Saturday, September 4, 2010

Review: Throne of Jade, by Naomi Novik

Did I enjoy Throne of Jade as much as its predecessor, Temeraire? If anything, I enjoyed it more. I loved it so much that yesterday I made my ever patient boyfriend drive me to a city nearly two hours away so I could purchase the next two books for twice the price than if I got them from Book Depository, because I want to read them right now, not in 7-15 days!
Reviews of those two will be forthcoming, I'm sure, but for now let's talk Throne of Jade. (Probably you should read Temeraire before you read this). The plot is basically this: China wants Temeraire back, preferably sans Laurence. So it's off to China with Laurence and Temeraire, where they hope to convince the emperor to let Britain keep Temeraire.
Let me first point out a two ways in which I think this book could have easily faltered. First, the depiction of the Chinese and their culture was of course going to be tricky, especially considering that our POV man, Laurence, it not favourably disposed to the Chinese AT ALL. (The are trying to remove him from Temeraire's company, after all). But Novik does a good job of contrasting China to Britain and highlighting how strange everything is to the Western characters without ever sinking into, 'gosh, look how silly these Chinese people are!' Some of the Chinese characters are portrayed negatively, but its never because they are Chinese. The insertion of Dragons into Chinese culture also felt very authentic, and far more natural than the British dragons in book one.
The second trap that I am glad Novik avoided is a common trope in books like this. Almost every character in this book is devoted to separating Laurence and Temeraire. How easy it would have been, and how predictable, to have a miss-communication or misunderstanding that does indeed separate the two, until they triumphantly overcome the obstacle. Yawn yawn yawn. The relationship between Temeraire and Laurence in this book is deeper than that trope (which I hate, without exception). There is a moment where it could have come into play; Temeraire is inexplicably absent when Laurence desperately needs him. But, but, wait for it, Laurence gives Temeraire a chance to explain and, oh my god, get this, Temeraire explains! Wow!
It was very gratifying to see Laurence and Temeraire's relationship develop. In the first book there was definitely a feeling that Temeraire was a child and Laurence an adult, but as Throne of Jade plays out we see the two slowly become equals. Temeraire starts to establish who he is outside of Laurence and, instead of seeing this as some kind of abandonment, Laurence is supportive. What I'm saying is that one of the most realistic and healthy adult relationships I have ever encountered in fiction is here, between a man and his dragon.
The plot, while I may have made it sound simple, is very exciting. Storms, sea serpents and murder attempts abound, and unlike in the previous book there is quite a few character deaths. There was also a fight between two dragons, which played out very differently to the multi dragon battles we’ve already seen and was a thrill to read.
Ultimately I felt that this book nimbly sidestepped the potential pitfalls that faced it, and has left even more eager to continue reading the adventures of Laurence and Temeraire.

How did I get this book? From book depository 

Friday, September 3, 2010

Review: The First Law Trilogy, by Joe Abercrombie

Reviewing this trilogy seems a little pointless, as it seems like I was the last person on the planet to get around to reading it. But! Maybe not! Maybe, like me, there are a few of you still out there who held off, maybe because you avoid hyped books, maybe because you avoid trilogies, or maybe, like me, because you avoid barbarians. Barbarians! Rarely do I find a character more boring or predictable than if he’s a bloodthirsty, scarred, possibly with a secret heart of gold, barbarian. It’s bad enough when they pop up as secondary characters, but to start a trilogy with a barbarian as the main character? No. Thank. You.

But a rare book shortage and a rainy Sunday afternoon led to me finally giving Mr. Abercrombie a try and, what a shock, turns out all the glowing reviews were on to something. Ironically my favourite thing about the trilogy quickly became Logan, the barbarian who had kept me away for so long. Nine parts awesome self depreciating humour and practicality, one part terrifying blood crazed beserker. He’s a complicated fellow, to be sure, and I doubt few authors would have had the skill needed to create him. The rest of the book’s cast are equally impressive, painted in enough shades of grey to please even the most jaded pallet.

The plot, if you pull it out of the book and examine is almost laughably standard. Eclectic group of adventures are led on an adventure across the globe in search of a Mystical Artefact™. But frankly the plot could be young boy discovers he is a wizard and attends school of magic and Abercrombie’s excellent prose would make it sound fresh and new. He also delights in taking the reader’s expectations and twisting them. Oh ho, you think the dashing young hero is about to best his foe? Whoops, no, shield butt to the face! Think those two crazy kids are gonna find a way to make their love work? Ha, she stabs him the face!
It was refreshing, but I have to say I think Abercrombie took the idea of subverting fantasy tropes a shade too far and started to subvert the whole idea of a narrative. Which probably sounds pretty cool to some people, and I know a lot of people enjoyed the trilogy, but for me the last third of the final book did a lot to ruin my (immense) enjoyment of the previous volumes. (I’ll keep it spoiler free, don’t worry)

Let’s set aside for now the fact that ‘Last Argument of Kings’ suffers from a case of the never ending ending. Think the final Lord of the Rings book, where everything gets wrapped up but then we’ve got to win back the shire and that’s done but whoops, now we’re off to catch a ship… If the reader is starting to think, ‘just finish already!’ that’s probably not a good sign. But I know I wouldn’t have minded the dragged outness of it if each page wasn’t sucking the good will right out of me. I don’t require or even want happy endings to all the books I read, but what I do want is some character development. If character A has not changed a bit by the end of the book then what was the point of anything?

And everything seemed to be going so well. Slowly and naturally over the course of the first two and half volumes each character was growing as a person. Selfish Jezel learned a little humility, ruthless Ferro was starting to show faint traces of mercy, it made for compelling reading. And I guess is was Abercrombie’s biggest subversion of all. Oh, look, the silly little reader thinks the characters are going to come out of this as better people! We’ll show her! He proceeds to spend the last chunk of the book completely reversing what character growth there has been, so that every character ends up being pretty much the same flawed and unlikable person they were at book one’s start. Where he spent an entire book subtly changing a characters outlook or establishing their world view, he undoes with a handful of forced paragraphs. Frustrating? Ah, yeah, just a little.

The best way I can put it is to say that Last Argument of Kings felt like the second to last volume in a series. That book where the characters reach their lowest, where things seem their bleakest, before the eventual well earned and triumphant success of the last book. And yes, I know that Joe ‘The Subverter’ Abercrombie clearly didn’t want to do what the reader expected but dude, give us something! (At the very least he could have explained what the hell was up with Logan’s “Bloody-nine” blackouts….)

I can’t not recommend this series, because the writing and characters really are fantastic. And while the ending was definitely not to my liking, I can’t deny that it made me think and really consider what I expect from a book, and why. On the other hand, I don't know that I'll be picking up any more Abercrombie books any time soon.

How did I get these books? I bought them