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Fantasy Review: “Lords and Ladies” by Terry Pratchett

I have said several times that Granny Weatherwax is my favorite character of the genre by quite a long ways.  But it is in Lords and Ladies that I start to realize that Nanny Ogg gives her a heck of a run for the money.  She may always play second fiddle to Granny, but at times there are clues that it may be because that is where she prefers to sit.

The formula is well established now; take a well known story, strip out a good portion of it while keeping what works on Discworld, set the most entertaining witches into it and watch the fireworks.  A wedding is to take place on the eve of midsummer and the whole world is invited.  Traveling from the University is a group including the Archchancellor and the library.  Lancre preps in awkward ways, including an impromptu play but on by some of the craftsmen of the area (ie Carver the Weaver and Thatcher the Butcher, how did I miss this joke so many times before?).  If the bride is less than happy it is not because she doesn’t want to get married, but damn it would have been nice to have some say in the matter.

But reality is rather thin, wannabe witches play with a few things they shouldn’t have, and Jason Ogg’s play suddenly gets too real.  Next thing we know the village of Lancre has an infestation of nasty elves convicting people with glamour that maybe they are not that bad.  Terrific and terrifying are just different sides of the same coin after all.

Somehow the formula for witch novels hasn’t gotten old yet, perhaps because Pratchett has felt little need to stick to the parodied stories very closely at all and maintains flexibility.  The story starts strong, with Granny needing to deal with a new crop of wannabes led by a girl with some real power.  She wins a witches duel in an unconventional way, in no small part due to the hidden strengths of Nanny.  Nanny has no need for the spotlight (at least when it comes to magic; she actually uses her attention seeking ways to avert people’s eyes to her very real power).  Magrat is wonderful in this book; wanting to mope around but realizing that it really isn’t her way.  When elves attack she thinks she is channeling an old warrior queen, when in reality she is showing the same inner strength we have seen several times; strength that for some reason Magrat always seems to forget she has.

There was a rare danger of the cast growing too large this outing.  Granny and the Archchancellor’s past was handled well and was very sweet in a melancholy way but I would have loved more scenes with them.  Ponder and the Bursar are completely wasted in this story.  I was also disappointed a bit by the ending, a giant Dues ex Machina that was somewhat saved by the smart route Nanny went through to achieve it.  Granny looks like the hero in this one, providing the most impressive magic and most vocal resistance.  But it is Nanny who thinks it all through and finds the solution.

The elves themselves were kind of boring villains but it didn’t really affect the enjoyably of the book.  How to explain?  The elves were like an agar for the protagonists to grow in.  They provided the outlet for each character to do their thing, rather than doing anything themselves.  Even the Queen was more useful as a way for Granny to push herself to the limit than she ever was as leader or scary villain.

A few jokes fell flat near the end but otherwise this is one of the funnier outings of the witch sub-series.  I want to learn the bucket dance, loved Nanny playing footsie with steel toed books, and the Archchancellor going on about not being invited to his own wedding never got hold.

4 stars. Not one of my favorites but another very solid outing.

Fantasy Review: “Lords and Ladies” by Terry Pratchett

I have said several times that Granny Weatherwax is my favorite character of the genre by quite a long ways.  But it is in Lords and Ladies that I start to realize that Nanny Ogg gives her a heck of a run for the money.  She may always play second fiddle to Granny, but at times there are clues that it may be because that is where she prefers to sit.

The formula is well established now; take a well known story, strip out a good portion of it while keeping what works on Discworld, set the most entertaining witches into it and watch the fireworks.  A wedding is to take place on the eve of midsummer and the whole world is invited.  Traveling from the University is a group including the Archchancellor and the library.  Lancre preps in awkward ways, including an impromptu play but on by some of the craftsmen of the area (ie Carver the Weaver and Thatcher the Butcher, how did I miss this joke so many times before?).  If the bride is less than happy it is not because she doesn’t want to get married, but damn it would have been nice to have some say in the matter.

But reality is rather thin, wannabe witches play with a few things they shouldn’t have, and Jason Ogg’s play suddenly gets too real.  Next thing we know the village of Lancre has an infestation of nasty elves convicting people with glamour that maybe they are not that bad.  Terrific and terrifying are just different sides of the same coin after all.

Somehow the formula for witch novels hasn’t gotten old yet, perhaps because Pratchett has felt little need to stick to the parodied stories very closely at all and maintains flexibility.  The story starts strong, with Granny needing to deal with a new crop of wannabes led by a girl with some real power.  She wins a witches duel in an unconventional way, in no small part due to the hidden strengths of Nanny.  Nanny has no need for the spotlight (at least when it comes to magic; she actually uses her attention seeking ways to avert people’s eyes to her very real power).  Magrat is wonderful in this book; wanting to mope around but realizing that it really isn’t her way.  When elves attack she thinks she is channeling an old warrior queen, when in reality she is showing the same inner strength we have seen several times; strength that for some reason Magrat always seems to forget she has.

There was a rare danger of the cast growing too large this outing.  Granny and the Archchancellor’s past was handled well and was very sweet in a melancholy way but I would have loved more scenes with them.  Ponder and the Bursar are completely wasted in this story.  I was also disappointed a bit by the ending, a giant Dues ex Machina that was somewhat saved by the smart route Nanny went through to achieve it.  Granny looks like the hero in this one, providing the most impressive magic and most vocal resistance.  But it is Nanny who thinks it all through and finds the solution.

The elves themselves were kind of boring villains but it didn’t really affect the enjoyably of the book.  How to explain?  The elves were like an agar for the protagonists to grow in.  They provided the outlet for each character to do their thing, rather than doing anything themselves.  Even the Queen was more useful as a way for Granny to push herself to the limit than she ever was as leader or scary villain.

A few jokes fell flat near the end but otherwise this is one of the funnier outings of the witch sub-series.  I want to learn the bucket dance, loved Nanny playing footsie with steel toed books, and the Archchancellor going on about not being invited to his own wedding never got hold.

4 stars. Not one of my favorites but another very solid outing.

Fantasy Review: ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ by Neil Gaiman

Two confessions.  I am a Neil Gaiman fanboy and love everything of his I have read.  I also have a history of overrating books immediately after reading them, and only upon reflection do I rethink ratings. (I don’t change ratings though; A. they are not that important and B. books deserve the rating I give from my immediate emotions).

So keep that in mind when I say that I loved ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane” and would recommend it to everyone (but then I recommend American Gods at every chance I get, and am flabbergasted that some (i.e. my wife)  don’t like it.  Different strokes and all that).  A plot synopsis would be impossible; the book is so short almost any synopsis would be spoilerific.  Nothing will come as a surprise, and ordinary person (this time a young boy) is taking from the mundane into the incredible. 

Hell if I know what it is about.  Early reviews said it was about longing for home, so why not?  Let us go with that.  I do know that the whole book was a short dream-like journey that had me captivated.  Likewise I have no idea what the influences were for the rather unique mythology of this book.  The Maiden, Mother, and Crone was the obvious one.  But whether or not the flea or the cleaners represented an unknown to me tie to existing myth I regret to say I do not know.

But readers of Gaiman should be well used to the style, and as strange as all the new unknown elements were to me I never felt any disbelieve.  This to me is the author’s genius, taking the unbelievable and making it real.  He has been doing it for years, and in my mind succeeded once again.

If I had to nitpick I would point out that at times I felt I was reading a gritty remake of Coraline, if not in substance in style.  But that could be attributed to being a bit too familiar with Gaiman’s style, after all I have read each of his books several times.

Not my favorite book by any means; of the adult novels by the author it is firmly third on my list.  But when it comes to Gaiman most people have their minds made up already.  People are going to read it or not, and my opinion is just one I a vast sea of them.

4 stars

Fantasy Review: ‘The Whitefire Crossing’ by Courtney Schafer

Good Idea:  Taking advantage of a free book deal and downloading a book that has received good ratings from all of your friends.

Bad Idea:  Not reading the book for over a year because you are scared the “rock climbing elements” will overshadow everything else in the book.

I can’t believe I let this sit on my Kindle without reading it for so long.  I truly did put it off because all the talk was about how the author is a rock climber and put it into her book; my brain went meh and I skipped it repeatedly.  My loss.

Yes, the book does contain some rock climbing elements.  Protagonist Dev is an outrider who scouts the terrain for trade caravans with climbing being one of the many duties.  Dev is also making a bit of a side profit by smuggling magical items into a city with very strict controls on magic.  The book starts with almost no bull****; Dev going to his usual contact and learning that this time he is being asked to smuggle a person across the border.  With reasons of his own to take the cash he reluctantly agrees, taking on Kiran as an “assistant” to provide cover on the next run.

Bouncing back and forth between the point of view of both Dev and Kiran (with Dev’s chapters being in the first person) the author artfully makes us care about both characters; even when their goals may not be aligned.  Strong engaging characters may have been my favorite thing of many this story.  Not only do we have Dev and Kiran, both good people hiding something; but several of the support characters had almost as much life as the two protagonists.  Villains were pure evil but for some reason this was a story where that didn’t bother me as much.  Usually I like my villains to have a human element, but complete monster worked in this environment surprisingly well.

Pacing was a huge point in this story’s favor.  A good amount of the background info was told within the journey rather than funneled down our throat.  There was plenty of action, with magic that was enough of a threat to matter.  By switching PoV’s regularly I never got bored with one character, and by keeping it at two I never god mad when a switch happened; I knew I would see him again soon.  I have learned over time that I almost always prefer my fantasy in shorter chunks; at about 350 pages this book was perfect for what I needed.

“World building” doesn’t really occur here, but there is some very good “small area building.”  Only hints of a larger world are shown, this book deals with two cities and the passage between them.  But it is so full of life!  One city thrives on magic, living in an almost magical anarchy where mages of different types can do anything they want.  The other is almost Orwellian in their attempt to keep people safe from the magic; using the very magic they are suppressing to enforce the rules.  Charms are sold for different uses, some quite powerful.  Different mages use different power bases, and if some of the “blood mage” power felt like mana in a video game to me it is probably proof that I have played too many damn video games.

My only real complaint comes the warded city of Alathia, it of magical suppression.  The city is protected by spells that will alert the guard if the wrong types of magic are used, while ignoring the more benign.  In theory.  In reality it felt like one of the most blatant author’s conveniences I have ever read, a nice security blanket that let the author do just about anything with it.  We see all kinds of magic take place within it without setting off the alarms, but also see the guards called in for something they didn’t come for the first time we saw it.  I would have liked some more consistency on that front, but maybe it is addressed in later books as a misconception (or deliberate misleading).  In any case, it didn’t distract much from the reading.

Oh yes, I even liked the areas of the book that dealt with mountain climbing.

4 stars

Historical Fiction Review: ‘The Game of Kings’ by Dorothy Dunnett

Oh Lymond, you wascally wabbit.  I see you for what you are, a grown man in sixteen century Scotland who thinks he is living Looney Tunes.  Your life is a series of mini adventures, getting captured by a range of not real scary opponents.  There is never an instance when it is not appropriate to taunt the opposition mercilessly, showing off the fact you are the smartest man in the room with your wit.  You will always get captured, and you will always escape.  Your skills are better than everyone else, your wit never fails, and all the ladies love you.  Wait, did Bugs Bunny ever have a lady friend?

To give a synopsis would give away the plot.  Frances Crawford of Lymond, usually known only as Lymond or The Master, is knee deep in the politics of sixteen century Scotland.  Living as an outlaw he still has contacts with the major players of the game.  Along the way the reader is shown several real life figures of the time, most notably young Mary (queen of Scots).  Knowledge of the period however is not required; I personally know nothing about Scottish history.

I picked up ‘The Game of Kings’ due to some comparisons being made to GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, specifically in the politicking and complex plots.  Many of the recommendations also came with a warning that the first half of the book is a real chore to get through.  When it came to the ASOIAF comparisons I must admit, I didn’t really see it (maybe it comes later in the series?).  The first half of the book being a chore however was very, very true.  Really I was starting to think I was just not going to understand the overarching plot all the way to about the 2/3 mark.  And then something clicked and suddenly I am racing through the end, staying up late to finish a book I am suddenly addicted to.

I am not really kidding about the Looney Tunes style plot, the early parts of the book feels more like a series of shorts involving the adventures of Lymond and his merry band.  In each case he dresses someone down completely with fiery wit and extreme intellect; often in two or three languages.  In every case he is two or three steps ahead of the opponent; even when captured escape is inevitable.  As a reader we are thrown in with very little background.  Lymond is an outlaw reaping havoc with the nobles of Scotland.  It really isn’t too much of a spoiler to say there is more to the man who meets the eye, and eventually the multiple shorts are tied to a much more coherent picture.  And when this happens Lymond’s role becomes crucial to his home country.

I am of two minds here.  There is no doubt Lymond was incredibly engaging as a character.  Dunnett obviously has the intelligence to write a “genius” character; the dialog between Lymond and his adversaries was well worth the price of the book.  And once the plot lines started tying together the book was almost impossible to put down.  I also enjoy historical fiction that keeps from name dropping huge names and placing them in improbable situations.

But I wonder if the dense beginning needed to be such a tough start.  I know in a different mood this book would have been put on a ‘did not finish” pile, never to be seen again after a hundred pages.  It makes it hard to recommend without reservations; “keep reading it gets better” is not exactly a ringing endorsement.

On the other hand, how can a fault a book for doing something too intelligently?  It is not the author’s fault that we are not all polyglots, or that not all of us recognize names from Scottish history.  At one point I found myself thinking “I need a map,” like I don’t have instant access to maps of the entire country at my figure tips.

When all is said and done (a phrase I have GOT to stop using in reviews) I have to admire the complex portrait, and take the strong ending into account more than my confusion at the beginning.  I think to myself, do I want to read the next one?  I think to myself, yes , I really do.  And that makes me think I am out-thinking myself; just recognize a good book when it is in front of you.

4 stars.  Not bad for a book that took me so long to get into.

Fantasy Review: ‘The Jackal of Nar’ by John Marco

In lieu of a review I am going to have a conversation about my last read with an average fifteen year old male reddit user (AFYOMRU).  Won’t that be fun?  Warning, that kid is known to drop minor spoilers at times.

Me: I will just go ahead and say it.  “The Jackal of Nar” was thoroughly mediocre.  It went from slightly interesting to boring.  Your thoughts?

AFYOMRU: You are crazy man, that may have been the best book I have read all year!

Me: Really?  Well break it down for me, what makes this book work for you?

AFYOMRU: Everything.

Me: This conversation will not go anywhere with one word answers, let’s be more specific.  I will start; usually if a protagonist is unlikeable it is because the author wants him that way.  This man was unlikable, but I think we were supposed to be impressed by him.

AFYOMRU: What?!  Richius was bad ass throughout!  He was an awesome military commander and all the chicks dug him.

Me:  I guess I just didn’t see it.  We are supposed to think he is a great military mind but really we saw him either get defeated or run into a completely inept enemies that were are also TOLD are great minds, but never really see.  As for the “chicks” thing, ya there was some wish fulfillment stuff going one that got borderline creepy.  I mean, he sleeps with a girl whose circumstances force her to turn to prostitution, takes her virginity, and then gains her trust and love with a simple apology?  Then gets the most beautiful girl in the kingdom in an arranged marriage, who also falls deep in love with him at first sight?  This seem realistic to you?

AFYOMRU: Yes.  And it is not like it was one way love, he seemed to love them both.  Look at his reaction when his wife died.  It changed everything for him.

Me: Ya.  That is known as a “fridging” these days.  And I would say that it was laughably predictable looking at the plot before it, but this author decided a basic fridging wasn’t good enough, first he had to go Terrry Goodkind on the poor girl and pass her to Richius’ rival.  Frankly it was disgusting, and this is coming from a guy who enjoys most GRIMDARK he reads.

AFYOMRU: Goodkind sure is awesome.

Me: I knew you would say that.  I suppose you like the bad guys too?  At first I thought they were going to have some depth, but once you knew who they were they were obviously bad all the way through.

AFYOMRU: Oh I loved them!  Biagio seemed like a nice guy, with only subtle hints that he was really bad at first.  Like when you learn he has a thing for both boys and girls in a throwaway line.

Me: ……………………

AFYOMRU: Anyway you seem stuck on dissing the characters, what about the battles?  You say you like that kind of thing, were they not awesome?

Me:  They kind of were.  I liked the war wolves; I liked the hint of new technologies changing the style of war being fought.  Really it was the details like that kept me reading through the end.  But for military fantasy there was very little in the way of military.  I saw what, 10 pages of battle in a seven hundred page book?

AFYOMRU: ………… Huh.  Your kinda right about that one.  I liked the world building though.

Me: Really?  It was Rome in expansionist era.  It may have been neat with some kind of depth, but all we got were names of places.  No history or life.  And the politics made no sense.  If Nar is stretched fighting battles on all sides why did it take so long for its enemies to ally together?

AFYOMRU: Dunno.

Me:  Like I said, boring.

AFYOMRU: No, you’re boring.  I am going home man.

Ok let’s review.  Apparently this book would be more enjoyable if you enjoy being told how great the main character is by the author and have a deep love of male wish fulfillment.  It also seems to help if you like moody teenagers in adult bodies as your main character.  You probably won’t care for it if you expect battles in your military fantasy, or politics that make sense, or anything that resembles excitement.  I should have given up this book around the halfway point, but I was hoping for a climactic battle at the end.  Got more boredom instead.

2 Stars