Posts Tagged Review

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance

(This is expanded from a review posted on Goodreads.)

Captain VorpatrilI’m going to start this review by admitting this is the first Vorkosigan Saga book I’ve read. Normally I wouldn’t go diving into the deep end of a series like this, but my desire to read this year’s Hugo nominees ran headlong into my inexperience with this series, and I had to make a choice. Therefore, I can only review this book as a newcomer to the series. Thus, I’m approaching it with a very specific question in mind: does this book work on its own?

The answer is yes.

Mostly.

First for the plotline. For the most part, I liked the integrated elements of espionage, space opera, and (dare I say it) romantic comedy. Though the romantic comedy elements were about as predictable as most romcoms put out by Hollywood, they weren’t the central focus of the story, so I could forgive the broad clichés for the sake of enjoying their inclusion at all. However, as all the different themes came together, I wasn’t sure which was the driving notion of the book, and which were just along for the ride.

Now, to my main point. Does it stand alone? The story is clearly very well contained, which is aided by (as I understand it) a new protagonist stepping forward as the star of the book. There wasn’t any pickup from a previous book’s cliffhanger. There wasn’t anything left unresolved. It felt like watching a monster-of-the-week episode of the X-Files or Buffy or Angel without being aware of the broader mythology of the series. There were bits that I’m sure went over my head, but if they did they flew so high I didn’t even see the contrails.

However. And this is a big however. At times I was left feeling that I’d stepped into the middle of a conversation between several old friends. They were trying to keep me up to date, explaining their inside jokes, telling me how they met, letting me know where they were coming from. But from the point of view of a reader, I didn’t know which bits of back story were references to older books in the series, and which were new bits of back story being introduced for the first time. Which was…oddly uncomfortable. It was hard not to feel like an interloper.

I do plan on hitting this series up from the beginning, part of my larger quest to read all the past Hugo winners, and the world and writing style leave me looking forward. But as for stepping straight into this book? It’s possible, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it. Perhaps I’ll revisit this review when I wrap around to this book again in the series, when I understand things better. But for now, three stars is the best I can do.

In terms of looking at this compared to the other Hugo nominees I’ve currently read, I’d have to list this third. With any ongoing series, there’s a question of whether to judge a book on its own or as a member of its broader series. I have no choice but to do the former. It’s not a book I disliked by any stretch, it’s just not a book I enjoyed as well as either Redshirts or Crescent Moon.

Still two more nominees to go, 2312 and Blackout. Which, from the reputation of the former and the prequels to the latter, I expect might end up my top two picks.

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Throne of the Crescent Moon

I’ve been putting this review off. But now we’re at the end of the month, we’re about to roll over to the next books in the Great Hugo Read, so my putting off time has run out. Which I find off-putting. See, I’m still delaying by adding little puns to this introduction.

Let’s start by saying I liked Throne of the Crescent Moon. I can fully understand it’s popularity, I can even understand why it’s up for the Hugo. However, I had two obstacles when reading the book, one which had to do with the book and one which had to do with me.

First, the book. In many ways this felt like the first part of a planned series. Books one of planned series always leave me a little cold at the end, because even as the story is self-contained, there’s a certain unsatisfying lack of actual conclusion, threads are left hanging. The main villain of the work is defeated, but much like Darth Maul, it’s clear he’s not actually the villain of the story. He’s just the villain of the first third, meant to bring all the characters together, give them someone or something to fight, and help introduce the actual drama that will cover the rest of the series. Crescent Moon is a complete story. It has a beginning, it has a middle, and it has an end. But that ending serves as only the first act break of the longer story.

I suppose it’s a compliment to the book that I got to the end and wondered what comes next. I do want to come back to the series. From that angle the book is a success. From that angle the bit of cliffhanger at the end is a success. This is probably just me being petulant, but that’s my prerogative as a reader.

The second problem…this I know is entirely me. I don’t read epic, second world fantasy. Oh sure, I read some. Most notably the Discworld series. But when the books aren’t set on the backs of four elephants riding a giant turtle through space, I tend not to pick them up. So I was left with a clear lack of direction to approach this book. Which is a shame, as many of the reviews I’ve read of Crescent Moon talk about how it rejects many of the tropes of the genre. It may. It may not. I don’t know the tropes well enough to say.

I do recognize that the world is unusual. The bits and pieces of fantasy I have read tend to tie back to British and Norse mythology. Largely because they’re riding firmly on the back of Lord of the Rings. Entering a world of jinn and ghuls was a fun change. Entering a world where they’re spelled “jinn” and “ghul” builds the world almost as quickly as just including the elements. What little I know of Islamic and Arabian storytelling comes from Nicholas Clapp’s book Sheba: Through the Desert in Search of the Legendary Queen, the first place that I learned that the fantastic creatures of the Arabian Nights flow into more of Arabian culture than just the stories of Scheherazade, and even sneak into the Koran.

The other major step away from trope, however, went clear over my head. Many other reviews have praised Ahmed’s use of working class heroes in Crescent Moon. Unfortunately I went through the book unaware of that trope, so unable to appreciate what Ahmed did in that regard. Discworld is full of working class characters, though many of them achieve greater heights. You can’t get further from nobility than J.R.R. Tolkein’s hobbit protagonists. And…that’s where my epic fantasy knowledge ends. That fantasy is populated with nobles, princes, and lords isn’t in my reading vocabulary.

So at the end of the day I enjoyed the book. It was a chance to read outside of my comfort zone, an opportunity I should take more often. Hell, it’s part of why I started the Hugo Read, it meant lining up books in my to-read pile that I might not touch otherwise. I’m excited enough about the series continuing that Ahemd’s occasional tweets about delays in book two frustrate me. That alone should indicate this first book’s quality. It took this non-fantasy reader on a fun ride, and left him wanting more. Even a little frustrated about not having more. For that, I commend it.


Up next in the Great Hugo Read?

Oh man, if I felt out of place stepping into epic fantasy, how out of place am I going to feel stepping into what’s either book 14 or 15 of a massive space epic that’s been going on since the 1980s and I’ve read exactly none of? We’re going to find out with Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, the 15th published book of the Vorkosigan Saga, and currently 14th book of the internal chronology of the series. These are books that I’ll be getting to know a lot better, as four have already won the Hugo, and they’re playing some havoc with ordering the Read. Eventually the Read will cover enough of these books that I no longer have to look up how to spell “Vorkosigan” every damn time.

We’re also going back into Mira Grant’s zombie apocalypse with Deadline, the second book in the Newsflesh trilogy. Here’s your standard where to find ’em information:

Primary: Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold

  • Print: Available new in hardback, paperback releasing in September.
  • Electronic: Available from Kindle only.
  • Audio: Narrated by Grover Gardner, available from Audible and iTunes.

Secondary: Deadline by Mira Grant (Blackout pre-read)

  • Print: Available new in paperback, and as a trilogy box set.
  • Electronic: Available from Kindle, Nook, iBooks, Sony Reader.
  • Audio: Narrated By Chris Patton and Nell Geisslinger, available from Audible and iTunes.

And as always, feel free to join in the Goodreads Group. It’s being just barely active enough that I’m bothering to keep it going, I’d love to see more people in there if you’re reading along, or if you just have thoughts about the books that are part of the Read.

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A Tour of the Binder

I’m nearing the end of my third month as a pleased Scrivener customer.  Starting our current novel project in Scrivener started as a test of just what the software can do, but it’s now my go-to tool for just about any kind of writing.  For anyone who is still considering whether Scrivener is the right tool for them, I thought I’d give a quick tour of our Binder.  Within Scrivener, this is the navigation tool around the project, so what you see here is our novel project, though with lots of the folders collapsed, because, ya know, it is still a work in progress and I’m not doing this to give away too many secrets.

1. Outline.  Nested folders are helping us keep track of our chapters and sort them into acts.  We’re going for a modified three-act structure, treating the second act as its own three acts.  I suppose this is actually a five-act structure, but one things I’ve learned from writing is that the number of acts has nothing to do with the actual number of acts.

2. Manuscript.  Yes, we’re keeping this separate from the Outline.  In the end the outline is going to be a nice first draft outline with a lot of our notes in place, but where we can collapse it completely out of the way.  Odd choice?  Perhaps.  One that’s working well for us?  Very much so.  Except when I accidentally start first drafting a chapter in the outline.  Oops.  Within the manuscript the labeling tools in Scrivener allow us to keep visual track of the act structure (the pink tab in the upper right of the card), and who the point of view character is for each chapter.  This gives us a fantastic visual hint as to who we haven’t used in awhile.  The built-in suggested labels are for things like “To Do” or “Revised Draft” but customization within Scrivener is the strength of the tool.  It’s all built around users working the way they want to work in the project.  Right now we care a lot more about the POV of a chapter than the draft status.

 3. Characters.  Everyone who shows up on screen more than twice, and several who only show up once.  I typically keep this folder open so I can look up a character name spelling (I’m bad at names, and that actually extends into my writing) or quickly throw a character file in when I create someone on the fly.

4. Random Scenes. These are scenes between characters that my wife enjoys writing.  They’re good character building exercises, and when I see one I really like, I’ll start massaging the story towards putting in at least some paragraphs.

5. Places.  This lets us drill down into our hypothetical world.  Lots of maps I made, lots of maps I found, photos of real buildings that show up in the story, descriptions of fake places.

6. History and World Bible.  These are getting used a little less than I intended, but they’re the background of our world.  I just opened them while drafting this post, and really am ashamed how little I’ve used them.

7. Side Stories.  My wife has the Random Scenes, I have the Side Stories.  She’s fleshing out characters, I’m fleshing out the world.  I hope they end up being used somewhere, but that’s going to be a very late decision in the process.

8. Critiques.  This is where I love Scrivener.  These are the critiques from our alpha readers at the Cat Vacuuming Society of Northern Virginia, typed live as given into this folder where we can easily review them when it comes time for edits.  Losing critiques is one of my worst writing habits, so having them tied into the project is a life saver.

9. Research.  Largely imported Wikipedia pages and other websites that include era slang and some real world people we’ve based fictional people on.

10. Trash.  Absolutely filled with unnamed blank files that I created with a stray click.  Oops.  Not cleared because I’m always paranoid I dropped something useful in there by mistake.  Actually, while putting this together, I found one of my wife’s random scenes landed in there, and has now been rescued.

Without Scrivener, this would all be an awkwardly nested series of folders filled with Word documents.  Several of these files might not even exist.  Scrivener makes it easy as hell to drag in any and all research I want, and wrangles it all very well, even when I find images that are several thousand pixels on a side and want just the highest resolution possible.  It’s a sickness, I know.

Is this the best way to use the product?  I can absolutely say: yes it is.  Because it’s working for us.  I’ve come across many writing toys in the past, things that I can play with for a while, but don’t actual conform to the way I write, and don’t allow for the organic growth that our Scrivener project has undergone.  This is how I know that Scrivener is legitimately a writing tool, because it can be used whatever way works best for the writer.  Is it right for you?  I can’t say.  I just hope that by showing how we’ve put together our project, you might see something of the tool and how it might help your writing.

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A Writers Reviews: Terra Nova

I typically use this feature to talk about movies, but I wanted to do something different today and look at one of the new television shows I’ve caught this season.  I want to talk about Terra Nova.

First, I’ve been enjoying this show.  It’s hard not to.  The opening scenes in the Blade Runner meets Soylent Green future were fantastically bleak.  The dinosaur effects are the best effects I’ve seen in a television series.  Yes, they’ve gotten some crap for the effect quality, but that’s making a comparison between huge budget movies, and big budget television series.  It’s differences of scale.

But that’s not what I want to talk about, because special effects don’t really have much to do with the writing craft.  I want to talk about the one thing I feel is missing from Terra Nova.  The one thing that could make the show better.

The show needs characters.

Oh certainly there are humans there on the screen.  They walk around, they talk to each other, they drive the plot.  But the show doesn’t have characters.  It has archetypes.  And that’s a problem I’ve seen in short stories and novels, it’s a problem I’ve seen in my writing.  And it’s a tough problem.

Look.  Archetypes are great.  They exist for a reason.  But much like their close relatives, clichés, they have their places, their uses, but must be properly handled.  Let’s look at the family at the heart of Terra Nova, since it’s marketed as a family drama that just happens to include dinosaurs.  It has Jim, the dad who’ll do anything for his kids.  Elisabeth, the mom who just wants the family to be a family.  Josh, the protective older brother.  Maddy, the brainiac sister.  And Zoe, the youngest daughter who I can’t even adequately describe as anything other than “the youngest daughter.”  Which is a shame because her mere existence is the catalyst for the entire series.

That’s it.  I can’t give any better description of the family members after three hours of television. Yes, there’s still 10 hours left to the season, but characterization isn’t something that should wait.  It isn’t something that should take a back seat to plot.  It’s something that should be integrated into the plot.  Character development spurs plots, plots dictate growth.  The two should not exist separated from each other, one should not take its turn and the other wait.

Let’s look at this week’s episode (second or third episode, depending on how you count).  Tiny pterodactyls attack the compound.  Elisabeth meets an old flame in the compound, Jim discovers the flame is who put her in for inclusion with the project.  The kids have to shelter together during an attack.  This is all plot, and this is great.  Some of it is single episode plot, some of it feels like it could be the start of a longer drama within the show.  But through it all, the people on the screen staunchly refuse to be characters.

There’s no conflict within Elisabeth about the discovery of her old flame, about the implication that he brought her back in time in hopes that her husband wouldn’t or couldn’t also come.  Jim reacts, but only within his “must protect family” archetype.   Josh takes on the protective role when it’s forced upon him during the attack, but there’s been no conflict between him and his sisters that would make this an actual growth moment.

The one brief exception of archetypes not becoming characters came in the form of the compound’s leader, Commander Taylor.  His archetype is the gruff military alpha male (a part Stephen Lang is well suited for), but he’s given a moment against archetype when it turns out he’s also been acting as surrogate father for a teenage girl whose parents disappeared.  That’s a good bit of actual characterization, having a character play against the archetype that’s been set up for him.

I was talking to someone about the show and mentioned that it was a shame that the show’s biggest asset, it’s cinematic style, will probably be its downfall when it came time to make a cancel-or-renew decision.  And it’s great that the show is more cinematic than the typical television fare, but that I’m seeing that as the main asset of the show is somewhat damning.  The show is going to quickly need characters, because I’m already getting frustrated by archetypes.  And that’s something that I’m going to look for more and more in my stories, ensuring that I’m not just casting archetypes in place of characters because it’s quicker and easier that way.

Archetypes are a starting point for characters, just like clichés can be a starting point for plots.  But they don’t stand on their own.  They need to be tweaked, modified, and crafted until they’ve gone from being two dimensional to three.

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