Sunday, 30 March 2014

Book Reivew: Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

Title: Words of Radiance (Stormlight Archive #2)
Author: Brandon Sanderson 
Genre: Epic Fantas
Publisher: Tor Books (US), Gollancz (UK)
Date Published: March 2014
Rating: 3 of 5 stars 

Blurb (from Goodreads):
In the first volume, we were introduced to the remarkable world of Roshar, a world both alien and magical, where gigantic hurricane-like storms scour the surface every few days and life has adapted accordingly. Roshar is shared by humans and the enigmatic, humanoid Parshendi, with whom they are at war. Among those caught up in the conflict are Highprince Dalinar Kholin, who leads the human armies; his neice Jasnah, a renowned scholar; her student Shallan, a brilliant but troubled young woman; and Kaladin, a military slave who, by the book’s end, was beginning to become the first magically endowed Knight Radiant in centuries.

Words of Radiance their intertwined stories will continue and, as Sanderson fans have come to expect, develop in unexpected, wonderfully surprising directions. The war with the Parshendi will move into a new, dangerous phase, as Dalinar leads the human armies deep into the heart of the Shattered Plains in a bold attempt to finally end it. Shallan will come along, hoping to find the legendary, perhaps mythical, city of Urithuru, which Jasnah believes holds a secret vital to mankind’s survival on Roshar. The Parshendi take a dangerous step to strengthen themselves for the human challenge, risking the return of the fearsome Voidbringers of old. To deal with it all, Kaladin must learn how to fulfill his new role, while mastering the powers of a Windrunner.

Why I read it: I’m a big fan of Sanderson’s work, so I was always going to get around to his new book eventually. But I ended up finishing it sooner rather than later because my brother also just finished reading this one, and I wanted to discuss it with him.

My review:

I should start this review by admitting my (not-very-guilty and not-very-secret) preference of stand-alone novels to long series. This is something that definitely impacted my enjoyment of this book, for while the second book of the Stormlight Archive has a strong plot, there’s also a lot of setup – manoeuvring characters into situations that don’t seem to matter now, but presumably will in later instalments.

The Way of King
s featured Kaladin as its central protagonist, and I was looking forward to his chapters most. Here, Words of Radiance doesn’t disappoint. The former bridgeman gets some nice growth in this novel, while remaining the wilful character I loved from book one. His dislike of lighteyes combined with his new-found proximity to them was especially fun to read.

However, it is Shallen – a fairly minor character from the first book – who takes centre-stage in this novel. She comes into her own while travelling across the Shattered Plains; once there, she navigates lighteyed politics and her proposed betrothal with entertaining competence and wit. Watching her get her flirt on was great (although the shippy scenes made me yearn for some queer romance. Given Sanderson’s views on homosexuality, this seems unlikely). 

Also, the scene where Kaladin and Shallen first meet is a gem. I won’t spoil it for you, but it was hilarious.

There are other things that I liked about this book - there are some unexpected twists and epic fights, all described in Sanderson’s workmanlike prose. But I was pretty disappointed with the magic system. Simply put, I don’t really understand it. The role of spren remains unclear, as do the many uses of stormlight. Don’t even get me started on fabrials and soulcasting! I don’t think Sanderson is making it up as he goes along; I'd be surprised if he didn't have it all mapped out. I just wish we could find out now, and not several books down the line.

All in all – a good book, not a great one. I’ll read the next, but I won’t go crazy waiting for it.

The Cover: Gotta admit that I'm not a fan of either cover. The British one is boring! Oversized sun, generic warrior... yawn. The US one is better, simply for the textures (although I'm not too keen on the old-fashioned style). But my main problem is that Words of Radiance is Shallen's book - would it be so hard to feature her on the cover?

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Book Review: The Seeing Stone by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi

Title: The Seeing Stone (The Spiderwick Chronicles #2)
Authors: Holly Black & Tony DiTerlizzi
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Date Published: 1st May 2003
Ranking: 3 out of 5 stars

Why I read it: I was searching for a novel for one of my ESL classes. A lot of my students like fantasy books, so I thought this might suit. (Also, I’ve read some of Holly Black’s YA novels and liked them.)


What can I say about this book? I liked it, certainly. It’s a sweet little novel, telling the story of two kids (James, the protagonist, and Mallory, his acerbic older sister) who venture into the forest surrounding their house. Goblins have stolen away their brother Simon, but they intend to rescue him back.

As a fantasy nerd, I liked the faeries – there are brownies who speak entirely in rhyme, a water troll afraid of sunlight, and a pack of devious goblins. They’re all brilliantly described and the accompanying illustrations are beautiful. And as a teacher, I appreciated the easy, elegant prose. The authors use a lot of vocabulary that is probably unfamiliar to students reading at this level (forlorn, menagerie, crumbling, skittered, etc.) but it’s always clear from the context what is meant. They also manage to keep their sentence structure simple.

My main quibble with the book was Mallory’s secondary role. She’s the older sister; she should have been leading the group! But I think this is a problem more with middle grade fiction as a whole (unless specifically aimed at girls, the protagonist always seems to be male) than something that is wrong with this book in particular.

For those with kids (or a class full of restless Grade 4s) – this is a lovely read. Definitely recommended.

Cover: What's not to love here? It's simple, whimsical and fay - just like the book, really.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Book Review: Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

Title: Deathless
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Genre: Fantasy
Date Published: 29th March 2011
Publisher: Tor Books
Ranking: 3 out of 5 stars

Goodreads Summary: Koschei the Deathless is to Russian folklore what devils or wicked witches are to European culture: a menacing, evil figure; the villain of countless stories which have been passed on through story and text for generations. But Koschei has never before been seen through the eyes of Catherynne Valente, whose modernized and transformed take on the legend brings the action to modern times, spanning many of the great developments of Russian history in the twentieth century.

Deathless, however, is no dry, historical tome: it lights up like fire as the young Marya Morevna transforms from a clever child of the revolution, to Koschei’s beautiful bride, to his eventual undoing. Along the way there are Stalinist house elves, magical quests, secrecy and bureaucracy, and games of lust and power. All told, Deathless is a collision of magical history and actual history, of revolution and mythology, of love and death, which will bring Russian myth back to life in a stunning new incarnation

Why I read it: I thought I was fairly well-read when it comes to mythology. Reading The Secret History of Moscow last year made me realise I wasn’t, so I searched for more novels inspired by Russian myth and discovered Deathless. It’s been on my TBR pile ever since.

My Review:

I’m not quite sure what to think of Valente’s Deathless. It’s a feminist retelling of a classic tale, this time set in the Soviet Union under Stalin. Sounds fascinating, right? And it was, at least to start – after the first half of the book, I found myself increasing disinterested. The writing was stunning, but the plot kept floundering. 

Part one begins with Marya’s childhood, balancing history and myth extremely well. Marya sees her older sisters married off to birds, one by one, in a passage that could be lifted straight from a fairytale. However, the long pale house she inhabits is firmly settled in Russia – right down to the committee of domovye (house elves) that are fervent supporters of the changing world, and revel in their new-found ability to make trouble via paperwork.

Later in the novel, Koschei spirits Marya away to his realm. I loved the setting here. We see forests of firebirds, fountains of blood, houses constructed of living skin, magic galore, and of course the ever-present influence of the Party. There is also Marya and Koschei’s compelling relationship to enjoy: dark and passionate, with strong S&M elements. It’s rare to see such relationships represented well (or at all) in fiction, and I especially liked how the dominant partner shifted back and forth throughout the novel.

And yet.

As the book progresses, it becomes clear that there’s no overarching theme to the parts. Marya grows older – something I appreciated, as she is portrayed as a formidable yet flawed woman. Yet her days fly by with Koschei, with Ivan, with herself, her sisters, her house. She is buffeted by historical events. There is a war, including the grim Siege of Leningrad. And there is still magic. But the power of the novel seemed to slip away, and at times, the lack of plot tempted me to give up on it entirely. (I’m glad I didn’t, if only for the writing.)

Basically? This was a great novel with significant flaws.

The Cover: Surprisingly, I don't have much to say about this one. Aside from that it's well designed and representative of the novel, and I like it.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Ten Awesome Books on my Spring Reading List

Top Ten Tuesdays is a weekly book meme hosted by The Broke & The Bookish.

Gotta say I'm really excited about this week's topic. Why? Because a fortnight ago, I didn't really have a Spring TBR list. And then I decided that I would start reading/ reviewing/ blogging more, and spent the week discovering awesome new sites full of awesome new (and old!) books that somehow I had never heard of, and now my bulging TBR list is making my wife talk about hiding our credit card. Muhahahah.

ANYWAYS. Here's a list of books I intend to read in the next month or so.

A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar
I first picked up this book when I was on holiday in New Zealand and killing time in a bookstore. A few chapters in, I was entranced by the rich prose and the promise of misadventures in an decadent city across the sea. It's been nominated for a Nebula too... I can't wait to read the entire thing.

Lord of Emperors by Guy Gavriel Kay
I am a raging fangirl when it comes to Guy Gavriel Kay. His work is just that magnificent. This is the second book in his Sarantine Mosaic duology; one I would have read months ago, were I not trying to pace myself on his backlist.

Who fears death by Nnedi Okorafor
I came across a review of this book last week and was surprised it slipped under my radar. Post-apocalyptic fantasy set in Africa, good enough to have won the World Fantasy Award in 2011 – I’m looking forward to it.

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson
I suspect this is on a lot of people’s to read lists! I love most of Sanderson's work (I always want to translate his magic systems into RPGs) and thought The Way of Kings was great. I'm sure this one will be too.

Pathlight: New Chinese Writing (Spring 2013)
Pathlight is a quarterly magazine featuring Chinese stories & poetry. The Spring 2013 edition focused on "The Future" aka Chinese sci-fi. I've been meaning to pick up a copy for ages. Listening to Ling Chen talk at the BLF Global Science Fiction panel only cemented this urge, as apparently this is the only place where her work has been translated in English.

Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch
I’ve been following this series for a while. I first started reading them because of the British covers (which are awesome. Come on. Look at those maps.) but I’ve continued with them because they’re a lot of fun. It’s police bureaucracy meets magic, set in a London that actually feels diverse. 

The Silvered by Tanya Huff
Tanya Huff is a pretty prolific novelist, although I don't recall reading any of her other books. This one looks interesting though: high fantasy with werewolves and a magic school drop-out.

Somewhere In France: A Novel of the Great War  by Jennifer Robson
This book has been getting lots of good reviews, and I've been aiming to read more straight historical fiction. Hopefully this one will live up to the hype. 

Hild by Nicola Griffith
Another historical novel I can't wait to get my hands on. Mostly because I've seen a lot of comments on the quality & thoughtfulness of the writing, but also because it's been nominated for a Nebula and the cover is pretty.

China's Urban Billion: The Story Behind the Biggest Migration in Human History by Tom Miller.

Yes, there is non-fiction on this list. Is that cheating? (Guess I'm a cheat.) This book is here because I went to a fascinating talk on urban China at the Beijing Literary Festival last week: a 90 minute discussion on city verses population growth, hukou reform, eco-design, water & air pollution, and how China's changing government structures have impacted all of the above. Tom Miller was one of the speakers. I'm sure it'll be interesting to a geo-nerd like myself.

Have you read any books on this list? What are you most looking forward to?

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Global Science Fiction at the Beijing Literary Festival

I’ve been living in Beijing for almost 3 years now, but have shamefully missed the past two Bookworm Literary Festivals. (In my defence, I was broke and they had no real geek offerings anyway.) So I was really excited when they started advertising a panel on Global Science Fiction, saying: 

Science fiction is a genre of cult appeal. And yet, from its emergence in the 19th century, it has remained largely a Western genre. American, Soviet and western European authors dominate the SF cannon. But this is changing fast and Sci-Fi is now on the cusp of becoming something it has always wanted to be, a unifying, global genre. Join us as Mexican SF author and graphic artist BEF, Swedish-Indian novelist Zac O'Yeah, and Chinese SF champion Ling Chen talk about this reforming of an established genre.

So, what did I think?

Basically, I enjoyed it – with reservations. It’s never a good sign when the first author starts introducing themselves by saying that they’re not really a science-fiction author, you know, because most of their work is actually crime, and their only speculative novel was a serious and intellectual oeuvre, and they don’t write about spaceships and space lasers.

Note to Zac O’Yeah: Space Opera is a marvellous genre. It can also be ‘serious and intellectual’. Just look at Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.

The other two authors on the panel were Bernardo Fern├índez/BEF (who also said he wasn’t ‘really’ a science fiction writer, but seemed to have respect for the genre as a whole) and Ling Chen, who redeemed the entire event for me. Unfortunately it seems like most of her work hasn’t been translated into English, although one of her short stories was featured in Pathlight’s 2013 Spring edition. She kept going off on tangents, talking about the status of science-fiction in China 20 years ago (largely viewed as a damaging pseudo-science, stories were only published in unregistered ‘black’ magazines) and how all of that is changing now.

There was very little discussion of science fiction as a ‘global genre,’ which I think was largely the moderators fault. She was clearly unfamiliar with the genre as a whole, and asked boring questions like “what first got you interested in the field?” At one stage, she asked Fern├índez to pigeon-hole his work, despite him just mentioning that he wrote cyberpunk. Later, she asked Ling Chen if any of her predictions about the future had come true. Ling answered that the value of science fiction wasn’t in predicting the future, but in creating stories that explore humanity & technology.

The moderator also made sweeping generalizations about sci-fi geeks and how we love wearing costumes (note: this is called cosplay. Or larping. The internet is your friend). At least she didn’t assume we’re all male...

The audience questions were much more interesting. One man used the film Gravity to lead into a very interesting question on China’s place in sci-fi narratives and space in general, inspiring a nice discussion about Chang’e and the TianGong space station, and other Chinese authors tackling similar subjects. Another queried the recent popularity of sci-fi action films – Star Trek, Marvel, etc. – and asked whether the panel thought this was positive for the genre as a whole. The debate that followed was interesting, although I found myself disagreeing a fair bit. Seriously, people. Space opera does not preclude thoughtful sci-fi, and spaceships are awesome.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

My Top Ten Fantasy Books

Top Ten Tuesdays is a meme hosted over at The Broke & The Bookish. This week's topic was "Your Top Ten All Time Favourites in X Genre". It was surprisingly hard to choose, but here's my list in all its fantastical glory. 

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay
A heartbreaking tale of vengeance and politics, set in a world ruled by two rival sorcerers who invaded decades earlier. But revolution is coming – to free the conquered states, and restore memories that were magically stolen from the citizens of Tigana. This is a character-heavy book where everyone makes dubious choices & you can’t help loving them for it.

Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey 
One of my favourite books of all time. The world Carey builds here is sumptuous. It’s renaissance Europe, shaped by different religions and the occasional stroke of magic. Add brilliant characters - including the best (female) gentleman bastard I have ever read - along with court politics, betrayal, war... . This is epic fantasy at its best.

The Scar by China Mieville
Nautical fantasy, featuring pirates, a chaotic boat city, lots of politics and (of course!) a magical quest. The setting is amazing, but the main character is sullen & fractious translator who barely seems to notice it. I can’t sing its praises enough.

 Bareback by Kit Whitfield
There isn’t much urban fantasy on this list, but this totally deserves to be here. The setting is Earth, but the majority of the population are werewolves. Lola isn’t. Discriminated against by wider society and bathed in bitterness about it, she works for an organisation that regulates moon nights and subsequently has extreme power over the werewolves in its system. Moving, despairing, and very interesting. 

Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
God, this book. You could enjoy it purely on the strength of its magic system; it’s very detailed, based on metals, and inordinately cool. However, it also comes with a strong cast of characters that make up a gang planning their biggest ‘heist’ in history: to overthrow the government, and to do it in style.  I approve.

Darkfall by Isobelle Carmody
A portal fantasy about two Australian girls who are sucked into Keltor, a realm with a mysterious connection to Earth. The world they enter is fascinating – full of understated magic, religious unrest, and politicking – and the characters are compelling. The only problem with this book is that it was first published in 1991. Thirteen years later, the last book in the trilogy still hasn’t been released.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Another great novel about a city with many layers. This one is about London’s magical underworld, and a hapless businessman who gets trapped within it. London Below is a stunning and dangerous place (although I always think I’d appreciate it more if I had a better knowledge of London), plus the plot is fun, the ending satisfying. What more could you want?

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark
This delightful novel is about gentlemen and magic during the start of the 19th century in England. It’s full of dry & ridiculous humour, tangents and footnotes, and an inescapable upswell of magic. Also pineapples. Don’t forget the pineapples.

Banewreaker by Jacqueline Carey
I tried not to put too many books on this book by Jacqueline Carey, I really did. But Banewreaker is a stunning novel. First of a duology, it’s frequently described as an epic tragedy: the Lord of the Rings retold from Sauron’s point of view. Which, yes. It is. It’s also beautifully written, with viewpoints flickering between the “good” and the “evil”. There is also a dragon. And magic. This is the kind of book that makes me remember why I love fantasy so much.


Ombria in Shadow by Patricia Mckillip
An amazing book that I just realised I need to reread. Ombria in Shadow is a beautiful novel, with an otherworldly, mythological quality that a lot of other fantasy lacks. The multilayered city of Ombria is endlessly interesting, and there’s plenty of political intrigue too.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Book Review: Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

Title: Steelheart
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult, Superhero
Published: By Gollancz in the UK and Random House in the US, both in 2013.

Ten years ago, Calamity came. It was a burst in the sky that gave ordinary men and women extraordinary powers. The awed public started calling them Epics. But Epics are no friend of man. With incredible gifts came the desire to rule. And to rule man you must crush his wills.

Nobody fights the Epics... nobody but the Reckoners. A shadowy group of ordinary humans, they spend their lives studying Epics, finding their weaknesses, and then assassinating them.

And David wants in. He wants Steelheart—the Epic who is said to be invincible. The Epic who killed David's father. For years, like the Reckoners, David's been studying, and planning—and he has something they need. Not an object, but an experience. He's seen Steelheart bleed. And he wants revenge.

Why I read it:

My brother (who is a huge Brandon Sanderson fan) bought it for me for my birthday.


My guilty geek secret: I don’t really like comic books. I watched The Avengers, sure. But I’ve never been excited by the source material. So when I realised Sanderson’s latest novel was a superhero one, I almost didn’t read it. However, a 12 hour flight from Auckland-Hong Kong & minimal battery on my Kindle pushed me to finish it in one setting – and I’m very glad I did. Because this book is fun. 

Like always, Sanderson excels at worldbuilding. The universe he creates is beautifully atmospheric. We have a steel city bathed in everlasting night, where tyrannical “Epics” preside over a hopeless underclass. Fashion for the rich has regressed to a style reminiscent of 1920s America. Old-fashioned lanterns are hung from fused light bulbs, because of course electrical fittings were destroyed when Chicago was turned to steel. And beneath the city, there are the understreets: winding steel catacombs that house beggars and the Reckoners, a rebel cell aiming to topple the current government. 

Seriously, this book is begging to be made into a movie. 

The main character was David, an absurdly lucky teenager driven by vengeance. Obsessed by guns and bad metaphors, he studied the Epics and their weaknesses for years. To be honest, I thought the information he collected (details about the Epic’s magic systems, as clever as any of Sanderson’s other magic systems) was much more interesting than the character himself. Another central figure was Megan: a stereotypical badass, oozing sex appeal. I found the relationship between David and Megan puzzling – why would a woman that ‘perfect’ have time for a reckless teenage runaway? Other side characters were better, but also slightly one dimensional. 

Still, the fast-paced plot (and the setting! Oh the setting!) more than made up for the characters. Not to mention that the ending was action-packed, including a couple of well-telegraphed twists that were a pleasure to read. In conclusion? This was a very entertaining novel, and not just one for superhero devotees.

The Cover:

The British cover – meh. It shows the city from the distance, but you can’t tell that it’s steel (one of the most interesting things about it). The figure in the middle just screams superhero too; a definite turn-off for me, as I’ve never enjoyed comic books. The American cover has more personality. Sparks flying from a ripped-open steel wall, dramatic lighting, hints of the everlasting night. Although I don’t know who the central figure is meant to be – surely not our nerdy protagonist?