Sunday, November 22, 2020

The Kane Chronicles: The Serpent's Shadow by: Rick Riordan

The Kane Chronicles ends with The Serpent’s Shadow which promises the end of the world and reigning chaos as Apophis has risen and is ready to destroy the world with a broken faction of magicians, and it’s up to Carter, Sadie, and a small team of friends to stop them.  Rick Riordan ends the trilogy in honestly one of the weirdest climaxes for a book, with a real sense that Riordan wanted to write an all out magic battle, but had implemented a magic system that really doesn’t lend itself well to a structured fight.  Instead, there is a final spell scroll which works as a McGuffin for the plot as the book becomes a fetch quest with a dead evil magician called Setne and plenty of character drama involving romances and the stress of trying to save the end of the world.  The magic system working on simple commands mean that magic battles end up being simplified, asking the question why someone doesn’t just use a hieroglyph for death, other than the fact that this is a young adult novel.  Riordan is unable to fully flesh out this magic system’s limits and really what it can do in combat, as in the previous two books it excelled at being used mainly for utility and the energy costs of the magic (especially in The Red Pyramid) could be felt by the reader.  Here it feels like Carter and Sadie have, not quite a mastery, but enough understanding of magic that the reader doesn’t ever get to see the other aspects of the system.  It is one major aspect in the book which makes the climax feel underwhelming, the spell scroll is found and Carter and Sadie just have to team up and read it out, defeating Apophis once and for all.


Apophis as a villain is also one of those major issues in the book.  The serpent really is a shadow throughout the book, only getting one or two monologues that are not nearly as effective as the chilling characterization in the short scenes in The Throne of Fire.  He is supposed to be an embodiment of chaos, but you really don’t see anything of chaos coming for the Kane’s from Apophis, the ghost Setne who is basically chaotic neutral causes more chaos and trouble.  It doesn’t help that Apophis doesn’t have a lieutenant that had been built up, instead his forces are lead by Sarah Jacobi who was a minor villain in The Throne of Fire, but she doesn’t really get characterization.  Her motivations are contradictory, believing the gods the cause of chaos and not the giant snake that fully admits for wanting chaos.  Riordan isn’t trying to make her seem naïve, she’s supposed to be this big villain, but there isn’t anything there for her to make an impression with the rest of the characters.  She’s also kind of disposed of rather quickly at one little point in the middle of the climax without any real ceremony.  The lackluster villains feel like Riordan had a deadline to meet, so he had to quickly get a villain in the book without any consideration.  Compare this to Percy Jackson and the Olympians where Kronos and Luke both served as an immortal and human villains, even when Kronos isn’t included as a physical presence until the final book.  There has been build up here, but that build up has lead to absolutely nothing in terms of catharsis, at least in this aspect.  It makes The Serpent’s Shadow a really difficult book to get into because the threat doesn’t actually seem real in this one.


Where Riordan at least succeeds is in wrapping up the personal stories of Carter and Sadie Kane, and their conflicts with the gods.  Both get their romantic shots which at least feel right for the endings, though Sadie’s is kind of odd as she doesn’t have to choose in the love triangle ending up in a sort of polycule thing that isn’t really a polycule, it’s weird.  As always, having their narration is fun and snappy with the sibling bickering being one of the few highlights of their relationship.  There’s also a real sense of conclusion with the estranged family aspects of the plot, especially after The Red Pyramid and The Throne of Fire made things incredibly complicated with their parental situation.  It feels like Riordan was attempting to use the Egyptian gods as analogues for their own problems and insecurities which actually works really well.  There’s also the general writing style that Riordan employs in  all of his books that make even the more unbearable portions of the plot at least readable.  There are far worse books out there, however of everything Riordan has put out that I have read, The Serpent’s Shadow is a weak entry and leaves The Kane Chronicles with a hasty and almost messy wrap up.  4/10.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Death in America: A Reflection on Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by: Caitlin Doughty

 The following essay is different from the normal content on the blog.  Instead of a review, the following is more an analysis of the major theme Doughty employs in her 2014 memoir, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory.  It is intended as an open ended discussion on the topic of death and how people react to it.

“Whether you loved or hated the book, you’ve faced your own mortality–and for that I commend you” (Doughty 256).  This is how author Caitlin Doughty approaches the supplemental material to her memoirs on her time working in a crematory, a lifechanging experience which refined her own already macabre outlook on life.  The book chronicles Doughty’s personal journey, starting with the inability to describe a corpse as a person or an object and ending with a reflection on how poorly society handles death.  Doughty intends to make readers face the fact that they are going to die: their life is going to end.  This is all wrapped in a humorous style, setting the tone from the start by opening the book with “A girl always remembers the first corpse she shaves.  It is the only event in her life more awkward than her first kiss or the loss of her virginity. The hands of time will never move quite so slowly as when you are standing over the dead body of an elderly man with a pink plastic razor in your hand” (1).

            Doughty illuminates to an unsuspecting reader what cremation entails in the United States, and the general sterilization and commercialization of death.  Doughty writes with a sense of going behind the curtain of how death is essentially saying how “our relationship with death was fundamentally flawed…I felt naïve for having ever imagined putting the “fun” back in funerals. Holding “celebration of life” ceremonies with no dead bodies present or even realistic topic of death…seemed akin to putting not just any Band-Aid over a gunshot wound, but a Hello Kitty one” (64).  Society doesn’t talk about death as a natural process which is the destination for everyone in the end.  Parents give children euphemisms when their pets die and as Doughty says, there is an idea that fun must be some part of a funeral.  Several anecdotes included in Smoke Gets in Your Eyes are concerned with how the families of the dead react to death, often with grief, mourning, and denial about what has happened and what eventually will happened.  Doughty sympathizes with those she meets through the work but advocates for a death that is somehow more natural.  Making the dead look as close as they can to being alive is something that Doughty places at the center of her arguments towards accepting death.  On the topic of embalming she argues against the modern practice of embalming, contrasting it with the complex ancient Egyptian funeral rites:

“every step of the process—from removing the brain through the nose with a long iron hook to placing the internal organs in animal-head vases called Canopic jars to drying the body out for forty days with natron salt—had profound significance.  There are no brain hooks or organ-storage jars in modern North American embalming, which instead involves the removal of blood and fluids from the body cavity and replacing them with a mixture of strong preservative chemicals.  More important, modern embalming was born not from religion but from stronger forces altogether—marketing and consumerism” (Doughty, 73).

It is that “marketing and consumerism” which Doughty argues is the cause of America’s problems with acknowledging death.  The market increases prices on every option for dying, and attempts to make it a unique experience, offering various features for each coffin, or urns which have elaborate designs.  There is a sense that failing to make one’s death unique would be morally wrong, that those the dead leave behind do not love the individual in question.  It goes back to the question of if the body is an object or a person, corrupting what it means to be a person: that a person should somehow always be remembered, not allowed to be tainted by a natural process of death.  Doughty doesn’t suggest making death a religious experience, instead wanting a reclamation of mortality where people understand death and are living with that understanding (236).  Death must be treated as a simple fact of life, something that is to be faced, not by hiding it, but by acknowledging it.  Instead, America, and it is specifically America that creates this attitude.  Doughty’s follow-up to this memoir is From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find the Good Death, exploring funeral practices outside of the United States of America.

There are discussions online which I have had about practices and even in an English-speaking country like the United Kingdom, death and funerals are treated differently.  The American death is one where every detail must be perfect: the body must be perfectly preserved and only decay long after those that knew the person are gone, the funeral must be elaborate and unique, nobody must actually talk about the death, and often become affairs where everybody is present and makes a show.  British and Scottish services, on the other hand, have a more reserved outlook on death, making it an affair for close family and friends to say goodbye.  There isn’t the sense that it must somehow be perfect, but it allows those involved to truly come to terms with mortality.  Americans, on the other hand, become preoccupied with celebrating the person, not the death, and taking the death out of the end of life.  As Doughty posits “Of course your anxious to get the whole thing over with and leave the funeral home” (113).  Death is something that should be confronted, not cheated by rushing through it.  Those affected should take the time to grieve and be prepared for the inevitable situation of everybody they know dying at any moment, and not fearing it as somehow an evil event.  Death is the culmination of life.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Corpse Marker by: Chris Boucher

The BBC Books range of Doctor Who novels started their Eighth Doctor Adventures with a run of six books that relied on returning faces to sell copies with mixed results.  The best of these first six were ones that used obscurer villains that wouldn’t be marketed heavily on the cover such as Vampire Science and Alien Bodies, while the more overt fanservice would bring the books down in quality, specifically with The Eight Doctors.  The Past Doctor Adventures, on the other hand, took four books before providing any fanservice with Business Unusual bringing back the Pale Man from the Virgin Missing Adventures range, and Illegal Alien bringing back the Cybermen.  The end of 1999 brought a trilogy of Past Doctor Adventures for the Fifth, Fourth, and Third Doctors, bringing back monsters from the past and serving as sequels to Classic stories.  Corpse Marker is the middle book in this trilogy, serving as a sequel to The Robots of Death, written once again by Chris Boucher.  Boucher is an interesting figure in Doctor Who history as he wrote three stories four the classic series, all of which are regarded as classics, creating the companion of Leela, and then writing four novels for the Past Doctor Adventures range.  Outside of Doctor Who, Croucher is most well-known for serving as the script editor for Blake’s 7, a four series science fiction show on the BBC which has the same status as Doctor Who in most fans’ eyes.  His first PDA, Last Man Running, could best be described as subpar, with plenty of good ideas, but not enough taken into the execution of the concepts and ideas for its length.


Corpse Marker is a book with similar problems to Last Man Running, partially being incredibly short read.  It’s a standard length of 280 pages, however, instead of the standard font, this book has a much larger typeface, meaning that I could read a majority of the book, sleep deprived, in an airport in about an hour and a half.  Boucher doesn’t require much attention for a story that is essentially fluff: the Doctor and Leela arrive in Kaldor City some time after the events of The Robots of Death where a cult has risen up around the death of Taren Capel and his anti-robot agenda.  The robots have expanded their abilities, including robots which mimic humans to be used for pleasure.  Poul suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, Toos has found herself back at the top of the food chain, and Uvanov has gone up in the world.  This trio of characters are the only interesting characters outside of the Doctor and Leela, but their plots are essentially repeats of The Robots of Death.  Repeating The Robots of Death really is a lot of what Corpse Marker does, from its structure of splitting the Doctor and Leela up and providing a mysterious figure (this time the same mysterious figure being Taren Capel), and not really giving much extra in the way of interest for the reader to follow.


Boucher succeeds in creating a few good ideas: the cult of Taren Capel is interesting and has the potential to reach heights as it delves into how religions form and operate, Leela accidentally being put on the wrong side could also be a very interesting yet very little is actually done with that plotline.  The Doctor is always characterized well and there is an attempt to go in depth with adult themes, but Boucher’s bland writing style simply is not able to make Corpse Marker anything above an average book that will quickly be forgotten as a nostalgia trip for The Robots of Death.  5/10.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Malazan: Memories of Ice by: Steven Erikson


The two things that I really liked about Deadhouse Gates was first that Steven Erikson’s writing style has improved and second was the nonstop action of the Chain of Dogs sequence, giving that book a great score of 8/10.  The third novel in the Malazan: Book of the Fallen is Memories of Ice and takes those two aspects of Deadhouse Gates and turns them up to eleven.  The plot takes place right after Gardens of the Moon, following many of the characters the reader was introduced to in that first novel as the war moves away from Pale and Darujhistan as the Malazan Empire and Bridgeburners with the uneasy and mistrustful allies.  Memories of Ice is at its core a quest to the besieged city of Capustan where further alliances can be pursued.  The siege of Capustan is the centerpiece of Memories of Ice and demonstrates Erikson’s improvement of writing style and plot: Gardens of the Moon had the Siege of Pale a centerpiece, but the reader never actually was privy to the Siege, instead only seeing the aftermath and the various parties endure.  The third part of Memories of Ice focuses exclusively on the forces converging on Capustan.  The besieged city as presented to the reader is a perfect example of Erikson’s skill with presenting imagery: the reader sees the squalor and devastation of Capustan, bodies pile in the streets while armies attempt to get in and everything is clearly coming to a head.  There are other parties involved, including an entity called the Crippled God, presented almost as the big bad, a chessmaster pulling the strings behind the scenes.  Characters ascend to godhood, a sleeping god wakes and makes a last stand, characters are reunited, lovers find each other and are lost, making Memories of Ice one of those fast moving books.


As Gardens of the Moon established, Tattersail has been reincarnated as Silverfox among a group of tribesmen called the Rhivi.  Silverfox shows just how to do a reincarnated character correctly: she is not Tattersail, although the soul and memories are there, instead is a child manipulating events and those around her.  She was born to the Mhybe, this young woman who over the course of the novel finds herself under Silverfox’s thumb both literally and figuratively.  The story of the Mhybe is one of tragedy, Silverfox is a parasite, taking the Mhybe’s life away from her, slowly aging her throughout the novel, which doesn’t cover a lot of time, and ending the novel dead.  Silverfox also manipulates Paran, pulling on the previous relationship in Gardens of the Moon.  Their reunion here and the big reveal that Silverfox is indeed Tattersail reborn, is incredibly tense, and Paran is suitably disgusted of this child acting as if she was his lover at some point in time.  Paran as a character is one of the few who seems to try for the moral high ground.  He’s gaining power throughout the novel, power that he really doesn’t wish to have, but the gods and other parties have plans.  The sequences in the warrens with Paran, especially regarding Dragnipur, Draconis, Annomander Rake, and becoming Master of the Deck, all in their own right bringing the drama and character development for this man who has already gone through hell and lost his family.  The dead Hounds of Shadow have been reincarnated and the Crippled God is set to be loosened on the world very soon.


Annomander Rake, the Tiste Andii, and their connection to the other Tiste races are brought back to the forefront in places here.  Rake is used sparingly, instead having Crone appear more often.  Crone is given more depth and seems to be scheming for her own gain, or possibly her master’s, it isn’t clear.  Crone has this wit and often provides some nice dry comedy into whatever scene it features in.  Once again a lot of the climax involves the Soletaken abilities of Rake, among others.  There are other Tiste Andii, including one who has a touching romance with Whiskeyjack.  Whiskeyjack and Korlat’s story becomes intertwined and like the romances in Gardens of the Moon ends poorly with a complete shakeup.  Caladan Brood is another of those very different characters who is trying to gain his own power, although this is one of those storylines that doesn’t quite end as he kind of becomes a background character.  The zombie T’lan Imass rise and become the main foe to fight, though the Jaghut contingent from Gardens of the Moon is subverted in several places (you’ll understand once you read the book.


There is also a party including Toc the Younger, a character I didn’t mention in Gardens of the Moon, deepening a friendship and being given a new name, witnessing the death of a god, and travelling with Lady Envy, a sorceress.  The way that this plot, and the plot of Quick Ben and necromancers Bauchelain and Korbal Broach (who have essentially their own spin-off novella series).  The necromancers are such a brilliant double act, again being a source of comedy, while Lady Envy is one of those characters that the reader will love to hate.  Everything builds up to the end of the novel leaving characters dead, a new Warren created, Quick Ben and Kruppe (both brilliant characters, Kruppe improving greatly over his characterization in Gardens of the Moon) each having their own plans, and the events of Deadhouse Gates brought to our characters, implying that things will be converging in the next few books.  Memories of Ice is one of those novels that makes the reader laugh and cry, and it feels like Steven Erikson really is getting into the groove of writing these.  Overall, if a reader was struggling with the first two Malazan Book of the Fallen novels, Memories of Ice might make them change their minds on the quality of the series.  It’s less obtuse, but still as dense as Erikson’s other work, but told in chronological order, and yes there are more questions than answers, but it is one of the best rides I’ve gone on. 10/10.