Musings on writing, lessons learned by an aspiring professional, book reviews, movie reviews, an occasional t.v. show review, and unashamed opinion.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

To die, or not to die: that is the question...

Have you ever grown tired of your favorite characters?  Have you ever felt like they've stayed around a little too long... like they haven't changed at all, in say, the last eight books of the series you're reading?  I find myself feeling this way sometimes, with episodic-type series (not as much with series with continuing story lines), and I really wish the authors would hear me and just let their darlings die!

Sir Arthur Conon Doyle created one of literature's most iconic and beloved characters: Sherlock Holmes.  Doyle wrote--from 1887 to 1927--fifty-six short stories, and four novels featuring the eccentric detective.  If you're familiar with the stories, you know that Doyle tried killing off Sherlock at one point.  I don't know why, but I imagine that the author had grown tired of his creation.  There are only so many stories one can tell through the same lens, after all.  But readers and publishers demanded more Sherlock, and so the detective was brought back from the dead, and Doyle continued to write about him until the end of his life.

James Bond, in my opinion, is a character that needs to die.  My main reason for this: the author who originally created the character is dead, and there are no more Bond books being published.  Also, twenty-three movies is enough!  For once, I'd like to see Bond fail.  Because it would be new, thereby exciting.  Will this ever happen?  Probably not.  Bond movies make money, and so Bond movies will continue to get made.  It's a shame.  It would be so much more interesting to have an end.

Back to Sherlock.  I saw the new movie a couple months back, and enjoyed it nearly as much as the first.  (Spoilers ahead)  At the end, Sherlock supposedly dies.  They have a funeral for him and Watson writes down his experiences with the man.  Up to this point in the film, I was on the edge of my seat (stupid me).  I couldn't believe Hollywood was going to end a series with only two films, with the hero kicking the bucket.  I couldn't believe it, but I was totally satisfied.  I felt that the two Sherlock films had done everything they needed to do.  They had a great arc (story and character), and Sherlock's death was meaningful.  I was ready to leave the theater pumped.  And then Sherlock wasn't dead.  Only hiding for some unknown reason, from all the people who cared about him.  In fact, not informing his friends that he was alive seemed only to cash in on an earlier gag in the movie.  I was pissed.  (Still like the movie.)

When is it time for characters to die?  How many books should a writer pen with the same faces?  Jim Butcher has written over a dozen stories with the same character.  Vince Flynn has done the thriller genre to death with his Rapp character.  Clive Cussler, Bernard Cornwell, Robert B. Parker... the list of authors that spend a career doing this goes on and on.  I always thought writers were creative types.  Can't they come up with new characters to make us care about?  Or are some of them one-trick ponies, rehashing the same old same old to make a buck?

Long, multi-volume series with a continuous story line (The Wheel of Time) fall into a similar trap.  But that's for another time.  For now, will authors please give me interesting, fully-realized characters that don't overstay their welcome?  Three books, maybe four?  I think that would be just grand, thanks.  

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Dragon's Path

The Dragon's Path, by Daniel Abraham, is an excellent book to read if you're looking for a well-crafted fantasy.  I wouldn't classify it as epic fantasy--it's more sword and sorcery--actually it's a bit difficult to pin down the sub-genre it would fall under.  Say it's fantasy.  Say it's good fantasy.  Works for me.

The author is George R.R. Martin's protege.  Because of this, I was expecting a fairly dark, morose tale.  I can see the series as a whole going this way, but this first book never quite wandered in to that edgy, post-modern area of gray fantasy.  (One character falls from grace, but it didn't have that dark fantasy feel to it.)  I was pleasantly surprised by this, even though I had been anticipating another direction from the opening pages.

Marcus is a renowned general, who will no longer fight for lords.  Now he sells his sword.  Cithrin is an orphan raised by a bank.  She will stop at nothing to gain power.  Geder is a soft, pampered lord, who has learned of the world only through books.  He will make everyone pay who has insulted him.  Dawson is a noble of the king's court, watching as his country crumbles around him.  He will not let his nation go down the dragon's path.  There's my little summary of the book.  Pretty darn good, if you ask me.  Maybe the publisher should pay me to write for them...

The world in TDP is like this: once, the dragons ruled.  They were lords of a massive empire, like Rome.  They created thirteen races of humans to serve them.  And then they fell.  The story picks up quite a while after the dragons' decline, though I can't remember if the time elapsed is ever specified.  It has been long enough that the dragons no longer exist, except in history.  The setting is reminiscent of Renaissance Europe, with a definite Italian feel.  The Italian flavor isn't as apparent as it is in Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora, but I'd say it was the starting point for the book's culture.

TDP is one of those fantasies with very little magic onscreen.  I tend to like this kind of fantasy better.  Like A Game of Thrones, it feels more historical than fantastic.  That isn't to say that there isn't magic, however.  I'd say it shows up around 3/4 of the way through, and plays a large part in the plot of one character.  My biggest complaint would be that the thirteen races feel a bit D&Dish, and some of the political scheming is somewhat dull.  But the characters--primary and secondary--are intriguing, fully-realized, and worth spending time with.  Daniel Abraham definitely knows how to spin a good yarn.

George R.R. Martin suggests voting for The Dragon's Path for the Hugo this year.  I wouldn't call it Hugo worthy, but it is absolutely worth your time and dime.  If you choose to go the audio route like me, the narrator does a nice job with the voices.

The Dragon's Path gets 3.5 stars out of 5.   


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Way of Kings

My first experience with epic fantasy was Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series.  (I cosider it that way, at least... I did read Lord of the Rings first, before the movies came out, but Tolkien didn't turn me on to an entire genre like Jordan did.)  I was just graduating high school, and saw a friend of mine reading the tenth book.  I made fun of him for reading such garbage.  The only speculative fiction I read was smart sci fi, like Dune, but mostly I stuck to thrillers.  I spent my teenage years thinking I would become a thriller writer in the vain of Tom Clancy.  I can't even remember what it was that made me finally pick up The Eye of the World and read it, but it changed my life in a major way.

Fast forward ten years and I find the majority of my reading and listening is spent on epic fantasy and sword and sorcery.  Every once in a while I find a good sci fi (see my review of The Prefect), but my personal library is probably 85% fantasy series.  You can guess that, as a huge fan of the genre, and as an aspiring author, that I would be writing the stuff as well as reading it.  This is why Robert Jordan changed my life.  His books realigned my dreams and goals, and now I am spewing out (at a rather slothful pace) stories with magic and made up worlds. 

This brings me to The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson.  I'm not going to review the book, exactly, because I haven't read through the massive 1,000 page tome since it came out in 2010.  I did re-listen to nearly 5 hours of it yesterday, however, and so have it on my mind.  (FYI: I've read/listened to the entire book once, re-listened to everything a second time except for the girl chapters--because I couldn't stand her--plus the few hours I just mentioned.)  I figured I'd blab about TWoK for a bit, and stop when I feel I've got everything out that I want to say.  I apologize if this turns in to a long post.

Before going on, I have to mention the stunning cover art, painted by Michael Whelan.  I'm not the type that pays attention to fantasy artists, but I can't deny the perfect imagery this illustration depicts.  Most books have random weird scenes on the cover that have little to do with the actual story (almost every WoT book), but Whelan managed to encapsulate The Way of Kings so well in this that I find myself interested in genre art for the first time.  (Dad, if you're reading this, I'm sorry.  Don't think of my art taste as slipping... only know that it's expanding.)

If you haven't read TWoK, you should.  It's the first book in a planned 10 book series, which will likely take the next 15-20 years for Brandon to write.  This might scare off readers, but I think this first book stands on its own fairly well.  The reason I think you should read this (and I'm not suggesting everyone read it... you should familiarize yourself with epic fantasy first, by trying out smaller books in the genre) is because it has a lot more depth to it than your run-of-the-mill novel.  TWoK isn't a fun book, the way Harry Potter or His Majesty's Dragon is.  It is rather a thought-provoking, character-driven story that can stay with you for days after you've listened to/read its pages.

So many popular fantasy stories these days are dark and "edgy".  I happen to like the dark stories--I've already posted about why--but even I tire of the gray morality these stories promote.  TWoK is such a positive piece, about what it means to be a leader, the importance of honor, self-sacrifice... the list of uplifting points goes on and on.  The great thing about it is that it never feels preachy.  The characters go through hell before they understand morality.  Their world is falling apart politically because their society has degraded so far, and they have to struggle against the current to overcome the depravity engulfing them.

There is a set of codes, or ideals one character tries to understand and live by throughout the book.  The phrase I love so much from it is: "Life before death.  Strength before weakness.  Journey before destination."  While not particularly original, I find that the words are still profound.  Especially the last part.

I'm at a point in my life where the journey is somewhat of a struggle.  As a new parent, I've realized that what life was before my baby girl, is now gone.  It some ways this saddens me.  In most ways, it brings more joy to my life than words can describe.  I haven't regretted the decision to become a dad for one second.  It's the single greatest thing that has ever happened to me.  I naively thought that I could be the same person with a child.  After all, I feel that I remained the same after becoming a husband... I was more completely myself with Rhonda in my life.  Having a companion to share life with was easy.  (We've still yet to have a serious argument after over 5 years of marriage.  Some would call that unhealthy.  I call it a triumph, in no small part due to the saint I wed.)  Having a little one who depends utterly on us is hard.  Every parent knows exactly what I'm talking about, and will roll their eyes at my words.  That's the cool thing about parenting, though: we all get to discover it for ourselves.  Back to the journey... my destination has been altered by choices made.  I am no longer I, but We.  (This change occurred years ago, of course, but for me really hit when 2 became 3.)  We have to work to support our family.  We have to sacrifice for education.  We have to get up early to write.  We have to want to put the long hours in to become a published author.  This is one of my/our journeys right now.  I have several that I could talk about, however, I'll stick to writing goals for this blog.   The destination in mind--of publishing professionally--may never be reached.  But I believe I'll be better for the journey.

This is the crap I think of while listening to TWoK.  I wish I could promise that the book will provoke such self-discovering thoughts in every reader.  It might.  I want to give Brandon credit for this.  I'll have to wait to discuss the topic with other readers before having a definitive answer.  Whether Brandon meant TWoK to be as potent or not doesn't really matter to me.  For me it was, and continues to be every time I re-listen.

Oh, and the narrators are great.  Suppose I should add that since I listened to the book.  They are the same duo who read The Wheel of Time.

Should you read The Way of Kings?  Uh... yeah.  If you've read anything I've written in this post, you should read it.  Duh.  It's by far Sanderson's best work, and one of the best novels in years.  I can't wait to see where he takes the series.  (Not looking forward so much to book 2, since its focus will be on the chick.)  I said I wasn't really going to review it, but what the hell.  I pretty much did.      

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Prison Break

My wife and I just finished the first season of Prison Break, and have started on the second.  Netflix is the best way to watch shows like this, because I would probably have gone crazy waiting week to week to see what happened next.  PB is addicting, exciting, entertaining... they get so much right with this show.

And so much wrong.

Maybe 24 spoiled the thriller t.v. genre.  Jack Bauer kicked ass, and he managed to kick all that ass in a tightly scripted window of time each season.  Having Jack do things in real time added so much tension to the story.  If something happened a few states away, you knew it would take 3/4 of the season for Jack to get there to work his magic.  Prison Break, on the other hand, doesn't pay any mind to real time, and I think its credibility suffers because of this.

Fact: It is physically impossible to fly to Washington D.C. from Chicago during a thirty minute lawyer/defendant meeting.  It is Physically impossible to fly from Chicago to Montana, rent a car, and be at an obscure location in an hour.  It is physically impossible to be seventy miles out of Salt Lake City, and then be in Tooele in a matter of minutes.  Also, it is not normal to be in Chicago and have it go from sweltering weather, to winter, to summer in a month.  Oh, and Mesquite NV is not one mile from the Utah border, and Tooele has mountains surrounding it, not flat plains and water towers.  Shame on you lazy t.v. writers.  Why couldn't you have done your research a bit better, and make Prison Break an excellent show, instead of just an entertaining one?

I realize 24's shtick was real time.  Of course Prison Break couldn't copy it.  But is it too much to ask that the writers avoid bending reality for their plot to work?  That they actually portray real settings if they're going to set scenes in unique places?  (One hour outside of Las Vegas isn't green farm land, people.  It's gray.  And dry.  And ugly.  Stop being lazy!)  They're lucky that I like the characters and story, or else I'd have been off the train twenty episodes ago.

If you haven't given Prison Break a watch, do it.  It's a good show.  It'll keep you on the edge of your seat most episodes.  And the characters are fully developed people, with motives, desires, and flaws.  Try and ignore the plot holes if you can.  I drive my wife crazy every time I point another error out.

That's all.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Read this, now!

You can probably guess by the title of this post that I'm very excited about this latest audiobook I've listened to.  I can tell you, with all honesty, that I think it is one of the finest fantasy novels I have ever read.  The book is His Majesty's Dragon, by Naomi Novik.

That's right.  Dragons.

Normally, I avoid dragons like I avoid vampires, werewolves, and other silly fantasy cliches.  With the exception of George R.R. Martin's series, The Hobbit, and Harry Potter, I don't own a single dragon book.  Dragons, after all, are for geeks.  And my friends, I read cool fantasy.  (You heard me.  Cool fantasy.)  Having said that, I'm really digging dragons right now--at least ones that serve as the equivalent of a 19th century air force. 

His Majesty's Dragon is the first in Novik's Temeraire series.  (Book 7 comes out next month.)  Like Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander novels, Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series, and C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower adventures, it is set in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars.  I've never read Forester, but I've been a long time fan of Master and Commander, and Bernard Cornwell, (see review of Death of Kings) so I feel confidant in saying HMD reads just like those heavy weights of historical fiction.  HMD is a much lighter read, (than MaC, anyway... the Sharpe books have always been on the light side of historical fiction) but I definitely felt like I was reading a historical novel.  Novik got 19th mannerisms and societal standards right.  This gives her perfect credit in the research department--which is important.  If I felt like she had the historical aspects wrong, it would have been much easier to scoff at the massive lizard beasts that take up the majority of the book. 

Dragons, as far as I could tell from the first book, have always existed.  They are a natural part of the world, like dogs... and bad British teeth.  Everyone accepts that they are part of life.  They aren't just cool magical creatures, however.  There are serious consequences to having them around.  Like the massive amounts of cattle, sheep, fish, deer, and small children they eat.  (Okay, no small children get swallowed... but it could happen, if a dragon was hungry enough.)  I thought Novik did an amazing job at balancing the pros and cons of dragons.  She doesn't make it easy owning them.  Scratch owning.  It's more like partnering with them.  They are sentient, intelligent beings, after all.  

Dragons bond to a single person when they are hatched.  That person will become their rider, and a captain in their country's air corps.  Also, the dragons speak, and learn the language, or languages, that are most often spoken around them while they are in the shell.  They come out able to communicate almost immediately.  This is what happens in the opening of HMD.

Will Laurence, captain of HMS Reliant, captures a French frigate in the middle of the Atlantic.  He and his crew discover an egg in the hold of the French ship, and claim it for the British crown.  The egg hatches while they are still weeks away from shore, and Captain Laurence is forced to become its human companion.  This event turns Laurence's life upside down, and he has to leave the navy to start a new career as an airman.  

Most of HMD is about Laurence and Temeraire (the Dragon, named after the famous "The Fighting Temeraire--a British ship that served at the Battle of Trafalgar) learning how to become part of Britain's Air Corps.  I would have liked it if the book had a bit more action in it, but the pacing is good enough, despite the few battle scenes being sparse and to the point.  I wouldn't have complained if the book had another hundred pages added to it.  The ending is very good, though, and so I won't even give the book a single shake of my angry fist.  I don't even want to.  I can only grin while thinking about this well-written, entertaining story.   

There isn't any magic in the book.  Maybe there is later on in the series, but I hope not.  The one fantasy element is done so well that I don't want other things spoiling the dragon fun.  If you're like me, and love historical fiction and fantasy, don't miss picking up this brilliant novel.  

His Majesty's Dragon gets 5 out of 5 stars.

I should add that I discovered this book while reading a review of it by Orson Scott Card.  If my little review didn't convince you, pop over to his website and read his.        

The Prefect

The Prefect, by Alastair Reynolds, is an exciting space opera, with a detective twist.  I highly recommend it to anyone wanting an entertaining sci fi read.

I listened to the book, like I usually do.  John Lee is the narrator, and is well-known among the audiobook crowd.  Personally, he isn't my favorite narrator, but I've grown used to him because he reads so many books I like.  Stevan Pacey, or George Guidall would have been a better choice in my opinion, but no one listens to me.

Thomas Dreyfus is a middle-aged Prefect--a highly skilled lawman, in service to the Glitter Band.  The Glitter Band is made up of ten-thousand habitats that orbit a planet called Yellowstone.  The society that has created this empire is unusual... at least I've never seen their like in sci fi before.  They are a democracy in the strictest sense.  Each citizen is guaranteed a vote.  Groups of citizens get together and vote for different types of government within their own habitats.  One habitat might be a monarchy, the other a totalitarian dictatorship.  All that matter to the prefects is that everyone is given a vote.  This way of governing proves to be a problem once things start happening... prefects need guns, and the citizens vote no.  

Dreyfus is tasked with investigating a mass murder--a habitat that was blown to bits.  As the case unfolds, he discovers that the entire Glitter Band society is in serious jeopardy, from a nearly immortal enemy.   

The Prefect is an exciting thriller, with plenty of twists and intricacy, similar to novels written by Tom Clancy.  Alistair Reynolds is an author I intend to read more of.  The Prefect gets 4 out of 5 stars.