Friday, June 29, 2012

Review: Mozart's Blood, by Louise Marley

I never knew a book could be really interesting and not at all exciting at the same time until I read Mozart’s Blood. A year ago I would have made a joke along the lines of the book being too much like the classical music it revolves around; technically good but safe and a little boring. Except that in the past year I’ve actually put some effort into listening to classical music and now I know  there’s nothing safe or boring about it, so the metaphor kind of falls flat.

In any case, I’m fairly sure this new found appreciation for classical music is the reason that I found Mozart’s Blood to be such an interesting read, despite its faults. Octavia is a two hundred year old vampire who has devoted her life to opera (she performs as one singer for a natural lifespan, and then painstakingly builds up another identity when that ones “dies.”) The book shifts between her first (mostly human) performance, the first ever staging of Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’ and a current performance of the same.

I found all the backstage opera stuff to be really fascinating. The hierarchies and the vocal warm ups and the blocking, all of it. The author clearly knows what she’s talking about, her knowledge and confidence with the topic really shines through. I also liked that the other viewpoint character, the werewolf Ugo, explored another interesting world I knew nothing about; that of the castrati.

I think Marley did a really good job the characterization of both Octavia and Ugo. (Ugo especially was a delight, with a dry wit that appealed to me very much). There’s a real dearth of platonic relationships in fiction, so I’m always happy to see one done well. Their deep friendship is believable and established really quickly, considering the two only have a few brief scenes together before they are separated. And that’s the main plot of the book, Ugo and Octavia get separated, will they meet up before bad things happen?

The bad thing in question is Octavia feeding on a human. Ugo supplies blood for her intravenously, and all the suspense of the book is supposed to come from Octavia’s mounting hunger and wondering if Ugo will get back to her in time to feed her.

Except the suspense never really kicks in. For a start, why can’t Octavia just go out with a syringe and get her own blood? She acts as though it’s very difficult to do and she wouldn’t a clue where to start, as though only a very special type of blood can fill a syringe… And the issue is, even without this, there are too many vampire books out there for the reader to care if she feeds on a human. Vampires feed on humans, it’s the natural way of things, and Octavia’s angst about it rings hollow. I don’t want to tip into spoiler territory, so I’ll just say that a lot of her reasons behind feeding on humans (or not) are illogical.

Marley’s lack of skill in crafting exciting scenes becomes painfully clear as the book builds to it’s “exciting” climax. The reveal of a twist is handled poorly, and the pacing is completely off. The “big bad” that Octavia and Ugo must ultimately face down is laughable, and even they act like really it’s little more than a minor annoyance that needs taking care of. They don’t even disrupt their schedule to do it.

But despite all of these faults I really did enjoy this book. It was, as I said, very interesting although it’s a safe bet that your opinion on that will vary by how boring you think opera/Mozart is. If you go into this book for the vampire/werewolf angle you’ll be disappointed, but if you go into it expecting a slightly supernatural historical novel I think you’ll have a much better time. 

I bought this book 


Thursday, June 21, 2012

Review: Iron Council, by China Mieville

Had you told me when I first read Perdido Street station, when I was struggling to get my head around Mieville’s bewildering setting, that I would one day come to find Bas-Lag  a welcome and familiar place, well- I just would not have believed you.

But, here we are! After having to get used to the rules of Mievielle’s CultPunk London, and the wholly alien world of Embasseytown, returning to the world of Bas-Lag was nothing short of a relief. And not just Bas-Lag, but New Crobuzon! Iron Council never even approaches the heights of The Scar (come on, few books do) but it does have one thing going for it that The Scar did not: New Crobuzon.

The varied races living uneasily shoulder to shoulder, the grotesque remade, Dog Fenn and the Ribs, the militia, and looming over it all Perdido Street Station itself. New Crobuzon is every bit as surreal and heady here as it was in Perdido Street Station, and I loved the chance to explore the setting further.

There is no simple way to summarize the plot of Iron Council, but this is a Mieville book so surely that isn’t a surprise. One man, Judah Low, becomes (or is possibly possessed by?) some kind of saint. He joins a group of indentured remade and free railway workers as they steal a train (as you do) and flee with it across the wild and dangerous countryside. They are the Iron Council and exist in the minds of New Crobuzons as little more than legend. Except now Judah Low has set out to bring them back and tip the scales in a revolution against the city’s corrupt mayor.

Low is joined by an assorted group of followers. Most notably an angry young man named Cutter, who was the character I found most interesting. Whereas the others are following Judah because they believe in the Iron Coucil, Cutter believes only in Judah. He’s desperately in love with the man, even though the most he ever gets in return in a kind of absent minded affection that’s probably worse than nothing at all.

I found Judah himself to be pretty unlikeable. He’s a deft hand at conjuring and controlling golums, and he does have some pretty bad ass moments, but for all that he constantly comes across as vaguely weak. Where others are actively changing the course of history Judah hangs back just a little, keeps himself just slightly removed, stops himself from committing fully so if things go badly he can still get away. Plus the way he treats and manipulates Cutter left a bad taste in my mouth.

Having said that my favourite part of the book was an extended flashback in the middle told from Low’s point of view that dealt with the birth of Iron Council. This could have been a novel all in itself, and was packed with enough action and emotion to keep me more than happy.

Aside from this whole Iron Coucil business there as another story line featuring a young “revolutionary” (read: terrorist) named Ori. This plotline was interesting enough, but honestly I think it could have been cut completely from the book. I felt like its only purpose was to a provide a kind of “meanwhile, back in New Crobuzon’ element to the narrative, to stop the whole thing from being set in the wilds. But Ori’s actions didn’t have any real effect on the main Iron Council part of the plot, and it just seemed to go nowhere. Well, no, it went somewhere. Just somewhere kind of lame and unsatisfying.

Parts of this book displayed everything I love about Mieville’s world, but unfortunately other sections dragged the whole thing down. I would still recommend it, but if you’ve never read Mieville before maybe start somewhere else.

I bought this book 


Saturday, June 16, 2012

Review: The Last Page, by Anthony Huso

Because I am nothing if not timely I have finally got around to reading The Last Page, just as its sequel is being released. Better late than never right? I bought it when it was first came out because I'm sure I liked the sound of it, but that was so long ago that when I finally picked it up I couldn't remember a thing about it.

Actually, no, I remembered one thing. That while it was marketed as steampunk most people who read it felt the label certainty did not apply. Which sucks, because if steampunk was more like The Last Page, I feel like the genre and I would get along a lot better. This is what I've always wanted steampunk to be! Not a thinly veiled England full of eccentric geniuses and feisty ladies, but a dark and gritty fantasy world that just so happens to be powered by steam. (And zeppelins, natch). Well, steam and gas really. Steam, gas, and a dash of mathematics/magic. (A cool and original magic system, but then even real world maths seems like magic to me half the time). So I guess it can't be called steampunk after all. More like steampunk's moody older brother.

So, yes, the setting worked for me very well, but did the rest of the book? Mostly, yes. Huso has a distinctive narrative voice, and while I feel he stumbled with some of his metaphors I would rather an author push themselves a touch too far than not at all. I also like that the book had an almost modern air to it, much like Steph Swainstons 'Castle' books. Not many fantasy novels really embrace ideas like freedom of press, or really consider the logistics of keeping a kingdom fed, unless it pertains directly to the plot.

Ah yes, the plot. It's straightforward enough. Caliph Howl is a reluctant heir to the throne, and while at University he meets and falls in love (not sappy love though, more like too cool for love love) with Senna. Senna has a locked book, and she really wants to unlock it. That's the basic gist of it. Caliph has to fight to hold onto a kingdom he doesn't particularly want, and Senna has to unlock her book.

(Ok, brief asid, how cool is the name Caliph Howl? So cool.)

I really liked Caliph's character. Competent without being showey, compassionate without being boring. He's all poker face on the outside but storm of emotions on the inside, you know? Senna I did not like as much, although she was no less well done. I would have liked some more motivation as to why she wants to open the book so much, (aside from the power it would give her. Power is all well and good, but what does she want to do with it?) There are hints about it, and maybe it will be elaborated on in further books. Huso is good at hinting as opposed to spelling out, which is always good.

Unfortunately though I felt things fell apart towards the end of the book. Focus was lost, things just starting to happen in a haphazard way and I also started to get confused about what was happening with some plot points. Events occurred which seemed to be of great importance to the characters, but didn't seem that important to me. That kind of disconnect between book and reader is not a good thing.

This aside I do see myself picked up the next book somewhere down the line. There were still a lot of things to like about the Last Page and I will be interested to see where Huso takes it.

I bought this book


Sunday, June 3, 2012

Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N. K. Jemisin

A chapter into this book and I was rapt. I could see what all the hype was about and I was kicking myself for waiting so long to start reading it. But somewhere around the middle these positive feelings started to wane, and by the end I found myself unimpressed. I don’t think I’ve ever had how I felt about a book change so much while reading it!

What captured me at first with this book was the structure of it. I liked the way the way Yeine’s version of events kept getting interrupted by a mysterious other voice. One of my favourite narrative techniques is the unreliable narrator, and this other voice disagreeing with Yeine’s telling hinted that we were only getting one version of a much bigger story.

I also really liked the idea of the novel. For such a firm atheist, I’m hugely fond of gods as actual characters in fiction- chained ones even more so. God of night, Nahadoth, faced off against his brother and sun god, Itempas, and lost. As punishment he and the lesser gods who supported him have been forced to serve a single family for hundreds of years. As a result this one family has grown disproportionately powerful and rules over all the other kingdoms who don’t conveniently have enslaved gods to do their bidding.

The character of Nahadoth was fantastically done, in my opinion. The trouble with gods as characters is that it can be hard to make them seem sufficiently godlike. Too often they come across as just really powerful and capricious humans. Not so here. There’s something wholly alien and terrifying about Nahadoth. A god he may be, but he has also been a slave for centuries and I really liked how Jemisin portrayed the effect this had upon him. He also reminded me a lot of one of my all time favourite characters; Neil Gaiman's Morpheus. If Morpheus has been trapped in that circle for two thousand years instead of twenty I feel he might have ended up damaged and dangerous in much the same way as Nahadoth.

And Nahadoth wasn’t even the best of Jemisin’s god filled cast. Nahadoth's son and fellow slave Sieh was far and away my favourite. He was made in the image of a child and has remained so for centuries, although it’s never made clear whether or not that’s by choice or design. There’s there fantastic tension in him, between childlike innocence and the wisdom (and despair) of the ages he’s lived through. Certainly Sieh was the most complicated character in the book, and I would liked to have seen more of him.

Instead I had to slog through pages of Yeine. If Nahadoth and Sieh were rich, complex wines then Yeine was water. There was just nothing to her. No personality, no initiative, no spark. My decreasing satisfaction with this book can be wholly attributed to her. The entire plot of this book consists of Yeine going where other characters tell her to go, and doing what other character tell her to do. The other characters plot and scheme and act, she spends a lot of time hanging out in her room.

She was the leader of her people, a fiercely matriarchal society, but you would never guess either of those things from the way she acts. Leadership skills? Tactical thinking? Diplomacy? None in evidence. If she escapes danger its only because another character helps her, if she guesses at someone's motives it’s only because another character pretty much had to tell her. The book couldn’t have happened without her there, but in the same way that Raiders of the Lost Arc couldn’t have happened without the arc, or the last Harry Potter book wouldn’t have gone far without the Horcruxes. Yeine is a glorified McGuffin, an object to be moved around and used by the other far more interesting characters who make up A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.

The plight of Nahadoth, Sieh and the other god’s was engaging enough to keep me reading, and Jemisin does present an interesting take on ideas of sexuality and power. But Yeine’s character was so poorly done that it dragged down the whole book, and will probably stop me from ever picking up the sequel.

I bought this book