Tag: "book review"

Myths of Origin by Catherynne M. Valente

Myths of OriginIt is easy to love a book when it has been cruel to you. Myths of Origin by Catherynne M. Valente is a hard book, and one that will encourage most readers to put it down. It contains four short novels, each of which will challenge the reader to make sense of its elaborate metaphors and strange perspectives. The language in this book shows a poet’s fondness for unexpected juxtapositions. Anyone who cannot read a book simply for the beauty of the writing should not pick this one up at all.

However, those who are brave enough to read the Myths will be rewarded with four extraordinary novels. The first one, The Labyrinth, is by far the least comprehensible. Most of it seems to be happening inside the protagonist’s head. She reminds me of Alice, and her Wonderland is the Labyrinth of Crete. Whether or not there’s a minotaur in the middle is still an open question at the end, I think — there is a bull of sorts, but it’s complicated. This novel is dense and wild and does not seem to have much of a point other than to prove that a novel like itself can exist. I liked the bit with the rabbit.

The second novel is Yume no Hon: The Book of Dreams. This is the one that I was most looking forward to when I picked up Myths of Origin, though I found that the next novel in the sequence did most of what I wanted this one to do. Once again, Valente finds the connections between totally unrelated things — in this case, a wild woman living in an abandoned pagoda in the mountains of Japan, and the Sphinx of Thebes. Each chapter begins with the name of a season from the Japanese calendar of the Heian period, and most don’t last more than a page. Like Labyrinth, this book is filled with powerful images. I had a sense that if I’d spent more time studying Japanese folklore or Babylonian creation myths, I might have gotten more out of Yume no Hon.

The Grass-Cutting Sword is my favorite of the four, but also the most upsetting. It tackles the story of Susano and the eight-headed maiden-eating dragon. It also speaks to the varied cruelties inflicted on women — on beautiful women, on plain women, on obedient women, on wild women, on mothers and on sisters. Valente plays with voices in The Grass-Cutting Sword. The dragon and the eight maidens speak while sharing the same body, while Susano narrates his own story and the story of his mother. This book is bloody.

Under in the Mere proposes that California is a place where questing knights from King Aurthur’s court can go to hunt their beasts or find their grails. It matches each character from Arthurian legend up with a card from the tarot and with an overarching image — Kay the robot, Galahad the shapeshifter, and so on — and plays each image out to its furthest extreme. It quotes the relevant passages from Malory in case the reader is unfamiliar, and then takes them in the most unexpected directions. It is a fine book in and of itself, though I will admit to being tired after reading the other three.

If you can treat each of these novels as a separate piece, and perhaps take breaks between them, then Myths of Origin is a fine collection. Fans of Catherynne M. Valente should read this book, not just because it is more of her beautiful prose, but also to see reflections of ideas that she returns to in her other works. Myths of Origin is beautiful. It demands patience; it speaks in riddles. I am glad that I read it, but I am also a little bit glad that it’s over.

Book Review: The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of CuriositiesBefore the internet, before television, before jets and superhighways shrank the world to a manageable size and science gave us the tools to understand it, men of substance and education created wunderkammer. These rooms showcased curiosities, genuine artifacts and forgeries, from around the world. Their creators did not distinguish between plant and animal, ancient artifact or modern painting, classical relic from down the road or clever device brought from half a world away. The beauty of the wunderkammer is in the juxtaposition of strangeness that drives the human mind to find patterns in an assemblage of the bizarre.

The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, is an attempt to capture the same feeling in a book. At times tongue-in-cheek, the Cabinet of Curiosities brings together authors, styles, and illustrations, all arranged to keep the reader off-balance and wondering.

The book itself is a lovely artifact. I knew that I had to have it the moment I picked it up. Hardbound, without a dust cover, the Cabinet of Curiosities feels deceptively light for how much material it contains. It is filled with black and white illustrations. Most are fake etchings, but there are some photographs and some paintings. I’ve dragged my copy halfway across the country, but you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at it.

The introduction to the Cabinet warns the reader not to try to read the book all in one sitting. Believing that I knew better, I ignored this warning, to my dismay. The Cabinet holds more things than it ought to, given its size. I now agree with the VanderMeers — readers should not expose themselves to all of the Cabinet’s weirdness at one time.

Readers who are familiar with Thackery T. Lambshead’s Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases will already understand the underlying premise of the Cabinet. The book assumes that there was (or, depending on which conspiracy theory you believe, still is) a doctor, scholar, and collector named Thackery Lambshead who lived (or lives) in our world and interacted with various historical figures. The authors, too, make appearances in the book, both in the editorial notes and in a few of the stories.

The book is divided into themed sections. There is no reason not to skip around — the sections are only loosely related to one another, and often seem to describe very different Cabinets and Doctors Lambshead. Some sections deal with items in the Cabinet, their origins, histories, and uses (if known). Others describe visits by such luminaries as our own Mur Lafferty to Dr. Lambshead’s house and his Cabinet. China Mieville, Mike Mignola, and Greg Broadmore each curate their own sections. Other contributors include Michael Moorcock, Amal El Mohtar, N. K. Jemisin, and more.

The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities is weird, and disturbing, and probably not most people’s idea of a good time. Those readers who enjoy a dose of old-timey macabre should pick this book up. Readers who really want to mess with their heads should read it all at once, the way I did. By the end, you may find something composed of incongruous parts and loose bits of prose lurking in a dusty corner of your brain. Try not to worry — after all, it was a very good book.

Book Review: The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein

The SteerswomanRosemary Kirstein’s remarkable book, The Steerswoman, exists in the place between science fiction and fantasy. It looks like a fantasy novel, and uses the familiar story of an improbable band of heroes on a quest through a fantasy kingdom as a backdrop, but its core is made of the hardest science fiction. The underlying story of The Steerswoman is about the triumph of science and the human will over superstition and elitism. I like nothing better than a book that plays with genre and a protagonist who wins by being smart. The Steerswoman does both, and does them well.

Kirstein’s straightforward writing lets her ideas and her characters dominate the story. One of my favorite aspects of this book is the friendship between the two main characters. Rowan, the eponymous Steerswoman, is a member of an order of traveling map-makers. A Steerswoman’s job requires her to answer any questions asked of her, provided that her questioner is willing to answer any questions she asks in return. Refusing to answer a Steerswoman’s questions or lying to a Steerswoman puts an individual under a permanent ban — no Steerswoman will answer their questions ever again.

Steerswomen (there are some Steersmen, but only a few, due to most men being uninterested in learning the necessary skills) are trained to investigate anything that catches their attention using a system of data gathering and hypothesizing. They are, effectively, an order of scientists. Kirstein avoids turning Rowan into an unapproachable Holmes-type character by keeping her chains of inductive logic clear, avoiding absurd over-generalizations, and allowing her to be wrong. Rowan wants to help people, and that makes her an easy character to root for.

Bel, on the other hand, is a warrior. Born on the extreme edge of civilization, she walked into Rowan’s world for the sake of seeing something new. She meets Rowan in a tavern (a very familiar fantasy story, as I said). Her skill as a warrior is not only reflected in the way she fights, but in her outlook on the world, and makes her a perfect foil for the Steerswoman. Their friendship, born out of mutual respect, is simply a pleasure to watch as it grows.

The Steerswoman is constantly winking at its audience. The characters behave as if they were living in a fantasy novel, but an astute reader will quickly recognize what the “magic” that the wizards use really is. While this might annoy some readers, I found it charming. I also found that The Steerswoman only improves upon rereading. For me, knowing why a wizard might not want his spells jostled or placed too close to a fire only increases the drama of the situation.

I will add one caveat to my otherwise wholehearted recommendation of The Steerswoman: While this book comes to a satisfying conclusion (with one of the best do-your-worst speeches I’ve read in a long time), it does not resolve all of the mysteries. The sequel, The Outskirter’s Secret, answers many of the questions left hanging at the end of The Steerswoman, but it also isn’t the end of the series. As far as I know, the end of this series has not yet been written. I cannot blame readers who pass over The Steerswoman for that reason; however, I do think they’re missing out. The first two books are currently available in one volume, called The Steerswoman’s Road.

Too much science fiction glorifies mere scientific fact and appeals to scientific authority. Such books are doomed to obsolescence as the state of the art passes them by. Rosemary Kirstein’s books, in contrast, are made timeless by their emphasis on the process of science, which anyone can do. The Steerswoman is a fun work of fantasy fiction with dragons, sword fights, and magic — and also a well-honed work of science fiction, demanding to know the answers to hard questions and the logic behind the magic. The Steerswoman lets the reader watch as the characters use the scientific method to discover the true nature of their world. I cannot recommend this book, and its sequels, highly enough.

Book Review: Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin

Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le GuinChanging Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin is a book based on a little pun — the idea that the relentless hostility of airports to the human mind can, at times, drive a person out of our plane of reality and into another. While waiting to change planes, then, one might find one’s self actually changing planes. Since only a few minutes pass in one’s home plane while one is traveling through another, there’s no reason not to spend one’s layover napping on a tropical beach or hiking through some other world’s mountains.

Changing Planes doesn’t have a plot as such. It’s a series of vignettes of the different planes one might choose to visit. Each one is enthrallingly lyrical (I was almost sucked back into the book in the process of writing this review) and drawn with the eye for telling detail that has always made Le Guin’s writing stand out from the rest of genre fiction. Each chapter addresses a different world. The shift in tone ought to be jarring, but isn’t — though she focuses on a different aspect of humanity in each world the protagonist (such as there is) visits or hears about, the book still stands as a cohesive whole.

When I picked up Changing Planes, I didn’t realize that I had already read two of the chapters when they were published as short stories in Lightspeed Magazine. One of them — “The Silence of the Asonu” — stayed on my iPod for a while so that I could re-listen to it. I love the feelings it evokes. It is not a happy story — few of these chapters are happy stories. The deep mystery of the silence of the Asonu combined with the ridiculous mysticism that tourists have projected onto them call to mind a pattern that I am familiar with from our world. That the story takes such a dark turn at the end fits that pattern.

Science fiction is at its best when it reflects aspects of our shared humanity back at us. The worlds in Changing Planes are similar to ours, with a few telling changes. I believe that anyone who reads these stories will come away with a clear idea of what Le Guin was criticizing about our society — but I don’t think any two people will necessarily agree about what that was. Take the other story that is available in Lightspeed: “The Island of the Immortals.” Is it a commentary on the quest for eternal life? Or a statement about how a society chooses to treat its elderly? Both? Or something else? Even stories that don’t feel particularly nuanced proved to be more complicated than they appeared once I tried to pick them apart. For example, I remembered the chapter called “Great Joy” as a straightforward commentary on corporate greed. Upon rereading, it was clearly a scathing criticism of the commodification of holidays.

Changing Planes will frustrate some readers. It does lack a plot and a clearly-drawn protagonist. Its style reminded me most strongly of Always Coming Home — which happens to be my favorite work by Le Guin. I think it will speak to people who love science fiction for its own sake, and not just for the superficial trappings of rockets and starships. Le Guin is once again trying to make her readers look at the world in a new way. Whether or not Changing Planes succeeds in doing that will depend on the reader. Fans of Le Guin should give Changing Planes a look. Readers who are on the fence should read or listen to the two chapters published in Lightspeed before making up their minds.

Book Review: City of Ruins by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

City of Ruins coverScience fiction always runs the risk of getting caught up in pointless details. City of Ruins by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is one of those science fiction novels that spends too much time looking down at its feet and not enough time staring up at the wondrous ideas that it is proposing. Half explore-the-ancient-machine, half first-contact, City of Ruins should not have been dull. Nevertheless, I found my attention drifting.

City of Ruins is the second book in the Diving Universe series, following Diving into the Wreck. It takes our nameless hero, Boss, to the oldest city on one of the oldest planets in the galaxy. Her daring crew of space-spelunkers have heard rumors about remnants of the lost and legendary “stealth tech” hidden beneath the city. Boss thinks the whole mission is a waste of time. Everyone knows that starships with stealth tech are found in space, and planets are full of icky things like dirt and other human beings.

It’s hard to worry about Boss, or her co-protagonist, Captain “Coop” Cooper. They’re both calm and rational people who always think things through, even when their emotions threaten to get the best of them. While it’s nice to have a pair of thoughtful protagonists, it sucks a lot of the drama out of the book. So long as she has all the necessary facts, Boss isn’t going to make mistakes. She’s too smart for that. The really interesting conflict comes at the end, when Boss and Coop are pitted against one another. That state of affairs only lasts for a few pages, but they were some of my favorite pages in the book.

I can’t write much about Coop without giving too much of the plot away. He brings more emotion to the story than Boss does, weighed down as he is by the decisions he has made and the people who rely on him. Unfortunately, it is sometimes hard to feel bad for a man who can ponder the unfairness of life over a plate of comfort food cooked by his personal chef.

The chapters in this book are short, sometimes only a few pages long. Each one ends with a cliffhanger. I found that the short chapters gave me plenty of jumping-off points, and after a while I was so inured to the cliffhangers that they couldn’t drag me back. Even with the deadly dangers of underground archeology and malfunctioning technology, very little actually happens. The protagonists bicker while the plot carefully excavates and diagrams every possible conflict between it and the end of the book.

Rusch takes a bit of a gamble with the points of view in City of Ruins. Coop tells his story from the traditional third-person past tense, but Boss’s sections are all in first-person present tense. The switch may distract some readers, but I found that it helped to draw a sharp line between the two stories. It also has a sort of symbolic relationship to the two characters’ situations.

City of Ruins is based on an award-winning novella originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction. It will be followed by Boneyards. I did not get a chance to read either the preceding novellas or Diving the Wreck, so it is possible that City of Ruins is a stronger book when viewed in its proper context. I don’t plan to read the next book, and I hesitate to recommend this one. If you’re already a fan of the series, or if you’re looking for a space opera that takes place in a claustrophobic underground setting, this book might be for you.

Book Review: The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells

The Cloud Roads coverBooks like The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells are why I love fantasy literature. In The Cloud Roads, Wells has built a world where people aren’t just divided by color and language, but by species and life-cycle. In a surprisingly short time, Wells touches on the kinds problems that a world like hers would have, and populates it with compelling, believable characters who provide the driving force behind the narrative.

Our hero, Moon, is surrounded by people from a hundred different races — but no one who looks like him. There is one species whom he resembles: The Fell, a race of flying predators. Moon rarely gets to stay in one place for long, because eventually someone notices that, hey, this guy can shapeshift into a big flying dragony thing, kind of like the big flying dragony things that smashed up our city and ate our families. Once someone notices, it’s just a matter of time before Moon has to move on. Every time he moves, he has to integrate with an entirely new species.

Living alone and constantly under suspicion of being a ravening beast has made Moon into a deeply suspicious person. He never overlooks the possibility that people are simply lying to him, either out of malice or because they want to use him. Wells is careful to show the reader that Moon’s suspicious nature isn’t just a personality flaw — his instincts save the day more than once. Despite everything, Moon is a basically decent person, which helps keep him sympathetic through his moments of self-pity.

Martha Wells seems to have mastered the trick of making every character in The Cloud Roads sympathetic, even if only when seen from a particular angle or at one moment in the story. Some people will have trouble with this book because there aren’t any humans in it. However, there are more three-dimensional and fully-realized characters in The Cloud Roads than I’ve seen in some books that only feature humans. I even caught myself feeling bad for the Fell. Sure, they’re murderous cannibalistic monsters, but they can suffer (I still cheered when Jade ripped a Fell’s head off — regardless of pathos, rampaging cannibal monsters make lousy neighbors).

Jade isn’t the only kickass woman in this book. It’s always a relief to see women written as people, rather than as collections of stereotypes — particularly when they’re fierce shapeshifing dragon-women. The women in The Cloud Roads are just as flawed and just as compelling as the men. I could see Wells having fun with the gender roles in her society — Moon’s place, when he finally finds it, was such a wonderful twist that I will not spoil it here.

Wells’s writing is straightforward and functional. The reader will be working hard to understand this complex alien world that Wells has built, and so she doesn’t waste time with literary distractions. The Cloud Roads is Moon’s story, and never strays from his point of view. The pacing in The Cloud Roads is superb. It drops the reader right into Moon’s bad day, sketching the outlines of his world right before the action begins and everything changes.

The Cloud Roads is a short book and a fast read. It also comes with some beautiful cover art — the thumbnail attached to this review doesn’t do it justice. I recommend The Cloud Roads for readers who are looking for something different, thoughtful, and fun.

Book Review: “Osama” by Lavie Tidhar

It’s been about ten years since Al Qaeda operatives flew jets into three U.S. buildings (and were thwarted before they could hit a fourth). In that time we’ve all suffered the effects, which is to say: a couple of wars, a lot of political punditry, the unfortunate rise of Sean Hannity, and the end of flying for fun thanks to security theater (at least, in the U.S., where I live). I think it’s safe to say that most people wish the bombings had been nothing but a story, a book they could read and then put down again.

In Lavie Tidhar’s new novel Osama, that’s exactly the world the characters inhabit.

Osama is the story of Joe, a private detective residing in Vientaine (in Laos), who is commissioned by a mysterious woman to find a man named Mike Longshott. What makes Longshott special is this: he is the author of a series of pulp novels entitled Osama bin Laden: Vigilante. With a nearly unlimited line of credit, courtesy of his employer, Joe travels to Paris, London, and elsewhere in search of the mysterious author, only to find his way blocked by false leads and government agents who kick the crap out of him.

Despite being a short novel — under 300 pages — it took me a while to finish the book because it just didn’t draw me in. I’m usually a fan of alternate history — both in short and long form, from Pullman to Turtledove and beyond — but my issue with Osama was that, while a Turtledove novel (for example) will pick a single point in history to change, I was never really sure what was different about Osama — or, even, when it took place. If the book shows a world where Bin Laden didn’t commit or mastermind terrorist acts, then I clearly don’t know enough about the history and impact of the man, pre 9/11, to comprehend what might have changed because he didn’t exist. That was a major sticking point for me while reading the novel, and someone better versed in recent history might not have that problem*.

Osama did have a lot of rich scenery — Tidhar is a well-traveled writer who has lived in many locations worldwide, and as such he has a wealth of experience to draw on in creating an Osama-free world. He also changed enough about that world that, if it was supposed to be contemporary to our own, readers are forced to wonder just how much technological advancement was driven by terrorism (or violence in general). The big difference was that no one used computers. And, as for air travel, things were very different in Joe’s world: he is still allowed to smoke on airplanes, non-first-class passengers get meals, and if there is any airport security to speak of, I completely missed it.

I generally read books for enjoyment, not enrichment — although I don’t mind being required to think or project my knowledge to get the full benefit of a book. However, I think that, to enjoy (or even fully appreciate) Osama, readers have to engage far more critical thinking skills than I really felt was necessary. I had to fill in too many expository gaps and I’m not even sure I did that correctly. While well-written, the story, though straightforward, didn’t keep me as interested and engaged as I think it could have done.

You may enjoy this book, especially if you like alternate history or are a student of (or commentator upon) current events. But it wasn’t the book for me.

#

Special thanks to the author for providing a review copy.

Note to parents: this book contains violence and adult subject matter. Plus, if younger readers don’t have more than just a passing familiarity with terrorist acts beyond 9/11, they may find themselves lost. Of course, you should use your own discretion when it comes to your children.

#

* The first time I was truly exposed to the name Osama Bin Laden was the morning of 9/11 — I was working on a morning radio show and we saw the video of the first tower just after the first plane hit it. The host, a Lebanese-American, took one look and (off-air) said “Osama Bin Laden”.

Review: Monster Hunter International by Larry Correia

Monster Hunter InternationalI had a warm spot in my heart for Larry Correia after reading his HK rant. (“Because you suck. And we hate you.”) Unfortunately, I decided to read his novel, Monster Hunter International. This book was originally self-published, and owes its success to Mr. Correia’s marketing instincts. I don’t have space to cover all the flaws in this book, so I’ll just hit the highlights. Because it was self-published and only later picked up by Baen, Monster Hunter International shows no sign of an editor’s pen. The characters are flat. The prose is stale and repetitive. The plot reads like something intended for a weekend of tabletop gaming, complete with prophetic visions from the storyteller to keep the protagonists on track.

The company called Monster Hunter International was founded when a group of good Southern boys got a lynch mob together in order to drive some unsavory elements (read: vampires) out of their town. I wish I was kidding. In the years since, Monster Hunter has made its founder’s family rich by collecting government-sponsored bounties on supernatural creatures like werewolves, zombies, and vampires. These days, the only thing they fear is the EPA (and Fish and Wildlife, and OSHA, and…).

Our hero, Owen Pitt (brother of the heavy metal artist Mosh Pitt — not kidding about that one, either), gets involved in the monster hunting business when he defeats his evil-boss-turned-werewolf in single combat. Afterwards, he is visited at his home by Monster Hunter International’s recruitment team, including one Julie Shackleford, who tells him that not only is he the first man in history to kill a werewolf with his bare hands, but that his scores in various firearm competitions are even better than hers! Also, his college degree proves that he is a genius. Owen decides that he is in love (though whether with her or her handguns is sometimes an open question). He expresses his love by staring at her a lot, and when that doesn’t work, by pretending to be her friend.

I decided to read this book based on the strength of its action scenes, but to my dismay I found that the narrative is dominated by lectures. The hundred pages or so that pass between the werewolf fight and the first vampire fight are filled with Owen’s monster hunter training. We are introduced to some more monster hunters, whom the reader might be tempted to worry about if Mr. Correia had the fortitude to kill his characters. In training, Owen proves that he is the best at every possible thing (except running), earning the admiration of all the instructors. Multi-page monologues leave the reader with only one questions: Who will be beating our hero with the exposition bat this time?

When the book finally gets back to the action, it’s a mess of vampires on a cargo ship. Owen saves everyone from the cowardly French vampire, and is left for dead by Julie’s asshole boyfriend (and who didn’t see that one coming?). We learn the first rule of monster hunting: Any problem can be solved by getting a bigger gun. In Owen’s case, it’s a fully automatic cut-down combat shotgun with a spring-loaded bayonet and optional grenade launcher. (“How many gun laws does this break?” “All of them.”) The action scenes are precise and well-scripted, but I was willing to put this book down at any time up to the last fifty pages. The final battle is the most interesting one in the book, but suffers from overuse of the passive voice (see: the perils of self-publishing). Finally, it turns out that women are the source of all evil.

Owen is not the kind of character who thinks his way out of problems. Despite being introduced as a genius, he isn’t particularly bright. He has a magical dead Jew in his head who does his thinking for him (still not kidding). Instead of figuring out the bad guy’s plans, the magical Jew dumps Owen directly into the bad guy’s head and lets him see through his eyes, removing all suspense from their later encounters. People who learn things tend to go insane, like Julie’s father.

Monster Hunter International did not have to be seven hundred pages long. Its sequel, which I am told did benefit from the attentions of an editor, is much shorter. Not that it really matters, since I’m not going to spend any more time struggling through yet another lecture set to the sound of an entire Viking army’s worth of political axes grinding. Monster Hunter International is not a book for people who enjoy well-crafted prose or fast-paced action. It is not for people who don’t care about the difference between a Government .45 and a Glock. Larry Correia is writing for a specific audience, and it is clear that I am not one of them.

Book Review: White Tiger, by Kylie Chan

Confession time: I don’t finish books I don’t like. I find it a waste of my time, and if I don’t care to finish the book, I don’t care to find out what happens at the end. *

The sad truth is, I didn’t finish White Tiger.

It hooked me, quite well in fact. I read 250 pages the first night. The pacing was good, the characters interesting. We have a headstrong English teacher, Emma, quitting her kindergarten teacher job in Hong Kong and immediately getting picked up as a live-in nanny for one of the girls she tutors. The single dad is smokin’ hot, the girl is delightful, and the pay is amazing. The conflict comes when she realizes he’s a god and he can’t return to his palace because he has to protect his daughter from demons who would kidnap her to control him, but staying away from his source of power is making him weaker and weaker. (There’s a romance bit too, of course.)

Emma befriends the chauffeur/bodyguard, who is part information-dispenser and part tool to keep the character (and therefore the reader) in the dark. The character is a good one, don’t get me wrong, but he and Emma begin pulling practical jokes on each other that just seem to come out of nowhere. He doesn’t seem particularly playful, and every time they played a prank on each other, it pulled me out of the story because I started thinking, “Why did that happen?”

But the biggest flaw of this book was the lack of editing. It was far too long and needed tightening. Some dialogue was just unnecessary, some characters repeating verbatim sentences they’d said a paragraph earlier.

I can also see non-martial arts aficionados getting lost in the battle scenes, because Emma begins training with the god and Chan uses words that martial arts fans would know, but I’m afraid others would not. And even though she went into detail about the training, she kept using only the term “martial arts” and never saying what system they were studying. (The fact that this was a Chinese god teaching her “katas” which are Japanese forms bugged the crap out of me. At least she didn’t call him “sensei” which is also Japanese.)

In short, White Tiger had a good hook, a good premise, but suffered from bloat, and I just got bored with the repetition. If an editor had cut 100 pages, it probably would have held my interest.

* OK, there is one mystery I did wonder about. The name of the book is White Tiger, and we meet a god who is the white tiger, but as far as I read, his role was tiny. I wondered where Chan was going to put him that would justify naming the whole book after him…

Book Review: I Shall Wear Midnight, by Terry Pratchett

The world of genre fiction was dealt a serious blow when author Terry Pratchett announced that he suffered from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. It didn’t stop him from writing, but it may have moved up the end of his writing career. His previous Discworld novel, “Unseen Academicals”, was – to my mind, anyway – full of plots and ideas that Pratchett may have wanted to cover in future novels but was afraid he wouldn’t be able to. I thought it made the book suffer.

Not so much with “I Shall Wear Midnight”, the latest – and possibly the last, depending upon the progress of Pratchett’s illness – Tiffany Aching novel.

“Midnight” begins when Tiffany is 16, and has taken on the mantle of the witch of the Chalk, a land in Discworld relatively close to Lancre. She does all the mucky jobs witches do – birthing babies, seeing to the sick, laying out the dead, and generally living and working near the edge. Early on, we are shown just how well Tiffany has learned her craft from Granny Weatherwax, “the most highly regarded of the leaders [witches] didn’t have” (“Wyrd Sisters”) when she has to deal with Seth Petty, who has beaten his pregnant teenage daughter so severely that she lost the baby.

And there we have the first insight that “Midnight”, while being a YA novel and shelved as such in many bookstores, is not for the immature. The thing is, after having read the book, that sequence is the most graphic and adult in the novel. To me it served a similar purpose to Shepherd Book’s death in “Serenity” – a character will be killed off, to show how serious this is. There’s a scene or two later in the book that reminds us, but it doesn’t hold a candle to what Seth Petty did.

I think we needed it, too, because the novel’s main villain, the Cunning Man – the spirit of a long-dead priest of Omnianism, a religion established in “Small Gods” and referred to many times throughout the series – is somewhat hard to wrap one’s head around. We’re told he comes back every few hundred years, and he fights the witches, and the witches generally win. He came back this time because Tiffany kissed the Wintersmith (in the book of the same name) and drew enough attention to herself.

The Cunning Man is the kind of villain that works well for a YA audience because it makes people do things they normally wouldn’t, against their will – similar to the hiver in “A Hat Full of Sky” – but it makes the book a little difficult to follow when it comes to the main plot. It’s like “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”: Harry has the Dursleys, school, Quidditch, the Voldemort War, being in love with Ginny, and he has to deal with the whole Voldemort thing… but that last one gets lost in the shuffle amid all the other story arcs. The same with “Midnight” – Tiffany has to handle a lot of things in this book besides the Cunning Man, including caring for the people of the Chalk, the imminent marriage of her friend Roland (son of the Baron), the Duchess’s treatment of her people, and Amber Petty (Seth’s daughter), who seems to really like the Nac Mac Feegle.

Oh, yes. The Feegles are back – Rob Anybody, Jeannie the Kelda, and fan favorite, Daft Wullie. Rob even puts aside his Feegle nature for a moment when the Baron’s men threaten their mound. It’s quite a moment. And speaking of people who are back, one of the best parts of the book is when Tiffany meets Granny Weatherwax’s other successful apprentice.

“Midnight” brings us all our favorite witches – Granny, Nanny, and even Magrat, along with mentions of Tiffany’s friends Petulia and Anagramma, and her teacher Miss Tick – as well as introducing Mrs. Proust, who has a very surprising connection to Boffo (see “Wintersmith”). Tiffany also meets Captains Carrot and Angua (glad to see she’s finally gotten that promotion), Constable Haddock, and the inimitable Commander Vimes. But the book takes place on the Chalk, for the most part, and despite the attendance of the senior witches – one of whom (and you can easily guess which) has fought the Cunning Man before – it’s Tiffany who must save the day.

I’ll be honest: I really didn’t care for “The Wee Free Men”, but the rest of the Aching books have been good, solid stories, and if this one meandered a bit and did contain a tad too much additional plot (Miss Smith, the Duchess and Leticia, Tiffany Goes to Ankh-Morpork – which really felt shoehorned in there), Pratchett is still a good enough storyteller to tie it up neatly at the end. If “I Shall Wear Midnight” turns out to be the final Tiffany Aching novel, then I for one am satisfied with how her arc ends.

Besides, that means we can get back to the business of making Vimes the next Patrician*.

* Oh, come on, you know that’s how the Discworld series will end.