Book Review – The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The blurb invokes:

Like everyone else, precocious high school senior Quentin Coldwater assumes that magic isn’t real, until he finds himself admitted to a very secretive and exclusive college of magic in upstate New York. There he indulges in joys of college-friendship, love, sex, and booze- and receives a rigorous education in modern sorcery. But magic doesn’t bring the happiness and adventure Quentin thought it would. After graduation, he and his friends stumble upon a secret that sets them on a remarkable journey that may just fulfill Quentin’s yearning. But their journey turns out to be darker and more dangerous than they’d imagined. Psychologically piercing and dazzlingly inventive, The Magicians, the prequel to the New York Times bestselling book The Magician King and the #1 bestseller The Magician’s Land, is an enthralling coming-of-age tale about magic practiced in the real world-where good and evil aren’t black and white, and power comes at a terrible price.

This book is obviously an attempt at combining Harry Potter and Narnia for an adult audience.  Mostly it does a good job, but it’s a bit slow in places and some of the plot doesn’t seem necessary.

I would dismiss this book as not deserving its reputation, but I found it hard to dismiss.  The fact that the plot wanders a bit and bogs down in places seem like bad things but I think it was intentional.  Part of the theme of the book is about how life isn’t like stories, and so this is a story that is more like real life.

Interestingly the book seems to be more about trying to find meaning in life than any of the overt magical plot.  The question of meaning is never answered, and I wonder if it will be resolved in a later book or whether the author just doesn’t have an answer.

I think the reason this book became famous (although “Harry Potter for adults” is popularity bait) is because the atypical plotting and dissatisfied undercurrent sticks it in your head and makes it feel like the book has a deeper meaning.

Book Review – His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik

His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik

His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik

The blurb elevates:

Aerial combat brings a thrilling new dimension to the Napoleonic Wars as valiant warriors rise to Britain’s defense by taking to the skies . . . not aboard aircraft but atop the mighty backs of fighting dragons.

When HMS Reliant captures a French frigate and seizes its precious cargo, an unhatched dragon egg, fate sweeps Capt. Will Laurence from his seafaring life into an uncertain future–and an unexpected kinship with a most extraordinary creature. Thrust into the rarified world of the Aerial Corps as master of the dragon Temeraire, he will face a crash course in the daring tactics of airborne battle. For as France’s own dragon-borne forces rally to breach British soil in Bonaparte’s boldest gambit, Laurence and Temeraire must soar into their own baptism of fire.

As the blurb says, this book is an alternate history set in the Napoleonic Wars, but with dragons.  The biggest distinguishing factors of the book for me were the period language and manners – they make a big difference to the feel of the book.

Something that I found strange, and that was never explained was why dragons would be so willing to be enslaved.  They’re big and powerful enough to not need humans in any way, and yet they seem quite willing to be bossed around their entire lives – to the point of dying in battle for us.

As far as the plot goes, there was a predictable twist and a minor climax.  I thought this is a case of the author writing a trilogy as one story rather than three related stories, but apparently there are eight books in the series (!) so I guess that explains it.

Expendabots

Expendabots logo

Expendabots logo

The Background

I’ve had an idea for a game in my head for a while, and I’ve been making notes (Workflowy is good for hierarchical note taking) so that even if I wasn’t going to use the ideas immediately, at least they wouldn’t be lost.  As an aside, programming takes up a lot of head space, so I think that decades of clearing my mind have given me a tendency to flush things that aren’t immediately relevant (this is also why you shouldn’t interrupt a programmer).  If an idea’s written down somewhere then I can feel safe enough to forget it – I think this is also why I’ve found that adding something to a wishlist feels almost as satisfying as buying it.

Anyway, last year I started working on actually building the game in Unity, but the learning curve coupled with my inability to concentrate on one project for long enough to finish it meant that I didn’t get very far.

Now I’ve returned to the project and I’ve decided to build a gameplay prototype rather than attempt the whole thing at once.  This should give me a shorter term milestone, as well as making sure that the core gameplay is fun and worth the larger investment of time. Read the rest of this entry »

Book Review – Shield and Crocus by Michael R. Underwood

Shield and Crocus by Michael R. Underwood

Shield and Crocus by Michael R. Underwood

The blurb hypes:

In a city built among the bones of a fallen giant, a small group of heroes looks to reclaim their home from the five criminal tyrants who control it.

The city of Audec-Hal sits among the bones of a Titan. For decades it has suffered under the dominance of five tyrants, all with their own agendas. Their infighting is nothing, though, compared to the mysterious “Spark-storms” that alternate between razing the land and bestowing the citizens with wild, unpredictable abilities. It was one of these storms that gave First Sentinel, leader of the revolutionaries known as the Shields of Audec-Hal, power to control the emotional connections between people—a power that cost him the love of his life.

Now, with nothing left to lose, First Sentinel and the Shields are the only resistance against the city’s overlords as they strive to free themselves from the clutches of evil. The only thing they have going for them is that the crime lords are fighting each other as well—that is, until the tyrants agree to a summit that will permanently divide the city and cement their rule of Audec-Hal.

It’s one thing to take a stand against oppression, but with the odds stacked against the Shields, it’s another thing to actually triumph.

The blurb and the cover do a good job of selling the book.  I expected it to be a bit post-deity like Three Parts Dead, and the city in the bones of a titan reminded me of Dresden Codak.

Unfortunately the reality of the book doesn’t live up to its promise.  I guess I should have taken the fact that it went on sale as soon as it was released as a warning sign.

The book is basically fantasy superhero insurgents.  Now I admit, that still sounds cool – I don’t think I’ve ever heard of someone doing superheros in a fantasy world before, so it makes me think that the book should get an automatic pass on the concept alone.  But what you don’t understand is, that’s it.  There’s nothing else to it – there’s no twist, no surprise, just the characters doing their superhero insurgent thing.  They have some setbacks, they make some progress, and the book ends.

The book starts off with a pretty big infodump, and the reading experience never really settles down – you never feel like you’re present.  I think that might be because all of the characters are “super,” so you never really feel what its like for all the normal people to live in the world.

Also the main character is a 70 year old superhero, which just seems ludicrous.

Book Review – Under the Empyrean Sky by Chuck Wendig

Under the Empyrean Sky by Chuck Wendig

Under the Empyrean Sky by Chuck Wendig

The blurb threatens:

Fear the Corn.

Corn is king in the Heartland, and Cael McAvoy has had enough of it. It’s the only crop the Empyrean government allows the people of the Heartland to grow—and the genetically modified strain is so aggressive that it takes everything the Heartlanders have just to control it. As captain of the Big Sky Scavengers, Cael and his crew sail their rickety ship over the corn day after day, scavenging for valuables. But Cael’s tired of surviving life on the ground while the Empyrean elite drift by above in their extravagant sky flotillas. He’s sick of the mayor’s son besting Cael’s crew in the scavenging game. And he’s worried about losing Gwennie—his first mate and the love of his life—forever when their government-chosen spouses are revealed. But most of all, Cael is angry—angry that their lot in life will never get better and that his father doesn’t seem upset about any of it. When Cael and his crew discover a secret, illegal garden, he knows it’s time to make his own luck…even if it means bringing down the wrath of the Empyrean elite and changing life in the Heartland forever.

When I started this book I didn’t know (or had forgotten) that this was a Young Adult book, so it took me a while to realize that the main character was a teenager.  Eventually it was spelled out, but it caused me some confusion for the first chapter or so – unless otherwise stated we tend to assume a character is like ourselves

The book exhibits some of the problems that I have with YA books but it’s a lot less egregious than examples like The Hunger Games.  The amount of adolescent whining was fairly low, as were the counts of easily avoidable misunderstandings.  The obligatory love triangle was a lot better set up than in other YA books I’ve read, and it had some unexpected twists to go along with the obvious ones.

I’ve read some of the Miriam Black1 and Mookie Pearl2 series by the same author and I really liked them, so I think any of the problems I had with this book were just because I’m not the intended audience.

The retro-futurism in the book was interesting – technology has progressed to the point where they have anti-gravity, but buttons on control panels are made of Bakelite, which we stopped using 60 years ago.

The book’s obvious theme is the struggle between the future and the past/modern and rustic/natural and artificial.  What annoyed me a bit is that (at least in the first book) this is presented unambiguously one-sidedly – the rich people with the high tech are evil and the poor downtrodden farmers are good.  Real life is never anywhere near that simple, and the politics strike me as gratingly backwards looking – “gosh, wasn’t everything better when we all had Polio”.

Apart from major plot points left dangling at the end of the book, there were also entire characters and events that were referred to but not actually used for anything (a la Hunger Games), presumably set up for the sequels.  It didn’t annoy me too much because going into it I knew this was a trilogy so I was expecting it.

I think my biggest problem with the book is that although the start and the end of the book are exciting, it gets pretty boring in the middle.  Not a lot happens other than reiterating things we already know, for example that life sucks for the downtrodden farmers.

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Book Review – Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

The blurb expounds:

Katsa has been able to kill a man with her bare hands since she was eight–she’s a Graceling, one of the rare people in her land born with an extreme skill. As niece of the king, she should be able to live a life of privilege, but Graced as she is with killing, she is forced to work as the king’s thug. When she first meets Prince Po, Graced with combat skills, Katsa has no hint of how her life is about to change. She never expects to become Po’s friend. She never expects to learn a new truth about her own Grace–or about a terrible secret that lies hidden far away . . . a secret that could destroy all seven kingdoms with words alone. With elegant, evocative prose and a cast of unforgettable characters, debut author Kristin Cashore creates a mesmerizing world, a death-defying adventure, and a heart-racing romance that will consume you, hold you captive, and leave you wanting more.

I like the fact that the book has a strong female main character.  It worried me a bit that her special abilities made her so strong that she ended up having a more masculine attitude, but the author handled it well.  By the end of the book we know the character well enough that she just is who she is, without needing to be labelled in a particular way.

The fictional names in the book weren’t perfect – they don’t roll off the tongue, they’re not very easy to remember and they don’t feel like they have internal consistency.  They weren’t terrible, just not great.

The book is paced a bit oddly – the start was exciting, but then it slowed down a lot and never really picked up again, and the end was a bit anticlimactic.

Another problem I had was that there’s only really one major twist in the book and it was unfortunately pretty predictable.  There’s also an impossible coincidence in the book that’s just glossed over which added to the amateurish feel.

I was made a bit uncomfortable by the fact that two of the characters fight a lot and then sleep with each other – sex and violence gets conflated in a way I didn’t like.