Sunday, 1st July, 2012 § 1 Comment
I started reading the first three books of George R. R. Martin’s magnum opus a few years ago just before the fourth book came out. A Song of Ice and Fire, a tale of medieval European-like politics disguised as fantasy but with more swords than sorcery, has a lot going for it. It has several main characters and many more bit players which may be confusing to some but I love it, it has despicable villains, a couple of lovable ones (your mileage may vary) and morally upright but stupid good guys (man, are they stupid). Also, it’s a story where being a major character is no guarantee of survival. That’s another reason I love this series. Just because you’re perceived as the ‘hero’ means absolutely nothing. You could easily be killed off in the next chapter. And the entire story kicks off when a young child stumbles upon a secret brother-sister love. Nothing like incest to get concerned parents’ groups to get your book banned…except that no group has actually called for its banning. Don’t they realise these books exist to corrupt the mind of their young? Or are kids not reading good fantasy anymore?
I never picked up Book 4 when it came out because Martin takes his dang time to finish each book. By the time the fourth book came out I had already forgotten some of the plot points from the first three books and wasn’t prepared to re-read them all over again as a refresher course. So I dropped it. The series began in 1996 and sixteen years later it’s still nowhere near the end. Heck, even the author isn’t sure how many books will be in the series. He has promised seven books total but has hinted it may go to eight. To date he hasn’t even finished writing Book Six.
So what’s with the slipcased editions? I’m weak when it comes to hardcovers and oversized editions (hey, maybe I’m compensating for something??) Only the fifth book is missing from my shelf but I’ll add it soon. I have no idea when I’m going to start reading them. Other than the incest secret, the dwarf Tyrion, some woman forced to marry a barbarian who keeps dragons as pets and the Red Wedding, I don’t remember anything about A Song of Ice and Fire. That fact excites and scares me at the same time.
And no, I’ve never watched the HBO adaptation. Not interested. You know how to spot someone who know of the books from watching the TV series? If they refer to the books as ‘Game of Thrones’ instead of ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ or by their individual titles. I point my finger at you and call you poseur!
Monday, 14th May, 2012 Comments Off
Yet another blind buy that turned out to be a serendipitous find. Haven’t read anything by Frances Hardinge before, I picked up Twilight Robbery for two reasons. One, the synopsis at the back was simple yet intriguing (a kidnap plot but it involves “a wayward goose” which I found to be funny) and two, it was the only book in the YA fantasy section that did not have a blurb from Rick Riordan and/or Stephanie Meyer. I don’t hate either author since I haven’t nor have any intention of reading their books but I’m not really influenced by praises by other authors on book covers especially when their platitudes appear on just about every other YA book on the shelf. So Francis Hardinge received my money just because her paperback is devoid of any praises from her peers.
Anyway, the book…
Twilight Robbery is essentially a story about institutionalised segregation. The destinies of the people in the city of Toll, a city that requires payment to enter and a payment to leave (hence the city’s name) and where the protagonists Eponymous Clent and Mosca Mye find themselves trapped in, are determined by their names and the auspices of which Beloved (Zodiac-like deities) they were born under. If you are born under a Beloved that sounds a bit ‘radical’ like Palpitattle, He Who Keeps Flies out of Jams and Butter Churns, then you’re relegated to live in Toll-by-Night and officially do not exist during the day. Other than the lack of sunlight, Toll-by-Night is a place where the people are ruled by fear and want. Which Beloved name is considered radical and which is considered safe is determined by the city elders who are all conveniently qualified to live in Toll-by-Day. Eponymous and Mosca find themselves involved in city politics when the Mayor’s daughter is kidnapped and the prime suspect is a boy whose name was reclassified and could only ‘exist’ in Toll during the night. But is he really the culprit?
Twilight Robbery is the second book featuring Eponymous Clent and Mosca Mye and even though I did not read the first book, the second one is pretty much a standalone novel that I did not feel too lost while reading it. Events from the first book are referred to often which gives Twilight Robbery a nice sense of continuity but it doesn’t give the impression that you have to read it first in order to understand Twilight Robbery.
It has been compared by both fans and detractors to Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ series of books what with the social commentaries and a world that resembles a pre-Industrial Revolution Britain. The style of writing between the two authors are also somewhat similar. Ms. Hardinge loves witticisms with tongue firmly in cheek. Take for example this sentence, “Stars were now scattered across the sky, as if the white-faced moon had grown bored waiting for something to happen and started spitting gleaming fruit pits” or this, “A couple of expressions pulled Clent’s face to and fro between them, like puppies trying to fight their way out of a bag.” Magnificent!
Twilight Robbery is a door-stopper of a book coming in at just under 600 pages. I admit that a couple of times I felt a little frustrated with a plot that seemed to be taking its time to resolve itself; there are double crosses aplenty to the point that I didn’t know what the heck was going on, but the deft writing and well rounded characters (especially Mosca) kept my interest till the end.
I’ve never heard of Francis Hardinge before this but I’ll watch out for her books from now on.
By the way, Twilight Robbery is called Fly Trap for the US edition.
Monday, 16th April, 2012 § 1 Comment
(Disclosure: Scholastic Malaysia recently mailed me a whole stack of books for me to read and review including the first four books of the Amulet series by Kazu Kibuishi. I love it when people send me free books, especially if those books are kick ass awesome)
Amulet revolves around Emily and Navin who, with their widowed mother, move to an old family home out in the woods. The huge derelict house once belonged to an eccentric ancestor who mysteriously disappeared and was never heard or seen from again. The children soon discover a strange amulet that grants its bearer powerful magic but before Emily can begin to understand on how to handle the strange artifact, their mother is kidnapped by a tentacled spider-like monster. In pursuit of the monster, Emily and Navin find themselves in a parallel world filled with strange creatures both good and evil. And wouldn’t you know it, someone else wants the amulet for himself. Isn’t that always the case?
Part steampunk, part fantasy, part science-fiction, Amulet reminds me of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated features especially Spirited Away which has a somewhat similar concept. Amulet however does not bother to shield its target audience from the horrors of life. I mentioned above that Emily and Navin’s father is dead. Yeah, we get to see that in the opening pages of the book. Swerving to avoid a broken down car, Emily and her mom could only watch in horror as the family car rolls down the cliff with Emily’s dad still in the car (he couldn’t get out in time). Some parents may find that too dark for children to read but I applaud series creator Kazu Kibuishi for being honest about it. He could have avoided the death scene and just stated that Karen was a single parent with two kids, but no. Mr. Kibuishi actually gave us the back-story as to what made her a single parent with two kids. Death happens, kids. Suck it up.
Once Emily and Navin enters the strange realm, the story shifts to high gear. I could not wait to turn the page to see what happens next to the point that I missed one glaring question that I only asked upon a second reading: how do we know the titular amulet Emily is wearing around her neck is a force for good?
Sure, it saved her a couple of times but all she knows about it is from her great-great grandfather who literally dies as soon as he delivers his final message to Emily. A man whom she never met until she enters the strange magical world, a man whom according to her mother mysteriously disappeared decades ago, tells her the amulet can help Emily find her mother and bestow powers beyond her wildest dreams and then conveniently dies is not exactly a person whose word a teenage girl should take at face value. Plus, during the climactic battle against the Elf prince, the amulet persuades Emily to strike down the prince without so much as a “hello” and only Emily’s innocence or her ability to look beyond revenge saved the Elf prince. There is something sinister about this amulet but Book One: The Stonekeeper delivers no answers.
I for one enjoy the idea of a morally complex universe where nothing is black and white. Again I applaud Kazu Kibuishi for not talking down to his young readers. Apart from the great storytelling, the artwork is also very good. The colours and the setting combine to create a world at once mythical but at the same time realistic if that makes sense. It’s the clever use of the colour palette that made this book pop out. It felt like watching an animated movie.
A great story and great artwork and lots of questions in Book One make me excited to continue the journey in the second book. There are already four books out so far with the fifth one scheduled for later this year.
I’d recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good adventure story. But if you don’t like to read graphic novels, then you’re dead to me. Dead!
Monday, 20th February, 2012 § 4 Comments
Popular modern English fantasy is largely the result of “white” meeting “bread”. The authors were/are more often than not very WASPish and their stories clearly have a medieval European feel to it. Nothing wrong there. After all, you should write what you know about. Still, it would be nice to read something not set in thinly disguised 12th century Europe where the only swarthy characters are the villains. That’s why Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon went straight to my must-read-now list when I first learned about it (thanks Omnivoracious!) The author’s name and the title were enough to make me pre-order it even though I’ve gone off fantasy novels lately. I’m impulsive and fickle like that.
Being of Arab descent (not sure if he’s Muslim though, not that it matters) Saladin Ahmed chose to set his Crescent Moon Kingdoms in a distinctly Middle Eastern landscape with Arabic-like sounding names for his characters and the walled city of Dhamsawaat where most of the story takes place reminds the reader of Marrakesh or Baghdad in the 13th century.
The usual fantasy tropes are here: The wise, old teacher is Doctor Adoulla Makhslood. He is the only ghul hunter left in Dhamsawaat and he wants to retire but finds himself facing perhaps the biggest threat of his career when a former lover asks him to investigate the mysterious and seemingly supernatural murders of her family. His young assistant, Raseed, is a devout Master Dervish who doesn’t understand why his body goes all funny when he sets eyes on Zamia, a tribeswoman of a desert clan that was annihilated by perhaps the same supernatural threat that killed the Doctor’s old flame’s family. The characterisation is nice. None of the three are perfect as they all have their own personal demons to conquer and they evolve as characters as the story progresses. Raseed and Zamia are the two that, to me, were the best developed simply because they annoyed me at the beginning but by the end I was rooting for these two crazy kids to beat the Big Bad. I was annoyed with Raseed for his holier-than-thou attitude and Zamia for her us-desert-people-are-so-much-better-than-you-city-folk stance. When a character annoys me because of his or her behaviour and then manage to make me like them by story’s end, I take that as good writing.
Throne of the Crescent Moon is atmospheric. Perhaps it is partly because of me tiring of the usual medieval European style fantasy but also Saladin Ahmed’s talent as a writer should be given due credit in creating a fantastical yet at the same time believable fantasy setting. He also doesn’t show his readers every single detail of the world he created, preferring instead to leave it to our imaginations. A difficult balance to achieve but the author pulls it off here.
This is the first book in The Crescent Moon Kingdoms series and if this book is anything to go by, I for one is looking forward to Book II.
Oh and unlike most fantasy novels out there, this one is only 274 pages long so it’s clearly not a door-stopper. Even that is a refreshing change!
Sunday, 29th January, 2012 § 2 Comments
Well colour me disappointed. I hardly read any fantasy nowadays (the last one was The Song of Ice and Fire but George Martin is taking his time finishing the series I just don’t give a damn anymore) mainly because I think the genre has been played out. The medieval European setting, the Dark Lord, the orphan boy/girl destined to save the land with a big ass sword, the motley crew of friends to help him/her. Yeah, it’s been done. But occasionally boredom hits the soul and I think, “what the heck, let’s read some fantasy today” only to have the book crush my hopes like a salivating wolf crushing the neck of an injured raccoon. Empire in Black and Gold is such a book.
This book was the debut for Brit author Adrian Tchaikovsky and he has since written at least six books in the ‘Shadows of the Apt’ series. I won’t be there to enjoy the ride. You want to know what this book is about? Go read about it at the Fantasy Book Critic blog. I dropped it like a hot potato after it failed the 50 page rule. After 50 pages, I still didn’t care about the impending crisis faced by the protagonist. After 50 pages, I still didn’t care about any of the characters introduced in the second chapter who probably would play major roles in the story. And after 50 pages I still didn’t care about the concept of the insect totems most of the characters had which gave them special abilities (Ant-kinden can operate in a hive mentality, Wasp-kinden can fly, that kind of thing). That concept seemed interesting until one is reminded that it’s been done by another author in another fantasy series (Steven Erikson, Malazan Book of the Fallen if you must know). This book has 600+ pages and the first 50 could not grab my attention? To the reject pile it went.
Is the fantasy genre today strictly for teens and young adults? Aren’t there any written for jaded, approaching middle-age dads like me? I want to be challenged, intrigued, entertained, grabbed by the collars and refused any reprieve until I’ve finished reading the story. The closest is Martin’s series I mentioned above but I dislike reading an ongoing series whose author is taking his time to finish (and no, I’m not going to watch the HBO adaptation). The only ones I have enjoyed were written over 50-60 years ago. Robert Howard’s Conan the Barbarian and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser adventures remain favourites among fantasy fans. And of course JRR Tolkien but that’s a given.
But today’s fantasy novels? BAH!
Sunday, 21st August, 2011 Comments Off
First published in 1992 and reissued in 2011 no doubt because of the interest in all things vampires nowadays, Anno Dracula takes place in a late-19th century Britain where Dracula was not killed at the end of Bram Stoker’s novel but instead wins his battle against Van Helsing and his cohorts of vampire killers. It is a Britain where vampires are the dominant class after Dracula marries the widowed Queen Victoria, in effect making himself Prince Consort. In this alternate world, those who wish to advance anywhere have to ‘turn’ and become vampires because Dracula made sure that all levers of power are in the hands of vampires. Anno Dracula however isn’t so much about Dracula. In fact he doesn’t make an appearance until the final chapter. Even the central plot about capturing the serial killer Jack the Ripper who goes around Whitechapel murdering vampire prostitutes is just a MacGuffin since his identity is conveniently revealed (to the readers at least) in the very first chapter. No, what I took from this book was the fun in spotting historical and fictional character references as if they all existed and interacted with each other. In Anno Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, Bram Stoker, George Bernard Shaw have all been detained in a prison camp for refusing to obey to the new power structure in Britain. Oscar Wilde and Rupert of Hentzau chose to be vampires while Dr Jekyll and Dr Moreau are friends researching on vampire physiology. There are so many references given off hand that I know I’ve missed more than I’ve noticed. Although there are annotations at the back of the book where author Kim Newman points out some of the references, he only points out some. There are in particular two pop culture references that I was surprised to find and thought it was clever of Newman to include them in his book. The first one is where one of the main characters, a female vampire, finds herself stalked by a Chinese vampire. This oriental vampire doesn’t walk or fly or turn into a bat but instead hops stiff legged towards his quarry and if you are even remotely interested in Chinese movies especially Mr Vampire, you would be familiar with the image of the pasty faced vampire in the long silk robe hopping into the night. The only way to stop them is to stick a piece of yellow paper inscribed with a prayer onto its forehead or to stop breathing to escape its detection. The hopping Chinese vampire is played for laughs in the movies but in Anno Dracula is actually a major threat and is later revealed to be some sort of a contract killer hired by someone to kill the female vampire. Yes, I’m serious.
The other one was when Charles Beauregard, a veteran secret agent tasked to capture Jack the Ripper, remarks that he’s thinking about running to Africa since there are no vampires there and his companion, the aforementioned female vampire, corrects him that not only are there vampires in Africa but Prince Mamuwalde is a respected vampire lord. From a storytelling standpoint, that casual remark reveals a lot about Beauregard and the skewed alternate world he lives in. That despite his reputation as an experienced secret agent he is quite ignorant of the world outside Britain (particularly Africa) and that Dracula has spread his influence just about everywhere. But what I found especially fun was that Prince Mamuwalde first appeared in:
That’s just awesome.
Anno Dracula, being the first book in a loose series of four so far, keeps a straight face while having fun mixing and mashing all these cultural references as if they all lived at the same time while telling a story about a secret agent trying to figure out who Jack the Ripper is in a vampire-controlled 19th century Britain. But is it any good? If you like to play the ‘spot the character’ game then yes. If you find it annoying then no. I do like reading literary mash-ups like this one so I love it. Love it to the point that I’m willing to ignore asking annoying questions like: how did vampires get to dominate Britain so quickly? Dracula made sure to populate Parliament, the police and the army with vampires, didn’t the human politicians, officers and soldiers resist in the beginning? Did they all bend over and turn vampire because the Queen married a vampire and became one herself? Seriously? You see, there is a flaw in Newman’s alternate world building and if you’re unwilling to ignore this flaw then all the pop culture references in the world would not make you enjoy Anno Dracula.
If, however, you’re willing to gloss over it and enjoy the story for what it is; a mixture of gothic horror and political intrigue, then you’ll absolutely love it. And have fun spotting all the names, historical and fictional.
Thursday, 28th July, 2011 § 6 Comments
Kawan Baru Hanani (Hanani’s New Friend) is the first in a series of illustrated children’s books from Malaysian author Nisah Haron (with illustrations by Emila Yusof). The book features Hanani, a Malay girl, who is both excited and apprehensive when she and her parents move into a new house. Hanani is worried that she won’t make any friends at her new school so to calm her, good old grandma brought three semberani dolls for Hanani. Her dolls come to life in her imagination. At least I think it’s all in her imagination…it’s kind of vague…maybe they come alive when no adults are around? And they visit ‘Negeri di Awan’ (Land in the Clouds) and meet a princess. There are four stories altogether all with a moral at the end (be honest, be trustworthy, think before you speak, do not offend others). Typical stories you would find in any children’s books. The Malay used in this book is very good, the stories are not overly preachy and the illustrations are nicely drawn. I would use the word ‘cute’ to best describe Emila Yusof’s artwork.
My 8-year old daughter likes the book enough that she said she wants to meet the author someday. Prior to this, all her books have been in English and her favourite is Geronimo Stilton, a pun-filled adventure series featuring a globe trotting mouse. So it gave me a feeling of serendipity when a Malay-medium book like ‘Hanani’ could prompt her to say what she said.
This book also taught me that semberani is what a winged horse is called in Malay. Learn something new everyday.
Sunday, 1st May, 2011 § 1 Comment
Sometimes you’re just not the target audience for a particular book. Just because you enjoyed the first four books of the Harry Potter series does not mean every fantasy book written for young adults (oh, let’s be honest here, written for kids) would be enjoyed by you. Such is the case with the late Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle. I confess I saw the movie first because I’m a fan of Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli productions. I thought it was a bit dark mood-wise for a children’s fantasy but I enjoyed the movie well enough. I appreciated the animation and the beautiful colours which was par for the course for a Miyazaki feature. I never bothered to read the source material until recently when I read that Diana Jones had passed away from cancer. So I decided to pick it up hoping for some light reading.
I didn’t care much for it to be honest. It’s been a few years since I watched the movie on dvd and I’ve forgotten some of the plot but I think I need to watch it again just to see why I enjoyed it the first time. I sure didn’t get the same feeling from the book. I don’t think it’s the book. I think it’s me. I’m way too old to appreciate the story and writing style. Which is weird because like I mentioned above I enjoyed Harry Potter (the first four books anyway) and I also read those when I was way too old for it. Howl’s Moving Castle is about Sophie Hatter, the eldest of three siblings, who was cursed into an old woman by the Witch of the Waste who walked into Sophie’s hat shop one day when Sophie was in a bit of a testy mood. Wrong day to be short to a customer. Now cursed as an old woman, Sophie decided to seek help from the only person she thinks can help, the wizard Howl whose magic castle has been literally moving around at the outskirts of the village. Then we read about how Sophie makes herself useful by volunteering to clean up the messy castle while at the same time trying to find the spell that can cure her. For about the next three, four chapters it was clean, clean, clean, argue with the wizard, clean, clean, clean, argue with the wizard. Yeah, I’m sure the story is going somewhere but I just don’t have the time. Maybe if I was twenty years younger…
The book isn’t bad and I may just finish it someday (I’ll read a chapter or two when I can be bothered) but I think I’ll just stick with Miyazaki’s animated feature adaptation. I’ll pass the book to my kids when they’re old enough. Some fantasy books just aren’t timeless, I guess.
Tuesday, 15th March, 2011 Comments Off
It is kind of difficult to browse a book in Malaysia because most retailers prefer to wrap up their stock in plastic to keep it minty fresh. Sometimes they do provide a browsing copy and some places have a customer service counter where they will unwrap a book for you. I remember years ago, MPH had a policy that if you wanted them to unwrap a book you must then purchase it. I wonder if that policy has changed.
Anyway, this method of wrapping books to prevent browsing means that we are limited to reading the synopsis at the back of the book to get a clue on what the book is about. That’s fine if it’s by an established author but if it’s by someone you are unfamiliar with, you will either put it back on the shelf and check out an author you recognise or you take your chances and blind buy the new book and hope for the best.
Such is the case with Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London which I first thought was a history on, well, the rivers of London. But no, it’s an urban fantasy novel. Peter Grant is a probationary constable in the Metropolitan Police who, while guarding a crime scene, was approached by a witness who saw everything that happened. The problem is the witness is a nineteenth century ghost. Things go downhill for Peter Grant from there on.
He is subsequently recruited by Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale of the Economic and Specialist Crime Department which is just a cover for an unofficial department in the Met that handles supernatural cases. Inspector Nightingale is the only member of the department. Now Peter Grant is his apprentice wizard (because he can see and communicate with ghosts. That makes him ‘special’).
It’s not too bad a book especially from someone whose work I’m not familiar with. At times irreverent, the story can take a sharp turn and go all violent without so much as a warning. It is a murder mystery with supernatural elements after all so death and violence is par for the course (a baby is thrown out a window at one point) but to his credit Aaronovitch doesn’t pepper it with too much gore.
As this is a first stand alone book in a series (a sequel, Moon Over SoHo is scheduled for publication later this year), there is a lot of what in a film adaptation would be a training montage of Grant practising to be a wizard. Spell casting, balls of light, explosions; all act to no one’s surprise as a ‘Chekov’s Gun‘. The story is also set in contemporary London with a lot of actual places and streets referred to throughout. This may be confusing or annoying to someone who’s never been there but if you’re even somewhat familiar with London, you may gain extra enjoyment from all the street names Grant list out during the course of his investigation.
Enjoyable enough if you love urban fantasy but a non-genre reader who is curious may want to start elsewhere. Perhaps something by Neil Gaiman.
By the way, this book is also called Midnight Riot in the US.
Saturday, 5th March, 2011 § 4 Comments
I read the Belgariad series back in 1987 or ’88 when a classmate pushed the first book, Pawn of Prophecy, on me. God knows why but he did and I thought it was the greatest post-LOTR fantasy novels that I ever read. Read The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings and the Belgariad and that’s it for all your fantasy fiction needs. Seriously, don’t bother with anything else. Waste of time. Discworld doesn’t count. That’s comic fantasy. But for serious fantasy, Tolkien and Eddings are your go to guys (though I’ve never actually finised LOTR. Maybe someday).
Anyway, there is nothing special in Belgariad and it’s still surprisingly great. Eddings didn’t write anything original for the series and he didn’t care. Just about every trope was applied to the story. A poor orphan farm boy who turns out to be ‘The Chosen One’? Check. Taken care by a couple of wizards? Check. He has to fulfill a prophecy? Check. A Dark Lord? Check. A motley crew to assist him in his quest? Check. Big fight at the end? What do you think? Belgariad is Star Wars with less lasers. It is totally laden with clichés that it shouldn’t be worth reading but it is. In the words of Eddings himself, Belgariad is “the literary equivalent of peddling dope”.
It works despite its derivativeness because Belgariad wasn’t written too seriously, a problem with most fantasy authors who believe the genre is sacred and must be treated as such. No, it isn’t. The genre is all about kids kicking orcs and trolls and killing the evil wizard and getting the girl in the end. It’s not about delivering a message to the readers. It’s all about telling a good story by using tried and tested methods. Another good thing about this series is that Eddings gave his stock characters sarcastic lines just about every time they speak (Silk especially). They’d be boring otherwise. None of them are perfect either, they all have tiny flaws somewhere, argue with each other a lot but also care about each other. In other words, they’re like your family.
David Eddings wrote a sequel, Malloreon. Don’t bother with that one. It’s Belgariad 11 years later. Pointless, I thought. He also wrote some more stuff including prequels to the Belgariad but I never read those and don’t intend to. Just stick with Belgariad and go read Tolkien’s early stuff if you haven’t already and that’s it. You’re done with ‘serious’ fantasy fiction.