ARC Review: The Devil’s Only Friend

WARNING: THIS IS THE FOURTH BOOK IN A SERIES. IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE FIRST, SECOND, AND THIRD, THIS REVIEW WILL LIKELY SPOIL YOU FOR EVENTS IN ALL OF THEM.

TheDevilsOnlyFriend

From Goodreads:

John Wayne Cleaver hunts demons: they’ve killed his neighbors, his family, and the girl he loves, but in the end he’s always won. Now he works for a secret government kill team, using his gift to hunt and kill as many monsters as he can…

…but the monsters have noticed, and the quiet game of cat and mouse is about to erupt into a full scale supernatural war.

John doesn’t want the life he’s stuck with. He doesn’t want the FBI bossing him around, he doesn’t want his only friend imprisoned in a mental ward, and he doesn’t want to face the terrifying cannibal who calls himself The Hunter. John doesn’t want to kill people. But as the song says, you can’t always get what you want. John has learned that the hard way; his clothes have the stains to prove it.

When John again faces evil, he’ll know what he has to do.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book through Tor’s sweepstakes, and decided to review it for release. This has in no way affected my opinion of the book.

Getting just the right mix of familiar and new after several books in a single series can be rather tricky. I’ve seen plenty of authors do it poorly, and either end up with many quite repetitive books—such as Redwall—or a series of highly different books that share almost no connections, though I’m having a hard time coming up with an example right now.

Dan has managed to do it right. One of my biggest complaints with I Don’t Want to Kill You was that it felt too much like the previous two books, at the beginning, though that changed by the end. Here, we’ve got the same story, but told quite differently. Instead of John going at it himself, he’s got a whole team, and he has to, at least to a small degree, fit in with them. This presents a whole new slate of problems for him, and it’s very interesting to watch him struggle with them.

Other parts of the plot feel familiar, though, so Dan never gets too far away from his initial premise: There are demons out there, and we have to kill them—before they kill us. (Note: Yes, there is new terminology in this book, but to avoid any spoilers, I’m sticking with the old terminology for the review.) The scale is larger, not only for John’s team, but also for the demons. More, meaner, harder to kill. I am left wondering how Dan is going to raise the stakes for yet another two books, but I have no doubt he’ll be able to do it.

The new characters on the team do more than give John someone new to struggle against—and occasionally think about killing. They’re an interesting, diverse bunch, with a lot of shady backgrounds and easily aroused tempers. I only wish I’d had more pages to get to know them in.

Like all of Dan’s books I’ve read so far, this one comes in at around 300 pages, and that feels, to someone used to 500+ (or even 1000+) page epics, to be far too short, but he tells a satisfying, full story.

I cannot talk much about Brooke or the romance side of the book without giving major spoilers, so I will simply say that I was pleased with how it was handled.

The beginning of the novel was quite a shocker. Again, saying much more would be another spoilers (There are a lot of twists and turns in these 300 pages!), so I’ll simply say that not everything is as it seemed at the end of the previous book, and even for those things that were, well, we’re months into the future now, so things are bound to have changed.

Despite that, the book flowed well from the previous one, and while the books are supposedly plotted to be a pair of trilogies, with this being the first book of the second trilogy, and two more planned, but it really feels like a single series, with a slight time-jump in the middle. Of course, I may have been biased by reading I Don’t Want to Kill You… Yesterday, so take that with a grain of salt.

In summary, The Devil’s Best Friend is an exciting new development in the John Cleaver story that begins to open us up to a larger world, bringing in new teammates and enemies, and shifting our perceptions of characters we thought we knew. There are lots of twists, and while nothing was supremely exceptional to me, I highly enjoyed this book and give it a solid four of five stars, as a worthy continuation of a great series.

Dan Wells.

Goodreads.

Amazon.

Book Review: Mr. Monster

WARNING: THIS IS BOOK 2 IN A SERIES, AND THE REVIEW, BY NECESSITY, CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR BOOK 1, I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER. IF YOU HAVE NOT READ IT, I RECOMMEND READING MY REVIEW, READING THE BOOK, AND COMING BACK WHEN YOU’RE DONE.

MrMonster

From Goodreads:

In I Am Not a Serial Killer, John Wayne Cleaver saved his town from a murderer even more appalling than the serial killers he obsessively studies.

But it turns out even demons have friends, and the disappearance of one has brought another to Clayton County. Soon there are new victims for John to work on at the mortuary and a new mystery to solve. But John has tasted death, and the dark nature he used as a weapon—the terrifying persona he calls “Mr. Monster”—might now be using him.

No one in Clayton is safe unless John can vanquish two nightmarish adversaries: the unknown demon he must hunt and the inner demon he can never escape.

Sometimes, when all I read are heavy, 600+ pages books, I think that they are all that there is, and anything shorter is silly. It takes a few good shorter books to remind me of how wrong I am sometimes, and Mr. Monster by Dan Wells was one of these books.

I was lucky enough to have my copy on hand right after finishing I Am Not a Serial Killer, and tore through it in less than 24 hours. I have one simple verdict:

If you liked the first one, read this one.

Mr. Monster is just under 300 pages long, and none of those pages are wasted. The setting is the same small town, Clayton, that we know from the first book, and many of the characters are familiar. The idea of demons is familiar, too, and Dan has to do minimal worldbuilding here. That means that we get almost pure character and story. Usually, I like more substance to my books than that, but sometimes, it really is nice to sit down and not have to remember 1000 named characters with lines, 7 different magic systems, 11 cultures, and a half dozen different groups of bad guys that need to be killed. Sometimes.

And for those times, Mr. Monster hits the spot perfectly. It’s a novel I can sit down and read for an over hour at a time without having to take breaks between every chapter to process the implications of what just happened, and I love it for that. The flow is great at sucking me in, and I nearly missed my train station while reading. I thought I was 3 stops away, looked up, and barely made it off the train in time at my station.

Dan does not go off and decide that he needs to do a bunch of crazy new stuff with the same characters in the same world. Instead, he takes what worked so well in the first book, and does it again, with just enough differences and advances to make it feel new. There’s always a chance that a book will get repetitive and boring if this is done too many times, but Dan managed to make it work marvelously well for himself.

Of course, I say that he didn’t do anything crazy as a relative term. We’re in the same tight first-person viewpoint with John Cleaver that was so intense in the first book, and that means we’re deeply inside the head of a sociopath who is suppressing his serial killer tendencies. And ever since he killed the demon, they’ve become harder to control.

Many of the moments with John are downright chilling. If Dan was looking to get a raw emotional response from me, he succeeded. John’s mindset is done incredibly well, and he manages to sketch out the other characters of the novel—Brooke, John’s family, John’s new antagonist—with great detail, even through John’s apparent detachment.

He kept these characters true to themselves, too, even when most other authors would have made different decisions that might have been more fan-based. I’m glad he didn’t, even though some of them hurt, some quite a lot.

Hurt, and made me shudder. I honestly think this would have been an utterly amazing book if I had been a horror fan, and I really liked this kind of thing. Unfortunately, it was sometimes a little much for my delicate sensitivities—I had to stop and read a filler or two between every ASoIaF book, for example—and that, for me personally, slightly lessened my enjoyment.

In summary, Mr. Monster is a great, quick horror novel that closely traces the first, without being a boring copy. It has some truly great horrifying moments that are occasionally slightly too much for me, and is incredibly easy to read and hard to put down. Four of five stars, and a high recommendation if this is your kind of book. I’m anxious to find out what happens in the rest of the series.

Dan’s Website.

Goodreads.

Amazon.

Book Review: I Am Not a Serial Killer

IAmNotaSerialKiller

From Goodreads:

John Wayne Cleaver is dangerous, and he knows it.

He’s spent his life doing his best not to live up to his potential.

He’s obsessed with serial killers, but really doesn’t want to become one. So for his own sake, and the safety of those around him, he lives by rigid rules he’s written for himself, practicing normal life as if it were a private religion that could save him from damnation.

Dead bodies are normal to John. He likes them, actually. They don’t demand or expect the empathy he’s unable to offer. Perhaps that’s what gives him the objectivity to recognize that there’s something different about the body the police have just found behind the Wash-n-Dry Laundromat—and to appreciate what that difference means.

Now, for the first time, John has to confront a danger outside himself, a threat he can’t control, a menace to everything and everyone he would love, if only he could.

Do you have any idea how many weird looks and questions you get carrying around a book that says “I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER” on the front? A lot.

Dan Wells was the last of the Writing Excuses team whose books I read. I think this was perhaps because he is a horror writer, not a fantasy author. I, obviously, fell in love with Brandon’s books first, but quickly found Schlock Mercenary as well, because it was free online, and have been reading it for several years. I listened to a few of Mary’s delightful books a few months ago, and was lucky enough to receive an ARC of The Devil’s Best Friend last month, and decided that it was time to read Dan’s books.

I don’t usually read horror books. They’re just not my kind of thing. I’m fine with a bit of grimdark in my fantasy—ASoIaF is one of my favorites, as is The Mirror Empire—but horror novels are on a different level. I usually want to be able to sleep at night, you know?

Good stories transcend genres, though. I was hooked a few pages into I Am Not a Serial Killer, and I blasted through it in a day and a half. It’s a gripping, intense read that seems far to short, because it makes efficient use of every page. The whole trilogy, together, is probably still shorter than some of Brandon’s epics. And that’s fine. The story is told as it needs to be told, no intense world-building, no heavy mental lifting, just pure, scary, fun.

The book is set in a small American town that feels totally real—and so familiar that Dan is able to achieve a great amount of setting just by dropping a few hints here and there. This, I feel, is one of the main strengths of books set in the modern world, with minimal fantasy elements, and it’s one that Dan takes full advantage of, allowing him to give minimal descriptions and focus on the characters and the action. It does give the book a bit of a dated feel when the main character wanders into a Radio Shack, though.

John Cleaver, our main character, is utterly creepy. A sociopath suppressing serial killer tendencies, he should feel completely alien to us. I’m not sure how Dan managed it, but this is far from how it actually felt. John is quite sympathetic, despite having no sympathy himself. I think, perhaps, it’s his drive to try to be a good person that makes me want to root for him so much, even as he imagines tearing the people around him to pieces. Perhaps it’s that, or perhaps it’s that we have an antagonist who is even more monstrous than John.

Regardless, John is an amazing character, and I want more.

But he creeps me out. I guess this means that the book is good at what it’s supposed to be—it’s a horror novel, after all. It’s not that there are excessive amounts of gore—most of the time. It’s just that being inside John’s head in an amazing experience, and perfectly creepy. If you’re looking for a book that will give you shivers at night, this is definitely one you want to read.

I can now unreservedly say that I am not a sociopath. Thanks, I think?

It also has a definite supernatural element as well. I’m not going to spoil the book by saying too much about this, but I know I definitely enjoyed the book more because it was not just our world, but had the added fantastical element.

That’s not to say it’s all good, though. There are first-book quirks about it. The mystery isn’t maintained as well as I would have liked, and I was disappointed when things that were supposed to be subtle foreshadowing or hints pretty much gave the game away and lowered the suspense. There’s also a few out-of-character scenes. In particular, there’s two pages where a character who, to this point, has shown no excessive knowledge of serial killers or their methods drops comfortably into John’s lingo, in the middle of an introspective moment that shouldn’t have really made any sense to anyone else.

But these are minor quibbles, and while they detracted from the book, I still largely enjoyed I Am a Serial Killer. In summary, it’s a short, well-written debut novel with at utterly chilling protagonist and antagonist, which engaged me in part due to its supernatural elements, despite having a few first-book feeling moments. Four of five stars, and I’m halfway through the next book already.

Dan’s Website.

Goodreads.

Amazon.

Book Review: Royal Assassin

NOTE: THIS IS THE SECOND BOOK IN A TRILOGY. I REVIEWED AND ENJOYED FIRST BOOK, AND IF YOU HAVEN’T READ IT, GO READ IT, AS THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR IT.

Royal Assassin

From Goodreads:

Fitz has survived his first hazardous mission as king’s assassin, but is left little more than a cripple. Battered and bitter, he vows to abandon his oath to King Shrewd, remaining in the distant mountains. But love and events of terrible urgency draw him back to the court at Buckkeep, and into the deadly intrigues of the royal family.

Renewing their vicious attacks on the coast, the Red-Ship Raiders leave burned-out villages and demented victims in their wake. The kingdom is also under assault from within, as treachery threatens the throne of the ailing king. In this time of great danger, the fate of the kingdom may rest in Fitz’s hands—and his role in its salvation may require the ultimate sacrifice.

Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb is a typical second book in what is shaping up to be a very enjoyable first trilogy, and I quite enjoyed jumping into it straight after finishing the first book in the trilogy, Assassin’s Apprentice.

Royal Assassin brings us back to all of our favorite characters, at least, those who survived the first book. In particular, we follow Fitz’s viewpoint for the entire story again, watching as he starts to really be an adult and have some power over those around him. He continues to grow more relatable, even though his life is far from anything I’ve ever experienced. His struggles feel real, and at times, incredibly frustrating.

We also see more of Burrich, Chade, Royal and Verity, Shrewd, and Molly, all the characters we came to know in the first book. There are hardly any new additions, however, and this book is very much a “dig deeper” instead of “spread wider” type of book, something rather uncommon in the fantasy world these days. I liked this digging, as it helped to give the feel that Hobb has complete control over her plot and characters, instead of letting them run rampant and multiply as, say, GRRM has done.

The magic continues to be semi-standard telepathic type magic, and it’s not the main focal point of the novel, though it continues to play an important role. I found myself neither excited nor disappointed by its possibilities—nothing short of Hurley or Sanderson levels of magical coolness gets me excited anymore—but it was well thought out and served its purpose well.

I found that, because I continued to be more and more engaged by the same characters, that this book didn’t have quite the same dragging feeling that the first book had, though it also wasn’t an incredibly fast book. There is no breakneck plot, which is just fine. This is the kind of book that enjoys what it is, and it feels good.

The emotional hooks here are definitely deeper too, and Hobb continues to put her characters through the wringer. While the tension only very gradually rises, the amount of pain the characters are going through is at a constant high level, both emotionally and at times physically. This, perhaps, more than anything, is what makes the book so engaging, and overall gave it a more cohesive feel.

The plot is the most “second book” part of the book, for sure. It leaves all of its threads unresolved, and I didn’t feel like it really even ended the threads that it should have. It did have an intense ending, but I have to admit that I was expecting more to be tied up, and new problems expanded for the third and final book.

In summary, Royal Assassin was a satisfying second book that dug deeper into all of the characters that we came to know in the first book, and used this digging to intensify the emotional pain that Hobb could deal to them. I did not find the plot to be as satisfying as I had hoped, and while it does leave me wanting the third book, I wish it had resolved a few more threads with its conclusion. I definitely give it four of five stars, though, as I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I’m looking forward to what I hope is a conclusive final volume in the trilogy.

Robin Hobb.

Goodreads.

Amazon.

Book Review: Assassin’s Apprentice

Assassin's Apprentice

From Goodreads:

In a faraway land where members of the royal family are named for the virtues they embody, one young boy will become a walking enigma.

Born on the wrong side of the sheets, Fitz, son of Chivalry Farseer, is a royal bastard, cast out into the world, friendless and lonely. Only his magical link with animals – the old art known as the Wit – gives him solace and companionship. But the Wit, if used too often, is a perilous magic, and one abhorred by the nobility.

So when Fitz is finally adopted into the royal household, he must give up his old ways and embrace a new life of weaponry, scribing, courtly manners; and how to kill a man secretly, as he trains to become a royal assassin.

Robin Hobb is another of the authors I’ve had recommended to me for ages. I haven’t been actively resisting reading her books—in fact, I’ve been collecting them to begin reading for about a year now. I only recently began reading them, though, since I had enough to be sure that I could complete my collection by the time I got around to reading the books—I like to read a series from start to finish, without breaks in-between. Feels more cohesive to me, I guess.

And I’m glad I did. Hobb is another author whose books I’m sure that I’m going to love and treasure for years. Assassin’s Apprentice, the first in the first trilogy in her Realm of the Elderlings universe, was quite enjoyable, though I did feel that it dragged at times.

As with all good books, though, the strength of this novel lies in the characters. Our main character, Fitz, is the bastard son of the prince who is first in line to inherit the throne, and the entire story is told from his viewpoint. He has a fairly standard list of fantasy protagonist abilities—magic of two kinds, a few good friends, and the occasional exceptional ability, as well as being born into an important role in life. But Hobb somehow manages to never let him seem to be just a trope, instead imbuing him with a rich life and making her world seem very real.

And, of course, there’s the eponymous assassin’s training. Fitz, never to inherit the throne, but still required to be useful by the king, is assigned to learn the assassin’s trade, to become the king’s secret weapon at court. He must learn to juggle these increasingly taxing duties with the pressures of a young man’s life in a court he doesn’t quite fit into. This struggle is part of what defines him so well as a character, at least for me.

The threats of the novel do not become clear until later parts of it, and so I will not discuss the plot too much here—anything else would be a spoiler. I’ll simply say that the majority of the novel is spent introducing and moving the characters around, so it’s okay if you don’t understand where everything is going until the end.

This strategy worked fine for me. Not only Is Fitz himself a brilliant character, but so is the entire supporting cast, from Burrich to Chade to the Fool to Molly. They all feel so real, I almost expected to look up from my book and see one of them standing in my doorway every few pages. I feel as if I’ve come to know them personally.

And so, when Hobb starts heating things up, it hurts. Hobb, I’ve been told, is one of the most notorious character torturers in all of Fantasy. I’m not sure if I believe that, yet, but I definitely felt some serious pangs while reading this book, and even if she doesn’t torture her characters any more than a normal author does, she certainly makes you feel it more than most of them do, just by how real she makes her characters feel.

And while the plot takes a while to get truly going, the ending makes up for it in the number of emotional beats it manages to hit. By the end, I had tears in my eyes, and I immediately started on the second book, Royal Assassin, which I’m hoping to finish soon.

In summary, Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Assassin was a delightful, torturous, and slightly slow read that has some of the best characters I’ve read in a long time. I’m not fully convinced yet, but I’m fairly certain she’s going onto my favorites shelf as I read more and more of her books, and I give this one a solid four out of five stars, and a hearty recommendation.

Robin Hobb.

Goodreads.

Amazon.

Book Review: Agent to the Stars

agent

From Goodreads:

The space-faring Yherajk have come to Earth to meet us and to begin humanity’s first interstellar friendship. There’s just one problem: They’re hideously ugly and they smell like rotting fish. So getting humanity’s trust is a challenge. The Yherajk need someone who can help them close the deal. Enter Thomas Stein, who knows something about closing deals. He’s one of Hollywood’s hottest young agents. But although Stein may have just concluded the biggest deal of his career, it’s quite another thing to negotiate for an entire alien race. To earn his percentage this time, he’s going to need all the smarts, skills, and wits he can muster.

There’s no doubt about it; John Scalzi writes entertaining books. Agent to the Stars is a hilariously reimagined first contact story, complete with aliens that communicate with smells—opening the floodgates on stink jokes wide—and Hollywood life in all of its ridiculousness. Scalzi’s imagination really has run wild here, and the result is fantastic.

The Yherajk, who can shift shapes into inhabiting or imitating human bodies, as well as those of animals, are interesting. They bear a strong resemblance to Sanderson’s Kandra—or perhaps I should say the Kandra bear a resemblance to them. Agent to the Stars was originally published online in 1999, and Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy didn’t come out until 2006. Despite this, however, neither species feels redundant, as the authors have given them entirely different personality characteristics and goals.

The aliens have an interesting story of their own, and they have good, believable reasons for wanting to stay hidden until the human race is really ready for first contact, which I appreciated. It’s nice to see that Scalzi applied a decently high level of rigor to all parts of his worldbuilding, especially the important ones that drive the story in the background.

And like any good science fiction author, he doesn’t shy away from the moral implications of the creatures he’s created. He examines the a human’s right to his or her own body and mind, and when it’s really right to take over someone’s mind—and for what reasons. The discussions, which happen in the later sections of the book, are fascinating and important, as we move closer and closer to having the ability to do this ourselves—albeit in technological, not biological, ways.

It’s not all heavy discussion, though. Other parts of the story are built almost completely for the humor factor. The alien’s smell based communication systems, for example, or some of the relations our main character, an up and coming Hollywood agent, has with his colleagues and clients. Still, since Scalzi, for the most part, manages to keep these to hilarious asides, they don’t distract from the main plot, and there is a sense of drive that permeates the novel. Here, as in The Android’s Dream, Scalzi has managed to balance the two—plot and humor—better than most other authors I’ve read.

While the pacing is good, and the story drives the book, I feel that the ending was rushed. We only get to see the last six months or so of plot points, after what I guess Scalzi felt was the last “important” plot event, before we get the concluding scene of the novel. This odd montage felt out of place with the rest of the novel, and really detracted from the experience for me. It’s fine when you have a training montage partway through your novel—that makes sense. But to have one right before the end, it felt like Scalzi just wanted to jump ahead and grab the emotional payoff of the last scene before wrapping up and saying he was done.

Thankfully, though, the montage didn’t detract from the final scene, at least for me. It’s a powerful, emotional, and important thought-provoking scene. I won’t spoil it, but given that the novel is a first contact story, you can probably make some educated guesses as to what happens. By the time you reach the ending, there are no twists, no crazy pull-the-rug-out-from-under-you moments to make your head spin. It nevertheless accomplishes exactly what it should, and it mostly redeemed the previous montage for me.

In summary, Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi was a delightful and humorous first contact story, mixed with a few deep philosophical and moral questions that do not detract from the entertaining and engaging plot, which I felt only faltered in the rushed ending. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a fun read with aliens, and happily give it four of five stars.

Scalzi’s blog.

Goodreads.

Amazon.

Book Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

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From Goodreads:

At the dawn of the nineteenth century, two very different magicians emerge to change England’s history. In the year 1806, with the Napoleonic Wars raging on land and sea, most people believe magic to be long dead in England—until the reclusive Mr Norrell reveals his powers, and becomes a celebrity overnight.

Soon, another practicing magician comes forth: the young, handsome, and daring Jonathan Strange. He becomes Norrell’s student, and they join forces in the war against France. But Strange is increasingly drawn to the wildest, most perilous forms of magic, straining his partnership with Norrell, and putting at risk everything else he holds dear.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (JSaMN) was a very different novel than those that I typically enjoy. My tastes typically tend more towards standard epic fantasy, focusing on world shaking events—usually involving lots of wars and battles, and often filled with magic and power. While JSaMN has plenty of magic and power plays, the tone differs immensely, and it paints a very unique ornate portrait of the time period, while only occasionally getting around to some interesting plot points.

The novel focuses mainly on the two titular characters, though we are not introduced to Jonathan Strange for quite some time. We spend the entire first third simply observing Mr Norrell’s quest to bring magic back to England—and to have control of it himself. He’s painted as almost despicable, a controlling, reclusive man who wants the power for himself. But when Jonathan Strange emerges as the second magic user in England in centuries, Norrell seems to welcome him as an equal—though he keeps his most important magical texts to himself.

Throughout the novel, we are always intensely in a character’s viewpoint, and the book goes to extremes to show and not tell about their motives and methods. It makes for an incredibly immersive reading experience, while at the same time bordering on, but never quite being, wooden and boring.

I think some of the wooden feeling comes from the style that Clarke is emulating here—it’s the stiff, formal style of the people in her book, characters on the upper crust of society in the early to mid 1800s in England. In this sense, it’s incredibly successful at making you feel like you’re there, in the world, and Clarke’s mastery of tone rivals that of Rothfuss or Kay.

The plot of the novel itself moves incredibly slowly, and is often derailed by delightful footnotes, detailing this or that quirk of the worldbuilding, which is phenomenal. Clarke has managed to build one of the most realistic, yet simultaneously strange, beautiful, and enticing Earth analogues that I’ve ever read, and while her worldbuilding is subtle and often hidden, unlike the breathtaking brilliant alienness of a Hurley novel, the extent and thoroughness of it gives an incredible sense of the massive amount of work and care taken to create the world. Clarke takes every pain to make us believe that it is real, making use of subtle touches and strokes to great effect.

The novel itself is one that gives you permission to set it down every few chapters, though I feel like I missed a lot by reading it over a period of several months. If you want something that you can dip into, immerse yourself, and then put down when you need to do something else, JSaMN is a great novel for you, but the foreshadowing, the subtle hints and connections that run throughout the text—and footnotes—are best experienced in a shorter period of time than a longer. The care and attention to detail that Clarke paid at every level of the novel is perhaps most evident here, and connections that she placed on almost every page make for satisfying payoffs at later parts of the novel.

The conclusion tends much more towards a typical fantasy feel, with battles, mortal peril, and the ultimate struggle of good versus evil with high stakes—and it makes for satisfying conclusion to the events that have been slowly building over the previous thousand pages.

Most people’s main complaint with the book is the amount of time it takes to get interesting. While I agree that it did not have me completely hooked until maybe 50-60% of the way through, where the conflict begins to become clear and the real plot seems to begin, the prose and delightfully interesting worldbuilding held me through the entire book, and I was never really “bored” while reading.

I would be remiss not to mention that BBC is producing a 7-part TV series of the novel, set to air later in 2015. It has me quite excited, and while I feel it will be very, very different from Game of Thrones and other such popular shows, and I’m not sure how well the richness of the text and footnotes will transfer to the screen, I am optimistic. From what little I’ve seen, they are doing a precise, careful job with the show, and I will definitely be watching it when it airs. Here’s the only trailer released to date:

In summary, JSaMN is a brilliantly written, if slightly stiff and slow, novel with an incredibly intricate world that enchanted me, even though it didn’t completely hook me for the first half, which falls heavily on the side of showing and not telling, and which will allow you to read a chapter or two at a time—until the very end, when it morphs into a more standard fantasy and the slowly building tension and carefully laid foreshadowing come to a tense, gripping conclusion. Four of Five stars, and recommended if you like carefully written, beautiful books that are a little slower than the fantasy norm.

Bloomsbury’s site for the book.

Amazon.

Goodreads.

Book Review: Elantris

elantris

Amazon Summary:

Elantris was the capital of Arelon: gigantic, beautiful, literally radiant, filled with benevolent beings who used their powerful magical abilities for the benefit of all. Yet each of these demigods was once an ordinary person until touched by the mysterious transforming power of the Shaod. Ten years ago, without warning, the magic failed. Elantrians became wizened, leper-like, powerless creatures, and Elantris itself dark, filthy, and crumbling.

Arelon’s new capital, Kae, crouches in the shadow of Elantris. Princess Sarene of Teod arrives for a marriage of state with Crown Prince Raoden, hoping — based on their correspondence — to also find love. She finds instead that Raoden has died and she is considered his widow. Both Teod and Arelon are under threat as the last remaining holdouts against the imperial ambitions of the ruthless religious fanatics of Fjordell. So Sarene decides to use her new status to counter the machinations of Hrathen, a Fjordell high priest who has come to Kae to convert Arelon and claim it for his emperor and his god.

But neither Sarene nor Hrathen suspect the truth about Prince Raoden. Stricken by the same curse that ruined Elantris, Raoden was secretly exiled by his father to the dark city. His struggle to help the wretches trapped there begins a series of events that will bring hope to Arelon, and perhaps reveal the secret of Elantris itself.

A rare epic fantasy that doesn’t recycle the classics and that is a complete and satisfying story in one volume, Elantris is fleet and fun, full of surprises and characters to care about. It’s also the wonderful debut of a welcome new star in the constellation of fantasy.

Many people complain that an author’s first book is, by far, their weakest. I usually agree, and even my hero, Brandon Sanderson, isn’t completely immune to this problem. Elantris was his first published work, and, I feel, the weakest of his novel length publications.

But take that with a grain of salt. It’s still a Sanderson. It has all of the hallmarks, all of the beauty, all of the power, that really make Sanderson worth reading.

It’s also the seventh novel he wrote, and by the time he sold it and edited it for publication, I believe he had written thirteen novels, and it shows. It is, by far, stronger than what you would typically expect to find in a debut novel.

Now, on to talking about the book itself. My biggest issue with any any Sanderson book is how they may not hook non-fans. Elantris, in particular, has an exciting prologue and first few chapters, and then there are several hundred pages where very interesting and important things happen, but you feel like you could put the book down at any point, and you’re not truly hooked until the last part, the last several hundred pages. He has talked about this strategy before, and said that it is necessary for epic fantasy length books. His YA novels have that can-not-put-down feel. I’ve seen epic fantasy done this way, though, notably by Brent Weeks and Brian Staveley, and the strategy has worked for me.

That’s not to say that that the first part of the book is boring—not even remotely. The characters are all going through interesting journeys, and Sanderson is setting them up for some truly spectacular changes and reveals by the end of the book. His character development can, at times, be a little ham-handed—it feels as if he hadn’t completely learned how to show, and not tell, us about some character traits yet.

I love the characters. Hrathen, a gyorn, or high priest of the Shu Dereth religion, has come to Elantris with the mission of converting the city in ninety days. If he fails, the armies of Fjordell will invade. He was my favorite of the main characters, for several reasons. In large part, I think it’s because I see the world the way he does. Things are meant to be calculated and done for a reason. His entire crusade to convert the people is driven heavily by his desire to save them from the destruction he knows would be caused by an invading army. Much of his faith is based on the logic of his religion, and how things seem to simply make sense.

I can’t mention Hrathen without getting Dilaf shivers. Dilaf, who serves under Hrathen, is much lower in standing in the church. Yet, his devotion outstrips Hrathen’s by tenfold, to the point that he occasionally causes Hrathen himself to question his beliefs. He is also about as close as the book comes to pure evil. Reading scenes with him just make me shiver. Hrathen is a grey character who truly believes that he can justify that what he is doing is right. Dilaf is a religious fanatic. Both are, in their own way, a fascinating study of how religion can go tragically wrong.

Raoden, the prince taken by the reod and cast into Elantris, has, perhaps, the most difficult struggle of the book. He must work constantly under unceasing pain to try to save not only himself, but also those around him. He is, in some ways, a bit too perfect. I think Sanderson overdid him a hair, and that his unflagging optimism and perseverance are a bit much. He’s too much of a Mary Sue, a perfect character with no flaws. Regardless, he’s an important and powerful character, and I love his journey as he tries to restore at least a little of Elantris’ former glory.

Saerene is the most often criticized character in the book, I feel, and I do not feel that she deserves it. She’s headstrong and willful, and I’ll admit that personally, she scares me. She’s not someone I would want to spend a lot of time around and count as a friend, because of how unpredictable, sometimes wrong, and incredibly bull-headed she can be. But I think she’s written well. Her sarcasm and attitude, the things that some people have issues with, ring true for me. I feel that she’s a well written, ahead of her time character who wants change and is going to get it, and who cares about the consequences?

Before I finish talking about the characters that I loved, I have to mention a minor character who, I have heard, is going to be one of the main characters in the eventual sequel to Elantris. (Sanderson, 8 ongoing series is a bit much, even for you…) Kiin’s son, Adien, has a special place in my heart. I won’t say too much about why, without spoiling the book, but his obsession with numbers and vital role in the pivotal ending scenes of the book are just perfect.

The plot of the book is nothing incredible for the first several hundred pages. Lots of political intrigue, plenty of twists, and the eventual looming threat of Hrathen’s invasion give it a sense of purpose. With only that, and a satisfying climax that tied up some threads, it would have been a good book. But that’s not how Sanderson does things. I am being completely serious when I say that nothing, ever, in my entire reading experience, can compare to the last 10% of a Sanderson book. It’s called the “Sanderson Avalanche”. Sanderson, with his epic scopes, manages to juggle an incredible number of threads, each complicated and confusing, all sharing a few common elements. Most authors will bring these together in a few interesting ways, and resolve the majority of them. Sanderson… Sanderson mashes them all together in what, in the hands of a less talented author, might turn into a train wreck, but in his books turns into the most awesome avalanche of constant climaxes, twisty reveals, and powerful feels. And then, just when you think it’s over, he yanks the rug out from under you again.

Elantris is no exception to this rule, and once you get to the last part of the book, I promise that you will not be able to put it down. It’s utterly thrilling and crushing, and I’m not doing it justice here. You need to go read one of Sanderson’s novels, and you need to read it through to the end. You’ll see what I mean.

Because of the character issues and generally slower pacing, I’m going to have to give Elantris four stars. That is, perhaps, because I know how much better Sanderson’s books have gotten. Still, giving one of his novels only four stars makes me feel like a traitor, and as if I should revise my opinion down of most of the other books I’ve ever read and given five stars to… Regardless, Elantris has its flaws, but if you push through to the end, you will be rewarded. I promise. I recommend it, though if you’re going to read Sanderson, I’d probably urge you to read Mistborn first; it’s a better, stronger introduction to his style.

Links:

Brandon’s website.

Elantris on Brandon’s website.

Book Review: Ancillary Justice

 

Ancillary_Justice

From the back cover:

On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest.

Breq is both more than she seems and less than she was. Years ago, she was Justice of Toren–a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of corpse soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.

An act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with only one fragile human body. And only one purpose–to revenge herself on Anaander Mianaai, many-bodied, near-immortal Lord of the Radch.

I read Ancillary Justice earlier this year as an attempt to prepare myself for voting in the Hugo Awards for the first time. The results of the voting have just come in, and Ancillary Justice has won the Hugo Award, making it the first novel ever to win the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Arthur C. Clarke awards, considered by some to be the “triple crown” of the sci-fi and fantasy world. Ancillary Justice is Leckie’s first published novel, making this feat even more impressive.

The non-linear structure of the story is confusing at first. It’s told in two parts, the present and a series of flashbacks. I don’t have page- or word-counts, but it felt like the flashbacks took up nearly as much of the novel as the present time viewpoints, and I’m not a huge fan of flashbacks. That being said, these flashbacks were written well. I was never confused as to where or when I was, a problem I’ve run into with many books in the past.

The ideas behind the novel are very engaging, and Breq’s character most of all. She is–or was–an AI, capable of simultaneously inhabiting the bodies of hundreds, or even thousands of captives at once, allowing her to not only serve the crew herself as a ship (She is not allowed to be her own crew.), but also maintain a presence on a nearby planet. We see much, much more of this in the flashback chapters, which makes them absolutely critical for an understanding of her current situation, where she had been broken off from the ship, and is trapped in a single one of the bodies she once inhabited, reducing her to something nearly human.

Her struggle, an attempt to take revenge on the person–a term I use loosely here–who did this to her, has consumed her life since this event, and we meet her as she nears the point where she will have all of the tools she will need. Her drive for revenge is what pushes the novel along.

However, I feel that it gets distracted in places. The flashback chapters start out by simply showing us the world–fascinating through the PoV of an AI, but still mostly exposition–and I had a hard time getting through the first part of the book. Also, Breq takes some side-trips on her journey to attain the items she needs that I didn’t see any reason for in the plot, which frustrated me. I felt the book itself could have been shorter, and would have benefitted from it, mostly from a pacing perspective.

The ending was simultaneously satisfying and annoying. Ancillary Justice is the first book in a planned trilogy. The second book, Ancillary Sword, comes out on October 7th, less than two months from now. Ancillary Justice doesn’t tie up as many threads as I was hoping it would, but it does seem like it will fit well into the context of the trilogy. I’ll be getting the other books as they come out. I’m hoping the second book will be structured a little differently, with more action and less time on flashbacks. I can’t say much more about the ending without spoilers, so you’ll have to read it yourself to understand what I’m saying.

No review of Ancillary Justice would be complete without talking about the “pronoun thing”. In the language of the Radch, In which Breq thinks and speaks, all sentient beings are referred to as “she”, regardless of other considerations. This becomes apparent when Breq is required to interact with those outside of the empire, and often becomes confused by which pronoun to use. She notes that it is easier to just use one, and that it is often confusing to try to distinguish male and female among the many species which inhabit the galaxy, many of which have different visible sexual dimorphisms, or at times none at all.

This use has been praised by many in the SF/F community as progressive, and it is one of the reasons why the book has won so many awards over the past year. I personally found it to be an interesting–if distracting–world-building element an the beginning, which blended into the universe by the end of the story. I would be very interested to see how they would handle this in a movie or television adaptation of the series, where the viewers would have visual cues on the genders of the characters.

Verdict: Well worth the read, and I have no problems with Ancillary Justice winning the awards it did (Though I was pulling for The Wheel of Time for the Hugo.), as it was well written and contained some absolutely brilliant ideas. I found the flashbacks to be info-heavy, the pacing sometimes slow, and the ending slightly dissatisfying (Though it’s the first in a series, so it’s understandable.). The characters were well written, and the central conflict seemed very realistic. I’d recommend, but it’s not at the top of my list. Four out of Five stars. It’ll be interesting to see how Ancillary Sword does in next year’s awards.

Links:

Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Sword