Showing posts with label novels. Show all posts
Showing posts with label novels. Show all posts

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Go Read The Goblin Emperor Addison's The Goblin Emperor is a coming-of-age story set in an Elfland empire during a time of airships and mechanical clocks. The titular Emperor – an outcast youngest son – finds himself not only unprepared for a position none thought he would inherit, but beset on all sides by opposition fueled by class, race, sexism, ambition, misinformation, ignorance, greed, tradition, and every other force acting on the empire and those who shape its future. The story's scope slowly broadens from one boy's bewilderment to an enormous intrigue involving the Empire's relations with foreign nations, the internecine competition within the Empire, political disputes over infrastructure development, and a host of prejudices.

Why You Want To Read The Goblin Emperor

The Goblin Emperor depicts an empire entangled in a complex web of internal politics, personal pride, public corruption, conflicting philosophy, international tensions, technological innovations, family ties, social customs, class division, economic competition, educational divides, and imperial traditions. The author weaves ignorance, greed, and hatred into a rich tapestry; opponents can't simply be murdered off or dismissed because many of them are perfectly good people in need of a few true facts.  The protagonist must choose whether to surrender or fight every time he's confronted, and the reader learns who he is by the battles he picks.  Along the way, he teaches himself and those about him who he is.  (At least, those who bother to look.)

Told in close-third, The Goblin Emperor follows Maia's ascent – from an ignorant boy under the fist of an exiled drunken bully, to a minority-race Emperor surrounded by courtiers who would happily see him sink into a soft life as prisoner in an imperial residence.  By actively involving himself to ensure the competent investigation of last emperor's death in an airship wreck, Maia makes himself  the target of those whose last assassination brought him to the throne.  Maia isn't drawn into defending all his dead father's policies, but he's brought to discover just what a complex world he's joined.

The prejudices that drive so much of the conflict in The Goblin Emperor aren't trite character tags, but plausible-seeming convictions as variable as the characters are diverse. As characters learn more from each other, the reader learns which quickly abandon false ideas, and which cling to their views despite the facts like the small-souled bigots the author clearly intends them to be.  Maia distinguishes himself not because he's got a magic wand (he's useless at magic) or because he was born to fulfill some great prophesy (he was born to die in exile). He also doesn't distinguish himself as a warrior (he gets the worst of every physical confrontation).  His distinguishing characteristic is that he possesses and maintains his humanity.  The coming of age story culminates not with a coronation or a marriage but with a decision to do something big for the people he rules despite the headwinds he faces getting it off the ground: he makes good on something that matters to strangers.

Traditional Jaded Consumer Content Alert

The Jaded Consumer generally includes a note or two on aspects of a reviewed work for readers whose peculiar sensitivities may be upset by some otherwise innocuous aspect of a fictional work.  For example, some readers may be sensitive to the appearance of genuine belief in real-world religions, such as appears in Eliza Crewe's Cracked.  In Steven Brust's and Skyler White's The Incrementalists, the Jaded Consumer noted a reader would find politicsMyke Cole's Shadow Ops series offers optimism about the human condition.  Naturally, none of these are fatal. A reader with the certain senstitivities may be, shall we say, mismatched to a book.  Content alerts are for these less-than-fully-omnivorous readers.  If you're made of tougher stuff, feel free to skip this part. The content alerts here are based on speed and politics.

Until the protagonist – Maia – becomes embroiled in the Empire's complexities, the reader sees nothing but his personal worries and fears.  The reader learns about the world no faster than the main character.  If you enjoy only action sequences, and lack patience to watch characters discover their world and themselves, this book is not for you.  This isn't a story about a conquering hero or a successful warlord.  The protagonist inherits his title when everyone ahead of him in succession unexpectedly dies.  The meat of the story is about what Maia does after inheriting – the choices he makes while dealing with people and exercising power.  This isn't to say Maia does nothing; his decisions have a enormous effect on the allies he makes and the success of his reign.  Without these decisions, he'd never keep his throne.  There's conflict, and there's decision, and there's change.  But if you require a heavy diet of fight scenes and chases, this is not the nail-biting thriller you were looking for.

Readers used to a breakneck pace may find this story's pace more stately than they are accustomed. The pace has definite causes.  Sentences are not whittled to their barest parts.  Facts are not bare; even pronouns are occasionally given long discussion. The non-English language of the Elves apparently has a formal first person (depicted as "we"; it's not the royal "we" because characters other than the Emperor employ it), a normal first person, and second-person pronouns that vary with familiarity.  Speakers of European languages may find this circumstance more familiar than English-only speakers, but the author spends time describing the effect of these pronouns' use in dialog between characters whose relationships are changing. This isn't surplussage or waste, but it's a level of detail that has an effect on the speed with which anything can be described: things can take a while. This doesn't mean they're boring to persons of normal sensitivity, but the fact may be of interest to readers who know they demand things move at top speed. 

Then, there's politics. [SPOILER] The Goblin Emperor drops lots of details on the reader to illustrate the brokenness of the empire Maia inherits.  Inequity in educational opportunity, gender rights, and all kinds of areas are all dropped on the reader as on the new emperor, and we sense the emperor intends working on all these things.  The protagonist articulates no promise or plan for them all, but the reader is given a clear idea that there's much work to be done in the empire, and plenty of evil to be had in unconcerned government.  The Goblin Emperor advocates social reform by condemning gender roles, bullies, and the apparatus of established power.  To the extent the reader wants Maia to succeed, it's because the political necessities suggested by the author resonate with the reader: we want the empire's victims saved from the laws and customs that drive artisans blind weaving fine silks, ruin women's educational opportunities over socially-assigned roles determined by gender, and oppress the working classes to the point the emperor is unable to fault a villain's conclusion that all the good accomplished by the protagonist has been made possible by an establishment-toppling multiple-murder just before the opening curtain of Chapter One.  [/SPOILER]  The Goblin Emperor is, therefore, political: it not only urges that genuine humans are needed in power (implying that the kinds of oppression depicted in the book prove they are not), but it comments on the role of violence in these reforms in ways that could easily upset persons of tender sensitivities.

I certainly enjoyed The Goblin Emperor, but those readers with peculiar sensitivity to pace or politics should be aware how each work in this book.

Details. Glorious Details.

The author spends considerable time showing the reader details.  For example, the outrageous ostentation of the top tier of society in the Empire is depicted in recurring descriptions of dress and adornment and the conduct of servants.  The author's recurring discussion of personal pronouns signals a willingness to examine minute details in the interest of painting The Goblin Emperor in full color for the reader. Despite clear willingness to slow to provide detail to readers, The Goblin Emperor did surprise with non-detail in two places.  Near the beginning of the book, Maia looks from an airship at a "beautiful" view of the sun on the horizon.  Later, he looks on a "surprising" gift clock. The build-up to each event engendered an expectation of some description why the adjectives were warranted. What sort of beauty? What kind of surprise? Colors? Shapes? Movement?  These things weren't important to the story, but the detail painted for the hair accoutrements and carriage attendants and jewelry and so many other non-critical things led me to blink in surprise that these descriptions were omitted.  But these details don't affect the story, so what does it matter?  Katherine Addison showers readers with beautiful details that depict the alien worlds of the Elves and their Goblin neighbors.

Readers who want to get all the information encoded by the author in her writing may wish to note that the book has a useful appendix.  "Extracts from A Handbook for Travelers in the Elflands" – purportedly a Crooked Stair Press product printed for the Royal Merchants Guild of Porcharn – may be worth bookmarking by those who want to understand when the author uses a family name to describe the whole family and when the author intends using a family name to explain the gender and marital status of an individual.  The author divulges the system for decoding the endings affixed to family-name roots, and this may be of real help to people hoping to keep straight which of two related people are being described (which could be disambiguated by gender, for example).  I personally found myself hard-pressed to keep straight the large number of long and alien-looking Elf names, but at least decoding them into gender and marital status is a help.  In a paper edition, dog-ear the "Handbook" at the end.  It's not essential to enjoyment, but it's an aid one should know exists.


The Goblin Emperor is an exciting look at a near-orphan coming of age in a hostile environment with nothing about him but his (largely uneducated) wits.  It's an underdog story.  Sure, the "underdog" is Emperor, but he's surrounded and outnumbered and bewildered, and his only "ally" in Chapter One is the drunk who beats him.  We want poor Maia to succeed, and we're interested to see his humanity as he refuses to become the monster his accession to power invites.  We want him to succeed not only in the sense of overcoming enemies, but in the sense of overcoming the urge to descend to their level to do it.

The Goblin Emperor comments on family, government, privilege, discrimination, and all kinds of things – but it's about the triumph of humanity on the only scale humans can really feel: one on one.  Maia must teach individuals he's worth taking seriously as a human, and he must rescue others from misery, one at a time.  There's a nation to save – perhaps a whole world – and it's too big for one person to fix.  But Addison's emperor shows us the only success that matters: one individual's triumph against despair by doing better for others than one's been offered one's self.  The victory of The Goblin Emperor is survival without losing one's soul.  It's a journey that's wonderful to see in print, just as we long to see it in the waking world.

The Goblin Emperor is well worth reading, and I'll look forward to more from Katherine Addison in the future.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Once More Into The Breach

Myke Cole's newest Shadow Ops novel Breach Zone is the first of his work I've read.  For this reason, the reveiw focuses on Breach Zone as a stand-alone novel rather than viewing it as the continuation of a series (which – review spoiler – the book was good enough to inspire me to read).

Drawing from personal experience with military and law enforcement, Cole paints a nightmare in which police objectives and military objectives become intertwined with personal liberty issues that provoke insurrection in a dark alternative universe in which individuals stand at risk of spontaneously manifesting potentially uncontrollable – and in some cases, outlawed – superpowers. Since people can't pick the powers they manifest, insurrection ensues.  In the Shadow Ops universe, insurrection can be supported not only by personal superpowers but mythological races and Apache gods bent on objectives less noble than liberty and justice for all.  While Myke Cole's newest work involves characters and events a new reader can tell have appeared in previous novels, readers have no trouble picking up not only key characters' motives and back-stories, but can easily find and follow the characters' nuanced and conflicted relationships with each other, their society, their government, and those with whom they work. Another set of divides that's interesting to see explored are the ones between military and law enforcement, between military and civilian command, and between supers who conform to the laws governing supers and those who can't or don't.  New readers can follow those just fine, too. The Shadow Ops world's a complex place full of ugly contradictions.  Myke Cole paints a portrait of the characters and their environments that make it easy to understand the motives behind every scowl and slight.  It's a thing of beauty.

Billed as a military fantasy, Breach Zone doesn't read like the worshipful documentary of a military venture. The book is sympathetic to the antagonists:  the believability and sympathy of adversaries' motives, for example, makes Scylla's personal tragedy much keener than if she'd been crafted of enchanted cardboard like certain other fantasy villains Who Must Not Be Named.  It's hard not to root for her redemption.  The train-wreck laid out for the reader is an exciting tale of inevitable and avoidable but utterly wasteful destruction – tragic but hopeful – and it's a great ride. 

Out of Order Reading
To read Shadow Ops: Breach Zone before the earlier Shadow Ops books is not only possible, but enjoyable. Some of the terms used in the Shadow Ops world – a Probe isn't a measuring tool – won't make sense for a while unless you start with the Appendix (which gives a little world overview), but even world-specific definitions eventually become clear without resort to the Appendix.

Shadow Ops isn't an episodic world in which books don't affect one another; events have a chronology and the outcomes of prior books clearly affect events in Breach Zone. The biggest risk in out-of-order reading isn't confusion but spoilers: characters' backstories are intertwined with the events of prior books, and the aftermath of earlier conflicts forms the basis for current attitudes and current problems. So, reading Shadow Ops first tells you how prior books' main conflicts shook out and who lived.

But if you can read Breach Zone and can't lay your hands on Myke Cole's other works yet, don't despair: you can enjoy it just fine.

Why You Want To Read Breach Zone
Military thrillers often stand on plot to hold readers, and play on your appreciation of military values to give you the feeling that the story succeeded. Sacrifice is powerful and emotional and writers can pull quite a bit out of it. It's expected to see use of the theme in a genre where it's a major feature of the cultural landscape.

But it's not every writer of military stories that shows character development. Sure, you often see a character moving from fear to aggression, or doubt to confidence, but how often in a military story do we see characters transforming in meaningful ways that show their values and beliefs?  The death and darkness overshadowing the bulk of Breach Zone is redeemed in the many transformations that suggest to the reader that everybody – even minor characters who die horrible senseless deaths – is capable of change.  There's plenty of tragedy – people's decisions, seemingly inevitable results of their character and values, lead them to their doom on all sides of the conflict.  The joy in the book doesn't come only from one-liners, though it's got that;  for example, when the male lead demonstrates he can accept correction and obey instructions, his romantic interest tells him the fact improves their outlook. But Myke Cole goes beyond one-liners and high-stakes plot problems to say something about humanity: by showing so many characters changing, he shows us the uplifting possibility that people really can change for the better.

Then, there's the non-simplicity of the story.  Myke Cole depicts plausible-feeling people reacting to their immediate circumstances in sympathetic, plausible ways, without making anyone into a cackling caricature of crazy.  The sympathetic portrayal of nearly every perspective in the book necessarily highlights the complexity of the problems each wants solved – and the deepness of problems that won't easily be solved.

There's not just plot, and characterization, but character development. It's not just an exciting series of conflicts; it feels good to read. 

Happy Days (Content Warning)
It's a tradition at The Jaded Consumer to deliver gentle warnings to people who might not be part of the target audience for a book reviewed here. Inspired by readers who turned on Jim Butcher over religion for having the temerity to discuss the work of angels and demons with the same seriousness with which he wrote about the politics among the Queens of Faerie (and, I ask you:  where else will you find top queens but in a place called Faerie?), the first such warning was given for Eliza Crewe's debut novel Cracked, to alert readers who unwilling to tolerate depiction of religion in urban fantasy (Crewe's characters included earnest Templars in a modern crusade). The review for Steven Brust's and Skyler White's collaborative work The Incrementalists, by contrast, alerts readers who might risk apoplexy encountering real-world politics in their fantasy. None of these warnings is intended to slight the works; they're good books, and great reads. People who would avoid Jim Butcher's Dresden Files books over the appearance of angels or holy swords are missing out on all the fun that's erupted since praise was heaped on Butcher here over five years ago. But those who won't like religious content should know it's there, and go buy his Codex Alera instead.

That having been said, the consumer alert for Breach Zone is extremely tame. It's this: the book is optimistic.  And not in a little way.  In a deep way: Myke Cole depicts positive change in individuals as possible.  If you want a book in which the bad guys are just bad, and in which bad guys are ultimately crushed under the heel of the righteous simply because the righteous are smarter and faster and stronger and have better equipment – and you don't want to ask yourself hard questions about what the world would look like if the bad guys were as smart and as well trained and funded and equipped – go read a Tom Clancy novel.  Think about the villain who betrayed loyal troops to be massacred by drug lords in Clancy's Clear and Present Danger: he moves from a self-interested corrupt intelligence bureaucrat willing to throw fellow countrymen under the bus for a few bucks, to a self-interested corrupt intelligence bureaucrat who is willing to throw himself under a bus to avoid the public humiliation and drawn-out proceedings involved in his inevitable prosecution.  It's not a transformation, its the author celebrating a protagonist applying cruelty as justice to bully a caught-in-the-act bastard into suicide – with impunity, with the author's approval, and while the author expects readers to celebrate it with him. It's not transformation, it's public shaming.  There's no optimism in on either side of such a resolution, only schadenfreude.  (Clancy's books still have rocking aspects; who else depicts with such detailed glee the complexity of modern military operations, and the relationship between intelligence assets and operators' execution of resulting plans?  Who else shows the great chess game of modern military decision-making?  Clancy's work has great merit, just not on the basis of its depiction of character transformation.)  Contrast Cole's Breach Zone, in which a key character's emotional relationship to society's different classes changes. The character's very concept of society's classes changes.  This is real transformation.  And Cole sells it: when it hits, it's easy to believe.  To believe that's possible requires a deeply optimistic outlook on humanity.

And (spoiler) this has a consequence: cooperation.  When you think of problems in which you notice government involvement and military action in the news, it's hard not to suppose that the cooperation that wins the day in Breach Zone isn't a better answer than some of the knee-jerk first responses that appear in the news.  So, maybe Breach Zone has some political content. But the real consumer warning is this: if you require a military thriller to have darkness, death, and destruction as its overhanging message, or if you require the big story in a military thriller to be the destruction of "enemies" because the "good guys" are just better, or if you can't swallow the idea there's a way to solve problems rather than just shoot enemies faster – this book may not be for you.  This book is best read by those willing to consider that humans can change for the better.  If you can't buy that, you might find it irritating.

So, there.

Myke Cole's Breach Zone is so complete on its own that knowledge of prior work isn't essential to understanding and enjoying it. But it's an outstanding advertisement for his earlier works to those who haven't read them.  It's clear that the reader's relationship with characters from earlier books, if fleshed out in through experience with them, could make the climax of the story more deeply resonant with readers. But it's perfectly capable of standing on its own.

And it's a delight.

Breach Zone presents a rare respect for every kind of character that exists in the story: civilian and government; military and law enforcement; super and normal; outlaw and posse.  The fact all the adversary veiwpoints are so believable – and their positions presented so sympathetically – makes the conflict and its resolution so much more enjoyable than plain-vanilla black-and-white tales involving constructed characters of pure evil and their necessarily-attracted protagonist opponents. Sure, Myke Cole also must construct his characters – but they don't have that stamped-from-the-mold feel one sees in characters made with less care. Cole's central characters have a "real" feel that's a pleasure to see and read.

Best of all, there are already two more to read.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Almost Girl Reviewed

From Chapter One, Amelie Howard's young-adult novel The Almost Girl effectively employs elements from the reader's own youth to give a familiar feel to an unusual teen's underslept, overscheduled life in a new school surrounded by people she neither knows nor understands in a world that has much bigger problems than the semester project she learns is half her physics grade. The disconnected teen we've known if not been becomes the building block for the reader's view into a coldhearted killer from another universe, sent here to blend with teens while evading military-designed fast-zombies – no, no, she says there are no zombies … but the commandos she used to lead before being given her secret mission are against her now and she must change gears rapidly from ninja warrior to vapid schoolchild as she tries not to lose her prize to other hunters.

Why To Read The Almost Girl

The strength of The Almost Girl is its use of what we already know to evoke our feelings. Who hasn't known tattling teacher's pets, na├»ve goodhearted victims, thuggish jocks, scowling and territorial popularity queens, and teens who notice with great force when an empty room has only a boy and a girl in it? The protagonist's alienness makes all the more credible her alone-ness, her separation from the rest of the world, the weight of what she's doing alone – things we've already sensed from the elements painted with the familiar experiences found in teen life. The fact the protagonist's stakes involve an inter-dimensional war and the life of a dying prince and so forth merely amplify and explain the anxieties and fears Howard paints with our own experience. Who hasn't seen – or been – a student called on the carpet before a teacher? Who hasn't been busted by a parent, smooching in a house thought to be empty? Come on, you at least came close. You've been there. You'll feel it, too.

You'll also feel the personal betrayal and guilt and pride and anger in the various relationships Howard provides with siblings, acquaintances, your best friend, incomprehensible parental figures, and seemingly everything else you did and knew as a teen.  Howard leverages this to great effect, so we feel the peculiar fear of being identified, caught, and punished each time we're led into another episode that echoes in our own lives.  Howard depicts relationships and interpersonal tensions with great mastery.  The author gently pulls the curtain on certain scenes before they go too far for a YA audience, or else fuzzes the camera so we don't get detail you couldn't notice through frosted glass, but this does nothing to impair our view of the conflicts that drive the story.

Howard appears to understand completely that what makes a story work is the characters, their conflicts, and keeping the reader in sympathy with the plight of the protagonist. And make no mistake: this book is about the characters and their insecurities and triumphs in the face of shifting circumstances and relationships and allegiances. If the story closed on an unambiguous Happily Ever After, there might not be a sequel. But the narrator is ambitious and driven so, in a tragic tradition dating back thousands of years, risks the rewards she's fought to win in a bid to fulfill her sense of mission despite the apparently easy alternative of happy retirement.

To watch broken people try to make their way in the world, not knowing whom they can trust, is much more intriguing than many of the fairy-tale worlds assembled for book buyers. And it's exciting to read a yarn about people operating with limited information under pressure. It's easy to sympathize with the main characters. It's particularly delightful to find one's self liking so many of the characters who are in conflict with one another. The Almost Girl is a fun read, and the perspectives from which it draws are surely as accessible to those who are still struggling through their teen years as to those of us who see them only in a rear-view mirror.

Content Warning

It's a tradition at The Jaded Consumer to provide a content warning to readers who might be set off by contact with some pet peeve that might not be revealed in a cursory overview or a read of the back-cover copy.  Content warnings don't imply a book isn't a good read – but what book is for all people?  Eliza Crewe's Cracked was extremely hard to put down, though its review included a warning for people who want their urban fantasy without central, overt religious content of the sort that began bothering a small set of Jim Butcher's readers some years back once The Dresden Files got underway.  The review of Steven Brust's and Skyler White's The Incrementalists notes that readers unwilling to tolerate real-world political commentary in their fantasy might want to look into the authors' politics before delving in.  They're wonderful books, but like Neil Gaman's shirt says,  
de gustibus non est disputandum. (There's no accounting for taste; literally, "there's no argument about the hors d'oeuvres." The brain cross-section shirt really gives new life to the old quote.)  As with the review of The Incrementalists, effort is spent to prevent this section from consuming undue space.

The Almost Girl is a book is about people and their relationships and their conflicts.  It is not a book about technology or security.  If you are a hard-core sci-fi fan who expects to experience shakes if high-tech super-suits from another Universe turn out to use halogen lamps for external illumination, or you think you will be unable to read further if that civilization manufactures thermometers that show temperature measurement that make senses to those of us who grew up using the Fahrenheit scale, you may want to think carefully before upsetting yourself. If you're a military reader with unshakable convictions regarding sentry removal techniques or security procedures, you may need to take a chill pill before getting too far into The Almost Girl. The cover evokes a delightful cyberpunk vibe, and it may attract scifi readers with demanding expectations regarding the made-up gadgets and technologies that inevitably color such work, and it is to some of these folks to whom the warning is largely directed.

Unless your OCD is out of control, or you have a special peeve involving the above, you should enjoy the book juuuust fine.


The Almost Girl uses an impending inter-dimensional war – and the need to keep ahead of a dimension-shifting cadre of conscienceless fast-zombies in supersuits (but no, says the narrator, there's no such thing as zombies) – to raise the stakes on a plausible-feeling teen suffering otherwise ordinary-looking stresses involving boy/girl interactions and siblings and parents and classes and teachers.  There's lots of action, to be sure. But the best gem in The Almost Girl is the work we all have in life, to find a place for ourselves however crazy it gets.  Amelie Howard's world is just painted a little crazier than yours.  It's worth a visit.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Review: The Incrementalists

The Incrementalists Steven Brust Skyler White cover revealThe Concept

You've seen the one about the big, long-enduring, highly organized secret society committed to maintaining a secret lock on the world's key resources.  And you've seen the one about the secret organization that just got ready to launch its long-prepared bid for dominance of the world.  But Steven Brust and Skyler White don't recycle either in The Incrementalists.  The Incrementalists comprise a scrappy little (dis)organization whose uncoordinated efforts focus on tiny actions to make the world a little better.

Isn't that a change from the secret plotting you're used to being led to believe is behind ancient secret organizations that wield weird powers over the mortal realm?

It's about time.

The Plot
Once you've been introduced to a leaderless band of potentially long-lived personalities, you have to start wondering what happens when they disagree with or misunderstand one another.  And guess what?  The confusion generated by their misunderstandings and disagreements immediately reveals mysteries the reader wants to see solved.  Who killed Celeste?  Who's after Ren?  Why?  The Incrementalists presents a mystery, and an adventure:  come join a secret society that's being torn up over your joining it.  Some of whom blame you.


The Pace
The pace isn't a Dan Brown thriller's:  The Incrementalists' conflict is largely mental.  Who's the victim, who's fooling whom, who really loves whom, who's the villain hiding from whom and where … and behind everything: why?  There aren't so much car chases and shootouts as arguments and poisonings.  In comparison to other Brust books, this is paced much more like Dzur than, say, Jhereg. The Incrementalists' pace feels suited to a story about people who are trying to remain secret, and show real antipathy for unnecessarily being made to expend effort to keep hidden, when there's something interesting that'd be more fun to do instead.

Pretty soon, the reader is treated to debates about the merits of attempted revolution, and whether shadowy organizations should Save The Known World (for some definition of "Save", if you can sort out just what that means – the characters are refreshingly willing to disagree what that means). The tale teeters as if it might careen into a big story about a battle for control over the future of humanity.  But panic within the Incrementalists' own order derails debate.  The bulk of The Incrementalists is about individuals and their fears, not some scheme to save the world. 

Sure, the characters have ideas how best to save the world.  There ideas fuel suspicions, but not the immediate conflict.  It's about the Incrementalists themselves, and how they conflict with one another.  And the fun in that is exactly that it's new:  we've seen secret societies used to fuel battles for control of the world before, and we will see them again – this is a chance to enjoy a story about people who are fighting to survive the secret society from the inside.

The Plausibility
Look here.  I've already compared this to Dzur and then Jhereg, and you want to hear about plausibility?  Please.  It's a fantasy.  People with super-normal powers, plotting.  Entertainingly, they seem to want to plot for humanity.  But the fact that the world in it contains cities with names we know and technologies with which we're familiar doesn't mean it's really the world we know.

Of course, there is the wonderful fourth-wall-breaking self-referential fun at the end – maybe they want to meddle in our world as much as their own.  It's fun.

And on that point …

The Politics
One probably shouldn't need a content warning in fantasy.  And The Incrementalists isn't about politics.  But I will make what I hope is a short note for those who aren't predisposed to enjoy a story with this politics in the scenery.  In my review of Cracked, I included a similar warning to those readers who turned on Jim Butcher when religion appeared in his Dresden Files, and said that Cracked's religious content ratcheted up much more quickly: readers too thin-skinned about religion to tolerate its presence (even in the context of a story that treats with equal seriousness the politics among faeries and the purpose of the Winter Queen) should be aware before reading that characters are motivated by and believe in some real-world religious tenets.  A similar situation exists in The Incrementalists, but with politics.

So here it is.  The Incrementalists is full of characters who are interested in making the world better.  A few of these characters espouse … (surprise!) … political convictions.  And the authors don't make the heavens fall on them as a result.

Now, the plot doesn't turn on politics or their correctness (though if it had turned into a world-domination thriller it certainly could have), so a reader needn't adopt a single political view in the book to enjoy the characters' mystery or its investigation or the ensuing conflicts and their resolution.  You should be just fine.  But if you're particularly sensitive … well, be warned the characters have political views, and assign good and bad values to historic events that involve politics.  And it shows up in more subtle ways: a main character is shown using PowerPoint for work, but Google products in her off-hours.  She's described as once accusing a boss of making Gates look like Stallman.  Details of this sort are part of how the character is sketched.  You don't need to put the GNU license on your own code to enjoy the book, though.  So, like … chill.

If you want to read a Brust fantasy in which the politics of the people out to save the world don't remind you of the things that bother you about the politics in the world you know, consider his hilarious and fun homage to Alexander Dumas, The Phoenix Guards.  Or – set in the same world – most of the books about Vlad Taltos (Brust's character Khaavren, appearing in both, shows up in this site's sidebar among my favorite characters).

The Point
The Incrementalists involves a new superpower, with new types of things to go wrong.  And its structure isn't a retread of some well-established world-domination plot.  In fact, the main characters' biggest disagreement in life seems to be how best to save humanity.  The conflict between good people about how to do good is a change from the war against Voldemort and his hoards of power-hungry thugs.

It'd spoil the story to describe in much detail what the story is about.  But it's no danger to expose that it follows people who struggle with whom to trust, whom to love, whom to protect, whom to attack … and whether to act at all.  Maybe it's new in defining a new set of rules for the superpower that makes the Incrementalists work as an organization, but let's face it:  in dealing with human failings and human struggles, it's very old indeed.  The authors' decisions whom to make antagonists and how to motivate them say some important things about what they think the real problems in the world are – problems much more basic than – and beyond – politics.  The authors avoid intercontinental battles for world domination to comment on what's worth fighting for – and worth living for.

It's not by chance that one of Brust's characters sits on the right of every page of this site on a list of all-time favorite characters.  Are there more exciting page-turners?  Sure.  But a good character is worth her weight in gold.  How much of The Incrementalists do you spend fearing for Ren?  And why?  How much of the book do you spend hoping one of the do-gooders will figure out what the only obviously good thing to do is?  What (beyond the fact they aren't reading her first-person narrative) keeps them from seeing what they should be doing about her situation?  These questions are much more important to the story than whether some world power will be nudged into nuclear disarmament.

The Incrementalists says something about personal values, priorities, or character.  Maybe it'll assure you what you treasure most in your life is treasured even by immortal superheroes, and you have it made already.  Maybe it'll remind you of your own struggle to conquer the only part of the known universe that matters.  The point of The Incrementalists isn't to explain how to save the world, but how a few people fought to save themselves – and, maybe how everyone can.

It's a murder mystery with no corpse and an adventure without leaving town and it's a lot of fun.  It's absolutely worth reading. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

How I Spent A Night Addicted To Crewe's Cracked

This is The Jaded Consumer, and I'm a book addict.  Heh.

I've written a review of Eliza Crewe's Cracked.  My review was longer than the "I loved it" at The Book Smugglers, but mine's not up yet. The ARC on which mine was based contained a warning about the possibility that changes might appear in the final version, and to check with the publisher before reporting on certain things.  So, it waits while I wait for a response on some questions to the publisher about whether certain elements were altered in the final version.

But I can share that I couldn't easily put it down.  Sure, I managed to do so long enough to feign normalcy in connection with some social obligations, but it didn't take.  Unwillingness to stop reading at 1:38 PM gets you a different look than does unwillingness to stop reading at 1:38 AM, which is when I noticed the time.  Not that I was done yet.

Cracked didn't brook interruption well.  I have a longer review coming, but the short answer is that it was a lot of fun.  The Book Smugglers has a few days left on a Cracked book giveaway, so if you like urban fantasy you know where to go.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Scalzi's Redshirts Takes 2013 Hugo, And No Surprise

Although you might have missed it if depending on Siri ...

... WorldCon 2013 ended yesterday.  (The above text reflects the results of asking for first WorldCon Twenty-Thirteen then asking for WorldCon Two Thousand Thirteen. And no, I've never heard anybody refer to a time of day with thousands.)

Hosted by Lone Star Con 3 in Austin, Texas, the 71st Annual World Science Fiction Convention was (as each is) also the place to be to see the Hugo Awards announced.  This year, those of us who'd read John Scalzi's Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas were completely unsurprised to learn it was voted Best Novel.  On the one hand, it enjoys much that went right in Galaxy Quest's awesome sendup of Star Trek – the main characters are surprised to find they're living the fiction that's been off the air for years, and it's not a happy surprise to discover they face real risks – but on the other it mixes the horror of being a bit character in a story about somebody else, the writers of which are fond of killing extras for dramatic impact while exploring the characters' desperate efforts to keep their sanity, and safety, in a world gone mad.  And it asks some interesting questions:  who are the bit characters in life?  Who's this story really about?  Geeks with a thing for fiction will enjoy the three endings, each told not only from a different point of view but from a different person.  It's a fun Trek spoof and a serious story and an intellectual riddle and it's the winner of the 2013 Hugo Award.  Those of you who haven't had a chance to enjoy this one can get Redshirts' first four chapters from Amazon free, right here.

As for the rest of the 2013 Hugo winners ... I now have my autumn reading list.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Jim Butcher Update from Space City 2013

I've reviewed several of Jim Butcher's books with what may be all the apparent objectivity of a fawning fanboy (but really, they're great).  But this blog is about what's offered to consumers, and he consistently offers a solid product.  Of course the good news gets reported with the bad.

The current news? At Space City 2013, Jim Butcher confirmed that his September draft deadline for Skin Game will be met with a September-ish submission, making for a year-end or early 2014 publication date.  Also year-end?  The short-story from the point of view of Harry Dresden's apprentice Molly, excerpted here, will finally appear in print December 3, 2013 as part of the George R.R. Martin-edited anthology Dangerous Women.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Butcher Announces Next Dresden Files Title

At Jim Butcher's web site, the title of his next book in the Dresden Files.  There's a reason this series' main character is in the sidebar on the right, and if you look at some of the reviews I've written here about buy the first of his books you'll get an idea why.

The next title is Skin Game.  At the time of this posting, there's no content there other than the title announcement. When Ghost Story ended, we knew what was happening next and it was easy to interpret the next-announced title Cold Days.  (The first time I read the title announcement on that one, I was sure it was Cold Day, which I liked even better. I wonder whether I was mistaken, or why it changed. Alas.) But the end of Cold Days left enough to happen next that it wasn't evident where it'd pick up, making the interpretation of the title more of an adventure.

But I'm keeping my theories to myself.  I wouldn't want to spoil anything for an unsuspecting reader. But you can always email to share theories about Dresden :-)

I especially won't spoil things in previous books, like what Butcher must be teasing regarding the name of the oldest queens of Summer and Winter. Muhuhahaha! And so we wait for the publication of the next Dresden book – let the suffering begin!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Butcher's Cold Days Rocks the Faeries' Casbah

I've previously commented on Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series on this blog. "Commented" may be a bit mild: the first post on Jim Butcher's work, Praise for Jim Butcher, has been read numerous times and continues to turn up week after week among the posts people still find in search engines and read. But since I have begun a different blog that relates to fiction, I have become somewhat torn whether to move Butcher blog entries to the new site, which deals much more closely with fiction.

This blog is dedicated to consumers. People who buy fiction are consumers. I think it's fair to evaluate Jim Butcher's latest work (and his whole series) as a consumer product – right here. Those of you who like are free to pretend they didn't see the title of this post, and pretend this is a hard-hitting critical evaluation of Jim Butcher's work. It is, of course. I simply conclude that the work is worth every penny, which is why I gave the latest book to my sister when the weather turned cold last year then harassed her as she continued to fail to install it on her Kindle and read it.

So, the review is here, under a pseudonym. Later when I want to suck up to Butcher in connection with my own work, this may be trouble. But here it is.

Past Is Prologue
Before writing Cold Days, Jim Butcher wrote quite a bit of other fiction in the same universe. While it's not strictly necessary to enjoy Cold Days – he explains enough along the way that it's completely edible as a stand-alone dish – these works do so much to build the universe in which Cold Days is set that one should really consider them. Since some of them are free, this is also an opportunity to test-drive the author. Works in the Harry Dresden Files include:
There are some more short stories, but I haven't seen them all yet. They include one from the perspective of his apprentice Molly, and several about work done for his client Bigfoot. Expect good things. But not for long: Butcher reported stopping short stories to focus on his novels.
Jim Butcher's secret – well, it's not a secret, but it's the sauce that makes the meal – is that the author knows where he's going. Unlike authors whose middle books sag, or who get lost in the weeds with characters (or, as in Dallas, turn prior work into dream sequences to fix mistakes), Jim Butcher's books and their characters all row in synch, moving the boat steadily and inexorably toward his goal. (That doesn't mean they're not in conflict within the books, but it means this activity is all consistent with the big picture, and advances the series as it advances each work.) Just as each book as a beginning, middle, and end – each of which feel like purpose-built performance parts fueled with nitro – so too does the series. Changes/Ghost Story served as the turning point of the series, and I expect the rest of it to feel very much like Cold Days: a wild toboggan ride, buffeted by the chill blast of Butcher's coldly-calculated and masterfully measured plot. The final three books, which are not expected to follow immediately but after some undetermined number of intermediate volumes, have unannounced release dates:
  • Hell's Bells
  • Stars and Stones
  • Empty Night
Based on comments elsewhere, these shouldn't appear until after about twenty of the novels are out. This doesn't mean you can't read now, though. They are quite unlike Connie Willis' delightful and deservedly-award-winning work in her "books" Blackout and All Clear. In describing these, I put the word books in quotes purely out of disdain for the plural: they constitute really but a single story, but it was brutally cut into two physical volumes. You can't pick up Blackout without All Clear at hand, or you will finish dissatisfied and furious. (I had both ready, and so was delighted by them. Don't risk a different path with these two volumes.) By contrast, each volume of Butcher's series really has a self-standing story worth reading in its own right. A person could read them out of order and enjoy them, though I suggest avoiding spoilers by getting them in order.
About Cold Days Itself
When the narrator wakes a few months after the curtain of Ghost Story, he discovers he really can't escape the choices he made in the last few books. And it isn't long until he's given instructions that make him absolutely certain he needs to get it right the first time when he decides whether he's going go obey them or not. Cold Days shows Harry Dresden trying to do his thing without depending on the people whose support he used to have before he joined the Winter Queen as her indentured-servant contract-killer.*

Naturally, this doesn't work. At all.  On my read, Harry lasts maybe ten minutes. Less, even. Butch as Butcher's protagonist is, he's still outclassed in the unending supernatural deathmatch tournament that is Chicago in the Dresdenverse.

Harry Dresden just can't go it alone against the kinds of forces against which he's pitted himself. Not with any chance at all of survival. This has been true since before the cataclysmic events of Changes, though Harry tries awfully hard not to imperil his allies as he did Michael by the end of that book. Dresden arguably got close in Turn Coat, but he ultimately involved his apprentice Molly and his faithful companion Mouse, and even hired a P.I. to take pictures of his hiding opponent. In Small Favor Harry inadvertently imperiled Ivy with her involvement, enabling awful consequences for Ivy and threatening every living thing on the planet with the risk of serious bad guys acquiring unthinkable power. In White Night Dresden risked his brother and all his mortal allies in an all-out assault on his opponents, while taking a chance on elevating the supernatural stature of Chicago's coldest and most calculating crime boss. In fact, Dresden's decisions have led him to depend on his allies (to their detriment) going back through all the books. The consequences echo even in the current work: the career path of his love interest Karrin, which Dresden inadvertently derailed when she came to his aid in Proven Guilty, is completely over. And his apprentice is on a hit-list. And to aid Harry's plans, his brother's love keeps a dangerous job in the midst of mind-bending immortals (at least, they don't seem ever to age).

So we find in Cold Days that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  This doesn't mean there's no excitement: it means that Dresden's efforts to go it alone are such abysmal failures that he's dragged back to his old practices. Though sadder but wiser, he's still scrapping with bad guys and getting delayed and dazed while looking for answers to immediate dangers while time ticks quickly on catastrophe. His new powers are cool (so very cool – but of course they would be; he's joined the Winter Court) but they're far too new to be under anything like Harry's full control, and they're woefully inadequate to address problems that require skill and will one can't get as a gift from faeries.

And as usual, Harry has a lot more will than skill. It's his problem in this book to come to grips with the forces trying to make him into something he loathes, all while he's unable to avoid the people he loves and whom he hoped to avoid injuring by leaving out of his future fights.

In my last review of Ghost Story, I wrote:
Ghost Story doesn't raise the stakes or excitement from Changes, but if you find a book that does you are commanded to post its title in the comments because I need to read it.  I'm betting it's a rough hunt for books with such bang.
In keeping with my own command, I am posting a link to Cold Days. (Note: I also explain in that review that without Ghost Story, the full stakes of Changes aren't really available to the reader; the two are too intimately connected, and so much better together.) Without descending into spoilers, Cold Days manages to raise the stakes on Dresden and his loved ones and the world while advancing the series plot along a critical plot arc first disclosed to readers in Storm Front over a dozen years ago. A character arc opened in Summer Knight is closed. Along the way we learn more about lots of characters who have long colored the landscape of the Dresdenverse, which is a sure pleasure for longtime fans. For those who aren't longtime fans, the book is a rocking ride full of betrayal, uncertainty, and a race – on several levels – against the world's death-clock.

And what an ending. So many people's lives turned upside down, so many people's relationships upended – so much to sort out in the next book. And – some hope for Dresden's deceased love life. Lots to build on for the next major mishap.

Like I wrote before, my main complaint with Jim Butcher is that he produces only one of these in a year or more. I acknowledge it's an unfair complaint – I haven't completed a single novel of this caliber, and I don't know anyone who has fourteen works so satisfying in a single series, or maybe even to their names – but honestly it's about the only complaint I can level straight-faced against this body of work.

If you like Urban Fantasy, you have to read it. Or fantasy. Or whodunit stories. In fact, if you like any stories at all, I'd be hard-pressed to do anything but suggest giving it a try. The uncertain can test out the free chapters or the full length (and free) Restoration of Faith, which Ghost Story entertainingly references.


*: Or something like that. At the curtain open, Dresden is still working out what his new job is and what it requires of him, but he knows what the last Winter Knight did and is sure it's an awful job more suited to monsters than to men. Which is why he worked so awfully hard to avoid taking it – the full extent of which we learn in greater detail in Ghost Story.


For a look at how the last Summer Knight died and how Harry was previously introduced to his current job, you can enjoy Summer Knight. It's a delight.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Hunger for Cold Days

While peacefully minding my own business trying to make sense of Blogger's new interface, I noticed that one of my most recently-viewed posts was in praise of Jim Butcher.  Butcher – whose character Harry Dresden stands in the blog sidebar among my fictional favorites – has just released his new book Cold Days, about which I've salivated since finishing Ghost Story (which I later defended against ill-aimed attack). So folks are searching for stuff on Butcher and a few of them stumbled onto me.

So it's time to come clean:  I bought Cold Days for a relative whom I've infected with the Butcher-reading bug, but I don't have a copy myself.  I've been busy.  I'll read it over the holiday break.

But a friend (whom I also addicted to Jim butcher) sent me the following review I can share in its entirety:
Just finished Cold Days. :) One word... WOW! No spoilers... but it's massively twisted! I'm about to read it again to see if I missed catching anything :)
So, there you have it.  It's a read.  But I can't say much about it yet from personal experience.

On the other hand, I see folks complaining that Jim Butcher "should" have used Ghost Story to give Harry Dresden a "power reset" to keep him from being "overpowered".  Yawn.  These folks haven't been paying attention.  The series is building to an apocalyptic trilogy, and since Jim Butcher is no longer hiding that a major background element is Odin and his einherjar, and they are taking an increasingly obvious position in the scenery of the books, it's pretty clear that this apocalypse is what the Vikings anticipated in ragnarok.  And who knows, perhaps also in Revalation – Butcher's world is, after all, full of Christian background, too (what with the angels and fallen angels).  What does this mean, now?  Well, it should be clear that the problems facing the world are outrageously high-stakes and well beyond even Harry's escalating powers.  Moreover, after the last book, Harry is (or should be!) acutely aware of the serious, imminent, and far-reaching peril of using the powers he's acquiring.  Increasing power doesn't make the conflict easy for Harry;  and that's the real fear in "overpowered" protagonists, they will just turn on the Big Power and obliterate enemies without giving the reader reason to feel concern (or care) about the problem.  Instead, increasing power means increasing consequences for everything he does, even when he does things right.  And with the whole world coming to an end – and presumably, big decisions to be made as that occurs – Harry will need all the power he can get if he's to nudge things in the right direction.

So it is that the books are not yet cooled from the printer, and the armchair quarterbacks are already out with their opinions on what "should have been" done with Butcher's main character.  Bogus, so very bogus.  Butcher is one of a very few writers who's proven he can be trusted with extremely long multi-book story arcs, and I for one am not inclined to sit still listening to nitwits opine that Harry Dresden would make a better protagonist suffering from dementia in a body cast and eating all his meals through a straw.  (Because it's cooler when they are more helpless!)  No, no.  It's cooler to read Jim Butcher's outstanding stories just the way he writes them.*

* and fixes them.  I've noticed he's taken steps to wallpaper over some of the few actual missteps he's written into the scenery in earlier books.  Other authors can't be bothered, but Butcher cares.  Props!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

In Defense of Butcher's Ghost Story

I've been re-reading recent Jim Butcher titles not only in preparation for the author's soon-to-be-released novel Cold Days, but because I'm studying them as examples of their craft.  While hunting for information on Jim Butcher (and about Jim Butcher's work) I was led by a search engine to The Mad Hatter's blog post The Dresden Files Has Jumped The Shark.  And what a post!

Since Jim Butcher has demonstrated a certain sensitivity to harsh criticism of his work – and why shouldn't he? – I thought it worth noting that The Dresden Files hasn't 'jumped the shark' and that Jim Butcher is executing perfectly the craft for which he's been made by throngs of readers into an international bestseller.

To Jump The Shark
So, what does this mean, exactly?  It means that a show that's lost ratings is trying to save itself by gathering attention through a stupid stunt having no purpose but to attract eyeballs.  The phrase comes from the then-waning but long-running Happy Days, which tried to bolster viewership by having The Fonz water-ski up a ramp to jump over a shark-infested enclosure in his trademark leather jacket:

You know.  In the hope people would watch it.  Not because it really did anything for the characters or the show.  For love of money, Happy Days jumped the shark.

Harry Dresden in Ghost Story
According to The Mad Hatter, "Ghost Story amounts to what is a pointless time waste that will have nearly no bearing on the series."

Nothing happened?  Toward the end of my short post on Ghost Story I drop a paragraph full of questions raised by the book.  The new slew of questions show just how much has changed because of Dresden's behavior in Ghost Story.  I'll not re-hash that here.  But think on it a bit.  If Ghost Story changes characters' positions, creates conflicts, and sets up new problems, it has changed the Dresdenverse.

Despite reciting theme of Ghost Story in his post, the over-arching theme of the book seems lost on The Mad Hatter.  So, some perspective.  Previously when Harry had a near-death experience, he was being murdered in his dreams by the shade of a sorcerer he'd sent to prison (and who killed himself).  Harry's plan in that book was to have a co-captive ally give him CPR while Harry – with backup from the Ghost of Harry – sucker-punched the dead sorcerer in the spirit world as he was murdered.  CPR brought Harry back from the dream-induced death – erasing, in the process, a short-lived haunting ghost of Harry Dresden.  In the near-death experience of Ghost Story, things are quite different.  Harry isn't fighting to survive and going into battle with a plan:  he's arranged his own killing in order to save himself from having to make good on a promise to serve Mab.  To make sure the suicide sticks, Harry had his own memory wiped of his plot so he can't take steps to second-guess himself or derail the killing he's set in motion.  In the process, Harry screws up his own Happy Ending with his love interest and longtime ally Karin Murphy.

But why not die after the date?  Harry's screwed up everything.

This is the main point:  Harry must accept (read: suffer) the consequences of his own decisions.  (Including the suffering he inflicts, en passant, upon innocent others.)  Life without Karin Murphy as a love interest is but the first awful consequence of his scheme to escape his just desserts.  Harry's sudden absence leaves Chicago open to monsters who are no longer afraid of the now-seemingly-undefended turf, and they waste no time imperiling people and places Harry calls his.  Harry's selfish solution to his predicament – that is, his decision to cheat on his deal with Mab – has particularly injured his apprentice Molly, who can neither seek support from Harry's allies (who if successful in catching Harry's killer would learn her role in his suicide/murder) nor really survive on her own in a Chicago gone mad with magic monsters.  He's broken Molly's heart, and learns just how badly he's betrayed her only once he's no longer alive to make amends.  As a sort of long-term whammy, Harry learns that his effort several books ago to make Bob "never" allow his evil side in control again turns out to have consequences, too:  Bob interprets Harry's instruction to separate "Evil Bob" from himself, exiling Evil Bob the skull (so Bob can't put him in charge, even under the control of another), so Evil Bob is beyond Harry's reach to limit with whatever governors are offered by the skull that houses Bob.  Harry's decisions have destroyed his love life, injured his allies, freed and/or created new enemies . . . all critical developments in Harry's life that change the position of the characters.

Mostly for the worse.

The lesson that one must suffer the consequences of one's own actions – made explicit near the end, as Harry is delivered back to Mab by the angel Uriel – is not the only thing at work in the book.  Death itself changes Harry – or, rather, the experience of being dead forces him to grow.  Nice, eh?

So ... no bearing on the series?

Unable to effect change through direct action, the dead Harry is forced to learn more about his enemies before acting.  The fact that Harry had no power to immediately obliterate the gunmen at Murphy's house meant that he had to follow them ... learning as he did that they had problems of their own that needed solving.  Harry's biggest change may be this:  he learned that he could get a lot more done by thinking and talking than he could by laying waste to enemies at the first sign of conflict.

The result?  Harry has a new ally, Fitz (and maybe Fitz' gang).  He has a new and very powerful enemy in Evil Bob.  Harry has hacked off his longtime ally Karrin Murphy, whom he kept in the dark while he aided those who shot up her house (and guests, and neighbors).  Perhaps worst, he's destroyed the life of his apprentice, Molly Carpenter.  Harry has some serious problems to fix – overhanging issues that will have direct bearing on his relationship with all the characters in Ghost Story, and his own driving motivations for the entire future of the series.  Jim Butcher's Ghost Story doesn't just mature the character, and add new characters, it adds whole new problems to fix.

And they are doozies.

IO9 has it right:  Butcher's stories – including Ghost Story – are "bone deep" satisfying.  Does the climax of Ghost Story hit you the same way as the climax of Changes?  Ha!  How could it?  In Changes, Harry was selling his soul (he thought) for the power to commit a genocide (as it turned out).  And was murdered just before his first date with the leading lady his readers had been dying for him to date (ba-da-bump!).  Just awful!  How can you write a worse fate than that?  So no, Ghost Story doesn't raise the stakes or excitement from Changes, but if you find a book that does you are commanded to post its title in the comments because I need to read it.  I'm betting it's a rough hunt for books with such bang.

But wait:  without Ghost Story, would you understand just what the stakes were in Changes?  Ghost Story is not just the denouement of Changes:  it is its other half, revealing what Harry hid from himself, and what he hadn't taken the time to see.  Without Ghost Story, Changes was an exciting adventure in which, having lost his earlier love to the vampire war, he was robbed of new girl in the last act.  In Ghost Story, Changes is re-cast as a tragedy in the classic sense:  Harry's noble virtue is also his fatal flaw, the instrument of his destruction.  (And this isn't fixed at the end:  his relationship with Karrin Murphy can't just be dusted off and picked up from here.  Harry's screwed it royally.)  Without the reveals in Ghost Story, readers would never appreciate the bite of Changes.  TheMad Hatter says this could be coughed up as back-story in another book, but I disagree.  Imagine Changes being re-cast in the light depicted above not by Harry, learning it the hard way, but by some laughing villain in a book about another problem:  nowhere near as satisfying as seeing Harry put it together while trying to save his apprentice from a miserable death only possible because he'd abandoned her through suicide to the tender mercies of the Wardens, the Winter faeries, and the new crop of monsters in Chicago.

Ghost Story is a worthy successor to The Dresden Files' legacy of solid novels enjoyable not just at first pass but on re-read.  Ghost Story isn't a cheap stunt.  It's not a shark-jump.  Ghost Story offers something that is hard to imagine offering otherwise:  experience to give a hot-headed Harry the perspective to speak carefully and act with deliberation as required to survive and succeed in his new role as the knight of the Queen of Air and Darkness when the curtain opens on Cold Days.

(And it could add whole other new problems, and motivate whole new classes of solutions I'll not speculate on lest Jim Butcher stumble here.  Hi, Jim!)

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Butcher's Dresden Novel 'Changes' Looking Good

NOTE: This wasn't written with careful thought to spoiler issues. Because it was written before the novel Changes was actually available, it hasn't got anything in it that could be considered a spoiler for Changes, but it does discuss prior books by way of background, and could thus contain spoilers for earlier books.

Jim Butcher's new Harry Dresden novel Changes is all set up to change Harry Dresden's future: to commit him to a path that will determine where he stands, and who stands with him, when the series approaches its apocalyptic climax.

Harry Dresden has been through personal crises and tests of his loyalty, but in Changes Butcher sets his protagonist up for a doozy: his estranged girlfriend surprises him in the first line of the book that they have a daughter together she had concealed from him, but the bad guys have seized her and she'll be there soon to tell him how to start sorting it out. Love betrayed, innocent victims in jeopardy, man-against-the-world, deadly enemies with unknown capabilities ... it's all set to be an exciting ride.

Oh, and the girlfriend's dangerous longtime sidekick doesn't like Harry, and begins sewing doubt he can be trusted. All his expected allies have betrayed him. Nice, eh?

What we don't see in the posted-online first four chapters are things like (a) how Harry's apprentice is getting along, (b) whether Harry's half-brother and his family will be part of the solution or part of the problem, or (c) whether Harry's contacts with the criminal underworld or to law enforcement will turn out to have application to a problem that seems largely to have occurred on another continent. (After all, Harry's commitments to other characters has been a tool by which he's been manipulated and by which he's been injured in the past; it only makes sense that they could be leveraged into an asset or a liability here.)

Details, Details
Overhanging all this we have things like Harry's true love and whether he'll lose it or regain it; the timing by which the powerful artifact heisted a few books back by a Valkyrie will turn up and whether the Valkyrie's employer will end up on the right side or the wrong side of the conflict (surely, on the wrong side!); whether Harry's handgun, lost a few books ago in Small Favor, is in the possession of bad guys who can use it to track or injure Harry; whether Harry's cop ally's career is really destroyed from Proven Guilty or whether it can be resuscitated; whether Butcher is done with the assistant medical examiner Butters as a character after Dead Beat or whether he'll turn up useful again one day; and the real motives and allegiance of Harry's godmother, the seemingly-evil faerie last seen trapped in an ice sculpture at the heart of the winter palace of Mab.

Ahh, so much to keep track of. It'll allow Butcher to send in plausible cavalry, like Han Solo saving Luke from Vader at the end of his flight to the Death Star's ventilation shaft, surprising and exciting readers who follow the series and understand what everyone is supposed to be doing. Without the careful arrangement of domino tiles, it would just not be so satisfying when Butcher shows you how he knocks them down for your amusement.

And this is part of the joy of Butcher's books: historically, he's been very good at making sure that small hints matured into important events, and making sure that all the details added up. I praised Butcher for his details when he was first mentioned on the Jaded Consumer, and I did it again when I reviewed his last book. Well, maybe it's not a review so much as a criticism, but it's hard to call such fawning criticism so I'm not sure what to make of it other than an advertisement. So, here's the subliminal message: Go buy Butcher.

[A little aside: I previously groused a bit about the apparent inconsistency of Harry's lost-but-then-unexpectedly-available handgun. However, Changes seems to explain this away with a line at the end of Chapter 4 about losing a "spare revolver" in a separate incident, suggesting that Harry's lost handgun in Small Favor was just one of several and perhaps not a big deal after all to have lost, while also explaining how he'd end up holding the revolver again in Turn Coat. To the extent the pistol's unexpected re-appearance in Turn Coat was a continuity error, it's been explained away; to the extent that we've been wondering whether Butcher will ever do anything about the weapon's potential to lead enemies or their spells to him, we've learned that the weapon may just not be that important to Butcher and thus not that useful as a magical conduit to Harry. Whether Butcher caught the issue himself, or someone asked him about it, or he's deliberately misleading us so that there's an opportunity to surprise us with the revolver later, there's now at least reason to feel like there's an explanation for Harry's observations and for his conduct in not tracking down the revolver himself. The revolver is either a big deal and will surprise him (and us), or it's not. There's no longer an overhanging continuity problem.]

All in the Family
In surprising Dresden with fatherhood, and making him feel the anguish of his miserable childhood all over again as he imagines his daughter growing up as an orphan. Dresden's own miserable experience as an orphan, then having a father-figure who turned out to be a sorcerer bent on controlling his mind for typical evil-sorcerer purposes, makes this prospect doubly awful. Exacerbating this is that Harry's utterly dependable ally Thomas, revealed in Blood Rites as Harry's half-brother, recently devolved in Turn Coat into a conscienceless monster who readily kills humans to feed the demonic hunger with which he is cursed as a White Court vampire. More alone than previously, Harry must rescue his own daughter with the aid of a women who, though at least once his true love, deliberately betrayed Harry by choosing not to tell him he was a father.

The stakes are high, and they are personal.

The Series
For those of you interested in Butcher's offerings in the Harry Dresden series, I give you this chronological listing, complete with links (where available) to free snippets:

The works, in chronological order of occurrence in Butcher's world, are:
and the final three, which are not expected to follow immediately but after some undetermined number of intermediate volumes, have unannounced release dates:
  • Hell's Bells
  • Stars and Stones
  • Empty Night

There's a DVD series of the Sci-Fi Channel's adaptation.
There's a graphic novel series Welcome To The Jungle.

With respect to the short stories, novellas, etc.: I wonder whether they may be conceived as advertisements. I learned that Jim Butcher's agent doesn't represent short story authors (by reading an email she sent to a prospective short story author declining to consider any short story), so I figure she tolerates the short stories solely because they allow the agent to place Butcher's work in front of fans of other authors in the urban fantasy genre, and thus potentially sell novels.

The Shorter Works
The novella Backup was such a quick read that it was hard to justify the sticker price on the basis of perceived value. Its illustrations might amount to something in the hearts of dedicated fans of Mike Mignola, but I didn't think they added a thing to the novella. Was the novella good? Absolutely. Was it worth $20 for an unsigned cloth hardcover? Well, most of us but paperbacks and expect to get a whole novel for $10. Backup was high-quality work, it should be read by fans of the series, and I can believe the limited edition with leather and a signature should go for a pretty penny ... but I really don't see a pamphlet like Backup being a full-retail purchase. On the other hand, maybe I've accidentally made an investment.

Perhaps Backup was designed to move Butcher into the rare book category, and thereby gain buzz for the rest of his work. It certainly laid out clear foreshadowing of the conflict within Thomas and the problems it was going to cause down the road. Had Thomas not been introduced initially as a "good guy" in Grave Peril, and confirmed in that role in White Night, the devolution of Thomas into an apparently out-of-control, slavering, conscienceless, vampiric murderer in Turn Coat would hardly have had the same impact. Transition from a trusted ally into a friendly but admittedly-reconfirmed murderer and tool of the enemy is something that requires long setup to make readers really feel. Backup isn't essential to the series, but it's valuable to understanding the pieces from which Butcher is building his world. It's a complex thing, with many parts, and the things you see from Harry's point of view are but a thin section of a much larger fruit.

Other than Backup, need readers pick up the short stories?

Maybe. The short stories are hit-and-miss. The free Restoration of Faith was a good read. I enjoyed Herot, mostly because it offered a window into Ms. Gard, a character who'd been previously mysterious. I thought The Warrior didn't work as a short story, though some of its elements could easily have supported a novel's subplot; Butcher actually explained to a reader at a book signing that The Warrior was Butcher's effort to depict Michael Carpenter's being shot in Small Favor as Michael Carpenter's Happy Ending. This is excellent subplot material, definitely an aid to readers' enjoyment of the characters, but as presented it just didn't seem to make a good short story. (By comparison, consider the work of T. A. Pratt, who really seems to get making a short story. I say Pratt because it might be unfair to mention Bradbury or Zelazny, but all is fair in love, and I love to read.) Given Butcher's careful construction of his stories and attention to details across multiple novels – a situation Dresden leveraged from the very opening line of Changes – readers can benefit from everything in the series, even the short stories. The Harry Dresden fan will want to catch all the details from all the non-novel projects in order to get the whole "history" of Harry Dresden, and thus should make an effort to buy/beg/borrow them all. Those who can't afford $50 for a novella can find it in the library. Little tidbits about dissent and conflict among Harry's allies, the weaknesses of characters with which Dresden interacts ... all these will help color the reader's appreciation of the Dresden universe while calming nerves that get jittery while waiting an entirely unacceptable whole year for another Dresden fix.

So pick up a copy. Everyone's doing it ....