Book Review: Flesh and Spirit

I’d never heard of Flesh and Spirit, or its writer, Carol Berg, before it was strongly recommended to me by a friend who reads Fantasy perhaps even more than I do. When I ordered it, I was in the middle of a half-dozen other books, most of which I’ve since finished and reviewed. I opened it, read a few pages, and then put it down (as seems to be my habit), only returning to finish it a year later.

 

The prose in Flesh and Spirit takes some getting used to. In particular, most of the dialogue has a certain old-timey feel that serves as a hurdle when first starting the novel. It feels exactly like what it is: a modern writer mimicking the sounds of Middle English, borrowing curses and expressions almost directly from the mouth of Shakespeare. Berg does better at miming the rhythms of our ancestor tongue than many (Looking at you, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), but it still feels like tuning a guitar by ear, and hearing one note stubbornly remain just barely out of sync.

 

Her choice in language is fitting, because Carol Berg takes her influences from Renaissance Europe very seriously. From the war of succession that drives much of the plot, to systems of religion that draw direct comparisons to those in our world, even to her use of Latin as a foundation for many of the names and terms throughout, the real world feels just behind the veil. This adherence to our own history lends an automatic authenticity to her worldbuilding; I could see the streets that Valen walks because I have seen those streets in movies and in paintings.

 

My personal preference in Fantasy is a world one step further removed, one step stranger, than the one in Flesh and Spirit. I prefer a slightly steeper learning curve from a worldbuilding perspective. However, as the novel goes on, the world gains shades of complexity. And because she bypasses the thousands of words of worldbuilding necessary for much secondary-world Fantasy, she can spend those on character. She takes absolute advantage of that.

 

Valen, our narrator throughout, is my favorite character since Jorg from Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy. Every page reveals more depth to Valen’s character, both from what he says about himself and from his actions, which often suggest that he is two different people. On nearly every page, Valen’s actions feel driven by his personality, by his wants and needs, by his fear and his defiance.

 

Valen is a con artist, a philanderer, and a hedonist. He’s in it for the pleasures that he can get out of life, avoiding as much pain, annoyance, and boredom as he can. And yet, as the novel continues, we find an underlying sweetness to him, a courage that drags him kicking and screaming–and cursing–into trouble.

 

The world feels lived in, primarily because it feels as though Valen has drank, danced, and dallied in every inch of it. And our care for Valen makes us care for the world. Valen is unforgettable. He makes this novel work.

 

The premise of this novel is clever: Take an irreverent, immoral scoundrel, dump him in a monastery, and let the sparks fly. Better yet, the monastery stinks with secrets, and the scoundrel quickly becomes determined to root out each and every one.

 

However, there is one major problem with the plot, and this problem kept me from becoming completely invested.

 

Every hundred pages or so, something will happen that pulls the rug out from under the entire story so far. This isn’t a simple revelation of a mystery or large character moment. This is a redefinition. “This is what the story is REALLY about.” Previously-important plot threads get reduced to sub-plots, and then to side-plots. By the time you get answers to questions from early in the novel, it can be hard to care.

 

Not that there are many answers or resolutions to these previously-established plots, mind you. Often we get the introduction of a plot point and perhaps a reminder along the way, but nothing in the way of real development aside from a whispered promise that there will be development…later. Flesh and Spirit is part of a duology, and I would be shocked to hear that it wasn’t outlined as a single book and split in two after an early draft proved too long.

 

Because of the short attention span of the plot, the second half of the novel lacks the drive that is so distinctive of most books this good. And it hardly builds to a satisfying climax. I put the book down, twenty pages from the end, and didn’t feel an urge to pick it up until my next bus ride. The ending was a reasonable continuation of what we’d seen before, no more and no less.

 

I’m ok with cliffhangers and endings that demand you read the next novel, but Flesh and Spirit has no resolution whatsoever, twisting my arm to buy the other book in order to make this book feel more complete. It will probably work, but I’m not above being a tad resentful to a piece of fiction.

 

This is where I say whether I recommend it to readers of the genre. If you write, Flesh and Spirit can teach you a lot about building a character so charismatic that he alone pulls you through a story.

 

If you don’t write, the question is a bit harder to answer. Right now, I can’t say for sure whether the second book gives enough satisfying payoff for all the buildup in the first. If you’re willing to take that risk, I can guarantee that following Valen around is a lot of fun. Otherwise, wait for my inevitable review of the sequel to get a satisfying answer to this question.

 

Random (non-spoiler) notes I couldn’t find places for in the main review:

 

I love that Valen’s world has no judgment of sexuality that I can tell. In a world not based in our own religion and politics, it’s unlikely that something like gender, or sexuality, or race, would be a source of the same prejudices as on Earth. For the most part, Carol Berg ignores any morality attached to these things as they exist in our world. That lack of assumption is great.

 

Despite time spent in the military, Valen is not much of a fighter. It’s such a fresh, interesting take on conflict. He doesn’t think his fists will solve anything, and will often continue trying to talk his way out of problems that are turning into physical confrontations.

 

Come to think of it, the problem I describe in this book’s plot is a more exaggerated version of the problem I had with Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles so far. I feel Rothfuss never juggles so many disparate plots, and does better keeping you connected and reminded of them, but it is the same problem.

Book Review: A Wizard of Earthsea

I finished A Wizard of Earthsea in one night. Part of this is because of its length–less than 300 pages. The language and concepts are easy to digest in one sitting, too, since the book was written as a Young Adult novel. But the main reason I read it so quickly is because it kept me engaged from beginning to end.

 

Maybe this was because of the world, every bit as forbidding and inhospitable as that of Dune’s, but never dreary or cynical. It was a world with energy and color, where I was eager to see the next culture, to learn the next detail of worldbuilding and the next hint at what had caused the cataclysm that created Earthsea as we find it.

 

Ged, the main character, is a lesson to aspiring writers on how to balance a powerful character. From almost the beginning of the novel, he is able to perform incredible feats of magic–and indeed, because of the somewhat ephemeral nature of the magic in Earthsea, we’re never quite sure what he can or can’t do, outside of what the main plot demands. But although he’s magically gifted, clever, and compassionate, he never feels too powerful, too competent, or too perfect. Ged is deeply flawed, and has a beautiful arc throughout the novel. He feels real, at every step on his journey.

 

Ursula K. Le Guin made reading A Wizard of Earthsea effortless. I rarely had to reread a sentence to decipher what it meant. That doesn’t mean that her writing is mindless; she puts a lot of detail–whether it be character, setting, or plot–in remarkably few words. But unlike the dense, breathless content that often comes from such rich writing, Earthsea is elegant, enchanting. Similar to J. K. Rowling at her best, Le Guin’s Earthsea feels as though each word on each page is imbued with magic.

 

This isn’t to say that the novel is perfect. The main plot is built increasingly as a mystery as it goes on, but the clues don’t lead the reader to the answer in a way that’s satisfying. The answer makes sense, and feels right, but I never had the “Ah-ha!” that’s so important to mystery plots. In addition, because the narration is distant and storybook throughout, emotional impact in some important moments are dulled. Lastly, it adheres to some cliches that draw a wince today, although some of these are likely only chiches today because she set the trend so many years ago.

 

Overall, however, A Wizard of Earthsea feels timeless rather than outdated. If you enjoy Fantasy, you’ll love it. And if it’s on your to-read list, as it was on mine for so long, I urge you to move it to the front. You won’t regret it.

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I might be wrong, but I can’t help but think that A Wizard of Earthsea was an influence on Patrick Rothfuss. From the main character being arrogant and hotheaded, the magic-school setting, and the True Name elements in both magic systems, Rothfuss feels like a descendant of Le Guin’s writing as much as Jordan seems to be of Herbert.

Book Review: Dune

Dune has been on my “must-read” list for years, the same way any legendary classic would be. Off to the side in their own pile, picked out occasionally when I feel I need to “eat my vegetables” as a lover of literature.

 

What moved it to the front of the line was my long-delayed Crash Course on Third Person Omniscient. I’d heard that Dune was the single best work of the perspective, and since I have little working knowledge of Third Omniscient, Dune quickly became homework.

 

Homework and vegetables. So it started with two strikes against it, neither of them due to its own faults. The first time I went to read it, I was looking at it from this perspective, and the opening few pages–which do tend to drag–failed to catch my interest. I put it down, and several months passed where I would look at it and think, “I really need to finish that eventually.”

 

Then, I did pick it back up. And I got past the first fifty pages, and we reached Arrakis. And I was hooked.

 

I was never surprised when a phrase or an action–or a gender dynamic, which is its own can of worms–revealed the age of the book. There are plenty of places that a reader will run into a stumbling block if they’re looking for one.

 

But what did surprise me was the many places where the plot is engaging, the characters are compelling, and the setting is utterly flawless. The political intrigue is among the best ever written, and the cultures feel fully-realized. Some descriptions are as good as anything I’ve read in modern novels. I truly have learned a great deal about writing.

 

The main problem that I have with Dune is that the protagonist, Paul Atreides, is neither compelling nor sympathetic for most of the novel. He begins as a Mary Sue, a super-man who is right about everything and is so preternaturally capable that other, better-trained characters remark on what a wunderkind he is. Then the plot kicks in about 200 pages in, and he ascends to what I’d consider godhood, almost. He quickly becomes a character completely detached to conflicts and motivations that the average reader can identify with, which can work fine in a story that is about that detachment, which this is not. In places his concerns touch on those of actual people, but it’s usually brief and always brushed side.

 

This isn’t to say that I found Paul obnoxious or dreaded reading sections with him in them. He’s at the center of an immensely satisfying plot and a captivating setting, surrounded by interesting and sympathetic characters. But whenever a character, previously-established as competent and wise, is lessened by his presence to make him seem more, it pulled me out of the story.

 

All in all, it was a pleasant surprise. I tore through the second half of the book, and I might forego my next video game to buy the next book in the series. For anyone that knows me, that’s high praise indeed.

 

Dune can be dry, and feels every bit as old as it is in some respects. But in others, it still feels new. And it deserves its reputation. As they say, it is a masterpiece. A landmark work of Science Fiction that will never be forgotten.

 

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On an odd note, it was never officially acknowledged that I could find, but Dune’s influence of Robert Jordan seems undeniable to me. From touches of setting to the feel of the intrigue, the way that truth and trust–or the lack thereof–can shape the world, even to the prose and the way that they handle the passage of time, The Wheel of Time feels like a child of Dune. This made reading Dune feel very strange in places, because I count Jordan as the primary influence in my own writing. It was like seeing a picture of a grandparent you’ve never met, recognizing some of their features in your own. Eerie.

 

Mr. Monster Review

During the summer, I started Mr. Monster, Dan Wells’s sequel to I Am Not a Serial Killer. I read the first half of it in only one or two sessions. Then I put it down for months.

I didn’t put it down because it’s bad—to the contrary, it’s very good. I put it down because, for the first time that I remember, I was filled with such palpable dread that I didn’t want to find out what happened.

In most genres, this would be a failure. In a Psychological Horror, this is a remarkable success. An even larger success is that, when I finally worked up the nerve to pick it back up, I tore through it in one sitting.

I Am Not a Serial Killer is about John, a teenage sociopath, trying his best not to become a killer. When a killer comes to his small hometown, however, he realizes that he is the only one who can stop it. And to do so, he must break rules he put in place to keep himself—and those around him—safe.

Mr. Monster is all about fallout. What happens when he stops the serial killer terrorizing his town? What happens after he breaks his rules? Can he throw back up the walls he’d so relentlessly torn down? Or will he lose what few boundaries he has left, becoming a monster equal to the one he stopped?

The second book is even more compelling than the first. The author makes me empathize with someone who has no empathy, cheering him when he resists his darker impulses, and sitting in quiet terror when he gives in. Despite thinking and doing truly horrific things across the course of the novel, I never stop caring about what will happen to him, never stop rooting for him to do better. John is a complex, dynamic character, and feels real to me.

The supporting cast varies in just how much depth they are given, but almost all of them have thoughts and feelings all their own that John can only guess at, and develop in arcs separate from him. Nearly all the characters’ actions feel informed by what they want and need and from the moment they are in. Almost never do I feel the author’s hand at play.

Dan Wells has a sparse style of writing that makes it easy to overlook the level of skill he consistently applies. There were moments in the novel that made me reread in admiration of a clever turn of phrase, or shudder from deftly-woven foreshadowing. One line sows a seed that is never given more overt attention until it sprouts near the end of the book, making me feel crafty for recognizing its significance.

My only real criticism of the book is that the twist at the start of the third act cuts strings that were woven through the first half of the novel, renders developing storylines moot. In a way, it makes the end of the novel feel separate from the first half. I might have been reading a different book altogether, were it not for the main character’s steady arc. This is made worse by the fact that the twist feels lacking proper setup.

For a lesser writer, this would ruin the entire book. But even as I read that scene, I was absorbed in the tension and driven on by the characters. Dan Wells kept me hooked throughout one of the more jarring moments I’ve read in the last few years. All because, to put it frankly, he’s one heck of a writer.

Overall, Mr. Monster is a better book than the first in the series. It pushed my engagement with the characters and their lives further. But more than that, Mr. Monster gave me moments of dread and terror. And that’s all you can ask for when you pick up a Horror novel.

Book Review: I Am Not a Serial Killer

I’ve mentioned many times that the Writing Excuses podcast is one of my favorite writer resources. More often than not, when I’m trying to share a concept or a rule with another writer, that’s the site I link to. So it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that I’ve read some form of the regular hosts’ work.

Three of the four, anyway. Until recently, I hadn’t read anything by Dan Wells.

I’d heard him talk about his books at length, and “I Am Not a Serial Killer” has been on my must-read list for years. But somehow, it was just a couple of weeks ago that I got around to picking it up.

I really liked it! It had tight pacing, a good mystery, well-developed characters, and some truly chilling horror. The next book in the series, “Mr. Monster”, has shot close to the top of the list of books to read next.

The best part, in my opinion, was the dialogue. This book has some of the best dialogue I’ve ever read. Sure, the first couple of chapters feel like they’re trying to get you up to speed without going into infodump territory. But once the book really starts, the dialogue is elevated to astounding heights. The words the characters spoke felt real, felt appropriate to them. And yet the dialogue never deteriorated into a caricature of the real thing, like dialogue that’s trying to sound realistic often does. It was a driving force in my enjoyment of the novel.

The prose was sparse and clean while still giving a good picture of what was happening. John’s character development felt natural for the most part, and the evolution of his thought processes throughout the book is really interesting to read.

The weak point, I feel, was that the physical danger that John was in never really hit home for me. I never really felt the tension of wondering if things would go so badly he’d get hurt. Even in the climax, I didn’t really fear for his safety. I think the author himself talks about “alternative fail states”, in which something else could happen that would be as bad or worse than the main character’s death. I did feel some tension from this angle.

I also didn’t feel a connection with most of the characters—which, in a novel narrated by a teenage sociopath, go figure. The villain was great, but the climax lacked the fulfillment of what I felt was a promise throughout the novel. And while the humor was present, it was nowhere near as funny as I had been led to expect.

Many of my issues with the story stem from being somewhat spoiled on it by extensive listening of the podcast, rather than actual flaws in the book itself. “I Am Not a Serial Killer” is a fun little Thriller/Horror that I read over the course of two sittings. If I had to do it over, I’d definitely grab this book a lot sooner. It certainly won’t be years before I pick up the sequel.

Eye of the World Re-read

Let me start with complete honesty, here. The Wheel of Time series is the main reason that I’m writing today. It’s my favorite series, and I tend to read through at least my favorite books every couple of years. This is not going to be an unbiased review of the first book in the series.

What it will be is a post describing some of my impressions of reading this book for the first time in several years. The things that I notice or think about differently, having read the last book, having developed as a writer and editor. Me rambling, basically.

That said, I figure I’ll just start.

The style of the first book is radically different to all following books. It’s a poorly-hidden secret that Jordan intentionally aped Tolkien’s style to a degree, in order to give readers familiar ground to start their journey on. You see it in Moiraine’s tales of Manetheren, the history of Shadar Logoth, and Lan’s past (The fall of Malkier), and in other odd places throughout.

I, for one, feel that he succeeds too well in this. As someone who was never able to make it all the way through Tolkien (aside from The Hobbit, which hardly counts), I found some parts very hard to get through. I can only imagine what it was like for twelve-year-old me. But even aside from these parts, there is sometimes a sense that this is more about the grand world and epic scope and awesome magic than it is about the characters. Thankfully, these moments are relatively rare.

I also noticed that the first four chapters are unbearably slow. I knew this from my first read through, more than ten years ago, and it’s even more true now. When I read it the first time, I saw the purpose behind it. I though it brilliant. I still do. But there must be a way to accomplish it without making these chapters a struggle to read.

Last among these complaints is the “early-bookisms” as most fans of long series call them, or EOTWisms, as Wheel of Time fans might know them. That is, flaws in continuity where the author develops canon after the first book, so that the first book is not consistent with the rest of the series. They’re all over the place in The Eye of the World. They’re hardly a big deal, and can largely be explained away in “head-canon” among fans. But it’s worth mentioning.

Do all of these complaints mean The Eye of the World isn’t a great book?

Don’t be silly! It’s absolutely a great book!

Even in this early novel, Jordan is already showing the seeds of the best parts of the series. He’s writing an unreliable third person limited, with the occasional expertly-worked omniscient/cinematic passages. He can suggest in one sentence both what the PoV character thinks, and that it might not be the truth of the matter. He sets up mysteries that have satisfying conclusions books from now. And he gives us characters to care about, to root for, from page one.

His prose is for the most part fantastic, and he has all but mastered the art of “show vs. tell”. What little we see of the magic system is exciting and almost completely consistent with the rest of the series. And while his plotting at times is similar to the meandering trek that Rothfuss is infamous for, Jordan keeps a single, strong line leading us from beginning to end.

Robert Jordan continues to provide lessons for me as a writer: how to use tight third person narration to create unreliable viewpoints, how to use description to evoke emotion and build tension, how to create characters that, while flawed, still try to be good, still get us to cheer them on. However, as a more mature writer, I can see other lessons he’s taught me. Don’t imitate the style of others to your own detriment. Don’t allow the backstory to overshadow the main plot. Don’t allow your reader to be bored during the introductory chapters.

A part of me, the part of me that was inspired by The Wheel of Time series to become a writer in the first place, is saddened by the fact that there are aspects of The Eye of the World that set examples of what to avoid. But there are, and I will, and I’ll become a stronger writer for doing so.

The Eye of the World comes in near the bottom of a series full of my favorite books ever written. On to The Great Hunt; let’s see how that one holds up, shall we?

“King of Thorns” Review

I find King of Thorns to be an improvement over the previous Broken Empire novel in just about every way. The prose is smoother, more precise, more impactful. The characters, all of them, are deeper, more dynamic. The plot is one to teach classes by. The structure, more complex and rewarding. And the climax, while abrupt, feels much more in tune with the rest of the novel, and completely in character for Jorg.

So, let’s talk about Jorg. In the previous, he was a bandit prince, a true sociopath who believed that, to quote another great sociopath character, “The only reasonable way to live in this world is without rules.” He believed that no one can be a good person and succeed in the quest to end the Hundred War. In this novel, he’s grown, smarter, wiser, and more empathetic (though that’s not saying much). It seems that his thought is no longer that no one can be good and succeed–both the antagonist of the novel, and Makin, one of his closest friends, seems to have disproved that. Instead, he seems to be questioning whether he can be good, whether he has any good in his nature, and if he can afford to be better than he was.

The world continues to be fantastic, built by a master in the art, filled with relics from a mythic past. We see many more artifacts and mechanisms from the days before the Thousand Suns, which made me grin. We also see a wider swathe of the world, all of it interesting. Pieces in a puzzle that is the Hundred War. We see facets of the world that were hardly hinted at in the first book, facets beautiful or horrifying or both.

There are four different plots, ranging from Jorg at present to Jorg right after the end of the previous novel, and even some pieces from a different point of view character altogether. These four stories develop independently of each other for the most part, and run parallel to each other within the novel. At first this structure felt strange, but soon each section puts its own separate hooks into you and you find yourself happy with whatever story is being continued in the next chapter. Each story has its secrets, its mysteries, and when the pieces finally fall into place, it’s incredibly rewarding.

There is some meandering in this book, where some events seem to simply happen more so than they seem to occur within the plot. But these diversions are always interesting and never drag on too long. In addition, most of them do contribute to the larger plot of the series. I’m eager to see just where the next book will go.

The treatment of women in this novel is markedly improved. Whether that’s because the author was responding to complaints about the first book, or whether it’s a result of Jorg’s growth (since we still see most of the story from his eyes), isn’t clear. What is clear is that there are almost as many named, recurring women in this novel as there are men, that the women fill every role from romantic interest to enemy to adviser, that many of them clearly have a life outside of the pages that Jorg writes, that they don’t simply exist for the sake of the men. They have the chance to be strong and clever in their own right, have the chance to learn and grow and be. I’m not sure why this book’s treatment of women was markedly different than the last, but I am happy to see it.

King of Thorns still has Grimdark elements that I didn’t enjoy, but here they didn’t feel senseless, didn’t stink of sadistic excess in the way that the early pages of Prince of Thorns did. While I didn’t enjoy them, they felt like they fit, like they were needed there, and because of that, I found them easy to look past in order to enjoy the whole.

King of Thorns is a great book, one that, had it come first, would have shattered my expectations of what the Grimdark genre can provide. As it stands, this second novel makes the first book worth wading through for even people who don’t like Grimdark.

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SPOILERS

What’s in the booooox?! I knew the moment that this mystery had put its thorns into me. In that moment, I felt Lawrence manipulating me by presenting such a delectable mystery, and I knew that it was working completely. This novel could have been a fourth as good as it was, and I still would have finished it just to learn the secrets of the box.

The magic is way played down for 90% of the book. Which, I can understand why, but you’d think that Jorg would spend more time thinking about it.

Whatshisface at the circus was not my favorite character. If he pops up again, hopefully he’ll be more interesting, less one-note. If he says “watch me” one more time, I might be sick. I seriously started to get nauseous from reading that line so many times.