Friday, October 15, 2010

Friday update: Feels Like Thursday edition

Yesterday felt like Friday ALL DAY LONG. Today somehow felt like Thursday. So I guess we're all caught up.

This is going to shock some people, but I read a book from my original list of reading suggestions. I know, I know. Whoa. However, it was one that I was really looking forward to because it had been recommended by TWO lovely ladies who I greatly admire both intellectually and artistically. Unfortunately, the Houston Library only seemed to have one copy. And it was missing. So eventually, they just bought a new one, and because I'd been on hold for months waiting for the missing copy to suddenly materialize again, I got to be the first person ever to read the new copy of Brandon Sanderson's Elantris. (This is because I rock.)

by Brandon Sanderson
Tor Books, 2005 (1st edition)
496 pages

Sanderson's debut novel is a fantasy, mystery, and political novel rolled effectively into one captivating story about one cursed city and one highly unfortunate one.  Kae, the capital city of the country of Arelon, is ruled by a short-sighted and greedy opportunist who the subjects pretty much all hate.  Fortunately, he has an incredibly virtuous, compassionate, and capable son.  Unfortunately, the book opens with his son falling victim to a mysterious curse that banishes him to Kae's neighbor, the walled city of Elantris.  For years, Elantris was a magical city ruled by godlike-humans with special powers.  The Elantrians provided goods for all of Arelon.  They provided protection from foreign powers, they healed the sick and injured, these men and women were pretty much awesome.  Each Elantrian had been born a citizen of Arelon until one day (and with no discernible cause or pattern) they awoke transformed into an Elantrian and spent the rest of their days living as perfect beings in a paradise of a city.  Then, one day ten years ago, something went wrong, and the Elantrians went from angels on earth to diseased wretches, stumbling along with blotches all over their skin, hair falling out, no heartbeat, no godlike powers.  Their wounds never healed and their pains never abated until eventually they went insane.  The city itself fell under some sort of supernatural sludge plague, and Elantris went from being heaven to a prison for these cursed creatures. 

I know that seems like a lot of background, but this is where the book starts, and you get most of that within the first two chapters. 

The story shifts between three separate perspectives: the fallen prince Raoden (living under a new identity as an Elantrian), his betrothed foreign princess Sarene (technically, due to some legality, they're already married, though they've never met, and since the king says Raoden is dead rather than telling the world he's become an Elantrian, she's technically-technically a widow before she arrived at Arelon), and the gyorn (that's like a high priest of one of the many religions in the book) Hrathen, who has been given the divine directive to convert all of Arelon to his religion before that religion's equivalent of the Prophet Mohammed sends an army to destroy the country.  There is a lot going on in this book.  Sarene joins up with a small group of Arelon's nobility (former followers of Raoden's) seeking to unravel the incompetent king Iodan's rule; Raoden spends all of his time trying unravel the mystery of what happened to Elantris ten years ago; Hrathen's executes a carefully calculated plan to capitulate the senior religion in the country, one of only two not currently controlled by the Shu Dereth religion. 

Now first, the negatives: It took me a little while to get into this book.  You might think it'd be hard to get in because there's so much information that's vital to understanding the story as it unravels, but no, I actually think the way the narrative handles the doling out of information is one of the book's many strengths.  Rather, I think I just enjoyed the last half of the book so much better than the first because the beginning of the book just isn't as strong as the middle or end.  It felt like we spent a lot of ink re-establishing certain character traits or societal prejudices that had already effectively been established.  Also, I wasn't able to "buy" some of the characters in the early-going.  I guess most of it gravitates toward Sarene's scenario.  Early in the book, you have a lot of scenes that bring home the "Sarene is your headstrong heroine" and "People in Arelon had never seen a strong woman before" and "Sarene was much smarter than everybody else" vibe.  You also had a lot of scenes where the narrative would outright tell you how smart someone had just been when I didn't feel like they'd actually done anything particularly witty.  Seemed like there were a lot of secondary characters suffering from Frank Peretti syndrome ("I have to be stupid now for the story to advance").  Finally, some of the book's earlier episodes seemed kind of pointless, and as the book progressed it turned out some of them actually were.  So a little--really, a tiny--bit of early trimming and I don't think I'd be able to say anything bad about this book.

Because once it took off, wow, did it take off.  As the multiple story threads started interweaving, I found myself having more trouble putting the book away when it was time to do other stuff (like go to bed or return from my lunch break).  As Hrathen's relatively droll chapters started getting shorter and Raoden's and Sarene's stories began to overlap, anything I hadn't liked about the first hundred and fifty or so pages corrected itself.  The mysteries of Elantris, the political subversion in Arelon, and the religious aggression of Shu Dereth were equally compelling storylines.  Every few pages offered another hint at the bigger picture; it's like putting together a puzzle where you've got most of the pieces but have never seen the finished product.  The characters also became more lively and complex.  The book is structured a bit like a roller coaster: a bit of a wait as you climb the first hill, but once you're over the crest you can only go one direction, and it picks up speed the further along you go.  And of course, there are the surprise twists and turns.  Unlike other fantasies I've read recently, however, the surprises come out of carefully disguised clues that you likely overlooked completely when you read them.  See?  It only feels like it came out of nowhere ;-)  I will say that some may find the ending a bit rushed and/or hard to completely follow, but if you're willing to go with it anyway then Elantris is a highly satisfying read. 

Now, who knows?  It may be that the recommendations had hyped this book up for me a little much, so I was bound to be disappointed at first, but then the disappointment lowered my expectations which allowed me to appreciate the rest.  Doesn't matter, I guess.  I liked the book a lot.  The writing has a few hiccups, but the idea (and the execution of the idea) is one of the best I've read this year.  It's probably not a book that's going to rock your world, and if you're one who prefers fantasy novels full of epic quests and dragon-slaying, you'll probably be disappointed, but I found it a very satisfying read and a different take on a genre than I usually see.

by Neil Gaiman
Harper Collins, 2008 (1st edition)
312 pages
Winner: Hugo Award, Newbery Award, Carnegie Medal, and Locus Award.

This book  won a lot of awards. 

I was intrigued by this book because A) I really liked Coraline, and B) I always find Gaiman's stories to be, if nothing else, really imaginative. 

The target audience for this book is high school, and I can see this kind of story appealing to a lot of high school kids who are into fantasy books.  Nobody Owens is a live boy being raised by ghosts in a cemetery.  He doesn't really belong in that world, but he doesn't seem to fit in in the world of the living, either.  Within this series of supernatural adventures is essentially a coming-of-age story of a boy trying to find his identity.  Bod has all the struggles most kids have--he struggles to find suitable playmates, he has trouble focusing on his lessons, he has an episode with some school bullies, he even deals with girl troubles on one level.  Of course, the consequences in Bod's world are different than the world in which the rest of us live.  If we don't pay attention in school, we fail a quiz.  If Bod doesn't pay attention, he might one day find himself being dragged away by ghouls to a very hell-like place and not know how to call out in the correct tongue for the benevolent flying monsters overhead to rescue him.  But other than that, it's pretty much the same thing.

Okay, now I have to admit that long portions of this book bored me.  And I realize I'm not that target audience, and I may be too far removed from some of these situations to enjoy these stories.  More likely, however, is that I had trouble connecting the dots.  It felt to me like a collection of short stories that happened to be about the same boy, and the last chapter was an attempt to tie all the threads together.  (Turns out, after I read the acknowledgments, that was exactly what it was.  Who knew?)  The book opens with infant-Bod's entire family murdered by a character known only as "the man Jack," but little Bod fortunately happened to fall out of his crib and toddle down to a nearby cemetery, where his mother's spirit pleads with the ghosts to protect her baby.  So they do.  And the mystery of the murderer isn't really addressed again until the end of the book.  (And, for my taste, the whole thing behind the man Jack ends up being kind of lame compared to the rest of the book) 

Additionally, I also have to admit that I've got some prejudices here.  Since I've had a couple of experiences with the supernatural in my own life, I sometimes find stories about spirits and the dead a little more difficult to enjoy.  So, while this book stayed away from demons and hell and whatnot, that may have played a part somewhere in my disconnect. 

That said, I really loved certain things in this book.  The character of Silas, Bod's guardian, was probably the high point of the whole thing.  I also really liked Gaiman's take on the "Hounds of God."  I thought the chapter about the Danse Macabre was absolutely lovely.  And the little bit near the end about the poet's revenge was actually laugh-out-loud funny.  The Graveyard Book definitely had some moments and concepts that I really liked, and I can see where its intended audience may have latched on, but for my time, it's probably not a book I'm going to be picking up again anytime soon. 


I've actually put myself on library book probation.  I've got a stack of seven books I've borrowed from people, intending to get to them "sooner or later."  Well, it's time to start giving them back, so the next seven books I read (barring the arrival of something I have on ILL, because you really only get one shot at those) will be books I've borrowed.  Some of them are on my original list.  Most of them will be a bit off the fantasy path, which is good because I'm getting into that "rut."  Not that I don't enjoy the fantasy rut.  But I want to keep expanding my horizons. 

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