Tales from Earthsea (Ursula K. Le Guin 2001)

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This is going to be a difficult book to review, in part because this is the first time I’ve tried to review a collection of short stories. Some are novella length while others are short stories. Of the stories in the collection there are five in total. The first novella length story, The Finder follows the story of how the school of magic is established on Roke Island. Darkrose and Diamond revolves around the romance of a young couple, the daughter of a witch and the son of a rich merchant. The Bones of the Earth follows Ogion the Silent as he deals with an earthquake. On the High Marsh focuses on a healer arrives in a remote village where there is a livestock epidemic. Lastly is the second novella length story Dragonfly, which acts a postscript of sorts to Tehanu and follows the girl Dragonfly as she seeks to become a wizard despite the wizarding schools only taking male students and thus follows her attempts to shatter the gender barriers prevalent within the school in the process.

The Finder was normal enough, a simple story detailing how events lead to the creation of the school on Roke Island. Given the institution’s role in A Wizard of Earthsea I found it interesting to see how the school originally developed. The use of gender roles and establishing that women played a key role in the school’s founding was a clever way of redressing the gender imbalance from the previous Earthsea novels, where women could only ever be witches as opposed to mages. The fact that these women were later excluded from the school made me feel sorry for him and I liked the novella in part because of how it addressed the issues present within the previous novels in the Earthsea series and challenging notions which were previously not discussed.

Darkrose and Diamond was interesting, in part because of the way it handled the romance between the two titular characters. However I feel like it could have been improved if it followed the female, Darkrose as opposed to Diamond since she was the more interesting character, being an independent female who struggles with being the daughter of a witch, again continuing a trend of independent female characters. The theme of strong independent female characters pops up again in The Bones of the Earth, where Ogion’s mentor learned his magic from a female mage. The

On the High Marsh was somewhat of an odd sheep and for some reason I didn’t follow it in quite the same way as the others, in part because I did not see any connections to the rest of the series and partially because somehow I found the plot somehow unremarkable. Consequently it wasn’t always the easiest story to follow and I must confess I sort of skimmed through it. The only connection to the series is when Ged appears towards the end of the story, revealing that the book was set during his time as Archmage. Truth be told, it just seemed like a weak story.

Another intriguing story was Dragonfly, which acts as a bridge between Tehanu and the next Earthsea novel, The Other Wind. It follows a girl, the titular Dragonfly. The interesting aspect about this is that once again it deals with the idea of independence and the challenging of gender roles, this time more explicitly since the main character seeks to become a mage despite being a girl and seeking to study at a school which only admits male students. The return to the school on Roke was quite welcome and showing the internal corruption amongst the mages was interesting after losing Ged as Archmage and the question is left as to who will become Archmage next.

Overall the theme of independence and feminism features strongly in a lot of the stories in the book, more so than in the previous Earthsea novels. A lot the stories challenge the idea that the way things are in the Earthsea novels are how they should be, rather she makes the reader stop and think about whether this whimsical world of hers as as perfect as she’s made it out to be. In some ways I thoroughly enjoyed a lot of these stories, not as much at the Earthsea novels themselves but still a great read.

SCORE: 4/5

IN A WORD: INDEPENDENT

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Dust of Dreams (Steven Erikson 2009)

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First off I should apologise for not updating last week. I was busy and in my rush in the rush to get other things done I forgot about the blog entirely. Thus I give my apologies and without further ado it is time to begin the review. Dust of Dreams is the ninth novel in The Malazan Book of the Fallen series and is also the second to last. Both it and the sequel The Crippled God form the last act of this rather draggy series. The book follows a number of factions but revolves around the exiled Malazan Army, lead by Adjunct Tavore as they make their preparations within Letheras to begin their march into the eastern wastelands to confront an unknown enemy. They stand ready to make a last heroic stand as dark forces threaten to swallow the world whole. The destinies of the various characters are set to become more complicated as they prepare to make one last heroic stand, but with nobody around to witness it.

Interestingly enough the novel begins in Letheras and that is where the finale seems to be set up, since that is where the exiled Malazan Army have taken residence. There we gain insight into the mechanics of the new regime, of which recurring character Tehol has been crowned King. Tehol was a disappointingly minor character in the novel, at least in my opinion, since he never engaged in much action himself and preferred to act through his brother Brys Beddict. The politics surrounding Letheras and the people left within it start to come to a head as things start to heat up.

Most interesting is how factions I haven’t previously paid much attention to, such as the K’Chain Che’Malle, seemed to factor more into this book than they had previously. To some extent this meant the book got a bit complex to me. It seemed to bring a lot of plotlines together but somehow I struggled to understand a lot of this book because it seemed to bring to a conclusion the side plots from the previous novels, which I have long since forgotten about. With a series as big as Malazan it is easy to forget things and this worked against my enjoyment of the book somewhat.

Somehow this book seemed to drag on longer than the others, in part because the book as a whole was meant to be a prelude to the next book as opposed to a novel on its own. This was something which I would have preferred not to happen since the novels are so large and complicated already, it was worse having to read two of these novels before I finally understand what’s going on. Of course by the time I’ve gotten to the end the myraid of plots and subplots mean that the book is a blur of complicated stuff which I don’t understand. This is something I’ve come to expect with the series as a whole but somehow it felt worse in Dust of Dreams.

Overall there isn’t too much to say about Dust of Dreams, it’s mostly a book of set-ups in preparation for the next novel. Not a whole lot remarkable happened in it, although my cynicism regarding this series may be starting to cloud my judgement at this stage. It was no worse or better than any of the other Malazan Book of the Fallen books. I’ll admit that a lot of it just sort of blurred together into this mess of stuff which I understood better at the beginning than I did at the end. Knowing how this goes I don’t know what the last book will have in store for me but I hope that it gives me some sense of closure from all this at least.

SCORE: 3/5

IN A WORD: DULL

Give a Boy a Gun (Todd Strasser 2000)

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Recently I picked up a strange and unique novel known as Give a Boy a Gun. I should warn you that this book is about two boys who go on a school shooting, therefore I will be talking about what may be an uncomfortable topic for some. Hence you have been warned if this is not something you want to be reading about. As a British man, my view of school shootings will likely be different to that of the average American, in part because the issue is not nearly as prominent in the UK. As a result my view of the issue may at times come across as quite alien. In some ways the gun crime in America has always intrigued me, and I must confess that I have quite the morbid obsession with school shootings, particularly the famous ones such as Columbine from which this novel seems to draw its inspiration. As a consequence the book was an interesting read.

Give a Boy a Gun has a unique style of narrative in that it tells its story in the form of interviews, compiled by Denise Shipley, the stepsister of Gary Searle, one of the shooters. The story is thus told through multiple alternate point of views which change with each paragraph giving the story and almost omniscient narrative with the way it frequently flies between each narrator. Between these are things such as suicide notes written by the perpetrators and online conversations, which often serve to add variety to the narrative. This was an intriguing thing for me, particularly the addition of online conversations since this something that is often missing in a lot of the so called “scrapbook” or epistolary novels which appear from time to time. Additions such as this make the novel feel more modern as a result, though I admit having to memorise the usernames of each of the main cast members was annoying at times. I would have maybe preferred it if they put the real names in brackets or something.

The story itself is simple. Despite never seeing things from their perspective, the story revolves around shooters, Gary Searle and Brendan Lawlor and an exploration of their gradual descent into misanthropy. The story follows the course of their time in high school and uses the interviews to give an insight into why Gary and Brendan did what they did. The novel cumulates in an account of the incident itself, which takes place at a dance during their Tenth Grade. Amongst the numerous people giving accounts of the story are a mutual friend of Gary and Brendan, Ryan Clancy and Gary’s girlfriend, Allison Findley. The latter was an interesting addition because in one way it showed that even if he wasn’t completely ‘lonely’, the bullying and teasing him still isolated Gary to the point where he wanted to go ahead with the shooting despite being in a relationship with Allison. I had mixed feeling about her role in the end however, since her role in stopping the shooting seemed somewhat contrived and in hinsight I couldn’t help but wonder if she was only there to give Gary a crisis of conscience at the last second.

To me I can’t decide of that crisis of conscience at the end was a good thing or not. In the end it results in Gary shooting himself, an event which essentially puts an end to the shooting due to the resulting shock. On the one hand it showed that he wasn’t completely far gone, but sometimes I wonder if the story would have been better if he rejected that last opportunity of redemption. It also created this power dynamic where Brendan was the “stronger” of the two. This idea of one shooter being an instigator is a trend I’ve seen in fiction relating to school shootings to the point where I actually think it’s a bit cliché in a strange sort of way. Up until that point I was hoping that it would reach some conclusion that neither would be ‘more guilty’ than the other, and I was somewhat disappointed that the story did not go in that direction.

Expectations aside, the novel was a brilliant read and one I would wholly recommend to anyone who is interested in the topic of school shootings. It reflects a lot of reality, though at times I feel like it rehashed a lot of the popular conceptions of the Columbine Massacre rather than try to construct original personalities and motivations for the shooters. However it is still a great novel. It’s a little bit on the short side but throughout the entire thing I was completely gripped. I’ve been waiting for a novel like this for some time and I’m grateful for its attempt at innovation. One of the best pieces of fiction on school shootings I’ve read so far.

SCORE: 4/5

IN A WORD: REAL

Purple Hibiscus (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 2003)

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Purple Hibiscus is one of them weird novels that I originally would not have picked up. However as part of a reading challenge I undertook at the start of the year I had to read a book set in a different country to the one I lived in. Set in Nigeria, the novel seemed the natural choice when I chanced across it while browsing for books to buy. The novel follows Kambili Achike, a fifteen year old girl who is shy and inhibited. She lives with her brother Jaja, her mother Beatrice and her father Eugene. She frequently has to deal with her father’s abusive behaviour behind closed doors, stemming from his strict Catholic beliefs. Things change when she and Jaja go to stay with their Auntie Ifeoma, who is more liberal and practices a different form of Catholicism compared to Eugene. Consequently her journey to adulthood begins as she soon begins to discover more about herself and the world around her.

The story is clearly a coming of age story where the character comes to terms with the world around them, growing up and maturing into an adult in the process. The theme of growing up and maturity, especially with regards to the way she distances herself and moves on from her father’s excessive religious beliefs. Her approach to religion is one of the ways in which she evolves, gradually moving away from the fear of committing sin which plagued her life while living under her father. A contrast with this is shown not just in the contrasting figures of her Auntie Ifeoma and her father, but also between her father and Father Amadi, a young priest whom she develops a crush on through the duration of the story.

Throughout all of this the story provides a lot of insight into the political climate withing Nigeria. The political aspects of the novel are interesting. Auntie Ifeoma is a lecturer at the University of Nigeria and the issues she suffers despite being in what would be a cosy position within most of the modern world. The idea of someone within education still suffering and being neglected by the state is something that would be unthinkable for a lot of people and thus the very notion of such a thing happening was kind of shopping. When Auntie Ifeoma leaves Nigeria at the end of the novel I’m kind of rooting for her because the Nigerian government and the University of Nigeria have done nothing but treat her like dirt.

With regard to drawbacks, I felt like the protagonist herself was a bit passive in places. I understood her being passive at the beginning since the point of her story arc is that she is shy and passive and has to try and grow out of it. Ultimately though she seems to just get caught up in the interesting events of everyone else’s lives, while having moments where she grows as a person. She never does anything interesting herself. Usually the interesting things seem to happen to others. In fact every other character seemed to act as a big mover in the climax apart from her. When her brother goes to jail, taking the blame for their mother killing their father with poison, I felt like Kambili never did much aside from take care of her mother until Jaja is finally released. So in some respects the book does have a few weaknesses. It promises some good character development for Kambili but I can’t decide on whether the novel delivered on that front or not.

Overall the novel is okay. The slice of life plot and Kambili’s passive role within the story kind of ruined it to me somewhat. It was almost like Kambili was there to act as an observer to events as times, something which seemed to hit home at the climax when events suddenly seemed to spiral out of her control. Despite this the novel provided some interesting insight into Nigerian culture, and the conflicts between the old religions and western religions such as Catholicism and the roles both things play in people’s lives. Ultimately this was a novel that I liked far more than I expected to, since I tend not to read novels like this, but still had some latent potential which it could have tapped into.

Toll the Hounds (Steven Erikson 2008)

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It’s time to review the eighth book in The Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Toll the Hounds is one of them unusual books within the series at least at first glance. The plot takes the reader back to the city of Darujhistan where the first book was set. The plot revolves around the surviving Bridgeburners, who now run a pub within the city, as they contend with assassins who wish to kill them. Meanwhile far in the city of Black Coral the threat of the cult of the Redeemer looms and the Tiste Andii seem oblivious. Meanwhile Anomander Rake, the son of darkness is set to face a challenge of his own.

A lot characters from previous novels make their return, in particular from Gardens of the Moon and Memories of Ice. Since the book shares the same setting as the first book this was natural. A lot of the characters are people whom I have long since forgotten about, with the retired Bridgeburners being of particular note. The return of Kruppe was also a welcome addition. His eccentric glory was something to be witnessed and the book is a return to form in that regard. It reminded me of how much I wished he had a large role within the series as a whole, which made me a bit sad.

The return of Anomander Rake was also welcome as well as the return to Black Coral, their city. That being said, I didn’t find it as interesting as Darujhistan, in part because I was far more familiar with some of the characters there. Black Coral felt new to me because I hadn’t seen much of it in the previous novels, and the few memories I have are very vague. Like a lot of non human characters from the Tiste species I had trouble following the ones which weren’t Anomander Rake. This is in part because I have trouble relating to non human characters, especially when there are so many different species of non human races as there are in the Malazan world. The fact that the Tiste races are essentially stand ins for elves does not help things, since I have a certain distaste for elves in fantasy novels. Consequently I could not identify with those characters well, especially since the Tiste Andii are the most non-human of the three Tiste races.

The novel for the most part seems cut off from the rest of the series, with a drop down in scale. However a few recurring characters from the main part of the series return. The most notable of these are Mappo Runt, who is trying to find Icarium, and Karsa Orlong and Samar Dev, who are continue to travel together after the events of the previous novel. Karsa Orlong’s story arc, while placing back seat compared to the other arcs, continues to be intriguing as he deals with the aftermath of his victory against Rhulad Sengar. As a whole though not a lot seems to be going on there, which I was a little disappointed by even though this isn’t too important of a novel for Karsa Orlong since he spent a great deal of the previous one in the limelight.

Overall I’m not sure what to think about it. One of the one hand I welcomed the return of certain characters, such as Kruppe and Anomander Rake. Yet I had trouble following the plot since I didn’t know the characters central to the novel as well. The problem stems from the fact that the surviving Bridgeburners whom the novel revolves around were characters whom I didn’t pay too much attention to while they were around and consequently I had to remind myself who they were every time they appeared. Regardless the step down in tone was welcome and I was more than impressed when compared to other books in the series. Now that we have finished this book it is time to move on to the last two books of the series, and consequently the final act of the Malazan series.

SCORE: 3/5

IN A WORD: COMPLEX

Firstarter (Stephen King 1980)

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Yes, it’s another Stephen King novel. I’ve had Firestarter about as long as The Dead Zone which I reviewed and I’ve only just finished it. The novel essentially revolves around a girl named Charlie McGee and her father Andy. The characters are on the run from a mysterious government organisation known as The Shop due to having supernatural powers. Andy as an ability known as “the push” which allows him to influence people’s mind while Charlie has pyrokinesis, the power to start fires with her mind. The story veers between the past and the present, showing not just the two on the run but also their origins and how they came to be on the run in the first place.

In terms of story I originally found the in media res style opening took a bit of getting used to at first. The story throws you in it and introduced you to a lot of stuff without explaining why it is happening. Yet it also had the effect of introducing the reader straight away into a tense situation and the decision to have such an opening increasing the drama of the story in many ways. The decision made the story more intense and exciting when compared to how it would had it started telling the story chronologically. In fact the gradual drip feed of information about their past, particularly about Charlie’s mother, served to add to the mystery and thrill of the story.

Character wise Charlie seems to spend a lot of the story scared and confused, understandable considering she is only a young girl. Even so she spends a lot of the story needing to be rescued by Andy. However a compelling aspect of this is that her power can easily kill people and she feels bad about using it. However there are times throughout the novel that Andy wants her to use it, which creates a moral dilemma. Namely, is it right to subject a child to those kind of horrors even if it is saving you from life inside a facility being experimented on? By contrast Andy feels like a bit of a jerk to me at times since he wants her to essentially kill people even though she is still young. Yet at the same time you feel his plight since if they get caught they will be subject to something much worse.

One thing that made me uncomfortable was the assassin Rainbird, who is brought in by the Shop during the course of the novel to help in their hunt and quickly becomes the central antagonist of the book the the point where he even takes over from the rest of the Shop as the main villain towards the end. His borderline pedophilic obsession with Charlie left me feeling unsettled in all the scenes in which he appeared. Not in the good way either, this villain made me feel sick in the stomach. Nothing concrete was there but the subtext within his scenes was over abundant in my perspective. This creepy obsession with Charlie, a young girl, made me wish for his death soon. This made him overshadow the over villains to the point where there was no other way but for him to usurp the other villains for his character arc to be complete. In reality though I think he should have been killed off much sooner so the story could have moved on to a villain who wasn’t quite as sick in the head.

The pacing of the story was okay but there were slow elements. In particular the part where Charlie and Andy are captured by The Shop felt slow compared to the rest of the book and the climax seemed to lack a certain air about it. The Shop suddenly became crazy incompetent so that Rainbird could take over as the villain, with its key members quickly falling under the thrall of Andy’s “push”, which I found disappointing. After a brief escape and some drama the ending sort of peters out before skipping to a rather boring and generic epilogue. Something sort of left around the climax and for some reason I became a lot less invested in the story once the end rolled around.

Overall the story was mostly okay. Despite being sick in the head to the point where he made me uncomfortable, Rainbird was a good villain. This was in part because of Stephen King’s excellent writing. The story as a whole just felt a bit slow in paces and perhaps if the key villain of the story was someone within The Shop I might have felt more satisfied with the ending. The parts about Charlie’s power was intriguing and the fact that she doesn’t want to use it even more so since this is something which she sticks to right up until the climax. It was a good story in places, I just felt some bits were missing.

SCORE: 3.5/5

IN A WORD: AVERAGE

Reaper’s Gale (Steven Erikson 2007)

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It’s time again to review another instalment in The Malazan Book of the Fallen series, the seventh book Reaper’s Gale. The book continues on the storyline in Letheras and is a direct sequel in some respects to both Midnight Tides and The Bonehunters, continuing from plotlines introduced in both novels. Rhulad Sengar has evolved into a mad tyrant in the years since taking the throne in Midnight Tides. Champions from various cultures arrive with the Tiste Edur fleet from The Bonehunters to challenge him including recurring characters Icarium, and Karsa Orlong. Meanwhile Fear Sengar, the emperor’s brother, seeks the soul of Scabandari Bloodeye in hopes that with his help they may be able to push back the Edur fleet and save the emperor. However he also travels with Silchas Ruin, brother of Anomander Rake, who travels with his own agenda.

The plot of the novel is a lot stronger, with a lot of recurring characters returning, including Icarium, and Karsa as mentioned above. However we see a number of returning characters from Midnight Tides return such as Trull Sengar and the other members of the Sengar family. Characters such as Toc play a role, as does Quick Ben, the latter of whom as played major roles in the plot of the series since the first book. Like in many of the books in which he has appeared, the standout character is Karsa Orlong. Despite his ruthless nature and being far from a “nice” characters he continues to be a scene stealer in every part of the novel he appears in. Karsa does a lot of badass things throughout the novel and after getting to the end I think I can safely say he is one of the best characters in the series so far. Everyone else seems to pale compared to him.

Like the other books, it suffers a lot from having too many characters. The familiar plotlines make the plot somewhat easier to understand, especially since I’ve had time to process both the plots to Midnight Tides and The Bonehunters. However the plot is still complicated and I had trouble following the plotlines of characters who didn’t get too much attention within the chapters. I’ve said this before but I feel the constant switching between characters in the middle of the chapters does not make the book easy to understand. I would have a much better time with the book if instead it was organised into smaller chapters each following one character. This is in part a bias on my part because I am not a patient reader by any means. Thus I process shorter chapters easier than I do long ones.

There were some very awesome moments in the book. Quite a few dramatic deaths as well. However some of them, particularly the people who I considered to be major characters, seemed a bit pointless and contrived. Almost as if the author just didn’t want to continue writing for them any more. Despite this there was one good death which worked, and that was the inevitable demise of Rhulad Sengar at the hands of Karsa. I knew it was coming, Karsa was too much of a badass for this not to happen. Yet the fact that he somehow managed to bring about a permanent end to someone who has up to this point been unkillable was nothing short of impressive.

The main thing that surprised me was how much I enjoyed it compared to the previous two. The last outing in Letheras, Midnight Tides was a book which I originally found quite boring. However since I was used to the characters and the main plot started to to converge there a little I found the experience a lot more enjoyable. Overall the book was still average fair along with the rest of the series but had a lot more memorable moments than the previous two books. There are bits that will stick in my head, which is more than I can ask for with this complex series. Now that we’re in the latter half of the series I can only hope that the books than keep up the pace, and possibly improve.

SCORE: 3.5/5

IN A WORD: IMPROVED