Frivolous Waste of Time

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Archive for the tag “literature”

Touch by Claire North

Touch is the third Claire North book I’ve read and, whilst it is very good, it bears more than a little resemblance to The Sudden Appearance of Hope, the book which followed Touch but I read first. This similarity undermined it slightly for me, but nonetheless this is another exciting sci-fi tinged thriller from someone who seems to be a master of them.

Claire North’s books are about people with strange abilities, which are both a blessing and a curse, hidden within our world. Where The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August covered reincarnation, and The Sudden Appearance of Hope the idea of being forgotten, Touch is about a being (known as a ghost) that possesses different bodies but has no form left of its own, transferring through touch. The protagonist is known as Kepler and is around 300 years old, hopping from host to host, usually with the host’s consent in exchange for a large pay-out at the end of the possession. When Kepler, in her host Josephine, is gunned down in a Turkish train station, Kepler manages to escape before her host dies and goes on the run in the body of her would be assassin, pursued by the mysterious organisation to which he belongs.

Touch, similarly to her other books, is a globetrotting conspiracy story, as the protagonist moves through a vast range of locations, exploring what it means to be human. It does this very well, but by this point the three books have begun to blur into one. She’s chosen a particular thing that she is going to do and she does it really well, but an element of fatigue begun to slip in. I probably should have left a bigger gap between The Sudden Appearance of Hope and this. Where Harry August posits that humanity is tied to mortality, and Hope Arden suggests it is tied to connections we make to each other, Touch is about the physical body itself. The horror inherent in the concept is not shied away from; although Kepler herself is sympathetic, North never suggests that the experience of having your body stolen against your will is anything but terrible. One plot thread involving a body taken for decades is particularly harrowing. The flashback stuff is generally very good, with some great scenes set in the Ottoman Empire and 1950s Hollywood. The present day storyline stumbles slightly, with lots of scenes of Kepler travelling places and investigating things and generally moving the plot forward, but in a rambling and vague fashion. Touch, and to an extent all of North’s books I’ve read, seems to be at their best when simply wallowing in its own concept, with the core narrative holding it all together being somewhat less compelling.

You may have noticed that I’ve gendered Kepler as female when I refer to the character; her biological sex naturally varies depending on her host, but the voice that came through all of these I couldn’t help read as female. I could go through everything I’ve written and alter the pronouns to ‘it’ and I almost did exactly that, but I actually think it’s interesting how Touch ended up making me project gender onto a genderless entity. I wonder what in my own personal biases made me read Kepler as female, because I’ve read that many people have read the character as male. In Kepler, North provides an interesting cipher to examine our own thought processes and assumptions. An area I wish North had touched more upon was the racial element; Kepler refers to having marched as an African-American with Dr. King in the 1960s, but at the end she could jump into the skin of a white person and avoid any of the consequences of being black in America. North prods at the idea of appropriation, but never really jumps into it. Since the big conceptual stuff worked more for me than the core thriller narrative, I’d have liked to see Touch go further down this path.

All said however, Touch is a very good book. If you’ve read any of her other books recently, maybe give it a little break to keep things feeling a bit fresher, but it was nonetheless thought-provoking and intriguing. I don’t know what angle of humanity North is going to pursue next, but I do know it will be interesting.

 

Time of Contempt by Andrzej Sapkowski

I’m thoroughly enjoying my time ploughing through The Witcher saga, with Time of Contempt building on the successes of Blood of Elves and addressing some of its faults.

Time of Contempt picks up not too long after Blood of Elves. Ciri is now under the tutelage of Yennefer of Vengerberg. Yennefer is taking Ciri to the Island of Thanedd, a safe haven for mages and sorceresses where she plans to enrol Ciri in a school to hone her magical training. It is not long before Geralt is reunited with his surrogate family of Yennefer and Ciri, and the three arrive at Thanedd, for a gathering of the magical users of the Northern Kingdoms, known as the Chapter of Sorcerers. The politics of the North have become more unstable, with the Northern rulers desperate for a pretext to go back to war with Nilfgaard and regain Cintra.

Where Blood of Elves was a bit more unfocused, feeling like a series of connected novellas more than anything else, Time of Contempt is a bit more self-contained, dealing primarily with the internal affairs of the Chapter of Sorcerers and the role of the magical community. The sharper focus benefits the book massively and it moves the story forward in a range of interesting ways. A lengthy epilogue shifts focus for a while, but it leaves a lot of important character sin very interesting places for the next book.

The action scenes are good, but Time of Contempt may be the funniest book in the series so far. A wonderful scene where a proud Yennefer parades Geralt in front of a series of lustful sorceresses, each more ridiculously provocative than the last, is a lot of fun. I had thought that the games had over sexualised characters like Keira Metz and Phillipa Eilhart but…nope, they’re like that in the book too. Geralt struggling to keep composure is a joy to behold. When things get a bit darker it all works well too, particularly during a harrowing scene in a desert which ratchets up tension to almost unbearable levels.

A lot of my favourite characters from the games play large roles here, such as the brilliant Redanian spymaster Sigismund Djikstra and a range of sorceresses. Sapkowski does a brilliant job of making these characters feel distinct; we’re introduced to about 8 new sorceresses all at once, but they all feel distinct and memorable. Ciri seems to be taking over from Geralt in main protagonist duties, but this isn’t a problem because I love Ciri.

I always struggle to write about middle books in a series. It doesn’t shake things up, but Time of Contempt keeps the story ticking on at a nice pace and leaves me excited to get into the next one. What more could you ask?

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Caine Black Knife by Matthew Stover

The previous book in the Acts of Caine series was the ambitious, but frankly incoherent, Blade of Tyshalle. It drastically expanded in scope from the first book, but at the cost of what made Heroes Die so engaging to begin with. Caine Black Knife is a simpler, more straightforward return to form for the series. Where Blade of Tyshalle got bogged down in numerous sub plots and supporting characters, Caine Black Knife is all Caine, all the time. It is a shorter, leaner and more focused book and all the better for it.
Caine Black Knife follows two timelines; one takes place a couple of years after Blade of Tyshalle, with Caine heading to the Boedecken Wastes to save his Orgrillo friend Orbek, who has fallen into trouble. The other timeline tells the story of Caine’s most notable Adventure, and the one which propelled him to massive stardom; Retreat from the Boedecken. We’ve heard this story alluded to many times in the previous books, about how Caine destroyed the infamous Black Knife Orgrillo clan and earned his reputation for stunning competence and cruelty. Caine’s actions 25 years in the past are still influencing the present, as figures from his past come back to haunt him and the consequences of his actions finally catching up to him.

Where Blade of Tyshalle covered a significant geographic range and focused heavily on metaphysics and mysticism, Caine Black Knife takes place mostly in one location and drops (to an extent) many of the elements which bogged down the previous book. It’s an exciting and tense book, with the stunning violence the series is known for still in full effect. Just when you think this series couldn’t shock you any more, Stover manages to conjure up something truly horrible. The crucial difference is that it feels less gratuitous, but also more honest. This series has long had a history of slyly satirising the fantasy industry’s propensity for grimdark violence whilst also acknowledging the undeniable visceral thrill this violence provides. The first book got the balance right and the second got it wrong, but the fine balancing act is pulled off here. Caine wasn’t so brutal against the Black Knife clan in the Boedecken because it was the clever or tactical thing to do, he did it because the audience back on Earth loved it.

There’s a sense of fun to Caine Black Knife, even in its grimmest moments. Caine is a relentlessly enjoyable protagonist, utterly loathsome but impossible not to like. There are odd cracks of sentimentality, which are usually punctuated by something unforgiveable. Removing Caine from the core of Blade of Tyshalle was a mistake, because he truly is a brilliant protagonist and this book benefits massively from keeping him as the key PoV at all times. Most of the previous supporting cast is absent, a handful of cameos aside, but the new cast is filled with interesting figures for Caine to murder or generally infuriate, both in the present day and flashback storyline.

Caine Black Knife is a fun, horrifying and deeply satisfying book. We know that Caine murdering his way through swaths of Orgrillos shouldn’t be as fun as it is and Stover never stops winking at the reader. He keeps escalating things further and further, seeing how far our sympathies will stick with Caine, with the answer being worryingly far. The sense of satire, as well as being just a damn good fantasy novel, makes Caine Black Knife a return to what made Heroes Die great.

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The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

I found myself very wound up when this first book came out, because we got a lot of your obnoxious handwringing articles in the vein of ‘it’s fantasy but I like it so it’s not really fantasy’ that come about any time literary genre fiction gets published. The Guardian reviewer called this book ‘A Game of Thrones with a conscience’, literally one of the dumbest phrases I’ve ever seen in literary criticism. The Buried Giant is fantasy, but it wears the genre trappings loosely, creating a blurry dream of a mythic British past.

Axl and Beatrice are an elderly couple of an indistinct period of Britain’s past. King Arthur and Merlin are dead, but only recently, with their exploits beginning to blur from history into legend. The couple decide to visit their son in a nearby village after a lengthy estrangement and begin to make the perilous journey. A strange mist has cloaked the land, robbing the people of their memories. As Axl and Beatrice make their strange and fantastical journey, memories begin to reassert themselves with The Buried Giant asking one question; is it better to forget, rather than to pick at the scabs of the past?

The Buried Giant is a book which lends itself towards being read allegorically, rather than as a literal story. If properly broken down, the plot for The Buried Giant may seem thin, like a series of coincidences barely strung together, but that’s not really the point. Memory, and the odd mercy of forgetting, is the core theme of this book. The Buried Giant of the title refers both to a legendary figure referred to throughout, but also the hordes of painful memories lurking just beneath the surface, both as individuals and a society. Tory cabinet member Dr Liam Fox recently made the startling assertion that the UK has no reason to believe that it’s past is shameful. The brushing under the rug of British colonial atrocities, the wilful forgetting in the name of stability and comfort, is the unspoken metaphor which underlines much of The Buried Giant’s world of Saxons and Britons. Ishiguro is ambivalent and uncertain himself on memory; the book posits the thought that if peace can only be assured by forgetting the crimes of the past, surely it is better to forget, even if it leaves injustices unanswered. No easy answers are provided and an unsettling tone persists throughout.
The Britain Ishiguro conjures is itself indistinct and hazy; it never feels like a real place. Even the characters are vague and undefined. What are we if not a product of our memories? Without a clear past, there is nothing to define ourselves. As memories return, Axl and Beatrice don’t always like what they see; they fear that finding out what they were will alter who they are. This book works on a macro and micro level, both exploring societal forgetting but also the personal. Axl and Beatrice are uncommonly and utterly devoted to one another, but would such a pure love be possible if they could remember all the tiny hurts and grievances which build up over the course of any long relationship? However, is their love truly real if they cannot understand the foundations upon which it was built? Again, Ishiguro isn’t interested in answering the question, instead he simply presents the uneasy and uncomfortable thought to the reader.

The Buried Giant is a strange, wonderful book which leaves a lingering sense of unease in the reader. Ignore lazy comparisons to Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings by fantasy illiterate critics, The Buried Giant can’t really be compared to anything else I’ve ever read.

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Snapshot by Brandon Sanderson

A new Brandon Sanderson novella is never a bad thing and Snapshot is a lot of fun, if a bit lightweight compared to some of his other efforts. Its high concept is a bit over reliant on exposition, compared to the relative elegance with which he creates entire worlds in stories like Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell or Sixth of Dusk, but it’s a fun bit of popcorn reading nonetheless.

Snapshot follows two detectives, Davis and Chaz, as they investigate inside a titular ‘Snapshot’, an entire recreation of a day in a city, used to investigate crimes in real time. This is set in the Reckoners universe, or multiverse, or whatever’s going on with that setting. During a routine investigation, Davis and Chaz stumble upon a crime they weren’t meant to know about and take it upon themselves to investigate.

The actual story itself, in terms of character and motivation, is fairly thin. What saves the experience is a playfulness with reality and perception, as well as Sanderson’s signature world building. The people within the Snapshot are, disturbingly, implied to be sentient and that every time the Snapshot is shut down they are essentially murdering thousands of conscious minds. Sanderson doesn’t shy away from this inherent darkness, with the most interesting element of the plot being a badge which, when shown to someone in the Snapshot, makes them aware that they are, essentially, not real. The differing reactions are very interesting; some laugh, some cry, some kill themselves and some kill others. Still, the actual story wrapping up the interesting ideas isn’t particularly memorable. It’s got a couple of twists, but without much of a reason to care about the characters they’re robbed of impact.

Snapshot is a decent enough read, but definitely doesn’t pack the punch of some of his other short fiction. If you fancy a sci-fi tinged detective story you could do worse, but there’s better out there too.

 

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The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North

I really liked Claire North’s last book, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, and The Sudden Appearance of Hope does very much feel like a companion piece to her last book. As with Harry August, this book is about a person with a strange power (or curse) and the unique perspective this gives them on our world.

When Hope Arden turned sixteen, people began to forget her. About two minutes after the end of any conversation or contact, the person she is communicating with will forget the encounter ever happened, even her own parents. This leaves Hope unable to form relationships, get a job, buy a home or live any semblance of a normal life, so she has naturally become a thief of the rich and famous, more for the thrills than the material gain. Her next target is a leading member of Prometheus, a company known for creating the app Perfection, which has the aim of encouraging people to be their ‘perfect’ self. Of course, Perfection is based around an ideal of someone white, rich and American and the addictive quest for perfection is ruining lives. Hope discovers that Perfection is even more sinister than it first seems and sets about using her unique ability to take them down.

The core forgetting concept is so interesting that when the Perfection angle was introduced I felt a little put out; why have such a great concept being wasted on a standard social media = bad story? Perfection is fairly Black Mirror as a concept and not miles from sci-fi dystopias we’ve seen before. I think what makes it more interesting is the international angle seen in The Sudden Appearance of Hope. This book takes place all over the world and seeing people trapped into striving for a vapid Western ideal is interesting. The forgetting element in Hope ties in very nicely with Perfection. For a user of Perfection, their life is like a performance where being known to have experienced something is more important than the experience itself; for Hope this is impossible. The book regularly refers to her life being trapped in the present tense, with the implication that everyone else is trapped in the future. Hope is genuinely free in a way few people are, but it’s a freedom that comes at a terrible cost. Therefore, the two elements which make up this story reveal themselves to be utterly entwined and compelling.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope is, much like The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, told in a relatively non-linear fashion. It can feel a bit vague and directionless at times. I appreciate that the sense of displacement is intentional, being fairly central to the main character, but it’s a bit too easy to lose the thread of the actual story running throughout. Where Harry August was more impersonal in tone, The Sudden Appearance of Hope is much more internally focused, with more than a few lapses into stream of consciousness. North is a bit more risk taking in her prose here, which feels less controlled and more chaotic. It’s never less than compelling though, allowing us to empathise with a figure who is, in many ways, very alien.

Hope is an interesting character, but doesn’t feel like a fully-fledged person. This is undeniably intentional and perhaps a reflection that we can only truly be defined against other people. If you cannot form relationships, you are incomplete. Hope seems, at least to some extent, aware of her lack of identity and desperately seeks one. She’s a fascinating character and, similarly to Harry August before her, a bit of an enigma. The supporting cast are interesting in this one, such as Luca Everard, an investigator for Interpol who has pieced together Hope’s existence from her crimes and the gaps in memory she leaves. I really liked Byron, a mysterious online figure with a grudge against Perfection. In her own way, Hope does make some connections to people, but the hurdle of forgetting creates some fascinating dynamics. The characterisation in this book is a lot better than its predecessor.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope is another great book from Claire North. She reminds me a bit of David Mitchell, one of my favourite authors, although she dips more thoroughly into science fiction than he does. I’m looking forward to going back and reading Touch, which was published before Harry August. This is another piece of genre fiction which I would recommend to anyone, regardless of tastes.

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Blood of Elves by Andrzej Sapkowski

Blood of Elves is the first full novel in The Witcher series, with the previous two being linked short story collections. Sapkowski’s origin as a writer of short fiction is apparent in this book, since if taken as a novel, Blood of Elves doesn’t quite work. However, each lengthy chapter feels fairly stand alone, so if taken as a series of short stories closely linked by a core narrative, Blood of Elves works much better.

Blood of Elves picks up not long after the concluding story of The Sword of Destiny. Nilfgaard’s invasion has been repelled, but not before the brutal sacking of Cintra and the death of its formidable Queen Calanthe. Calanthe’s granddaughter, Ciri, is thought dead, but has in reality been rescued by Geralt and taken to the witcher stronghold of Kaer Morhen. Geralt and Ciri are linked by destiny and Geralt makes it his sworn vow to protect Ciri above all else. Rumours of her survival spread, and malevolent forces gather to find her and use her for their own nefarious purposes. Meanwhile, tension between humans and non-humans reach a boiling point and the Scoia’tel, an anti-human guerrilla army, is formed.

This book is oddly structured and not a whole lot happens; it lacks a satisfying conclusion in its own right and is focused towards building towards the sequels. If taken as a series of separate short stories it works much better. There are some delightful chapters, such as the arrival of Triss Merrigold at Kaer Morhen, where she promptly takes the gathered witchers to task for their bungled handling of Ciri’s ongoing puberty. Another involves Ciri training with Yennefer and the bond that builds between them. In fact, any scene involving Ciri is pretty much delightful. Geralt himself takes a bit of a backseat in this one, with Triss, Ciri and Dandelion covering well over half of the novel between them. Sapkoswki relies a bit too much on exposition, with one lengthy scene following the meeting towards the gathered rulers of the North feeling particularly egregious. The thing is, his actual writing is light and buoyant enough than it never feels boring. These pacing issues are ones which I found myself more observing objectively rather than being actively bothered by. There’s a whimsy, tempered by darkness, which is more than little reminiscent of Neil Gaiman. Blood of Elves is just very bloody readable and a testament both to Sapkoswki and the translators from the original Polish.

As mentioned above, characterisation is arguably Sapkowski’s greatest skill. Geralt, Ciri, Triss, Yennefer, Dandelion, all are a joy to spend time with. The bond between Geralt and Ciri is very moving; the well of feeling and love behind the grizzled exterior of Geralt is the reason he’s one of my favourite protagonists in fiction. There’s a lot of humour in Blood of Elves and I’m still amazed by how well CD Projekt captured the tone of the books in the games.

Blood of Elves is an undeniably flawed book, but I enjoyed it a hell of a lot anyway. The characterisation and dialogue are so strong that I could forgive almost anything. It feels like it’s saving the big stuff for later; a table setter it may be, but you’d be hard pressed to find a more enjoyably set table than this.

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Arcanum Unbounded by Brandon Sanderson

This may be one of the most gloriously silly book titles I’ve read all year. It’s almost aggressively geeky and I love it. It’s also perfectly appropriate for this book; the Cosmere is Brandon Sanderson’s fictional universe which unifies almost all of his fantasy novels. Yes, Mistborn and The Stormlight Archive take place on different planets, but those planets are in the same galaxy and a central theology and source of power underpins them both. These connections are getting more and more explicit, but are still fairly minor and easy to miss, for the time being at least. Arcanum Unbounded is a collection of all of Sanderson’s Cosmere short fiction so far. Each section is collected by the planet on which they take place, with a tantalising description of each one, giving us Cosmere geeks some satisfying morsels about each’s larger place in the universe. I’ve already reviewed a fair few of them, so I’ll just link to those.
The Selish System

The planet of Sel is the setting for Sanderson’s debut novel Elantris, but is one we don’t know particularly well, but Sanderson has promised to return to in the future. The first story in the collection, The Hope of Elantris, is a deleted scene of sorts from the main novel, detailing events taking place in an Elantrian children’s home during the climax of the novel. It’s been so long since I read Elantris that this didn’t really do much for me, but it’s a nice enough read all the same.

I reviewed the next story, The Emperor’s Soul, a frankly horrifying four years ago in my first year with this blog. Here’s the review:

https://frivolouswastesoftime.wordpress.com/2012/12/11/the-emperors-soul-by-brandon-sanderson/

 

The Scadrian Systrem

Scadrial is the setting for the Mistborn series and still arguably Sanderson’s most coherently developed setting. The first story, The Eleventh Metal is a short one which provides a bit of Kelsier’s backstory, showing him fairly new to his Mistborn powers and still training, before he committed to taking down the Lord Ruler. As with The Hope of Elantris, it’s a fun little side story which doesn’t add a huge amount, but it’s always nice to see a little more of Kelsier. Following The Eleventh Metal is Allomancer Jak and the Pits of Eltania which brings the events into the Alloy of Law era. This one is a huge amount of fun and a bit of an experiment. It is presented as a collection of serialised story from the adventurer Allomancer Jak, with droll footnotes from his long suffering Terris footman. We’re told not to trust much of what Jak tells us in his enthusiastic first person prose, but it does give us some interesting hints about the role of the koloss in the current era of Sacdrial. This is a funny, breezy and light piece of writing. A whole novel of this would get old quickly, but you can just tell how much fun Sanderson was having here so it would be nice to see him give this style a go again sometime.

Now, looking back through my archives I appear to have forgotten to review Mistborn: Secret History back when I first read it. To be fair, that makes sense though as almost the entire thing is a massive spoiler. It’s almost impossible to talk about without giving too much away. Suffice it to say that Secret History bridges the gap between the original trilogy and the Wax and Wayne follow ups, as well as providing a significant amount of tantalising hints about the Cosmere and Scadrial’s role within. It’s not just fan wank though, telling a genuinely interesting and entertaining story. One of the things I love about Sanderson is that, even when neck deep in his own lore, he never forgets to keep the prose itself snappy and entertaining. Exposition rarely feels like exposition. It’s a bit amorphous at times and isn’t paced particularly snappily, but it’s nature as an ‘interquel’ of sorts makes that somewhat inevitable. This is one of the most meaty stories of the collection and an absolute must read for any fans of Mistborn or the wider Cosmere.

The Taldian System

Taldain is the setting for White Sand, an odd instalment in the Cosmere canon. Written as one of Sanderson’s earliest books, he was unhappy with it and it remained unpublished. Sanderson’s draft is currently being adapted as a graphic novel, the first instalment of which released this year. I have read it, but I didn’t review it because I don’t really know how to talk about graphic novels the way I do with books and games. Arcanum Unbounded contains the first few pages of the graphic novel (in black and white), as well as an extract from the original draft. The White Sand graphic novel is good and does promise to be important for the Cosmere; it includes the origin story for Khriss, the character who writes most of the Ars Arcanum entries for the Cosmere books, as well as the introduction for the different systems in Arcanum Unbounded. As it stands, this Taldain section is more of a teaser for better stuff to be found elsewhere. There is a worthwhile story being told on Taldain, but it’s worth picking up the first volume of the graphic novel to get it.

The Threnodite System

Threnody is a hugely interesting setting that I hope Sanderson returns to one day. For now, all we have is Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell, which I reviewed earlier this year here. It’s very good (the story, not my review):

https://frivolouswastesoftime.wordpress.com/2016/02/27/shadows-for-silence-in-the-forests-of-hell-by-brandon-sanderson/

The Drominad System

As with the last system, the only story set here is the enjoyable Sixth of Dusk, which I also reviewed earlier this year:

https://frivolouswastesoftime.wordpress.com/2016/02/28/sixth-of-dusk-by-brandon-sanderson/

The Roshar System

Roshar is the setting for The Stormlight Archive and Edgedancer is the only completely new story in the collection and was therefore the main selling point. One of my favourite things about the series are the Interludes, semi regular short stories interspersed throughout the main narrative giving hints of things to come and characters who will play a larger role in later books. The real victory of these is that several function independently as their own short stories, or even novellas. Managing to embed a functional novella into a separate novel without disrupting the flow is something which doesn’t seem possible, but Sanderson pulls it off. One of the most memorable Interludes in Words of Radiance followed Lift, a mysterious and eccentric young woman who has been awakening to her powers as a Radiant in the West of Roshar, an area little seen in the main narrative. Edgedancer is, essentially, a sequel to that Interlude and follows what Lift got up to after she broke into the palace of Azir and accidently rescued it’s Emperor from the mad Herald Nale, who Lift knows as ‘Darkness.’

The real victory of this story, which sees Lift travel to the city of Yeddaw, supposedly in a bid to taste the ten varieties of filled pancake for which the city is famous, is that it doesn’t feel inessential. Side stories and novellas often fall victim to the ‘so what’ problem. If this is so important, then why isn’t it part of the main series? The events of Edgedancer feel relevant to the wider story of The Stormlight Archive regarding the return of the Radiants, the role of the Herald Nale and how Szeth fits into his plans. It’s also, (and this is important) a lot of fun. Fantasy is filled with authors who seem to be tired of writing, or see it as a grand burden, people like Martin, Rothfuss and Lynch. I’m not criticising those authors, they’re all brilliant, but you get the sense that they may have fallen out of love with their own series and the act of writing. Sanderson isn’t like this; you can just tell he loves writing and loved writing this story. His enthusiasm is infectious and helps make up for the fact that his work is never quite as polished as the other authors mentioned above. Lift strikes me as character people will either find endearing or irritating, but for me she falls into the former camp. There’s a genuine sense of tragedy behind the flippant and silly exterior and I’m sure we’ll find out more about her by the time she comes into prominence in the main series. Edgedancer may not be quite worth the price of entry alone, but it is another strong piece in a very strong collection.

Conclusion

The core stories of the collection are The Emperor’s Soul, Mistborn: Secret History, Shadows for Silence in the Forests and Hell, Sixth of Dusk and Edgedancer. The collection is worth it just for these if you haven’t read them. The other stories feel a bit less essential. I wouldn’t recommend touching Secret History or Edgedancer if you’re not familiar with their respective series, but the other three can be read entirely stood alone. Taken together, this is a hell of a collection and a perfect demonstration of Sanderson’s range and talent. As something to hold me over until the third Stormlight book, Arcanum Unbounded will do just fine.

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Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One is only five years old but already feels like something of a relic. It’s an optimistic and uplifting book with an unshakable belief in the power of nerds to do good. Events since 2011 have shaken my belief that being a nerd or a geek makes you more likely to be a good person, with events like Gamergate or the Sad Puppies unfortunately suggesting that ‘nerd culture’ isn’t what I thought it was. In this sense, Ready Player One feels like a sort of nerd utopia, where everyone is egalitarian and inclusive in their shared love of pop culture, as opposed to the polarised and exclusionary narratives which so often surround issues of diversity in ‘nerdy’ pop culture.

Ready Player One takes place in a not too distant future which has become dominated by the ‘Oasis’, a virtual reality experience where much of the Earth’s population spend all their time. Where the real world is riven with poverty, over-population, environmental collapse and massive inequality, the Oasis is a genuinely egalitarian place where anyone can live an exciting or creative life. The creator of the Oasis, James Halliday, had died five years before the start of the book, but in his will had set forth the hunt for the Egg. Somewhere in the Oasis, hidden behind three walls requiring three keys, in the greatest Easter Egg known to man and the discoverer of this Egg will bestow the finder with Halliday’s fortune and control of his company. This announcement changes the world, with many foregoing all else and hunting for the Egg full time, known as gunters. Halliday was obsessed with 1980s pop culture and so all the gunters become experts in 80s movies, TV shows, videogames and music in the hope that they will provide a clue. Our protagonist, Wade, is one of these gunters, although a fairly insignificant one, who stumbles upon the first clue for the Egg five years after the competition was first announced.

Your enjoyment of Ready Player One is largely going to be tied to your tolerance for reference based writing. Almost every major moment is a call back to some piece of 80s arcana or the other. Now, I’m not a child of the 80s. I’m a 90s kid baby. Re-write this with Pokémon, Tarantino and Nirvana and it’d be more my era, but I ended up spending a fair bit of this book feeling quite lost.  I have mixed feelings about all the references. I usually don’t like them; I found them really annoying in Charlie Jane Anders’ All The Birds in the Sky, but Ready Player One is a bit different because it’s entire plot is about references. It’s about nostalgia, so it doesn’t feel as calculated and cringeworthy here as it does elsewhere. I was expecting this to end up as a comment on the toxicity of nostalgia, of living in the past and refusing to embrace the new, but that never comes.

The main cast are a likeable, if straightforward bunch. There aren’t any standout characters, but they’re all enjoyable enough that you’re rooting for the good buys and booing the bad guys. The ‘adorable nerd’ thing doesn’t feel quite as relevant these days in a post Gamergate world. No one in the Oasis is whining about SJWs or posting Pepe memes, officially making it a vastly superior place than the real internet we have to inhabit. This isn’t a criticism of Ready Player One, far from it, but it definitely made me quite sad to see that genuine optimism and enthusiasm for ‘nerd culture’, which recent events have revealed to be, at best, non-existent, or at worst toxic and hateful.

Ready Player One is a likeable enough book, certainly the genre fiction version of a beach read. I read the vast majority of it across two lengthy train journeys, which seems like the right way to absorb something like this. I’m not sure that there’s much substance here, but it’s a fun enough ride regardless.

 

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Sword of Destiny by Andrzej Sapkowski

I enjoyed the first Witcher collection very much and found it’s loose, fairy tale focused approach quite charming. The Sword of Destiny is a much tighter collection and for the first time I really felt that this was the same world I was so familiar with from the games. Sword of Destiny is a wonderful collection of stories which both stand alone but also set up the following novel series.

The first story is The Bounds of Reason, which sees Geralt caught up in a dragon hunt alongside a range of other characters seeking its treasure. Dragons are sentient creatures who largely ignore humans, so Geralt does not view them as monsters in need of slaying. On the journey Geralt comes back into contact with Yennefer, with their tempestuous relationship currently at a low point. The Bounds of Reason takes a while to get going, with the exploration of Geralt and Yennefer’s relationship being the most appealing part of the story for me. The following story, A Shard of Ice is focused entirely on Geralt and Yennefer, with the two reunited and staying in the city of Aedd Gynvael. Yennefer has ongoing business in the city, but Geralt is anxious to leave causing the two to clash and it isn’t long before a rival for Yennefer’s affections complicate matters further. Where previous Yennefer stories focus on the magnetism and chemistry which inexorably draw her and Geralt together, A Shard of Ice concerns itself with the ways in which their lifestyles are incompatible. Yennefer is entirely selfish, but this is something almost inherent to someone as powerful as she, and entirely unwilling to meet Geralt’s needs. Geralt is restless, constantly needing to be on the move and an inability to articulate his emotions leading to simmering resentments. A Shard of Ice is a focused story with a smaller scale, but one which I really liked for what it revealed about a relationship which is increasingly seeming to be one of the core pillars of the series.

Eternal Flame isn’t one of the best stories in the collection, but it’s a generally lighter and funnier tale, with Dandelion playing a central role. It’s setting is one immediately familiar to players of The Witcher 3; Novigrad. I’ve spent a fair bit of time prowling those virtual streets so this setting was immediately appealing to me. It’s not the only element which eventually reappeared in The Witcher 3: Eternal Flame is about dopplers; shape shifting creatures who are hated and feared by most humans but are generally harmless. Dudu, the doppler at the centre of the story, played a role in the story of the game. Eternal Flame is a fun, but not particularly memorable story overall. The following story, A Little Sacrifice, wasn’t a favourite either. This story sees Geralt and Dandelion desperate and hungry, struggling for work. Geralt has wound up as the middle man in a love affair between a local noble and a mermaid, neither of which speak the same language. This whole element is a quite funny pastiche of The Little Mermaid, but the main plot interested me less. It involved a strange, love at first sight relationship between Geralt and a young bard mentee of Dandelion’s, Essi Daven. I found the whole thing a bit disconcerting, particularly in regarding the age gap. I mean, I’m definitely adjusted to seeing Geralt with younger looking women, but at least they’re normally sorceresses who are actually much older. Some people find this story very moving, but it really didn’t land for me. Still, the mermaid stuff was really fun so that made up for it.

The final two stories of the collection were definitely my favourites.  The title story of the collection, Sword of Destiny, sees Geralt heading into Brokilon, a forest home to the mysterious dryads. The local princeling seeks to take Brokilon for its lumber and real estate and this is fiercely resisted by the dryads, with whom Geralt has had previous encounters. It is not long into his journey that he encounters a young girl who claims to be a princess, hiding from her prospective marriage match. This young woman is named Ciri and anyone who has played The Witcher 3 will know how important she is. The bond between Geralt and Ciri is hugely touching in the game and it was wonderful to see the origin of this relationship here. The sword referred to in the title is metaphorical, with ‘destiny’ being the major theme of this story and the one following it. Issues of predestination and free will come to the surface of this story and the risks and virtues of flying in the face of destiny and forging your own path are core to Geralt’s character. The final story, Something More, is a rather strange one. The story opens with Geralt saving a merchant from an attack on his wagon but becoming badly wounded in the process. The merchant takes care of him and brings him towards his home in CIntra whilst Geralt heals, with the story frequently lurching into flashbacks whilst Geralt recovers in a feverish daze. This story follows the fall of Cinta to Nilfgaard and features plenty of returning faces in the flashbacks, such as Yennefer and Dandelion. Something More picks up plot threads from several previous stories, most notably the immediately previous Sword of Destiny but also from stories way back in The Last Wish. It feels like a transition story between the short story structure of these first two books and the novels which follow. It’s probably the most moving bit of writing I’ve read from Sapkowski so far and digs deeper into Geralt’s surprising emotional depth than we have previously.

Sword of Destiny is a fantastic collection, even stronger than The Last Wish. By this point I absolutely get why this franchise became so huge in its native Poland. As much as I love the games, I hope that the stories which started it all aren’t forgotten. These two collections really are great and if they’re anything to do by, the following novels will be too.

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