Lord Darcy, by Randall Garrett

July 28, 2012 at 11:46 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction, Mystery) (, , , )

9/10

It might well be suspected that many of the readers who find their way to this forgotten compendium traced from the pages of Analog are attracted to Lord Darcy principally (or solely) because of the dazzling lure that is Garrett’s deeply intriguing setting. Followers of The Fourth Person will realise that this reviewer seldom discusses the plots or settings of any books, save in the most general terms, or when they are particularly fascinating. The universe in which Garrett chooses to write is based in an alternate timeline, but also in an alternate scienceline. The two chief conceits are the domination of the western hemisphere by the Plantaganet dynasty, and the replacement of science with magic. Successful (and unsuccessful) books have been written in alternate timelines; and of course magic is a common trope invoked by science fiction and fantasy writers (although the excellently thought out relationship between magic and science in Lord Darcy is of the best and finest sort, very much like Susanna Clarke‘s peerless debut novel).

“‘According to the chief sorcerer at the Weather Office, your lordship, it isn’t due to break up until five minutes after five o’clock in the morning.'”

-Lord Darcy

Randall Garrett, however, manages to astound readers from the very outset by combining two interesting and piquing scenarios in a deucedly bold and daring array. He then crowns his well-baited hook with his pièce de résistance, and writes a story that would have been quite appealing and readable even outside of his exotic settings. Popular alternate history writers like Harry Turtledove or Robert Harris tend to fall apart when they spend so much effort crafting intricate “what if” scenarios that they forget to tell a good story; when they drag on for entire fictional eras and epochs and leave only the outline of their conceit, without anything to remember it by.

Garrett is pleasingly subtle, and while readers might have cause to complain that they are left with an unsatisfactory level of closure as to the vile machinations of the wicked Casimir, or without adequate exposition of the centuries of Plantaganet rule, they will be unable to complain that they have been ill-entertained. His mysteries are fun, and make no pretentions of aspiring to serious literature.He presents instead droll and exciting mystery stories: last of which is a charming recasting–or tribute–or mockery (it is sometimes difficult to tell) of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.

“‘If either of you moves,’ said Lord Darcy calmly, ‘I will shoot him through the brain. Get your hands off those blade hilts and don’t move otherwise.'”

-Lord Darcy

Brief and simple as they are, his stories are written with considerable skill and due attention, and the temptation to make every crime either a deus ex machina with magical means and magical solutions is well avoided. Indeed, he ought to be doubly commended for his meandering parallels between his magical forensics and realistic early twentieth century forensics: ne’er the twain meet, and often they diverge, but there is always some measure of nearness between his fiction and our fact. This is a book in which everything good about it is at a slight distance, as it were. Never is his reader treated (or consigned) to an over-near examination of his history, his magic, or the writer’s own slightly smug cleverness. It has been said that nothing can spoil a story like too much exposition, and Garrett bears this up magnificently, providing us with a peripheral glimpse of an amazing world, and whisking it away while leaving that rarest of things: a fully satisfied reader yearning for more.

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The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson

July 7, 2012 at 13:24 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, War and Politics) (, , , )

9/10

This book was particularly difficult to rate. There are parts of it which are exciting, original and lively; expertly-written fantasy and fascinating characters with penetrating depths to their vivid personalities. However, the book does have some serious problems to it.

It is a very slow book, and much longer than it needs to be. Like other novels setting up long, multi-volume sagas, Sanderson can be excused in part for both the claudicant start and for the length, but he fails to write much more than an introduction in a thousand pages. There are two main story arcs, but neither of them are finished at all, and neither of them have nearly enough closure to justify the stilted pace of the story.

“According to legend, the Shardblades were first carried by the Knights Radiant uncounted ages ago. Gifts of their god, granted to allow them to fight horrors of rock and flame, dozens of feet tall, foes whose eyes burned with hatred. The Voidbringers.”

-The Way of Kings

Many of Sanderson’s action-oriented passages feel strongly like descriptions of the mechanics of a video game. Notable examples include his (admittedly deeply interesting) shardbinding magic, or the manner in which characters draw stormlight from spheres. The shardplate (a rare and highly-sought suit of regenerating armour, whose pieces can only be shattered by powerful weapons striking the same plates repeatedly) is one of the more awkward examples. This is a strange and distracting feature in the book. Perhaps in the future this influence from video games (and particularly game mechanics) will find its way into more books and become expected. Here it feels out of place, which is a shame, as these aspects of the story are central to the plot.

Sanderson should be commended for his fluent writing and easy style, and also for his creativity and vision in moulding a detailed and rich world without at any point reverting to dry or encyclopaedic prose. His heroes and villains alike are delightful (if not particularly complex) and he balances a clever line between being willing to make tragic sacrifices and avoiding cheap pathos at the expense of a high and unnecessary body count.

“‘Tell them,’ Kaladin continued, voice firmer, ‘that it won’t end here. Tell them I chose not to take my own life, and so there’s no way in Damnation I’m going to give it up to Sadeas.'”

-The Way of Kings

He initially has a noticeable problem with introducing his characters solely through narration: this character, he tells us, is known for being incredibly witty and intelligent. This character is brave and noble. For the reader, there is no incentive to believe him, and it takes a while before he settles down and actually demonstrates his characters’ attributes rather than explain them. He is also a master of the anticlimax: several of the painstaking reveals at the end of the book are released with a fanfare of trumpets, only to fall disappointingly flat. Several of his more intriguing mysteries are explained in an offhand way, and are considerably less exciting than he initially promises.

For readers of modern fantasy, this book is one of the freshest and most exciting in years. It compares very favourably with Patrick Rothfuss’ recent series, in length, complexity and creativity. The Way of Kings ends up with a more coherent, a more memorable, and a more vibrant plot, with a clearer sense of direction than Rothfuss. There are obvious teething problems that will hopefully be addressed in future volumes, and the book could easily have been some three hundred pages shorter without sacrificing content or depth. But it is easy to digest and an effective and exciting entry to a series that will hopefully go from strength to strength. It is difficult not to forgive its inadequacies, and readers are guaranteed satisfaction.

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The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell

July 4, 2012 at 19:25 (Book Reviews, English Language, Historical, Literature, Mediocre Books, Philosophy, Theology) (, , , )

5/10

The Hero with a Thousand Faces has been somewhat misrepresented of late, not least due to its immense impact upon so many authors and storytellers. But it is not a manual of story structure, nor an analysis of such; nor even is Campbell’s monomyth a blueprint for fictional writing. Campbell’s promise to distill and analyse the stories told across the world and through history is neither a scientific survey nor even a chronological view of the progression of literary heroes. Far too specific (and occasionally frustratingly myopic) to be very scientific, Campbell appears mostly as a somewhat slavish echo of Freud, and obsesses over a narrow selection of stories that apparently support his conclusions most convincingly.

His chapters (and the stages of the heroic journey that they describe) are peculiar things: vague and elusive enough to apply readily to the handful of stories he uses as examples, but strict enough to bear out some stern conclusions, and some strangely ubiquitous and overwhelming ideas about the universal human psyche.

“…the way to become human is to learn to recognize the lineaments of God in all of the wonderful modulations of the face of man…”

-The Hero with a Thousand Faces

In spite of its popularity, it is not an easy book to read. It consists of three types of writing: firstly, there are lofty and grandiloquent rhapsodies about the transcendent universal mind, and the evolution of the dream world, all of it very Freudian and fuzzy. Secondly, there are immense recapitulations and quotations of ancient and classical and modern stories, cleverly and neatly clipped and trimmed into the shape Campbell wishes for them to appear. Finally, there are occasional gems of insight, and throwaway lines nested within the reams of clunky, unattractive scholarly mess; not axioms, necessarily, nor even well-developed enough to be theories. These flickers of interpretation are often interesting, but seldom revelatory and never poignant enough to make up for the waffling that goes on all around them.

This book is as much a comparison of world religions as it is a survey of myth and mythology. It frequently feels like Campbell is ill-informed about everything except his incredibly bold assertions, and that he is simply making things up. It would be hoped that if he was, then he would write something a little more interesting. Largely uninformative, needlessly esoteric, and depressingly reliant upon early twentieth century psychology, this book does not deserve its reputation, although it might deserve a few hours’ attention from patient readers.

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