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Fantasy Review: ‘The Color of Magic’ by Terry Pratchett

Part 1 of the Complete Discworld Reread

“What is your name?”…
“My name is inconsequential.”
“That’s a pretty name.”
The Color of Magic– Terry Pratchett

Part one of a complete reread of Pratchett’s Discworld series.  As such the style will be a little different from other reviews.  The “review” portion will be shorter.  Following the short review will be my thoughts of the book from a rereading standpoint, on how it holds up to expectations, the evolution of the series, and other musings.

The Color of Magic is the first book of Discworld, a humor/parody series of fantasy books.  This book is set up in four parts, which act almost as four short stories all featuring Rincewind, the worlds most inept wizard.  Each section is a direct parody of specific fantasy tropes; the city of assassins and thieves, the barbarian adventure book, and a direct parody of the Pern series, and gods playing games with mortals.  Rincewind is stuck “protecting” a man named Twoflower (much against his nature, and abilities), the worlds first tourist, who wants to visit all the fantastic places he has heard of in his boring desk job.

Some may hear the book is a parody and cringe, as many works of parody these days take the easy joke and milk it for cash(I am thinking of a whole line of movies here).  If that describes your thoughts, do not worry.  Pratchett shows some skill in making a very interesting story on its own, that happens to gently mock some tropes(not beat you over the head with them, with the exception of some of the Pern references). While fantasy has moved in unique directions, it is interesting how many of the tropes Pratchett is working with are still in play.  Because of this the book has aged well, and the humor holds up.

If you like both fantasy and comedy, The Color of Magic is still a very fun, very short read.  It should be noted that it ends on a cliff hanger(the only book of the series that does), and The Light Fantastic is required if you want to know the end of the story.

3 stars, a good series start, but not a lot of depth.

*SPOILERS POSSIBLE BELOW *


To start with, I was reading Pratchett before i read fantasy in any volume, so I had no idea how much of this first book was a direct parody.  It almost reads like Rincewind travels through The Tough Guide to Fantasyland.  I see why so many fans tell people not to start with this book if reading the series.  It lacks the things that make Discworld, well, Discworld.  The silly asides are noticeably absent.  The depth of characters is no here yet, almost everyone is a caricature.  It is too short to be any more than a novelty parody, and while some work well, some were to obvious(putting a ! in the middle of a dragon writers name, for instance).

Huge chunks of lore will change from this book going on the series.  Death is almost sadistic, not the business-like entity we grow to love.  Wizardry changes dramatically, in The Color of Magic spells are one time use.  In later books almost any location can show up in another book, the world is tied together pretty tightly.  But almost none of the locations in TCoM are ever seen again.

Pratchett does a great job in later books with his female characters, I would rate Granny among the top characters in fantasy lit.  So it is a bit surprising that here he sticks with stock females from fantasy tropes.  Four females are present.  One is a goddess, two wear very little clothing, and all three mortals are out to do harm to the hero.

This book also starts the tradition of Rincewind being off the world, in another dimension, or just believed dead that continues through all the Rincewind books. 

All said, I still enjoyed this read, but it certainly lacks the strengths of later novels.

Notable Firsts, in no particular order: Rincewind, Twoflower, Luggage, Death,  and possible the Patrician(though it may be a different one.

Fantasy Review: ‘The Riddler’s Gift’ by Greg Hamerton

At first glance, this is a very traditional fantasy story about a magic ring which slips away from its evil owner at a critical moment, and finds its way into the hands of the most unlikely person imaginable. There’s a benign wizard acting as mentor and guide, there’s an evil wizard spreading darkness over the land, with the help of some evil minions, and there’s a collection of good guys uniting to defeat evil. You might think you’ve read something with a plot not a million miles from this one before. But not so fast; this book is proof of the theory that even the oldest and most overworked tale can be infused with new life in the hands of a good storyteller.

The plot isn’t really as unoriginal as I made out. Tabitha is the teenage girl who ends up with the magic ring, but she uses it to sing the Lifesong, the music that (somehow) triggers or even transcends the magic in this world. Ashley is an apprentice Lifegifter (or mage) who finds himself with the convenient ability to read thoughts. Garyll is the Swordmaster (chief warrior and law enforcer), and also love interest for Tabitha. The Riddler is the good wizard, there to help Tabitha. Kirjath Arkell is one of the minions. And although there are good guys and bad guys, things aren’t at all as clearcut as is usual in this type of fantasy.

The worldbuilding has been quite carefully done. The setting, Eyri, is rather small, being no more than two to three days riding from one side to the other, but there’s a reason behind that, and hopefully a later installment will see the story expand into the outside world. One grumble: there is a point where some of these external places are mentioned, with a string of incomprehensible names like Lûk and Jho-down and lots more, in the worst kind of infodump. Fortunately this is brief. The setting is the usual pre-industrial-revolution affair – a rather idyllic and twee collection of villages filled with more or less honest, upright citizens. The author has made efforts to avoid the standard generic fantasy template for his settlements, so each one has some distinguishing characteristic. Russel, for instance, is an artists’ colony, with houses built on stilts. While these distinctions seem a little artificial, it’s better than every place being the same as all the others.

The magic system is very nice. There are three ‘axes’ of magic: the axis of darkness and light, that of energy and matter, and that of order and chaos. I liked the way that it’s necessary to keep the opposing forces in balance, which leads to some very elegant methods of keeping the heroine and the villain apart until the right moment. The Lightgifters (mages who use the magic of light to heal and uplift the spirits) call upon sprites to power their spells, which are charged each morning by a communal song. There are also Darkcasters, who control a dark equivalent to sprites, known as motes, and spread gloom and despair. This all works rather nicely.

The characters fall neatly onto the good or bad side of the equation, and although sometimes it’s not immediately clear which side a character is on, ultimately it’s a black or white distinction, there really aren’t too many shades of grey here. What’s even more depressing is that so many of the characters are quite passive. Tabitha and Ashley, the two youngest, are essentially pushed around by circumstance and the machinations of other characters, and when it appears as if they might drift into the wrong place or make a mistake, someone more competent comes along to rescue them. If that fails, then they just happen to realise what they ought to do – Tabitha by way of her magic ring, and Ashley by virtue of his oh-so-convenient ability to hear thoughts, although not all thoughts, you understand, just certain key thoughts. Even Garyll the Swordmaster with his named sword (Felltang, since you ask) who strides around fearlessly as the epitome of well-honed manly virtue, imparts backbone into his weaker subordinates, and accosts the bad guys in stern brook-no-nonsense tones, is pushed here and there by the schemes and devices of others. Meanwhile Kirjath the evil minion and his boss the Big Bad are running rings round everyone, and the Riddler – well, OK, the Riddler is actually interesting. He has a certain complexity, for a start, and isn’t a straightforwardly good or bad character, although he does tend to turn up at crucial moments to rescue poor Tabitha from yet another tricky situation.

The romance – no, on second thoughts, don’t get me started on the romance. Putting Garyll of the Manly Virtues together with Tabitha the Meek and throwing in a few burning glances and shivering touches does not a romance make. I’d rather an author skip that part of the story altogether than make such a ham-fisted effort, especially since a large part of it is just about motivation. Tabitha’s in danger, so Garyll must ride heroically to her rescue or Sacrifice All for her sake. But there is one interesting aspect in the apparent equating of sex with the dark side. The good guys go for romantic dinners and in moments of excitement hold hands or exchange chaste kisses. Even thinking about sex pushes them over to the dark side (apparently). Then they make very questionable decisions because they’re in love. The bad guys, on the other hand, indulge in wildly passionate sex while casting spells of extraordinary power (which sounds like a lot more fun, actually). But maybe I’m just overthinking this.

I liked the writing style, and although there are a lot of point of view characters, the author uses them to good effect to drive the story forward. I enjoyed the little ‘riddle’ at the start of every chapter, too. But this is a huge book. I’m a fast reader but it took me forever to get through it. In a sense, this is a strong point, because the story is detailed enough to sustain it, and there’s very little filler. There are a few places where scenes dragged on a bit too long, and some questionable motivations, where the plot was pushing characters along, but most of it felt necessary. Nevertheless, I found myself tiring of it more than once, especially during the more horrifically graphic torture scenes or the multitude of depressing oh-no-the-bad-guys-are-too-powerful moments.

There was one major irritant to me and that was Tabitha’s complete inability to work out what she needed to do. I wouldn’t say she was stupid, exactly, just very, very slow on the uptake. Even when the Riddler led her step by step, she never seemed to make the necessary jump until it was blindingly obvious. It was quite painful sometimes. I enjoy a story where the author drops enough clues for the reader to work things out a moment or two before the protagonist does, but not when it happens ten chapters before and I find myself muttering: ‘Come on, it’s so obvious!’. I wanted to slap her upside the head sometimes.

The ending was suitably dramatic, and the last few chapters flew by with all the usual swings and reversals, one or two not terribly surprising reveals, and a satisfying, if slightly overwrought, conclusion at both the overarching plot level and the human level. For those who like a straightforward traditional fantasy, with clearcut heroes and villains, a battle between good and evil, and a young innocent discovering amazing powers, this is an excellent example. It’s very well written, with a large cast of characters who are well drawn and memorable, and a clever and elegant magic system (and bonus points for the very ingenious use of mathematical principles; any author combining magic with möbius bands has my vote). I found it just a little too predictable for my taste, and I look for a bit more complexity in my characters, but that’s personal preference, and the solid ending and neat magic system make it a good four stars.

Fantasy Review: ‘Lonely Werewolf Girl’ by Martin Millar

This is a reread of a favorite, but the first time I have reviewed it.

Describing this book is hard.  The underlying plot is a war of ascendency in an ancient clan of werewolves, set in modern Great Britain.  It is not a comedy, but often funny, and completely absurd.  Most of the book involves the politicking between two brothers involved in gaining the votes for a new Thane, but the moving parts involved include alcoholic werewolves, fashion obsessed fire elementals, a guild of werewolf hunters, and two college students who get caught up in all of it.

As I am a fan I am going to start the review with reasons a person may not like it, before I move on to all the reasons it is one of my favorites.  To start with, my copy has 235 chapters, at 560 pages, do the math.  Rapid fire doesn’t begin to cover it, not only are chapters short, but the author can use three paragraphs to focus on three characters in three different cities.  While the book isn’t “silly,” many aspects of it are completely absurd.  While the pieces fit, Millar isn’t Tolkien, and building the back story isn’t his focus(at one time why her cloths are gone in werewolf form and back in human form, the title character replies “I don’t know”).  Lastly, part of the rapid fire pace results in points being hammered repeatedly.  You will know that Kalix is lonely, college boy Danial is shy, and various characters are very beautiful, and you will be reminded of the fact often.

But if you can handle the unique style, then you may find a surprisingly great book.  While revolving around the title character, Kalix, the cast of characters is huge for the book size.  The rapid fire switching of viewpoints keeps the book from every becoming bloated, each chapter advances one(or more) of the many side stories that will eventually bring the main plot together.  The shear number of plot lines Millar is pushing is huge, but the most amazing part is as a reader, I never felt lost.  I knew what each character was doing, who they were sided with, and I never had to back up to past pages to remind myself of anything.  Even more impressive, despite several rereads I have still not found a side plot that wasn’t in some way resolved, and almost every named character mentioned in some ways advanced the main plot-line.

Characters were great.  While not every character was likable, all were entertaining.  Most books have one PoV that readers dread seeing.  Perhaps the fact that I never had to spend more than a page at a time with a character had something to do with it, but I truly enjoyed learning what was happening to every major player.  The fashion obsessed fire elemental(who looks like a super model and acts like a child) was a particular high light.  Moonglow, one of the college students, has a sweetness and kind heart that is infectious.  I defy someone to not have sympathy for the other college student, Danial.

The book had the right amount of humor.  It is a serious story (bands called Yum Yum Suguary Snacks aside), but i was chuckling throughout.  It also has the right amount of violence.  Despite a war being fought, there is not lingering on the ins and outs of battles or even particular fights.  The set up and aftermath is more important than details of who did what to who.

Lastly, despite leaving enough open for a potential sequel(which eventually came), the book reached a true conclusion.  Some may think the final showdown ended abruptly, but there was almost nothing about it that wasn’t foreshadowed subtlety throughout the rest the book.

Pros: Well crafted, and the handling of plot-lines is among the best I have seen.  Humorous and believable despite the absurdity of some situations.

Cons: Some dialog rings false.  Every single character is a true beauty, male and female.  Really?  Not one unattractive werewolf?

5 stars, a personal favorite.

 

Fantasy Review: ‘Dragon’s Path’ by Daniel Abraham

This is the first of a proposed quintet (‘The Dagger and the Coin’), and is the author’s first foray into what might be termed mainstream fantasy, after the critically applauded but unconventional ‘The Long Price Quartet’. The dagger of the series title represents war, while the coin is economics – the twin approaches to conquest, or defence against it. The story centres around four main characters: Cithrin, a girl who is a ward of the Medean bank, shortly to achieve independence; Marcus, an experienced soldier; Geder, a low-ranking nobleman with a liking for speculative writings; and Dawson, a middle-aged nobleman with political tendencies. The plot jumps from one named POV to another.

I found the book slow to get into at first, but that is common with many fantasy novels, and this was easier to follow than many. But after a few chapters everything seemed to click into place, and the story picked up speed. It is still distracting, however, to hop around from one named POV (and plot thread) to another – just as you get interested in one part of the story you are whisked off somewhere else, perhaps less interesting. And some parts are definitely less interesting – Dawson, for instance. I much prefer not to know who the POV is in each chapter. It makes it much easier to stop reading, and harder to pick up again, if you think – ‘Hmm, another Dawson chapter…’.
It was hard to keep track of the politicking that went on in Camnipol, in Antea. The different factions and motives were not easy to follow, and it felt sometimes as if there was a whole subtext that I just failed to get. Why, for instance, was Dawson exiled but not Issandrian? I had a similar problem with the economics sub-plot in Porte Oliva, but this worried me less. I just assumed that if I took the trouble to work it out, it would probably make sense.
The four main characters build quite nicely in depth as the book progresses. Geder, in particular, is a fascinating character, and while his actions may seem horrifying they are always entirely understandable and (in some sense) justified. What he does to Vanai is a perfectly sensible solution to an economic problem, after all – what else is one supposed to do with an unprofitable vanquished city? – although the way he does it leaves something to be desired. Master Kit, of course, is clearly going to be significant somewhere down the line. Marcus and Yardem have a terrific relationship, and Cithrin is more complex than she appeared at first sight. It is quite fun to meet a female protagonist who is pragmatic about sex, and responds to setbacks by taking to her bed with as much booze as she can get her hands on and staying there until it’s gone. Even Dawson, for all his faults, raises a certain sympathy and his wife Clara is interesting too.
The world-building is not spectacular so far. It is yet another post-dragon, post-magic (more or less) world. The cities have interesting individual quirks, but the countryside in between seems pretty empty. The jade roads are intriguing, and the 12 created races are fascinating. At the moment they are merely ciphers, but presumably the differences will become important later. In particular, I suspect the Drowned will be crucial to something.
The plot rounds off with a flourish. Geder’s political success is, in retrospect, predictable but I failed to read the signs. On the other hand, Cithrin’s success is totally predictable and therefore dull. So she threatens the bank and the auditer promptly caves in? Rather lame. And the big reveal in the ‘Entr’acte’ was surely spotted by everyone long before. In summary, not earth shattering but a good and promising start to the series. Four stars. [First posted on Goodreads May 2011]

[Edited after a reread May 2013] Having just read the third book in the series, ‘The Tyrant’s Law’, I was disinclined to start reading anything new or different or (frankly) inferior. So I started all over again with book 1, and given that I hardly ever reread anything (so many books, so little time) this is a Big Deal.
What strikes me most is how well this reads for a little extra understanding. It’s not just knowing which characters will be important, recognising names of places and the foreshadowing of events, but so many scenes are perceived entirely differently because of understanding the full implications of the prologue (the identity of the apostate, the peculiar nature of his ability and the way he deals with that). There’s a lot of history, too, which makes far more sense when viewed from a couple of books further on. There are bits and pieces which whizzed by me previously: the prejudice against non-First-Blood races, for instance, which jumps out at me now.
The characters still fall into their original stances: Geder is fascinating, Cithrin is whiny and childish, but most of the time I like her, Marcus is still the laconic cynical ex-warrior with a tragic personal story (but I kinda like that trope) and Dawson is – yes, Dawson is still irritating and prejudiced and insufferably stuck in rigid protocol. I still don’t understand the whole plot business in Camnipol. How is it that Dawson and Issandrian were both penalised, when one of them stirred up an armed rebellion against the throne and the other ensured it failed? How does that work?
But still – great book, a brilliantly devised if controversial character (Geder) and that huge whoa! moment at Vanai. And I still love the way that Geder simply reverses into success in his clumsy, half-arsed badly-thought-out way. Hes almost a sympathetic character, with his oddly not-quite-one-of-us ways, always trying to please, always falling short, a disappointment to his father and the butt of everyone elses jokes. Terrific stuff. The plot is still half-formed at this point, but the characters just glow with life.

Reviews of Daniel Abraham

Expanse Series (Written as James S A Corey with Ty Franck)
Leviathan Wakes
Caliban’s War

The Dagger and the Coin
The Dragon’s Path
The King’s Blood
The Tyrant’s Law
The Black Sun’s Daughter (Written as M.L.N Hanover)
Unclean Spirits
Darker Angels

Long Price Quartet

Fantasy Review: ‘The Silence of Medair’ by Andrea K Höst

For those who say all self-published works are dross – this book is a stunning counter example. The manuscript spent an unbelievable ten years – I’ll say that again, TEN years! – languishing with a single publisher before the author withdrew it in disgust and self-published. You can see why they might have had a problem with it, because it’s very different from the average. It’s intelligent, thought-provoking and well written. It avoids cliches. It’s character-driven fantasy at its best. It’s also a cracking story. I loved it.


The opening is, surely, how all fantasy novels should begin: not by parachuting the reader into the middle of a battle, or some gruesome moment intended purely to shock, but quietly, with the main character in her setting, then adding in the mysterious background, some magic and a threat, to draw you in. But then this is an unusual book in a number of different ways. Many of the events which other writers would turn into a whole trilogy – a massive magic-induced disaster, an empire threatened by invasion, an escalating, seemingly unwinnable, war, a desperate race to find a magic gizmo to turn the tide, and then, miraculously, actually finding said gizmo – all happened five hundred years in the past, and are revealed only briefly in passing. The author even resists the temptation to put them into a prologue. Instead, the story starts some months after the primary character, Medair, has returned with the gizmo, only to find that centuries have passed, the invaders have become the establishment and she herself is the outsider. Her sense of dislocation, and how she adjusts to the new regime, form the substance of the book.

The created world is not outrageously original, just the standard-issue pseudo-medieval arrangement, with a few little touches to make it different, and happily no hackneyed taverns, assassins, thieves, whores and the like, and no gratuitous violence or sex. So this is a relatively civilised and orderly world, where the complications are political rather than societal. And unlike many low-technology worlds, there’s a relaxed gender-neutrality in operation. Women can, and do, become soldiers, heralds, mages, whatever they have an aptitude for. They can inherit empires, too. I get tired of the patriarchy thoughtlessly assumed in most fantasy.

And there’s magic, of course. Oodles of magic. There are mages and adepts (which may be the same thing, I’m not clear about that) who have quite powerful abilities, and there are also magical artifacts. There is also ‘wild magic’, which is hugely, earth-shatteringly powerful (literally) and very unpredictable. I liked the way that magic can be sensed in some physical way, some kind of feeling that allows a character attuned to it to know that magic is being used, and sometimes what kind, and where, and how powerful it is. That was neat.

But it has to be said that sometimes the magic borders on being deus ex machina. The heroine gets into a tricky situation and has only to reach into her dimensionally flexible satchel and pull out some magic gizmo or other to effect her escape. Or else another character waves his or her hands around and – pow, she is magically constrained to do something or other. Is it really deus ex machina if we know ahead of time that the satchel contains magical gizmos, or that the character is a mage? Not sure, but it certainly made a very convenient plot device. On the other hand, it allowed the heroine to use her own self-reliance and not be dependent on a bloke turning up with a sword or a spell to rescue her. In fact, she was usually the one rescuing the blokes.

The heart of the book is the nature of the Ibisians, the invaders of five hundred years earlier, now the establishment. Medair’s hatred and mistrust of them is still fresh, and the scenes between them crackle with tension, as she tries to adjust her strong and perhaps legitimate feelings to this new world order. The issue is complicated, too, by the other countries and factions still fighting against the new rulers. Where exactly do her loyalties lie? She has the magic gizmo which will destroy the invaders, but are these people still her enemies five centuries later? These themes – of loyalty and oppression and enforced compliance and the nature of colonialism – weave throughout the story.

This part of the book is beautifully done. The subtle and not so subtle differences between the world Medair remembers and the current one are neatly drawn – the architecture, clothing, food, mannerisms and customs – so that we first see the invaders through Medair’s eyes as strangely alien beings, and only gradually begin to soften towards them as we get to know them better. It becomes apparent that five hundred years of assimilation has worked both ways, and these Ibisians are not the same as the enemy of Medair’s own time.

The plot revolves around Medair’s struggles with her own antipathies and growing respect for the Ibisians, so there is a great deal of introspection and (it has to be said) downright angsting going on. There were a few moments when I wished she would stop agonising and just get on with it. But fortunately there was enough action interspersed with the angst to keep things rattling along. There were a few places where I wasn’t too sure what was going on, where a little more explanation or description would have helped. Occasionally the complex hierarchy of the Ibisians caught me out (all the ranks begin with a ‘k’, so they begin to blur together), and sometimes I wasn’t even sure which character Medair was talking to. But these are minor issues, which never seriously affected my enjoyment. This is a great read, a story with an intriguing premise, unexpected twists and plenty of action. It’s also that rare beast, a fantasy novel with a truly strong female lead character who’s not remotely a stereotype. I recommend it. A good four stars.[Originally posted on Goodreads December 2011]

By the same author

Stained Glass Monsters

Fantasy Review: ‘Harbinger of the Storm’ by Alliete de Bodard

Harbinger of the Storm is the second book in the Obsidian and Blood series, and is an very good continuation of the series.  For those unfamiliar, the series is a historical fantasy set in the Aztec Empire, an empire where magic is everywhere and common, and where the gods have an active part in life.  It is also a series of murder mystery, but with magic.  Like the first book, the story is told in first person from the point of view of Acatl, the High Priest of the Dead.  Where the first book was at its core a murder mystery, the second book ups the stakes to the fate of the world itself.

Like the first book this novel is surprisingly accessible.  My knowledge of Aztec mythology is minimal, yet I never lost track of the deities or their corresponding priests.  The author is very good at dropping just enough information to keep you from getting lost, without ever slowing the story down with it.  Pacing is important to me, and this is another strength.  Acatl starts off investigating a grisly murder, and quickly gets involved in something much larger.  Escalating amounts of danger, more and more politics, and a showdown with a couple gods follow. 

While I enjoyed this novel a lot, I struggled with the magic system a bit more this time around.  In a land where gods play an active part it is hard to criticize the pure amount of magic that affected the characters, but at times it overwhelmed everything else.  Example, while the world was coming down in the form of star daemons,  Acatl and others conveniently find a loophole in a ceremony to replace a necessary Priestess who can slow the damage. 

The world is just as brutal as before, with sacrifice being a necessary part of life.  Some gods required certain animals, some human, and almost all spells require some kind of blood immediately at hand(Acatl is described cutting his earlobe numerous times).  There is no modern morality spin on this, the gods require blood and it is never second guessed. 

I enjoyed Acatl’s voice a lot more this time around, the brooding inferiority complex is mostly gone.  I was hoping for more grown from his apprentice, Teomitl, who remained a brash, impulsive young noble.  I was also surprised by the complete disappearance of women characters.  The first book had a couple of strong women who did all they could to influence events, despite the patriarchal society.  In Harbinger I counted three females, none who had a any real influence on the story. 

Pros:  As easy to read as dime store paperback murder mystery, but a lot more intelligent.  A very interesting main character, and a nice blend of building on the story, while keeping it contained in one book. 

Cons: The magic got overwhelming, and Acatl made is discoveries at just the right time a bit too much this time around.

3 stars

Followed by ‘Master of the House of Darts’

Series Review