Wednesday, January 28, 2015

(Never tell me the) Odds

Right. I've finished a couple of books this week (astounding, really), so next up will be the epilogue of A Storm of Swords. Hit the jump to find out what I thought about Assassin's Apprentice, The Companions and a non-fantasy book about a certain movie I happen to love a long time.

I finished Robin Hobb's Assassin's Apprentice. It was a novel I felt I had to read as it is so often mentioned when the talk is all about fantasy literature. To be honest I struggled a lot with this one. It is well written, but it's so incredibly ponderous. In my opinion, the balance between suspense and the inner thoughts of the main character was off. Only toward the end of the novel did it feel like a story, while most of it - at a guess, the first 80% - is slow, plodding building of said character. This means that, at least for main character Fitz, characterization is top notch, if overwrought. I found myself glazing over text to get to something a little bit more interesting. His trips to town to meet the girl whose name I have already forgotten never seemed to end. Being trained as an assassin, you'd expect it to be exciting and dark and mysterious but most of the time the story dealt with Fitz' feelings toward dogs or his possible aptitude for the Force magic. Now it's an old yarn, first published in 1995,  a year ahead of A Game of Thrones, and I am sure it made quite a splash back then; in fact, in some aspects it precedes George RR Martin in terms of taking the vanilla fantasy flavor down to a more earthy, gritty tone.
No Elves and Dwarves y'all. More politics, more intrigue, but there's little story, and few intriguing characters beyond, perhaps, the Fool. The last 20% of the book is where the plot really begins, with the marriage of Fitz' uncle to a northern princess. The story also, for the most part, feels "distant" as it is written in first person, and told by an older Fitz relating his childhood growing up in Buckkeep. It takes away from the drama, I feel. "I had walked for hours when I chanced upon..." It's not that I don't like first person - Rothfuss did it admirably in his books about Kvothe - but here it feels..almost as if Fitz is bored while telling his tale. Also, he has an extraordinary memory remembering all those details that overflow from the pages of the novel. In the end, I found it a well written book that just didn't grab me, certainly not enough to want to continue with the next book in this trilogy (in that regard, Assassin's Apprentice fortunately works well enough as a stand-alone). On the cover, George RR Martin has gently provided a recommendation ("Fantasy as it ought to be written") but I'm thinking that's what should be printed on the cover of his books. I realize there are a lot of fans of this series, and it has its moments, but this one felt more like a chore, something I wanted to finish because I wanted to have read it, and it was ultimately just too slow. When I read Martin, I can practically hear the swords clash in the courtyard. In this novel, it's more like "I went to train and fought for six hours, then I went home and I was so tired but fortunately I had a dog to comfort me and so I drifted to sleep thinking of all the things I had to do tomorrow." Unexciting, not involving, ponderous but with a nice, if predictable, story stretched out over too many pages.

While struggling through Robin Hobb's "classic" (is it a classic?) I purchased J.W. Rinzler's The Making of The Empire Strikes Back, to support the resurgence of my fascination for all things Star Wars. All things except the prequel trilogy, that is. Last year I bought and read The Making of Return of the Jedi and found it a very worthwhile read. I can say the same for this one. I devoured it in no time, and there was (to my surprise, to be honest) a lot of stuff I didn't know, even though I'm a maniac about the original movies. It is a very insightful book, with a lot of interesting (and also some not-so-interesting) documentation on the production of my favorite story of all time, from the early days immediately following the success of Star Wars (1977) to the release of the film and the aftermath. Combined with video and audio links and a lot of images, The Making of The Empire Strikes Back is a must-have for any fan of the saga. Together with Jedi, these are probably the best books about the movies I have read, along with Laurent Bouzereau's Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays. Goes without saying that my next Kindle purchase might just be J.W. Rinzler's The Making of Star Wars. I kind of have to complete the trilogy now. 323 days until The Force Awakens. But only nine weeks until we get a new season of Game of Thrones! I have only half paid attention to the production this time around, but it seems we're in for some absolutely massive changes to the source material. And we'll probably be getting spoilers as well. I mean, spoilers that will spoil even die-hard fans who've read the books way too many times. Scary.

Right. Finally, I have finished R.A. Salvatore's The Companions. As a fan of the Forgotten Realms - as a setting, as presented by Ed Greenwood in endless source-books back in the eighties/nineties, mostly - I was curious about this book, because it heralds a new beginning for the setting/franchise. With The Companions, the Realms would be rebooted to its former glory after it went down the drain for a good while. And this is the story they chose to start the reboot with (also to coincide with the release of Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition).
I have to be honest. I'm lying when I say I finished it. Last night, I decided to give up. It's so horrifyingly bad I don't know if I can properly express just how bad it is. There's like nothing to redeem here. It's crap from start to finish. It doesn't paint a vivid picture of the Forgotten Realms at all. Because, seriously, the Realms are a colorful, vivid, and above all, fun place to be in; Ed Greenwood, while not technically a great writer himself, created an underrated, but immersive and fun world in source-books like his "Volo's Guides". His books on the Realms are absolute treasure troves, for inspiration, or just for daydreaming of an incredibly detailed, rich setting. R.A. Salvatore's The Companions betrays all this by being bland, generic, lifeless. The story could have been set anywhere and it wouldn't matter because Salvatore doesn't paint it in any shade of imagination. There is nothing to set the Silver Marches apart from the southern coast of Aglarond; while by all accounts these are two wildly different areas of the Realms.
The characters are likewise as dull as dust gathering on a dog's turd. Their story is totally out there, and to make it believable, you pretty much have to craft some solid sentences and paragraphs and chapters. The main characters are all dead, you see, but are sent back to the Realms into new bodies. This allows Salvatore to continue with his old heroes even though the setting has moved on a century or two. So his halfling hero, Regis, is reborn in some town on the coast of Aglarond, while the former dwarf king Bruenor is reborn in some other dwarf citadel.
I have read about 70% of the novel and the characters have yet to meet (which is the plan; get reborn in the Realms and meet up), and I just can't take the absolutely appalling writing anymore. Just the abundance of exclamation marks is enough to make me want to tear my eyes out. Now, I don't mind over-the-top zany ideas. The concept of heroes reborn and then needing to unite could have been cool if it was well written. I kind of hope to find a book of extreme fantasy like this, only well written. Whenever there was a fight (not often) I had to stop reading because it was written in such a dull manner. And the characters were clearly so much more powerful than the opposition that any tension was lost (at least the dwarf king). I want to like Realms novels, but this is the worst one I've read yet. Even worse than Red Magic, which I have a pretty scathing review somewhere in the backlog of this blog. I mean, I can tolerate a little shoddy writing or a plot that isn't totally coherent, but this was just painful to get through. It really is no wonder that the Forgotten Realms might have a bad reputation when this is what they choose to start off the "new era" with. It's so inane I want to claw at something. Now.

What if they had asked, say, Steven Erikson, to do a Realms novel? Now that could have been cool. He knows how to write epic and overblown yet make it intensely interesting. It's a shame they pump out novels like this, when the original source material by Greenwood is so entertaining. Oh well, my search for a good Realms novel continues. In fact, I have a few on my shelf, books I've found by accident here and there. Sales, and stuff. I'm not expecting much, but it can't possibly get much worse than this. To think that Salvatore is hugely popular...frankly, it is an astonishing thought. Avoid at all costs.

Right. With these three out of the way, I am looking at finishing The World of Ice and Fire (one page at a time, I have moved the massive tome to the toilet area of the house, so I really do read a page or two a day...reading about the Vale now), The Way of Kings (while as ponderous as Assassin's Apprentice, if not more, at least it has a well developed and unique setting), and Miles Cameron's The Red Knight (I have read the opening scenes, and it seemed really promising). In addition, I've promised myself to finish Wolf Hall, aforementioned Realms novels on my shelf, and geez do I have a lot of unread books stacked away. Man.

Finally, while I was not overly impressed with Brian Staveley's debut last year (The Emperor's Blades), the sequel is getting great reviews and seems to be an improvement, so I am considering seeing what Brian has in store in The Providence of Fire. I also downloaded a sample of Django Wexler's (what a fantastic name) novel The Thousand Names. It was quite promising, with just the right dash of grit and that call to adventure, so I might have to buy that one too. Got to love Kindle and it's ways. Downloading samples is a new thing in my world. I have a whole host of them. Makes it easier to find those gems while we wait for The Winds of Winter. The only book that matters.

Oh, and on Steven Erikson's recommendation, I am going to read John Gardner's Grendel. I can't remember why the esteemed Malazan author thought Grendel was a must-read, though. Oh, and of course, I also have said Erikson's The Wurms of Blearmouth in paperback, which I bought as a Christmas present for myself. Now that's one book I am eager to read...I guess that will be my next project in fantasy lit.

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