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Over-Thinking It: ‘Ten Apples on Top’

Nathan is on vacation this week.  Just for fun he decided to to short reviews of his three year old’s favorite books.  It should have been simple and quick.  But if there is one thing Nathan is good at it is Over-thinking It.

Dr. Seuss, one Theodor Geisel, is of course best known as the writer/illustrator of just about every classic children’s book most of us have ever read. The books are silly, horrible to read to a child after the fifth time in one day, and full of made up words. What they are not, however, are offensive or controversial.

Geisel also published a number of books under a separate pen name, Theo LeSieg. While the story is that this pen name was used for books he penned but didn’t ink, the nature of the works lends itself to speculation of a different reason. For it is under LeSieg that Geisel handled the tough topics. He talked anti-Semitism and segregation in Hooper Humpledink…? Not Him! He gave an early look into the life of the ‘furry’ lifestyle in I Wish I Had Duck’s Feet.

But of course none of his books hit with quite the same fury as Ten Apples on Top, Geisel’s anti-capitalist response to Randian philosophy. Hidden within the cute illustrations of animals playing their silly game is perhaps the hardest hitting commentary yet.

IMG_20140625_072132_414The book opens simple enough, with one animal placing a single apple on his head, representing, of course, the early stages of the bourgeoisie consolidation of power. Joined by two others, they soon find themselves not at all satisfied with what little they have. In a race to keep up with the Joneses they soon drop any and all other considerations in order to consolidate more wealth (measured in apples ‘on top’) than each other.   Each step brings not happiness or joy, but a desire to be one better than the others who are consolidating the same amount of wealth. Indeed by the end of the story the three protagonists, if the term can be used for such despicable characters, seem to care ONLY for the apples they have accumulated, even after a horrific accident the first thought goes back to the allegorical apples on top.

In Geisel’s apple based dystopia a land based around capitalism is good for no one. Those IMG_20140625_072202_949without apples ‘on top’ live in no better world than the three with them. A feverish jealousy consumes every bit of their life, and they use every opportunity not to better their own lot, but rather to try to take down others. They see the bourgeoisie running around and playing with their wealth whilst they don their aprons and work; and when the time comes they begin their revolution.

IMG_20140625_072234_256The cynical ending is to be expected and shows a real twisted genius. Everyone in the society actually appears happy as they all end up with apples on top, and all swear to never lose the status gained from the phenomenon. But unlike the earlier trio the rest of the characters only achieve their good fortune by miraculous means. Much like the recent country song ‘People Are Crazy,’ good fortune is not earned, but comes to those who deserve it through some sort of mythic karma. What appears to be a happy ending is actually a true Utopia; literally nowhere.

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Steampunk Review: ‘Three Parts Dead’ by Max Gladstone

Three Parts Dead‘You’re a mean one, Mr. (Name retracted to prevent spoilers)

You really are a heel’

Ok, I am all in on this one; Three Parts Dead deserves all the praise it has been getting. Suspenseful, gritty, and working in completely unexpected directions; I am not sure what I thought this book was about but I am very pleasantly surprised with the unexpected direction it went.   The very thought of necromancy does nothing for me, but with the possibility of resurrecting a god my ears perk up.

We meet Tara not long after being expelled with extreme prejudice from a school of craft. What is craft? Oh just a bit of necromancy, a bit of power that may be magical in nature, and a path that rivals the gods of the world in strength. And has; a war of craft against the gods is in the past but still very much still remembered. Tara is quickly offered a job to defend the interests of the church of Kos; a god who is suddenly and unexpectedly found to be dead.

Are we tired of books dealing with living gods and the nature of belief? I seriously hope not, Gladstone provides yet another unique telling of the same old story. As has been seen before we have the gods of the land pulling power from belief but there the similarities to any others I have read ends. Kos is not sitting on high playing games with mortals; he is an integral part of his chosen city, a fire god who provides almost everything fire can be used for. He also isn’t immersed within a bubble as there is a complex give and take of power written in contracts between the gods. Tara’s job of resurrecting him is multi-faceted; find how he died in the first place, what other factors were affected by the death beyond the obvious, and figure out just what a resurrected god would be if it is possible.

A tight cast moves the story forward, if not at a brisk pace, at least in a leisurely way the never lags behind. Tara is a first rate protagonist with confidence in abundance. She finds her place after a rough start and starts pulling strings until she figures everything out. Those who help her in her investigations include a junkie who gave herself to the ghost of a goddess, and a chain smoking priest whose faith is strong despite the death of his god.  Plus a few deities and the strangest kinds of lawyers I have ever seen.

This quasi steampunk tale works as the most unique courtroom drama I have seen, shows signs of supernatural adventure, and gives a satisfying mystery to follow. Learning the complex nature of divinity within this world is a satisfying experience. And Three Parts Dead does world building right, giving me just enough in a natural way that leave me wanting to know everything about the land. With the strength of Tara’s story as a driving force this is a great book already. But there is one thing that put this one over the top.

The villain of the story is simply amazing. Creepy, smart, hard to read and truly amazing. You know he is bad, you want to hate him, yet you can’t quite help but admire the resourcefulness and complete domination of the game he has lain down. But then, when you wonder if he is really that bad you watch him commit what can only be called a mind rape; unwitting entry into another. And you feel icky and creepy all at once. And then you watch him meet his match. And it is gorgeous, sheer and simple.

If the book has a weakness it comes from an over reliance of tell and not enough show. Huge chunks of the backstory come out in conversations and large pieces of the puzzle are shown in courtroom style bickering. On their own neither would have stood out to me, but taken together it was a bit too much information though talking. Also as unique as the courtroom setting was in this instance it was a bit too conveniently pushed aside when needed; I couldn’t help but feel that had the parties involved wanted to they could have skipped the judicial system in place all together.

As I say all too often, minor issues in a wonderful book. This one really hit me in all the right ways.

4 Stars

Tough Traveling – Minions

Tough Traveling jpegEach Thursday, our copy of ‘The Tough Guide to Fantasyland’ in hand, we shall tour the mystical countryside looking for adventure and fun (and tropes) from all over fantasy.

Today’s topic is MINIONS

MINIONS OF THE DARK LORD are all over the place.  The DARK LORD has been busy planting them for years.

I could have gone several ways with this one, and for a bit thought about looking into all the orcs and various faceless minions that are thrown into the fray in every large battle. Wandering groups of Trollocs anyone? But in the end I decided to only include minions that rose above, the cream of the crop, the baddies that are actually scary and not just there to be killed in large numbers.

The TakenBlack Company by Glen Cook- I think these guys (and gals) show up on Tough Chronicles of the Black Company (The Chronicles of the Black Company, #1-3)Travels as much as Pratchett. But I can’t help myself, they are among my favorite creations in fantasy. Ten of the best, people who could be Dark Lords in their own right but instead were dominated into submission (not like that, out of the gutter people). The Limper, The Howler, Soulstealer; these are like the seven dwarfs if Snow White was called The Lady and took names while she kicked ass. (There is a nice little play on words there for people who have read the series, kind of proud of myself).

If the minions in this land are nearly immortal magical beings, what does that say about the Dark Lady ruling them? I put The Ten Who Were Taken first on this list because there is no contest, no one has better minions out there.

Mistborn: The Final Empire (Mistborn, #1)Steel InquisitorsMistborn by Brandon Sanderson – These dudes have steel spikes (or iron, or something, I don’t really remember) right through their eyes. And more all through their body. I don’t know why, but that just screams awesome minion. Their boss is literally Lord Ruler, and is so powerful that he gets them to follow him despite the stupid name.  They went around tracing people using metal magic and when they caught them…made more inquisitors.

I really like the first Mistborn book, when these guys truly were a force to be scared of.

DeatheatersHarry Potter – Again, when you have a group that is already more powerful than most of humanity in the wizards. Then they go evil and start following a truly evil man who hates most humanity, who isn’t a little afraid of seeing the dark mark in the sky? Wizards who don’t bother with the flimsy rules the rest of the wizards follow?

Does anyone else think we need an adult Harry Potter book that follows what happened in the war outside of Harry’s little world? No one else wants this?

Oh, and the best Death Eater? Bellatrix, with no doubt in my mind.

Skin SpiesPrince of Nothing by R. Scott Bakker – I don’t even know how to describe them. A The Darkness That Comes Before (The Prince of Nothing, #1)living face graft that can take over a human completely? Gets off physically on pain. Ejects black semen. Scary enough on their own, but they have enough intelligence to watch their target from afar to gain their mannerisms before taking over completely, or reshaping another to the form they wish to ape.

This series is high on my ‘want to reread but GOD DAMN are those book long’ list. Partially because I can’t remember if the Skin Spies are actually minions of someone else or working of their own agency, thereby making me a cheater when it comes to this list. Eh, whatever.


 

Join us next week for NECROMANCY.

NECROMANCY is, in Fantasyland, the art of raising the dead and you need a specialized MAGIC USER to do it.

I will be on vacation so I wanted another week of easy pickings, if it raises or consults the dead I think it counts. As always thanks for joining, feel free to join along at anytime, and please check out my fellow travelers!

Fantasy Review: ‘Half a King’ by Joe Abercrombie

Just a small confession to start this off, I want everyone to know where we stand here. Joe Half a King (Shattered Sea, #1)Abercrombie is one of my top three authors, and The First Law is my favorite fantasy trilogy. Unbiased observer I am not. But sometimes expectations can kill a book, especially when a favored author changes pace. So with high hopes, and a real fear of disappointment, I finally stopped staring at Half a King and started actually reading it.

Now Young Adult is ruined for me, or at least it will be until this book fades into the background (this has happened before; everything after The Girl who Circumnavigated Dreamland fell flat for months).

Yarvi is half a man in his father’s eye. With a withered hand his ambitions are less lofty than the typical prince; but life seldom is that easy. Father and brother murdered and suddenly young Yarvi is the king. A quick betrothal follows, and just like that he finds himself leading a raid in revenge of his father’s death. A quick betrayal later and it is time for the actual story to start.

Thrown off a cliff (as others have point out this seems to be an Abercrombie specialty) and sold into slavery the young rightful king begins his Homeric Odyssey around the circular sea. As would be expected he must rely on his wits and some quick thinking as he finds new trouble after new in his fight to get back home.

Young adult it may be, but this book is Abercrombie through and through. Betrayal and a tough life for the protagonist are a given. A decent death count and a bit of grim humor are present. The ending is not as depressingly grim as say, The First Law, but happily ever after it is not. It is YA in my favorite way; the protagonist may be younger and there may be a little less blood and sex, but never does the author talk down to the audience. No adult will be calling this a guilty pleasure; it is just another great Abercrombie book that may be a bit more accessible to a slightly younger audience.

Yarvi should win people over as a main character. Basically a good man, but willing to do what it takes, he relies on his brain but isn’t completely useless physically despite his limitations. But his surrounding cast almost outshines him. A man called Nothing was perhaps a caricature more than character; a barbarian berserker, but damn it sometimes I need a character to be larger than life. Outside of him though this proved to be a very human cast. Villains had agendas beyond pure evil and friends could be trusted but were not one hundred percent reliable. All stay consistent to their personalities as well, which shouldn’t be noteworthy but was refreshing anyway. Some disappointments for Yarvi are inevitable as people refuse to change just because it would fit the story.  Oh, and Half a King includes an awesome feisty old lady who says things like ‘you will get such flattery as you deserve, and my foot in your arse the rest of the time.’ So there is that.

With its shorter page length something had to go and it wasn’t going to be the story. Instead Half a King is a little lighter on world building than readers of adult fantasy are used to. Here it is in almost it’s entirety; Yarvi’s land is one of many littered around the coast of a large, circular sea. If there is magic it is subtle. And the land is littered with ruins from ancient ‘elves’ that should set off some geography speculation as the series moves on. Outside of that little matters; this is Yarvi’s story and not an epic sweep of clashing lands.

Should this book satisfy Abercrombie’s existing fans? A resounding yes, I could hardly put the book down.

Will it appeal to people who were not big fans before? Harder to say. As an author he has expanded quite a bit. The Blade Itself didn’t have a female character show up until the book was a third over, Half a King has men and women with agency doing important things throughout. And the sex, gore, and profanity are toned down quite a bit. But as I said before, this is truly a work of the author; and lack of gore doesn’t mean lack of grimness nor violence. I would assume it will make some new converts, but not win over everyone.

Should my (insert age here) kid be reading this? Hell if I know, but I am guessing they will enjoy it. I know I would have eaten it up as soon as I could get my hands on. Take that for what you will.

It is everything I was hoping for; it sure is wonderful to have expectations met. Another winner for the Grimdark lord.

And that cover. A snowflake sword on black? Just striking. Damn good.

5 Stars

Copy for review received from NetGalley.

Tough Traveling – Mentors

Tough Traveling jpegEach Thursday, our copy of ‘The Tough Guide to Fantasyland’ in hand, we shall tour the mystical countryside looking for adventure and fun (and tropes) from all over fantasy.

Today’s topic is… Mentors

MENTOR.  A tour official who will be at your service until halfway through the tour, when you will unexpectedly lose him.

The Whitefire Crossing (Shattered Sigil, #1)Ruslan- The Whitefire Crossing by Courtney Schafer – Sometimes the mentor can be a real asshole. Kiran’s story in Whitefire crossing actually starts when he leaves his mentor. In a city of magical anarchy the blood mage sits on top, and Ruslan expects full obedience from his pupils.

So this one mostly fits the description, but it is the mentor who unexpectedly loses his pupil instead. Then does a some very nasty things in order to regain him. Man, I should have included Ruslan on the list of Dark Lords, he may not control a horde of minions but he is one nasty man. *shivers*

Mrs. TickThe Wee Free Men by Terry Prachett – So many ways I could have went with this The Wee Free Men (Discworld, #30) (Tiffany Aching, #1)one, but I had to pick the first mentor young Tiffany Aching had in her journey. It is she that discovers Tiffany’s talents and sets her on her way. But she has no choice but to leave for a while, leaving Tiffany to venture into The Queen’s land to save her brother by herself (well, with a little help from her friends).

A witch in a land with little respect for witches, Mrs Tick is quite ingenious. For instance her pointy hat (for every witch must have one) can be laid flat to look a little less suspicious. Most witches in Discword don’t need a familiar, but Tick’s toad is a welcome addition anyway.

BayazThe First Law by Joe Abercrombie- Oh the kindly old magi is there for everyone. When Ninefingers needs direction Bayaz is there to provide it. He has a smile for Jezal early on, may have provided a small amount of assistance in the fight that made Jezal famous, and of course held the evidence that the cocky young man had the blood of kings in him. He is there for everyone in the story!

Funny, I just can’t quite remember how he helped everyone out as the story progressed, but I am sure the kindly old man was a huge help and provided lots and lots of needed advice throughout the series.

Lupin, Sirius Black, DumbledoreHarry Potter by J. K. Rowling – Wow, remind me not to offer even a hint of advice to young Mr. Potter. The track record of survival here is not very good at all. Oh, and Mad Eye Moody (who wasn’t really Moody and NO, I aint putting spoiler tags around this shit, SNAPE KILLED DUMBLEDORE, the statute of limitations has passed my friends).

Ghost of DelClint Eastwood by Gorrillaz- So I’mma stick around with Russ and be a MENTOR, Bust a few rhymes so motherfuckers remember, where the thought is, I brought all this, So you can survive when law is lawless

I admit I had no idea what this guy was really called, but I looked it up and found it.  Amazing how one line of a song sticks out to me years later (though to fair, I have the entire first verse memorized to this day). He identifies himself as a mentor and is a flying gorilla like thing. Fantasy creature and a mentor. Count it!


Join us next week for MINIONS. (be do be do)

MINIONS OF THE DARK LORD are all over the place.  The DARK LORD has been busy planting them for years.

(Honestly look in your own guide, there are about twenty different examples of what counts, and it all boils down to anyone working for the Dark Lord).  Knock your self out kids, this should be one that has no boundaries or limits.  Another easy one before we hit you with a toughie after that.

As always thanks for joining, feel free to join along at anytime, and please check out my fellow travelers!

 

Sci-Fi Review: ‘Caliban’s War’ by James S.A. Corey

Maybe I just have a thing for elderly ladies that take charge and make everyone around them Caliban's War (Expanse, #2)dance to their music. Maybe I am a much bigger fan of a basic space opera than I ever will be of detective noir. Maybe I just really didn’t enjoy a race through a space station of ‘vomit zombies’ that seemed to go on forever in the first book of this series.

Whatever the reason, I found Caliban’s War to be a much stronger outing than Leviathan Wakes.

The first book of the series set the stage for this highly accessible sci-fi series. It was at its core a detective story as two protagonists searched for a missing girl. Of course it dissolved into something different; intersystem warfare and a nasty biological oddity that ended up being the most important part of the story…until it was pushed into the background again.

To me this is where the series shines. I am interested in the alien thing, but I a much bigger fan of the more personal sci-fi the two authors are creating. So imagine my joy to learn that the alien thing stays in the back and menaces, really only flaring it’s ugly head when the pesky humans poke at it a bit, and the story instead focuses on the doings of the people spread around the solar system. Caliban’s War opens up the cast; loose cannon Holden is back but is joined by three other POV’s and a damn entertaining secondary cast.

I loved the new characters. Bobbie, the Martian Marine (human born on Mars, get Marvin out of your head), is the exact opposite of any stereotyped character you have read. A well-muscled large woman who excels at what she does and suddenly must figure out a new game as well. Prax is a scientist one can’t help but hope for; the search for his missing daughter is real and emotional. But the star, the single person that would keep me reading his book even if the rest of it wasn’t as good as it was, is Avarasala.

Let’s talk about Avarasala, shall we? An elderly woman of Indian heritage, loving wife and grandma, and one of the major players in the political game that is the U.N. and its relations with the outer planets. She is just friggen awesome. Pulling strings all over the political landscape while cussing up a storm and making everyone around her blush is great; the fact that she is doing it out of genuine concern for the solar system is even better. While events both books have centered around the doings of Holden throughout it is Avarasala who seems to have an ounce of control in a situation rapidly losing it.

While Caliban’s War left the noir behind, it still is a book with a fair amount of pulp. It is smart and believable, small in scale and has a fair amount of heart. But it has its share of over the top moments, plenty of humor (often in moments that would otherwise be fairly grim), and of course, zombie like things.

Is it strange that the driving force of this series, the protomolecule that has the various factions on edge, is my least favorite part? Perhaps. And two books in I admit I don’t dislike it quite as much as I did at first. But even with my slight ambivalence to the alien threat to the system I am glad to be catching up with this series. There is just so much goodness here.

4 Stars