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.

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Book Review: “The Emperor’s Blades”

emperorsbladespsdWhen you’re reading a book, do you ever feel like you’re obligated to finish it? That if you just read one more chapter, you’ll come across a beautiful gem of a scene and it’ll make the previous eighty pages worth it? That was kind of how I felt with Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades. It took me WEEKS to finish it. I would read ten or twenty pages at the gym (more on that later), then another ten or so pages before bed, then I went out of town and didn’t read it at all, and then I was hanging out with friends… The book didn’t immediately grab me like I had hoped.

The Emperor’s Blades begins with a harrowing prologue depicting a man, who we are told is an immortal being called a Csestriim, and his daughter, who has been taken by “the rot.” In other words, she’s become human, and has aged past her prime. The man kills her without affect, seeming almost bored. It’s grotesque and dark and…a little…cool.

In writing classes, one popular theory is to lead a story with a hook—something to grab your reader’s attention and compel them to read further. The Emperor’s Blades certainly does that. But the prologue gives the reader certain expectations about the following story, and The Emperor’s Blades does not honor those expectations. After such a chilling scene, I would hope the ensuing story would illuminate some details about why the Csestriim killed their human children, but instead we only learn that the Csestriim died out millennia ago. But wait! Are they returning at last? Were they even real to begin with? Who knows? Not our characters! The prologue doesn’t have any bearing on the story whatsoever.

Prologue woes aside, the book does have some things going for it. It’s cleanly written with few grammatical errors and no logic problems I can recall. The basic elements of the story—king is assassinated, his children are in danger, etc.—aren’t that unique, but make for a compelling narrative. And the settings of the world are varied and intriguing. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the characters. Most everyone in the novel has either a mysterious, icy cold demeanor, or an explosive and anger-fueled attitude. Some even have both. None of the characters are people I would want to work with, let alone be friends with.

So the heroes are unlikeable and angsty. What about the villains? If written well, villains can be the most interesting part of a story. Sadly, The Emperor’s Blades falls short in this respect, too. The four main villains appear uncomplicated, straightforward, and obvious. Two characters are originally set up to be villains, but are later revealed to be “good guys,” which is interesting…or it would be, if I cared about those characters at all.

If there’s one thing The Emperor’s Blades does well, though, it’s action. The last quarter of the book, it feels, is one unbroken action sequence. Despite struggling to get through the first two thirds of the book, I read the last third in a single sitting. The tension ramps up, the characters start piecing the villains’ plans together, and the novel really moves. Was it worth the wait? I thought so. Will others appreciate it? Honestly, I’m not sure.

In the end, The Emperor’s Blades felt like a solid 3 out 5 for me. It has several issues, but provides good entertainment, a few great twists, and a beautiful action sequence. I just wish it had gotten there sooner.

A Review for “Name of the Wind”

The Name of the Wind cover

This post previously appeared on an old (and destroyed) blog. I’ve since edited it.

I know there are already a bunch of reviews for this book out there, but I’d like to add my thoughts anyway. Without further ado, here’s my review of Patrick Rothfuss’s debut novel, The Name of the Wind (spoilers!).

The first time I read this book, I was fanatic. I recommended it to everyone I knew who read fantasy, and even some people who didn’t. Even literature professors were unable to avoid my zeal.

But during my most recent re-read, I used a more careful eye. This time, I read it as a writing major–as a critic–for my creative writing thesis in undergrad. And while I still enjoyed it, I found a few…issues.

First and foremost is the narrative structure. While the stories-within-stories frame is a technique practically as old as literature itself, it presents a challenge for the reader. Which Kvothe should we care about: the current one, or the younger one? Each has his own problems, and each presents a convincing character who I want to love. Sometimes I don’t care about the older Kvothe, a man who apparently lived a legendary life and started a war and possibly summoned terrifying ice-skating spiders. Instead, I care about young Kvothe, the rational University student squabbling with his rival, searching endlessly for his “ladyfriend.” And sometimes, it’s the opposite. It’s difficult for readers to hold two versions of the same character in their minds without favoring one, and that’s not always a good thing.

There are some technical issues in the novel, too:

  • Kvothe’s “You wouldn’t understand”/narcissistic attitude
  • The underwhelming female characters
  • Eleven-year-old Kvothe speaking with the diction of a twenty-year-old

That said, the novel has plenty of aspects that draw me in. Name of the Wind employs beautiful and at times striking language along with enticing worldbuilding and characters. Sometimes I sit back with the book on my lap and think, “Now there’s a good sentence.” Stylistically, I find similarities between Rothfuss’s writing and Le Guin’s. True, sometimes Rothfuss is a little heavy-handed with the adjectives, but as a fellow adjective abuser myself, I’m willing to forgive him.

Secondly, Denna. Denna is a fascinating character with just enough intrigue to make me yearn for more information, but a complex enough character where I care about her without knowing exactly what makes her tick. Her relationship with Kvothe is adorable, and her endless stream of suitors, while aggravating, presents the right amount of interpersonal stress on Kvothe where he’s truly challenged–and it makes me love them more. I’m not so sure she’s a realistic character, but she’s manipulative, intelligent, cruel, yet friendly and kind all at the same time. And that complexity gives her character strength.

And lastly, the mysteries. This is where the story-within-a-story frame really shines. Because readers see an older, aged Kvothe who contrasts completely with his younger self, readers are compelled to continue reading and witness the change occur. By the end of Name of the Wind, young Kvothe has changed, but not nearly enough to justify older Kvothe’s radically different outlook on life. That in turn pushes readers toward the second book in the series, Wise Man’s Fear, and to the eventual third book (which hasn’t been published yet). Rothfuss presents readers with the right amount of information throughout the novel: not too much where readers become bored, and not too little where they become uninterested. Instead, it brings readers closer to Kvothe and make them vie for his success. It’s all the more fulfilling when he gets it, and all the more heartbreaking when he doesn’t. I feel invested in Kvothe’s story, and that is, ultimately, any author’s goal.

This novel isn’t perfect. College classes probably won’t teach it any time soon. But it’s still an entertaining, fun read, and for that it earns 4/5 stars.