Looking Backward, Pt 2

You may remember that a while back I posted a list of the books I had read from January-June 2005, along with commentary on each one. (If you haven’t seen it yet, look here.) Well, without further ado, I present the conclusion to my summary, the period from July-December 2005. Long post ahead.
Sorry for the delay.


July & August

  • The Warrior-Prophet (possible tDtCB spoilers)
  • If you enjoyed The Darkness That Comes Before then the second book in Bakker’s stunning Prince of Nothing trilogy The Warrior Prophet doesn’t disappoint. It’s the day after the events of The Darkness That Comes Before‘ s climax – Achamian is still recovering from the revelations of Kellhus’ identity and the existence of the Consult; Esme is devastated by Akka’s failure to notice her the previous night; thanks to Kellhus, the Emperor’s demands have been agreed to, and finally the Holy War is ready to march on the Fanim.
    Bakker proved in his first book his ability to portray characters with a level of detail and realism not often seen in epic fantasy, and his ability to handle philosophical content in a way that doesn’t distract from the narrative, and that ability continues to be shown in The Warrior-Prophet. The almost sociopathic Anasűrimbor Kellhus, easily winning dominance over hearts and minds of the men around him through the deceit and cunning granted him by his years of Dunyain training, is a masterful creation that the reader wants to hate for his motives, but finds themselves instead falling partially under his spell. The barbarian warrior Cnaiür’s obsession and slow descent into madness is brilliantly portrayed by the author, and the dynamics between the conflicting factions on their march toward Holy Shimeh is equally well done. Having recently finished the third volume in this series, The Thousandfold Thought, I can say that The Prince of Nothing is one of the best works of epic fantasy I have yet read – and it’s only the beginning.

  • No Present Like Time
  • Steph Swainston’s second book set in the Fourlands, home to the immortal Circle, and narrated from the point of view of Comet Jant Shira, the Circle’s Messenger, winged junkie and fastest man alive. A new member has displaced the Circle’s Swordsman after a centuries-long holding of the position, and rebellion is brewing. The Sailor’s ships have found an island – populated – previously beyond the Fourlands’ knowledge, and outside the Circle’s influence. Jant Shira is dispatched as ambassador to these people – he’s in withdrawal, he’s leaving behind a wife who he thinks is having an affair, and he hates ships.
    As with her previous novel, The Year of Our War, Swainston’s strength is in her characterisation of Jant Shira, one of the more interesting characters in modern fantasy, and her use of his first person narrative to convey the story. The the story this time round may seem to be of a smaller scale, but it’s every bit as interesting. As before, the writing may not be as brilliant as some, but it’s better than a lot of stuff that is more popular. I’m looking forward to her next novel.
    On another note, I managed to get a signed copy of this book in hardcover from Goldsboro Books, which even had a drawing by the author on the cover page, which was pretty cool.

  • The Gormenghast Trilogy
  • What can I say? A universally recognised classic. Gormenghast is as much a character in the novels as the people who reside in it. Steerpike is a brilliant villain, intelligent, ambitious, devious, but ultimately flawed. Titus Groan, though only a baby in the first novel, was Peake’s focus, though I didn’t care for him as much in Gormenghast as I did Fuschia, Steerpike, Flay, or Bellgrove. In Titus Alone, Peake gives us yet more memorable characters in Muzzlehatch and Cheeta, and Titus begins to come into his own. Gormenghast is still a presence in the story despite the change in setting – Titus can never succeed in running away from his past. Yet due to Peake’s sad demise, that is where he will always be left, at the boundary of what he knows and the world beyond, about to turn his back on Gormenghast once more. Incomplete it may be, but the Gormenghast novels are a masterpiece that everyone should immerse themselves in at least once in their lives.

  • City of Saints and Madmen
  • If you asked me today to list five current fantasy authors you should read, Jeff VanderMeer would probably appear on the list. City of Saints and Madmen is a collection featuring four novellas and numerous short works set in Ambergris, a city “named for that most secret and valued part of the whale,” and home to characters ranging from lovestruck priests and haunted artists to the sinister grey caps that lurk beneath the city. VanderMeer’s writing shows vivid and surreal description in some stories, and in other places imitates the style of an informational pamphlet or guidebook. The collection includes madmen’s notes and stories taken from fictional authors; accounts from the minds of the delusional and stories that are juxtaposed with academic writing on the subject. There is such a range of material contained in this one book it’s hard to know where to begin when describing it. Stunning.

September

  • The Worm Ouroboros
  • A classic, this novel chronicling the war between the Lords of Demonland and the King of Witchland may seem a little hard to get into with its archaic language and formal style, but once it gets going you easily slip into the prose and find yourself enjoying every minute of it. Gripping story, interesting and complex characters, Eddison’s story definately should be read by anyone wanting to claim real knowledge of the early origins of the fantasy genre.

  • Good Omens
  • A collaboration between Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, this short novel would have to be good. A book about the Apocalypse, where the Antichrist is accidentally switched at birth with a normal human child. The book focuses on Aziraphale and Crowley, an angel and a devil who have worked together for millenia, despite working for opposing sides. The book is at times hilarious, but a lot of the humour didn’t seemed to have the intended effect on me – but then again, I have felt the same way with other ‘funny’ books recently, including Erikson’s The Healthy Dead. In any case, the writing can be funny – fancy listening to some Queen, anyone? – and the story is great. Worth reading if you’re a fan of either author.

  • Tales of the Dying Earth
  • A collection of Vance’s related novels set in earth’s far future, Tales of the Dying Earth is chimaeric, its stories varying in style through books written decades apart. The first, The Dying Earth, is more a series of short stories than a novel – each chapter is only very loosely connected to those that follow, but in them is found a number of interesting images and concepts. The Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel’s Saga form a pair of stories following the adventures of the self-titled Cugel the Clever, who believes himself intelligent enough that he constantly underestimates others, leading to him to often come out on the worst side of a situation – but always escaping before he can come to any serious harm. There is a fair bit of humour to these episodic adventures, and that light side makes them quite easy to read.
    The final book in the collection is Rhialto the Marvelous, a series of tales about a magician, member of the last cadre of mages in earth’s history. Rhialto is somewhat more competant than Cugel, though he too often ends up at the wrong end of events, leading to his journeying through time and to the edges of space over the course of this book. Once again the tone is humourous, and this was probably the easiest of the book in the collection to read, although the section concerning a ‘battle of the sexes’ would probably be considered un-PC these days.
    An entertaining read, though it could have been better structured.

October & November

  • A Feast for Crows
  • Book four in the hugely successful A Song of Ice and Fire series, A Feast for Crows picks up events where the epic A Storm of Swords ended. The third volume of the series is a difficult act to follow, and that is shown in the way this middle volume compares to the previous work. Five years in the making, Feast was subject to a last minute division, with half the characters familiar to readers being moved over into the sixth volume, currently in progress, A Dance with Dragons, after fears the book would be too large to publish in its complete form. The result is a book easily as well-written as any other in the series, and with Martin’s brilliant characterisation – especially in the case of one of the latest additions to the cast of PoV characters, Cersei Lannister – but which still feels lacking. The absence of some of the series’ most popular characters, including Daenerys, Jon Snow, and Tyrion Lannister, is disappointing, but did not affect my enjoyment of the book as much as might have been anticipated. The problem was mostly that of being the middle book in a series, and one that covers story that Martin had not originally planned to include: The first act is over, the biggest events have happened, and now Martin is maneuvering his pieces into position for the second act. As a result, there is little action in the story, and while there is political intrigue, it is less engaging than before, when the stakes were higher.
    A Feast for Crows, despite these criticisms, is still among the best epic fantasy you can find, and Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, if it continues with the quality shown so far, will be momentous.

  • Viriconium
  • A classic, inspiration for countless authors since, M John Harrison’s series of short stories and novellas set in the Pastel City, known variously as Viriconium, Old Viricon, or Uroconium – ephemeral, inconstant, the city is a collection of familiar images, names, and faces, never the same twice. Through the stories the same characters repeat in altered form – the lone swordsman, the companion, the dwarf, the princess, the old man with the mechanical bird. The city itself is dreamlike, changing with each incarnation, as through its long, long existence it falls and rises again and again, history imperfectly striving to repeat the half-forgotten past.
    The stories in this collection vary widely, from cryptic short pieces like Lords of Misrule to the epic struggles of The Pastel City. As you progress through the collection the story, repeating similar themes throughout, breaks down, until you’ve gone from the heroic fantasy of The Pastel City to the masterpiece of this collection, In Viriconium. By the final novella everything is changed – the hero is a struggling artist, his companion an eccentric astronomer, and their purpose is to rescue the dying artist Audsley King from the strange affliction which has overcome the city. The heroes are as lost – perhaps more so – than the one they hope to save, the rescue attempt is a farce, and any thought of saving the city seems futile, the only hope being to prolong the time until the last of it is overcome.
    The stories in this collection are slow at times, confusing at others, and often frustrating to read, but Harrison is a masterful writer, and this shows nowhere more than in In Viriconium – it is worth reading the collection for the quality of his prose alone, as well as to savour the challenge to your perceptions (which I’ve learned since is present in most of Harrison’s work). Definately a good read, though I think more consistent quality can be found in the other collection of Harrison’s short stories I have read recently, Things That Never Happen

  • Iron Council
  • Iron Council is Mieville’s third novel in the world of Bas-lag. In this book, he takes the reader back to New Crobuzon – but only after beginning the story by leaving the city, and taking us south and east across the world, a group of travellers on the trail of Judah Low, a legendary golem-maker who has left the city in search of Iron Council. Only after teasing us with glimpses of the city in the first section are we allowed to return to the city we first saw in Perdido Street Station – but a city much changed. Twenty years has passed since the events of the first two books. Mechanical worker constructs have been eliminated from the city and replaced by the growing art of golemry. The militia, since the aftermath of the Construct War, now walk the streets openly. The city is rife with underground movements, constantly speaking of opposition to Parliament, but few seem willing to take action – except for one group, led by the mysterious Toro.
    As tensions rise in the city, and Judah and company carry on their quest, we are then taken back in time, to see the birth of something unlike anything Bas-lag has ever seen: The Iron Council.
    Perhaps Mieville’s strongest work in terms of writing and maybe reigning in his imagination slightly to give a tighter plot, I nevertheless found this book less enjoyable than the previous two, and felt that the ending, though a good ending to the storylines, lacked impact, with the book’s climax spread across a small number of events. In other ways, too, this is a very different book from his earlier Bas-lag stories, featuring more of Mieville’s politics, and with a western and romance slant to his storyline.
    By no means is this not a good book, however. Mieville is a brilliant writer, and his work has improved with each book. Iron Council, though arguably the weakest of his novels to date, is still a step above most fantasy.

December

  • American Gods
  • The edition I read of American Gods is the authors preferred text – the original was a long, wandering book, and this one had all the stuff that was cut put back into it, making it an even longer, more wandering book than before. And that fits is perfectly.
    Shadow has just been released from prison, three days earlier than planned, to visit the funeral of his girlfriend. On the way home, he meets Mr. Wednesday. Mr Wednesday wants to give Shadow a job, as his driver. What Shadow doesn’t realise at first is that Wednesday is actually Odin, and the job is a lot more dangerous than he is letting on.
    American Gods is a road trip; it’s a long, winding journey through America, with many diversions along the way. The tone in which the story is told matches the wandering nature of the plot, Shadow driving through the small towns of America, visiting strange roadside attractions (all based on actual locations), and meeting various gods and spirits that live, almost forgotten, among us.
    It’s not all easy going, however. Before reaching it’s conclusion American Gods puts Shadow through the wringer, with interrogation, torture, and sacrifice along the way. Though it maintains a lighter tone than might be expected, this novel has some dark themes. Some parts are not for the faint-hearted. Overall I enjoyed the book a lot, and I’m looking forward to reading the loosely-related Anansi Boys.

  • Veniss Underground
  • Veniss Underground begins simply, with a man who wants to buy a genetically modified Meerkat. That’s about as far as it goes before you’re dropped into weird and wonderful story of the hidden underworld of Veniss, a city of the far-future where the mysterious figure known as Quin provides genetically engineered creatures to fill the citizens’ every need. The story is shown from three points of view, in three sections, with three different styles.
    “Let me tell you about the city: The city is sharp, the city is a cliche performed with cardboard and painted sparkly colors to disguise the empty center–the hole.” The first is Nicholas – the artist who wants a Meerkat. This, the shortest segment of the novel, is told in first-person, Nick sitting beside you spinning his tale, a self-proclaimed ‘slang jockey’ introducing you to the city. Despite his seemingly jocular tone, he seems to feel some compulsion to tell you – to explain – why he needed a Meerkat so badly he had to track down Quin uninvited.
    The second is Nicola, twin sister to Nicholas, beginning after Nick’s unexplained disappearence. Told in the second person, her story is both intimately close and held apart, examined from the outside. There is a dreamlike quality to the tale of what happens as she first tries to locate her brother and later simply tries to work out what is going on.
    The third is Shadrach. Shadrach Begolem, Nick’s friend, Nicola’s still-besotted ex-lover, employee of Quin. It was Shadrach who put Nick on Quin’s trail, and it was Shadrach who helped Nicola when she tried to find him. And it is Shadrach who dominates the novel, driven to find his love, to confront her brother, and to head into the deepest levels of Veniss Underground to seek out Quin himself. As he descends further down into the city’s undebelly we are treated to scenes ranging from the surreally beautiful to the plain macabre, and the mysteries of the previous sections are slowly revealed.
    Not entirely for the faint of heart, Veniss Underground is filled with images that will stick with you long afterward, most of them unpleasant. An engaging read, and powerful.

  • The Land of Laughs
  • Jonathan Carroll’s first novel, and part of the Millenium Fantasy Masterworks collection, The Land of Laughs is different from your usual fantasy. The story concerns an english teacher, Thomas Abbey, whose ambition is to write the biography of Marshall France, a famous children’s author. He and his girlfriend, Saxony, head off to France’s home town, Galen, to find out all they can about the secretive writer’s past. There they must deal with France’s daughter and heir, who has in the past been notoriously opposed to aspiring biographers. Thomas knows something himself about having a famous father – he is the son of the legendary actor Stephen Abbey, and has had to deal all his life with people asking him questions about his father.
    The land of Laughs at first doesn’t seem much like a fantasy novel, and it is not until about half way through that the fantastic elements begin to show. From there it builds slowly, the strange blending in with the everyday problems of life and relationships, until it reaches the rather sudden and climactic conclusion. Carroll’s writing is brilliant, and he has a way of showing the beauty of something ordinary with a well-chosen few words. It was perhaps one of my easiest reads of this year, and one of the most enjoyable to read.

  • The Wizard Knight
  • A massive book about a boy somehow transported to another world, given a new name and turned into a grown man. Like most of his work, Wolfe only tells part of the story. The novel is written as a letter from the boy – who has been given the name Able, his real name unrevealed until the final page – to his brother in the real world, after having lived in the worlds of Mithgarthr, Aelfrice, Skai, and the other of seven realms for a number of years. From the start, there are gaps in the novel that match the gaps in Able’s knowledge – his memories from first arriving in Aelfrice until he comes to Mithgarthr are gone – and you remain immersed in his point of view for the rest of the novel, only coming up now and then to tell of events that were related to him by others. As with much of Wolfe’s work, Able is an unreliable narrator – he holds back information when it would clarify, in many instances he offers no explanation for things, and he maintains a modesty about his own merits throughout. He has become, the reader will find, very much the traditional Hero, though most of the time he continues to view himself as a young boy.
    Wolfe is among the great writers of the genre, and his prose in The Wizard Knight is as good as ever. I found it a much lighter read than The Book of the New Sun, and much more accessible to a reader who doesn’t want to analyse every sentence for possible meanings – though that still is possible with this work, if you want to gain a deeper meaning, and get the ‘whole’ story. A very enjoyable (if heavy – you wouldn’t want to carry the book around with you) read.

I’ve decided that I like doing these kind of posts, so I’m already in the process of continuing the list up to the present date. I’ve not yet decided if I’ll try to turn it into regular reviews of books as I read them.

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