Ship of Magic / Robin Hobb

March 17, 2011

It took me some time to finish this book, as it’s over 800 pages long. This is the first book of the second trilogy by Robin Hobb, the Liveship Traders trilogy. The comparison to the first trilogy, the Farseer, is unavoidable, but there are many differences. The length of the first book is just one – Assassin’s Apprentice is almost half the number of pages. And yet, even Assassin’s Apprentice felt too long at first. This book was plain intimidating. But like the Farseer, it’s well worth the length.

The setting is the Southern edge of the Farseer’s map – a stretch of coast dotted with islands between the towns of Bingtown and Jamaillia. These are referenced in the Farseer, just like the Six Duchies are referenced in the Liveship Traders. But it’s a world apart. Here, the Six Duchies are a wild and uncivilized place – even though women are allowed to work as sailors there, and even though slavery is a common practice in Jamaillia.

The traders of Bingtown are sailing the seas on all kinds of ships, but the most interesting kind is the Liveships – ships made (at least partly) of wizardwood which, after three generations of the family who bought the ship, “quickens” and becomes alive. It’s actually the figurehead at the bow which comes alive, and to me it seems like an awful sort of life. One such Liveship is considered mad (something to do with him killing his entire crew – it’s a mystery, but I assume more is revealed in the second book, Mad Ship) and is left to rot on the shore. Of-course, wizardwood doesn’t rot and cannot be eaten by bugs. So he just lays there like an overturned turtle, unable to move. A terrible existence.

We are following several characters – mainly the Vestrit family, a pirate captain and a sailor with loyalty and romantic connections to the Vestrits. The point of view keeps changing between the main characters, and sometimes it takes an entire paragraph to understand who it is that the text is referring to. It’s actually quite annoying, and at places I had a feeling Hobb did this on purpose – she wickedly enjoyed keeping the reader in the dark for a paragraph every few pages.

So Ephron, the Vestrit patriarch, is dying; upon his death, being the third generation, his Liveship the Vivacia quickens. His daughter Althea is supposed to inherit the ship but instead it is turned over to her older sister Keffria and her husband Kyle, which is not an “Old Trader” and does not understand the ways of Liveships. He forces his 13-year old son Wintrow to sail with him, with the intention to trade in slaves – which has never been done with Liveships before. Along with Brashen, a sailor which was loyal to Ephron and was cast off the Vivacia, Althea attempts to regain the ship from Kyle, meanwhile sailing on other ships. Along comes Kennit, the pirate captain, which has high aspirations towards kingdom and beyond, and dreams of capturing a Liveship – another feat that has never been accomplished, as Liveships have the ability to sail so swiftly when being chased by a pirate ship. And we haven’t mentioned the serpents – snake-like creatures infesting the seas and swallowing people, some of which have the ability to talk (even philosophically); or the Rain Wild people and magic, which is another mystery.

It’s a mish-mash of intertwined stories and creative ideas, but it works, and the reading just flows. As in the Farseer, it takes time to build up the characters – and there are so many of them. I can count at least seven humans who occasionally have the lead point of view, plus one serpent and a couple of Liveships; and there are several other recurring characters (including a serpent prophet) which we also learn to know. I think you need real talent to juggle all these protagonists, but I already know Hobb has it. It takes at least 200 pages to understand where the story is in all those pages. A situation is built in which there doesn’t seem to be anywhere to go – but it explodes in so many ways that you just cant wait for the second book.

Ship of Magic


Key to Conflict / Talia Gryphon

January 18, 2011

It took me two days since finishing this book to start reviewing it. It’s such a horrible, idiotic piece of work; I was actually considering skipping the review. I don’t know, maybe the writer is very (VERY) young, but that is no excuse for a publisher. Who prints this nonsense?

The cover alone should have made me drop it, depicting a sexy chick in a generous sleeveless shirt, holding some kind of flame thrower in a “I’m a mean bitch so don’t mess with me” stance. Indeed, the hero is Dr. Gillian Key (what an ingenious word-pun, with the title and all!), an ex-marine commander and current Paramortal psychologist-slash-field operative, meaning anything from assassin to intelligence collector. Oh, and of-course she’s gorgeous. Idiotic, did I mention?

A few years back, the world changed when creatures of magic came out of their collective closet, so to speak. So now vampires, werewolves, elves, ghosts – you name it – all roam the world, live among us normal human beings, and seem to have psychological issues that require Dr. Key’s expertise and special empathic ability to solve. Most of these creatures are well-behaved and, even though they have no problem killing a person with their bare teeth, they usually don’t. But some do. Especially now (of-course), when Dracula has emerged and wants to turn humans into what they really are – nothing more than food. How great that we have some decent vampires, namely the Greek Dionysus and Egyptian Osiris (yes, the gods – they are actually vampires), to save our hinds. Oh, and Dr. Key, of-course. Bram Stoker would have loved to see what became of his masterpiece.

She’s in her late twenties, smoking, drinking and cursing, blond (of-course) and extremely smart (she aced all her tests, ever), that is, until she does the most idiotic things out of some stupid feminist drive. Every man she meets is stunning and makes her private parts wet, moist or damp – the words are definitely overused. Every man that glances at her gets an immediate erection. Everything is so superficial and plain, there’s absolutely no subtext. If a person is a traitor, we know it immediately, and everybody in the story knows it a page or two later. If two people are attracted to each other – and everyone seems to be attracted to everyone else, because everyone is devastatingly beautiful – there’s no need to build some erotic tension; we just go ahead and say it to the face. And then they sleep together. Not only idiotic; bad writing, too.

Along the way we discover what an excellent name-thrower this Talia Gryphon is. So here comes Jack the Ripper, and Oscar Wilde is also a vampire, and elves do actually have a magic land somewhere in the North, and J.R.R.Tolkien was their friend so they let him in. And oh, apparently there should be a sequel, because this one ends with nothing. Hardly even an encounter between the good guys and the bad ones. Cliff hanger? very funny.

How goes the saying – you should learn how to crawl before you can walk? Well, you should learn how to write before you start writing books. This book demonstrates no writing skill. Sorry.

Key to Conflict

Assassin’s Quest / Robin Hobb

December 20, 2010

Wow! The third and final book of the Farseer trilogy really blew me away! It’s even better than the first two. As I was reading, and enjoying almost every page, I began to feel uncomfortable seeing the number of remaining pages dwindle and many questions were left open. Boy, was I wrong! Maybe I missed something, but I felt that every open thread was nicely wrapped up; as with most good books, the ending is not overly saccharine but truly cathartic. That’s how you close a series.

FitzChivalry, the bastard of royal blood, was a boy just searching for his place in Assassin’s Apprentice; he found it but lost all in Royal Assassin; and now he is a man with a mission. He starts out with vengence in his heart, but soon discovers he has a truer, deeper mission, which leads him to a world of magic and fables. Accompanied by a rather unlikely group, he uses the Skill and Wit, the telepathic bonding powers, to save the world as he knows it. And in the process, he loses much. But that’s what fantasy is about: you can’t win without losing; you can’t save the world without sacrifice.

The Skill and the Wit, those paranormal abilities rarely possessed together, are in fact in the heart of the story. Apparently the Skill is the true magic which allows its wielder to literally carve heroes out of stone; but it is the scorned Wit, the bonding with animals, that actually makes the difference. Fitz, endowed with both, can hardly master them.

The Skill is powerful; a Skilled man can kill a person with it. Indeed, Fitz’s enemies try to destroy him through it. The Wit, by contrast, is subtle; it allows Fitz to connect and communicate with beasts, sometimes drawing him towards becoming one – which is why many despise it – and eventually saves the day.

As in the second book, the first chapter is tremendous, an exceptional introduction into the book. The rest can be divided in two: the first half, in which Fitz travels mainly alone, was so awesome I couldn’t put the book down. I think it was there that I formed my opinion of the book. The second half is a bit confusing, with Fitz and others following a map which the reader can only imagine – the map at the beginning of the book falls short of the areas described, and that’s a bit frustrating. But the harm is minimal, because where they travel is not the point. It is the experiences that matter, and those are exhilarating. When I reached the end, it made me sad to leave those characters to which you grew so attached, so fond – even the bad guys.

All in all, this is a wonderful series; this third book really put Robin Hobb in my all-time favorites list. I really can’t wait to read her other works – the Liveships Traders Trilogy and the Tawny Man Trilogy. The woman can write fantasy.

Assassin's Quest

The Golden Apples of the Sun / Ray Bradbury

November 30, 2010

The cover of this book contains such praise as “A Masterwork of Fantasy” and “The World’s Greatest Living Science Fiction Writer”. Books always contain such acclamations, which should somehow raise the expectation from the book. Too bad. The higher the expectations, the deeper the disappointment.

This is a collection of twenty-two short stories by a writer I’ve heard about many times. My only previous encounter with him was with his short story, “Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed”, which was good but did not leave a long-term impression. Yet somehow he had established a name amongst my peers, identified with exceptional imagination and breakthrough-ideas. I can only assume this collection is not representative, because if it is, it would diminish him in my eyes to a mediocre writer at best.

The common issue that I found throughout the stories – some of which are very short, four small pages – is the lack of point. Maybe it’s me, but in almost every single story, I couldn’t understand what the heart of the story was. Often, it seemed as if the story ended prematurely; as if this was a writing practice in which Bradbury jotted a cool idea but didn’t go through with it. He left it dangling, waiting to be completed. Some ideas are really ingenious, like the man murdering his house in “The Murderer”: having been written in the late fourties or early fifties of the twentieth century, this spark of creativity offers a real insight into the twenty-first century culture. But why is it so short? I imagine Bradbury could easily base an entire novel on this idea.

Two other stories have this potential. “A Sound of Thunder”, with the archetypal time machine and time travel paradoxes, has such a lame ending that it ruins the entire story, which is pretty well-written. And “The Pedestrian”, once again foretelling an obnoxious future culture, is actually quite good, but again, too short.

Some of the stories cannot even be classified as sci-fi or fantasy. “The Big Black and White Game” talks about race in America, somehow reminding me of “To Kill a Mockingbird”; “En La Noche” handles a soldier’s widow and her neighbors; “Sun and Shadow” is about a man refusing to let a photographer shoot photos of a model in front of his house; and there are others. I really don’t see how they belong in anything but an exercise notebook in some writing class. They certainly do not fit in a collection of science fiction and fantasy stories.

Some stories I simply and utterly did not comprehend, such as “the Meadow” and “Powerhouse”. The bottom line is this: due to the shortness of the stories, they are easy to read, but they’re not really worth it.

The Golden Apples of the Sun

The Tunnel Under the World / Frederik Pohl

November 25, 2010

Frederik Pohl probably thought of the idea for this short story while listening to a commercial advertisement. It carries a heavy scent of contempt for this kind of media – but maybe my personal feelings are clouding my judgment. Some of the ads in the story are offensive, invasive and rude. Others make use of unethical methods. Some are simply annoying. But all play a major part in this story.

It starts off as “Groundhog Day” meets “The Truman Show”. Guy Burckhardt wakes up on June 15th for a regular day of work. A few “funny” things happen, things out of the ordinary, but it doesn’t trouble his day’s routine. The next day he wakes up on June 15th again, but this doesn’t bother him. He goes through with the same routine, until one day it is June 16th and a whole new world. But this is just the beginning. By the end, his theories about Russians or Aliens seem mighty amusing. And at the very end, just when you thought you’ve got it all figured out and the story is pretty cool, you get the twist any storyteller would like to have, but is a bit dangerous this late in a story. Pohl pulls it off successfully, making this a mindblowing allegory. It makes you think.

Of-course, the science is total hogwash. Having been written in 1955 (although it says “renewed in 1983”. What does that mean?), the idea of keeping a mind alive apart from the body was probably considered plausible and even expected to become reality. I’ll say this, though: even if it was somehow possible, the implementation in the plot breaks the law of conservation of mass and energy. But I guess even this could be explained within Pohl’s boundless universe (or is it?).

This story joins Sandkings as another good pick by Orson Scott Card in his Masterpieces: The Best Science Fiction of the Century.

Masterpieces: The Best Science Fiction of the Century

Royal Assassin / Robin Hobb

November 23, 2010

This is the second book in the Farseer trilogy. The first, Assassin’s Apprentice, which I reviewed here, left me waiting for more. This volume certainly provided. Robin Hobb kept the same level of accuracy, details and passion which made me like the first book, despite it’s length. This one, with 675 pages, is 240 pages longer – and it can be felt. If the length of the first book can be explained by the necessary and full introduction of the characters, here we already know them. It’s too long, but it only slightly affects the pleasure I got from reading the book.

FitzChivalry, the bastard son of the dead heir to the throne, is fourteen, recovering from an attempt on his life by his father’s younger brother in the Mountain kingdom, from whence the bride of the new heir (the middle brother) arrives. This book covers the next two or three years of his life. Like the first book, since these are the memoirs of an old man, we do not expect him to die, even though the threat hangs overhead like a chandelier waiting to fall. Of-course, the same cannot be said of those he cares about. Among these are the man who raised him, Burrich, which was his father’s man, and certainly continues to be a father figure; and his father’s widow, Patience, which should despise him but acts unexpectedly – in more than one sense.

These are also the years of maturing, the years in which the boy becomes a man – which also means expanding the small romantic thread which has just begun to bloom in the first book. Here, love, passion and even marriage play a major role. We also have further revelations regarding the two magical abilities – the revered Skill and the abhorred Wit, both having us, the readers, wander for lengthy periods of time inside the hero’s mind.

Once again I can hardly wait for the sequel, the conclusion of the trilogy, Assassin’s Quest. The peek glimpse at the end of this book only enhanced this feeling, with the completion of character development from a young, naive boy to an angry, vengeful and dangerous man – or is he? With the major twist at the end, this book brings the trilogy and the author this much closer to the inner circle of “Best Ever”.

Royal Assassin

Dragons of Autumn Twilight / Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman

October 31, 2010

Sometimes you find yourself reading a book and wishing it would just be over. I had that feeling with The Da Vinci Code, and now I got it all over again. I wouldn’t put the book down; I can remember only one book which I ever stopped reading, and it wasn’t bad, it was just boring. This book isn’t boring; it’s bad.

Sub-titled “Dragonlance Chronicles Volume 1”, it tells the story of… well, I’m not really sure. A group of companions – a dwarf, some humans, a magician, a half-elf, a kender (some kind of fearless hobbit) – travel around the Lands of Abanasinia, a fantasy world which makes less sense than the Discworld, but like the true fantasy it aspires to be, it has no humor. The Queen of Darkness, which is an evil god, tries to change the balance between good and evil, and the group tries to find the good gods to help them fight her. The head of her armies is Verminaard, the Dragon Highlord, which controls (or thinks he controls) several dragons – here they are portrayed as evil, cunning shape-shifters, which can also wield magic. Verminaard is also in charge of a vast horde of draconians, lizard-like humanoids which, along with goblins, hobgoblins and humans, spread terror and destruction upon the land.

For some obscure and totally unexplained reason, the companions look for leadership in the half-elf, which isn’t the strongest, the oldest, or even the wisest (although at points, they refer to him as such). Ridiculously, they even take orders from him. And although most of the story is told from his point of view, including his thoughts and fears, it jumps to others so often that I can hardly call him the protagonist. The story actually starts with Flint, the dwarf, and for the first page or two, I was under the impression that he would be the hero. But soon, almost everyone else, including the bad guys (and the dragons), become the center of the plot – in a bad way – until I couldn’t relate to anyone.

But that’s not all. The characters are so static, cardboard figures on a board game – which makes sense, since one of the writers, Hickman, is a game designer.  One character, Laurana, transforms from the most beautiful woman, to a scared child, to a competent warrior, with nothing but a few words from Tanis, the half-elf, which was her playmate when they were young. Even these words seem to be taken from some Hollywood flick. In fact, all the women are beautiful (except female dwarfs); and even the most unskilled girl can kill a full grown, heavily armed and shielded, war-trained draconian with the chance swing of a sword. It’s absurd, and not in a good way. And what’s with the mage, with his golden hourglass-pupils and constant weakness? Almost nothing about him? Do we really have to wait for the second volume to get something? Do we really believe we’ll get anything in the second volume? There’s the plot thread about a magic book he is after, and he sounds pretty homicidal about it, but when he gets it – nothing? The thread ends? Come on!

The worst is the disregard to the rules of fantasy. Fine, when the mage casts a spell, his physical power is drained. Somehow, when needed, he always has more power. And the dragons, which also cast spells, do not suffer from this limitation. Furthermore, people do not become friends so easily, yet some people who join the group are suspected of being traitors, while others, with no apparent reason, are not. And if someone dies – especially someone who we didn’t get too attached to (which can be said of almost anyone) – he should stay dead, unless there’s a very good reason (e.g. Gandalf). You can’t just bring people back; it’s even worse here, because there’s the magical staff that Goldmoon, a chieftain’s daughter, holds, which heals good people (this is right at the start, so I’m not revealing anything); well, how convenient. The good guys can get all kinds of bruises and hits, only to be healed by the staff. Great, no problem going into stupid encounters; you could be on the verge of death and you’ll come jolting right back.

But we’re not done yet, and this casts doubts about the abilities of game designing… Maybe it’s my (brand new) edition, but the map looks badly photocopied, and sometimes does not match the story. In fact, I first lost faith in the book when the heroes were supposed to pass a mountain range, which mysteriously disappeared.

I’ve seen a lot of the Dragonlance logo around, and this is my first encounter with the series. The back cover says there are thirteen Dragonlance novels. I can only say that I won’t be trying another any time soon. Maybe when the bad impression wears off; using my special x-ray, 10 mile vision, I can see potential, hiding in the deepest mines of the story.

Dragons of Autumn Twilight