Book Review: A Practical Guide to Evil

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Several months ago, my husband “ran out of books to read” and was recommended an online serial, or web fiction, called A Practical Guide to Evil. At the time, there were two complete books online and the beginnings of a third. My husband started reading it and instantly fell in love. He recommended it to me on multiple occasions; even when I was buried in schoolbooks to read, he would say, “Why don’t you just read the prologue? It’s not too long. You’ll love it.” I resisted until this weekend.

And I couldn’t. Stop. Reading.

Practical Guide is told from the villains’ perspective, and it doesn’t pretend otherwise or make apologies. Within the first chapters, it becomes abundantly clear that the main character, Catherine, will stop at nothing to achieve her goals—even if it means killing in cold blood or betraying her partners. But despite her evil actions, Catherine is likeable. She’s witty, cunning, straighforward when she needs to be and duplcitious when she doesn’t. She may have a ferocious, backstabbing, manipulative exterior, but she tells herself it’s all to free her homeland—and we believe her. We accept her twisted motives because we see the Heroes, and they don’t look so different. Practical Guide wants its readers to struggle, to wonder about the nature of Good and Evil.

In addition to the refreshing take on the classic hero’s tale, Practical Guide has an interesting magic system. The world is low-magic, with only a few individuals possessing powers, given to them by Names and Roles. Basically, Practical Guide‘s magic is based on achetypes, and shamelessly so. People can take on Roles, like Warlock, Captain, Ranger, Scribe, Empress… And they will learn magic based on the Role. Every person who comes into a Role has slightly different magic, so no two are exactly alike, but you can bet that everyone named Empress has been, well, the Empress.

So, the premise is good, the magic is good, the characters grow on you—what’s not to like? Here we get into the thorny side of web fic. From what my husband has told me, many web fics are published without any real editing (e.g. there are obvious typos). Practical Guide is sadly no exception. Every chapter has typos, phrases that could be omitted with no affect on the meaning of the sentence or paragraph; the story as a whole has a bad case of info-dumping and formatting issues. One character is referred to by alternating pronouns the first time he’s introduced (after his introduction, he goes by male pronouns only), and another character was renamed after her introduction—that, or there were so many new characters at once that I lost track of people. This book would never be on bookshelves in its current form.

But that’s a hidden truth to publishing. The book you buy at the store looks nothing like its first, second, third, tenth draft. The most important thing when acquiring a book is to look past its typos and peer into its heart, find its voice. Practical Guide has that voice, that nameless thing that keeps readers up at night, gripping their paperback (or phone, as the case may be) until the action subsides. I blazed through the first book of Practical Guide in just a few days and overlooked the typos and formatting issues because the story was simply too good to ignore.

I enjoyed this book immensely. I actually read it during the day, for once; that’s not an easy feat, as lately, I’ve been reading solely before bed. I’m so glad I took my husband’s word and gave this web fic a chance. You might enjoy it, too. So have at it.

2/5 for editing & design, 5/5 for everything else.

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Book Review: Three Parts Dead

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One of my professors is a SFF agent, and he recommended Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence to me. The Craft Sequence is a series of (currently) six books that all take place in the same world, but featuring different characters and locations. One of the interesting aspects of the series is that the first five books (and maybe the sixth as well—I don’t know much about it) weren’t published in sequential order. Three Parts Dead was the first book to be published, but in the timeline of Gladstone’s world, it’s the third book, hence the ordinal “third” in the title.

I asked my professor over Twitter whether to read the books in publication order or in temporal order. He suggested reading them in pub order, as that was how Gladstone intended for the audience to experience his world. So I took his suggestion and dove right into Three Parts Dead, and let me tell you: it was a wild adventure.

Three Parts Dead opens with a clinching first line: “God wasn’t answering tonight.” The rest of the book is similarly enthralling, with fully-fleshed characters and a complex world. By the end of the first chapter, Tara, the main character, has been kicked out of the Hidden Schools, nearly died after drinking a desert oasis dry, dug graves and raised zombies, and weilded a blade of moonlight. Actually, that’s only the first half of the first chapter.

I enjoyed the relentless pace and the diverse cast of characters. The plot was intriguing and not so easy to predict. The book’s downfall, in my opinion, is the relatively short explanation of the world’s magic, or Craft. I garnered that it’s a taught thing, and not many people can use it, but what is it exactly? Tara uses her craft in a variety of different ways—trying to explain them here would only be confusing. It seems that Craft can be a weapon, and also a tool: everything is connected with Craft, and the ties between things can be manipulated and used. But it’s a little difficult for me to understand. (That said, I did read the majority of this book right before sleep, so that may have affected my comprehension.)

At 330 pages, Three Parts Dead can be read rather quickly. Its length combined with its pace result in a quick read. Most of the fantasy I read could be considered epic in length, and this novel was a refreshing change. I might classify this book as a science fantasy, actually; while there is magic, technological progress hasn’t abated. The mix of technology and magic confused me at first but I grew to enjoy it. In all, Three Parts Dead was an enjoyable introduction to Gladstone’s world, and I’m excited to see how his series pans out. 4/5 stars.

Book Review: The Well of Ascension

I’ll jump right into it: Well of Ascension didn’t impress me like The Final Empire did. Sometimes, you have to wonder how serial authors muster the courage to release a book after producing such a hit. Well of Ascension was still early in Sanderson’s career, so it’s fathomable that Final Empire’s success had him (and his editors) a little starstruck. The timeline for Well of Ascension could have been shorter too; maybe it didn’t get the same editorial treatment Final Empire did. But regardless of the reason, the second installment of the Mistborn trilogy fell flat. (Spoilers ahead! Like, immediately ahead. Don’t read on if you’re not prepared.)

Unlike the first book, Well of Ascension focuses more on the politics of creating a kingdom (and eventual empire) and less on kicking obligator/Inquisitor tail. Compared to The Final Empire, this book could almost be described as a snoozefest. There’s so much political drama that I found myself wanting to get to the “good” parts—e.g., the action parts—of which there were disappointingly few. The few that are there, thankfully, are gripping and exciting, but the book toes the line between “this book is quieter than the last one, but still interesting” and “there’s not enough fightin’.”

Vin, who takes up the mantle as resident Mistborn in Luthadel after Kelsier’s death, has a distinct lack of agency in this book. To some extent, her lack of agency is a main and explicit struggle in the novel, but when she does reclaim her agency and her free will, she completely loses control. All of a sudden, doing things “her way” means killing dozens of people in near-cold blood. This is in no small part due to a rival Mistborn egging her on, but I wish she had shown more awareness. More propriety.

While Vin’s character arc doesn’t quite deliver, Elend’s is very well done. In book 1, Elend is little more than an unkempt philosopher; in book 3, Elend is a successful and frightening emperor. The transition between the two is well paced (Sanderson does a bit of hand holding during the process, eager to draw attention to Elend’s progress in the narration itself) and ultimately believable.

Also, I kept track of how many times the characters sighed in Well of Ascension. I didn’t manage to count them all; I grew bored about halfway through. But still, the characters racked up fifty sighs by the time I was at page 200. That’s way too many. I keep ragging on Sanderson for this admittedly minor flaw in his writing, but I’m honestly surprised that it escaped editors at Tor twice. (Three times, actually, since the characters in The Hero of Ages sigh a lot too.)

The Well of Ascension is an average book. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it. I’m sure there are many people content to read no further than The Final Empire. I don’t begrudge them for that choice. An average book gets an average score of 3/5 stars. Honestly, I’m not surprised that the second book isn’t as good as the first. It’s a well-known occurrence for volume 2 of a book series or TV series or movie series to lack that essential spark of the first volume, the thing that made people want a second installment in the first place. I just started rereading The Hero of Ages; look forward to my review of it by March!

Book Review: Mistborn: The Final Empire

mistborn-coverWhen I first read Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy six years ago, I spent an entire summer weekend reading in my room. I went through a book a day and only came out to say hello to my family, scrounge for food, and use the restroom. I’m not even sure I changed out of my pajamas that weekend. The Final Empire was my first Sanderson novel, and was actually one of the first adult fantasy books I’d ever read. (Alison Croggon’s The Naming was my first “adult” fantasy novel, but it always felt a little YA to me.)

Perhaps it’s because I read it in such a flurry that I keep returning to the Mistborn trilogy. I read it for a second time about two years ago, and picked it up once more over my winter break. I have a horrible memory for media, so I was surprised by much of the details—and even some plot points—in the first Mistborn book. I read it over the course of a week and, unlike the first or even second read-through, took the time to absorb the language and the characters. And it was absolutely enthralling.

Everything I want in a book is there: fleshed-out characters, intriguing magic, an active political landscape, fight scenes, a dash of romance. I love multi-POV books when done properly (in other words, when the narration is split between a few important characters), and The Final Empire keeps the POV shifts neat and limited to two principal characters—Vin and Kelsier—and the occasional odd character. Sanderson uses a gentle touch when worldbuilding Luthadel and the surrounding landscapes, and eased me into this new world and characters. In fact, it’s almost too gentle; the main characters are introduced slowly: “Then character X walked in, and he wore this and acted like this; and then character Y came in, and he wore this and acted like that…” I would have preferred a more dynamic introduction of some characters, something more seamless. Sazed’s introduction later in the novel seems close to effortless, which is a good thing.

One thing I wish Sanderson had done differently is the romance between Vin and Elend. Vin seems to fall in love with Elend rather quickly; I believe she only met with him a handful of times before realizing she loved him. And Sanderson could have made the reveal much more compelling if Vin had shown us her love for Elend rather than explicitly stating it. (Seriously, she thinks, “I love him,” and then runs off to save him. Not the best-written scene by any means—though I do appreciate the role reversal.)

My other, more minor, complaint is how often the characters sigh. It seems to happen in every conversation, even in some instances where characters are parsing out details on their own. Vin sighs nearly every time she’s on the page, and once you notice it, you can’t help but sigh yourself every time a character does. There are other ways for characters to express their displeasure, their tiredness, their loneliness. I’ll have to keep track of how many sighs occur in the other two books in the trilogy, or if Sanderson continues the trend in his later works, like the Stormlight Archive books.

Mistborn: The Final Empire was near perfect for a first installment. There were twists and surprises, and I found few gaps in logic or consistency of plot. That said, it does feel like a safe novel; where Mirror Empire was too ambitious, perhaps The Final Empire isn’t ambitious enough. Regardless, it’s guaranteed to please any high-fantasy lover, and is a great place for new readers of fantasy to start. 4/5.

Book Review: The Mirror Empire

themirrorempire-144dpiThe Mirror Empire was one of those books that I grabbed on a whim at Powell’s and promptly forgot about. I’m glad I pulled it from the shelf, though, because it’s an extremely ambitious novel and, despite its shortcomings, and enjoyable read.

When I first started reading Mirror Empire, I yearned for a glossary. Luckily, it delivers with a twenty-page glossary on every unfamiliar term in the book. (I just wish I had found it sooner.) I experienced more than a bit of confusion with the beginning of the book; it throws you into the world of the Dhai face-first with a gripping prologue and several different points of view. Off the top of my head, I can list at least eight different narrators, which may have been a bit much—even for a 500+ page book. That said, each narrator adds a new dimension to the story and grants the reader another window through which to look at the world.

While the glossary helped my comprehension of the novel, the storyline is another matter. Not only does the word “Dhai” refer to a country, its people, and its language, it also refers to a different set of people in the book. The narrators learn about this other people over the course of the story, so the reader’s confusion is also the characters’ confusion; in that regard, it’s a clever way to identify with the characters. That said, I found the storyline a bit difficult to parse out. Well…maybe it was more how the different characters relate to each other. All the names were unfamiliar, but every character had several relations to other characters, and even with the glossary it was difficult to keep track of it all.

The world is one of the more intriguing worlds I’ve encountered. It took me a little while to understand (and I don’t know that I fully understand it, even after finishing the novel), but I do know that some people in this world are “gifted” with magic derived from the “satellites” of the world, and that one of them is rising for the first time in many centuries—I believe 2,000 years—which awakens latent magical potential in more than a few people. Architecture in this world is mostly living plants, shaped into buildings and living quarters by a particular group of mages. The plant life is…well, alive. Sentient. I wish the novel had delved more into the living plants, but there was already so much going on without it that it was better left alone. And the land has a rich political landscape, and interested me even though at times I felt in the dark.

All in all, The Mirror Empire is a great addition to fantasy literature. As many reviewers stated, its every facet is “epic.” I’ll have to reread the novel before leaping to the sequel due to all the confusion (and my lazy reading habits), so for me, the book scored a 3/5. But I imagine a more perceptive, intuitive reader could rate it higher.

Book Review: A Series of Small Maneuvers

When I finished Eliot Treichel’s A Series of Small Maneuvers, I cried. Okay, that may be overstating it. My eyes misted and I sniffed quite a bit. A few tears were shed. I gave the book to my fiancé when he asked what was wrong and told him to read the last few paragraphs. He did, and handed the book to me with a nod when he finished. “Good ending,” he said. “It’s so real.”

While reading Small Maneuvers, that was the thing that struck me most: how real it was. Treichel characterized the narrator, Emma, so thoroughly that I could hear her voice while I read. She’s not the only character with top-notch characterization, though; her father, who dies in an accident (chill out, we learn that from the back copy), had many different dimensions. He was not glorified or remembered as a faultless being after his death, as some individuals are. Instead, Treichel gives him flaws and reminds us of them throughout the novel. Emma loves her father, but that love is complicated and nuanced as it would be in real life. She looks to him for advice and support, but thinks he can be too overbearing. He loves his family but can be self-centered. He would be a perfect caricature of a modern tree hugger—concerned for the environment, disgusted with consumerism, infatuated by exploration and self-actualization—but he’s far from a perfect person. That said, he is a perfect character.

Treichel writes excellent dialogue, too. Here are some lines from chapter 26:

“What’s the name of that one kind of fish,” I asked instead, trying to distract her, “the one you don’t want here?”

“There’s a couple,” she said.

“More than a couple,” Dan said, climbing up to the oars.

[…] “Is one of them tilapia?” I asked.

“Yep,” [Alex] said. “Do you know those?”

“They’re the ones for fish tacos, right?”

Dan laughed at that. “They do make good tacos.”

The dialogue, like the characters, feels so very real. I can picture this conversation actually happening. Some may think the dialogue is uninteresting or understated, but it’s true to life and convincing.

There was only one aspect of the book that I didn’t like, and that was something Treichel had no control over: the interior design of the book. The margins are incorrect; they’re even on the top and bottom, with no extra room given to the page numbers. Additionally—and this is a weird thing to complain about—the indentations of the paragraphs are not even. It’s hard to explain without pointing in the physical book, but when a new paragraph starts with a quotation mark (as in dialogue), the first line will be closer to the margin. It’s nitpicky, but it makes the book stand out from other books.

I love the content of this book but dislike the layout of the book. Content receives a 5/5 and layout receives 3/5 for an average of 4/5.

Book Review: Siblings and Other Disappointments

When I went to Wordstock a few weeks ago, I stopped by the Ooligan table. They had all their books on display and I had a voucher for $5 towards any book purchase in my purse, so I gazed across the stacks of books in search for a new buy. Their newest book, Siblings and Other Disappointments, was written by an Ooligan alum (Kait Heacock) and had been released about a month prior. Earlier in the Wordstock festival, Heacock had read a section of her story, “Longer Ways to Go.” She didn’t finish the story, but I wanted to hear more. So I bought Siblings and the book next to it, A Series of Small Maneuvers, which I’ll discuss next week.

I knew the stories would all explore variations of melancholy, sadness, desperation, loss, loneliness, and depression, but I didn’t know how far the stories would go, how attached to the characters I would grow. Each story is believable and independent, full of convincing characters and true-to-life situations. I don’t know much about the landscape of Washington, where most of the stories occur, but Heacock instilled a deep sense of place throughout many of her stories, and I felt right there with the characters.

My favorite story is “No Horse in This Race,” one of the later stories in the collection. I was totally convinced by the characters of Ruthie and her father. I especially loved Heacock’s integration of Ruthie’s memories into the narrative; it can be easy to bog a story down with too much flashback, but Heacock avoids this pitfall. My heart raced while I read the surprising—but believable—final scene. The dialogue and descriptions make clear the father’s desperation, so much so that the story couldn’t have ended differently. (Apologies for being vague about the details of the story; I don’t want to give too much away.)

One of my favorite things about Siblings and Other Disappointments is that each story explores a different set of characters and viewpoints. Heacock writes from the perspective of a middle-aged trucker, a boyfriend and girlfriend, an agoraphobic tenant and his elderly landlord, a religious mother and her daughter, a college freshman and her father, and so many more. Each story brings a new person to life, which I find commendable for the simple reason that I tend to write similar characters into every story. That Heacock can balance so many distinct voices impresses me.

I have a small quibble about the arrangement of the stories. While the first story, “Upstairs,” is certainly written well, it might turn readers off with its surprising, punchy ending (again, sorry for the vagueness). Then again, I’m not quite sure which story would better kick off the anthology; perhaps “The First Wife,” with its strong character voice and identifiable strife, would lead the book more effectively. But the story order does not detract from the overall impact of the anthology.

If you enjoy reading about dysfunctional relationships and prefer your fiction short and sad, Siblings and Other Disappointments might be the perfect book for you (visit its Amazon page here). I feel the anthology edges on a 4.5/5 for its distinctive narrative voices and emotional arc.