Wednesday, November 20, 2013

CBR V Review #43: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

“In the shop we buy and sell them, but in truth books have no owner. Every book you see here has been somebody’s best friend.” 

The Shadow of the Wind is both the title of this book, and the title of a significant book within the story being told.  Set in Barcelona just after the Spanish Civil War, this book tells two stories: the story of Daniel, a young man obsessed with the life of a mysterious author, and the story of Julian Carax, aforementioned enigmatic author.  Daniel comes across Carax's book in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a place he is brought to as a right of passage by his father, a bookshop owner.  Daniel adores the book and wants nothing more than to find out more about the author, and to read his other works.  However, much to his dismay, he discovers that someone has been systematically removing and burning every copy of Carax's works over the years.  Even more distressing to Daniel is that the facts of Carax's life are shrouded in mystery - a mystery he intends to solve, despite the dire consequences.

The mystery behind Carax is something that is perhaps better left undiscovered, as the stakes get higher and danger increases.  Daniel discovers plenty about himself as he looks for the truth about Carax, and his development is even more interesting than the unraveling of secrets in Carax's story.  The search for truth connects Daniel to a cast of great characters who help him along the way.  I'll leave plot summary there, since mysteries are much better left to discovery of the reader, despite the lessons Daniel learns to the contrary.

I love the characters in this.  Fermin, a friend of Daniel's who works in the bookshop with him and his father, in particular is a favorite.  He is so full of life despite what the world has done to him.  He brings most of the levity to the story, which is much needed around the heaviness of Carax's past horrors and Daniel's present danger.  Any time I knew he was involved in a scene, I expected to enjoy it, and was never really let down in that regard.  I love Daniel as well, which is great since he's our protagonist.  He grows up a lot over the course of the novel and in ways I mostly felt were very natural.

My three complaints are structural.  First, after introducing Daniel to the book, there's a bit of a side story about a friend who is a book seller with an attractive blind daughter, and shortly after a huge time jump.  This leap around makes it hard to care about anything going on until later, when the story seems to catch up to the point it wants to tell and plows steadily forward.  I don't personally see Clara (the blind daughter) as important - it feels like she's wedged in there to give contrast to Bea when she appears later.

My second objection is the shoehorning in of the bulk of truth about Carax.  After all these pieces keep coming up, almost the entire story of what really happened is spelled out in a letter from a secondary character.  This letter, I kid you not, is whole chapters of the book.  It goes on for dozens of pages, for so long that you forget you are reading a letter.  I don't like that kind of telling versus showing - it felt cheap.  My third complaint rolls into this second, as the letter is the most prominent example of another device I dislike - the shifting narrator.  For example, as this one character is outlining what happened to another character, the second character's POV takes over in a way that makes absolutely no sense.  There's no way for the character writing the letter to know it, and having it feature in the letter like that is illogical, even if the psychology is interesting.

Overall, a solid book with a good story and great characters, written in a way that needs more polish.

Monday, November 4, 2013

CBR V Review #42: Fire Dance by Delle Jacobs

In case you couldn't tell from that magnificent cover image, this is a romance novel.  Amazon recently offered me the chance to purchase anything from a selected list for only a dollar each.  All of them were romance, as the offer was based off of what I had purchased previously (in this case, my preorder of Dark Witch by Nora Roberts, which I'll review shortly).  It was an incredibly hit or miss collection, with most of them not even being worth picking up to read the first chapter. Two of them were abandoned as lost causes less than 30 pages in.  But this and two others (which have reviews coming up) satisfied me well enough to actually finish them, flaws and all.  Of the three, this is probably the weakest entry.

Fire Dance is a historical romance that tells the story of Melisande (whose name I kept changing to Melissandre in my head thanks to GoT) and the knight Alain de Crency.  Mellie (no one calls her that - I am because I don't feel like typing Melisande more than once) has lived under the thumb of an incredible sadist of a father.  She wants freedom for herself, and moreso for her people, and the death of her father seems to promise that.  The problem is that upon his demise, a Norman knight, AdC (yup, I'm abbreviating that, too) shows up to take over her land under orders from the king.  Mellie has made sure her people surrender quietly so no one can be hurt, but there is a part of the bargain she will not agree to - handing over herself as a bride.  Mellie's got some serious baggage, and she doesn't think she can have AdC, even when, while in disguise, she starts to fall for him. He sees through her disguise and takes her to wife anyway, learning her secrets as he goes, and more besides.

There's nothing particularly revelatory about this book.  Mellie is a fairly strong character, both because of what she's willing to do for her people, and what she's endured in the past (which is both terrible and predictable).  I don't know that the relationship between the two leads is developed enough for me to really buy it, and the king being a teddy bear seemed a little pathetic to me. But it was put together well enough for me to see it end.

There's much better historical romance out there, so I'd skip this one, but I don't regret the whopping dollar I paid to read it.

CBR V Review #39 - 41: Mistborn Series: The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension & The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson

“There's always another secret."

I'm reviewing this series as a whole as it seemed to make the most sense.  If you love fantasy, you should check out this series.

This series takes place in a world ruled by a tyrannical God-King, known as the Lord Ruler.  Class oppression is the status quo, with their lowest class (also known as the skaa) serving as slaves for the aristocracy.  There is a very elaborate system of government, with the day to day governing handled by fierce officials called Obligators, and where the laws are enforced by terrifying figures known as Steel Inquisitors.  Not surprisingly, not everyone is satisfied with the world as it is, filled with so much oppression and such class division.

Perhaps the most important element in this world is how metals figure in.  There are supernatural powers involved, called Allomancy and Feruchemy (and, in the third volume, we're introduced to Hemalurgy).  Allomancy is the most significant power, the ability to ingest and burn certain metals in order to gain abilities.  Of the small portion of the population bearing this gift, most can only utilize one metal, or one ability (there's a full chart of which metal does what that I am not going to reiterate here).  An example would be someone who burns pewter becomes incredibly strong.  However, a very tiny portion of people are what are called Mistborn, and these people can use all the metals and all of their powers together.  It makes them incredibly powerful, a skill the the nobility frequently uses for defense and assassination.  Skaa are not supposed to be able to be Mistborn - the use of metals comes from the noble lines, as the powers originally were a gift from the Lord Ruler to those loyal to him.  Nobles, however, are not notorious for keeping it in their pants, and sometime neglect to murder the women they force themselves on; when this happens, sometimes skaa Mistborn are the result.

Our main character is a feisty young woman named Vin.  Abused and skittish at the beginning, Vin learns of her Mistborn abilities and is trained in Allomancy by Kelsier, the Survivor of Hathsin - but more importantly, she learns how to trust from the entire gang that Kelsier leads.  Kelsier's gang, at least in the first volume, gives a very Ocean's 11 feel to the book.  They come up with an incredibly elaborate plan to overthrow the Lord Ruler, and work to see it through.  In the subsequent books, they work together to try to create a better world, and to deal with the consequences of the world going rapidly to shit due to the rising stakes of an ongoing war between two actual gods (The Lord Ruler not actually being a god, but merely exhibiting godlike qualities).

The first book focuses on the mission to overthrow the Lord Ruler.  The second is about reclaiming the power from the Well of Ascension, where the Lord Ruler originally gained his godlike powers 1000 years before the start of our story.  The third is about the fallout from what was actually in the Well, and the battle to save the world our characters are now left with.  The books have a wonderful build to each climax, and while Sanderson may not be George RR Martin, he isn't afraid to let you know that the characters you love are not necessarily safe.  The stakes are high and grow progressively higher, but there is almost always a sense of levity to much of the proceedings.  Kelsier's Crew is filled with fantastic characters that you can't help but love, even when they are doing less than reputable things. There is less humor to the final volume of the trilogy, but that's to be expected when you move to a war between gods.

Book 1 is unquestionably my favorite, and a story I wish I could have stayed in longer before its conclusion.  There's such delicious, playful energy about it, even as terrible things are happening.  Kelsier's absence is keenly felt in the second two books, as his sense of lightness about everything really makes you fall a little bit in love with him.  His easy laughter is a lot of what keeps the first book lighter in tone, and the crew aren't the only ones to miss him when he's gone.

Definitely a series worth exploring, and one I'm glad I took the time to enjoy.