Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Abhorsen is the second half of the story begun in Lirael.  I didn't like Lirael as much as I liked Sabriel, feeling that Nix spends too much time on his two protagonists' doing that teenager thing of "nobody understands me; I'm different to everyone else; etc".  In Abhorsen, Nix is back in fine form.

One thing I loved about Lirael was the lyrical writing.  In Abhorsen, Nix has Lirael go on a long journey through the lands of death, and I felt that his description of the journey was very effective; the nine areas that Lirael travels through feel disparate, yet unified.  Her showdown with Hedge in the last of these didn't come down to a test of strength, which would have felt silly, but instead grew out of the way Death has been presented to us over the course of the books.

As a side note, I thought it was pretty clear that the Destroyer, the main bad guy of the series, is actually a personification of an atomic bomb.  It's housed in two metal hemispheres that set off a chain reaction when brought together, starting with a pillar of fire.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Sharpe's Trafalgar

In Sharpe's Trafalgar, Sharpe ends up at the Battle of Trafalgar, where (as Cornwell himself admits) he has no business.  So, on the one hand, the book is a great look at the famous battle, letting the reader really feel like he might have been there.  On the other hand, it's not a really good Sharpe book, because Sharpe himself has almost no role to play; his expertise is on the ground, not ship battles.

There's a romance between Sharpe and noble-born lady which was OK, but also seemed to be out of character for Sharpe; he hasn't up till now seemed like the kind to fall distractedly head-over-heels for someone the way he seems to here, to the point where he doesn't notice the plotting of the antagonists.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Road, Pirates in an Adventure with Napoleon

Gideon Defoe's Pirates series is uniformly hilarious; I think he's one of the consistently funniest writers since Wodehouse (Jasper Fforde is very funny, too, but more hit-and-miss).  Pirates in an Adventure with Napoleon is no exception.  Unfortunately, talking about humor tends to kill the joke, so I'll just move on.

Cormac McCarthy's The Road, on the other hand, begs for analysis, to its detriment.  Most of his oeuvre works on a symbolic as well as a literal level, but The Road falls on the far side of the allegorical spectrum.  The characters don't have names (the only character to use a name also tells us that it's not his real name), the situation is allegorical, and the characters are types.  Unfortunately, as short as the novel is (240 pages in my edition), it's still too big for the limited area it encompasses.

The story is about a man and his son traveling through a post-apocalyptic landscape, the man trying to protect the boy.  It's a dog-eat-dog world, and so the two avoid any contact with other people, even the most run-down specimens.  The boy wants to reach out and help the run-down folks, while the man (understandably) wants to protect what little food they've got. Much of the book consists of conversations, especially between man and boy.

There are two running conversations that I think provide the key to the novel.  First, the man tells the boy that they're the "good guys," and the boy increasingly questions him.  The man also tells the boy that he (the boy) is carrying "the fire."  In the end, when the man dies (of TB or something like it), the boy is picked up by another family who seem to have been shadowing them for a long time, but were afraid to make contact.  It's pretty clear that the fire the boy carries is his goodness.  Although the man says over & over again that they are the "good guys," in fact the path he's chosen leads to destruction -- he would never join with other people to create a new community.  He's not an actively bad person, but his actions lead to a bad result.  He has to die (his physical disease mirrors his spiritual sickness) so that the boy can carry the fire forward.

I felt that the novel lacked the moral complexity of McCarthy's earlier work.  His prose is still beautiful, and the book isn't bad by any means.  But if someone had never read any McCarthy before, this isn't the book I'd point them at.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Out on the Cutting Edge

It's been a long time since I read one of Robert Block's Matt Scudder novels, and I decided to revisit the series, since Block is one of the better hard-boiled novelists.  Out on the Cutting Edge is a fine novel, appropriately moody, yet with an underlying sense of optimism.

In an earlier novel (I think the previous one, but I could be misremembering), Scudder admits he's an alcoholic and joins AA.  Here, he's constantly tempted to fall off the wagon, and his internal struggle is just as suspenseful as the external events.  Although the novel has the hard, cyncical edge that all good noir books have, Matt is also moving along a path of finding redemption for himself.

I have to mention the length of the book; Block writes very sparely, and fits a very solid novel into about a third of the word-count that more wordy novelists use.  It was very refreshing to read such taut prose after the slackness of, say, The Way of Shadows.
My one complaint about the novel would be the character of Micky Ballou, who plays a small part here.  We're told that he's a very dangerous guy, but he comes across as too approachable.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Ice Run

Ice Run is the sixth Alex McKnight book by Steve Hamilton.  I've really enjoyed all the others, but this one was very weak on a lot of levels.  The romance between Alex and his new girlfriend never rings true, the characters feel like they've become more fluffy and blurred around the edges, and the plot is byzantine for no real good reason -- there are at least half a dozen points where the whole thing would've been short-circuited if characters just talked to each other.

I've like all the other books, so I'll probably give the next one a shot, especially since it seems to be the last one.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Vicious Circle, The Warden

Mike Carey's Vicious Circle is the second Felix Castor novel.  I really enjoyed the first one; I felt like it was probably the most successful blend of hard-boiled detective story and fantasy novel that I've run across.  Vicious Circle is the same, only more so.  Carey intertwines the two genres so thoroughly that it's impossible to even say which one is primary.  It's also a surprisingly down-beat novel, with Felix forced into betraying a friend, losing another friend, and ending up in a worse place than where he started.

I wish I had more to say about this novel, because it was such a fine book (if not particularly deep).  Carey has a great ear for similes and metaphors, his plotting is deft, and his fantasy universe hangs together really well.  It's always easier to complain than to think of nice things to say, I suppose.

I've decided to give Trollope's Barset Chronicles a shot, and I've been told that you really need to read them in order, so I started with The Warden, the story of the warden of a hospital who begins to doubt whether the money he's earning is properly his, or whether it belongs to inmates of the hospital.  I enjoyed it, but it's a pretty slight story (by Dickensian standards it's almost a short story).  I'm looking forward to the next book, which is considered one of Trollope's greater works.

Point of Impact, The Way of Shadows

Point of Impact is an action book which starts very slowly (100 pages in, the major plot is just getting started), and each climactic moment also has a very slow buildup, with a sudden resolution.  Stephen Hunter might take 30 pages to set up a confrontation, only to have it resolve in four paragraphs.  I found it a very effective pace; the build-up to each set piece is so deliberate that you can see how all of the players are laid out, and so Hunter can have his hero beat incredible odds while maintaining a completely realistic feel.

Brent Weeks, on the other hand, tries for a different sort of realism in The Way of Shadows.  His assassins seem unconstrained by the laws of physics, pretty much like the craziest ninja fantasies you can find on TV.  Weeks, though, is part of a trend to move fantasy away from heroic archetypes, like those in Tolkein, and more toward realistic psychological types.  Unfortunately, I don't think he really succeeds; his characters end up feeling more like riffs on characters from other fantasy books than like actual people.  Here we find the madam with a heart of gold, there we find the assassin with a secret in his past, yonder is the sadistic bad guy.

It's kind of strange, actually -- there's no question that the characters in Point of Impact are much simpler than those in Way of Shadows.  But they Hunter's characters feel much more alive than Weeks's.