Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Princess Diarist, by Carrie Fisher

As I'm sure you all remember, exactly a year ago yesterday, in a tremendous, final ''Fuck you!'' to all of us, the dumpster fire of 2016 took Carrie Fisher from us. It was a final gut-punch to many people, especially the Star Wars fans big and small across the world. The Princess Diarist as a result was the last book Fisher ever published, (at least, none have been published posthumously yet), and I felt that making this book the last review of 2017 would be a fitting tribute to a woman who inspired millions of people.

While filming Star Wars in 1976 for about three months in London, the then barely nineteen year old Carrie Fisher kept a series of diaries recording her emotions and experiences both on and off the set, as well as her affair with costar Harrison Ford. Forty years later Carrie discovered these diaries in a box of old belongings and went through them and decided to publish excerpts, as well as extensive commentary from Fisher looking at the affair forty years later with the benefits of perspective. However, the book does not talk mostly about her experiences filming Star Wars, her first major role and what would become the biggest role ever in her career. Fisher provides some background material such as her own childhood and how she managed to land the part, but the book focuses mostly on her affair with Harrison Ford, and later her emotional relationships with her fans. At times explicit but also intimate, The Princess Diarist provides a look into the mind of a young girl who took a step into a larger world.

Some people have described this book as cringe-worthy regarding the amount of detail that Fisher went into. And while there were parts that I cringed at, it was more out of sympathy for a young Carrie Fisher about to die from embarrassment than from any sordid details. Frankly as far as I'm concerned, the fact that Fisher and Ford had an affair is hardly surprising. Certainly not the most ethical decision considering Ford was married with two children at the time, but I'm hardly one to throw stones when it comes to monogamy and the matter's been over and done with for forty years. It was a young girl who had no idea what she was looking for and an older man who probably should have known better, but to castigate them for a lapse in judgment is hardly worth the effort.

I think what's more important out of this book, than any shocking (or perhaps not so shocking) revelations about who was involved with whom, is the window into the mind of nineteen year old Carrie Fisher. We see a girl trying to be a woman who is troubled, who has had a life filled with emotional turmoil. A girl who wanted to avoid show business because she saw what it had done to her parents, but who had also dropped out of high school and was faced with the possibility that she was unsuited for any work but show business. Although Fisher does not talk about her struggle with bipolar explicitly in this book but you can see elements of that in her recollections and in the excerpts from her diaries. And the issues with drug abuse can be seen starting to creep into her life, but again are not really focused upon.

I think what I like most about this book was how vulnerable Fisher was willing to be with the world. She could have very easily burned the diaries, or hidden them away where they wouldn't be found, or just put them back in the box and forgotten about them again. She certainly didn't have to write a book about it. And while people might say it was cynically a cash grab with another tell-all memoir (the fact that she describes her convention appearances as lapdances certainly doesn't help), I prefer to take a kinder view. Fisher was willing to share with us an emotional time in her life when she was vulnerable and, really like the rest of us, had no idea what the heck she wanted to do with her life. And personally I think that's encouraging. Just knowing there are other people, people like Carrie who were catapulted to stardom by the age of twenty, who still were making it up as they went along, just like the rest of us. Maybe that's a tad too much of a ''they're just like normal people'' argument, but I still find it encouraging.

This book is complex and raunchy, going both high and low and everywhere in between. Maybe Fisher overshared, but I don't feel that she did. It was her story and I'd rather hear it coming from her than from anybody else. And if a sixty-year old woman wants to share the details of her life forty years ago, that's her prerogative. Ultimately I think this is a book you have to read for yourself, but if you felt some connection to our princess I think this book has something for you.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury

Today I'm looking at a full-length novel by Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes. After listening to The Martian Chronicles and remembering how good Fahrenheit 451 was, I decided finding something else by Bradbury was worth listening to. This book follows the adventures of two boys, James Nightshade and William Halloway, neighbors who were born a mere two minutes apart. Will was born a minute to midnight on October 30th and Jim was born a minute after midnight on October 31st, and the boys have been an inseparable team since then. Naturally when a carnival arrives well out of the normal season a mere week before Halloween in their Illinois town, Jim and Will decide to investigate. However, something far more sinister than poorly maintained rides and rigged games is going on at this carnival and Jim and Will have to rely on each other and Will's dad, Charles Halloway, to survive.

There is a lot going on in this book and while personally I really, really liked this book I'm willing to admit it feels a bit rough around the edges. I think the biggest redeeming quality is Bradbury's writing which I think is particularly excellent in this book and manages to keep the story interesting despite him trying to shoehorn multiple things into the book and not really getting to develop all of them. It feels kind of like a Phillip K. Dick novel where he had a ton of ideas and wanted to include them all in the book, but didn't really have the time to develop any of them to their full potential. Of course, this being Bradbury the book feels a lot more put-together than some of Dick's amphetamine-fueled writings, but there are still issues.

Probably the biggest plotline in the book is the topic of aging, which comes across in both subtle and incredibly direct ways through the book. Will and Jim are almost fourteen, leaving childhood but still not quite on the brink of manhood in that frustrating stage of adolescence. We definitely get a sense of that with the ''theater'' that Jim and Will visit, the bedroom window of a house in town where it's all but explicitly stated the boys can view people having sex. Jim finds the theater appealing while it makes Will uncomfortable, which further matches the boys' personalities. Jim is eager to grow older and fully jump into manhood, while Will isn't sure he's ready for that yet. However both boys are aware the best parts of their futures are ahead of them.

This is in direct contrast to Charles Halloway, who's already fifty-four years old. Charles didn't marry until thirty-nine so he feels incredibly old compared to his wife and especially to his son. Charles is still active and healthy, he's not a dottering old man, but the age gap between him and his son feels all the more extreme. An additional side effect of this is Charles has never felt particularly close to his son, because he feels so distantly removed from when he was a boy himself. When the boys find out a carousel at the carnival is capable of altering a person's age the possibilities are tempting not only for them, but for Charles and other people in town as well.

The other main plotline is the sinister elements of the carnival itself, how it feeds on people and twists their hopes and aspirations into empty promises and choices they regret. I feel like this plotline wasn't as well developed and part of that simply was because we don't really see the motivations of the carnival proprietors. I felt a distinct contrast with Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, which contains another evil carnival. In this case we know Cabal's goal is to get a hundred souls by the end of a year in exchange for his own, so we know why the carnival is evil. But in Something Wicked This Way Comes, it's more there's something not quite right about this carnival therefore it is evil. I think Bradbury was trying to develop a deep and complex moral philosophical argument in this book but the opportunity wasn't utilized to its full potential. There is an explanation for the motivations of the carnival shysters but it feels rather vague and nebulous. I honestly feel like Bradbury could have done either the aging plotline or the good vs. evil plotline, but attempting to do both results in both of them being kind of muddied.

And yet, in spite of all this I thought of this book as really good. I don't know if I can quantify it to specific things. Part of it is Bradbury's writing, which manages to create tension throughout the novel and made me interested in what was going to happen next. Part of it is the connection between Will and Charles, a father and son finally getting to bond in spite of the years separating them, which I felt was rather well done. As much of a mess as this book was, I found myself not minding it so much as other books and I'm finding it incredibly difficult to put it into words.

Simply put, I liked this book. It's sinister, it's creepy, it's funny, it's heartwarming, at the end it runs a whole gamut of human emotions. It's a mess, but in some ways it's a good mess. Maybe it just hit me the right way at the right time and I'll always have a fondness for this book as a result. But I definitely think it's worth taking the time to check out on your own.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Scar, by China Mieville

Today I'm looking at another book by China Mieville, The Scar, which is set in the same universe as Perdido Street Station but focuses on events outside the city of New Crobuzon. Specifically the book follows linguist Bellis Coldwine, a former lover of Grimnebulin from the last book who is now wanted by New Crobuzon's Militia for questioning. Bellis decides it would be an extremely wise decision for her to flee to a distant colony halfway around the globe for a few years until the Militia's interest wears off. However the ship she's travelling on, containing a significant number of criminal transportees, gets attacked by pirates and brought back to the floating pirate city of Armada as press-ganged who are never allowed to leave. It looks like Bellis will spend the rest of her life in exile on Armada, but very soon she discovers that the leaders known only as the Lovers have extensive plans for Armada, which she can only begin to guess at.

As I mentioned in my review of Perdido Street Station, there was a lot of Mieville's writing style that just didn't work for me in that book, and unfortunately this seems to remain true. I suspect this is partly because of the narrator, Gildart Jackson; I found his reading of the book to have a downright soporific effect on me making the book that much more difficult to get through. However, Mieville's incredibly Dickens-like writing probably doesn't help much on that score either. I felt like the plot meandered through the book, mostly because our perspective characters had no idea what was truly going on, and at one point we have two connected plots running at once. The result for me was this book felt really bloated and it could have used some editing to make the pace a little more enjoyable.

Obviously there are people who think otherwise, and to Mieville's credit he works on creating an extremely complex world. The problem is I don't know if his bouts of exposition always help develop the plot of the book. I definitely got the feeling that we had long, almost tedious explanations of things that were mostly to show off how neat his world was without advancing the story at all. So personally I think that's a bit of a flaw in his writing, but there are people who greatly enjoy this sort of thing so they probably liked it a lot better than me.

Honestly that's really my big criticism of the book, it's long, it meanders, and as a result it feels boring to me. I think I truly enjoy something with a more direct pace and manages to get to the plot. The world truly is interesting and has a lot of potential, but Mieville's style just fails to grab my interest. If you like the slower, pokier type of book then you might enjoy this, but it certainly takes its time getting to where it's going.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Edward III: The Perfect King, by Ian Mortimer

Today I'm looking at a biography of Edward III, a king who definitely influenced English society for many years after his death and to some extent today, but is usually overlooked in popular histories of the English monarchy. Just looking on Goodreads it looks like Mortimer has done a lot of writing about this time period and he has very good credentials. I bring this up because Mortimer makes a very, very bold claim in this book which contradicts most of conventional history for the past six hundred years. On the one hand, I don't want to be reactionary and dismiss Mortimer's arguments simply because they don't fit established dogma. But on the other hand, I feel like Mortimer's argument isn't completely proof against criticism. Unfortunately I simply don't know enough about Edward III to determine whether these facts are correct.

For the sake of simplicity I shall refer to the author as Mortimer through this review while Roger Mortimer will be referred to as Roger.

The main issue with this book is Mortimer's assertion that Edward II did not die in 1327, which has been generally accepted as true for the past six hundred years. Mortimer asserts that Edward II actually lived in exile for at least another decade, finally dying possibly sometime in the early 1340's. Mortimer draws extensively on the Fieschi Letter, a document from about 1337 written by a papal notary to Edward III explaining the whereabouts of Edward II for the past decade and where he was currently. The letter claims that Edward II escaped his captors, managed to make his way to Ireland, and then eventually France where he traveled as a pilgrim, visited the pope in Avignon, and eventually headed to Italy where he lived as a recluse. Mortimer argues that instead of escaping Edward II's jailers released Edward and, realizing he could never gain the political capital necessary to take back the throne, spent the rest of his life in exile.

I did some digging on my own and I did find that the Fieschi Letter is considered to be genuine, that is it is from the fourteenth century and probably written by Fieschi. The debate largely centers around whether the facts argued in the letter are true. Personally I find a couple of things with this argument that don't make a lot of sense. First is Mortimer's assertion that Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella let Edward II flee England. While I could understand Isabella not wanting to off her husband, I'm not sure why Roger would be willing to let Edward disappear. Through his actions it definitely looks like Roger was set to supplant Edward III as king given the right opportunity and establish his own dynasty. Having previous monarchs around alive is usually problematic for a usurper because rebellions can rally around the deposed monarch and the cause to reestablish them on the throne. Edward II, as unpopular as he was, would simply be too dangerous to Roger alive and his political position would be much more secure with Edward II safely (and very publicly) dead.

Another problem is Mortimer's assertion that Roger used the knowledge that Edward II was still alive after 1327 to blackmail Edward III. Mortimer supports this with the Earl of Kent's rebellion in 1330 on rumors that his half-brother Edward II was still alive, followed by Kent's capture and execution at the behest of Roger. Mortimer argues that Roger used the fact Edward II was still alive as a threat to Edward III with the son potentially being replaced by the father. Personally, I don't think this makes terribly much sense. I think it would be all too easy for Edward III to reveal that Roger had lied to him, the king, and put Roger in an untenable position. Roger had already gone through the effort of having Edward II effectively deposed by Parliament and put into prison so the underage Edward III could take over with Roger as regent. If Roger wanted to exert control on the young Edward III, I think he could have just as easily used the threat of deposition and death on Edward III. Roger's done it to one king already, why should he have scruples about doing it to another?

I'm just not sure if Mortimer makes enough of an argument for Edward II living past 1327 for it to be fully convincing. It's certainly within the realm of possibility, but Mortimer just doesn't seem to have enough evidence. Plus, the fact that he gets incredibly defensive about his hypothesis in his writing and makes some disparaging remarks about the historical ''establishment'' doesn't help his case at all.

Understandably, this major departure from what we know about Edward III, as well as lack of evidence, does make me doubt the veracity of the rest of his book. What I know about Edward III mostly comes from David Starkey and his student Dan Jones. Quite a bit of what Mortimer described matches up with what Starkey and Jones covered, so I want to tentatively say that otherwise this is a pretty good biography but I simply don't know enough about Edward III to say definitively one way or the other. Plus, the incomplete and inaccurate nature of documentation from the time means there are going to be confusions and inaccuracies

I think if you're looking for an in-depth biography on Edward III, this is definitely worth your time to read, although you might need some context. I know I had to look up what exactly the wool subsidy was as it related to taxation. The biggest issue really is the Edward II hypothesis and I've already gone into that into detail.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Diamond Conspiracy, by Pip Ballantine & Tee Morris

Today I'm looking at the fourth book in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series, The Diamond Conspiracy. I think the biggest issue I had was I let there be a considerable gap between the time I listened to the last book, Dawn's Early Light, and this one because I had forgotten a few details and found myself struggling to catch up with plot points. I'm mentioning this now because it's not really a critique of the book more than a failing on my part. However, this series in general has left me feeling ambivalent at times or just not really sure what to think about the series.

The Diamond Conspiracy begins with Wellington Books and Eliza Braun heading back home to England after foiling an evil plan of Thomas Edison in America. On the way back, though, Books and Braun discover that the Ministry has been disavowed by Queen Victoria and her government and a rival organization, the Department of Imperial Inconveniences, has been sent to eliminate all Ministry agents. Worst of all it appears the Maestro, the alter-ego of the Duke of Sussex, is entering the endgame of his master plan which will come to fruition at Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. Books, Braun, and the other survivors of the Ministry will have to team up, on the run and with limited resources, to rescue the queen and the Empire.

Overall I though the plot had some promising points. The agents being disavowed and fighting their own government is an interesting plotline. If nothing else it gets our agents out of London and relying on their own resources rather than the Ministry's. I do felt like this book was maybe, maybe just a little too long. I think Ballentine and Morris did enough groundwork that you could fully guess where the last quarter or so of the book was going to go, and their detours and explorations just dragged out the conclusion further than necessary. I kept finding myself thinking, ''Dang, is there still more of this book?'' So I think there was a little bloat, yes, but it doesn't really get noticeable until the end.

I think the biggest issue I had was the introduction of preexisting characters, both historical and fictional, into the story at this point in the series. Having Queen Victoria be in the series makes perfect sense. She is the queen, and the Ministry is a government agency that reports to her, so she's going to show up. And I didn't mind Thomas Edison showing up as a villain in the last book. He definitely seems like the sort of person who would collaborate with a shadowy organization like the House of Usher to build superweapons. Also Edison's a jerk. So it makes sense.

No, the issue I have is the introduction of other people who I didn't think made the plot better. For example, H.H. Holmes, the notorious serial killer, gets a cameo as an operative of the House of Usher. Basically he shows up, is creepy, and then leaves. Maybe he'll show up in later books and have more of a role, but it just felt gratuitous to me. The authors also introduce H.G. Wells which makes the universe feel a lot smaller than it was and it doesn't make a whole heck of a lot of sense to me why he'd keep going by a different alias every decade. And then there's the introduction of John Carter (of Mars) who really exists just to supply a War of the Worlds style Martian Walker for the final epic showdown between the Ministry and the Maestro and his forces. And while a battle between a Martian tripod and steampunk battle mechs would in theory be really awesome, by the time the book got to the battle I was so bored I just wanted it to be over, which was a real shame.

So I'm left not sure what to think about this book. On the one hand, there are interesting concepts and cool secret agent adventures. On the other hand, the book does feel like it could be trimmed down and I'm not sure how much I like the references to other works by the inclusion of other characters. (And it's definitely possible there are other references in the other books that I just missed.) The result is I feel like this book is okay, but definitely not among the best things I've ever read.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Catalyst, by James Luceno

Today I'm looking at a book called Catalyst set within the new Star Wars universe after the reboot/realignment/whathaveyou after the Disney purchase of the franchise. Catalyst takes place over several years, starting during the Clone Wars and ending sometime before Rogue One begins. The book is mostly about Jyn Erso's parents, Lyra and Galen, as well as Orson Krennic. (The guy with the white uniform in Rogue One if you weren't sure.) As you might also guess from the cover, the book has a lot to do with the Death Star project and Galen Erso's initially unknowing cooperation in the development of the Death Star's planet-killing superlaser.

The book begins with the Ersos being on a remote planet of the galaxy involved in research of kyber crystals, the crystals used in lightsabers, and their incredible energy potential. Unfortunately for them, the Clone Wars results in a shift of planetary government and Galen finds himself imprisoned on suspicion of being a Republic spy. Fortunately Krennic, an old school friend of Galen's and involved in the highly secret Republic superweapon project, puts together a rescue team. However this proves to be a mixed blessing because Krennic's real motivations for helping the Ersos is to get Galen, even somewhat indirectly, to start working on crystal technology that can be applied to the superweapon.

My overall opinion of the book is it was okay, but not really worth the effort of reading or listening to. It has that major problem of prequels in that we know the main characters are going to survive to the point where they started in Rogue One so there's not a lot of tension for bad things happening. Despite all the setbacks Krennic suffers, we know he's going to survive to be an antagonist in Rogue One with CGI Tarkin. Despite the horrible discoveries into Imperial plans the Ersos make, we know they're going to make it to their farm. As I've said before, a good prequel manages to make you doubt how it's going to end, even though you already know the ending, and I think that was the biggest strength of Rogue One. Even knowing that the Death Star plans were going to get to Leia by the end of the movie, I still wasn't certain that Jyn and Cassian would get the message through in time. Catalyst just lacks that same tension which makes it a bad prequel.

Another big issue I had was this book started raising some serious questions about the Death Star. I know that it's kind of silly for me to say the Death Star is unrealistic. I mean, it's a giant moon-sized space station capable of destroying a planet, as well as travelling through hyperspace. It's inherently a ridiculous notion. The problem I have is how under wraps the entire project manages to be successfully kept secret for two decades. Sometime during the Clone Wars the Republic actually begins construction of the Death Star, called the Ultimate Weapon. In the book it's implied that a whole government committee is involved in overseeing the project and getting regular status updates on it as well. And there are two things government committees spawn, regardless of the universe they're in: paperwork and more committees. I don't think Luceno exactly states how many people are involved in these committees but I got the impression it was fairly large, which would make it nearly impossible to keep everyone from talking about it.

And then there are the sheer number of resources involved as well. The Empire is literally stripping planets bare to come up with the resources to build the Death Star, along with their Star Destroyers, TIE fighters, AT-ATs, and who knows what else. In the book it's stated that all the Death Star resources get hidden in the huge ledgers of materials the Empire is using, but considering the Death Star's being built at Geonosis and there are no major shipyards or other factories there, you'd think people would start wondering. I could see the Death Star being built and kept secret over a period of three or five years. That makes sense to me. But two decades stretches my suspension of disbelief, even for Star Wars.

We also sort of get the religious elements of kyber crystals, and yet not really. We do see Lyra being a Force...devotee I guess? Like she believes in the Force as a religion but I got the impression she wasn't actually Force-sensitive. Space magic is weird. And it's mentioned that other people worship the kyber crystals as well sort of like what we saw on Jedha in Rogue One. But aside from sort of a vague explanation that the crystals are magic, we don't really know why people hold them to be sacred. I kind of wish there had been more of an explanation for this because it still seems really odd to me.

We also get an environmental message in the book through Galen Erso's quest to find ''sustainable energy'' from kyber crystals, and seeing how the Empire is strip-mining Legacy Worlds to build its Death Star, basically the equivalent of strip-mining a national park. The sustainable energy bit doesn't make a lot of sense to me because it's already established that the Star Wars universe has fusion power, currently something of a holy grail in the sustainable energy. So if you have fusion reactors, why the heck do you need more sustainable energy? Are you running out of hydrogen? It just raises too many questions. Second, the Empire strip-mining nature reserves is played for shock value when honestly that's one of the less evil things they've done. Don't get me wrong, it's bad, but corporations would do the same thing if there was money in it. Considering the Empire enslaves people and destroyed Alderaan, I think we've firmly established that the Empire are the bad guys. Seriously, remember Alderaan? And how they blew it up? And were going to blow up any other planets that resisted them? They're evil! Of course they strip-mine planets! They probably kick puppies too.

The result is a book that it honestly doesn't feel worth the effort of reading. If I really, really want to know how the Death Star was constructed, I could probably just look it up on Wookiepedia, and get several different versions of the story. The Ersos and Krennic don't feel very well developed as characters so I found it difficult to care about what happens to them before Rogue One. Add some issues like the heavy-handed but out of place environmentalism and it just makes the book feel worse. I think I can honestly say you're not missing a whole heck of a lot by skipping this book.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Skin Game, by Jim Butcher

Today I finally come to the (as of writing) end of the Dresden Files series with the novel Skin Game. I actually liked this book quite a bit and I think part of it was it went a little outside the rut that I'd felt the series had fallen into. There's some big world-ending emergency and Harry has to go save the world, which we've been seeing a lot in the series lately. In this book the stakes are much lower, so it feels like a breather and we're back to Harry having awesome magic adventures.

Dear and gentle readers, as I have said before with this long-running series, it is basically impossible to speak coherently about this book without going into some spoilers. If you wish to avoid such things please turn back now. 

The problem for this book is the parasite in Harry's head that's been growing and causing the migraines he's been suffering. Unfortunately for Harry it's getting very close to the point the parasite will burst straight out of his head and kill him. Mab is willing to help Harry with his problem, but as always with fairies there is a price. And since Harry's the Winter Knight, he's not in much of a position to say no either. It turns out that Mab owes a debt to Nicodemus, leader of the fiendish Denarians, and she intends to repay that debt by loaning Harry and his services to Nicodemus. Harry, understandably, is not exactly thrilled with this idea but Mab being Mab she's put him in a position where he can't exactly refuse.

The job that Harry is obligated to assist Nicodemus with is a robbery of a treasure vault belonging to Hades, lord of the Underworld. Yes, that Hades, the Greek god. Obviously the treasure vault of one of the most covetous and powerful figures out of mythology is going to be absurdly difficult, if not impossible, for anybody to break into. Hence Nicodemus has assembled a team of top criminals from the magical underworld including a fire mage, a shapeshifter, a spirit binder, and one of the best ordinary human safecrackers to pull of the heist of the millennium. Now, ordinarily I don't go around watching, reading, or listening to heist stories, but they can be fun from time to time. And since this is a magical heist story, where the characters have to break into a vault protected by more than just mundane defenses, it makes the story all the more interesting to me.

There are a few other interesting developments in the book which I thought really showed how the series had grown. Waldo Butters, originally the timid polka-obsessed medical examiner, has become something of a magical vigilante, making use of low-magic devices and the help of Bob the Skull to help make the mean streets of Chicago a little safer. (And without spoiling it, Butters gets a truly epic moment towards the end of the book. Seriously. It's awesome.) Harry also finds out that the ''parasite'' in his head is actually a spirit of intellect that he and Lash, the shadow of the fallen angel Lasciel, created and has been growing in his head. The migraines have been because she's getting too big for Harry's head (not a surprise) and needs more room to grow. Granted, she's only very, very barely in the book, but I'm actually looking forward to seeing her in future books. Although I sometimes wonder how smart a spirit of intellect that comes from Harry's head really can be.

Overall I liked this book and I think it was because it was a change of pace with some awesome tidbits. Because the stakes are lower, only robbing the vault of the lord of the underworld opposed to saving the entire world, it feels like a little breathing space and we can have some more fun with the adventure. However, the overarching plot does get advanced at least slightly and we get to see Harry continue to develop, as well as quite a few other characters. Hopefully I'll get to see where the series goes from here.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Hunter, by Mercedes Lackey

Today I'm looking at the first book in a new series by Mercedes Lackey, Hunter. I have talked about Lackey a few times on the blog before, specifically her book Gwenhwyfar, which I consider to be hands-down the best Arthurian retelling I've ever read. Lackey also wrote several stories for the Bolo series and I thought they were pretty good as well, so I was eager to try something else from this author from my public library's audio book collection.

Hunter is set in the distant future, some two hundred and fifty years after an event known as the Diseray when the boundaries between our world and the Otherworld were broken and all the monsters of folklore managed to come back and invade our world. Things were falling apart all over but fortunately humans had a few things going for them. First, the military was able to scavenge equipment and utilize modern weaponry to take on some of the worst monsters, as well as develop barriers that Otherworld monsters couldn't cross. Second, magic also entered the world and about one to two percent of the population developed magical talents which they could use to fight the monsters. Most important of all, a portion of those with magical abilities became Hunters, forming a psychic bond with Otherworld creatures known as Hounds. With a pack of Hounds to aid them, Hunters are the greatest weapon humans have in their fight for survival.

The book focuses on Joyeaux Charmand, a Hunter who grows up in mountain villages near a monastery in the Rocky Mountains. Life seems to be going okay until her uncle, head of the police, tells her she needs to report to the capital city of Apex, to join the teams of Hunters located there. When Joy arrives she discovers the Hunters are actually a form of entertainment for the civilian population of Apex, with each Hunter getting their own video streaming channel, and the most popular Hunters with the most fans get the best benefits. Joy also very quickly gets told everything is not as it appears in Apex and she may be used as a hostage against her uncle in a mysterious shadow political struggle.

As much as I hate to make the comparison, this book reminded me a lot of The Hunger Games, and not necessarily in a good way. I think partly this was because Joy and the other Hunters were a form of entertainment for the civilian population. They may be competing with each other indirectly, but they're still involved in fighting for people's entertainment and to distract the civilian population from how things have actually been getting worse in Apex and there are more monsters than ever. Plus there's the whole dystopian nature of Apex, with people apparently being jailed for sedition and a large gap between the haves and have-nots. There are elements where it definitely feels like this book is trying to cash in on the dystopian theme that's been running around fiction, especially young adult fiction, for quite some time now.

The biggest problem is I don't feel like it's done terribly well. Lackey doesn't do a great job in this book of showing us how everything is a dystopia. We're told about people being jailed for sedition, treason, homelessness, and other crimes, but we never really see police rounding people up or the inside of one of the prisons or anything like that. The Hunters patrol the slums for monsters, but they don't seem to interact with the poor segments of the population all that much, spending all their free time in the pleasant, gilded center of Apex. That at least is where Hunger Games shone, in my opinion, was by showing the dystopian nature of the government and its pervasiveness. Here it just doesn't feel quite the same.

Joy also kind of suffers from designated protagonist syndrome in this book. She has seven Hounds, meaning she has more hounds than almost everyone else, as well as being super-strong magically speaking. Before she even gets to Apex she faces down a magician of the Folk (basically fairies) and manages to get him to leave an entire train alone. I didn't track exactly how long the events of the book took, but it definitely felt like the entire book took less than a month in story time and that feels like far, far too short a time for everything that goes on. I will grant you that Joy is an experienced Hunter with several years of fighting monsters under her belt, but even with that taken into consideration it feels far, far too generous. And as a result the book just feels rushed, in my opinion.

So I'd say this book is okay, but I wouldn't say it's great. There are some good ideas in here and Lackey is a very good writer, but it feels like it's borrowing far too much from the current trend of dystopian sci-fi/fantasy novels. Obviously those books are popular because people are really digging that sort of thing right now, but after a while I do feel like it becomes more of the same thing. If this seems interesting to you, I'd say check it out, but don't expect too many great or new things to come from this book.

- Kalpar