Thursday, February 23, 2012

Book Review - The False Prince, by Jennifer A. Nielsen

This is exactly the kind of fantasy I used to love when I was a kid: no-frills action with a charming rogue protagonist. Nielsen has done something admirable with this book, eschewing the high fantasy tropes that would work so well with an audience accustomed to wizards and dragons, and instead focusing solely on royal intrigue. I enjoyed this book because it falls within the spectrum of gritty fantasy, which is my genre of choice. It’s unfortunately hampered by a few major problems, though, even if those problems are only an issue for readers outside the target audience.

The story itself is pretty straightforward, and neatly summarized in the book’s blurb: Sage, a wily orphan, gets noticed by a passing nobleman, Lord Conner, and is recruited against his will for a scheme to take the throne of Carthya by deception. Unfortunately for Sage, he’s not the only orphan Lord Conner notices. There are three potential princes, but only one throne. Sage and his two new companions have a short amount of time to convince Lord Conner that they are the best fit for the plan, and it is painfully clear what will become of the two boys he does not choose. Sage, however, has a plan of his own- one more dangerous than even Lord Conner’s, but one that will hopefully keep all three of the false princes alive.

The plot certainly delivers on its premise, with a sense of urgency that is expertly maintained throughout the book. I sped through this book, due to its ability to keep me turning pages to find out what happens next. However, some of the methods Nielsen uses to keep the action going are used rather clumsily, and sometimes fail entirely. The main characters are surprisingly inconsistent; they are written as layered and unpredictable, but are prone to saying and doing things that are wildly out of character in order to move the story along. A pivotal scene in which Sage gains the upper hand over one of the other boys revolves around an event that makes no sense at all, either in the mechanics of the scene or in the motivations of the characters. There’s a twist near the end that helps bring the story to a close, but it’s a twist that’s easy to see coming and has enough drawing-room justification to feel too tidy.

It also must be mentioned that the book is written in the first person with Sage narrating, but as we get to the climactic scene at the end, we suddenly switch to omniscient third-person narration for a chapter. I understand that Sage's dramatic entrance at this point is the book's big payoff, but instead of sticking with him the whole way or alternating perspectives throughout the story, we have only this one third-person chapter. Maybe I’m being snobby, but that’s egregiously bad writing. Especially considering that it comes on the heels of a chapter-long flashback.

So, there are some definite flaws in execution, and the story’s resolution is a bit too convenient to be memorable. In the interest of fairness, though, this book is meant for a middle-grade to younger teen audience, who won't care a bit for these problems. Experienced fantasy readers will find this book unremarkable, but the suspense is ratcheted up to a nice level, the world-building is decent, and the pace is quick and enjoyable. This would be a good choice for newcomers to the genre who would like some human drama and intrigue in their fantasy books, and I would recommend it without qualification to younger readers looking for fantasy adventure.

Verdict: 2.5 / 5

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Graphic Novel Review - Phonogram Vol. 1: Rue Britannia, by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie

I was ready to hate this book. I was intrigued by the first issue of the comic, but by the time I had finished the second, the Pitchfork-esque celebrations of musical superiority had reached critical mass. Something happened, though, as I got near the end of this six-issue collection. I found myself looking up the mentioned bands. I found myself actually understanding the various metaphors, even though I stand firmly on the outside of the story’s cultural inner circle. By the time I finished the book, I realized to my surprise that I enjoyed it despite trying really hard not to.

The story arc begins with an avatar of a musical goddess sending a phonomancer (someone who can use music as a medium for arcane practice) on a quest to find out what has happened to one of her aspects, Britannia. Feel free to ignore this setup, though, because it has precisely nothing to do with the proceedings, other than to introduce protagonist David Kohl and give an overview of the setting. The book, for all of its fantasy trappings, is actually a fierce paean to Britpop music and an introspective exploration on what it meant and still means to its fans. David’s race to stop the dead goddess from being resurrected as a monster is a thinly veiled history of Britpop’s rise from the foundation of 1960s British guitar rock as a response to American grunge, its relatively quick decline and fall, and the state of the genre after it started feeding on itself instead of on a cultural identity. The most interesting part of the story is the consequences David faces if he cannot find Britannia in time: the destruction of his own essence, as his memories are altered and blurred until he is lost and transformed into someone completely different. Someone, for example, who hums along with Ocean Colour Scene and doesn’t mind listening to Kula Shaker. The fight to hold on to himself leads him to questions that every scene kid, no matter what the scene in question is, must eventually face. What happens when you get old, and the music you’ve loved so deeply and understood so intimately becomes a relic of the past? What’s the next step, when you can no longer define yourself by the trappings of pop culture once it inevitably leaves you behind, or vice versa?

These parables are so thinly veiled that it’s easy to get lost in the dreamlike twists and turns of the narrative, if you’re not keeping an eye on the big picture. Furthermore, even though there is a handy glossary at the back for readers that aren’t familiar with Britpop, there is still an excessive amount of musical preening. Obscure Britpop references are tossed recklessly around, with an indifference bordering on disdain for the comfort of anyone who may not be familiar with them. Or maybe I just felt that way, since I grew up on the other side of the pond, listening to reviled Seattle grunge instead of Pulp, Blur, Elastica, or Kenickie. I eventually realized that the story isn’t about excluding anyone, though. It’s simply a love letter to a musical era that passed by largely unremarked on, except for by those in the thick of it, and those who wandered in too late on the heels of “woo-hoo” and “Wonderwall.” Taken solely on those merits, this is a subtle and powerful work of storytelling.

The black-and-white art is fantastic. The pulp feel is wholly appropriate, somehow, and the realistic style conveys some remarkable articulation and emotion. The reader immediately learns almost everything about David Kohl by the expression on his face in the first page of the first volume. There are a few jarring shifts between pages and a handful of awkward action panels, but they’re balanced by some very expressive character art. Honestly, the covers alone almost make up for any other artistic problems.

Taken all together, this is a remarkable graphic novel. It’s bound to alienate some readers who either aren’t familiar with or don’t have any interest in the British guitar pop of the early 1990s, since the actual story doesn’t really hold up without at least a passing appreciation for it. But reading this with an open mind (and a tolerance for having your own musical tastes sneered at, just a little bit) opens up a surprising deep and heartfelt piece of music journalism in comic form.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Book Review - The Color of Magic, by Terry Pratchett

Back when I was a teenager and first dipping my toes into writing fantasy fiction, one of my regular characters was a bumbling wizard that constantly broke the fourth wall. I hadn’t known at the time that I was essentially doing a rough-hewn Terry Pratchett impression; in fact, at that point I’m pretty sure the only humorous fantasy I had read was a book somewhere in the middle of Piers Anthony’s Xanth series. I read Pratchett’s Soul Music not long after creating that character, and realized even then that I had found something that would amplify and resonate my still-developing sense of humor. At last, here was a book that had everything I wanted from humorous fiction: a fantasy setting, plenty of magic, random absurdity, armloads of meta-humor, and a smirking disregard for the fourth wall. Also, unlike Anthony’s books, it didn’t leave me with the lingering urge to take a shower.

The slapstick aesthetic of the Discworld books (at least, the ones I’ve read) make them a little hard to follow. I’ve always wanted to try them from the beginning to see if things feel a bit more concrete that way, but now that I’ve read the first book, I have to say that it didn’t really help. In fact, this book hopped around so much that I was past the halfway mark by the time I got oriented and comfortable with the material. The Color of Magic is ostensibly a tale of the hapless wizard Rincewind, a naïve tourist named Twoflower that finds excitement in the most dangerous places, and a mysterious, ambulatory, and sapient piece of luggage, which follows them whereever they go and causes no end of trouble. In actuality, the book is a collection of four bizarre vignettes that are tied together by a whirlwind tour of Discworld’s odd cosmology, which is loaded with delightfully silly words and concepts, and often seems made up on the spot. The book is essentially a starting point for Rincewind, and an introduction to the Discworld universe, without much in the way of an actual story. It’s best described as a few zany episodes, capped off by a cliffhanger ending.

As such, it must be said that this is a bit of a niche read. It’s not for everyone. Enjoyment of this book hinges upon having an appreciation for wordplay, British humor, and fantasy clichés. Also, one can’t be too attached to the traditional ideas of character and story structure, or at least be open to the idea of deconstructing and satirizing them. That being said, I had a great time with this book once I adjusted my expectations. It was lighthearted and genuinely funny (in a shake-your-head-and-grin way, rather than a laugh-out-loud way), without being patronizing or one-note. The random locales and situations are hilariously inventive, and there are patterns of consistency throughout that effectively create a sense of setting and highlight what are sure to be future plot threads. While I suspect the quality of the later Discworld is much better, comparitively speaking, this is still a great read for anyone who wants to get away from the self-importance of most fantasy fiction and indulge in a little silliness.

Verdict: 3 / 5

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Book Review - The Lake, by Banana Yoshimoto

It’s hard to summarize this novella-length story without giving too much away. In fact, I’d recommend against reading the marketing copy, since it spoils the one and only surprise in the book. It’s best described as a stilted and intensely awkward meet-cute, I guess. Introspective young woman notices odd neighbor, and almost despite herself, begins to reach out to him and draw him out of his shell. They begin a fragile romance as she gets closer to the truth of his ethereal weirdness, and both of them have to reconcile the baggage from their respective pasts if they have any chance of holding on to what begins to bloom between them.

That’s it, really. Lots of walking, lots of monologues, and lots of narrative exposition on the nature of people and relationships. This is very much a thinking person’s book (or, to put it less kindly, a navel-gazing session), and it fits within a defined subgenre of literary fiction that almost eschews plot in favor of evocative, poetic ruminations on the human condition, and how deep and interesting it is to be sad all the time. It definitely has the hallmark style of Japanese fiction, as well- the writing, while occasionally clumsy through the lens of a Western perspective, is consistently elegant, and often beautiful. There are some choice observations in the book that are eminently quotable.

I couldn’t get into it, though. I don’t know, maybe I’m forever ruined by a lifetime of comic books and genre fiction, but I don’t have much patience for this kind of aimless meandering in the stories I read. This isn’t a bad book by any definition of the word; it’s quite good, and short enough that none of its earnest heaviness is lost on the reader. But it’s also extremely slow, and has no character arcs to speak of. I was pleasantly diverted, but I can’t think of anything enthusiastic to say about it, other than that the prose itself was occasionally brilliant.

This is a good one if you’re in a self-reflective sort of mood, but it doesn’t do much in the way of escapism.

Verdict: 2 / 5

Book Review - A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness

Conor began having the nightmare soon after his mother first began her treatments. It was always the same nightmare, with the same monster waiting inside. So, when the other monster came calling outside his bedroom window, Conor wasn’t surprised or impressed. However, this monster was different. It claimed to be as old as time, and had come to tell Conor three stories. After the third story, Conor will then have to tell his own story: the truth he is hiding, at the expense of everything, in exchange for his life.

This is not an easy story to read, for a number of reasons. The grim allegory that forms the core of the story reaches beyond fantasy, and moves well into the realm of magical realism. Readers who are looking for a tidy metaphor or a believable plot will be left wanting. The subject matter itself, as one might expect, is heartbreaking.

There is beauty amidst the rubble, though, and the interesting thing is that it’s a different beauty for each reader. Ness narrates and crafts dialogue with elegant skill, and combined with Jim Kay’s haunting illustrations, the story hums with foreboding. The book is affecting even if you know where everything is heading, as most adult readers will. This is a slim book that seems aimed primarily at younger teens, and anyone with even secondhand experience with illness or grief will see the story for what it is and anticipate the ending well in advance. It’s a testament to Ness’s talent that, despite this, I had butterflies in my stomach while reading it and couldn’t stop thinking about it when I wasn’t.

As such, I confess to being a little taken aback at reviews of this book that stridently claim this ambiguity of intended audience is somehow a bad thing. I guess I understand, since I’m in the business of categorizing books and determining their eligibility for fitting a reader. Still, it’s not as if there is any issue with truth in advertising here. This book is therapy for kids dealing with grief, a possible revelation to kids that aren’t, and a powerful (if familiar) fable for anyone else. I can’t think of any higher praise than to state that a book successfully imparts different messages to different readers.

Oh, and for the record, I didn’t cry at the end, but it was a close thing.

Verdict: 5 / 5