Small Gods

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett9780062237378

publication date: 1992
pages: 386
ISBN: 978-0-06-223737-8

In Small Gods, Terry Pratchett lampooned religion, God, gods, and the certainty and absurdity of men (and I mean men; basically none of the characters were female). Generally, Pratchett’s mockery was successful, and the book became more than just a send-up of humanity’s foibles.

Almost certainly, the book’s ultimate goal was to show the folly of religion. Pratchett’s plot, style, characters, and setting were all used to further that goal. Within the book, Pratchett created a fictional, long-established religion: The Church of the Great God Om. The country of Omnia was ruled by the Church and the Church dictated the laws of all Omnians. Pratchett introduced us to Brutha, a slow-witted and good-hearted Omnian monk who accidentally stumbled upon a quest on behalf of the Great God Om. Pratchett also presented Vorbis, a leader in the Church and an all-around bad guy. Finally, Pratchett introduced Om, the once-great god who remembered the days when he was powerful enough to smite enemies and sacrifice believers but who now, because of a decrease of faith in Omnia, is only a one-eyed tortoise who reluctantly relies on Brutha’s help.

Pratchett didn’t always take his plot too seriously. His writing style was satirical and clever. The pages were covered in jokes; some of which worked and some of which didn’t. Many of the jokes were at the expense of religion or the idea that human knowledge and certainty is anything less than ridiculous. For example, here was an exchange Brutha witnessed when he first met the learned philosophers from the country of Ephebe:

The [philosopher] called Xeno stepped forward, adjusting the hang of his toga.
“That’s right,” he said. “We’re philosophers. We think, therefore we am.”
“Are,” said the luckless paradox manufacturer automatically.
Xeno spun around. “I’ve just about had it up to here with you, Ibid!” he roared. He turned back to Brutha. “We are, therefore we am,” he said confidently. “That’s it.”

Although Pratchett used his plot as a tool to convey his message and showcase his cleverness, he did give the story a beginning, middle, and end, and I was usually invested in what was happening with Brutha, Vorbis, and Om. The story was too long, however, and became repetitive and dull. Also, Pratchett would sometimes write with such heavy irony or such deliberate passivity that the action was confusing and the story was unclear.

Also, the whole book left me with a vague feeling of bewilderment. Parts of it were funny or interesting, but it all seemed pointless. If Pratchett wanted to convince people of his anti-religion message, surely a heavy-handed book making fun of religious people wasn’t the best tactic? But if Pratchett instead wanted to entertain those who already believed in the stupidity of religion, than the whole book was like an echo chamber, full of self-congratulatory jokes.

With that said, the book was funny, clever, and filled with details plucked from Pratchett’s active imagination. Go ahead and give it a whirl, if you want.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

Faith Fusion
The Narratologist
SF Reviews

Fables: Legends in Exile

Fables: Legends in Exile by Bill Willingham9781563899423

publication date: 2002
pages: 119
ISBN: 978-1-56389-942-3

In Fables, creator Bill Willingham presented, in comic book form, an alternate ending for all those stories we heard as children. What if, instead of “Happily ever after,” all the characters in the fairy tales were driven out of their idyllic homelands by a villain of pure evil and forced to spend eternity living in Manhattan? Volume One of Fables, titled Legends in Exile, collected the first five issues of the comic and introduced us to Fabletown, a Manhattan enclave where all the fairy tale fables lived. These included Snow White, deputy mayor of Fabletown and competent administrator; Bigby Wolf, the big, bad wolf in human form, who now uses his powers for good as Fabletown sheriff; and Prince Charming, a triple divorcee and unscrupulous womanizer. Legends in Exile also introduced The Adversary, the mysterious evil force who chased all the fables out of their kingdoms and into the New World centuries ago. The plot of Legends in Exile followed Sheriff Bigby Wolf as he attempted to solve the murder of Rose Red, Snow White’s younger sister

This comic contained a lot of good things. I though it was especially effective when it showed the fables actually inhabiting New York City and surrounded by New Yorkers. For example, there was a scene where Prince Charming was walking his new conquest back to her apartment; as they were walking they were surrounded by very detailed background New Yorkers, including a door man with a soul patch and a woman wearing John Lennon glasses and carrying a baguette as she waited to cross the street.

Bigby Wolf’s character was also a lot of fun. His face was always drawn in partial darkness, giving him a sinister edge. And, in at least one panel, his shadow is drawn as the silhouette of a wolf, even as Bigby is in human form. In fact, most of the images throughout the volume were compelling and memorable. The faces were intricate and drawn with emotion. The panels included lots of great details. Also the color tones were really effective at showing emotions and feeling.

However, Legends in Exile definitely had some flaws. First of all, everyone was white. I noticed one black character, and he was in the background, without any place in the plot. Secondly, as is a problem with many comics, the boobs were ridiculous. Every female character, if she was seen from the front, had large, round, and floaty boobs displayed for all to see at least once in the comic. I guess not every female character: they didn’t show the elderly black forest witch’s cleavage.

Also, the dialogue was not always compelling. Facts about the characters or plot were often presented in a rote manner, and with unnecessary bluntness. For example, here is how we get introduced to the character of Rose Red, within a conversation between Bigby Wolf and Snow White:

[Bigby Wolf:] You need to prepare yourself for some bad news, Snow.
[Show White:] Don’t be so dramatic. I already know. My ex is back in town. . . .
[Wolf:] This isn’t about Prince Charming. It’s about your sister, Rose Red.
[Snow:] This may surprise you, Mister Wolf, but I’m not entirely an idiot. I actually know my sister’s name. So what’s she done this time?

Also, the plot came off the rails sometimes, although I won’t go into specifics because I don’t want to introduce any spoilers.

Overall, this was a fun comic, which would probably be a good introduction for those who are looking to read more graphic fiction. I’ve continued to read subsequent issues of Fables, if that’s any indication.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

Pop Matters
The Literary Omnivore
PFS Publishing Book Club blog

The Grace of Kings

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu9781481451864

publication date: 2015
pages: 618
ISBN: 978-1-4814-2427-1

In this attempt at an epic fantasy novel, author Ken Liu presented a sprawling fictional universe, chockful of dozens of new proper nouns that I had to memorize and become interested in. The Grace of Kings focused on the island kingdom of Dara and the jockeying for power among Dara’s ambitious citizens. The novel began with a parade, celebrating the new emperor of Dara, Emperor Mapidéré, whose brutal conquest of Dara left many in his kingdom with rebellious and power-hungry thoughts. Liu then spent the next 550 pages detailing the political and military maneuverings of all those interested in the throne.

The Grace of Kings was just the first in a series of books, called the “Dandelion Dynasty,” which described the rulers of Dara. I, for one, will not be reading the rest of the series.

My main problem with the book was that it was tiresome. It’s tiresome to learn an entire geographic region, and its relevant history, and its contemporary elite. And this particular universe that Liu created wasn’t even very original; it was like reading the “A Song Of Ice and Fire” series, or the excellent “Graceling” series, but with different proper nouns. All of the political and military intrigue was tedious. This was all perfectly represented in a single sentence, from about a third through the book:

With the help of Faҫa’s King Shilué, King Jizu, the grandson of the last King of Rima before the Unification, had reclaimed the throne in the ancient capital of Na Thion.

It was so hard for me to care about any of that. I had no context. I only just learned about Rima 100 pages before, much less all that other stuff. An effective way to get me to care about a fictional world and plot is to create compelling characters. Unfortunately, Liu’s characters had a very rocky start. His characters began as very rote: the trickster, the heartless emperor, the feckless child king etc.

However, although the characters began as uninspired tropes of the fantasy genre, Liu used that to his advantage and, by the end of the book, the characters were very rewarding. Liu created space for all the characters to grow and change with their circumstances, which meant the wife and mother you met at the beginning of the book was very different from the wife and mother at the end.

Also, specific and particular plot points within the book could be fun and interesting. There was an assassination attempt with a kite, and an origin story involving a silk scroll with a prophecy found inside the belly of a fish, and an ascendant king traveling the ocean by riding on the back of a whale. So although I didn’t care much about the overarching plot, with someone always fighting with someone else for some small bit of land, each individual scene usually contained some engaging action.

This book was certainly not terrible. It was much better than another fantasy book I reviewed, The Name Of the Wind. And it seemed like the author was trying to do something interesting, was trying to take the common tropes of fantasy and use them for a purpose, instead of just populating his book with them. If you’re new to fantasy, this is one of the better books in that genre to read. If you love fantasy, might as well give this a shot because it does adhere so well to the genre. If you’re just a casual reader of fantasy, I don’t know that I would recommend this book over any other.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

npr
Elitist Book Reviews
Tor.com

Butterfly Winter

Hi all! I’m sorry for my extended break. I was busy with the holidays and then, this January, I’ve been doing the final edits for my friend Beaufield Berry’s first book: Childhood Friends. But all should be back on track now. Thank you for reading!

Butterfly Winter by W.P. Kinsella9781586422059

publication date: 2011
pages: 300
ISBN: 978-1-58642-205-9

W.P. Kinsella, probably most famous for writing Shoeless Joe – the inspiration for the movie Field of Dreams, wrote several books and stories that centered around baseball and magical realism. Butterfly Winter was just such a book, and was the last book he ever published.

The book introduced Julio and Esteban Pimental: twin brothers born in the fictional Latin American country of Courteguay. The boys were born playing baseball and quickly ascended the ranks and began playing professional ball in America at the age of ten. They went on to play for several successful years as their home country of Courteguay was consumed by human rights abuses that were put into place by a string of homegrown dictators.

Butterfly Winter exhibited a lot of what might be called “magical realism,” but was what I would call nonsense. Here’s an example of a story told about a baseball pitcher who carried around the arm of another pitcher, who had recently died:

What happened next, and this is a secret between us, resulted in Milan Garza’s finest year in the Major Leagues, the year he won thirty-five games.
“Milan Garza used to carry the arm in a tuba case. . . . Milan Garza told the Old Dictator that he pitched until he got tired, or was being hit too hard, then he let Barojas Garcia pitch for a while.”
“A portable relief pitcher?” asked Julio. . . . “Is that how it happened?” Julio asked.
“If it isn’t, it’s the way it should have happened,” said the Wizard.

Because the plot was so “magical,” nothing made sense. Magic and possibility were used to explain everything. For me, this meant the plot had no meaning, and I was rarely interested in the story or the characters. Here’s an example of the exaggerated characters:

Julio was walking by seven months, however Esteban remained stable in the catcher’s crouch until he was nearly three. . . . The women immediately fell in love with [Julio]. He would stare arrogantly at the prettiest female in the audience, tug suggestively at his diaper, then unleash a wild pitch into the crowd, aimed, usually with great accuracy, at the stuffiest looking male present.

This kind of writing style, while boring to me, might be interesting and fun to someone else. However, the biggest problem I had with the book was its treatment of dark-skinned people and Latin American history and government. Most of the characters were explicitly light-skinned, and here were the descriptions of the two most prominent dark-skinned characters in the book:

[Julio] picked a woman who, while not unattractive, was of a type not desirable to him. She was a black girl with a wild tumbleweed of hair. She wore a read skirt slit to the waist, and a turquoise blouse that showed off her sloping breasts. She was brazen, not very intelligent, and almost impossible to understand when she spoke.

I thought that was pretty bad but then there was this description of another character:

Dr. Noir wore a smart vizored military hat with gold braid and epaulets on his shoulders the size of giant hairbrushes. His cheeks were like black, pockmarked grapefruit halves, so black they might have been polished. A round surgical mask, white as an angel, covered his nose, hiding the huge, slug-like lips Quita knew well from photographs.

As I am quoting this passage I honestly cannot believe someone had the temerity to put those words to page. I was going to include another passage that denigrated Haiti, but I don’t want to read any more of this stuff.

So with that said:

2/6: many problems

other reviews:

The Globe and Mail
Magic Realism Blog
Quill & Quire

Zombies vs. Unicorns

Zombies vs. Unicorns edited ­­by Justine Larbalestier and Holly Black9781416989530

publication date: 2010
pages: 415
ISBN: 978-1-4169-8953-0

This book was a compilation of short stories compiled by Justine Larbalestier and Holly Black. The book pitted zombie stories against unicorn stories, with the zombie stories championed by Larbalestier and the unicorn stories promoted by Black. The stories were by several authors, including Garth Nix, Meg Cabot, and Cassandra Clare. Each story was prefaced with an argument or an exhortation by both Larbalestier and Black.

In my opinion, the zombie side won. Although, actually, as readers, we often all lost. Even the best story, a zombie story by Alaya Dawn Johnson, left much to be desired. I don’t know if the authors weren’t very interested in the theme, or couldn’t explore what they wanted to explore in a short story, but the stories were usually hurried and lacked solid characters. Also, the dialogue was often rushed or unrealistic. Additionally, if the story was action-oriented, the action frequently did not make sense. Here was an example from the story “Purity Test” by Naomi Novik:

Otto yowled as whatever had been boiling in the cauldron went pouring over his alligator-skin shoes and steaming over the floor. He whirled and came at them with the wand. “What did you do? How did you do that? I’m going to flay the skin off your bones –” Then he got close enough that Alison could pull the Princess Leia maneuver and throw the chains around his neck. She jerked them tight and dragged him in close as his face went purple and red, and she snatched the wand out of his hand.

That paragraph was typical of the abrupt, confusing action that occurred in many of the stories. Also ineffective were the editorial passages written by Larbalestier and Black before each story. At times, Larbalestier was downright mean! This was how she introduced the first zombie story:

Hallelujah! After wading through Garth Nix’s ye oldey unicorn muck you now get to read a proper zombie story. Since Holly [Black] bored you all . . . I thought I should fill you in . . . on the different kinds of zombies.

Although none of the stories or writing jumped out at me as anything spectacular, there were a few highlights. Libba Bray’s zombie story “Prom Night” was good, as was Kathleen Duey’s unicorn story “The Third Virgin.” Alayah Dawn Johnson’s story “Love Will Tear Us Apart” piqued my interest enough that I read one of her books. The zombie story “Bougainvillea,” by Carrie Ryan, was perhaps the most well-written. Ryan’s writing was haunting and lyrical:

A lizard slides over her toes, and she jumps, her fingernails raking against the tiles as she scrabbles to stay put. She feels like someone has planted a tree in her chest and then pressed fast-forward on the world, branches growing and twisting and pushing her apart from the inside. It’s hard to breathe in the thick night air, and she tastes the dampness of impending rain in the back of her throat.

Although Zombies vs. Unicorns contained some compelling tidbits, I would not recommend it unless you are enamored with its subject matter.

3/6: more good than bad

Other reviews of this book:

Fantasy Book Review
Dear Author
Books: A True Story

Carry On

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell97812500495512

publication date: 2015
pages: 517
ISBN: 978-1-250-04955-1

Carry On was another entrant in the “Chosen One” category, a la Harry Potter, Frodo, and countless other (usually YA) novels wherein a main character is given Herculean tasks and, after many trials and tribulations, completes them. However, our hero Simon Snow wasn’t necessarily the wizard any of us would have chosen for the job. He’s a self-proclaimed “thug” who thought more about food than magic. In fact, Rainbow Rowell precisely and perfectly constructed characters that broke the mold of the genre. A girlfriend who was enamored with the bad guy. A mentor who was never around to counsel because he was off raiding people’s houses in a costume and a funny mustache. A wizarding world with cars, and laptops, and smart phones.

Rowell’s characters were superb and maybe the best thing about a very good book. I loved how realistic they were. Her characters went through shoplifting phases at 14. Some cursed, some drank, some fell in love and lust. And some just wanted out of the game entirely. This book reflected real people who just happened to be magic, and Rowell did a great job of crafting and describing her characters. For example, Simon’s girlfriend wasn’t interested in waiting around for him to complete his destiny:

‘I want to be someone’s right now, Simon, not their happily ever after. I don’t want to be the prize at the end. The thing you get if you beat all the bosses.’

And, as mentioned above, Simon was kind of a lovable doof. Here’s a description of Simon through the eyes of his roommate:

[Simon] likes to be the first person down to breakfast, Chomsky knows why. It’s 6 A.M., and he’s already banging around our room like a cow who accidentally wandered up here.

Beyond creating wonderful characters, Rowell created, as she always does, a wonderful love story. I won’t get too much into the identity of the characters, but Rowell created two young men whose relationship seemed like a remarkable inevitability. Rowell had a talent of focusing on the minute details of the people in love, without being overly descriptive or maudlin. For example, here’s a description of Simon from the guy who had a crush on him:

[Simon] swallows. [He] has the longest neck and the showiest swallow I’ve ever seen. His chin juts out and his Adam’s apple catches – it’s a whole scene.

Beyond the adorable love story with its delightful minutiae, the plot itself was actually quite good. There were twists and turns and several times where I was in suspense. Rowell crafted a story with sensible internal rules, solvable mysteries, and several believable villains. However, the few flaws in the book came from the plot. There were scenes that were muddled and character motivations that relied on suspension of disbelief to make any sense.

Overall, Rowell created an affectionate parody that perfectly satirized this beloved genre, while still creating characters and a story that will probably be a beloved part of the genre canon.

5/6: seek this book out

Other reviews:

Npr
Slate
Girl!Reporter 

The Queen of the Tearling

The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

publication date: 2014
pages: 434
ISBN: 978-0-06-229036-6

The Queen of the Tearling is another addition to the extensive catalog of fantasy novels. The book followed Kelsea Glynn, as she was taken from her home at eighteen by a cadre of soldiers and forced into the role of queen of the kingdom.

The book differed somewhat from your average fantasy novel. First of all, it was written by a woman. Additionally, the main character was a woman, and an unattractive one, at that. Also, the setting wasn’t just some faraway land; instead, Johansen dropped tantalizing hints about the time period and location of the story – indicating the story might be set in Earth in the future.

These differences were welcome, although they didn’t raise the book above an average fantasy novel for me. Things that made the book different from other fantasy novels – a not pretty female protagonist, a futuristic setting – have all been extensively used in other genres and were, therefore, not that extraordinary.

Additionally, parts of the book were a little bizarre. Kelsea was always saying weird things at inopportune times and no one would react strangely to them. For example, Kelsea was injured while riding on her horse and her guard asked her if she could make it ten more miles to the stronghold. She replied:

What sort of weak, housebound woman do you think I am, Lazarus? I’m bleeding that’s all. And I’ve never had such a fine time as on this journey.

I thought Lazarus’s question was a reasonable one. And was Kelsea being sarcastic or was she really having an exciting time because she led a sheltered life? So either Kelsea made a sarcastic and overblown comment to a genuine question or she got easily excited and spouted off her feelings at a random time. Either option is bizarre. Additionally, people would react strangely to Kelsea at completely random times and she would allow it, even though she was queen and would seemingly want to squelch that kind of behavior. It seemed like sloppy writing to me, but it is possible Johansen was just crafting characters with somewhat strange thoughts and behaviors.

The writing was not all bad. The plot of the book was entertaining, with magic and political intrigue. Also, Johansen introduced several other characters besides Kelsea and she wove all their stories together compellingly.

For fans of the fantasy genre, The Queen of the Tearling is a welcome addition. For others, there are better fantasy books out there, and better books of any genre.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

Fantasy Book Review
Tor.com
Wrapped Up in Books