Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Book Review - The Last Storyteller, by Frank Delaney

I was offered a free copy of this book to review, being the unapologetic fan of Delaney’s that I am, and would like to offer my thanks for that opportunity. That being said, this book made me nervous. I normally tear through Delaney’s books, but this one was slow going for me. I was actually convinced about halfway through that I wouldn’t like it, and then dramatically changed course when I got to the superb last third of the book. As others have mentioned, this is the third book in a trilogy, and while I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this as a standalone novel, it is a wonderful conclusion to the story of Ben MacCarthy and Venetia Kelly.

I must admit that I still haven’t ready Venetia Kelly’s Travelling Show, despite being enthusiastic about Delaney’s other works. This shortcoming is what allowed me to view (and love) the previous book, The Matchmaker of Kenmare, as a standalone novel. Accordingly, I was a little more prepared for the continuity this time around; as with the previous books, this book is told from Ben MacCarthy’s point of view as a thorough, winding memoir. The story is written as a chronicle of his life, left for his twin children.

After finding Venetia married to another man in Florida, Ben MacCarthy returns home to Ireland and attempts to puzzle out what he should do with his life. He inherits the mantle of his venerable folklore-collecting mentor and begins to collect the tales of the famous storyteller John Jacob O’Neill. The stories he hears in O’Neill’s house seem eerily prophetic, as they parallel events in Ben’s life- since returning to Ireland, he has managed to fall in with an IRA gun-runner, which puts him squarely in the sights of both his dubious new friends’ colleagues and some unfriendly police detectives. When Venetia shows up in Ireland again, touring with her abusive new husband’s illusion show, Ben is compelled to act in order try and salvage the happily ever after that he has ached for since Venetia’s disappearance. This compulsion, combined with Ben’s tendency towards dark moodiness and reckless decisions, leads to an act that threatens to drown Ben in remorse and self-hatred. The only thing that can bring peace to Ben’s life is its one true constant: the stories he seeks out, dutifully records, and has all along been preparing himself to transform and tell to others.

The first few parts of this book proceed in a meandering, piecemeal fashion that is a hallmark of Delaney’s warm, organic style of prose. This time around, though, they seemed a lot more disconnected. As usual, we are treated to a cast of layered, interesting characters, which rise out of the mythic tapestry of Ireland’s countryside. The various situations that Ben finds himself tossed into (since, for all of his charm, Ben MacCarthy has always been a somewhat hapless protagonist) are a treat to read, but they never quite intersect in a meaningful way, as far as plot goes. At least, not at first. The story really picks up with the return of Venetia, and Ben’s daring plot to reunite with her. Once that gets going, though, the scenes before seem even less important.

It’s not until near the very end of the book that the big payoff comes, where Delaney connects Ben’s adventures with the rebels, his attempt to reclaim Venetia, and the journey to redemption he must take. True to form, the best part of the book is the suite of folk tales that intersperse the narrative, told with the lyrical bombast of an ancient seanchaĆ­. Beyond their intrinsic loveliness, they serve as the glue that binds the story’s action to its theme, and lend a bit of more concrete mysticism as Ben’s story draws to a close. The epilogue, a matter-of-fact postscript written by Ben’s children, rounds out an ending that is enormously satisfying, regardless of whether the reader is familiar with the previous two books (and doubly satisfying if they are).

I suppose it takes a more observant reader than me to see these things coming together until the end of the book. I was flailing for a while, there. Things came together in a subtly beautiful way at the end, but to me, the first half felt a bit disjointed. Once Venetia enters the picture again, there are a lot of callbacks to the first book in the trilogy. Between my unfamiliarity with that book and the slow burn Delaney uses to tie everything together, I didn’t really feel invested in the story until I neared the end. For that reason, I’d be wary of recommending this as a standalone book. However, if you are a reader with a taste for wistfulness and clever writing, this book is definitely worth your time. The characters alone are worth the price of admission, and taken as a whole it tells a beautiful story. It goes without saying that this is a must-read for those that have read Venetia Kelly’s Traveling Show and The Matchmaker of Kenmare; I can’t think of a better way to end Ben’s story.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Book Review - Erebos, by Ursula Poznanski

Erebos is an entry in the “takes place in an online game” genre, which has been around for a while but is seeing a recent resurgence. It’s apparently getting enough hype from its original German publication to justify an English translation. I did a lot of vacillating while reading this; I came close to hating it in the beginning, got hooked somewhere in the middle, and finished it feeling content but vaguely dissatisfied. It does a lot of things very well, but could probably do some other things better.

The story revolves around Nick Dunsmore, a student in a London school. Nick notices that his friends and acquaintances are beginning to act strangely and are increasingly missing from class, and eventually discovers that a secretive package is making the rounds among them. When Nick is finally inducted into this mysterious club, he finds that the package contains a burned CD of an online multiplayer game called Erebos. It is like no other game that Nick has ever played before; it comes with very strict rules about secrecy, and seems almost able to read his mind. Furthermore, the game begins to assign him incomprehensible tasks in the real word in order for his character to climb the ranks. It soon becomes clear that Erebos may be part of a grander, more sinister design. By the time Nick realizes this, it may be too late to save his fellow addicted gamers.

The first half of the book covers Nick’s introduction to the game and his increasing infatuation with it, and thus takes place mostly in-game. At first, the transitions between Nick going about his daily business and his character Sarius exploring the game world are a little jarring, as there is very little in the way of segueing between the two. The descriptions of Sarius’s adventures are initially a little overblown; it’s hard to imagine anyone but a gamer being interested in stamina meters, world exploration, and hotkeys. Eventually, though, I found myself as hooked on Erebos as Nick was. The progression operates as seamlessly as playing an actual game. Once I was accustomed to the lore and rules, I slipped easily into the game world and eagerly followed each encounter. This, along with the escalating grimness of the game’s hold and demands on its players, makes for a exciting and suspenseful read.

Once I made it through the climax to the end, though, a couple of problems came back to the surface to haunt me (minor spoilers ahead). Even with all of the work that Poznanski puts in to explain how sophisticated the Erebos A.I. is, it still strains the limits of credulity. There are simply too many plot holes in the way of explaining how the game could maintain such a level of surveillance on its players, or how it was so difficult to see through its supposed omniscience as a player spent more time with it. The plot resolves itself admirably well, but ends a little too neatly. I was particularly bothered by the lack of consequences, especially considering that Nick is sort of a hard character to like in the first place. He uses the game to ruin the relationship of the girl he likes, and in the end… he gets to date her. The old boyfriend seems no worse for wear, despite enduring a false rape accusation by another girl. Meanwhile, the girl who actually levied the accusation on the game’s behalf is all smiles and “man, that was intense, huh, LOL” at the end. Not only is this unrealistic, but it actually imparts an unhealthy and even dangerous message, in my opinion. Even the fates of the villains at the end are left ambiguous, in favor of a satisfying but irrelevant explanation of which person was behind which username in the game (including the antagonist, repulsive nerds that apparently just wanted to be Nick's friend the whole time, or something).

I think I was bothered by all of this because I sense a missed opportunity. There could have been a much deeper exploration of what obsession can do to impressionable people, I think. As a result, the mass downplaying of consequences was disappointing. Even so, the book is adept in pulling a reader in, just as the titular game apparently is. It is nicely paced, and the central mystery is compelling. I wasn’t totally blown away, as there are better books about massively multiplayer online games out there. But this one gets a solid recommendation for gamers, fantasy fans, and readers who like action-heavy mysteries.

Verdict: 3 /5

Friday, March 9, 2012

Graphic Novel Review - The Walking Dead, Vol. 6: This Sorrowful Life, by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard

I’m starting to realize that Walking Dead is one of those series that boasts a large number of fans that are oblivious to or are willing to look past its flaws. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but it is what it is. The universal acclaim that these books get seems to be at odds with some of the problems it has, especially by this point in the series. This volume, simply put, isn’t put together very well, and isn’t much fun to read. Spoilers ahead.

The issues in this collection continue to chronicle the ordeals of Rick, Michonne, and Glenn at Woodbury, including their harrowing escape and return to the prison. The centerpiece of the volume is a long, graphic section of torture porn, as Michonne enacts her foreshadowed revenge on the Governor for raping and brutalizing her in the preceding days. They make it out of the city with the help of a few defectors, but find the prison overrun by zombies when they return. Fortunately, most of the people at the prison are safely holed up (waiting for Rick to get back before doing anything about it, I guess?), and they get their sanctuary secured and cleaned up again in short order. However, an incident with one of the Woodbury defectors stands as a stark reminder that they now have living, breathing potential enemies right on their doorstep.

I read this volume faster than I usually do, but not because I was glued to the action. I was waiting for something profound or even interesting to happen, and it never really did. The extended torture vignette couldn’t end fast enough; it added exactly nothing to the story, since it didn’t seem to affect Michonne’s character in any way other than Rick noticing the crazy mannerisms she’s had since she was introduced. Also, I guess it’s perfectly fine to illustrate rape and torture in graphic detail, rather than simply implying it like before, if the victim is a man who deserves it. It’s a little weird to complain about violence in a zombie comic, I admit, but the whole thing seemed gratuitous. Anyway, we’re introduced to a few new characters, and in the space of a few pages, one dies, one is immediately slotted into an archetypical role (the person with vague medical knowledge that must find the courage to become The Group's Doctor), and one is inexplicably revealed as a traitor and even more inexplicably murdered by Rick. Hmm.

What story there was made very little sense, and really only served as connecting the plot point from the last volume (the existence of another, grittier group of survivors) with whatever the heroes are going to do next. It’s not a bad collection, really, but I wouldn’t really classify it as good, either. It doesn’t really add anything, and could have done without a lot of the supporting details (like, for instance, the ridiculous gladiator fight scenario). The AMC series seems to be getting a lot of flack lately for aimless writing and confusing character decisions, but that’s seems to be the hallmark of this volume.

Honestly, I think I would have liked it better if I had read it as individual issues, with a cooldown period between each. There are a lot of powerful, visceral moments in the volume that leave a lasting impression if taken on their own, but they come off as weak and even silly when lumped together as a story arc. Now that we’re past the long introduction of the Woodbury group, though, I’m interested to see what happens next.

In short, this isn’t a terrible book, but it’s easily the weakest of the series thus far.

Verdict: 2 / 5