Like a flashback to childhood vacations! I was away on a trip recently, and I read a lot, just like the old days when no holiday was complete without a stack of at least ten books. This time around I had some – gasp! – mainstream books along, but the real treat was a chance to try out three fantasy authors whose books were new to me.
I started out with Spirit Gate by Kate Elliott, a 700 page behemoth. It’s a long book, but it’s rescued by a general style that is very low on exposition. The characters move through at least half a dozen societies, all with belief systems and cultural heritage – the reader finds out just enough to understand the ongoing events, but it’s only a dip into what Elliot shows as a very deep pool. This approach works cleanly in sync with the main storyline: the land of the Hundred is suffering from widespread crumbling in society, and no one is quite sure why. When the reason is finally revealed, it’s a nice shock that’s also fully supported by the carefully doled out exposition beforehand.
It’s a long march through that 700 pages, but that march is sustained by Elliott’s layered writing. I’m not sure what the equally-long sequel is going to do – it won’t be able to avail itself of the strengths of the same structure. Plus the back cover blurb gives away the main secret of the first book! I will likely read it though.
In a theme that will repeat for the next two items, I picked up Spirit Gate because of something I read online. In this case, it was a guest post by Elliott over at John Scalzi’s blog. If you’re interested in the book, though, I wouldn’t recommend reading what she has to say, since she ruined some of the nice moments in the book with her explanation (but not the final one, thankfully!).
I have a low tolerance for light fantasy, but I carried along Goblin Quest by Jim C. Hines on my trip because it looked short (also, less heavy in my suitcase) and it wouldn’t be too painful to complete if it sucked. All signs to the contrary, the book was not a lame Tolkien parody – it starts out as that, with clear roots in The Hobbit, but it soon develops a story of its own. In fact, Goblin Quest is essentially a hero’s story told from the point of view of the goblin. Hines plays to that reversal with several canny developments, but he seems to realize that the hero’s journey is a tough enough skeleton that it can provide a surprisingly strong story and still hang lots of satirical moments on it. Yes, the book provides an overload of satirical jabs, but they are not just thrown together.
Hines has already written two sequels – Goblin Hero and Goblin War – and it sounds like a regular hero would have trouble surviving all these insane adventures, never mind a near-sighted and cowardly goblin who always has the worst luck. Good stuff!
To continue the theme, I picked up Goblin Quest because I had run across Hines’ blog and found him to be generally interesting. Some writers are better at conveying the personal side than others, of course, and that’s not always an indicator of a well-written book, but it seems to be the current vogue. Like many trends in the creative world, who knows how long it will last.
My third fantasy book for the trip was Robin Hobb’s Ship of Magic, another weighty monster clocking in at 808 pages in paperback. Ship of Magic was definitely the slowest of the three books, and at times it was a struggle to get through the book. The overall scenario is incredibly well-constructed, and the book seems like a productive bit of world-building. But I felt like the story was bogging down here and there, with too little action.
The action is centred around Bingtown, a trading city whose most elite merchants have magically-sentient “liveships.” The costs are enormous (which is a big part of the storyline) and once your ship has a thinking, aware figurehead, you have a lot of advantages. Drawbacks exist too though. For example, what if your liveship goes crazy and decides to kill you? Puny human sailors stand little chance in that circumstance. Hobb plays with the idea in this book and I’m assuming the sequel, Mad Ship, takes it a lot further. Unfortunately, life in Bingtown is becoming socially constrained and Hobb takes inordinate amounts of time to show a handful of characters fighting against those barriers. Boring stuff, at least compared to pirates, a chilling look at the slave trade, creepy sea serpents, and other compelling items sprinkled throughout.
I had known about Hobb for quite some time, but never took the plunge until I saw this review by Steven Wu. I can’t say I entirely agree with him, but I did run across his reviews because I was pretty unhappy with a different book and he seemed to be the only one who agreed with me. I’ll probably read the follow-ups to Ship of Magic, but it’s not a priority.
As I mentioned, I read a few mainstream books on the trip too. I would recommend The Monk Downstairs by Tim Farrington, a respectabilized romance (for those who can’t handle the full dose :), and The Last Chinese Chef by the author of Lost in Translation. Don’t read that one if you’re short on time to cook – lots of mouthwatering food described in explicit detail!
Read any good books on a vacation lately? Any favourite titles that bring to mind that perfect beach you found? Please add a comment!