Sunday, December 18, 2011

REVIEW: The Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick

It’s disappointing to find a book as well written as “The Dragon’s of Babel” that was so lacking as far as pure story and character goes. This book had so many things going for it. Swanwick has a great narrative voice, and a very clever way of describing this world that he created. The mixture descriptive humor, clever use of real technologies, and unapologetic use of magic made so many passages in the book a delight. And the creativity of the world was just brilliant – I loved every location that I was introduced to, and felt like I had really been there. I mean, what else could a fantasy novel be lacking, right?

Well, character and plot continuity. The main character, Will, was just not believable at all. There was no character development as the story progressed. No question – Will changed throughout the book. But the changes were abrupt and almost random. Will didn’t grow with his experiences – his personality and even skills changed to fit the needs of the current situation. There was no shred of the original young man who began the story in a small village. The story just followed different people who happened to also be named Will. How did he keep acquiring all of those new skills? And why was Esme in this book?

Then there was the plot, which wasn’t really a plot. It was more of a collection of different scenarios thrown together, without any common thread, other than the fact that they followed this ever-changing character Will. I like a bit more of a story arc. If I wanted to read a series of unrelated events, entertaining though they were, I’d go get a book of short stories.

The big plot-twist at the end? Couldn’t possibly have been more obvious.

With the character and plot disappointments in mind, I do recommend The Dragons of Babel to any true fantasy fans. It is a well imagined world, and I particularly like the treatment of magic, not as something mystical that needs to be explained, but as a reality of life that just is. And like I’ve said, the writing itself is excellent – I just wish the same care had been put into the character and story development.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

REVIEW: Orcs by Stan Nichols

This was a very formulaic fantasy story, with a single twist - it was about the bad guys instead of the good guys. This was a great imagining of what orc culture would be outside of the rather one dimensional interpretation of J.R. Tolkien (no disrespect to the master intended - they were monsters, not characters in Lord of the Rings). They have everything that makes them scary - violence, strength, aggression, anger, and fierce fighting ability - but they also had real feelings, and a deep sense of camaraderie that I really appreciated.

The writing certainly wasn't literary, but it got the point across. The fight scenes were vivid, if a bit repetitious and, dare I say, formulaic? But the simplicity of the writing makes this a very accessible story, and one that would probably be good for beginners to the fantasy genre. The strongest piece of the writing I felt was the dialog, with each character adopting a unique voice that really showcased their personality.

Storywise, Orcs was again straight-forward. The story stuck to the formula - the troop of orcs needed to find a certain treasure, then had to overcome some sort of quest to retrieve it before the evil queen could, and there were two or three battles, with cliffhangers about whether certain characters would die or not. But the formula worked, and I kept reading, whether they were fighting trolls or vicious mer-people or religious fanatics. In the end, I still wanted the world to be saved from the evil queen.

Then I got to the end, and the story fell apart for me. I won't give away exactly what happens, but I was not at all happy with the choice of the main character. I considered it the magical equivalent of deus ex machina combined with a main character fleeing his responsibilities. Sorry, Mr. Nichols, but you copped out on that one.

All in all, I would consider this a good fantasy beach novel. Nothing special, but an enjoyable, mindless read. Follows all the formulas - but you know what? Formulas can work.