Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Devil in the White City - Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America

Some say that truth is stranger than fiction; while I don't know about that I can say that at times, such as in the reading of The Devil in the White City, truth is more compelling that fiction. Thanks to Hollywood and the crazy killers found throughout the history of fictional thrillers it is easy to be jaded when your presented with a smooth talking pharmacist who preys on young women. It is easy to not be horrified until you remember the story is real.

The Devil in the White City is really two stories in one. The first is about Danial Burnham; the man who was behind the most miraculous of events in Chicago's history when it won, prepared for, and then put on the Worlds Fair of 1893. The author, Erik Larson, does a fantastic job of taking you on the highs and lows of the process of building a (white) city within the dingy city of Chicago while at the same time telling a much darker tale. The darker tale is one of ruthlessness and depravity when America's own version of "Jack the Ripper", Dr. H. H. Holmes, stalked the neighborhood around the fairgrounds killing young women by night but serving as a Pharmacist during the day.

This book is methodically researched and written in a style that flows as well as the best of novels. In reading the book I grew to care about the great fair and it's impact on Chicago. I also came to detest Dr. Holmes and I followed the trail of his own hunter with more and more anxiousness awaiting his capture.

In addition to the fascinating stories of Burnham and Holmes Larson tells the story of the city and it's fair. I learned about the Ferris wheel, architecture, and a myriad of other things that go on when putting together and event of such grand scale.

Overall this book is a fine bit of story telling wrapped around actual historical events. It is one of the best pieces of non-fiction I have had the opportunity to read and I can't recommend it highly enough. In fact I give it a score of 5 on my scale of 1 to 5 with 5 being the best.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Gardens of the Moon (Malazan Book of the Fallen Book 1)

This series seems to be on the tips of everyone's tongues now a days yet, somehow, I missed it's coming and have just now begun to read it starting off with Gardens of the Moon and I have to say it is a bit different from anything I have read before.

The style of the writing is different; it's more of a free thought type of expression even though it is far too complicated of a world to be something that wasn't planned and outlined before it was written. Steven Erikson has a knack for making his writing seem effortless for him while at the same time requiring some effort on the part of the reader to keep up with what he is talking about.

Right off the bat the reader is introduced to God like beings as well as a poor fisherman's daughter and an old crone. You might think, based on that motely cast of characters that not much excitement would be coming your way but you'd be wrong. Instead the reader is thrust into a dark world where Gods play at war and many of the mortals seem to be nearly as powerful as the dieties.

Basically, there is ass-kickin-a-plenty throughout the story. In fact, even when there isn't an action packed scene it feels like action is never more than a page turn away. Along with all the action you meet a lot of characters. Without reading the book then you might be able to guess that a lot of details and backstory are never presented and instead are left for the reader to imagine independently. Amazingly enough this works becuase Erikson gives just enough details about history or the magic system to seed your synapses and to put them in overdrive.

My friend Ed describes the litany of characters pretty well; Once you find a character who you think is as bad ass as they come, another character will pop up and leave you thinking, wow this new guy could kick that old guys ass - easily! Then, once you reach the tip top of the power structure he has to fight someone who he considers his match. It's pretty crazy and in that vein alone guarantees that this series is not intended for those purists who don't like uber-characters.

Quite frankly I really enjoyed the book. I was warned it was one of the slower books in the series and that it took a few hundred pages to get into it but almost from the first paragraph I was digging the story. There were at least 7 characters I really liked; Whiskeyjack - the bridgeburner (combat engineer type group) Sergeant with a lot of secrets, Sorry - the fisher girl after her encounter with the Gods, Tattersail - a female mage with more power than she realizes, Fiddler - a sapper (demolitions guy) with the bridge burners, Kruppe - the stereotypical pudgy happy guy who is more than he appears, Crokus - a thief who takes chances, and Rallick Nom an assassin with a higher purpose. Plus there were a bunch of other characters who were each believable and interesting in their own way.

Erikson walks a fine line between story telling and chaos but he manages to stay firmly entrenched in story telling throughout the book plus he promises you far more in terms of the world and the people who inhabit it in the books to come.

This book scores a 4 on my scale of 1-5 with five being the best thanks to tons of action, a compelling world and magic system, and a cast of characters that I can both identify with and care about (either like or hate).

Forest Mage (Soldier Son Book 2)

Forest Mage is the second installment of the Soldier Son Trilogy by Robin Hobb. In this sequel to Shamans Crossing Nevare Burville's story picks up at the end of Nevare's first year at the Cavella Academy. The strange magic that infested him in the first novel has been ignited by his encounter with the speck plague and it is having an unusual effect on him.

The growth of the magic within him and all of his efforts concerning it, result in the same bad "Meet the Parents" type outcomes that he dealt with in the entire first book. In the Shamans Crossing we followed Nevare on his travels to the east and in Forest Mage we follow him in his travels to the west.

Some of my favorite characters from the first book are still around such as Spink and Epiny though we run into them both much later in the story and Epiny has a mostly tangential presence in the novel until the end. In fact, instead of developing the realtionship between Nevare and anyone else the majority of this book, much like it's predessor, is spent in Nevare self pitying mode.

His life sucks - we get it. He doesn't know what to do to fix it - we get it. People are sickened by his obesity - we get it. In fact I'm not sure why Hobb felt it was necessary to hit us over the head with all of these points over and over again throughout the book.

Nevare is a pawn of the "magic" the mysterious mystic force of The People (what the specks call themselves). He is supposed to do something that will stop the "war" between The People and the Gernians - though the Gernians don't really know they are at war. The magic never really wants to give Nevare a hint as to what it is he must be doing - nor does it really put The People at ease and let them know it has the problem taken care of. Instead The People continue to spread the plague and use the magic however they can against the Gernians and Nevare sits around in a shack or has sex with a Speck woman throughout most of the book without ever actually even thinking about his predicament or trying to deal with it.

Nevarre is either the most stubborn and whiny person I have ever read about or he is deluded and refuses to accept the reality of his situation. Either way he doesn't make for a compelling protagonist. Even when he does things that are likable (he's a hard worker) he still comes across as self pitying and whiny. The magic doesn't help considering it conspires against him to make him seem like the biggest loser to ever wear the title of "hero".

Even with all the negative I found with this book it was better than Shamans Crossing. Nevare didn't whine quite as much and I got to meet 2 more interesting characters that I actually liked (his "love" interest, Amzil, and a scout, Buel Hitch). By the end he is finally forced to make a decision about his own life instead of constantly living his live as the Good God or his father want him to. Of course it could be said he still didn't make the choice and that the "magic" made it for him.

In the end I'll give this a rating of 2 on a scale of 1-5 with 5 being the best. I'll still read the third book, Renegate's Magic - it just might be a while before I sit down and do so.

Shamans Crossing (Soldier Son Book 1)

I bought this book, and the second book in the series Forest Mage, at the same time about a year ago but just finally settled down to read them over the past two weeks.

The story is set in an unusual world for a fantasy novel. While the main characters still have the typical euro-centric feel to them they aren't the dominate force in the world. Instead a nation that is never really touched on much, called the Land Singers, dominates the worlds military. The protagonist Nevaree Burville, is a Gernian. The Gernians were forced west, away from their sea ports towards a much harsher landscape knows as the plains.

The plains are populated by various savage tribes that resented the encroachment of the Gernians. However, the plainsmen were soundly defeated in an earlier war that Nevarre's father fought in. Nevarre's father performed so well he was able named a noble by the king; a rare move that has caused some resentment with the existing nobles.

The Gernians remind me a lot of Spain during their explorations and colonizations. The nation is very strictly religious, in this case the Gernians worship the Good God, as opposed to the various old Gods that still have a minor grip within Gernian society. The Good God decrees that the first sons purpose in life is to inheirit and take over for his father, the second son must be a soldier, the third son a priest, and the fourth son an artist of some sort. Nevare, like his father is a second son, and thus is destined to serve in the military.

Nevares father takes his duty to the Good God very seriously and strives to raise each of his sons to the roles alloted to them by their birth order. He is hard on Nevare as a boy and expects him to carry himself with a strong military bearing at all times. Sadly, however, Nevare is a bit of a whiner and a coward. He never whines where his father can hear him but, since the story is told in a first person, past tense, perspective, you the reader get to hear all of his whining; and let me tell you it really wore on me after a while.

Nevare seems to be a good enough guy - he's wants to do what is right, he has empathy for other people including the plains people and the remote "specks" who live in a deep forest on the western side of the plains, and he truly seems to want to embrace his life as a solider and make his father proud. The only thing is he can't catch a break; he reminds me a bit of Fokker, Ben Stillers character in Meet the Parents - nothing he does seems to be the right thing. Instead his life is constantly awash in misery and he whines about it Tediously.

Because of all of Nevare's whining I just couldn't like him. Not liking the main character at all makes it tough to like the book. In fact I barely finished it and I only managed to finish it by skimming a lot of relatively boring details that Ms Hobb included.

This isn't to say there was nothing about the book I liked; in fact there are a few characters that show great promise and likability. Nevare's friend Spink and Nevare's cousin Epiny are both pretty interesting and quite likable - I would have preferred to have heard their stories. Likewise, Nevare's father and his adventures in the war would have been great to read. Instead we get an entire story about Nevare growing up to be a soldier and then going off to the Cavella (Cavelry) Academy his father helped found. It's really quite boring.

There are some highlights in the book that suggest the world could be so much more interesting. The magic system of the plainsmen has a weakness against Iron but we don't really know what the source of the magic is (beyond a frog that can cause hallucinations). The Specks to the far west also show some interesting promise as does the magic of the mysterious "tree lady" that Nevare encounters in a frog induced hallucination. However, none of that is ever really developed during Shaman's Crossing. Instead Hobb keeps hinting at them with frustratingly similar passages over and over again.

To make life simple I'm going to rate books on here with the arbitrary scale of 1-5 where 5 is the best. This book, Shamans Crossing, eeks out a 1.5 - the main character is annoying, the story develops very, very slowly, and alot of the details don't add to the story at all, they just bore the reader. Hopefully Forest Mage is better!

The premise behind the books really intrigued me and, considering I had enjoyed earlier works by Robin Hobb, I felt pretty secure in buying two parts of the trilogy up front.

What This is All About

I know that there are a ton of book review websites out there. I read a bunch of them. However, none of them seem to have the same eclectic mix of books I typically read. For example I read a lot of speculative fiction (that's the popular term for Fantasy and Sci-Fi nowadays) but I also read a lot of military fiction and I like to dabble in some non-fiction as well.

I know my odds of getting a lot of readers here would go up if I would focus on one particular genre but then I'd have to have a different blog for each genre just so I could write my thoughts on each one. Instead I am going to focus on this one blog full of reviews. I will primarily discuss the speculative fiction I read becuase I read more of that than any other genre; specifically fantasy as I don't read much Sci-Fi.

I don't have some kind of in with any publishers so I don't get early copies of any books. I don't have a gigantic collection of my own books to give away so I won't be able to hold out the promise of freebies to those who read my posts. Instead I simply offer my honest opinion of each book I read while I attempt to provide as little of a spoiler as possible.

We shall see how well that format works and if I can provide enough usable content on each book without spoiling any of the fun.

I will be leaving comments on, but moderated, so that the site does not become a haven for spam. Hopefully, in due time, the community that will build up here will be strong enough that everyone will gain even more insight into the various books I review - and who knows, maybe even new critics can jump on board and write their own reviews.

Initially I'll probably set a pretty good pace for reviews because I haven't' written any in a while but I have read a lot of books recently.