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.

Advertisements

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.

Some Writing Prompts

If you’ve followed my blog for a while or know me in real life, you know that I struggle with writing every day. I always tell myself that today I’ll write something or I can’t watch that show until I write 1,000 words. Telling myself those things hardly ever motivates me to face the page, however. It may have been this tendency to avoid the very thing I profess to enjoy most that motivated my housemate to buy this book for me.

wp-image-1308606472jpg

That was a few weeks ago. I won’t disclose how many prompts I’ve written to (ahem…) but I thought it would be fun to post some of them here, and explore why these prompts are useful for creative writing.

Prompt 1. What is your (or your character’s) favorite way to spend a lazy day?

Have you played The Sims? All Sims have a “lifetime goal,” something huge and hard to attain, and smaller goals, like going on a date or watching a movie. This prompt will tease out your characters’ smaller goals and explore your character’s lives outside the main plot of the story. I’m pretty terrible at giving my protagonists hobbies aside from “adventuring” or “using magic” or “work.” Learning what your character wants to do with their free time will give you more material to work with.

Also, pretty much every time the prompts ask “you” a question, you can replace it with “your character.”

Prompt 2. What is your favorite work of art? What do you love about it?

This prompt intrigues me because it opens a seldom-explored facet of worldbuilding. For writers of fantasy, figuring out what artistic styles suit your world can lend your story more believability. Do your artists work solely in mosaic? Are sculptures viewed as false idols? Do the nobles in your world keep art on their walls, and if so, what kind of art? What historical events are portrayed in art? If your character doesn’t like art, that’s an answer worth exploring, too.

Prompt 3. Name one thing you have lied to yourself about. Why did you do this?

I can imagine all sorts of ways this prompt can influence a story. Knowing a character hasn’t been honest with themselves can allow you, the writer, to add tension between characters, or between your protagonist and their environment. Recognizing lies like “I want this for myself, not because someone else wants it” or “I can’t get a better job than this” could be huge turning points for characters.

Prompt 4. Do you prefer taking risks or having a safety net?

This prompt is fairly straightforward, but can illuminate some personality traits about a character that had been hidden or obscured. To me, protagonists should take risks in stories—even small ones. Sometimes it can be difficult to know what your characters want or fear, however, and this prompt can help you answer that question and pin down what kind of risk your character will eventually take.

Prompt 5. What do you keep in your pockets/bag/purse?

This wasn’t in the prompt book my housemate gave me, but it’s one of my favorite prompts. I’ve used this in the past to figure out what my characters carry with them, what’s important to them, what they need (or think they need) to attain their goal. This can also help you avoid those moments where you think, “She needs a knife. Does she have a knife? Did I mention one in her pack?” Or, in a more contemporary setting, “Does he carry gum with him? Maybe he keeps old receipts in his pocket.”

That’s all the prompts for today. Next Monday, I’ll post a response to at least one of these prompts, and I hope you’ll write as well!

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.

Halfway through “Range of Ghosts”

I’ve looked forward to reading a book by Elizabeth Bear for years. Ever since I first found All the Windwracked Stars in Powell’s five years ago, she’s been on my “to-read” list. Her bibliography contains over thirty novels and novellas and well over fifty short stories. I’m surprised it took me so long to find her; you’d think that a lifelong fantasy reader would have stumbled upon one of her works much earlier than I did.

The ebook version of Range of Ghosts happened to be on sale a year or two ago, so I purchased it and jumped into the prologue. But something inevitably wrested my attention away from it, so it went unread for many months. I tried reading the prologue again but couldn’t get into it for one reason or another. Then the book sat in my library…again. Finally, when I finished A Darker Shade of Magic, I decided it shouldn’t wait any longer. I should try again with Range of Ghosts and power through it. Ignore the distractions! Read at every idle moment! Be the good student you are and finish what you started!

But…guys. I couldn’t do it. I’ve been trying to read this book for weeks and I just…can’t. I’m sure grad school has something to do with it—last weekend, I spent close to ten hours writing a paper and what free time I had was spent doing other homework or being a couch potato—but that’s not a good excuse, is it? I finished The Emperor’s Blades even though I struggled through the first half, right? I could certainly finish this one…

Well, I’m not sure if I’ll finish it, to be honest. My habit of reading a few pages here and there didn’t do me any favors. There’s so much going on in Range of Ghosts, so many unusual names for characters and cities, that I haven’t been able to understand the world as much as I need to. Range of Ghosts deserves better from me. I hardly ever want to give up on a book, and Range of Ghosts certainly doesn’t deserve it. There’s a lot of cool stuff here, like different suns for different kingdoms (it doesn’t make sense to me, but I hope someone in the book explains it), a huge host of diverse and non-white characters, which the fantasy genre desperately needs, and a great magic system. If I hunker down and dedicate a solid hour or two a day to reading this book, I could probably grow to love it.

I need to persevere. Without dedication and perseverance, a writer is nothing.

I’ll keep you guys in the loop with my progress on Range of Ghosts. And hopefully I’ll have a fully-formed book review for you soon. In the meantime, keep on writing & reading!