Sunday, July 28, 2013

Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie

Before They Are Hanged (The First Law, #2)Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Format: Audio (from Audible)
Narrated By: Steven Pacey
Original Publication Year: 2007
Genre(s): Fantasy (Epic)
Series: The First Law (#2)

I really really want to give this 4.5 stars. It's not quite 5 stars for me but very close and, I think, a step up from book one.

In book two of The First Law series all of the main characters embark along the new paths that were begun at the end of book one. There are three main storylines. Baez, Qwai, Logen, Ferro, Longfoot and Jezal (I apologize for any misspellings – a hazard of listening to the audio) are headed to the edge of the world on Baez’s mysterious mission. West and The North Men are with the Union’s lamest Army ever in Angland completely unprepared to fight Bethod. Glokta has been “promoted” and is tasked with getting the Union’s colony of De Gosca ready to withstand an attack by the Gherkish while simultaneously investigating the unexplained disappearance of his predecessor in the role. Things are definitely getting more complex and dire for everyone.

I found that book one took me a little while to really get into and hooked but there is no such problem here and because of that, it is even more enjoyable than the first book. It has the freedom of jumping right into the story because the first book did such a good job of set up and introductions. I was well invested in the characters and anxious to see where they were going. I was surprised when the book ended because I was so caught up in the story and it didn’t feel like I had been listening for very long.

So what’s up with our favorite characters in this middle installment of the The first Law series?:
-Jezal has killed his first two men and been seriously maimed while enduring many other hardships. These experiences serve to mature him so he’s no longer slap worthy. However Abercrombie does a great job of letting his character grow while not entirely shedding his old self – he’s still basically rather self-absorbed and a vain snobby peacock but those less admirable elements are now balanced and his cockiness is gone.
-As soon as Ferro was introduced in book one, I suspected she might be a good, if not the only, match for Logen and indeed this book shows a friendship develop and then the evolution of some romantic entanglements. They are a good, if certainly unorthodox pair. Ferro is violent enough herself that she can handle Ninefinger's brutality, while Ninefinger's folksy wisdom and surprising kindness are a balm to her damaged soul whether she acknowledges it or not.
-Baez shifts from a Gandalf-like kindly old magician who happens to be able to rip people to pieces, into a seriously crotchety and arrogant mage who reveals that his motives may not be entirely pure.
-Glokta continues to be his snarky and ruthless self as he steps into a situation where he wields more power. He also continues to be a contradiction. He is disgusted by how the Union authorities treat the De Gosca natives and in fact seems disgusted by much of what the Union does but he still pursues his job working for the Union with diligence and energy. He is a man who thinks he is without feeling but demonstrates by his actions that he does indeed still have a heart. In fact, I’m a little disturbed by the idea that I have a bit of a crush on Glokta. Abercrombie really excels at writing complex characters and Glokta is a character that you hate to love. At least that’s how it is for me.
-West faces significant trials and tribulations when he is assigned to keep the crown prince from completely self destructing while playing General of an Army. He fails and ends up going through hell with the North Men and earning his own name. The incompetency of everyone besides West and Major Burr continues to be the theme of the campaign against Bethod.
-Logen doesn’t really get a lot of development in this book besides his liaison with Ferro. By the end though, he seems ready to face home and Bethod again.

Abercrombie seems to be fascinated with the duality or contradictions in a person’s character. Logen Ninefingers is the most explicit in that he basically has a split personality. Logen is an honest and wise man who accepts his violent life and his talent with death as a burden he wishes he could put down. But there is a part of him, the Bloody Nine, which revels in savagery and blood. Glokta does horrific acts with glee but in many ways he’s a better man than his younger self who was admired by all as a hero. West is by all accounts an admirable man except that he beats his sister. It makes his characters fascinating to read and speculate about. It’s hard to know how to feel about them sometimes. They are definitely the primary strength of the book for me.

I still struggled with the chapters focused on the campaign/happenings in the North. I like West and have warmed up to the merry band of North Men but this storyline lacks the spark of mystery or complexity that the other storylines do. That being said, it did get more interesting for me further along in the book.

Stephen Pacey continues to impress me with the reading. I noticed this time around that to voice Glokta, he reads any spoken dialogue with a strong lisp because of Glokta's missing teeth but when Glokta is talking to himself in his head or writing a letter he reads him without a lisp. A subtle thing but it further enriches Glokta’s character.

This is shaping up into a favorite series!

View all my reviews

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

Shadow and Bone (The Grisha, #1)Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Format: Audio (CDs)
Narrated By: Lauren Fortgang
Original Publication Year: 2012
Genre(s): YA, Fantasy
Series: Grisha (#1)
Awards: Abraham Lincoln Award Nominee

The setting is Ravka, a country reminiscent of Eastern Europe which has been engaged in war for 100 long years. Ruling the country is an ineffectual king and a mysterious and feared figure known as the Darkling, leader of the magical Grisha. Alina Starkov is an orphan who has grown up feeling sub-par in just about everything. The only bright spot in her life is her best friend and fellow orphan Mal who is as talented and handsome as Alina is plain and dull. Their lives are turned upside down when Alina comes to the special notice of the Darkling.

The lovely thing about this book is that it’s a tale you’ve read many times before but it feels fresh. It’s exciting to read something original, but there is also something immensely satisfying about reading an old-fashioned story told well. After all there is a reason tropes exist – they have proven across time to touch something in most people. However, they can feel tired and unoriginal if not done well. This book takes the average-boy/girl-with-an-important-destiny story and dresses it up with a number of mysteries. What is The Fold and how did it come into being? Who exactly is the Darkling? Most people’s magic if they have any reveals itself when they are a child – why does Alina’s manifest so late?

Alina is a great perspective character and I found it easy to slip into her skin. She has a wisecracking sense of humor and has spent much of her life feeling inadequate compared to others that she is not easily seduced by the power thrust upon her (though I suspect this will become an issue in future books in the series). The reader sees only what she does and as such I was seduced by the Darkling along with Alina and was just as taken aback when the story takes a darker turn.

And the story does take a darker turn. It is a book that is split tonally. The first half takes place in a boarding school for kids who can do magic (the Grisha) and has an almost Harry Potter-esque feel with Alina (the formerly powerless orphan) slowly finding her way and developing some unexpected friendships. Everything crashes down about midway through as truths are revealed and Alina must flee and undertake a quest. Both halves were equally enjoyable and it was nice to have some variety.

Overall impression of the book was a good one. This particular trope is a favorite of mine but it can so easily go wrong and I think Bardugo admirably avoided all the pitfalls and created a fresh and engaging story.

View all my reviews

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness I made my way down to Des Moines to catch Star Trek Into Darkness at the last theater in the area at which it is still playing.  It was a matinee and I thought that I'd have the theater almost to myself considering I was behind the times but the theater was pretty full.  We were all in for a treat!

My review has likely been unfairly influenced by that of Mark Kermode because the J.J. Abram's interview and Mark's review were what inspired me to exert some effort to go catch it in the theater.  And I think he was pretty spot on.  It's a fun race of a movie that never lets you catch your breath or think too hard about what's going on.  The action never stops which is fine because J.J. Abrams excels at presenting creative, flashy and fun action sequences.  It is, like the first reboot from a couple years ago, a newer and hipper Star Trek but one that keeps most of the core elements of the original series so the heart is not lost.

I think the biggest strength of this (and the first) movie is the casting which is essentially perfect. Chris Pine is not an actor I would normally associate with brilliant performances but he perfectly captures Kirk's mixture of swaggering bravado/arrogance and his overblown sentimentality.  I can't imagine anyone else playing Spock better than Zachary Quinto who is equally great as Vulcan Spock and more human Spock.  Simon Pegg is hilarious as Scottie, in particular in putting on the affected and absurd Scottish accent.  New comer for this film, Benedict Cumberbatch is amazing as the baddie, radiating menace, but a complicated menace that makes it difficult to interpret how we are supposed to take him. 

With such a great cast, Abrams is also able to squeeze in between or during the action sequences a good amount of character and relationship development so the film does not just feel like empty action.  I think one of the central purposes of the movie is to explore the development of and cement Spock and Kirk's relationship.  For those of us that have been fans of Star Trek all along, it gives us the opportunity to see how these two dissimilar people became not just a great team but deep friends.  For those who are not long time Trek fans it still gives the movie its interest and way in.

All in all I loved it.  It's not going to change my life or anything but it was great fun and left me wanting to see these characters and actors exploring the galaxy again in the future.  Hopefully that's in the works!  I should not that while I am a trek fan and have watched almost all of Trek's incarnations (haven't watched Enterprise, or made it all the way through Voyager and Deep Space 9), I am not a trekkie.  I mention this because it might influence how you might trust my review.

PS - One comment on a controversy associated with the film.  A lot of people have raised objections to a seemingly incongruous shot of Alice Eve's character in her underwear claiming that it was completely gratuitous and jarring.  I had dismissed these complaints as I figured that it was probably in some way helping develop Kirk's character as the leering lech that he is.  But upon seeing the film, I have to agree with the critics - it has no purpose beyond "Honk Honk...Let's look at this pretty lady in her skivvies" and its edited in such a way that's just awkward and weird.  Not sure what that's about but both Abrams and the producer (I think) have apologized and said that it was indeed a misjudged shot.  But one small niggle amongst a lot of goodness.

Anybody else seen Star Trek Into Darkness?  What do you think? 

P.P.S. Hello to Jason Isaacs!

Friday, July 12, 2013

Keeping the Castle by Patrice Kindl

Keeping the CastleKeeping the Castle by Patrice Kindl
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Format: Hardbound
Narrated By: NA
Original Publication Year: 2012
Genre(s): YA, Historical, Romance
Series: NA
Awards: None

I can’t remember where I heard of this book but one of the things that drew me in is this promotional blurb on the front cover: “Fans of I Capture the Castle will love this delicious confection” – Polly Shulman, author of Enthusiasm. I very much liked I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith and if this is indeed the book that Ms. Shulman is referring to, I’m not sure she actually read anything beyond the jacket description of Keeping the Castle. I Capture the Castle is a coming of age tale set sometime in the 1930’s told in journal format and having a lovely but rather melancholic ending. My reading comprehension may not be the greatest but the only things Keeping the Castle has in common is that it has the word ‘castle’ in the title and does feature a rather worn castle. So my first advice is do not let comparisons to I Capture the Castle draw you in – I think you will be disappointed.

In essence this book is a regency romance for the teen set. Althea is a young woman ready to martyr herself for her family and marry the first wealthy suitor that comes along in order to save said castle. Thankfully she’s very beautiful so she shouldn’t have any problems snaring someone that will do. Unfortunately nothing is ever as straightforward as it seems and complications ensue. But because Althea is a good girl who was willing to sacrifice her happiness for others she ends up making an unexpected love match with a fellow who also happens to be filthy rich. And yes, I just spoiled the ending but if you have read any regency-era romance you will see most of what happens in the book coming from a mile away.

First the good stuff. It’s a quick read and wasn’t offensive in any way. Indeed I think it might be an okay introduction to Regency Romance for a teenager if Austen or Georgette Heyer were a little daunting. It kept me curious enough about how the central couple would end up coming together that it drew me along to the end.

However it was pretty clear from the beginning that this wasn’t going to be a favorite. The initial clue was that I spent much of the first half of the book wondering why their poverty keeps them from feeding themselves but allows them to have horse, carriage and many servants. They have: a groom, cook, cook’s boy, butler, lady’s maid, house maid. And yet Althea must make all the pastries herself because the cook doesn’t know how (but Althea does?? How? Where did she learn and why can’t the cook learn?) and they must catch minnows out of the moat to serve guests at tea. What’s truly odd is that there are two awful stepsisters that live in the house that we are told are wealthy but who won’t share any of their money except on things for their comfort. Well, one would expect not having to eat minnows would be something on which they might shell out some of their money. In reality none of this matters, but the fact that I was obsessing and puzzling about it as I read suggest that I was not as engaged as I should have been.

My second major complaint was the male love interest. It is clear that he is meant to be the unconventional hero. We’re meant to see that though Althea thinks he’s rude and disrespectful it’s really just that he’s more honest and forthright (a true “man of honor”) than the ridiculous social conventions of the time allowed. The problem is, in reality he really is just rude, disrespectful and thoughtless regardless of time period and laxity of social conventions, so while he is not hateful I never really warmed up to him. The development of feelings between Althea and he happen mostly because the author tells us they do and not out of any natural or organic connecting of the characters.

In the end, it was okay. If you want to introduce regency romance to a teen girl, I think Austen or Georgette Heyer are the way to go but this might work in a pinch.

View all my reviews

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Llama Liaison

If llama liaison were an actual job I think it might be my dream job.  I met my first llama in College while doing an internship at a local city park/zoo.  Magnum was his name and I ADORED him.  I think I adored him even more when he made it quite clear that he barely tolerated me.  I would stand at his stall and chat to him and he would just stand there aloof, looking at me askance.  But while haughty face to face whenever we my co-workers and I would be cleaning out the other stalls, Magnum would serenade us with a strange cacophony of sounds from high-pitched whistles to low grunts.  He was, in short, amazing.

So the highlight of my evening last night at Blank Park Zoo's Zoo Brew was meeting the above friendly fellow (or gal...I didn't check).  He was quite pleased to be petted and cooed at and was cute as a button. I wanted to take him home with me.  Some day I hope to have a llama of my very own.  And maybe some baby goats.

So what's your favorite out-of-the-ordinary critter?

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson

The Name of the Star (Shades of London, #1)The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Format: Audio (CDs)
Narrated By: Nicola Barber
Original Publication Year: 2011
Genre(s): YA, Urban Fantasy, Mystery
Series: Shades of London (#1)
Awards: Edgar Award Nominee for Best Young Adult

Rory Devereaux is a Louisiana teenager who gets an opportunity to spend her senior year of high school in England. She chooses to attend a prestigious boarding school called Wexford, located in London’s East End in the White Chapel Area. Rory has the misfortune of arriving at her new school just as a series of grisly murders begin that seem to be copies of those by Jack the Ripper over a century earlier. While most of England is gripped by Rippermania, Rory is too caught up in adjusting to her new school to take much notice until she sees a man that nobody else can see on the night of the third murder. Suddenly, she is playing a central role in the investigation to catch the “new” Ripper.

Despite the fact that this wasn’t entirely what I expected (when I skimmed the back cover I assumed that this was a historical that took place during the original Ripper killings), I found myself quite enjoying the book. There is plenty to unravel and even if some of the mysteries can be seen a mile off some are quite surprising and all lead to a pretty interesting story.

One thing I frequently struggle with when reading young adult literature is trouble connecting with the characters. I didn’t have that problem here. Rory may be a little stereotypically “Louisianan” but she’s got a good sense of humor and is pretty believably teenage but not in any kind of annoying way. There are some points where she acts in a somewhat unbelievable manner to steer the plot but there is a pretty effective attempt to explain the actions and they aren’t ignored, which deserves some credit.

Nicola Barber’s reading is a little rough at first mostly with Rory who occasionally sounds vaguely Australian rather than Louisianan. But she eventually settles into the voices and overall does a good job.

In the end, this was a fun enough read and while I’m not chomping at the bit to start book two in the series I do plan on getting to it eventually.

One final comment is that this also wins the award for most oddly misleading cover.  There is only one minor character with red hair and as far as I can remember no one ever where's a top hat.  So what exactly is going on on the cover?

View all my reviews

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

The Blade Itself (The First Law, #1)The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Format: Audio (from Audible)
Narrated By: Steven Pacey
Original Publication Year: 2007
Genre(s): Fantasy (Epic)
Series: The First Law (#1)

If I had to sum this book up in one sentence: A brutal, dark book employing multiple perspectives to tell a story of violence and political intrigue with a touch of fantasy that is surprisingly hilarious and often poignant. Of course that really tells you very little but it should evoke a superficial comparison with at least one very popular fantasy series being written (hopefully) today. It did remind me quite forcefully of Game of Thrones but it definitely has its own unique voice and spirit. And (view spoiler)[ all the main characters remain intact at the end of the book (hide spoiler)].

There are three main perspective characters: Logen Ninefingers a barbaric Northmen who has a reputation for brutal violence, Sandan Glokta a twisted, crippled agent of the inquisition who makes his living investigating (aka torturing) traitors of the Union, and Jezal dan Luthar a spoiled, arrogant young nobleman training for a contest of sword play. Both Logen and Sandan slowly reveal more depth and quickly become intriguing narrators and even Jezal occasionally surprises. There are also a few secondary narrators: Dog Man one of Logen’s former compatriots who keeps the reader informed of what is happening in the North, Major West, a common born soldier of the Union who has risen quite high and Ferro Maljinn who doesn’t appear until midway through and who appears to be a former slave who is obsessed with vengeance. All these characters are being caught up in a world crisis that is just being revealed at the end of this first book in the series. At the center of this crisis is the Arch Mage Bayaz. If this all seems a little confusing it is because a lot happens in the book and it is difficult to summarize succinctly. It is also, I think, most enjoyable to experience the twists and turns with as little warning as possible!

It took me a while to warm up to the book. It’s very masculine and starts off with a few far flung threads that hardly seem related and none of which are terribly enjoyable. Glokta is torturing his way through the merchants of the Union capital city of Adua, Logen is off in the North and goes in search of Bayaz after almost losing his life in a battle with “flatheads”, and Jezal is lazily training for a fencing match between daily bouts of drinking and carousing. There is little to connect them and the characters start off as less than engaging.

However, as the story slowly unfolds and the disparate threads start to become entangled the book became more and more engrossing so that by the end I was anxious to jump right into book two. This building of tension and interest is done really well and with few exceptions the characters become more and more fascinating. Jezal was the only character who didn’t improve upon further acquaintance but his day may be coming. I also really appreciated that though the tone of the book is quite dark it is balanced with a pervasive snarky humor. It remains throughout a very masculine book – there are only two women that feature in the story with any prominence and that prominence is very limited – but this stopped bothering me about a third of the way in as the narrative picks up speed and interest.

The only complaint I had worth mentioning is one that is a frequent problem with multiple perspective books focused on a spread out story. There are going to be certain storylines that just aren’t as interesting and therefore feel like getting through them is a bit of a slog. The time spent with Dog Man and the Northmen was less interesting storyline for me and the chapters spent with these folk, while rare, felt a little unnecessarily long.

The narrator Steven Pacey was also really great. In particular he gave a perfect voice to Glokta who is missing many teeth and who has a particularly sly humor. We also hear Glokta’s thoughts quite a bit, contradicting what he’s saying, and Pacey narrated this in such a way that it was never confusing.

Final verdict is that this is a surprisingly enjoyable book despite its darkness and I think I will be jumping right into book 2 Before They Are Hanged. 4.5 stars

This was my first Joe Abercrombie and I was duly impressed.  What authors have you been glad to newly discover lately?  If you are an established Joe Abercrombie reader what do you think is his best book?  Is it fair to characterize some books as being particularly masculine or feminine? 

View all my reviews