Book Review: THE GATHERING STORM sets WoT series back on track

The Gathering Storm may be the best novel of The Wheel of Time series to this point (book 12 of 14). This is the first book Brandon Sanderson co-authored after Robert Jordan’s passing, and it is simply incredible.

While Sanderson’s own writing style is markedly different from that of Jordan’s, the climactic narratives of two of the most important characters in the series are what stand out about this volume. The Gathering Storm soars as it brings the arcs of two of its primary characters to stunning crescendos.

Sanderson’s writing style is more befitting a modern fantasy audience, which is likely why he is one of the most popular fantasy authors of the last decade, if not longer. Compared to Jordan’s verbose prose that strains the limits of sentence structure and pays homage to the classical high fantasy authors that preceded him, Sanderson’s writing is concise and emotive. I don’t necessarily prefer Sanderson’s writing style to Jordan, but his punchier phrasing lends a sense of urgency to the story.

The Gathering Storm is ultimately the first part of a three-part conclusion to this epic series. Sanderson wrote it this way intentionally, taking Jordan’s outline for his finale, A Memory of Light, and splitting it into three volumes to capture all of the threads that Jordan wanted to weave into the final tapestry.

This is seen most starkly in the stories of Rand and Egwene. I will not go into detail, but I will say that The Gathering Storm really focuses on these two, separated geographically by hundreds of leagues or more, and narratively by nine or ten books, but linked as they each approach the Last Battle. It can easily be argued that they are the two most important characters in the series, and Sanderson and Jordan emphasize their place by weaving their first steps in the final act of the series together, independently, but in duality.

Several of the dragging plot lines of the middle part of this series are also tied off, often in ways that are surprising or shocking, but that serve the story and the characters. I’ve questioned all along how such a sprawling series could be ended cleanly, and with two books to go I can already see the blueprint. Sanderson utilizes all of the characters Jordan created, the minute storylines he laid out, to push the main groups of characters in the same direction: towards the Last Battle.

The reader feels the impending doom of this legendary confrontation laced throughout the book, throughout each character’s interactions with the others. Everyone, including the reader, knows what’s coming, and we collectively dread the moment and quiver in anticipation. The Gathering Storm is triumphant, even as it tells of only the opening salvos of the final conflicts to come.

I’ve already started reading Towers of Midnight.

Steve D

Book Review: THE LAST KINGDOM and engrossing characters and story

After years of watching the show and hearing from my father-in-law that I would love Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Stories series — now more famously known as The Last Kingdom series — I finally listened to the first story, The Last Kingdom, on Audible.

This was my first introduction to Cornwell’s writing, having watched all of the TV adaptation of “The Last Kingdom” previously. Even though I came into this book with inflated expectations, I was definitely not disappointed.

The Last Kingdom follows young Uhtred, the son of an English noble, from the time he is kidnapped by a Danish earl, Ragnar, until he becomes a man. This first installment is effectively a coming-of-age story, where Uhtred learns how to live like a Dane and how to be a true warrior. He learns early on that he has a strong lust for battle and killing, and he chooses the warrior’s path for himself, becoming caught between his Saxon heritage and his Danish upbringing.

Cornwell’s story is exciting, and his plot is punctuated by thrilling action sequences and scenes of dialogue that do most of the heavy lifting in revealing the characters. Many of the names would be familiar to those who had watched the titular Netflix show, but the story is far more in depth.

I thoroughly enjoyed seeing more of Uhtred’s early years, which are largely glossed over in the show. The reader gets to see more of the relationship between Uhtred and Ragnar, which truly becomes a father-son bond as the young Uhtred grows. This story lays a strong foundation for Uhtred to constantly be pulled between the two halves of his heart — the half that wants to help Ragnar the Younger in avenging the death of their father, and the half that wants to reclaim his birthright as lord of Bebbanburg.

This story also sets up what is sure to be a fiery relationship/rivalry between Uhtred and King Alfred of Wessex, as Alfred ensnares Uhtred deeper and deeper in the politics of Wessex (and his liege-ship), and Uhtred tries to angle for a chance to see his homeland in Northumbria reclaimed. The dialogue scenes between Uhtred and King Alfred crackle with tension.

If I had one gripe against this story, it’s that I don’t know if I would enjoy it as much if I didn’t already know the characters. Being able to see the actors’ faces in my mind as I listened brought this story to life in a way that many others cannot be.

Can’t wait to start the next one.

Steve D

Book Review: INTERIOR CHINATOWN and commentary on Othering in America

Charles Yu exposes a ton of insight into what it’s like to be a “Generic Asian Man” in America. In Interior Chinatown he tells the story of an actor, Willis Wu, trying to work his way up the ladder, advancing from Generic Asian Man #3, to #2, through several intermediary roles, until at last he gets the chance to play the dream role: Kung Fu Guy.

That is all Willis thinks he is capable of becoming, a trope of cinema and a caricature of himself.

Through this experience, and with some much needed help from his family, Willis comes to realize that Kung Fu Guy is still just another version of Generic Asian Man, just like Old Asian Man or Asian Seductress.

In a strange but emotionally stirring scene in which Willis is “on trial” for boxing himself in racially and socially, he (and the reader) learn some tragic tidbits about how the US has treated immigrants from East Asia, and especially China throughout its history.

This is yet another side of history that we don’t often find in American textbooks; policies like the Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which took steps to effectively ban all immigration to the US from China. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first of its kind to ban immigration based on race or country of origin. There were also a series of Supreme Court rulings in the 1920s which sought to exclude Asians from naturalization in the US. (Read more here).

Ultimately, Willis realizes that he is playing into a system which exacerbates his own place as Asian Man; a role which continues to flummox American society at large, even after 200 years of immigration (particularly from China).

I found the structure of this story odd at first. It read like a TV script, with characters delivering lines to each other in such a way that it was difficult to tell at times when Willis was actually acting in a scene for one of his roles, versus when he was “playing” a role as Asian Man in his everyday life. This storytelling mechanism is intentional, of course, and does lend to the author’s crucial commentary, in the form of the protagonist’s monologues.

Overall enjoyed this, but more than anything, Yu makes me want to read more about the Chinese American experience, and the US’s abominable history, distant and not so distant, in this (and many other) regards.

Steve D

Midway Checkpoint: The Wheel of Time Show’s Jam-Packed Ambitions

Back in September, I allowed myself to get a little pre-hyped for Amazon Prime’s The Wheel of Time series, and I promised that I would check back in after the first couple episodes. The Wheel of Time show currently has six episodes released, and I have watched the first five, so I am definitely overdue for this post.

Spoiler warning: I will be discussing events in the TV show only, through episode 5–which maybe means this isn’t really spoiler-y. Anyway, anything that has happened in the first five episodes is fair game for this post. Although I am a current book reader I will not bring up any events from the books that have not yet been depicted on the show.

Honestly, I don’t feel like there’s a whole lot to spoil at this point in the series, which is maybe part of the problem I have with it so far. These first five episodes feel so packed with plot-building, and world-building, and characters, and movement that I have to imagine it’s difficult for casual viewers to keep track of everything and everyone that’s happened so far.

In five short episodes we’ve seen seven primary characters–Rand, Mat, Perrin, Egwene, Nynaeve, Moiraine, Lan–come together, split apart, and (almost) reunite in Tar Valon, while also meeting half a dozen other characters who appear to have some part to play this season. Stepin, Liandrin, Alanna, Logain, Eamon Valda, and Aram all seemed poised to round out a pretty full cast of characters and factions with whom that party-of-seven would have to contend. Stepin has already off’ed himself, and Aram seems to have exited the story for now, but this is still a list of characters I would…

a) never have expected to meet or be asked to care about in the first place,

b) never have expected to meet this quickly,

and c) don’t think quite fit together in an 8-episode season that is now more than halfway over with no clear central conflict having yet emerged.

The one through-line of all of this is that no one knows who the Dragon Reborn is yet, which, fine, that’s a mystery for people who haven’t read the books. But it doesn’t feel like a conflict to me.

I think my point here is that this show, so far, feels like an oversized plot that does not take the necessary steps to make me care about these people. I care, at the moment, because I’m reading the books, but that’s not enough when viewing this show in isolation.

Onto more positive notes…

Okay, I don’t want to be all cynical about this show, because I am enjoying it for what it is. The acting is great overall, the landscapes and set pieces are stellar, and the story has a compelling pace.

Listening to a podcast interview of showrunner Rafe Judkins has me confident that the man behind the curtain knows what he’s doing in trying to adapt a massive story to the small screen, where we do not have the luxury of 400 pages to tell the first part.

The first three episodes, which were dropped all at once on Prime, are heavy on lore and trying to get the viewer to even understand what the hell the Dragon Reborn is supposed to be. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense that Prime decided to present the first three episodes all at once. I think episode one on its own would have been too jarring for most people; it moves at a break-neck pace, introducing a host of characters and tons of lore, has a thrilling climax, and then ends with barely a moment to breathe.

Episode 4, in which Nynaeve discovers her ability to touch the One Power in stunning fashion, is when I decided I liked this show. I can see past the overloaded plot if we get moments as powerful as that a couple times per season.

Three more to go

Looking ahead, it’s hard to believe that this season is only going to be eight episodes. I really have no idea what sort of “ending” this first season could possibly have, unless they decide that season one is just a prologue.

All in all, I’m enjoying watching this show, but I have lingering concerns that the showrunners have tried to pack too much into so short a season for it to have much meaning. I hope to be proven wrong.

Steve D

Book Review: BRAIDING SWEETGRASS draws you in and inspires

I recently listened to Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer. This is another book I happened across while browsing Goodreads, and I gave it a shot to broaden my reading list a bit.

I can’t remember the last time I have been so completely inspired by a book — inspired to take action, but also emotionally.

Kimmerer’s book is a wonderfully woven selection of stories from her personal life, her career as an ecologist, and her own rediscovery of her Potawatomi heritage.

She cleverly leads the reader on a wandering journey as she tells of her own experiences as a student, a teacher, a mother, a scientist, an Indigenous woman, and a being with personhood (other beings with personhood include trees, plants, animals, rivers, basically everything in the natural world), to discuss the damage we have done and are doing to indigenous culture, to the natural world, and by extension, to each other.

I must admit that I found this book hard to follow during the early chapters. Kimmerer seemed to be telling random stories with no clear direction. But this series of vignettes begins to paint a larger picture as she describes a project she worked on with a fellow grad student to prove her hypothesis that sweetgrass would grow better with a human caregiver selectively harvesting it — a notion that goes against traditional Western science’s insistence that humans are separate from the environment, rather than an integral part of it.

In their experiment, Kimmerer, her colleague, and their team demarcate plots of sweetgrass and treat each one according to several variables. There were those they did not harvest at all, those they harvested by snipping at the stem, and those they harvested by pulling entire clumps of sweetgrass from the dirt. Over the course of two years, they consistently found that the plots where they were actively harvesting sweetgrass grew back better the next season. They did not wipe out an entire plot by harvesting, but instead let the sweetgrass regrow on its own terms. And they were right. This technique showed that the plots which were untouched did not regrow well at all — the older taller stalks of sweetgrass went untouched and prevented new growth, eventually choking out younger stems until their plots suffered.

There are almost too many lessons to try to take away from this book in one reading. From sustainable gardening and agriculture to on-the-ground conservation efforts to throwing support to indigenous communities’ efforts to reclaim their language and traditions, this book highlights a long list of efforts we need to make to provide a more sustainable future.

I came away from this reading both angered and inspired, frustrated and hopeful. Kimmerer does not offer hard and fast solutions — there are too many, and too complex, to enumerate in a single volume — but she does present the reader with a call-to-action, to begin pushing for change, or at least enacting change in our daily lives.

I like the idea of a larger, more sustainable garden that we can harvest vegetables from, and allowing sections of our yard to grow “wild” with shrubs and bushes native to our area and beneficial to the other fauna and flora. I also know that I need to identify local organizations focused on ecological restoration and sustainability, but finding these can be tough, at least at first.

It’s still difficult to pin down specific steps I can take as an individual towards a more sustainable future, but this book has laid the path. We just have to follow it.

Steve D

Book Review: SECOND SKIN satisfies as a short paranormal/mystery

Second Skin by Christian White is another short story I found through Audible that I gave a shot because it was free.

The story follows Stan, a man still dealing with grief from a family tragedy years ago, Marcy, a young mother trying to hold it together, and Erin, a girl who says she has the memories of a dead woman — Stan’s wife.

This story is effectively a character drama with these three protagonists trying to navigate an inexplicable circumstance that shifts between paranormal fiction and mystery as the narrative proceeds. Laced throughout this is insightful and poignant character development as Stan, through his interactions with Erin, finally begins to process his grief, while Marcy learns to accept herself and her daughter as they both are.

I enjoyed this story overall. The paranormal aspect kept me engaged as the plot morphed into a mystery. This felt like a “softer” mystery than the more suspenseful thrillers I tend to like, but it was well written all the same. I’m not itching to seek out more stories by this author, but this was worth the short listening time of around 4.5 hours.

Steve D

Book Review: DAUGHTER OF BLACK LAKE brings family drama to the Iron Age

I listened to Daughter of Black Lake by Cathy Marie Buchanan recently and quite enjoyed it.

I was drawn to this story mostly by the setting, the concept of a fiction set in Iron Age Britain. Daughter of Black Lake is not a military story of Romans and druids and seething tribesmen, although these devices make their appearances throughout the story. Instead, this is essentially a family drama that switches point of view between a daughter and her mother as a girl, whose lives and those of the people of their village are intertwined across generations.

This POV switching feels unexpected at first, but you quickly settle into the differing viewpoints between Hobble and her mother, Devout, even though Devout is narrating a decade or more in the past.

They each tell their versions of events impacting their family, with Hobble able to “see” more than most people know. She is gifted as a seer.

The story follows them both as Devout comes to find love and choose her mate, and as Hobble learns the dangers that outside influences can have on her quiet village of bog-dwellers. This back-and-forth narrative is a really interesting way to see characters interact across generations, first as children and adolescents interacting with each other or their elders, and then as adults, trying their best to help their families and their village survive.

The setting is vivid with pre-Roman and pre-Christian rites, prayers, social structures, and behaviors that guide each character’s decisions. These traditions are then thrown into conflict with the encroachment of Roman soldiers into the region, whose very presence, though distant, hangs over the bog-dwellers as an ominous threat to their way of life.

Although I typically don’t get into village drama-style narratives, I enjoyed the story for what it was. The characters were well written and distinguished, and the story was compelling. Mostly, I just wanted to spend time in the boggy village of Black Lake. Buchanan’s description give just enough detail to paint a clear picture, and her world felt entirely accurate, even as an astute reader questions how much we really know about the traditions and beliefs of pre-Roman Britons.

I would definitely pick up another book by Buchanan set in the same era, regardless of the plot, just to be able to step back into this world.

Steve D

Book Review: JURASSIC PARK delivers thrills and layered plot-building

I just finished listening to Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton on Audible, a book I probably should have read years ago, but I’m glad I finally checked it off my list.

Jurassic Park the movie is one of my favorites ever, so I was excited to finally read the original novel that inspired it — and compare how the film adaptation differed from the novel.

I really enjoyed this book and basically couldn’t put it down for a few days. Overall, the characters each had unique voices, and the plot was compelling.

To my surprise and enjoyment, the first part of the novel builds up the background of Ingen, Hammond, and some other key players. There is a fair amount of techno jargon, but Crichton writes it in such a way that is accessible and, just as importantly, believable, at least as far as science fiction can be believed. These sections serve to enliven the story as it progresses, providing the reader with much-needed context to feel the weight of the story.

These early sections are then interspersed with vignettes of doctors or others encountering unidentified “lizards”, but none of the characters are able to piece together the clues. In this way the tension very slowly builds.

By the time the main characters arrive at Isla Nublar to tour the park, the reader is nearly overwhelmed with dread over the mystery “lizards” terrorizing the local population, the industrial espionage of a rival bioengineering company, and the shady, or perhaps negligent, designs of Hammond and the creators of Jurassic Park.

The story is incredibly layered with detail about all of the flaws with the park. There is no fatal flaw, but there are many tiny ones that create a perfect storm of a disaster, isolating the characters on this island in a nightmare scenario.

The action was thrilling but not overwhelming, and the plot kept pace as the situation continued to unravel. Ian Malcom’s continuous diatribes about chaos theory could be tiresome for some readers, but I found these more philosophical sections quite engaging.

The narration of the audiobook was great as well.

Regarding the film versus the novel, I find it quite remarkable how well the film adheres to the spirit of the novel, even if several key characters and plot points are either changed or omitted entirely. Those types of changes are to be expected when adapting such a detailed novel to film, but it only makes me enjoy the movie more knowing that it is a worthy reflection of Crichton’s story, even if it looks a little different.

Steve D

Book Review: THE FORT, continues Goldsworthy’s run of compelling Roman military fiction

The Fort, City of Victory Book One is the first in what I assume is a new series of Roman military fiction novels by Adrian Goldsworthy, author of The Vindolanda Saga. I had read and thoroughly enjoyed that trilogy last year, so I jumped at the chance to read Goldsworthy’s newest work, only released in June.

I further hoped that this series would continue the saga of Flavius Ferox, the Roman Centurion and Prince of the Silures of Britannia whose dual-lives are always in conflict as he serves Rome.

The Fort once again follows Ferox, who has just arrived to a new posting in Dacia, a Roman province long troubled by local tribes and in which the Emperor Trajan had only recently established a more permanent foothold.

This continuation of the saga of Flavius Ferox is well written and narrated. The plot beats will feel very familiar to readers of Vindolanda, but I did not find the story as compelling as Goldsworthy’s earlier series. Ferox arrives in his new post in command of a detachment of Brigantes, all sworn to their new Queen Claudia Anica (herself sworn to Rome and now Ferox’s wife), and expecting a battle against the Dacians. The battle comes, of course, and becomes a siege of the fort whose name I can neither spell nor find online. (It’s possible this was fabricated for Goldsworthy’s story, like the titular fortification of Vindolanda of the previous series.)

Aside from mainstays like Vindex, Claudia Anica, and Sulpichia Lepidina, there is a largely new cast of characters. I found the politicking of Roman bureaucrats a bit dull in this story and even difficult to follow. It seemed like several characters were introduced and then discarded before the end of the story, except for Hadrian, tribune sent to Dacia, nephew of Trajan, and (for anyone who knows a bit of Roman history) the future emperor. Without giving away the ending to The Fort, Hadrian’s relationship with Ferox is likely drive much of the personal and political conflict in upcoming stories, and that is something to look forward to.

Other than that, I found myself leaning pretty heavily on Ferox’s interactions with his three close friends to stay attached to this story. I think the best scenes were those between Ferox and Claudia Anica, who lightened the tone of the story while carrying great narrative weight as a character.

The scenes which followed Brassus, a leader among the Dacians, were interesting but only scratched the surface of that people. I don’t feel I really know anything about the Dacians except that they obsess over “ascending” and “purity”, supposedly sacred concepts that are tossed around with no real explanation.

Overall, I enjoyed the story but pretty much knew what to expect from Goldsworthy’s writing and narrative.

The narration in the audiobook version (on Audible) was good, although the pronunciations have all changed. The narrator used softer s sounds in place of the Roman c, which I’m not here to quibble about. It’s just an interesting choice after the strictly Latin pronunciations in the Vindolanda stories.

Steve D

Book Review: BALANCED ON THE BLADE’S EDGE, DRAGON BLOOD Book 1

I was in the mood for a new (to me) fantasy series, and Audible happened to read my mind in that moment and present me with the Dragon Blood series by Lindsay Buroker. This omnibus includes books 1-3 in what is evidently a 7-book series. It was free, so I figured why not? I decided to give book 1 a shot.

I had no expectations going into Balanced on the Blade’s Edge, so I was pleasantly surprised to find a fun fantasy story with an interesting premise and solid protagonists.

The book opens more like a military fantasy, which I was not expecting, complete with all the trappings of a troubled soldier heading into a meeting with a superior officer.

Ridge appears at first glance to be a typical bad-boy cliche of an officer and a pilot, but ends up being more likeable as the story goes on. He’s prideful but tries to do right by those under his command. Sardelle is a little more cunning than her bookish personality would make her out to be, and Jaxi really does sound like a teenager trapped in a soul blade.

I was also not prepared for the more steampunk setting, replete with blimps, open-topped “flyers”, and cannons. This type of technology felt natural for the story, so that I didn’t even realize it was steampunk until I saw the term used in a different review.

There was one particular romance scene that was a bit more than I normally would have looked for, but it also served the plot and the characters.

Overall, I enjoyed this read, and I’ve already decided to give the second book a try.

Steve D