Soldier in the Mist by Gene Wolfe

February 27, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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Gene Wolfe cements his role in my mind as the greatest living author of science fiction and fantasy (and one of the best of any genre) with another very strong book. More so than some of his other fiction, Soldier in the Mist is a high concept character piece (at least, I think–more on that in a minute). The main character, a soldier in the Pelopennisian Wars of ancient Greece, has sustained a head injury causing him to forget everything after the battle and continue to forget everything except the past fifteen hours or so. Luckily for him he is literate, and Soldier in the Mist is the record he writes for himself so that he can achieve some sort of continuity in his life. Did I mention his condition, being similar to the blindness and madness traditionally associated with religious vision, allows him to see and interact with the Greek Gods and Godesses? Well, it does. Complications ensue.

What most impresses me about Wolfe is the way he frequently uses the first person yet every narrator comes off as a unique person. That is what I most enjoyed about this book, which out of honesty I have given four stars even though I strongly suspect I would rate it five stars if I knew just a little more about ancient Greece. I will probably pick up a lot more the second time through…whether or not Wolfe books are your favorite SF, I think most people would agree (though they might see it as a negative) that the layering of the prose rewards rereading to an extent almost unique in the genre. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who finds Greek myths or history interesting. Everyone else is also advised to read it, though they might want to start with some of Wolfe’s more famous work first.

Sleeping in Flame by Jonathan Carroll

February 25, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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Jonathan Carroll is an extremely frustrating author. Previously, my poster child for the frustration I had was Neal Gaiman. It’s not surprising they are connected this way, since Gaiman frequently cites Carroll as an inspiration. However I would say that Carroll is twice the writer Gaiman is, and at any rate Gaiman shut me up by (badly in my opinion but others disagree) trying to reform with American Gods. With Carroll, my frustration isn’t that he’s not trying to write a book of signifigance, because I think he ultimately is, but that he apparently pays such little attention to the plot. The closest analogue to this book I have read is China Mieville’s King Rat, but that book was far more cohesive, even if the characters were less well drawn. Here as always Carroll is a master when it comes to characterization. No other author makes me buy into a book’s characters the way I do for Carroll’s. However, I just don’t care about the plot. The characters of the book also have an attitude toward pseudoscience I found distasteful. There was a line that particularly underscored this that I won’t quote verbatim, but essentially a character muses that what they really need as “a good tarot reader or an astute palmist”. For the sake of a book I will go along with the author on a single bit of ridiculousness. In other words, I’ll spot you tarot if I have to, but tarot and palmistry? And the character did not mean that as a complete list, but was instead referring to the spectrum of lame “alternative” science. Of course, this would have been swept aside if I had been enjoying the plot rather than keeping myself interested by scrutinizing the characters and how they thought. Ultimately I can’t give a writer with Carroll’s obvious talents less than three stars even though I found this the least successful of the three books of his I have read to this point. Fans of the magical realism style will probably enjoy this, but if you haven’t read Carroll before start with Land of Laughs (and, perhaps, consider stopping there as well).

Bones of the Moon by Jonathan Carroll

February 5, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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There’s nothing more frustrating than reading a book by a promising author that squanders his or her talent. Unfortunately Bones of the Moon is such a book. After finishing Land of Laughs I was convinced Carroll was one of the best writers currently working in the SF/F field. Now I’m not so sure. His first novel was excellent, almost brilliant, but that was 1980. Meanwhile, this, his third novel, is for me a massive disappointment. Despite an extremely solid high concept and some very provocative underlying ideas, the book is a failure. I give it three stars because the wreckage of a Carroll disaster is better than many genre author’s best. This remains an interesting read, but know going in not to expect a story that is satisfying in any way. I don’t know if I can express just how disappointed I was…there’s a masterpiece here, but Carroll either could not or simply did not create it. Why I can’t imagine…either he simply is not as talented as I think or, more likely (and possibly more depressing) his gifts for character and lyricism have left him more interested in tone, imagery, and dialogue beats than the mechanics of a plot. Whatever the reason, Carroll will have to prove to me he can produce another strong story, but his undeniable talents will force me to give him many more chances.

Mallorean by David Eddings

February 2, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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Eddings’ Mallorean is the worst kind of sequel: one that not only disappoints but diminishes the original work by its very existence. This does not build on the Belgariad in any way but is more of the same. Usually this is tolerable in followups to good books, but not here. The original was much too long to begin with so there was no need to expand even further upon it. Rather than taking the opportunity to revisit his world a chance to add much-needed depth, Eddings adds breadth. More characters, just as paper-thin as the original set, are added, more none-too-distinctive locations are added to the map so they can carefully be reached by the same sort of laborious plot token-enforced guided continental tour, and more racial stereotypes are thrown in for good measure. The only time any new ideas are expressed they contradict what was established before. For example, the most foul-tasting aspect of the original which I somehow forgot to mention in my review, the dehumanization of the Murgos, is completely waved away here in bizarre fashion, as if the author belated realized that events leading up to and including the American Civil War have rendered such attitudes out of style and hoped no one would notice if he just slipped them out. Other strange aspects, like the nineteenth century wink-blush attitude toward–gasp–sex, remain. Eddings seems to think that he’s somehow being profound if he involves destiny in his work, but after accidentally leaving some shred of suspense as to what was going to be happening in the Belgariad, here he mercilessly explains in advance everything that will happen and then spends five books making it so. In short, the series represents everything that is wrong with the plot mechanics and narrative depth of modern trash fantasy. So why three stars? Well, it is really a two star affair, but the inertia of the fifty to a hundred good pages of writing Eddings has ballooned into ten books still leaves me feeling magnanimous despite this hostile review. I give the Miles books four stars for being lighthearted procedural romps, so this gets three stars for being a fantasy version of the same thing, just more poorly executed. As one last shot across the bow of these books, let me mention that it is truly amazing that books that are so vacuous when it comes to their ideas could say in the author biography in the back that the author wrote his fantasy “to develop certain technical and philosophical ideas concerning that genre.” If I ever find out Eddings was responsible for that bio I’m going to knock this review and the Belgariad review each down to two stars out of spite.

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