giant place of learning, but at the same time Binti’s personal story and her interactions with her family were also interesting and fun.

This leads to my major issue with Binti, I feel like the series suffers a lot from not being a full book. There is a level of worldbuilding here on par with some of the biggest and most expensive science fiction I have read, but the series had a size and scope comparable to a short story. I felt like I was being forced to sprint down a hall of wonders and everything I saw for a second captivated my interest, but didn’t get to stop and explore any of it. That being said, everything I saw was awesome. I love the races, cultures, and technology of Binti. Nnedi Okorafor seems to really like bio-technology, with the stories containing tons of living tech – which I found super cool. Learning about African culture in a science fiction setting was also a blast and I wish someone would write a large full book with the full concept.

At the end of the day I found Binti both wonderful and frustrating. I had a great time reading it, but I couldn’t help but feel that it could be such a bigger and better experience if it had a full novel. It is definitely worth your time though, and at under 100 pages for each segment takes almost no time to read. If you are looking for a story of an intrepid young African mathematician finding her way in the world, well then this might be the book for you.

Rating: Binti – 7.5/10
Rating: Binti: Home – 8.0/10

-Andrew