Archive for July, 2012

Broken Blade

Posted: July 28, 2012 in Reading
Tags: ,

I had a great recovery from the lackluster book I couldn’t finish. I picked up one of my favorite authors Kelly McCullough. The start of a new series, Broken Blade, is the first of four and a whole different subgenre than his other series WebMage. I’m late to the party with this one, as it came out last winter, and it’s a damn shame other than the fact that book two is going in my next big order. I’ve seen little buzz around the interwebs about this series (part of the whole late to the party thing). Seriously, internet… what the hell? Let’s fix this, it’s great wordsmithing.

Bam! Back of the book time!

Once a fabled Blade of Namara, Aral Kingslayer fought for justice and his goddess alongside his familiar, a living shadow called Triss. Now, with their goddess murdered, her temple destroyed, and their brethren dead or outlawed, they are among the last of their kind.

Aral survives on the fringes of society, working as a shadow jack. He smuggles goods, protects thugs, and occasionally stoops to thievery. His is a trade lacking honor but one that keeps him alive. A wanted man, he sees no way out. Until a mysterious woman named Maylien hires him to deliver a secret message.

The price she offers is suspiciously high for a simple job, but Aral is bored, broke and fond of expensive whiskey. Prodded by Triss to take the commission, he soon discovers he’s not intended to deliver a letter but rather to witness a clandestine meeting. And the message, with all its questions and consequences, is meant for him…

Broken Blade has all sorts of awesome going on for it, first and foremost Aral. He’s a broken man which makes for much more interesting read than someone who’s life is all hunky dorey. The deity his life and trade were dedicated to, was murdered by the other deities. Now he’s got a bit of a problem with the drink now. His attitude towards to world comes off as very bleak and confused. Namara, his deity, was the goddess of justice. Aral finds himself at a near-constant moral crossroads. The only ray of sunshine in his life is Triss. Figurative sunshine though what with his familiar being a shadow, the antithesis of sunshine. Their relationship has a lot of layers to it, naturally  feeling very much like something lengthy and deep.

A little bit like Well of Sorrow, once again here we’ve got this  fantasy thriller thing going on in Blade and it’s totally a trend I can get behind. The pacing is fast and it’s driven by this need for justice smack in the middle of the political arena. Not that Aral is into politics beyond how he got the Kingslayer name. He runs into a former friend, turned enemy…ish. It’s another one of those grey areas which makes for such good reading. There’s double crosses layered in and out of each other. Enemies are besetting Aral from a few different sides and there’s a couple really great moments of “Hey wait! I’m after that guy too!”

Even though this is a thriller fantasy, I never felt reader exhaustion. There’s always the metaphorical explosion (and sometimes literal) to keep things moving but there’s always moments to breathe and focus on the small things. Those small things about in a great fantasy city like Tien. Blade has this urban fantasy feel, but in the opposite sense that the term is usually applied. The city is well defined, practically into a character itself. From the alley knockers to the chimney highway, the city is extensively planned and well thought out. It’s the infrastructure behind the story which makes it that much stronger.

So we’ve got this wonderfully paced story in this deliciously grey moral world. The character arcs are natural. In fact, there were parts of the story where I felt the characters were acting in their own best interest instead of the writer’s best interesting. Being vague so I don’t spoil the surprise, but there were parts of the plot in a very different direction than where they would typically go. That was probably an annoyingly vague sentence, but read it, you’ll know what I mean. Certain expectations could have been easily forced but they wouldn’t be in the character’s best interest.

The start to this series flew under the radar and I think it might be because it’s very different than the hacker-mage godpunk of his earlier books. This is unfortunate as all getup because no one should get pigeonholed, good writing is good writing. Aside from GRRM, I think fantasy has gotten a bad rap in recent years but this whole integration of thriller tropes is bringing it back for me. Buzz about this book. It may be a different successor to his earlier magic, but it’s more than worthy.

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It was inevitable.

It only happens a couple times a year but it does happen. I couldn’t make it thought The Map of Time by Felix J Palma.

I really don’t have much more of a lead in than that, so let’s go right to the Back of the Book, what little there is.

Characters real and imaginary come vividly to life in this whimsical triple play of interwined plots, in which a skeptical HG Wells is called upon to investigate purported incidents of time travel and to save lives and literary classics, including Dracula and The Time Machine, from being wiped from existence.

What hapens if we change history?

Felix J Palma explores this provocative question, weaving a historical fantasy as imaginative as it is exciting – a story full of love and adventure that transports readers from a haunting setting in Victorian London to a magical reality.

So there’s really not a lot going on with this Back of the Book. But hey! It’s got time travel. Victorian time travel. There’s some shades of Jasper Fford going on with that too. Most of the back cover was filled with acolades and apparently the author is a big deal in Spain. Spoilers ahead, if you’re worried about spoilers in a book I didn’t care for. I know sometimes I tend to get vague about books when I don’t want to ruin any surprises, but I feel when being critical, specifics need to be cited or it comes off as ranty.

First impression? Skip the first 80 pages. They’re completely unnessicary. Map starts out with Andrew, a wealthy Victorian 20-something who wants to kill himself. It’s a very maudlin opening. Chapters two through page 80 are the backstory leading up to where he is in the slums with the gun to his chin. The backstory plants some promising seeds though. Remember, it’s 1880s London, we’ve got some Jack the Ripper stuff going on here.

So ok, this Andrew is still way too overdramatic and it’s hard to identify with a super rich kid. But between Jack the Ripper and time travel, I’m still working with this. It’s not easy. There’s a very weird tone to it. I think this comes from a combination of trying to sound like it’s old timey and the fact that Map isn’t native to English. I couldn’t help but feel that it was a lot less awkward in Spanish, but I’m not about to get all Rosetta Stone on this. I’m saving Rosetta Stone so I can achieve my goal of telling dirty limericks in near-dead languages like Welch. The odd tone, ok I can get over that. The narrator however, is a different story.

I didn’t mind an extra narrator in Railsea because it felt like part of the story. The narrator showed up right on page one and kept a consistant tone and presence with the rest of the tale. This one didn’t. I don’t know if it’s a cultrual thing. Maybe in Madrid they’d eat that stuff up but it absolutely didn’t work here. The narrator would jump into the middle of a paragraph with things like “Andrew couldn’t have possibley known what I’m about to tell you but my nature is all seeing and all knowing, nothing can hide from me so we’re going to change points of view because Charles knows all about this stuff that’s going down so I’m going to move the perspective over to him because I know you would rather listen to him than me.” Middle of the paragraph, seroiusly.

But I can get over all these things if the story delivers. These dandys plan on traveling through time to throw down with Jack the Ripper and they need HG Wells to do it. After twenty pages of biography of Wells, which really didn’t have much to do with what was actually going on, there’s finally some time travel. Jack the Ripper is killed and Andrew saves his lady friend, who just happens to be the Ripper’s last victim. When he gets back, they use the branching world theory so Andrew can get out of his funk. His version of Marie Kelly is still dead, but there was another version of the universe where they were happily married. On the way out, Charles goes back to Wells’ house and FOOLED YOU! No time travel, they were just fucking with Andrew to cheer him up and keep him from being suicidal.

Wait what? Fooled you?? The time travel was all a hoax, and completely out of the blue too. There were no clues leading up to it. People who read science fiction books are perfectly ok with the fact that someone is traveling through time. The fact that it was all a hoax came off as very condencending to the reader.

So I’m bristled by this. 400 pages to go though and Part Two gives us a new character, a young woman who doesn’t really like being a young woman in Victorian times. They’re gearing up to do the one way travel to the future adventure. Out in the year 2000 there’s a ruined London and a battle between the human rebels and an automaton army. Cool. We’re back to something I can get behind. This woman, Claire, is getting onto the time traveling tram where the whole crowd is told “oh we’re going to keep aaaaaall the windows closed so you can’t see outside becaus big lizards.”

Seriously? Again? You’re fucking with me again aren’t you book? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, what the fuck am I doing then?

I’m not being ranty, but that did deserve swears. I feel like this book is sci-fi written for people that don’t like sci-fi. Which really doesn’t make sence to me but there must people people out there who like it because it was a NY Times best seller. This book was not my cup of tea at all, but I really did try. 300 pages was half of this book and as long as some of the other novels I’ve read. What this comes down to is that I’m not the type of reader that appreciates a ‘Fooled you!” moment. All those other faults I could have slogged my way through, but not that.

So I was called out on being tired and/or child distracted at the end of the last post about First Lines. It took much longer to type than I thought it would what with needing to hold the book with one hand and do the 3rd grade hunt and peck typing. The people have spoken, here I am to deconstruct the first line.

As a reader, it’s very easy to gloss over the first line. As a writer, I know I tend to agonize over it.

When I start reading a new book, I’m running pellmell face first into it, I can’t stop for just one line. For me, the first dozen pages are where I get my quote unquote, first impression, from. In fact, some of the first lines off the Shelf of Honor books give a different impression than what I remember of the openings. Specifically I’m thinking of A Thousand Words for Stranger and Boneshaker. In regards to Stranger, I remember Sira waking up not knowing who she is. Amnesiatic characters is something I find fascinating (also, see Zelazny for that) so that’s probably why it tends to jump at me. My first memories of Boneshaker are of Briar shleping through the muck of Seattle coming home from work, not of a mood moment.

Opening lines tend to be mood moments or action. Both can set the pace of what’s going on but even as I type this, I’m thinking of all the ones that do the opposite. Look at Un Lun Dun, the word ‘nondescript’ is used twice. You get a juxtaposition out of that one. When I write my own stuff, I tend to be of the ‘start with a bang’ school of thought. I vaguely remember it being taught in school at some point. I’ve tried mood openings or informational openings and they just don’t pop for me. In my in-process novel, I actually lopped off the first four pages and ended up with two people dying on page one. It made for a much better hook. It’s a show don’t tell kind of thing for me.

That’s not to say I can’t enjoy a book with a mood opening, the Shelf of Honor First Lines clearly shows that, but deconstructed as a single opening line, action speaks much louder than words. Actions make you ask Why? That little question propels the reader just as much as the writer. Actions? Questions? What single lines are the flavors I like best? I’m getting there. They’re next in fact.

“At the height of the long wet summer of the seventy-seventh Year of Sendovani, the Thiefmaker of Camorr paid a sudden and unannounced visit to the Eyeless Priest at the Temple of Perelandro, desperately hoping to sell him the Lamora boy.” —The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

There’s a lot of information going on here. The weather and the year, they don’t do anything for me, but fortunately this is a nice long line. Thiefmaker and Eyeless Priest… who are these people? They’re titles so unique, they demand answers in themselves. But that’s informational. What’s the action? Why he’s got Lamora up for sale. The title character is for sale in the first line? Do tell more.

“Colin saw Walter’s foot a moment before it connected with his stomach.” —Well of Sorrows by Benjamin Tate

This is all action, simple and impactful. Both literally and figuratively. By starting off the whole book right in the middle of the fight, we’re instantly involved with what’s going on. There’s no lead in for us to choose sides nor are we shown the aftermath yet with the winner dusting himself off. We’re not even given a chance to take a breath before stuff’s going down.

“In a cold jail cell in Boston in Massachusetts Bay Colony on November 16, 1699, a weather-beaten man with hard scarred features unbuttoned his trousers.” —The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd by Richard Zacks

This one is a little bit odd in that it’s the only non-fiction book on the Shelf of Honor. But take a look at that. This book doesn’t read like a history text. It’s researched just the same but it reads like a novel. We’ve got action in a place that could easily start out as “Captain Kidd was in jail in Boston on November 16, 1699.” What we got instead is a lot more interesting, even if the image of a pantsless angry Scotsman in jail isn’t exactly an image we want willingly.

I just now spent twenty minutes going through my shelves for more first lines that really pop for me. What’s surprising me is that so many books I enjoy the b’jebus out of, have regular first lines. This goes back to running headlong into a new novel. When there are 400 pages, you’ve got at least fifty to hook me, one hundred if I’m being generous and you’ve got an awesome premise. In the last twenty minutes though, I did find two more that really jab the hooks in before the first punctuation mark.

“On the last true day of spring the nine worlds will ever know, my brother and I fly recon through the land of the gods.” —Norse Code by Greg van Eekhout

Godpunk is one of my favorite subgenres and the Norse are especially awesome. Not only do we have the ominous declaration that might as well be a Ned Stark saying “Winter is coming… everywhere,” we’ve got this awesome action of flying recon in the land of the gods. Something dicey is going on. There are so many questions in that half statement. There’s got to be danger a plenty in doing that, you don’t fly recon in safe zones. Expound on this danger! Tell me more!

“She let Johnny gag her mouth with a belt, that way she wouldn’t scream when he amputated her two mangled fingers.” —Johnny Zed by John Gregory Betancourt

Take a look at this book and read it’s synopsis and it sounds like a very dated 1980s popcorn muncher and then holy hell back alley amputations! I’m not so sure if I need to say much more about that. We’re starting in the middle of the action but it’s simultaneously the aftermath of another. What starts off as something sounding like it needs an R rating, turns out to be a lot more squeamish and intense than that. The question “What next?” drips off the page.

So there’s a thousand words about first lines, none more than 41 words themselves. One of the primary reasons I run this blog, is so that when I talk about these things, I become conscious of what works and doesn’t work in the books I read so I can apply those lessons to my own novel writing endeavors. So what have I learned, or more accurately, what have I become more aware of? Well, novels don’t have to get you in one line. Most of the Shelf of Honor books don’t hook me as fast as the 80s popcorn muncher that is Johnny Zed. When a first line really clicks though, it’s magic. Things are happening, things are moving and you’ve got no time to wonder what’s going on. All those magnificent questions these wonderful first lines raise, well hell, there’s no time to stop and think of them. We’re swept up in what’s going on without coming up for air.

There’s a whole novel for us to come up for air, but you’ve got to shove the reader back under the tide of words anyways. Make them work for it.

First Lines

Posted: July 19, 2012 in Genre, Reading, Shelf of Honor
Tags: , ,

If you’ve read this blog for a while, you’ve probably heard me mention the Shelf of Honor. It’s my small shelf of my most favorite books. Inspired by a post over at io9.com, which frankly I can’t find after ten minutes of searching because their search function is crap. Nonetheless, it was a post about great opening lines in science fiction. There was a corresponding one for fantasy and one for closing lines. Zelazny showed up a few times which made me happy. And now that I mentioned Zelazny, I found the posts. Here’s Great Openings from Fantasy, which links to the others in the article.

So here are the opening lines from my most favorite of favorite books. Depending on the energy I have left and/or attention level my infant needs, I may talk about what makes for good opening lines or I might save it for later. And now, in no particular order….

“Colin saw Walter’s foot a moment before it connected with his stomach.” —Well of Sorrows by Benjamin Tate

“Do your neighbors burn one another alive?” was hownFraa Orlo began his conversation with Artisan Flec.” —Anathem by Neal Stephenson

“In a cold jail cell in Boston in Massachusetts Bay Colony on November 16, 1699, a weather-beaten man with hard scarred features unbuttoned his trousers.” —The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd by Richard Zacks

“Gleaming steel, gleaming steel…” —Thirteen by Richard K Morgan

“Eliot Post and his sister, Fiona, would be fifteen tomorrow and nothing interesting had ever happened to them.” —Mortal Coils by Eric Nylund

“In an unremarkable room, in a nondescript building, a man sat working on very nondescript theories.” —Un Lun Dun by China Miéville

“Unpaved, uneven trails pretended to be roads; they tied the nation’s coasts together like laces holding a boot, binding it with crossed strings and crossed fingers.” —Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

“The sign was rain-streaked and had never been overly straight.” —A Thousand Words for Stranger by Julie Czerneda

“The night before he went to London, Richard Mayhew was not enjoying himself.” —Neverwhere by Niel Gaiman

“A mile below the lowest cloud, rock breaches water and the sea begins.” —The Scar by China Miéville

“In the tower of the nameless necromancer, it is always cold.” —Grunts by Mary Gentle

“Nothing here,” said Melchior,his voice echoing from the depths of an ancient citrus-wood chest.” —WebMage by Kelly McCullough

“The ticking of the conference room’s antique clock was deafening as the Hereditary President of the People’s Republic of Haven stared at his military cabinet.” —On Basilisk Station by David Weber

“It began, as many things do, in a tavern: about eight o’clock on a Friday evening, in The Pot of Gold on Post Hoc Lane in Simka.” —Trapped by James Alan Gardner

“Pull over!” cried Leila.” —Roadmarks by Roger Zelazny (although it starts at chapter two, so I’m not sure if that counts.)

“I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday.” —Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

“Blackness. Blackness over and about her.” —In Fury Born by David Weber

“The small family group gathered in the library was only conventionally alarmed by the sound of a violent explosion – a singularly self-centered sort of explosion.” —The Night Life of the Gods by Thorne Smith

“At the height of the long wet summer of the seventy-seventh Year of Sendovani, the Thiefmaker of Camorr paid a sudden and unannounced visit to the Eyeless Priest at the Temple of Perelandro, desperately hoping to sell him the Lamora boy.” —The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

“About a third of the way down the massive wooden staircase the older of the two tuxedo-clad men paused, head up, nostrils flaring as though he were testing a scent on the air.” —Smoke and Mirrors by Tanya Huff

“Shadow had done three years in prison.” —American Gods by Neil Gaiman

“John Rolfe had rented the house for seventy-five a month, which sounded extortionate but was something close to reasonable, given the way costs had gonr crazy in the Bay Area since Pearl Harbor.” —Conquistador by S.M. Steirling

“Since Maria had decided to die her cat would have to fend for itself.” —Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

“It started to end, after what seemed most of eternity to me.” —Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny

China Miéville.
Review over. You know all you need to know. Go read it.

Now.

Seriously, I left that bit sitting there for a long time thinking I was going to post just that. That’s all the convincing I took. A new China Miéville book is something that gets written on my calendar in January and if I bought my calendar any earlier than that, trust me, the date would be written on earlier. Miéville could write a phone book and I’d be all over that.

It’s been years since I’ve bothered to read the back of a Miéville book before cracking it open and Railsea was no exception. Reading it for the first time while typing it here! Back of the book time!

On board the moletrain Medes, Sham Yes ap Soorap watches in awe as he witnesses his first moldywarpe hunt: the giant mole bursting from the earth, the harpoonists targeting their prey, the battle resulting in one’s death and the other’s glory. But no matter how spectacular it is, Sham can’t shake the sense that there is more to life than traveling the endless rails of the railsea – even if his captain can think only of the hunt for the ivory-colored mole she’s been chasing since it took her arm all those years ago. When they come across a wrecked train, at first it’s a welcome distraction. But what Sham finds in the derelict – a kind of treasure map indicating a mythincal place untouched by iron rails – leads to considerably more than he’d bargained for. Soon he’s hunted on all sides, by pirates, trainsfolk, monsters & salvage-scrabblers. & it might not be just Sham’s life that’s about to change. It could be the whole of the railsea.

Here’s a novel for readers of all ages, a gripping & brilliantly imagined take on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick that confirms China Miéville’s status as “the most original & talented voice to appear in several years” (Science Fiction Chronicle).

So when I first heard about this book the only think Amazon or Del Ray really talked about was “YA sci fi Moby Dick! woo!” My first thought was “Eh… YA… I don’t even like it’s acronym.” It’s a weird, nebulous term that doesn’t really mean much beyond a marketing tool. But Un Lun Dun was considered YA too and I enjoyed that immensely. I think YA is really just anything that involves a protagonist around the age of fourteen (although at times I had Sham pegged as older than that). In the end I went Meh and bought the hell out of it anyways.

Where to begin… Railsea reaffirms that in my dream D&D game, China Miéville is DMing. Place becomes a character in his books more so than most authors. I’ve often talked about worldbuilding, it’s something I like a lot so I’m going to do it again. Where most of Miéville’s books focus on one city, in this book it takes on a scale equal to that of the Bas-Lag novels. The whole notion of an ocean of railroads an utterly unique starting point for creating a whole world. It’s the first “what if” that drives the whole cascade of “and thens.”

Weird quirk of the book that you’ll notice right away. The word “and” never shows up once in all 424 pages. Every single instance is replaced with &. It bothered me for the first chapter but trust me, it’s ok and makes sense.

What’s filling the content of this world with rails and without ands? Well the Moby Dick parallels are obvious without being derivative. Sham is a noob doctor’s assistant on a moletrain crew. Moles and other such underground beasties are a lot different in the world of Railsea. The dirt between the rails is solid but acts like water for the creatures that burrow through it. Captain Naphi has herself a “philosophy,” her giant ivory colored mole nemesis takes on a more metaphysical quality to it. The other key players to this tale are the Shroake siblings, Caldera and Dero, the children of salvagers and explorers.

They’ve all got these elusive goals at the end of the world. Most of the story is that of Sham, occasionally we get side trips to others and this narrator voice that jumps in every now and then. Storyteller sounds better than narrator. It doesn’t show up very often but when it does, it steers the story in the right direction and will go so far as to tell you why and muse about the philosophy of storytelling.

Conclusions, reactions, satisfactions? Sham makes an incredible journey of growth from greenhorn to a proper trainsman out to fulfill his own quest. There’s a gradual buildup in his character and then this one point where he actually realizes it himself. It’s a very satisfying moment which leads Sham to overcome one of the more tricky obstacles in his path. Captain Naphi’s character arc is more like a roller coaster once things get going.

We get a glimpse at city life, and a sliver of a salvager’s world. This is the sort of thing that beg for more attention (in fact, the storyteller comments on this) but Railsea moves along at such a clip you never get a desire to wander off on other tracks.

As in Un Lun Dun, Miéville does some illustrations in the book. They’re a series of gorgeous line art pieces that add a lot to it. The burrowing owl in particular is my favorite.

So where does this leave us? Right back where I started.

China Miéville. I don’t need to say more even though I did.

I never intended for this to be just a book blog even though much of my posts are about the books I’m reading. I started this blog as a way to help prod myself into working on my writing more and contributing a small bit to the SF community. It happens. I’ve gotten some readers and I’ve given some high fives out to authors I like and gotten some back. In writing about the books I’ve been reading, it helps me to be conscious about the things that are working and what I like about the stuff I read.

Talking about books is something that’s been working for me. I’ve had a very good string of books of late and I’ve had huge amounts of positive things to say. I don’t want people to think that I’m out to say only positive things which are unmerited though. It is very important to make a difference between reading from a critical point of view and a fan’s point of view.

This concept came up a lot back when I was in film school and I don’t think everyone reconciled the two. When doing this kind of thing it will skew your perspective like no one’s business if you can’t separate the POVs. An quick and easy example from my film school days is the first Spiderman movie. Nerds went apeshit over it and it made a giant pile of money. But if you go and watch it, the CGI was horrible. Seriously god awful horrible. Spidey looked like Gumby. It’s not even in a “ten year old movie” kind of thing, they were awful watching it for the first time. But for someone who can move back and forth between the two sets of eyes, it’s possible to zoom in and analyze something and see it for all its flaws and merits, but also be able to step back and simply enjoy.

So I need to be able to see flaws in a book I’m reading. That doesn’t mean I’m in the business of badmouthing people. There’s a difference between being critical and being a tool. Being critical is a balancing act sometimes but mostly it comes down to when things bother you as a reader. Say there’s something about a story you don’t like. Maybe it’s a character’s dialect, or the setting just doesn’t pop the way it should. Does it detract from your reading of the book while reading it? That’s really where the big distinction for me is in separating the two points of view. I can be critical and nit pick all I want when I’m done, but as long as those things don’t come up until after the fact, then the book will always be a success from the fan’s point of view. No matter how cheezy or dated or corny a book can get, if you can have that inner fan cheer even a little bit, then what you read is at least a little bit successful.

Think of it like watching a crappy SyFy Channel Saturday afternoon movie. You’ve just got to shut off your brain until the credits roll and you can enjoy the worst movie ever. But you have to wait until it is over and then you can analyze to your heart’s content. Being able to shut off the critical voice is important though, because otherwise it will drown out the fan’s voice and you rob yourself of simple enjoyment.

Goblin Quest

Posted: July 10, 2012 in Reading
Tags: , , ,

This whole “book recommendations from authors” thing is hitting nothing but home runs for me lately. I’m on the fourth book of the last batch of six I bought and I haven’t wanted to slow down for a second. Today, I’ve got another of the big eastern-midwest crowd of SF authors. Seriously, it seems that everyone I’ve read this year, except Myke Cole, is in the Ohio-Michigan area or on the west coast. The latest author is Jim C. Hines, another Scalzi recommendation. He did a Big Idea post a couple years ago and I’ve mentioned stuff he’s talked about on his blog. So what has this highly recommended author written for my discussion today? Goblin Quest, a hilariously awesome book that turns fantasy genre conventions upside down.

Back of the book action!

Jig the Goblin was the runtiest member of an admittedly puny race. Jig was scrawny, so nearsighted as to be almost blind, and had such a poor self-image that when he chose a god to worship it was one of the forgotten ones – after all, what other sort of god would have him as a worshipper? He also had a cowardly fire-spider for a pet, a creature that was likely to set your hair on fire if it got into a panic.

Made to stand tunnel watch by the goblin bullies who’d been assigned the job, it was just Jig’s luck to be taken captive by a group of adventurers – with the usual compliment of a dwarf warrior, a prince out to prove himself, his mad wizard brother and an elfin thief. Forced to guild this ill-fated party on their search for the Rod of Creation – though Jig had no more idea how to find it than they did – he soon had them stumbling into every peril anyone had ever faced in the fantasy realms. And they hadn’t even found the Necromancer or the Dragon yet.

So right from the start of this enjoyable read, it reminded me of A. Lee Martinez’s Too Many Curses or Mary Gentle’s Grunts. All of these books take the traditional norms of the Tolkien-Gygax Fantasy and move the perspective 180. Jig is the goblin, the bad guy, the cannon fodder. In constantly skirting death, he realizes the whole cannon fodder thing and tries to do better than that. Jig’s world starts out limited to ‘my stick is bigger than your stick.’ He’s never even seen outside his own tangle of tunnels.

When Jig takes this small window of perspective and runs into the Adventure Group, his world view window is smashed open with a vengeance. The adventure and the compliment he’s stuck associating with, are ripped out of a classic Dungeons and Dragons module. I think if I was reading this from the point of view of Darnak, the dwarf, or Barius, the prince, it would easily devolve into the standard fantasy that was played out twenty five years ago. Riana, the thief who was also shanghai’d into the adventure, or Rysland, the slightly bat shit crazy wizard, could make for an interesting read but not nearly so much as Jig.

By writing the novel from the point of view of the outsider, it gives Hines the chance to poke at the tropes we would normally gloss right over as readers. My favorite one of these involves Jig’s epiphiany about why adventures always kick goblin asses. I don’t want to outright ruin it since I did enjoy it so much, but think about every DnD encounter you’ve ever had versus a bunch of goblins. How does it go? Not so well for the little guys. If you can think of why, you’ll have a facepalm duh moment. Hidden in plain view, no one sees the problems or solutions that Jig does because they are too close to the situation.

These outsider moments Jig has made me laugh. Frequently. Humor isn’t an easy thing to do. I wouldn’t try touching it with a ten foot pole, but Hines finds the absurd in the everyday. Well, I’m using the term ‘everyday’ loosely what since we’re all probably a bit nerdy and get what’s going on. The point is that Goblin Quest is like a hybrid of Gary Gygax and Jerry Seinfeld.

The plot points and growth are high points of the book as well. Jig starts out with the mentality of the runty and bullied. He’s picked on and lets it happen even though he’s smarter than the other goblins. He becomes that wily little survivor that’s buried deep within. There’s something ultimately satisfying in watching Jig’s character arc. The plot is hard to talk about because of the genre bending POV going on here. It’s seriously, journey through the cavers, fight the necromancer, slay the dragon and get the magic Maguffin. It sounds old and tired but remember, the whole point of this book is to poke fun at the tired and old.

Don’t take this book at face value because it’s all going to get turned upside down in the best possible way.