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 Social Marketing Manager

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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

    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
    American Gods - Neil Gaiman

    Currently Reading (Fiction)
    The Eye of the World - Robert Jordan (Re-Read)
    Babylon's Ashes - James S. A. Corey
    Lies of Locke Lamora - Scott Lynch

    Books in the Queue
    Red Sister - Mark Lawrence
    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)

    Interested In
    The City We Became - N.K. Jemisin
    Girls of Paper and Fire - Natasha Ngan
    Summer Bird Blue - Akemi Dawn Bowman
    The Secret History - Donna Tartt
    The Dragon Republic - R.F. Kuang
     
    Last edited: Jul 22, 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 Social Marketing Manager

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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 Social Marketing Manager

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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 Forum Moderator 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 Forum Moderator 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 Social Marketing Manager

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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 Forum Moderator Game Master

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

    Elia LePhant Aes Sedai Historian

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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 Social Marketing Manager

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

    Yay!
     
  11. Bruce al'Kay

    Bruce al'Kay Accepted Social Marketing Manager

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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.