Two Serpents Rise

June 7, 2017 at 1:12 pm (Reads) (, )

serpentsTwo Serpents Rise by Max Gladstone

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I may have waited a bit too long between finishing this book and reviewing it, as already I feel like I’m losing some of the details from the book. On the other hand, good books tend to linger in your mind, so maybe the fact that I’m already forgetting parts of it is a bad sign. It definitely didn’t have the same kind of punch as Three Parts Dead, which might be due, in part, to much of the world-building already having been done. It didn’t feel as interesting, either, which is the main source of my disappointment.

Don’t get me wrong: There’s a lot of cool stuff here. The water demons are especially memorable, and I think it’s a great idea that a world that trades in magic uses parts of their soul as currency. Plus, Gladstone draws on Mayan and Aztec culture to populate this city, which is something not seen often in fantasy fiction. He even adds a living skeleton as the CEO for one of the companies in the book, which was cool, except I’m a reader of The Order of the Stick, so I kept getting Xykon stuck in my head whenever he appeared in the story. I can’t fault the author for that, though. The biggest problem for me is the main plot is mostly a love story, when all of the other subplots in the book would have made for a better focus.

Caleb, our main character, works for a company that supplies water to a desert region, so it’s a big deal when he’s called out to investigate the possible poisoning of one of their reservoirs. Once there, he encounters a female runner who catches his attention, and, by all rights, is likely responsible for the poisoning. Smitten, Caleb proceeds to make a bunch of stupid decisions that prolong the investigation, simply because he’s convinced she couldn’t be involved. The story is still engaging (possibly more than Three Parts Dead, just because a large part of the world-building isn’t required here), and the plot is complex without being complicated, but I feel like Gladstone was aiming for a younger crowd by zooming in so much on that relationship.

What I like most about this book — and the series overall — is that it’s so different from Three Parts Dead. Instead of writing multiple books about the same character, Gladstone instead creates an entire world where each book can stand independent of the rest, because there’s so much possibility there. I wasn’t so disappointed in Two Serpents Rise that I was ready to give up on the entire series, but the fact that Gladstone’s universe is big enough to support a variety of possible stories gives me more of a reason to keep reading. That the story is about a water management company, and is still interesting, is a feat all by itself.

I’m taking a break from the series for a book or two, not out of lack of interest, but because I have a couple of new books I’ve been wanting to read. After that, I plan to return to Gladstone’s world and see what else he has up his sleeves. So long as he stays a little further away from the romance in them, I expect to like the rest of them as much as I liked the first.

 

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The Two of Swords: Part Thirteen

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

swords13The Two of Swords: Part Thirteen by K.J. Parker

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True to form, Part Thirteen picks up immediately after the end of Part Twelve, as Corason rides out of town. Immediately, Corason picks up someone trailing him, who he ultimately learns is Eudaemonia Frontizoriastes. She wears a veil, which put me in mind of Lysao, from Part Eight, but it turns out she’s someone different. She’s from the East, where women can be ordained as agents, so maybe that gives us an additional clue regarding Lysao? Possibly. It’s Parker, so we’ll have to guess until we know for sure.

This is a short chapter (24 pages!), but that’s probably for the best. Corason is annoying, and while Eudaemonia is more interesting, their banter is a little tiresome. What redeems the chapter is what we learn about the war. Something curious is going on, which could mean that Forza is still alive (no one seems to believe he is, but Parker hasn’t shown us a body yet, either), or it could mean something else. What that something else could be, though, is still a mystery. Maybe. Parker writes in such a way that he doesn’t give you all the answers explicitly, though all the answers are in the story. I’m not paying close enough attention to get it all.

I’ve seen people complain about the price of each chapter, and with Part Thirteen, I can begin to understand it. I mean, if this book runs 23 chapters, I will have paid $22.77, which is still cheaper than a lot of hardcover books, but to pay the same price for 24 pages when the other chapters run 50-70 pages, I can sort of understand it. Of course, this far along, I’ll keep paying for them as they release them. I can’t deny that it works as a marketing ploy.

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The Two of Swords: Part Twelve

June 5, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

swords12The Two of Swords: Part Twelve by K.J. Parker

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So, we get another look into the Musen/Axeo relationship, though it doesn’t start off that way. These guys aren’t my favorite characters in the series, so it’s hard to muster up a lot of interest for them, though the story (such as it is) keeps me interested. The chapters now seem more about individual adventures, which is good for the chapters, but less for the overall story. It seems like it’s ticking along slowly, though the more we see of the other characters in the story, the more we learn of the Lodge and its machinations.

As usual, Parker’s style and narrative carries the chapter, as the banter between Musen and Axeo is sharp and witty. We see the relationship from Musen’s viewpoint this time, which is nice, since he’s such a quiet character. We also learn more about his loyalties, to the Lodge and to other interests, which is a nice aside, since Musen has come across as such a selfish, self-interested character thus far. That could be why he’s not one of my favorite characters, but with what we learn here, he becomes a little more sympathetic.

Part Twelve is a bit lackluster, but it keeps the larger story moving along enough to keep my interest. I’m winding down to the last of the available chapters. I feel like I should start pacing myself, but it’s hard, when the end (for now, at least) is in sight. It looks like Part Sixteen won’t be available until June, so I’ll have plenty of time to let the story settle before picking it back up again.

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The Two of Swords: Part Eleven

June 2, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

swords11The Two of Swords: Part Eleven by K.J. Parker

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According to my notes, I’ve read 650 pages of The Two of Swords. That seems a bit high, considering I’m not even halfway through the entire series, based on the 23 parts that are currently available for purchase or pre-order. Then again, maybe this is Parker’s version of A Song of Ice and Fire.

(I’m fine with that, by the way. As much as I like Martin’s epic, it takes itself so seriously that it could use a nice foil like The Two of Swords. Parker’s story is just as serious, behind the scenes, but it’s awfully fun reading his style over his own kind of epic tale. It’s almost like it’s poking fun at the genre while being an homage at the same time.)

In Part Eleven, we return to Axeo, Oida’s brother (is it a return? I get the feeling we’ve already met Axeo, but I can’t recall. It’s times like these I wish the series had its own Wiki so I could keep up with this stuff), and even watch the story pick up from the moment Part Ten ended, when Frontizo was preparing to write a letter to Axeo. Oida’s brother is paired with Musen, the thief who featured in parts one and two, among other chapters, and the two of them are on a mission to retrieve something for the Lodge. The two men can only barely tolerate one another, so much of the story involves their banter, though “banter” is a generous term when Axeo is pretty much the only one carrying on the conversation here.

As the story progresses, it’s becoming clearer that the Lodge is a major force in Parker’s world, and it makes me wonder if, by the end of the story, we’re going to realize that everyone in this world is a Craftsman. The story has also referenced Saloninus, the genius who featured in both Blue and Gold and The Devil You Know, so I now know for sure that this book is in the same world as Parker’s other novels, and I wonder if the Lodge has been referenced in those books. It makes me regret not reading this series in order of Parker’s other works, but there’s not a whole lot I can do about it now.

(Also, it’s somewhat confusing to read this series while also reading Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence. There are Craftsmen in both, and I keep having to make a mental note to shift gears as I settle into one story or the other.)

The endings of the chapters are becoming more and more cliffhangers, which could be Parker trying to keep us more interested in reading the next installment of the novel, but now that the story is really underway, and we’re seeing the intricacy of the characters and the plot, it might just be that this is the best way to tell the story. Moving from one chapter to the next as I’m able to do now is helpful, but this won’t always be the case. Maybe I’ll feel differently once I have to take a seat on the waiting train, too.

I didn’t like this chapter as much as the others, since it didn’t reveal much more of the plot or the characters. There’s a good chance that it will have more relevance in later chapters, but I told myself I was going to rate these installments on their own, or at least in context of everything that preceded them. I trust Parker to keep the story interesting, but as a standalone adventure, this one lacked much of what the others had.

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The Two of Swords: Part Ten

June 1, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads)

swords10The Two of Swords: Part Ten by K.J. Parker

—–

Writing a book as a serial, I think, is a lot like writing a graphic novel. We get arcs that are interesting, interspersed with arcs that move things forward, but are, honestly, a bit boring. I’m seeing that with The Two of Swords, too, as the action has to ebb and flow to support the story. Part Ten feels like a chapter of introspection to fill in some of the details of what we haven’t seen thus far.

This time around, Oida finally takes the stage, after he has separated from Telamon in Part Nine. He’s on his way to a couple of concerts, with some Lodge business to take care of along the way, so much of the story is just him traveling through the countryside. True to Parker’s style, though, what we see along the way tells us much of the state of the empire. The war has left a lot of devastation, not just among the armies, but among the populace, as well. It’s not at A Song of Ice and Fire levels, but it’s certainly not insignificant, either. That seems to be the point of this chapter, though Oida’s duties for the Lodge carry that portion of the story.

What gives this chapter its one-two punch is the ending. It’s hard to praise it without spoiling it, but Parker’s knack at building characters shines here. Part Nine didn’t have much happening, either, but it was a formidable part of the story because of how Parker progressed the story, and how he highlighted the relationship between Oida and Telamon as a way to speak more about the Lodge. We don’t see that kind of relationship here, but we do get more insight into Oida, while learning a bit more about the war that’s taking place behind the stories.

The chapter ends suddenly, enough so that if I didn’t already have Part Eleven in my queue to read, I’d be a bit torqued. I can’t say that’s a bad thing, since it shows I’m wrapped up in the story. I only have five more chapters to go before I have to play the waiting game like all the other folks reading the series. I’m not looking forward to it, but that I’ve come this far into it and want to know what happens next is saying something.

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Three Parts Dead

May 31, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, )

threeThree Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

—–

The Craft Sequence has been on my radar for a while, but up until a few weeks ago, it hadn’t been a contender for reading outside of my normal schedule. That changed for two reasons: a friend of mine recently finished it and gave it a great review; and I read an article by Gladstone where he talked about the importance of character. The article was sharp and on point, and I realized if someone had that innate of an understanding of character, it was probably time for me to read his books.

Three Parts Dead is the first of five (so far) novels in the sequence, all told out of sequential order. Here, we meet Tara Abernathy, a woman who recently graduated from what amounts to mage school, but the mages here — known as Craftsmen — use their powers to enforce the law. When a god dies, she’s hired by a firm to help determine what caused his death, and how they can resurrect him. Simple stuff, right?

The book is touted as a combination urban fantasy and legal thriller, but honestly, it felt more like an urban fantasy mystery to me. I might be splitting hairs with my distinction, but other than the fact that part of the story takes place in court, I wouldn’t have thought of this as a legal thriller at all. It’s well written, with a complex plot that wraps up without cheating the reader, and it’s full of realized characters and creative ideas. It reminded me of China Miéville, though much more approachable and readable.

Gladstone fills this book with a lot of ideas — gods, vampires, and mages only touch the surface of his well — so much of the story is world-building. There’s a lot of it, but none of it feels out of place. Instead of relying on info-dumps throughout the story, Gladstone lets the details grow organically through dialogue, situations, and characters. It means that it will take a little more time to get the story, but I kind of like that approach to a story anyway.

There were moments in the story where I got lost, thanks in part to how much Gladstone was putting into the story, but it was also due to his getting too poetic in his narrative. He kept making comparisons that weren’t concrete (at one point he described something being “black as love”, or close to it), and they drew me out of the story. I get the feeling he was trying to avoid cliches, but I prefer similes that aren’t vague; they don’t make any sense in the end.

Overall, though, this is an impressive story. By the end, I was caught up enough in the story that I had to postpone my bedtime, and as the story drew to a close, the tension grew to the point where I could almost feel it. I had already picked up the remaining books in the series, thanks to all the good I had read about it, so I’m glad it turned out to be as good as I expected. I just hope the fact that they’re all published out of order won’t affect the rest of the series.

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The Two of Swords: Part Nine

May 30, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads)

swords9The Two of Swords: Part Nine by K.J. Parker

—–

Story-wise, not much takes place here. We see the clock of machinations tick forward one second, which is important (those loose ties from earlier parts are starting to tighten), but to say that not much takes place in this part isn’t correct. We get another story from Telamon’s point of view, this time with Oida. It opens with Telamon making a prison break, and ends with another one. Who it is and what it means I’ll leave for you to discover; narratively, the two scenes bookend the part.

The point of Part Nine, I think, is to focus on the relationship between Telamon and Oida. Parker’s characterization skills shine here, as he builds up their relationship through frustration, annoyance, and respect. Oida is supposedly a womanizer, but it’s hard to get that from the way Parker portrays him throughout the entire story. We only ever see him interact with one woman, Telamon, so it’s hard to understand why he has such a reputation, unless, as is Parker’s style, it’s a red herring. By now, we know that there’s something more to Oida, not just because he’s a Craftsman; maybe his womanizing is an act to keep his cover. Time will tell, I’m sure.

This part keeps the story moving, but just barely. Still, it’s an enjoyable read, more so because we get to see more of the banter that is such a strong part of Parker’s style. It looks like Oida is going to be the point-of-view character for the next chapter, which should be interesting. So far, we’ve only seen him through the perspective of other characters. George R.R. Martin showed in A Song of Ice and Fire that when we only see characters through the eyes of others, we never see their true selves. Parker seems to be following that same kind of narrative, so it will be interesting to see Oida’s true self in the next part.

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The Two of Swords: Part Eight

May 29, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

swords8The Two of Swords: Part Eight by K.J. Parker

—–

Maybe I’m a little slow, but the story is starting to become clear to me. That is, it’s becoming as clear as a story about war, subterfuge, espionage, and secret societies can be. Maybe a better way to put it is my eyes are more open as to what’s really happening. I should have known that Parker wasn’t going to tell a standard story of war with The Two of Swords; I think my problem with not seeing it sooner as I’ve only read his novellas, where that moment comes a little faster.

For the record, in the Tarot set that Parker uses in his story (and I’m afraid I don’t know enough about real Tarot decks to know if it’s a real Tarot deck he’s using as inspiration, or if he created his own) twos are the wild cards. Additionally, Swords isn’t a suit in a standard deck; those are from older decks. Again, I might be slow, and this may have been obvious in earlier parts of the story, but I’m like Musen here where I’m not paying enough attention to catch the inconsistencies.

I mentioned in my review of Part Seven that the story seemed to be about something other than war, but I was wrong. The story is still about war, but it’s not about a war being fought on the fields. I mean, yes, it is, but the real story is behind all of that. This becomes clear at the end of this part, where Parker shines light on the economic effect of and on war, where one foolhardy decision can affect the outcome of future battles. The trick, like in Chess, is to force someone into a position where they have to make that foolhardy decision.

For the record, and for my own future purposes, here are the point-of-view characters and how they relate to the Tarot:

  • Teucer, from Part One, is the Crown Prince.
  • Musen, from Part Two, is the Thief.
  • Telamon, from Part Three, is Poverty.
  • Daxen, from Part Four, is Virtue.
  • Forza, from Part Five, is the Two of Spears.
  • Senza, from Part Six, is the Two of Arrows.
  • Glauca, from Part Seven, is the Scholar.
  • Pleda, from Part Eight, is … ?
  • Lysao, from … Part Nine? … is the Cherry Tree.
  • The Ace of Swords has been announced, but remains a mystery.

The real question, of course, is: Who is the Two of Swords? Though I suppose that’s why we’re reading this novel.

This entire series is showing its brilliance. It just takes a little while to get there, thanks to the puzzle-like nature of the plot.

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The Two of Swords: Part Seven

May 26, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads)

swords7The Two of Swords: Part Seven by K.J. Parker

—–

Here we have the shortest entry yet into the series — a scant 35 pages — but don’t be fooled into thinking nothing happens here. We get to see the situation (I hesitate to call it a war at this point; it seems to be veering into a different kind of territory) from the perspective of Glauca, the Emperor, shortly after his conversation with Senza from Part Six. Glauca is an old man, more a scholar than a warrior, and a collector of ancient Tarot decks. As part of the story, Glauca performs a reading on his own, giving the entire story a hint as to its title, and also, possibly, giving us some insight into the rest of the plot. Knowing Parker, though, there might be some clever misdirection going on with that scene. Or, knowing Parker, maybe not. It’s not like he’s trustworthy.

That’s one of the reasons I like Parker’s fiction so much. We can’t trust him to be straightforward with us, so it’s hard to tell which of his narrators to trust. It’s easy to tell who’s reliable and who’s not, but it’s not always easy to tell if Parker is playing them straight with us. It’s a strange balance, where we trust our narrators more than we do our author and don’t find it to be frustrating. I usually get a little bent out of shape when an author is being coy, but there’s something about Parker’s style — likely his wry voice and irreverence — that makes it okay.

I did a quick look-ahead at the remaining available parts (I’m almost halfway through!), and see that there are shorter chapters ahead. Given the way Parker condensed so much information into this part, I don’t see that as a detriment; if nothing else, it will help me speed through what’s left of the story. I’m not looking forward to when I’ll have to wait on the remaining chapters like everyone else, but I guess that’s my own fault, and besides, if there’s praise to heap on this series, I suppose that’s about as high as it gets.

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The Two of Swords: Part Six

May 25, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

swords6The Two of Swords: Part Six

—–

Senza Belot takes the stage to tell part of his story, following his brother Forza’s chapter. We learn more about what happened at the end of the battle in Part Five, but not so much as to get all the answers. The real question here is: Is Forza dead? If so, it could have a major impact on events; if not … well, that could also have a major impact on events. It’s important to how Senza would proceed, if he were or were not dead.

It’s cool to start seeing all the different parts begin to intersect. Teucer showed up in the Part Five, and Telamon keeps popping up, as well as Oida. We begin to see why the latter two characters keep making appearances, which raises additional questions. Hell, at this point in the story, it seems like all we have is questions. This isn’t a problem, since the story is starting to gather its legs beneath itself, ready for the jump. Right now, it keeps hinting at that jump.

One of the things I’ve liked about Parker’s books (aside from the wry style (and the endearing anti-heroes (and the borderline irreverence (it’s sort of hard to find something not to like)))) is his plots, which sneak up on you. I’m seeing evidence of one of those taking shape, which just makes me giddy. It makes me think that the story about the war is just a red herring, or else the major factions in the war are the red herrings. There’s a crimson fish in here somewhere, I guess is what I’m saying.

It took me until Part Five to see the story in The Two of Swords, and I’m pretty sure I’m hooked now. I was going to read them, regardless, but even if I hadn’t had the faith in Parker to stick it out, by now I’d be reading just for the story. The parts are getting shorter, which on the one hand is good, since I can breeze through the remaining chapters, but on the other hand, I’m just going to catch up with the end of the published parts that much sooner. I’m not sure I have it in me to pace myself to that point.

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