Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Review - The Dragon Waiting

The Dragon Waiting
by John M. Ford

1984 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

Historical fantasy always strikes me as a little goofy. Inherent to the concept is the idea that even with the additional of magical forces and strange beats that the things would still turn out almost exactly like they did in the real world. The same people would be in charge; there are no sudden deaths, marriages to different people, or policies enacted by past rulers that change things before the novel. It's ludicrous if you look at it too closely.

On the other hand it's a lot of fun to see Julius Caeser fighting an army of giant spiders.

So I accept the genre convention that even with wizards and other dramatic changes running around that things will still be pretty much the same.

The big changes in The Dragon Waiting (besides the addition of wizards) is that Byzantium never fell and that as an outgrowth of Roman policy toward religions in their conquered territories there is a very open religious freedom. That has resulted in a society where hundreds of beliefs overlap, run together, and few hold them very deeply. The "dark ages" still occurred but their impact is lessened and technology seems very slightly ahead of where it was at the end of the fifteenth century (personal firearms are more common, medicine seems closer to late renaissance).

Byzantium is an expansionist empire that has de facto control over the majority of Europe. They scheme to take most of Italy and a young female doctor to the Medici family is forced to flee. A chance encounter with a wizard, a deposed prince, and a vampire on a snowy evening sets them against the Empire's plans to destabilize England. They join forces with Richard III to stop the empire from taking England from behind the scene.

Near-miss is how I would describe this book. The plot attempts to provide an epic story about changing politics and while it comes close to doing it well it doesn't quite succeed. The characters offer moments of interest however in the end it feels like there's something missing. The concepts thrown around in the novel are interesting and yet they weren't explored well enough for me. The Dragon Waiting could have really used another two hundred pages to flesh everything out (I can't believe I just said that).

The plot is made more complicated than it needs to be by Ford shoe horning in but not adequately explaining the real-world history of end of the fifteenth century England. If I had not known some of the details of Edward IV and Richard III's lives then there are some segments of the novel where I would have been completely lost. Even then there were segments where I had to straighn my memory to think of why certain historical personages would be taking the actions they were. It doesn't help that many of the characters have extremely similar names which blurs the incidental people together.

The fictional characters that are used to drive the novel frustrated me in their vast swings. In individual scenes and moments they could be interesting but viewed as a whole there never seemed to be much in the way of transitional steps in their character development. One moment they're filled with angst the next they're not as the plot requires. It struck me as a binary state for their characterization and a bit more time to flesh out their development would have been appreciated.

I wanted to like The Dragon Waiting and as it stands there was a lot there to enjoy but I can only recommend it to someone who really likes the idea of a fantasy treatment of Richard III. I found it to be a solid effort that unfortunately just came up short.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Review - Nifft the Lean

Nifft the Lean
by Michael Shea
1983 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

This is the first of these award winning novels where no hardcover edition exists. For everything else I could acquire a hard bound copy whether through book club editions or leather bound special editions; even the "signed and numbered limited edition" is only in paperback for Nifft the Lean.

I can't say I really blame publishers for that: this is not a very good book. Note that I did not say that it was not a very good novel. That is because despite winning an award for best novel it is an anthology of four separate novellas. At best they reach the level of enjoyable pulp but the problems with the stories becomes clear as repetition and boredom set in over the course of the book.

In each story Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser... oh, excuse me. In each story Nifft the Lean and his barbarian strongman companion journey to a new location where a new adventure where they can use their theiving skills presents itself. Over four novellas they rob a vampire queen, undermine a city a greedy merchants, and go to hell twice using different methods. Yes, Shea actually has two "descent into the underworld" stories in one volume.

My first major problem are the massive blocks of very out of place exposition that fill Nifft the Lean. There are long blocks of text between stories that read more like RPG sourcebook blocks than a a scholar relating details. That's annoying but the fourth novella has almost all of the plot related as exposition. Similar problems exist through the entire book, though, where characters tend to spend pages standing around spelling out unimportant details.

There were also multiple personal disappointments for me. The back cover of Nifft the Lean promised what was essentially the first (or third) novella with no mention of the rest of the book. While rewriting Dante's Inferno is something that has been done more times than I can count there's always room for a fresh spin on it (it does come from one of the most basic of human myths, after all). That was not what was in the book. Then the between story exposition made extensive comments about how each account, though told in a first person view, was by a different author. "Aha," I though, "this should make for an interesting spin on the story," expecting a slightly different tone and perspective on the next adventure. That was not the case; for the first three stories I could see no difference and in the fourth it changes to a third person perspective but tells nearly everything in large blocks of exposition.

Nifft himself is your standard fantasy light anti-hero filling out the stereotypical character checklist easily. It doesn't help that he and his partners (there's two in the course of the book but they're interchangible) are very clearly based on Leiber's own pulp adventurers. The characters, especially the secondary characters, are essentially plot devices that never convey anything more than the basic plot information. The consequence is that these people just aren't that interesting to read about.

The first novella is by far the best of them; it has the best structure, the best writing, and the quirks of the book have not fallen into annoying repetition yet. Still it never reaches above it's pulp fantasy roots and one sixty page novella from a three hundred page book is not a something I'd recommend.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Review - "Inside Job", "Two Hearts", and "Tk'Tk'Tk"

Donato Giancola
2006 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

This is one of those times where I was tempted to stretch my rule of selecting an image by the artist from the nomination period since the following year he painted an image of Tristan and Isolde. I don't know if he intended it to be an illustration of the legend or the opera but either way it was an interesting choice of subjects. Instead here is "Boromir in the White Mountains".

The short fiction this year was pulled from three sources: a short hard cover edition from Subterranean Press, Fantasy: Best of 2006 which took more than two weeks to reach me and caused me to forget about them when I listed all of the sources I used for Hugo winning short fiction, and the last is available on the web. Subterranean Press has printed a lot of collector's editions of novellas including Willis's 2008 winner "All Seated on the Ground" though if you prefer to wait the stories are sure to be collected later.

"Inside Job"
by Connie Willis
2006 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

Skepticism is rarely presented positively in fantasy. I can't think of a single film with supernatural elements where a skeptic is not presented as a belligerent jerk who denies reality only to eventually be devoured by the monster "ironically". I attribute this to the fact that such a large portion of their potential of the world uncritically believes in the supernatural that having a character who demands evidence wouldn't be popular. You see it quite a bit in the written word as well but every so often in fiction such a character is confronted by the supernatural and tries to deal with it reasonably.

That's the situation in Willis's "Inside Job". The editor of a skeptics magazine witnesses a channeller who in the middle of her act suddenly changes personality and insults the audience for believing in channelling. Through the choice of phrasing the editor identifies the new voice as possibly belonging to a famous, dead skeptic and the channeller is trying to hide the interruptions into her act. It could be evidence of life after death or it could be a long con to get a skeptic to raise the channeller's profile.

Willis recognizes the inherent dilemma for a skeptic in a situation where any evidence gathered would be at best circumstantial. Similarly she captures the conflict of wanting to believe and needing proof. The character conflicts are what carry the story forward, not the tale of possession by a dead spirit. I wouldn't call this a spectacular novella but it is another fine piece from Willis.

"Two Hearts"
by Peter S. Beagle
2006 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette
2006 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

This is a sequel to Beagle's The Last Unicorn and while it may have been given some higher esteem by some voters for that reason I don't think it was the only reason that it won. In "Two Hearts" a young girl makes a journey from her village to see the king. A griffin is hunting and eating children at her home and she wants his help. The king is old and addled, however, but returns to lucidity when someone reminds him of a unicorn he knew long ago. The girl convinces the king to depart alone on one last quest defeat a monster.

The story does manage to stand very well on its own even if you haven't read The Last Unicorn. The last time I read it was in the 1980's so needless to say I'm very fuzzy on the details of the original but I had no problem following it. I'm sure it will resonate more if you are familiar with the book but this is one time where an author returning to a previous effort after decades did not simply wallow in nostalgia.

My only real problem with the story was that it was told from the perspective of a nine year old child and I found her unconvincing as a narrative voice. It switched between a child's worldview and an adult style narrative quite a bit which threw me out of the story. Still it's a good effort and I can't see anyone who likes the book being unsatisfied with the conclusion.

by David D. Levine
2006 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

A salesman on an alien world must deal with the complications of a radically different culture in this story. He barely understands them and they barely understand him but he is determined to make the sale no matter what hardships fall in his path.

Levine tries to make the aliens very alien and I'm not sure that he was entirely successful in that regard. Having their language transliterates into what looks like vowelless keyboard mashing partially broke my suspension of disbelief there (just a note for authors who do that kind of thing: transliteration means to render in a form that could be pronounced in the other language). For another the "alien" property concepts weren't really that distant from some fringe human beliefs. Still for the story of a foreigner dealing with a strange land it was pretty good.