The Lost City of Z by David Grann

Continuing my trend of being super contemporary and timely, (does doing something twice, poorly, count as a trend?) I’m going to write a review of this book that I read a few months ago, that was released a few years ago, because of a movie that’s coming out soon(ish? Or maybe it’s already out? I could just google the release date, but I’m not gonna).

I love this book. A lot.

I live in a really rainy, dreary, overcast pacific northwest city (ten bonus points and a hug if you can guess which one) that had a record number of rainy, dreary, pacific northwest-y days this winter. I’ve got a high tolerance, and even fondness most of the time, for that kind of thing, but by the end of this winter even I was starting to drag a bit. Worse than that, I’d been in a major reading slump for months, one of the worst I’ve ever had. No matter what I picked up, I just couldn’t really sink into anything. I’d grab something, read a few pages, and pop it back onto the shelf. Even the old tried and true method of action packed and fantasy oriented didn’t work. Eventually I gave up, increased my TV and podcast intake to fill the gaps, and went about my dreary, bookless days.

It was during one of these podcasts (All The Books. It’s great, you should check it out) I was reminded about this book. They’d talked about it a bunch of times before, and one of them even mentioned it was one of her favourite books. I had it sitting on my shelf at home and I figured it couldn’t hurt to give it a try.
I was instantly sucked in. I’ve never met David Grann before, he has absolutely no idea who I am, but I can’t help but feel, down in the deepest parts of my bookish lil’ heart, that this was designed specifically to delight me. It has an eccentric, larger than life, Alan Quartermain/Indiana Jones-esque main character, an old school society of adventurers, history facts (my favourite!), more information about the amazon than you could shake a stick at, war, intrigue, murder, aspiring movie stars, hapless wanna-be explorers, and just about anything else you could ask for. Did you know that there was actually a group in England called the Royal Geographical Society that trained “gentleman explorers” to head out and explore the world, mapping it as they went, and that these adventurers, loyal to the Empire, often acted as spies for the crown? How fucking cool is that? (And yes, I am aware that they helped to propogate the British Empire, which was most definitely a bad, one of the baddest bads. But you gotta admit, it’s also crazy interesting). By page two I was intrigued. By page fifty I was considering calling in sick for work.

Even though this story is bananas and chock-full of interesting characters and natural narrative hooks, I don’t think it would’ve been the same if anybody other than Grann had written it. The guy’s got a great eye for what makes a story compelling (I will admit that we seem to share a common love for obsessive types. I think all the most intriguing stories are, in one way or another, born out of obsession), and he writes about the people involved with genuine enthusiasm and empathy. As you’re reading you get the sense that he’s just as invested in getting to the bottom of the story as you are.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. I loved this book. I’d recommend it for anybody who loves history or adventure or fun facts or even just a good story well told. And i’d especially recommend it for people who are going through a reading slump or a month-long case of the Mondays. I’m not going to pretend that it completely wiped away my blues, or that it caused the sun to shine or the birds to sing. But, for a few hours, it did make me forget about the rain.

Love you folks,

VBR

The North Water by Ian McGuire

I am such a sucker for a period piece. Even more of a sucker for one set in this particularly grimy, shitty period of English/European history. Even, even more of a sucker for a period piece about a weirdly specific industry that doesn’t exist anymore. Now, to be fair, this book isn’t exactly a deep dive into the whaling world (which, despite my love of learning anything and everything history, even the horrifying stuff, I’m a little thankful for. Whaling was fucking brutal. Have you ever read anything about whaling? I love whales, so maybe I’m more sensitive than your average Joe, but the sheer volume of animals that industry killed makes me a little sick to my stomach. The whaling boom didn’t last a terribly long time, some places that I read guesstimate it at about a hundred or so years, but it almost completely wiped whales out. Their populations have never recovered) but just having it as a backdrop to the story hooked me.

But really, this story could have been told anywhere, at any time. As much as I like the setting, and as much as it fits and helps to facilitate the plot, it’s not what this book is about. The real nugget at the centre of this novel is McGuire’s interest in the darkest parts of the human animal-what it is we want, why we want it, the things we’re willing to do to others to get it.

And boy howdy does he ever have a low opinion of us. This book is dark. While there are good people doing good things (our friend the doctor is a nominally nice guy…sometimes…sort of), the characters are mostly bad men motivated by base desires.

He outlines his ideas about men, as little more than beasts (though I do think he offers a good argument, several times throughout the book, that we can be better), through the two main antagonists of the story, Drax and (I guess spoiler? Eventually I’m just going to stop putting these in my reviews and just write whatever I want. Listen, whenever you read a review of something on my page from this point forward, just assume that it’s probably going to have a spoiler or two in it, but that I won’t ruin the major conflicts at the heart of the story for you. Okay? Okay) Baxter. While on the outside these two seem pretty different, beneath that they share the same dark, selfish motivations.

Henry Drax is all id, all desire, but of the emptiest, bleakest sort. He wants things, craves them, but he feels no passion for them. When he gets an urge, he uses whatever means necessary to satisfy that urge, and then he moves on, unhindered by the experience, unchanged by it. There never seems to be any enjoyment of a thing, any pleasure, and he never thinks about the morality behind his actions. In fact, he even states in the book that he thinks that morality in and of itself is pointless, just something that men like us use to impose our will on men like him. He’s the perfect brute, stripped of any feelings of obligation to the social contract. Like every dangerous, aggressive animal, he’s all surface, no depth.

Baxter, the secondary antagonist, is more complicated, more conniving, but ultimately the same. At the observable level he’s a gentleman, clean and wealthy and law-abiding. He plays the game, abiding by society’s rules on the surface, even using them to his advantage. But beneath all that, he’s the same type of animal as the first. His desires differ (money, status, power), but his willingness to do anything to get them is the same. Drax is meant to be the more monstrous of the two, a vomit-streaked and blood-soaked child murderer, his crimes all violent and committed by hand, up close. But, if you crunch the numbers, Baxter has the much higher body count by the end of the book, and seems just as unbothered by it.

All of that is just a really long, roundabout way of saying that I thought this book was great (and I didn’t even get to really talk about the main character! He was so good! Sympathetic and genuinely decent, but a bit of a fuck up nonetheless. At times a good person, other times a little pathetic and selfish and shortsighted). It was dark and bleak, but not completely despairing (again, there are good people doing good things just for the sake of doing them). The writing was beautiful, the characters were complicated and interesting, and the story was gripping as hell. One of my favourite reads of the year so far.

As always, with love,

VBR

The Grace of Kings By Ken Liu

Well hello again my pretties.
Sorry it’s been so long, but sometimes I just don’t really feel like doing this, you know? And for a while there I was working and blah blah boring life blah.
But now that we’ve got that out of the way, we can talk about books again! Huzzah! Hurray! Hurrah!

I wanted to like this one a lot more than I ended up actually liking it. (Do I say that a lot? I feel like I say that a lot.)
First off, props to Ken Liu for ambition. This novel is a huge accomplishment when it comes to world building. The setting and the culture were crazy good, complicated and completely believable, while still managing to be interesting. And it was nice to finally read a big, epic, sweeping fantasy (or Silkpunk, which Liu called it, a description I’m all in for) novel that wasn’t set in a European or faux-European setting.
But there were just some things that kept me from really getting into it.
First off is the characters. While the world and the culture that they inhabited were really detailed and well laid out, they mostly seemed pretty one dimensional and flat. Yes, some of them changed over time, and changed their minds about things over time, but they still seemed more like vehicles to explore the extremes of specific ideas or points of view than actual, fully fleshed out characters.
On that same note, and twisted up into the previous point, is the problem I had with the dialogue. A lot of it seemed really weird and stilted to me. More proverbial than conversational, if that makes sense. Paired with the one-dimensional nature of the characters, it just made the whole thing seem oddly parable-y to me. And that can be, and is, a perfectly valid style choice. It just didn’t quite work for me.
Lastly I’ll say that while this didn’t bug me too much, ’cause I love this shit, it’s what I come to big fantasy for, there was a loooottttt of world-building in this book. For some reason I love love love reading the stuff that people come up with for make-believe cultures (I read that entire mammoth history of the world of song of ice and fire book in like two or three sittings), but this book had a shit-ton of it. So much so that I could see it bothering people who aren’t fake history connoisseurs, and all around weirdos, like myself. So if that kind of thing puts you off, just be aware of it going in.
Hmmm…I feel like this has come across as if I didn’t really like it. And I did! Sort of. Mostly. Basically, if you’re a fan of epic fantasy and are looking to try something a little different than the medieval European variety (and the things I mentioned above don’t sound like deal-breakers to you) than I think you should give it a shot. It’s pretty good!

Enjoy?
VBR

Uprooted By Naomi Novik

You guys, I really, reaaaally loved this book. After the last couple of dark-as-fuuuuck books that I’ve read, this was just such a warm, light, heart-hug of a novel. Don’t get me wrong, people die (so many people. Thousands of people. Almost all the people) but…I dunno. It just felt so fresh and fun to me. The language is clear and clean and to the point, the story is great, and the protagonist is a dope-ass, take no shit lady (something ya’ll know I have a weakness for).

But it wasn’t just light and fun. For some reason, despite the big buzz around the novel (I’ve only ever heard people gush about it), I had moderate to low expectations for it. I was, and I’m ashamed to admit this, using it as a palate cleanser. I just wanted something fun and easy, something that would suck me in and carry me along. And I got it! But I also got something else. It had a moral centre, an intelligence and thoughtfulness to it, that I wasn’t expecting. Novik’s use and subversion of fantasy and fairy-tale tropes was subtler, smarter, than I thought it was going to be.

Before I wrap this up I also want to give a quick shout out to the ending. I’m not going to say much about it, because I want you to discover it on your own, but I really enjoyed it. As an avid and life long fantasy reader, I find nothing more disappointing than the “kill the monster and everything is better” ending to a novel, and I’m happy this book avoided that trap.

In case it wasn’t clear throughout the entirety of this wet, sloppy kiss of a review, I am definitely, one hundred percent recommending it. Normally I would put some sort of a caveat on there (if you like fantasy, or if you like fairytales, or if you like blah blah blah), but this one is pretty unequivocal. Just buy it and read it, okay?

Enjoy!

VBR

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Hey there team!

So this one took a little longer to read, and a lot longer to review, than I was expecting. There’s two reasons for that:

The first and foremost is that when I was about halfway through this book my grandmother passed away. She’d been suffering from bone cancer, so it was as much of a relief as these things ever are, but it was still hard. As a result, over the holidays I spent a lot more time with my family and a lot less time alone reading.

The second reason has more to do with what I want this blog to be about. As a writer myself, I know how hard it is to create something, how much of yourself you put into everything you create, and how vulnerable you become when you put it out into the world. Because of that, I don’t want to be the kind of person who shits on somebody for making their art, for being committed enough to create a complete piece and brave enough to put it out there. I’d really prefer to just talk about the things that I love and that make me happy, rather than complain about the pieces that didn’t quite work for me.

At the same time, how interesting can it be if all you ever have to say about something is, “It was great!” So, I think I’m going to work against my natural instinct and review things no matter how well they worked for me. Having said that, I still think that if I don’t have anything positive at all to say about something, I’ll probably skip it. But then again, it’s been a really, really long time since I’ve read a book with nothing of value in it at all, and who knows what I’ll do when that happens. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

So you’ve probably guessed by this point that Boneshaker wasn’t my favourite. It’s not as if the book doesn’t have value. It’s chock full of imagination, and Cherie Priest can definitely turn a phrase. Not only that, but Briar, one half of the books two main POV characters, is great. She’s tough, resourceful, smart, complicated, driven. She’s everything I want and need in a protagonist. In fact, the first quarter of the book, where we spend most of our time in Briar’s POV, is pretty good. It’s after that things kind of start to wobble a bit, and eventually fall apart.

Most of my problems with the second half of this book are things that I can usually just whistle past. One of my bigger complaints is that Boneshaker sets up a couple of interesting conflicts that simply fizzle out. The main one (spoilers!) is the reveal of Dr. Minnericht as just some random guy, who we know next to nothing about and don’t care about at all. Another is the fate of a character who starts out pretty interesting. He’s ambiguous and somewhat menacing and clearly just using the book’s other main protagonist, Zeke, as a means to his own end, but halfway through the novel he disappears, and at the end they find his body after he’s died of an overdose. What does that add to the story? What was the point in having the character introduced in the first place?

And here we come to my main problem with the book: Zeke. He’s…a mess. He starts out Boneshaker with agency and pluck, heading into the walled off part of Seattle in order to find out the truth about his father, but he quickly devolves into a plot device. He’s bounced from situation to situation through no fault or choice of his own. The only real purpose that he serves is to provide motivation for Briar, and to serve as the eyes through which we can view the (admittedly pretty awesome) world that Cherie created. And it’s not just his passivity that makes him seem more plot device than character, it’s his inconsistency. Cherie can never quite seem to nail down how old he is. His characterization swings from small child to capable adult and back again. And his voice! Most of the time he talks completely normally, but randomly he’ll just slip into this weird, uneducated sounding patois that’s really heavy handed and overdone.

I guess I’m just a little disappointed. This book has so many good things in it! A steampunk zombie novel with a smart female protagonist? That is crazily within my wheelhouse. It practically is my wheelhouse. But the dead weight of Zeke, and a few mismanaged conflicts and other minor characters, prevents this book from really following through on its promise.

All in all this is a pretty mixed bag for me. I haven’t given up on Cherie Priest just yet, but I won’t be running out to grab another of her novels any time soon either. If you’ve read any of her other stuff and you think it’s worth giving it a try, let me know in the comments.

Love,

VeryBiasedCritic

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