Land of Laughs by Jonathan Carroll

December 31, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

This is the only read one book I’ve read so far by Jonathan Carroll, but I’m going to go ahead and make an announcement. I think he’s one of the five best–possibly the best–character writers in the science fiction / fantasy genre today. That may be bold based on reading his first novel, published back in 1990, but my other candidates for the position really only hit their stride in one or two books.

Land of Laughs is a modern fantasy. Many would probably call it magical realism, but fairly or not I associate that with very arch, heavily symbolic, opaque writing and Carroll has written a very intimate and personal narrative. Of the characters that we actually meet there are only three that are important (I make that initial distinction because there are two unseen characters who in the past influenced the three important characters very strongly) and these Carroll draws so well I never detected a single wrong note. I didn’t give the book five stars because the plot is good but not mind-blowing, but the fact I had to think about it really shows how strong Carroll’s writing is. He has an advantage over genre fantasy or SF since his characters live in our world, in our time (actually slightly in the past now due to the book’s age) and he makes the most of it. The characters came to life to the point that if it weren’t for the fantasy aspects of the plot I wouldn’t be sure that it wasn’t a true story, and that is about the highest praise you can give a book of this nature.

Riddle-master Trilogy by Patricia McKillip

December 30, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

It is often a feature of mediocre fiction that the most memorable characters are the villains. There are a lot of reasons for this: often the villain is driving the action, gets the cynical and sarcastic lines, and does interesting things like tortures people. But there’s a more subtle issue: it is much easier to write a sadist character or a power-hungry jerk than it is to write a genuinely wise character. Even a truly friendly character is difficult to do realistically.

I found it very interesting that in the Riddle-master books, the villains hardly get any screen time and when they do, they tend to be disguised through various means as wise and friendly characters. McKillip has built a world that feels alien not because of magic or customs but because it seems almost entirely populated by wise and friendly people. In Lord of the Rings Tolkien kept his villains generally off screen, but their malevolent presence always weighed on his characters and thus the reader. Further, even if, say, Sauron is not physically present his agents often are and, failing that, the Ring embodied his evil.

In Riddle-master vast stretches of narrative pass without any contact with the forces of evil, such as they are. This sounds like a receipe for boredom, and in a lesser author it would have been. McKillip does such a nice job on the primary characters that she gets away with it. That doesn’t mean I wish there was a little more narrative urgency, or more of a sense of human failings in the peoples of her world, but she makes it work when it really shouldn’t. I believed in her people and her world. While I can go back and nitpick about a thousand things in her world-building, I can’t argue with the results: I was fascinated by the story and cared about the main characters and their problems. Riddle-master isn’t a masterpiece, and the publisher makes a mistake perhaps in comparing it to Tolkien on its omnibus cover, but it is a fine story that will not disappoint those who enjoy well-written fantasy.

With the recommendation out of the way, I’d like to also add a note about the title. I wasn’t so sure going in that I was excited to read about a master of riddles, but while McKillip seems to have thought very carefully about the philosophy behind “riddling” it turns out what I and probably you think of as riddles don’t really feature. It’s especially surprising given in her recently written introduction she cites the book’s riddle contests as a clear Tolkien influence. But in The Hobbit Bilbo and Gollum play a riddle game involving genuine riddles–short poems that force you to identify a concept or non-Proper noun using some unconventional characteristics or semantic wordplay. When McKillip’s characters deal with riddles they are really dealing with history through the filter of trivial pursuit. “Who won the crown of Aum from Peven?” is not a riddle, it is a question. What she is talking about would be much more accurately called loremastery, not riddlemastery. This isn’t a problem–in fact it was more of a relief not to have to deal with silly rhymes and such.

Reread: Black Sun Rising by CS Friedman

December 26, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

I reread this while on vacation and, going in with somewhat low expectations, I was happy with the book. Friedman’s writing here is kind of rough at times and her characters suffer from a bit of authorial imperative (neither of the two primary characters really have a good reason–or at least, a reason we are showed convincingly–for undertaking their dangerous quest). The real star is the world she has created where capricious magic on a lapsed colony world takes the fears and horrors that lurk in the subconscious and makes them real. It would have been easy to have a disastrous Freudian expedition here (Forbidden Planet comes to mind) but Friedman thankfully avoids this temptation and sacrifices true psychological complexity for a fascinating society built around coping with these conditions. For all of its problems, it comes together as a fun adventure across a very interesting world.

I have to make special mention of the character of Tarrant, who is probably the most reader-expoitive character short of Card’s Ender. Look at the online reviews for this book and you will find just a ton of people who can’t get over how cool Tarrant is. Part of the reason I reread this was in hopes of understanding the mechanisms that cause people to get near obsessive. Basically, Tarrant is powerful, intelligent, and “evil”. As such he gets the best lines, but Friedman isn’t exactly subtle in painting him in as a heart-of-gold sort of guy. So you end up with Han Solo crossed with Darth Vader. The key is except for once, before the reader really knows him, Friedman never shows him doing anything more evil than some kill-one-to-save-many moral calculus. Beyond that, she just writes a smart character, which isn’t easy–he has some genuinely impressive moments–but she doesn’t exactly break new ground in this area. The good news is she does a much better job with the bad-but-good stuff than she did in In Conquest Born and it doesn’t get in the way of appreciating the novel’s strengths. This isn’t a great book but I recommend it for genre fans.

Gun, With Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem

December 23, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

This is a book which has received a fair amount of critical acclaim, but I can’t say that I was very impressed. Lethem isn’t the first, nor the last, to meld SF with the “hard boiled detective” genre. Instead of building off the detective theme, the way Brin does in Kiln People, Lethem is content to simply execute it. While he is a strong writer from a technical standpoint and does a creditable job with the narrative voice, I felt like bored with the main character before I got through the first ten pages. Perhaps someone who is more of a mystery novel fan wouldn’t feel the same way, but I suspect the typical mystery reader has slogged through dozens of these types of narratives themselves and may not be so impressed either.

If you strip away the narrative voice, there are three areas left for the novel to impress: the characters, the plot, and Lethem’s vision of a dystopian future. The characters are butressed by the dialogue, which is probably the novel’s strong point. Unfortunately the characters generally spend more time throwing snarky remarks back and forth than talking about anything of real substance. The main character has a number of quirks and flaws that never seem particularly relevant to what is going on. Most of the other characters get comparatively little attention, and no one changes over the course of the story. The plot is the weakest point of the novel. It is never clear what is motivating the main character, and his method for solving the mystery is more Law and Order than Sherlock Holmes: he spends very little time on analysis and mainly rudely confronts every named character in the apparently justified hopes they will tell him what he needs to know. The mystery itself and its resolution are standard fare. The most interesting parts of the book are those that deal with the future world. Lethem has fun with genetic engineering, but the real meat of the novel is in the depiction of a society pacified with drug use. The comparisons on the cover to Brave New World are rather unfortunate. While Lethem’s ideas are similar, they are even less plausible and somewhat superfluous to the plot. I would have prefered more fleshing out of the world and less of the running in place detective story.

I don’t want to spoil it but I also felt the ending was very poor. I suppose I’ve been quite negative but while this isn’t a bad book per se I really don’t see why it got so much attention, first novel or not. I’ll probably give Lethem another try eventually, but so far he’s yet to impress.

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