Sunday, January 23, 2011

Review: Talyn

Author: Holly Lisle
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy
Pages: 592
Warnings: References of forced sterilization, violent sex and rape
Rating: 4.5/5

By no accounts was this book perfect, but I'm willing to forgive a book a lot more if it makes me laugh. Right from the start the main character, Talyn, has a fantastic sense of humor that would have kept me interested in a much worse book. Talyn is a character I think most people can empathize with. She's straightforward, proud, and vivacious. Right from the first chapter I cared a lot for her, and I was emotionally invested in what happened to her.

Luckily, Talyn the book is a reasonably good piece of work, so there was very little to forgive. The plot is not at all what the first chapter leads you to expect, a routine war story. It's got fighting mind you, but that's not the book's strong point. In fact, it's for the best that the main focus of the storytelling it's a war, because the scenes which contained actual battles were a little lopsided. Instead Talyn's story takes you down a completely different track than a typical high fantasy war story, and I think it's all the better for it.

My biggest complaint with this book would have to be the ending. In fact, the last few chapters all feel a little haphazard, but the wrap-up was especially lousy. In Lisle's defense endings are the hardest part of a book for most authors, though. Still, I was disappointed by the sudden drop-off in quality.

Something that readers absolutely must be warned about is that this book doesn't shy away from sex. I find this to be a major plus, because I enjoy sexually liberated characters and raunchy jokes. Sex is by no means a major focus of this book, nor are the sex scenes terribly graphic. I just feel that if you're uninterested or unprepared to read about Lisle's forthright portrayal of sexual relationships, you might want to skip those portions of the book. Unless sex between a man and a woman, specifically rough sex, makes you very uncomfortable there is no reason to avoid this book!

The world Lisle creates is very interesting, specifically the conflict between the two nations in conflict, the Tonk Federation and the Eastil Kingdom. The entire book is spend in the Federation, a loose collection of city states united by their ethnicity (Tonk). Lisle favors the Tonks, which I don't mind terribly, because it's so rare for a egalitarian, chiefly society to be portrayed in as much detail in fantasy books. Usually the main culture is a kingdom (or kingdoms) and chiefdoms are on the fringes.  The Tonk/Eastil magic system is equally unusual. The change in pace is refreshing.

There are a lot of good technical points in this book's favor, but I like it so much because it made me laugh, over and over again. 

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Review: The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Volume 1

Author: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Genre: Fiction/Mystery
Pages: 752
Warnings: Racism, Sexism, Murder
Rating: 4/5

A delight to read! I suppose there are a reason some books become classics, and after reading it I can certainly see why the adventures of  Sherlock Holmes are one such thing.

Each short story is formulated in pretty much the same way, and with similar levels of quality. It's nice knowing going from one short story to another you can except them to all be equally good, which is why most people read  books by the same author. However since the stories are so short, the best advice I can offer is not to read one right after another, since they get very predictable. In fact, the reminded me of a TV series, which makes sense as the stories were originally published in a periodical magazine.

It was entertaining to be following Holme's train of thought, and try to guess what is happening. For that reason, I preferred his longer stories ("The Hounds of Baskerville", "The Sign of Four" and "A Study of Scarlet"), because these stories where more than simple whodunits.

"The Hounds of Baskerville", unsurprisingly, is my favorite. "A Study in Scarlet" is the first of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's early Sherlock Holmes stories, and it's clear he doesn't have the pacing perfect yet. I was pretty confused when we jumped to Utah after the first part, and I was seriously concerned Doyle was never going to explain the motives of our killer. "The Sign of Four" seemed a pretty specific story to give Watson a wife, and the obvious premise make the whole story a little cheap, as well as the rather. However "The Hounds of Baskerville" happened after several of the shorter stories (a personal favorite of those being "The Adventure of the Red-Headed League"), and Doyle appears to have matured a bit as a writer by that point (published in 1902, with "A Study in Scarlet" being published in 1887) and the story required the reader to know next to nothing outside the context of the story.

The only hitch was when stories required current political context, because as I am not deeply aware of the politics of 1880's London, I have no idea about some of the assumptions characters make about royalty. Amusingly enough, I didn't have as much trouble with "The Five Orange Pips", because as an American I already knew about the KKK. However this was a problem that Doyle phased out during his early works, and most stories after that explained any 'outside' knowledge that was required. 

I have the sneaking suspicion that Doyle married off Watson in his second novel because Watson and Holmes are clearly one of the cutest bromances ever. Know that I'm not trying to denigrate the series by associating it with the immature antics of two men who clearly never grew their asses up (ex: Pineapple Express), but I'm trying to convey that Watson and Holmes were obviously very close, good friends. It's a really wonderful friendship, and it was a delight to read about two men who loved each other so dearly. I think Watson was married off to make so there was no suspicion of sexual tension between the two main characters, which is probably the result of the homophobic times, but doesn't make them any less good friends. 

Regarding other social contexts that made me squeamish about reading, Doyle's characters are probably less racist and sexist that most people in their time period. Holmes hates women and says they are incapable of keeping a secret (while only some men are) clearly evidencing some solid sexism, and Watson decides to ignore these displays of sexism, meaning he doesn't agree, but he likes his friend too much to disagree about women being less trustworthy. There is a lot of casual racism in the way non-white characters are portrayed, but they're rarely every characters. A notable exception is the description of a South American native in "The Sign of Four", which is pretty awful, and I don't wish to repeat here. More often than not characters who are not white males are actually mentioned in the story, which is frankly a relief. If this is not something you can tolerate, I understand, and I encourage you not to read these stories.

However, if you can look past some of these things, I think this series is worth a read, and as public domain, it's certainly easy to find on the internet, and free. Wikipedia has links to the original book "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes", and several short stories here. In addition, Project Gutenberg provides public domain stories here.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Review: Tracato

Author: Joel Shepherd
Series: 3/4 in the Trial of Blood and Steel
Genre: Fantasy/Fiction
Pages: 347

Warnings: Torture, Death, Sex, War?
Rating: 3/5

Finally, something happens! The war that I've been expecting since the first book, Lenayin's invasion of the Saalshen Bachosh, has finally started! I feel like it certainly took long enough. On that note, one thing I noticed is that this book, unlike the previous two in the series, jumps right into the action. There is very little time spent on new character development, which seems fair. We already know all the main characters pretty well at this point.

Towards the beginning Sasha and Alythia arrive in Tracato (surprise surprise) at the beginning of the book, at we jump right into some complicated political turmoil in the city. For the first time, the concept of leadership that isn't hereditary is introduced to the reader, and thus there are actual political factions that aren't nobles of some kind. I think Shepherd has some entertaining commentary on rabid politics when he created the Civic Stein, an analogue of a Labor Party, who have a very legitimate beef regarding land ownership. Not without cause, he presents a world were politics is just has belief-laden as religion, which I completely agree with. It's why you're not supposed to talk politics or religion unless you want to fight.

In addition, Tracato has an Ulenshaal, the analogue to a University. I wouldn't really mind if Shepherd just used the same names we used, spelling of imaginary works is not my strong suit. Besides, I've always been suspicious that the more made up words a book has, the less likely it is to be good.

At this point there are several factions in Tracato: the Civic Stein and their many systematizers in Ulenshaal, the Tracato Officials the Judiciars and Blackboots (Judges and City Police), and the feudalists which are largely made up of formal noble families. Into all this mess steps Rhillian, who does pretty much the same thing she did in Petrodor: cause major upheaval and chaos, during which Sasha gets captured by one of the masses (Civic Stein in particular).

In addition, there is lots of military action all happening at once: the Rhodaan Steel, which are the Rhodaan nation's army (of which Tracato is a part), attack and conquer Elise, a neighboring nation, during the first half of the book. After which there is a bit of civil unrest in Tractao, and the Blackboot squelch this. During the final portion of the book the Lenayin army chills in Larosa while Sofy gets hitched, then travels to conquer Enora, the second nation of the Saalshen Bacosh that will have to be defeated, and the site of the most holy Verathane temple and the impetus of the entire war. Clearly, a lot of plot went and happened.

The pace of the first two books in the Trial of Blood and Steel was pretty forumlatic. The first half or so of the book was spent learning about the characters and building up to some sort of battle scenes that only pertained to the book, not the series. I felt Tracato completely skipped the introductions and started instead at the first set of book-specific battle scenes, in this case being the Tracato civil war. Then it jumped to the series-wide conflict, the Toravan/Lenayin invasion of Enora. I was personally pleased to see this focus on action and moving forward the overall plot of the series, and I preferred the way character development was strewn throughout the book. It felt much more realistic, and I didn't feel like I had to fulfill some sort of characterization quota (which is saying something, because I love Sasha). It just... felt a little better paced to me. I look forward to the finale! (it is the finale, right?)

Monday, January 3, 2011

Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Author: Stieg Larsson
Series: 1/3 in the Millennium Trilogy
Genre: Mystery/Fiction

Pages: 480
Warnings: Violence, Rape, Rape of Minors, Abuse
Rating: 3/5

Ho boy. I don't think it's possible to talk about this book without mentioning violence against women. Seriously, every aspect of this book is steeped in it. Rape, child abuse, domestic violence and sexual harassment affect every character in this book. It was a real downer.

There are mitigating factors though. Stieg Larsson very clearly thinks this violence is a horrible thing, and so he portrays it from the point of view of the victims. No matter why an author chooses to include violence, I find reading about such awful deeds can be extremely unpleasant. Knowing Larsson had his heart in the right place doesn't always make it less painful while you're reading about an assault, but it did make it easier for me to read about them.

In good news, one of the main characters, Lisbeth Salander, is amazing. [Spoiler] She is raped early on in the novel, but she never behaves like a victim. She fights back viciously and makes sure that the man who raped her never wants to rape another women.[/Spoiler] I can imagine how her unflinching resolve could scare someone, but she reserves her hatred for "men who hate women". Actually, "Men who hate Women" was the Swedish title of this novel, and I think it fits. It certainly gives the reader a better idea of what you're getting into.

On the other hand, Larsson has written two very resourceful main characters, Salander and Mikael Blomkvist. Obviously I cheered on Salander like the vigilante she was, but I found Blomkvist annoying and rather full of himself. He was too bland compared to the rest of the novel. 

I thought the story was a pretty basic murder mystery, nothing to write home about. If you like that sort of book, jump right into this, since a healthy portion of the novel is about finding clues. There was a second mystery that results from Blomkvist being sued at the beginning of the book, which does give Larsson an excuse to focus on lighter topics which I felt ambivalent about.

I wasn't sure about the tone of the actual writing, since it could very easily be a product of the translation. What I did enjoy where the descriptions of the Swedish landscape, and the sea faring turns of phrase. The descriptions where short, which is excellent for me because if an author spends more than a paragraph explaining the scenery I'm likely to skip the entire thing, as well as being spacial, so instead of a painting of the view I got a feel for where the main character was. I do not know any nautical metaphors, but Larsson used a few in the book and I noticed them because I couldn't find my way around a boat to save my life. I liked them because, with Larsson's main character being a sailor, they felt genuine.

If you're looking for light, relaxing entertainment, I would advise looking elsewhere, no matter what sort of hype you've heard about it. I found the violence difficult to slog through to get to a vanilla murder mystery. However, if you like gritty novels or the like, go right ahead. I might read the second book in the series, if only to see Salander kick in a few more heads!