I did end up reading the third book, hastily skimming the animal torture sections. Thankfully, they are clustered toward the end. However, the first part contains a tragic unicorn stillbirth.

This book had similar flaws and virtues as the first, and resembled that more than the incredibly depressing second book: 60% heartfelt and charming tale of vets in fantasyland, 40% torture, OTT tragedy, and whisker-twirling villains who kill people because they’re homicidal maniacs.

It introduced a number of new characters (possibly because so many were killed in book two), some of whom seemed potentially interesting but got little screentime, and some of whom were marvelous. I adored the earnest young griffin and his best buds, who decided to model themselves after the ideals of chivalry and so named themselves Roland, Oliver, and Clark Kent. Everything involving the junior and senior griffins was great. The obligatory incursion of a new genocidal bloodthirsty sadistic tortures-for-fun sociopath was not great.

This one has a happier ending, except that… Read more... )
A pair of '90s portal fantasies about veterinary students who travel to a fantasyland called Crossroads to treat centaurs, unicorns, griffins, and other magical beasts. I read these years ago and re-read recently with the intention of finally reading book three, which I had either failed to find or failed to read previously. Now that I have re-read, I understand why I never read the final book. I had remembered the fun parts (vet students figuring out how to treat magical creatures, and that is both accurate to my knowledge and very fun if you like that sort of thing) and forgotten about the truly amazing amount of awesome depressingness surrounding them.

I also have to mention that O'Donohoe also wrote an sf novel in a dystopian future, Too Too Solid Flesh about androids programmed with the personalities of the characters of Hamlet. This was also fairly depressing (though with way less torture), but more appropriate to the subject matter and I recall liking it a lot, despite a manic pixie dream girl.

He doesn't seem to have written anything in over ten years, which is too bad. He's obviously got a lot of talent and it would be interesting to see what he'd come up with if he had either more or less editing. (The Crossroads books either would have been improved by some editorial guidance ("Skip the Dark Lord stuff" or the editorial guidance caused the problem ("Fantasy books need a Dark Lord.") No idea which.)

Too, Too Solid Flesh

The Magic And The Healing

Under the Healing Sign

The Magic and the Healing

BJ Vaughan, a vet student, is understandably depressed. Her mother committed suicide out of the blue, leaving a note saying that she was dying of Huntington's Chorea (a horrific, fatal genetic disease) and BJ should be tested to see if she's going to get it too. BJ, who has been having mysterious symptoms lately, gets tested. Sure enough, she has it. She tells no one, but begins planning her suicide. I will cut to the chase and say that she continues telling no one and planning her suicide for the entire book, and in fact by the end of the second book, though she is no longer planning suicide, she has still told very, very few people and has not informed the people who most need to know.

But! Something more cheerful happens, and about time. BJ and some other students are invited on to a special exotic animal rotation, which of course turns out to be in Crossroads. The magical creatures, their cultures, and their ecologies are sketched-in but interesting and convincing. My favorite for cuteness was the flowerbinders, which are kittens the size of German Shepherds who catch their prey by winding flowers into their fur and camouflaging themselves as a bush or hillock of wildflowers. My favorite for interesting worldbuilding were the several sentient species which remain the prey of other sentient species, and how intelligent beings evolved cultures, laws, and rituals which account for that. There are a handful of human inhabitants of Crossroads, most of whom are essentially refugees who stumbled in while fleeing for their lives, but it's mostly populated by centaurs, fauns, griffins, etc.

As BJ and the other students ply their trade, they learn more about how the magic of Crossroads works, and BJ realizes that though traumatic injury and some diseases exist in Crossroads, cancer and degenerative diseases don't. If she stays, can she arrest or even cure her own degenerative illness? Is she willing to give up her entire previous life for the chance at a new one?

I think this is plenty of story for a novel, and if this had been the entire story, the book would have been much better, much less grim, and also much less ridiculous. Unfortunately, there is another plotline involving one of the most moustache-twirling villains I've ever come across. Her name is Morgan, and she is a sadistic genocidal sociopathic mass murderer whose hobbies include torture, mass graves, bathing in blood (literally), invasion, getting people hooked on drugs, slaughtering her own minions in front of her entire army just for the fun of it, and slaughtering everyone in sight. She plans to invade Crossroads, slaughter everyone, and then go to another world and slaughter everyone there. Rinse, repeat. Inexplicably, her army does not desert en masse despite her periodically torturing her own soldiers to death. Oh, yeah, and did I mention that she's immortal and invulnerable, so no one can just whack her?

She has a backstory. Sort of. It's the sort which introduces more plotholes than it resolves. Why is she the way she is? She's angry. NO SHIT. What's she angry about? Who knows! Why is she immortal? Because it was somehow a condition of booting her out of Crossroads earlier, when she was just a non-immortal homicidal maniac. Why the hell would you make a homicidal maniac immortal? Uh... the magic works that way! Why not kill her when you had the chance? Because the king was in love with her! WHY? Because she didn't seem evil right away. I realize this sort of thing happens in real life (the charming sociopath, I mean) but 1) we never see the charm, 2) if your choice is "kill the genocidal maniac you still kind of love, or make her immortal so she can come back and murder you and every citizen of your country," you need to suck it up and break out the guillotine.

Nobody in Crossroads thinks they have a chance of fighting her off, though they're planning a hopeless last stand anyway. Periodically Morgan sneaks in, tortures or kills some animals or people, and sneaks out. I don't mind reading about hurt animals in the context of veterinary medicine, but I draw the line at animal torture. Anyway, eventually the good guys beat her back, but it's just for now. They're still doomed. (Until book two! No, wait. Still doomed.)

There is also an extremely unconvincing romance between BJ and a faun named Stefan. They have no chemistry and nothing in common other than that they both like animals. They never have sex because BJ doesn't tell him she's dying but doesn't want to commit when she's dying. This entire plotline really didn't work for me. Alas, it continues in exactly the same vein in book two, except BJ is no longer dying and they do have sex... but she still doesn't tell him and continues to angst in the exact same way.

Approximately half of a pretty cool book melded to half of a pretty terrible book. Perhaps this was meant to be symbolic of Crossroads' many chimera-creatures... Nah.

Under the Healing Sign

My feelings about the sequel are summed up by an Amazon reader who wrote, "On the whole, it [the third book] is much better than the second book of the very same series, "Under The Healing Sign", which made me wish to commite suicide immediately upon reading the last chapter of it."

Despite the charmingly pastoral cover, what actually happens in this book is mostly death, despair, defeat, torture, animal and child harm, and the least triumphant "happy ending" I've ever read in a fantasy book. It does have some sweet scenes a la the good parts of the first book and introduces a really awesome character(who, shockingly, does not die), a gay and fabulous cross-dressing, swordfighting veterinarian, Dr. Esteban Protera, who needed to star or co-star in a cheerier book. But overall, I'm with the Amazon reviewer.

Spoilers, if anyone cares. I'll just hit a few of the grimdark highlights. Read more... )
A pair of '90s portal fantasies about veterinary students who travel to a fantasyland called Crossroads to treat centaurs, unicorns, griffins, and other magical beasts. I read these years ago and re-read recently with the intention of finally reading book three, which I had either failed to find or failed to read previously. Now that I have re-read, I understand why I never read the final book. I had remembered the fun parts (vet students figuring out how to treat magical creatures, and that is both accurate to my knowledge and very fun if you like that sort of thing) and forgotten about the truly amazing amount of awesome depressingness surrounding them.

I also have to mention that O'Donohoe also wrote an sf novel in a dystopian future, Too Too Solid Flesh about androids programmed with the personalities of the characters of Hamlet. This was also fairly depressing (though with way less torture), but more appropriate to the subject matter and I recall liking it a lot, despite a manic pixie dream girl.

Too, Too Solid Flesh

The Magic And The Healing

Under the Healing Sign

The Magic and the Healing

BJ Vaughan, a vet student, is understandably depressed. Her mother committed suicide out of the blue, leaving a note saying that she was dying of Huntington's Chorea (a horrific, fatal genetic disease) and BJ should be tested to see if she's going to get it too. BJ, who has been having mysterious symptoms lately, gets tested. Sure enough, she has it. She tells no one, but begins planning her suicide. I will cut to the chase and say that she continues telling no one and planning her suicide for the entire book, and in fact by the end of the second book, though she is no longer planning suicide, she has still told very, very few people and has not informed the people who most need to know.

But! Something more cheerful happens, and about time. BJ and some other students are invited on to a special exotic animal rotation, which of course turns out to be in Crossroads. The magical creatures, their cultures, and their ecologies are sketched-in but interesting and convincing. My favorite for cuteness was the flowerbinders, which are kittens the size of German Shepherds who catch their prey by winding flowers into their fur and camouflaging themselves as a bush or hillock of wildflowers. My favorite for interesting worldbuilding were the several sentient species which remain the prey of other sentient species, and how intelligent beings evolved cultures, laws, and rituals which account for that. There are a handful of human inhabitants of Crossroads, most of whom are essentially refugees who stumbled in while fleeing for their lives, but it's mostly populated by centaurs, fauns, griffins, etc.

As BJ and the other students ply their trade, they learn more about how the magic of Crossroads works, and BJ realizes that though traumatic injury and some diseases exist in Crossroads, cancer and degenerative diseases don't. If she stays, can she arrest or even cure her own degenerative illness? Is she willing to give up her entire previous life for the chance at a new one?

I think this is plenty of story for a novel, and if this had been the entire story, the book would have been much better, much less grim, and also much less ridiculous. Unfortunately, there is another plotline involving one of the most moustache-twirling villains I've ever come across. Her name is Morgan, and she is a sadistic genocidal sociopathic mass murderer whose hobbies include torture, mass graves, bathing in blood (literally), invasion, getting people hooked on drugs, slaughtering her own minions in front of her entire army just for the fun of it, and slaughtering everyone in sight. She plans to invade Crossroads, slaughter everyone, and then go to another world and slaughter everyone there. Rinse, repeat. Inexplicably, her army does not desert en masse despite her periodically torturing her own soldiers to death. Oh, yeah, and did I mention that she's immortal and invulnerable, so no one can just whack her?

She has a backstory. Sort of. It's the sort which introduces more plotholes than it resolves. Why is she the way she is? She's angry. NO SHIT. What's she angry about? Who knows! Why is she immortal? Because it was somehow a condition of booting her out of Crossroads earlier, when she was just a non-immortal homicidal maniac. Why the hell would you make a homicidal maniac immortal? Uh... the magic works that way! Why not kill her when you had the chance? Because the king was in love with her! WHY? Because she didn't seem evil right away. I realize this sort of thing happens in real life (the charming sociopath, I mean) but 1) we never see the charm, 2) if your choice is "kill the genocidal maniac you still kind of love, or make her immortal so she can come back and murder you and every citizen of your country," you need to suck it up and break out the guillotine.

Nobody in Crossroads thinks they have a chance of fighting her off, though they're planning a hopeless last stand anyway. Periodically Morgan sneaks in, tortures or kills some animals or people, and sneaks out. I don't mind reading about hurt animals in the context of veterinary medicine, but I draw the line at animal torture. Anyway, eventually the good guys beat her back, but it's just for now. They're still doomed. (Until book two! No, wait. Still doomed.)

There is also an extremely unconvincing romance between BJ and a faun named Stefan. They have no chemistry and nothing in common other than that they both like animals. They never have sex because BJ doesn't tell him she's dying but doesn't want to commit when she's dying. This entire plotline really didn't work for me. Alas, it continues in exactly the same vein in book two, except BJ is no longer dying and they do have sex... but she still doesn't tell him and continues to angst in the exact same way.

Approximately half of a pretty cool book melded to half of a pretty terrible book. Perhaps this was meant to be symbolic of Crossroads' many chimera-creatures... Nah.

Under the Healing Sign

My feelings about the sequel are summed up by an Amazon reader who wrote, "On the whole, it [the third book] is much better than the second book of the very same series, "Under The Healing Sign", which made me wish to commite suicide immediately upon reading the last chapter of it."

Despite the charmingly pastoral cover, what actually happens in this book is mostly death, despair, defeat, torture, animal and child harm, and the least triumphant "happy ending" I've ever read in a fantasy book. It does have some sweet scenes a la the good parts of the first book and introduces a really awesome character(who, shockingly, does not die), a gay and fabulous cross-dressing, swordfighting veterinarian, Dr. Esteban Protera, who needed to star or co-star in a cheerier book. But overall, I'm with the Amazon reviewer.

Spoilers, if anyone cares. I'll just hit a few of the grimdark highlights. Read more... )
This post is about the ending of the series, and by that I mean mostly the very end, the one that comes after King basically says, “You can stop here if you want to just imagine what happens next, and by the way that’s probably a good idea.” (It's a little complicated but there's at least two clearly marked "you can stop here" points. One is before the end, one is the actual end.) So, this entire post is hugely spoilery and not interesting if you haven't read everything there is to read. [Except for The Wind Through the Keyhole, which is a prequel that I haven't read yet either.]

If you just want to know how I felt about the conclusion or are trying to decide how far you want to go without getting spoiled, I liked both endings, and they work together in the sense that the second continues the story farther without contradicting the first. The second is darker, but there’s room for interpretation and I didn’t find it grimdark or invalidating anything that went before. However, other readers might disagree and I have the vague impression (vague because I was trying not to be spoiled) that the majority of readers did not like the ending.

Read more... )
The cover is gorgeous, the title is perfect, and the concept— a boarding school for teenagers who visited different fantasylands via portals, and are now misfits because they can’t get back— is fantastic.

Unfortunately, the book doesn’t live up to its concept, except in lovely but brief and scattered flashes: a line, an image, a bit of dramatic irony. It was an incredibly frustrating read, because the idea was so great and every now and then it would actually be what I wanted from the idea. For one or two lines. And then it would go back to not being very good. The execution was simultaneously extremely shallow, underdeveloped, and full of uninteresting padding. (It’s a short novel, possibly technically a novella. It STILL feels both rushed and padded.)

The problem starts with the plot. The main character is Nancy, a girl who visited an Underworld and wants to go back, but whose parents are baffled by her disappearance, her return, and her insistence on wearing goth clothing. So she’s sent to Eleanor West’s Home For Wayward Children, which turns out to be a refuge for teenagers who lived a portal fantasy, then went home and are still seeking a way back. (There’s one character who doesn’t want to go back, but he’s the exception.)

The bewildered Nancy, who hates the fast, hot, bright world above and longs to return to the peace and stillness of the Halls of the Dead, is also baffled by the other teenagers, most of whom went to either some version of Fairyland or a wacky nonsense world a la Alice in Wonderland. But worse, a serial killer begins to stalk the school! Or is it one of the students!?

…what?

At least half the book consists of a poorly-executed and gruesome murder mystery. The incredibly obvious solution, which is postponed to the end of the book by the characters’ total failure to apply basic logic or make any normal investigations whatsoever like search the place, does turn out to be relevant to the concept. But I wanted to read a book that’s actually about its premise, and half the book consists of characters acting exactly like teenagers from an early slasher film, the ones pre-metafictional-awareness where they actually did stuff like know a serial killer is murdering them all one by one, hear creepy noises, and go alone into the basement. And because the characters are so flat, they seem weirdly unmoved by the slaughter of their classmates or the possibility that they might be next. So a big chunk of the story has nothing to do with the premise, is much less interesting than the premise, and is badly executed for what it is.

The parts of the book that deal with the premise are a mixed bag. All the good parts involve that, and if the whole book was like the good parts, I would have loved it. They’re mostly spoilery (Eleanor West’s heartbreaking plans for her own future; the tragic irony reveal of what was going on in one of the murder victims’ homes before and after her death) but there’s also some good lines and images involving the portal worlds. Sumi and Nancy’s conversation about masturbation was hilarious, and I was very intrigued by the little we saw of Christopher’s Dia de los Muertos world.

But they’re only snippets. We never get any solid sense of what most of the portal worlds were like. Nancy’s is the most solid, and even that is really vague and lacking in detail. It does explain for a few of the characters what drew them to specific worlds, but the explanations are mundane rather than interesting (a girl who was stereotyped as “the pretty one” got a chance to be smart) or lacking in depth (Nancy wanted stillness rather than movement. Why? The book sure isn’t saying. Other than that it had nothing to do with being asexual because that would be a stereotype.)

This premise could have either been very metafictional, or done very realistically. (It dabbles in both, but commits to neither.) Either way, developing the portal worlds more would have been a good idea. For metafiction, I would have loved interstitial chapters set in various portal worlds, done in different styles, so, say, Sumi gets a chapter written in the style of Lewis Carroll, Nancy gets in the style of Tanith Lee, and so forth. For a more realistic take, it would have needed more depth to both the characters and the worlds. Instead, we get a taxonomy of worlds that makes no sense (this is not helped by the characters saying it makes no sense) and is never explained, developed, or deconstructed beyond a couple lines saying maybe it’s more complicated than that. But how isn’t explained.

The characters have approximately one characteristic each, and some have zero beyond “He went to a world where everyone is skeletons.” There’s a lot of sexual and gender diversity, handled with mixed success. Nancy is asexual, resulting in several blog-like explanations of asexuality and aromanticism; a trans character has a really interesting-sounding backstory which is, of course, only given in tantalizing, undeveloped snippets.

A lot of the better-written lines, in terms of prose style, are social commentary or commentary on portal fantasy; they tend to sound clever but be nonsensical if you think about them. Most of the characters are girls, which I am all for, but this is explained by boys not being portal fantasy characters (incorrect in any era of fiction I’m aware of; there are ovewhelmingly girl-dominated fantasy genres but portal fantasy isn’t one) and society paying more attention to and caring more about boys so they’re not allowed to explore alone the way girls are (WHAT?) and people notice when they go missing (except everyone noticed when the girls went missing.) Sounds cool and feminist, does not match either reality or what is actually depicted on the book.

And while I’m complaining about metafiction, it kept seeming weird to me that so many characters went to childish nonsense worlds as teenagers, when in real fiction that’s a children’s book rather than YA thing, and so few went to darker worlds and most of the teenagers disapproved of that, when vampires and other dark elements are common in YA fantasy and in real life, teenagers are often into dark stuff.

In short, the book frustrated the hell out of me; I will probably buy at least one of the sequels to see if I like it better (probably not, I think I’m just not McGuire’s audience; I really disliked Rosemary and Rue) because the concept is so cool and I’m curious to see if a sequel will be more about the concept. If it has another murder mystery, I’m done.

Spoilers OK in comments.

Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children)

ETA: Short story by Jo Walton that goes into similar themes. It also doesn't get into detail about the fantasy world, but it feels like the right level of detail for a short story. http://www.strangehorizons.com/2000/20001023/relentlessly_mundane.shtml
I want to write more about these books at my leisure, but for anyone who is wondering if I was still reading or what, I finished the sequence, and I'm really glad I did. It's weird and flawed and probably would have been better if King hadn't taken it in some of the directions he did, but I agree overall with Swantower's assessment: it really is his masterwork, not in the sense of "best book" (though I think it's among his best books, taken as a whole and certainly individually for some of them) but his key work, his most ambitious, possibly his most personal, and apparently what he thought of as his most important.

All my favorites of his books are flawed and weird and go on too long and have parts I don't like, and none but Firestarter have endings that I 100% love. This is all true of Dark Tower, but I liked the endings (yes, I read both) a lot more than I expected to. I especially want to talk about the second ending because it's such a fascinating example of a lot of spoilery writing/storytelling things, but I'll do so in another post; please don't spoil it here.

(At the end of Wizard In Glass, I thought I knew what the ending would be, or at least I knew how I'd write it. Then events went in a different direction, and the ending we got felt at least somewhat inevitable based on everything that went before. I might write my imagined ending as an AU fic spinning off from that point.)

As I mentioned before, I really like King's narrative voice even when I don't like the book otherwise, and in the books of his that I love, it's because I like the story, his voice is at its best, and I love the characters. Once I got past the first book, I loved the voice (his use of language and dialogue and made-up words is really impressive here, if sometimes uneven), loved a lot of the story and found it compelling even when I didn't like some of the places he took it, and I loved the main characters. I'm really glad I read it, there are parts I'm sure I'll re-read many times, and this was a good time for me to find something immersive.
So this is King’s giant fantasy magnum opus. As you can see by clicking his tag, I did not much like the first book. However, if you read comments (they’re not spoilery) you will see many people suggesting that I give the second one a try because it doesn’t have the stuff I disliked about The Gunslinger, which was that it had a one-note tone, was overly grimdark, and the characters didn’t feel like real people and were almost universally unlikable, and did have the qualities that I like about King (varied tone, good dialogue, likable and real-feeling characters, great set-piece scenes, contains horror elements but not primarily horror) in addition to what I see as flaws but also seem to go with his books that I like best (sprawling, needs editing, all over the place, story falls apart to some degree or another toward the end.)

Upon advice, I started the second Dark Tower book while my knee was being iced at PT and was instantly sucked in. King, like Dick Francis, is excellent for when you really want to read about people having a worse day than you are. I usually have to care about characters to care about their predicaments, but this opened with such a compelling situation that I cared anyway. And then Roland got way more human and likable, and other likable and human characters were introduced. I was hooked.

I liked it SO MUCH more than The Gunslinger. In fact, if you didn’t like The Gunslinger, but you do like the sort of thing I’m about to describe, I would definitely recommend at least starting the second book. (You could even start The Gunslinger, and if you hate it you could read the summary in the front of the second book and just move on to that. If you don’t like the second book any better, give up, you probably won’t like the series.)

The tone is almost a 180 from that of The Gunslinger (the tone is all over the place, but I tend to like that), and likable characters appear THANK GOD. What it does keep from the first book is the sense of epicness, the western archetypes, and the density of references to all sorts of stuff. It and the next book are exciting, funny, and I just adored them.

I loved the characters. I loved the many brilliant set-pieces, including one sequence which I would use in a class to teach the use of suspense in which characters have to do something difficult while under extreme pressure and handicapped, with very high stakes if they screw up – I don’t think I’ve ever read anything better along those lines. It was the written equivalent of the climactic stunts in the Mission Impossible movies, only much more narratively complex. And also demonstrating how humor can add to rather than subtract from suspense.

These are HARD books to discuss without spoilers, but I want people who haven’t read them to get a sense of why they might be worth reading unspoiled. So I will use a spoiler cut for the opening scenes of book two. Read it if you’re not willing to just take a chance on it, don’t if you’ll take my word that you might really enjoy it.

Rushthatspeaks described Book Two as “it feels to me like a very specific kind of seventies movie, usually containing Pacino and/or De Niro, if you put that in a blender with high fantasy and hit frappe.” Sholio called it a hurt-comfort extravaganza. Both descriptions are absolutely correct. Those are both things that I like very much, so it is unsurprising that I adored the book. The sequel leaves behind the seventies movie aspects, and is about a sort of found family traveling around a fantasyland and having AWESOME adventures of AWESOMENESS. The fourth book concludes the hanging plotline of book three, and appears to mostly be a flashback to Roland’s past.

I have not begun the flashback, so please do not spoil me for it or anything past the part where his flashback begins in comments. But you may comment on or spoil anything up to his flashback (that is, through the first few chapters of Wizard in Glass which conclude the “Blaine” storyline and is as far as I've read.)

This cut spoils about the first fifth of The Drawing of the Three. It has minimal spoilers for The Gunslinger - really just the premise.

Read more... )

FUCKING AWESOMEST SCENE EVER WRITTEN. Except for the multiple, equally awesome scenes that are all over the next two books. I loved those two books (and the first few chapters of the fourth, which is all of the fourth I've read so no spoilers beyond that point) as much as anything I've ever read. It's not so much that it's perfect - it's not - it's that it contains so much that I happen to personally love. Those books just spoke to me, and I'm so glad to have something like that right now.

There are two more characters who show up in this book and become main characters and they are GREAT, but they are also hugely spoilery. You can discuss in comments, though. I will try to write more on them tomorrow.

Caveats: Book one is sexist. Book two is politically incorrect– I’m using that term deliberately because unlike book one, where the issues just seemed to be King’s unconscious issues, here he’s clearly thought about them, they make sense within the story, and they don’t involve sidelining the characters who are political minorities. The issues are there, but they may or may not offend you, depending on how much weight you place on context.

One of the main characters in the second two books is a black woman who has some spoilery things that on the one hand, are problematic to the max if described out of context, but there are in-story reasons that make sense. She is not sidelined by the men, and is badass and a great character, at least up to the point where I’ve read. (Though there are three male and one female protagonists, so not much interaction between women.)

The problem with explaining the issues is that they are hugely spoilery and if you can stand them, are also pretty cool to discover unspoiled. So, general warning and if you want to know, read the spoilers in comments here or in later posts I'll make. If you’re familiar with King, you can probably guess the general substance.

That being said, most of the main characters have a disability of some sort or another, and while they’re not done with total realism (for instance, the wrong label is used for a mental illness but it’s a mistake that a lot of writers made at that time) I generally liked how they worked within the story. King does not conveniently forget about them, ever. (Or yet, anyway.) He also clearly thought a lot about how the characters would deal with stuff given their disabilities – it’s a huge part of the story overall.

…and I will stop here or I will write all day. I will try to continue later, but again, feel free to discuss anything up to the flashback section of Wizard in Glass in comments.
1632, by Eric Flint.

A chunk of a modern American town, including the entire local chapter of Mine Workers of America, is mysteriously transported into 1632 Germany. What those people need are red-blooded Americans with lots of guns!

This is kind of hilariously what it is. Apart from Flint being pro-union, it is exactly like every sweaty right-wing fantasy ever, complete with the lovingly described slaughter with lovingly described guns of nameless evil people whom we know are evil because we see them randomly torturing and raping the hapless, helpless villagers. The rape and torture is lovingly described, too. There are also loving descriptions of various engineering projects.

Typical excerpt:

Mike spoke through tight jaws. "I'm not actually a cop, when you get right down to it. And we haven't got time anyway to rummage around in Dan's Cherokee looking for handcuffs." He glared at the scene of rape and torture. "So to hell with reading these guys their rights. We're just going to kill them."

"Sounds good to me," snarled Darryl. "I got no problem with capital punishment. Never did."

"Me neither," growled one of the other miners. Tony Adducci, that was, a beefy man in his early forties. Like many of the miners in the area, Tony was of Italian ancestry, as his complexion and features indicated. "None whatsoever."

Gave up on this. It’s not that I never enjoy this sort of thing. But I have to really be in the mood for it. (Appropriate mood: Snark locked and loaded.)

Free on Baen. Yes. Of course this is a Baen book. There are the obvious exceptions, like Bujold, but Baen has more of a house style than Harlequin.

Stray, by Andrea Host.

An Australian teenager steps through a portal to a strange world, where she survives on her own for a while before being rescued by and taken to another world, where she becomes a lab rat for a bunch of psychic ninjas who fight alien monsters!

This sounds completely up my alley. However, this is my third try at reading it, and I have never gotten farther than 30% in, and I had to force myself to get even that far. It’s written in the form of a diary, which means there’s no dialogue and it’s entirely tell-not-show. I’ve read books like that which I’ve really enjoyed (Jo Walton is extremely good at that type of narrative), but this one never caught my interest. It’s certainly very ambitious— for instance, Cassandra does not speak the alien language, nor does she instantly learn it— but I found it dry and uninvolving.

Sorry to all who recced it so enthusiastically! I will try something else by Host, but I’m giving up on this one. That being said, everyone but me seems to love it, and it’s free on Amazon, so give it a shot.

Stray (Touchstone Book 1)
Quentin Coldwater is an unhappy, self-absorbed, self-conscious teenager obsessed with a children’s fantasy series set in a magical world called Fillory, which is very clearly meant to evoke Narnia. Then he learns that he has a talent for magic, and is whisked away to a fancy prep school for magicians, Brakebills. At first he thinks his dream has come true. But soon enough, he realizes that he’s still an unhappy, self-absorbed, self-conscious teenager, only now he’s obsessed with real magic.

I read this in preparation for being on a panel on portal fantasy. I had avoided it until then because all I had heard about it was that it was published as a mainstream literary novel rather than as genre fantasy (you can tell because it’s subtitled “a novel,”) was about how fantasy sucks and had the most unlikable protagonist since Thomas Covenant.

All that turned out to be correct. Sort of. But I liked it way more than I expected to, primarily because the “fantasy sucks” and “protagonist is unbearable” elements don’t come in, or at least aren’t major themes, until about the last third of the book. The first two-thirds, which is set in Brakebills, is terrific – distinctly on the cynical side and weighed down by Quentin’s depression and solipsism, but written in absolutely wonderful prose and full of vivid images, funny lines, and a genuine sense of magic.

As I read that part, I couldn’t understand why the book had such a bad reputation among fantasy readers. Sure, it emphasizes that magic is difficult, that magicians are not the most fun people in the world, and that Quentin is using magic to run away from essentially everything else, but it’s also hugely enjoyable to read as fantasy.

I loved the Brakebills section. The prose is to die for. It’s extremely well-structured, with a great use of foreshadowing to create surprising yet beautifully set-up plot twists.

On the con side, the characterization has problems and it isn’t just a lack of likability. Other than Quentin, who is more distinct as he’s seen from the inside, many of the characters are so similar that they blend together. Virtually all of the characters are obsessive, unhappy, self-absorbed, driven, and jaded. The main characters have maybe one or two traits in addition to that set, such as “punk,” “brave,” or “pretentious.”

However, lots of teenagers are unhappy and self-absorbed, so I read the Brakebills part thinking that Quentin and his buddies weren’t that bad and the readers who loathed him probably didn’t remember being a teenager that well.

Then he graduates from Brakebills. Almost immediately, I realized why readers hated him. And soon after, I realized why fantasy readers frequently hate the book. Spoilers ahoy! Read more... )

I looked on Goodreads and saw that there are two more books. I attempted to get a sense of what they were like while avoiding spoilers, and was interested to see that the second is partly narrated by the most interesting character in the first book, and that readers seemed to think the third was actually uplifting. It’s not that I require uplift in everything. But I’m not going to read more of the series if it’s all soul-sucking joylessness like the real world and Fillory sections. However, I would definitely read more if it’s more like the Brakebills sections. Also, the moments of uplift in The Magicians were beautiful, so I know Grossman can do that well.

If you can comment without major spoilers, I’d be interested to hear what those of you who’ve read further books thought of them.

The Magicians: A Novel
I will be on a panel on portal fantasy at Sirens this year. I need to read portal fantasy!

Panel description: Portal Fantasy: Threat or Menace?

SUMMARY:
Everybody knows about portal fantasy, where characters from the "real world" cross into a separate fantasy world. It is a classic trope that still draws readers—the Chronicles of Narnia have never been out of print. And yet new portal fantasies are very seldom published, and many agents and editors have said that they're unmarketable. What exactly is this subgenre, and why is it so loved and so shunned at the same time? What new stories does it still have to offer?

ABSTRACT:
1) What is portal fantasy? What makes it different from "our world has a hidden side" fantasy (e.g. Harry Potter, many urban fantasies, secret history fantasy)? What makes it different from stories about going to Faerie (or do those count as portal fantasies)?

2) Why do people love portal fantasy? Why do people hate it? Why is it currently (almost) unpublishable?

3) Portal fantasies we have known and loved.

4) Crypto-portal fantasies -- stories that arguably qualify as portal fantasy but don't "feel" like portal fantasy to a lot of people. (Daughter of Smoke and Bone, for instance, or The Fall of Ile-Rien.)

5) Most influential portal fantasies -- what has shaped the genre and people's reactions to it? To what extent are portal fantasy debates crypto-Narnia debates?

6) Portal fantasy is sometimes accused of being a narrow, cliched genre that has little room for new stories. What are some storytelling opportunities in portal fantasy that have not yet been explored?

7) Another common accusation against portal fantasy is that, because the "real world" isn't in danger, the novel lacks stakes. Is it possible to write a portal fantasy that isn't just "my magical vacation," and if so, how? What novels have achieved that and which ones have failed?

8) What are the pitfalls of portal fantasies? What are some examples of how it can go terribly wrong?

9) What about reverse portal fantasies, where characters from the magical world enter our own? Do they count as part of the same sub-genre, and either way, what do they have to offer?

- end description -

My requests for you:

1. Rec me some portal fantasies I might not know about or have thought of. Assume I'm familiar with the usual suspects.

2. When people say that portal fantasies are "my magical vacation," with no stakes, what actual portal fantasies actually fit that bill, and how? Apart from books for very young children and comedies/parodies, I'm having a hard time thinking of them.
Spoilery for the entire series - seriously. And you really don't want to get spoiled for this if there's any chance whatsoever that you might read it.

I remembered something about book six (The Broken Fortress) and re-read it, and...

...how the hell did Hale do that? I don't think I've ever come across this particular use of foreshadowing before, or at least not the way she did it.

Read more... )
I completely got my money's worth of enjoyment out of this series. By the time I was approaching book nine, I didn't want it to end. But the ending was very satisfying.

There was one event in particular which was completely surprising, yet meticulously set up over ten books. There was another, also surprising yet completely set up, which caused me to email Buymeaclue a message whose non-spoilery text consisted of "OH MY GOD!!!!! Also, just opened the part where it shifts POVs and OH MY GOD I KNOW WHERE HE IS."

Now I want to read the whole thing over from the beginning. Due to the unusual structure, it will probably feel like an entirely new experience.

You can buy the whole shebang on e-book at a discount ($30 for the equivalent of four books), or in paper. However, the paper editions are in four volumes, and only two are out. You will probably end up with a mutant half-paper, half-e-book set if you attempt the latter.

http://www.blindeyebooks.com/rifter/

I mentioned before that the series reminded me of P. C. Hodgell. By the end, it also reminded me of the Fullmetal Alchemist anime (first series.) In both, nearly all the seemingly unrelated side stories and apparently unimportant minor characters turn out to be integral to the story as a whole. Also the unusual mix of a dark world with a magic system involving some major body horror, with funny moments and a lot of very likable and even idealistic characters who don’t (necessarily) get crushed under the author’s boot.

Read more... )

These books just kept getting better and better, from an intrigueing but somewhat rough start. I’m sure they will reward re-reading.
These volumes provide all sorts of climactic, dramatic, startling action, and then a surprisingly relaxed and even sweet and sometimes funny interlude... with DOOM hanging over it.

I like how, especially in these two volumes, people generally behave reasonably and listen when people say they have something important to tell them, and sometimes change their minds when presented with new evidence. There are definitely jerks, bad people, and people being ruthless, self-destructive, and cruel. But there's very little totally random assholery.

I have read way too many recent fantasy novels in which people behave completely irrationally to serve the plot and ensure that the obvious course of action taken by the protagonists won't work. ("Screw your evidence proving that you're not the person who killed my wife and someone else is! I tear it up and drink it like a milkshake, HA HA HA!") I appreciate how Hale often has the logical course of action work, but then new obstacles or unanticipated complications arise.

Everything else is completely and utterly spoilery.

Read more... )

Enemies and Shadows (The Rifter)

The Silent City (The Rifter)
I finally figured out what this series reminds me of: P. C. Hodgell's Godstalk series. Hodgell has more black comedy and flamboyant worldbuilding, and Hale concentrates much more on weaving a highly intricate story. But both series seem to have evolved from the same roots: bypassing Tolkien's high fantasy tradition in favor of the swords and sorcery of Fritz Lieber, Jack Vance, C. L. Moore, even Robert E. Howard.

It's interesting that while the overall plots and details of the two series have very few points of similarity - the kinship is more one of tone and atmosphere - both have heroes who are avatars of the destructive aspect of a God.

Beyond that, all I can say without spoilers is that this series just gets better and better as it goes along. Book five was particularly packed with holy shit! moments.

Marie, if you're reading this, you would appreciate that the only characters who do stupid things based on sexual desire are reckless, desperate teenagers. The adults generally manage to sensibly resist doing stupid things out of sexual desire, despite extreme temptation. (Homosexuality is banned in large parts of this world.)

Read more... )

The Holy Road (The Rifter)

Broken Fortress (The Rifter)
The series continues to be engrossing. Hale uses a very unusual structure which I love and only see occasionally. I don't recall ever seeing anyone else do it with Hale's particular twist. I'll cut for a structural spoiler which is also a moderate plot spoiler - you don't realize what the structure is until the beginning of book two, I think.

Read more... )

It's so well-done and clever! I love the creeeepy magic system. The supporting characters have gotten a lot more interesting as the book goes on. I like how the villains have comprehensible motives and generally aren't too over-the-top.

My main quibble at this point is that I'd like a little more clarity on some matters, given the sheer complexity of the story; sometimes stuff is mentioned that seems important, in a way implying that I should already know about it, and I have no idea if it was poorly or just very subtly set up.

For instance, Read more... )

There are also some odd choices about what to show and what to tell. John gets a job as a magical healer's assistant. At last, he will learn some (creepy and dramatic) magic! I eagerly flip the page...

...and it's several months later and he'd already learned it and is doing it as a matter of course. I wanted to see him do it for the first time!

But, in general, this is pretty awesome. Very immersive. I like that the characters are adults who generally behave like adults (and the teenagers behave like teenagers.) The dark bits are nicely spooky, and the comedy makes me laugh. ("So you let him poison you because you thought it would be easier than breaking up with him?")

There is a great bit that I am pretty sure is a nod to The Stars My Destination.. Read more... )

Black Blades (The Rifter)

Witches' Blood (The Rifter)
In the killer hook opening to this portal fantasy, John, a gay graduate student, has a problem. He and his mysterious roommate Kyle ran into each other in a bathhouse, and fled in opposite directions. Several weeks later, Kyle still hasn't returned, and the rent is coming up. And while Kyle is extremely strange - he's covered with weird tattoos, carries around swords and knives, always keeps his room locked, and, bizarrely, claims to be a milkman - he has never failed to pay the rent on time, which makes up for all other flaws as far as John is concerned.

While John is trying to figure out what to do, a letter arrives addressed to Kyle - the first Kyle has ever received - with no return address. In a mixture of desperation and pent-up curiosity, John opens it. It contains an ornate gold key, and a sheet of paper reading, "DON'T."

Cut to Kahlil (aka Kyle), who is on a mysterious errand in his own world, carrying a bag containing a talking skeleton and gloomily musing that once he gets back to our world, he will probably get the order to kill John at any moment. When he returns to our world (just in time to pay the rent), we see it through his eyes. Everything is shockingly vibrant, intense, and beautiful... compared to where he's from.

This is one of the most engrossing and fun otherworld fantasies I've read in a while. The worldbuilding is fascinating. Kahlil's world is suffused with a sense of wrongness, but not in the grimdark way where everyone is a rapist sociopath and nobody ever has any fun. It's meticulously detailed - there's a funny scene where John sits in a bath and tries to figure out what the hell the cleaning implements and ointments are for, then finds out when the servants arrive and start cramming tooth powder into his mouth - but faded. The food has little savor, the colors are dimmed, and even the air is thin. Some catastrophe seems to have cast a magical pall over the entire landscape.

While there are horror elements (like the talking skeleton and some very creepy magic), the tone is more like old-school swords and sorcery given a modern gloss than actual horror. It's dark in parts, but playful in others. There's banter and egg-laying weasels. The plot is complex and intriguing. I assume John and Kahlil will eventually have a romance, and that they will be instrumental in restoring life to the world. But in terms of how that will happen, I have no idea. The broad outlines may be clear, but the way in which things have happened has been consistently surprising.

There are some flaws, which have not spoiled my enjoyment. Some of the supporting characters get a lot of page time but very little character development. There are a few points where characters fail to take what seems like the obvious, sensible action, for no particular reason other than that the plot needed them not to. And while parts of the story have a very real feel to them, other parts are paper-thin. In particular, John seems to have sprung out of thin air, with no school responsibilities, no family, no history, and no associates other than the ones who are central to the plot.

Still, like I said: really fun. Without getting too spoilery, I will mention that John's introduction to the world is sufficiently rocky that I initially thought, "Oh, God, this is going to be that cliched crapsack world where every single character is a total asshole and everyone is constantly getting slaughtered for no reason." That turns out to not be the case. Or, at least, so far it hasn't been.

This is an extremely long novel broken into ten parts of about 100 pages each. If you have already read this, please note that I am only on Part 2. Please do not spoil me for anything past that!

The Shattered Gates (The Rifter)

Servants of the Crossed Arrows (The Rifter)
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