Yendi by Steven Brust

July 27, 2006 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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If you read my review of Brust’s Jhereg, which precedes this book in the Taltos series of novels (by publication order though not chronology), you’ll get a pretty good idea of what to expect from this book as well. Yendi is more of the same, but like many sequels it isn’t quite as well-executed. The plot doesn’t fit together quite as well and Brust’s rather rough hand with dialogue and characterization beyond the narrative voice makes a mess of the romantic subplot. There’s also a really poorly handled Shocking Revelation.

One thing Brust does well is he layers in a lot of hints at backstory without insisting on telling you everything. A lot has happened in these characters pasts, and occasionally its mentioned, but for the most part you don’t actually know any details. That can be a nice thing. However, Vlad Taltos is really kind of low on the totem pole in his organization, yet he’s got ridiculously powerful and influential buddies. And when I say buddies, I mean buddies. He hangs out with legendary figures, and as far as I can tell the only reason they give him the time of day is because they like being around him. He’s not a particularly smart or witty guy and his occupation is one they mostly find distasteful, so it’s hard to imagine how he has gotten to know such luminaries. I’m sure Brust has some backstory that will come up later in the series and that will show how reasonable it all is, but based on the material in this book it’s all hard to believe.

If you have to fly somewhere this book would make for a pleasant diversion, but like Jhereg this book is short enough it might not last the whole flight. According to Brust he tries to write each book in the Taltos series so that it can stand on its own (good thing, these older ones can be hard to find). That being so, there’s no reason to read this book unless you really, really like the others.

Teckla by Steven Brust

July 27, 2006 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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This is the third published Taltos book. The earlier two books were vapid procedurals. By the end of Yendi I was wondering if Vlad Taltos was the least self-aware protagonist I’ve ever read about. In Taltos Brust switches things up: there’s still a procedural detective story plot going on, but finally some larger issues are being raised. Taltos has always seemed like a suspiciously nice guy considering he’s an assassin, and finally Brust starts exploring the morality of the situation. In a sophisticated move, he explores the ethics of Taltos’ life while also examining the ethics of the empire in which the series takes place. Unfortunately, the political side of the book isn’t handled very well, but Brust makes up for it with much better character work than in Yendi. Brust has shown me enough that I’ll continue reading the series, but I would still recommend it mainly for fantasy fans who enjoy light plot-driven narratives. Try Jhereg and then this one and you’ll have still read less than a typical fantasy novel from the bookstore.

Jhereg by Steven Brust

July 25, 2006 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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This is a very lightweight fantasy procedural. It’s essentially a detective story, except it has an assassin for a main character instead of a policeman or a private investigator. You might not think those are equivalent roles, but Steven Brust disagrees. Vlad Taltos, the aforementioned assassin, finds that in order to kill his target he must first puzzle out what his target is trying to do, why he’s been hired to kill him, etc. In short, nothing short of a grand unified theory of the target is acceptable before killing him. I’m making it sound foolish but Brust engineers the story in such a way this makes sense.

This is a fantasy, so there’s some standard fantasy stuff going on as well. The main character has a familiar, virtually everyone can do magic of one kind or another, death is only permanent in the right circumstances, and there’s some sort of pseudo-feudal society. No elves or dwarves, thank goodness (not in this book at least), and for the most part the world building is handled well. The main character is a sort of low level functionary in a large scale, quasi-legitimate organized crime syndicate. Brust actually trusts the reader to pick up on some details through context and implication rather than spending page after page of infodumps, which is nice. Ultimately, though, the world building isn’t anything to write home about.

If you’re going to enjoy this novel, you’re going to enjoy the convoluted plot, the laconic first person narrative voice, and perhaps the fact that unlike modern fantasy novels this 1983 book is quite short. The good news is if you liked this, there are something like eight more. If you’re not interested in harmless beach reading, look elsewhere.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

July 23, 2006 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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Parable of the Sower is an unusual post-apolacyptic story. For one thing, there was never an actual apocalypse, just a slide into chaos. Forty years after the novel was written, the theory goes, civilization has for all intents and purposes retreated to fortified enclaves while the disenfranchised poor are left to fend for themselves amid the ashes of America. Meanwhile, the main character, a young girl growing up in poor but at least somewhat secure circumstances in southern California, writes free verse poems that she imagines might one day form a new, rationalist religion.

It should say something about the quality of the writing that, in my opinion, this is a very good novel and well worth reading even though the religious aspects are bunk and the setting is wildly implausible. The religion amounts to “God is Change”…God is a completely impersonal force that can’t be prayed to or worshipped, just coped with. As some characters actually complain, this is totally meaningless. It’s atheism dressed up with a couple words (i.e. God) used completely divergently from how they are supposed to be used. As for the setting, while the enclave aspect is plausible, her depiction of the anarachy outside them is absurd. There’s a never ending stream of people constantly killing and being killed and, apart from a couple vague mentions of gangs, absolutely no authority structure coalescing in the vaccuum. The lack of authority is virtually unprecedented in human history, and maybe there’s a case to be made–something about the decline of our culture that would cause it–but Butler doesn’t seem to think it is a controversial idea. It brings to mind the suburban idea that inner city gangs are “constantly killing people”. Ultimately as many people need to be born as are killed or else the cycle of violence will peter out instead of accelerate.

In spite of all this, the book works. Butler’s characters are very well drawn, the story, though a bit aimless at times, is reasonably interesting, and while violent anarchy is often a setting in books and movies it is rarely depicted in such an uncompromising fashion. Butler isn’t afraid to hurt her characters, though thankfully, unlike a lot of modern “gritty” authors, she doesn’t make us wade through long stretches of angst and grief. Her characters suffer and move on, because that’s the only kind of life they have ever known and can ever imagine. What the book lacks in realism it makes up for in impact. It’s not so much a vision of the future as it is a dream of the future, often fevered and nightmarish, but through it all still hopeful.

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