Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Inalienable Rights of Dragons, Everywhere

Man, it's been a while since I've posted something. Oops. Seriously, I've meant to put something up, but … yeah. Sorry.

Now that that's out of the way (and hopefully the apology's accepted, not that I really need one), it's review time! This week it's not a book, but a series, and a series I'm three books behind in to boot. But it's entirely and absolutely made of awesome, so I'm going to tell you about it anyway.

Also, please, if you've read these books, no spoilers. All I know of books 5–7 is what's on their back covers, which are, predictably, non-commital as to plot and such-like. I'd like to keep it that way.

I picked up the first book in the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik because I needed something to read, it was in the library, and I'd vaguely heard it was good. Also because it had dragons, and I'm a sucker for dragons. Some people go for fairies or mermaids or werewolves. I go for dragons.* It was a really good read, but not a great enough one to compel me to the nearest library/bookstore for the second book. But eventually I ended up in front of Throne of Jade in a bookstore and, through fond memories, bought it. The way Novik expanded on the world, characters, and themes of the first book hooked me and I've been reading roughly a book a year ever since.**

The premise of the series is this: Captain William Laurence of the Royal Navy captures a French ship that's transporting a dragon's egg to Napoleon. The egg hatches before Laurence's ship reaches England and the hatchling imprints on Laurence. Laurence and Temeraire, the dragon, are drafted into the Aerial Corps, which means culture shock (the Corps is permissive compared to the Navy), a steep learning curve, distrust on both sides, and the requisite thrilling aerial battles. Every book takes place in a different area of the world, so we see how different cultures deal with having tamed and/or domesticated dragons. Which is utterly fascinating, but not why I've come to love the series. 

I love the series because it's about a proper, upper-class British citizen (and a dragon) discovering human rights and becoming rights activists. Except for "human", I mean "dragon". The way Novik's coaxed Laurence from "dragons are brute animals" to "dragons are sentient beings and deserve better than we're treating them" is fantastic, subtle, and fascinating. And I'm three books behind! Novik writes Laurence's point-of-view so convincingly that more often than not, I didn't notice anything was "wrong" about the treatment of dragons until Laurence did. And then I was as shocked and appalled as he was, though I'm not sure I can credit that to Novik's writing quite so much. I think that's more a "decent person" thing. Ditto my rooting for Laurence and Temeraire to prevail as activists.

Novik's obviously put a lot of thought and research into the alternate history, from how air forces would change military battles, to how the different cultures treat dragons and how having dragons has changed those cultures, to how the Aerial Corps is structured and how Laurence doesn't quite fit in there due to his naval background. I keep thinking "Of course they'd do that" and "Now that's interesting!" and I love when books blow my mind that way. That's what speculative fiction should do all the time.

Which is not to say the world-building is without fault. I read somewhere—though of course don't remember where now—a criticism that the world should be more different if everyone's had tame dragons since Roman times, that it's more like Novik's dropped dragons into the early 19th century Europe of our timeline. I don't know enough about history to contest that. And there's also been criticism (said to me, personally) that the punctuation is neither modern-day or period appropriate, to which I say, "Quibbles! It works for me!" But if you're going to be thrown out of the story by a mis-used semi-colon, consider yourself warned. Also things tend to fall out in Laurence and Temeraire's favour***, but hey, that's simple Protagonist Syndrome. Otherwise, as far as I'm concerned, the books are pretty much perfect.

To say anything further would spoil the books for you guys. I hope I've convinced you to check out the series (it starts with His Majesty's Dragon, a.k.a. Temeraire). I've nearly convinced myself to start the next book already, even though I have so much else I want to be reading right this second.

No, seriously, go read these books. I mean it.

* Also fairies, but the vaguely creepy, morally grey ones of folklore, rather than the twee things from new age stores and Disney movies.
** I don't like reading series books back-to-back very often, because I feel they lose some of their flavour.
*** But not always, and they don't always get the easy road to success either.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Without Batman's Help

The Major Crimes Unit of the Gotham Police Department deals with the same stuff any MCU deals with—except that where most cops only have to handle run-of-the-mill thugs, thieves, and murders, the Gotham PD have to deal with the Joker, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, and Catwoman. And, of course, they want to do it alone, without Batman's help.

I'm a sucker for police dramas and procedurals. I'm a sucker for superheroes. How could I not pick up Gotham Central? I'm glad I did, too. The writing's fantastic. (I'm not an artist so can't/won't comment on the art, except to say it does what it needs to.) The book ended too quickly, in the sense of "but, but, why can't there be more" rather than, "that didn't get tied up well." It was definitely tied up well.

The first trade paperback of the series, a.k.a. the only one I've read so far because I'm trying not to buy every book in the universe at the moment, comprises two distinct stories, each focusing on a different detective and introducing us to the dynamics of the MCU. The stories pull you on as you get sucked into the characters and their problems, and provide a few good "Omigosh no! That can't happen!" moments*. The writing is so tight the book feels like it should be longer, considering how much is in there. The dialogue is the kind of punchy you'd expect from a good TV show, but sounds human. I've read comics, and even novels, where everyone sounds similar, as if there's only one way to write a line of dialogue. That's not the case here. I knew who the characters were from their first pages, if not their first line, and even when I couldn't see them, I knew who was speaking. To say any more about the book here would mean spoiling the plot of the stories, and where's the fun in that?

I thoroughly enjoyed the first trade of Gotham Central and am looking forward to picking up the next, whenever that happens. I want to stay with these characters as they drive around Gotham trying to stop supervillains with guns and procedure and the law. I want to know what happens to them. I want it to be good things. And I want you, if you're at all interested, to pick up the series too. You won't be disappointed.

* One of the signs of a Good Read for me is the ability of a story to do that.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Faustus Resurrectus, or, An Experiment

So I think I'm going to try rebooting this blog again. Third time's the charm, right? After my post the other day my mom pointed out that I don't have to talk about my writing woes or my process or anything from the writer side of the book biz. I can simply review the books I read and the films I watch. (Possibly also TV shows? We shall see.) I've posted reviews on this site before, after all, and it's certainly something I'm comfortable talking doing, considering it's part of my dayjob. And I read a lot of good books that we either don't stock at work or couldn't sell well enough to justify stocking them if I brought them in. I have to get people to read those books somehow, right?

Here's the deal, then. Whenever I read or watch something I think should get a wider audience or is just plain good, I'll write a review of it. I don't promise any of the following:

  • set times between posts
  • sticking to any genre, though science fiction and fantasy will dominate
  • the recency of the book (or film) — I read books published in the last couple years and books published hundreds of years ago
  • sticking to this review thing for any length of time, though of course the positive feedback of comments will help me keep going (hint hint)
  • reviewing everything I read or watch, because negative reviews aren't much fun to read or write and I have other things to do besides write long, though-out reviews

Fair enough? Good.

First book up is the first book I finished in 2013, though I started it shortly after Christmas. It's from a smaller press so hasn't gotten the same level of coverage as a book from one of the Big Six-Nearly-Five, and I found it gripping and refreshingly different from most of the urban fantasies I read.

Thomas Morrissey, Night Shade Books, 2012

Donovan Graham, recent M.A. in philosophy specializing in the occult, has built a pretty good life for himself. He bartends. He's all set to start his Ph.D. in the fall. He's close friends with his former thesis advisor. He's about to propose to the woman sharing his New York apartment. It's when he offers to help his advisor consult on a case with the NYPD that things start getting weird and dangerous. Satanic killer who may have the right rituals weird and dangerous.

This is certainly a much more horrific book than most of the urban fantasy I've read, even the series I'd point to as creepy. Morrissey doesn't shy away from blood, guts, human sacrifice, and madness. I actually had to put the book down a couple times because "ohgodohgod those poor people, that is urk"—note that mine is not a constitution suited to slasher films—but that's okay since I picked the book up again a couple minutes later to keep going. It's incredibly suspenseful—starts slow and builds, and when you think it's going to stop building, that we finally know what the bad guy's after, you look at the page count and realize that a) it's going to get even worse and b) you have no idea what's going to happen. Except that there's no chance of it being good. It's rare for a book to raise the stakes so much and so well that I genuinely doubt that anyone's getting out of the climax intact.

Donovan himself is another nice departure from the norm. He's entirely human and, while he's working with the police, he's not law enforcement per se. He's not broken like a lot of urban fantasy protagonists, either—you know, the ones who have addictions, dysfunctional relationships, PTSD, or are otherwise self-destructive. He's confident, driven, and knows what he wants from life. He can handle himself in a fight, sure, but his victories come from his brain, not his brawn. As a result of all that, I ended up rooting for Donovan a lot more than I've rooted for most urban fantasy protagonists, who generally have either more supernatural advantages or less to lose or both. (I rooted for a lot of the secondary characters too, including some of the less despicable bad guys. Everyone had fascinating dynamics with each other too, and felt realistic.)

The premise of the story, the villain and the goal he's working towards, are also fairly novel. There's urban fantasy about vampires, werewolves, demons, angels, fairies, ghosts, and the like all over the place these days, drawing from all kinds of traditions, but there isn't much that tackles Christianity in any aspect and this is the first book I've seen deal with the Faust legend at all. I think that factored into my need to keep reading, because I knew enough about the legend to kind of predict where the book was going, but not enough to really be certain. 

Of course, this is Morrissey's first novel and there are some moments where the writing is less good than others. I mean, the characterisation, description, scenes, plotting, etc. were all quality, but every so often there was a scene or a moment within a scene that was a little uneven, or a little too convenient re: keeping the plot moving. There were some things that I felt could've been shown better rather than told to the reader, too. None of that ruined the story for me or even particularly drew me out of the moment, though, and I have high hopes for the sequel. The world has potential, the characters are compelling, and I have absolutely no idea how Morrissey's going to match the level of suspense the next time round. Now I just need to keep my eyes open for a release date….

Thursday, January 3, 2013

2012 Reading Recap

So I have two traditions on this blog: a New Year's resolution to actually write it regularly for a whole year, and writing a post around New Year's itself about the best books I read in the past year (and kind of summing up the year at the same time). As you can probably tell by the time stamp on my previous post, I … kind of didn't manage that first resolution last year. At all. And since I've utterly lost the blogging spirit, I'm not even going to try to start the blog up again.* But I still want to do the These Books Are Awesome post so here goes.

Last year I read 55 books for the first time, and did two re-reads, for a total of 57 books. This year, I read 63 books for the first time, and reread 6, since I'm counting The Lord Of The Rings as three books. That gives me a total of 69 books, my personal best since I started tracking my reads in high school. I hope to do even better in 2013.

What do you mean, normal people don't make lists of books they've read? I reject your reality and substitute my own.

2012 is the Year of Britain. Not only did I go there (see previous posts), but I ended up reading a tonne of fiction set in England, much of it steampunk. Seventeen books, to be exact, including four that I read basically back to back over the two months that included my England trip. I had to consciously choose non-British books for a while after that.

I both did and didn't do better with my reading habits in 2012. I keep promising myself I'll read more literary and/or non-genre adult fiction and once again I ended up reading a grand total to two adult books that weren't science fiction, fantasy, or mystery. I did, however, read more young adult, graphic novels, and non-fiction than the past couple years, so there's that, at least.

Best Science Fiction: Blackout and All Clear, by Connie Willis
Best Urban Fantasy: Sixty-One Nails, by Mike Shevdon
Best Non-Urban Fantasy: The Alphabet of Thorn, by Patricia Mckillip
Best Superhero: Alias, vol. 1, by Brian Michael Bendis
Best Steampunk: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, by Alan Moore
Best Horror: The Twelve, by Justin Cronin
Best Graphic Novel: The Unwritten, vol. 1, by Mike Carey
Best Young Adult: The Hunger Games, by Susanne Collins
Best Middle Grade: The Peculiar, by Stefan Bachmann
Best Mystery: Cross Bones, by Kathy Reichs
Best Non-Genre Adult Fiction: The Iliad, by Homer
Best Anthology: Shine, by Jetse de Vries
Best Non-Fiction: The Elegant Universe, by Brian Greene

A fair number of the books above were tough decisions. I also enjoyed and highly recommend Ashes of Honor by Seanan Mcguire; Here, There Be Dragons by James A. Owen; The Fault in Our Stars by John Green; Passage by Connie Willis; Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? by Jesse Bering; Whispers Underground by Ben Aaronovitch; and Vicious Circle by Mike Carey. (Note that I've thrown Good Omens, American Gods, The Hobbit, and LOTR out of the running on account of they'd probably win everything if I didn't.)

In 2012 non-book news, I visited England for a week, as previously mentioned; I changed jobs and moved house, though I'm in the same city; and I finally got the first part of my novel "finished", for a given definition of the word. It's complete enough I feel I can move on, anyway. For those of you tracking my progress on this novel, the first part is what was once the whole book and now I have to write new stuff. Yeah. The less said, the better. I'm starting to despair this will ever be finished. Also that I've lost my writing mojo. Hopefully this is an end-of-the-year, start-of-the-year worry and things'll get better with time.**

What's new with you? Got any book recommendations for me? Not that I need any more…

* The periodic sciency post notwithstanding
** And please, please let voicing my worries not blacklist me with agents, editors, and publishing houses.