Year of a Hundred books – #42 Ship of Magic

Ship of MagicShip of Magic, by Robin Hobb


Yet again failing to move away from the Sci-fi/Fantasy genre (though this time I have an excuse. We were visiting my girlfriend’s mum when I finished The Secret River, and there’s not too much in the hoard of books she and her brother left behind when they moved out that aren’t!), and from author’s I haven’t read before.

Hobb’s world is unique, as far as I’ve found, in that although she’s now on her fourth series set there (Ship of Magic is the first book in the second of these), they all stand alone from one another, and to the extent that there are only passing references to the ones that come before and after in each. The focus of this series is far to the south of where the Farseer Trilogy (The first, and only of the series I’ve hitherto read) takes place, though most of the plot takes place at sea, rather than on land. The titular Ship of Magic is a Liveship, which is exactly what it sounds like: a ship fashioned from a magic wood that can, under certain circumstances,come to life and communicate with the world through its figurehead. Not only are a number of the ships important characters in their own right (including two that are point of view characters), but control over them (yes, that is as morally suspect as it sounds, and that point is raised by a number of characters) is a major driving force for much of the story.

The plot, once it gets going after a rather slow start, is certainly engaging, and the slow revelations that there may be more to the world than the characters, let alone the readers, know is definitely interesting. However, Hobb’s strength is definitely her ability to create characters that you absolutely hate. She did in the Farseer Trilogy, but a number of the characters in Ship of Magic simply blow those out of the water. The best (or maybe worst? I can’t decide) example is Kyle, whose every action and every line of dialogue makes you want to throw the book across the room in frustration at the sheer unfairness of it all. The only character I can think of that I hate as much as Kyle (that I’m supposed to hate, of course. There are several that I loath for other reasons), is Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter. However, unlike Umbridge, Kyle does, in occasionally flashes, show that he is capable of being  sympathetic. While brief, these flashes underline that in contrast to Rowling’s straw-person antagonist, the reader’s aversion to Kyle is borne mostly out of the Hobb’s writing. We hate him because of the fact that he antagonises most of the point of view characters, whose thoughts we are getting. Until of course he becomes a slaver, at which point he loses almost all remaining grounds for sympathy.

If you like fantasy, then you could do far worse than to read Robin Hobb, and the less fantastic works she penned under a different name, Megan Lindholm that I’ve read are good as well. As I said, most of her series can standalone, so as long as you start with the first one, you should be fine. Of the ones I’ve read, I think the writing is better in Ship of Magic, though the plot is perhaps better in Farseer, although that may be simply because it’s more in line with traditional quest narrative.

Year of a Hundred books – #35 The Demi-Monde: Summer

The Demi-Monde: SummerThe Demi-Monde: Summer, by Rod Rees


I can’t think of a book, or series of books, that I hate more than Rod Rees’ Demi-Monde. The writing style is juvenile, the characterisation appalling, the story a smug, convoluted mess, and frankly anyone that writes half their characters with ridiculously exaggerated, borderline racist, phonetic accents, should be too ashamed of themselves to publish their book.

The problem is that the first book wasn’t so bad. The writing style, characterisation, and accents were still bad (though the latter was more tempered than in the following two books), but the plot seemed fairly like a straightforward post-cyberpunk adventure. The basic plotline is that the US army have created a hellish computer synthesised reality to train their soldiers in urban guerilla warfare against, for no real reason, the most evil human beings in history. The president’s daughter somehow jacks into this matrix, and get stuck. The heroine is sent to get her out before everything goes to hell. Seems like a good enough story, right? The cosmology and society within the simulation is a bit weird, but it kind of makes sense in context. A little bit. Anyway, so while reading the first book, I got so caught up in the world that by the time I got to the end, I was hooked. Then I read the second, which was worse, what with the development of the universe, and worst of all the revelation of the vampires.

Yes, Vampires. Except they’re not really vampires, and they’re not just in the simulation, they’re in the real world. Oh, and the whole simulation is run by them, rather than the US Army who just think they’re in charge.

The third book is so bad it’s practically insulting to read it. There are occasional moments of good storytelling and empathy, but in general it’s just a series of events that lead from one thing to another with no sense of smooth progression. Oh, and the final straw was, when the bizarre cosmology Rees has created, is revealed to include an anciently genetically engineered sub-species known as the “Kohanim”, who over time, became the Jews.

Yes, you read that right.

I was all prepared to give up with the series once I’d finished the book, but unfortunately the last couple of chapters, once the action began again and we stepped away from the absurd pseudo-philosophy, dragged me back in, ending with a hell of a cliffhanger. Which means I’m going to have read the final book in the series.

But seriously. Don’t put yourself through the misery of reading this series. It’s not worth it.

Year of a Hundred books – #33 The Hill Where Thorvald Slew Ten Skraelings

The Hill Where Thorvald Slew Ten SkraelingsThe Hill Where Thorvald Slew Ten Skraelings, by Regan Wolfrom


It feels a little cheeky to count this as one of my 100 books, bearing in mind it’s a short story and only just over 5000 words. However, I’m going to count it, because I enjoyed it so much.

The actual story itself is fairly conventional, the protagonist is an ageing shaman, ostracised by his Christian tribe members, who is called on to first save the life of a relative, and then the souls and future of his entire community, with a bit of help from the old gods. 

However, I will admit, the fact that it’s setting is a Norse community in Greenland, in the aftermath of conversion from the Old Ways to Christianity is one of the main reasons I liked the story; these are all settings and tropes I’m fond of, and in part are why I chose to read it in the first place. Not only is the setting appealing however, but the atmosphere created by the prose was such that I was able became lost in what I was reading, despite the fact I was sitting on a cramped and overheating bus.

The story is, as far as I can tell, only available for the Kindle and related Apps, but at less than a pound, I’d definitely say it’s worth picking up if you’re between books and wanting something worthwhile to read.

Year of a Hundred books – #26 The Blade Itself

>The Blade ItselfThe Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie


Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy often features on lists of the best current fantasy you really absolutely should be reading, but thus far I’ve given it a miss. When stranded in Derby with an hour to wait for my train and no book to read, it was the only thing I could find on the Kindle store that appealed, so I decided to give it a shot. It didn’t take long for me to get absolutely hooked. Apart from having to get onto the train, and then to hand over my ticket to the conductor, I don’t think I looked up from the book until the train arrived in Edinburgh. I then didn’t move off the sofa the next morning until I’d finished it.

There are a number of sub plots within the book, each following specific characters, all of which collide into a glorious mess right at the end setting up a cliffhanger for the next novel. As fantasy worlds go, it’s quite typical, but also quite enjoyable. It has a mysterious history, a not entirely explained magic system, a foppish nobility, barbaric frozen north and a desert-like south, a corrupt political establishment, and a threat to the very safety of the world that nobody is paying attention to because they’re all too concerned with their politics.

But all’s well, because the Night’s Watch are poised to protect Westeros from the Trollocs coming out of the Blight.

Wait… What?

So we come to the main problem with The Blade Itself, which is that no matter how enjoyable it is to read, or how well written the prose is, the plot and characterisation feels much more like a collection of all the most common tropes of modern fantasy, rather than anything particularly new. I’m not saying this ruins the book; as I say, I loved reading it, and at the end there are hints that things are going to take a different direction in the next book. I just wish that this had come a bit earlier in the book.

Year of a Hundred books – #24 Beautiful Creatures

Beautiful CreaturesBeautiful Creatures, by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl


I realise that I am not the target demographic for this book, and there is a little part of me that thinks I should not be enjoying reading about vaguely magical teenagers falling in love with added angst. However, I don’t care. I thoroughly enjoyed Beautiful Creatures. I’ll admit, I saw the film first (and also enjoyed that, though I think my girlfriend was quite bored), so I knew what to expect.
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Year of a Hundred books – #19 The Wheel of Time: A Memory of Light

The Wheel of TimeA Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

This post is very much a follow on from the other weeks’. Watching my girlfriend work her way through the 900 strong page book however weakened my resolve to listen to them all, and so, the morning after she finished, I began. The following morning, having done a six-hour shift at work and slept for a good seven hours, I finished it. I’m not necessarily proud of this feat, but I think it was worth it. That it’s taken me this long to write my review of it is a testament to how emotionally draining the book was (Alright, that’s a little bit of a lie. The emotional fatigue only lasted about a week. It’s mostly because I’ve been working a lot recently, and haven’t got round to posting.)

It wasn’t the best book in the series, not by a long shot, but it was a satisfying ending to the series. The final climax occurred in a way that very few people could have seen coming, and the tying-up-but-not-completely-closing of over 20 years of sub-plots was done very well. As I said, for nearly a week, I kept finding myself stopping what I was doing, struck with the realisation that various characters were dead. Not that I wouldn’t find out what had happened to those that survived, because, well, they were still alive and I needn’t worry. It’s weird.

This is all the more impressive, considering that while it would ordinarily be considered a testament to the author, in this instance, it was not the original author who completed the series. After Robert Jordan died in 2007, his widow and editor chose fantasy author Brandon Sanderson to finish the series. I’m pretty much in awe of Sanderson, as not only does he write phenomenal Fantasy books, he also writes them with an astonishing speed. Seriously, check out his output! So for him to have completed a trilogy of this length, with so many people invested in it, while still writing his own fiction, it’s an impressive thing.

There’s been a lot of controversy about the publication; mostly in that the eBook version will not be published until the end of April. The stated reason is that Harriet, Jordan’s wife, (who’s 82 years old btw, and thus can not necessarily be expected to have grasped the eBook zeitgeist), wants the book to top the NYT Bestsellers list, in tribute to her late husband.  I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this, because on the one hand, I do love my Kindle, but on the other, if we’re talking about convenience, paperbacks are more convenient than hardback, and they never come out at the same time.

What I know I don’t agree with is the hundreds of people who have been review-bombing the book on Amazon because of this, with no actual bearing for the quality of book. Or the people who, within a couple of days of the publication, had scanned the book and uploaded it online. And most especially not the people who have posted some horrific abuse of Harriet and her husband’s memory online.

As I said before, if you’ve not already read the Wheel of Time series, you’re not going to pick up the final, 14th installment, but for everyone that gave up on the series before now; it’s worth picking it back up, just for this ending!

Year of a Hundred books – #4 Maskerade

MaskeradeMaskerade -Terry Pratchett


Is it cheating to include a book that I’ve read before in this list? Probably yes, but I do have a confession to make. Even though I’ve long claimed to have read all the Discworld books, what I mean by this is, “I have, at one point or another, taken each of the Discworld books out of the library”. So I’ve been reading them, more of less in order, in fits and spurts for about a year now.

If I’m honest, aside from a few particularly outstanding examples (Night Watch, The Thief of Time and The Truth), and a few that are actually quite bad (Sourcery, Eric, The Last Continent (Coincidentally, all of which star Rincewind)), once you’ve written about one Discworld book, you’ve written about all of them. This is far from a bad thing, just that there’s only so many times you can really say “Brilliant characterisation, witty prose and a wonderful narrative” without it sounding repetitive.

Maskerade is fairly standard fare for the Witches, and Granny Weatherwax is a wonderful as ever, but there’s just something missing without Magrat there. It’s essentially a parody of Phantom of the Opera, which I might have appreciated more if I was more familiar with that. As it stands though, the book is still enjoyable.

As to whether I’d recommend it? It’s certainly not a good introduction to the series, and if you’ve read one of them and liked it, chances  are you’ll come across Maskerade at some point. If you are a Phantom fan, then maybe seek it out, but otherwise, you’re not missing much.