Fantasy · Humor

Raising Steam

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by: Terry Pratchett

Hello! It’s been a bit of a busy month for me – it was my first Christmas away from my family, my grandmother, who I was very close to, passed away, and I moved to Australia for a few months to do an internship.  It’s been super hectic and I ended up wanting something that was both comforting and distracting.  Enter Sir Terry Pratchett’s work, Raising Steam.

Fair warning, this review is going to assume you are familiar with Pratchett and his work.

I’d read about half of it before, but hadn’t finished it.  If you’re not familiar with Pratchett, he wrote this incredible comedic fantasy series, Discworld.  He started writing them in the 1980s and in 2007, announced he had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.  Raising Steam was published in 2013, the last book to be published before Pratchett passed away.

After his diagnosis, Pratchett’s writing underwent a fairly noticeable (to me, at least) change, and so the last five books he wrote are distinctly different than the rest of the series.  (A major part of that, I think, was that he found himself unable to physically write and begin dictating instead.)  The first time I tried to read Raising Steam and Unseen Academicals, I didn’t enjoy them, to be quite honest.*  But I saw Raising Steam at the library and figured, since it was a Pratchett book – and you can still tell it’s a Pratchett book – and I hadn’t read it yet, escaping to the Discworld might be exactly what I wanted.

I ended up really enjoying Raising Steam, once I stopped expecting it to be a Discworld novel.  With the progression of the Alzheimer’s and the dictation, Pratchett’s work became much less pithy and more exploratory of themes and messages.  Dialogue took up a much greater percentage of the story than previously – characters now orated for nearly entire pages, whereas in previous books, speeches were limited to a short paragraph, perhaps two.   There’s a distinct shift from presenting situations and observations to using the characters inner and outer monologues to explore morality, depth, and meaning.  I don’t think his later books are necessarily deeper or more meaningful, nor are they less; they just approach things in a very different way.

Once I had that figured out, I approached Raising Steam as if it were a proper novel, instead of a wild romp that would somehow work itself out in the end (the usual method to approaching a Pratchett story) and it suddenly became much more enjoyable.  The quality of the writing hadn’t diminished; it had just changed in unexpected ways.

The book follows Moist von Lipwig, one of my favorite Discworld characters, as he works with Dick Simnel, a young engineer who has invented a steam engine.  In his normal madcap manner, Moist finds himself leading the charge to bring Ank-Morpork, and perhaps the world, into a new era.  We see nearly the entire cast of Discworld, though some only for a page.

The character development is also unusual for a Discworld novel.  Usually, Discworld characters develop through finding or fighting their destiny or purpose, becoming who they were meant to be for the former and who they chose to become, for the latter.  Development is action focused and actions have immediate consequences.  In RS, however, there’s a lot more focus on the morality and meaning of decisions than I’ve seen previously, especially for Moist.  (Dick’s development is much more in line with classic Discworld characters.)  One quibble: the characters weren’t as distinguishable as they normally are; the long speeches and and exploratory tone meant that many of the characters’ dialogues were extremely similar.

The plot was funny, and fast, but much less rompy and with far fewer threads to track and fit together.  I felt like I had a clear idea of how everything fit together the entire time I was reading, which is not my expectation from Pratchett, at least not on the first read.  It was also, as I said, less pithy.  The humor wasn’t quick and snappy, but rather depended upon ridiculous (but completely believable) scenarios and the normal satire found there.

And now we get to the difficult part.  I’m not sure how to recommend this book – it’s an excellent comedic fantasy, of course, and I recommend it to anyone who loves satire, humor, and/or fantasy.  If you like Pratchett’s writing, you may like this – like I said, the writing is still good, just different.  But it is missing what I consider to be that essential Pratchett-ness, that pithy humor and that sense of the reader simply being along for the ride. In conclusion, all I can say is that the first few pages of this book are representative of the rest of it, so read a few pages if you’re not sure.  And it is amazing that Pratchett was able to put out a book that is still one of the best of the genre while in the grips of a terrible and debilitating disease.

*I felt like such an ass for even thinking this.

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Children's · Comedy · Fantasy · Humor

Dragons at Crumbling Castle

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by: Terry “the fantastically funny” Pratchett

I am always delighted to find a new Terry Pratchett book.  Pratchett passed away (from Alzheimer’s disease) in 2015 and though inevitably there will come a day when I have read all of his works, I refuse to hasten that day any more than necessary, preferring instead to have his books delight and surprise me in the finding as well as the reading.

I found this one in the children’s section of the library, as I was searching out His Dark Materials, and, of course, I checked out it immediately.  I’ve said before that I prefer Pratchett’s adult works to his children’s, and while that’s true, his children’s book are still whimsical and absurdly funny adventures worth looking in to.  This particular book is a collection of short stories Pratchett wrote early on his career, reworked a little before publication as a book.

Dragons at Crumbling Castle contained stories from The Carpet People but there were plenty of other stories as well. I really loved the short story format; the quick reads meant the stories were intently focused on plots and absurdities and they made for a great laugh.  Plus, I read this during a 3-day research workshop, so the short stories were about all my brain was up for.

While the writing was simple and the structure much clearer than Pratchett’s normal style, it didn’t feel like I was reading something that was only intended for children.  Rather, it felt more like an all ages-type writing – clean and structured for kids, but cognizant of the fact that adults exist and might indeed be reading this very book.  Very Pratchett-lite; I could feel the zaniness and humor that I associate with him, but the plot lines were much simpler and the characterizations that I so love just weren’t there.

The stories also go everywhere, from King Arthur’s court to a tiny speck of dust to a living room carpet to a time traveling bus.  I think this was probably the best showcase I’ve read of Pratchett’s ability to set you up in a familiar plot line and then, in the blink of an eye, whiz you somewhere completely unexpected and leave you laughing.  Not every story does this expertly – these are some of his earlier works, after all – but many of the stories.  The stories do vary more than a typical collection of short stories work.  All of them work, but some work uproariously well and others just made me smile a little and turn the page.

I loved the illustrations – simple, funny, and very fitting.  I didn’t like that some words were written in a illustrative font; for instance, “huge” might have been written in giant, bold font, and “waggle” was always written in font with offset letters.  But I could imagine this making the book really fun to read out loud with a child.

If you’re not a fan of absurdist humor, simplistic writing, or thematically loose collections of short stories, then, alas, this might not be the book for you. If you have a child in need of some humor or if you want some funny, easy-on-the-brain short stories,  I would highly recommend Dragons at Crumbling Castle. If you are, for any reason, interested in Pratchett’s craft and his development as a writer, I would strongly recommend this book.  I think there’s a lot of insight to be gleaned from these works into how he developed his wonderful voice and style.

Contemporary Literature · Fairy Tales · Fantasy · Fiction

The Emperor of the Eight Islands

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by: Lian Hearn

So I walked into a bookstore looking for a pen and walked out with 2 books, one of them being Emperor of the Eight Islands.  The blurb on the back really intrigued me – it sounded liked a darker sort of fairy tale, but set in a fantasy land based on feudal Japan.

The blurb on this one is a pretty accurate representation of the book! I really enjoyed the book – I’ve mentioned this a few dozen times before, I’m sure, but I love fairy tales of all sorts. I liked especially that it was set in a Japanese-based society; I feel like that drew me in more than it would have if it was set in a European-based one, simply for the novelty and the fun of the world building.

The story follows Kazumaru, the son of a lord who dies having lost a game of Go to tengu (legendary Japanese bird-men.) Kazumaru’s uncle takes over the estates and, in the traditions of fairy tales everywhere, does not want to relinquish his title back to his nephew when Kazumaru comes of age.  The story truly begins when Kazumaru decides to run away and find his own fate in the world, a world being torn apart by a civil war and plots for the throne.

Told in third person, the story shifts frequently from Kazumaru’s point of view to many other characters, though Kazumaru’s actions remain the driving force for the plot.  There’s sorcerers, royalty, mystical beings, magic, grudges, love, destiny, and songs about dragon children. Essentially, all the components for a good fairy tale are incorporated.

Hearn’s writing also lends itself well to the style. It actually reminds me a little bit of Robin McKinley – the same sort of slightly distant, almost impersonal approach to the characters, even as the reader learns their thoughts and feelings.  In an extended fairy tale, where the plot is of utmost importance, this style can work incredibly well and indeed I very much appreciated Hearn’s approach.  All of the human characters were complex and well developed and the non-human ones felt non-human because they were less complex.

Though terrible things happen in the story, I wasn’t necessarily emotionally invested in the actions.  This isn’t a bad thing – I like how it gave me clarity and room to think about what was happening.  It also meant I was less likely to rationalize away a character’s behavior, which, I think, is important to this particular story.  The characters, Kazumaru included, often do both amazing and horrible things and this distance allowed me to step away from the good vs. evil dichotomy and not categorize the characters but instead evaluate each action on its own merit.  Though there is a sense of a divine hand in this story, and from that a clear wrong and right, there isn’t such a sense of moral right and wrong and I loved the way the story made me think about each action to see how I truly felt about it.

I don’t know why, but I was somewhat disappointed to find that this was the beginning of a short series.  Though it does work as a self-contained story, there’s clearly room for the next novel – however, I felt throughout that this was a standalone and I have no idea why! I will be reading the rest of the series though.

Also, this is a book where the first chapter is very indicative of the entirety of the story, so if you’re on the fence, you should be able to tell by just reading a few pages whether it’s the book for you.

If you like plot-driven fantasies and a strong fairy tale vibe, you should definitely give this book a read.  If you’re not into violence or if you want a strong, intimate emotional connection to the main characters, then, alas, this book may not be the one for you.

Have you read it? Let me know what you think in the comments!

Fantasy · Historical Fiction

Sorcerer to the Crown

sorcerer to the crown by Zen Cho

(Longest absence yet! But I’m hoping to post more often.)

I was traveling around on a vacation last week and I ended up buying two books quite randomly at a bookstore. This book caught my eye, partially because of Naomi Norvik’s recommendation on the cover. I read the first page and was hooked.

Sorcerer to the Crown is Zen Cho’s debut novel.  It’s a fantasy set in Regency England. Zacharias Wythe, a young African-British magician, has just become Sorcerer Royale of Britain, much to the dismay of, well, everybody. While attempting to solve the problem of England’s fading magical supply, he meets Prunella Gentlewoman, a half-white (her background is a spoiler) charge of a girl’s school with a mysterious past and many unfeminine traits, also to the dismay, of, well, everybody.  Together, they’ll face fairies, ghosts, and Wodehouse-worthy aunts to get England set right again.

This book is amazing. It’s written in a Jane Austen-esque style, enough to put you in the Austen mindset but with full acknowledgement of the modern audience – less convoluted sentences, more nods to modern day improprieties, and less modest vagueness.  (I had actually just finished listening to Emma when I read this; it was shocking how much it sounded like Austen!) Cho writes with a charming lightheartedness. Despite the Austen-like style, this is an adventurous fantasy.  The plot twist and turns and takes you on a merry romp.  I bought in completely to both the period setting and the fantasy elements; not an easy task!  It was the perfect escapism book; I read a lot of it sitting in an outdoor hot tub in a garden and I couldn’t have picked a more perfect book for the setting.

Without ever deviating from tone or style, Cho directly portrays the racism and sexism the main characters face.  The book never becomes about racism or sexism, but it never loses sight of the characters’ experiences as people of color.  As all great fiction should, it immerses you in the experience of living someone else’s life; Cho does this masterfully.

And yet, every book has its faults.  In particular,  the pacing on this book is just too fast.  I was expecting it to turn into a trilogy or at least a duo due to the number of plotlines that were popping up and the air of importance around so many of them.  I figured one would get tied up in this book and we’d get a nice big clue about the next one, but instead, nearly everything gets resolved.  It was too much for the second half of the book and I wanted things to slow down.  Everything was plotted well, but I needed more time to explore each of the plot elements – at least one more book’s worth of time!

In short, this book is both fantastic and highly original.  If you’re at all into fantasy, but especially if you love the style of Regency romances and fantasy, or if you’ve been on the hunt for something new, great, and unusual, this book is definitely for you.  However, if you’re looking for elaborate world-building, really value pacing in an adventure/action story, or want a deep dive into the social justice issues intrinsic to her choice of main characters, this, sadly, may not be  the book for you.

Comedy · Fantasy · Humor

Coyote Blue

coyote blueHi guys! Long time, no post – but I’m finally getting back into the swing of things. (Summer has been insanely busy!) My latest read was Christopher Moore’s Coyote Blue.  

I’ve read and reviewed Moore before and he is a hilarious author, though he can be a bit hit and miss for me – sometimes I can’t put his books down and sometimes I can see that they’re funny but I don’t actually have a reaction to it.  This one hit the spot.  

It’s the story of Sam Hunter, a Crow (the Native American, not the bird) who left the reservation at a young age and became a successful insurance sales man in Santa Barbara.  Unfortunately, Sam’s spirit guide is the trickster Coyote, who decides to enter his life in a major way. 

I read this after a bit of a Native American book kick (The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian and Navajo Weapons, both excellent) and it rounded out the trio rather well.  It’s a fictional work (the other two are quasi-fictional and non-fiction) and though Sam’s relationship with his Crow heritage is focused on, the focus comes more on his spiritual connection and reconnecting with who he is, rather than what it actually means to be Native American or exploring Native American traditions in detail.  

I also liked that Moore pulled from a tradition that is largely ignored in the literature scene, though I can’t say I learned a large amount about the Crow people or their religion. However, Moore did use it to explore something that is both familiar and foreign to every American without romanticizing the culture or othering his main characters.  They were the same wacky everyman that Moore generally writes about.  Sam’s struggle with his heritage and going home, while unique to his situation, is something most people can identify with. (Though, generally not with a crazy spirit guide leading the action.) 

That being said, I did like Anasazi Boys more in terms of using a religious or folklore tradition not usually scene within Western literature.  Coyote Blue was still really good, though, don’t get me wrong. 

The plot was fast-paced but not terribly convoluted.  I had an easy enough time following it and by about halfway through the book, I had reached a “can’t-put-down” state of reading.  Moore used flashbacks and storytelling to great effect – though I like short legends interspersed throughout, I’m not a huge fan of flashbacks but his usage didn’t bother me.  

The characters were actually very well-done.  I wanted to hate Sam, but instead found myself rooting for him.  Calliope should have come off as annoying but instead came off as sympathetic.  And Coyote – you wanted to pity him but rather found yourself amused by his bravado.  Some of the side characters were a little too caricature-ish for my tastes, but they didn’t play prominent enough roles for me to get annoyed by it. 

The humor was good, though expect it to get a tad crude or violent at times (nothing too horrible!).  There are a few one-liners you’ll want to quote to your friends and more than one scene where I found myself chuckling in public, though not outright laughing.  

Overall, if you like comedic fantasy and you’re looking for something bright, funny, and a bit different, you should definitely check this out! If you’re into a humor that’s more wit and wordplay than zany wackiness, or if a hard-to-like main character isn’t your thing, then, alas, this may not be the book for you! 

Children's · Fantasy · YA

I Shall Wear Midnight

I shall wear midnightby: Terry Pratchett

Ah, two Pratchett novels in less than 7 days! My mom got them for me for Christmas and I ended up reading them one right after the other, due to my current need for light reading to relieve stress.

I Shall Wear Midnight is the most recent installment in the Tiffany Aching series that Pratchett writes for the young ones.  They follow the tales of Tiffany Aching, who starts off deciding to be a witch in The Wee Free Men and finally comes into her own as a witch in I Shall Wear Midnight.

My favorite Pratchett quote comes from The Wee Free Men, actually. It is sheer Tiffany, though she doesn’t say it, and goes as such:

“If you trust in yourself. . .and believe in your dreams. . .and follow your star. . . you’ll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy.”

Tiffany is a great character.  She’s smart, perceptive, and full of common sense.  I’ve liked her in both books, even as she is noticeably more mature in this one. It’s hard to grow a character well, but Pratchett does it.  Tiffany, from whose point of view the book is told, in third person limited, has a sympathetic yet firm way of looking at people. This is helpful, as a dark force is beginning to turn the population of the Chalk and Ank-Morpork against witches and Tiffany must find a way to save herself without turning against the very people she’s supposed to help.

The book starts off with (spoiler!) a man having brutally beaten his daughter.  There are somewhat extenuating circumstances – dark forces are at work – and this and that happen, but in the end, the man never really receives punishment for his actions.  In contrast, there is a female character who is rather unpleasant, yet still a good person, and she receives a distinct comeuppance.

Don’t get me wrong – there was a whole lot this book got right but… That really didn’t sit well with me.  Perhaps because domestic violence, especially against women, too often goes unpunished in our society. Perhaps because the man who was deplorable but maybe redeemable didn’t require a punishment but the unpleasant yet good woman did; why is it easier to freely forgive a man beating his daughter than a woman being rude?

Anyway, onto things I really liked about this book.  Tiffany, like I said, is amazing, and the whole crew – Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Oggs, and the Nac Mac Feegles – is there.  I loved Tiffany’s insights into growing up female and her interactions with Leticia, the other main female character.  Though they don’t quite develop a friendship, I thought the interactions between Tiffany and Leticia were the best parts of the book.  I especially loved how Tiffany, now working full-time as a witch and making adult decisions on a daily, if not hourly, basis, does not let anyone call her (or Leticia) a girl.

Tiffany’s narration of the plot was a nearly perfect blend of observations, reactions, and analysis.  Enough mundane things happened that you got a sense of who Tiffany is, and how the village runs, but never get bored.  Then the exciting and adventurous things occur, of course, and while I got swept up in them, I never lost the narrator.  It always felt like Tiffany was present and experiencing and reacting to the events rather than telling a story.

On the whole, it’s an excellent older child’s/YA fantasy book – better than most, I would say.  But – Pratchett’s Aching novels always feel to me like a simpler, slightly diluted version of his adult work; a toning down of the sharpest edges of wit and very little cynicism.  And I just prefer his adult novels.  I read these ones when I have a chance – but I don’t seek them out.

On the whole, if you’re looking for a YA novel with witty observations and great humor, or if you love Pratchett, you should definitely try reading this book.  If you don’t like escapism books that deliberately provoke thought, however humorously, or if you want your Pratchett with an adult edge, then, alas!, perhaps this isn’t the book for you.