#69: The Farseer: Assassin’s Apprentice -Robin Hobb

Brief review inbound:
The first book of the Farseer trilogy was soundly in the OK territory for me. If i had more time to devote to reading i may continue into the other books, but for now i’ll let the first stand for my dip into this entry on the list of NPR’s Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy books.

The first quarter of the book was difficult for me to get through. It felt flowery and over written. The middle of the book settled into a pace that was much more agreeable. The last quarter of the book was pretty dang good. All the parts combined are what make the book OK for me instead of garnering a higher personal rating.

Hobb does an amazing job building political intrigue, and “The Wit” and “The Skill” are both very interesting takes on magic/telepathy. She builds a world that’s rich with history and social structure which is nice. My biggest obstacle was honestly just the style the book is written in.

Book Club of One Grade: C. It’s a solid one though. If you have a taste for purple prose you can’t go wrong with Hobb (that’s honestly NOT a stab at all, that’s a genuine statement from me). One day, when i’m semi-retired maybe, i might return to these books to see how everything plays out. Between the magicy-mental powers and people getting “forged” (you’ll have to read the book for an explanation on what that means) the concepts are really really good.

64:Jonathan Strange & Mr Norell by Susanna Clarke

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Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Just wrapped up Strange and Norell, which is the abbreviation of the title i’m going with. It’s a long title, and a very long book. It’s pretty well written and if you wish there was more magic in the works of Jane Austin you’ll likely love this one (LOTS of people do). But back to my point: It’s a very long book and to me it felt like a very long book.

i’ve expressed my struggles with long works of fiction in the past (though there have been a few long books i’ve read during this project that were amazing- Sanderson’s The Way of Kings for example) so it’s no surprise that i struggled more than a little to power through this book.

Other than the length my real complaint is that it feels like it always takes the longest way to get somewhere. The spark-notes on this book are probably very amazing and compelling!

Here’s what i really liked about it: flawed characters (i’m a sucker for a flawed protagonist)! More than that though, Clarke’s treatment of magic in her alternate world. Magic in her England is VERY VERY powerful, it’s also pretty dang weird and mysterious. i really like the unpredictable nature of the arcane that she built in her world.

The main characters were moderately interesting (Jonathan Strange and Gilbert Norris) but my favorite were John Childermass and the odd Vinculus. i was glad when near the end of the book they got more of the spotlight shone upon them.

Book Club of One Grade: C-. pretty well written, but soooooo loooooong…. If you’re into period work you may love it (i’m also pretty fond of Napoleonic era stuff- due to my deep love of the Aubrey/Maturin series, but even the time-setting didn’t save it for me). It’s not a bad piece of fiction by any measure but it’s a book i don’t forsee myself ever revisiting.

#66- Magician: Raymond E Feist

Magician: Raymond E Feist
Magician: Raymond E Feist

This series is much-loved by many, making several “top” lists. Maybe it just didn’t click with me…

The opener to Feist’s Riftwar series was a bit of a chore for me to power through. There were some moments, especially early on in the book, that gave me hope that things were going to gel between myself and the book… but it never came to fruition.

i felt like most of the characters were flat, filling archetype roles and not much else for me. The pacing seemed to drag on. It was a book filled with so many of the standard fantasy tropes that i just never really could engage with the story-line. \

The Tsurani were interesting, i wouldn’t mind to learn more about their culture and their war-like motivations, i’m just not sure i’m willing to read through two more books to get that information.

Magician isn’t a bad book at all (i know i’ve painted that picture of it). It’s just not as good as some of the other reads from NPR’s top 100 Sci-Fi and Fantasy novels of all time. It’s also not the worst i’ve read from the list so far (looking at you Sunshine!). All-in-all the best descriptor i have for it is “Meh”. i can see where someone could really fall in love with this world and the story, that someone just isn’t me.

Book Club of One grade: C-. If you really love the standard fantasy tropes grab a copy of this book. If you’re looking for something more in your fantasy reads, maybe look elsewhere. (The Way of Kings would be my most recent read i’d suggest.)

71: The Way of Kings -Brandon Sanderson

The Way Of Kings
The Way of Kings -Brandon Sanderson

If you needed to fortify your gates against an incoming horde and all you had were copies of this book… you’d be just fine! The Way of Kings is a CHUNK! Nearly as thick as it is wide. It’s like cracking open a great tome.

Often i find very lengthy books to be burdensome. (yet i’ll gladly gobble up a trilogy) They’re most often packed with fluff and flowery meaningless descriptors that pump that page count up. The Way of Kings is a hefty read, but it suffers from none of these issues.

What makes Sanderson’s novel different from so many other long fantasy novels? It’s long for a good reason: The pool that Sanderson has created for our imaginations to swim in is deep… i mean deeeeeep deeeeeeep. If it was a pool it’s not an olympic diving pool it’s more like the Deep Joy Y-40 (google it, totally worth the shallow dive into Wikipedia). He uses this depth to weave a dense story for us.

Also, unlike other long novels, the pacing manages to stay brisk. Rarely if ever feeling like it lags. He jumps between a few stories both of wich subtly build upon one another, not so much in interaction but in the knowledge of the world we the reader are gaining.

The world is rich and alien while still being understandable. Massive storms sweep across the land sporadically and all life on the world has adapted to survive them (that’s why vegetation withdraws into the earth, or protective shells, or lays down flat, etc etc etc). There are “magic”* swords, “magic”* armor, a sort of instantaneous transubstantiative alchemy, giant beasts, intriguing huminoid races….. Other than that i don’t think i’ll give any spoilers here.

Book Club of One grade: A+. It’s long, it’s dense, Characters fit into archetypes but in ways that feel refreshing. If you’re on the hunt for a big ol’ fantasy book, give this one a go.

 

*”Magic” in this book doesn’t feel like magic… it’s mysterious and handled more like a lost science. This is the first in the series so i’m excited to one day further my journey into this world and see how that unfolds.

#84: The Crystal Cave -Mary Stewart

The Crystal Cave
The Crystal Cave -Mary Stewart

 

The Crystal Cave follows the development of Merlin from the Arthurian mythos before he was THE MERLIN we all have ingrained into our imaginations. It follows his growth from a child into a young man.

The story has some twists and turns along the way, with Merlin fleeing multiple times for his life, establishing himself a few times by the cleverness of his mind and wraps up with him manipulating Uthur into treachery that will ultimately lead to the birth of Arthur, an event that Merlin has foreseen.

The book was well written and the characters compelling. It’s interesting how Stewart weaves fantasy with history in this book.

Book Club of One score: B-. It’s a solid book, actually one of my most enjoyable “Arthur books” (The Once and Future King being my all-time favorite of the genre). i found out that it’s part of a series, a series that i could one day see myself returning to. i think overall i enjoyed Stewart’s writing more than the content of the book. Her writing has a nice tempo and is nuanced and interesting to me. If you love Arthurian stuff and want some “prequel” action this could be your best bet!

Disenchantment: Netflix

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i’m a HUGE Futurama fan (but the Simpsons get a pretty solid “Meh” from me) so i was pretty excited when i found out that Netflix was releasing Disenchantment.

i rolled into the series with pretty high expectations, it looked like Futurama, it smelled like Futurama, but science and aliens were swapped for magic and magical creatures! It seemed like a real win for me!

So, the first several episodes felt pretty weak to me, and i was filled with disenchantment myself… but i pressed on. It’s only 10 episodes long. The characters were unlikeable-lovable, like so many of the Futurama gang. Plus episodes are only 24 minutes long so they make great fillers.

Here i was, plodding along… disillusioned… a little disappointed…  and then…. EPISODE 9!

In my opinion the first 8 episodes are all just set-up for episodes 9 & 10! They felt disjointed and random but suddenly… it all came together, like making whip cream or mayonnaise from scratch. You don’t see it coming, one second its just liquid and then BAM its there! i have pressed on to the final two episodes of season one and in those two episodes i went from “let’s just finish it so we can say we gave it a shot” to “How long until season two?”

i know it’s gotten mixed reviews from critics and fans, but this fan is now on board!

#80 Wicked -Gregory Maguire

Wicked
Wicked -Gregory Maguire

i rolled up to the Wicked party about 20 years late. To be honest it was a book i had judged by its cover for all those years. i would see it in a friends library, or on a bookstore shelf and something about the cover design just sort of repelled me. i can’t explain why (and if the graphic designer of that cover is ever one of the 5 people who actually reads this please don’t take this as a stab at your skillful work) but it just didn’t reach out to me.

i was also very much aware of the salacious nature of the book. Which should have been a draw for my depraved mind, but something about turning Baum’s magic fantasy world into something so gritty just felt wrong to me.

Wicked also falls into that vein of “Fan Fiction”: a writer delving into someone else’s universe instead of creating their own. A vein of writing i struggle to engage with.

 

On all of the above reticences let me just say… i was wrong. i was wrong to not pick this book up in the mid 90’s when the Wicked craze started. i was wrong to feel like the gritty nature was off-putting to the Oz universe. i was wrong to let my revulsion of fan-fic keep me from thumbing through these pages.

Wicked is an absolute blast to read! Elphaba may very well be one of my most favorite literary characters. She’s complex and relatable. She’s likable but far from perfect. She’s not a hero, or a villain, nor would i call her an anti-hero. Her character development arc is (in my opinion, which is what ALL of this is) one of the best i’ve ever seen.

Wicked is gritty, and complex, and violent, and sexual… and it is beautifully so! Maguire also manages to do all those things without writing a book that feels pretentious!

Book Club of One grade: A+. Wicked is one of the best books i’ve read this year. i will most likely explore more of Maguire’s Oz series as well. If, like me, you missed the bandwagon years ago, jump on board with me. i’ll save you a seat

#82 The Eyre Affair -Jasper Fforde

The Eyre Affair
The Eyre Affair -Jasper Fforde

Set in a alternate earth circa mid 1980’s The Eyre Affair is one of the funnest rides i’ve been on in a while. Packed with whimsy (where characters have names like “Tuesday Next” and “Jack Schitt”), a unique twist on fantasy (the lines between reality and literature are so thin they can be inadvertently crossed), and zany sci-fi elements (entertainingly often introduced by Tuesday’s uncle Mycroft)

Fforde cranks out a book that is equal parts fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, drama, & comedy. He manages to pull it off in a way that doesn’t feel like a jumbled mess either, but rather comes off as an engaging and entertaining read! If you ever feel like you’ve lost the thread of what’s going on in The Eyre Affair just hang on Fforde will bring all the threads back together again in such a rewarding way!

 

Book Club of One grade: rock solid B+. My only regret is that i didn’t save this one for a vacation read, it’s such fun that it would be a perfect fit for consumption during some down-time (if i see a vacation this year that is haha)

#33: Dragonflight -Anne McCaffrey

Dragonflight
Dragonflight -Anne McCaffrey

A pretty good romp overall! There’s a lot to like about Dragonflight for me. i had last read this book when i was a teenager… so nearly long enough for me to witness a second pass of the threads (which come in 200 year increments in the book… hyperbole, embrace it). There was so much i had forgotten, which made the re-read refreshing indeed.

Among the things i had forgotten: that Pern was founded by Earthlings in the future. Between being founded by a space-faring technologically advanced people and literally fliyng around on the backs of dragons in a feudalistic society Dragonflight is both Sci-Fi and Fantasy!

Characters feel solid and well developed. The spin that McCaffrey puts on dragons and dragon-kind is very interesting and really pulled me into the story. Telepathic and intelligent, with jewel-like compound eyes. They can still breathe fire like ye dragons of olde, but it requires them to chew “firestone” to do so. Most interesting (and plot significant) is the dragons’ ability to go “between” this allows them to teleport over long distances… and more!

If you’re looking for a fantasy that’s set in a very well-developed world, with interesting political caveats, developed characters, and a nice fresh spin on a fantasy staple (dragons) then pick up Dragonflight. Do keep in mind as you read that the pacing is pretty laid back throughout, up until the finale when things reach a crescendo!

 

Book Club of One Grade: B+ Once i adjusted to the slower pace of the book and just embraced it Dragonflight was a very enjoyable read overall, McCaffrey’s initial dive into the world of Pern gets a solid recommendation from me!

#89 Outlander – Diana Gabaldon

Outlander- Diana Gabaldon
Outlander… Steamier than the hot-bar at Golden Coral!

The tale of a post-WWII nurse who finds herself 200+ years back in time! Scottish highland shenanigans and political intrigue abound! Oh… and it’s a romance novel…

 

It’s my first dip into a real “romance novel”. Granted, i’ve read lots of books where romantic interests were front and center, even some books that if made into a movie would certainly fall into the category of “Chick-Flick” (spoiler: i LOVE a good chick flick! haha). “Real” romance novels use a lot of words like “Slippery”, and “Swollen”, and “Thrust”… There’s also the phrase, “He sheathed himself all the way to the base…” (that’s in there… double entendre intended)

Pardon me while i fan myself off! This is sexy stuff!

Also… it was super distracting for me. i’m all for healthy sexuality, heck i really enjoy healthy sexuality! But the constant jumps to sexy-time with steamy (granted creative) descriptors was just too much for me. Let me explain by not talking about The Sex: Epic battles are AMAZING, but if a novel spends too much time describing every sword-stroke and wound inflicted in flowery and creative language it eventually (by which i mean quickly) becomes a distraction to the story-line.

Outlander was pretty well written overall (even the gratuitous sexual encounters were written with some real skill). i really wanted to like Outlander. Characters with complex personal and political motivations. Strong(ish) female lead. Scotsmen!!! But alas it still never managed to grab me. Jamie felt like a perfect hero up until the end of the book. Claire was an engaging heroine, complex in her actions and reactions, but close to the end of the book  she pulls a stint as a seer-level insightful immersive psychologist… that really killed it for me.  There were hints at some cool fantasy elements that never really seemed to develop: a scene with a witch where something engaged with the lead character and a cameo by Nessie, but neither went anywhere and could have been removed without affecting the plot…

Outlander was also plagued by a villain with thin motivations. There was nothing likable about Captain Randall… An enemy with nothing likable is just not very engaging to me (even Satan himself knows how to party!).

 

After reading the first book i think i’m done with the series. If you want to read something that throbs, thrusts and swells but don’t want to check your brain at the door you can’t go wrong with Outlander… But if you’re looking for time travel fantasy that features a strong female lead go with Doomsday Book by Connie Willis.

Book Club of One grade: C-, see above if you’re wondering if you should read this. Written with skill but not my cup of steamy, sweaty, throbbing tea.