Sleeping in Flame by Jonathan Carroll

February 25, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

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

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.

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.

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