Quick Review: Sharp Ends by Joe Abercrombie (2016)

26030742

Hardcover, 304 pages
Published April 26th 2016 by Orbit

There are few things I love more than Joe Abercrombie’s writing, specifically his First Law works. I was excited, after getting a short-story collection from Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire series last fall, to get back into Fitch’s series as well.

Anyone who’s read my reviews and blog knows that I’m a big, BIG fan of novellas and shorts. Love them. A collection of shorts is a great thing as well, especially a novel containing something like 12 new shorts, containing some characters we know, and a handful we have not seen much of – if anything – before. The new characters were bright and refreshing, and brought a new life to stories that sometimes were distinctly First Law, and some that could have been almost anywhere. But, lying under all of that, is signature Abercrombie writing – the wit, the edge, the beautiful word stylings.

1030116

Overall, I enjoyed the majority of the stories. Some, such as Two’s Company, Wrong Place Wrong Time, and Three’s a Crowd were exceptional and exciting, vintage Abercrapple, with cracking one liners and multi-dimensional characters. Others, such as The Fool Jobs did not do much for me, and I moved right through them. Overall, I enjoyed the majority.

The only major thing I could point out is that every single story features some kind of LGBT element – a main character with romantic feelings about a member of the same sex, some kind of casual gay sex, etc. It was only a noticeable effect  because of the fact that having a gay character of some sort in every story is still a bit of an oddity – we are making great progress in that department, with some brilliant works like NK Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, but as of now it’s still an under-represented fact. Not so much with Applecrumble in this set of stories.

Overall, an enjoyable package, full of wit, charm, humor, hard-hitting action and moral dilemmas – just like Joe himself. I am still eager to get more from him, more stories and new worlds, but these things take time.

I just lack patience.

Rating: 4 / 5 

Double Novella Review – The Last Witness (2015), and The Devil You Know (2016) by KJ Parker

The Last Witness – 2015

25901575

Paperback, 144 pages
Published October 6th 2015 by Tor.com

This is a fantastic and interesting little tale, which packs a LOT into it’s relatively short format, while somehow not feeling rushed or crowded. The prose in this one is smooth, more in a full-novel format than many novellas, which makes it a fairly easy read, and the pages just fly by.

The premise is very interesting – the last witness has the power to enter someone’s mind, and remove memories; unwanted in most cases, but this power is vast, and he can do it without the people desiring the memories be taken. This is, of course, a very useful, powerful, and lucrative talent to have. However, as you would imagine, there are quite a few risks associated with this, and possessing knowledge of many things is not always a safe place to be. In this line of work, our narrator comes across unsavory characters looking to cover illegal activities, which they are often paranoid about covering.

Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, as the last witness ‘absorbs’ that persons memories into his own, it begins difficult for him to differentiate which memories are his own, versus those of other people, and this distinction becomes more and more difficult as time goes on. As you can imagine, this leads to an unreliable narrator, one struggling with memories and visions, and having minor identity crisis.

I found The Last Witness to be a great piece – easily the best of Tom Holt KJ Parker’s works that I’ve read. The difficult narration of the story is handled brilliantly, the prose is entertaining, yet cuts to the point with a terrific level of skill. It stays entertaining throughout, and is absolutely a rapid page turner throughout it’s (relatively limited) duration. And, speaking on the duration – it was just right  for a novella, in my opinion. It did not drag out, yet did not skimp on details or writing, and stuck around long enough to do what it needed to, and not overstaying it’s welcome.

A lot of fun, and very enjoyable.

Rating: 4.5 / 5

Tom Holt, photographed by Charlie Hopkinson © 2010

The Devil You Know – 2016

27158850

Paperback, 128 pages
Published March 1st 2016 by Tor.com

The Devil You Know presents an interesting conundrum – in a world where you can sell your eternal soul to the devil, in return for a few years of service from a pseudo-god, how can you be sure it’s worth it? How can you be sure who is getting the better half of the deal?

When the person making the deal is Saloninus, known to be manipulative, genius, subtle and crafty, as well as the greatest philosopher of all time, that question gets even more muddled. Saloninus enters into his contract with the demons almost too happily, none too concerned about damning his eternal soul in return for, relatively speaking, a minor increase in life’s length, and the power and assistance of a demon who is all powerful, but also essentially a slave by contract. How could that be worth it?

Of course, the tricky philosopher lives up to his reputation, twisting words to his benefit, and taking advantage of his abilities to use forbidden and discouraged practices, such as alchemy, to meet his end goal, which turns out to be even more sinister than the demons and Devil are ready to address. What begins as a simple and somewhat-routine contract quickly turns into one with huge-scale repercussions, and the demons are scrambling to decide how to best address this in order to protect not just themselves and their reputation amongst the mortals, but also potentially the world itself.

This novella isn’t as well written as The Last Witness in my opinion, especially the odd decision to switch POV at a few points in the story, which were a jarring and confusing switch, as there was little notification at the time, and you are suddenly left trying to figure out what exactly was happening. The characters, however, were bright and vivid, Salolinus every bit the genius and unsavory character he’s made out to be, and manages to maintain control at almost all times, despite his precarious circumstances.

So, while not quite as good as The Last Witness, this is yet another quality piece from Parker, as well as Tor.com, who has impressed the hell out of me with their novellas. Some big names, and some really great work by those names, in gorgeous packaging and with fantastic cover arts. The ones that made it to audio are an even bigger bonus (I got through this one in part of a day), and the quality of the production is high as well. I look forward to more, and I feel like I should continue reading Parker’s works, even after the disappointment from the Two of Swords series, which just did not quite hit the mark for me.

Rating: 3.75 / 5

Review – Eleanor by Jason Gurley (2014)

22081556

Hardcover, 384 pages
Published January 12th 2016 by Crown (first published 2016)

Authors get asked to do a lot of blurbs, especially once they’re on bigger publishers. However, some authors give blurbs that I take very seriously, especially if they follow up by repeatedly praising a book – Hugh Howey is one of those guys for me, and he has bestowed the quality of Jason Gurley’s work for some time. While I am very crappy at it, I do my best to support local guys as well, and Gurley is a Portland guy like myself, and I have had him on my to-read for a while. On my to-read, but not actually read, and I was never quite sure why, other than I just didn’t quite get to it. With a to-read list like mine, and a slow reading schedule, the best way to get read by me is to be available on audio, and Gurley finally was as of a couple months ago – rejoice!

Eleanor is what I’ve noticed recently called “magical realism” – a story in an otherwise normal, (usually) modern earth, but with some magical elements. Seemingly differentiated from ‘urban fantasy’ by the focus – less on first person magical character, more on mundane people with magical abilities, or in a slightly-magical world. I’ve read a lot in this “genre” of late – This Census-Taker by China Mieville, and A Darker Shade of Magic by VE Schwab being the most obvious. However, Eleanor trumps those – and how.

6904187

Eleanor begins as the tale of a young mother, a depressed mother of young Agnes, who has watch her dreams fail due to her family/relationship choices, and lives in a constant state of resentment. Until, one day, she disappears. The story then switches to that of Agnes and her two twin daughters, one of whom named after aforementioned young mother, Eleanor. Another depressed mother, living in resentment, until a tragic accident takes the life of one of her daughters. We then shift into the main POV character, that of the remaining daughter of Agnes, Eleanor.

We watch as Eleanor 2.0 copes with her father, Paul, having left Agnes and Eleanor, largely caused by Agnes’ spiral into nothingness, drinking her life away and doing little else other than lashing out at those around her, and feeling sorry for herself. Meanwhile, her young and emotionally damaged daughter is forced to single-handedly care for herself, while coping with harsh migraines and mental distress, as well as the lack of real parenting. However, one day, Eleanor is at school, and as she enters a doorway, she feels an electric crackling sensation, and is suddenly no longer in her school, but rather an entire place entirely.

We follow Eleanor as she, as well as her best friend Jack, her father, her mother, and her aunt, try to figure out why Eleanor suddenly disappears, reappearing (sometimes forcefully) in different places, over varying time delays. We also explore the people behind these disappearances, their motivations, their struggles, and eventually, their identity. It is hard to describe much more without giving away spoilers, at least without giving away more spoilers than I already have.

960

I am not quite sure what I expected going into Eleanor – I had honestly heard very little about the novel, aside from “it’s really good”. I wasn’t aware of the setting or characters, and I certainly was not prepared for what it was: a gut-wrenching, tear-jerking story of a family in peril, numerous tragedies, and a young girl forced to cope with all of this without much help from around her, aside from essentially one single person.

However, this, as well as almost every other aspect of the novel, is brilliantly and skillfully handled by Gurley. Eleanor feels as close to a real, tangible girl in her age bracket as I could possibly imagine, especially being written by someone who was not a preteen girl (I assume?). Considering the number of tragic events, the family trauma, the degeneration mentally of many characters, it was integral to the success of this novel for this grief to be written well, to have the characters address situations in a manner that is both realistic, but also does not limit the story progress. Thankfully, Jason handles these situations brilliantly, and I frequently found myself feeling as though I’d been punched, sympathizing with the characters, rooting for them, grieving their losses, feeling their pains.

The novel builds and builds as it goes – it begins so bleak, so harsh, and so shockingly. You’re introduced to characters, before they change drastically, or go away altogether. This is a book of loss, of handling loss, of addressing adversity. Everyone in the novel seems to go through serious and terrible events, and everyone is forced to cope, to manage their grief, to either move on and try to live, or spiral in self-destruction. Everyone handles things differently, everyone feels their pain differently. It was as close to perfect as I think I’ve read in that aspect – unique characters handle situations in unique and suitable ways.

Eleanor’s growth is brilliant as well – her changes from being a young girl, to an overly-mature-for-her-age teenager, to a constantly traumatized adult who had no time to adapt to the years of her life she’d lost due to her ‘blips’ (for lack of a spoiler-free way of putting it). No change is as drastic as hers, but the other characters all evolve, all adapt to their situations in varying ways. This is the biggest strong point of the book to me, as my immersion was kept at a consistent level because the characters always felt realistic, and visceral, and engaging.

The creativity of the book varies, but I am not looking for groundbreaking changes all the time – I’m looking for great writing, great characters, and enough unique aspects to keep me interested. There’s a portal aspect to this story, as well as a certain level of magical beings and/or powers, or at least unexplainable powers. I thought the escalation of the side-storyline was terrific, as we were led closer and closer to the climax and conclusion, as Eleanor figured out what was happening, explored it, and completed what she needed to.

My biggest complaint about the book was the odd gender discrepancy. I am one of the last people to complain about this kind of thing in books (really), but I could not help but notice in the novel that the male characters are, largely, featuring only minor flaws. Jack is a borderline Gary Stu – he is the best friend a person could have, always forgiving and protecting Eleanor, being there for her at all times, altruistic in his actions and feelings, and despite being head over heels in love with Eleanor, he is patient with her even when she disappears. Paul, while struggling with losing a daughter and not getting much out of Eleanor, does his best, doesn’t do anything outwardly negative, and swoops back in to care for Agnes later in the book.

Meanwhile, basically all of the female characters are heavily broken in one way or another. The original Eleanor is self-centered, whiny, and apathetic, essentially caring for her feelings only, caring about how upset she is, how the things that happen to her and the events in her life are unfair, until she throws it all voluntarily away, leaving everyone else behind to deal with things. Agnes herself takes up her mother’s footsteps, having a major anger problem, reacting aggressively to Paul’s business trips and work schedule, harboring animosity towards almost everyone, including, eventually, her own daughter, going as far as to blame her for her sister’s death, when it was clearly Agnes’ fault. Even our Eleanor is flawed, not only having massive headaches and health issues, but frequently snapping out at people, and while she was more perfect than any of the other females, she still had huge issues.

Again, I normally would not even notice a thing like this, but the fact I did means it was a bit of a glaring dichotomy. Maybe there was an intent there by Gurley that I missed, some message or metaphor, but if there was, I missed it, and it just felt like the females were all inherently largely flawed, while the males were much less so. Despite that, it did not really distract me from the story much, and I felt the female characters were well written, including their flaws.

Overall, I was blown away by the book. I invested emotionally into it significantly more than I have with almost any recent novel I can think of. I felt for the characters, I was anxious for them, and I was hooked – always wanting to know what happened next, how things would turn out. I blasted through the book in only a few days, and I just couldn’t get enough of it. If this is the kind of quality I can expect from Jason Gurley, then I absolutely agree with Hugh Howey’s assessment – he’s excellent.

Rating: 4.5 / 5