Category Archives: Fantasy

“The Gunslinger” by Stephen King

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I had heard great things about The Dark Tower series, and even tried to read this once before, long ago, but abandoned it.  Tried again with the audiobook version and made it through … but I’m still not a fan and will probably not be continuing.  For most of the book I was pretty lost – there isn’t a lot of backstory or explicit “world building” to let the reader know what’s going on.  It’s mostly a lot of flashbacks that the gunslinger Roland has on a journey to find the man in black.  The best part was towards the end when we get some answers on what the Dark Tower (which for unexplained reasons is the gunslinger’s real destination) really is.

Somehow the Dark Tower is a link between universes; not only parallel universes to our own, but also up and down in scale.  We can observe down to a subatomic particle level; each atom is like a cluster of galaxies itself.  If we go up, our own universe may exist on the tip of a blade of grass or within a grain of sand existing in a higher-up universe.  Somehow the Dark Tower pulls all these things together.  There are things and people from our own universe somehow teleported or stuck into Roland’s wasteland; for instance there is a boy Jake who the man in black killed, or saw being killed in our world (hit by a car) and then he was transported alive and well into Roland’s path.

The universe thing is kind of a neat idea.  Also in the book is kind of a hint of an interesting post-apocalyptic world that has “moved on” – everything is dirty and dreary and mostly miserable in Roland’s world.  But despite this, the storyline in this first installment was hard for me to follow and didn’t really draw me in; I was barely able to make myself finish the thing.

“Viriconium” by M. John Harrison

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First off, let me say that these are some weird stories.  The world of Viriconium might be our own… after millions of years and the rise and fall of countless civilizations.  The current population is at about the medieval level, but in the not too distant past (the “Afternoon Cultures”) they were even more advanced that we are today, to sci-fi-ish levels.  Kind of a fascinating scenario, ripe for incongruous things like knights re-discovering ancient ruins of spaceports and such.

But then, the actual stories are … pretty weird.  Kind of cheesy horror stories almost, but wrapped up in a great setting and with some very high-falutin’ language.  (Kind of reminiscent of Mervyn Peake.)  The edition I read is actually a collection of (I think) 4 different short novels and other short stories, but I was only able to make it through the first two before losing steam.  (I have a completionist personality so since starting this blog I have forced myself to slog through to the end for almost every book I start; but I dunno.  Life is short, and no one is going to read this anyway.  I do think what I read here was worth writing about though.)

“The Pastel City” – the first story is pretty straightforward, kind of a “get the gang back together again” to fight off a new threat.  It’s kind of cool that we know nothing about the characters at the beginning (as goes for any book … duh!), but there is such an incredible implied backstory hinted at for each that the reunions really have some force.  The main guy is the brooding warrior poet, tegus-Cromis; one main buddy is Tomb the dwarf, a treasure hunter with a wearable robotic exoskeleton warmachine.  They were buddies of the old king, now dead, gathering together to protect the throne of his daughter from rebellion.  The war soon moves to something bigger – oh dear, turns out the enemy has unearthed ancient technological golems which kill and steal brains.  In the end, we find out that they were actually not monsters, but simply following programs which called for harvesting the brains of fallen soldiers so that bodies could be regenerated.  (Not sure why their programming included killing the victims first; maybe a bug induced by something many millenia ago?)  Tomb is able to regenerate some long-dead soldiers from the Afternoon Cultures; they start to be called Reborn Men.

“A Storm of Wings” – the second story is quite weird.  Really.  Giant insects come from the moon causing a weird merging of dimensions and general insanity and other bizarre effects.  On both sides actually — people go crazy morphing into insects and the insects go crazy (presumably) whilst morphing into humans.  (The morphing never goes so well, so we have a bunch of pathetic yet dangerous monsters, basically.)  For whatever reason, the Reborn Men are the first to go crazy.  There’s also the ghost of an airship astronaut trying to communicate a warning throughout; in the end he crashes his ship into the queen insect (I think?) and saves the day.

I told you it was weird.

“The Book of Lost Things” by John Connolly

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David is a boy in WWII England who loses his mother and has trouble adjusting to his new stepmom and baby brother.  He ends up in a pretty dark, twisted fantasy world run by Rumplestiltskin.  Who is very evil and bad and eats children.

Kind of weird twist on familiar fairy tales overall.  But well written and an enjoyable read.

“The Ocean at the End of the Lane” by Neil Gaiman

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The story is a flashback: a middle-aged Englishman revisits his childhood street and recalls events which happened when he was seven.  Of course, since Neil Gaiman is the author, these events are supremely supernatural, weird, and not entirely explainable.  The boy’s new nanny turns out to be an other-dimensional being which considers mankind an amusement at best, who hitched a ride by burrowing into the boy’s foot and up into his heart.  And she’s actually pretty benign compared the the “cleaners” or “varmints,” whose role is to clean up entities from other planes of reality who don’t belong it their current locale.  With all the scary stuff out there though, luckily old Mrs. Hempstock and her granddaughter Lettie (both eternal despite their apparent ages) are vigilant in their defense of humanity.

“The Way of Kings” by Brandon Sanderson

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In earlier days, I used to read a lot of “epic fantasy” – multi-volume, 1000 page monsters.  I became a little disillusioned with the genre when I concluded that often these novels are written in such lengthy manner simply to sell more copy.  The worst offender in my mind was The Wheel of Time.  I starting reading that series shortly after it came out, so I had to frequently wait for the next installment.  Eventually, at about book 6 or 7, I decided I had lost track of everything so I reread from the beginning, taking notes by hand (this was before the days of Internet wikis…).  Through this process I realized that for several books, almost no plot movement occurred whatsoever.  The characters were pretty much in the same state as they were at the end as they were at the start.

So that turned me off of the Wheel of Time (still haven’t finished it; only mildly curious at what happens — but I’ll probably troll the wikis rather than read) and I guess the genre in general.  I would compare these fantasy epics to an episodic TV show rather than a concise movie.  I prefer good movies to TV shows too, for the same reason – shows just seem so drawn out, and the interesting points could easily be consolidated into a shorter format.  Quality, not quantity!

Anyway, I didn’t really know anything about The Way of Kings except that it reviewed well, and that I enjoyed Sanderson’s Elantris, which was a good, concise, single-volume fantasy novel.  But lo and behold, Sanderson apparently caught Wheel of Time fever while finishing off the series after Robert Jordan’s death.  The Way of Kings clocks in at 1000 pages, and “The Stormlight Archive” is planned for 10 volumes (of which 2 are written).  Yikes.  I’m not sure I can commit to that, Brandon!

For the record, I did think it was an entertaining bit of world-building and a decent plot.  (A bit long of course; Kaladin’s story arc in particular repetitively flogged an expired equus.)  The armies of the kingdom of Alethkar are besieging the Parshendi on the Shattered Plains, an expanse of plateaus separated by deep chasms.  Six years earlier, a mysterious assassin in white killed King Gavilar of Alethkar for unknown reasons, but the Parshendi took credit (even though they were friendly or neutral towards Alethkar up to that point) without revealing a motive.  The Parshendi are only vaguely similar to humans; they have dark red-marbled skin, have a connected consciousness and appear to have a tribal, primitive culture.

Kaladin – Most of the chapters are devoted to Kaladin, a slave who is forced to work as a bridgeman, carrying long bridges across the Plains so that the army can cross to the next plateau.  The life expectancy of a bridgeman is pretty short due to the arrow-equipped Parshendi not caring to let them cross over.  Kaladin rallies his bridge crew, intent on proving to himself that he can protect them, despite failures in shielding his dead brother, squad mates in the regular army, and fellow slaves during an escape attempt (these incidents are related only briefly in flashbacks).

Dalinar – Gets the next largest chunk of chapters.  A highprince of Alethkar, and brother to the dead king.  Obsessed with honor and uprightness, which is not such a bad thing.  Gets visions during highstorms, which teach him about the past but also provide plenty of mystery.

Shallan – young woman, talented in sketching, apprenticed to the scholar Jasnah (daughter of Gavilar).  She and Jasnah spend the book in Kharbranth, researchin’ stuff.  And she tries to steal Jasnah’s Soulcaster.  Shallan has some shadowy family backstory that isn’t covered in much depth – next book, probably.

Szeth – the assassin in white.  He only gets a handful of short chapters, peppered throughout the book.  But interesting.  He’s Shin which is kind of like Chinese.  He is an expert surgebinder and possesses a shardblade, so is pretty deadly.  However, he feels incredibly guilty about killing and just wishes someone would kill him.  He is bound by an oathstone to do whatever his master asks (his master being whoever holds the oathstone), and is forbidden from taking his own life.  He calls himself “Truthless”; the meaning of this title is not explained.

Voidbringers – evil shadowy creatures, bent on destroying mankind.  Their assaults are termed Desolations, which occur cyclically throughout history and typically wipe out most of the human population.  In past Desolations, the Voidbringers have always been beaten back by the Heralds and/or the Radiants.  Might be minions of someone called Odium.

Heralds – small group of semi-divine beings who led the early fights for humanity against the Voidbringers.  The got tired of the fighting and gave up, apparently.  Later their role was replaced by the Radiants.

Radiants – heroic knights, armed with shardblades, shardplate, and surgebinding powers.  Defended humanity against the Voidbringers.  Something made them give up the fight (luckily after the Voidbringers were defeated, I think?) — they abandoned their shard-stuff and walked away.  I think this event happened at the end of the last Desolation . . . so now humanity is unprotected, and the next one is coming.

Shardblades and Shardplate – super powerful swords and armor, passed down from Radiants.  Only about 100 exist; hoarded mainly by kings and princes.  A single shardbearer is an army unto himself.

Soulcasting – a means of transmuting substances, by artifact or other means.  Has something to do with an inverted parallel world to Roshar called Shadesmar.

Surgebinding – techniques used by Radiants to change the direction of gravity for themselves or other objects, and also move super-humanly fast (maybe they really are slowing down time?)

Stormlight – magical essence created by the violent storms which frequently pass over the whole of Roshar (with more effect towards the epicenter in the East).  Stormlight is stored in gems, which are used mainly as currency  but also as light sources and sometimes as a kind of battery for Radiant powers.

Spren – spirits which reside in pretty much everything.  Different emotions, or physical phenomena have their own distinct species of spren, eg. “windspren” or “fearspren.”

 

The “reveals” at the end all seemed a bit rushed:

<spoiler>

  • Parsheni/Parshmen are enslaved Voidbringers
  • The king of Kharbranth is killing innocents in an attempt to divine the future.  So far, he’s determined that the Last Desolation is very near.  He’s the latest master of Szeth’s oathstone, using him to destroy kings and rulersso that he can rebuild a strong society, prepared for the horrors to come.
  • Kaladin has Radiant powers, which have something to do with Syl, a windspren(?) which follows him around and seems much more sentient than normal spren.
  • Dalinar’s visions are warnings “recorded” from the Almighty, the god of Roshar, who reports that he has been killed by Odium (I guess the Almightly didn’t really die, but somehow became “one” with the storm but is not longer as powerful as he once was.)

</spoiler>

“Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” by Susanna Clarke

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The traditions of English magic stem primarily from the Raven King, a shadowy figure who emerged from Faerie (kind of an alternate dimension) around the 11th century, established and ruled the Kingdom of Northern England by the power of magic and fantastical armies.  He ruled for 300 years and then disappeared, seemingly taking most of the magic with him.  Some magicians remained and tried to preserve things as best as they could.  But, by the early 1800s, magic was all but dead and most “magicians” were simply men interested in the old books of magical history.  One real magician remained, the socially awkward and cantankerous old man Gilbert Norrell.  Norrell is simultaneously striving for a return of English magic, while at the same time hoarding all the useful magical texts and techniques for himself.  The reasons are unclear, but probably he is deathly afraid of the consequences of serious magic in misguided hands.

Jonathan Strange stumbles into magic almost by accident, but a strong innate magical sense quickly establishes him as Norrell’s peer.  First Norrell’s student, Strange later becomes his rival due to a reckless eagerness (in Norrell’s point of view) for the general return of magic.  (Which really is kind of interesting, since Norrell’s summoning of a Faerie King, who becomes the main villain of the book, to help impress the English government was indeed reckless.)  In the end, Strange decides that to really understand things, he must make himself insane.  The funny thing is that he’s right and it works — maybe this says more about the nature of magic in this book than anything else.

I really enjoyed the depiction of magic.  It’s always full of mystery and at least a bit dangerous.  It’s not so much fireballs and magic wands, but a somewhat uncontrollable tapping into a real power, much larger than the magician.  I think my favorite instance is in the first part of the book, when Norrell makes all the statues in/on a cathedral come alive and speak, all at once.  One of them just repeats over and over the details of a murder it witnessed centuries ago, and has obviously been waiting for its moment to publicly condemn the perpetrator.  Another good one was the creation of wind and rain ships outside of French ports, to make them think they were blockaded.

Really a good read, although I didn’t really like how the ending wrapped things up (or rather, failed to wrap some things up).  Some really funny dialogue and memorable characters.  The main villain, the Faerie with the thistledown hair, is suitably crazy and frightening at the same time.

 

“Gormenghast” by Mervyn Peake

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And so we return to Gormenghast.  Mostly the same characters as the first novel, this second entry in the trilogy is quite obviously the main event.  Really, the two are the same story; the first sets the stage and readies the reader for Titus’ crisis in book two.  Whereas the first book was mostly funny and a little dark, “Gormenghast” is the opposite: mostly dark and a little funny.  The main source of comic relief is again of Prunesquallor origin, but this time from Irma and her expedient fiance, the Headmaster Bellgrove (not appearing in book one).  The Doctor still has some great lines of dialogue, but he is in more of a supporting hero role and the reader is forced to take him more seriously than before.  Still love the guy, though.

Anyway, there’s a very excellent chapter on Irma’s party she throws for all the Professors, in the hopes that she can woo one of them in the course of the evening.  She’s determined to snag a husband; Bellgrove gets wind of this and he in turn becomes determined to be that husband; both of them are so desperately inept yet so formal that it is simply hilarious.  Soon after their marriage, reality sets in and, with all quirks exposed, their life together does not turn out to be all that they (independently) imagined.  [Yet isn’t that the case with all marriages?]

But in any case, Irma and Bellgrove are but a sidenote to the primary storyline:  the struggle within Titus between fulfilling his destiny as the 77th Earl of Gormenghast — last in the ancient line; required to fulfill an endless round of ritual and ceremonies, whose meaning has largely been lost to time — versus his desire to be free to explore the wider world and to make his own role within it.  I believe this is the same struggle that drove his father insane.  Titus, as a boy, subconsciously gives wings to his desire for freedom by running away from the castle a few times, but is able to avoid much consequence due to his young age.  At the very end of the book, he makes his decision final and goes for good.  Adventures of Titus to be continued in part three, presumably….

Steerpike also features heavily in “Gormenghast.”  His ambition has blossomed into an obsession for power at all costs and with no consideration of morality whatsoever.  Steerpike is the arch-fiend, with well-laid plans; yet he overreaches and makes a few critical mistakes, small yet enough to bring everything crashing down.  There’s a pretty gripping ending to the book dealing with the good guys hunting down the murderer Steerpike in the flooded castle; surprisingly action-filled for such a usually slow-paced, poetry-laden novel.

Just a note on this particular edition:  I didn’t think the new illustrations in this were anything special, but art isn’t really my thing.  If I were a book-buyer (as it is, I am strictly a library-only cheapskate) then I would think the older, not-so-illustrated edition would do just as well.

“The Family Trade” by Charles Stross

Miriam was found as a baby next to her murdered mother.  She knew nothing of her birth family until much later.  Turns out she is from, and can travel back and forth to, a parallel universe.  The geography is the same and the history has some vague similarities, but it is much different.  The alternate world is stuck in the middle ages.  The Clan, a mob-style organization, controls import/export between the worlds — there are only a select few in the Family who possess the genetic trait that allows world-walking.  They are fabulously wealthy by selling our technology on the medieval side, and smuggling drugs on our side.  There are some very complicated politics going on that I (and Miriam too!) don’t fully grasp; unfortunately for Miriam the likely outcome is a violent end since several factions want her out of the picture, as she had been for 30+ years.  She is the heir to a major line of the Family.  Also we discover there is a THIRD world that nobody knows about; they have been sending assassins after Miriam too.   It’s almost comical that there are so many people gunning for her that we can’t tell who is behind what scheme.

This is definitely the start of a trilogy (or more); many strings are started and none wound up in the end.  Miriam needs to evade assassination and figure out what’s going on; also she is determined to bootstrap the medieval economy of the other world by finding some more legitimate way for the Clan to use their powers for good and still come out on top.

Kind of a cool scenario.  I wish I could world-walk.  But not if people would kill me because of it, I guess.

“The Paper Grail” by James P. Blaylock

I’ve been wanting to read something by Blaylock for a while — he’s often mentioned in the same breath as Tim Powers, and I loved The Anubis Gates and (somewhat less) Declare — but sadly I’m a bit disappointed in “The Paper Grail.”  It’s really not bad; I just think that my expectations were too high.  My main complaint is that there is a lot of “weirdness” just for the sake of being weird.

Howard Barton, a small museum curator in Orange County, California, travels up north to Mendocino County, where he spent some time as a youth with his aunt and uncle.  He comes in order to secure for the museum a rare Hokusai sketch owned by one of the aged residents he knew back then.  Quickly it becomes apparent that the sketch is more than it seems, and Howard becomes swept up the struggle to keep it away from the forces of evil.

The main draw in the story is the clash between the normal everyday and the supernatural weirdness that lurks just under the surface, just about everywhere and in everyone.  As an example, my favorite character is Uncle Roy.  He’s always got a money-making scheme cooking, whether it be a ghost museum, selling scrap redwood lumber, or setting up a haunted house for Halloween.  His planning and scheming is pretty hilarious sometimes.  These business endeavors inevitably fail due to lack of planning and pie-in-the-sky thinking, but Roy remains perennially optimistic.  The other side to Roy is that he apparently leads the loose-knit band committed to protecting the grail.  His army of allies always comes through and saves the day.  Turns out he’s got success where it really counts.  Perhaps his bumbling persona is a bit of a facade?

Like I said, there is a lot of weirdness for the sake of being weird.  I wouldn’t mind it if it all made some sense and were explained in the end, but it isn’t.  I guess that might be the point though – can’t explain the supernatural, that’s why it’s not natural.  😉  Specifically these aspects of the story were not explained enough to my liking:

  • What’s up with the Gluers – commune hippies who glue small objects to cars – and the recurring Humpty Dumpty images?  Late in the book someone says how the grail causes those nearby to compulsively “put things back together” a la all the king’s men, but that’s just about the only clue I saw to explain it.
  • Jimmers’ machine conjures up the ghost of John Ruskin … why him?  The machine is somewhat a source of interest and driver of mystery throughout the story, but it turns out it doesn’t really serve a very important purpose, IMHO.
  • Two things about the grail don’t really jive with the traditionally powers and description of The Holy Grail.  For one, it is a paper origami cup – did they even have paper back then?  And the grail’s sole power seems to be weather control and the ability to call up great storms … why?  What happened to the whole King Arthur / Indiana Jones immortality bit?

“The Call of Cthulhu” by Howard Phillips Lovecraft

Quite a famous short story.  (Not a book perse … but, hey, gotta pad my 2011 “books read” numbers before the end of the year!  🙂  Also this is the first book I read entirely on my fancy new Android phone via Aldiko reader … nice to be able to read a few minutes in the grocery store line, another few waiting for the baby to fall asleep, etc.  But I digress.)

The first person narrator discovers a letter from his recently late (suspiciously so) uncle detailing the investigation into a strange, secret, ancient cult that seems to exist in similar form across many cultures, from Greenland to cajun Louisiana.  Furthermore, several creatively-attuned individuals simultaneously experience, for a few days, a bout of strange dreams and visions of ruins with impossible, odd-angled architecture and a huge, horrible, tentacled, mind-bending monstrosity.  The narrator continues his uncle’s studies and tracks down what happened during those days – deep in the South Pacific, a luckless steam ship crew are accidentally witness to the culmination of the cult’s existence – the reawakening of Cthulhu, one of the ancient gods of the world.  Whether the Earth’s sanity may be preserved is undecided at story’s end, but seems to be intact for the time being.  Cthulhu can afford to take his (its?) time…

I liked Lovecraft’s consistently creepy writing style – somehow there is a sense of foreboding and impending doom wrapped up in each sentence.  Some choice quotes:

“I will tell its gist enough to show
why the sound the water against the vessel’s sides became so
unendurable to me that I stopped my ears with cotton.”

“There was a bursting as of an
exploding bladder, a slushy nastiness as of a cloven sunfish, a
stench as of a thousand opened graves, and a sound that the
chronicler could not put on paper.”

“I have looked upon all that the universe has to
hold of horror, and even the skies of spring and the flowers of
summer must ever afterward be poison to me.”