26 April 2016

Books: The Crown Conspiracy By Michael J. Sullivan (2008)

So what I thought was three books turns out to be six and while that is fine, I’ve decided not to continue on reading this series.

I’ve been reading fantasy novels for decades and I’ve reached a point where this genre no longer surprises me; it's all the same, predictable and bland. But I'm still drawn to the field, so I'm always looking for someone, anyone to take those same tropes and give them a fresh re-telling. If I was fourteen, fifteen and just discovering fantasy, I may have been impressed and want to continue on, but Michael J. Sullivan is the reason why I find this sort of fiction difficult to enjoy now: he's a talented author rolling out same old, same old. Sigh.

As mentioned in a previous post, I had read The Crown Tower, the first book in Sullivan’s prequel series to The Rivria Revelations, which the author originally self-published as six books (The Crown Conspiracy, Avempartha, Nyphron Rising, The Emerald Storm, Wintertide, and Percepliquis). When Orbit acquired them, they repackaged the six books into three omnibus volumes (Theft of Swords, Rise of Empire, and Heir of Novron) containing two books each. While this was a fiscally responsible way to do this, I was sort of put off by this design, if only because I would’ve liked them re-issued separately. But that is just me. 

Anyways, after reading The Crown Tower, I decided to begin reading the original series, despite some reservations. Those uncertainties arose due to some negative reviews I read, in particular a 2012 appraisal from the site StrangeHorizons that tore the novel(s) to shreds. And while Good Reads was filled with positive appraisals, the doubts I had about The Crown Tower I took in after completing that book sort of affected my views on The Crown Conspiracy (or Theft of Swords…this is very confusing). This is why, at times, when searching for a new writers, going to Good Reads, going to the comment section on Powell's or other e-retailers can influence me. Sad, but true.

In the first book, we are is introduced to Royce Melborn, a skilled thief, and his mercenary partner, Hadrian Blackwater, who make a profitable living carrying out dangerous assignments for conspiring nobles until they become the unwitting scapegoats in the murder of the king. Sentenced to death, they have only one way out. 

Yeah, that’s about it. What I find, and sort noted in the prequel book, was The Crown Conspiracy plays out more like a Western than a true fantasy novel. Or, if you like, a meshing of medieval England(?) with every trope of that genre has put to paper and film (and are the elves here supposed to be replacements for the Native Americans or black people, or a combination of both?). There is a wizard, though Sullivan skips on actually explaining anything about how magic works here. At times, it seems the idea of magical aspects in his world comes across more as a myth; it seems to have all existed long ago and nobody is sure if the tales are true or made up children stories.

While Sullivan skimps a lot on the World Building themes that can bog down other books in this genre, he tries to build up the supposed animosity between Royce and Hadrian, which if you read anything on the series, indicates they supposedly hate each other. I mean, while they may approach the same things in different ways, they both seem to respect each other. Of course, The Crown Conspiracy takes place twelve years after The Crown Tower (which introduced the characters), so I guess they founded a mutual appreciation society in those years.

But the biggest problem with this book is how everything, and I mean everything, lands at the corner of Convenience and Coincidence. Part of the problem lies within the premise to begin with. How could two extremely smart men as Hadrain and Royce fall for the job that gets the story going? Sullivan clearly paints them as highly intelligent thieves and mercenaries, and the ease in which they stumble into the trap makes them astoundingly stupid.  Then, as someone aides in their escape, they meet Myron, the lone survivor of destroyed Abbey, who also has an eidetic memory and (conveniently) is also the son of a rival to man who hatched this convoluted plot to begin with. With Myron in tow, he’s now able to tell Hadrain and Royce the long history of this land in great detail. And while people with Myron’s ability exist, I found this way of telling the story rather contrived and unbelievable. While I understand the need for exposition, the choices made here seem lazy.

Then let’s get to the villain of this piece, which is clear from the moment he’s introduced. I never doubted for a movement that Uncle Percy Braga (Percy!!! Yeah, beyond Percy Jackson, almost all fictional characters named Percy turns out to be villains –or misguided like Percy Weasley in the Harry Potter books) was the architect of this coup. This upsets me more, because it’s so obvious. I mean, after some 40 years of reading, it is hard to surprise me, but, as noted, the challenge for me when finding new authors in a genre I have been reading that long is how they take the same themes and twist them in a new direction, much what George R.R. Martin did -even if I've not completed that series.

In the end, I came to the conclusion that Michael J. Sullivan is going offer us nothing new here. And while I enjoy the sometimes sitcom-style banter between Royce and Hadrain, it’s not enough to continue on reading the other five books in this series. 

And what about the prequel books? I do have the second book eventually coming from the library, so I may end up reading it because it needs to be transferred in. But I also now see why Sullivan admitted he has no idea how long the prequel series will continue, as I noticed in this book the tendency to have characters mention events that took place in the past, but Sullivan does not go into detail with them. This indicates to me some of those previous adventures that only got a sentence or two, will be expanded into prequel novels, like the history between the men and Gwen which was explained in The Crown Tower

But, alas, I have many, many other things I do want to read, so this writer and this series will now end here.

21 April 2016

Prince 1958-2016

“Albums…remember those? They still matter. Like books and black lives, albums still matter.” –Prince

“A little bit faded, a little bit jaded
Don't want to stop, won't be persuaded
To write words I can't believe in,
To see my face on a video screen”
“27” by Passenger

I’ve always had a soft place for singer/songwriters, of independent artists in music, TV, movies and books. I believe that true genius lies in people who can think and live outside the box, who break the rules, who offer a different way at thinking. Who don’t sell their souls for the successes.

But these folks are not generally known as profit generators, something that is thought to be more important than creativity. We see it presented everyday in every facet of multimedia, where mediocrity is praised and intellectual ideas, critical thinking skills, and new concepts that can change people’s firm belief are the work of the devil. We watch game shows like The Voice and American Idol not because people of talent are destined to win, but because the ones who win offer drama and ability to be molded into a profit chain. 

Prince was a man full of conviction in a world that made fun of him, whom thought his life was too decadent, too unusual for the “real world” (much like the late Michael Jackson before him). But he knew –along with his adoring fans- that music he created was produced from the soul and not bottom line. I also think he understood that not everything was brilliant, but it did not matter. Music can stir a person to great joy, but others will see it as some sort of horror. But that does not matter, it shouldn’t matter. 

His battle for creative control is legendary (and sadly, a lot of artists continue this conflict), for he understood that to be a musician, to have that ability to effect the lives of millions is an honor. And he took his responsibility as a creative genius seriously, even as Big Business began to grow weary of music they thought was too narrow, too difficult to sell, who thought his theatrical performances where too surreal and his fans too odd. So he fought back and while it took a while -and after giving a purple gloved middle finger to the collective soul stealers of music industry- he resurrected his career and became more popular than ever. 

His passing, like David Bowie, is truly a great loss. Both musicians turned the music scene on their heads with their gender-bending acts, with words and music that showed a great depth. They knew their audience more than any record company could comprehend and that’s what makes them the best at what they did, which makes their loss this year even more tragic. 

Their music will live forever, of course, but losing artists of such distinctive quality at such young ages, at the height of their creativeness, is immeasurable. Michael Jackson, David Bowie, and now Prince, all now pages in a history book. But we’ll never forget you, because for one bright and shiny moment, you gave the world everything you had, and it was good. It was great.

It was legendary.

20 April 2016

Books: The Crown Tower by Michael J. Sullivan (2013)

The arrival of Michael J. Sullivan to the top of my reading list is not that strange, because it happens all the time. But, until last week, I never considered reading one of his fantasy novels. But I was in B&N recently and saw the latest volume of his Riyria Chronicles. I assumed it was the last book, so I mentally ticked off a list I have on books that I may want to read in my mind. But before I put the book back, I saw the introduction by the author which explained that The Crown Tower was the third book in his prequel series and that there was three other volumes that take place 12 years before this book called The Riya Revelations. And while he encourages readers to start in publishing order versus chronological order, he also noted if someone wanted to start with the prequel series, it was designed to be enjoyed that way. The only thing, it seems, he has no idea how long the prequel series will go on, unlike the original which was just three long volumes, which is why he prefer you to read in publishing order.

I’m not sure I like this type of publishing. Of course, we are linear people and we watch TV, movies and we read books in a linear fashion. But series books, and on rare occasions, TV and movies (though this is changing) can change that. But I still don’t seem to like this, if only because prequels have a tendency to be even more difficult than sequels. It’s like origin stories of comic book superheroes in some ways, because a lot of fans of that genre find origin stories to be the dullest aspect of, say, Spider-Man

Off on my tangent: 

Over the decades I’ve been reading, a few authors have created series of books that are set in the same universe, but separated by the ages. Katherine Kurtz comes to mind, as she’s been writing multiple trilogies (5 as of 2014, with one standalone novel) that are, basically, historical fantasy novels set in some alternate English universe of the, 10th, 11th and 12th Century. Each trilogy is set in a different time, but along the same timeline, which kicked off in the 1970s with the trilogy, The Chronicles of the Deryni, which is set in 1120/21, followed by The Legends of Camber of Culdi trilogy, which is set between 903 and 918. Three other trilogies follow, each alternating in the timeline Kurtz has created. Most people have read her books in publishing order, but I’ve read some have also tried to read them in chronological order. But I’ve also read that reading them in that order could reveal spoilers, so (as they’ll always do) the writer wants you to read them in published order. 

Another author who has done this is L.E. Modesitt and his current 18 volume series, The Saga of Recluce.  Those novels were not published in chronological order, because the first book, 1991’s The Magic of Recluce, is actually volume 17 of the current 18 books. And yes, the author has stated that publication order is the appropriate reading order.

Anyways, this brings me back to Sullivan’s Riyria novels. Doing some research on him, and reading his author notes, we find out he wrote six books in the series before they were even published. And after a long adventure of self-publishing and other exploits, the novels finally found a home at Orbit (who has been around in various forms and publishers since 1974). It appears that Sullivan decided to start his series with the (possibly) the final volumes first, before embarking on what could turn out to be numerous prequel tales. It’s an unusual to say the least, but interesting way to publish books.

But I decided –at first- to read the first prequel book, The Crown Tower. This is the first adventures of Hadrian Blackwater and Royce Melborn, two men who hate each other from the first time they meet. We learn that Arcadius Vintarus Latimer, Professor of lore at Sheridan University, has recruited the two for a daring mission. Blackwater is a warrior with nothing to fight for and Melborn is a thieving assassin with nothing to lose. Together they must steal a treasure that no one can reach. The Crown Tower is the impregnable remains of the grandest fortress ever built and home to the realm’s most valuable possessions. But it isn’t gold or jewels the old wizard is after, and so this prize can only be obtained by the combined talents of two remarkable men. Now if Arcadius can just keep Hadrian and Royce from killing each other, they just might succeed.

I did enjoy the book, and it’s a fast read. Sullivan keeps the premise light, the World Building to a minimum, and insults fast and loose. In many ways, it read like a potential screenplay for a TV series, as it kept the settings in a very much everyday world, which is okay. I mean is it a familiar formula, with familiar forests and so forth, so no need to be all George R. R. Martin. But sometimes this works, especially if the writer has a good grasp of their main characters, which Sullivan clearly does. But overall, this read like a western more than a fantasy. There is a subplot, one that goes on way too long, that deals with a prostitute with a heart of gold –and apparently, some sort of supernatural power- who grows weary of being abused and with gold given to her by her dying mother, decides to setup a brothel right across the street from the place she used to “work” in. Again, its straightforward trope hijacked from every TV, motion picture, and Louis L’Amour western paperback. I grew weary of it after a while, and desired it to go away.

Still, since these are prequels, I’m guessing Gwen is an important character and this is her back story that probably does not get fully explained in the first series (?)

So, instead of reading the second book in this series (though I do have it coming through the library eventually), I did score a copy of Theft of Swords, the first book in the original first trilogy. So I’m thinking I may just go back in forth. But we’ll see.

15 April 2016

Deep Space Nine

Star Trek: Deep Space certainly had its share of issues during it early years, with its first two seasons being very solid, but not very focused. Though, to be honest, that’s sort of to be expected from a new series, even one with a long pedigree as Star Trek. And much like its sister show, Star Trek: The Next Generation, those first few months of production can be a trying time, as cast and crew settle into a weekly production shoot. Still, I think Deep Space Nine was a quantum leap from where TNG was during its shaky first two years. I will admit, though, that by the time DS9 roared into life, the makers of TNG knew where the pitfalls where and tried their hardest to alleviate them on DS9, because by season three, the show would find its true north and begin setting the stage for what would become the first serialized Star Trek show.

For the most part, since Gene Roddenberry died in 1991, Rick Berman and the late Michael Piller tried never to waver from the creators ideals of the 23rd and 24th Century. What had begun in TOS was continued in TNG, with Starfleet officers who acted and seemed to be, fundamentally, Boy Scouts. These were characters that were always to be trustworthy, always loyal, friendly, obedient and brave (and straight). And while this worked in the 1960s and worked on TNG to a point (there was much criticism leveled at the spin-off due to fact that conflict between fellow officers was non existence, and many believed this harmed the show thematically), with DS9 those ideals would need to change if the show was going to stand on its own.

Almost from the start, this spin-off was going to way different from TNG. DS9 introduced a divergence that I thought was very much welcomed. The first ambitious move was to have Commander Sisko’s first officer be a Bajoran, the freedom fighter Major Kira, whom after years of fighting in the trenches of the Cardassian conflict, now she had to deal with Starfleet’s sometimes fascist ideas and the sometimes vague US foreign policy notion that the Bajoran people could not rebuild by themselves. Their disagreements on how things should be done were a highlight of the relationship between them, and something that was always there during the shows seven year run. But to me, that was all a bit of smoke and mirror, because the second move was going to go where none had yet gone, as the show was going to bring in the concept of religion into a franchise that deliberately steered clear of open theological belief.

During its first two seasons, the show would slowly introduce the tension between a tolerant, secular, and probably, maybe, atheistic Federation and the deeply spiritual Bajorans. Eventually, Bajor and its politics and philosophies, would become the series bread and butter, woven like a fine tapestry through the shows long run. This would also have a major effect on Sisko -whom was thought as some savior by the Bajoran people- putting him on a path that he was not comfortable with at first (neither was the brass at Starfleet), but would eventually embrace in later seasons. 

As mentioned, season three would see the show become more focused, with continued arc building on Bajor, Cardassia, and what was becoming another staple of the show, a large corral of recurring characters. The show also began laying the foundation for the Dominion conflict during season three, something that would take a back seat, however, during season four to deal with a new Klingon threat, but would go on to virtually dominate the show during seasons five, six, and seven when, for all intents and purposes, DS9 became a serialized show about war –another story point the Star Trek tired its hardest to stay away from. 

The show remains a personal favorite, mostly because it tried to be ambitious when Star Trek needed to be ambitious. And while it never became the ratings hit TNG managed, and would always take a backseat to Voyager’s (which came two years after DS9 launched) return to the naval romance of the TOS, it became the most creative, most emotional, and thus most deeply satisfying of the spin-offs.