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Fantasy Review: ‘Small Gods’ by Terry Pratchett

Part 13 of The Complete Discworld Reread

I. ‘ SMALL GODS’ IS THE STORY OF BRUTHA, LAST OF THE PROPHETS TO THE GREAT GOD OM.  IT IS CONSIDERED BY MANY TO BE THE BEST BOOK BY PRATCHETT FOR GOOD REASON.  IT SHOULD BE THE ONLY BOOK A PERSON EVER NEEDS TO READ.

It is true that ‘Small Gods’ is a hell of a book, and is probably my favorite of the author’s vast catalog.  I don’t know how many times I have read it in my life, but over a dozen is a safe bet.  It tells the story of Brutha, an illiterate novice in the Church of Om.  Tending the garden he hears the voice of his god coming from a small turtle.  Turns out that in the middle of the temple dedicated exclusively to Om, filled with statues in his image and an inquisition designed to keep everyone on the true path, Om can only find one actual believer.  And for gods on Discworld, belief is the sole way to power.

II. EVERYONE MUST KNOW THE STORY OF OM AND BRUTHA.  THE TRAVELS THEY TOOK TOGETHER.  BRUTHA’S RISE.  THE NEED TO ALWAYS BE KIND TO TURTLES.

Brutha never had a single doubt about his god, but once he gets proof the rest of his beliefs go up in flames.  The church itself is going through some harsh measures to enforce its beliefs.  The inquisition enforces the rules of prophet after prophet, rules that the great god Om claims to know nothing about.  A resistance is growing, starting with the simple verifiable fact that globe Omians claim the world to be a globe is false, every traveler knows it is a disc sitting on a turtle.  With the cry of “the turtle moves” flowing through the church Vorbis, high deacon of the inquisition, decides it best to stamp out the heresy at the source.  A trip to the philosophers’ city of sin is planned, and Brutha is dragged along.

III. VORBIS IS A COMPLETE ASSHOLE.

Ya, he really is, but he is a wonderful villain character.  Ice cold doesn’t even begin to describe him.  It is pointed out that some people in the inquisition truly enjoy hurting people, making them merely terrible humans.  Vorbis truly thinks people deserve it, making him a true monster.  Terrible as he is Vorbis makes the perfect counterpoint to the saint like Brutha.  Even after he shows his worse Brutha is there time and time again to right his path, right up to the perfect ending.

IV. DESPITE BEING WRONG IN THE PAST BE ASSURED THAT THE CURRENT CHURCH OF OM CAN NEVER BE WRONG.

Writing a book that mocks religion, or aspects of religion, can be tricky.  Many authors would be content to just be mean; have everyone in power shown to be a buffoon and make fun of the funny little rituals and contradictions in text.  Pratchett took a different tact.  While the institutions of the church had major problems the solution was a reformation rather than a dismantling.  It is a more respectful tone that is one of the reasons I find the book so readable.  The fact that we know from the start that God exists changes everything.  People living in fear find themselves believing in fear more than the god.    A favorite passage comes from an outsider to the church remarking on a stoning he watched; every person present was absolutely certain of one thing, that they were not the person being stoned.

V. THE GREAT GOD OM DEMANDS THAT REVIEWERS OF HIS BOOK GUSH A BIT MORE.  THERE IS NEVER ENOUGH PRAISE!

I can’t really gush enough about Small Gods.  There is no way I can give it a fair review, and it took me a week to write this silly thing up.  I never realized how hard it is to explain why one of your favorite things is so good.  But damn, it is hard.  This is the best I can do.  Please read Small Gods if you have not, it is one of the best.  As a plus it is a standalone within a series and requires no knowledge of the rest of the series to read.

5 stars.

VI. THE END!

Fantasy Review: ‘All The Paths of Shadow’ by Frank Tuttle

There is an old story that this reviewer is much too lazy to do any research that would verify or debunk.  The story says that a man who went by Dr. Suess wrote Green Eggs and Ham on a dare based on only using a hundred distinct words.  I bring this up only because I wonder if there was a dare behind ‘All the Paths of Shadow.’

“Mr. Tuttle,” I imagine a smug friend of the author saying (though he probably wouldn’t use the impersonal Mr., but rather a more friendly Frank).  “I dare, no, I double-dog dare you to write a book within which the protagonist spends at least seventy five percent of the page count doing math in her lab.  You must also find a way to incorporate a talking houseplant.”

“Easily done,” the author may have replied.  “I accept your laughable simple challenge.”

“Not so fast!”  Our imaginary smug friend decides to up the ante on the game.  “I also want to see the most ludicrous use of a magic user’s power ordered by a king, without making the king himself look like an idiot.”

“Ideas are already forming in my head, are there any more caveats to be added?”  The imaginary conversation continues, and for the first time the spell checker comes out because who knew that was how to spell caveat?

“Only one more, at least one character must be an enigma, wrapped in a mystery, who no one knows the trustworthiness of.  And that character must be a damn good cook.”

And thus is how I imagine the geneses of All the Path of Shadow came about.  Mr. Author, will you verify this story for me?  And while you’re at it, feel free to fact check that Dr. Seuss one as well.

Anyway.

The land of Tirlin is about to hold an accord in which each of the kingdoms attends.  The king orders the books protagonist, young mage Meralda Ovis to find a way to move the shadow from the lands ancient, mysterious tower so he can give a speech at its base.  Seemingly the request of a mad king, in reality the speech may be the final point of a new era as the mysterious Hang are coming across the sea to join the process.  As could be expected, tampering with an ancient mysterious tower causes its own problems. Meralda soon finds herself responsible for saving the kingdom from an ancient curse, watching the land’s back with other dangerous mages around, and when she finds time for it, getting the darn shadow to move.

Pacing in the book is surprisingly a strong point as I wasn’t kidding about the kind of time spend doing math in a lab.  The magic Meralda uses is heavily based on math, but still mystical enough to be considered magic and not science.  Thankfully the author keeps the math in Meralda’s head; we don’t see pages of figures, only the results.  The time spent in the lab is usually heavy on entertaining dialog; either in the form of brainstorming sessions or banter with the talking house plant.  Light humor also helps the flow in spots that could have become tedious.  While not action heavy there are a couple entertaining spots where danger lurks around the corner (or right in front of everything).

Meralda is a wonderful character to follow.  The youngest mage to hold the top title, and first woman, she was put through advanced training when she turned Mug into a sentient plant with no training at all.  While often overwhelmed she does everything possible to keep a straight head; this is not a character that breaks down and whines until someone fixes her problems.  It was obvious that despite the gender politics Meralda had earned the respect of many in the land, especially the other magic users.  She works through the problems the way people really do; some help from friends, occasional lucky breaks, and a whole lot of hard work.

The rest of the cast was enjoyable, though almost everyone fades into the background; this is assuredly Meralda’s story.  Mug the talking plant was entertaining, though like most familiars got a bit Disney cartoon at times.  The guards assigned to Meralda were sweet and endearing, obviously smitten with their keep but never annoying.  Meralda’s mentors were great.  Villains went both ways.  One was too obviously evil for my liking; luckily his screen time was low.  But I did like that his co-conspirators were a few bad seeds from several countries, rather than all cut from the same cloth.

Yes I enjoyed this book.  Meralda is a great character, and I am glad a few loose ends were left so I can hope for a sequel.  Recommended for fantasy fans looking for something light and fun with a likable main character.

4 Stars

DNF: ‘Green Light Delivery’ by Anne E. Johnson

Book Abandoned

Stopping Point: 25%

Reason for abandonment: The book flat out wasn’t working for me.

Aliens in name only; despite describing how different they all looked the aliens were completely human, right down to using English acronyms like SOB when cussing. 

The plot was very disjointed; the main character was bounced all over the place and escaped from the most inept captives possible a couple of times.

Main character was unlikeable; he was either lusting after every female in the book or near tears crying about his unfortunate new circumstances. 

Reason others may enjoy it more: Quirky set up, intriguing start, very light weight and fast moving.

Sorry for such a quick review, but I have no more time to give this book.  A rare book that truly was doing nothing for me.

Review copy received from NetGalley

Fantasy Review: ‘Spirit’s End’ by Rachel Aaron

Ah Eli Monpress series, your time is ending way too soon.  I know I should be happy.  After all, I get a satisfying conclusion to a series that has avoided turning into a repetitive serial.  A series that has avoided bloat.  A series that truly did get better with each and every book.  And it is not like the author is leaving, she has something new in the works so I will get to read her stuff again.  But I sure will miss about new adventures involving this tight cast.  I’ll miss you Eli, and you Josef and Miranda.  And Nico, wonderful Nico, I think I will miss you most of all.

I am actually a bit amazed at how well Aaron tied up all of her loose threads in this book without making it feel like a checklist.  Unanswered questions are answered.  Questions I didn’t even know I should be asking were answered.  Better still, these questions were answered within the framework of yet another interesting adventure for the heroes.  Of course the fate of the very world is at stake but unlike many stories that use the old cliché I felt it was a perfectly reasonable escalation.  We have learned as the series progressed just why our favorite characters were at the center of everything going on; with a hand guiding them through much of the time.  So it doesn’t feel contrived at all to find the cast central to everything important as the world is crumbling around them.

There is so little to say without getting into to spoilers.  Fans of previous books will love the way the book continues to build, Aaron has walked the line between exciting and over the top delicately throughout and for the most part handles it great.  Everything a fan loves about the characters continues, including their strong bonds that have defined the series.  I had some frustrations in the middle of the series with the “spirits” angle being forgotten for plot convenience at times, but saw none of that here.  And the final details of the relationship between humans and spirits was something I would have never worked out on my own, but made perfect since.  Just great.

I was a bit turned off by Miranda’s story.  While all the characters have some Mary/Gary Stu qualities, Miranda’s backstory doesn’t really justify the respect she gets.  Her final plan is accepted by people who don’t even know her, and accepted almost without question.  And with the constant escalation of danger I felt the author was a bit too willing to have characters live through sure deaths a few too many times; there was always a convenient power source to heal up injuries for the next round.

Rating this one has to be done in two ways.  For the book itself it is a solid outing with a few minor annoyances.  A solid four stars.  But as a series ending it spoils us.  The author stopped before I tired of the characters, and as mentioned wrapped up the story better than I through it could be.  And that I feel is worth the full five stars, with a sum adding up to more than its parts.

5 stars.
 

Fantasy Review: ‘Any Other Name’ by Emma Newman

When I reviewed ‘Between Two Thorns’ I mentioned I would probably read its sequel once it came out.  Well, I did.  The first book of the Split Worlds series was enjoyable, easy to read and introduced a strong heroine in Catherine.  The introduction of the Nether, a land acting as a go between for the real world and the land of the Fae had an interesting set up.  Though I enjoyed it, I was consistently distracted by some holes in the world building.  An unexplained economy, inconsistencies in which technologies could be trusted, and the whole confusing power structure between the Fae, sorcerers, and arbitrators ultimately dragged down much of the story. 

None of these things have changed, I still have to take the world the author built as it is shown (and I don’t buy in to all of it).  For instance I still wonder why the people of the Nether decided that nineteenth century British life was the perfect place to stop adapting.  But going into the second book I have chosen to just accept it, work around it, and enjoy all the things that are right with the series.

In that vein I happily report that the second book is much better than the first.  A small part of that is ‘Any Other Name’ is allowed to avoid some of the tedious world set up.  Instead the author teases us with a little more info about the threads only touched upon in the first.  Several unanswered questions are from the previous book are brought up and resolved, several more questions are left for future books.  It is obvious that this is a series that the author plans on carrying for a while.

Cathy was already a fun character, but she is even stronger this time around.  While she still has to dance to the marionette (the people of the Nether are called puppets for a reason, and the true strength of the Fae is showing more), she is fighting for every opportunity; looking for her chances throughout, and snatching small victories where she can.  Max the arbitrator also returned, and while his arc takes a turn toward complete un-likability it is more consistent with the setup of man with a detached soul.  His gargoyle companion is more Disney sidekick than a real character, but is good for a small amount of comic relief.  A few other characters get some depth, though only Will can be said to be likable in any way, and him only by the standards of others in the Nether.

A couple of interesting plot lines this time around.  One has to do with Cathy’s new husband Will’s social climbing in the Nether’s London and the nasty, sometimes violent, politics that goes with it.  Cathy is also learning that she is not as unique in her ideas as she may have thought, and while only touched upon the start of a women’s rights movement has some seeds planted.  The ongoing investigation from the first book by Max and a sorcerer is a downer plot for me; it still feels completely unconnected and unimportant to the story.  No doubt this is something that will become clearer as the series progresses, but at the moment it is reading as a completely different book where the characters occasionally interact.

I rated the first book three stars, and have stated that this book is better.  I cannot think of any other series that has me turning pages any faster than this one, so it obviously is hitting me in some of the right spots.  I still have some issues with the world building obviously, but the strength of Cathy’s story overcomes it in my mind.  With this book the Split Worlds series has gained a place in my must read as soon as released list, I am officially invested in the story.

3 1/2 stars

Review copy received through NetGalley

Fantasy Review: ‘The Somnambulist’ by Jonathan Barnes

Edward Moon was once the darling of London, a magician who helped break some of the biggest cases of the time.  His day seems to be pasts however and he is now invited to soirées more out of habit than any desire to have him present.  His stage act still draws modest crowds, though mostly because of his silent (as in mute) partner, The Somnambulist, a giant of a man who does not bleed.  He is bored, spending his time lamenting the lack of interesting criminals and visiting a brothel specializing in very unique tastes.  As is bound to happen, strange murders around London brings him out of his lull, and once he starts investigating things take a turn right past strange and into ****ing weird.

I knew I would like this book almost immediately, because I am a sucker for a unique voice in the narration.  The narrator tells me he may lie at times, holds grudges against characters, and acts in a condescending manner throughout; of course I am all in.  Readers will either love or hate it when his identity is revealed; I felt it was unnecessary but didn’t really detract from the book.

In some ways the book reads like homage to just about everything.  Allusions to Dickens, Frankenstien, penny dreadfuls, and a few of the name drops common in books with a Victorian setting (very few thankfully).  The narrator calls the book literary nonsense but he is wrong, literary hodgepodge is more apt.  I am sure there are twenty homages I missed completely that those better read would pick out in a heartbeat.

Plotting is secondary, though it is not necessarily a weakness. First come the throwaway references, McGuffins, rantings of the narrator, and the introduction of characters that may or may not be important.  While not every characters is important to the plot, what a cast they make!  The Prefects are bound to be most peoples favorite, two grown men in school boy uniforms that make Croup and Vandemar look like angels.  An inmate in Newgate with a passion for trinkets and baubles is a strange addition, and there is a whole club just for those with grotesque injuries.  But get past all this and a reader is bound to realize that the plot itself was deceivingly simple.  Moon really had no say in what was happening, he just followed the rails and did what he was supposed to.

If a person is a reader who wants all of their mysteries solved they will hate this book.  McGuffins and red herrings aplenty litter the book, little plot elements introduced but never expanded on.  Where did Moon’s former partner go wrong?  Why can’t Moon and his sister be around each other for long?  How did a certain organization command such strong loyalty so quickly?  What the hell is The Somnambulist anyway, and where did he get his name when sleep seems to be no problem at all for him?  For that matter, is the title character even really important to the plot?  Geez, I am just getting started.

Recommended to anyone who enjoys dark humor, a quirky narrator, and isn’t put off by lack of resolution of every plot line.  Must be forgiving of unlikable characters and some jaw-dropping awful moments.  Not recommended for those looking for a completely coherent plot.  Mostly it comes down to this; if you want to read a book with middle aged assassins dressed like school boys who think they are the epitome of wit, then jump right on it. 

4 stars