Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Liveship Traders

"Bingtown is a hub of exotic trade and home to a merchant nobility famed for its liveships--rare vessels carved from wizardwood, which ripens magically into sentient awareness. The fortunes of one of Bingtown's oldest families rest on the newly awakened liveship Vivacia.

For Althea Vestrit, the ship is her rightful legacy unjustly denied her--a legacy she will risk anything to reclaim. For Althea's young nephew Wintrow, wrenched from his religious studies and forced to serve aboard ship, Vivacia is a life sentence.

But the fate of the Vestrit family--and the ship--may ultimately lie in the hands of an outsider. The ruthless pirate Kennit seeks a way to seize power over all the denizens of the Pirate Isles...and the first step of his plan requires him to capture his own liveship and bend it to his will...."

This is a trilogy, as most epic fiction is, and I read all three books within a day or two. This makes reviewing them separately somewhat more difficult, since I don't clearly remember where one left off and the other began. So, a triple review! Aren't you lucky?

First up, world building. Super delux. Loved the cultures, loved the lore, loved the magic. The religious was nicely downplayed as well. The whole book did not turn on belief in Sa, but the god came up enough to be interesting. I like divinity used as a character building tool, once in a while, rather than a main plot device. Also, as the books progressed, the glimpses we see into the mystery and magic of the Rain Wilds are fantastic. I liked Bingtown, loved the open sea, but most of all I loved the freaky acid-river-running-through-a-burried-city-in-the-jungle stuff. Woot, hommies. Woot.

The downside to this trilogy is the length, which is, in a word, lengthy. Each book is big enough to kill a rabbit with, and there are three of these suckers to plow through. The pacing was uneven, too, in all three books. When Hobb was rolling she was really really rolling, and when she was slow it was painful. But, you know, epic science fiction carries that price.

The other price for epic fiction is the initial downward spiral. Granted, not all books take you down very far. Some sort of whimp out at code orange. Some books, however, drag the protagonists straight into code red before building up to that eventual hurrah-filled climax. This book, on the other hand, took them down, and down, and down, and down. The whole first book was pretty much one very wide downward spiral straight past red into black. To be honest, it kind of pissed me off. You know right away that Althea should be with Vivacia and that the whole point of the story will be them being reunited and proving that they work best together. So, an entire loooooong book about that not happening was annoying. As was the fact that throughout it, Kyle Haven just kept being bad. Doing horrible things and never getting his comeuppance. I had the thought that Hobb is probably a sadist who really, really likes making bad things happen to the people she makes you identify with. I ended up loving the trilogy, but I stand by that thought. Hobb enjoys hurting her characters.

It can be forgiven, though, thanks to Hobb's beautiful ensemble cast of mostly women. None of them fit easily into the prescribed stereotypes, either. Althea, for example, is obviously the strong young heroine who will eventually win and prove that she can do anything a man can do, even captain a ship! Or can she? Is she really strong, or just headstrong and stubborn? Is she a good leader or just really selfish? And what about her mother, Ronica? She must be the evil manipulative older woman, yes? Or no, perhaps she is the strong, self assured matron that will hold it all together? Or is she something more complicated? And Keffria, the sister. She is the weakling, the fool. Married early to a cruel controlling man and still in love with him even now. She'll never save anyone's day or be anything useful at all. Will she? Or is she the leader you're looking for? And then, oh then, there was Malta. I hated Malta. Loathed her. And so will you, I'll promise you that. You will look forward to the day she is broken against the rocks of her own pride! And when she gets her happily ever after? You will cry for joy because you love her so. She a bitch. She's a child. She's a clever, pretty girl. She's a fighter. She will lose and she will win and you will love every second of it.

And then, mes amies, there is Kennit. Ah, Captain Kennit. Is he the villain? The hero? Will he deliver the world from slavery or destroy every other character you love? Right off, the first time you meet him, you will learn how easily he plans the deaths of those around him, and always for his own selfish purposes. He is arrogant, insecure, and blindingly charming. And his relationship to the whore, Etta, will have you wishing for his salvation while cursing the day he was born. He is truly a nuanced character and probably the best written one in this novel. Hobb masterfully avoided turning him into a perfect hero. So that during his last scene you were not sure, even then, if you loved him or hated him. Both, maybe? For me, a little more hate than love I think. There were other characters, too. So many that it would take pages to write about them all. And they were mostly nuanced as well. Deeply, gorgeously flawed. At times, Hobb let's their flaws far outweigh their strengths. She lets them stew in it, and you with them. That, I think, is both brave and smart of her, to trust her characters that much.

There were things I did not like about these books. The length and pacing I've already mentioned, but the serpents and dragons were also difficult to read. Really, the dragon we get to know best is sadly two-dimensional compared to the characters Hobb delivers. Since dragons are meant to be this incredibly intelligent, master race, that really is a shame.

These books were too complex and too long to lend them selves well to a triple-review. I've read half a dozen books since, so these are less fresh in my mind. Overall, it was a worth the time. I'm very glad I read through them, but I will not call them steller. They were complex though, on some levels, and the world was well built and imagined.

Rating: Four splinters of "wizard wood", but don't tell the dragons where it came from.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

War Brides

"Five young women, five wartime love stories, an adventure plot, and eventually, revenge."

I really loved this book, right up until the last few chapters when it descended rapidly into an eye-rollingly bad denouement. Oh Helen Bryan! Why did you do that to us?

First and foremost, Bryan rendered her setting beautifully. Every location, from Louisiana to London to Crowmarsh Priors had the feel of a real place, a real time. None of those flowery descriptions that weigh down a narrative and bore readers, and yet Bryan managed to transport us all back to the war torn countryside of England and make us feel right at home.

As a look into what life would have been like for a woman living in WWII England, this book was fantastic. Yes, we all know about the air raid sirens and the city children shipped off to live with strangers outside of London. But what about living without access to real meat for years at a time? What about "mend and make-do" until you're wearing a dress made of old linens? What about doing your part for the war effort by learning to milk cows? What about living with the constant fear that at some point, really any day now, the Germans will invade your homeland? What about being a foreign Jew in England, barely escaping the Nazis only to meet with mistrust and even internment in your new home? Bryan brings these questions up without any preaching about any of it. And it isn't a depressing novel either. Instead it's a story of survival, of bucking up under pressure, of living through these hard things and still finding joy, and even love, in one's life.

Each of the five protagonists is an interesting, three-dimensional girl with her own personality and quirks. Doubly fascinating is the way the author makes you sympathize with whichever character's viewpoint you are currently seeing, even when they do not like each other. Alice, for example, when the story is told through her eyes, is a wonderful girl. She's practical and kind and truly heartbroken over her failed engagement. And yet when you see her through Francis's eyes Alice is bossy, gruff, and a little annoying. The same can be said for each of the characters, you feel for Evangaline as she flees the states and you fall in love right along side her when she finally gets to know her husband. But when you see her through Alice's eyes you loath her. And it's this nuance, this refusal to let everyone be shiny and good and perfect, that I loved most about the novel. The five women are friends, of a sort, but this is no fairytale rosebud girls club. They do not all get along all the time. They do not even all really like each other. And yet, somehow, they need each other.

The book needed a better editor after the frequent typos and someone should really tell Bryan that having your characters sum up scenes for the audience by giving long speeches to each other about things both characters already know is just bad form. When you do that, the readers stop hearing the characters and start hearing the author. Yes, I know you are trying to give me important information in a clever way, but this is not how it's done. People to not stand around recapping each other about things they both know happened.

And then, the end. Oh bother. So much potential! Such a letdown! If there is one thing this author has not yet caught onto, it is ambiguity. Not all the loose ends should be tied up in a neat little package in the last three chapters! This is a novel about war and loss, and you know, sometimes people did go MIA. Some traitors were never caught, some spies never seen again. Having the now octogenarian women get back together and wrap up the puzzle in the course of an afternoon over sandwiches was not only poorly done, it was unnecessary. It made each of their stories seem a little less poignant as well. They went from being stories of survival and loss and strength to the Agatha Christie knitting group. I appreciate the desire to let them get even at someone or something for the losses they sustained during the war, but actually that "getting even" was cheap and dirty compared to the lives of dignity and humor that lead up to it.

Still, I'm glad I read it. I choose to ignore the last chapters and remember instead the feeling of being there with them as they struggled to find purpose and hope in a dark and frightening time. Pity the author did not trust her own story enough to let it be just that without a neat little mystery-solve at the end.

Rating: Two cheery "made-do and mend" pamphlets.