Sunday, July 24, 2016

Uprooted, by Naomi Novik

The Nebula awards are long over, but I've just now gotten to the last book--and the winner Naomi Novik's Uprooted.  And there's no doubt in my mind that they made a good call.

The base of the plot is a coming-of-age story, and it is set up very directly.  A wizard called The Dragon comes every ten years to the valley he serves to take a seventeen-year-old girl into his castle to serve him.  There's a lot of speculation about what he does with them, most of it untrue--he seems simply to refine them and give them a good start in life.  But they never want to come home again.

The Dragon is a dour soul, respected but not loved or liked.  One comes to understand that dourness as we learn about the major driver to this story--the malevolent power of the Wood.  It is a constant evil presence for the people of the valley, extremely dangerous to enter and poisonous to be anywhere near.  The Dragon has volunteered to be near the border to hold it off.

His latest assistant is Agnieszka.  She didn't think she'd be chosen, since her friend Kasia was clearly the shining star of the lot.  But she turns out to have a talent for magic, and The Dragon is forced to take Agnieszka instead.

From there Novik builds a fantastic synergy between the cunning malefic influence of the Wood and the strictures of how magic works in this world.  The Dragon's path to magic is the dominant one--very precise and rule based, and very powerful.  But there's another, older, more feeling magic that turns out to be Agnieszka's strength.  The reconciliation of these strains, and how they come together to fight the Wood, are handled masterfully by Novik.

The story also has a very strong and satisfying conclusion.  Novik could revisit this world, but she doesn't have to--the story is beautifully self-contained.

I'm contrasting this with what I thought was missing from Grace of Kings, another strong entry.  Grace of Kings is a fine story but the magic has little to do with the plot.  In Uprooted, the characters (particularly Agnieszka) are the center of the story but the magic is truly integrated into the plot.

I give this a strong four stars and recommend you go right out and read it if you have not yet done so.  It's absolutely gripping.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Grace of Kings, by Ken Liu

Grace of Kings has been referred to as an Asian Game of Thrones (by Wes Chu, in the reviews at the beginning of the book.  I think he's right on.

If anything, it's really more Game of Thrones than Game of Thrones--but fewer characters and a lot less blood.  Otherwise, the parallels are very strong.  The speculative elements are not highly important in either series, though I'd say they are barely even present in Grace of Kings.  The main drivers are the protagonists--and Liu has the skill to manage two of them.

We have Kuni Garu, a carouser and gangster with a heart of gold, and Mata Zyndu, a man born royal in every sense of the word--noble birth, and a giant (eight feet tall).  They work together to overthrow the ambitious and cruel Emperor Mapidere, who unified Dara with blood.  Once they succeed, sad and somewhat predictable things happen.  Politics is a hard thing.

Ken Liu is an excellent writer, so the story was not difficult to read.  One feels for the characters as they succeed and suffer.  But I guess I'm something of an outlier in that while I like A Song of Ice and Fire (haven't seen the TV series), I don't think it's going to be a series for the ages in the fantasy genre.  It's basically a soap opera.  Grace of Kings is a somewhat lesser version of Game of Thrones, and suffers from the comparison.  It's a nice story, but it pretty much could take place on earth, somewhere we cannot see.  In a larger-than-life series like The Wheel of Time, magic and its constraints form a compelling part of the story.  Grace of Kings is not larger than life--though it operates on a continental scale it is still merely life size.

For all that, I do give it 3 stars because it held my interest all the way through. 

P.S. Kuni Garu is an appealing protagonist, strong when he needs to be and tender when he can be.  You can't help but like him.  If you enjoy your men strong and positive, I can recommend the works of Rusty Rhoad.