Thursday, January 28, 2016

Review: Thief's Covenant

Thief's Covenant Thief's Covenant by Ari Marmell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Light but fun. A lot of the problem I originally had with style sort of blew away when I realised this was supposed to be young-adult fiction. Not that that would excuse bad writing, but it wasn't bad just...flippant? The dialogue reads like action-movie one-liners - unrealistic but kind of amusing.

Marmell has an odd habit of referring "back"to things he hasn't mentioned yet. Phrases like "the mountain of a man" make me think "Oh? He's big? I must have missed that in his original description..." But then I page back to where we first met the character and read forward to realise that no, it was never mentioned before. Similarly phrases like "as blunt as his weapon", which I genuinely wondered about being sarcasm, since I didn't know anything about the character having a weapon at all, but most we'd had mentioned so far had been sharp. No, turns out this guy uses a hammer and the reference makes perfect sense - once we're actually _told_ that he uses a hammer, which is _after_ the quote.

Overall, it's a fun romp hung around a classic rags-to-riches-to-rags fairy tale.

View all my reviews

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Review: The Mongoliad: Book Three

The Mongoliad: Book Three The Mongoliad: Book Three by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this book, and it's predecessors, particularly because of some of the characters. I want to write about some of the things that didn't work for me, and why. I don't really consider them to be spoilers, because it's mostly about things that never happen, appear to me mostly irrelevant to the plot, or things that are spelled out in the book itself very early on. Nonetheless, if you don't like to know _anything_ about a book before reading it, you should probably stop here.

So some things that didn't work. As I've mentioned in earlier reviews in the series, there are too many characters, which makes it hard to engage with some of them. But at least they mostly stay together in one of four main clumps of story, so it's easy enough to keep track of them. The problem is, at least one of these storylines - the papal elections in Rome, introduced in book 2 - never converges on the other three, nor does it appear to be connected to them in any way. It has some great characters in it, but none of the characters appear to even be aware of the existence of anything in the other 3/4 of the book, nor vice-versa. You could chop this entire plot out and it would be impossible to tell that anything had been removed from what was left. What's more, this separate little plot doesn't even come to anything like a conclusion. We never find out who the new pope is. Fieschi never pays for his crimes in any meaningful way, nor does he achieve anything with his plotting. It doesn't even progress in any particularly logical fashion; the cardinals come up with a cunning plan for why Rodrigo is now irrelevant, and then Fieschi goes to a huge amount of effort to try to recover him anyways? Why? You just declared him irrelevant, remember?

There are some slightly jarring holes in the other three plots too. One group of our heroes sleeps in the saddle, gets route advice from a master trader, takes a dangerous shortcut - we basically get their drive for speed hammered into us all across 3 books - and then arrives at their goal at least a couple of weeks after one of our other heroes, who left after them, and travelled in a cage on the back of a rickety old cart. One group of our heroes plans for weeks, smuggling spies into an enemy camp to recruit allies to help with their master plan... which is apparently to throw a spear at the badguy? You needed a plan for that? And allies? It all goes pear-shaped, and the allies end up being useful, but the original plan was apparently to chuck a sharp stick.

Another thing that didn't really work in this book was the two khans. We have two "villains" in these stories, named Onghwe and Ogedei. Our heroes are trying to assassinate them both, so it's important that we be able to keep them separate in our minds or the two plots will get muddled. The names are historical, so there's not much you can do about them, but you can at least go to some effort to set them apart as different personalities, to make them easier to distinguish. Instead, we get a detailed portrait of one... and the other is essentially not depicted in any of the three books, except as a shadow behind a curtain, until the final climax of book 3. Then he suddenly appears as a mighty warrior, but we know almost nothing about him, so he's just a boss fight that we don't really care about.

One last aspect of these books failed (for me, at least) not because it was badly-done, but because it was a hard task to begin with: the balance between the two sides in the conflict. What the authors do really well is to characterise both mongols and christian knights in a way that you can empathize with, even where you might not particularly _like_ the character in question. And this works, right up until you pit the two sides against each other in direct conflict. How am I, the reader, supposed to feel when someone who I like and resepect finally meets someone else who I like and respect, and cuts their head off? Maybe that's what they were going for: the jarring realisation that good people die. But it doesn't make for great storytelling.

Overall, I found the books enjoyable but flawed.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Review: Labyrinth of Evil

Labyrinth of Evil Labyrinth of Evil by James Luceno
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was fun, but heavily bogged down by the baggage of being a Star Wars book.

The story, almost by definition, couldn't go much of anywhere. We know what happens before, and we know where it ends up. Nothing can be resolved because nothing starts resolved in the next movie. It makes Annakin's slide a bit more gradual than just watching the films, but even in that case the book has to start with "already sliding" and end before it actually gets to any interesting values of "slid". So it ends up with some nice backfilling of character details, and some decent action scenes but not much else. Annakin is still a petulant uninteresting child, and Obi Wan appears to have been reduced to comic relief, but a number of the side characters get some interesting fleshing out.

Speaking of the pitfalls of being a Star Wars book, there are a few consistency problems in here that kind of annoyed me. I'm not one of those details fanatics that writes a tirade on the internet because the main character's childhood pet had the wrong name on an irrelevant picture frame in the background somewhere, but I do like things to be internally consistent. At one point this book contains a history lecture that includes someone infiltrating Count Dooku's _cadre_ of multiple apprentices, while discussing his training of Grievous, and his (or possibly Sidious') training of someone called Ventris. And Dooku's own training at the hands of Sidious along with Darth Maul's before him. And then the book tells me - with a straight face, in the very next paragraph - that there are never more than two Sith in a generation: a master and an apprentice. What? You've just listed like a dozen! I can forget the details of my own breakfast given half an hour, but even I notice when you contradict yourself from one sentence to the next!

And then I realised; the entire reason for that line - and indeed much of the history lesson of a chapter - is to placate the details nerds who memorised a line from Yoda to the effect of "Always two there are; no more, no less. A master and an apprentice" and decided it had to be literally true of the entire universe, instead of just meaning that a master trains one student at a time. The annoying inconsistencies in this book come from the author desperately trying to reconcile his story with every last obsessed-over detail of the annoyingly inconsistent movies and other books! He'd have been better off writing his own story where he was free to make stuff up; but then we're back to the baggage that comes with writing a Star Wars novel.

Luceno writes pretty well though, so I will read the next one, where he is at least less shackled by being wedged between two movies. Hopefully there the plot will be allowed to go somewhere.

View all my reviews

Monday, January 04, 2016

Review: The Mongoliad: Book One

The Mongoliad: Book One The Mongoliad: Book One by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Things I liked:

* Historical basis in the Mongolian invasions of 1241.
* A realistic feel to the descriptions of swordplay, _without_ it reading like an obsessive blow-by-blow written by experts whose descriptions I could barely follow. In short; good detail, but not too much of it.
* A couple of the characters (C'nan, Gansukh, the Flower Knight).

Things that didn't really work for me:

* Way too many characters to keep track of, many of whom didn't seem terribly important to the narrative.
* Some of those characters are also not terribly-well depicted. Two-line stereotype characters with a name, a nationality, and a favorite weapon, who might otherwise just be "Stormtrooper #19". This is probably a necessary consequence of there being so many of them, but...
* While I eventually got it sorted out, the background information didn't make it terribly clear which khan was who and what they were doing. At one point it seemed like half of our characters were setting off on an enormous journey to find... the same guy that one of them just popped over to see straight away? This wasn't true, and as I say I worked it out eventually, but it came down to the fact that there were too many indistinct characters... I appreciate the desire to avoid a history lecture and get on with this story, but I needed a bit more of the background to start with.

All in all it was a good book, and I'm already reading the second. But not a _great_ book.

View all my reviews