THE BLADE ITSELF by Joe Abercrombie

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie.

Image result for the blade itselfNever before have I enjoyed a book so much that failed to have even a semblance of a plot. Well developed characters, lush and rich world building, politics, history, even a little romance. But plot? Nope.

It’s baffling.

What does our main character Logan want? Our brute with a fine mind from the North, who turns into the Hulk when the bloodlust takes him? He… uh… well, he’s just following another guy around cause… uh… well.

Basically he’s just living life.

What does our main character Jezal want? That handsome devil, the spoiled nobility with natural athletic abilities? He wants… to be an important man in government one day. Vaguely. And maybe to win a tournament to be further admired. I guess.  He’s just avoiding difficulties, flirting a bit, fencing, looking down on people.

You know… living life.

What does our main character Glokta want? Our torturer, our cripple, our grumpy guss who lives in pain? Nothing. He doesn’t want shit. He’s just… passing the time.

Living life.

And there we have it. The three main characters. Just living life. Just existing.

Listen, living life is fine and dandy. We’re all just living life, aren’t we? But no one is gonna write a freaking book about me if that’s all I’m doing.

Image result for the blade itself incites to deeds of violenceThere are other characters – who actually have some more pressing ambitions and motivations. Politics. An ancient war or a new one. Vengeance. Things that could be a plot – if they were driving the story. I guess the Magi is driving and everyone else is just in the car at this point, no idea why they’re along for the ride, where they are going, or why it’s important. And that’s how the book ends!

So basically The Blade Itself is a very long character introduction. I know all the characters very well indeed. I just don’t know what they want. Or what the plot is. I kind of care a bit about all of them, so when a plot is introduced at some point… odds are I will care about it. But will our characters care about it? Or are they just going to be dragged around for the rest of the trilogy, only invested in the events because they’re being forced into the car? What does it mean to them?

If some big evil is brewing that might possibly wipe out their hometowns or life as they know it… I should feel that it would matter to these folks. I’m not sure it would. These three main characters are all the types who would probably have a long sit down and consider the merits of the Eye of Sauron.

It’s exasperating. Because it really is a fun book. The characters are fun, the dialogue is fun, the world is interesting. It just… doesn’t have a plot.

Whatever.

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Will I read the next book? Probably. But I’ll probably read something else first… and the more books I put between myself and this book, the more unlikely it is I will return to the story. So… who knows.

RATING: 4 out of 5. Even without a plot, I still liked it.

THE ELEMENTALS by Michael McDowell

I remember the first time I ran across one of the pictures from Kolmanskop, a German diamond mining town in Namibia, Africa. The pale faded paint of the walls, the sturdy frames of the doors, and the mounds of sand that had gently, but fatally, invaded the homes. It was haunting. Mysterious. Two worlds that are generally separate, collided.

It’s what drew me to the book The Elementals by Michael McDowell. The story of a haunted mansion slowly being overtaken by sand… by the elements… by the Elementals. I ordered a reprint and sat down to read this tale, set in the American Deep South, expecting a quick read. It’s a relatively thin book, after all. Instead, I found myself wading through a story that took me a few weeks to finish. I would read a bit, and sit it down… almost exhausted by the effort. Not that it wasn’t good – in fact, it was too good.

This book is a classic Southern gothic tale, complete with decaying mansions, thick summer heat, and generations of secrets.  The descriptions were spot on, especially when the author sought to capture that lazy, lull of summers in hot climates. The mind-numbing pleasantness of just lounging around in swimsuits on sandy towels, napping in rockers on front porches, whittling away at a puzzle on a table somewhere in the house at night while your family members are spread out… reading, napping, talking quietly. The hours lose meaning. Daylight and not daylight. You rearrange your schedule to fight against the hottest time of the day.

Written in the early 80s, this book is a glimpse into the past. Of gentility and vanity and denials. Of the gay son that no one ever, ever, not once, acknowledges as gay (even the author) though everyone, and I mean everyone, knows full well he is. Of the alcoholics that are doted on, of the affairs that are ignored, of the weak willed gentle natures of men who have grown up under domineering women. It’s a story about loyalty and family and how that never really looks like we’re taught it does.

And, of course, it’s a story about the supernatural. The unknown that is never knowable, no matter how thickly you drape religion over it or decorate it with superstitions. Some things can not be known.

Of everything in this story, that was what struck me most: The strange acceptance of and blindness to the unknown. There are three mansions hidden away off the Gulf Coast in Alabama, cut off from the world inside miles of private property between the oceans and lagoons. Each historic mansion is facing in a different direction, all three identical. Except one of them is being slowly overtaken by a dune of sand and for years the house has been empty, abandoned by its owners. A source of suspicion and sometimes terror, the two families that own the other homes do not approach it, even though it stands between them, visible from the windows of their home. They pass it every day. They live with it. And yet they just pretend like it isn’t there most days. It’s there and they do not wish to acknowledge it. They don’t even investigate who owns it, they’ve just accepted its strange and ominous presence in their lives. Just like the family alcoholics, the cheating spouses, the homosexual children, and any other issue they don’t want to address. It is ignored. A Victorian mansion sized elephant in the yard.

This story is very, very Southern. In the Deep South, in the 80s, you could call a woman Big Barbara as a term of endearment. The dialects, the traditions, the strange and fluctuating social rules of Southern families are captured to perfection in this book. And yes, through the modern lens you can definitely read the homophobia, the racism, and the patriarchy seeping through the pages – though I honestly do not believe the author meant to include them as such. You live in the times you live in. How the future will judge you for that… well, I’m sure the author would be curious to know. But he died before the turn of the 21st Century.

Michael McDowell. Screenwriter of Beetlejuice and the Nightmare Before Christmas. He wrote a few episodes for Tales from the Darkside and the script for Thinner. Born in 1950 and raised in Alabama, he went off to Harvard to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.  He seems to have stuck with his Southern roots and based most of his novels and short stories there before succumbing to an AIDS-related illness in 1999.

What was your life like, Michael? I kept wondering that, even as I was drawn into the story he’d written. Who is the man behind the words?

“Savage mothers eat their children up!” 

There is a coldness mixed in with the love in this novel. Children are left to fend for themselves, despite how well meaning their parents are. They grow up quickly. They take their secrets with them, to New York, to nunneries. They face horrors alone.

I highly recommend this novel, especially as a glimpse into Southern culture in the mid-20th Century. It’s also a really creepy read with some genuinely terrifying scenes. The ambiance of horror lingers in the shadows of every page. The Elementals, and their connection to the two families, are lost in time… buried in history, just like the third house. How much does anyone really know about their grandparents? About their great-great grandparents? About the ones before them?

We pass the torch. Some things change, other things linger. There are good days and bad days. And through it all, things we don’t want to know… and things we can’t know.

THE WOLF GIFT by Anne Rice

The Wolf Gift, Anne Rice’s foray into the mythology of werewolves, or Morphenkinder, is an amazing, agonizingly slow, frustratingly rambling book. It was full of details you wanted to know, didn’t know you wanted to know, and absolutely didn’t want to know. Much like… most Anne Rice books. But the poorly paced plot is so well written you don’t really mind… much like most Anne Rice books.

I loved to hate it. Let me tell you why….

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NIGHT FILM by Marisha Pessl

Every once in a while you stumble on a compulsively readable story. Sometimes it gets you right away, sometimes you don’t notice until you’re a hundred pages in, but you’re hooked – and you can’t stop. You literally can’t stop turning the pages. Exhaustion usually forces you – and you crawl into bed with your head swirling and wake up a few hours later feeling elated, thrilled about the prospect of jumping back into the story. You waste no time – you get yourself a cup of coffee and disappear into the page again.

Night Film by Marisha Pessl was a compulsive read. A heavy book, pages interspersed with journal articles, website screenshots, investigative notes, medical reports, and photographs. The pages were silky smooth, like quality printing paper. I picked it up randomly from my TBR pile last night… and read it until 2AM, when I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer… then picked it right back up this morning.

I was intrigued. I was haunted. I was picking up pieces of a puzzle, hearing echoes, listening to rumors and letting my imagination run wild. It’s a terrific mystery, in my opinion, changing shape as it gets bigger. Extremely fast paced and moving quickly around the chess board – you’re never sure if you’re the pawn or the queen. I loved it. I loved its rather ambiguous ending – What is true and what is myth?

Ironically, the characters are rather boring and cliche. In a way, this worked very well with the theme – that what we imagine, the stories we tell ourselves and are entertained by, reveal more of our true natures than our daily lives. None of the three main characters were that compelling – but what drove them, what caught them up in the mystery, how they each were pulled in by it and changed – that was fascinating. The people they encountered, the enigmas they attempted to decipher… the secrets, which often revealed themselves to be sour disappoints or shoddy ordinary events, doubled down on this theme – these things were dazzling and full of life. The mystery solved is boring. Answers do not enchant us – what ifs do.

So if you like mystery – and dark turns down darker passages – that don’t rely on descriptions of gore or horror, but rather the implication of such – then this book is for you.

Sovereign. Deadly. Perfect.

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EVERY EXQUISITE THING by Matthew Quick

Every Exquisite Thing is about a teenage girl whose teacher gives her a book – and how her obsession with that book, and the ideas inside it, drastically change her life.

Like all Matthew Quick novels, it’s a story about figuring out your head space, about determining who you are and making peace with it. The man knows what it is to be human – and that’s a glorious, horrible mess of experiences and horrors and monotony and expectations and hopefully some really nice moments where you have an epiphany or two.

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BONE GAP by Laura Ruby

Bone Gap is a quiet and masterful tale of two brothers living in a small town whose lives are changed by the mysterious appearance of a beautiful Polish immigrant. Roza is a friend and beacon of hope to 18 year old Finn, known for his dreamy, absentminded behavior – and a spark in the heart to older brother Sean, who gave up his dreams long ago after their mother abandoned them. Just as suddenly, Roza is gone again – abducted by a stranger Finn can’t describe.

The town of Bone Gap puts its head together and murmurs – was it foul play? Did she abandon them too, fly away as fast and thoughtlessly as their mother? Does Finn know more than he’s letting on?

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MAGONIA by Maria Dahvana Headley

art by Artem Rhads Chebka

Just finished Magonia by Headley – which had excellent characters, families, and a surreal and highly unusual fantasy world floating above our own. In this book, there is a  world above the clouds, filled with shapeshifting birds and other surreal creatures who have long roamed the secret spaces of the air. These creatures aren’t quite human, though many can transform themselves into humanoid forms. Unable to breath in the lower atmosphere, they have a strange relationship with the human world – basically “fishing” out food and supplies when needed. I must say – it was intriguing.

Unfortunately… it had two severe draw backs. The antagonist was shockingly undeveloped- which was unfortunate. And my biggest qualm, the two main characters were stupidly smart.

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THE EMPEROR OF ANY PLACE by Tim Wynne-Jones

 

The Emperor of Any Place is about men. Specifically, the Canadian son of a draft dodging American, his military grandfather, and two soldiers shipwrecked on a mysterious island from opposing sides of WWII.

It deals with growing up, grief, responsibility, fathers and sons, male mentors, and male friends. There’s a nice mystery that baited me enough that I actually finished the book, even though I was only halfheartedly invested. The author went on and on about things I found tedious and boring (constructing forts, shelters, miniature boat models). There were tangent plotlines that felt irrelevant, mainly the bits about the grandson, his band and his friends. But there were also very intriguing elements – the diary of the two men on the island, for example.

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The Noise Must Become Music – Ronan Lynch / Adam Parrish

The art of Fumi Mini Nakamura seamlessly folds basic elements into a cosmic narrative. Flowers, hands, faces, skulls, birds, and wolves – with teeth and nails and thorns – wrap around each other to create ethereal, moody images. Her 2009 Untitled works – (which are titled) “WE FIND NO VESTIGE OF A BEGINNING – NO PROSPECT OF AN END” and “THE NOISE MUST BECOME MUSIC” are, to me, the perfect embodiment of The Raven Boys. In particular, of Adam & Ronan.

See more art by Fumi Mini Nakamura

Adam – all dreamy and conflicted, a mix of longing and defeat.

Adam Parrish drawing by Maggie Stiefvater

Ronan – all teeth and noise.

Ronan Lynch drawing by Maggie Stiefvater

The magical woods, their blossoming romance, their tragic pasts, the spaces only they share. They are so different – but such a beautiful compliment.

Like drifting into this song…

Read the Raven Boys Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater if you haven’t (what are you waiting for? get on it!).  The new Dreamer Trilogy will be out soon… starting with Call Down the Hawk, so you better get on it.

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