Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Book Review - The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

Kvothe Kingkiller: Awesome? Or the most awesome?

That appears to be the important question in Rothfuss’s first book, which came to me highly recommended. The book makes no secret of being a paean to the overall badassery of its hero, either; the blurb is largely a list of Kvothe’s many accomplishments, accompanied with a cocksure “you may have heard of me.” If you think this all sounds like a tome of author wish-fulfillment that is centered on an annoyingly unbelievable protagonist... well, you wouldn’t be too far off the mark. But Rothfuss achieves the highly improbable, here. This is an extremely readable fantasy epic, with writing so genuinely good that I was forced to forgive its more egregious faults, no matter how much I may not have wanted to.

The book is actually a story within a story, and opens with a somber introduction to the owner of a lonely village inn. We soon learn that the unassuming innkeeper is living in hiding for some reason, and is the Kvothe we have apparently heard so much about. Strange tidings are afoot around the inn, however; demon-like creatures are attacking the travelers on the nearby roads, and Kvothe seems to be the only person around (along with his strange, otherworldly “employee” at the inn) who understands what they are and how to fight them off. Eventually, the famous Chronicler (who, appropriately enough, makes his living by chronicling things) travels to the inn after nearly being killed by the creatures on the roads, drawn to the area by rumors that the legendary Kvothe Kingkiller was hiding somewhere nearby. After some careful prodding, Kvothe agrees to tell his story, provided that he can tell it his way, immediately, without interruption. Thus, the book continues with his own story told in his own words, beginning with his childhood years as a traveling performer, and the circumstances that saw him admitted to the prestigious University on his way to becoming the youngest and most powerful Arcanist in centuries.

The story has a purposeful, palpable epic feel to it. This is a story about Kvothe, told by Kvothe. There are a number of interludes that pull back to the “present day,” including a particularly tense and action-packed chapter near the end, but they don’t yet connect directly to the main narrative. The Name of the Wind is mostly about Kvothe’s past, and the beginning steps of the journey that apparently leads to infamous adventures and deeds of great renown. The story is heavy with foreshadowing, some of which is fulfilled and some of which leads unmistakably to events in future books. I have seen multiple references to “Harry Potter for adults” in discussions about this book, and I’m inclined to agree: boy who is old for his age and seemingly good at anything he tries goes through some hard knocks, and then gets accepted to a school of magic and mystery, where he’s immediately the star of the show and suddenly vulnerable to dangers he hadn’t even considered.

Considering how up front Rothfuss is about what sort of story we can expect, the book is executed masterfully. Rothfuss can really turn a phrase. The writing is crisp and descriptive, and Kvothe’s tale flows like it really is being told by a minstrel, exaggerated at all the right parts and rife with beats and asides calculated for maximum dramatic effect. This is a pretty massive novel, but I couldn’t put it down. Moreover, you can see how carefully a lot of the story's main themes are crafted. The rampant Mary Sue-ishness of Kvothe and the plot convention of the skeptical Chronicler taking down his story intertwine to create a parable about the ephemeral nature of history, and how the line between fact and myth is often blurred in order to create a legend.

But, come on, you can’t write a book like this without taking some flak. If you tell me your hero is the most radical cool guy EVER, then I’m naturally going to be skeptical. Make no mistake, Kvothe is really supposed to be that good at everything he does. He had a photographic memory as a child. Was a master musician by the onset of puberty. An unrivaled actor. So good at learning rhetoric and chemistry that he was a graduate-level scientist at 12 years old. Naturally, he’s the most gifted wizard that anybody has ever seen. Fit and strong enough to physically face down a pack of ravenous demons, and still be chipper enough to crack a complicated text cipher a few hours later, after reading a single encoded paragraph. Oh, and let’s not forget how every remotely attractive woman in the vicinity is immediately primed for some naked time with him, despite the fact that he’s a teenager. PERHAPS YOU’VE HEARD OF HIM!

This somewhat ill-advised assuredness actually bleeds through into Rothfuss’s writing, which I think is where the faint whiffs of wish-fulfillment are coming from. Rothfuss is a fantastic writer, and excels at both telling the story and penning attractive, flowing prose. He’s so good, in fact, that he loses focus in a few places. He sometimes gets so wrapped up in a clever turn of phrase that he misplaces a pronoun or two. And he’s often guilty of letting his adept grasp on vocabulary and grammar get in the way, which is kind of a greenhorn mistake. For example, while I’ll admit that “a sea of susurrus murmurings” is an aesthetically beautiful phrase, it’s not only irritatingly redundant, but probably the most pretentious goddamned thing I’ve ever read in a fantasy novel. So, yeah. Between the grandiose descriptions of Kvothe and the bombastic tack that Rothfuss takes with the narrative, it can be occasionally difficult to take this whole thing seriously.

Here’s the amazing part, though: The Name of the Wind skirts the line between ridiculous and awesome so nicely that all of these issues can be apologized for through the story itself. Kvothe’s superhuman attributes all have a verifiable origin in his characterization, dubious though they may be, and they are nicely balanced by the multiple scenes in which his cocky na├»vete lands him in hot water. The self-aggrandizing feel of the story fits perfectly within the framework of a scribe attempting to chronicle the true story of someone whose past is as much legend as actual history. Even the fact that this book doesn’t really have an ending (because it doesn’t; this planned trilogy began as one very long manuscript, and that fact becomes apparent when the book dumps you off into nowhere after 700 or so pages) is softened a little by the nice way in which Rothfuss bookends the story with a parallel prologue and epilogue, and bolsters it with interludes that hint at a greater story arc. For all that I wanted to cast aspersions on the weak elements of this book, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. This is a great fantasy work, almost despite itself.

I heartily recommend this to any fantasy lover. It’s pompous in just the right way, and tells a fun and resonating story. Rothfuss deserves the credit he’s getting as a talented contemporary fantasy author. However, I’m recommending this with a caveat: Rothfuss is building quite a bit of momentum with this eminently readable first book, and he’s already used up much of his credit in terms of how totally super badical tubular awesome I’m supposed to believe Kvothe is. I’m waiting to see where this story goes, mostly eagerly but with a healthy dose of skepticism. I liked this book enough to drop thirty bones on a hardcover edition of the second book, but from what I’ve already heard about the second book, I’m more than a little wary.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Graphic Novel Review - Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, by Bryan Lee O'Malley

The Scott Pilgrim series continues in this volume, which I think can be confusing to those new to the series; while the movie takes its name from this book, we're still barely getting into the overall story by this point. This book has all the humor and charm of the first volume, but contains a shift in narrative style that makes it unique. If the reader can come to terms with the languid slacker motif and gimmicky video game shoutouts, they will find a fun and readable story underneath.

This book picks up with Scott forced to decide between his comfortable, platonic relationship with Knives Chau, and his growing infatuation with American hipster ninja delivery girl Ramona Flowers. Meanwhile, the League of Evil Ex-Boyfriends continues their vendetta; Scott seeks out the second ex, movie star Lucas Lee, who imparts some disturbing information about Ramona. And Knives finally puts the pieces together concerning her precious Scott and his connection to Ramona, and is dedicated to protect what's hers. Finally, a destructive force from Scott's past makes an abrupt reappearance...

This one has a little less of the poor man's magical realism from the first one, though the video game boss battle is still in full effect. There's a lot more interpersonal stuff here, as the somewhat aimless relationship stuff gets more page time. There's a surprising bit of introspection, too, as the book starts with a flashback that gives a little history for Scott and Kim Pine. In fact, I was afraid this volume was going to end up somewhat boring and anticlimactic, until the first meeting of Ramona and Knives redeemed things. Meanwhile, the injokes and Gen-X retro-hipster crap is front and center, but for me, it transcends the level of gimmick and is almost a thematic or stylistic element. Weird asides like the recipe for vegan shepherd's pie or the shameless Secret of Monkey Island reference that are seamlessly entwined with the story made me genuinely laugh, rather than annoy me.

The artwork follows the same formula as the first volume: somewhat sloppy manga homage that brings to mind something like an ironic webcomic. There's still plenty of bold text and two-page panels with exaggerated dramatic poses, but both are used more judiciously this time, making the effect much less jarring.

Make no mistake, though, Scott Pilgrim is an acquired taste. If I were to be caught in the wrong mood, the disjointed story, mile-a-minute sarcasm, and somewhat nihilistic characters would probably give me a headache. But sometimes I think that people expect more out of this series than what it is: a love letter to 90s video game culture, and an oddball mix of Singles-esque grunge romantic comedy and Kill Bill-ish martial arts/vendetta fable. Does that sound confusing and kind of ridiculous? It is. But if you can roll with it, this series is hilarious and rewarding. This is one of the best graphic novel series I've read in a while, and it's even better if you try to enjoy it on its own and not compare it to the movie.

Verdict: 5 / 5

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Book Review - Shine, by Lauren Myracle

This is the first of Myracle’s books that I’ve read, since her popular Internet Girls series is well outside the realm of my interest. However, after reading Shine, I may have to take a look at those books after all. I managed to secure an advance reader’s copy after hearing some other librarians rave about this book, and while initially skeptical, I was surprised at how quickly this book grabbed me. While it has its oddities and weak spots, Shine is a powerful, well-written book that does an excellent job of framing gritty, tough themes for a teen audience.

The story opens with a newspaper story out of a rural North Carolina town called Black Creek. A teenager named Patrick is known to all the residents of the backwoods town as both the amiable clerk at the local gas station and the village oddity for being openly gay. When Patrick is found severely beaten and tied to a gas pump with a homophobic slur scrawled on his chest, the town is awash with horrified, and almost gleeful, gossip. Cat, a withdrawn sixteen-year-old girl, is particular affected; Patrick was once her closest friend, though she had not been speaking with him at the time of his assault. In a small town where everyone knows everyone, Cat is convinced that she can succeed where the local sheriff is failing, and discover the truth behind what happened to Patrick. Her guilt over the way in which she had handled their friendship drives her to find Patrick’s attacker amidst the residents of Black Creek, and repeated advice from those around her to let sleeping dogs lie only stokes the flames of her anger. However, her quest to shine light on the crime raises the frightening possibility of her being the next target.

This is a rough story to read. It starts with a gut punch and doesn’t get much better. Homophobia, meth addiction, and sexual assault are all touched upon in this story. For all of its darkness, though, Shine never really dips into sensationalism or angst. Everything seems very real in this book. Black Creek is a rural town with rural problems and rural attitudes; while I didn’t grow up as poor as Cat did, I do have enough experience with small-town mindsets to have the setting and characters resonate in a very real way with me. And for all of the darkness in Black Creek, there is beauty, too. Myracle is obviously writing what she knows, and has a talent for presenting the South in a sublime, evocative way, warts and all.

I figured out the mystery early on, but that’s only because I’m fairly familiar with how stories like these play out, unfortunately. But the main plot was extremely well done, with enough tension to keep astute readers strung along but without being too obtuse or boring for teens. The characters are layered, and many are both sympathetic and menacing by turns. Cat, the narrator, is particularly well-written, and her story is visceral and heartbreaking. While the plot itself is something that we have seen before, the mystery in Shine is made compelling by how ambiguous it is, and how there are things left mysterious and unexplained even as the story takes familiar turns.

There are a few things that bothered me, at least momentarily. The introduction of Cat’s love interest (and another potential suspect) is so abrupt that at first I wondered what their first scene together was even doing in the book. The explanation of the tension between Cat and her brother near the end of the book is also somewhat confounding, and appears almost contrived at first glance. The ending, too, is somewhat of a letdown. This could be because I figured the mystery out early on and was hoping I was wrong (I was almost completely correct), but the book also ends abruptly and on a strangely positive note, considering how horrible Patrick’s ordeal was and how bleak things still are by the end of the story.

All of these problems spring from a single source, though, and that source is actually the book's biggest strength: the characters in Shine are not stereotypes, despite their corn-fed hillbilly slang, and they do not act in a predictable fashion. There are no easy answers, here, just as there aren’t any in real life. Sometimes relationships do start in strange, abrupt ways, and considering that Shine is a book for teens, it follows the romance formula in way that is refreshingly understated. While the actions of Cat’s brother in the face of her earliest childhood trauma initially ring false to me and, I imagine, every other big brother who reads this book, Christian’s odd reaction is still evocatively real, in that it proves that not everyone is as brave as they seem. And while the mystery played itself out in the way it was foreshadowed (brilliantly, I might add), I am convinced that another character was involved. I am absolutely sure of this, due to multiple hints in the writing, and despite the fact that the ending does not make any mention of it and wraps things up with a single climactic confrontation. Whether this is an intentional tease by Myracle or just my own interpretation of the reading, it’s still a byproduct of a gripping, tightly-plotted mystery, and lends credence to Black Creek’s gritty, bittersweet realism.

For all that I looked for things to criticize, Shine wouldn’t let me go. I tore through the book, and loved every part of it. This is a grim, unflinching take on the consequences of secrecy and self-loathing, and it also is a paean to the lonely beauty and restorative power of a small, tightly-knit community. It offers a hard glimpse into reality while still telling an oddly sweet story, and it provides a moral without preaching. While there are occasions that the themes could be explored a little deeper or with more detail, this is a perfect example of dramatic teen lit. Once it hit shelves, I imagine it will move quickly. I’d recommend this to anyone looking for a good mystery, regardless of age.

Verdict: 5 / 5

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Teen Booklist: Dystopias

Considering the huge upswing in teen dystopian fiction over the past few years, I decided to theme my March display around it. I tend to go militant when talking to people who like dystopias. Everybody who likes dark, dreary, futuristic fiction should immediately read the holy trinity: 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451. No excuses, no arguments. No claiming to like dystopian fiction for you until you read those three. As for the rest, I fudged the list a little when it comes to series books, and am including the first of the series instead of the newest or whichever volume I had available.