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January 22, 1979

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  1. This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

    12 September 2020 - 01:10 PM


    A war is raging through all of time and space, spanning an infinite number of universes. Two great powers - the Commandant and the Garden - are clashing, their agents fighting one another in the stone age and a distant future of galaxy-spanning empires. Two agents, Red and Blue, clash again and again without ever exchanging a single word...until the day they decide to start writing letters.

    This is How You Lose the Time War is a novella depicting a war fought through time between two implacable forces, each represented by one of their agents. It's a short book, at under 200 pages, and also an interesting one structurally, mixing traditional third-person narratives with the letters the two rival agents exchange on a regular basis. It's not quite an epistolary novella, more of a mix between it and more traditional narration, but the letters form an integral part of the story.

    Although short, the novella covers a lot of ground. Multiple settings, from deep space in the far future to a sinking Atlantis to contemporary cities, are used as battlegrounds by the warring sides, and we see both the hard end of their fighting and meet the vast and almost staggering forces leading the wars. That said, there isn't a lot of exposition in the book. The reasons for the war - given that billions, if not trillions, of branching timelines exist for the two factions to coexist in - are never really given and it's unclear who is winning and losing (although both Red and Blue are prone to boasting of their side's achievements, at least early in their relationship). To be honest, it's not really important. More important is how alone and isolated both agents feel, and the only person they can relate to is their opposite number, doing the same thing and feeling the same feelings, just in a different cause.

    The writing is poetic, with both agents keen to use creative language in their letters, which start off as verbal fencing matches but later become more flirtatious and intellectually challenging. There is humour in the book but also an air of bitter-sweetness. There's also tension: agents from the two forces are forbidden from communicating with one another out of fear of corruption, and it's not always clear it the agents are genuinely becoming enamoured of one another or each is trying to trap the other in an unexpected reversal. It feels a bit like Spy vs. Spy with added romantic tension, all set in the middle of Doctor Who's Time War.

    This is How You Lose the Time War (****) is short, focused and energetic, playful in tone and compelling in execution. Those who like books packed with exposition with every I dotted and every T crossed will probably be unhappy with the book's unapologetic lack of context; those who enjoy stories for their emotion and wordplay will be very satisfied.
  2. The Legend of Drizzt by R.A. Salvatore

    21 August 2020 - 03:12 PM

    The Icewind Dale Trilogy Book 1: The Crystal Shard


    Published way back in 1988, The Crystal Shard was the debut novel by R.A. Salvatore, the first novel in The Icewind Dale Trilogy (a trilogy notable for two-thirds of it taking place outside Icewind Dale) and the first in the much longer Legend of Drizzt mega-series, which now encompasses thirty-six books (thirty-nine if you count associated spin-off volumes focusing on other characters). It was also only the second novel published in the Forgotten Realms setting, the most popular fantasy shared-world setting in history, and a key reason why that setting exploded in popularity in the following months and years. It is also one of the biggest-selling and most popular Dungeons & Dragons spinoff novels of all time, possibly the biggest-selling (although it shares mighty competition from Dragons of Autumn Twilight).

    As the ship that launched a thousand sub-series, it's a curiously unassuming book. The stakes are relatively low - the fate of the world is not in the balance, just a backwater wilderness way beyond the northern edge of most maps - and there's a distinctly old-fashioned feel to the book. There's a fair bit of exposition and characters are prone to making declarative statements that end in exclamation marks! Not every line, but enough to feel like you reading a book where everyone is slightly deaf and has to shout to make themselves heard. The absolute near-absence of female characters in the otherwise extremely egalitarian Forgotten Realms (only one, Catti-brie, has any lines of dialogue) is also baffling, and was somewhat odd at the time, let alone today. It's something Salvatore does fix in later books (where Catti-brie becomes a major player and more female characters appear) but I had forgotten how hugely imbalanced this first book is.

    If you can overlook that, although the novel is very much not High Art, it is definitely fun. It's riper than three-year-old Stilton, but Salvatore makes up for a lack of technical skill with unbridled enthusiasm. There's fast and frenetic action scenes, and the characters may adhere to broad archetypes but they are executed well. Drizzt lacks his later mopiness at this stage and is even allowed to have some character flaws (his weakness for treasure and finding valuable magical items is something rolled back later on, but is amusing here). Indolent and morally suspect Regis gives us an answer to that question of what would have happened if one of the dodgier Sackville-Bagginses had joined the Fellowship of the Ring, and Bruenor is the most dwarfish dwarf who ever dwarfed. The only one of the core cast it's hard not to entirely like at this stage is Honourable Barbarian Warrior Wulfgar, Who Is Honourable And Stuff. Wulfgar is the kind of guy who has his own special rock where he goes to sit and be stoically honourable on (to the unbridled amusement of Catti-brie, who seems to have some kind of metatextual awareness of Wulfgar's character and needles him mercilessly about it, in one of the more modern-feeling touches to the novel). It's unsurprising that Salvatore seems to tire of Wulfgar - originally supposedly the hero and main protagonist - quite quickly and instead refocuses on the quirkier characters like Drizzt and Regis.

    The book also has a splendid feel for the wider community of characters. In books like this it would be very easy to have our core foursome (Drizzt, Regis, Bruenor and Wulfgar) undertake valiant deeds that save Ten-Towns from oblivion, with the people they are saving reduced to faceless background roles. Instead, the people of the towns are depicted as fierce and independently-minded, always eager to mix it up with the various invaders and with their own internal politics that are well-described, and even bit-characters are given some complexity. Kemp, the spokesman for Targos, is both a selfish political game-player and a brave warrior eager to get to grips with the enemy. Surprisingly, Salvatore makes you care slightly more about these people more than you would for the otherwise amorphous blobs of "people we must save" in such stories.

    The characterisation of the villain is also quite interesting: Akar Kessel, the mage who finds the Crystal Shard, is a complete and total imbecile and the semi-sentient Shard has to do a lot of work to mould him into a credible threat to Ten-Towns, to the point of often despairing at his total ineptitude. This is sometimes played for laughs, although darker character traits are hinted at: the fate of various "wenches" that Kessel mind-wipes into becoming his playthings - in another outbreak of 1980sness in the text - is mercifully left unaddressed. Kessel's ultimate fate is also darkly amusing.

    The Crystal Shard (***) - the literary equivalent of a Greggs Festive Bake - has not aged as well as might be hoped, but it's still a cracking adventure yarn which is well-paced, entertaining and occasionally surprising, if you can get through the wincing generated by some of the book's more dated aspects. Salvatore shows more enthusiasm than skill here, but does improve as a writer over the next few volumes. The book is available now in the UK and USA.
  3. The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

    20 August 2020 - 02:46 PM

    The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow


    The Ten Thousand Doors of January is Alix E. Harrow's debut novel, following a string of successful short stories (including the Hugo-winning A Witch's Guide to Escape). The book is sits comfortably in the "portal fantasy" genre, a well-trodden field wherein sits everything from The Chronicles of Narnia and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant to Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry series. However, whilst most portal fantasies are about the mysterious new world the protagonists find beyond the portal, The Ten Thousand Doors is about the process of finding the doors and ensuring their survival. Very much a case of the journey being more interesting than the destination.

    The book also extends this approach to the lead character of January Scaller, whose oft-absent father and entirely missing mother leaves her feeling incomplete and unrealised. As the book progresses, the portals become vehicles for her journey of self-discovery; she gains a greater understanding of her past and her family as she crosses the portals.

    It's a fine approach, further helped by the narrative unfolding in two strands. The first strand is a first-person adventure narrated by January herself, unfolding over many years as she grows up and tries to learn more about her deceased mother and her often-absent father. The second is the book-within-a-book that January is reading, about a young girl growing up decades earlier who finds a way of travelling between worlds, a power that January realises that she also shares and is something that other people want to control...or destroy.

    The two narratives reflect on one another as they unfold in tandem, each informing on the other. Credibility is a slight issue here - January seems to be obsessed with the book, but only reads the next chapter when it's dramatically convenient to the advancement of the plot, rather than say blasting through the whole thing in a few hours like any sane reader - but this feels like a pedantic complaint about what is essentially a fairy tale for adults.

    There are other complaints - there are moments of Dickensian misery that occasionally insert themselves in a near-non sequitur manner, such as a slightly out-of-place episode taking place in a lunatic asylum - but these are constrained. After a slow start, The Ten Thousand Doors of January unfolds through splendid prose and elevates itself from a simple adventure to a meditation on the power of words, the art of storytelling and the reaffirmation of that old Tolkien idea of every journey of a thousand miles starting with a door, and wondering what's beyond it.

    The Ten Thousand Doors of January (****) is an intriguing book, mashing up traditional portal fantasy with the parallel universe strand of science fiction and using both as a vehicle to muse on story, identity and family. It's a book that does little that's new, but instead remixes a lot of existing ideas to create a compelling narrative.
  4. The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

    28 July 2020 - 09:35 PM

    The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders


    Human colonists have settled the planet January, a tidally-locked world where it is too cold to survive on the nightside and too hot on the dayside. Instead, the few human settlements are located in a narrow band of twilight, struggling to survive. Xiosphant, the largest human city, is a dictatorship where the rulers justify their cruel tyranny with the excuse that this is a hard world. For a band of young rebels including Bianca and Sophie, this excuse does not ring true and they begin working to change things for the better. Caught and condemned for her "crimes," Sophia is cast out into the darkness to die. Fate has other ideas for her.
    The City in the Middle of the Night is a stand-alone novel from Charlie Jane Anders, the author of All the Birds in the Sky. This novel is more overtly science fiction, delving into that thorny problem of how to survive on a tidally-locked planet, that is a world where one side always faces the star and one side faces away, trapped in eternal day and night.

    This makes for a vivid setting, where humans can only survive in eternal twilight, although one that is perhaps a tad under-explored in the book. The novel mostly uses the setting as a backdrop to a story about communication, xenophobia and how to survive in a harsh environment without losing your humanity. If it wasn't for the fact that Anders started writing the book in 2013, I'd suspect some impact from city-builder/ice survival simulator Frostpunk, given the similarities in the hard questions of survival versus sociology. Snowpiercer is a more noticeably overt influence (especially since Anders worked on the TV version as well).

    The story revolves around revolutionaries. The system is not working for everyone, with the underclass and labourers exploited by a wealthy ruling elite. The underclass plots revolution and this is as interesting as it ever is as a storyline, although there's an odd lack of connectivity between the revolution and the circumstances of the planet they're living on. It's unclear just how the rich are able to get away with not pulling their weight on a planet where literally the fate of the population is hanging in the balance. There's also a faint whiff of mid-1970s episodes of Doctor Who (which frequently revolve around rebels rebelling for the sake of rebelling against bad guys who are bad because they're bad) in some of these sequences, which is certainly fun but it feels like the themes could have been handled in more depth. Later sequences in the book, where the rebels start taking on the trappings of their oppressors as they gain more successes, do start to tilt in this direction but the themes don't really spring to life. I kept being reminded of China Mieville's handling of this idea in Iron Council, which was a lot more successful.

    Still, this storyline is one of only two major narrative strands; the other, revolving around Sophie and the strange alliance she strikes up with January's rarely-seen native civilisation, is more successful. Sophie makes for an engaging protagonist thanks to her empathetic ability to communicate with the aliens and see a bigger picture than most other humans. The other major POV character is a much older, more world-weary and cynical survivalist and traveller, Mouth, and it's refreshing to see a more experienced and capable protagonist, albeit one whose cynicism has made her almost as incapable of dealing with new situations as the younger Sophie's inexperience. The writing is enjoyable, although the pacing feels like it could have been a bit peppier, with the story bogging down at several points (most notably when Sophie and Bianca escape to another city and it takes a long time for the storyline to get going again).

    The City in the Middle of the Night (****) is readable and enjoyable, with a vivid if underexplored setting. It does feel like the book could have been tightened up a bit, and maybe the central themes of revolution and corruption could have been handled with more originality. As it stands, this is a solid novel but not one that's going to be lighting the world on fire in terms of originality. It is available now in the UK and USA.
  5. Axiom's End by Lindsay Ellis

    28 July 2020 - 08:35 PM

    Axiom's End by Lindsay Ellis


    August, 2007. A meteorite falls on northern California. A whistleblower goes public with evidence that the US government has been in communication with an alien intelligence and flees to Germany. His daughter, embarrassed by his behaviour, tries to ignore the unwanted cult of celebrity and get on with things. Suddenly a second meteor falls on apparently the exact same sport as the first, a coincidence so remote as to be effectively impossible, and suddenly the implausible feels very real indeed.

    Axiom's End is the debut novel by Lindsay Ellis, a popular video essayist and film critic known for her deep dives on the making of film and TV shows. She was nominated for a Hugo for her three-part series on Peter Jackson's deeply troubled Hobbit film project, and also posted an excellent analysis of the problems with Game of Thrones.

    Fortunately, it turns out she's pretty handy in the realm of fiction as well. Axiom's End is a story about humanity encountering an alien race, only to find the aliens are almost impossible to communicate with due to the total absence of common frames of reference. Early parts of the book, where the existence of the aliens is unclear, are framed like an X-Files thriller where government agents are keeping tabs on a young woman because of what she thinks is her father's criminal activities. Cora gets first-hand evidence that the aliens are real and that pretty much everyone is in the dark about what's really going on, resulting in a satisfying story shift where she gains more power, knowledge and agency because of her own experiences (a nice inversion on the more traditional story where the protagonist is always playing catch-up with the plot but somehow ends out coming on top).

    There's some pretty cool horror scenes early on, and a vein of humour running through the books which stays just on the right side of dated pop culture references (the alternate-past setting helps with that). Cora's conspiracy theorist father - Edward Snowden fused with Fox Mulder - starts off as an all-knowing sage drip-feeding the audience with hints of greater knowledge via excerpts from his blog, until you realise he doesn't really know anything either and is desperately trying to make himself seem more important than he really is (sort of a budget Melisandre in the story) whilst also falling way behind the curve of the story, which becomes increasingly amusing.

    The second half of the story feels like it slightly undercuts its own premise. The aliens initially appear almost too different for humans to effectively communicate with them, but ultimately a method of communication does appear which ends up being about as good as Google Translate (i.e. mostly okay with the occasional clunker), which makes the story way more manageable, but some of the unique atmosphere of the story is lost. It is replaced by a more traditional story about people from completely different civilisations trying to overcome apparently insurmountable odds to establish a rapport. This is excellently handled, but it does feel that the story has switched directions from something a bit weirder (think China Mieville's Embassytown or Ted Chiang's The Story of Your Life, later filmed as Arrival) to something a little more traditional (maybe Starman with a slightly less attractive and indeed non-humanoid Jeff Bridges).

    There are still a lot of interesting plot twists and the weirdness of the aliens is maintained through their technology and weapons; when two of the aliens come into conflict, Ellis successfully portrays the idea of humans interfering as being akin to a gnat trying to stop a jet fighter dogfight. There's also another raft of thematic ideas related to first contact that are intelligently explored, from the existence of the so-called "Great Filter" (the puzzle that if intelligent, technologically-advanced life is possible, as we have shown, why hasn't it already colonised the galaxy?) to the dangers incurred when a more technologically advanced species encounters a less technologically-advanced one.

    Axiom's End (****) may end up being a bit less strange than it initially promises, but it's still a compulsive page-turner with a nice line in both terror and humour. There will be sequels - the book is touted as the first in the Noumena sequence - but the book has a fair amount of closure to it and no immediate cliffhangers. It is available now in the UK and USA.



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    05 Mar 2020 - 09:29
    Sorry, missed your birthday this year. Hope it was a good one.
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    22 Jan 2019 - 11:51
    Dun dun dunnnnn ...
    Have a good one.
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    22 Jan 2018 - 08:24
    Same as below. Better make it a good one because it's 40 next year.
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    22 Jan 2010 - 15:32
    Happy Birthday, now go out and get wrecked :)
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