Saturday, July 28, 2007

REVIEW: Harry Potter and the Deathy Hallows by J.K. Rowling

I actually finished the final chapter of Harry Potter on Monday, but hestitated to post a review immediately. My feelings on the book that afternoon were not the same as my feelings that night, or the next morning. It was a big, bold, busy story that demanded some reflection.

[spoiler alert - you've been warned]

Overall, this was the most mature of all the Harry Potter novels. Rowling has clearly taken advantage of his aging fanbase to raise the level of drama in her writing. While Harry himself may not be dead, the story saw the death of nearly a dozen recurring characters - and I think that's where most of my issues with the book lie.

With a few notable exceptions, all the deaths happen off-stage. We don't get to share their final moments. We simply hear from other characters that so-and-so died, or from the narrator that somebody else did not survive. Sure, it adds some instant shock value, but robs us of a valuable experience. There's no suspense, no tense moments of anticipation as we wonder whether the character will survive the scene.

The notable exceptions? Even they were a mixed bag. The early death of Hedwig, I felt, was very poorly handled. She simply falls to her death, trapped in her cage, and that's the end of it. Beyond a few early questions from the Weasley's, nobody even remarks upon the fact that Hedwig is gone. I fully expected her to reappear later in the book but, alas, it was not to be.

In contrast, the sacrifice of Dobby the house elf is handled beautifully. His timely appearance in Malfoy Manner is a welcome surprise, as is his last-minute rescue of Harry from Bellatrix. His death comes as a shock, and the depth of Harry's grief represents one of the high points of the book.

The final notable exception is the death of Fred. As the scene develops, you know a Weasley is going to die. The simple fact that the entire family has been reuinited suggests that something momentous is in the works. The suspense could have been dragged out a bit more, but the final image is powerful - all those mops of red hair surrounding the fallen family member. There is an instant of anxiety as you wonder who it might be, but the answer comes far too quickly.

Now, that's not to say I didn't like the book. On the contrary, I thought it was a fitting addition to the Harry Potter saga, and an (almost) fitting conclusion to the story. There were definitely some exciting moments to remember:

- the wild broomstick escape from Privet drive, with Death Eaters and heroes swapping spells around a handful of Harry Potters

- the goblin assisted break-in and dragon assisted escape from Gringott's

- the epic battle of Hogwarts, complete with giants, spiders, ghosts, and spells

Also, there were some key plot developments that (in hindsight) may have seemed obvious or expected, but were truly wondrous to discover. I'm speaking here of the revelations concerning Dumbledore's childhood, and those concerning Snape's love for Harry's mother.

As for the end of the book, I would have been much happier, much more content to have stopped with the scene in Dumbledore's office. That wrapped everything up nicely, and provided some much-needed closure. The whole "19 years later" trick, with the new generation of Potters and Weasleys just seemed tacked on -- an attempt to set up the potential for another series later on.

Overall, it was not the best of the seven books. The story lacked some of the humour and wonder that made the earlier volumes worth reading again and again, but that was to be expected, given the seriousness of the situation. Having said that, I think Rowling did a masterful job of wrapping up all the key plot points, of providing closure on our favourite characters, and of ending the threat of Voldemort. I was truly afraid she'd opt for the Disneyfied ending, with Harry redeeming Voldemort, and everybody living happily ever after. Kudos to Rowling for making the hard choices.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

REVIEW: Lisey's Story: A Novel by Stephen King

I was a somewhat gifted young student, breezing his way through grade 4, already a voracious reader, and quickly running out of interesting books in the school library. While waiting in line at the neighbourhood convenience store, Coke and Doritos in hand, I spotted this creepy, mangy, angry cat staring at me from the paperback rack. It was a book called Pet Semetary (which sounded really cool), by some guy named Stephen King (whom I'd never heard of), and it was thick enough to impress my teachers (which I craved). I bought it. I read it. I loved it.

It was the first 'grown up' novel I would ever read, and it launched me into a world from which I would never return. Over the years, King has pleased me, blown me away, frustrated me, even disappointed me - and that's okay. We've grown up together, and even the disappointments were better than the best other genre authors had to offer.

Lisey's Story pleased me. It's not the best story he's ever written, but it is some of his finest writing. It's a casual style, one that feels familiar . . . almost hypnotic in its flow. A deceptively easy read that pulls you in and carries you along.

As far as plot is concerned, it reminded me very much of the period in which he produced Gerald's Game and Rose Madder - intense, focussed, emotional, character-driven stories. What sets this above those two disappointments is the element of suspense. I read half the book in one night, intensely curious to find out just what happened to Scott and what all these 'bools' and 'Boo'ya Moons' were about. The stalker element threw me off -- the story could have worked fine without it -- but the final revelations about Scott's childhood really sealed the deal. You want to know more, need to understand, but we have to work just as hard as Lisey to get through all of the memories.

The book lags a bit in the final chapters, becomes almost too self-indulgent, and the resolution of the stalker storyline seems . . . well, forced. Then again, that tends to be a hallmark of King's novels -- more often than not, the destination doesn't quite live up to the journey.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

REVIEW: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

What can I saw about The God Delusion that hasn't already been said? Is it the most stunning piece of secular literature ever written? Hardly. Does it resolve, once and for all, the endless god/no-god debate? Not at all. Will reading it cause the Pope himself to fall upon his knees and cry to the empty heavens above that he was wrong all along? Not a chance.

What it call comes down to is this -- should you invest your time and attention in reading the book behind the hype? Absolutely.

The first section (A Deeply Religious Non-Believer) serves as a good introduction to what Dawkins intends to cover. However, unless you're a hardcore atheist looking for solid debate material, you can safely skip sections 2 and 3 (The God Hypothesis & Arguments for God's Existence). I found them to be dry, tedious, and often over my head - not so much because I couldn't follow then, but because I couldn't be bothered. It's as if Dawkins dedicated these 2 sections to convincing his fellow scientists that his book has merit and that it should be studied. Skim away and you'll miss nothing.

Section 4 (Why There Almost Certainly Is No God) gets things back on track with some serious discussion about natural selection. The distinction between random chance or luck versus natural selection is very well laid out and throughly engrossing.

It's sections 5 and 6 (The Roots of Religion & The Roots of Morality) that should be mandatory reading for anybody with the slightest interest in the philosophies behind faith and atheism. Section 7 (The Good Book And The Changing Moral Zeitgeist) is one of the most fascinating things I've ever read. Dawkins will probably be accused of picking and choosing to illustrate the most heinious acts of the the Bible, but (as he points out) that's exactly what the church does - they pick and choose the good bits, the nice bits, the bits that support their faith. The rest? It just gets swept under the rug.

The next 2 sections (What's Wrong With Religion & Childhood, Abuse, And The Escape From Religion) are certainly the most controversial portion of the book, but Dawkin deserves full credit for not shying away from the uglier side of religion. Much of what's discussed here should be obvious, but that's the whole point - for most people, it's not.

Sadly, the final section (A Much Needed Gap) serves as weak wrap-up, and a huge dissapointment after the true meat of the book.

It needs to be said that Darwin is not, as his critics have claimed, simply a bible basher and tyrant against religion. He identifies and recognizes the perceived need some people have for their faith, and doesn't ridicule them for it. Several times in the book he holds up one religious personage or another as being worth of respect and esteem for their actions. This is not a book of hate, or one written out of spite. You may not agree with it, you may not like it, but it should make you think.

Of course, if you're not interested in thinking . . . if faith is the be-all and end-all . . . then the true value of the book will be lost on you. The world is a wonderful, curious, delightful place that works in fascinating ways. Shrugging off those wonders, or crediting them to some imaginary deity, just cheapens the world around us.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

NEWS: V, Barker, Pendergast, and Confessor

V: The Second Generation
After years of teasing us with news of another 'V' miniseries, a remake of the original miniseries, or even a theatrical release, there is finally some solid news to get excited about. Kenneth Johnson, writer/director of the original NBC miniseries, is set to release a brand new novel that picks up 20 years after the original miniseries. ""V: The Second Generation" is due to be released on October 2nd by Tor Books.

Mister B. Gone
For those of you keeping track, it has been nearly 6 years since Clive Barker released anything for a mature audience. Sadly, the long-awaited "Scarlet Gospels" doesn't yet have a release date, so we'll have to wait a while longer to find out how Pinhead handles Harry D'Amour. In the meantime, "Mister B. Gone" will be hitting stores on Halloween (appropriately enough) to tide us over. Details are sketchy as yet, but Barker has described it as "a tale of a demon amongst men and women, observing their ways, observing evil, observing human evil."

The Wheel of Darkness
If you're a fan of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, you'll be pleased to know that Special Agent Pendergast returns to the page on August 28. A remote monastery in Tibet, a rare and dangerous artifact, and the maiden voyage of the world's most luxurious passenger liner are sure to set up another classic adventure for the greatest hero to come out of the FBI since Special Agent Mulder.

Finally, we come to "Confessor," the final novel in Terry Goodkind's 'Sword of Truth' saga. Come November 13, we'll finally discover the fate of Richard, Kahlan, and the world they inhabit. Goodkind's teaser certainly promises a return to the qualities that made the first book such a classic: "It started with one rule, and will end with the rule of all rules, the rule unwritten, the rule unspoken since the dawn of history."

Thursday, June 28, 2007

REVIEW: Phantom by Terry Goodkind

What is there left to say about Terry Goodkind and The Sword of Truth saga that hasn't been said before? At times, he has been nothing less than brilliant. Wizard's First Rule and Stone of Tears are classics of epic fantasy. They were fresh, they were original, and they were challenging. The 'Seeker of Truth' . . . the 'Mother Confessor . . . the 'Mord-Sith' . . . daring, creative, fascinating concepts, with believable characters behind them. The philosophical moralizing was heavy-handed at times, yes, but still a welcome change from the typically 'spiritual' distinction between good and evil.

After that, the series began slipping downhill. Goodkind admitted that he was more interested in exploring his philosophies than in following the plotting of an epic fantasy - and boy did it show. Action gave way to talk, and talk gave way to . . . well, more talk. What was once original became boringly repetitive.

Ironically, it was a book that hardly featured Richard or Kahlan at all that recaptured my interest. Pillars of Creation was not what I expected after 6 volumes, and I couldn't have been more pleased. There was still more talk than action, but Lauren breathed new life into a stale series. Too bad Naked Empire couldn't sustain it.

That brings us to Chainfire. I generally loathe it when characters are stripped of their powers/identities, just to create tension and restart a sagging plot. It rarely works for me, and this was no different. Richard and Kahlan are great people, but it's hard to get excited when there's no seeking of truth and no explosive confessions. Not only that, but the plot felt . . . recycled. After all, we'd already dealt with the Boxes of Orden in the first 2 books of the series.

The only reason I picked up Phantom is because I'm curious to see how Goodkind plans to wrap everything up in this, the 2nd volume of the 'final' trilogy. Things don't start out well. Over 200 pages of talking, of saying the same thing over and over again, of bashing us upside the head with the obvious. I was about ready to give up when, suddenly, we rediscover the lost art of the plot.

Not to spoil anything for those who haven't read it, but there are some really interesting developments in this book. After building up the armies of the Order to the point where they truly are unstoppable, Goodkind deftly sidesteps the issue of confronting them with Richard's shocking advice to the D'Haran troops - and it absolutely works for the reader. We get a confrontation between Jagang and the Sisters of the Dark that beautifully resolves so many nagging questions, and sets the stage for a new conflict. Richard learns a lot more about himself and his role in the grand scheme of things, and all the myriad plot pieces finally begin coming together.

The ending is a shocker, and something I never expected to see. For the first time in a long time I am looking forward to the next book of the series. If Goodkind delivers on even half of what he seems to be promising, it will be well worth the wait.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

REVIEW: Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson


Everything that Gardens of the Moon promised, this book delivers. Stronger and more focussed than the first volume, Deadhouse Gates adds a few 'quest' threads to the militaristic fantasy tapestry, taking us into a part of the world that is even more sordid and violent than anything we've enountered before.

The epic quest of Felisin, Baudin, Hedoric, and Kulp drags us into physical, moral, and philosophical depths that are as uncomfortable for the reader as they are for the characters. It's not often that a storyline so deftly involves you with its characters than you become infected by the same sense of utter hopelessness. It's also been a long time since I was as thoroughly engaged by a setting as I was with the haunted ship Silanda, manned by the headless undead, adrift in a magical warren, and under siege by an insane wizard.

Meanwhile, there's the quest of Crokus, Apsalar, and Fiddler. While not as dark or as hopeless as that of the others, it's still presents the reader with an intense journey through some of the strangest, oddest, most alienating points of interest in the series so far. Iskaral Pust, his cliff-side temple, and its demonic little winged monkeys offer some much-needed lighter (albeit twisted) moments, although their significance to the story is key.

Finally, we come to the story of Duiker (the soldier-historian), Coltraine (the barbarian-commander), and the Malaz 7th Army. We enter the story already on the edge of a revolution, and it doesn't take long for the worst to happen. Much of the story follows the flight of the 7th Army and the refugees under its protection through a harsh, hostile desert where every possible safe haven is taken away before they can get there. The battles are brutal and intense, and there is nothing chivalric or noble about them. This is realism - survival of the fittest, and the sacrifice of the few for the many. The penultimate battle, beneath a cloud of brightly coloured butterflies, has to be one of the most chilling, haunting experiences in fantasy literature.

Once again, if you're into epic fantasy and don't mind the moral shades of grey, dive in an experience Erikson's world.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

REVIEW: Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

This a book that struck me in much the same fashion as Robert Jordan's The Eye of the World. I picked it up, starting reading it, and put it back down . . . several times.

In Jordan's case, I think it was the pacing that allowed my attention to drift. The characters were interesting, and the history/mythology definitely captured my interest, but I felt as if the story was always waiting in the wings. The appeal of Erikson's work was very similar, but something about the narrative structure kept putting me off. There just seemed to be a lack of depth in how and why things were happening.

Fortunately, in both cases, something eventually clicked. There was no 'ah-ha' moment, no turning point that I can pinpoint - just a span of pages that finally pulled me down into the epic maelstrom and refused to let me go.

For those unfamiliar with The Malazan Book of the Fallen (of which Gardens of the Moon is the first volume), this is a very militaristic fantasy saga. The focus is on the front lines, in the trenches, with the soldiers, renegade armies, and barbarian warriors. Scant attention is paid to royal intrigues, family crises, romantic sub-plots, and political machinations that pad the pages of so many of Erikson's contemporaries. With a dying empire, a surging rebellion, and a holy war brewing off-stage, there's simply no need.

Among the Bridgeburners at the forefront of the story are an ex-assassin, a damaged wizard, a fallen dark priest, and a young recruit possessed by a dark god. If you're looking for idealized, perfect, fairy tale heroes, this is not the book for you. As much as the reader might admire their motives, the moral ambiguity can be a little unsettling.

There is also a very strong magical/mythological element to the story, complete with ascendant gods, immortal races, and magical warrens. For me, that's where Erikson rises head and shoulders above authors such as Glen Cook, George Martin, and even David Gemmel. It's the supernatural elements that give the novel its depth, even if they are as down and dirty as the rogues and soliders that struggle against them. There's no sense of childish wonder and delight here.

Anyway, that brings me back to the Robert Jordan comparison. Once I made it through the first book of The Wheel of Time, I was hooked. It may have taken me a couple years of false starts to do so, but I read the rest of the series between the hardcover and paperback appearances of Knife of Dreams. It's looking like the same will be true for Erikson. I'm halfway through the second volume, Deadhouse Gates, and already wondering if I'll be able to wait for the paperback before reading volume five, Midnight Tides (which hit stores in hardcover last month).

If you're a fan of epic fantasy, have some patience for a different approach to the genre, and don't mind shades of moral grey (as opposed to absolute shades of white/black, good/evil), give Erikson a chance. He will surprise you.