American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Posted: February 24, 2015 in Reviews
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“Gods die. And when they truly die they are unmourned and unremembered.”

A week before Shadow was to be released from prison, the warden tells him he will be turned out early. His wife is dead. On the flight home, he happens to sit next to a mysterious one-eyed man who calls himself Wednesday. Wednesday recruits Shadow to work for him, except this will be no ordinary job; Wednesday tells Shadow that Gods are real. Gods of old. New Gods. Norse Gods, Hindu Gods, African Gods, Gods that have long been forgotten, and Gods that are being forged everyday from mankind’s ever-changing obsessions and beliefs. But Gods are real. And the Old Gods and New Gods are about to go to war.

Not sure whAmerican Gods by Neil Gaimanat to believe or not believe, Shadow gets sucked into a secret world within our world. One where Gods are not nearly as perfect as they should be, and the people are even less so. And caught between the warring faction is Shadow, wanted by both sides for reasons he does not know.

American Gods is not Gaiman’s first novel, but is almost certainly the one he is best known for, along with his graphic novels, The Sandman. I admit, I have never read any of Gaiman’s other works. I once bought a collection of his short stories, called Smoke and Mirrors, which I read very briefly before turning to other books that better held my interest. Suffice to say, then, that I didn’t go into the book with a ton of giddy excitement, despite the critical acclaim I am well aware the book received. Because of that, it should have been rather easy for Gaiman to pleasantly surprise me.

He didn’t.

I found the book a chore to get through. I can admit that the writing was quite good, and Gaiman’s prose is quite poetic and full of metaphors. But it’s too poetic and has too many metaphors. Perhaps I am just dense and simplistic, but I find it hard to read a novel that spends this much time trying to be subtle. Some of that effort, I think, should have given to making the novel more engrossing.

There were parts that I liked. I like the basic idea of the “New Gods,” essentially anything from the modern era that the masses cling to and ‘believe’ in has created a ‘god.’ So we have gods of technology, gods of media, gods of cars, etc. And I like how the Old Gods – the traditional gods, such as Odin, Kali, and others – are shown to be growing weaker and are dying out because not enough people believe in them. I also like how Gaiman skillfully weaves in a wide variety of gods, both well-known and lesser-known, into the plot’s narrative. The premise, then, is solid. So what isn’t?

For me, the main problem is Shadow. As a protagonist, I found him to be exceedingly dull. There is really nothing interesting at all about him, and nor does he seem to actually do anything. Rather, things just happen to and around him. He is neither likable nor dis-likable, neither a hero nor a villain, not great but not terrible. He’s just… there. And considering the entire novel (except a handful of passages) are from his point-of-view, that is a problem.

Another big problem… I don’t quite know how to put this best, but nothing happens in the book. It seems the entire novel is one big (and slow) build-up to something that turns out to be inconsequential. It’s one of those novels you read once in a while that, once you are done with them, just makes you wonder, “what was the point?”

The novel has a bit of a twist ending, if you can call it that. Is it still a twist if I don’t care what happens?

In the end, I was glad when I finished it for the sole reasons that I can now read something else. Sorry, Mr. Gaiman. You have a ton of awards and acclaim thrown at this book. So you should have no regrets. For me, I will give the book a whimpering 2.5/5.

McDowski:

Food for thought: a reality check for aspiring authors dreaming of the writing the next Harry Potter or Twilight.

It ain’t that easy!

Originally posted on Leona's Blog of Shadows:

Today I am going to share some eye-opening truths, which might shatter the illusions regarding the book publishing business and crush the dreams of some folk out there. I have recently come across a rather interesting blog post link in the comments section under a post at Suffolk Scribblings blog.

It was a rather grim post by author Kameron Hurley. For those who are not familiar with her, she is an established author who has been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the Locus Award and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in prestigious SFF magazines such as Lightspeed, EscapePod, and Strange Horizons. Her fiction has been translated into Romanian, Swedish, Spanish, and Russian. She is also a graduate of Clarion West. Impressive credentials many of us dream about accomplishing some day, if ever.

According to her…

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Aside  —  Posted: February 23, 2015 in General Musings, Miscellania
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“So you love war. I used to think you were a decent man. But I see now I was mistaken. You’re a hero.”

The US cover. Pretty good, and appropriately violent.

The US cover. Pretty good, and appropriately violent.

This standalone novel from Abercrombie is the only novel in his repertoire that has a subtle title. The Heroes. It could be called that because a lot of the action takes place at a site in the North, with large boulders on top a hill that the Northmen call The Heroes. Or it could be called that because the novel is about characters like Bremer dan Gorst, Black Dow, Shivers, Craw, and others who excel in fighting and war. They are, in their own way and to their own people, heroes.

The story takes place about five years after the events of Best Served Cold, and eight years after The First Law trilogy. Union commander Lord Marshal Kroy is leading the Union forces against the much smaller Northern army that is now led by Black Dow. One of the primary POV characters in the book is Bremer dan Gorst, the large, strong, heavily-muscled and squeaky-voiced expert swordsman who we last saw in the trilogy as a Knight of the Body (one of the personal bodyguards of the King). A lot has happened to Gorst in the eight years since, and not for the better. After the events of Best Served Cold, Gorst has lost his position as the King’s guard and is now toiling away in the Union’s company, tasked with chronicling the events of the war in his (rather emasculating to him) capacity as Royal Observer. But Gorst is not an observer. He is a fighter. A killer. And how can he not fight, when fighting and coming within an inch of dying is the only thing that makes him feel alive?

Meanwhile, Prince Calder is in the North, forced to fight the Union after his pregnant wife is taken hostage. Calder is doing what he does best: scheming and plotting a way that he can find himself in a better situation while not being in the line of danger himself.

Curnden Craw is a veteran Named Man of the North, one who is considered a ‘straight edge’ much like his former mentor, Rudd Threetrees, a dying breed of Named Men who still believe in honor, doing the right thing, and living the old way. Craw is leader of his Dozen (who rarely equal dozen people) a group of skilled Named Men (and a Woman) who are tasked by Black Dow to retake and hold the hill that they call The Heroes.

The entire plot of The Heroes takes placed over a period of three days. I was impressed by how much detail and engrossing plot Abercrombie managed to squeeze into this short a time. The novel is more action and battle-based than any of his other works, and it really cements what Abercrombie fans have known since his first book – the man knows how to write a fight scene. The battles are vivid and clear, and even without the benefit of a map you never lose where you are or what is happening. One fight scene in particular, involving a set of rotating one-and-done POVs in a quick and brutal close quarters – was masterfully done, and is my favorite fight scene of any book I have ever read.

The awesome UK cover. As usual, better than the American one.

The awesome UK cover. As usual, better than the American one.

The characters are wonderfully drawn out and realistic. You won’t have any cookie-cutters here. In addition to the above POVs, we also get a few others as well as some old favorites. The Dogman makes a few brief appearances, as does Bayaz, and Black Dow of course. We also have a significant (albeit non-POV) role for Caul Shivers, appearing more deadly and menacing than ever.

The Heroes is a fantastic novel. Written by an ever-improving Abercrombie, it is both entertaining and thoughtful, making one wonder about the supposed glory of war, and is masterfully written. It was, and remains, my favorite novel by Joe Abercrombie. I have no hesitation in recommending it, nor do I in giving it a perfect 5/5 rating.

I should really try to post more regularly.

-Me, over a year ago

 

Well, I guess didn’t do that did I?

Aside  —  Posted: June 8, 2014 in Uncategorized

Leave of Presence

Posted: April 20, 2013 in General Musings

So it’s been quite a while since I posted something. And the account is just lying there, waiting for the warm embrace of my keystrokes.

I should really try to post more regularly. I guess part of me still feels self conscious about the whole thing. Why should I subject the Internet to my inane thoughts when there are so many more insightful, thought provoking and humorous blogs out there?

But for now I’ve decided to stick with it. I don’t it will be terribly consistent, since that would conflict with my natural tendency to be lazy, but I will update when I think I have something worth saying.

I love The Lord of the Rings. The movies, in particular, hold a place near to my heart. I remember when my friends and I were going for The Fellowship of the Ring – I was fairly skeptical about the whole thing. I hadn’t seen any trailers, never read the books, and really only knew that it was something to do with elves, dwarves, and something called a ‘hobbit.’ This was long before I started reading Fantasy novels, and I approached the cinema with some level of sullenness. I figured the movie would not be enjoyable, and I couldn’t figure out why my friends were so eager to see the damn thing. My expectations, in short, were minimal.

A little under three hours later, I walked out of the cinema completely blown away. I went out a couple of days later and bought all three books, reading them back-to-back. And now that Peter Jackson is returning to Middle Earth over a decade later, I couldn’t wait to revisit his recreation of the world. This time, though, my expectations were high. So how did it go?

All in all, pretty good. If I’m being honest, I don’t feel anywhere near as blown away as I was with FotR, but that was to be expected. My biggest concern was with the idea that Jackson was splitting this into 3 movies. I’ve read The Hobbit, and it certainly isn’t a book that warrants a trilogy. LotR was a trilogy, because it had enough content for it. Not to mention the fact that there are three books. The Hobbit is a single book and not a particularly large one, at that. It’s probably about two-thirds the size of Fellowship. Did it really need to split into three films? Probably not.

A Narrative Stretched Thin

The Hobbit is a good movie, and in a way I enjoyed the detailed exposition of the world, the tragedy that befell the dwarves, and a bit of a backstory to Thorin Oakenshield. But the biggest problem is that by the end of the film, we’ve really only reached a point where the party can see the Lonely Mountain… off in the distance, still pretty darn far away. We have yet to see any of Smaug (the source of the aforementioned tragedy) except some glimpses of his shadow and an eye. Obviously, Jackson is saving The Moment for the second film (considering it’s called The Desolation of Smaug this isn’t a difficult guess), but along with the general pace of the film, which is… leisurely, it’s a narrative problem that will likely be endemic with the trilogy – by stretching a modest book into three films, Jackson will end up with a series that many will complain has too much filler.

And they won’t be wrong. The entire scene in the caves, with the goblins, seemed far too drawn out. I guess Jackson wanted to show the dwarves and Gandalf doing something while Bilbo had his encounter with Gollum (which was awesome, by the way) but I wish there was some way Jackson could have done it without it being so… trivial. There was really nothing about the scene that seemed exhilarating, largely because the goblins seemed more comical rather than threatening. By comparison, the scenes in the mines of Moria from Fellowship was terrific. You could really feel the tension as the group was trying desperately to escape. Here, not only did their escape seem inevitable, but it never really felt like there was any urgency.

As I said, though, it does give us some time to witness Bilbo’s first (last?) ever encounter with Gollum, and it was done spectacularly well. WETA are really good with CGI characters, and the Gollum here looks even better than he did in the LotR trilogy. You could really almost believe he was a real person. The scene where he realises that Bilbo has pilfered his precious ring, and the expression on his face and the look in his eyes… Masterfully done.

A Word on HFR

Annoying.

More Words on HFR

One of the early controversies before the film even released was to do with Jackson’s revelation that he intends to release it in High-Frame Rate (or HFR). Basically, this means the film runs at 48 frames-per-second compared to the more conventional 24 fps. Jackson claims this was done to minimize blur and make the images ‘pop’ more. And indeed, the sharpness of the movie is amazing, with landscapes and CGI looking clearer than ever.

And therein lies the problem. CGI being ultra-clear merely emphasizes the fact that it is CGI. As spectacular as Gollum looked, there were other CGI creatures in the movie — like the Eagles, the wargs and certain rodents — that looked like something out of a video game. A really good looking video game, but a game nonetheless. And even certain effects like the Smaug’s fire from early scenes don’t quite have the same impact.

An even bigger problem, though, is with scenes involving fast movement. Any time characters were running around or twitching, the motion looked sped up and a bit unreal, like they were floating on air rather than actually touching the ground. If you’ve seen any of LCDs TVs with 200Hz refresh rates, and noticed it looked weird, then you will know what I mean.

I’ve seen the film in the ‘normal’ way, as well, and personally much prefer it. Everything feels more real, and because you’re not weirded out by the strangeness, I found it easier to be engrossed by it. I would say, though, that everyone should try it out for themselves and decide. In my group of friends, we were fairly evenly split between people who thought they would rather not see HFR again and those who would.

Wrap-up

The Hobbit is a fine film. It will not be the best movie you have ever seen, but I would gladly recommend it to anyone. I enjoyed myself, and the Dwarves’ rendition of the solemn “Misty Mountains” song will forever be stuck in my head. The recurring cast members do as good a job as you would expect, and new ones carry themselves well. Martin Freeman as Bilbo, in particular, did an excellent job.

Will I see the sequels to The Hobbit when they come out? Most definitely. But 24 fps in 2D is fine for me, thanks. (4/5)

“You were a hero round these parts. That’s what they call you when you kill so many people the word murderer falls short.”

Considering the title of the book, it is not surprising that Abercrombie’s first stand-alone is a story about revenge. Monzcarro Murcatto, along with her brother Benna, is the notorious leader of the mercenary band, The Thousand Swords (whose actual numbers long ago surpassed a thousand). She has brought victory after victory to Orso, Grand Duke of Talins, and become fairly wealthy and popular as a result. Perhaps too popular. At least that is what Orso fears. Unfortunately for Monza, he has her thrown down a mountain. Unfortunately for Orso, she survives. And now the Snake of Talins wants vengeance.

But she can’t do it alone, so she enlists the help of some morally ambiguous characters to aid her in her quest. This includes a self-important blowhard of a poisoner and his apprentice, a number-obsessed (and, I suspect, autistic) convict, a Northman looking to make a fresh start, a former torturer’s assistant, and last, but by no stretch the least, an infamous soldier of fortune.

Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

Best Served Cold is, technically, a stand-alone that is set in the same world as the trilogy. But I would definitely say that having read the trilogy, while not a prerequisite, certainly brings increased enjoyment to the proceedings. There are some characters that play a major role in the book who readers of The First Law will recognize, and others from the trilogy who appear only briefly, but will have fans smiling at the cameos and mentions. The book is not as easily accessible as the trilogy, but represents a more mature take on the world from Abercrombie. His characters seem a bit more fleshed out, and the writing is superb.

The book is even more violent than the trilogy, but Abercrombie has a knack for writing fight scenes and it never seems out of character for the tone of the series. The action always feels fluid, fast, logical and sensible. You practically see the fights, rather than read them.

There are some flaws, of course. Caul Shivers — one of our primary protagonists, and the man who spent his time in the trilogy contemplating killing our favorite nine-fingered barbarian — seems to bear more than a passing resemblance to Logen. A tested warrior who leaves his home looking to make a better (and hopefully less violent) life. As he soon founds out, Styria is not nearly the land of opportunity that he was told. Or rather, it’s home to a wholly different sort of opportunity.

Another flaw — if it is one — is that I never quite felt connected to Monza. Her quest for vengeance seems to consume her entirely, and we rarely get to see anything more than glimpses of he personality. Maybe it was deliberate; maybe Abercrombie wrote a character that is so deeply flawed that she is meant to be unlikable. But of all the Abercrombie novels I’ve read (and I’ve read all of them) Monza is the one protagonist who I felt the least empathy for. I can’t really say I ever found myself caring whether she succeeded or not.

On the plus side, the other protagonists are excellent. Morveer, the egotistical poisoner; Cosca, the definition of a lovable scoundrel; and Friendly, the strong and silent (and psychopathic) type. All make for very interesting POVs, and do a great deal to give the book an overall feel very different from the trilogy.

Overall, I would definitely recommend the book. It’s really quite good. Not Abercrombie’s best, perhaps, but I’m in the camp that believes that Abercrombie at less than his best is still better than almost anyone. And, as usual with Abercrombie books, the cover (at least the British cover pictured here) is awesome, specially in person. All in all, a solid 4/5.