The Wise Man’s Fear

Title: The Wise Man’s Fear

Author: Patrick Rothfuss

Genre: High Fantasy

Length: 380,000 words, 1000 pages

Read: March 4-12, 2011

Summary: A worthy sequel.

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The Wise Man’s Fear is one of 2011’s two most anticipated Fantasy novels, the other being George R. Martin‘s A Dance with Dragons (due in July). WMF, however, can be all yours right now. It’s the sequel to The Name of the Wind (which I REVIEW HERE). This is High Fantasy of a rather less epic sort. Not that it’s any less fun to read, even weighing in as it does at 1008 hardcover pages. Although, who thinks about pages these days, as I read the Kindle version on my iPad (wouldn’t want to mess up that nice hardcover first edition I had signed by Mr. Rothfuss last week!).

Despite the length, it’s well worth it. This book is seamless with the first in the series, despite the four years gap between their publication. I read The Name of the Wind a second time last week, and WMF picks up and continues with exactly the same style and pace. There is still the box story in the present, but this accounts for no more than 5% of the pages. The action mostly takes place in the past with our hero, Kvothe, continuing on for a bit at University and then venturing out into the wider world. While we sense that some bigger events are in the works, this is still a very personal tale. And it defies all normal story telling expectations in that it just meanders along. My editor’s eye says that whole chunks and side plots could be snipped out without effecting anything. And to a certain extent this is true. But would the novel be better for it? Perhaps it could have lost 50-100 pages in line editing, but I’m not sure I’d take out any of the incidents. As the novel itself says, it’s not the winning of the game, but the playing of it that matters.

That is very much what The Wise Man’s Fear is about. It’s a story about stories. It’s rich and lyrical, a luxurious tapestry of world and story, without the distraction of the intricate mechanism of plot. The little glimpses into different sub-cultures show a deft eye for details and invention. This feels like a real place, not so much explained, but revealed through the narrator’s eyes.

As Rothfuss said in an interview, Kvothe is  older now, and he gets himself into more trouble. There’s more sex and violence this time out, although the main romance is still endlessly unrequited 🙂 Kvothe it seems, is a hero of many talents, and that includes those in the bedroom. Rothfuss doesn’t focus on these details gratuitously, it’s not a book filled with battle (or bedroom scenes).

I’m curious to see how Rothfuss wraps this up in the third book (and I suspect the trilogy might expand). Things still feel early. We find out barely anything new about the main villains. In fact they don’t even show in this volume. Just like the first book the end is completely limp and anti-climatic. Kvothe just wraps his story up for the day and we wait (hopefully for slightly less than four years).

But I’ll be waiting. Probably for so long that I’ll have to read book one and two again. I won’t mind.

Book and Movie Review: The English Patient

The English PatientTitle: The English Patient

Author: Michael Ondaatje

Genre: Literary Historical Drama

Length: 82,000 words, 300 pages, 162 min

Read: Spring, 2010

Summary: Lyrical.

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I had seen the film when it came out (and several times after) and it’s long been one of my absolute favorites. So to that effect the novel has been sitting on my shelf for over ten years waiting to be read and this spring I finally got around to it. In some ways I’m glad I waited because I wouldn’t have appreciated the prose as much years ago. The voice, told in lightweight third person present, and lacking nearly all mechanical constructs (like dialog quoting or tagging, preamble explanations of scene transitions, etc.) has a breezy lyrical quality to it. It can only be described as delectable. There is a feel of watching a beautiful but flickery film, a series of stuccato images flash through your head as you read it. It’s worth quoting to illustrate:

“She stands up in the garden where she has been working and looks into the distance. She has sensed a shift in the weather. There is another gust of wind, a buckle of noise in the air, and the tall cypresses sway. She turns and moves uphill towards the house, climbing over a low wall, feeling the first drops of rain on her bare arms. She crosses the loggia and quickly enters the house.”

The plot — such as it is — involves a war battered Canadian nurse lingering in Italy at the close of WWII. She has isolated herself in a half destroyed villa and cares for a mysterious burn patient who is dying and too fragile to move. The book focuses on the nurse as its protagonist, concentrating on her relationship with an Indian (via the British army) bomb disposal tech and her efforts to come to terms with the war and loss. The patient slowly unravels his own tale to her. It is his story, set mostly in Egypt before and during the start of the war, which is the primary focus of the movie. In the book it serves more to offset and focus the nurse’s point of view.

I am blown away by the effort of translating this book for the screen. Frankly, although I loved the novel, I like the film better — this is rare. Anthony Minghella managed the near impossible, translating this gorgeous prose into an equally lyrical visual style. It’s less stuccato, more “lush and languid.” Film is a more linear medium, and Minghella focuses the story to create grander more visual arcs. To do this, he expanded the patient’s epic story of love and loss in pre-war Egypt. I’m a sucker for Egypt, the exotic, the British Empire in decay, and worlds that no longer exist. This story feels bigger than the nurse’s, being as it is more tied in with history and international events. But in both you have a powerful sense of people fighting for their passions, both interpersonal and intellectual, despite the baggage of past choices and the buffeting blows delivered by the unstoppable forces of history.

Both variants of this story are inherently complex, ambiguous, and emotional works. Look for no answers here, just gorgeously rendered questions.

The Name of the Wind

Title: The Name of the Wind

Author: Patrick Rothfuss

Genre: High Fantasy

Length: 255,000 words, 720 pages

Read: May 2008 & Feb 28-Mar 2, 2011

Summary: Best new fantasy of recent years.

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In 2008, I read this 722 page novel in Xian China during a single sleepless night, and I reread it just now for the second time in preparation for the sequel (released this week): The Wise Man’s Fear. NOTW is a beautiful book. Of all the Fantasy I’ve read in the last 15 or so years, this is perhaps second best after The Song of Ice and Fire. But that’s not to say that they have much in common, other than both being good Fantasy. George R. Martin‘s books are full of characters, POVs, violence, politics, and a darkly realistic sensibility. NOTW is much more focused and relies on more traditional Fantasy tropes. How focused can a 700 page novel be? Not very, but it is good, and it concentrates on a small number of characters and a single (albiet meandering) storyline.

Kvothe is the protagonist. He’s a young man of many many talents, of no means whatsoever, who winds his way from the actor’s troupe to the mean streets to the magical University and to (implied) great and terrible things.

If I have any beef with the book, it’s that the meta premise of the tired hero telling his story is too drawn out. This volume opens in the “present day,” where very little happens except to set us up for the life story of the hero, which is brilliant. Much like Lord of the Rings or Hyperion, the reader must slog for a bit to get to the gold. In this case about 50 pages in. But the slogging isn’t exactly painful because Rothfuss’s prose is lyrical and masterful. Seriously, it’s a wonder given the tangents, bloated conversations (the dialog is great but not efficient), and the like that this book is so easy to read — but it is. Damn easy, even the second time.

The world and the hero juggle uniqueness and heavy — but delicious — borrowing from classic Fantasy of the best sort. I sniffed out a bit of Ursula K. Le Guin (think Wizard of Earthsea), Raymond Feist, Robert Jordan (Wheel of Time), and who knows how many others. The world is extremely well developed, and feels big, but it doesn’t doesn’t have the camp and cheese of Wheel of Time (although it does pay homage). I love origin stories and I very much enjoyed Kvothe’s journey. He’s a great character: humble, proud, skilled, lucky, unlucky all at once, but in a fairly believable way. Perhaps the most important relationship in the book (and there are actually relatively few) is the romance, and it has a tragic quality that feels very refreshing, and slightly reminiscent of the best of Orson Scott Card (think his old stuff like Song Master) or Dan Simmons.

The magic is very unique and interesting, and we focus on it quite a bit, as this is a story that spends a lot of time in the Arcane Academy. This ain’t no Hogwarts either, it feels altogether more mysterious and dangerous. There are several different magic systems interwoven in what is a world overall fairly light on magic. But this is also a world that feels a bit more technological than most Fantasy, with larger cities, a little more like antiquity than the Middle Ages. The “magical bad guys” have a nice character and bit of mystery to them. I don’t like all my mystery explained. There is a lot of music and theatre in here too, and that just helps heighten the lyricism.

But what exactly makes this book so good?

Proving my geek-cred, swapping some Crash Bandicoots for signatures with Patrick Rothfuss

Fundamentally I think Rothfus is just a great writer, and a very good world builder. I don’t think he’s a great plotter. The story drifts along, relies a bit on coincidence and circumstance, and the end fizzles then pops back out of the interior story and waits for the sequel. But that doesn’t really matter, because the prose, world, and characters keep you enjoying every page.

CLICK HERE for my review of the sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear.

Book Review: The First American

Title: The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin

Author: H. W. Brands

Genre: Biography

Read: Jan 25-Feb 10, 2011

Summary: Big solid Bio of a VERY interesting man

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While I’m waiting for the last bits of line editing on my almost-finished novel, The Darkening Dream, I’ve been researching and outlining the  next. Given that it’s me, the new novel features both the historical and the fantastic. As to the historical: enter Ben Franklin. Who was one cool dude.

There’s a reason why he’s on the hundred dollar bill.

Now to reviewing this biography (I’ll call it TFA). It’s very well written, and easy enough to read. It’s also LONG (800 dense pages). Now, Ben lived 84 years, from 1706 to 1790, and he was perhaps the best known and most highly diversified American of his era. So there’s a lot to cover. As a printer/writer Ben left us a lot of his thoughts, and the book does a tremendous job capturing these, with long tracks of his writing embedded in the text. Lest you think this might be dry, he’s a surprisingly witty and modern voice. Eerily so. The book could have used a little bit of trimming here and there — but no more than 5-10%. It marches along steadily from Ben’s parents to his death and legacy, covering everything in between. This is not a history of the Revolutionary War, but covers more Ben’s role than the conflict itself. Good thing since that would’ve doubled the size. TFA does a good job characterizing the era, and particularly the politics of both Pennsylvania and London, and to a lesser extent Paris. It does a great job characterizing Ben.

Overall, I would give the book a 8/10 on the biography scale. That’s independent of it being Ben, but just in managing the job of conveying an important life in a different era. It’s not quite as good as Caesar: Life of a Colossus, Alexander of Macedon, or the Rise/Reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, but it’s pretty close.

But it’s worth talking about Ben. He was a pretty amazing guy, as influential in his own wry was as those three aforementioned titans. And he didn’t kill thousands or conquer nations doing it. Ben was a man of rare genius. Observant as to causes and effects, be it weather, electricity, ocean currents, politics, or business. And he’s depicted here with all his very human faults. But fundamentally he was a spirit of curiosity, optimism, energy, and general good intentions. He wasn’t the best husband or general, but he sures seems to have been one hell of a human being.

Book Review: XVI (read sexteen)

Title: XVI

Author: Julia Karr

Genre: YA Dystopian Fiction

Read: Jan 16-19, 2011

Summary: Good premise, tried hard, fell flat.

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I really wanted to like this book more than I did. The premise is fine, set in a dystopian 2150 where teens are branded at 16 as”legal for sex.” Nina is almost 16, and is dealing with not only the stress of this oncoming rite of passage, but boys, the death of her mother, and a bigger conspiracy.

But where to begin with the problems. The protagonist is okay, and there isn’t anything wrong with the prose, but fundamentally this book stands out as an example of premise over plot. Plot, we are told is how the characters in a story deal with or overcome the premise. A good one sells the premise in an engrossing and personal manner. The plot just felt weak, and the characters reactions to it rushed and forced. People keep popping up out of nowhere. Dramatic events — like the narrator’s mom dying — blink by. They live in Chicago, yet everyone seems to know everyone. The villain tattles his villainy while playing hide and seek with the heroine — so very Scooby Doo.

And the Science Fiction is pretty darn mediocre. This is 150 years from now and music and films are stored on “chips!” There won’t even be physical media in 15-20 years. There is no mention of a net or internet — nary a computer. They still have magazines! Video playing machines that play films on chips (like a DVD player). People have phone numbers (also on the way out already). There are no substantial tech improvements. Some “transports” that maybe fly. Mention of moon and mars settlement, but no matching tech on earth. No new biotech, no new computer tech.

150 years ago is 1860 and the civil war!

I didn’t hate the book, in fact wanted to like it, but it just fell flat.

Short Story: The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate

Title: The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate

Author: Ted Chiang

Genre: Historical Time Travel

Read: Jan 10, 2011

Summary: Awesome and lyrical.

 

This 60 page short story is so up my alley. A story of time travel, set in medieval Baghdad, what could be better? If it were written in a lyrical style reminiscent of the Arabian nights! This is a gold and gem encrusted little dagger of a story. Mimicking prose style AND story telling conventions of its chosen era. It manages to demonstrate its time travel device and constraints in a manner so clear even an Abbasid merchant could understand.

It won both the Hugo and Nebula Novellette awards. Good show. Read it. Ali ibn Hammud al-Nasir (the villan from my own novel) commands that you do so. And he’s been known to make tea from the ground bones of those who refuse him.

It’s for sale standalone (very expensive), and in this anthology (cheap).

Book Review: Lost It

Title: Lost It

Author: Kristen Tracy

Genre: YA Romance

Read: Jan 3, 2011

Summary: Forever 2007.

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This is a very likable teen romance about an Idaho girl’s first real relationship and of course… how she lost her virginity. I read this in my continued meandering quest to find out just how edgy and racy YA can actually be. I hope someone points me to another answer, but I’m thinking… not very. If you know anything really edgy, please put it in a comment. Lost It is pretty reminiscent of Judy Blume‘s Forever (my review HERE), and it’s gone backwards in the sexual explicitness department big time. Really there’s barely any.

Don’t get me wrong. This is a good book, and it stands on its own. It’s just not racy. But I really did like the voice. Using the standard first person past you are immediately and tightly drawn into protagonist Tess’s head. She’s pretty funny too, and not your totally typical teen girl. There is a lot of interior monologue, but it doesn’t suffer from the “too much tell” problems that this often entails. Like, for example, the Indy book Switched (my review HERE) I read the previous day. With Lost It, I actually laughed a number of times aloud — or at least chuckled. Like all these books, the narrator is what drives the whole thing, and the book delivers 100% in that regard.

Many of the other characters are good. The best friend, the boyfriend, and the grandmother all felt unique and real. The parents less so. Tracy doesn’t have the effortless ability to make every character totally and completely believable like Judy Blume, but who does? Nevertheless, she gives it the good old college try and the results are very good.

But the tameness bothered me. In our era of hyper shock factor, it would be nice if an honest book like this was a bit more honest and open about its central topic. Sex. Forever certainly has the edge there, and it’s more than 35 years old. It’s also worth noting that the two books have almost the same cover. I guess publisher marketing departments all think alike. Observe to the right!

I don’t know what it is, but at the same time the internet has opened the door to vastly more sexual material than my 70s or 80s brain could have ever conceived, popular media has less and less. But more violence. Somehow this seems pretty twisted — at least the more violence less love thing.

Anyway, Lost It, is a good book. Refreshing actually because I didn’t have to force myself to finish it. It’s all character driven, and when well done that’s a very good thing.