Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Book review: "The Crippled God" by Steven Erikson

Wow, after three months I finished the whole Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Sure, there are still Malazan Empire series by Esslemont and several short stories by Erikson, but I will leave this for another occasion. Ending a series is always a bittersweet experience. From one side, this is what you have been expecting, the reason you are reading it, culmination and revelation. On the other hand, you know that this is the last time you will meet your favorite characters. Sure, there is always possibility that author will give it another try and make some sequel or cameo, but in most cases this fails and it leaves a bitter taste of greed (trying to squeeze more money from franchise).

But, because of uniqueness of MBotF, "The Crippled God" doesn't follow this exact model. From the beginning with "Gardens of the Moon" to tCG, it never felt like classical fantasy: meeting the main characters at their beginning and the following them until their retirement (literal or figurative). But with this series, you were plunged into already rushing stream: there were no clear main characters; some were close to their "retirement", somewhere at beginning, but all gave impression of being bigger than just characters for these books. The same is true for plots. There are several plot that were finished here that we didn't even see start, and there are some there were started but were not finished. Add to this Erikson's style of writing, and it all just gives a feeling of history only glimpsed, with much more potential. Fortunately, this is true and Erikson does plan to publish more books in this setting, with familiar characters.

Now, to the book in question. "The Crippled God" is not the longest book in series, but with 900 pages it far from shortest. It is split in 7 parts, of which six comprise first half (or little more) of the book and last one takes the rest. This is a bit unusual for Erikson, but it clearly shows that this is the last book. It also has two epilogues! Since this is a direct continuation of "Dust of Dreams", there are no Dramatis Personae and we immediately start with the plot. For those first six parts, chapters are split in strict structure, with different sets of POVs. We have one, giving the Letherii, Bolkando, Grey Swords, Fellush (which is a great addition!) and Gesler and Stormy with K'Chain Che'Malle. Then we have the Bonehunters, with the Snake and Khundryls. Third set is Shake and Sand and Withal. We also have many minor one inserted between: Draconus, Elder Gods, Ublala Pung, T'lann Imass, etc. It would be too much to write them all and I am not even sure I could remember them without forgetting a few. What I can say is that some characters are missing. And by that I mean some important characters! There are few cameos in here, but I hope Erikson will decently and successfully continue these ones. Last part is one big storm of alternating POVs, a real action-bomb. It feels much longer that it really is.

Plot continues events started in previous books. Pace is much faster that in last few books. There is a portion of typical Erikson's philosophy discussions and observations, but when POVs start to alternate, the pages are really flying. And this is my first objection: the book could have been longer. Main POVs are decently explained and described. But there are many clips with important characters getting only a few lines to see what they are doing, but without expanding it. I know it's no use to second-guess if this is what Erikson wanted or was he forced to do (externally or internally), but were stuck with it. Few hundred pages or even a whole book with alternative POVs would have been much appreciated. No objection to the plot itself, although I feel like I will need at least two more re-reads to completely understand it. Expect several 180° turnovers.

My second objection regards characters, Well, one character in particular. There is not many new characters here, "only" a few Forkrul Assail and dragons. And all of them are done usually well. But I just couldn't stomach the Crippled God. I got used to grayness of Erikson's characters and how he completely succeeds in making them lovable, honorable, decent, disgusting, etc. at wish. But Crippled God just didn't fit in anything we knew about him. Thankfully, rest of the cast done great. Some were funny, some very disgusting, some were scary, but all of them are written extremely well. As with plot, expect surprises. I was forced to change my opinion of some characters (again).

I also want to get me final objection of my chest: I didn't like the conclusion. By that I mean the first epilogue. It was like somebody else written it. It felt too much high, which doesn't belong to the gritty and down-to-earth fantasy series Malazan Book of the Fallen is. Honor guard, kings and queens in attendance, last salute to dead friends... It just didn't fit in.

Now, after I said that, let's go to the good parts. First scene with Hood is great!! After reading it I was stunned for few minutes, thinking "Did he just ATE her f*** face?!?!?!". That was one of most bad-ass entering in whole series. Unfortunately, this book is missing some of the funny characters, but Tehol ("Have you already slept with her?"), Spax, Fellush (and handmaid) and few others manage to add some very enjoyable funny moments. Traveling the Glass Desert was one of the best "torturous journey" depictions I have read since Frodo and Sam's journey through Mordor. There are too many good scenes to name them all, but these two had to be singled out.

"The Crippled God", even though it is not Malazan book out, is nevertheless one great book. It is not perfect, but Malazan fans know better to expect perfection. I hope that all reader will be satisfied with this much as I was, if not more.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

MBotF reread: "Dust of Dreams" by Steven Erikson

OK, now we are getting somewhere. I have finally finished "Dust of Dreams" this weekend and I am currently reading "The Crippled God". After more two months of rereading... Not only that this was tiring, it is first time in my life that I have a to-read-pile! And to be worse, four books: "The Crippled God", "Way of Kings", "Empire in Black and Gold" and "The Cold Commands". I think I will need somewhere around two weeks for reading tCG and after that I am taking a brief vacation from reading... I plan to watch some anime, or something.

Now, to the book. It's kind of funny when you catch yourself thinking "What the f*** are they talking about?!?!" while reading a dialog in 9th book in series, between characters that you know for five books. It also tells something about Erikson's writing style: it doesn't spoil the readers. There is no way to completely avoid info-dumps, but he is good at masking them. There are no visible seams in his books. You also how to admire how he is able to turn everything you believe with every new book. But not just that; he succeeds in inviting a faith that he will somehow make everything believable and plausible. Currently, I don't see how he can do it in one book.  I have read one or two spoiler-free reviews where authors indicated that Erikson actually doesn't give all answers in last book, but instead continues with his usual politics: rising three questions for every answer. I have split opinion about this solution. On one side, I will be an angry little and petty fan if I don't get all the answers right now. On the other side, this has long-term advantages. With every reading or discussion about it, your view on things will be able to change and these books will stay fresh for long time. Also, this way Erikson leaves place for seamless sequels or prequels. This makes sense when you consider a fact that he announced some prequels... I see I got little off track. Message I wanted to express was, that as usual, even though in is penultimate book in series, there are no easy answers. It reveals and sketches some new characters, new concepts, new races... I really admire this and think it's very brave.

First part of book is not as usual with MBotF. I wouldn't call it boring, but it's much tamer than we are used to. It is not self-contemplative as "Toll the Hounds", but there are still many monologs and wandering to thought. There are many POV's here, some from old characters, but many from new, temporary (the ones that don't appear in more than one book; at least I don't think they will) characters. We again have many Malazan soldiers, many already know, but also few new ones. There are several Letheri POV's, but they don't appear often and server more to describe Malazans from external point. Malazan are as usual funny to read, but it also interesting how they are starting to show some darker tones. Contrary from previous books, Letheri now look much more likable, even more that Malazans. On the other hand, there are some old and some new Baraghast characters; it was a surprise when they reappeared at the end of "Reaper's Gale". We also have a first K'Chain Che'Malle POV. I must say, although I would expect them to be more alien. I really appreciate blending of fantasy with SF in their case. We again have one journey-POV: Rutt, Badalle and the snake of children. I am not sure how they belong to the great picture, so I will refrain from giving any final thought about them, but they weren't very funny to read. There are also Khundryl and Grey Helms POVs; they are interesting and often funny, complete with the Bolkando's POVs.

As with TtH, you just have to read the ending in one sitting. It takes last 100 or so pages, so be ready. It is very well written, but it doesn't feel so good to read it. You being to question will the series have a happy ending. Also, when I think little about it, I don't see what would have to happen for this series to end happy. We have been following so much confronted sides that it is impossible to have them all (not even the majority) satisfied. During the course of these books, dead rarely stayed dead. I have a feeling that this statement will be in questions after last book.

I surprised myself with the amount of things I forgot. There are whole plot-lines I didn't remember, characters I didn't recognize... There are really important facts I got completely wrong. I have a much more solid picture right now, but sheer amount of information in this series makes it impossible to juggle everything in your mind.

Since "Dust of Dreams" was actually intended as first half of the last book, it is not possible to give a final verdict without reading tCG. But even without it, this book is a very decent MBotF book, with somewhat slower beginning, but very strong ending. I can't imagine that any fan would be disappointed.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

MBotF reread: "Toll the Hounds" by Steven Erikson

Huh, getting closer to "The Crippled God"... I am now a bit confused about how many times have I read these last few books. I remembered events from "Toll the Hounds" very well, while "Dust of Dreams" (which I am reading currently) is almost like a new book to me, even though I would swear I have read both books only once. Since DoD is a bit shorter, I have hopes of finishing it this week.

(TOR cover)

(some fun-art)

"Toll the Hounds" is a very strange book, compared to the previous ones. Erikson always had a tendency to use his characters as tools for analyzing philosophy, psychology, history, archeology, etc., making sometimes unexpected choices as with simple soldiers uttering deep questions. But in this book this was taken to a whole new level. As before, chapters are divided by different POVs. But now, each POV consist of few pages of internal monolog or reminiscent, after which we have a page of two of actual dialog or action. I don't know how common is this, but I belong to those readers that sometimes got lost on page. Meaning, I sometimes catch myself after "reading" half of page, without knowing what I have read because I was thinking about something prior to this text. Then I have to repeat this skipped text. With TtH, this happened very often. Of course, this is not to say that this not interesting, but it is very inviting for wandering thoughts. Without all this, the book could be compacted in some 300 pages, but then it wouldn't be this book.

Of course, this is true only for first four fifths of the book. Last 150-200 pages are to be read in one breath. Really, treat yourself and somehow make your schedule so that you can read the end in one reading. Because this is one really exceptional ending. Erikson's books and endings are usually unexpected, but if someone would even suggest that he (or she) had a feeling that this was coming, I would call him a liar. Even if you hate most of this book, ending really deserve to be read.

One more difference is that this is the only book to have a narrator, one that actually addresses the readers. Kruppe was never my favorite character (not that I didn't like him, but he just wasn't among the first choices), but this role fits him nicely.

From mentioning Kruppe, you can guess that TtH takes place on Genebackis again. Chapters also follow similar concept as before, alternating between two sets of POVs. One is Darujistan residents: Kruppe, Cutter, retired Bridgeburners, Scillara and Barathol, some nobles and some more shady characters (which doesn't mean that nobles are not shady). These chapters are somewhat easier to read, with more humor and more action. The other set of characters follows Nimander Golit and his Tiste Andii traveling with Clip, Traveler, Karsa and Samar Dev, Kallor and several residents of Black Coral. These POVs are quite melancholic, almost depressing, although not uninteresting. Oh yes, I almost forgot. We are also following Trygalle Guild, accompanied with Gruntle and Mappo.

Few more things I would to emphasize. In some ways this is a Jaghut book, because we have several characters belonging to this race. Although this doesn't mean they are not mysterious any more. Next, Kallor. Most fans would say that they already had set opinion about him, acquired in "Memories of Ice". Well, typical for Erikson, get ready for surprise. Also, several fans, commenting on Malazan Reread of the Fallen on Tor.com, decreed this book a "Rosetta stone" of MBotF. Although many new facts are presented in TtH, I wouldn't call this book any more explanatory than others.

In conclusion, I admit that some readers could be off-put by this book, but if you are fans of MBotF, bear with it until the ending and rewards it brings.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Movie review: "Exam"

This Sunday I have watched "Exam". I've been planning to watch this movie for some time now, ever since I heard that it takes place in one room and that many people recommended it. I mean, it has to be a good movie to get props with all the action taking place... at one place. It turned out it is.

The movie starts with eight people coming to a room to take a final exam for a highly sought place in some mysterious company. We don't know anything about the people, the job or the company. After getting some very specific and very strange instructions, examinees are left to answer a single question in span of 80 minutes. The problems start when they discover that question is hidden and they first have to find it.

This movie is a puzzle, for audience as much as characters. You are challenged (not directly, but even so) to solve the mystery before them. Even if you fail, you will have fun guessing and second-guessing before being handed the final solution. We have a slight advantage, because at beginning of the movie we are shown some minor clues. Best way to describe this movie in few words would be "Saw, but without the blood". That is not to say that there is no violence in this movie, just not so graphical.

As I said, at the beginning to the movie you don't know anything about the job or the company. You are also let believe that the movie is happening in present. Later you find out that it actually describes a recent future, slightly dystopian. Even though you receive only few details, you get an impression of well imagined and developed background. Cast is practically unknown, but they did a very good job. As for characters, they are very interesting and diverse. You don't even get their names, instead using a "Reservoir Dogs" trick giving them color-names.

After watching the movie, you can find many objections to the story and solution, but nevertheless you don't feel cheated at the end, which is very important. During the watching you will probably be too focused to notice any flaws.

Although some will not like the realization (eight people, one room), "Exam" is a very good movie for those who like puzzles and movies that make the think and try to compete with the characters in reaching the solution.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

MBotF reread: "Reaper's Gale" by Steven Erikson

I must say that this whole reread is starting to overwhelm me. I never planned this to drag so long: it is April now, and I still have two more books to read before even starting with "The Crippled God". And due to work, time I need to read a book has grown to two weeks or more. I planned to do this again next year for Wheel of Time, but I am not so sure anymore.

Now, let's get back to "Reaper's Gale". First, Ublala Pung and voyeurs.... Ha ha, one of the best funny scenes in series. I always crack when I remember it. There are numerous jokes and puns in this book, but RG doesn't follow "The Bonehunters" in being a totally crazy book. Instead, jokes are much more moderated and decent; mostly regular bantering that anyone would expect between old friends.

First part of the book focuses on Empire of Lether and their social and moral degradation. I don't think there is any reader who would sympathize with the Patriotist; you really have to admire Erikson when it comes to writing of totally unlikable characters (just remember Jhistal!) that are at the same time totally believable. Also, Erikson never skirted from graphical violence, but physical details of Janath's torture are bit too much even for him. All this makes Lether not very desirable place to live, and without Tehol's and co parts it would be much harder to read. We also follow two traveling parties. One is Udinaas, Silcah Ruin and rest, which are not very cheerful bunch. In some way their plot-line is similar to mhybe's in "Memories of Ice": not clear on what is really happening, believing that is important, but wishing that it ends soon. The other party consists of Quick Ben, Trull, Onrack and later Hedge; they are all nice characters to follow, although after some time Trull's and Onrack's emotionality becomes irritating. Awl part of the story is very nice; I like reading about military campaigns and reappearance of Toc the Younger (on of favorite character in series for many readers) gives it an extra kick.

But the part that makes this book one of my favorites in series is Malazan invasion of Lether, executed my marines. This is a great bunch of characters, consisting of some old stars (Fiddler, Gesler, Stormy...) with addition of younger generations (Hellian, heavies, Bottle...). Their dynamic is always great to read you just have to root for them, after everything they get into. Whole concept of leaving few hundred marines in hostile territory, with no support or real command, without knowledge about enemy, it is impossible not to like. Erikson manages to make their transformation to crazy killers almost sympathetic (e.g. Bottle's chewing on grass).

Sequence with Beak is almost heart-breaking as the night on Malaz island in tBH. This reminded me: Adjunct's speech, although unimpressive and unimposing, nevertheless manages to touch me. I also like how everybody knowledgeable holds Icarium in awe or fear.

I am starting to sound like a parrot, finishing every post with recommendation for MBotF, but that's just the way it is. "Reaper's Gale" and Malazan Book of the Fallen are obligatory read for every fan of complex, convoluted and gritty epic fantasy.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Movie review: "Paul"

At Friday I stumbled on my friends watching "Paul", missing only first few minutes. I knew almost nothing about this movie, only remembering that there was some mentioning on Tor.com (this one), which I didn't read.

The movie is a light comedy, based on very simply plot: two nerds from England are traveling USA on a road-trip meet an alien. And that alien is not what they would expect: he is a cursing, smoking bastard, actually too human. Actually, all characters in the movie are "too much", over-caricaturized: two typical nerds, some hillbillies, goofy FBI agents, religious fanatics... But nevertheless, the combination is not overall or tiring, and I really enjoyed the movie.

Acting is what you would expect from comedy of this type. Paul is completely CGI, but looks almost real. There are also few cameos giving an extra-kick. I have also come to understand that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are famous, although I can't say I heard about them before.

Considering all, "Paul" is not impressive or anything to remember specially, but it has a well-guessed combination of right elements, and it provides an easy entertainment, especially for SF fans who can appreciate a good joke on themselves.