I listen to a fair number of podcasts by professional game reviewers, and one of their inside jokes and bete-noires is the word "fun". "Fun" is a word that people turn to very naturally, and yet it doesn't convey much information beyond the fact that you liked the thing. E.g. if a game is "fun", that doesn't tell you why the reviewer liked the thing; was it the graphics, the controls, the lore, the story, the core gameplay, the explosions, the upgrades, the community, etc. etc. etc.?
Anyway, this book was really fun. The author consistently sets up interesting, humorous, dangerous, witty, snappy, and simply well-written adventure situations for his band of heroes as they trek across civilization and the Wyld in order to rescue one of their kids from a horde of monsters. It's like having a really great DM and party recount their cleverest and most enjoyable encounters. Much of the Monster Manual makes an appearance in this book, and the author is clearly a huge fan of D&D and its tropes. The five main heroes and their relationships are also fleshed out surprisingly well, e.g. to a degree and with an intelligence way beyond what would be required to just tell an adventure story, but not to the point where it becomes burdensome or the main focus of the novel. If there is one slight criticism I would make of the story is that the author is a little too protective of his characters, and I think the story would be better if they had a little less plot armor. Oh, and there were a few too many pop culture references. Still! If you'd like to read an exciting, funny, and clever fantasy adventure story you can't do better than this. It is very beer and pretzels, but it is the absolute best beer and pretzels.
Bourne, by Jeff VanderMeer
Puts the "new" and the "weird" into "New Weird". Bourne is an imaginative delight. At various times this story reminded me of Perdido Street Station, Nabokov, Pit People, The Road, The Thing, Oryx and Crake, On My Way to Paradise, Princess Maker, and of course Annihilation/Control. It is a feast of ideas, relations, word play, and creation. The basic story is of a waste-land scavenger who comes across an advanced piece of biotech, and proceeds to raise the biotech up from an Aliens-type egg sac to its full, protean, end stage glory. This rearing and relationship and its ambiguity is the heart of the story, and really its strongest part.
The last 20% or so of the books talks more about people, which are boring, and less about the relationship between Mom and Beast. I would have been fine with just the first 80%, but whatever, it is not bad, the last 20% is more like _Acceptance_, a gentle let down after a crazy story.
I hope Scalzi is happy with his vast piles of cash. If Scalzi cared at all about writing great stories, Bourne would make him cry himself to sleep each night.
Collapsing Empire, by Scalzi
Yep, this is Scalzi. I read about 60 pages near the front, and then skimmed another 40 pages near the end. It's pretty Scalzi.
Beneath the Sugar Sky, by Seanan McGuire
Well, this was better than the last book in the series. The cover art is nice, the book is long enough for things to actually happen, and some of the things were neat. Still, the book has disappointments. It is too simple, it promotes poor ideas about diet and health, and it's not the first or the best book about a world of confection based weapons.
Sufficiently Advanced Magic
I felt bad for the tree that died to bring me this book, and in general it felt weird to see this sort of writing on paper rather than on a computer screen. Sufficiently Advanced Magic is somewhere way down on the Geek Hierarchy, the extremely guilty pleasure of reading the 1-for-1 novelization of an RPG campaign/adventure. I think I first started down this dark path in elementary school, reading Dragon Lance (in which they at least made a little effort to "novelize" the game session), and then continued down the path during the AOL days by reading this really neat necromancer campaign, and then later on it college with a Houston group/writers that were doing something similar and publishing it to the web. But for the most part that was all online, something indulged in behind pulled curtains and closed doors. This book on the other hand is completely out there and open and is just pages of print of the author telling you about his character and planning his stats bonuses and telling you the game mechanics of his world and people's mana and HP values and fighting monsters and summoning Final Fantasy style beasts to attack the monsters so on. It suffers from being too generic (e.g. includes every standard fantasy element) and too safe (e.g. the world is for the most part a standard MMO, with the usual hit points and mana bars and levels and such). The world does have occasional interesting elements, but it suffers from pulling in too many fantastic elements and details without sufficient pay off. The book is also absurdly long, and for the most part it doesn't work. The main character (author?) is mildly autistic, and doesn't have that much to him besides an obsessive focus on min-maxing. The book only really rises above this near the end, where they at least have an interesting situation/extended combat that pulls the book from its previous 400 page mire. In general though I feel like the author took something like this and decided to print it out on actual paper. It's like seeing a printed email, it weirds me out.
Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari
I was taking a trip and looking for something to listen to on the way. A web search for "best audio books" turned up this book (the recommendation was from before the monstrous acts for which Aziz is now famous), and I decided to check it out. The audio book is short, light, and mildly amusing but did not have much new information. It's essentially a book long version of one of the OkCupid data analysis blog posts, and it just reviews/skims the common wisdom on how dating/marriage has changed over the last ~100 years. I wish Aziz had spent more times examining dating in other countries (Japan, France, etc.) as that was the most interesting part of the audio book for me.
Red Sister, Mark Lawrence
Harry Potter meets Blood Sport. Alternatively, Name of the Wind without the sex, engineering, or economics. The story reads quickly and is generally likeable and well put together (e.g. there an appropriate number of Checkov's Guns and they go off at appropriate times). The protagonist goes to magic school, has magic classes, has magic fist fights, deals with corrupt aristos, deals with plots and threats to the school, etc. There is also some sci-fi world building, which while fine does not appear to be necessary. I'm ok with just saying "a wizard did it"; you don't really need to set the story on a fallen colony on another planet and provide genetic engineering reasons for different blood line abilities. I did enjoy this world's version of Vance's the Tand, I did enjoy the "minor" magical talents, and I did enjoy some of the school mates (Arabelle, Zole, Hessa).
Perilous Waif, by E William Brown
A silly novel about sci-fi fighting that is further flawed by its right wing flare ups. One way to describe Perilous Waif would be as the novelization of a _Total Annihilation_ match. There's a lot of robots building larger robots to build still other robots with guns and lasers and armor and going pew-pew at each other. Another way to describe the book would be to say that it is a sci-fi monty haul campaign, with characters rapidly levelly up to ludicrous power tiers and equipment loadouts. One side character goes from ROM chip, to maintenance android, to advanced combat mech, to gigantic-dragon-shaped-self-replicating-nanite-swarm-combat-mech in the space of like 100 pages. The main character follows a similar arc through the story. There's an enormous of focus on made up sci-fi weapons and combat mechs and loadouts. In that aspect it reminds me of the drawings I would make in elementary school, of cybernetic tigers with lazers mounted on their eyes and sword-tails. And in general the book has a lot of sort of pandering, low value, extruded product feel to it. It has a certain target it wants to hit (e.g. that Ender's Game fantasy of competence and battle and weapons and tactics), and it just goes after that target with unwavering consistency. It's a bit like the nerd-male version of the constant churn of e-books about women having to choose between vampires/werewolves/werewolf-billionaires/vampire rockstar/half-were-wolf-half-vampire-witch/ etc. etc. It has a fantasy that it wants to play to, and the author needs to write 500 pages of that fantasy in 2 months because that's just what the economics of the e-book industry is right now.
Anyway! So that's the basic problem with the book. A smaller but recurring problem is that it inserts idiotic right wing views into the story. It's not nearly as bad as _The Departure_, and I'm not afraid that the author is going to shoot up a women's college, but it's still an annoyance and it's an annoyance that I have little patience for in 2018. The book rags on vegetarianism (healthy, cheap, reduces your footprint and in general is a vote for human beings not going extinct), on not having a hand gun with you at all times (number of times the author or myself have needed to shoot someone, 0. Maybe not actually needed in most areas of civilization?), on any attempt to resolve things peacefully or any universe in which that could be a useful avenue. Also has gold as a currency in the far future when there are nanites and matter-fabricators everywhere. Also replicates a lot of the most boring parts of 21st century gender relations. Also doesn't really come out and make an apologia for Nazi Germany, but you know, good people on both sides. Again, not really interested in this in 2018.
The Two of Swords, Volume 1, by KJ Parker aka Tom Holt
The reviews on the cover of this book say that the author is:
"One of fantasy's premier voices."
"Parker's way with words can be as beautiful as it is technical."
"Parker's skillful control of pacing, expert rendering of characters, and subtle sense of humor add depth and believability."
Note that none of these reviews said that "the book is enjoyable to read", or "I liked any of the characters", or "there was some discernible plot or other reason for this 500 page book to exist". So. This book is set in an alternate version of the Byzantine empire, where the two halves of the empire have been fighting a civil war for the last 90 years. Notable features include two brothers who are genius commanders and are on opposite sides of the war, a Masonic secret society that is spread through both halves of the empire, and large tracts of devastated and depopulated land. The primary problem with the book is that it never gives us a reason we should care about the events in the book. The two sides of the empire seem approximately the same, and approximately evenly matched. There isn't any grand threat, or quest, or important sequence of events going on. There are PoV characters on both sides, and none of them really stand out enough that you would root for them, and none of them get quite enough screen time that you become attached to them. There aren't any idealists, or any particularly charming rogues, or any real villains. The best it can claim is some mildly interesting characters, going about doing dangerous and mostly useless things in a cruddy war zone. Admittedly, by the end of the book you can kind of see where the plot is starting to go, and what the next 2000 (!) pages of this series are going to be about, but man do you not care by that point. If it takes 500 pages to give the reader a hint of why they should care about the novel, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.
Another problem with the book is that it is a book about medieval warfare but it does not get medieval warfare right (at least to the best of my understanding). For instance, the first ~5 pages of the book are about a battle, and none of it makes sense. One side out numbers the other 3 to 1, and they are on a flat field, and yet somehow the larger army is "pinned down." ??? Another crucial factor in this battle is that the smaller army doesn't have arrows for its archers, so it looks like they will have to retreat because of that. This isn't really right; archers weren't a decisive factor in medieval battles, and it would be entirely possible to fight without them. Archers could be useful, they could harass and disrupt, and if given enough time they could destroy a force over the course of days, but they simply would not play a large role in the brief and brutal clash of melee. So the clever trick the genius general uses to solve this problem is to send his heavy infantry out with siege structures behind them, so that the enemy archers will shoot at his infantry and the misses would hit the siege structures, which could then be withdrawn, and then the arrows stuck in the siege structure could be harvested and reused. And this is terrible for many reasons. 1) is that this is stolen directly from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, except for in Romance it was with boats and it was in the fog and it at least a little made sense. 2) there wouldn't be any time for any of this. You don't get to wheel forward infantry and engines, have them shot at, wheel back the siege engines, harvest the arrows, etc. It would all be essentially over in 15 minutes as the larger force just marches forward and swords everyone. 3) The genius general says that "yes, we don't need the heavy infantry but we do need arrows" which is just crazy talk, it's like saying you don't need tanks but you do need nerf footballs. Well trained men in heavy armor were fucking terrifying back then and could put down basically any number of lighter conscript forces. Anyway! This nonsense continues through every battle scene in the book. There's this consistent idea in the book that battles were these precise chess games that were won by genius ploys, rather than brutal and confused scrums that were usually won for reasons like "That side had 5 times as many guys on the field." There's also this consistent, modern understanding of battle that "ranged weapons are really powerful and deadly." Which really wasn't true until around 1850 or so. And this is doubly weird, since the author is famous for his book _The Walled Orchard_ about an army which is (Spoiler!) beaten by ranged weaponry, but it takes like a full week for the process to actually occur and for ancient ranged weapons to inflict enough damage to shatter the army.
Anyway, I could go on with the other problems that I had with this book. But to wrap up, this series seems more like a make work project for the author than anything that would be interesting or gripping to a reader. The author needs an editor, he needs to get to the point, and he needs to give the reader a reason to care about his story.
The Clockwork Boys, Book 1, by T. Kingfisher
This was another "CJ Cherryh" incident, a shameless attempt by T. Kingfisher to pass herself off as a male author. Fortunately, I noticed that her story focused on romance, humor, emotion, evocative description, and interesting characters rather than on Thac0 and to-hit rolls. Based off these facts I was able to unmask her. The book is a fast reading and oddly light hearted fantasy adventure story about 4 mismatched characters going on a cross country suicide mission to find the source of the murderous, 10 foot tall golems that are rampaging through the land. The world is kind of bleak (Exorcist style demons! War! Plague! Unstoppable death machines! Farm animals stomped into jelly!) but it doesn't feel like it for the most part. The main character is a guerrilla accountant, her sidekick is a low-minded assassin, and their new teammates are a prissy polymath and a not so fresh paladin. It works well in an "enjoyable DnD group" sort of way, and is combined with a world that is fresh and avoids/rethinks a fair number of fantasy tropes. For example, the Gnolls in the book are something between a standard-fantasy-Gnome and a talking Great Dane. The book ends on something of an uncertain note, but I think the real treasure at the end of the quest will be the friends they made/banged along the way.
Scholar of Decay, by Tanya Huff
This was a re-read from 20 years ago, of a 180-page book that I read in one sitting while sitting in Barnes and Nobles. The re-read was kind of a lark, and because I was curious as to how badly the book had aged. And the answer is, not too badly! I can confidently say that the book is much better than it needed to be. The author, Tanya Huff, correctly identifies that were-rats are the sexiest of the were-creatures. She is joined in this opinion by Fritz Leiber, and later by the WarHammer crew and their silky sultry Skaven. Even more notably, she has discovered an entirely new sub-genre of horror, that is to say the horror of being a level 3 mage and exploring a dungeon all on your own. No meat shield, no perception or thievery, just you and the darkness and a bunch of creatures that can two-shot you. Absolutely terrifying. So! The book is about a wizard delving into sewers and such, while being enfolded and manipulated by a scheming clan of murderous, socialite were-rats. Both the delving and the scheming are reasonably well done.
The Black Prince, by Iris Murdoch
This was a re-read of an Iris Murdoch novel that I last read 15 years ago, and that I greatly liked and frequently think back to. The novel largely holds up, though I always forget just how entirely strange Murdoch's writing is. The fundamental weirdness is in the constant shifts of voice and tone. It's a bit SoulCatchery? In the sense that there are these constant blendings and shifts from one viewpoint into another, in combinations that would surprise you. Or that you don't typically think of going together. This is at least consistent with her ideology and the viewpoint she espouses, that human beings and reality are complex, that life is many things. And that is something that Murdoch has always been good about, making the nature/practice/methods/voice of her art match the ideology that she supports. E.g. she thinks part of wisdom is the steady, STEM like accumulation of facts, details, and fine distinctions, and it shows in her books which are filled with practical details and clinically precise characterizations.
So, what it is the novel? The novel is somewhat Nabakovian, with a partially unreliable narrator and a re-occurring reflectivity. The Narrator writes about himself, the narrator writes about his writing, the side characters write about the writing, the editor writes about the novel and the side characters, etc. Or maybe a bit like _Hate Story_, another story that both tells itself but also takes regular breaks in order to interrogate the story. In a larger sense, The Black Prince is also a chance for Murdoch to reflect on her entire literary ourve and method of writing. Two of the main characters in the book are authors, and Murdoch uses them to explore some of her own thoughts on writing, as well as to criticize and satirize her own work better than any of her actual critics ever have.
The novel is a bit Portlandia, in that it is about silly people doing silly things with each other in their own made up world.
The novel is a bit Wodehouse, in that it is about an introverted, prim, ascetic, dignified man being constantly drawn into drama, noise, embarrassments, pratfalls, and confusion, about meetings with different people that he absolutely wants to avoid, about those intolerable people becoming friends with each other and not leaving his house.
The novel is a bit Diplomacy, in that each of the people has a desired configuration of alliances and pair-ups that they want to see, and are resolutely framing things and arguing for an interpretation of the world in order to reach their desired situation.
The novel is a bit real-politik or materialist or mechanistic, in that all the words and thoughts and ideas could be viewed as a facade or mask placed on top of much, much simpler desires.
The novel is a bit Philip K Dick, in that the framing or interpretation of the story can radically, radically shift based on just a few sentences. There's one particularly memorable example of this in the latter half of the book, where one person relentlessly advances their frame, a letter is read, and then the tide is completely and brutally reversed. It's one of my top ~100 or so moments in all of literature.
The novel is a bit Ayn Randian, in at least the structural sense that the author is telling a story, but they are also going to frequently interject their own philosophical observations into the story at random moments and by God you are going to like it.
The novel is a bit Shakespeare or "Greek play", in that it is vulgar and comedic, but also not afraid to slake an insult with blood.
The novel is sweet. Murdoch can be brutal and unsparing with her characters, but there is a never a sense that she does not care for them. Unlike Nabakov, who often views his characters as insects, Murdoch treats hers more like fish or badgers. :)
Low Town, by Daniel Polansky
The synopsis on the back of the book is 90% accurate, so I will just parrot it here. Low Town is a low fantasy low life mystery story, and it is clever, dryly funny, and very fast to read. I'm not a huge fan of mysteries, but this one was good, and provided you with all the info about the world and characters that you need to piece together the plot and who-dunnit. Recommended if you want something gritty but light, fast but intelligent, fantastical and yet grounded.
The Furies of Calderon, by Jim Butcher
I wanted to like this audio book, if only as a way to throw further shade at NK Jeminisen. Unfortunately, it was a mixed bag, a fairly non-compelling mixed bag, and probably the worst Jim Butcher book that I've read. In more detail:
- The setting is basically the Roman Empire, but with elemental Benders. This is good! This is also where I started making comparisons with NK Jemisen and her terrible Earth Bender series.
- Like the Roman Empire, the setting has slavery. This is bad! It makes it hard to root for the people who should be the good guys when they're fairly complicit in this scheme.
- The Barbarian tribes don't have elemental bending powers, instead they have totem-powers from the animals they are bonded with. Many of their totems are not traditional things like hawks or deer; instead they are things like brontosauruses or raptors. So we have barbarians riding dinosaurs versus elementalist Romans. This is good!
- The reader for this audio book is doing no one any favors. She does a lack luster and uninspired reading of the story, and at several points during the reading I realized that... I actually do better voices than this when GMing. This is bad!
- There's a neat parasitic alien-wax-forest-spider interlude in the middle of the story that the barbarians use as a trial of bravery and wits. This was good!
- There's a weird interlude/sub-theme of sexual violence/assault. This wasn't like Peter Watts levels of bad, but still it's not something I'm looking for in my fantasy adventure. This was bad!
So, a thoroughly mixed bag. I never connected fully to the story, and what should have been the exciting, climactic battle to end the adventure became just kind of background noise while I was gardening.
The Witcher, Books 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7
A delightful, clever, funny, bleak, and pleasantly rambling series of eastern-European fantasy novels. I initially heard about the Witcher books from a friend who loaned me the first novel in the series. So when it was time for me to move into my second (and hopefully last) house and I needed audio books I thought back to the series. The Witcher audio books served their purpose admirably, and added a touch of monster-hunting, destiny chasing flair to an otherwise boring house moving endeavor.
So, in more detail. The books start off as a series of one-offs, about investigating and occasionally killing different monsters. Many of the initial stories are based off of fairy tales, but add in more realistic and interesting twists. A characteristic tale would be his version of Beauty and the Beast, where a young man is cursed to beast-hood and lives in more-or-less isolation on his manor estate. Unlike the Disney tale though, the young man doesn't entirely mind. Before he was weak and nobbly; now he is mysterious and dangerous and robust, attractive to ladies and imposing to men. From there the story develops more, bringing in Beauty, the true nature of the curse, and other fun elements. So that is the standard Witcher formula: start with a fantasy cliche or anachronism, and then mesh it with a more realistic universe and continually embroider, twist, and complicate the result. It's not a bad pattern, and I generally like the result. From these initial one-off stories the Witcher gradually becomes more of a standard fantasy series, and mixes in longer term villains, plots, and threats. However, the author never fully commits to a linear plot or standard characters or story telling tropes. The PoV character will change frequently, and the titular Witcher becomes steadily less central as the books go on. The last book in the series is the most bold in this structure, and gradually takes the main river of the story and disperses it into dozen of different streams and deltas. In this way it reminded me of Hellboy, another series with a strong protagonist that could have become overbearing, and which gradually shifts the focus of the story to different and often lighter characters who serve to leaven the main character. So you gradually have more tales from the PoV of the Witcher's companions or former companions, from his enemies, from his neutrals, from his "child", from history books, from memories, from memoirs, from prophetic visions, from dreams, from dreams from different worlds, etc. One particularly neat part of this is that one of the main stories becomes the Witcher and his companions raising and training a kid. It's a bit like if the Fellowship of the Ring was bringing a teenager along, and each of the members had time to train and influence the kid. It's not something you usually see in the fantasy genre.
Hmm, what else can I say about these pages. The stories are a good deal more cynical than their typical Western counter parts. I've heard the Witcher series called the Polish LoTR, and that's kind of accurate. But where the LoTR was influenced by the author's victorious WWI experience, the Witcher's stories borrow a lot more from the Eastern European experience in WWI and WWII. Which was not good. So rather than sharp battle lines between orcs and humans and Rohan's Riders and whatever, the Witcher books are instead full of racial tensions between humans, elves, dwarves, halfings, etc, cooperation and pogroms, intelligence agents and purges, guerrillas and partisans, massacres, betrayals, ethnic cleansing and refugee caravans. At no point is a king or ruler ever depicted as just or honorable, instead they tend to be the most terrible monsters in the series. Another, somewhat brighter item I'd note were the mages, which I thought were consistently well done. Each mage is completely confident in themselves and their own frame of reference, and steadfastly refuses any encroachment on their world view or any interpretation of facts that could put them in the wrong. Later in the series there is a round table of 12 powerful mages, and their scenes together were always great. I would have loved to see more of that, just these really distinct and powerful personalities clashing and arguing.
So, the Witcher series. Come for the vampire hunting, stay for the unicorns, elf princes, and cocaine.
The Aeronaut's Windlass, Jim Butcher
The Honorverse series by way of Jim Butcher. While this story takes place in the upper atmosphere rather than in space, it does involve many of the same thematic elements of daring and honorable ship captains, grim naval and marine fights, a prosperous and open England-type monarchy, a brutally militaristic and treacherous neighbor, arrogant and cowardly nobles, heroic midshipmen and commoners, etc. etc. Oh, and lots of intelligent cats and some magic and wizards. It works better than it has any right to, most of which I attribute to Butcher's skill at creating interesting, desperate, and prolonged fight scenes. The whole book isn't an action sequence, but most of the last half is. He also does a decent job of making characters that while not deep, are at least likeable and fun and grow on you. They all have that quality of "interesting DnD character with just enough hooks/personality to hang the stats onto and be fun to play." I also liked how for the intelligent cats, he took the personality/traits of the vampire nobles from his Dresden books, and transplanted those traits whole sale onto the cats. Again, it works better than it should.
This might well have been trolling, but I read somewhere that Jim Butcher plans to write 22 more books in this series. If so, Excelsior! Jim Butcher's audio books are god-sends while carrying out the scut work of moving/house repair. I recommend them to anyone who needs to tune out for 20 hours at a time.
Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal
A funny and sweet story that covers the thirty year time span between Jesus' birth and death. The tone of the book is generally light and comedic, and for the most part its humor works and occupies a space somewhat above Dave Barry but somewhat below Three Men in a Boat. A lot of the book is two men in a boat, as Jesus and Biff travel the world, have silly encounters, learn Eastern religions, and gradually build up the teachings and aphorisms that would later be written down in the Bible. So it is a somewhat comedic reverse engineering of the Gospels, a Beowulf/Grendel situation but with less devouring and more puerile sex humor. For the most part I liked it.
The Cold Commands
A failure of a book. While competently written, the author completely failed at presenting characters and situations that a reader might care about or emphasize with. A majority of the main characters were unlikeable and uninteresting. They are literal murder hobos, going around murdering people. The character development consists of a series of notifications of when someone's cock get hard. Just imagine _It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia_, but without the comedy or energy. There was some overarching plot, but it was revealed at such a glacial pace that you could sense the ghostly spirit of Robert Jordan guiding the author. It was also hamstrung by the fact that you really don't care which side wins. Fantasy Ottomans or Sidhe? Sure, whichever man.
Now begins the part of the review where I slag on the main character. There are 3 PoV characters, but Ring-worm gets the most pages. And he is the worst. I am a person who waded through 6 books of Thomas Covenant without complaining, but Ringil, oh man, he is *terrible*. I quickly moved to skimming and then skipping his chapters. Ringilosis. The author thinks he should be fascinating and wants to explore his possible futures, but it turns out he sucks in all possible timelines. He is also visited by members of a pantheon in disguise, sort of like in Greek myth where a God disguises themself as a mortal to check on things. If only we cared about or knew anything about that pantheon. Rin Fair nerd. Toward the end, this book started to remind me of the Malazan books, another god awful fantasy door stop where nothing makes sense and you actively want the main characters to die. Rinjob.
The Steel Remains
[Ed 1: Publish or Perish! This is the second version of the review, as a failing hard drive took out the first version before it was published to the web. I liked the first review better; this is just a tribute to that first review.]
[Ed 2: I read this book basically in a single sitting, while staking out a hotel for my bounty hunter business. I think that contributed to me getting fed up with this author's style, and my resulting dislike for the sequel.]
A fast reading, grim-darkish fantasy that combines any number of different themes and ideas. It also has a lot of stabbing and sexing. The world is somewhat Abercrombian, as it has grim warriors and lots of injustice and misery. (Though these characters aren't quite such constant sad-sacks as Abercombie's characters). The world is also somewhat Vancian, and as it is set in a far, far future that has technology, magic, and technology advanced enough to be magic. There are baseline medieval humans, fantasy muslims, lizard people, dragons that rule over the lizard people, world/plane traveling high-tech humanistic engineers, the engineer's AI cores, world/plane traveling sidhe, multiple realms of existence, ghouls, a dozen different fantasy beasties, impact craters from orbital weaponry, several spirit-gods, etc. etc. Hmm, so maybe more WarHammer than Vance. In any case, the author shoves a lot of different flavors into his world. And he does at least put his own particular twist on each of these flavors. An early example of this is the ghouls; rather than the standard fantasy ghouls, instead you have these gray-slime-tentacle beasts that hollow out a corpse and then puppet the corpse for use as armor/locomotion. Neat.
The above might make it sound like the story is balls to the walls crazy, but there are actually a fair amount of "normal" elements in the tale. The story has nations, religions, families, friends, tribal politics, politics, law, and economics. The fantastic exists in the world, but does not usually impinge on the story too much. For example: there are dragons, dragons have shaped history, and few people have even killed a dragon and made commemorative knives out of their teeth. But a dragon never actually shows up in the story or directly influences events, it is just this thing that exists in the world. The later parts of the book do start to deal more with one particular fantastic element, but much of the rest of the story is mostly a human story.
And speaking of humans... there is a lot of sex in the novel. A lottttt. A lot of gay sex too. In this regard the book reminded me of Mark Smiley's novels, but while I always found Smiley's sex scenes to be delightful and hilarious, the ones in this book are kind of 'meh' and skippable. The gay sex also plays a large role in the plot, as one of the main characters is gay and faces a great deal of prejudice for this. This aspect of the book didn't particularly work for me, since in my own personal victim Olympics women get the gold, and LGBT people get maybe the bronze. And women are treated *terribly* all throughout this book. Actually, most people are. For this reason the main character complaining about his particular struggle while surrounded by people who are getting it far, far worse didn't really work for me. Or to rephrase it slightly, if you are treating other people worse than they are treating you, maybe don't complain about your fate so much. (Begin derail: sort of like the Houston mansions with the "Don't tread on me" flags outside. Who the f' is treading on your million dollar mansion and its team of servants? End derail.) Another similar issue that didn't really work for me is the slavery in the book. The book is nominally anti-slavery, but it also litters its pages with lavishly described nubile sex slaves, which I think undercuts any moral position the novel is trying to take.
So! In the end this is a well written, wandering stew of grim fantasy, adventure, sex, and sometimes over long but mostly apt scenes of violence. It's not entirely like any other fantasy book I've read, but it's also not something I completely connected with or loved despite the author's competence.
The City of Stairs
A likable and clever book about a fantasy world after its Gods have been driven out. The previous steady-state of the world was that Bulikov ruled everything, and Bulikov's rule was assured by the frequent miracles and intercessions of its Gods. After millennia of oppression though, one of Bulikov's colonies figured how to shoot a God with a bullet, and in relatively short order the gods are dead and their works have disappeared along with them. Hence the name City of Stairs; the divine golden towers to the sky vanished in a heartbeat, but the simple stone stair cases built to reach the towers still remain. Now Bulikov is in disarray and ruled over by one of its former colonies. A gross modern comparison would be if in the 1920's, technology stopped working, Britain lost its empire and fell into starvation and chaos, while India vaulted into prominence and a world empire of its own.
So, that sets the stage of the events in the book, as a spy from the India-analog investigates the murder of a historian in Bulikov, and begins to unravel the secret history and current plots of Bulikov. The investigator was likable and smart, her partner Starbuck was amusing, their associates were well crafted, and the plots going on in the city were complex enough to be interesting, but also simple enough to be tractable. In particular the book did a good job with the interface of the divine and the mundane, and all the little details of what it would mean to deal with something from the book of Revelations when it shows up on your neighborhood park. There was one serious flaw though: the Trickster, face-stealing god was criminally underused. The end of the book feels like a play where that particular gun is still sitting on the mantle, gathering dust.
This wasn't a perfect fantasy book that I loved, but it was an extremely charming fantasy book that I liked. It had enough crunch and cleverness and humor that I really enjoyed it.