Brilliance of the Moon: Scars of Victory

October 13, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

scarsBrilliance of the Moon: Scars of Victory by Lian Hearn

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After over 1000 pages, the Tales of the Otori comes to a close as Takeo finally fulfills his destiny and exacts his revenge on those who started his journey at the very beginning of the series. As befits the saga, his journey is filled with sacrifice, betrayals, and honor, and it all comes together in Scars of Victory. As the title suggests, Takeo is likely to win, but at what cost?

For the series to be that long, I’m surprised that the story feels less epic than other fantasy stories. One part of it is that the series isn’t a traditional fantasy, but the main part is due to the story being more personal than other epics. A Song of Ice and Fire is a sprawling epic with a large number of characters, but Tales of the Otori is about Takeo and Kaede. Other characters and events play into the story, too, but by centralizing her focus, Hearn gives intimacy to the story, bringing the reader closer to her characters than the events that drive their stories.

It feels like little happens in the series, but Hearn’s style of writing belies how much actually takes place over the span of its 1300 pages. I believe I’ve mentioned her gentle style in each of the reviews preceding this one, but it’s true: Her narrative lulls you into a false sense of peace. I love that style.

It’s hard to think of who I’d recommend read these books. They don’t follow the traditional epic fantasy structure, despite being a part of that genre, and they aren’t strictly historical novels, either. I guess I’d recommend them to anyone who finds their summaries intriguing, and would suggest starting with the first one and seeing if you take to it. I’m not sure what I expected from it, overall, but I was surprised I liked it as much as I did.

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Brilliance of the Moon: Battle for Maruyama

October 11, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

battleBrilliance of the Moon: Battle for Maruyama by Lian Hearn

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Tales of the Otori has been about Takeo and Kaede, first and foremost. The plots are complex enough to keep a reader engaged, but the real focus of the books have been the two main characters and their relationship. Their stakes have risen, and the plots against them are circling closer, as we enter the third act of the saga. Given that the last book ended on a cliffhanger of an ending, none of this is a surprise.

Hearn brings in a new point-of-view character here, Shizuka, which felt odd to me. It was necessary to bring her in to tell all the angles of the story, but to bring her in so close to the end of the story feels clunky. I feel like authors should know which characters will be central to their story from the beginning, and use them as POV characters from the start so they won’t be introduced so suddenly later in the story.

Her style continues to enchant, and her characters are intriguing. Nothing stays still as Hearn takes us through to the events that will conclude the series, but there’s still a gentle, susurrating pace here that lulls you into a false feeling of complacency. It’s a strange dichotomy, but it works remarkably well.

Battle for Marumaya isn’t a book to read by itself; you’ll need Scars of Victory on hand to finish this series quickly. Of course, the book isn’t one to start with, either, since if you do, you miss out on Takeo and Kaede’s relationship developing over the previous two books. Take my word for it: start at the beginning.

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Grass for His Pillow: The Way Through the Snow

October 10, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

snowGrass for His Pillow: The Way Through the Snow by Lian Hearn

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This book is the end of Grass for His Pillow, the second book in the Tales of the Otori, and it has the same structure as most second-books-in-a-trilogy: It ends without much resolved. Hearn brings a couple of subplots to a close here, but for the overarching, political plot that covers this entire series, the book raises the stakes and takes us to the heart of the conflict, and then steps away and lets us wait for the next book.

Luckily, I have the next book(s) in hand to keep the story going, but this kind of structure annoys me. Unfortunately, this is how trilogies work now. I’ve noticed it ever since The Matrix Reloaded, but I expect it’s been going on since before then. There are exceptions (The Obelisk Gate didn’t leave me hanging as much as I would have expected, and The Empire Strikes Back is a perfect second-movie-in-a-trilogy in that it does all it should for the larger story while maintaining a structure all its own), but lately it seems like those second books have to end in such a way as to guarantee readers will return for the third. I’d boycott them all together if I didn’t get invested in them for two books.

Hearn tells the story in her unobtrusive style, which is wonderful. Stuff happens, but it always feels like you’re along for a gentle ride, even as it does. Takeo and Kaede continue to serve as the central characters, and their relationship defines the story. The third book, I expect, will bring the overarching plot to a close, as all the preparation and setup of the first two books will collect there, but all of it derives from their relationship.

Hearn continues to tell a good story, though it suffers from being book two in a trilogy. Readers who have come this far with the story will want to keep reading, and those who might be interested in the premise should start at the beginning. It takes a little while to get into it, but once you are, it’s hard to quit it.

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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

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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

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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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Mightier than the Sword

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

swordMightier than the Sword by K.J. Parker

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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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Gwendy’s Button Box

September 19, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

buttonGwendy’s Button Box by Stephen King & Richard Chizmar

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I’ve only read one other piece of fiction Richard Chizmar has written — Dirty Coppers, a novella he co-wrote with Ed Gorman. It was terrible. At the time, I was a big fan of Gorman’s, and I was convinced it was Chizmar’s input that made it bad, and I never read anything else he wrote. I wasn’t purposefully avoiding it, but it wasn’t a name that inspired confidence, either.

Gwendy’s Button Box is making me rethink that position.

The novella starts off in King’s usual, conversational style, introducing us to one of his likable, sympathetic characters, Gwendy, who is twelve years old at the start of this story, in 1974. She’s being teased at school for her weight, and she’s begun running to slim down before she gets to junior high school. One morning, when she reaches the top of the Suicide Stairs, she meets a strange man in a black bowler hat who asks her to take care of a box with buttons on it.

Of course, the box is magical. It has two levers, one which dispenses chocolate candies, the other which dispenses mint condition, 1891 silver dollars, but it also has eight buttons on the outside. The strange man tells her the buttons represent the continents, with one representing whatever Gwendy chooses, and another representing everything. He never tells her what pressing the buttons does, but somehow she knows just the same.

The story takes us through Gwendy’s life, from junior high through her college years, and we see how the box affects her life. It’s mostly good, but it also has a strangely negative effect on her life, though it doesn’t affect her personally. Gwendy is more the box’s caretaker than its owner, and it has its own way of staying in her life. The entire story reads and feels like a Stephen King story.

I read an article about how the collaboration came to be, and the first 7,000 words are all King, with Chizmar picking it up from that point to carry it further, and then they started sending it back and forth for each one to write more to the story. Without knowing that, though, I would have expected it to be mostly King’s story, with Chizmar adding small pieces here and there. That he was able to take a King story and keep it going with the same voice, tone, and style is impressive. I actually have a collection of Chizmar’s stories, which I wasn’t enthused about reading, but now I feel like I have to give it a chance.

King’s Constant Readers will read this book (if they haven’t already; even though it’s published through Chizmar’s specialty press, one can find the book in Barnes and Noble), but anyone who enjoys a gentle, character-driven story should also read it. The story has its moments of darkness and violence, but for the most part, this is, as the title suggests, the story of Gwendy and her box. King’s strongest talent is in his characterization, and Gwendy is proof of that.

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Secret Origins

September 15, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

secretSecret Origins by James Riley

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The Story Thieves series continues down its metafictional road, this time turning to comic books to drive its story in Secret Origins. Owen and Bethany get sucked into the world of Doc Twilight, who they both believe to be Bethany’s father. Though the two of them have sworn off jumping into books after the debacle of The Lost Chapters, the thought of finally finding Bethany’s father is too great for them to ignore. Plus, Owen is convinced that he knows about about comics to keep them safe, but this is the third book in a five-book series; of course it’s not going to go as planned.

Riley is ramping up the conflict with this book. The first two books in the series were more standalone, and while Secret Origins has its own plot to resolve, it’s also focusing more on the over-arching conflict of the entire series. The secrets behind Bethany’s father’s disappearance are coming more in focus, and are indicative of a larger problem that she and her friends will have to overcome. Interestingly, Kiel is notably absent from the book, though Earth Girl becomes a central character for the first time. This makes sense, considering that this book is focused on comic books, and Earth Girl is a comic book superhero.

Secret Origins isn’t as clever as The Last Chapters, but it’s still entertaining. I found myself laughing aloud more with this book, though it did take me a lot longer to finish. The story wasn’t as compelling, and it was harder for me to stay with the book for extended amounts of time. By the end, I was just ready to be done with it so I could move on to the next thing. Still, anyone who’s come this far will want to keep reading, and it would be disingenuous of me not to say I plan on reading the fourth book when it’s released.

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The Stolen Chapters

September 8, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

chaptersThe Stolen Chapters by James Riley

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Story Thieves was clever, but derivative, populated with characters who were hard to care about in the beginning. The story improved, but about halfway through, I wasn’t sure if I would keep reading the series. By the end of the book, I still had concerns, but it wasn’t terrible, and I had already received the book from the library, so I figured I’d keep moving forward. If nothing else, it wouldn’t take long to read, being a juvenile book, right?

I’m glad events conspired to keep me reading, because The Stolen Chapters is a much better story than Story Thieves. The plot is more complex — Owen, Bethany, and Kiel are suffering from amnesia in a plot that involves them going head-to-head with a criminal genius — and the characters start out being likable, since we got to that point at the end of Story Thieves. Plus, Kiel’s arrogance has tempered, Owen is no longer trying to use his friends for his own means, and Bethany becomes more of a central character in the main plot.

The story starts in media res, with everyone waking up to find themselves in danger, with no memory of how they arrived there. It works well to draw the reader in, since we only get the answers when they do, and it’s a surprisingly complex, clever plot that takes the central idea from the first book and makes something more compelling out of it. This is the book I feel like Story Thieves should have been, but Riley had to cover the events in Story Thieves to get us to the point where The Stolen Chapters would make sense.

I’d recommend this book to juvenile and adult readers with an interest in book-jumping, but the problem is you have to read the less interesting Story Thieves first. I have to remind myself of my graphic novel rule: Don’t judge the entire series off of the first book alone, since first books are mostly exposition. I’m just not used to having to do that with book series, too.

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Agents of Dreamland

August 14, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , , )

agentsAgents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan

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Agents of Dreamland is my first exposure to Caitlín Kiernan. I’ve known of her for a long time (I even had a copy of Silk for a long time), but she never pinged my radar enough for me to read her work. Later, I found a quote of hers where she discarded the use of plot in creative writing, and I, being a function-over-form reader, figured she wasn’t for me. I kept hearing good things about this novella, though, and I figured it was time to try her out.

I’m glad I did, because what I found is a story that has some plot (just enough, really), but excels for its use of language, atmosphere, and mood. It’s a piece that draws on The X-Files as much as Lovecraft, and it paints a picture of a moment that presents a terrible future. It flows through time, and introduces us to a couple of characters who appear to be on the same side, but are only marginally so. We don’t get caught up in their relationship, nor are we presented with the characters in such a way that we find ourselves immediately relating to and caring for them, but that’s not the point of the story, so it’s hard to complain about it.

Kiernan has an hallucinatory style to her narrative that’s a perfect fit for a story like this. Lovecraft’s nameless horrors have always resembled something from a bad acid trip, and here we have a writer who embraces that style with her writing. She also peppers the story with some named horrors lifted right out of our reality, giving the book a sense of reality, and reminding us that we don’t have to look far to find something to fear. The novella is an unsettling piece of work.

Suffice it to say, I’m impressed. I’m not sure if her style would sustain me over the length of an entire novel, but I’m more willing to give her a shot now than I was before. Agents of Dreamland strikes me as a perfect starting point for Kiernan. I can see that she wouldn’t be a writer for just anyone (heck, the jury’s still out on whether she’s one for me), but readers who like the dark and questionable and enjoy stories that aren’t traditionally told should give her a chance.

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