Habits and hobbies have a way of arriving and departing in waves, do they not? Some months, I won’t be able to finish a single book because I can’t tear myself away from games long enough to read a few pages. Others, like May of 2014, I move from book to book so quickly that I don’t take the time to sit and jot down a few thoughts about them. I aim to rectify that egregious mistake here now. Last month, I read four books, and my thoughts on each can be found below.
Redwall – Brian Jacques
I had been told by several friends that Redwall would suit me, and they certainly were not wrong. Can one really go wrong in a world of anthropomorphic animals engaged in an epic helms-deep-scale battle, lead by a heroic warrior monk?
I must admit, however, that I didn’t love the book as much as I was lead to believe. I think that is due in large part to the amount of praise it had received by those who recommended it to me. It is very likely that they were much younger than twenty-six when they last read it and, tastes having matured, would love the book more out of nostalgia than for it own merit. The characters are rather flat, and most of the book follows the hero, Mathias, from one moment of frustrated surrender to the next, which was a bit trying to read. By and large, it was a fun, quick read, but I’ll probably not get into the series, which is around 20 books long. 3/5
The Tombs of Atuan – Ursula K. Le Guin
More than a year passed between when I read A Wizard of Earthsea and its sequel, The Tombs of Atuan. I only vaguely remembered the events of the first book, but I assumed I’d be fairly comfortable in the second regardless. I was, but there was something about the book that bothered me.
The Tombs of Atuan is, first and foremost, a worldbuilding book. I’d estimate that about 70% of the book establishes the history of a new–albeit interesting–place and the character of the new protagonist only to eventually–and here’s a spoiler–have the entire thing destroyed and the character transplanted to a new location, where we (I assume) never hear from her again. That being said, the world is masterfully constructed, the writing is exquisite, and the action–when it begins–is outstanding. My only wish for The Tombs of Atuan is that it spent less time developing and describing scenery and cultural nuances with specificity, and spent more time on the interactions between Tennar (the female protagonist, who is a rather interesting character) and the other denizens of The Place (as it is known,) as well as the relationship she develops with Ged (the Wizard). Once that relationship became the focus of the book, I was instantly back into the story. The action-packed, dynamic sequences at the final 30% of the story were spectacular, and redeem the book’s otherwise dull rhythm. 4/5
The Farthest Shore – Ursula K. Le Guin
I jumped straight to the next book in the Earthsea cycle, and found myself far more pleased with The Farthest Shore than I was with The Tombs of Atuan. I feel that these books could be read independent of one another, as they tangentially relate to one another. That being said, they’re certainly a series and one should probably read them sequentially, if only to experience the overarching storyline. They feature Ged as one of the protagonists, but they each seem to depict different adventures and wildly different settings. The Farthest Shore opens with Ged having been promoted to the position of Archmage, due to his victory over some vaguely-described enemy or force that sufficiently impressed the other mages and saved all of Earthsea.
We follow Ged and Arren, a young prince, as they search the archipelago for the source of a mysterious plague/illness that is, more or less, sucking the magic out of the world. This leads them to a variety of places, to meet a wide array of people, all of whom have an eerie problem–they’ve become obsessed with immortality, and speak in riddles concerning a path they can follow to reach “beyond.”
The mysterious elements of the journey, coupled with the action (a cavalcade of problems confront our heroes along their way) makes this a very exciting book to read. On top of that, the Herculean decent and subsequent escape from the world of the dead was beautifully executed, and left me enthusiastically rooting for the protagonists. As the story progresses, more of the overarching plot of Earthsea is explained, but I didn’t feel as invested in that story as I did in the immediate struggles of the characters. Earthsea is definitely important reading for an aspiring writer of expansive fantasies, but it might feel a little dense for light reading. I recommend it, with the caveat that anyone starting their journey with Ged be prepared for occasional confusion and the regular re-reading of paragraphs. 4/5
The Lives of Tao – Wesley Chu
I first heard about The Lives of Tao on the Writing Excuses podcast, which I listen to weekly for thoughtful discussions about the craft and business of writing from some active writers in Fantasy and Science-Fiction. Wesley Chu was a guest on the show, and talked with enthusiasm about using his experience as a stuntman and martial artist to write engaging and believable combat sequences, as well as illuminating the (all too frequent) issue many stories inherently contain wherein a protagonist becomes an expert fighter or agent or whatever in a few months, as opposed to the years of training required to reach that condition. After hearing that, I decided to purchase the book and see how he got around the issue, since his main character is an overweight programmer who suddenly (and very unwillingly) becomes the host of an alien entity who requires that he become a powerful “secret agent” type.
What I discovered was a book that was an addictive, action-packed read, with interesting characters and a clever interpolation of relationships between the world of the book and the very real history of the world. I appreciated very much that the story was injected with mentions and hints that the history of humanity was completely altered and driven by an effectively immortal alien race. It certainly made me smile.
The story itself is good, the action sequences are–somewhat predictably–exquisitely choreographed, and the plot is solid. This turned out to be a great book!
It should be noted, however, that the first time I picked this book up (tapped it on my Kindle really, but…that idiom has to stay) I didn’t get 10 pages in, because I found the introduction sequences a bit boring and cliché. We meet a hardened spy, sipping scotch and flirting with the proprietress to get the “access key.” I picked it back up a few months later and powered through that sequence, then the book really picked up. I enjoyed the remainder of it thoroughly. 4/5