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: 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: “Range of Ghosts”

range-of-ghosts-largeI finally did it. After a month of off-again, on-again reading, I finished Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts. I should have done it a lot sooner, but school kept demanding my attention (and I didn’t manage my time well…) and now we’re here. As those of you who read my previous blog post on Range of Ghosts know, I was not a good reader for this book. There were things I missed or didn’t understand because I was so scatterbrained. But I’ll do my best to give you a good blog post on this book.

The Range of Ghosts is one of the few fantasy books I’ve read that celebrates diversity. Each character is described as belonging to a different people, a different country. What’s even cooler is that the world of Range of Ghosts—at least the world depicted in the novel—is based off the central Asian steppe, and the characters reflect that. I can’t remember a single light-skinned person in the book. Just like the multitudinous peoples of Asia, the peoples of Range of Ghosts are multifaceted and varied. And the characters are completely believable, too. Their motivations and voices are distinct and realistic. Elizabeth Bear did a wonderful job portraying diverse cultures.

Another cool, diverse thing about Range of Ghosts is the gender makeup of the named characters. The two main POV characters are Samarkar, a once-princess who chose to become infertile for the chance to have great magic power, and Temur, a forgotten son of a conqueror and warrior. That’s an even split. But the rest of the characters that join on their journey are three women and one man (not all at the same time). It’s so rare for women to be equally represented in fantasy—and rarer still for them to be more populous than their male counterparts.

The ending, by the way, was amazing. Samarkar swims across a sea. Another character becomes possessed. Little things Bear had been hinting at throughout the novel converge in a stupefying final scene. I definitely want more (and thankfully, there is more, in the form of two books to round out the trilogy). And now that I’ve exposed myself to one of Bear’s series, I’ll be more willing to read her other works—of which there are many.

I could continue, but really, this Tor.com blog post discusses Range of Ghosts better than I ever could. I give this novel a 4/5, and will definitely reread it in the future.

Book Review: “A Darker Shade of Magic”

My fiancé purchased A Darker Shade of Magic, a novel by V. E. Schwab, at Powell’s a few months ago. It had been sitting on our bookshelf since then—he’s been occupied with other books recently—until I finished The Emperor’s Blades and needed something else to read (and blog about). It was the spine of the book that initially drew me to it: plain white with large, angular yet artistic text, it looked out of place among the many fantasy novels we owned. When I picked it up, I saw that it was published by Tor, one of my favorite publishers. They’re not known for their minimalist covers, but somehow, A Darker Shade of Magic was given a cover that is intriguing in its baseness. A figure in red steps between two circular maps. The book itself is lightweight for its size. It’s completely different from every other Tor book I’ve come across—and perhaps that was the intention.

A Darker Shade of Magic isn’t simply different in a physical sense. I find its combination of interdimensional travel, a Victorian era setting, rampant magic, and a high fantasy tone difficult to categorize. It’s clearly a fantasy book, but it’s not “urban” in the strictest sense, and it’s not quite a “period piece” because only a portion of the novel occurs in Victorian London. Perhaps the rock I’ve been hiding under recently is much larger than I thought, or maybe I’ve had my head in too many high fantasy books, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel quite like A Darker Shade.

While the story has a straightforward, classic approach to the narrative structure and could even be divided into three acts in the same manner as a play, the writing style is refreshing and the characters intriguing. The first chapter in particular reminds me of Terry Pratchett’s style: grounding details decorated with snappy phrases that draw the reader in. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Schwab spent weeks writing the first few paragraphs alone. When read aloud, the sentences flow together with a delightful cadence not unlike the river that serves as a motif for the novel. Schwab’s writing is elegant, straightforward, and luxurious in its brevity.

For a novel to succeed, it needs magnetic characters with which the reader can identify. I can’t decide if A Darker Shade follows character tropes too closely, or if it achieves a balance between recognizable and unique. The male protagonist adheres to the strong-and-silent type: he is one of a dying breed of wizards, and takes his duty very seriously. But he also has his quirks, namely his penchant for useless baubles and trinkets from other worlds. The female assumes the swashbuckling rogue archetype with street-smarts. At times she can appear a bit too unflappable, but she gets herself into so much trouble over the course of the novel that it’s not necessarily a fault; the reader knows she’s done this before, and will try her damnedest to survive, even (or especially) if it means attacking with reckless abandon. The tone difference between her viewpoint chapters and the male protagonist’s serve as welcome breaks in what could have been a much darker, duller story.

Of course this novel isn’t without its faults. One villain in particular seemed lacking in motivation, and a few side characters faded from my memory after a few chapters (even though they were important later on). Tor employed an excellent copyeditor who made very few mistakes throughout the novel, but I tripped over the language at times. That said, I would definitely read this novel again—and will hopefully get my hands on its sequel soon. All in all, A Darker Shade of Magic provides a fascinating conceptualization of Victorian London intertwined with fantastical magic. I highly recommend it for readers looking for a break from high/epic fantasy, or are looking to test the waters of fantasy/period literature. 4/5 stars.