Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Forest Mage, or the Slacker Protagonist

Yesterday, I closed up what is possibly the most frustrating book I've read in the past few years, Forest Mage by Robin Hobb. Frustrating that the writing itself was good and parts of the story sucked me in, which contrasts with the utter despair at the hopelessness of protagonist Nevare's character. Frustrating because I've come to expect the good writing, and even the passivity of the slacker protagonist, but here it was almost too much to bear. Frustrating because I hold Hobb’s earlier works in such high regard, a measuring stick by which I compare other writers.

I agree with much of what is said in the SFFWorld forum topic about the book: 200 pages of this novel amounted to a constant reminder of how fat Nevare had become. I felt browbeaten into submissive into beliefy. Much of the novel (maybe 50 pages worth even) was Nevare constantly saying "I don't know what to do" or some similar phrase. Basically, far too much of the obvious being hinted at without stating the obvious.

Many readers have complained that Fitz (from the Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies) was something of a dullard. I hope for their sake, they never read this book. Nevare's outright stubborn insistence on doing absolutely nothing was also frustrating. Am I the only one who was thinking from about the first third of the novel that he could have gone to Epiny for assistance with his magic? It is almost as if Nevare forgot that she helped in the prevoius novel.

Watching Nevare persist in doing nothing for himself other than accept the meagerness thrown at him rather than be proactive was akin to driving slowly past a horrific car wreck. You don't want to look and see the blood and death, but part of you is fascinated by it, while the other part wants to see the reason for their delay. I don't know if that is a compliment, but that quality about the story did keep me reading, and fervently at that.

I don't even think there was a good case to support either sides of the conflict (Specks vs. Gernians). Both sides are callous in their approach to the other side and nothing compels me to truly give a rat’s ass which side “wins.” I; however, suspect neither will win.

On the converse side, I would attribute much of Nevare's despair and hesitance to act as a result of his un-acceptance of the magic. To me, this novel could have been trimmed considerably; it would have been a stronger novel, without the browbeating. I get the sense that perhaps this "trilogy" with some judicious (and often needed) editing, could have been a more powerful duology.

In the end I was very compelled (almost as addictively as Nevare's eating compulsion) to read through to the end, and to even want to read the final installment. What is also frustrating is that it took Nevare so long to finally take some sort of stand and do something. Unfortunately this happens in the last handful of pages and the novel ends on a cliffhanger.

Will I read the final book? Probably, I am a completist and a big fan of Hobb. I am also curious if this story would have indeed read as well (or better) as a duology.

Sure, I know this book was published over a year ago here in the US and before that in the UK, but I couldn’t not drop a post about the book here.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Empire of Ice Cream

Jeffrey Ford is one of the more decorated writers in speculative fiction over the decade or so. His first fantasy novel, The Physiognomy, won the World Fantasy Award, as have his first collection, The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant, a short story and a novella (Botch Town, which appears in his second collection).. The story whose title, The Empire of Ice Cream, serves as the name of his second collection, won a Nebula award. For all the awards, his writing deserves a much bigger audience. Those who have read his work, at least most of those with whom I’ve come into contact, think very highly of his writing.

What I’ve read from Mr. Ford has been spectacular, and his most recent collection (the aforementioned The Empire of Ice Cream) is no exception. The first story, The Annals of Eelin-Ok though distinct in its story, does set a tone for the overall collection. Just under our noses, small fairy folk live on the beaches we visit every summer. Ford’s story is the diary of one of thse little folk and it is supremely effective at giving the reader a different lens by which to view the world.

The second story, Jupiter’s Skull, had the feel of an old folk tale, something passed down through the generations. Considering the nuts and bolts of the story itself, this is very fitting. An old artifact is inexplicably passed down through generations and has a magical effect, something of demonic possession one might say, on those who come into contact with it, particularly if they are of opposite sexes.

A Night in the Tropics is a very surreal and powerful story which is a showcase of Ford’s ability to capture the everyday life of his characters. The mood and characters are so real and believable that the fantastic elements come across just as real. In this story, a cursed artifact has made its way to a person from the protagonist’s past.

The story which lends the title for the collection had probably the deepest connection to his award winning novel, The Physiognomy. A misunderstood boy with a “condition” goes through much of his life distanced from reality. Only when the right doctor comes along and diagnoses his condition does the protagonist’s life take a foothold in reality. The archaic condition here is synesthesia, a neurologically based phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway, or where one can taste colors and hear smells. This was possibly the most tragic story in the collection. For the time being, this story is still online at the SciFiciton archives.

The Beautiful Gelreesh has the feel of a modern fable or parable to it, although there are also hints of science fiction. Like any such story, humanity’s fears and emotions are at the core of what drives the story. The enigmatic Gelreesh makes promises to those with whom he speaks, but the price is not negotiable, or known at the outset.

I first read Boatman's Holiday in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, in fact I purchased the issue primarily for the story. Here, Ford plays with the myth of the ferryman who carries souls across the river Styx. I liked this one quite a bit; there was a wry, dark sense of humor to it.

Botch Town, the largest story in the book, is also the most richly alive story of the collection. The story reminded me of the best of Stephen King’s stories of youths who encounter things of the other. Stories like The Body, Hearts in Atlantis, and his massive novel IT. Like many of Ford’s stories, Botch Town, has a ring of the truth about it, you believe the narrator and imagine the strange events could happen. The nugget of fantastic here is that a model town in a family’s basement can be used to show how events will happen in the future.

The only story that didn’t completely connect with me was A Man of Light. This is not to say it is a bad story, I just don’t think it succeeded as well as the other stories. However, the story’s authentic seeming pseudoscience did resonate with his novel, The Physiognomy.

Perhaps the weirdest story in the collection was Giant Land. Ford transports his characters across strange landscapes in this story that felt very much a stream-of-consciousness. Characters are plucked from an everyday commute into a world of Giants, both human and human with animal heads. Without missing a beat, the story shifts slightly into a dream like state as the protagonist realizes the reality that mirrors our own is not hers. The story flips between fantastical and “real” without missing a beat, displacing the reader’s sense of reality.

The Trentino Kid closes out the collection and is perhaps the most personal story of the bunch. Many of the tales collected in this novel either are informed by Ford’s life and/or include a protagonist named Jeff. This gives the stories a greater air of authenticity, and this trait is on its greatest display in The Trentino Kid. The life of people who work on the ocean can be very wearying, even more so considering the very real dangers the work entails. Part ghost story, part semi-autobiography, this story would fit in very nicely with some of Rod Serling’s classic and chilling Twilight Zone episodes.

I don’t know if this collection is better than his previous World Fantasy Award winning collection, The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant, but it isn’t any lesser a collection. What we have here is a writer unrestrained by bounds of genre and imagination. Jeffrey Ford’s writing has such an authenticity about it, you cannot help but trust that the stories he tells have a ring of truth to them. More importantly, you want to believe them as real and year for the next stories to be told.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Dribbled, Part 2

Aidan posted the second part of the blogger-go-round here.

Turkey Day is almost upon us. Or as the rest of the world knows it, Thursday. I'm looking forward to plenty of good eating, driving across Union County from one family to the other.

More later.

Monday, November 19, 2007

New Review and Heroes

After far too long a hiatus, we finally updated the front page of We've had a lot of content go up on the Web site over the past few weeks, but haven't had the chance to do a full update. The big "get" is an interview with George R. R. Martin. Part of the update included my latest review, Wayne Thomas Batson's latest novel, Isle of Swords.

Heroes has been very good the past couple of weeks; I liked the filling in of the missing pieces last week and thought tonights episode was as tough to turn away from as any of the episodes from last season. Granted, I thought a couple of scenes and events were a little predictable, but overall I was very satisfied and am looking forward to the next episode.

Non-segue, I tried Sam Adams Winter Lager a couple of weeks ago after a couple of years of not really liking it. I don't know why I didn't care for it initially, but now I like it quite a bit. All the spices that float through the beer are a nice, refreshing addition to any meal. That Jim Koch, he knows what he's doing. The winter beers are on the shelves and I'm a happy guy.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Tables Turned on Me

Aidan, of A Dribble of Ink, decided he was going to round up some of the bloggers from SFF online community. He wanted to turn the tables on us and interview us. It was a bit odd, but pretty neat. I thought it turned out very well.

Then again, half the people who read my blog are probably other members of the group interviewed by Aidan.

Anyway, here is the first part of the interview.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


I turned 33 on Thursday, who-hoo. Mrs. Blog o’ Stuff gave me xmradio and made an awesome dinner for me. I had some good beer with my in-laws, and with my parents, so I can’t really complain.

My third “blogoversarry” also passed since I last posted, and I might try some new things after the New Year with this blog. Not the least of which is more regular blogging and maybe a regular “feature.” Exciting, isn’t it? I know the huddled masses are chomping at the bit.

Monday, November 05, 2007

It's Electric, Botched and a God Killer

My review of Jeff Somers's The Electric Church is now up at SFFWorld. I thought it was a pretty good book, an interesting look at a dark future. While not an uncommon story (all-controlling government, corrupt church) Somers did enough interesting things in the novel to make it stand out. As I say in my review, I kept hearing Queensrÿche’s Operation:Mindcrime as I read the book.

About a month ago, SFFWorld posted Pat's interview with Jeff Somers, which is worth checking out as well. Jeff also happens to be a fellow Jersey-boy.

I was unable to go to another World Fantasy Convention, but congratulations to the winners. I'm in the middle of one of the award winners right now, Botch Town in Jeffrey Ford's incredible (so far) collection, The Empire of Ice Cream. Everything I read by Ford is on a different level than almost every other writer. Whether in short for or long form, his stories really make the fantastic seem real, the dream-like seem lucid. I think this is because his does such an incredible job of capturing the reality of human pathos and interaction. Again, another writer from New Jersey.

Last week i finished another marathon of a Malazan book, House of Chains. I liked it better than the previous book, Memories of Ice. Karsa Orlong is probably my favorite character in the series right now and I love how Erikson is building up the legend and myth of the character.

Karsa's challenging of his gods reminds me a bit of Kratos's storyline from God of War. Is that a strange analogy? I don't know, but it works for me. I also happend to beat God of War II last week. I liked the game a lot, but the gameplay wasn't as balanced as the first game.