Better Than a Potato in a Minefield … FIREFIGHT by Brandon Sanderson

In February 2014, my bride-to-be and I drove to South Padre Island to scout out what proved to be our wedding location. Accompanying us on that 12-hour round trip was Brandon Sanderson’s STEELHEART, read by MacLeod Andrews.

I don’t usually listen to audiobooks, but I knew I had a long drive ahead of me with very little in the way of scenery, landmarks or entertainment. It turned out to be a great decision, and so I pre-ordered FIREFIGHT and looked forward to reading it as soon as it was released. I wasn’t disappointed.

In much the same way that Sanderson’s second book in the MISTBORN series, THE WELL OF ASCENSION, handled the difficulties created by defeating the antagonist in the series’ first book, FIREFIGHT recognizes that defeating STEELHEART not only didn’t solve all the Reckoners’ problems, but it actually created some new ones.

Early in the book, the new mayor of Newcago asks David what the Reckoners’ plans are for taking on all the high epics coming to the city to challenge David and the rest of the Reckoners. David soothes her concerns, but it’s all a bluff — if there’s a plan, he doesn’t know it.

There’s also the newly-discovered knowledge that Prof, head of the Reckoners, and Megan, David’s love interest, are both epics.

“I’d grown up practically worshipping the Reckoners, all the while loathing the Epics. Discovering that Prof was both … it had been like discovering that Santa Claus was secretly a Nazi,” David muses.

One of my favorite things about these books are the way Sanderson blends the sheer fun of normal people fighting back against superheroes with plenty of character contemplation and world development. Sure, David and the Reckoners have some awesome action sequences, but there’s also a lot of time spent with thoughtful dialogue about the world they live in and what the clues they discover mean to their situation.

In FIREFIGHT, David remains the goofy kid we grew to love in the first book, but he’s also coming to grips with the fact that his lifelong determination to kill Steelheart means that he doesn’t quite fit in with other kids his age. More importantly, he’s wondering just how much humanity remains in the epics around them, and questions whether the Reckoners’ actions have the moral justification he’d once thought.

Fortunately, Sanderson blends these more serious considerations with the same humor featured in STEELHEART. David still struggles with metaphors/similes:

I mixed with ordinary people about the same way that a bucket of paint mixed with a bag of gerbils.

and David’s interactions with Megan continue to entertain.

“You’re like a potato!” I shouted after her. “In a minefield.”
She froze in place. Then she spun on me, her face lit by a half-grown fruit. “A potato,” she said flatly. “That’s the best you can do? Seriously?”
“It makes sense,” I said. “Listen. You’re strolling through a minefield, worried about getting blown up. And then you step on something, and you think, ‘I’m dead.’ But it’s just a potato. And you’re so relieved to find something so wonderful when you expected something so awful. That’s what you are. To me.”
“A potato.”
“Sure. French fries? Mashed potatoes? Who doesn’t like potatoes?”
“Plenty of people. Why can’t I be something sweet, like a cake?”
“Because cake wouldn’t grow in a minefield. Obviously.”
She stared down the hallway at me for a few moments, then sat on an overgrown set of roots.
Sparks. She seemed to be crying. Idiot! I thought at myself, scrambling through the foliage.Romantic. You were supposed to be romantic, you slontze! Potatoes weren’t romantic. I should have gone with a carrot.”

In FIREFIGHT, most of the Reckoners leave Newcago for Babylon Restored (formerly Manhattan), to take on Regalia, a High Epic who knew Prof and Tina before Calamity. At first I was concerned, as the Reckoners leave Cody and Abraham, who of my favorite Reckoners from the first book, but Sanderson uses the opportunity to introduce new characters well, and the addition of Mizzy adds another strong character to the cast.

If you liked STEELHEART, I can’t imagine you being disappointed by FIREFIGHT — Sanderson brings even more humor, even more interesting reveals and just as much emotion as we saw in the first book. It’s only a few days since FIREFIGHT was released and I’m already looking forward to CALAMITY’s release date.


Gerald Tarrant was an antihero before antiheroes were cool … DOMINION by C.S. Friedman

Nowadays, it seems as though you can’t swing a stick in the fantasy section of your local bookstore without hitting three or four antiheroes.

In some ways, to me, they all feel like a pale replica of the neocount of Merentha, Gerald Tarrant. When I first read the Coldfire Trilogy in the ’90s, I’d never encountered a character like Gerald Tarrant. The closest I could think of was Raistlin Majere from The Dragonlance Chronicles, and Gerald Tarrant was a hundred times more frightening than Raistlin Majere on his worst day. Gerald Tarrant was intelligent, refined and brutal as hell — and he immediately became one of my favorite characters in all of fantasy.

In DOMINION, Tarrant comes to the Forest for the first time and quickly bends it to his will. I liked the story, but found myself distracted by the terrible editing job. As best I can tell, DOMINION is only available as an ebook, and it seems as though this story wasn’t edited at all — some of the sentences read awkwardly and it’s easy to see where a simple clean-up could correct the issue. In other places, there are missing, extra or misspelled words. At times, I found myself distracted from the story while thinking about how to fix the text.

As for the story itself — it’s fairly straightforward. Over the course of 56 pages, we see Tarrant’s arrival at the Forest and the origins of the albino. We meet Faith, a hunter for the Church who finds herself trapped in the Forest and soon becomes a target for Tarrant. Whereas The Coldfire Trilogy circled around Tarrant, giving us glimpses of his motivations and his intellect, he seems to be more of a straightforward vampire here. When we meet him, he’s feeding on a family, using his magic to hold them in thrall while he drains the daughter of her blood — there’s none of the subtlety and internal conflict that made the trilogy so entertaining and that’s unfortunate.

I think I would only recommend this story for those who have already read The Coldfire Trilogy and simply want to return to the world of Erna. For those who haven’t read the trilogy, I’d suggest starting there and circling back to this if you’re so inclined. Even though the Coldfire Trilogy’s ending was pretty damn near perfect, reading this reminds me how much I enjoyed my initial encounter with Tarrant, and I can’t help but wish there was another Gerald Tarrant novel in the works.

A Story for Broken People — THE SLOW REGARD OF SILENT THINGS by Patrick Rothfuss

Patrick Rothfuss does an awful lot of apologizing in both the foreword and endnote to THE SLOW REGARD OF SILENT THINGS.

The foreword begins by telling you that you might not want to buy this book, and if you haven’t read THE NAME OF THE WIND and THE WISE MAN’S FEAR, you might be better off starting there. This is probably fair — I think you can enjoy SLOW REGARD without having read Rothfuss’s previous two novels, but I think the context those novels provide is important. In the endnote, he goes into even more detail, describing a conversation he had with an advance reader who liked the book. Rothfuss responds by explaining why no one else would feel the same way:

“You see, people expect certain things from a story,” I explained. “You can leave out one or two if you step carefully, but you can’t ditch all of them. … People are going to read this and be pissed.”

“Let those other people have their normal stories,” Vi said. “This story isn’t for them. This is my story. This story is for people like me.”

On the one hand, Rothfuss’s warning is fair — if you purchase SLOW REGARD to see the plot from THE KINGKILLER CHRONICLES advance, you’ll be disappointed. This is a very quiet character study stretched out over 176 pages. It’s a chronicle of a week in Auri’s life, with no dialogue, no action scenes, nothing but the lonely days of a broken girl who has pieced herself back together as best she can.

On the other hand, I wish Rothfuss and others would take a lesson from his story’s protagonist and simply allow things to be what they are. No, this isn’t the third KINGKILLER novel. It’s not a tale of adventure. It’s not even told in first-person. It is what it is — a glimpse into the life of Auri, perhaps the most curious character in the series.

Rothfuss’s tremendous care with words is on full display here as Auri’s days are spent searching the Underthing for abandoned knick knacks and supplies. She ascribes character attributes to each object, placing great importance on finding the proper place for everything, yet firmly rebuking herself any time she begins to think about how these things might serve her. She takes great joy in many simple things, such as the food and items she scavenges, or the soap she makes, but at the same time we get a peek behind the pain. This is a character who spends much of the story finding the proper place for the items she has collected, considering and discovering their “true” nature, but she seems to know that she herself is broken, and that makes her lonely. It’s a side of her I don’t remember seeing in THE KINGKILLER CHRONICLES, and I’m glad this story gave us a glimpse of that side of her.

It’s a story not unlike Auri herself — curious, unstructured, yet surprisingly sweet, and honestly, who would begin reading a story about Auri and expect it follow the rules? To provide answers? It may not give you concrete answers as to how Auri became the fae-like girl we’ve come to know, but it gave us glimpses, and for me, that was more than I ever felt entitled to. To be honest, as Auri went about her week in the Underthing, I was surprised at how well Rothfuss pulled these seemingly random events together at the end. I’m not certain those who say there’s no plot to the story are correct — it’s just not the kind of plot we’re accustomed to, and to me, that’s okay.

At times, it’s heart-breaking to see the things that cause her the greatest panic — a moment of fear when she hears a sound and believes she may be discovered, her misery when a skunk comes and eats some of her precious few belongings, the times when she weeps herself to sleep. Auri is a broken little girl with no one to protect her, and even if Kvothe cares for her, it’s clear that he is of far more import to her life than she is to him, as she spends much of the week considering what presents she might present to him when next he comes to play his lute outside the Underthing, and seems to have scheduled her entire week around when she guesses he will visit next.

As Rothfuss says in his endnote, this story is for all the slightly broken people out there. It’s about a small girl living by herself, who just wants to carve a small niche in the world for herself, someplace quiet and out of the way, so she can be safe. I think anyone who has ever felt small and alone and afraid can relate.

Setting alone isn’t enough … MERCHANT OF DREAMS by Anne Lyle

It’s probably not surprising that MERCHANT OF DREAMS has many of the same strengths and weaknesses as THE ALCHEMIST OF SOULS. Once again, the setting is the Night’s Masque series’ greatest strength — this time taking us to Venice, a beautiful yet treacherous city with interesting customs and dangerous players. Anne Lyle has created a unique setting with plenty of opportunity for intrigue and excitement.

Unfortunately, however, I’ve always been more interested in characters and their development, and that’s where I haven’t been able to really dive into this series. Mal Catlyn was something of a cipher in the opening book, and while there’s a bit more development here, he comes across as fairly bland, with his primary traits being his loyalty to country and his willingness to have sex with just about anything — men, women, non-humans, whatever.

Ned Faulkner is fairly well developed in this book, but is crafted to be a fairly shallow character who only thinks about having sex with Mal or Gabriel. Gabriel himself is actually shown to be fairly useful, but I’m fairly neutral on all the core characters except for Coby. Combine that with a plot about defending England’s trade interests, and I’m disappointed to admit that I probably won’t read the third and final book in this series.

Things don’t get easier for FitzChivalry Farseer … A Review of Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb

Sometimes when people wish to pay a compliment to an especially captivating actor, they say that they could listen to that person read the phone book and still come away thoroughly entertained. I’m not sure exactly what the equivalent is for an author, but I certainly feel this way about Robin Hobb’s books about Fitz and the Fool, whether they be the Farseer Trilogy, the Tawny Man Trilogy or this new chapter, the Fitz and the Fool trilogy.

Hobb has an unparalleled ability to shine a light on the quiet and routine moments and somehow make them fascinating just because they’re told in the voice of a character we deeply love, who we would happily listen to as they read a phone book. There are many quiet moments in this book, as the first 80-90 percent is largely character-centered, and through much of the book I couldn’t tell you what the overall story was, other than chronicling the continuing life of FitzChivalry Farseer.

The relationship between Molly and Fitz continues to fascinate, filling many of the quiet moments with enough magic to delight fans of the series such as myself, but it’s the introduction of Bee, a new POV character, that represents a major change from what we’ve realized before. Had I known before I picked up FOOL’S ASSASSIN that Hobb would introduce a new POV character, I would have been concerned — after all, these books have always been Fitz’s story, and I’ve never loved Hobb’s other series the way I’ve loved these books as told by Fitz. But Bee, the newcomer to this tale, holds her own as a viewpoint character, infusing a new energy in a series that has already included six novels told from Fitz’s point of view. The story benefits from Bee’s younger perspective, and once again demonstrates Hobb’s ability to describe the world from a child’s perspective. Bee’s voice lends new energy to the story, and she has already become my second-favorite Hobb POV character.

Upon completing FOOL’S ASSASSIN, it’s clear this is only the first chapter in a story that still has a long ways to go before the puzzle pieces come together. The book comes to a stopping point that leaves the reader eager for more, but it certainly takes its time in getting there. If you’re reading FOOL’S ASSASSIN seeking a self-contained story with an obvious plot arc, it simply isn’t there. The story’s character arc is all about the relationship between Fitz and Bee — the rest of the plotting simply comes to us in small pieces, and unless I totally missed something, we’ve only just begun to understand the path our protagonists will be carried on.

I’m sure that will frustrate some, but as for me, I’m just happy to be back inside Fitz’s head for another three books. When I finished the final book in the Farseer trilogy, as Fitz told us that he and Nighteyes dream of carving their dragons, I remember how awestruck I was — it was the best ending to a book that I’d ever read (or have since). Even though it was late, I got in my car and drove for almost an hour until I got to my girlfriend’s house and told her all about the series and the way it ended, just because I needed to explain it to someone and I didn’t want to be alone after reading a story that I already knew had changed my life.

This book has a similar moment, one certain to break the hearts of all who have followed FitzChivalry Farseer for seven books now. These character-centric moments, this unflinching examination of life — they are what make Robin Hobb so unique. She quietly draws you into this world, and while she doesn’t have George R.R. Martin’s reputation for killing the majority of her characters, she has proven unflinching in throwing tragedy after tragedy Fitz’s way. Be warned — it doesn’t get any easier for Fitz in FOOL’S ASSASSIN.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Review of COLD DAYS by Jim Butcher

I love the Dresden Files. I love Harry Dresden’s first-person point of view,the cast of characters Jim Butcher has surrounded Dresden with, the corny, totally nerdy jokes,the breakneck noir plot lines and the fact that this is the 14th book in the series and it’s still the book I look forward to most every year.

GHOST STORY, the previous book, was good but not great. Dresden walking around as a ghost took away some of the series’ top strengths — his interplay with his friends — but COLD DAYS returned the series to its roots, with Dresden reconnecting with some of his friends and reacquainting us to the politics between Winter and Summer with a totally different kind of confrontation this time around.

In both of Jim Butcher’s series, this and CODEX ALERA, I’ve noticed that his writing and storytelling get stronger as the series progresses, as though he’s growing more comfortable with the characters and the story he wants to tell. With almost every book, he finds a way to change the game, to heighten the stakes while continuing to mix in enough humor to make the books light, quick reading. In GHOST STORY, Butcher upped the stakes by turning Dresden into the Winter Knight, and in this book he deals with the very first ramifications of that decision. COLD DAYS changes the game again in an intriguing way and includes an ending that makes me sad and yet still makes me look forward to the 16th book.

By now, the cast of characters has grown large, but I found in reading this book that I remember them all (which says something about Butcher’s ability to create interesting, memorable characters), and I was interested to see how Butcher reintroduced Dresden to his old friends and how quickly everyone responded to having him back in the world of the living.

I read this book in four days as a bit of a break from THE WHEEL OF TIME, and it was refreshing to read a book with a protagonist who told jokes, with a plot that moved forward with every page and a read that was just good old-fashioned fun. I’m enjoying THE WHEEL OF TIME, but COLD DAYS was a great change of pace that made me appreciate even more what Jim Butcher does so well — tell fast-paced stories with funny, interesting characters in a world that continues to grow more complex and interesting with each chapter. I know these books are best sellers, but I can’t help but feel as though the Dresden Files books are underrated — that people really don’t understand just how good these books truly are.

Reread of LORD OF CHAOS by Robert Jordan

By this point in the series, I feel like Robert Jordan’s strengths and weaknesses have been pretty firmly established. He’s a strong world- and character-builder, which helps to carry the story when he gets too verbose or his plotlines meander.

In this book, Jordan did a better job of writing Rand, who for me has either been a non-entity or has actually hurt the book ever since the first tome, THE EYE OF THE WORLD. I thought some of the strongest parts of the book came at the end, when you could feel Rand’s rage and frustration practically leaping off the page.

As in previous books, LORD OF CHAOS was at its best when Perrin was brought back into the picture. For me, he is by far the most likeable character in the series, and at times the only one I truly root for. Unfortunately, he doesn’t show up for the first 800+ pages, and so we spent the bulk of those early pages watching the Aes Sedai plot amongst themselves. Early in the series, I’d been impressed with Jordan’s use of Egwene, Elayne and Nynaeve — while the three ta’veren were content to react to the world around them, the women were the ones actually moving the plot forward. For a series that was clearly so inspired by Tolkien, it was a strong way to differentiate itself. But for the last few books, I’ve begun to wonder if Jordan’s writing of women is as positive as it originally seemed to me.

As the series has gone on, Jordan’s characterization of the women seems to to have become largely negative in my eyes. Nynaeve has become a bitch who rages whenever she doesn’t get her way — often, it seems that even her friends don’t truly enjoy being in her company. While Elayne and Egwene are better drawn as strong women, they’re often working at odds with Rand and are far too easily insulted by the male characters’ temerity in having opinions. I can imagine how much readers would hate a male character who snidely dismissed the opinions of every woman he met and felt justified in using magic to abuse the opposite sex. I’m not a particular fan of Mat Cauthon’s, but I actually grew angry realizing that Nynaeve and Elayne had every intention of trying to steal his foxhead medallion and leave him vulnerable to Aes Sedai magic. The plot of this book especially seems designed to show just how dangerous the Aes Sedai are, and I think even Elayne, Egwene and Nynaeve are dangerous to the male heroes in their own way.

Jordan’s ability to finish a book strong is in full force here, as the ending is terrific. And again, Jordan’s proclivity for verbosity is equally in full force. Even the embarrassingly terrible cover art is again present, this time with a weird monster (a dragon, perhaps?) flying through the sky even though there are no dragons or flying monsters anywhere in the book. It’s pretty much the perfect example of bad cover art — poorly crafted while displaying monsters that aren’t in the book.

Overall, it’s pretty incredible how similar this book is to its predecessors. It shares the same strengths and the same weaknesses, so if you loved what came before, you’ll love this book. If you didn’t, it will continue to frustrate you.

It’s like a metaphor for the Wheel of Time itself …