[info]limyaael @ 10:07 pm: Review: "Dead Beat" by Jim Butcher; "The Weavers of Saramyr" by Chris Wooding
So, since my Amazon books did finally arrive, here are reviews of a few of them.

This is hard to review, because it’s the seventh book in an ongoing series. To make matters worse, they’re all urban fantasy detective novels in which the detective is a wizard, Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, and so he accumulates a group of recurring friends and a group of recurring enemies as detective characters tend to do. Even writing about them is hard, since it reveals who’s survived the books (Storm Front, Fool Moon, Grave Peril, Summer Knight, Death Masks, and Blood Rites) so far.

I’ll say what I can. This is the most introspective of the series; Harry spends a lot of time thinking about what he’s achieved (and what he hasn’t, there’s much more of that), and what he really wants. That he faces a gang of bad-ass necromancers gathering in downtown Chicago just in time for Halloween is, if you can believe it, actually subordinate to the reflection part. He still gets hurt, he still makes wisecracks, and he still comes to a number of nasty realizations about himself, which is par for the course (I’m white-texting this one, since it’s a spoiler; highlight if you want to read it):

She smiled, rising. “I understand your refusal to allow another to control your life. It’s a poisonous, repugnant notion to think of someone who would dictate your every move, impose upon you a code of behavior you could not accept, and refuse to allow you choice, expression, and the pursuit of your own heart’s purpose.”

“Pretty much,” I said.

The fallen angel smiled. “Then believe me when I say that I know precisely how you feel. All of the Fallen do.”

It’s not on a par with the twisted (and quite plausible) psychoanalysis of Harry by one of his enemies in the fifth book, but being told that you have even this much in common with a being of pure evil is not fun.

Harry still regularly gets banged up; taking a thrown blade in the leg is something he requires immediate assistance for, rather than just a wound to be shrugged off. And this book might almost have been written as an answer to the Anita Blake Syndrome, in which the main character keeps getting more and more powerful over time and not paying a price for it: Harry has offers to increase his power coming from every corner, and the temptation is treated as a serious problem.

I enjoyed this. If you’ve read the series so far, I suspect you will, too. One more note on something I particularly appreciated: Some of the greatest power in the book comes from understatement, rather than the sometimes spectacular magical battles. Of someone who has kept a traitor to her Court alive and tortured him for three years, Harry says, “Mab, monarch of the Winter Court of the Sidhe, the Queen of Air and Darkness, was not a very nice person.”

This book starts with quite a bang:

Kaiku was twenty harvests of age the first time she died.

It then segues right into how she comes back to life, how she evades killer shin-shin shadow demons—with help; Kaiku is a sheltered noble girl, who’s been taught to shoot and hunt but is not a deadly assassin—and what happens when she discovers she’s possessed of Powers of Doom™.

So, okay, it shares some features in common with other fantasies, including ones I’ve despised. What I liked was the palpable sensation of danger the whole way through; the rest of Kaiku’s family does die, and not in the way or for the reason she originally thinks, either, and the Powers of Doom™ actually get out of control and hurt others and Kaiku herself, so they’re not just an empty threat. She doesn’t know what the hell she is or how to control it, and because she doesn’t, she’s a danger, rather than a “danger.” Young people with incredible magical powers are a dime a dozen; those who almost burn down a friend’s house and burn themselves to death are not.

The plot follows two main storylines. One is centered on Kaiku, and her quest to find out both what she is and what happened to her family. She drags other people into it: Tane, a young priest attracted to her; Mishani, her best friend; and Asara, the “handmaid” with Powers of Doom™ of her own, who rescues and protects Kaiku (and doesn’t tell her anything, but unlike the usual wizard who doesn’t tell the hero anything for no real reason, you get the feeling that Asara is doing it partly because she doesn’t trust Kaiku not to react badly and partly because she wants to fuck with Kaiku’s head).

The other plot is centered on the Blood Empress Anais tu Erinimia, her daughter Lucia, and the controversy that explodes when everyone finds out that Lucia is an Aberrant, an apparently nonhuman child born with magical powers. Many Aberrants are destructive of themselves and others, and are usually sought out by the Weavers, the approved users of magic in Saramyr, and slaughtered as soon as they’re known. Because Lucia wasn’t born deformed like many Aberrants are and Anais hid her daughter the moment she realized Lucia was learning how to talk too fast, most people didn’t realize something was wrong with her. Now they do, and the Empire is ripping itself apart over whether to place an Aberrant on the throne, even if she is of the right blood. And the Weavers, who are very creepy and whose use of magic eventually drives them insane, are working to get rid of both Anais and Lucia.

There are a dizzying variety of viewpoints (which leads to my one real complaint about the book; see below), but Wooding’s choice to keep them focused around those two main storylines means that you usually know who people are and what they’re doing in the story. Minor players are often characterized by which family they belong to, which, in a collectivist society like this one, works. I didn’t warm up to everybody—I found Lucia a much more engaging character than Anais, for example, even though a lot more time was spent on Anais, and I liked Mishani better than Kaiku—but I could accept most of them. The Weavers’ use of magic, including Masks that accumulate memories from one wearer and pass them on to the next, and how the nobles tolerated them for the purposes of keeping the Empire linked together even while fearing and distrusting them, was well-woven, if you’ll excuse a pun. There was also a touch of realism to the politics that I liked. To take a mostly non-spoilery example, Anais introduces her nobles to Lucia, under the hopes that meeting her and seeing how normal she really is will sway them. Some people like her, some don’t, but there’s a divide, with those who are Anais’s allies already favoring her more. It was nice to have this variety of behavior noted, without saying that everyone was instantly converted by seeing an eight-year-old girl or everyone was insanely and irrationally prejudiced because she’s an Aberrant.

Also, Wooding kills people, including people who have names and matter to the story. For not treating his characters to immunity just because they have names and appear in more than two scenes, he has my approval.

I did have two problems with the book. One was minor and personal and nitpicky and though it made me scream, there’s really no reason it should bother anyone else. It’s also a major spoiler, so I’ll white-text it. (Again, highlight to read). If you don’t want the story spoiled, by all means don’t highlight it. There is absolutely no reason it should bother you. It just hits one of my personal buttons and hits it HARD.

(Spoiler begins).In a battle between a trained female Aberrant and a male Weaver towards the end of the book, the reader is abruptly banged over the head with the notion that women have a natural affinity for the Weave that sustains life because they are more “natural” than men are. The Weavers killed their female members a long time ago, because the women were so powerful. There is almost no pervious hint of this, other than all the Weavers being men. And I HATE THAT STEREOTYPE THAT WOMEN ARE MORE NATURAL. With a blinding, fiery, passionate, red-hot hate. With it used as pretty much a deus ex machina to insure that the woman won the battle, my hatred increased to white-hot. Just because women can have children doesn’t mean they are more “natural.” And Wooding has an example of a very non-natural female Aberrant, Asara, in the same story. There was no reason to do that. Stupid thing. It’s a personal button, but Wooding hit it with a BIG ol' mallet. (Spoiler ends).

My biggest problem with the story was viewpoint. It hops around like the Energizer bunny on speed. Several chapters start with a long omniscient narration about a particular kind of land, a particular family, the Weavers, etc, or break into one in the middle. I suppose this is essential information—though its being delivered in big chunks made it less interesting—but I wanted to know who was telling me this. And, essentially, no one was telling me this; it was a floating eye in the sky that saw everything. That means it’s just true. And when it was being used to tell me that people were evil, rather than enter their viewpoints and show me why their thoughts were twisted or their actions despicable, my opinion of the book declined steeply.

Weavers could have been written as a demonstration of why I hate the omniscient voice. When it’s from a character’s viewpoint, I can at least entertain the notion that it might be wrong, even if I know the character stands a 99% chance of being right. And if the character is guessing or conjecturing, then I know that the evil motives she’s assigning to someone else probably miss out on all sorts of nuances and complexities. I want to be able to doubt. What it’s omniscient narrative like this, I can’t doubt. The Weavers are evil, the language is this way, the land is like this because of events that none of the characters now alive remember except as legend and this is the way it really happened. I love POV pollution. I like having to work to understand things and reconcile seemingly contradictory perceptions. I hate having everything illuminated by harsh, flat sunlight that leaves no shadows.

The character viewpoints do the same thing, jumping madly from head to head inside a single scene and sometimes at the paragraph level. There’s one scene of Kaiku’s where we go inside Asara’s head just long enough to learn that the hand of the cart driver she’s touching feels clammy. Why did we need to know that? I have no clue. That’s probably my biggest frustration with all the head-hopping, that I can’t understand why Wooding chose to tell the story that way.

That’s the biggest caution I would offer about this, really. If you require one or two narrators all the way through a book, do not read this; it’s about as far from that as you can get. I did manage to enjoy the story despite its fractured nature, so I suppose I’ll look for the second one, but not soon.

Currently reading Nine Layers of Sky by Liz Williams; will post on it when I’m done.


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