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Monday, 11 December 2017

A Dance of Cloaks by David Dalglish

I hadn't heard of Dalglish's Shadowdance series before I picked up the first in the series, but at the time I had a hankering for fantasy, and A Dance of Cloaks sounded like it would contain all I could want with regards to fantasy thieves and assassins.


A Dance of Cloaks is set in the city of Veldaren at the peak of a war between the city's thieves' guilds and a group of high-ranking merchants known as the Trifect. After five years of constant conflict, both sides are more than ready for the conflict to finish, but neither are they willing to let the other side win. Thren Felhorn, the de facto leader of the guilds and the man responsible for starting the war in the first place, is now moving his forces to destroy the Trifect once and for all. But there are other plots hatching at the same time, and the reaction of them all colliding may make ending the war a lot deadlier.
For some reason the blurb wants the reader to think that the main character is Aaron, Thren's son. While his personal storyline does make up a fair chunk of the narrative, it does oversimplify things somewhat. So instead of my usual tactic of looking at plot and character separately, here's a basic run-down of the main threads followed in A Dance of Cloaks' narrative, with some commentary.
Firstly, there is the aforementioned character arc for Aaron. As Thren's son and heir, he has a lot to live up to, and his father is determined that Aaron be the most feared and respected assassin in Veldaren, even more than Thren currently is. But the means that Thren uses, disallowing any kind of human contact that isn't furthering his education as a killer, leaves Aaron unfulfilled, leading to his adopting an alternate identity by the name of Haern. This arc was quite nicely fleshed-out, with Aaron's desire to diverge from Thren's brutal and merciless means of ruling emerging gradually and organically. The prologue at the beginning does jar a little, as it seems a bit off that as an eight-year-old he has no problem with the assassin's life, but as a thirteen-year-old he has suddenly grown a conscience of sorts. It's not a huge problem though, and I would be more than happy to continue the series to see how his development continues.
Secondly, there is the character arc for Alyssa Gemcroft, the daughter and heir to one of the Trifect houses. After being convinced by her lover that she would be a far better head of the household than her father, she finds herself caught up in a failed coup and running for her life. Confined to the camp of her lover and his father, she soon realises that they only want to get ahold of her family fortune and so she schemes with the faceless assassin priestesses of Karak to get back into her father's good graces. While I do love the political intrigue with this arc, I did have a couple of issues with the whole Karak part of it. First, and I can't believe I'm about to say this, but there's too much backstabbing within this priesthood for it to be wholly believable. A single bungled mission leads to two separate deals being made with the same person/people with the same land in the balance but slightly different aims, the priesthood having no less than three contracts on at once with both sides in the thieves/Trifect conflict, and at one point a big old purge of the priesthood is added to the mix. It's something of a mess to keep track of at times. Second, the priestesses are a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, they're powerful magic assassins and are utterly awesome. On the other hand, there doesn't seem to have been much of an effort to characterise them enough to tell them apart. The fact that they're covered head to toe in cloaks makes this even harder, because you can't even fall back on the tried and trusted "distinguish by physical appearance" method. Not as tightly written as Aaron's arc, but not bad either.
Thirdly, is the character arc for Veliana. As the second-in-command of the Ash Guild, a minor thieves' guild that is unsure of the viability of Thren's plan to attack with Trifect. As the pressure from Thren and his Spider Guild grows, however, she finds it increasingly difficult to keep the people that she loves safe. This was somewhat shorter than the previous arcs, but is all the more intense for it. It's an interesting look at the divisions within the thieves' guilds. It is the source of quite a few scenes of misogynistic violence, so if you have a particular issue with scenes of that nature, then you might want to keep that in mind if considering reading this book. Otherwise, her arc is told quite competently, if not with quite the same emotional engagement as the previously mentioned arcs.
Finally, there are a selection of minor arcs that cover how all the various schemes are started up, involving groups like the churches of Karak and Ashhur, and the monarchy. The sections involving the king are especially memorable, even if it does go for the classic "incompetent king and scheming advisor" trope. It is entertaining to see just how vacuous the king, especially when it comes to his opinion of his own effectiveness as a ruler. I'm hoping that the monarchy gets a bigger part in subsequent parts, if only to see how much worse this king can get.

A Dance of Cloaks doesn't necessarily do much that can be considered ground-breaking. For the most part, the characters are the sort that wouldn't be out of place in most other Dungeons & Dragons style fantasy worlds. But there is an intricacy at work that is impressive, if occasionally a bit over-the-top in the layers upon layers of conspiracy. Not necessarily new, but well-written and entertaining enough that it doesn't really matter. 4.5/5

Next review: Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Signing off,
Nisa.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Blood Rites by Jim Butcher

If feels like forever since the last Dresden Files book that I read, and as the last few books that I've read have left me feeling somewhat wanting, I figured going back to a series that I've had great luck with to get me back in a more positive reading groove.


Blood Rites follows Dresden as he looks into an unusual series of deaths occurring on the set of an adult film, as a favour to his White Court vampire acquaintance Thomas Raith. The director is convinced that he is cursed, as the women around him keep dying in unusual and ridiculously over-the-top fashion. It soon transpires that other members of the Raith family may be involved in some way. On top of that, Mavra, a powerful Black Court vampire, has returned to Chicago, and Dresden needs to find a trustworthy crew to help him clear out her lair before she can spread further chaos.
I definitely needed a break, and the return to the Dresden Files was just what I needed. While I didn't love Blood Rites as much as Death Masks, it was definitely still a great entry in the series. For one thing, it delves into a group that hasn't really had much time for development, the White Court vampires. Thomas has appeared a couple of times now, and there's been a bit of explanation that White vampires feed on emotional energy, but not much beyond that. Now that the main plot is centred around someone that Thomas has a need to protect, there's a lot more focus on how he and his family manage to hold their own against stronger types of vampire.
Blood Rites also provides an intriguing hint about Kincaid's true nature. While I figured that he probably wasn't human, considering that his day job seems to be looking after the living Archive of all human knowledge, this book seems to hint that he may be far more powerful than the audience had been led to believe. I will definitely be keeping an eye out for him, as there's currently not enough information given for me to try and make an educated guess.

Overall, this feels like Blood Rites is the Dresden Files book of small progressions. While it's very well-written and entertaining, it doesn't feel like this is quite the same level of challenge as previous installments. While admittedly there's a lot in the way of character progression for Harry, but after the threat of the Denarians, vampires are starting to feel a bit less scary. 4/5

Next review: A Dance of Cloaks by David Dalglish

Signing off,
Nisa.

Monday, 27 November 2017

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

The Shining Girls was a book that I stole from my mum after she had finished reading it, although she seems to have forgotten it entirely by the time that I actually got round to reading it. I took it partly because I was intrigued by the premise, and partly because I had heard good things about the author Lauren Beukes.


The Shining Girls focuses on two main characters, Kirby and Harper. Kirby is a young woman who is trying to put her life back together after a brutal attack that nearly killed her. Attempting to track down the man who tried to kill her, she starts finding evidence that she isn't the first woman who he has attacked, but some of the evidence is just impossible. Meanwhile Harper, having found a house that inexplicably allows him to travel anywhere within the years 1929 and 1993, is compelled to kill a set of girls whose names he has found written on the walls of one of the rooms upstairs, leaving a memento from one of his other kills at the scene of her death.
So I really wanted the whole time travelling serial killer premise to work for me, but it just doesn't. It's quite disappointing, especially as the writing itself is solid and engaging. But for me, the time travel just wasn't implemented well, leading to two main problems.
Firstly, it's really tough to make a thriller tense when you know that most of the awful stuff that the serial killer is going to do has, in another character's timeline, already happened. Sure, the murder scenes are really well-written and horrifying in and of themselves, but it's tough to maintain the tension when the reaction to each new female perspective chapter is "well, here's the next sacrificial lamb". The time and attention spent fleshing them out and giving them engaging problems seems kind of wasted since the reader knows that the next time their name crops up, they'll be dead by the end of the chapter.
Secondly, it uses my most despised type of time travel, the ontological paradox, also known as a causal loop. If you're not familiar with that, essentially it's if person A is given an item by the elderly person B, then goes back in time to give that item to a younger version of person B. At which point you sit there and wonder how the item came into being in the first place if it's constantly looping between two points in time. It drives me up the wall, and the aggravating part is that Beukes spends so much time setting up this closed loop. Spoiler alert, it turns out at the end that the reason the House makes Harper want to kill people is because the House is Harper's spirit. Which is just infuriating, because it wants to be so clever and thematic, but it just brings up questions. How are the girls picked out as victims? Harper keeps mentioning that they shine, but the narrative never elaborates on what that is exactly. The only way that Harper knows about who he needs to kill and when he needs to go to kill them is via the House, so there's never any thought process about why or how his victims are selected. It unwittingly leads to Harper being a more or less flat character, as he has no real motivations other than follow the House's lead, for reasons that are never explained.

The Shining Girls is a prime example of an interesting premise that is its own worst enemy. What interest there could be from the impossible serial killer storyline is sabotaged by its own use of dated time travel tropes. There's little tension because all the killings have already happened in one timeline or another, and the painstakingly constructed causal loop only brings up questions of how this all comes about as well as depriving the main villain of any meaningful motivation. The only saving grace is the writing itself, but there's only so much that can be saved from this plot. 2.5/5

Next review: Blood Rites by Jim Butcher

Signing off,
Nisa.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Neuromancer by William Gibson

Neuromancer is one of those books that I have intended to read for some time, but just hadn't gotten to. It had gotten to the point where my sister was shocked that I hadn't actually read it yet, especially considering how much I like the whole cyberpunk aesthetic. So when I rediscovered where I had put the book, I couldn't really put it off any longer.


Neuromancer follows Case, a former data-thief whose nervous system was burnt out by some former clients who he stole from. When he is approached by a mysterious employer who is willing to repair Case's nervous system in return for going back into the Matrix on a mission that could be more dangerous than anything he's attempted before. Soon it's apparent that the only ones he can trust are Molly, a mirror-eyed street samurai, and Flatline Dixie, an AI approximation of his old mentor.
I'm still not quite sure how to feel about Neuromancer. On the one hand, it has all the atmosphere that I could possibly want in a cyberpunk novel. There is the weird kind of 1980s Blade-Runner-style idea of what the future would look like, which I like a lot more than I probably should. The plot is somewhat convoluted, but immersive nonetheless. And if you're willing to stick with some unfamiliar terms or are a big cyberpunk fan, then this is an obvious title to pick up. You'd pick it up regardless of my overall review really. As such, for those of you still on the fence, here are a couple things that you might want to consider before picking it up, in case they prove to be deal breakers.
The first thing that really gave me pause for thought is that, as a protagonist, Case is surprisingly passive. After years of fiction in which the main driving force of a novel can be firmly placed with a handful of characters of which the protagonist is always withing that number, it's a real shock to the system to follow around someone who has more or less no say in where he goes or how he acts. Sure, he sometimes does the odd thing that his employers don't expect, but never anything major enough to throw a spanner in the overall plan. And I guess I can see why that decision was made, so that there was an appropriate sense of distrust and paranoia between him and his employers, but that understanding doesn't make the experience of reading Neuromancer any less jarring.
The second issue I have is with the character of Peter Riviera. On top of being just generally unpleasant for no real reason, I still don't quite get why he is brought into the run. He's acknowledged to be a risk due to his perverse and psychopathic nature, but is brought onto the team to act as some poorly defined honey trap. I doubt that it was meant to be any kind of surprise when he betrays them, it just sticks out to me as an unnecessary risk in a plan that was supposed to have been set in motion by an incredibly intelligent and patient character.

If you like cyberpunk, especially the stuff that has that very 1980s feel to it, then you have probably already picked it up and really don't need my encouragement. For those of you on the fence, it is an immersive story, but one with some odd stylistic choices that could bother some people. The main ones for me were the odd passivity of the main character and the logical flaw in entrusting a key part of a mission to a character who specifically has a betrayal fetish. 3.5/5

Next review: The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

Signing off,
Nisa.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

The Mammoth Book of Angels and Demons edited by Paula Guran

The last time I took a look at one of the Mammoth short story anthology, I was somewhat disappointed, as it didn't really fit the theme terribly well. So I started The Mammoth Book of Angels and Demons with perhaps a little more trepidation than I initially picked it up with. But it did have stories by Neil Gaiman and George R. R. Martin, so I thought that there could at least be potential.


The Mammoth Book of Angels and Demons is an anthology of short stories focusing on angels and demons, both traditionally Christian in origin and more modern reimaginations.
First of all, and this might just be a personal gripe, but this is the first anthology where the editor has preceded each story with a snippet of information and a whole dollop of why this story/author is awesome, and it's really not needed. Rarely is the snippet of angelology or demonology especially necessary to understand the story, and it's really distracting to have the editor act as a hype-man. If you've included something in an anthology, I am going to take it as a given that you like the story in question, it doesn't need to be hammered home.
As for the actual content, I found that the stories were generally more consistent in meeting the brief than my last Mammoth anthology. There were a few duds, of which the worst was easily "Only Kids are Afraid of the Dark" by George R. R. Martin. Considering that I was expecting his entry to be one of the safe bets, it was really disappointing to find such a poorly-written mess under his name. But while there were only a handful of outright duds, there were only five that I would actively seek out to read again: "Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel" by Peter S. Beagle, "Sanji's Demon" by Richard Parks, "Oh Glorious Sight" by Tanya Huff, "Elegy for a Demon Lover" by Sarah Monette and "Demons, Your Body, and You" by Genevieve Valentine. Beyond those four and the handful of duds, the stories included were just kind of okay. I would have hoped to get a better success rate than 5 out of 27, quite honestly.

Not a bad anthology by any stretch of the imagination, but there were only a handful of really good stories to appreciate here. While there were similarly only a handful of outright bad stories, that still leaves over half of the anthology as stories that will leave you going "meh". Having the editor act as hype-man before every story just made the experience aggravating on top of that. 3/5

Next review: Neuromancer by William Gibson

Signing off,
Nisa.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Anime and the Visual Novel: Narrative Structure, Design and Play at the Crossroads of Animation and Computer Games by Dani Cavallaro

Continuing with my non-fiction streak, I settled on Anime and the Visual Novel, if only for the novelty of finding an academic-style text focusing on anime, as well as the comparatively obscure genre of computer game that is the visual novel. Being fond of both of these media, I thought I could hardly go wrong with something that looked at them with a bit of critical thought.


Anime and the Visual Novel focuses on a set of visual novels that have had subsequent anime adaptations, analysing how the animated adaptations have dealt with the problem of condensing a game with the core feature of branching narratives into a singular cohesive narrative. Additionally, the text also discusses particular narrative tropes and themes that are common to the visual novel medium and how those themes affect both gameplay and adaptation into a singular narrative.
This is kind of an odd book to discuss. As it's more of an academic text in style and focuses on such a niche subject, it's one of those books where you can tell more or less instantly whether it will be to your taste or not. The arguments presented here are fairly solidly reasoned, with a nicely varied set of primary texts to draw upon. So if that tickles your fancy, then you should be fairly well served by Anime and the Visual Novel.
That's not to say that it's without flaw, and there are two main issues that I could potentially see putting readers off. Firstly, there is some of the vocabulary used. A problem that a lot of academic texts have is that they couch themselves in overly-complicated language and syntax in order to make themselves more highbrow, when simple words could have expressed their point in a clearer, more succinct way. Anime and the Visual Novel is unfortunately not an exception to this rule. It is the first time I've had to consult my dictionary in months, and most of the time there was a far simpler term that could have been used in its place that would have made the point more accurately. So that's one part of the language that could be off-putting. The other aspect of the iffy language is perhaps a more personal bugbear, but there is something intensely irritating about seeing texts repeatedly being called "yarns" throughout the book. First of all, it all but proves that this was written by someone fairly new to the whole academia bit, because there is no way that a seasoned academic would refer to anything that wasn't textile-based as a "yarn". Hell, I was taught that in my first year of university, Cavallaro should have no excuse. Second, a yarn in the slang definition is specifically a long, rambling and usually implausible story, which is an entirely unsuited moniker for visual novels. While a visual novel may have multiple endings to experience, thus lengthening the amount of time spent replaying, this only increases the need for the story to be tightly-written and plausible within its own world. For Cavallaro to refer to them as yarns only diminishes the medium that they are trying to celebrate.
The second issue I have is with, of all things, the proofreading. Whoever edited this needs to be sacked, because my copy was absolutely littered with punctuation errors. Comma-splicing, missing spaces between words and extra words that should have been deleted pre-publishing, it was all in there. I could possibly forgive one or two errors, but this was a handful within more or less every chapter, enough to make me annoyed at paying money to interpret someone's rough draft. If I couldn't get away with it in uni, I'm sure as shit not letting someone get away with it when money is being exchanged. It's just not professional.

A solid set of essays analysing a wide range of well-received visual novels and their anime adaptations. Somewhat marred by a reliance on a vocabulary that is far too complex for the subject being discussed, and a series of punctuation errors throughout the text that is honestly just sloppy. For a fan of either medium discussed, I would say that there's a fair chance you'll like it if you can keep the above flaws in mind. 3.5/5

Next review: The Mammoth Book of Angels and Demons edited by Paula Guran

Signing off,
Nisa.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Introducing Aesthetics: A Graphic Guide by Christopher Kul-Want & Piero

I return to a non-fiction title because I wanted something a bit different, and thought that with an introductory title I could find out whether the subject as a whole was something that I could see myself reading into more. Aesthetics sounded close enough to my prior studies that certain concepts would be less obtuse, but unfamiliar enough to still be interesting.


Introducing Aesthetics: A Graphic Guide provides a brief history of the development of aesthetics as a philosophy. It covers a period from the Roman Empire to the late 20th century, looking at philosophers ranging from Plato to Nietzsche to Baudrillard.
Introducing Aesthetics really needed to be longer. At 171 pages that are about half the size of the average paperback, and around half of each page dedicated to illustrations, there's only really enough room for the barest of explanations of each concept that is discussed. And considering that over 2000 years of thought is being covered, that's really not enough space to adequately cover the material that it wants to cover. While you do get a general idea of how and why art has moved from having a singular objective Subject to a fragmented sense of self that can never be in possession of the entirety of a scene's contexts, it's not an especially clear route at times.
In addition to that, I wasn't all that fond of the art style used for the illustrations. It's an odd style that is kind of half-caricature, and instead of quirky it just kind of came off as ugly. In addition, whenever there were reproductions of particular artworks, the quality of the print wasn't particularly great.

While a general idea can be gotten from reading Introducing Aesthetics: A Graphic Guide, there is just too much material that the author is trying to cover in too few pages. I wouldn't mind looking into the subject of aesthetics again, but with perhaps more room to explore and expand concepts. 2.5/5

Next review: Anime and the Visual Novel: Narrative Structure, Design and Play at the Crossroads of Animation and Computer Games by Dani Cavallaro

Signing off,
Nisa.