Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Mistborn: The Final Empire by: Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson is one of the biggest names in modern fantasy.  First published in 2005, Sanderson has consistently published multiple books a year in both adult and young adult fantasy.  In 2009, he was chosen to write the conclusion to Robert Jordan’s epic fantasy saga, The Wheel of Time, and in 2010 he began publishing his own magnum opus, The Stormlight Archive.  His first published novel Elantris was not the first novel he had written, that would actually become his second novel The Final Empire, later retitled Mistborn: The Final Empire and simply Mistborn.  This is the first book in a trilogy now dubbed Mistborn Era 1, which spanned 2006 and 2008.  The Final Empire is a novel that grabs some tropes from a big bag of tropes and mixes them together to create a world which is something that Sanderson often does in his novels.  This novel is primarily a fantasy heist where the prize is valuable metal for the purpose of taking down the evil Lord Ruler which then forms the climax of the novel.  From that description the novel sounds incredibly generic, but Sanderson is brilliant at disguising the tropes in an incredibly interesting setting and characters to execute said tropes.

Sanderson opens The Final Empire with a brilliant hook: “Ash fell from the sky.”  This single sentence does more to set the tone than anything else in the novel.  It primes the reader for the bleak, ashen city of Luthadel on the world of Scadriel where the oppressive atmosphere fits hand in hand with the oppression of the lower classes.  The skaa are essentially slaves to their class, forced into squalor and cutoff from the magic of this world.  The skaa who have the lineage for magic are often found by the nobility or the Inquisitors and locked up, or worse.  The Steel Inquisitors make an excellent group of secondary villains.  They are Allomancers who have several steel spikes driven into them to put them under control, and there are implications that future books will delve more into what exactly they are.  The scummy streets create such a vivid picture that when Sanderson introduces Vin, the main character of the novel, the reader is ready to believe that she is at rock bottom.  Vin is a young girl, left on the streets and part of a thieving team who it turns out is a Mistborn, meaning she is able to utilize all ten metals for magic.  Allomancy is Sanderson’s magic system: burning specific metals to have a specific magical effect.  Magic in this world is genetic and Vin’s Mistborn status makes her valuable to Kelsier, a figure attempting to overthrow the Lord Ruler and free the skaa.  Vin is already a damaged character, overcoming life experiences which has left her untrusting due to abuse, yet her personality shines through.

Vin’s part in the plan involves her tapping into her own feminine side and attending several balls to gain information.  Sazed, a Terrisman, acts as her servant to help guide her with a dry wit and helping hand, and a creature impersonating a lord acts as her uncle.  The ruse and ball scenes provide a nice juxtaposition between the action of taking down the Lord Ruler and the nice espionage.  The balls do fall into the young adult trap of bringing in a romance, however, Sanderson does apply this with a deft hand.  Elend Venture who is the son of the lord of the most powerful house, is Vin’s love interest, but they are allowed to have a naturally growing relationship with its own twists and turns.  Both care for each other and it isn’t love at first sight which makes for a nice change.  The romance isn’t perfect, but it is more developed than some of the romances out there.  Kelsier is also a character who act as the mentor figure for Vin, which is where Sanderson perhaps follows tropes to too close of a standard beat.  He’s a fine character and there are glimpses of a damaged person here, but his story arc throughout the novel is one that follows the standard mentor story arc.  It doesn’t hurt the novel much, as The Final Empire is still an excellent novel where even the supporting cast is all unique, though like many fantasy novels, too many to count here.  Each serves a purpose in Vin’s story, but there is enough depth for them to have their own stories in future novels.  Overall, The Final Empire is just a fascinating read that I’d highly recommend if you’re looking for a gateway into modern adult fantasy, with a nice mix of tropes, tones, and characters to really have something for everyone.  9/10.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Interference - Book One: Shock Tactic by: Lawrence Miles

Interference is something so odd and contradictory that it can only be described as peak Lawrence Miles.  It’s split across two novels, published at the same time, and attempting to bring the disparate threads of the last 25 books together and setup the next story arc which I think culminates in The Ancestor Cell.  This is the book that’s meant to say goodbye to Sam and to really bring Faction Paradox to the forefront and set the BBC Books apart from the Virgin New Adventures before it.  This review is only for Interference: Book One: Shock Tactic, and is coming from the perspective of someone who has not read Interference: Book Two: Hour of the Geek, because it was published as one book and claims to be a book one.  Lawrence Miles’ first installment is weird.  It is 309 pages, split into several different sections to attack parts of the plot, and doesn’t feel like a Doctor Who novel.  The Doctor is barely in this first half, and when he does appear, he is confined to a cell, while Miles takes more time to explain Faction Paradox, aka his baby.  The book is all setup for something.  Something that Miles doesn’t even really hint at what it means for the characters or even what that something could be.  This isn’t to say that the setup is bad, far from it.  Like Christmas on a Rational Planet and Alien Bodies, Miles’ prose is beautiful and effective at making a surreal landscape of the events in the mind as from the very beginning there is this sense that everything is off.

Interference is wrapped in a frame story where the Eighth Doctor, alone and possibly broken, arrives on a place called Foreman’s World where over the course of a day he tells the story of what happened to him on Earth and what happened to the Third Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith on the planet Dust to I.M. Foreman.  I.M. Foreman is a character who is left a mystery by Miles throughout the novel.  She is this character with a history with the Doctor and is implied to be on a self-imposed exile to this little planet which may or may not be in a bottle universe.  Miles explains the bottle universes in the prologue of the book as how parallel worlds work and where the Time Lords will go after some great war.  This war is something that is clearly setup for later in the books and the bottle universe concept is supposed to be Miles’ answer to how the VNAs fit in, but where the frame story works is to set the tone of the story.  The Doctor here is distant and clearly reeling from some sort of loss.  There comes a point where he just stops the story halfway because he doesn’t quite know where to go with it, before starting a completely different story showing that he has become pretty erratic in what he has been doing.  The frame story does fall apart as an end to the story as Shock Tactic isn’t a book that ends on a cliffhanger, or with resolution, it just kind of stops midway through the story.

“What Happened On Earth” is the section of the book that deals with the Eighth Doctor, Sam, and Fitz and takes up a majority of the novel.  It’s also the portion of the novel that has the closest plot points to a Doctor Who story, but after a few chapters Miles just sort of goes off the rails with it.  The Doctor and Sam are dealing with weapons dealers in London, 1996 while Fitz is kind of off on his own doing things.  The Doctor immediately gets captured and put in prison cell with Badar, a writer whom the Doctor has a good relationship with as he is tortured and broken down following the threads started in Kate Orman and Jonathan Blum’s Seeing I.  The Doctor is used scarcely in this section, but when he does appear it becomes incredibly emotional as he is broken down to his breaking point.  The real star of this section is Sam Jones who investigates Guest, Kode, and Compassion, a trio of characters from Anathema, a human colony, possibly from the future, possibly from the present.  Sam’s story is incredibly meta as once she confronts the trio with Sarah Jane Smith, who is also investigating alongside Sam, she is captured and put in the Remote which is a concept.  The Remote might be something alive, it might be a piece of technology, Miles doesn’t provide answers, but it allows Sam to undergo a series of scenes which are incredibly meta in nature.  These scenes are more often written in the form of a television script and described as a BBC interpretation of events which is interesting.  It’s meant to make Sam, and the reader, feel disoriented and unsure of what’s been happening, bringing back the Dark Sam concept from Alien Bodies and Unnatural History.

Guest, Kode, and Compassion are all characters with their own quirks and differences.  Kode is the least developed, while Guest is the over the top villain of the piece in the style of Mavic Chen and Tobias Vaughn and Compassion is the hardened criminal with a plan.  Fitz’s story is told through interludes within this section while he is in the custody of UNISYC which is an offshoot from UNIT and is sent into the future through the Cold.  The Cold is a suspended animation technology from the future which on it’s creation Fitz exited.  In the future, Fitz isn’t allowed to leave an apartment and is eventually driven to joining Faction Paradox as an initiate which is where Miles drops in the history of the Faction and much of its operations.  The Cold exiting Fitz becomes a paradox in and of itself and the second part of the book is where the origins of the Faction come to light.  Fitz’s fall to the dark side of the Faction is justified, but is in need of more exploration because like Sam’s story, it just sort of stops.  “What Happened On Dust” is the second part of the book which basically establishes I.M. Foreman’s Travelling Circus, the Third Doctor and Sarah Jane arriving after The Monster of Peladon, and the Faction going to the planet.  It’s the weaker portion of the novel as it doesn’t do much in terms of plot, just that the Faction is going to invade.  Magdelana Bishop is an interesting character, but the Third Doctor and Sarah Jane don’t do much except foreshadow that the Third Doctor’s regeneration is going to occur on Dust instead of during Planet of the Spiders.

Overall, Interference – Book One: Shock Tactic may be an incredibly compelling read, setting up a world and the potential for a galaxy spanning conflict, but it’s only setup and it doesn’t find a good endpoint.  It just stops.  9/10.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Maskerade by: Terry Pratchett

In these trying times I’ve found that looking for humorous reads has become a point of solace, and Terry Pratchett is an author whom I’ve always found able to blend comedy and drama seriously.  Maskerade is the eighteenth in his Discworld book and either the fourth or fifth in the Witches Sequence, depending on who you ask, and is largely a parody of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, with less romance and more witches.  It’s also the first Discworld novel post-Interesting Times where Pratchett decided to actually reflect on what he is saying and make more statements in his books than just parodies.  Maskerade is odd in that there really isn’t all that much of a serious commentary on the issues of the world outside of parodying the world and absurdities of theater.  While much is made of the Webber musical version of The Phantom of the Opera, Maskerade actually feels more like an adaptation of the original novel by Gaston Leroux, as it presents itself as a murder mystery.  There is an Opera Ghost in the Ankh-Morpork Opera House who leaves plenty of notes making demands of the new owners, killing people, and giving an ingenue singing lessons, but where it truly reflects Leroux’s novel is that there is the murder mystery aspect of the book.  The identity of the Opera Ghost is not revealed until near the end of the book and although it is 25 years old by this point, I will not be spoiling that twist.

Sure, Discworld is a fantasy setting, but this is a book where the supernatural elements aren’t really a part of the plot as per both Leroux’s novel and Webber’s musical, at least when it comes to explaining things.  Pratchett’s witches prefer to use reverse psychology and the fantasy creatures are more in service to mundane life than anything else.  This isn’t epic fantasy, it’s a character study.  Agnes Nitt was a supporting character in previous Witch books who goes against what she sees as the old-fashioned nature of Lancre and sets out to Ankh-Morpork because she’s looking to find her own way.  She has a good singing voice, but is stuck in the chorus due to an unflattering figure.  One large portion of the book is that she takes up the Christine role while Christine, the actual character, is shown to be more of the Carlotta.  Though this Carlotta is much more of a talkative prima donna who has no actual talent in what she does.  She’s not evil, she’s just a diva and whiny and the butt of several jokes.  The Ghost even thinks that he’s giving lessons to Christine, because Agnes and Christine switch rooms once he shows up because ghosts are scary.

Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg’s story, especially before they get to Ankh-Morpork, is where the book shines perhaps the most.  Granny and Nanny have lost Magrat to her queening duties and both characters are subtly undergoing their own arcs of grief.  It’s not done on the surface but there are little moments that Pratchett includes to show that they need to have a third person in their trio to reign them in (and to boss around).  Yes, Granny can kind of reign in Nanny Ogg, and vice versa, but there is an element to the relationship that’s just missing without a third.  It’s like a hole in one’s family and Nanny Ogg being taken advantage of which starts their plot is emblematic of this.  Nanny has written a cookbook called The Joy of Snacks (and yes it is full of innuendo and special sauces typical of Nanny) and basically wasn’t paid for her work, so they go to Ankh-Morpork to confront the publisher.  Like Witches Abroad, their road trip has the funniest portions of the book as they interact with one another and the world around them.  A close second is Granny Weatherwax as a patron of the arts.  They also have to learn to accept Agnes as a person, who appeared previously and attempted several times to get away from Granny and Nanny, and for Agnes to accept them.  The acceptance is a large part of the novel.  Overall, Maskerade is a book really about masks and how people’s inner emotions can greatly effect their actions and the lengths they go to for achieving their goals, healthy and unhealthy.  It’s also Pratchett on top form with laughs a minute from start to finish with plenty of diversions and jokes to keep interested until the end.  9/10.

Friday, April 17, 2020

The Final Sanction by: Steve Lyons

The Murder Game introduced the Selachians in its second half as a warmongering race which has mutilated itself to look like sharks and force themselves into battle suits.  With this premise Steve Lyons creates the potential for a vast world of culture to explore, however, The Murder Game is primarily a base under siege mixed with a murder mystery.  This leaves the Selachians in desperate need of exploration and a year later, Lyons wrote a follow up that delivered on this premise.  The Final Sanction returns to the Troughton era of the show, but now near the end of this Doctor’s life and captures a different tone.  The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe arrive at the end of the war between the Selachians and humanity, both sides are desperate, and war at this point is futile.  From its opening chapters, The Final Sanction manages to capture the bleak nature of a war that nobody will win without genocide.  The desperation seeps through the prose as the TARDIS team are tested to how far they will go to get out safely, as their worldviews are challenged and the usually fun team from 1969 are brought into the cold light of day.  Lyons isn’t actively forcing this team into a darker tone, but allowing the drama to arise naturally from the situations the characters have found themselves in.  This is far from a forced darkness of certain early novels of the Virgin run, but the natural development of those novels published two years after Virgin stopped.

Zoe Heriot is close to getting the Dodo treatment in The Final Sanction, as Lyons puts her through hell.  Near the beginning of the novel, Zoe is captured by the Selachians and held prisoner for the runtime.  There is an avoidance of the damsel in distress, as even on television Zoe is a character far from your typical damsel, as every attempt she gets, she’s attempting to make an escape to get back to the Doctor and Jamie.  The Selachians, being ruthless, torture Zoe at every turn from physical to the psychological.  Lyons does not relish in these scenes but gives them enough room for the reader’s mind to fill in quite a few of the gaps.  There’s even a point where she’s become so desperate to escape from the torture, she fails to stop her accomplice from killing a civilian.  This action has consequences, and of course once the Selachians discover the body, Zoe is quickly recaptured and broken even further.  It’s only at the very end of the novel, in the epilogue, where the Doctor is able to comfort her and set her on the path of healing.  It’s actually a really nice moment and harkens back to The Tomb of the Cybermen and The Wheel in Space.  While Zoe’s story is one of being broken by torture, Jamie’s story is one of being broken by the horrors of war.  Being the protector of this TARDIS team (and the Second Doctor’s era in general), Jamie’s immediate priorities once Zoe is captured is to get her back.  This leads him to being trained for war, something that has changed a great deal in the centuries between the highlander’s own time.  Lyons really provides the juxtaposition of who the character is as Jamie’s brash nature goes against the underhanded tactics of this war, nearly getting him killed in the end.

Putting the Second Doctor in the middle of an all-out war is also something rather new, Lyons adds to it by giving him foreknowledge of events.  The Final Sanction is essentially a pure historical from the future where the Doctor knows what the outcome will be, spends as much time as he can to at least get people to regret their actions, and essentially do nothing to stop it.  The book is building up to genocide, and throughout Lyons and the Doctor are showing the reader, and any character who listens, that the war is entirely the humans doing.  The Selachians were once Ockorans, a peaceful people with the most beautiful singing voices and a culture of high art.  They became warmongers because of people invading their planets and beginning to wipe them out because they couldn’t communicate.  It becomes heart wrenching as you watch the Doctor attempt to save someone, anyone, and only succeed in the more bittersweet of ways.  The supporting characters are also Lyons’ usual caliber of writing.  The most interesting is Dr. Laura Mulholland, the scientist responsible for the genocide in the end through her research.  She is an example of science without regard for consequences in a comment on weapons of mass destruction and certain aspects of the political landscape at the time that haven’t really changed.  Wayne Redfern is the other most interesting character as he is the one who actually presses the button to destroy the Selachians with the Doctor unable to stop them.  Overall, The Final Sanction is excellent, leaving plenty of questions and filling in quite a few blanks from The Murder Game.  9/10.