Thursday, February 22, 2007

Ex Libris: January Books, Part 2

On the other hand, I managed to (literally) finish four books for this month: Glen Cook's The Tyranny of Night; Karen Traviss' Triple Zero; Christopher Priest's The Prestige; and the Rich Horton-edited best of short stories collection, Best Fantasy 2006 (something I won't review until I finish reading all of the 2005 collections).

I've been a long-time fan of Cook's military fantasy, ever since I first picked up a book about The Black Company. So when I heard Cook had started a new series after finishing the last time, I immediately picked it up. Cook's specialty is the grim-and-gritty kind of fantasy with this new book being no exception. Alas, that's the only thing similar between the previous and present series.

The world of the warrior Else Tage is bloody and brutal as kingdoms fight each other over religious and political differences. It also doesn't help that there are creature of magic in a war of no quarter against the religious churches. So when Else does the unimaginable-- kill one such creature-- he gets duly rewarded by being sent on a mission of espionage into an enemy kingdom.

Unfortunately, in this book, it seemed that Cook was following more in the footsteps of other epic fantasists like George R. R. Martin, Steven Erikson and Scott Bakker by powering up the political factor of his books. Whereas The Black Company books was the story of the grunts or the ordinary soldier trying to survive, this book was about the movers and the shakers of the world trying to out-maneuver each other. This left, in my opinion, Else in the rather unavoidable position of reacting rather than acting in the events.

If not for the major battle at the end of the story, I would almost say I got bored reading this-- which is sad, considering I thought before that Cook could do no wrong (something my heart still doesn't want to believe).

Weirdly enough, I also consider Traviss in a 'must-check-out' category despite not having read any of her stuff due to her quite erudite and witty presence online. So when I found a copy of her Star Wars Republic Commando work, Hard Target, I was willing read a SW book just to check her out. Though this is not her original work, Traviss has quite a sharp eye and manages to write about the possible pitfalls of having soldiers cloned and bred only for war. Likewise, she knows her military and political angles and applies this in her stories. You might say that Traviss is the 'feminine' or 'female' military writer... er, whatever that is.

But though I found that first dip in the water enjoyable enough, I was a bit put-off with its sequel. Whereas the first book detailed a squad of Republic Commando clones (Omega Squad) trying to take out a Separatist base in a far-off forested planet, the latest book has the same squad taking on terrorists in the capital city of the Republic, Coruscant. Overall, I would say the book was still good but I felt that the protagonists were in no danger no matter the gambits played. One could say that as military special forces-- even those in the future-- these men are supposed to be really good; however, where's the reader's empathy there?

Still, this may not be the fault of Traviss per se as she is working in someone else's universe (i.e. George Lucas), I'm not sure. Something to think about...

Lastly, I wanted to read Priest's book before the movie came out here. Life doesn't work that way though: I managed to finish the book but I never got around to watching the movie.

And an interesting book it was. I came into this one without having any idea what it was except that it was about a rivalry between two magicians in turn-of-the century London and that it was highly regarded, having won a couple of awards. In any case, this should give me a chance to post that quote again:

Every great magic trick consists of three acts.

The first act is called "The Pledge"; The magician shows you something ordinary, but of course... it probably isn't.

The second act is called "The Turn"; The magician makes his ordinary some thing do something extraordinary.

Now if you're looking for the secret... you won't find it, that's why there's a third act called, "The Prestige"; this is the part with the twists and turns, where lives hang in the balance, and you see something shocking you've never seen before.

Priest's book is actually one giant elaborate magic trick: as the story begins, he shows you what is, turns it around to show something else, and then-- with a flick of the wrist-- twists it around again to the oohs and ahhs of the audience. To say more, of course, is akin to a magician revealing the secret trick so I won't go into here. Suffice to say, the movie is definitely different from the book but its essence remains the same.

Personally though, there were times when I found the book at bit dry (they're British, what do you expect?) and the middle was a bit dragging (so where are we going with all of this?). However, I thought that it was worth my reading time. In other words, I may not be jumping up and down in joy over it but I would recommend it.

I know that's an odd declaration but despite not being too excited over finishing it, it does share a space in the Favored Bookshelf. Given a year or two, I'll probably have a definite opinion on this one.

Up next: what's in the mail! (Books obviously...)


JP said...

I'm not at all sure Priest is that good. I was bored to tears by the glacial pacing and odd viewpoint shift in The Seperation, and the accusations of a muddled middle and dryness apply to that book, too. Maybe he just has original ideas and a fairly polished prose style, which has been enough to make him seem like a Big Cheese in a genre which often doesn't see such things in entire trilogies of books?

Of course, I do have a very limited sample to work on. And I seem to be getting crankier with books. Couldn't bear Vellum's wordiness, whereas I galumphed down Perdido Street Station a couple of years back.

I just feel there's a lot of writers who are a little better than the usual hacks, but aren't really all that, try as we might to imagine that they are.

Charles said...

Actually The Prestige was okay for me. Not the best but a good read nonetheless.

Der Fuhrer said...

I liked the movie and I;ve yet to read the book. The movie was Nolan's, dude heheh. Anything Nolan is sure bound to be awesome. Some say that the movie id even better than the book. Heheh

skinnyblackcladdink said...

BC: actually, British writers can be far more 'exuberant' and 'colorful' - in terms of prose - than American writers; M. John Harrison and Gene Wolfe are my typical examples; as lovely as Gene Wolfe's books are, i find them drier than Harrison's; of course Mervyn Peake needs to be given a nod here, and then there's Iain Sinclair, who can be overkill. so i wouldn't say the dryness of Priest's prose is 'typical' of his being a Brit; the deadpan tone, however, might be more on the mark.

jp: i must disagree with your comment on Priest; though his writing might not get your blood flowing, his command of the language, on top of his originality and imagination, puts him in a different league from other writers.

i would say his prose is quite a bit more than 'fairly polished', but, that said, such 'perfection' (for lack of a better word) *can* have it's drawbacks, and both The Separation and The Prestige were unable to sustain my attention.

as for Hal Duncan: for myself, it wasn't his wordiness, but his indulgence in repetitions he seemed to feel were 'necessary' - even though any reader would have gotten the point after the first scene triplication - but which never seemed to add much to the experience.

JP said...

I think that's the problem with DUncan, yes, the constant browbeating of a repeated point. I suspect he vastly overestimate his own IQ while underestimating everyone else's. Smug chap.

So what books by Priest should I read to get a better idea of his abilities?

skinnyblackcladdink said...

er, The Separation and The Prestige, i think, are good enough examples. i'm reluctant to say this, as i never formally studied writing, so who'm i to say anything of this sort, but hell, here goes: Priest's prose in those two works is damn near faultless.

which is, i feel, the problem. yes, it's technically excellent writing; if it were an audible, 'crisp' would be a good way to describe it; clear, concise, hardly any fat to speak of; unfortunately, his choice of words doesn't feel half as risky as the ideas they convey, and so come off as a bit dull. put it this way: his works are intellectually challenging but not necessarily engaging.

it's like that Inspector guy from the Adventures of Pete and Pete who didn't need moisty naps after eating barbecued chicken...well, not quite. but you get the idea, i hope.

banzai cat said...

jp: Actually, I'd agree with your assessment on Priest's book and there was a point in the middle when I was thinking of the quiting reading. Hey, I just quit Robson and at least I read her stuff before. But the funny thing was that, Priest's book scores points for me because: (a) it lasted longer in my head after the last page was turned and, (b) like a swerving overcrowded bus swerving on a clifftop, it managed to keep itself interesting for me to finish it. That, in itself, was the clincher-- the idea of the almost-been.

Er, sorry if I can't make myself clearer than that. (And to be honest, I wasn't even taken by the online rep on the book.)

charles: Exactly my point. ;)

fuhrer: Alas, I really should get a copy of the blasted movie. Unfortunately, my favorite pirated DVD shop ain't selling yet. Heh.

skinny: Heh sorry was being glib about 'dry' British. And yes, I remember Harrison. (Why do I have an impression of dry? Maybe because of the pages? Hmmm...)

As for Hal Duncan, he's scottish, right? So that shouldn't count. ;-)

skinnyblackcladdink said...

er, yeah, which is why Duncan isn't on the list...scots are crazy, man.

banzai cat said...

Well, don't let 'em hear that or they'd probably come over here to whip our ass. ;-)

skinnyblackcladdink said...

haha. that said...who'd you rather be whupped by, scots or irishmen?

skinnyblackcladdink said...

er, shoulda said, 'the irish' rather than 'irishmen'...apart from being more symmetrical with 'scots' and arguably more 'PC', i'm sure an irishwoman could whup my ass, too...

JP said...

Being Scottish is no excuse! Ken MacLeod's a Scot, as is I assume Ian R. of the same surname, to say nothing of Iain Banks, M or not, and they're not smug, over-talky gits who latch onto one cuss word per literary outburst and repeat it ad nauseum as if it granted them some cool cachet.

Can you tell I'm kinda tired of a certain famousish writer/blogger here? :D

skinnyblackcladdink said...

haha, yeah; and the book's just the first of two. well, it isn't an excuse, but kinda hard not to see it as a *reason*, all that cussing being so stereotypical and all.

banzai cat said...

It's not that bad...

Yup, I liked the book so much am willing to get the 2nd one in hardbound. Me, the cheap-assed book-collector! ;-)