Grass for His Pillow: Lord Fujiwara’s Treasures

October 9, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads)

lordGrass for His Pillow: Lord Fujiwara’s Treasures by Lian Hearn


Lord Fujiwara’s Treasures begins the second book in the Tales of the Otori, serving as the first act of Grass for His Pillow. If this is confusing, welcome to the club. Grass for His Pillow is the second book, but it’s published in two parts, this one being the first. It’s not even a complete story, since there’s no conclusion here.

The story continues Takeo’s and Keade’s stories, though after meeting and falling in love in the first book, they wind up separated here. Obligations force them apart, and they find themselves as key players in the political machinations in this alternate feudal Japan. Hearn continues to tell a compelling tale through her unassuming narrative, focusing on these two characters and their intensely personal lives. Her style is gentle but insistent; it’s hard to feel like much is happening, but the story winds through several settings and characters in a complicated political plot.

This series is billed as a fantasy, but it reads more like a historical novel than anything else. Fantasy readers might be surprised to find a story atypically fantasy, but readers of historical fiction (especially those with an interest in Japanese culture) should love it. I’m looking forward to seeing this series through.


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Across the Nightingale Floor: Journey to Inuyama

October 6, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

Across the Nightingale Floor: Journey to Inuyama by Lian Hearn


journeyJourney to Inuyama is the second part of Across the Nightingale Floor, the first book in Hearn’s five-book fantasy story set in an alternate feudal Japan. It picks up right after the first part ends, and serves as acts two and three of the book. Where we learn of Takeo and Keade’s histories in the first part, in the second part we see them come together, where their lives will become intertwined. Their stories take place against the backdrop of the lords’ politics, in which they will serve a large part, but the story is about Takeo and Keade first and foremost.

Hearn writes well, with her style and characterization carrying the story. There’s a plot to Journey to Inuyama, but Hearn’s narrative takes center stage. It’s not purple or overly distracting; it simply flows well, carrying the reader along in its gentle yet relentless pace. At times, it feels like nothing’s happening, but when you pause long enough to think about the plot, you realize she’s keeping you engaged without any tricks.

Readers of Sword of the Warrior will want to read this book (and should); anyone else attempting to start here will be lost. These are not two books that serve as first and second books in a series; together, they are one story. Anyone with an interest in Japanese culture would enjoy these books, but I would hesitate to recommend them to any fans of traditional fantasy books. The fantasy element is so light that they might find themselves disappointed.

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Across the Nightingale Floor: Sword of the Warrior

October 5, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

swordAcross the Nightingale Floor: Sword of the Warrior by Lian Hearn


The first three books in the Tales of the Otori series were published in two parts. The Sword of the Warrior is the first part of the first book, Across the Nightingale Floor, and it serves as an introduction to everything. It establishes the setting (an alternate feudal Japan) and its main characters (Takeo and Kaede), as well as the political plot this story is to follow. It’s tempting to call this “Game of Thrones in Japan”, but it’s not quite that epic.

Hearn has a lyrical style that flows over the reader like a stream washing over rocks. Her narrative is understated in that it portrays more than you would expect, and the story is rather calm, especially considering that there’s the threat of assassination and other violence in Hearn’s world. She also creates her characters well, putting the focus on them instead of all the things happening around them. Those things are important — they server as the plot — but the story is really about Takeo and Kaede’s coming of age amid all the machinations of the world.

It’s hard to rate these books individually, since it will take two parts to get the full story. So far, though, it’s a compelling read that tricks you into thinking not much is happening. Fans of quiet fantasy should like them, even though the story feels more like a historical one than a fantasy.

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Death Star

October 4, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

Death Star by Michael Reaves and Steve Perry


starI’ll give you two guesses at this book’s subject, and that’s only if you even need the second one. On the one hand, the book has a dull title that evokes nothing other than its subject; on the other hand, at least it’s not as ridiculous as The Starcave of ThonBoka. Even the one-word titles — Kenobi, Tarkin, and Thrawn — suggest more than this book’s title does.

The book is better than its title suggests. Reaves and Perry create a wide, diverse cast of characters, all of whom are involved with the construction of the Death Star. We begin a good way into its construction, and since the book was written after the end of Revenge of the Sith, the story follows from what was established in the prequels, while also tapping into the events from Star Wars. The authors do a good job of placing the story firmly in between, bridging the gap between the two stories.

Because the story butts up against Star Wars, we have a few characters who are already familiar to us — Darth Vader and Wilhuff Tarkin being the biggest. It’s impossible to escape having them be a part of the story, and the authors do a good job of characterizing them appropriately (Tarkin comes across as even more ruthless), but there seemed to be a strong vein of fan service, too.

I was all set to give the book four stars, because the book succeeds in telling a decent story while giving us additional background into the Expanded Universe, but then the authors had to go and make the ending melodramatic and pat at the same time. There were also moments in the story where you could have put money on who wasn’t going to make it out alive. I’ve started to notice that when an author creates a character who has so much to lose, there’s a good chance they’re goners.

Death Star is a good read. If the authors had handled the ending differently, I would recommend it as one of the stronger EU novels, but as it is, it merely rises to the top of the mediocre books.

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The Forever War

October 3, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

foreverThe Forever War by Joe Haldeman


This is my first time reading The Forever War, which surprises me. A few years back, I embarked on a classic science fiction reading project (Dune, Foundation, some Alfred Bester, etc.), and Haldeman didn’t come up at all, despite this being considered a classic of military science fiction. It wasn’t until I read John Scalzi’s Old Man War that I knew about Haldeman’s book.

Interestingly, Scalzi wrote the introduction to the edition I read and revealed that when he wrote Old Man’s War, he hadn’t read The Forever War, which surprises me. OMW feels so much like Scalzi’s take on the book that it seemed impossible that he wasn’t drawing inspiration from it. OMW hits some of the same beats and notes, sometimes at the same tempo, that without that introduction, I would never have believed it.

Much has been written about The Forever War, but it’s a science fiction novel about war in outer space against an unknown enemy. Haldeman writes about the effects time dilation at faster-than-light travel has on people, partly to illustrate how alien home life can be for real soldiers returning from their own tours. It’s no secret that The Forever War was Haldeman’s way of writing about his own experience in the Vietnam War, but even if much hadn’t been made of it already, readers would pick up on it easily.

The story is a little complicated, due to how it portrays some military habits, and how it portrays the main character, William Mandella. It was published in 1974, so it’s important to view some of the story as a product of its time, but it’s hard to tell if Haldeman is using satire to prove a point, or if he’s reflecting his own feelings on certain subjects. In one notable scene he casually mentions that the female soldiers in the war are required to be available for sex, and it’s hard to tell if it’s commentary or wish fulfillment. It comes across as sexist, but is it intended to? What’s the commentary, if there’s supposed to be any?

It’s also hard to tell what Haldeman is saying about homosexuality in the story. Mandella comes across as homophobic, though the story isn’t overtly so. It doesn’t speak out against it, but neither does it support it. The story presents it as a choice (in an overpopulated future, homosexuality is recommended as a form of birth control), and it also shows Mandella having a hard time accepting it of his own mother. Her story is also complicated, since at the time in the story when she takes a female companion, it’s not required to be homosexual. The government encourages it, but doesn’t offer any kind of incentive for choosing to be so. She’s presented as old enough not to worry about birth control, so why make that choice? It suggests that she was a closeted lesbian when Will was younger, and the changes in attitude allowed her to come out, but it’s not stated explicitly, when several other points Haldeman is making are clearer.

Mandella’s travel from one star system to another allows him to see these changes from day to day when in fact decades are passing outside of his time in battle. When Haldeman has him encounter gay troops for the first time, he presents them stereotypically effeminate, which is unfortunate. Later, the troops are presented without stereotypes, but his first thought when he takes command of his own all-gay platoon, his first thought is “They looked normal enough.” I think Haldeman is taking an inclusive approach to presenting homosexuality, but it feels more complicated because of how he portrays them through Mandella’s eyes.

Yes, a lot of the themes are satirical, and the views on sexuality should be viewed through that lens, as well as through that of the time they were written, but there’s a perspective of the author’s that bleeds through and feels wrong. It’s not just the symbolism of “the country changed so much while I was at war, and now I can’t cope”; it’s how Haldeman portrays it all that makes it feel like he doesn’t understand it at all.

I tracked down a copy of “A Separate War”, a novella Haldeman wrote in the 1990s to tell the story of Marygay, William’s lover and fellow soldier, who is separated from him when they’re given command of their own platoons. I can see readers wanting to know what happened driving the demand for the story, but I didn’t see that the novella added anything to the story to be necessary. The first several pages recap a lot of what we knew from The Forever War, and the battle that Marygay sees isn’t much different from what William sees. The only difference is that when Marygay is presented with an all-gay platoon, she dives into it herself, where William adamantly resists it. Near the end of The Forever War, one of the gay men in Mandella’s platoon decides to “go hetero” in the far future, since it’s apparently something that can be turned on and off. Again, I’m not sure if Haldeman is attempting to make a statement about sexuality here, but it’s unclear, and the stereotypes he uses further muddle the point.

I like the story, and I like the characters, but how I feel about a lot of the points Haldeman makes is complicated. I’d still recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it (especially to anyone who enjoys Robert Heinlein), but I’d be sure to offer caveats that some parts of the story feel dated. At the very least, the story encourages discussion, but it’s also a story that presents the futility of war through believable, sympathetic characters. It has a deserved reputation as a classic.

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Blood and Lemonade

October 2, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

lemonadeBlood and Lemonade by Joe R. Lansdale


I started off reading Hap and Leonard Ride Again, an e-book-only release of Hap and Leonard, a collection of short stories only available in print. Contents were shuffled some between the two editions, but then when I compared the contents to Blood and Lemonade, I realized that the three books have a ridiculous amount of overlap. There are some nonfiction pieces in the first two books that aren’t in Blood and Lemonade, along with a couple of stories, but for the most part these three books have a lot of the same contents. In the end, I read the distinct stuff from Hap and Leonard Ride Again and then read Blood and Lemonade.

The stories are decent enough, but Lansdale does his best work with longer formats. “Veil’s Visit” (co-written with Andrew Vacchs) and “Death by Chili” from Ride Again are stories from when Hap and Leonard are adults, but the pieces in Blood and Lemonade are about the two characters as children. Some are about the two of them (along with “In the River of the Dead”, which I’m surprised didn’t get its own novella release), but a large number of them are about Hap’s childhood. Some of the stories are from Miracles Ain’t What They Used to Be, which brings me back to this book having a lot of overlap with Lansdale’s other collections.

That’s kind of my biggest gripe about Lansdale, that he reprints a lot of his stories from one collection to the next. A lot of them are to account for stories that were in collections that have gone out of print, but when I buy three books (MiraclesRide Again, and Lemonade) and find a lot of duplication, I get a little aggravated. I’d prefer there being distinctive works among all the collections, since I’m likely to buy them all, anyway.

Lansdale constructs this book as a novel, tying the stories together as Hap reminiscing on his childhood with Leonard, Brett, and Chance, but it’s a loose structure. Lansdale himself calls this a mosaic novel in his afterword, but to me it still read like a collection of short stories. Many of them (all of them?) speak on issues of race and class, making the stories feel similar and repetitious. The best of the bunch is “In the River of the Dead”, which reads like a usual Hap and Leonard adventure.

I wouldn’t consider Blood and Lemonade necessary reading save for the most dedicated Lansdale fans. Even Hap & Leonard fans might find it lacking, compared to the rest of the books in the series, and yes, I’m even including Captains Outrageous in that comparison. The book does collect the disparate Hap & Leonard stories, which will be of interest to some readers, but it might be better to read the stories one at a time, over several days. It might lessen the repetition of the stories.

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Rusty Puppy

September 29, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

puppyRusty Puppy by Joe R. Lansdale


I’m not sure why it took me so long to get around to reading this book. Sure, it’s only been a few months since its release, but (a) I’m a big fan of Lansdale’s, and (b) I try to keep up with ongoing series as the new books release. I finally realized I had fallen behind and read this over a weekend.

Rusty Puppy finds Hap and Leonard in Camp Rapture, where the police are worse than the criminals. Bullies and sexual predators, they begin harassing two young siblings, which leads to the death of Jamar, the brother. Their mother doesn’t believe the story the police tell her about his death, so she hires Hap and Leonard to investigate. They seem the types who can find out what really happened.

Lately, I’ve said that Lansdale is a dependable writer. By that I mean that his dialogue is always sharp, his pacing swift, and his narrative easy. Beyond that, he can tell a razor-sharp story when given the room. His novellas (of which I’ve read several in the last year) don’t seem to give him that room, but a full-blown novel does it. This time around he gives us a novel that’s not just a fast read, but also has a solid plot to carry it along.

As usual, Lansdale touches on (rubs all over it, really) race relations in small East Texas towns. Lansdale makes sure to note that not everyone from a small town is racist, but he makes sure to show us they’re there, despite how much progress we’ve made in the last fifty years. With the real world reminding us there’s still a long way to go, books like Rusty Puppy have more relevance, and thus have a stronger punch.

Look, this is a Lansdale book. If you know him, then you know what that means. If you don’t, then you should start at the beginning and see how Hap and Leonard develop over the years. He’s well worth reading, whether or not you like crime fiction, because deep down, he’s a gifted storyteller. This whole series shows him at the top of his game.

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Mightier than the Sword

September 28, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

swordMightier than the Sword by K.J. Parker


The Emperor’s nephew, under the edict of his aunt, who is running the empire while her husband is gravely ill, is sent to investigate pirate attacks along the coastal cities. From city to city he travels, looking for clues and encountering all sorts of friends and relatives along the way. It seems that just about everyone he knows is in a position of some power in these cities, so his investigation is also a reunion. That they’re all there for different political reasons just might be a clue.

Parker is in his usual form here, with a disarmingly charming narrator whose naivete is in stark contrast against the cynicism of the story. This novella ties in with his previous ones (including The Two of Swords, if I’m not mistaken) in small ways. Books are a central theme of the story, so of course Saloninus is mentioned. I like how these stories all take place in a shared world; it gives the story a larger scope, since the small connections serve as more than just fan service.

Parker’s other stand-alone novellas are clever, setting up a complex series of seemingly innocuous events that play a large role in the conclusion. Mightier than the Sword isn’t as clever of a story as the others, but it does have a good payoff for its setup. It’s still a K.J. Parker story, and it doesn’t disappoint.

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The Force Unleashed

September 27, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

forceThe Force Unleashed by Sean Williams


I’ve only read one other novelization of a video game: The Dig by Alan Dean Foster. It made sense that it could be translated to a novel easily enough, since it was a graphic adventure game that had its own plot. The Force Unleashed is another novelization of a video game, and it’s less than impressive.

The story is about Starkiller, a powerful Force user trained by Darth Vader himself as an apprentice so the two of them can kill the Emperor and rule the galaxy together. Starkiller isn’t even his real name, either; oftentimes he’s just referred to as “the apprentice”, which was distracting and somewhat annoying. Amid missions, Starkiller is also searching for his identity, while he jets around the galaxy with his training droid and a pilot.

The main problem is that the game is a series of missions where the player has to achieve a particular goal in each one. Williams approaches the novel in the same way, giving us sections of missions, each part of a larger story, but the larger story seems inconsequential compared to the individual missions. The missions themselves are fine — they each have a distinct beginning and end — but the overall book feels lackluster because we shift focus so often.

In addition, the characters don’t make a lot of sense. Starkiller is a powerful Force user, clearly serving the dark side, but the story wants to show some redemption. I might be misremembering parts of the story, but it seems like his saving grace is that he hasn’t killed anyone yet, and it’s that act that will truly take him to the dark side. For him to have been trained by Vader, though (and for how long? In this point in the chronology, it seems like Vader has only been ruling for a few years, but this is our first time seeing Starkiller, who’s been apprenticed to him since he was an infant), it’s hard to believe that the opportunity hasn’t come up yet.

The ending of the story also contradicts the canon (even outside of Legends versus Canon), in that the entire story has been a plot for Starkiller to find and reveal the key players in the Rebellion, Bail Organa among them. By comparison, it seems odd that Vader plays a cat-and-mouse game with Leia in Star Wars when he already knows her role in the Rebellion, according to this book. I get that the movie came first, but I wonder why the story tried to shoehorn such a major character into the canon, especially when it didn’t jive with what already existed. None of this is Williams’ fault, either, since he was writing a novel using someone else’s story.

Maybe the game is interesting, but as a novel, The Force Unleashed is disappointing. There’s another book down the line, which is the novelization of the sequel to this game, and I’m hoping it will improve, but if the author is going to have to follow the game script, I imagine it will be more of the same. We’ll see.

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Harrow County: Abandoned

September 26, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

harrow5Harrow County: Abandoned by Cullen Bunn, et al.


I’m no expert on horror comics, but Harrow County is at the top of my list for that genre. It combines the weird with the graphic, the unsettling with the mood, and it creates an atmosphere that’s unique to the title. Afterlife with Archie comes close to hitting that magic combination, but that series relies a bit too much on what the reader already knows about the characters, while Harrow County fords new territory.

The story this time centers on Abandoned, the four-eyed creature that roams the woods near Harrow County. We learn more about his history and how he ties in with Emmy and her history. We also see firsthand what happens when outsiders come to town in search of the monster they’ve heard so much about, and how it rarely ends well for them.

The first half of the story is okay, but I feel like the revelation should have been more impactful. As it was, I just read it and thought, “Huh.” It makes sense, it fits the story, and it doesn’t stir anything up. Maybe it will have more relevance over the next few arcs, but I found myself much more interested in the hunters who have come to try to kill Abandoned. It encompassed the myth surrounding Harrow County, and gave us new details about it. Plus, it shows us how powerful Emmy has become, and what her choices will mean for the future of the town.

Bunn pulls in another artist for the first two issues in the book, which I wasn’t thrilled to see (Tyler Crook, as far as I’m concerned, has defined the look of the series and should be the only artist working on it), but McNeil does a good job of mimicking his style without it being a straight copy. It helps that she isn’t required to create any new characters for that half of the story.

Abandoned is half-good, half-okay, which still works out to being a decent arc. I hope Crook will remain the sole and constant artist, and I hope Bunn keeps this story going in unusual, thought-provoking directions. The series works best when it does so, and I feel like he’s set it up so we’ll see some consequences in future issues.

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