Bruce's Two-Way Reviews

Discussion in 'Non-WOT - Literature and Fiction' started by Bruce al'Kay, Jun 19, 2020.

  1. Bruce al'Kay

    Bruce al'Kay Accepted

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    So! Here's the idea with this thread. I like writing out my thoughts after I complete something because it helps me figure out what I thought about it, and for anyone who's interested, maybe my reviews will help you decide if you want to check something else out as well.

    But Bruce, what the heck is a "two way" review? Well, spoilers are very controversial in my friend group. One of my best friends and I are generally ok with some spoilers (though no big "twists"). One of my other best friends is adamantly against spoilers, down to not wanting to know about anything that happens even in the first chapter. So: each review will have a first, spoiler-free assessment, and a second plot and character analysis with some general spoilers (but again, no twists, and generally nothing that isn't established early on in the book).

    Please feel free to follow along and discuss books in here. Especially feel free to recommend me books! In this first post, I'll be linking the posts of all my reviews so that I (and others) can jump to whatever reviews we're looking for.

    Completed Reviews
    An Unkindness of Magicians - Kat Howard
    The Poppy War - R.F. Kuang
    Lies of Locke Lamora - Scott Lynch
    Red Sister - Mark Lawrence

    Rating System
    Outstanding and Important: :ha
    Loved the Book: :omg
    A fun romp: :yes
    I don't know what to think about this: :what
    This is... bad. Do not recommend: :\

    Reviews on Deck
    Warbreaker - Brandon Sanderson

    Currently Reading (Fiction)
    Love in the Time of Cholera - Gabriel García Márquez

    Books in the Queue
    A Single Man - Christopher Isherwood
    City of Stairs - Robert Jackson Bennett
    The Stone Sky - N.K. Jemisin
    The Bone Doll’s Twin - Lynn Flewelling
    Way of Kings - Brandon Sanderson (attempt #2)
    The Blade Itself - Joe Abercrombie (Re-Read)
    A Memory Called Empire - Arkady Martine
    The Dragon Republic - RF Kuang

    Interested In
    Girls of Paper and Fire - Natasha Ngan
    Summer Bird Blue - Akemi Dawn Bowman
    The Secret History - Donna Tartt

    Did Not Finish
    Babylon's Ashes - James S. A. Corey
     
    Last edited: Oct 11, 2020
  2. Arella Mathara

    Arella Mathara Accepted

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    I have read some of them, and some are on my tbr-list. This will be fun to follow :joy

    You do audiobooks, right? The audiobook for First Law is the best I've ever heard. Steven Pacey is amazing
     
  3. Bruce al'Kay

    Bruce al'Kay Accepted

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    Yes, I do audiobooks! Almost exclusively, because of my work. I actually did hard-read The Blade Itself the first time through though, so I'm really excited to hear that you like the narrator for that one!

    Glad you'll be following :D
     
  4. Bruce al'Kay

    Bruce al'Kay Accepted

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    An Unkindness of Magicians
    Summary: A plot-driven low fantasy, I felt pretty mixed about Magicians. It was certainly not something I feel the need to re-read. I didn't feel there was much that was innovative in the book (with one exception that I'll discuss in the Spoiler section), though Howard's description of magic can be surprisingly rich.
    Strengths: Descriptions of magic and the way magic happens, as I referenced above. Basically, if you like flashy magic scenes, low-key mystery, and political maneuvering, you will like this book.
    Weaknesses: Dialogue. Some of the worst, most stilted dialogue I've read, especially early on. Some characters are guiltier of this than others. I almost want to include character development as a weakness, but it isn't like the characters are underdeveloped.
    Overall: :what
    Basically - if you just like magic (which is totally fine), I think you will like this book. It's very gritty, with a sort of dystopian feel (as the title might suggest), and magic is prominent. I think that one can make an argument that there's a broader message worked in, but I can't really get into it until the spoiler section below.

    So. Here we go.

    Synopsis: Set in current-day New York City from what I can tell, Magicians is about "the unseen world" - a world in which magic is real. It exists alongside our own world, and is navigated by Magicians (and specifically not wizards). Magicians belong to "Houses," (and incidentally, I think the Houses are one of Howard's more innovative aspects) hereditary organizations with their own reputations and political standing within the unseen world. The book begins with the introduction of the next "turning" - a tournament which happens roughly once every generation, and in which the various houses can increase or decrease their standing (or potentially be "unmade" altogether). The turning itself is also pretty cool in terms of motivating our characters - it's one of the things I liked best about the book.

    Spoiler-y Opinions: I have a lot of thoughts and feels about Magicians as you can probably tell. I did like a lot of the descriptions of magic in the book, from how characters cast, to the descriptions of the effects. But here's the thing: Magicians are almost universally terrible people. We learn very early on in the book that violence and domination is a part of magic. I think that there are arguments to be made that this violence and the terrible nature of how Magicians use magic is the overarching message, but I'm not comfortable putting that much info on the whole book out there (even in spoilers). If you do read the book (or have read it) and want to discuss, by all means let's jam on this.

    I also feel that the author sets up these massive conflicts in the book, but then the resolution to those conflicts seems so trivial at the end. It feels cheap and too easy. One of the main characters' (if not the main character) background is reckoned with in the span of five minutes' worth of audio, for instance. I'm simplifying it a little bit here, but it was very unsatisfying for me personally.

    The ending, overall, was fine. I think that they reckoned well with power creep, and it it was tense, but concluded well.

    I probably wouldn't read this again, although I hear that Howard is considering making Magicians into a series. I might read a sequel after a bit of a break.
     
  5. Jocasta Braithe

    Jocasta Braithe Novice Game Master

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    Lies of Locke Lamora is AMAZING, Bruce. You'll love it. If you like good dialogue, you're in for a real treat.
     
  6. Jocasta Braithe

    Jocasta Braithe Novice Game Master

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    Recommendation: The Bone Doll's Twin by Lynn Flewelling. She's rather obviously exploring gender and I don't think by current standards she gets everything right but I think it's a relevant read and a serious attempt at exploring the subject through fantasy. Also one of my first exposures to the subject when I was still very sheltered, so deeply personally meaningful to me. Not that that's a factor for you, but I try to do some word of mouth advertising for Flewelling because she opened my eyes to new worlds in reality as well as fantasy.
     
  7. Bruce al'Kay

    Bruce al'Kay Accepted

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    ooh, awesome! I’ve heard conflicting things about the book but dialogue is one of the things that make a book shine for me. I think it’s related to the fact that good dialogue stands out more on audiobook? Not sure.


    Oh wow! Going on the list for sure! Thank you for the rec!
     
  8. Jocasta Braithe

    Jocasta Braithe Novice Game Master

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    The audiobook narrator for LoLL is FANTASTIC.
     
  9. Elia LePhant

    Elia LePhant Aes Sedai

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    Oooo what a fun thread idea! :D I'll definitely be following along.
     
  10. Bruce al'Kay

    Bruce al'Kay Accepted

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    Oooh, exciting! The Poppy War is excellent so far.

    Yay!
     
  11. Bruce al'Kay

    Bruce al'Kay Accepted

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    The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang
    So, I already have to violate the premise of this thread and put a spoiler in the non-spoiler section in order to make sure nobody gets hurt: this book has a lot of graphic violence in it. If reading descriptions of atrocities will distress you, you should not read this book.

    That's the only spoiler outside of tags. To business then:

    Summary: I think I would call this a balanced narrative? There's plenty of plot and action, but also a huge character arc for the protagonist here. It's high fantasy, but in a really refreshing way. This is not a re-skinned Europe where the protagonists are basically white and the "norm"/"common tongue" is miraculously English. As Book One in a trilogy, I found the conclusion satisfying while still clearly setting up the sequel. As for the sequel, I will definitely be reading (/listening) to it at some point, but due to some of the violence I mentioned above, I feel like I need a palate cleanser first, so I'm going to be moving on to a few other things.

    Strengths: As referenced above, the world is totally different from most high fantasy published today. Kuang challenges tropes all too present in modern fantasy - especially the epic hero/chosen one trope. And, despite the challenging violence described in the book, there is a clear message that I found meaningful and important.

    Weaknesses: As with so many dark fantasy books, it's hard to like many of the central characters in the book with a few notable exceptions whom I did come to identify with and "cheer on." Really, there are very few weaknesses to nitpick here. If I had to mention something else, it would be that some of the more fantastical elements in the world seem a tiny bit underdeveloped - especially when coming from the Wheel of Time fandom.

    Overall: :ha
    This is easily one of my favorite new series' of the last several years - only The Broken Earth trilogy really competes for that top slot in my mind. Kuang deals in difficult topics here, and she isn't shy about conveying her point of view on the issues in question. Truly, if you can abide the violent episodes, I think this is a outstanding book for any fantasy lover.

    Synopsis: Set in a fictional empire called Nikara, The Poppy War has been described by Kuang as an analogy for the Second Sino-Japanese War. The most disturbing and graphic chapter is based upon the 1937 "Rape of Nanjing," which should give you an idea of the level of violence that you should expect in reading the book. The story begins by introducing us to Fang Runin - or Rin for short. Rin is a precocious orphan teenager who has been fostered for as long as she can remember by despicable opium smugglers. Forced to help the Fangs in their drug dealing, Rin has led a difficult but survivable life until the beginning of the story.

    All of that changes when the Fangs announce plans to marry her off to a Nikara customs official who will look the other way on their operation. Desperate to avoid the forced marriage, Rin convinces the village tutor to give her lessons in an attempt to pass the Keju: the equivalent of an academy entrance exam designed to find Nikara's best students and place them in prestigious institutions of higher learning. Her struggle to escape from the manipulation of the Fangs sets Rin's path - and the events of The Poppy War - in motion.

    Spoiler-y Opinions: Although I couldn't say so above, I have to say here that I believe the violence described in this book serves a deep and important purpose. The Poppy War is a blistering indictment of the perspective that those "other" or "different" from oneself are somehow less than human; that atrocities committed in the name of self-defense or revenge are somehow acceptable. In a sense, it is a condemnation of war itself. Where other high fantasy novels - perhaps especially The Wheel of Time saga - glorify martial prowess and strength in battle, Kuang painstakingly contradicts that trope in ways that literally drew gasps from me as a reader.

    In terms of writing style, Kuang's prose is unadorned, yet somehow beautiful in its simplicity. The narrative is easy to follow intellectually, although the emotional work of reading (especially in the latter third of the book) is difficult.

    I find that I have run out of interesting things to say, except perhaps for this: The Poppy War has been one of the most rewarding books I have read in recent memory.
     
  12. Bruce al'Kay

    Bruce al'Kay Accepted

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    The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch
    A few gruesome bits in this one as well, but not nearly so intense as the Poppy War, above.

    Summary: This definitely feels character-driven to me. We don't have a ton of internal debate and emotion, but we do see a fair amount from some of the main characters. And while the plot isn't lacking for me, per se, this is a story about a group of friends and their schemes. The setting is decently original, I would say, and I had a fun time imagining the city - it was practically a character as well, in my opinion. Definitely high fantasy in that regard. This is yet another series that I have begun, with the latest volume coming out just this year, and putting the series at 4 books so far.

    Strengths: As @Jocasta Braithe suggested, the dialogue really is fantastic in this book. I love the banter amongst the main characters, and even the side characters/antagonists have some great lines. It made the audiobook truly enjoyable, for sure. (side note: I think the narrator for the audiobook was fantastic, but I played a bit of it for my friend, and he was like, "that is so far over the top." I can see what he was saying, but a) I think you get used to it, and b) the characters are hamming it up for most of the series, so it seemed appropriate. Anyway. If you're into audiobooks, try before you buy.) Additionally, Lynch's foreshadowing is on point for much of the book. There were about a half-dozen moments when listening where I was like, "YOU SET ME UP!" Honestly, in some places, it felt like the book was written backwards in order to get to a conclusion, but beautifully so.

    Weaknesses: Not a lot to mention here except that the protagonist is definitely arrogant and can be detestable in some scenes, for sure. In the end, I was rooting for him despite not loving how he handled stuff, but I can totally see people being exhausted by Locke. I would also say that although I loved the names and the setting, the geography of the city is impossible to remember or follow along with in my head (possibly exacerbated by the audiobook thing; if I had a hard copy I would just flip to the map I'm sure is included). But the city itself plays a large role in the story, and so this was annoying from time to time. I will also say that the dual-narrative structure of the novel can be distracting, but not exceedingly so.

    Overall: :omg

    Even though this is a category above "a fun romp," I think that's still an apt descriptor here. I will definitely be continuing with the series as I adore the prose and vocabulary and just gall of the main characters. The one thing I will say against the book is that I don't feel it changed my perspectives on life or fantasy in any real way, but sometimes that's just what the dog leech ordered. :look

    In The Lies of Locke Lamora, the eponymous protagonist leads a gang of con artists in a city called Camorr. Obviously based on late medieval Venice, Camorr is a sprawling labyrinth of canals, floating revels, nobility and peasantry. As referenced above, the setting itself is really alive in the novel, with gladiator-style shark battles in some of the city's main canal waterways, temples to a pantheon of frightening (and sometimes hilarious) gods, and evocative place names like the Palace of Patience. Magic does exist in this world, but it is shadowy, dark, and little understood by our main characters. One person online described magic as "a thing that happens to the characters, not a thing that they make happen," and I find that apt.

    Locke, a genius actor and mastermind of the gang's schemes, begins the tale as a child that is being haggled over. We hear tales of his childhood exploits, and learn that despite his life of crime, he is a mostly good person - Chaotic Good, to be sure, but he regrets mistakes and would prefer not to hurt anyone - unless they deserve it. Still, his arrogance and his knowledge that he is "cleverer than everyone else" prove to be major weaknesses that his foes exploit throughout the course of the novel in sometimes satisfying (and sometimes heart-wrenching) ways.

    I loved Lies. The prose is rich and the vocabulary is advanced - I went to the dictionary more reading this book more than I have in quite a while, which is refreshing for me, but can be annoying for some. But Lynch is the rare author who is clever enough to portray that trait authentically in his characters. That alone would have made Lies worth reading, but it's layered over a wonderful setting with lovable characters whose trials and tribulations - as I say above - had me rooting for them to the end, even (and perhaps especially) when they didn't handle things the way I would have.
     
  13. Lenore Carvoe

    Lenore Carvoe Aes Sedai

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    Some help for you imagination, Bruce: Maps of Locke Lamora's world. Be careful to not spoiler yourself, though.

    I still don't believe, we'll finally get to read the fourth book. We had several publishing dates over several years ...
     
  14. Bruce al'Kay

    Bruce al'Kay Accepted

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    Oh, thank you! And, I'm sorry if that was misleading - the googles just told me that the release date on book 4 is 2020 so I assumed it was out this year lol.
     
  15. Bruce al'Kay

    Bruce al'Kay Accepted

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    Red Sister, by Mark Lawrence
    Summary: I feel like I start literally all of these out with "a character-driven..." but that's what I've been reading lately, so. Red Sister is a character-driven high-fantasy. The worldbuilding is pretty light here, but definitely very interesting nonetheless. The environment of the world is certainly unique amongst fantasy that I've encountered recently, although I wouldn't say it is a main feature of the story. The protagonist is extremely compelling for me personally, and a very unique take on the Heroine/chose-one trope. This is, somewhat unfortunately, yet another series from which I've read just a single book, so I've got that going for me. There are some very interesting gestures towards a pretty unique magic system, but because it appears pretty rarely, it's not super well-developed.

    Perspective Notes: This is a thing that I'm adding from here on out: the main character has a really unique perspective on life which I dive into more fully in the spoiler section. Suffice it to say here that I appreciated reading a protagonist who is very different from myself.

    Strengths: The first two-thirds of the book are incredible. I adored the protagonist and her budding friendships, as well as the examination of class and socio-economic status within the fantasy world that Lawrence has created. Lawrence has a way of using characters engaging in storytelling that, if done poorly, could have backfired spectacularly, but for me it really resonated and enhanced his narrative. I also listened to this on Audiobook and while the narrator's accent was a touch difficult to understand at first, I did get into it and appreciated the style by the end. I know I said already that this is character-driven, but... like this one is even more character driven than most. I would not read this book for the plot. I will read the rest of the stories to find out what happens to the protagonist in particular as well as the secondary characters. As I read back over my review of Lies of Locke Lamora, I can't help but contrast these books in my mind. I was rooting for the protagonist here because of who she is and understanding why she made her choices rather than the events set in motion by those actions.

    Weaknesses: While the world itself felt unique, the novel itself is not exceedingly original in its plot, structure, or the tropes that it definitely does employ. All of the main themes of the book have been explored before (though see strengths above - it is nice to see them explored from a different kind of perspective). The events of the story felt relatively low-stakes to me until the very end, and even the resolution of the final conflict, while somewhat violent and laden with rich imagery, seemed predictable. Finally, the Prologue and the first line of the book sets up an incredible tension that is never really "paid off" or dealt with very well, in my opinion.

    Overall: :yes+

    I enjoyed Red Sister tremendously, and like I said above, I'm certainly going to read more from Lawrence in this series specifically. It's just that the tropes and the plot of the novel don't break any new ground for me personally.

    Okay I've been tiptoeing around this so far, and the reason I've done that is because it was very interesting and impactful for me to discover it piece by piece in the novel. Nona Grey is the main character of Red Sister, and she falls somewhere on the higher-functioning autistic/Asperger's syndrome scale. (This was something I strongly suspected for myself while reading, then confirmed via the author's blog after I finished the book.) Her internal struggles to connect with others and to define what it means to be someone's "friend" were tremendously impactful for me. I have never read a book (fantasy, fiction, or otherwise) that features someone with that disorder so prominently. In my opinion, although I'm no expert and I have no firsthand experience, I believe Lawrence does an exemplary job with Nona's portrayal.

    Nona's origins are shrouded in grisly mystery, with a dark and painful backstory that is only alluded to vaguely in the first half of the book. Initially, she is sold to a traveling child-trafficker, who buys up children from rural communities and brings them back to the capital to sell. She struggles to connect with the other children in the cage on the back of her captor's cart, several of whom disappear as they are sold, only to reappear later on. When she is sold to a gladiatorial fighting master, she makes her first friend - an incredibly important concept for her which seems almost mystical in its significance. Her defense of her friends - even at great personal cost - becomes a major theme of Red Sister. Eventually, Nona makes her way to Sweet Mercy Convent where she is initiated into their order: a sisterhood of nuns who study religion, learn mystical energies and powers, train as assassins, and make wine to sell on the side. As referenced above, although this isn't the first spin on Hogwarts and Warrior Nuns that I've seen, it is certainly still well done.

    As for that setting, the world of Red Sister is in an advancing ice age. Humanity has been pushed to a narrow trench along the equator of the planet while encroaching glacial walls loom to both the North and South. This is alluded to early on, then overtly explained in Nona's first class at the convent.

    Reading this first entry in the Book of the Ancestor series is like hearing a familiar story told from someone who speaks another language. Their priorities, their ground-level understandings, and their style of speaking are totally foreign, and yet somehow you can understand them. It's probably a little to "pat myself on the back" to say that, but it's how I felt after reading. I loved watching Nona overcome her struggle to understand why the people around her were acting the way they were, and then finally explicitly agree with them to define their relationship as "friends."