Friday, November 24, 2017

Reviewish: Skyfarer by Joseph Brassey

SKYFARER by Joseph Brassey (as an aside, Angry Robot may be one of my new favorite publishers) -- I did a video review if you want to listen to me instead of reading, though this is write-up is meant to compliment that video. With that out of the way...

What book would you run away with and read forever, if it asked you? Have you ever read a book that made you excited about it even after you were finished? Joseph Brassey's Skyfarer is that book for me. If Skyfarer asked me to run away with it, marry it, and never read another book except for it for all eternity... I might very well say yes. The unfortunate part of that would mean I wouldn't get to read the rest of the Drifting Lands series; I don't think I could give up that chance, if the promise of Skyfarer carries through--and I full-well believe it will.

Talking about this book has functioned as a way to talk about and reflect on my own reading life--something that not all books do. It may not serve this function for all readers, but it is difficult for me to untangle the two. Reading Skyfarer was a strong reading  experience.

Think about it--I was so enthused about Skyfarer that I sat down and did a video review of the book. I'm not good on camera, I didn't script or outline anything--this means it's a little rambly, it's a little all over, and more than a few thoughts got jumbled or left hanging. I also hate seeing my own reflection, so that was a big deal. This book is a big deal to me. To the point that I worry if I'm being too enthusiastic, too creepy about my love for it. But, I am who I am, right? In any case, this written review is meant to do two things--answer some of my hanging statements and elaborate on places where I wandered down a rabbit hole.

On Mr. Brassey's Work: Skyfarer is his second solo novel and his first set in a world of his own making. I ramble a little bit about the impression I had about it being his debut. And in many ways, it actually is. My impression wasn't far off, but I don't want to misinform anyone.

I lost my train of thought when talking about a cover quote regarding how Skyfarer is set apart from Firefly and the Battle of Helm's Deep; it's unfortunate, but when thinking about connections, it is easy for me to get lost. What I wanted to express in that place was the way Mark Teppo's quote sets Skyfarer into that constellation of speculative fiction giants. Skyfarer isn't Firefly and Brassey isn't Tolkien, but for a reader familiar with both those works, the connections ring true. By setting Skyfarer apart, Teppo's comment creates a tension of comparison and contrast that Skyfarer earns with its character development (which includes spaces, as in the way Serenity is a character in Firefly), the scope of its fight scenes (both small and large), and the world-building that plays out in small spaces of text but express so much.

But these connections are not the only connections this book evoked for me as a reader. The first novel I owned, the first fantasy novel I remember reading that was so distinctly fantasy--probably remembered so strongly because it was physically my first novel I didn't borrow from someone else or check out at the library--was Dragons of Autumn Twilight, the first novel in the Dragonlance series. I used books to escape, which should come as no surprise to anyone who knows my history. It was fun to read and engaging in a way that was shiny and new. It left its mark. And so, too, does Skyfarer.

Skyfarer
 resurrected that original joy in reading for me. It was fun.

As I say in my video review, there is no higher praise that I can give Skyfarer than to say that it evoked deep, forgotten feelings in regard to the experience of reading, and all that entails.

The roots of why I read are deep, and Skyfarer reached them all.

"There's something pristine about this novel." In trying to express how the story came across, the words "pristine, genuine, earnest" all rose up. I still feel that is true. There's something fresh and unsullied about the way Skyfarer is written--but still not a 'first novel'. We forgive a lot in first novels, often. I'll skip naming names--we all know a series of novels where the first books were not up to par with what we expect in the fifth+ novel of a series. If the rest of the Drifting Lands books maintain the standard Skyfarer sets, though? I'd still be happy. I suspect, however, that they will raise the bar more. My inner-reader gets giddy at the notion.

That said, we come to the matter of critique and the things we can say against a fantasy novel, and a topic I touched on and then moved away from pretty quickly in my video review; cliches.

It would be easy to pick at the cliches or telegraphed events in Skyfarer--they happen. They are there. Maybe you only think they are cliches if they are used badly--in which case, there are no cliches in Skyfarer. If you have a chip on your shoulder about prophecies or chosen ones, Skyfarer may not be for you--though I'd argue passionately that you should give it a chance to see it done beautifully. If Brassey were a different kind of artist, if Skyfarer were a sculpture, you would see the familiar forms of the masters, lovingly rendered and put together to create something both new and familiar. Like I say in my review, when you are eating beef stew, you expect there to be beef. When you're reading fantasy, you should expect there to be markers of the genre.

Where Brassey elevates those things is what sets him apart. Perhaps my favorite is one of the main characters, Aimee. She is an apprentice. She is coming onto a ship as a crew member for the first time, entering into the skyfaring life right out of an academy. She is a novice but she's not naive. It seems like a small distinction, but it plays out so strongly in her personality in ways that matter, that set her apart. These things take her away from the cliche of the archetypal "Fool" in ways that impact the story and the experience of reading it. Ways that make her a character I deeply enjoy.

"[She] navigates this space between being new, being untested ... and someone who is savvy about what they do. ... and has confidence and skills that they have coming out of whatever program or experience they've had. I have found that's difficult to find in a book, to find a character who is already so developed when you meet them on the page."

In short--because I could talk about this book for more words than are in the book--Brassey demonstrates skill, as far as I'm concerned, in his craft that I found refreshing and fun. The structure of the story I could see roughly outlined right away, but it didn't make the experience less enjoyable. The characters were surprising in that they did not need to develop with the story (though they do develop and change as the story goes along), but in showing up as whole people right away, even the "newbie" that Aimee represents.

If you have ever loved a fantasy novel and you have missed that feeling of joy because you've been saturated with so much of it, I encourage you to pick up Skyfarer.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Reviewish: Ubo by Steve Rasnic Tem

I really  meant to get down to reviewing Ubo months ago. Unfortunately, I'm me.  Much delayed, but still deserving of my time and thought.

Right away, I will note that it was described to me originally as Science-Fiction Horror; while it is that, it's also not horror in the way that pop culture often doles out the label. This is much more cerebral in some of its horrific aspects while still maintaining the visceral, disturbing facets we love so much in horror.
book cover, back of person's bald head with roach-like insect emerging from it through an egg-cracked like break
By nesting stories within the story, Steve Rasnic Tem has created an unsettling meditation on and look at humanity in its most inhumane moments, without being gratuitous. It is unflinching, unapologetic, and still somehow touching.

About halfway through, I really thought I knew where it was going, what was going to be the reveal--no, i was wrong. I would have been happy to be right, but I was happier with what Tem did in many ways.

My only criticism is that there was an incomplete sense to the world-building outside the space in which the primary action of the novel takes place. Not in the sense that Tem didn't DO the world-building, but that the reader doesn't get the bigger, broader picture. Which isn't necessarily a negative, however; to the contrary, it creates a desire for MORE of the setting and world in which Ubo exists. There are a lot of questions left unanswered, but if you're willing to hold on and go on the ride, it's definitely satisfying.

The story telling is thoughtful and direct, with a solid voice behind it. While I felt some trepidation (both for the storytelling and the story) in the beginning, I'm extremely glad I picked this book out to read!

4/5 stars

Transparency: I received this book through the publisher via NetGalley. I do not receive any affiliate bonuses from links to books (or other products) on this blog.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Reviewish: A Taste of Honey

It was difficult to rate this book, given my usual standards that rely so much on the narrative voice and on how I might recommend a book to another reader -- which is why I'm thankful for a blog where I can discuss these things a bit more fully.

Cover for A TASTE OF HONEY by Kai Ashante WilsonIn both of those categories (narrative voice and recommending the book to others), A TASTE OF HONEY, by Kai Ashante Wilson, has some issues which I'll explain in a moment. In other ways, though, it shines. If I dismissed the first two, I would give it 4 stars, but I can't, and so 3 stars it is.

First, I'll talk about my issues with the text:

I had to keep making a lot of excuses for the story in order to maintain my suspension of disbelief.

Part of what I consider a good narrative voice's job is to make it easier for the reader to immerse and stay immersed in the world unfolding before them. This story has two things working against it in that regard; a nonlinear telling of the story (less of an issue, more my personal preference - so I don't really hold this against the book) and sudden shifts in jargon and slang. The narrator, a close third-person following Aqib, is the reader's primary source for language usage and it is a very poetic voice. It is interior to Aqib and sets the tone of the character overall. However, when it comes to dialogue, there were a few jarring shifts, particularly when it came to the Dalucan soldier, Lucrio. What makes it jarring is that Lucrio is speaking in Aqib's language, which sets up the expectation for what modes of expression are available to a speaker based on the narrator's voice. But Lucrio is so variable as to be distracting; he falls into diction and slang choices that are baffling.

Here's the first place I had to "make excuses" for
the narrative choices, in order to stay in the story. Aqib's experience of the language is from an upper social tier, leaving little room for expressions like "somebody's gotta learn 'em" and "looky there" and several other instances of a dialect shift akin to representations of Southern American English. But Lucrio is a foreigner, so I am able to consider that the dialect shift comes in from having learned the language from someone more on the level of a soldier or "menial" (the narrator's word, not mine). But as the narrative progresses, Lucrio's word choices come to match Aqib's more closely, with the occasional shift back to apparent slang, and some rather anachronistic-feeling swears. There's no explanation for these words or expressions and outside of a foreigner speaking the language native to the narrative, there's no framework for me - as the reader - to explain where they come from. The overall effect is jarring, at best.

Shorter version of this issue: Lucrio's sudden Southern American English dialogue is jarring in the context of the voice the narrator establishes for the story, ESPECIALLY because he is speaking Aqib's language and somehow has a full grasp of slang that we, as readers, have no foundation for accepting as part of the world-building aspect at this point. Nor do we see any other characters engaging in slang or modern Earth equivalent swearing. (There are two exceptions, neither provided with any context/explanation either, and given in isolation.)

The other matter is the overall disjointed feeling that there's some world-building missing. I found myself FREQUENTLY making the excuse, in a book club discussion, that this was a novella; it's shorter and there's a full length novel set in the same world, and SURELY these things that we experienced questions or gaps about were explained more fully and in more detail there. This became a mantra while reading. It is worth noting, however, that many reviews (even positive ones) describe this same feeling about the novel (Sorcerer of the Wildeeps).



That said, I still enjoyed this story and would recommend it for folks looking for second world/alternate Earth (I'm not sure which is the more accurate description because of the above mentioned gaps) that moves away from the northern European flavors so prominent in fantasy. The main character is homosexual and that is a key facet of the story without it being what the story is about. The intersections of identity that happen in the context of so small a story are complex and beautiful. There's love in its myriad forms; the struggle to navigate the ebbs and flows as they push and pull against each other feels like the heart of the story. There's joy and regret. Trust, betrayal, suspicion... a lot packed into such a small space.

The ending left me feeling a little cheated, initially, but also opened up the opportunity to more closely consider the whole text in a different way and left me curious about the world. It was a satisfying ending in many ways--an aspect so many texts fall short of achieving. Knowing what I know with the end's reveal, it certainly asks for a re-read.

I know that I will spend at least as much time thinking about and going back through the story as I spent on reading it the first time--and in my reading habits, that is one of the highest praises I can offer.