Monday, September 28, 2020

The Kane Chronicles: The Red Pyramid by: Rick Riordan


Rick Riordan’s decision after the success of Percy Jackson and the Olympians was to continue writing young adult novels based off ancient mythologies, moving from Greek mythology to Egyptian mythology.  The Kane Chronicles as a series easily could have become a retread of Percy Jackson and the Olympians as it takes a similar premise of teens/preteens discovering that the ancient pantheon and mythological monsters are real and hidden in the real world and they must save a parental figure who has been captured by an evil god before a greater threat is revealed as a curse to the world.  There’s a lot in the first book in The Kane Chronicles trilogy that mirrors The Lightning Thief, at least in the premise, which can make the book feel quite a bit like Riordan’s previous work and brings it down as a whole.  This doesn’t mean that The Kane Chronicles is by any means bad, there are plenty of things here to like and Riordan does a lot of things correctly, but The Red Pyramid as a novel has some important plot elements that are derivative of Riordan’s previous work.  The book opens with Dr. Julius Kane merging with the Egyptian god Osiris and dying in an explosion, much like Sally Jackson’s capture in The Lightning Thief.  The rest of the book is then a retelling of a specific Egyptian myth about the capture of Osiris by Set and his subsequent rescue by Horus and Isis.  This presents a unique situation for Riordan: he has a structure to follow, but has to actually write original details and characters to get our characters through the structure.  The myth isn’t an epic poem like The Iliad or The Odyssey, but a fairly simple story to describe how Horus was transitioned into being the “head” god of the Egyptian pantheon.


Riordan introduces the Kane siblings here as our protagonists and narrators: Carter and Sadie Kane are the children of two Egyptologists, their mother died, and they were separated with Carter traveling with his father, and Sadie living with her grandparents.  Their dad releases Osiris and four other Egyptian gods from their prison in the Rosetta Stone (Horus, Isis, Nephthys, and Set), and each of the gods bonds with a host.  The novel becomes a race against the clock where Carter and Sadie have to track down and defeat Set, the god of evil, before his birthday.  The Red Pyramid off the bat shows an improved sense of worldbuilding and better usage of Riordan’s page time: the book is 516 pages long and doesn’t shy away from building the world.  There isn’t a central hub for the “heroes” here, instead having it as an international organization with bases across the globe, and Carter and Sadie aren’t related to the gods, just descendants of pharaohs and merging with gods for magical power.  A magic system is developed using hieroglyphs and a vague sense of internal energy and the idea of true names giving power, many of these concepts having their roots in Egyptian mythology with its own little spin.  The book is also framed as a transcript of an audio tape apparently sent to Riordan at some point before publication/writing, pulling a The Phantom of the Opera in claiming that this story is somehow true.


This framing allows Riordan to use first person perspective and to switch easily from Carter and Sadie’s perspective, giving each of the siblings their own time to shine and to allow the reader a sense of who they are.  Carter is a bit of a nerd who doesn’t quite understand society, has dealt with racism due to his darker skin (the siblings are mixed race), and attempts to be cool, but doesn’t quite manage it while Sadie is the more petulant and immature of the two, yet is more understanding due to a more traditional schooling.  The siblings have a nice dynamic, and have that bickering sibling attitude which is really interesting.  Riordan has them merge with Horus and Isis respectively, which works twofold.  First, it creates parallels with the actual myth, and second, it allows an exploration for why the two siblings can use magic well without training as having literal gods sharing their bodies and giving them a magical boost.  It allows the book to keep flowing.  The parallels between the Kane siblings with the gods are also really interesting as while they serve the same role of those gods in the myth, Carter and Sadie are written intentionally to be foils for Horus and Isis: Carter isn’t warlike and looking for glory, instead looking for acceptance to contrast Horus’s characterization as a war god, and Sadie isn’t manipulative, cold, or calculating unlike Isis’s characterization as a master manipulator who is cutthroat in achieving her goals.


The supporting characters are a bit of a mixed bag.  Carter and Sadie are accompanied by Bast, the Egyptian cat goddess, and their long-lost Uncle Amos, who are probably the best characterized as they get the most time.  Bast is a cat, no that’s the characterization and it provides some much needed relief, while Amos works kind of as a mentor figure in the stuff.  Other characters include Anubis, an Egyptian funeral god, and Zia Rashed, a magician, both serving as love interests for Sadie and Carter, respectively, but both don’t get enough time for development, due to this book being an extended chase sequence with Carter and Sadie trying to defeat Set while the House of Life is after them.  It’s a shame as both get strong introductions, but then don’t do much (Zia even kind of leaning on the women in refrigerators trope).  The human villain is also incredibly one note, setup as a red herring for the identity of the person Set is inhabiting which is just a problem for the book as it reduces the threat into a caricature of something real. The decision to exclusively focus on Carter and Sadie does allow for better worldbuilding and integration of the plot, but it means that the sequels will have to do more work to get the rest of the characters up to snuff.


Overall, The Red Pyramid is a good book.  It is.  There are plenty of criticisms and elements from Percy Jackson and the Olympians which carry over to this new series for Riordan, but on the whole the effort to make it more than superficially different pays off.  The characters sparkle, the writing style creates an interesting framing device, but there is something left wanting in not quite exploring who a lot of these characters are.  7/10.

Monday, September 7, 2020

The Taking of Planet 5 by: Simon Bucher-Jones and Mark Clapham


The Taking of Planet 5 is a complex novel.  It attempts to tie together several plot threads from the previous twenty-seven novels and to act as a blueprint and further explanation for the War in Heaven and the goals of Faction Paradox.  It’s a look into a potential future history of the Time Lords and their place in the war.  This is also the second Doctor Who novel from one Simon Bucher-Jones cowriting with Mark Clapham, and is one of those novels where there’s a lot going on in its plot, so the book is stuffed full of ideas almost to the point of breaking.  The title describes much of the plot aptly: a group of Elder Things are attempting to break the time loop around Planet 5 to release the Fendahl from their imprisonment to aid in the war effort.  While this is a simple outline, like Bucher-Jones’ previous work there are added layers of complexity with different parties having different goals towards winning this war.  Faction Paradox in particular doesn’t have a full arc in this book, instead being implied in the background behind many of these things, there is an expectation that the reader is familiar with their developments up to this point.


Bucher-Jones and Clapham present the reader with an incredibly dense novel filled to the brim with purple prose.  There are beautiful descriptions of everything from Antarctica, to Gallifrey, to the eldritch abominations which inhabit the novels, and with that dense prose one of the book’s flaws: it simultaneously says a lot while really saying nothing about anything in particular.  While Bucher-Jones’ previous effort The Death of Art suffered from themes that were buried under prose that ultimately meant little, The Taking of Planet 5 has the opposite problems.  The themes are there on the surface as the book deals with identity, cosmic horror, and change in various ways, but there isn’t enough time spent on any of these themes to really flesh them out completely.  Bucher-Jones and Clapham do an excellent job of filling this book with an interesting cast and fully fleshed out characters.  The perspective of this book shifts every so often allowing an insight into both Fitz and Compassion in such a way that the reader can now understand much of who they have become from their previous adventures.  Compassion is presented here as this truly alien presence in the novel, communing with the TARDIS in a way and becoming reliant on the Doctor’s trust to inform her actions.  She is ruthless and the reader can really feel her dead connection to the Remote and her previous life.  There’s something incredibly stilted about the way she is written here to give her dialogue that alien effect.  Her connection with the TARDIS is something that really hasn’t been explored and it’s interesting to see the implications of what she is in the greater scheme of things.


Fitz, on the other hand, is also in an interesting position here as he is clearly the reconstructed version that we saw at the end of Interference to avoid becoming Father Kreiner.  As portrayed here, it doesn’t feel like this is a replicated Fitz who has the memories of his former self implanted, but the original Fitz which is where Bucher-Jones and Clapham fall flat with the character.  There’s also just a lot of emphasis put on Fitz being the terrible ladies man who smokes cigarettes, especially apparent in his conversations with one of the Elder Things as it puts on a female human suit to make him feel at ease.   And yes, that scene is just as disturbing as it should be.  Much of The Taking of Planet 5 is cloaked in Lovecraftian horror mixed with humor in some of the odd ways mixing the tentacled abominations with concepts like the Museum of Things That Don’t Exist mixing with the idea that the Time Lords will eventually become these abominations.  Overall, The Taking of Planet 5 is a very mixed bag of a novel where ideas clash: one part At the Mountains of Madness, one part sequel to Alien Bodies, and one part meta commentary on Doctor Who there’s almost too much here and the book suffers for it.  It’s a good book, but some work could have made it a lot smoother.  7/10.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Last Olympian by: Rick Riordan


The Last Olympian can perhaps best be summarized as Rick Riordan learning from his mistakes when writing The Sea of Monsters, by making the story an homage to the other famous Homer epic: The Illiad.  This is the story where the Great Prophecy is fulfilled, the world is about to end, Percy is turning sixteen, and Kronos is advancing on New York.  Like The Sea of Monsters, many of the plot elements and structure is taken from the epic poem, meaning that many of the twists and turns will be familiar to those familiar with the poems.  Riordan improves on his previous novel by splitting the character arcs between different characters which keeps the reader on their toes as to who will be doing what.  Unlike The Sea of Monsters, The Last Olympian doesn’t perfectly follow The Illiad, instead taking the iconic moments such as the death of Patroclus, the negotiations between Greece and Troy, and the curse of Achilles are taken directly from the poem.  Riordan has made the final novel an incredibly enjoyable read by knowing when to stop taking inspiration and letting his own characters flourish through the pages as the tensions rise and the war mounts to a head with Manhattan in the place of Troy.  There is also the restraint to avoid using the Trojan Horse as how Kronos’ army enters the city, instead placing a sleeping curse on the mortals, causing general chaos, and placing the city under a siege and slowly approaching the Empire State Building to destroy Olympus.  There is also a clear tactic of dividing the demigods from the gods by releasing the Titan Typhon from his prison under Mount Saint Helens, distracting the gods.  The entire story is about how a war, and almost by extension anything, will fail unless there is unity and teamwork under strong leadership.


Riordan presents The Last Olympian essentially as a story with two halves: the buildup to the war is given as much attention as the war itself.  It is in that buildup where Riordan spends time getting into the psychology of Luke and establishing just how flawed the gods are.  Nico takes Percy on a journey to understand what made Luke the way he was and what Percy must do to defeat Kronos and his army.  The story of Luke’s mother and childhood is absolutely heartbreaking and fits into the theme of self-fulfilling prophecies of the book as the gods created this situation and are now paying for their actions.  May Castellan is a fascinating character, as while she means well, her choices led to Luke essentially be neglected and angry at Hermes, his father for legitimate reasons.  It makes Luke become a very human villain, and his eventual fate at the end of the book hits all the harder.  Hades is also used early on in the novel to highlight the hypocrisy of Olympus and their silly rules.  He wants to use Nico by capturing Percy and hiding him away so the Prophecy can be about a son of Hades, so he can get the respect that he deserves with the rest of his family.  Family plays an incredibly important role through the book as Percy is acting to protect his family, Sally Jackson and Paul Blofis (her fiancĂ©) fight by the end to save the world, and Rachel Elizabeth Dare fights to find her own place in her family.


Rachel becomes an interesting character here as while in The Battle of the Labyrinth Riordan set up a love triangle, it seemed by the end of that book that it would be ended there.  Then he opens this book with Percy and Rachel on a date.  The love triangle becomes a subplot throughout the novel, but it feels like these feelings Percy may have for Rachel are simply an excuse for him to care about her which comes across as clunky.  Annabeth is also really catty with Rachel up until the very end where her arc ends with Percy and Annabeth in their proper place as a couple.  Riordan already has a perfectly good plot hook and arc with Rachel’s struggles of being an activist and living a life against the wishes of her rich parents.  Add her prophetic dreams into the mix and that is plenty to keep her in the story without needing a love triangle to keep Percy interested.  This is the only area where the book really falls flat as Riordan finally spends more time in this book to establish a supporting cast, just enough for the audience to care when some of them inevitably die in war.  Yes, this is a young adult novel where death occurs and has consequences, many of which have a lasting impact on the characters.  Riordan does an excellent job of showing the fallout that death can cause and the different ways that grief manifests in people.  There are deaths that because of the reactions from the other characters, especially those involving Percy and Clarisse, become incredibly heartfelt and emotional.  Death has meaning and cannot be undone in this world.  The actual title refers to Hestia, goddess of the hearth and home, and her connection to the story and what she represents in the larger context of the narrative.  She bleeds into the theme of hope springing eternal in the darkest of places as these children have to save the world.


Honestly, The Last Olympian is wholesale a satisfying conclusion to Percy Jackson and the Olympians.  It is a book full of twists and turns that I would highly recommend, especially if you have come thus far in reading the series.  It’s at this point where Riordan implements themes about family and hope and war all in a package.  This book has death, betrayal, redemption, and the conclusion to what has been a great arc through the series.  The gods are depicted fully as the flawed immortal beings they are, and the book ends with them making a promise, setting up future stories.  There really is one big flaw here, and that is writing in a love triangle where there really doesn’t need to be a love triangle.  The book becomes an incredibly breezy read, and while not the best in the series, it leaves the reader satisfied.  9/10.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Malazan: Night of Knives by: Ian C. Esslemont


As someone who loves Doctor Who novels, reading a series written by multiple authors is not something that I am unfamiliar with or even against.  If you’re trying to write a big enough story and have a world you’ve created with others, you have every right to let others write in your world.  Steven Erikson’s Malazan: Book of the Fallen is a series where from the first book Ian C. Esslemont has had a hand in developments.  Esslemont cocreated the world with Erikson in 1982, and was acknowledged in Gardens of the Moon.  It would not be until 2004, after six books in Malazan: Book of the Fallen had been published when Esslemont had time to write and release the first in his six novel Novels of the Malazan Empire series.  Night of Knives is an incredibly short novel, only coming in at about 280 pages, serves as a companion to Gardens of the Moon and is one of the few novels which can be read out of sequence (I’m reviewing this having not read anything other than Gardens of the Moon).  It is marketed as the story of what happened to Emperor Kellanved and Dancer in between the prologue and first chapter of Gardens of the Moon, and while that is a thing that indeed happens in this book, it isn’t really the primary focus.  Esslemont instead focuses on the events surrounding these characters’ last 24-hours before all hell breaks loose and the pair are assassinated.  This being Malazan that is something that doesn’t happen as the first book implies, and Esslemont reveals several things about these characters which are excellently handled (especially in the short epilogue).


The actual focus of the book are two characters trying to survive the night in their respective plotlines.  Temper is an elderly bodyguard who arrives to Malaz City on a ship and is trying to go into hiding whilst Kiska is a teenager who wishes to become a mage.  As the main points of view of the novel, Temper and Kiska are where Night of Knives falls apart quite a bit.  Temper is a bit bland overall, though a serviceable character when you actually get into his actions and plotline there is a lot of interesting set pieces Esslemont understands.  Kiska, on the other hand, suffers from having a poor introduction as an angsty teenager who just wants to be a mage and honestly could be the protagonist of a Young Adult novel.  In fact, if it wasn’t for the horrors of the book, Night of Knives could easily be a YA novel in a lot of ways.  Kiska undergoes a journey of self-discovery and finds someone to train her to become a mage in this story.  Through the night she is chased by evil and finds people to help her and guide her to her final destination as she shifts in and out of the realm of Shadows.  Kiska’s biggest problem, however, is that Esslemont writes her character as a bratty teenager who the world just doesn’t get which feels really out of place with the rest of the novel’s tone.  She’s not a bad character, and once the plot gets going there’s quite a lot to enjoy about her.  There’s an interesting voice and a real sense of wonder after things get going, and she reacts realistically to the things about her.


Where Night of Knives really shines is in its tone.  The book essentially becomes a gothic horror story where the dead rise and monsters stalk the land over the course of one night of horror.  Once the sun sets the reader is privy to the world turning into a living nightmare and massacre, and when it is eventually revealed in what the nightmare is in aid of, they reel back in horror.  The horror elements of this story are tense and amount to much more than just senseless violence and destruction.  Esslemont has a real skill in building suspense and providing frights to the audience.  There’s also major differences in Esslemont’s style in comparison to Erikson: Esslemont is more direct in his writing and less concerned with shrouding things in mystery.  There is the expectation that you understand how the world works, but Esslemont understands that with a shorter page count he has to get to the point.  It still has quite a few hallmarks of a first novel, as the book is choppy in places.  It takes Esslemont about two very long chapters to actually get things going and even when they do there are often points in the writing that are just poorly written.  Overall, Night of Knives is a mixed bag.  It does a lot of things right and is effective at expanding on some of the unexplained aspects of Gardens of the Moon, but Esslemont is clearly writing his first novel.  5/10.