A Cavern of Black Ice by J.V. Jones

A Cavern of Black Ice by J.V. Jones was a hard read for me.

A Cavern of Black IceA Cavern of Black Ice by J.V. Jones was a hard read for me, but I made it all the way to the end. I should warn you that there is no resolution whatsoever; it’s one of those series books that simply stops, rather than providing a self-contained story. According to the Internets, there are four more books planned, but only two have been released.

It’s a low fantasy in the vein of Conan, meaning the world is dark and horrifying and Celtic and Norse and mountainous and snowy and the most advanced technology is the bow, fire, and horses. There is magic, but it’s demonic and unnatural.

What I liked was the tremendous attention to detail in the characterization and descriptions. The author brought attention to little things here and there that really pulled you into the world. The characters were complex, and grew and evolved over the course of the book, both good guys and bad guys. The writing was what I might call “heavy,” in that it had the feel of an aged, rough-voiced narrator telling a story of the ages. (As opposed to, say, something more frivolous.)

Unfortunately I thought the plot pacing suffered quite a bit for the detail. It was a little like Robert Jordan in that the author spent so much time on details that it took quite a while to move the story forward. I found myself skimming now and then when I wanted to get things moving.

The other problem was that it took a long time to get to a point where I felt like the story started. I felt like I was reading back story until roughly the point where Raif and Angus met up with Ash at the gate, which was well into the book. I want to say a third of the way through. Raif’s back story was not enough to keep me reading, but Ash was interesting enough that I wanted to see what happened to her. There were other plot elements and characters that were clearly setup for things in successive books and had little or no relevance to the first book.

For me as a writer, this book was a great example of low fantasy, and a great example of “going too far” on the details. A lot of people probably enjoy that, but I don’t think it’s in my writing wheelhouse. Certainly not for a rookie.

The Blade Itself, Part Two

I would describe it more as an action-adventure with a fantasy flavor.

I have heard for quite some time that Joe Abercrombie was more of a “gritty” fantasy writer, more in the vein of George R.R. Martin than Robert Jordan. So that’s what I expected in The Blade Itself.

What I read was not gritty. I would describe it more as an action-adventure with a fantasy flavor. Actually it felt more like an urban fantasy style of writing in a medieval fantasy setting. The characters had a lot of flippancy in their dialog, and it was very fast-paced with no setting descriptions. But I’ll admit I only made it 15% through the book before I got bored.

I see that the book was nominated for a Campbell Award (for new writers) in 2008. Perhaps there was a dearth of fantasy books by new authors that year.

The Blade Itself

I’m taking a break after Book 8 of The Wheel of Time and reading some other things. I’ve started Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself. Thusfar it’s not growing on me, but it’s still early. It is, at least, a very different style than Robert Jordan.

I know, I know, I haven’t written enough in the last few weeks. I’ll get back to it any day now! I will. Don’t look at me like that.

Home-grown Wheel of Time Encyclopedias

Thanks to all the spoilerific Wheel of Time wikis on the Internet, I have to keep my own encyclopedia as I go.

You know what the world needs? Wikis without spoilers.

I just finished A Crown of Swords, Book 7 of the Wheel of Time. If you haven’t read these books, let me assure that you will not remember everyone and everything. It is physically impossible. You’ll see a name pop up and wonder who or what it is, and where you last saw him/her/it. In those cases, there’s only three things you can do: 1) Keep reading and hope that Robert Jordan fills you in on the details, 2) Use the handy search feature of your Kindle and hope the name is found somewhere earlier, or 3) Lookup the name on a helpful Internet Wheel of Time Wiki Page.

Unless you’ve read the whole series before, I do not recommend that last one. The helpful information you’ll get will include every spoiler from the entire series, because wiki authors don’t seem to care that they’re going to ruin your day.

For that reason I have been extremely diligent in avoiding Wheel of Time wiki pages, and anything that looks like it might even hint at spoilers, so nothing too major has been spoiled for me … yet. It feels like it’s inevitable though.

My point is that thanks to those spoilerific wikis, I have to write my own frickin’  Wheel of Time encyclopedia as I go. I was all right through three books. Then there was an explosion of people, places, and things. After book five, I simply had to start a catalog. Shown below is how it looks at the beginning of Book 8 (don’t look if you haven’t read through book 7, although I don’t think any spoilers are shown). What I’m doing is saving a different copy for each book. Each one gets progressively more complicated. That way, if I go back and re-read these books later, I can pull up the one that corresponds to the book I’m on.

The Wheel of Time, Book 8

By the way, I’m using this nifty mind-mapping software called FreeMind to make this catalog.

P.S. Yes, I have spent way too much time on this.

Bad Character Habits in Wheel of Time

It’s time for an intervention to stop the bad habits of characters in The Wheel of Time.

There are a few bad habits that the characters in The Wheel of Time have that they don’t seem to be able to stop themselves from doing even after six books, so I think it might be time for an intervention:

  • Scrubbing their hands through their hair.
  • Knuckling their moustaches or their backs.
  • Gaping at anyone or anything.
  • Smoothing their skirts.
  • Sniffing.
  • Obsessing over the neckline of women’s dresses.

It’s sort of laughable to see these things in the seventh book. Here’s Rand scrubbing a hand through his hair again. Uh oh, Elayne’s sniffing again. And here are some women entering the scene. What kind of dresses are they wearing? Will their necklines be ‘swooping’ low or just ‘dipping’ low? Will there be an oval cutout?

On The Fires of Heaven

I finally finished The Fires of Heaven, the fifth book in the Wheel of Time series. I say “finally” because, compared to the three Hunger Games books, Fires of Heaven reads like an encyclopedia.

Apparently this is the book where most people gave up on the series, and I can certainly see why. It’s kind redundant at this point to say “half of the text could have been removed without any effect on the plot,” but it’s never been truer. Yes, yes, it’s all very rich and imaginative detail about the world. But in writing, story is king.

There are three main storylines in this book: 1) Rand leaving the waste with his Aiel horde, 2) Nynaeve and Elayne returning from Tanchico, and 3) Siuan Sanche, the former Amerlyn Seat, searching for the exiled Blue Ajah from the Tower.

Perrin is not in the book at all, which sucks for me because he’s the only one among the ta’veren that I don’t constantly feel like smacking upside the head.

[spoiler] Apparently each one of these books is basically about Rand defeating another one of the Forsaken. Most of this book, Rand talks about Sammael as his adversary, but in the end Jordan pulled a switch-a-roo and he actually went after Rahvin, who is Gaebril, the guy who ensorceled Queen Morgase. Everyone thinks Morgase is dead, but she just went underground.

So Morraine finally dies in this book, something that I’ve been expecting to happen for quite some time, considering how often she talks about her own demise with Lan. And in this book in particular, her behavior radically changes in a way that telegraphs both her imminent death and the fact that she knows it’s coming soon. On the plus side, she took Lanfear with her, which was a bit of a surprise to me. Of course, we never saw the bodies, so I have to assume they aren’t really dead, and they’ll be back in another book. Because everyone knows that in fiction, if there’s no body, or if we didn’t actually see them die, they aren’t dead.

I have to admit I wasn’t sad to see Morraine go. She has had no significant role in these books since the first one (besides being a constant irritant, that is).

Nothing new to report with Nynaeve or Elayne, except that their constant cat-fighting is getting very, very old. Nynaeve somehow managed to help Rand defeat Rahvin in the end through the dream world thingy, but I’m not precisely sure how that happened. Jordan has a way of describing scenery and history in excruciating detail, but he is not great at writing clear action scenes. [/spoiler]

Hunger Games Descriptions

As I’m reading the Hunger Games trilogy (I’m on the last book now), I am trying to analyze why it is so popular and addictive. The story is okay, the characters are okay, the setting is okay, but somehow it adds up to something greater than the sum of its parts. Maybe it’s all marketing.

One thing I noticed just now, which contributes to the fast-paced, concise text: There are hardly any descriptions of the settings. Most of it must be filled in by the reader’s imagination. As an example, from Chapter 6 of Mockingjay:

…the doors open on the Hangar.

“Oh,” I let out involuntarily at the sight of the fleet. Row after row of different kinds of hovercraft.

That’s it. That’s literally the entire description of what in my mind must be a giant facility with tons of unfamiliar and interesting stuff to look at and describe. (In the movie version, I’m sure it will be an elaborate CG-enhanced shot that the characters will be walking through.) Collins only writes a hint of where the characters are. But somehow it’s enough to get us from scene A to scene B. And because we’re really only interested in finding out what happens next, we don’t really care.

Maybe lack of description is a “feature” of Young Adult books. I suppose I’ll have to suck it up and read some other YA books to find out.

Anyway, for me, as a person who constantly worries that I’m not writing enough description, it’s a big relief to know that a hit book doesn’t require much.

P.S. “I let out involuntarily?” Really?

Hunger Games Dialog Tags

One thing I forgot to mention about The Hunger Games: The dialog tags. It’s funny the things you notice when you’re an aspiring writer. Suzanne Collins uses the “X said” model when Katniss says something, but uses the “said X” model when other people speak. Like this:

“I’m leaving,” I say.

“You can’t,” says John.

But then, if she uses a pronoun, she goes back to the “X said” model. (Obviously, because “says he” would be dumb.)

“John, I’m leaving,” I say.

“You can’t,” he says.

And just to make it interesting, she occasionally switches it up and does this:

“I’m going,” I say.

“You can’t,” John says.

Maybe the “said X” model is a young adult thing. I’m listening to Partials by Dan Wells (which is another dystopian young adult science fiction-ish book, coincidentally, *wink* *nudge*), and all of his dialog tags are “said X,” too.

On The Hunger Games

I finally get around to reading Hunger Games. (See what I did there?) I think it’s not terrible. It’s a decent action adventure yarn, but it’s not very deep, which I suppose is normal for a young adult book. It has a Dan Brown sort of flavor to it. I would have given it three stars out of five (“I liked it”) on GoodReads, except I did not like the ending, so I went back down to two stars (“it was ok”).

It takes me some time to get used to the first person, present tense writing. It’s not my favorite style. Later I realize there is a certain cadence to the writing. The sentences tend to be the same length. The sentences tend to be constructed the same way. All of the sentences end on a down beat. All of the sentences end with a noun. It hypnotizes the reader into reading more. Every chapter ends in a cliffhanger sentence. The reader is yanked, kicking and screaming, into reading the next chapter almost every time. The book ends on one of those cliffhanger sentences, and it really irritates me because I don’t want to get the second book (unless I see it on sale, as I did the first book). [I borrowed it with Amazon Prime for free!]

In the first third of the book, we are introduced to Katniss Everdeen and this dystopian world of the future, ruled by the Capitol, which I assume we are supposed to think is scarily similar to our own media-obsessed America. While there is a kernel of truth in it, I have a hard time suspending disbelief because I can’t see how this Panem society could ever develop or sustain itself, and we are not told much about the historical details of this place. It would have been much better if Panem existed in an alternate world, instead of trying to explain how it evolved out of modern day America. I surmise that young adults don’t care about that stuff, so I let it go.

The book gets considerably better when we start the actual Hunger Games, where we revert to a straight-up action suspense thriller story, which is pretty cool. Basically they stick Kat and twenty-three other kids (twelve to eighteen) in the wilderness and make them fight to the death. Who doesn’t like stories of people fighting to the death? I can see this part making a good movie. We’re supposed to be horrified about the deaths of these kids, but they don’t act like kids so it’s okay. There are no real surprises here. Kat makes relatively smart decisions (except a few bone-headed ones which she gets away with). Plot obstacles are overcome by helpful items floating down from the sky on parachutes (literally). It gets a little mushy at one point, in a young adult sort of way. What I assume was supposed to be a shocking twist could be seen a mile away. The final confrontation between the last three tributes feels a little weird and contrived and somewhat unsatisfactory, because they really didn’t confront each other.

On reflection, there was a lot of potential for agonizing conflict left on the table in the arena. At no point is Kat faced with having to kill someone that she likes, or even someone who is likable, so she has no moral dilemmas to overcome. The bad guys are clearly bad guys without any souls or personality, so we don’t mind them dying. (Some of them literally have no names.)

After she survives the games (spoiler alert: Kat survives), I want her to lead these districts in overthrowing the Capitol. Because, really, I think 75 years of these games is enough time for someone to figure out how to overthrow this circus of a government, don’t you? At the very least, Kat should grab her family and frickin’ leave town. There’s a bazillion square miles of area in North America to hide in. I assume this kind o thing is what the other two books are about (what else is there to do?), but the prospect of wading through Kat’s feelings about these two dudes to get to that conclusion is a bit revolting. [I read that there is another arena in the second book, so I’m a lot more interested in reading it now.]

So in short, start with The Lottery, add The Running Man and a touch of the obligatory young adult teen love triangle, and you’ve got the pop culture phenomenon known as The Hunger Games.