Tigana is a sparkling gem of 1990s epic fantasy. The scope of this novel is completely dizzying–one of Kay’s strengths is complexity of, well, everything. The characters are complex in their motivations and ethical moorings. The power structure is complex with its conflicts of religion, economic pressures, and shifting allegiance to shifting rulers. The setting is complex with richly-drawn nuances of distinct regions’ geography and culture. The movement of time is complex with plots literally decades in the making, thousands of small decisions leading to hoped-for outcomes. Oh, and there’s magic, too. And secret identities. And so much more. With that comes a lot of pages: 673 in my edition. It’s not the leanest book in the world, and could probably have come under a more ruthless editing knife, but goodness is it satisfying. Kay explores the question of how deeply rooted the memory of our native lands can be within our sense of identity, and ends up with a politically interesting, romantically engaging beast of an adventure.
Saga has been lauded by, it seems, every comics guru under the sun. When a friend lent me the first five volumes, I couldn’t wait to dive in. On many fronts, it definitely delivers. The storyline is based in the intense emotions of family ties rather than mindless ka-booms!, and the art is heart-stoppingly great. There’s humor, and a pulling of fantasy tropes so all-comprehensive that it’s actually admirable. Every character has some kind of bizarre and cool supernatural physique. The style is also notably gritty, not shying away (like at all) from scenes of violence or sex. That piece of it started to put me off a bit by the end of this volume–I don’t mind sex scenes, but they start to become pervasive, even for inconsequential characters/beings and even when totally irrelevant to the plot… it started to feel a little invasive and distracting for me, especially when it seemed completely unlikely to occur in the characters’ actual situations. That being said, there is a whole thematic thread carrying through the narrative that repeatedly asserts the message “sex sells, even more than war does.” In that way, it’s very meta. An aspect of the comic that I really enjoyed that kind of surprised me in its effectiveness was the lettering work! The switching of styles to imply the flip from present action to the narrator Hazel’s “voiceover” was perfectly achieved, to the point where the transitions are almost magically seamless.
Above all, it must be stated that Lying Cat is above and beyond the very best aspect of Saga and nobody will ever change my mind on that.
Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance is one part American tall tale, one part panel interview, and one part old-fashioned fantasy. Ruth Emmie Lang takes a risk–which pays off with varied levels of success–in crafting a story about one man, but told through the eyes of those who knew him. As the perspectives shift, we understand the different ways in which people react to difference. As someone who enjoys fantasy, I am always willing to suspend disbelief, and I relished the stunning imagery associated with Weylyn’s natural magic within the book. However, there are instances of rushed or oversimplified human interaction that feel contrived from time to time… for me, it’s harder to suspend that kind of disbelief. Where I do feel this book really succeeds is in its tipping over of the “magical chosen one” trope. Weylyn is a hero who doesn’t want to be one, doesn’t want to hone his gifts, and in fact would reject them utterly if he could. It is this, rather than the magic itself, that is so fascinating. While he does use his power at certain moments, it is often out of his own control, and that is a feeling that makes his character (while the most fantastical) probably the most believable one in this sometimes funny, often charming read.
I really enjoy reading screenplays, and since I also enjoyed this film on screen, I knew I’d be savoring this one. Gosh, is it beautifully designed! I’ve cultivated a real love for the Fantastic Beasts series; the more I watch (or read) them, the more I like them. I am a devoted fan of the Harry Potter books, and I liked the films well enough, but I’ve really been captured hard by this new, darker installment in the universe. It’s always a joy to see J.K. Rowling’s pyrotechnics of imagination in play, and I especially respect her decision to give us a hero who challenges traditional notions of masculinity. Newt is quiet, awkward, deeply empathetic, hapless almost all the time, but decisive when it counts. Compassion is his greatest power. I’m fascinated by his place as the lynchpin in this series. Magical beasties and ever-evolving intrigue doesn’t hurt either. And Dumbledore is inscrutable as ever. Looking forward to the next chapter…
In a broad pool of dystopian stories, Dan Vyleta’s Smoke stands out as unique. The story is profoundly dark; an alternative early 1900s London provides the backdrop for a culture where virtue and vice determine social status. And vice is particularly easy to spot, since people literally give off smoke whenever they commit–or even consider–a sin. This dazzling concept propels Vyleta’s slowly unfolding tale of three young people who get tangled up in the political and moral battles that govern this world of smoke, which is (as you might guess) not exactly what it seems to be. While the shifting point of view that Vyleta employs was at times disorienting or unnecessary, I enjoyed this book. The main thing to be impressed by here? The imagery is insane. The imagined particulars of this world are fresh, deliciously disturbing things to consider. Vyleta also succeeds at creating opportunities to consider moral quandaries without leading to an oversimplified righteous path–there’s social commentary present, but zero assumptions made, other than that of an intelligent reader. I always appreciate that. Another cool touch: there’s much homage to Dickens. The quotes from Charles Dickens and other authors of his era that precede each section of Smoke really add a nice extra dose of gravity to each turn of this soot-soaked story.
The Name of the Wind, if you are late to the party like me, is probably the fantasy read you’ve been looking for. Wisconsin author Patrick Rothfuss brings us a gorgeously layered world, sharp humor, hard times, a sensible dose of the fae, realistic romance, truly scary darkness, a lot of good sense and a lot of good sense ignored. The novel is deeply satisfying, and sheer fun to read. Kvothe as a hero is everything we hope for him to be, and yet still many things beyond our reach–a believable hero of legend whose legends aren’t always true, but the truth, once revealed, is even better. The Name of the Wind will make you chuckle, cheer, sigh, and startle. I now understand the cult following of this series-in-progress. Demons! Taverns! Dragons! Troupes! Magic! Miss the childlike wonder that accompanied your reading of the Harry Potter series? Read this, and be convinced that J.K. Rowling isn’t the only wizard living among us.
Gay Gavriel Kay is known for his manipulation of meticulously researched history into subtly fantastical tapestries of novels, and Under Heaven plays a variation upon that form using Tang Dynasty China as inspiration. The book is long and immersive, filled with the gorgeous, decadent pageantry that so often accompanies great empires–the palaces, the clothing, the perfumes, the jewels and feathers, the opulent gifts. Of course, behind all this lies the plot motivation: the sincere desire among those in power to, at the perfect time, kill one another for a precisely planned gain. It’s an enthralling adventure with many “ooh” moments, but Kay doesn’t skate away perfectly. There are some problems with pace, and big time problems with the fetishization of women in positions of sexual slavery. I understand that courtesans and concubines were a part of culture in the historical period that inspired Kay, but even considering that, I feel that his presentation of their points of view and capabilities was laughably deficient. It also irritated me that the main character reliably saw every single woman blatantly in terms of her sexual potential to him, at least at first meeting. If you can put that aside (and I tried to do that, mostly), the overall story is wonderful, especially with the enhancements of crying ghosts, shamans, and wolf spirits. Certain scenes were just exquisite. Certain captivating characters (Sima Zian, Meshtag) I’d read another whole book about, gladly. Wish both of them had gotten more page time.
I look forward to giving another of Kay’s novels a shot somewhere down the line. Song for Arbonne is so beautiful, and so much better than this was. Maybe I’ll just read that one again.