Sunday, April 21, 2013

Book review: "The Half-Made World" by Felix Gilman

As can be seen on this blog, I am mostly dedicated to fantasy series, the longer the better. But I've been tried to broaden my horizon, so I occasionally buy some stand-alone novel, or even SF or something borderline. I first noticed "The Half-Made World" by Felix Gilman on, the main fantasy and SF blog that I follow. It sounded interesting, so I put it on my wishlist and bought it few months ago, but read it only last week. My idea about it was as some blend between steam-punk and western.

"The Half-Made World" is set in a very interesting setting. In history and technology level it is akin to 19th century America, but geographically is very different. The East ("the Old East", I think it is referenced somewhere) is more similar to England: a land of peaceful prosperity, colleges and law. The West, divided from East by a large mounting range, has been "discovered" few centuries ago. Before, it was "uncreated" land, a chaos. Now the line of creation is traveling further west, so land between is being settled. It is full of small towns and coalitions, except the two major forces. The Line is ruled by Engines, strong "spirits" embodied in train-like machines, that rule its vast land and people as a perfect machine or bureaucracy: every part of it is replaceable and only a number on paper. The Gun is its complete opposite. It is also ruled by spirits, but these are wild spirits than possess a body of a gun. These guns are carried by the Agents of the Gun, and they give them superhuman abilities like vision in dark, superb sense of smell, great strength, endurance, and healing abilities. But there is a catch - Gun can force Agent to do his will, and since most of the Agents are individualist (meaning criminals, gamblers and other shady men and women), inevitably there comes a conflict between the Agent and Gun that rides him. Usual Agent's activities are kidnapping  blackmail and often murdering of innocent people (not mentioning killing the Linesmen), this chafes to even hardened criminal sooner or later. Just for a record, the Line and the Gun has been in state of constant war almost since Founding of first colonies in West.

In such world, we follow three main characters. Liv, or formally Dr. Lysvet Alverhuysen, is a professor on celebrated Koenigswald Academy in East, after recent death of her (much older) husband, embarks on a journey to West, to work in the House of Dolorous, a mental hospital for victims of war in West. John Creedmore is aged agent of the Gun, inactive for few years, spending his time with gambling and seducing young women (his specialty). Lowry, a relatively high-positioned member on army of the Line (meaning he is placed on top floor, in a small room with no windows - no distraction for his important work) is an ambitious Linesman (which he has to hide, because the system don't allow ambition), almost fanatical in his fight against the Gun. Creedmore and and Lowry are tasked with the same mission: to retrieve the supposedly death General Enver, founder of the Red Republic, the only entity that ever had some success in resisting both the Gun and the Line, who possibly has the weapon capable of destroying both the Line and the Gun. His current occupation and location: a patient in the House of Dolorous.

The book has a very interesting start and you are immediately drawn into its setting. At first, I was reminded to Susanna Clarke's "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell", because of initial Liv's POV, but later I realized it is much more similar to China MiƩville's New Crobuzon setting. Far from being its plagiarism, but it has the same feel. It is needless to say that I got hooked up after first three chapters.

Gilman makes his main characters also very interesting. You first feel for them, but as you read you start realizing that they are far from perfect. Lowry is conformist and fanatic, Liv is too-innocent and too above-all (pretentious even), while Creedmore is nice, but actually without conscience. Also, I was very surprised with death of one of the characters toward end of the book.

There is one part of setting that I forgot to mention in introduction: the Hillfolk. They are people of the unmade world, something like very thin Neanderthals. They are enslaved by people in West who use them for menial work. I found the part when Creedmore meets one of their shamans very interesting. For several reasons (connection with the dessert, the river, the old history), they reminded me much on Steven Erikson and his Eres'al.

The plot is interesting, but in some parts it is a bit predictable. For example, I found their first journey into unmade lands exactly as I expected. But in general, the book is interesting and I hope to learn more of its setting and character. Which I will be able, since there is sort of sequel, "The Rise of Ransom City".

All in all, "The Half-Made World" was a very interesting and exciting read. It was nice plot, very good characters and really excellent and original setting. I would recommend it to anybody, but especially to fans of China MiƩville.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Anime review: "Minami-ke Tadaima"

Last weekend I finished watching "Minami-ke Tadaima". That is one of my favorite (well, favorite in its category) shows and I've been waiting fourth season from 2009. There has been one or two OVA's in the meantime, but this is a full 13-episodes season.

"Minami-ke" belongs to "cute girls do cute things" category, which means that you are either into this kind of anime or you probably hate it. It is not an extreme case like "Ichigo Mashimaro", but more toward "Azumanga Daioh" or "Lucky Star". This kinds of shows commonly have dominantly female cast, usually have light or slapstick humor, there is lots of talking and not much actions, and are definitely not to be confused with ecchi anime. "Minami-ke" is a typical example, depicting life of three Minami sister: Chiaki (in elementary school), Kana (in middle school) and Haruka (in high school), interacting between themselves and their numerous friends (mostly female). As is also common, they live alone, and there is not one single adult is this series. Haruka is motherly type, taking care of her younger sisters, an excelent cook, but with some secret flaws. Kana is usually the primary source of all troubles in the show; not that she is mean, but she is too curious, too impulsive and too outspoken for anybody's good. Chiaki is the youngest: phlegmatic and solemn, always at war with Kana and in awe of Haruka. It would be too much to describe the rest of the cast, which has grown quite large. Thankfully, there were no new additions in this season or it would become hard to follow who is who.

Since there is no plot here, "Minami-ke Tadaima" is just another round of the same - which doesn't mean that it is dull. Those who don't know anything about this series should try watching the first season, which is the best of the lot. Other seasons, including this one, are quite good, but as is usual, not as good as the original. On the other hand, I think that every fan of previous seasons will be very satisfied with this one.

As was in first season, each episode consists of four loosely connected stories, dealing with various subjects: vegetables, beach, Japanese folklore... And as usual, even though the show's main characters are girls, rare male characters bring the most fun: Hosaka, Fujioka, Makoto. Addition from last season, the other Minami family also has a good one, Natsuki. But Hosaka (and his unknown arch-enemy Hayami) is the king. I think that I laughed every time at him, sometimes even out loud. But Fujioka and Makoto come close, also.

The largest difference from previous seasons (at least as I remember them, which can be wrong) is that there are some fanservice scenes. It is nothing over the top (some cleavage or provocative clothes), but in show that had zero fanservice, few scenes are noticeable.

There is one thing that bothered me: this is the fourth season and everybody is still in the same class. Even though aging would mean the end of this series, I would nevertheless appreciate some time-continuity. In other case, show risks to become repetitive and tepid.

As usual, the show has very good design of characters and every detail is taken care of. Voice-acting is at the top, and of course, Hosaka's song is great.

But as it is, "Minami-ke Tadaima" is a worthy representative of franchise and I had a lot of fun with it. And I believe that this will be the case for most fans. If you like this kind of anime, then "Minami-ke" is your first choice.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Book review: "Red Country" by Joe Abercrombie

This weekend I finished reading "Red Country" by Joe Abercrombie. It took me only three days - not that the book was short, but it was so good I just couldn't leave it. I was really into "The First Law" trilogy, but its sequels "Best Served Cold" and "The Heroes" were not as good, so I had fears that all future books will be each a bit worse than one before. Because of that, I wasn't really following the hype around "Red Country" and didn't know much about it, which turned out a great thing because there is one big surprise in here!

"Red Country" has two main characters, which has most of the POVs. Shy South, a young woman with dark past, lives at a farm with his brother Pit and sister Ro, and their stepfather Lamb, in a region called the Near Country. After Shy and Lamp come back from bartering one day, they find out that somebody burned their farm and kidnapped Pit and Ro. There is nothing left for them but to follow the trail that will ultimately lead them to the Far Country, a place with no laws and under gold-rush. Shy is at first fearful that her violent past will surface, but the somewhat fall in background as she slowly realizes that her stepfather, quiet and cowardly Lamb, has a violent and bloody past of his own, none bloodier... Unknown to them, the Near and the Far Country are soon to be visited by famous and notorious mercenary Nicomo Costa, and his even more notorious Company of the Gracious Hand. Important member of this company is Temple (the second main character), their lawyer, a man who always takes the easier path. But even he is slowly realizing that sometimes you can't take the easy path, as the Company plow through the Countries in search for gold, spoils and rebels...

I somewhere read that Abercrombie models his books to different style every time: "The First Law" trilogy was classical epic fantasy, "Best Served Cold" was film noir/thriller, "The Heroes" was (anti) war book. Following this pattern, "Red Country" is a western, but placed in Abercrombie's fantasy setting. We have the almost desolate Far Country made of far-stretching planes (Wild West), nomadic savages Ghosts (Indians), trappers, lawless city full of saloons and whorehouses... I am not really a fan of westerns (not that I dislike them, though), so I had some second-thoughts about this book, but Abercrombie colors everything with his gritty style so everything ends well (or bad, if you are a character in his book).

In my post reviewing "The Heroes", I wrote that Abercrombie is not so good with plots, but that he is great with characters. Well, here he is still great with characters, but he is also very good with the plot. I wasn't able to guess where the plot will take us next during whole book, which is a very good thing. This gets especially interesting somewhere after the middle of the book - you have a big fight that fills like a finally, but there is still another half of the book and you have no idea what you can expect.

Both new and old characters are very good. Shy and Temple are very complex, expressing doubt at their every action, never sure in anything. Abercrombie really makes you feel like you are in their heads. And occasional POV from supporting characters are very interesting. Especially that little stream of POVs before the battle with Ghosts on the plains.

But the biggest news is that this book features HIM!!! And by him I mean one of your favorite characters from "The First Law" trilogy, whose name I will not mention to avoid spoilers. I was completely unprepared for this fact, so it came as a big surprise. Even more so, Abercrombie plays with his old readers by giving hints to whether it is him or not. But when he reveals him completely, there is really no doubt about it - it is him in all his vileness and complexity.

"Red Country" is as gritty as Abercrombie's books usually are: blood, sex, violence, cursing, general evilness of the world... All is here. I was surprised though with how this book reminds me of "The Black Company" books, with its sentiment of melancholy, how things are never going be the same. There are a lot of older characters here, characters that are out of their prime, but still have to give everything because there is no one else... Also, as usual, there is a minimal use of magic - actually, except brief showing of Magi Zacharus, there is no magic even in mention.

In conclusion, I was surprised with how good "Red Country" is, if you are into darker and grittier fantasy. Wonderful characters, very interesting plot and style, and of course, one of your favorite characters. This is recommendation for both fans and non-fans (even though they should better start with previous book than here). I will expect the next book with big hopes this time.