Monday, January 12, 2015

Steven Erikson's "Willful Child"

Right, finished two ebooks, not bad. The first one is actually a free sample of a few upcoming Star Wars novels. Now that they have turned all the countless existing novels into "Legends" (as in, no longer canon) and rebooting Star Wars literature, I thought maybe it was time to jump back into the literary version of the saga.
I remember the excitement back in the early nineties when Star Wars returned to the public consciousness with Timothy Zahn's novels beginning with Heir to the Empire. That trilogy was fairly interesting, and remains perhaps the best Star Wars read (not that I have read that many novels, perhaps twenty). Which means that generally I find novels based on my favorite movies to be bad. With the sampler, however, I got a chance to get a taste of the new canon. And its taste is dry.

The sampler contains four samples - two of the novels represented have been released since (A New Dawn and Tarkin), while the other two are still to be published (Heir to the Jedi and Lords of the Sith). And none of the samples give me the Star Wars feels. It's all dry, overlong passages of describing pseudotechnology; controls and consoles and projectors and characters standing around talking while using said technology. Of course, samples only have so many pages but then why do they pick such boring bits from the early parts of the stories? Star Wars is all about action and adventure; a space fantasy. Yet these samples feel more like Star Trek. In short, these samples did nothing to make me want to shell out money for them.

Now, Steven Erikson on the other hand is consciously trying to evoke Star Trek in his off-beat novel, Willful Child. If you read this blog you'll know I have gushed about the author on many occasions. His Malazan books are simply breathtaking, and his attitude toward his fans is an example for other authors. It was only a given that I would buy Willful Child, and the free sample over at TOR made me think this was going to be great fun.
Unfortunately, and for the first time, Erikson disappointed me with this one. This is basically the exact opposite of The Malazan Book of the Fallen. Where that epic, massive, sprawling series gives you so much to ponder (especially the latter half of the series) - where you begin to realize this series goes beyond fantasy and becomes something more - Willful Child is short, devoid of any deeper themes and it all takes place (well, almost all of it) aboard the titular starship.

Two things that made me not really feeling it:

One, I think you really need to know your Star Trek to get the most out of this one. It's a parody, the chapters mimicking the episodic nature of the Star Trek TV series, and I am sure a lot of the jokes flew past my head because they were based on particular events from the series (though I can't know for sure). This is of course not Erikson's fault. Still, there were quite a few silly moments that made me chuckle, but mostly I felt myself skimming through to get another chapter done.

Two, for some reason Erikson's otherwise fantastic droll humor (see Tehol and Bugg in the fifth Malazan book, "Midnight Tides", for a great example) has morphed into a more juvenile-sounding kind of humor that at times feels almost embarrassingly sexist (I know it isn't meant to be that way, but this is how it comes across in many scenes). There are some great droll lines in the book, some of the banter is perfectly Erikson, but he made the main character - Captain Hadrian Sawback - quite difficult to like. He reminds me the most of Zapp Brannigan from the Futurama series. Imagine reading a whole novel about him.

The novel also felt a bit repetitive (perhaps because of its episodic nature, perhaps because some of the jokes were repeated - like the alien doctor deflating when he is delivering long lines), yet at the same time you can sense how Erikson had a blast writing this. It feels like some kind of therapy, which I am sure anyone would need after coming down from The Crippled God, last of the Malazan tales. A breath of fresh air for Erikson, a bit of a let-down for me. By now I trust the man enough to be sure that his next Malazan novel, "Fall of Light", will be awesome. Erikson has also expressed his desire to write more adventures aboard the Willful Child. I won't be in for anymore rides with Hadrian and his crew, but if you like Star Trek (or Futurama, for that matter) you might find something to enjoy. And really, it is never badly written or anything. Erikson remains a master of prose, any kind of prose as far as I'm aware. This was really just a "love it or hate it" - thing.
For my part I think this was three stars out of five.

Phew, and with that I have another book crossed off my "To Finish" - list. This leaves only The Way of Kings, Wolf Hall, Assassin's Apprentice, The Companions, The World of Ice & Fire, The Red Knight, and so on and so forth.

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