Thursday, March 26, 2009

Review - Thraxas

by Martin Scott
2000 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

I've got to say this right at the top: "Wow! What a hideous cover!" I especially like how the front half and back half of the woman's torso in the foreground don't connect together behind her left arm.

I can't hold cover art against Martin Scott. There are, however, these quotes on the cover:

"Blindingly funny!" - The Guardian
"Funny and engaging. I laughed aloud." - Starburst
"Wonderful plotting, and the jokes come thick and fast.... This is funny. Really funny." - Black Tears

Apparently Thraxas is supposed to be a comedy. If it wasn't for those blurbs (and the plot description which describes it as "hilarious") I would have completely missed this fact. What's actually there in the novel just isn't very good.

Thraxas is the cheapest detective in a generic fantasy city. With the assistance of a part-elf, part-orc, part-human, part-time barmaid tough woman he investigates the theft of an incredibly valuable magic-proof cloth and attempts to recover embarrassing materials. Along the way he fights an assortment of evil wizards, assassins, and orcs.

I feel a need to first defend myself as someone who is not a completely humorless, "literature must be serious!" drone. I can point to two authors who I don't like and yet I can recognize as publishing comedic fantasy novels: Robert Asprin and Piers Anthony. I have a complete set of the works of Terry Pratchett and even have a few of them signed. I know that humor is subjective but I'd like to think that I'm at least capable of recognize a joke even if I don't find it funny.

And there's the problem with Thraxas: I couldn't even recognize it as an attempt at humor. The pulp detective influences were obvious but as far as I could tell they were played straight. I've read enough blending of noir and fantasy that it was not inherently humorous. Scott stretches for an occasional poking of some very basic fantasy cliches like the chainmail bikini but does it in the exact same ways that the cliche has been subverted for decades. Making things worse is that the entire setting, plot, and characters are common cliches. The setting might have been pulled straight from AD&D; that can work if it's done for laughs and yet in Thraxas it isn't.

There was one sequence in Thraxas where it started to approach funny for me as several factions pursuing the big treasure pile up in a room like the sailors in Groucho's stateroom. Fortunately Scott difuses this near humor by explicitly telling the reader that this section is funny and the novel returns to it's completely unfunny state.

Okay, enough harping on the "comedy"; perhaps Thraxas is simply the victim of bad marketing. So let's take it as a blend of pulp detectives and pulp fantasy. It does that poorly as well. The fantasy elements are what I hate most in fantasy novels: a world that runs on authorial fiat. Don't even think about any of the setting elements because none of them hold together if examined (again, not a problem if it's funny but...). The detective story is less of a mystery and more of a set of strung together events. Scott never managed to raise my interest in the mystery story.

Scott doesn't even manage as a compelling wordsmith. If there's one aspect to pulp detectives that is memorable and effective it's the unique voice of the characters. Scott makes an occasional half-hearted stab at it and never manages to capture the hard-boiled style that he's looking for.

The best thing I can say about Thraxas is that it is completely unoffensive as a novel. It's a light, bland, forgettable nothing. A twinkie of a book without even the novelty of creamy filling. If I set out to create the most generic fantasy novel possible I'd wind up with something like Thraxas. This book is hard to acquire in the United States and it is not worth the effort.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Review - The Antelope Wife

The Antelope Wife
by Louise Erdrich

1999 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel

I've read a few of slice-of-life, magical realism novels as I've worked my way through the World Fantasy Awards. It seems like a simple formula for authors: you tell some anecdotes, apply a bit of magic, and let the book just wind down at some point. Boy's Life and Godmother Night did this well enough and managed to give the reader a thread to follow. The Antelope Wife, on the other hand, fails completely.

In The Antelope Wife there's some... a... uh... a family maybe (depending on how you define family, I guess) and they... maybe... who have things happen to them... and then the book ends.

There are events but no thread of theme, structure, character, or plot for the reader to follow. It never comes together and events seem arbitrary since the book jumps around so much. Why are these characters acting different in this chapter than how they were two chapters before which was set some ambiguous time before it? Don't look to the text for any answers since by focusing on a few moments arcs don't develop. It reads like a pile of family rememberences which might make sense when you're talking with people who have common experiences with those stories. From the perspective of the outside reader it just doesn't make sense.

Which isn't to say that the individual stories don't make sense. They're simple enough anecdotes that are just clumsily told. It's not hard to understand the ten pages where a story is told as a self-contained unit; it's in the context of the whole where I'm constantly saying, "Wait, wasn't he the rapist who sold things at a flea market?" or "Weren't they angry at each other over this a few chapters ago and never had it resolved?"

I think the story was supposed to mysteriously tie together with events from the past given how name dropping and references to events are dropped into the novel. That didn't work for me because the connections were arbitrary; it didn't matter that their ancestors had known each other or did some horrible thing because it happened a hundred years before.

One of the true unpardonable sins in The Antelope Wife is that none of the characters are interesting. It's populated by people who are effectively inert whether by being "mysterious" or are just do nothings. The few characters who do take actions visible to the reader are bores at best and vile monsters who brutalize people with no compelling elements to them.

One reason for the problems with the characters is that the novel's voice is weak at best. Most portions are recounted as a legend from the distant past and the prose is structured like that. This can work for broad sweeps of legends and for human stories such as Erdrich is trying to tell the near complete lack of dialog and the remote voice harm the characterization. The reader is constantly told what characters say in generalities rather than in dialog, conversations simply don't exist.

Which makes The Antelope Wife a novel of fluff about characters that I couldn't care about told in such a way to make it as uninteresting as possible. It's flawed on every fundamental level and improving any single element still would not have saved the book. Avoid this one, there's better options out there.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Review - "Hardfought", "The Peacemaker", and "Morning Child"

I wonder what decade that cover could have been created in?

Once more I've got two years worth of Nebula winners and in this case an author who won twice in a row. Unfortunately I didn't find any of the stories to be especially compelling this time.

by Greg Bear
1983 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

There is a war between humanity and a species so alien that communication is effectively impossible that has raged for thousands of years across the face of the entire galaxy. The humans are shedding their humanity in order to fight the aliens better while the aliens have are attempting to adapt some captured human clones in order to understand humanity better. Eventually the two forces collide.

Bear wrote the novella in a style intended to invoke the distance between the reader and the characters; even the humans in "Hardfought" are radically different. So the language is intentionally obfuscated, hidden behind a vocabulary that the reader has to piece together as they read and grammar that makes sentences difficult to parse. This is not the first time that this particular literary device has been used and when I encounter it I have to ask myself, "Is this making the story more evocative or just more difficult to read?"

It is to Bear's credit that he manages to be very consistent with his use of language. That does make it easier for a reader to find the rhythm in the prose. That effect is undermined by the use of modern English in certain interludes later in the novella since they act as essentially stumbling blocks.

For "Hardfought" I think it didn't work. I wound up being annoyed by the language and I think it had to do with the length of the story. "Hardfought" was long even for a novella so having to continually interpret the strange prose for that period disengaged me from the story. If it had been one quarter of its length then my opinion might have been reversed.

The reason for that is the meat of the story is pretty good. Bear's central conflict is humans losing humanity faced with aliens trying to grasp it. The anti-war message in the story is less about right and wrong and more about having to bring conflict to an end eventually. If the style were different then it would be a very good novella or it could have been more effective in a shorter space. As it stands I can't recommend the story, though if you have a greater tolerance than I do to odd prose then there's a lot to appreciate here.

"The Peacemaker"
by Gardner Dozois
1983 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

"Morning Child"
by Gardner Dozois
1984 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

Despite being separated by a year these stories are surprisingly similar. They're both post-apocalyptic. They both involve a child's reaction to those changes to the world. They both depend on a twist in the last few sentences that isn't effective.

In "The Peacemaker" it's a flooded world as a result of global warming and the child is an orphan who has chosen to take a step that has divided a religious community. "Morning Child" features a world devistated by a war beyond understanding and a child who grows up very quickly as a result.

Of the two "Morning Child" is the better story; it's better in evocative description, characters, and style. It was a story about developing mood and since it aroused my curiosity I have to say it was successful in that. "The Peacemaker" on the other hand was all about arguments that had to be muddled in order to maintain the twist for the end. Since it's likely that the reader will catch on to the twist very quickly it damaged the impact the child's actions.

"Morning Child" wasn't effective to me because despite my interest in the concepts raised in the periphery of the story Dozois focused on one aspect of them that I was never interested in. So there I found it to be a close call that just didn't catch me. "The Peacemaker" on the other hand I think was flawed in its attempt to maintain a twist ending when the heart of the story would be enhanced by confronting the situation directly.