Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Snake Charmer

Two Serpents Rise
by Max Gladstone
Published by Tor
4 Out of 5 Stars

**This review is of an Advance Uncorrected Proof provided by Tor in exchange for an honest and fair review**

A burgeoning desert city, Dresediel Lex depends upon Craft and the power of fallen gods to quench its ever growing thirst. When demons are planted in the city's water supply, Red King Consolidated, the utility that provides water to the city, suspects religious fanatics eager for the return of the gods or good old-fashioned corporate competition. Caleb Altemoc, a risk manager for the omnipresent Red King Consolidated and son of Temoc, a wanted religious terrorist, is sent to investigate. He soon finds himself falling for a potentially dangerous woman, questioning his loyalties to his employer and to his father, and learning that the deified twin serpents of Dresediel Lex survived the God Wars and slumber as they await an eclipse that will awaken a hunger that can only be sated with blood sacrifice.

Two Serpents Rise returns us to the world--if not the characters and city of Alt Coulumb--presented in Three Parts Dead, and this is a brilliant move on the part of author Max Gladstone. Neatly side-stepping the tendency of many authors to get locked into one character and a formulaic plot structure for a never-ending series, Gladstone continues to create this unnamed world of magic and technology that is at once primitive and futuristic, where humans and gods coexist. This world provides Gladstone with a broad canvas for his impressive, imaginative world-building, and he is at his best when writing of the terrible majesty of the gods, as fantastically varied as the cultures that spawn them. However, these gods, brought into existence by man's faith, have been destroyed or harnessed after the God Wars, when mankind realized they could kill what they had created or restructure the power of the gods to serve the needs of modern man. 

The mythologies created by Gladstone capture the primal need for the divine and the rational, "civilized" mind's rejection of religious fanaticism--a dichotomy represented in the character of Caleb. The son of a once powerful Eagle Knight priest desperate to cling to the old ways of blood sacrifice, Caleb rejects the brutal and barbaric religion of his father, but is uncomfortable with the manner in which defeated gods have been utilized by concerns like Red King Consolidated to meet the needs of the people. As Caleb seeks the source of the water contamination, he must come to moral terms with Dresediel Lex's problematic history and the cultural divide created in the wake of the God Wars. Caleb's contentious relationship with his father provides the novel with more depth than one might expect of a standard fantasy novel, and I found myself wishing that Gladstone had jettisoned Caleb's strained, awkward, and perplexing romantic relationship with Mal in favor of more interaction between father and son. 

The mystery at the core of Two Serpents Rise, when stripped of its magical accouterments, is fairly standard, but serviceable to moving the plot forward. There are few surprises and maybe a few too many red herrings and segues into nonessential plot elements, but these quibbles are fairly minor when stacked against the entertainment to be found in exploring Gladstone's complex, layered world. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

History That Doesn't Come to Life

The Devil in the White City:  Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
by Erik Larson
Published by Crown
3 Out of 5 Stars

A brief list of things that generally don't strike my fancy: architecture, the Gilded Age, landscape design, metropolitan cities, politics (of the historical kind), and serial killers. So, for a novel that exclusively focuses on all of these things, the very fact that I made it through and maintained mild interest is quite extraordinary. However, my interest never really piqued above "mild" and, hence, the three star rating.

The Devil in the White City is really two stories: the planning and building of the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the simultaneous planning and building of a serial killer's lair. Larson uses the convergence of these two storylines to juxtapose man's capacity for the divine against an equal capacity for evil. Two men become the embodiment of this dichotomy: Daniel Burnham, chief architect of the Exposition, who brought the dream of the "White City" to life, and H. H. Holmes, the psychopath who used the bustle of the World's Fair to lure victims to his real-life house of horrors. This intention seems to be summed up in a quote from the physician John L. Capen, who, reflecting upon Holmes's appearance, says of his eyes, "They are blue. Great murderers, like great men in other walks of activity, have blue eyes." Attention is drawn time and again to the startling blue eyes of both Burnham and Holmes, illustrating that each man would become "great" in his way.

However, Larson thankfully doesn't browbeat his reader with lengthy explorations of the nature of good and evil. Instead, he presents the extraordinary lives of each man during that fateful time and allows the reader to draw these comparisons. As the White City is built, America is presented with the dream of what it could be. A civilized country could emerge from the twilight of the frontier and our pioneer spirit could live on in a future where men like Tesla, Edison, and Ferris looked toward building the impossible. 

Despite the hopes and possibilities represented by the Columbian Exposition, there is also an undercurrent of darkness in the form of union strikes, economic collapses, and cities large enough to swallow ambitious men and women whole without leaving a trace--cities that serve as the perfect hunting grounds for a man like Holmes. 

These are compelling stories and, yet, they never quite came to life for me. Larson's research is obvious, but the pacing of the story is often slowed down by dry passages--especially those detailing the power struggles that occur during the planning of the Exposition. Larson is at his best while writing about Chicago itself, capturing the sights, smells, and sounds of a bustling and ambitious city eager to prove its worth as a cultural mecca to its more sophisticated counterpart, New York City. He's also adept at bringing historical characters to life (I particularly enjoyed it when Susan B. Anthony and Buffalo Bill cross paths). All in all, this is a worthwhile, if not riveting, read.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Entertaining Look at Writing

Bird by Bird:  Some Instructions on Wrting and Life
by Anne Lamott
Published by Anchor
4 Out of 5 Stars

A surprisingly hysterical book about writing and, as the title implies, life. The hype surrounding Lamott's book is definitely well-earned and I can't wait to read more of her work. Much of her advice on writing is practical and no-nonsense as she addresses the difficulties of writing and getting published. 

If I had one complaint it would be that I wasn't as inspired to write by the end of the book as I was to be Anne's (see? I'm already calling her by her first name as if I know her) friend. I definitely appreciated her twisted and unusual sense of humor. I often laughed out loud, not something I was expecting during chapters about libel, editing, publishing, and the other mundane parts of the writer's world. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

So Close to Perfect

American Vampire
Written by Scott Snyder
Illustrated by Rafael Albuquerque and Jordi Bernet
Published by Vertigo
3 1/2 Stars

I've been very vocal about my love for Scott Snyder and want to be clear that love remains unabated. Snyder's American Vampire series has returned vampires to their horror roots and is one of the best comics out there; Snyder's writing is smart and strictly adults only. 

In this volume, we have three distinct periods in American history and, as usual, we have three distinct American vampires. The vampires in Snyder's world are not stagnant; they continue to change and evolve, creating intriguing subspecies that have strengths and weaknesses unlike those who came before or will come after them. This certainly makes life tough on the average vampire hunter, who must memorize the various vampiric types and their particular Achilles's heel.

In the first story, we have Skinner Sweet and Jim Book as best friends and Indian fighters in 1871. We learn that Skinner and Jim grew up as brothers when Jim's family took in the impetuous, orphaned Skinner. Knowing there is nothing they can do to stem the influx of white settlers, one Indian chief, Hole in the Sky, plans to wake a powerful goddess of death, Mimiteh, in the hope that she will ally herself with the Native Americans and give them the advantage. Naturally, things do not go according to plan and we learn that Skinner was not the first American Vampire.

The second story is my favorite and is set in the 1950's. Travis Kidd is a reckless youth who seems modeled after Marlon Brando's character in The Wild One: nothing but leather jacket, attitude, and a taste for speed. Travis, however, is definitely a rebel with a cause--hunting for the vampire that killed his family (the panel showing a young Travis hiding in a cupboard during the violence is particularly heart-wrenching), he's the best self-taught vampire slayer out there. And it's not long before the Vassals of the Morning Star start trying to recruit him. 

The final story is set in 1950's Alabama and follows our first African-American vampire, Calvin Poole, into the heart of a segregated South. It turns out that racism is the least of Calvin's problems when he encounters a new breed of vampire that gives a unique twist on the intersection of werewolf and vampire mythology. Pearl and Henry from the previous volumes also make an unexpected appearance.

All of these stories are engrossing and continue the complex character building from the first two volumes. So why only 3 1/2 star? The first story, The Beast in the Cave, features art by Jordi Bernet, and his colorful, cartoonish style put me in mind of something akin to the old Li'l Abner comic strip. It's hard to take a death goddess seriously when she struts around with gravity defying T & A and nipples that look like index fingers. Bernet's art fails to set the right tone for the story. It certainly would have been better served by Albuquerque's uniquely dark, violent and often primitive style. Unfortunately, a story that should be anything but laughable comes dangerously close to being so.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Haunted by Missed Opportunities

Five Ghosts:  The Haunting of Fabian Gray, Vol. 1
Written by Frank J. Barbiere
Illustrated by Chris Mooneyham
Published by Image
2 1/2 Out of 5 Stars

2 1/2 Stars.

Part Indiana Jones, part Gambit, part James Bond and all pulp, Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray starts off as a fun throwback to the classic adventure narrative of the 30's and 40's. And then it does a cannonball into an empty pool, which is to say the creators really should have paid more attention as to where this thing was going.

Fabian Gray is a charming and handsome master thief who has spent his life acquiring some of the world's finest antiquities, with the help of his twin sister. However, when he and his sister attempt to steal The Dreamstone, things go cockeyed. Now his sister is in a coma and Fabian has five shards of The Dreamstone lodged in his chest--and within each stone is the essence of an archetypal figure: the detective, the samurai, the wizard, the archer and the vampire. Trapped within Gray's body, Gray can draw upon the powers of these "ghosts" to aid him in his newest quest--to find the artifact that will cure his sister. 

Set in the 1930's, Mooneyham evokes the look and feel of the pulp comics from that time period, adding to the overall narrative.  Things won't be easy for Fabian--supernatural forces are working against him, exotic locales need visiting, beautiful women need ravishing, and the "ghosts" are becoming increasingly unhappy over their imprisonment within Gray. And this is where the narrative lost me. Fabian must pass a test created by each of his ghosts, from which he will gain profound insight. These "tests" are anticlimactic, confusing, and miss the opportunity for some creative integration of the literary world inhabited by each of these ghosts. Each test could have been an issue in and of itself. 

While Barbiere squanders this opportunity, I'm hoping it's simply because Five Ghosts started as a limited 5 issue story arc. Since it has been granted ongoing series status, I will cautiously read the next few issues and remain optimistic that Five Ghosts will deliver on the initial promise I saw in the first two issues.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Neither Great Nor Terrible

A Great and Terrible Beauty
by Libba Bray
Published by Simon and Schuster
3 Out of 5 Stars

I swiped this out of the classroom one day because I had lunch duty and my choices were A) stare at the perpetual hacky sack game for 30 minutes or B) read something. As you can see, I didn't have much of a choice at all (it was one of those Eddie Izzard "Cake or death?" scenarios). When I began the book, I was immediately hooked--exotic locale, spirited protagonist, hint of the supernatural. However, it was a case of infatuation-at-first-sight that burned out rather quickly. After finishing the book, I was left with an overwhelming sensation of "meh."

Why did the book lose my interest so quickly? Here's a quickly compiled list of possible reasons:

A) Began in India, but then switched to an isolated boarding school for girls in Victorian England. Come on! They lost me as soon as they left an amazing setting with all kinds of possibility for a mediocre one.

B) It's a young adult book and those don't always sit well with me. I just couldn't connect to the four girls that form the clique in the book. Case in point: they begin dabbling in witchcraft and one uses her power to create the perfect Prince Charming and one uses hers to--shock!--be beautiful. Puh-leaze.

C) Speaking of the four girls, stereotypes in the extreme: the mysterious one with a dark secret; the beautiful, but tragic one; the rebellious spirit; and the plain girl who doesn't belong in this world of prestige and riches.

So why did I give it a 3? It's fairly well written, it has an interesting premise (though the execution falls flat), there are a few genuinely funny moments,and it will probably appeal to the intended audience. I may read the sequels, but it will be a bit before I muster up the interest in doing so.

No God Can Shun His Destiny--Even If It Means Wearing Hollister

by Kendare Blake
Published by Tor Teen
3 Out of 5 Stars

**I received a free copy of Antigoddess from Tor in exchange for an honest review.**

After centuries, the Twilight of the Gods has arrived. 

Already fallen from Olympus, now more mortal than god, each deity is dying in a manner peculiar to their power. Athena, goddess of battle and intelligence, is being slowly suffocated by the feathers of her sacred bird, the owl. The feathers fill her lungs and sprout beneath her skin. While many of the gods are resigned to their demise and see their end as a final whim of Fate, Athena, along with the swift Hermes (who is being consumed by his own rapid metabolism), seeks the counsel of Demeter and finds that a war is brewing. Led by Hera, some gods are determined to survive--even if it means slaughtering their own kind. Their only hope? A teenage girl named Cassandra--no mere mortal, but the reincarnation of Cassandra of Troy, prophet, sister of Hector, and love of Apollo.

The first in a trilogy, Antigoddess (and let's just go ahead and get this out there--this is a baffling and terrible name for the book) is an entertaining, if uneven novel that is the latest offering in the young-adult-if-only-we-were-supernatural genre. 

There's a lot here we've seen before: the co-dependent mortal/immortal love affair (it's always baffling to me when immortal creatures fall in love with nubile young teenagers; one would think the passing of centuries would make a relationship with anyone susceptible to Bieber-fever a tedious proposition at best), the requisite showdown at a house party, and the battle lines drawn between two supernatural armies whose collective fate rests on the shoulders of a human who is more than she appears to be. And while I know it will not bother the target audience, to have the gods appear as young adults is problematic to me. No explanation is given as to why they seem to be perpetually stuck in the Proactiv Skin Care years. In my imagination, Athena (my favorite goddess) has always loomed like an Amazon, tall, strong, mature. To think of her with tattooed wrists and purple streaks in her hair? Hermes sporting Hollister? Apollo in a hoodie? By Hades's balls, I'd rather French kiss Cerberus than think of the majesty of gods reduced to trendy mall fashion. 

Buuuuttttt . . . having said all that, there's an undeniable charm to what Blake's peddling here and it's far more successful than the Percy Jackson series. Sure, the gods lack characterization, but haven't they always? And, sure, they sometimes behave like mortals, but that's always been part of their appeal. Treading like giants and with powers beyond human comprehension, they still fell prey to very human weaknesses: love, hubris, envy. Blake also knows her stuff and it's fun to see her weave the tale of Troy into a modern day setting as Hector, Andromache, Odysseus, and Circe's coven make appearances alongside Hera, Aphrodite, Poseidon, Artemis, and Apollo. Throw in a cyclops, a Nereid or two, and an author with a sharp sense of humor--well, you could find worse ways to spend a Saturday afternoon.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Almost Exceeds the Cool Quotient

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist
by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
Published by Ember
3 Out of 5 Stars

Nick and Norah meet in a punk rock club one night when Nick asks Norah to be his 5 minute girlfriend. Why? Because Nick's ex, Tris, is in the club with her new man and Tris broke Nick's heart. From that point on, Nick and Norah recognize the chemistry between them, but their feelings are compromised by their previous relationships.

The book is okay. Just okay. Told in stream-of-consciousness chapters alternating between Nick's point of view and Norah's, some of it becomes repetitive (although this technique does allow the reader to see how each experienced and interpreted various situations differently). 

My main complaint: Nick and Norah are cool. Obnoxiously cool. They are so much smarter and edgier than everyone else and, here's the thing with characters like that, there are people who are genuinely edgy and cool and original--and then there are those who are trying too hard to be so. Nick and Norah fall into the "trying too hard" category. They make obscure cultural references (many of which seem to be more in keeping with the time period of the authors' teenage years and not so much today's teens; for instance, maybe the movie Heathers and the television show My So Called Life are still a big deal to today's teenage crowd, but I somehow doubt it), they have both have a single-minded devotion to on-the-fringe punk bands, and engage in endless fashion critiques regarding what a person's dress reveals about character. They're trying so hard I wonder if and when they'll ever have any fun in life.